Archive for the ‘church culture’ Category

“We do not have time to waste our lives coasting out casual, comfortable Christianity.”

— David Platt, author of “Radical,” addresses the Urbana 2012 conference.

“What plan or dream will you give your life to that is more significant than this?”

Friends of ours were talking about their daughter. During lunch periods at her public high school, she’s befriended a girl who’s pregnant. Eventually, she invited the girl to youth group at church.

“Will I be judged?” the girl asked.

“Yes, by some,” our friends’ daughter responded. “But there will be a lot of others who won’t. They’ll be glad you’re there.”

That’s the most real, honest answer I’ve ever heard to that kind of a question. No one finds universal acceptance in any social situation – even at church, where we should. Kids who are told to expect total grace from a church youth group will be disappointed, and maybe disillusioned.  I’ve seen it happen too many times.

At the same time, the answer promises this girl that she will indeed find a measure of love, acceptance and yes, grace.

The girl is thinking about it. A lot of us who don’t even know her are praying for her. We’re praying that she’ll see Jesus.

I think maybe she already has.

Judge Jesus

Posted: July 23, 2012 by Jim Killam in Christ's example, church culture, pop culture

Ever ponder a famous painting of Jesus eating with the sinners and tax collectors?

Me either. I’ve been having trouble finding a copy.

I can show you a thousand paintings – available at finer Christian bookstores – of Jesus on a white horse, sword in hand, leading the Last Day charge against the forces of evil. Superhero Jesus. Gandalf Jesus. Revelation Jesus. We like that Jesus, because he opens up a big can o’ wrath. The devil, his minions and a whole lot of people we don’t like are one day gonna get theirs.

I like this idea, too. And I believe it. It’s certainly biblical. It gives me hope that someday, everything will be set right. Justice is indeed coming on a white horse.

Lately, justice has come to Happy Valley, Pennsylvania. It arrived first for the monster who raped those little boys. It’s now come to the university people and the program that protected him in the name of … what? If there’s any disagreement – at least outside the La-La Land where this was allowed to happen – it’s that the punishments should have been harsher. Death penalty for the offender, NCAA death penalty for the program. Smite them all.

I’m unapologetically part of that torches-and-pitchforks crowd today, as the NCAA has announced harsh sanctions. Our system, imperfect as it may be, certainly can get this one right. Case closed. That guy should never take a free breath again, and Penn State should stop playing football for a long, long time. I don’t think God would say that our desire for justice is wrong. It’s how we’re wired, and it’s how the world works in order to prevent chaos.

But we never can think about hard justice without considering the backdrop of grace, a free offer that’s been extended to us all.

We say we believe all that, that we “get” grace. I’m not sure we do. Grace isn’t very satisfying when justice is deserved. If the Penn State rapist comes to faith in Christ while in prison, how would I feel about standing alongside him in heaven? Or how about the guy who shot up that theater in Colorado last week? How satisfying would it feel to see grace extended to him?

The Jesus we’ve seen on planet earth so far is not Judge Jesus. In fact, the Jesus we’ve seen so far doesn’t make much sense. I was talking the other day with a person close to me who rejects Christianity as a series of fairy tales. He says the gospels don’t have enough historical reliability and that they were likely made up by the church as a means to control weak-minded people.

To which I ask: If people were going to make up a messiah story, couldn’t they have done a lot better than this? A man who says blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit? A man who willingly dies a criminal’s death rather than use his power to smite evil? A man who could have spectacularly proven his identity to the whole world, but chose to let a few sketchy eyewitnesses tell the stories? A man who brings forgiveness and redemption, and who pays the entire price himself?

Who writes a script like that? Where’s the epic battle where good defeats evil? Give me Judge Jesus on the white horse, ridding the world of injustice.

On second thought, please don’t. I’m not so perfect myself. To be honest, Judge Jesus scares the crap out of me, because I know how far I fall short of God’s standard.  I accept his free gift of grace and know I am his regardless of how much I’ve screwed up … but I also know that a whole lot of people have not.

We can gaze on those paintings of Revelation Jesus and our thoughts can (and should) conflict. We long for that day when all is made right. And we also plead, “Not yet!” Not when we still have people lost out there.

At that point, grace still sounds pretty sweet.

God plays the Nut Squad

Posted: May 6, 2012 by Jim Killam in church culture, missions, pop culture

 

Ever pay close attention to the last few minutes of a basketball game, when one team is comfortably ahead? Those moments are called Garbage Time. Both coaches have pulled their starters and emptied their benches. The guys that never get to play are now playing – a better word might be flailing — and you quickly understand why they never get to play.

I spent most of my high school basketball career on the bench, part of a unit that called itself the Nut Squad. All of us at one time or another toyed with the idea of wearing street clothes under our warm-ups, just to tempt fate. These were the underjocks – decent but flawed athletes who filled out the roster but rarely got into a game.

These also tended to be the smarter kids, so the Nut Squad was not without its moments of comedic glory. You’d always try to be the first one out of the locker room for pregame layups, so you could awkwardly fire one off the bottom of the rim and earn style points from the other Nuts. Or during the shoot-around, we’d head over near the bench area and launch 35-foot rainbows because the coach had told us to shoot from where we’d be during the game.

If the Nut Squad ever got into a game, it was because the outcome had long since been decided and the coach deemed it safe to let us onto the floor. So we had an unwritten agreement among us. If the ball somehow found its way into your hands, you would shoot, no matter where you were on (or near) the court. And if you couldn’t do that, you would do something – anything – to get into the box score. Usually that meant a spectacular foul, up to and including pantsing an opposing player.

Now, we never would have done any of this had it actually mattered. But it never did. Thinking back, it stunk to be on the Nut Squad. You were there because the coach thought you were good enough to play on the team but not good enough to play when it mattered. You were never represented by an X or an O on the blackboard as the coach drew up plays. Your job was to watch the starters handle the important stuff and to give them someone to practice against.

Turns out, God likes the Nut Squad. He even puts the ball in our hands when it matters. The Bible is full of Nut Squad members. Moses? Didn’t even want to play. David? Water boy. Most of Jesus’ disciples? Nut squad for sure. If God were going to accomplish something big, he certainly wouldn’t use these idiots.

As I prepare for a new career in missions work, with a brand-new ministry, I think about the Nut Squad sometimes. And I wonder, is God really entrusting all of this to me? The farm kid who never really knew anyone rich or famous, who still stutters sometimes and can still be painfully shy? The kid who used to pass time in church by counting the bald heads?

Yep. God does indeed entrust the whole game to the Nut Squad.  And I’d better not have worn street clothes under the warm-ups, because I’m going in.

I’m reading a profound little book right now, called “Chaos and Grace” by Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today magazine.  Galli proposes that the American evangelical church is addicted to safety and control, and thus has a terrible time getting about the business of following Jesus.

Which reminds me of a scene in the 1997 sci-fi film, “Contact.” Jodie Foster’s character, Ellie Arroway, is chosen as the lone passenger for a sphere-shaped spacecraft that humanity had been instructed by extraterrestrials to build. The plans did not include a seat or a harness, so human engineers added those to keep the occupant from flying around inside the capsule. In flight through interstellar wormholes, Ellie is strapped into the seat, but the turbulence is so great it nearly knocks her unconscious. Finally, she does something counterintuitive. She releases the harness and floats gently into the air, while the seat finally breaks free and slams into a wall.

By releasing control and trusting in the greater intelligence that devised the ship and its method of travel, Ellie floated freely and safely as the capsule arrived at its destination. Had she trusted in her own concept of safety, she’d have been crushed.

Sometimes, it’s only in giving up the safety devices we know and cling to that we find true safety in the care of God who knows what’s best for us.

Galli writes (p. 154):

It’s not hard to see how quickly stewardship of our time becomes a means to control and order our lives, rather than an opportunity to begin each day asking, “Spirit of God, to where will you carry me today?” Most likely it will be to the usual places, where we’ll meet the usual assortment of people. Once in a while, he’ll call us to forsake the golden opportunity in order to send us to the desert. Other times he’ll magically transport us to a place or calling we never would have imagined possible. But even when he again carries us back to the same office and classroom, to the same people we meet every day, we will know this: that our lives are not our own, and that the Spirit has given us these people and this place to do God’s work.

“If that is not liberating, I don’t know what is. Scary, to be sure. Requiring more faith than we seem to have on most days. But imagine how freeing it would be to release the death grip we have on our lives and just let the gracious and loving Spirit of Jesus carries us where he would each day.”

Legalism. We hate the word and all it conjures. Jesus hated it, saving some of his harshest criticism for the Pharisees and their fanatical attention to the law while ignoring the heart.

I grew up knowing Christians who would burn records, condemn certain books and never be seen at R-rated movies, yet who were horribly racist, or gluttonous, or indifferent to the poor. The church is experiencing a backlash against this sort of selective legalism, and that’s been a good and God-honoring thing.

I wonder sometimes, though, if disillusioned Christians (me included) have become so resistant to legalism that we also shun the ideas of personal holiness and intentional living.

If, for instance, I park myself in front of the TV some evening, scroll through a hundred channels and eventually land on some mindless reality show and veg for an hour, I’m probably not honoring God with my use of that time.

On the other hand, if I intentionally engage the same show, with an eye toward the spiritual state of our culture, and pop culture, then I probably am honoring God with that time. I’m engaging my brain and I’m letting the Holy Spirit, in effect, sit there next to me and have a conversation that I later can share with someone else.

In Philippians 4:8-9, Paul writes:

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.  Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.

T.J. Addington, in his book and blog, “Leading From the Sandbox,” writes about intentional living — which he boils down to mean, “Does my schedule reflect my personal priorities?”

Take that thought further: Do my entertainment choices – even when no one else is looking — reflect my personal priorities? Or, more precisely, do they reflect what I would like for my priorities to be?

Maybe the more-common question is: Is it worthwhile for Christians just to spend time being entertained, with no higher purpose? Just a little time to rest and recharge?

I think it depends on whether that entertainment moves me closer to God, or further away from God. As Paul would ask: Where am I fixing my thoughts?

If I watch a movie or TV show with a lot of extra-marital sex, or drunken debauchery, I notice something about my spiritual condition. It has sunk. Not because I want to emulate the people on the screen, but because I’m letting myself be entertained by watching depictions of sin. And then if I’m going to keep watching, I have to shut the door on God’s voice – like the end of the “Godfather” movies where Michael Corleone shuts the door in his wife’s face so the men can discuss the evil business they do.

And even in that little example I open the door to a “What’s appropriate for Christians?” conversation that makes people uncomfortable. I can watch the Godfather movies as a profound commentary on America, family and hypocrisy … or I can watch them as brutally violent gangster movies. I can watch “American Beauty” and be struck by its message about the spiritual emptiness of affluent suburbia, or I can watch it because it has a lot of sex and nudity. Where am I fixing my thoughts?

Can entertainment be spiritually neutral? Sure. If I watch a few innings of a Cubs game, my relationship with God doesn’t change much. Then again, I may get either angry or depressed about the sorry state of my team. Being a Cub fan does make one very cynical.

If I watch “30 Rock,” or reruns of “Seinfeld,” can I appreciate those shows’ great writing and wit, and get past their very unbiblical worldview and content? Again, I think it depends on my spiritual state of engagement and where my thoughts are fixed.

And can I watch “Caddyshack” and appreciate the … oh never mind.

The bottom line is, this conversation leaves more than one spiritually solid place to land. That makes legalists uncomfortable.  At the other end of the spectrum, it touches nerves. But our entertainment choices do affect our spiritual condition. Let’s not avoid the conversation because we’re afraid of lapsing into legalism.

I am concerned about the drummer at church. I’m not sure he’s getting any air.

A few years back, when the church first went to a semi-contemporary service on Sunday mornings, the drum kit was set up nonchalantly near the back of the stage. As far as I could tell, everything sounded fine.

Then, one Sunday, we walked into the auditorium to see the drummer behind a set of three Plexiglas walls. It looked a little like one of those old privacy screens people changed clothes behind in 1960s movies … but minus the privacy. I wondered what sort of international incident had occurred to bring orange-level security around this one man with sticks.

Church services proceeded without incident, with the drums sounding a bit muffled. This setup endured for a year or two.  I was never sure if the drummer was being protected from snipers, or it the congregation was being protected from hearing the drummer. And I suppose those sticks could have shattered during some crazed rendition of “I Can Only Imagine,” sending shards flying into the front row and causing untold splinters.

But apparently this was not nearly enough protection, or drum muffling, because now they’ve completely encased the drummer in Plexiglas – roof and all. He wears noise-blocking headphones, which is a good thing because it must be so loud inside that box that his teeth are coming loose. And I don’t even want to think about what it smells like in there.

Meanwhile, all I can think about when the band plays during church is the “Rock and Roll Creation” scene in “This is Spinal Tap” when Derek Smalls gets stuck inside the plastic pod and keeps playing bass while the roadies try to open it with a hammer and a blow torch.

I’ve since learned that this veritable Cone of Silence is supposedly about sound isolation. You don’t want drum noise bleeding into everyone else’s mics. But before the Plexiglas house I don’t remember this ever being a noticeable concern. I’m not convinced this whole thing wasn’t just about throwing a bone to the people who think drums are Satan’s noisemakers and, along with saxophones and ukuleles, never should be allowed in church.

So the next logical step, for the good of all involved, is moving the drummer completely offsite, to a secure location fortified by 12-inch-thick lead walls. The sound feed from the stage could be piped in, and he could play along without causing danger to anyone.

Also the church wouldn’t have to keep a blowtorch at the ready.