On Rest (Lenten Reflections, Week 7)

I write this early in the morning on Good Friday, at the welcome desk in the lobby of the chapel. To my left is a simple, black and white sign indicating the starting point for my church’s Stations of the Cross prayer exercise. A little c.d. player spills gentle, acoustic ballads into the solemn atmosphere. In each of eight classrooms behind me, there is a small table bearing the name of each station, a corresponding Scripture text, and an artistic, black and white photograph imagining eight individual seconds of an event that unfolded in the early morning hours of the first Good Friday 1,990 years ago, give or take a couple of years.

My mind is not in this… yet. I am still imbibing my first cup of coffee, still going over in my head the setup for today’s prayer exercise to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything, still wondering if the air conditioning is going to cut on. (Oh, there it goes. That’s good.)

But my mind is also toeing the high-cliff edges above a reservoir of doubt. In the past couple of days, my soul has been bombarded by troubling news and dark truths. News stories have flashed across my little smartphone screen, informing me of chemical warfare and subsequent retaliation; of a massive bomb dropped in Afghanistan (Oh, not a nuclear bomb. That’s… good?); of North Korea threatening to test an actual nuclear bomb; of the president of Turkey actively pursuing despotism. To top it off, I just finished a podcast all about super volcanoes. Did you know that when the super volcano residing beneath Yellowstone Park finally explodes, it will release 580 cubic miles of molten rock and dust up to 16 miles into the atmosphere, inevitably triggering a nuclear winter that will almost certainly bring human life to screeching halt?

Well, now you do.

I behold a world of chaos, of natural and man-made disasters roiling just beneath the surface of quotidian life. Then I step into the pre-dawn dark of this chapel lobby, and I click on the little spotlights that illuminate eight simple images of a first-century Jewish peasant scalded to death by a brief steam vent of that chaos. And I am reminded that a Christian is one who is supposed to believe this betrayed and beaten and brutally assassinated Jewish peasant is, somehow, in control of everything else. That there is no measure of chaos, momentary or catastrophic, to which he cannot speak a pacifying word – that he cannot, if he would choose, remove entirely from reality itself.

No wonder so few people in this world truly believe, let alone truly follow, this Savior. It does not merely seem as if the scales are tipped in the other direction; it seems like a joke to believe some massacred miracle-worker from an utterly insignificant blip of a town within a long-lost empire could possibly hold power over a gentle spring breeze, let alone all the world and all its contentious inhabitants.

It is a difficult thing to apply ourselves to the disciplines of which I wrote in my last post. But it is a far more difficult thing to rest in the Master who guides us in his discipline. To accept that what I am doing with my life – these commitments I am making and striving to keep – holds any consequence, makes any difference. Because, in the scheme of things…

But things don’t have schemes, it turns out. World powers serve a lie that one violent act can end violence, rather than naturally necessitate another. World leaders falsely believe that the pinnacle of achievement is asserting their authority, even though millennia have proved all authority is fleeting. And the world itself simply spins and shifts and rumbles along, a slave to chemistry and physics. There is no scheme – no rhyme, no reason – to what it does.

The only scheme belongs to God alone. The only efficacious plan is the one of a Heavenly Father who sends his Son to model true humanity to misguided humans, and to surrender to that misguidedness to the extreme point of blood and nails and death.

It makes no sense… to me. To us. But, then again, I’m a misguided human. When false schemes frustratedly vent their steam, I quake in my boots. I cannot comprehend the mind of the Lord; I cannot fathom his divine logic.

All I can do is rest.

Rest in his power. In his authority. In his order.

If this season of Lent has taught me anything, it is that discipline without rest is just a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Repentance without reassurance is pointless. Purgation without peace is worthless. Confession without joy, meditation without stillness… it is all for naught if we cannot lay our myriad fears and doubts and disbelief at the feet of our Savior and say, “Please cast these shackles so far away they cannot be remembered. And defend me, because this world loves to jangle about in its carefully fashioned chains. It loves to rattle sabres and hear the cruel and pretty sounds they make. Guard my eyes. Preserve my ears. Still the anxious beating of my heart. Help me, glorious God, holy Other, to rest in you.”

On Meditation (Lenten Reflections, Week 5)

Meditation has fallen out of fashion in Christianity these days. Sure, there are segments of Christendom that still practice this ages-old discipline, but when it comes to the evangelical tradition of the Church in America, practicing meditation makes Christians uncomfortable. To a lot of well-intentioned disciples, meditation has become synonymous with Eastern mysticism, New Age spirituality, and other religious traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism. A lot of evangelicals would be at a loss to understand its place within the Christian faith.

That is not merely disappointing. It is profoundly tragic.

If you have been following along with these “reflections” throughout the season of Lent, you know that what I have been endeavoring to describe is the internal metamorphosis that a follower of Jesus experiences when he or she submits to the soul-restoring work of the Holy Spirit. The metaphor I have been using to loosely explain this process of transformation is that of renovating an old, rundown house. Taking something that has fallen into disrepair from both seasons of suffering interior neglect and weathering exterior storms, and returning it to something even more beautiful than it was in its earliest, most innocent years.

So, imagine you began all the dirty work of ths renovation: evaluating the broken places, cleaning out the junk, and tearing out the shabby, damaged remnants of old construction, and then, before you set to work restoring and rebuilding this old house, you blacked over all the windows and sealed up all the doorways, never to uncover them again. It’s absurd, not only because any beautification of a home demands the influence of natural light from repaired and cleaned windows, but because you would essentially be going about your renovation work in a cave.

This is what spiritual formation looks like devoid of meditation. Or, to put it simpler, when we remove the practice of meditation from our prayers for transformation, we end up stumbling around in the dark. We fail to see the extent of decrepitude in our souls because we have shut out the Light that illumines these dark places, that reveals them to us so that we might either tear them away or restore them. And we fail to find joy and freedom in the removal of our selfish narratives because we are not considering them according to God’s redeeming wisdom.

In my previous post, I wrote about the process of katharsis, the willingness to delve into the dusty corners and shadowy spaces of our souls in order to get to the root of the problem, to address not simply our sinful acts, but rather the sinful conditions, or habits, that cause these behaviors. To find and treat the deep-seated wounds that influence our self-destructive narratives. But katharsis done with our backs turned to God’s searchlight will never be effective in transforming us, and will only be a miserable experience of identifying the many core failures and doubts that have burrowed too deep for us to reach.

Many Christians fear the concept of meditation because its fundamental aspect is shutting up and being still. It is willingly opening up our dark, dilapidated houses to the Spirit’s sweeping, comprehensive evaluation of our condition, and He doesn’t miss anything – any cracks in the drywall, any warping of the floor, any unswept chimneys. As the Apostle Paul writes about the perfect wisdom of God’s Spirit:

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God… The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things…

1 Corinthians 2:10-11, 14-15, NIV

While meditation in other traditions of spirituality may be more concerned with emptying one’s mind and contemplating some innocuous, external concept of truth, Christian meditation is about looking inward, following the Spirit of God as he advances through the corridors of your soul, shining God’s steadfast light of wisdom and truth – the truth of His unconditional love and desire for you to be made whole – into every space.

“Be still and know that I am God,” insists Psalm 46; “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in all the earth.” This is a call for meditation not on some innocuous, external truth, but on an intimately powerful truth that doesn’t empty us of our personalities and individual passions, but refines them according to God’s perfect purposes. But we will never experience this refinement, or comprehend His purposes, if we don’t allow the Spirit in – if we don’t cease our own strivings and allow the home inspector into our spaces to further illuminate what must be done.

In meditation, we momentarily stop praying about what we think our problems are and how they should be fixed. We fall silent. We breathe deeply. We remain still, and with inwardly turned eyes we consider what lies at the root of these issues. We wait on the Spirit to stimulate our minds, revealing just how deep our rebellion goes. We do not fear this revelation because it is done in the light of a great love. And in the strength of His mercy, we begin to address these deeper blights on our souls. We do not wallow or mope in guilt; instead, we celebrate that God’s light is reaching deeper and deeper into the core of who we are. Through it all, we remember the Great Truth:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

John 3:16-21, NIV

So, may you not misunderstand meditation, and may you not neglect it. May you experience the excitement and abiding peace that comes when you allow God’s Spirit to walk through the many rooms of your life, loving each one, seeing in them a beauty you have never permitted yourself to see before. May you bid farewell to the roots of selfishness and celebrate the planting of holiness, and may you bask in the golden light that fills a soul made new.

On Confession (Lenten Reflections, Week 4)

Now pride and hate, they live inside me
I need your love enough to guide me
Help me walk across these borders
I’m a pilgrim in deep waters

Faithful God, like faithful sunrise
Help me break from all these old ties
Lead me all to that is holy
Break these chains, but break them slowly

from “Mansions” by Burlap to Cashmere
from the album, Anybody Out There?

Confession is both an instinctual mode of prayer – what I like to call a posture – and also a spiritual discipline.

A mode, or posture, of prayer refers to what a follower of Jesus prays about. Confession is part of an “inward” posture. It is the kind of prayer that gazes not upward at God’s majesty, nor outward at the needs of others, but into the depths of our individual selves – and into the darkening residue of grime that accumulates the longer we tarry in this present world. It is a means of katharsis, the essential first step in spiritual transformation that I wrote about in last week’s post. Confessional prayer is the way we gather up and expel the junk that piles up in our souls. Prayer by prayer, we identify the rust and rot of self-centeredness and we tear it out, clearing our houses, preparing them for further renovations courtesy of the Holy Spirit.

But confession is not simply a type of prayer. It is also a spiritual discipline – that is, something we apply ourselves to. Something we work at. Something we strive to improve in, even master, in our pursuit of purity and blamelessness (a pursuit that often takes a lifetime for a devoted follower to experience, as Paul infers in Philippians 1:9-11).

There is a reason why Catholic churches include confessional booths, and why their spiritual leaders insist parishioners visit them regularly. Despite the way pop culture treats these little closets as either priestly power plays, impromptu counseling centers, or ineffectual shrines to narcissism, very early in to this whole Christianity thing the Church recognized that the act of confession is not simply a one time statement of belief in the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. Rather, it is a necessary practice of prayer – something anyone who desires to follow the Savior’s way must make room for in his or her life.

In the evangelical tradition – which is, sadly, becoming much more scattershot and tangled in the poison of partisanship and nationalism – we don’t always do a good job of teaching confession as a discipline of prayer. (Truth be told, we don’t do a good job of teaching the disciplines much at all anymore.) We tend to refer to prayer in primarily general terms, I think because, deep down, we feel like going into detail about its many, many different methods and disciplines and techniques will end up confusing people. There may be some truth to that inclination, but the problem that inevitably arises from generalizing prayer is that generations of believers grow up within a faith tradition that fails to train people how to pray.

As such, when a run-of-the-mill evangelical believer hears the word “confession,” he will usually think of one of two things. One, the stereotype of a confession booth, or, two, the moment a person professes Jesus as Savior. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord,” the Apostle Paul writes to the believers in Rome, “and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

But that is only the start of the discipline of confession. It is an extraordinarily powerful first confession, for sure, but it is certainly not meant to be the last. Not because forgiveness is contingent upon our actual naming of each sin we have committed, but rather because it is through confession that we continue to identify not merely our sinful acts but even more the selfish inclinations and lingering weaknesses weighing down our souls. In other words, when you “invite Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior” as the saying goes, this act breaks the stranglehold of sin on your life; it does not, however, eradicate your selfish nature altogether. You are just as susceptible to act selfishly as you were before you first confessed Christ as Savior.

Confession, then, is the discipline that teaches us just how far God’s forgiveness reaches. As we seek to live as renewed, repurposed children of our heavenly Father, we engage in the process of katharsis, and, by confession, we continue to clean house of all those old, imbedded wounds and the deep-set tendencies to assert our own will over the will of the Great Architect.

When we pray our prayers of confession, we are not informing God of our wrongdoing and wrongbeing. What we are actually doing is agreeing with him that, yes, our flesh is indeed corrupted by worldly obsessions. We are not telling God anything he doesn’t know, but just because God knows it all doesn’t mean there isn’t profound power in naming these things before him. Confession has always been more for us than it is for God.

Lastly, it is important to remember that there is more to the discipline of confession than merely through listing off our individual sinful deeds, as if we are simply taking a depressing, masochistic inventory of all our bad behaviors at day’s end. On the contrary, time spent in confession should leave a follower of Jesus rejuvenated rather than drained. Filled with a sense of freedom and peace rather than sorrow and guilt. Confession begins heavy, but it ends light. In confession, we identify healthy practices that must replace our sinful habits. We take comfort in God’s mercy, and find confidence in his grace to commit again to obedience and purity. We marvel at the endless reach of his perfect, healing love.

So, may you not shy away from the act of confession. May you make it one of the good habits that replaces the self-centered clutter littering your soul. May you run desperately into your moments of confession, eager for the cleansing that it brings, and the peace that sweeps through you like a cool wind in the heat of the day. May you confess your brokenness in such a way that you cannot help but lift up praises to the One who holds the power to put all things back together again.

On Purgation (Lenten Reflections, Week 3)

In last week’s post, I compared repentance and the process of transformation that follows to the demolition and renovation of a house. I told you that spiritual maturity doesn’t come all at once, and that there is much work for us to do in order to experience the qualities of transformation.

So, exactly what kind of work am I talking about?

Early in the fourth century C.E., a Roman general named Constantine won a series of decisive battles against his political opponents, and for whatever reason, he felt that the God of the Christians somehow had a hand in this success. In his ascension to the throne, Constantine legalized and rapidly legitimized Christianity throughout the empire. And even if he didn’t end up professing the faith until he was on his death-bed, this was nothing short of a watershed moment not just for the Christian faith, but for religious history in general. Suddenly, it was perfectly legal to profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of the world. It was completely above-board to gather regularly in order to praise “the one true God.” From that moment on, being a Christian wasn’t just harmless – it was the gold standard of Roman citizenship.

In response to this whiplash-like shift in Christianity’s relationship with culture, devoted followers of the Risen One realized that what once had been the ideal expression of faithfulness was no longer possible. Before Constantine, Christians who lived out their love for Jesus without compromise were often martyred – burned alive on stakes or pyres, tortured before gathered crowds, and, of course, crucified. And yet, as horrific an event as martyrdom was, the persecuted Church came to see it as the ultimate act of fidelity to God. Now, however, with the complete decriminalization of the Christian faith, martyrdom was off the table as a means of expressing one’s matchless devotion to God.

In response to “imperial Christianity,” many Christians who found this new, cultural faith suspect chose a new ideal expression of faithfulness. They withdrew from society and all of its creature comforts. They exiled themselves to remote deserts and harsh wilderness environments where culture could not tempt and taint them. And they began teaching a new method of spiritual practice – the way of asceticism. Granted, ascetics were nothing new, but joining fierce simplicity and the pursuit of suffering with Christian devotion had never been the norm. However, these “Desert Fathers” insisted not only on the need to remove oneself from the worldly trappings of civilization, but also to purge the carnal accumulations that affix themselves to our souls.

They spoke of something known as katharsis, the willingness to search our souls and identify the selfishness and weaknesses bedded down in the dark, hidden places within us. In order to rid ourselves of the earthly debris and spiritual rot pervading our inner beings, we must first recognize the extent of it. The standard practices of the ascetics – silence, solitude, fasting, even flagellation – puts the believer in a position for this deep “soul-searching,” and leads them to cry out for God’s divine, inside-out renovation.

As a pastor, while I don’t advocate full-blown asceticism, I do recommend believers learn about and attempt most of the ascetic practices (self-flagellation not being one of them). These ancient spiritual disciplines are incredibly powerful experiences, and accomplish much more than katharsis. However, the process of purgation is certainly one of their primary benefits.

Jesus himself seemed to support the concept of katharsis. A large portion of his famous “Sermon on the Mount” focuses on the inner catalysts for sinful behaviors. Consider the following statements from Matthew 5:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (21-22)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (27-28)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (38-39)

The worst thing we can do in our interpretations of Jesus’ sermon is to chalk these statements up to hyperbole. While the Savior does indeed make use of exaggeration in his rhetoric, none of the above statements are wholly hyperbolic. Rather, they are indicative of his understanding that sin is not simply something that is done, but also something that invades us like a parasite, festers, and methodically corrupts us. It is both a contagion and a cancer.

Concurrently, the other dangerous thing modern-day Christians can do is consider personal holiness to be an unattainable ideal – a pipe dream no normal person will ever experience. As a pastor, I am deeply committed to proclaiming the gospel of God’s grace – of unconditional, divine love that knows no bounds. However, just because believers live under God’s extraordinary grace does not mean we should be okay with our sin and weakness. While not necessarily biblical, the old adage, “God loves you as you are, but he loves you too much to let you stay that way” is a truth we must accept if we ever want to enter intentionally into the process of spiritual transformation.

These days, while we may get a rush out of shaming those we disagree with, when it comes to our own, individual sense of shame, we don’t like to spend a lot of time thinking about it. If we pray about our sin, we are quick to name what we did wrong, ask for Christ’s covering of those actions, and move on. And while there is nothing incorrect about such prayers, they rarely reach the full, purgative experience they should – the kind of exercise in prayer and meditation that not only names our sins, but allows the Holy Spirit to point his searchlight into the dank recesses of a soul that has housed a capacity for such evil habits. We must not wallow in our sin, but we must not ignore its far-reaching roots either.

It is no easy thing to let the Spirit of God shine his light into the shadows of our souls. But it is an essential part of transformation. To return to the renovation metaphor, it is the moment we enter inside our decrepit houses and begin identifying all the things that must be purged, swept up, and stripped away before the work of renewal can begin. Sometimes, this cleansing is easy – shoving excess clutter into trash bags, or pulling down old screens caked with dust. Other times, however, we find cracked beams, rotting floorboards, and purposeless walls, all of which must be torn away, piece by piece, if this old house will ever be made beautiful again.

So, may you not shy away from katharsis, no matter how uncomfortable those first forays into the cobwebbed cellar of your life may be. This is dirty work – no one ever said it wouldn’t be. But you have a co-laborer with you every step of the way. He holds a bright light from which no dirt or decay can hide. He is here to show you everything this old, rundown soul can be. Trust him. He’s been doing this kind of work for thousands of years.

On Repentance (Lenten Reflections, Week 1)

I wish that I could change things
Testify to some deliverance
Yeah, I talk-show it right into the ground
Like some salvation experience
Yeah, I wish that I could change things
Say some new words for all these feelings that I’ve felt
We all want to change things
But can you change yourself?

from “Songwriter (Numb)” by Bill Mallonee
from the album, Dear Life

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. The first day of the season of Lent.

Lent is a season of the Christian Year in which followers of Jesus acknowledge their struggle against sin and selfishness, and return – as a community of believers – to God. It is a day of self-examination, and, hopefully, repentance.

But what is repentance?

For those who grew up going to church, repentance can mean several different things. Some think of it in conjunction with the often stereotyped, turn-or-burn preachers of their youth; those red-faced, index-finger-pointing persuaders presiding over heavy-hearted altar calls Sunday after Sunday.

Others think of the wild-eyed, wild-haired prophets of old, dressed in tattered robes or wrapped in sackcloth, crying out to the masses with frightening conviction, “Repent!”

Still others hear the word “repentance” and smile. We think of the moment – or, perhaps many moments – in our lives when we grasped the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice and prayed to be counted among the forgiven.

Every one of these images is a picture of repentance, because to repent of something actually means “to change one’s mind.” To see reality differently.

In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, only a couple sentences after Jesus of Nazareth is introduced, we read the statement, “Jesus came into Galilee preaching the good news of God, saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent, and believe in the gospel.'”

In his telling of the greatest story ever told, these are the first words Mark ascribes to Jesus.

Mark chooses to introduce his readers to Jesus by attributing an astonishing statement as the core theme of the Nazarene’s ministry. Don’t miss the seditious nature of Jesus’ words. He is proclaiming the euangelion (“gospel” or “good news”) of God to a people who had lived for centuries hearing only the decreed gospels of worldly authorities – Alexander the Great, Antiochus Epiphanes, Caesar Augustus, Herod Antipas, and so on. An euangelion, which comes from a Greek word meaning “message,” was almost exclusively a political edict or proclamation, describing the “glad tidings” that would come to all those who accepted and supported the ruler’s rule. It was the inevitable legislation that proceeded from the will of an ascended governor, king, or emperor. And whether or not it was actually something to celebrate, it was nonetheless proclaimed as such.

So it is that Jesus, a poor tradesman from a minuscule village in the hill country of Palestine, proclaims his own euangelion. Only, this gospel is not of a military conqueror or a political premier. It is the gospel of God himself! And if that weren’t enough to saddle the upstart prophet with accusations of insurrection, Jesus insists that God’s Kingdom – as opposed to the kingdom of Rome – has drawn near. Essentially, what he describes is as much a geopolitical invasion as it is a spiritual reality. Another mightier Kingdom has begun its annexation of Caesar’s empire.

Simply put, when Jesus says, “Repent,” he is exhorting his hearers to make a choice of allegiance. Either continue living in the reality you’ve known – one in which your entire culture and nationality has been swallowed up by a seemingly overwhelming, irrepressible worldly power – or choose to look at your reality differently. Transcendently.

Repentance is not simply a time of confession. As a matter of fact, repentance is what leads to confession. This is because repentance is what happens when we choose to see our lives differently. When we change our minds about the very laws of reality. We accept that there is another world – another truth – that runs contrary to the one we have lived in for so long, and we make a choice to put aside the old beliefs and obsolete habits in order to now live according to that world and its truth.

For 1500 years, the Church has recognized that Christians of all shapes and sizes can benefit from a day set aside for this kind of reflection and repentance. A day to refocus our sights on a heavenly kingdom instead of lesser, worldly ones. A day to change our minds, and to confess the many, many times we have failed to live according to this new reality, this Kingdom of God, this euangelion that Jesus proclaimed. We call that day Ash Wednesday.

The ashes symbolize the helplessness of humanity. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But – and don’t miss this! – we receive the mark of ashes in the sign of the cross of Jesus Christ, which accomplished reconciliation between God and humanity. So, while we are but dust, the salvation we receive in Jesus makes us more than dust. More than the sum of our parts. Citizens of a new Kingdom.

Next week, I’ll write a bit about the process that comes after repentance – this putting away of old habits in exchange for the practices that align with God’s Kingdom, our glorious, new reality.

In the meantime, may you not be hypnotized by the worldly realities that so often envelope us. May you not imbibe the lies masquerading as truth, which are heaped upon us day after day by politicians and presidents, newspapers and news pundits. Instead, may you remember there is a greater truth – an absolute Truth – running counter to this world. It is invisible to the masses, but to those who search for it, it becomes as clear as day. May you open your eyes to look for it and perceive it. And when you catch sight of it, may you forever change your mind.

Imagining the Divine: A Response to Tim Challies

Recently, author and blogger Tim Challies, whose articles and book reviews I read on occasion, wrote a preemptive review of the upcoming film, The Shack, which itself is based on the 2007 novel of the same name by William P. Young.

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Prepare to be Hallmark movie-ed!

Preemptive review may not be the best term. Challies’s piece, entitled “Why I Won’t Be Seeing (or Reviewing) The Shack,” is a critical review of the core conceit around which the story revolves – a grieving, guilt-stricken man meets and is counseled by the Triune God (i.e., Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) who manifests in different human forms. Challies contends that such a representation of God is iniquitous, if not heretical, and his choice not to watch the film is a way of escaping an act of sin.

Of course, Challies can make whatever decision he likes regarding whether or not to see, or review, a feature film. He’s a grown man, a devoted Christian, and I do not deny that his choice may stem from deeply personal issues in his own spiritual development.

However, I believe Tim Challies has made a fundamental error in labeling the film The Shack “dangerous” simply because it casts human actors in parts that are meant to represent the divine persons of the Holy Trinity. And, taken to its logical conclusion, this error is actually an unwitting assault on imagination and creativity, two incredibly valuable faculties gifted us by our Creator.

Allow me to explain…

What is Lacking?

Tim Challies puts forth one particular passage of Old Testament scripture that he believes explains why a film version of The Shack, in which human actors will visibly and audibly portray the three persons of the Trinity on giant movie screens, is hazardous to one’s true understanding of God.

I take this to be a clear, serious violation of the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6). I will not see the film, even to review it, because I will not and cannot watch humans pretend to be God.

I have to hand it to Challies. He has conviction. But you know who else had conviction? The Pharisees.

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Now, comparing someone to a Pharisee in this day and age is usually assumed to mean that someone has become so concerned with religious legalism that he or she has lost sight of the gospel of Jesus. But this is not what I mean when I compare Tim Challies’s staunch rejection of The Shack to pharisaical behavior. What most Christians often forget about the Pharisees – or never learn in the first place – is how incredibly devout they were, how deeply they committed themselves to personal physical purity, and how exceedingly inquisitive they were of the Scriptures. In almost every case within Greco-Roman history of the Jewish world, the Pharisees are the spiritual heroes. They insisted on faithfulness to God’s Word. They sought to interpret and explain every single word and verse of the Torah in order to more deeply commune with the Creator. They continually clashed with Roman and Jewish authorities alike out of an insistence that Jewish religious expression should maintain purity and ethicality. Thus, ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the attitude and behavior of a Pharisee was directly in keeping with what modern Christians would consider a righteous person. As such, the Pharisees really only lacked one thing.

Imagination.

Time and again, when the Pharisees clashed with the teachings of Jesus, it was not because his teaching style was suspect, or because he was openly rejecting the Torah. Rather, what the Pharisees disliked about Jesus was his way of portraying God, and, by association, the purpose of various aspects of the Law that God gave to Moses. Regularly, Jesus told parables that fleshed out certain characteristics of God, or certain actions of a faithful disciple, and usually these stories scandalized the Pharisees’ painstakingly assembled understandings of theology and spirituality. And it is also worth noting that, in these parables, God is often portrayed through human characters: a bridegroom, a gracious king, a searching shepherd, a celebrating woman, a wounded father.

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Thank God first century Jerusalem didn’t have a film industry. Imagine the carnage!

But the topper – the assertion that really drove a wedge between Jesus and the majority of the Pharisees – is when Jesus himself claimed to be divine. To their eyes, this was a poor, upstart rabbi from a suspect town, possessing a suspect education, and he had the gall to say to them, “I tell you truly, before Abraham was, I AM!” (Jn. 8:58). If Jesus was nothing more than a poor, upstart rabbi, his utterance of these words was an offense deserving of public stoning. And since the Pharisees lacked the imagination – the creativity of mind and the expectancy of heart – to see Jesus as anything more than what his physical appearance revealed, they went on seeing him as such, and their pious conviction endured that what Jesus needed was a good, public execution.

What’s the Purpose?

Tim Challies is concerned that the physical, visible portrayal of any member of the Trinity – except perhaps the Son (since Jesus was also fully human) – is tantamount to blasphemy. He argues that it is impossible to accurately depict the holy Other-ness of a divine God through any kind of human guise. He even cites the second of the Ten Commandments to further his point. All of these arguments seem pretty solid.

And yet, integral to the Christian faith is our understanding that God chose not simply to command and direct humanity from his position of Other-ness, but instead chose to become flesh and blood and live in our midst (Jn. 1:14). Even though the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth is not made out of stone, it would seem that God violates, or at least sidesteps, his own commandment in order to help his chosen people grasp his true purpose for them.

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Though, if movies are to be believed, he was most certainly chiseled.

After positing the commandment as his reasoning for not viewing the film, Challies admits, “I will grant that the primary concern of the second commandment is worship. It forbids creating any image of God in order to worship God through that image. Yet the commandment first forbids any visual representation for any reason. Whether that image is used to better worship God or better understand God, the commandment covers it.” He goes on to insist that while Jesus might get a pass, it is sinful to portray the other two Persons of the Trinity, the Father and the Holy Spirit (even though the commandment of course makes no such distinction).

Really, Tim? So, did you seek forgiveness that time you looked up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (or viewed a photograph of it)? Did you shut your eyes whenever one of your history textbooks included an artistic rendering of God visiting Abraham at Mamre, or the Holy Spirit coming like fire at Pentecost? Did you run away screaming at the sight of Far Side cartoons or the trailer for Bruce Almighty when Morgan Freeman had the audacity to dress in a white suit and pretend to be God? Just how far does this self-righteous conviction, currently directed at a book you obviously don’t like, extend?

You are correct in your assessment that the commandment was chiefly concerned with worship. But like a Pharisee, you stretch it across as many specific cases as possible in a nervous effort to obey it.

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I hope this benefits your team, cuz you’re gonna burn for it!

It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to recognize that when you differentiate the application of the Ten Commandments based on the different Persons of the Trinity, you steer your boat into murky theological waters. Refusing to look upon any human portrayal of God the Father or the Holy Spirit is not simply imposing limitations on theological investigation – it is spurning human capacity for imagination and creative cognition which was given to us by our Creator! Nowhere in the entire Bible is there the stipulation that portraying the human form of Jesus is acceptable while any other representation is verboten. Why not? Because God understands there is a big difference between seeking to understand more about him by envisioning him in more familiar contexts, and actually fashioning an idol for the purpose of bowing down and invoking its power and authority for our lives. I mean, c’mon, Tim. Surely you can see this difference.

Look, I’m not a huge fan of The Shack either. I read it. I appreciated some parts, disagreed with others. I am a pastor, so, yes, some of the things the three God-characters tell the main character rubbed me the wrong way. But I understood that it’s a story. A work of imagination. It is as unlikely to be worshipped as this blog post is. So, at no point did I break out into an anxious sweat because William P. Young was tempting me to picture God in human form.

And if you don’t think there’s anything sinful about that act of imagination, as long as we don’t “flesh out” those characters on a movie screen, then the thin-ice semantics by which you are applying the commandment is astounding. Because, for all its little flaws (yes, little flaws), the purpose of The Shack is to spur people’s imaginations about what God is like. It is meant to challenge our theology not with blatant falsehoods but by asking us to consider whether we have unintentionally adopted a culturally acceptable view of our Creator, and, in so doing, collapsed into a lazy, shallow faith.

Does it get everything correct? Absolutely not. I wouldn’t expect it to. But I got to have some great conversations with church members and seekers about the nature of God when the book came out back in 2007. If the movie is at all similar in its impact, then this is all the more reason why a writer/reviewer as intelligent as Tim Challies should not refuse to review it. Perhaps his insights and corrections of what is portrayed on-screen could help people better process their own grasp of theology and soteriology.

Too bad Tim’s obedience to God’s command prevents him from offering such help.

Embracing Imagination

Again, I do not deny that Tim Challies’s decision is based on a desire to maintain faithfulness and obedience to the God he loves, and believes loves him.

But it is a dangerous thing to cite Scripture as a reason not to engage in theological exploration, even if it comes in the form of the movie version of a mediocre book. The commandments are not a leash. Rather, they are meant to set God’s people apart from a lawless, morally relative world. To obey God’s commandments is to live in such a way that people see the characteristics of God in you – love, goodness, forbearance, honesty, integrity, purity.

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Oddly enough, though, they shouldn’t lead you to do this.

In his “Sermon on the Mount,” God himself reminds us that true obedience is dependent upon the internalizing of each commandment. Thus, “You shall not murder” is as much about holding grudges and nursing hatred as it is spilling another person’s blood. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” is not simply a compulsory day-off as it is a directive that resting and relishing the rejuvenating presence of God is the only thing that will sustain us in this mad, mad world. And “You will not make for yourself a carved image” is an insistence that the creation should never attempt to comprehensively define its Creator.

In an essay entitled “Invisible Things,” the great songwriter-poet Rich Mullins writes:

He is the image of the invisible God. He is incomprehensible to our Western minds – as He was to Eastern ones. He came from that great beyond that no human mind has visited. When we true to squeeze Him into our systems of thought, He vanishes – He slips through our grasp and then reappears and (in so many words) says, “No man takes My life from Me.  No man forces his will on Me. I am not yours to handle and cheapen. You are Mine to love and make holy.”

Perhaps Tim Challies will read words such as this and think, “Exactly! Human actors should never portray God!”

But my understanding of God’s command is a bit more nuanced. No, I will not carve his image out of stone (or wood or sand or Lego bricks or George Burns’s face) and offer my worship to it. But I will keep seeking a deeper understanding of who my Savior is. Christianity is about a relationship with God, and I want to know the One to whom I am engaged. I want to think about Him more, and in more profound ways, and whatever medium will help enhance and mature my worship of Him, then I say, “Bring it on.”

May you not be afraid to imagine the divine. May you believe in a God who insists not on cold allegiance to law but rather ardent worship that flows freely from your heart, soul, strength and mind. And from your eyes, ears, nose, mouths, hands, and feet…

It Shakes You

Earlier today a man called the church. He claimed he had viewed our website and was interested in joining our community and finding out if the people here would be his brothers and sisters. But first he wanted to pose a question.

“What does it mean to bear your cross and follow Jesus?”

As a pastor, I’ve had many opportunities to explain the meaning of Jesus’ well known statement, but I have never before been asked what it means by someone who, it seems, already knows the answer. In this case, I quickly learned that the man on the phone did not consider my response completely satisfactory.

My response to his question was something along these lines: “To take up one’s cross is to live sacrificially – to surrender my own will in favor of the will of God. And to follow Jesus is to recognize him not only as the example of how to live for God, but also as the atoning sacrifice that makes it possible for me to experience a relationship with God.”

The man seemed pleased with my answer initially. However, before I could really respond again, he began to accuse me, and by extension the entire church leadership, of forsaking the true meaning of “bearing the cross.” Apparently, this man interprets that passage as the relinquishment of all worldly possessions, everything from houses to material items to, as he said, “everything you got up there in that bank.” This man believes Jesus was promoting complete asceticism when he said his followers must take up their crosses. (I’m not sure where the use of a phone, or the Internet, falls in that extreme expectation.)

There was little I could say at that point. It was clear this man’s mind was made up, that he had a predetermined agenda and this question was just a setup – a test for me to fail so I could receive his rebuke. What is more, as his correction quickly morphed into impassioned rant and then into fever-pitch screaming, he would not have been able to hear me even if I had wanted to repent right then and there.

“Sir,” I said beneath his tirade, “I cannot talk with you if you won’t listen to anything I say. I’m going to have to hang up.”

The last words I heard as I placed the phone back into its cradle was, “You see, you’re running! That’s all you people do when I call, just run away from-”

Click.

In the silence that followed, I could feel my beating heart, quickened with the adrenaline that washes over you when you’re being screamed at. I could hear my shuddering exhale under stress. And I could feel the rush of my racing mind, immediately turning inward, awakening the inevitable personal reflection that comes from any kind of rebuke, whether unwarranted or wholly deserved.

Have I interpreted that verse of Scripture incorrectly? Was the man on the phone right? Have I strayed from the true meaning of discipleship?

I do not believe so. However, this man unknowingly exposed the scars I bear from my own upbringing. For years, I worried I was getting it all wrong. During my adolescence, I walked many a confessional aisle, prayed many salvation prayers (which we so often referred to as “prayers of rededication”), made many recommitments to Jesus, most of which basically boiled down to a white-knuckled, teeth-clenched, self-actualizing vow that this time I would get things right. This time I would really be a Christian.

I have come to accept and even embrace the ambiguity of biblical interpretation. I realize that I have many brothers and sisters in Christ who understand and apply certain passages and verses differently than I do, and unlike the man who called me, I do not think all of them are wrong and I am right. I believe God is bigger than our finite understanding of him. I believe he is bigger than our interpretive capacities. I believe he is bigger even than this testimony about him that we call the Bible.

I believe that I will never be able to get it all right, and that is essentially the reason God sent his son to die on a cross. And I believe that what brings the Son of God glory is when I try to get it right – when I make a genuine, honest effort. As Thomas Merton famously wrote, “The fact that I think that I am following your will doesn’t mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

Nevertheless, a confrontation such as the one I had with this man may cut more deeply than you expect it will. It halts you. It shakes you. It gives you the kind of uncomfortable, self-searching pause that few of us ever seek out on our own.

Holy Spirit, sustain me. Abide in me, and teach me your ways. When I am wrong, rebuke me with gentleness and wisdom. When I am right, bless me with humble assurance. Holy Lord, I thank you that, ultimately, I must answer to no one else but you. Amen.