Friday, April 29, 2011

Springtime in Scandinavia

For Easter vacation this year, we decided to do something we had thought about doing for a long time and had our fist look at Scandinavia. We had visions of doing a lot of the region in one fell swoop, but four kids and prices limited us to just experiencing Denmark this time around. Looking at the price and available times on ferries going across the Baltic Sea, we called an audible the night before the trip was scheduled, and drove the long way around through Hamburg, up through Schleswig-Holstein and across Denmark. The weather being what it was, our first impression of the region was that there is a washed out look to everything. The colors were all beautiful but very light. It being the end of a long holiday week end for Danes, we were left with the impression that most of them own a trailer of some sort. Just about every Danish car was pulling either a camper or a boat. Half way across the country, we crossed the (up to that point) longest, tallest bridge we had ever seen across a straight and into a foggy horizon.

Our apartment for the next three days was a little beach house on Køge Bay. The bay was as washed out as everything else these first couple of days. There seemed to be no line on the horizon and one had a hard time telling where the sky ended, as if the beach itself were the edge of the world. According to our guidebook, Køge (town) is supposed to have one of the neatest little downtown areas. That may be for someone who had never seen another small European village, but Køge is really not all it was cracked up to be.

Our first full day was to be spent in Copenhagen. What springs to mind when you think of that town? Right. We weren’t really sure what one is supposed to go see. The guide book and promotional material put out by the local tourist bureaus spoke a lot about shopping, but that is not really our thing.

One thing we did notice, even as people who had spent years living in Europe where everyone rides a bike, is that the Danes love to cycle. There may be more bikes than cars. Based on our observations, texting and cycling might be a problem.

It turns out there are sights in Copenhagen, even if they are not household names around the world. The Copenhagen stock exchange may have the coolest steeple ever. It is formed out of the tails of four dragons twisted together, more of a statue than a roof. Nyhavn, the harbor street is the most commonly known Copenhagen scene and there is a reason for that. The colors and the boats and shops combine to make it a charming street. The palace has a typical changing of the guards daily at noon, but one must ask—is it all just for show and for the tourists? The Marble Church, (a dome which is usually a favorite feature of mine in European cities as I love the Baroque style) was a bit underwhelming here. It was in Churchill Park where I found my favorite Danish church building in the form of St. Alban’s Church a small Anglican building.

The little mermaid statue is Copenhagen’s Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty. However, the emphasis is on little. While we were there, some important figure in Russian Politics was checking it out as well. We almost missed her it turns out, as she had just gotten back from being on display in China. What we did not miss, and is a bit of a Dietz tradition in sightseeing, was plenty of scaffolding on everything.

Further along our walk, St. Paul’s church was not outstanding, but the 1600’s era neighborhood and houses around it were amazing. We topped it all off seeing the oldest church in Copenhagen, and the obligatory Cathedral or Church of our Lady. The later was decidedly boxy.

The next day we started off checking out Helsingør. It has more charm than Køge, but only just. The castle is alright, but built on pure fiction. There is, of course, the whole fiction of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but also the fact that that which stands today is the third incarnation of the castle and was never really used. The story of the old banquets held here when it was used is the best true-story of Helsingør. It appears that banquets here consisted of as many as 65 courses, and guests were each provided with their own vomit buckets! Talk about something being rotten in Denmark! Pop Culture tourism makes this a must see and a fun place to have been.

Sweden made its way into our trip later in the day. We have a way of going places just to check them off our life list. However, much as with Poland and Slovenia, our drive into Malmö is just a place holder until we can do the country justice. We did get to cross an even longer and taller bridge across another strait to get there, though.

We ended the day off at my now favorite Danish town, Roskilde. We almost didn’t have the experience as the kids and I were worn out. It is the site of the largest cathedral in Denmark and a great little Viking city. By far this is the prettiest place we saw on our trip. The sort of place you could imagine living.

We headed “home” for our last night in Scandinavia, but we almost didn’t get there due to Køge gang war! Kudos to that little town for finally providing us with some adventure tourism! The way to our beach house was completely blocked off by police and police dogs. (Apparently in Denmark, they use Cocker Spaniels.) We had to get directions and head out cross-country to find another way to the beach.

Our last day was spent country-side ambling, island hoping, and riding the much anticipated Ferry across the Baltic Sea. The kids had been anticipating that aspect of the trip for weeks, so it ended up being perfect as our last event.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Acceptable Idolatry

(Towards a Humble, Missional Eschatology, part 3)

The dominant theme in the book of Revelation is worship. There are only a couple of books in the entire Bible that deal with this concept more than Revelation. (Even Psalms, as a collection of poems worshiping God, does not directly discuss the concept as much.) To bow down, to humble oneself before an authority, is an important act in Revelation. Whom one worships largely determines the eternal future of a person’s soul in this eschatological vision. This symbolic act is not practiced much anymore, and in today’s society we largely dismiss this sort of symbolism as meaningless, but it speaks more to an inner attitude and that is where the problem lies.

The issue, the question is not: HOW do you worship? but WHO? If confronted with an authority that demanded worship today, how would most “Christians” respond? When traveling to North Korea, the first thing a visitor must do is bow down before a statue of Kim Il-Sung, the eternal president. Would a Christian on a mission trip (if such a thing were possible) justify such an act by saying that it was purely symbolic and they didn’t mean it?

The issue concerning readers of Revelation for nearly 2,000 years now is the way that our cultural system demands our worship. For John’s contemporaries it was the real system of emperor worship, but today we devote ourselves to so many idols without thinking about it. Perhaps we have created a false dichotomy between what we do in a church building and what we do at a stadium or in a concert. Maybe we have deluded ourselves into thinking that our other idols don’t count because we are not yet in the end times bowing before some “anti-Christ.” Either way, we have convinced ourselves that it is alright to have multiple gods.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Silly Symphony: Music Land (1935) (Ephesians 4:1-16)

In 1935, Walt Disney studios released one of their best shorts in the Silly Symphony series. Music Land was a variation on the Romeo and Juliet story, a tale of two island nations that were defined by their differences. The Island of Jazz was defined by its bouncy beat and populated by brass instruments and ukuleles. The Land of Symphony, on the other hand was populated by stringed instruments living among the pipes of organs. Separating the two kingdoms was the Sea of Discord.

The children of the leaders of these two countries fall in love and cause a war of misunderstanding, but are nearly killed in the conflict. The near catastrophe causes the monarchs to see the silliness of their differences and they create a bridge of harmony to connect the two cultures.

This is a great illustration of the message of Ephesians. God’s plan, the mystery revealed in the new covenant, was always to reunited humanity together in Christ. This unity is not one of uniformity, but an understanding between all the rich variety of cultures and peoples in the Kingdom of God. It is especially poignant in using music to illustrate the need for tolerance, since the church has always tended to create walls of separation around musical choices. This is not the only danger area among God’s people, but one of the most visible.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"The Water Room" by Christopher Fowler

The Bryant and May mysteries seem to belong to the variety that is less puzzle and more blind exploration. One does not pick one’s way through a labyrinth of clues and red herrings, but is more precisely swept along in the flow of the plot. In that regard, they are a less satisfying read than the classic whodunit. However, there is an appeal to be found here. The stories always seem to explore the aspect of reality that lies just outside of our perceptions. There is, for a time anyway, the excitement that one feels when the solution to the problem may lie outside of the natural reality.

Bryant is the half of the pair open to “sideways” thinking. He is the postmodern half of the stories. Whereas May proceeds logically and collects all the facts, Bryant intuits and looks to non-traditional sources of information. This aspect of the stories supplies the reader with the extra element of excitement in these mysteries—takes it beyond mere procedural—but also raises frustrations for someone wanting a modicum of logic.

The side of these stories that is open to the supernatural is the most frustratingly inconsistent sort. Bryant is open to all sources of information: pagan, esoteric, mystical and occult; yet he rules Christian sources out from the start. The underlying current one detects here is the typical postmodern distrust of establishment. Yet one must ask: how is Christianity any less reliable a perspective? Sure, the religious traditions and the power wielding institutions that have used Christianity to control people and politics were and are wrong. (They miss the point of Biblical Christianity.) But aren’t other “religious” and even occult sources just as controlling in their own context?

Of course, in the end, these stories are mysteries and have a logical explanation, so the point is moot. Bryant’s methodologies are just a way of feeding his intuitive thinking. These are ultimately not supernatural thrillers despite the feeling along the way.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Walk this Way, All Together Now (Ephesians 4:1-16)

The second half of Ephesians reads like a trail guide. It compares the Christian life to a path that believers must journey along. The appeal is to a certain way of walking. Paul repeatedly calls on his readers to walk correctly. Here in the first of five directives describing the way the walk of 2:10 should look, the call is to unity.

Unity is a necessity among God’s people. The plan of God has always been to unity all of humanity, all of creation, once more together as it was intended to be. This unity is now possible in Christ. The sinfulness that drove so many wedges between mankind—between nations, families, spouses, between created and Creator—exerts power no more. Everyone who trusts in Christ for salvation has been inducted into one new creation. Unity is the only thing that makes sense anymore.

However, the call is to unity, not uniformity. There is incredible diversity in creation, and that is how God intends things to be. Just as he did in the Corinthian letters, Paul here uses the diversity of gifts to illustrate the way that diversity combines to make the larger community of faith stronger. It is the variety of people brought together by God that enables the community to do all the God wants to accomplish.

When unity is preserved with the diversity everyone brings to the body of Christ, the community grows into that which God desires it to be. The differences are not weeded out, but tolerated. That is not to say that different beliefs are encouraged. Many false doctrines are built up on an idea of false unity. Outside of the obviously non-Biblical ideas that go against the Gospel presented in Scripture, some teachings seek to minimize doctrine as a mere divider that destroys unity and claim that no truth is sacred. On the other hand, most false teachings within the church try to force a unity of form. They claim that everyone should be the same: all should speak in tongues or possess the same gifts; everyone should prefer the same style of worship; everyone should abstain from drinking alcohol; people should dress a certain way.

The call here is not for God’s people to become clones. Unity is much harder to do than uniformity, but it is unity we should work to preserve because that is what we have been called to be.

Friday, April 22, 2011

More Top FIlms: Witness

Witness is a great film. The cinematography, the music, the directing and acting are all top notch. However, when one considers the story… it could be considered pretty standard. The cop story, the love story, and the climax are all things we have seen before. What makes Witness more than just another great movie, and carries it over into the “top” category is the clash of cultures.

From the start this film conducts the viewer into another world. The scenes of the Amish in the opening with the dress, language, and customs are all things that many people never see in person. As the movie progresses, we experience 1980s America from the perspective of an Amish child. After the murder and the realization that police officers are behind the crime, Harrison Ford’s John Book is forced into hiding among the Amish. He has to live among them and try to fit into their world.

This is where the magic of the film lies. Those looking for a standard crime thriller may find the film slow. Those in search of a powerful romance are bound to remain unconvinced. However, the quiet reflective moments of daily life—the chores and community gathering and courting scenes—are fascinating.

An especially important scene is when Eli tries to explain to Samuel the danger of guns. It is not simply that Samuel could be hurt, as John previously said. Guns exist exclusively to kill, and Eli’s people are unequivocally against killing. When he asks Samuel to affirm that he would not kill another man, Samuel counters that he would only kill bad men. Eli wonders how Samuel could know a man’s heart. Samuel says that he has seen the actions of bad men; he can know them by their actions. Eli warns: “And having seen, you become one of them.”

This is that which the Amish (and many other people unwittingly) avoid. When we encounter other cultures and live among them, we change. Sometimes that can be a bad thing, but often we are enriched when we witness new ways of seeing the world. That is the gift of this story.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The JW Example

(Towards a Humble, Missional Eschatology, part 2)

One of the biggest problems with people missing the point of Revelation and other eschatological texts in the Bible is that it easily overwhelms the stuff that matters. Never mind that a focus on the futuristic elements of these texts overlooks their relevance for the majority of Christianity throughout history. It can lead to a distraction from the main thing. People become obsessed with end times possibilities like half-witted conspiracy theorists and lose any relevance to the culture around them (if they ever had any to begin with.)

Take Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example. This group long ago left behind any similarity to orthodox, Biblical ideology. It all began as an attempt to predict the course of future history based on what the Bible has to say. When they predicted the end of time and the return of Christ the first time nothing happened. Rather than admit that they were wrong and embrace a wiser humility, they began to teach that the return had occurred—Jesus was merely invisible. As time went on they continued to predict (and then try to hide) further returns and ends for the world.

If all of that weren’t enough, they misinterpreted the meaning of the number 144,000 in a huge way. In insisting that that number is the limitation of how many people will make it into heaven, the rendered their belief system irrelevant once that number of reservations had been filled. (Of course they never anticipated the world lasting past the early Twentieth Century.)

Whenever the temptation to associate current events with the end times rises, remember the JWs and other misguided groups and resist. Focus on more important things like the message of the Gospel and those around you who have not heard it. Leave the prediction to the guys with the sandwich boards on the street corners.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Unfortunate Church Signs

The other day a link came across Twitter that collected the “Top Ten Unintentionally Sexual Church Signs.” They were all the sort of sign that is often seen today, trying to be funny but meaningful. The problem is, in the context of the dirty mind that had collected them, they were really offensive. It could be argued that the church can’t be blamed for how their sign is going to be misread, but unfortunately they can be.

The biggest problem with a church sign is that it exists in the first place. They are the visible expression of so much that is wrong with current and traditional ways of doing church. Instead of simply being church when they are gathered together, or going about life making disciples as Jesus directed, churches today are all about attracting “customers.” After all, you need to attract wallets to support those expensive gathering centers and the professional witnesses.

If you are going to insist on having a sign to use as an attractional tool, consider the audience. You need to know how the culture to whom you are advertising thinks. You need to know the way they think. (If you really did that though, you might just get rid of the sign.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Buffy Rewatch (Season 3a)

This post is inspired by the ongoing Buffy Re-watch being conducted over at Nik at Night. Check them out for a better, more detailed look at each episode every Tuesday.

<--Season 2b  Season 3b-->

The main theme running through season 3 is relationships. OK, most stories—even real life for that matter—is mostly about relationships, but here the matter is explored in the story arch. From the early episodes dealing with the repercussions of Buffy’s leaving town, to the way the characters have to deal with the Angel issues—both the things he did as the “Big Bad” and the way Buffy has to come to terms with killing him. How do we maintain and grow our relationships when we are all imperfect people? Towards the mid-point of the season a theme emerges that relates to the relationship theme: betrayal. Xander and Willow carry this storyline in the first half of the season, but many more stories and characters will deal with this topic later…

1. Anne

We kick things off this year with a badly done, cheap Temple of Doom imitation. Buffy has run away from home, not dealing with her Mom’s anger, a murder charge, and the fact that she had to kill Angel after he had been “cured.” She leads an incredibly well adjusted life for a runaway in L.A. until she meets a girl from the previous episode about the cult of vampire worshipers. This girl gets sucked into another cult, run by demons from another dimension using runaways as slave labor.

Hell and other dimensional realities are explored for the first (?) time in the Buffy-verse. They are a common enough sci-fi trope. Generally speaking, this show will use them in the way most science fiction does, and not as a true exploration of heaven or hell as a spiritual matter.

2. Dead Man’s Party

Buffy returns and the characters all must begin to deal with the difficulty of loss of trust and healing relationships. The main plot of this story is pretty forgettable, but the nice thing we see here is the healing between Buffy and those she loves is not accomplished all in one episode.

3. Faith, Hope & Trick

Faith shows up as the slayer who will take Kendra’s place. She is a loner who is forced to survive on her own once her slayer was killed, but that is not an excuse enough for all the flaws she exhibits. This will be explored further in the season and in seasons to come along with some episodes of Angel. For now she is just introduced.

4. Beauty and the Beasts

This episode is similar thematically to the previous season’s Phases. So we have the issues of violence against women using the werewolf imagery. However, another classic monster brings up the issue of violence against women in relationships.

5. Homecoming

Cordy and Buffy are somewhat out of character in this episode where they fight over the triviality of homecoming queen. The important event in this episode is when Xander and Willow begin a secret relationship. All in all, the first five episodes of season three have simply been treading water.

6. Band Candy

The immaturity of teens—and therefore the main characters of this show as well as its main target audience—are brought to light through the absurdity of having all the adults in town act like teens. It is a humorous episode, but significant for this reason even if most of the audience probably missed the point. For a show about high school, this was an important moment for the characters to recognize the need they have for a greater maturity in dealing with the issues they face in Sunnydale. They have not yet arrived, and they won’t over the course of the series to be honest, but they do develop and grow over the years.

7. Revelations

In Beauty and the Beasts, Buffy could not believe the way an abused girl would protect her boyfriend. Here, she is victim of her own blind spots when it comes to Angel. Buffy’s friends and loved ones now find out that Angel is back, that she has kept his return secret, and that he could be up to evil again.

Along with all of that, a new watcher has shown up to help Faith. The lesson learned here is: sound like you know what you are talking about, sound like you are in charge and people will follow. Or perhaps a better way of wording it would be: don’t simply trust authority figures; use your brain from time to time.

8. Lovers Walk

The “feeling” called love is explored in this episode. The way it makes people crazy. The way it changes people. The way it makes people do stupid things. The way it can hurt relationships when promises made in love are broken.

9. The Wish

As a result of Xander’s betrayal, Cordelia wishes that Buffy had never come into their lives. Since a vengeance demon happens to be around, wish granted. Thus we get our “It’s a Wonderful Life” episode. It is a typical parallel universe story. It is fun. However, there are a couple of important things that come out of this episode. It is just two weeks later that Buffy doubts her calling and thinks that she has made no difference. She never really experienced the events in this episode, but as viewers we know better. Also, the parallel Giles reminds us of Puddleglum in “The Silver Chair” when he expresses his faith that the other universe is a better place. Sometimes all we have is faith in which to place our hope. Stories like this show us how such a faith does work.

10. Amends

Here we find some of the most redemptive storytelling in Buffy. Angel is tormented with his past by the Buffy-verse version of the devil. It is the devil’s attempt to render him ineffective, or to cause him to go evil again. However, there is a reason that Angel is back on earth, and one can only conclude that it is for good. In a moment of absolute divine intervention Angel is saved from certain death. The show never acknowledges the existence of God, but in this episode Joss has admitted that they came close.

11. Gingerbread

In Gingerbread, we have an example of good ideas but poor execution. The problematic implication that all evil is supernatural and that normal people are not capable of being bad is a problem for the show. The fact is that the prejudice and group think that is depicted in this episode has led to a lot of evil being done in the world and it is wrong to think that people are not capable of this on their own. As it is, the parents in this episode are terribly written. Whedon and company are capable of handling tough issues in a subtle and nuanced manner. One can only assume that they buy into the thinking that religion does not deserve and intelligent examination. That is too bad, because the issues of religion explored here are important and should be addressed.

Monday, April 18, 2011

How's Your Imagination? (Ephesians 3:20,21)

“Now to him who is able to do limitlessly more than all that we ask or imagine, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

This climactic statement at the end of Paul’s prayer tends to be overlooked or underestimated at the very least. It is one of the more amazing truths communicated in the Bible, but even when this is recognized, it tends to be overblown in some ways.

Paul is writing a prayer, but he is teaching too. What he is reminding the Ephesian believers (and us as well) is that God is God and He is choosing to work through people. That means that: (a) God is powerful. He is dynamically able to do what He wishes. (b) That power that God exercises is also limitless. He may choose to not do things, but only as that falls in line with His wishes. There is nothing that He wants that will not be done. He does not limit His actions to the abilities of the tools He uses. (c) The things He does are not based or prompted by our requests. He can and does far more than it ever occurs for us to ask. Finally, (d) He does more than we could ever imagine.

On the one hand, we can imagine just about anything. So if God is powerful to do through us limitlessly more than we can ask or imagine, then we need to be prepared for some major amazing things.

On the other hand, God does things in ways that it seldom occurs to us to ask for, things that we would never think of in our most elaborate strategies. That means that we need not only be prepared for major amazing things, we need to recognize that if we are not looking for them, we will miss them. That is sadly the case more often than not.

We look for the things we can do. We look to plan things that WE can do FOR God. Meanwhile, God is busy doing things all around us. He is doing things through us. Sadly, we are often too self-focused and busy to really notice the things God is doing. The things that matter. If we could develop the ability to see those things, perhaps we would be better prepared to work with God, cooperating with the only source of power available to us that can make a difference.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

1987 in Film

1987 was a year of misses, cinematically speaking. There were a lot of ideas that year that could have been interesting if explored right, but most were not used well. (Near Dark, Robocop) Others hold a fond place to children of the eighties, but are more like guilty pleasures. (Adventures in Babysitting, Roxanne, Monster Squad, Spaceballs)

Top Ten Personal Films of 1987:
*. Anne of Avonlee
1. The Princess Bride
2. Raising Arizona
3. Innerspace
4. Lost Boys
5. The Untouchables
6. Dear America
7. Radio Days
8. Three Men and a Baby
9. Predator
10. Fatal Attraction

Bottom or Most Disappointing Films of 1987:
-5. Robocop
-4. Masters of the Universe
-3. The Witches of Eastwick
-2. Over the Top
-1. Leonard Part 6

Films I Still Have to See:
Empire of the Sun

Friday, April 15, 2011

Just Sit There

It looks like the Jet Set trip in Prague is shaping up to an all around good experience for those that are there: doing church on the Vltava, hanging out in European coffee shops (harrumph!), and that thrill of disorientation of being in a strange place.

What is most frustrating for those who can’t be there in person is the lack of context to all those wonderful pithy statements that are coming out on twitter. A personal favorite so far has been: “Don’t just do something, sit there!”

As with any short statement, it could probably be taken several ways and perhaps it could be misunderstood or taken too far. However, when taken as (I believe) it was intended, there are not many more helpful statements for churches today, trying to engage the culture around them.

The typical, American approach to anything tends to be pragmatic and based on the principle that hard work always pays off in the end. The problem with that approach is that it is often wrong, especially in spiritual matters. God’s way is often counter-intuitive, and success from a Christian perspective comes when things are accomplished that only God can do. Therefore, to do something expecting results because it has worked at some point in the past for someone in a different context is naïve, and to think that success is dependent on how “hard” or how much we do something is self important.

The biggest problem with a “tried and true” approach to church planting in a cross-cultural context is that it often completely ignores the context. Bringing spiritual truth into a cultural dialogue is part hard work, but it is greater parts God dependent and art—the art of interpreting how one meaningfully speaks into a given culture.

So, all that to say, the first thing anyone should do when they engage a new context is sit. Observe. Pray. Learn. Do not assume that since you have been “called” to a context your qualifications are what caused you to be called there. God usually picks the unqualified to do His tasks. Your part is to learn and be ready to act when your eventual opportunities are revealed.

All of the proceeding also applies as a good first step for people in churches trying to engage the culture right outside their walls.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Prague Challenge

Perhaps the best (and most ironic) thing about the Jet Set Vision trip occurring in Prague is the way that the city is a near perfect illustration for the problem the trip is addressing. The problem that Missional heralds are trying to highlight is that the church has lost the ability to communicate with the world around it. The cultural span between your average church and the average town in which it lives has become so vast that it will take cross-cultural methods similar to those used by “foreign missionaries” to cross it.

As illustrations for Missional living go, Prague is a doozey. There may be harder places to serve as a Christian worker, but not many that are harder in which to be Missional. The first obstacle is the culture itself, or more precisely the language. The joke in the Czech Republic is that no invader has ever been able to hold power long because they could never learn the language.

Making matters worse is the fact that the “cope rather than adapt” quotient in Prague is so high. As much as one sixth of the people in Prague are expats. The international population is so large, the use of the international language—English—is so great, that one could live there for decades and never really engage a Czech person. A huge percentage of the Missional work that occurs in Prague never makes its way into the indigenous population.

It is very nearly a perfect example of the challenge that faces churches. Most churches know that they are responsible with engaging the world, the lost and the unchurched with the message of the Gospel. However, it is so much easier to do work amongst the saved, the “backslidden,” and cultural Christians that many never get around to interacting with most of the community around them.

Issues like contextualization, cultural exegesis, and the thing that Jesus commanded: disciple-making, are all very hard work. But that is exactly the truth that churches need to wake up to these days. We need to be ready to choose the hard work that will accomplish the task we have been given over the easy (read lazy) efforts we have been engaged in for the past several decades.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

First Off: Let’s Address the Elephant in the Room

Vision trips are a touchy subject. Ideally, we would not need them for churches everywhere to do the task that they have been created to do in the places where they live. In a perfect world (or as perfect a world as there could be where sin still existed and churches were required to be the body of Christ in said world) churches would be sending, or teaming up to send, people out into parts of the world where there was no church to start churches.

Before you get too far into this post, you need to know that I am not simply going to pooh all over the idea of visions trips completely, and specifically I see a lot of good with the Jet Set trips (in spite of the name) so hang with me for a bit…

The negative view of mission trips stems all the way back into my childhood and up through my formative years as a young adult.

Growing up on the “mission filed” I knew that being a “Missional Christian” was not glamorous. Sure we lived in a country where the culture was different and people spoke another language, but it was simply home to us. You either lived out your faith in your neighborhood or you didn’t. However, the observation that we were led to make in those early years was that American Christians were terribly two-faced. They would come on trips for a week or two and be incredibly spiritual and motivated to share their faith with strangers. When you saw those same Christians or others like them back in the States, in their own environment, they only ever looked like that in church buildings. Out in the community, they were incognito.

The same impression continued in college, where every year for spring break a group of students would go do “mission work” among strangers on the beach, but many of those same students wouldn’t dare let it be known that they were serious Christians back home where they actually had to live. The argument was that we needed to take people out of their comfort zones to show them how they should really behave all the time. The problem was that it didn’t work and it just allowed people to appease their lack of radical faith by pretending to have it for a week or two each year.

So basically, people need to be inspired, changed and motivated where they are at, so that they can do what they are supposed to be doing.

Instead, we have a hopelessly out of touch, locked in some sort of time capsule, culturally foreign church that needs to learn to speak to the world again. For a time, this looks like it will require getting some churches and leadership to see the way “missionaries” reach out cross-culturally so that they can use and teach these methods back home to their members and other churches. If this is what is needed, then the guys behind the Jet Set Tours appear to be pointing people in the right direction. As with the whole Missional Movement, it is not the norm but a triage that is needed to get us back on track. Hopefully the churches that are born out of the efforts of this generation will not need to be so cross-cultural to reach their neighbors!

Just don’t let me get started on the name. I know it is supposed to be ironic, but my South American background clouds my perspective. Prague and Budapest for a week is apropos.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Thoughts on "The Girl Who Played with Fire"

By all accounts, when Stieg Larson first set pen to paper to write his “Millennium Series” books, he was doing it simply to entertain himself in his free time. Presumably, then, in reading his books we can learn what interested him. If that is the case we have learned three things: first he thought violence against women is really bad; second he was nonetheless fascinated by violence—especially violence of a sexual nature, and three he was obsessed with trivial trips to stores to buy things.

Regarding the first of these lessons all we can say is, “duh.” To pen a lengthy series of books with the goal of telling people violence against women is bad is like writing a story to expose the evils of Hitler. It is hardly enlightening and at some point you will be in danger of crossing the line from exposing into relishing and Larson comes close, if in fact he does not cross that line.

The second point goes with the first. Larson imbues most of his characters with an active, against the grain, experimental taste for sex and he makes sure that they all are shown having plenty of non-mainstream sex in a way that proposes that it is in fact very normal. It is a bit of a conflict for his theme, because at times it seems that he is proposing that unwanted sexual violence is bad, but borderline sexually violent behavior is OK as long as it is consensual.

As to the third thing we learned about Larson—he must love shopping because he spends pages describing characters buying stuff: furniture, groceries, even water bottles when they fill up at a gas station. We do not see a single character enter a store of any kind without being rewarded with an exhaustive list of what they bought.

In “The Girl Who Played with Fire” specifically, two things need to be said.

Number one: the reader will feel endlessly cheated with this story. The first one at least had a compelling mystery that served as an excuse for Larson to play with his characters, especially our titular girl, Lisbeth. Here, one must labor through 200 pages before he begins to decide what the main mystery will finally be—even though as things progress it was clear that he knew where he was going well back into the first book. When one finally does make it through to the final page (a laborious process that surprisingly become quite speedy—plot-wise—in the last chapter) it is only to realize that this volume is not a self contained story as the first one was. We will literally wait until the next volume to see any form of resolution. Agggghhhh!

Secondly, Lisbeth Salander is eventually fully fleshed out and explained. This is an unfortunate development in some ways. Mainly, this is due to the fact that Lisbeth is a completely postmodern character in her motivations and reactions to others. In explaining the reasons behind this, Larson robs the character of her essence. Of course, that is the problem with postmodern characters in fiction and in real life. Either their motivations are completely sans reason, or more often, they have perfectly logical—albeit flawed—reasons behind their thinking, which make them far less postmodern than they would like to think they are.
(For thoughts on the first book, see here.)

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Fullness of God (Ephesians 3:14-19)

Paul prays, in light of the awesome salvation he has described thus far in Ephesians, that the believers will obtain the Fullness of God. This is a huge request and involves a 3 or 4-step process in Paul’s prayer. In a sense it is a prayer for something already at our disposal. We simply need to recognize and depend on God for its fulfillment in our lives.

Paul begins with power. He prays that we will experience God’s power according to the riches of His glory. The riches of God’s glory are inexhaustible. Not only does God tap into the riches of His glory to grant us His power, but also the text implies that He makes the riches of His glory available to us. God’s inexhaustible might is available to work through us according to His will.

Where from does the power in the believer’s life stem? Beyond the riches of the glory of God, it stems from the Holy Spirit who lives in the “inner man.” When we say that the Holy Spirit indwells us we must remember it is not a part of the Holy Spirit, a mere portion. The Holy Spirit is fully God and as such omnipresent. The Holy Spirit fully indwells every believer. We have within us all of God in the person of Holy Spirit.

Not only that, but through faith, we are indwelled by Christ. This is not merely a request for believers to have faith and receive Christ. As believers, they have already done so. We all have the full measure of Christ within us as Christians already. However, this is a request for Him to be allowed full authority—permanent residence in the driver’s seat of our lives.

Just as we accept Christ as Savior through faith, we must also walk with Him through faith. A popular bumper sticker used to read, “God is my co-pilot.” That is no good. We do not want Christ to sit next to us observing our lives and decisions. We want Him in the driver’s seat guiding us to do His will and fulfill our potential—the plans He has for our lives.

But power is not just about world changing events or ideas. Specifically here Paul asks for power for the believer so they can experience Christ’s love in their lives; that we may be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ.

The love we experience in our daily lives pales in comparison. Parental love hits closer to the mark than other loves in many ways. Even so, we fail on our own to develop a human example of God’s love for the World. That is what we want to demonstrate through God’s power. When we begin to, then we start to know, to experience Paul’s third request in this prayer: for knowledge.

Paul prays that the believer will comprehend the breadth, the length, the height, and the depth and that we will comprehend the love of Christ that is unknowable. That is to say, it is so big; we can never exhaust the fullness of it. Paul is praying for the impossible, by human means. That is a good example to follow.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Review: The Joneses

America is a country that was founded by people of faith. It is still a land that is typified by an ideology, but the current reigning “ism” is materialism. If you grow up in America you have the American Dream ingrained in you; if you grow up outside of America, you dream of the American Dream. Somewhere along the way, “truth, justice and the American way” became “truth, justice and the American Dream.” Even Christians in the Bible Belt, the self-declared heart of Christianity, have a hard time remembering that Jesus did not proclaim a Kingdom where everyone has a white picket fence, a two car garage and a membership at the country club.

In “The Joneses” this materialistic side of American society is exposed for the ugly and even dangerous way of life that it is. A family is sent out into a wealthy community to cause envy and as a result, generate earnings for companies producing products. It is a merely parable and such tactics don’t really exist. However, a significant portion of the American culture is taken up with selling and promoting the acquisition of stuff.

In the end—of both this story and the mentality it exposes—materialism is exposed as an empty lie. Stuff does not make anyone happy. The characters in the story are all chasing that illusive commodity, but it cannot be bought. The relationships are what people really crave. Those looking at the Joneses want the great family relationships that they appear to have. The Joneses themselves are just as busy chasing the same thing. Since this is a parable, the viewer is eventually shown that relationships and not things are what are important in life, but will anyone get the point. For a story about the evils of consumerism there sure is an abundance of product placement.

Maybe this is just a clever way to advertise even more stuff in the guise of a morality play?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Fishing & The End of the World

(Towards a Humble, Missional Eschatology, part 1)

I don’t really enjoy fishing, but I do have a lot of cherished memories from my childhood of fishing with my dad. One of the most important things I ever learned in life, I learned the first few times I went fishing with him. Everyone ought to have the experience of fishing at least once to learn the difference between the tug of a tangle and the jerk of a bite. The first few times your hook gets tangled in the aquatic version of underbrush—or worse, a submerged log—you could swear that you have caught a fish. Once you feel the real thing, though, you know the difference and don’t have any problem distinguishing the two.

The lesson has a lot of applications in life, especially with the things of God. When it comes to the end of the world, history is full of people who are experts at yelling, “the sky is falling!” They are all inevitably proven wrong. Just this week there is another version or two of these idiots popping up again and saying that the world will end on April 24th.

The Bible is clear when it tells us that no one knows the date, and there is no hidden message that we can decode to determine a date. However the Bible does say that we can say one thing regarding the end… and that is when it won’t happen. There are a certain number of things that must happen before the end that enable us to say with confidence that the world will not end today, tomorrow or even on the 24th. So whatever you do, don’t propagate the lie that it could happen at any time.

What can be said with honesty is that every individual’s end is imminent. None of us have a guarantee of life beyond our next breath. We could all face our creator at any moment and have to give an account for ourselves and our decisions. We all need to decide now what we believe and who we will trust.

Just don’t try to scare people into the Kingdom with tales of the end of the world. It will only backfire on you if you launch a person into a life of belief with statements that will inevitably lead to doubts.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Problem: The Idea of Missions is Sexier than the Call to be Missional

Or “The grass sure is greener over there” syndrome.

The push in recent years to wake the (mostly American) church up to the fact that we have quit the Great Commission has been quite successful in some ways. Missional has become the biggest “buzzword” in evangelical circles. Churches are starting to look at their own backyards as mission fields. They are rethinking the way they do things from the perspective of the cultural context. They are trying to communicate to the people around them in a way that will connect and correctly convey the message that we are given to share.

However, there has also been a misunderstanding brought about in part by the way this push has been couched. The term Missional makes a lot of sense because it helps people to see that the methods used in cross-cultural evangelism are needed to reach people today. The culture that most churches are surrounded by is completely foreign to the culture within those churches. That does not mean that the traditional idea of people who are “called out” to do cross-cultural “missions” are obsolete.

The idea that churches will send, and sometimes support, sent out ones is Biblical and still needed. It is not the job of a church in rural Arkansas—to choose a random place—to fulfill the Great Commission in rural Indonesia. The world that we live in today allows us greater awareness, access, and ability to help the Gospel spread anywhere on the planet, but a Missional vision still requires people with the calling to make a new or different culture their home. For a church to decide that they will not send any individuals away permanently or long-term but instead simply handle the global expansion of the Gospel through vacation time and an internet connection is short sighted and naïve.

At the same time, acknowledging the call of God on certain individuals to leave their home for a “place I will show you” is not paying someone else to do the job to which we are all called. We are all responsible for the place God has us. All too often, though, it is easier to get excited about sharing God’s message half a world away for two weeks every year.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Relationship, not Religion

If you look back at the biblical account of the way things were in the garden, you will notice that the interaction between God and humanity was about a relationship and not a religion. We do not see religion in the Bible until chapter 4 of Genesis, after sin has changed humanity and they no longer live in the garden. We have no indication of who came up with religion, but we can be sure that it was a human attempt to regain the relationship with, or at least a blessing from God. Anthropology and history show that humanity has been at this attempt ever since evidence has been left behind to be read and studied.

God on the other hand, has always been about relationship. He was a friend to Adam and Eve and even after they sinned He sought them out. The only use He had for religion in His plan was to show people how hopeless they were on their own and how they could never regain the relationship with God on their own. He has really been more about revealing Himself to people than keeping a record of rule keeping and breaking. God is active in history, and He is the consummate storyteller in that He doesn’t just tell stories, or even cause stories to occur. He is causing and participating in the ultimate story—the story of His universe and the people He has created.

So story more than religion, communicating more than informing, is what God’s people should be all about. The greatest command Jesus left His followers to be doing until He returns is to be storytellers and relationship builders. We are instructed to tell everyone we get to know about the story God is telling in our lives. We are to be actively working on the relationships that we have in our lives, doing our small part to bring people separated from God back into the relationship He desires to have with them.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Parenthetical (Ephesians 3:1-13)

At this point in the letter Paul begins to pray, or he continues to pray depending on how you read the text.

(But did you notice that major point he was making back in chapter two? It is the same point he had referred to back in chapter one when he was praying in verses 9 and 10 about the mystery God had made clear to him. It was not new information exactly, but no one had seen it before because it was hidden in what God had said before. This whole idea that God’s plan was to bring unity back to creation and to humanity.

The point is that there really is no longer a division in the people of God. In the strictest terms, we are wrong when we refer to the Jews and the Church—there is only God’s people, the bride of Christ, the new Jerusalem. It is all the same thing. That is not to say that all nations cease to be distinctive and that there is no variety in God’s people.

But is it not wrong to make such a large distinction between Jews and Gentiles after what Christ has done? A lot of this has certainly come about recently in the history of Biblical interpretation with the lens of dispensational teaching. A lot of emphasis must be laid on the Jewish believers if one thinks that the church will have no more role in end time events, but there is clearly still a people of God active on earth. The question that must be raised is: will believing Jews at the end of time not be church? Not only that, but why does Christ emphasis in His letters to each and every one of the churches that they will have to overcome and endure tribulation?

But I digress.)

So Paul continues his prayer in verse 14…

Friday, April 1, 2011

More Top Films: Big Trouble in Little China

In typical storytelling, the hero is our focus. Even when our story is told from the point of view of a side-kick, the hero is the person we want to be. In “Big Trouble,” we have a side kick for a hero. Jack Burton is a loud-talking, out-of-his-element, good-old-boy. Some have said that he is a stand-in for America sticking its nose into international affairs where it doesn’t belong. That may be the case, but he is a well intentioned and loyal friend who really does try to help the situation. In the end, despite all of his bumbling and incompetence, with all of his cultural ignorance and naïveté, he does help.

Part of the appeal of this movie is the exoticism. At the start of the film, we hear some of Burton’s philosophy as he broadcasts bluster to no one in particular. He claims to have been around, but one begins to doubt that as the adventure increases. What he does have going for him is that he doesn’t let the culture shock overwhelm him. He absorbs what he is told and rolls with the punches. Also, he is surrounded and led by a lot of capable cultural experts.

Of course, the main appeal is the fun. Sure, it is often silly. It is full of ghosts, monsters and magic. Most adventures of the genre are. This is a good vs. evil story without much in the way of stakes, but it is entertaining, exciting, and funny. Good enough for a guilty pleasure anyway.

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