Friday, November 2, 2018

Autumn Foliage

Fall brings in cooler temperatures, pretty fall colors, Pumpkin Spice everything, and football. We love look at the different trees and the variety of colors that are hidden from us the rest of the year. Deep reds and purples and bright yellows and oranges show up in a dazzling display of God’s creativity. As pretty as they are, they do not last long. For some, it seems that one day all the leaves are changing and then the next day, they are down on the ground.

So what causes the leaves to fall? During the spring and summer, a storm can come through and have gale force winds but most of the leaves stay on the trees. During the fall, a light breeze can make a clear yard littered with colorful souvenirs. What is the difference?

While it has not been confirmed, I suspect that the leaves are not getting what it needs to stay healthy in the Fall. Because of that, the environment is better able to affect the leaf and dislodge it from its place on the branch. Some leaves stay longer than others; some trees hold their leaves longer than other trees. In any case, they drop because they are not secure to the branch anymore because they are not getting fed.

That is a wonderful illustration of the Christian life. We can be healthy and thriving in a church where we are receiving what we need. There might be differences in what each person needs but there are some basics: feeling God’s love, taking God’s Word and applying it to our lives, and the encouragements to and from other believers. These help us stay “green and healthy”.

On the other hand, when we are not getting those things, our spiritual health disintegrates. There can be many reasons for this. We could let our feelings and emotions get the best of us and we are not able to receive those things. We may let the environment around us influence us so we cannot get the benefits from God’s gifts. We may even see the church or our relationship with God in a way that does not focus on getting what God has for us (Abiding with him) and so even in going to church, we are not able to grow. As we lose that nourishment, our connection to God is weakened and like in the fall, it will not take much to send us tumbling down in doubt, despair, or hopelessness. In this state, our environment will have more of a negative impact on us than it did before.

While the pretty colors are nice, it does indicate that the leaf is dying. As a picture of my Christian life, I would rather be seen as a leaf on a Pine tree. Regardless of the weather or time of year, its leaves are still attached and growing. Regardless of what is happening in my life, I want to be attached to the tree that never stops giving me my daily bread. What are you doing to stay attached to the “Tree of Life” and are you able to receive your daily needs from God?

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

In Christian Ethics Does the "Why" Matter More than the "What"

Today is Halloween. I dislike Halloween. The commercial version that is on TV or the movies is not enjoyable to me. The scary, creepy, and spooky are not my choices for entertainment. I will be glad when tomorrow comes around and that theme of entertainment has passed on again.

Halloween in general was never a big deal at my house growing up. I do remember going out trick or treating once with some neighbors but that was not the norm. Typically, my mom and dad and I would go out for dinner and that would be the one night that dad would go to a movie with us. When we got home and since we did not have any candy, we would turn off the front lights and be in a back room. It was always the “Devils’s holiday” and we did not want to participate. Over the years, my view has changed and I now see that it is a great day to show community and be a presence for God this this dark night.

To my surprise, Dr. Russell Moore, former faculty at SBTS and current head of the ERLC of the SBC (that is enough acronyms), put in his new book the fact that he loves Halloween. The reason I was surprised needs some background information. While I agree with much of what he writes and stands for, there has been one item that I have always thought differently than him. He has written against the practice of cremation and said that it does not point to the hope of Christ’s return. His argument has never convinced me. Without getting into the particular arguments, I would have thought since he was against cremation, he would be against Halloween also.

So it was a surprise when I read his excerpt saying that Halloween was his favorite holiday. I was curious how, when he says that cremation cannot be redeemed, Halloween can be. His explanation was telling and shows what the Christian life is all about. To him, Halloween expresses the true nature of reality. There are invisible forces in the world as told in the Bible and those are "celebrated" once a year openly. There are times when we should be scared because evil is real. However, just like having an adult with you to protect you from the scary stuff outside and then going home and being safe inside your house, we can be safe from evil and the bad invisible forces when we are in the presence of our heavenly Father.

Whether you agree with that argument or not, I found it informative that he considers how his life, including how he treats Halloween, will “preach” the Gospel and point people to the hope we have in Christ. As Christians, we tend to just see actions. We tend to be legalistic about drinking, movies, daily devotions, music, etc. i.e. good Christians would not do this or that. We are more about doing the right things rather than being the right person and being the right person involves bringing all of our actions in line with our faith (1 Cor 10:31). I am not saying that what we do does not matter. It does. There are things that are off limits for Christians. On the other hand, the reason those things are off limits speak to what it means to be a Christian. It shows that being a Christian does and change things.

While there is a danger of justifying wrong actions, using unbiblical ideas, and giving the Sunday School reasons, I believe most Christians are committing the opposite mistake of not even considering why they do what they do. How much have you considered why you do the things you do? How do your everyday activities reflect your relationship with God?

Monday, October 22, 2018

Do we approach God like a cat or a dog?

We just got back from a week-long vacation and our cat, Luna, is showing us that she missed us. When I sat down for my devotions today, she jumped up on my lap and wanted me to pet her. For those of you who do not know, while I love cats, I am allergic. Every time I pet her, I need to go wash my hands before I touch my face or else I will breakout, particularly in my eyes. Since she needed some loving, I indulged her until I had enough and stopped. Surprisingly, she stayed on my lap for 5 minutes after I stopped. During that time, she was looking at the birds and acted like she wanted to go but never did. Finally, she jumped off and is laying down next to the sofa I am on.

If you haven’t experienced it, cats are different from dogs. Cats will come to you when they feel they need something. When they are finished, they walk away, or in the case of our cat, when she does not want you to pet her anymore, she will bite you. She is very lovey when she needs attention or food or water. Once you give that to her, she will ignore you. That is not the same as our dog that we had when I was growing up. Ginger would come up to me at any time and want to play or just me next to me. In general, cats are independent and only come when they can get something from you. Dogs want to just be with us regardless what we are doing. I wonder if they realize that they get something out of just being with us.

Before Luna jumped up, I read Psalm 4. In that Psalm, David says to God, “Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer.” Later on, he states “… the Lord will hear when I call to him.” David is expressing the truth that God is always with us and we can rely on him for what we need. That is a wonderful truth and as Christians, we need to be reminded of that daily.

What struck me today is that too often, I approach God like a cat and not like a dog. I know that God is always there but when I approach him, I try to get something out of him. Maybe, I need a word of encouragement. Maybe, I need to be rescued from my own sin. I come to him needy. But when I get what I want, I leave. I walk away satisfied and that I can do things by myself again. Like a cat, I walk away to be independent.

Instead, we should approach God like a dog approaches its owner. The dog is just happy to be with their owner and do whatever the owner wants. If the owner wants to play, great. If the owner wants to pet the dog, great. If the owner wants to feed the dog, great. If the owner just wants to sit with the dog, great. The dog just wants to be with its owner and gets something out of it by just being with the owner.

How much to we approach God with that anticipation and excitement of just being with God? How often are we excited to spend time with him? My to do list each day always gets in the way of me just relaxing and enjoying time with God. How do you approach God? How much do you enjoy spending time with him? What can you do to put everything aside to enjoy God today?

Monday, June 11, 2018

Head - What type of knowledge do you want?

Last week, I used the image of building a snowman to help understand discipleship particularly in the family. A well formed snowman has 3 sections. Those sections relate to areas we need to grow as a Christian: Head (Know about God), Heart (Love God), and Feet(Service for God).  Today, I want to talk about what it means to make sure the head of our snowman is well-formed. How do we grow in our knowledge of God?

One of the things we do from time to time as a family is to watch Jeopardy. We like to watch to see how many of the answers we know. We know that we will not be good enough to make it on the show but we want to see what we know. We all have our strong subjects where we might now over half of the answers in that category. Rarely do we know all of them in a column but it does happen. Now, when I do know the answer, quite often, I struggle to explain why that is the right answer or how I know that answer.

We use a term for that: trivia – interesting facts that are not well-known.  Most of the time, they are unknown because they are also trivial – of little worth or importance. Knowing who all the wives of Zeus is not going to impact how I live. Knowing the different countries that Paul visited on his second missionary journey is not really going to help me deal with problems that I have at work. Completing the song line: “Sing us a song, you’re the piano man” does not help when I have an argument with my wife.

While Jeopardy focuses on the trivial, we can have knowledge of more important things and weightier topics. For example, we know the other people in our family in a much deeper way than just the brute facts about them. Our hobbies are another place where we can find this more robust knowledge. Both of my boys are into Marvel movies. When we go to one, they can talk about the backstory about this character and how the movie was different from the comics. I sit there and all I have to say is that I liked the movie. Their knowledge of that topic is significant. They do not just know the facts.

So what is my point? What kind of knowledge should we have of the Bible, God, The Gospel, and Theology in general: trivial or robust? Okay, that was an easy question. Obviously, we should have as robust knowledge of God that we can. Great. Which is easier to teach: trivial or robust knowledge? Unfortunately, trivial knowledge is fact based and is right or wrong. It is easy to teach, correct, reproof, and train basic facts into people as opposed to making them think. I am not saying that we should not teach kids the names of the books of the Bible. I am not saying that we should not encourage Bible Memorization. I am not saying that we should not push our kids to work on their Awana workbooks. What I am say is that those things do not translate to a deeper walk with God. We need to get kids out from thinking just because they know the facts, they know what they need to know. I was that kid. I knew the right answers. I knew God broadly but never knew him deeply.

The key to getting kids to know God deeper is to ask better questions. A webcast from Truth78 said it this way: we need to ask questions that lead to Biblical conclusions that are linked to practical applications in their lives. We need to “blow their minds” with deep questions or push back on their pat answers so that they can see their “trivial” answers just won’t cut it in the real world. We need to make sure that we are teaching for the right kind of knowledge to make it easier to connect with the heart. How is that done? We will talk about it next time.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Discipleship - Do You Want To Build A Snowman?

My folks gave me a wonderful gift by raising me with a strong foundation in the knowledge of God and seeing the world through the lens of the Bible. One of my dad’s popular sayings was “prove it to me in Scripture”. That foundation stuck with me and helped me through times where I questioned my faith. For example, I took a religion course at NDSU from a Lutheran Pastor/Professor. He had some different ideas and openly questioned the validity of the Bible. Because of the foundation that my parents instilled into me, those questions and comments drove me to learn more about God through the Bible rather than drive me away from the Christianity.

In some of my interactions with atheists personally or through their writings, I found that many grew up in the church but lost their faith. What makes some hold to faith and some loose it? I think the answer is found in their foundation. If kids are taught to ask hard questions and lean into the Bible, their foundation will be much stronger than the kids that received the Sunday School answer to their questions. Some do not get any answer to their questions at all. This is why I think Children’s and Family Ministry is so important. We need to build that foundation of faith on the Rock (Matthew 7:24-27) so that when hard times come, their house will stand.

It was not until recently that God gave me a helpful picture of how disciples are “grown”: a snowman. Growing up in Minnesota, I have built a few snowmen in my days. The best snow for it is the wet, sticky stuff. To make a snowman, you gather up some snow into a ball. They you roll the ball on the snow. As you roll it, it gets bigger and bigger. If you are getting the shape of a tire, you need to roll the ball sideways so the ball can stay round. If you have some spots that need to be filled in, you can pack some snow in there. As you are going, you are trying to grow the snowball in all directions at the same time.

This struck me as a great analogy for how we need to help our kids grow as disciples. Larry Fowler[i] (Awana Ministries) and Mark Steiner[ii] (DiscipleLand Ministry) both use a three-pronged model for growing disciples: Know, Love, Serve. For our snowman picture, what we know about God is our Head, what we feel about God is our body (which has our heart), and what we do for God is our Bottom (our feet). We want a well-formed snowman which means that all three need to grow together. Too often, we focus too much about knowledge and facts and not enough about learning to Love God. So the idea is that we want our kids to grow in knowledge about God, grow in our desire to have a relationship with God, and grow our character into being like Christ.

The passage of scripture that helped this vision is Philippians 1:9-11. In this passage, Paul talks about how all three areas work together. We start with growing in the knowledge and wisdom of God (Know). Then we “approve what is excellent” which deals with our hearts desires (Love). Then, we strive to live pure and blameless lives (Serve). And we do all of it for the praise and glory of God. That is our goal: to help our families to bring God all the glory in everything we think, say, and do.

In the next few weeks, I will be blogging about what it means to grow in what we Know, Love and Serve about God along with some other ideas about how we can help our kids grow in these areas as well.

[i] Fowler, Larry. Raising a Modern-day Joseph. 2009
[ii] Steiner, Mark. “Measure Your Ministry”. 2014 DiscipleLand Brochure.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

My "2X4 Repeatedly to the Head" Moment

Have you ever felt that God was trying to tell you something? I am not talking about a vague whisper or a gentle tap on the shoulder. I am talking about every time you read something or every conversation you have tends to lead to the same place. I am talking about verses popping out of the pages of scripture that you have read before but missed this message. I am talking about every day, situations come up into which this nugget of truth that God has laid before you speaks volumes. That is where I am at right now. God has a message for me and unfortunately, it takes a 2X4 repeatedly to my head for me to understand it:

His desire is for each of us to fall in love with him.

We use all sorts of other terms: follow him, choose life, turn to him, become a disciple, ask Jesus into our heart, believe on Jesus, be born again, etc. As an analytical person, I got lost in the mechanics of the gospel and how to lead someone to make a decision. While those are important, they also miss the real goal of why God put us on this earth. God wants to share his love with us and he wants us to love him back.

Most of my Christian life has been focused on knowing God and serving God. A song that I learned when in a singing group illustrates most of my life as a Christian: "I'll obey and serve you. I'll obey to show I love you. I'll obey my life is in your hands. For it's the way to prove my love when feelings go away. If it costs me everything, I'll obey." There are times when we all need to sing this song. My problem was there were few times that I had those "feelings" in the first place. Maybe it was because I grew up in a Christian home and was saved at a young age. I do not remember much of anything before then and since it was when I was young, I am not sure how much change was evident in my life. Thus, the emotions surrounding that event were muted and they have been so since.

Time and time again, God has been opening up my heart to feel God's love for me and relish that relationship rather than just going through the motions of the things that I should be doing. Spiritual disciplines have been the things we do to get closer to God. While that is true, it is more of the dates we take with God to foster our relationship with him.

My Bible reading has me in Leviticus, which may be a surprising place to see God's love and care for his people but it is there. The different offerings are ways that God provides for us to come back to God after we mess up. Even in what is being offered, God shows care in that 1) it needs to be something of value to show the importance of our relationship with God but 2) he allows a graduated scale to be used to determine what should be given based on the situation of the person offering the sacrifice. God is less interested in what we do and more interested in how and why because a relationship is what he wants with us.

God pointed out through a friend that our relationship with our kids and with our spouse is an illustration of our relationship with God. What did I do to fall in love with my wife? Am I doing that with God? What do I want from my relationship with my sons? That is what God wants from us!

How are you helping your love relationship with God to grow today? What are you doing to spend more time with him to just enjoy being with him? God loves you and wants to show it to you.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Star - Movie Review

This past week, after the turkey was had and the Vikings had won (SKOL!), Wanda and I went to the movie The Star. We felt a little out of place walking into a movie theater for an animated "kids movie" without kids. When we sat down, Wanda was even asked where our kids were. (Tyler was watching Justice League in another theater). We joked and said that I was a children's pastor and that this was "research".

It was interesting that all of the reviews I read before we went (including mine) basically said the same thing about the actual movie:
1. There are some big differences in the chronology used in the movie and what is presented in the Bible.
2. In order to make a compelling movie (particularly to kids) from the stories in the Bible, one needs to "fill-in-the-gaps". The Bible is not a screenplay and so it does not layout everything one needs to make a story come to life on the big screen.
3. The basic story of Mary & Joseph, from the angel appearing through the birth of Jesus, was kept intact. Also, they did a good job of making sure that this baby was God's son and not just another baby.
4. The Gospel was not clear from the movie.

From this point, the difference in the reviews that I read stem from the goal the reviewer had for the movie. If they saw the goal of the movie was to present the Christmas Story from the Bible, they took a negative view of the movie and focused on items 1, 2, and 4 from above. If they saw goal of the movie was to present a child-friendly, child engaging, retelling of the Christmas Story to let the audiences get a new perspective on the Biblical account, they were much more positive towards the movie and focused on item 3 from above.

As one reviewer noted, this story is presented from the eyes of a donkey, how accurate can we expect it to be! For me, the movie was a very enjoyable movie and extremely kids-friendly. The characters were engaging and Mary and Joseph were portrayed as real people going through a difficult situation. I would recommend the movie to everyone I can.

That being said, how should we deal with the problems of the movie? Well, I do not think they are insignificant but I also think that they each can be discussed in light of the Bible. Here are some suggestions to deal with these issues:
1. Afterwards, talk about what was the same and what was different from the Bible account. Why do you think the movie makers made the changes that they did to the real story? Was it necessary to make the "animal story"/movie go or was it part of the real story?
2. See the characters in a new light. Since we all have heard the story many times before, how did the movie show you something different about the real story? How was Mary and Joseph portrayed? What were they feeling as they were traveling? What problems did they have?
3. Pay attention to the response by the animals to seeing the baby. What should our response be to Jesus? How did the camels respond? Donkey? Dogs? 

Finally, please do not be surprised that it is rated PG. According to IMDB, the rating is due to content in the "Violence and Gore" category. Here is what it says (not much at all): 
"Few characters get frightened by a group of wolves but sometimes, characters get a little bit hurt in some scenes." I was not aware that it was PG until after I saw it and I was shocked. There was nothing that I could see that warranted a PG rating.

To be honest, the questions listed above should be how we look at all "Bible" movies. Instead of blasting the movie for where it is wrong, let's use it as a great conversation piece and point people to the real story. This movie is a great way to get kids excited to talk about Jesus, Mary and Joseph. That should be our real goal to see this movie.