Friday, February 5, 2016

Failure and what it isn't

Our Western culture places a premium on success.

Success being defined as coming in first, as in monetary gain or public appeal.

In the interest of helping provide some clarification on the subject, let's take a look at five things that failure isn't.

Failure isn't the opposite of success.

If success means to achieve a goal, then failure isn't the reverse of that.

The corporate-business world may define failure this way. But not reaching an intended result can also be part of a learning process that ultimately achieves something bigger.

Failure on the first attempt doesn't rule out eventual success.

God's Son set the perfect example for this. At first glance, Jesus' ministry seemed like a total failure. He alienated the religious powers-that-be. These leaders ultimately worked with the political power-holders of the time to have him crucified. As if that weren't enough, God's Son suffered a very public, painful and humiliating death by being crucified.

After Good Friday (the day of the crucifixion) the apostles, a select group Jesus had nurtured for three years, went into hiding in fear and confusion. They didn't have a clue as to what was going to happen next and it didn't feel like any sort of revival was going to happen anytime soon.

Not meeting a goal isn't necessarily a failure.

In the business world companies set goals. These goals are meant to encourage workers to produce more goods and services. But what happens when quality, integrity and honesty are sacrificed in the rush to make a profit (in order to be considered successful)?

There have been many industries (i.e. automotive, financial and real estate to name a few) that have suffered greatly because of a short-sighted focus on the "bottom line."

If winning means beating the competition, maybe we need to redefine winning.

During the settling of the United States, the application of the principle of Manifest Destiny caused great harm, even though it had widespread appeal. Native Americans and other groups were literally pushed out of the way in a greedy desire to grab as much profit as possible. Lands were snatched up with no thought of compensation. 

At the time it was considered doing business as usual. Was that really success?

Much harm has been done by God-fearing folk who fear being seen as failures.

There's a saying that history is written by the winners. With 'winners' being defined as those who beat the competition. Maybe we need to take a second look at history through the eyes of those who were trampled upon and never made it to the finish line.

There are tremendous emotional, psychological and physiological costs from defining success only in terms of material gain. 

Am I saying we should toss all goals out the window? No. Am I saying that making a profit is an inherently bad thing? No.

But the motivation behind goal-making is important. As well as how profits are actually made.

Here's a final thought. After spending about a month hiding in the Upper Room, a small group of Jesus' followers opened the door and began spreading the Good News. When they did, this group eventually changed the world. Starting from a position of being seen as total failures.

What do you think? I'm curious to hear from you!

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Friday, January 29, 2016

God is...

Sometimes I wonder if the main reason for not believing in God is a misconception of who God is. 

In hopes of clearing up some of the confusion, using the Bible as a reference, I offer the following 5 thoughts about God.

1. God isn't political.

It's an election year in the United States, so naturally, most of the candidates for national office are going to offer their take on the subject. Or at least try to court various types of believers or denominations. It goes with the territory.

However, there is nothing in the Bible that would even remotely support God being seen as a Republican, Democrat or Independent. God isn't a respecter of persons, or political parties. (2 Chron. 19.7; Acts 10.34)

2. God is not for or against any particular country.

This point naturally flows from #1. 

If God isn't a respecter of people (as in playing favorites),then it would follow that God doesn't favor one nation over another. (Is. 40.17)

Any nation that stumbles into sin is risking God's judgment. It may not be a popular thing to say, but it's necessary. 

If a country thinks it has a special relationship with God, and uses that supposed relationship to excuse or deny bad behavior, it's only asking for trouble. (Isaiah does a great job of documenting God's take on this.)

3. God does the judging, not us.

If the first two points are true, then it makes sense that we shouldn't spend time judging others - be it people or nations. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't stand up against ungodly behavior. But it does mean we shouldn't waste time judging. (See the book of Job to see how this works out).

Speaking out against bad behavior is necessary, but it's different than judging. Most often the best thing we can do to eliminate bad behavior is to show by example what good behavior looks like. 

God is more interested in working with us to rectify wrongs, not judging them. (Isaiah 58.9-11 offers the classic take on this.)

4. God never meant for women to be held back in society.

God's Son was quick to point out the hypocrisy of men holding women to a double-standard. (See John 8). God is especially concerned for women who have no possible means of support due to their position in society. (There are both Old and New Testament references for this). 

The first person who encountered Jesus after He was resurrected from the dead was a woman (Matt. 28.1-8; Mark 16.9-10; Luke 24.1-10; John 20.11-16). 

This single fact speaks volumes about the importance of women in God's eyes.

5. God goes way beyond our own ability to understand.

Study is good. Analysis is essential. But when it comes to the subject of the Creator of the Universe, so is humility.

God's Son sent the Holy Spirit to help us understand (John 16.12). One of the chief functions of the Holy Spirit is to guide followers of God's Son and help them know God and God's Son. 

This isn't to say that we should neglect theological study. But at the end of the day, there is more to faith than what can be logically understood.

As always, I'm curious to know: What do you think? Feel free to comment.

Photo Credit:

Saturday, January 23, 2016

"Ask...Seek...Knock.." For What?

"So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and those who seek find, and to those who knock it will be opened." (Luke 11.9)

More often than not, this teaching from Jesus is used almost as a rubber stamp of approval.

As if God's Son gave an automatic "yes" to anything our heart desires.

And probably just as often, when what we ask, seek and knock for doesn't happen, we're disappointed. Believing that God has somehow let us down and that His Son really didn't mean what He said.

Rather than continuing towards the intersection of dashed hopes and disillusionment, maybe we can slow down and take a second look at what Jesus was saying.

According to Luke, God's Son spoke these words soon after instructing His followers on how to pray. (The famous "Our Father" prayer, which begins with hallowing, or revering God). 

That same prayer goes on to ask God for God's will to be done on earth, exactly as it is being done in Heaven. Followed by a rather modest petition for our daily bread. (The NKJ version puts it, "Give us day by day our daily bread," or provision.)  Then the prayer winds down by asking forgiveness for our sins, just as - or because we have - forgiven others. Finishing up with a plea not to be led into temptation and to be delivered from evil. (Luke 11.2-4).

The Our Father doesn't seem to contain an all-inclusive invitation for God to grant all our requests.

Interestingly enough, in this same scripture passage, Jesus goes on to tell a story about a pesky friend who approaches a neighbor at midnight asking for three loaves of bread, because the friend doesn't have any food to give to a guest.

The neighbor is initially annoyed. But Jesus makes the point that, "though he (the neighbor) will not rise and give to him because he is a friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him as many (loaves of bread) as he needs." (Luke 11.8).

The Nelson Study Bible notes that the word persistence in this scripture "refers to shameless boldness more than tenacity."

So, we're supposed to be bold. But what exactly should we be bold about - that is, what should we be asking for?

A hint is contained in our initial scripture reference. Jesus continues with the "ask, seek, knock," teaching by describing a good parent. He poses a question: "Which of you parents would give a stone to a child asking for bread? Or a snake when your child asks for a fish? Or a scorpion if your child asks for an egg?" 

Now here comes the clincher: Jesus wraps up this teaching by saying: " much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?" (Luke 11.13).

The astonishing final "ask" turns out to be the most outrageously marvelous Spirit of God (AKA the Holy Spirit).

If you connect the dots, it turns out Jesus is making the point that we should be asking for and seeking God's very Spirit. With boldness. 

This puts a whole different context on what we should be asking for, doesn't it?

At the end of the day, there's really nothing else as reliable that will help us through life's challenges. There are a ton of teachings on the benefits of the Holy Spirit and what the Holy Spirit does. Suffice to say, for starters, that the Spirit of God is the same Spirit that reportedly rose God's Son from the dead. It's the same Spirit that Jesus promised to every one of His followers. It's the same Spirit that Jesus was describing to Nicodemus when he asked Jesus, "How can a person be born again?" (John 3.5)

Sounds pretty powerful, doesn't it?

This isn't a guarantee that we won't have to face difficult situations in life. (In fact Jesus' followers cautioned that we will. Most of the original 12 apostles were martyred). Sometimes these challenges will border on the indescribably awful. 

There really isn't a Biblical basis for the 'prosperity' gospel, if prosperity means material goods. No one, follower of Jesus' Son or not, is guaranteed economic wealth, especially when it's tied to spiritual belief.

Jesus didn't sugar coat what relationship with Him would be like. But God's Son did say that through His Spirit, God would protect us and never leave us, no matter what. Whether we felt God's presence or not. Whether we understood what was happening or not. Whether we felt like continuing in fellowship with God or not. 

And that is worth seeking. 

Photo Credit:

Monday, January 18, 2016

Forgiveness: Grabbing hold of grace

The day after Thanksgiving (2015) I wrote about forgiveness.

It turned out to be, by far, the most popular post of the year.

This time, I'd like to go deeper and ask: Is judgment somehow linked to the inability to forgive?

Last week during a counseling session with my home church's assistant pastor, I admitted that my "go to" response in life has been to judge.

It doesn't matter what the circumstance entails. Or who the person might be. 

The inclination to judge always seems to be lurking, right below the surface. 

Like a school of sharks zeroing in on the kill. Did someone do something I didn't like? Did someone offer an opinion opposite of mine? 

Watch, out here comes judgment, drawn to the action like sharks to blood.

And God forbid that someone offends me!

Within such a critical atmosphere, is it any wonder that forgiveness can seem difficult?

Thankfully, there is a way out of this emotional minefield.

It's called grace.

By grace I don't have to wait until I feel like it to forgive. (Remember forgiveness is a decision, not a feeling!)

By grace I can see beyond the pettiness of my offense, get the bigger picture and realize that what offends me is fairly small in the light of being forgiven by God for everything I have done.

By grace I get an inkling that thoughts of judgment aren't coming from heaven. (Isn't it the enemy/devil who comes to rob, steal, destroy and accuse?).  

By grace I can actually turn judgment against someone into an opportunity to actively bless them. 

All of this is part of what God's Son meant by God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Can you imagine gossiping, or envy or other forms of tongue-wagging happening in heaven? Of course not! So why should we so easily accept these things as givens here on earth; in our own life? 

It's relatively early in 2016. This year we can start with a clean slate. We can decide to grab hold of God's grace and apply it. 

We can slow down the judgment train in our life if we want to. With God's help we can forgive and, like God does when God forgives us, forget and let go of the past.

What do you think? I'm curious to read your thoughts on forgiveness!

Photo Credit.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

[Scrubs], Sex & David Bowie

There may be a few of you who remember the television show Scrubs.  Or maybe you've watched reruns via syndication. (That's a photo of the main cast members up top).

Scrubs starred Zach Braff as JD and ran for nine seasons.

The show followed a group of interns through their first years at Sacred Heart Hospital.

Scrubs, created by Bill Lawrence, was masterfully written and featured an amazing group of actors. Throughout its run, the show attracted guest stars the likes of Keri Russell, Brandon Fraser, Heather Graham, John Ritter, Colin Farrell, Michael J. Fox, Aziz Ansari, Masi Oka and Tom Cavanagh.

Recently I've been watching some of the seasons I missed.

What immediately comes to mind is the sheer creativity of the show. The writing, the cinematography, the music. It was all superb. There are only a handful of television series that have lasted as long as Scrubs did. In terms of ensemble performance, Scrubs set the bar very high.

But, upon re-examination, one thing also stands out. How the show's characters treated their sexuality. 

There is hardly an episode where one of the main characters isn't having sex with someone. To say that the sex is casual is an understatement. In the world of Scrubs, sex is offered freely, without much thought and without many consequences.

The only exceptions to this rule are the relationships between the characters of Turk and Carla, who eventually get married. As do JD and Elliott.

I don't watch current network or cable television, but I'm willing to bet that the handling of sex nowadays is even more casual. To the point that getting physically intimate with another person has no inherent meaning. So sex is primarily portrayed as a byproduct of lust.

And I have to wonder: To what extent is real life imitating art?

If the purpose of art is to influence and reflect our culture, isn't our soul impacted by it?

In the movie "Old Fashioned," Clay (the main male character) at one point asks: "Since when did treating love like it's something sacred become a joke?"

It's a perfectly valid and extremely brave question. (Kudos to Rik Swartzwelder, who wrote the screenplay for Old Fashioned and directed and starred as Clay.)

Which brings us to...

Recently David Bowie passed away.

For decades he was a major influence on the music scene. And whether you were a fan or not, the fact that he was a major innovator couldn't be denied.

Outwardly, he appeared, during a portion of his career, to be androgynous. 

Privately, in interviews, Bowie confessed that, looking back, the sexual part of his personality was more attached to a stage persona than to a particular sexual identity.

But again, the question of how a person handles their sexuality and what message it gives comes into play. 

Which leaves a person to think: If we take our view of sex from the current cultural standard, there's a good chance we'll wind up confused and deeply hurt.*

What if sex really does have a spiritual dimension? 

And if so, does the Bible have anything to say on the subject?

Not surprisingly, yes.

In a nutshell the Bible:

- advocates monogamy (Prov. 6:28-29)

- says to steer clear of sexual immorality (1 Corn. 6.18, 1 Thess. 4.3)

- asks followers of God's Son to be willing to reach out to the 'lost' among the current culture, without engaging in their sexual behavior (1 Corn. 5.9-11)

It's a tall order, but where there is no standard, history is rife with examples of human nature's tendency to fall to the lowest common denominator.

What do you think? I welcome your thoughts!

*Interestingly, Bowie released his last video, Lazarus, days before he passed away. The video begins with Bowie wrapped up in bandages on a surgical bed. Half-way through he appears as himself. There is a definite allusion to life-after-death. Bowie sings, "Look up here, I'm in heaven..." Which leads a person to wonder where his heart was, spiritually.

Here's a link to Bowie's performance during the Concert for New York  (a tribute concert held a few weeks after 9/11 in New York City. It features an absolutely haunting rendition of Paul Simon's America, as well as Bowie's own Heroes. 

Photo Credits:

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

What heaven is, or isn't

Recently Jonathan Merritt took up the subject of near-death experiences and chatted with Scott McKnight about Heaven. You can read the article here.

McKnight gave his opinions, which motivated me to chime in.

If we use the Bible as a guide, we're faced with this reality:

God's Son actually said very little about what Heaven is like physically.

If you take a look at the New Testament, Jesus didn't describe Heaven as much as point to its existence and use parables to get others thinking about its significance. (Matt. 13.24, Matt. 13.31, Matt. 13.34, Matt. 13.44, Matt. 13.47, Matt. 20.1, Matt. 22.2)

At least a couple of these stories (i.e. Matt. 20.1, Matt. 22.2) detail a place of unexpected grace. Particularly towards those who, using our own standards, might not have been invited.

There are scriptures mentioning God's will being done, on earth as it is in Heaven. So we know God is definitely there. And there's talk of a new Heaven and a new earth someday. 

But there aren't many specifics.

Other than the generic one: If God's presence is there, it has to be a great place.

While it's fun to speculate, I wouldn't turn those speculations into a belief on what heaven is, or isn't.

Heaven is eternal.

I don't know what exactly is in heaven (besides God and God's Son and God's Spirit). But scripture notes that God dwells there. And if God is eternal, then so is the place where God dwells.

Pearly gates and streets of gold may or may not be included. 

The Book of Revelation mentions a few things, but I would caution that this particular book of the Bible is highly symbolic and is a tough one to interpret. And it was most likely written by the apostle John who was the most mystic-minded of the 12 apostles. (Just take a look at his gospel vs. the other 'synoptic' gospels written by Matthew, Mark and Luke.)

On the other hand,it's interesting to note that when teaching followers how to pray, God's Son taught them to ask that the Father's will be done, "on earth as it is in Heaven." From this and other statements God's Son made, you could build a case that somehow, there is a very strong connection between now (earth) and eternity (Heaven) and we don't have to wait to experience it.

We really don't know who will be there.

I like McKnight's take on this. He says only God knows who will wind up in Heaven. And God, who is always good, can be counted on to do the right thing.

We don't have to spend time worrying if friends and loved ones will be there. 

If we try to decide if any one of us made it to Heaven, we are placing a judgment on their life. Not only is that inappropriate, it serves no purpose. I'm mostly talking about the lives of people who have lived a good (moral) life, but never openly confessed a belief in God's Son. 

Who knows what happens during a person's last seconds of consciousness on earth? This side of Heaven, only God knows. Let's take the burden of deciding who is or isn't in Heaven off our shoulders and let God handle it.

What we do know is that Heaven will be a place or dimension where God's presence is experienced. So it has to be glorious! 

If God created the Universe (parts of which are still being discovered by humans), God certainly has enough power to create a new Heaven and a new earth.

So instead of spending too much time speculating about what Heaven is, or isn't, maybe the time could be better spent focusing on deepening our relationship with the Creator of the Universe. The One whom we'll be spending eternity with.

Again, I'm very grateful to Jonathan Merritt for writing a very thought-provoking article and for Scott McKnight's insight.

What do you think? I welcome your thoughts!

Photo credit:

Saturday, January 2, 2016

4 Top Faith-based Films of 2015

2015 saw a continuing resurgence of faith-based films. 

So many, in fact, that I'm going to pick only four to write about. 

War Room (produced by FaithStep Films, Affirm, Red Sky, TriStar)

True confession: I have not been much of a fan of the Kendrick Brothers. Mostly because their films seemed to fit a predictable pattern.

Not so with War Room.

This film details the relationship that grows between Miss Clara (a seasoned prayer warrior) and Elizabeth (a young mom whose harried life has her on the verge of a spiritual breakdown).

I have never seen a film that chronicled the power of prayer like this one. And I give the Kendrick Brothers full credit for coming up with a unique story that captures the importance of knowing how to pray.

Kudos to Karen Abercrombie who brightens up every scene playing the part of Miss Clara.

Watch the trailer.

Old Fashioned (produced by Skoche Films, Motion Picture Pro Studios)

What a gem of a film Old Fashioned is!

Rik Swartzwelder wrote and directed the film and starred in it. 

Old Fashioned details another type of relationship, between Clay (a legalistic-leaning Christian) and Amber (a free-spirit). They meet when Amber's car runs out of gas and she decides to rent an apartment upstairs from Clay's antique shop.

The film is sweet, unique and uncompromising in its convictions without being the least bit preachy. 

Noteworthy among all of the impressive performances given is Elizabeth Ann Roberts' portrayal of Amber. She brings a camera-riveting freshness to Amber that is critical to the believability of the film.

Old Fashioned strikes a chord for chivalry in the midst of a hook-up culture; and does it with a disarming amount of charm and grace. All that while being 100% real, which is a very tough cinematic balancing act.

The fact that Swartzwelder wore three hats while making this film only makes the final result more impressive.

Watch the trailer.

Where Hope Grows (produced by GodSpeed Pictures, Stealth Tiger Entertainment, Attic Light Films)

The film's trailer immediately roped me in and motivated me to see it when it came out. I was not disappointed.

The main relationship here is between Calvin (a former major league pitcher who has seen better days) and Produce (a young man with Down Syndrome). 

Slowly Produce's optimism rubs off on Calvin, helping him to turn a corner in his life. 

Before Where Hope Grows, I'd never seen a film where one of the major characters has Down Syndrome (in real life David DeSanctis, the actor who plays Produce, has it). But ultimately it's the message of hope, fueled by faith, that forms the foundation for this film.

Watch the trailer.

Do You Believe? (produced by PureFlix Entertainment, 10 West Studios, Believe Entertainment, Toy Gun Films)

This film is about a series of relationships. Starting off with that of a pastor who runs into a street preacher, carrying a life-sized cross, who asks him, point blank: "Do you believe in the Cross of Christ?" In response, the pastor raises his eyebrows and says, "I'm a pastor." Which causes the street-preacher to stoop down eye-level to ask: "...Then what are you going to do about it?"

Under normal circumstances such a direct approach wouldn't work for me. But this film does.

It does work because the plot consists of a series of interwoven relationships that blend together to answer the question posed by the preacher with the Cross.

Notable among the performances was Mira Sorvino (playing the part of a homeless single mom) and Sean Astin (who, against type, puts in a great turn as an agnostic doctor who witnesses a miracle).

Watch the trailer.

Before signing off on this post, I'd like to put in a word for PureFlix. They have been at the forefront of Christian film for years. Recently they've expanded their efforts to provide faith-based entertainment by initiating a PureFlix movie channel. I encourage you to check it out.

David A.R. and Andrea Logan White are behind the PureFlix Entertainment company and its movie channel. That's the couple in the photo below:

Photo credits: