Don’t Be Blinded By The Spectacle

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From my latest article for WorldMag.com:

We all know that “the big game” is on Sunday, Super Bowl Sunday, that is. And how could we have missed it with all the hype and controversy? It started with allegations of the New England Patriots cheating by deflating footballs in the AFC Championship Game. Of course there were subsequent calls for the tar and feathering of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. Such a strong reaction always happens when you have football’s biggest stars and biggest egos in the spotlight. And the Patriots aren’t alone. The NFC champion Seattle Seahawks tote a trailerful of egos to Glendale, Ariz., for Sunday’s show, as well featuring their rather verbose head coach Pete Carroll and defensive back Richard Sherman.

As part of the show we’ve had the opportunity to see star running back Marshawn Lynch turn himself into an internet meme by answering every question at media day with “I’m here so I won’t get fined.” At various times both teams have claimed to have had hurt feelings or to have been saddened by all the accusations and trash talk going on. Poor souls, what drama. In all it is one enormous social media stirring, television feeding, and a heap of a spectacle.

Which, of course, is a genuine shame because it’s a distraction from the real story: one of the best Super Bowl matchups in recent years between two teams on historic runs of success. In the era of free agency, being a playoff and championship contender year in and year out is nearly impossible. But the Patriots have consistently done it since 2001. And of course the Seahawks are playing in their second straight Super Bowl, a rare feat on its own these days.

. . .

Read the full post HERE.

How Exactly Do Christians Keep the Sabbath?

Eric-Liddell

He was the gold medal favorite… and he refused to run the race.

He was the underdog, outclassed by all the other runners…and he won the gold and set an Olympic record.

Movie buffs or Olympic track fans might recognize the athlete whose story I’ve just sketched: Eric Liddell, the “Flying Scotsmen” and star of the movie Chariots of Fire. Going into the 1924 Paris Olympic, Liddell was the favorite to win gold in the 100m sprint – until he withdraw from the race to honor his Christian convictions. After seeing the race schedules, Liddell realized that the qualifying heat for the 100m race would be held on a Sunday. He was convinced that racing on a Sunday would break the Fourth Commandment and dishonor God – so he withdrew. He chose, however, to stay in the 400m race, which didn’t require him to race on a Sunday but was not his best distance. No one gave him a chance. After all, you can’t sustain a 100m pace for 400m. Except…he did. Liddell ran a 100m pace for the full 400m, took the gold, set a new record, and set an inspiring example of deeply held Christian convictions.

But it raises a question, doesn’t it? We (rightly) honor Eric Liddell for his convictions. But should we imitate him? What would you do in Eric Liddell’s shoes (pun intended)? Is it wrong for a Christian to run a race, or a business, on Sunday? How about mowing the lawn, going out to dinner, or watching a football game? How do Christians keep the Sabbath? To answer that we need to take a brief stroll through the Old Testament.

“And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:2-3)

This is the first mention of a Sabbath pattern. God works for six days to create the world. His work is good and glorious – but it’s not an end in itself. When the work is done, God rests from his work, blesses his world, and enjoys his creation. You cook the turkey and bake the stuffing not so you can spend all day in the kitchen, but so that you can sit down with family and enjoy the fruit of your labor. That’s the pattern God weaves into his creation by blessing the 7th day and making it holy: purposeful work and sacred, delightful rest. Until sin intruded.

In Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve have rebelled against their Lord and the goodness of his commands, God’s curse falls upon them, and with them all of creation. “Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen. 3:18, 19). The blessedness of both work and rest is destroyed. Work and rest are now both under the curse.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God….For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-9, 11)

The fourth commandment picks up on the pattern of creation and establishes it as a law for Israel. But there’s a difference. What was before the right of all creation (purposeful work and rest) is now given only to God’s covenant people. Even more, the gift of rest comes after the gift of redemption. When the Ten Commandments are repeated in Deuteronomy 5, Moses makes this explicit:

“Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you…You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:12, 15)

Without the shedding of the blood of the Passover lamb, Israel would still be in slavery: endless toil with no enjoyment of their labor. In other words, rest is a gift for the redeemed.

But even here there’s something incomplete. In Eden, rest and blessedness wasn’t experienced one day out of seven. All of life, work and rest, was under God’s blessing. Toil and weariness didn’t exist. The rupture sin brought into creation means that now even the redeemed only experience rest as a temporary, fleeting gift. The Sabbath comes once a week, because slavery is over and God’s gift of life is about more than mere survival; but only once a week, because this is no longer Eden. Thorns and thistles grow even on the Sabbath.

That’s the Sabbath’s Old Testament backstory. But there’s one more key development that occurs before the New Testament. After returning from exile, somewhere along the line, a change occurred. Instead of the Sabbath being a weekly reminder that God’s people were waiting for something more, the Sabbath instead became a rule to be kept. Or, more precisely, rules: forty minus one, according to Jewish writings. It was as if, wearied with the continual battle against toil and the curse, God’s people took the easy way out. Rather than hoping, year after year and generation after generation, that God would somehow, someday give them true and complete Sabbath rest, Israel settled for a checklist of Sabbath regulations: cook the food this way, not this way. Do this, not that. The day of rest became a source of even more burdens. But hey –if you make rules, you can feel good about keeping them and look down on those who don’t.

Then an obscure Jewish rabbi from Nazareth upsets the whole apple cart – and on the Sabbath, no less. On the Sabbath, his disciples were caught snacking in the grain fields (a total of four Sabbath fouls). The Pharisees rebuke him. His response: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5). On the Sabbath, he heals withered hands (Luke 6:6-11) and crooked backs (Luke 13:10-17), bringing the wholeness and healing that the sacred day pointed towards. He shreds the Sabbath rulebook and yet promises the same rest the Sabbath once represented.

And that’s the point. What the Sabbath represented, Jesus fulfills. He is Sabbath rest in human form. Only he can give what the Sabbath was meant to give. As the Lord of the Sabbath he says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). Rest is no longer found on a day; rest is found in a Person.

So if that’s true: how does the Christian actually keep the Sabbath? We’ll explore that next time.

Fresh Friday Quote: A.W. Tozer

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Each Friday I will share a quote I appreciate. It might be long or short. It might be funny or thought provoking.

“To be specific, the self-sins are self-righteousness, self-pity, self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-admiration, self-love and a host of others like them. They dwell too deep within us and are too much a part of our natures to come to our attention till the light of God is focused upon them. The grosser manifestations of these sins – egotism, exhibitionism, self-promotion – are strangely tolerated Christian leaders, even in circles of impeccable orthodoxy. They are so much in evidence as actually, for many people, to become identified with the gospel. I trust it is not cynical observation to say that they appear these days to be a requisite for popularity in some sections of the church visible. Promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ is currently so common as to excite little notice.”

- A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God, pages 42-43 

Deflated Footballs, Discerning the Media, and a Brand New Sponsor!

happyrant1I would like to give a virtual high five to Stephen Altrogge for getting this episode edited, uploaded, and posted on the same day we recorded! Bravo! It just goes to show there are no lost causes.

81qt1ga+v3L._SL1500_We have some big news and, of course, more of the hottest takes on the interwebz and podcast waves. The News: we have a SHOW SPONSOR! Crossway Books goes down in history as the first official sponsor of The Happy Rant, specifically their brand new book, Things of Earth, by Joe Rigney. You’ll have to listen to find out why this book is so awesome. We could not be more appreciative of Crossway for making history and making our show awesome! Here are the rest of our rantings.

  • Sponsorship and how we’ll live differently now that we’re filthy rich; Ted is likely going to build a money pool and dive into it like Scrooge McDuck.
  • Ted’s “gutcheck” reaction to such phenomena as Heaven Is For Real and Bill Belichick
  • Do deflated footballs matter? Should we tar and feather Brady and Belichick for them?
  • How should Christians sort through the various “news outlets” that present all stories with such slant?
  • The possibility of a Happy Rant Christian Music Karaoke Cruise, possibly on a fishing boat in Lake Michigan.

In order to get the goodness, you need to:

    • Download the podcast in iTunes. 
    • Kindly leave us a rating (seriously, all you have to do is click).
    • Follow us on Twitter at @HappyRantPod and give us your feedback and suggest future rant topics.
    • Listen in the player below if you don’t use iTunes.

How To Make A Real Impact In The Lives Of Others

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Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them… RO 12.6

We all have gifts and these gifts are varied and different. God gives his children ALL KINDS of gifts. Some gifts are public; some are done behind the scenes. Some are used when the church gathers; many are used outside church meetings. Our God is so great, so creative, so generous, so wonderful, we wouldn’t expect him to give only a few gifts. The God who created Monarch butterflies, Tiger lilies, cactuses, memosa trees, hummingbirds and hammerhead sharks is lavish and overflowing and gives a multitude of varied and wonderful gifts.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. JA 1:7

God’s gifts are gifts of his grace. Undeserved, free, unmerited. God gives gifts because that’s his nature. He gives every one of his children at least one gift, and usually more than one.

All our gifts are gifts of the Spirit – they’re spiritual gifts. Even gifts that seem to be natural or “unspiritual.” Many days last summer a member of our church, Frank, would be out on a riding mower joyfully caring for the church property. He loves it. He reminds me of Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire: “When I run I feel his pleasure.” I can almost hear Frank saying, “When I mow I feel his pleasure.” And Frank doesn’t just cut the grass – he meticulously trims around each and every one of about a dozen birch trees that line the road on our church property. Frank’s gift may seem to be natural – he just loves to cut grass – but it is a gift of serving from the Holy Spirit.

So let’s use our gifts.

God gives us gifts to serve others. They’re not for ourselves. If someone has the gift of serving it isn’t so he can serve himself. If someone has the gift of giving it isn’t so she can go out and buy herself presents. God gives us gifts to USE to bless others.

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 1 PE 4.10

Let us use our gifts to serve one another. We all have work to do. We all have a contribution to make. We are all called to serve each other. It’s not just the pastors’ job.

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. EPH 4.11-12

The leaders don’t do all the work – they equip the saints for the work of ministry. It is the saints who build up the body of Christ.

from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (16)

What if I don’t know what my gift is? Just start serving wherever you can and God will make it clear. Serve wherever there’s a need. As you serve, God will make it clear. Other people will confirm it. When I was a young believer, one of my friends needed some body work done on her car. I knew nothing about body work, but she needed help, so I went to the auto parts store, bought the necessary materials and fixed the dent in her door. I just wanted to serve wherever I could. And it became clear that day that auto repair was not my gift.

Don’t limit yourself. Don’t say well I have the gift of teaching so I can’t serve as an usher or a greeter. I’ve had people come up to me and tell me it’s their first Sunday and they have a ministry as a teacher. My first thought is, so you have a gift of teaching? How about helping us set up chairs?

Let’s use our gifts IMMEDIATELY

To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. MT 25.15-16

Serve in any way you can. If you can serve in any way in the church, great. But you can use your gifts in many ways outside the church. You can give someone an encouraging word when you run into them in Walmart. You can pray for someone over coffee at the local coffee shop. You can give money to the church and the poor. You can serve in a pro-life or campus ministry. Every tiny act of service is pleasing to God. If you give someone a drink of water in Jesus’ name you won’t lose your reward.

Sometimes life circumstances may limit us. If someone suffers from a sickness or other physical condition, God doesn’t expect them to be out washing cars. But they can pray for someone.  Spurgeon’s wife Susannah became an invalid at age 33 and could rarely attend her husband’s services after that. She was confined to her bedroom for long periods of time, yet she encouraged her husband, raised godly children, and started a fund for supplying theological books to clergymen and ministers too poor to buy them.

You have a spiritual gift. USE THAT GIFT! Serve in any way you can, wherever there’s a need, big or small. Even if it seems “mundane.” As you serve, God will make your gifts clear and he will use you to bless others.

An Interview with Russ Ramsey about Behold The King of Glory

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I met Russ Ramsey several months ago when he reached out in a desire to connect with like-minded writers in the Nashville area. We grabbed coffee and got to talking about writing as a Christian but also as a craftsman and it didn’t take long to realize we shared many of the same aspirations and convictions. Our conversations are always meandering and entirely livening. I come away with new ideas and a sharpened perspective. For that reason when he gave me a copy of his book, Behold the Lamb, I was excited. I never get excited about advent related books. They’re generally tired to me and offer little in the way of heart-gripping and soul-moving. That book was different. I read it last December in the days leading up to Christmas and it connected my should to the deep wonder of Christmas in a way that hadn’t happened in a long time. His narrative of the full biblical story in a scant few pages to tell the story of the coming lamb was beautiful.

That’s why I’m so excited about his forthcoming book, Behold The King of Glory. It will be an ideal lent companion book, but really just a magnificent portrayal of the coming savior. I had the chance to interview Russ about the book, and I’ll let him share his vision and heart in his own words.


 

Me: I grew up in church, knowing Bible stories inside and out. I knew the Easter story like the back of my hand from early elementary school. For someone like me, for whom the Bible can become kind of dry and overly familiar, how can your book bring us into the story in a new way?

Russ: With Behold the King of Glory, I tried to take the narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and put them into a single story in such a way that the reader91yVulBsEWL._SL1500_ would come away with a clearer sense of the arc of Jesus’s earthly ministry.

I think people who grew up with the Bible have a better sense of the “episodes” of scripture than the arc of the story itself. I imagine many church-goers would struggle to know when Jesus cleared the temple—for example. But when you locate it in the narrative, you see that he did it twice—once at the very beginning of his earthly ministry when he was unknown and then again on the Monday after the Triumphal Entry, just three days before his arrest. With that bit of context, suddenly you see some of the drama unfolding.

I think of elements like these as Easter Eggs—details that are right there in front of us, but often missed. Other Easter Eggs would include the fact that Jesus sang a hymn before leaving the upper room for Gethsemane, or that Jesus made no less than the equivalent of 700 bottles of wine at the wedding at Cana—one hundred and fifty gallons! Think about that.

One of my deep commitments was to avoid all novelty. I didn’t want to make anything up—no characters, no conversations. I wanted everything I included in this book to be either directly from Scripture or very reasonably inferred because of what Scripture tells us.

Me: What made you write this kind of book, a narrative, instead of a book that was more reflection or lesson shaped?

Russ: Stories, I believe, often take us deeper into truth than mere instruction. I know they have for me. They sneak up on you.

I wanted to continue the story I began with my advent book, Behold the Lamb of God. The story of Scripture is such a rich, life-transforming story. There is nothing in my life that hasn’t been transformed by the story God lays out in His word.

As a pastor, one of the things I want most for people is for them to know the Bible—to have an ever-deepening level of Biblical literacy. One way I feel called to contribute to that goal is through story-telling—specifically by helping people see how the story of the Bible holds together as a single narrative.

Behold the King of Glory is part of my contribution to that goal—and I feel strongly about it because I think knowing the story well is one of the ways we can hide scripture in our hearts. If I can tell the story of, say, the storm on the Sea of Galilee in such a way that the reader can later close their eyes and imagine it in its context, I have helped them store the word of God in their imaginations. I want that for people.

Me: I love stories, anything from Harry Potter to Make Way for Ducklings to Star Wars to East of Eden. However, I don’t always see the Bible in the same way. (I certainly didn’t growing up.) How did you come to see scripture as an amazing story and how can someone like me begin to make the shift to see it that way too?

Russ: No one has a simple story. So everyone we meet in the pages of scripture—every beggar, every harlot, every self-righteous but miserable churchman, every father of a dying child, every barren woman, every struggling fisherman, every politician, every criminal, and every wandering nomad has a back story full of hope, pain, struggle, need, failure, triumph, and longing. The humanity Christ steps into is rich, diverse, and common.

So when I see, for example, the nobleman from Capernaum running to find Jesus in Cana because his son is dying, I am drawn to him. The fact that he is a nobleman—a man of means—becomes secondary to the fact that he is a father and his son is in trouble. Now, suddenly this has become a story of a desperate man casting himself on the mercy of a Jesus he has only heard about, but who may also be his only hope. I know many people for whom this is their story.

Scripture is full of heart. I find that it comes alive when I try to image the characters on the page as real people—and not merely as vehicles to get a lesson across.

Me: Your book on advent, Behold The Lamb of God, is beautiful in its story telling and how it traces the thread of advent from Genesis to Jesus. I especially love the way some minor characters, like the shepherds from Luke 2, are shown to be pivotal and vital to the full shape of the story. What are some of those characters or moments from Behold The King of Glory that bring to prominence someone or something often overlooked?

Russ: Thank you for those kind words about Behold the Lamb. That chapter about the shepherds is one of my favorites too.71rAgVXlgyL._SL1163_

In Behold the King of Glory, the two often overlooked characters that jump to mind are Pontius Pilate and the Pharisees. It is easy to want to sort out the players in the story of scripture into good guys and bad guys—and then turn them into one-note caricatures. But no one has a simple story, and I find a lot that we can empathize with in both of them.

Pilate was a secular middle-management company man trying to climb an organizational ladder. Everything he did has some sort of political consequence. I know lots of people like that. I can be a person like that. Pilate is the person who believes that his future rests in his own ability to navigate a dog-eat-dog world. This is not to take away from the horrible role Pilate played in the crucifixion of Jesus, but if I am to read the Bible correctly, his role in Jesus’s death and mine—theologically, anyway—are not that different. So I empathize a bit with his position, even as I grieve over the results of his godless pragmatism.

And the Pharisees are easy targets because by the time we meet them in the New Testament, they are the self-righteous, self-appointed conscience of the people. But the Pharisees came into being as a band of folk-heroes. I flesh that story out in detail in a chapter called “Zeus and the Pharisees.” But what I saw in them was that they were a group whose self-righteousness came on gradually, over time, but eventually set up like concrete in their hearts. My self-righteousness works the same way. I know there are things I believe I do better than others, and pride has hardened my heart to the point that I cannot see my own self-importance. I am more like the Pharisees than I am like Jesus.

Whenever Jesus opposes the self-righteous, it seems harsh. He calls them white-washed tombs—pretty to look at but full of nothing but death. I think the strength of his rebuke is a mercy—he is trying to break stone. To do that, he hits hard, with precision. Sometimes that is how he works in us.

Me: It is hard for an author to say exactly who should read his book, since we would love everyone to read our books, but who did you write this for? Church folks bored with the Bible? Unbelievers? New believers just coming to the Bible? Some other group?

Russ: I wrote this book for people who want to know the story of Jesus. I wrote it to be a servant of Scripture itself—a book that would maybe serve as primer for the Word of God itself. For the person who knows things about Jesus, but not Jesus himself—hopefully this book will provide some clarity and focus. For the person who struggles to hold on to the narrative thread of the Gospels, hopefully this book can provide some structure. For the person who has come to find their own interaction with Scripture growing stale, hopefully, this can serve to breathe new life into their time in God’s word.

I want Behold the King of Glory to help to hide scripture in the heart by way of the imagination.

Me: This really isn’t an “Easter book,” is it? Yes, it’s convenient for publishers to release books with a seasonal emphasis to boost sales, but this is really a book more about the full narrative of the Bible leading to Jesus life, death, and resurrection, right? Something people would benefit from reading during Lent or on summer vacation?

Russ: Chicken and egg, right? What book about Jesus isn’t an Easter book? And what Easter book isn’t relevant at any other point during the year? I certainly hope this book helps people in their worship of Jesus during the Easter season, but the story itself is timeless.

I wrote these two books—Behold the Lamb and Behold the King—because I wanted to tell the story of Jesus. I love the Gospels more than any other writings. I give my life to the study and expression of Scripture, and it is one of my greatest joys to be able to say that. The story told in these pages is my story. Every picture of brokenness in these pages is in some measure the story of my own brokenness. Every need that rises to the surface is in some way a need I share. Every tendency toward rebellion, every cry of desperation, every prayer for forgiveness, and every hope of redemption rings true in me. I write not as a removed researcher, but as an eye-witness to the impact this story has had on my own life and the world I inhabit.

Five Signs You Were Definitely A Hardcore Church Kid

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I was born at church. Well, not exactly. Technically my mom gave birth to me at a hospital because she wasn’t into that whole home-birth / midwife / Amish paradise thing. But my dad was the senior pastor of our church before I was born, which meant that I was practically in church from the day I was born. Over my thirty-two plus years I’ve met lots of other hardcore church kids, and through my interactions with them I’ve discovered one fundamental truth: we are all weirdos.

Church kids tend to have a lot of things in common. We are sort of like a fraternity, minus all the alcohol, sex, setting couches on fire, and getting suspended from college for streaking across a football field. We are a brotherhood that includes sisters (bristerhood?). How do you know if you were a hardcore church kid?

YOU DID DRAMA TO A CHRISTIAN POP SONG AND CALLED IT EVANGELISM

At some point, probably on a mission trip, you participated in a vivid drama set to the tune of a popular, yet emotionally moving Christian pop ballad. You spun and danced and lifted your hands in the air as (pre-gay) Ray Boltz belted out his pledge of allegiance to the Lamb. You shook your body (in a modest, non-sensual way) and bounced about as “Mary Mary” shook off their shackles and praised. And for some strange reason, these awful spectacles were called “evangelism” or “outreach”. How exactly did those things get approved? What youth pastor said, “You know what lost people love? White kids dancing to hip-hop music. That’ll save them,”?

YOU DISCOVERED SECULAR BANDS FIVE YEARS AFTER THEY WERE POPULAR

I discovered Nirvana sometime around 1996. Of course, Nirvana had been around for at least five years by that point, but it didn’t matter. I felt like I had stumbled upon a rare artifact, known only to a few privileged individuals. I was cooler than the kids in my church who didn’t know about Nirvana. I learned the opening guitar riff for “Come As Your Are” (the Nirvana song, not the altar call song) and played it during youth group so that kids would know that I knew about Nirvana, and they would be jealous that I knew and they didn’t know (did you follow that?).

I discovered U2 sometime around 2004.

YOU TALKED ABOUT ALL THE MOVIES YOU WANTED TO SEE

There is always that one kid in youth group who is allowed to see movies that none of the other kids are allowed to see. If I wanted to maintain my street cred, I had to tread carefully around Movie Man. When he asked if I had seen “Rush Hour” I would say, “No, but I definitely want to see it.” By phrasing it this way, I made it sound like I would be seeing the movie soon, even though my parents wouldn’t let me watch the movie. This clever verbal jujitsu allowed me to feel like I was part of the cool crowd even though I definitely was not part of the cool crowd. I still haven’t seen “Rush Hour”. My mom won’t let me.

YOU DID THE 30 HOUR FAMINE AND PRETENDED YOU UNDERSTOOD WHAT POVERTY WAS REALLY LIKE

The 30 Hour Famine involves fasting for 30 hours in order to raise money for impoverished people. A secondary goal is to teach youth what poverty really feels like. When my youth group did the 30 Hour Famine, we played night tag in our church building. I sprained both of my ankles as I bounded down a set of stairs in order to evade capture. The event was capped off by a concert with a local ska band. So, yeah, I pretty much understood world poverty.

YOU CLOSELY FOLLOWED THE LIVES OF WHIT, EUGENE, AND CONNIE ON ADVENTURES IN ODYSSEY

I wasn’t allowed to watch Saved By the Bell, Family Matters, or Boy Meets World. No matter. I got my weekly drama/comedy fix from the Focus on the Family show Adventures In Odyssey, which centered on benevolent inventor James Whitacre and his zany surrounding cast. Let me tell you, the drama was thick. Would Bart Rathbone convince the town council to allow him to build another “Electric Palace” right next to “Whit’s End”? Would Eugene or Connie ever get married? Would the Imagination Station malfunction, throwing another innocent teen into a semi-LSD-like experience (how come the police never got pulled into these things?)? The story writing was right up there with Breaking Bad and That’s So Raven.

Thanks to Adventures In Odyssey, I learned a valuable life lesson that is almost never true: If you do the right thing, everything turns out okay.

YOU CONVINCED YOURSELF THAT CHRISTIAN KNOCKOFF DESIGNS WERE AS COOL AS THE REAL THING

When I was young there were t-shirts that said, “Baseball is life, the rest is just details.” These shirts were really cool, and most kids wore them in conjunction with a “No Fear” baseball cap. I had a t-shirt which read, “Jesus is life, the rest is just baseball.” I cut the sleeves off it and wore it to baseball practice, desperately trying to convince myself that my Christian-knockoff was just as cool as the original. I wasn’t the only one wearing knockoffs. An avalanche of awful t-shirts were produced in the 1990’s and 2000’s, with slogans like, “Sacrificed For Me” (Jesus put into a Starbucks logo), “Jesus Is King” (ala Burger King), “HisWay” (Subway), and one that could possibly be worn ironically now: “Jesus died for MySpace in heaven”.

Somehow we convinced ourselves that the shirts were culturally relevant and even possibly evangelistic. As if a guy might see my baseball shirt and say, “What must I do to be saved?!?” I’m pretty sure these shirts set Christendom back at least a thousand years.

I could go into WWJD bracelets, dcTalk concerts (featuring OC Supertones), trying to figure out if “Creed” was a Christian band, and many other indicators, but this is enough. If you did any of the above things, you were definitely a hardcore church kid.

In Defense of Villains

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From my latest article at WorldMag.com:

The New York Yankees are the bullies of baseball, always buying other teams’ players and the wins that go with them. The Oakland Raiders are (or were) every bit as dirty and sinister as their dread logo indicates. The Los Angeles Lakers are just so glitzy and glamorous. The St. Louis Cardinals are like that snotty-nosed kid in school who never did anything wrong and was the best at everything. And the New England Patriots win a lot, sure, but they’re always cutting corners, the buncha cheaters.

Each of these teams has, at one time or another, been seen as a villain in its sport. While those without a rooting interest ignore some teams, these pro franchises are nearly universally loathed. Counter intuitively, though, that’s a good thing.

No story is complete without conflict, and nothing creates conflict like a proper villain: Darth Vader, the White Witch, Voldemort, Kaiser Söze, Shredder, the Yankees. You might look at sports and think that all the conflict happens between the lines during competition, and while that’s usually true, sports villains make for drama. They take the level of interest in a mere game and give it a shot of passion. They draw in fans who might otherwise be disinterested. Villains are just plain interesting.

What makes sports so much a part of everyday life and makes it so parallel to our normal experiences? Drama does, that same drama brought about by villainy! It’s what makes sports accessible and engaging instead of just rule-bound athletic competition. Without drama, sports would not connect as often to our shared emotions and dreams: tension, fear, excitement, exhaustion, failure, elation, heroism. We learn lessons from sports because of these connections, not because of the skill level of the athletes.

Villains are, by definition, despicable and not to be imitated. We don’t condone their actions, and in fact, we despise them. Yet we need villains because they provide a crucial ingredient to the value of our sports and stories.

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Read the full post HERE.

What We Do When We Grumble And How We Can Change

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Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, Php 2.14-15

When I was young Christian and an elementary art teacher, one day in the break room a number of other teachers were complaining about the principal. I had to leave the room. Another day a number of teachers were complaining about another teacher at lunch. I couldn’t take it any more and finally said, “I really don’t think we should be talking about this person when they’re not here to defend themselves.” I might as well have poured a bucket of ice over everyone they were so stunned and silent.  Maybe that wasn’t the wisest thing to say, but hey, I was young.

Complaining is such a way of life. How often do we start conversations by complaining about the cold or the heat? How many break rooms are filled with complaining about a boss or coworker? How much silent grumbling occurs in our heads when we have to do things we don’t feel we should have to do.

Years ago my wife got very sick and for a season I had to take up almost all of the household chores. I can remember one evening carrying a pile of clothes down to the laundry room thinking, “I shouldn’t have to do this.” I was definitely not doing all things without complaining more grumbling.

When we complain and grumble we are essentially saying I am not content with what God is doing in my life right now, which is essentially saying God is not loving or good or wise. If we grumble about the weather we’re really grumbling about the One who created the weather.  If we complain about our jobs we’re really complaining about the One who gave us those jobs.

James tells us that the cause of quarrels and anger with others is we want something and don’t get it. In some ways, grumbling is a low-grade form of anger.  We don’t get what we want so we grumble and complain.  I remember one day driving to Pittsburgh and I seemed to hit every red light.  By the third red light I was grumbling about it. Somehow I caught myself and said, “Wait a minute!  What is it that I want that I’m not getting?” And then I realized – I wanted to be God! I wanted all creation to serve me and do my will. I wanted every red light to turn green as I approached.  I wasn’t getting what I wanted so I was grumbling and complaining against God who is sovereign over all, including red lights.

The alternative to complaining and grumbling is to seek to rejoice always and in give thanks in and for everything. Even in tough situations we can thank God that he is causing them to work for our good. We can thank God for the weather. We can thank him for our boss or coworker. We can thank him for our job.  We can thank him for those household chores we don’t feel we should have to do.

The amazing thing is if we grow in thankfulness and put complaining to death God says we will be blameless and innocent and shine as lights in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.  We will shine as lights in a dark world that is saturated with grumbling and complaining.  Not only that, but cultivating thankfulness will bring more joy and contentment into our lives.

Belief is Relationship

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The following is modified from my forthcoming book, Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt is Not the Enemy of Faith and was originally posted at The God Centered Life.

The transformation of a life, internal or external, can only come in relationship with God. True belief in God is a relationship. In a relationship we can truly know someone else, not just know about them. The knowledge that comes in a relationship is formative. It shapes how we live. Think about your spouse or your best friend or your mom. Your relationship with each of them, your knowledge of them, has influenced your life. You act different, are aware of new things, are offended by new things, and are passionate about things all because of them.

Each of the people I just mentioned has left an imprint on you, some greater than others. If you’re married the very pattern of your daily life is shaped by your spouse – where you live, when you get up, how your weekends are spent, what you do for a job. They shape your habits and hobbies even without trying. You live a shared life and that means everything about you is influenced by them in some way. Your mom and dad raised you and you carry their genetics. No matter what you said as a kid you are turning into them in some ways. Your best friends speak into your life, introduce you to new experiences, and provide a rich outlet for relationship. But each of them intersects with your life in just a small way compared to God. Even your spouse.

God’s connection to and intersection with your life is constant and consuming. He didn’t just create you and leave you; God is the sustainer of creation. That means that every moment you exist is a moment God is keeping you inexistence willfully and actively. But beyond mere existence (as if that is a “mere” anything) God gave you a soul, the everlasting being that makes you more than just a mammal. He made it unique and created it to be filled up with Him, with His Spirit. He made it to live forever with Him. If it gives itself to Him. God made us to reflect Him, to honor Him, to enjoy Him. All that can only be done in relationship with Him. You may not entirely realize it. We tend to forget Him often. But He is there. And for that reason relationship with God is the defining aspect of our belief in Him.

In the mid to late 1990s WWJD bracelets were all the rage, posing the question “What Would Jesus Do?” They became so popular that they reached far beyond the realm of committed Christians. They became just sort of a fashion fad, and a moralistic awareness piece. But it is only in relationship to Christ we could ever answer such a question. In the context of relationship we gain intuitions. We begin to instinctively know what actions, words, and attitudes will please Him. Just as we intuitively learn how to make our friends happy or what they like, so we do with God as we live in relationship with Him. Belief becomes less about calculating and more about new instincts. Like every relationship, this is an ongoing process, one in which we grow over time and through intentionality.

The more we know of the one we are in relationship with the more opportunity there is for trust. In relationship with other people that trust is often damaged and tested. We often damage other people’s trust in us too. We are selfish sinners. No matter how much we learn of other people’s desires we still act selfishly and hurt them. I hurt my wife and I hurt my kids, not because I don’t love them or don’t know what they feel, but because I am selfish.

But God never does. The deeper we go in relationship with Him the greater our trust grows. Paradoxically, this happens even as we see how much of Him we don’t yet understand. But trust in God stems from understanding his character, not his reasons. In relationship with Him we see daily his complete trustworthiness, goodness, power, and presence. We are never left alone or abandoned by Him. He never gives us reason to doubt Him (though sometimes we do out of our own propensity to question or do our own thing.)

Relationship with God is the best apologetic in the world. We will never argue anyone into salvation. A healthy, strong relationship with God is a beacon, it’s inviting. People see it and want to know what it means what it is. A strong relationship with God is the strength a Christian needs to stand up to withering scorn or rapier arguments. You may not be able to out-argue an opponent, but you will not be shaken in your belief. Because your belief is in the one you know, not in a concept.