Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Good Seminarian

I am reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell entitled The Tipping Point. The book explains how ideas, products, or fads spread. There are three main factors according to Gladwell: 1) having people involved who are well-connected, who are gatherers of information, or who are persuasive. 2) having an idea or product that is "sticky," or that is worth spreading in the first place. 3) having the right environment in which the idea can spread.

To prove the importance of environment and the influence it has over us, Gladwell documented several research experiments done in this area. One experiment involved seminary students at Princeton Theological Seminary. The seminarians were instructed to compose a speech on a given topic that they would subsequently deliver in another building across campus. Along the way to the other building, the seminarians would come across a man who would be gasping, coughing, and in obvious physical pain. At the beginning of the experiment, the seminarians were questioned as to their motivation for attending seminary. Then they were given a topic for their speech. Some were given a generic topic such as the benefits of a seminary education. Others, however, were told to give a speech on the story of the Good Samaritan. Finally, on their way out, some of the students were told that they were a few minutes late for their speech and that the review panel was waiting on them in the other building. The others were told that they finished early and that they had a short time before they would be expected.

The researchers wanted to see what factors would be most common among those who stopped to help the man in need. Three factors were considered in the experiment: their motivation for attending seminary (i.e. to be better prepared to help people, obey God, etc.), the topic given (which would be the focus of their minds as they encountered the man), and the time available to the students as they encountered the man. The results are interesting and just a bit convicting. The only factor that made a difference was time. Even those who had just prepared a talk on the Good Samaritan practically stepped over the man when they were told that they were late.

Thinking through my own experiences, I can believe these results. I can think of times when I stopped to help someone. It is usually when I am not in a particular hurry to be somewhere. Other times, I pass by hoping someone else will help the person in need. I am sure that the priest and the Levite in Jesus' parable would have had similar excuses. Do we assume that the Samaritan had a more leisurely lifestyle? This couldn't have been Jesus' point, to help others when it is convenient. No, Jesus' story is about loving our neighbor. Coming to the assistance of a neighbor only when it is convenient for us can hardly be called good or loving. What we learn from Jesus' story is that we when help someone in need even when it costs us, even when it makes us late for an important appointment, there can only be one factor at play: love.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


The thought occurred to me this morning that movies may be the icons of our culture. I am using icon in the religious sense; I am suggesting that movies are visual portals that connect us with some transcendent beauty or truth. Let me explain.

The origins of Christian icon use in prayer or worship are found in the Eastern Orthodox Church. One objection to icons stems from the second of the Ten Commandments: "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below" (Ex. 20:4). The Eastern Orthodox Christians, however, will tell you that they are not worshiping the icons. They see the holy images as a sort of window to heaven, a portal by which to encounter the divine. Just as Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), the icons transport us into His divine presence. There we encounter beauty, truth, and goodness.

Now I am in no way comparing watching a movie to an act of prayer or worship. But can we encounter something of goodness, truth, and beauty in cinema? If not, how is it that we can be so moved by movies? Has a film ever brought you to tears through the beauty of a story, showed you something true about yourself, or made you want to be a better person? It is not that every movie is Christian; they do not have to be. All goodness, truth, and beauty are God's goodness, truth, and beauty. God created them, and they come forth from Him. If I want to build a house, I must use materials God created. If movie-makers want to say something good, true, or beautiful, they must use God's goodness, truth, and beauty. It is all they have to work with.

Why is it that we continue to pay out the wazoo for these stories? Why is it that the average American household has more TV sets than people? One reason is because these movies and shows speak to our hearts in powerful ways. The visuals carry us into another world where goodness, truth, and beauty (or lack thereof) become more apparent than in our own world where those are sometimes harder to discern. Through these icons we see our own lives more clearly. Through movies, we are helped to appreciate and cooperate with the goodness, truth, and beauty that flows from God into our own lives. And as the credits roll, as we walk out of theater and back into our own world, we have only God to thank.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Monica and I met Patrick Kuykendall at the movies this afternoon to watch the much-anticipated film, Avatar. The movie is still fresh on my mind so I wanted to journal my thoughts.

First of all, as has been pointed out hundreds of times, this movie is visually breathtaking. Watching it in 3D made it probably the best thing I have ever laid eyes on. This alone is enough to spellbind you and keep you entranced for the entire three hours.

There is so much I could say, but I don't want to spoil the movie for those who have yet to see it. I will say that the selling point of the movie for me was the Na'avi people. These are the indigenous people of the planet Pandora whom the story of Avatar centers around. The story itself has been told before; most people are making comparisons to Dances With Wolves. But the Na'avis were captivating. There was something primitively beautiful about their culture and their connection to the environs of Pandora. I sympathized with the main character in his desire to become one of them. Somehow, to become a Na'avi was to become more human, or at least more humane.

To be a Na'avi is not safe. The rites of passage in this culture demand the risking of your life. Once passed, however, these trials foster a deep appreciation and understanding of life, what the Na'avis called "seeing." This resonates because we are all born with an innate desire for adventure, to sense the heroic thrill of overcoming peril to accomplish some good. Even the most timid of us have this desire for swashbuckling bravery somewhere down deep. We were created to experience our world the way the Na'avis experience Pandora. We are to embrace the adventure that lies waiting on land, air, and sea. We are not to shy away from the dangers of creation, but to subdue it and care for it. We are not to simply look at the world, but to "see" creation. This is how I expect to experience the New Heaven and New Earth. There we will enjoy everything that we now only catch glimpses of. Endless beauty. Endless adventure. And that will be even better than 3D.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Kingdom of God

Today we entered into our first yearly covenant at Missio Dei. The purpose of the covenant is to formally bind us together toward fulfilling a common mission. We have stated that mission as follows: "Missio Dei exists to point to and build for the Kingdom of God in tangible ways as we embody the life of the risen Jesus Christ." I hope to take a few posts to explain this mission statement more fully. I begin with the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God was and is central to the mission of Jesus. His message was, "Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand." There are many ways we can talk about this Kingdom, but we know from Jesus' prayer that the whole thing involved God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven. Thus, the Kingdom of God can be spoken of as God's reign over His creation. It is creation at its highest and best. It is when you cannot tell the difference between heaven and earth.

When Jesus fed the hungry, calmed the storms, or healed the sick, He wasn't just performing wonders, He was putting the Kingdom of God on display. When He spoke about loving our enemies, trusting God rather than fretting, and about the last being first, He wasn't just being genius, He was laying out the new ethic of the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is about the reversing and the undoing of the present kingdoms. If it seems backwards to pray for those who curse, it's because, well, it is. If it seems foreign to consider a lustful stare adultery, it's because we have grown accustomed to a rival ethic of a rival kingdom. Before we write this Kingdom of God off as silly or impossible, we should consider what the alternatives have managed to produce: war, hunger, poverty, abuse, murder, disease. I could go on. On the other hand, what would happen if we truly loved others? What if we truly lived lives of trust and honesty? What if we truly esteemed others above ourselves? The answer: we don't know. We've never tried it. But one Man did. And He changed the world. But, as Dallas Willard points out, the way of Jesus had not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.

If we're going to get any closer to this Kingdom, then the first thing we have to do is change our thinking. Jesus' instruction was to "repent." To repent is to change our minds, to change our thinking. It is to change the way we view God, ourselves, and the world around us. We have had the broken mindsets of broken kingdoms for too long. We have believed in the failed "saviors" of power, wealth, and pleasure. Yet God is on mission in this world, if we have eyes to see it. He is reshaping the world for the goodness He intended for it. He is redeeming a humanity to live in this new Kingdom. And He has called us to join Him in this restoration project.

To be the church is to join God in His mission. To join God's mission is to work for the Kingdom of God. To enter this Kingdom of God is to repent. To repent is to believe that the world is a different place than we ever imagined it. It is to open our eyes to the God who is making all things new.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve 2009

Tonight we went to Katie's cousin's house for the big Christmas Eve get-together... without Katie. She stayed home with a stomach bug. I'm hoping she feels better by tomorrow morning.

Earlier today, Gracie and I took a bicycle helmet over to a family's house for a nine-year-old little boy. Last week, the women of our church went shopping for this little boy and Tiffany and Dante's children. This boy, Dominick, lives with his grandmother. A couple of years ago, the grandmother told us, she bought Dominick a bike. His mother stole the bike and pawned it. So, of course, we had to get him a bike. Today we brought the helmet that another family had donated.

Sometime during my outing with Gracie, God moved in my heart. It is probably more accurate to say that He opened my eyes a little wider. I don't know how to say it really, or know how to communicate what I was thinking or feeling. It was quite subtle actually, but deep. I can only say that something good happened, and that I am thankful for moments like that, when God allows us to sense a profoundness that transcends language. We are let in on the secret that there is always more to each moment than we realize. There is always something just beneath the surface of every experience. There is a good God who loves us very much.

The Prince of Peace

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests."
-The Heavenly Host to the Shepherds, Luke 2:14

After three months of praying and planning, Room at the Inn finally took place tonight. We held a banquet for our new friends Tiffany and Dante, and invited their family and a few friends from Highland Community Church who came along side us on this project. Our purpose was to reunite Dante and Tiffany with their children and the family members are currently providing care for them. Only one of the three children made it to the dinner, but the event was still a success. It was an edifying experience for everyone involved.

At the dinner, I spoke about how Christ was born to bring us peace. The angels sang (or said) "peace to [mankind]" at the birth of Jesus. But what is this peace? Is it the absence of war? Is it the absence of conflict in our lives? These things will happen in the end, but what of right now? What peace is there for the present moment?

The Jewish understanding of peace goes far beyond our definitions. We think of peace in negative terms: the absence of strife. But for the Jews, peace, or shalom, was a positive idea. Shalom meant wholeness, completeness, rightness. Shalom was the original state of things before the Fall of mankind. Shalom is the state of being that God intends for His creation. Shalom is not, however, our current natural state of being. Things break when they fall, and we have all fallen from what God intended for us. Thus, the world is a broken place. We are all broken people. Ours is a world of broken hearts and broken bones. We suffer through broken relationships and broken homes.

In the midst of this brokenness, the angels announce peace. They proclaim shalom once more over mankind. The Healer of the world is born. The Redeemer has entered into our broken world Himself to be broken. And in His brokenness, creation is restored. So we wait. We wait for the healing and restoration of all things. Yet this shalom is available to us now. This is the glad tiding of great joy.

The breaking of creation began in the human heart. The healing will begin nowhere else. Jesus offers healing and wholeness to our hearts. When hearts are made whole, there is no longer need for war, for conflict, for strife. There is no need for envy, or fear, or pride. We discover that there is a new Kingdom at hand. And on the throne of this Kingdom is one called the Prince of Peace.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


"Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ."
Matthew 1:17

For most of us, the Christmas story begins in verse 18 of Matthew 1: "This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about..." But Matthew begins his account with a long (dare I say boring?) genealogy. Why?

Matthew is writing his gospel for a Jewish audience, an audience who would have been far more interested in this genealogy than we may initially be. One reason for this interest would have been that the genealogy involved their history. Key figures such as Abraham and David appear in lineage. Matthew's original audience remembers that God promised to bless all peoples through Abraham's offspring. Even more interesting to them was the fact that Jesus is of the line of David, who reigned during the Golden Age of Israel. God promised David that his kingly line would never fail, yet at the birth of Christ, no Davidic king sits on a throne. When will God keep His promise? When will He raise up another David to restore Israel to her former glory? When will He anoint this king to rule in power and truth and righteousness to renew the hearts of the people? Matthew is stoking the coals of his people's desire.

Matthew's audience also would have had great interest in this genealogy because of one other significant detail: the number fourteen. Matthew purposefully sets up his genealogy to emphasize the number fourteen. The whole thing is divided up into three groups of fourteen. Why is this important? Hebrew letters have a feature lacking in the English alphabet. Each letter has a number assigned to it. This means that every word, every name, also has a numerical value. The numeric value for king David? Fourteen.

In this genealogy, Matthew is screaming at his audience, "King David! King David! Jesus is the King we have been waiting for! Jesus is King!" This is why Matthew chooses not to tell of shepherds and angels, but of Magi who bring royal gifts, and a rival king who has every reason to fear. May we, like the Magi, enter into this story though we do not share a Jewish lineage. May we share in the fulfillment of God's promise to bless all peoples through Abraham's seed. May we crown Jesus not as a foreign king, but as the King of kings, who reigns in power and truth and righteousness. May we join Matthew in proclaiming: Jesus is King! Jesus is King! Long live the King!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Save Us from Our Restlessness

"She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins."
- An angel to Joseph, Matthew 1:21

The name Jesus means "The Lord saves." The angel instructed Joseph to give Mary's son this name because he would save His people from their sins.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard defined sin as seeking to find our identity in anything other than God. He said that sin is not only the doing of bad things, but the making of good things into ultimate things. We are all after something or someone that we hope will define us, fulfill us, make us happy.

The problem is that nothing can accomplish this in our lives. So we wander from relationship to relationship, commodity to commodity, job to job, hoping that the next thing will be the one to give us what our hearts crave.

This is what Jesus came to save us from: the restlessness of sin. He came to save us from the vain wanderings of our hearts that never lead us to that which we seek. He came to save us from sin - the futile attempt to fill the hole in our hearts with anything other than God.

Jesus said, "Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." This Christmas, may our wandering hearts receive Him, and in Him find their salvation, their rest.