Man-cards and Maturity

There are a couple men in my church who I respected greatly, right up until I overheard a conversation they had about the merits of buying a specific brand of footwear. Yes, they were talking about the infant stages of their shoe collections. Being an older Christian brother, I admonished them to turn in their man-cards right then and there.

Some of my surprise came from expecting believers to debate issues higher up the maturity spectrum, such as the merits of Christian radio, religion in politics, and coffee in the sanctuary. This banter is a perplexing phenomenon, because we all tend to think that mature people have a singular perspective – ours – rendering further discussion useless. We congregate in little communities where our opinions are considered fact and our biases are celebrated. We congratulate ourselves on being right. The primary ministry of Jesus was, after all, to save us from being wrong.

If you’ve been in church culture for any amount of time you know what I’m talking about, and you know the group you’re most comfortable in. Is it Conservative Evangelical? And that less mature group – Progressive Liberal? Or are they legalistic, and you are part of the Grace camp? We use different labels, but what we mean is mature and immature.

The labels themselves are useful, to a point. For example, consider Good Christians vs Honest Christians. For Good Christians, predetermined categories coupled with a discerning spirit provide a rough sketch of who they’re sitting down to coffee with, possible conversational parameters, and most importantly the level of grace they’ll be required to extend. Honest Christians, on the other hand, use labels in exactly the same setting to identify how much of an ass you are.

Like I said: useful, to a point.

Regardless of how we gauge and categorize the maturity of others, it boils down to the degree to which they are aligned with our threshold of enlightenment. The test of our own maturity is simply a silent conscience, squashed or at rest notwithstanding.

Biblically, spiritual maturity is not so easy to nail down. At different times and places, the scriptures point to love, joy, peace, sacrificial giving, diligent study, hospitality, a lack of anger and many other things as signs of a well cultivated spiritual life.

There is one part of growth, though, that in Western Christianity is glaring in it’s absence: Holy Discontent. The knowledge that we are incomplete, and the passion to move forward – this we have lost, if we ever had it in the first place. We have enshrined the exact opposite: our own completeness and the passion to point out where others fall short.

The Apostle Paul explained this attitude of maturity in his letter to the Philippian church:

“…whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.”

Philippians 3:7-16 English Standard Version (ESV)

Not perfect? Pressing on? Forgetting what is behind? Straining towards what is ahead? That sounds like someone who still has something to learn! And imagine an attitude of humility that lets others be less mature, simply encouraging them to live up to whatever standard of faith they currently possess.

Back to the shoe conversation, because those trendy, well-shod brothers are the ones who got me thinking about Christian maturity. In addition to passion, there was more grace and care and concern on the table of that debate than I’ve seen in many a theological discussion. I was truly impressed. Well done, hipsters. Now, about those man-cards…

God’s Not Dead – the Review

GNDThe absolutely unscientific research I’ve done into the God’s Not Dead movie franchise suggests that most Christians think that it is the best thing since the “Left Behind” book series. This saddens me.

Nice is not a fruit of the Spirit, and I don’t intend to use it. So, for what it is worth, here is my review of God’s Not Dead.

Yes, I watched it. Last night. The first one, on Netflix, because I didn’t want to spend any money.

If you’re a Christian and you’ve enjoyed either of the God’s Not Dead tickets, you need to know that I don’t think less of you. I respect you as much as I ever have. No joke. The fact is that I would prefer you didn’t read this blog post. I’m afraid I may offend you, and I’d rather not. I would like to use nasty words to describe this film, and articulate my desire to burn the studio responsible for it to the ground, but I am worried that such language will alienate you and I, and destroy what little respect you may still have for me, after that meme I posted a couple weeks ago.

Having said that, I will do my best to make a reasoned case for my point of view. No promises.

In their 4-star review of this film, even Focus on the Family admitted that, “Pretty much everyone who’s not a Christian in this story is villainized for being mean, abusive, grouchy or narrow-minded. Several such sinners are condemned to either death or terminal illness, as if they’re being punished for their attitudes.” (http://www.pluggedin.ca/movie-reviews/gods-not-dead/) So much for the “Friend of Sinners” subplot in Jesus’ life.

I would add to this that most of the Christians are sugar and spice and everything nice, victims of persecution. But in the end of course they win, making sure we know that this is indeed about North American Christianity, because victory is a virtue here while losing has got to be one of the infamous Seven Deadly. The credits include a list of court cases that inspired the movie, giving an air of reality.

So, were the producers trying to paint a picture of what is, OR what should be? I was confused. Still am. Because a better movie could be made about Christian parents who abuse and kick out their homosexual kids, frightened pastor’s kids who get abortions because of their religious communities, and pagan intellectuals who understand that debate can come from a place of mutual respect. That would be just as close to reality. Let’s acknowledge kingdom values and have the well-groomed protagonist lose more than his bitchy girlfriend. It can be done.

Now let’s talk about persecution – one of the overwhelming themes of this show. Practically speaking, will opposition to the Christian message continue to increase in our society? Yes. Taking the big picture into consideration, have we experienced enough persecution to begin high-fiving one another? Oh, please. Here is today’s reality check. There is no systematic, state-sponsored persecution of Christians in North America. Period. Baking cakes and other such things do not count, people. Sure, there are uncomfortable hiccups, but in this movie’s credits where it lists all those real court cases, you’ll notice the judges regularly upholding the rights of believers.

Another thing. Every time a Christian needs help in this movie, they get a little sermon and a polite smile. Here is a partial list of problems, with the solutions given in the movie:

Q: God needs to be defended, but I’m scared.
A: Don’t disappoint God. Here are Bible verses to read.

Q: I got kicked out of my house for being a Christian.
A: Here’s some verses, we love you, and you’ll forget about your homelessness by the time you get to the Newsboys concert.

Q: The car won’t start.
A: God has other plans. Getting a rental car or a mechanic shows a lack of faith. You know the verses.

Q: I feel like my life’s work is pointless.
A: Repeat after me: “God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.” Doesn’t that make you feel better?

I’ve said elsewhere that the people with the most profound impact on my life have been those who have had to live with dark questions for an extended period of time. There is no room for that reality in GND’s world.

In a nutshell, this movie is more concerned with being right than real. It mentions Jesus, but portrays a brand of Christianity that applauds pat answers more than action. It caricatures and alienates unbelievers. Providing a half-baked culturally relevant venue for preaching (to the choir) was obviously a higher priority than creating moving-picture art that would stimulate thinking and portray experiential High Truth. There are just as many cultural and political references to how Christians should vote, eat and clothe themselves as there are to Jesus himself. It represents everything I hate about the artificial, politically driven bubble we call Western Christianity (Christianism?).

I prefer the real life version. My mechanic is deeply involved in the lives of his employees, because of Jesus. My pastoral friends in the States minister to “the least of these”, for Jesus’ sake. My missionary friends eat with Muslims and Bhuddists and Hindus in places I can’t even publish, because no sacrifice is too great. My best friend hangs out with gay church kids and atheists who aren’t welcome in any religious homes. These are my heroes (many of whom appreciated this movie and laud those in the same genre.)

Sure, the protagonist in this movie is a hero of sorts, I guess. But his world simply doesn’t exist. Nor should it.

I suspect this film was popular because we like to have the underdog validated, especially when he’s fighting for our faith. Fair enough. If there are other reasons, let me know. In the meantime, I’ll skip the rest of the franchise and wait until someone has the balls to do another End of the Spear, Believe Me or The Passion – films that are more closely aligned with what we should aspire to.

Holy Emmanuel

Holy holy holy God we sing;
It means He’s separate, set apart. Everything
We know of him says he’s over there
High and lifted up. We’re down here
We abase ourselves.He’s not like us:
He’s righteous, we’re shadow; he’s forever, we’re dust.

And sometimes we feel in his holiness
Being set apart we believe he’ll miss
The fact that we need him here.
We wonder does the holy care?

Surrounded by angel armies there
Where there’s no darkness, and the air
Is filled with voices that sing unending
Praise to this ancient King,
Does He see us- that we’ve lost everything?

There are prophets that answered all these questions
When they wrote of the Holy pierced for our transgressions-
And foretold God come to earth as man.
We still ask whether the Holy can
Take in our pain and eat our sin,
Can the Holy taste death, would He rise again?

He did, and we call him Emmanuel!
Jesus stood between us and hell;
A king with a crown of thorns, God with a battered face-
That is holy love. This is holy grace:
To have Holy arms around us, nailed in place!
Three days later death lost its sting,
This is why Holy holy God we sing!

God’s Not Dead 2.

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Breathe

Dear Self,

There are nights when you lay your head to rest, feeling like you’ve held your breath all day. Without being cognizant of it, you’ve subjected yourself to a slow emotional and spiritual suffocation – your soul choked off by the cares that come from simply existing.

So much time is spent critiquing your own worth. Have you sucked all the nectar out of this day? Were you a good enough husband, an employee that contributed well to the project and the team, a benevolent and patient father? What if you weren’t a good enough Christian today? Did you fail to communicate grace?

People are watching. Others are succeeding, and you feel that you should be able to as well. You need to do more. Achieve more. Be more.

Choke.

Sputter.

Gasp.

Consistent, purposeful breathing is essential for life, both physically and spiritually. It seems obvious, right? But I wonder if perhaps you’re not spiritually asthmatic. While the oxygen you need to sustain your soul is all around you, at times I feel as though you’ve been trying to suck it through a stir stick.

So here is my advice to you, self, when you start to turn blue.

First of all, don’t panic. Don’t fret. Running around like a caffeinated squirrel is not going to help. Stop for a second. (If you’re on the freeway, use an off ramp first, then stop for a second.) Seriously, physically, stop.

Now pray. Say something like, “Hi, God. I was just wondering if you’ve got the Earth spinning faster than normal?” His answer will probably be along the lines of, “Hi back! I love you. The Earth is just fine, thanks for asking.” It’s good to be reminded that everything doesn’t go atomic if you take a moment to get your poop in a group. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in the city of Philippi, saying “…Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…”

Doing this often has saved your sanity in the past, remember? It has opened your eyes to the ways that God’s patience and love is manifested all around you. Remember when God spoke to you as you took a moment to seek him during church today? He didn’t ask anything of you at all. He just wanted to remind you that he loves you! And then he helped you enjoy the rumble of that v-twin engine, good conversation, artery-clogging Mexican food, a playground filled with kids, buddies to chuck around a football (even though football has always intimidated you). You got wrapped up in your wife’s smile and the knowledge that your children feel safe and loved in your presence. And you had a nap.

…Each in its time…

…No rush…

…Beautiful…

I know that life isn’t easy, self, but it doesn’t have to be complicated, okay?

Just breathe.