#blessed

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largeRecently, there has been a trend in social media using #blessed to describe something good that has happened to you. I have seen tweets describing winning the lottery, losing weight, getting a new car, winning a football game, getting into college, and even getting gifts from friends. This was a topic I spoke on with my students this past weekend, but I think it’s part of a much larger issue that is hindering our view of God.

For a long time, we have confused blessings with success. And it is true that throughout Scripture, there are prosperous blessings given to individuals. Luckily for us, we have best selling books that teach us how to pray the prayers those individuals prayed so that we may receive the same blessings. Life is all about receiving financial, health, relational, or career blessings. And when those things happen, we are all of a sudden #blessed.

Our view of God changes based upon what kind of “blessings” we are receiving at the moment. If we are experiencing financial success, God is this benevolent God who freely gives. If we aren’t experiencing financial success, God is reminding us that our trust needs to be in Him alone. Or if we are healed of a health scare, God has blessed us with life. But if we are not healed of an ailment, then God must have thought that it was “our time to go.” When we get something, God is blessing us. When we apparently aren’t getting anything, God is teaching us something. Some will argue that through the lessons, we will be blessed. But this still seems a bit off.

I believe that we are blessed because of who God is…not because of what God gives.

From the nature of God, flows blessings. But it is an error to base the nature of God off the content of His blessings. If we view God in this way, then His nature is ever changing based on our circumstances. Is that a God that we really want to follow? We are blessed to follow a God that is who He is. In Exodus 3.14, God declares “I am who I am.” I love this phrase because it sheds light on the nature of God.

The modern evangelical church seems to be a bit enamored with blessings. We sing for Him to pour out His blessings upon us. We praise Him when we are blessed with tangible things that help us make it through life. We pray that God “blesses” us in prosperous ways. I have heard people say that they are so blessed while others seem to not be as blessed. I have sat in meetings when people seem to think that God is pouring out His blessings on our endeavors. This view of God is based upon what He gives rather than who He is.

I know that I have said that I am blessed to have a job, a home, a car, a steady income, etc. I have said these things in the past. If I were to lose these things, I would probably say that I am blessed to have other things. But that line of thinking still focuses on what He has given rather than who He is.

Financial blessings may pour out from the heavens but that isn’t the blessing. The blessing is that we have a God who is benevolent.

Forgiveness flows freely from Him but that isn’t the blessing. The blessing is that we have a merciful and gracious God.

We may do a great work in this world but that isn’t the blessing. The blessing is that we have a God who is focused on showing this ministry of reconciliation in this world.

We may be blessed with a spouse or a boyfriend/girlfriend but that isn’t the blessing. The blessing is that we have a God who desires relationships and created us with that same desire.

Our blessing is that God is who He is.

Does this mean we shouldn’t pray for these other “blessings?” That is a great question and one that I have been pondering quite a bit lately. I honestly don’t quite know. We are told that we can ask anything of God. But are our motivations pure (we could get into a long conversation about the question of whether or not anyone can have “pure” motivations)? Or are our motivations based upon what He can give us? I would appreciate any input you are willing to give on that point.

If our view of God is based upon an idea that He has blessed us with a great day of football (yes, I saw a tweet from FOX that stated we were blessed with a great day of football last week), then I think we are missing out on what blessing really means and who God really is. We are blessed because of who God is not because of what God gives. We need to stop using the word “blessed” in substitution for living the “American Dream.” It does a great hindrance to who God is and what He is about.

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How to Have it All and Still Follow Christ

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41AxZWXdzuLRecently, I finished NT Wright’s book, “Surprised by Scripture.” Although I wasn’t too “surprised” by some of the things he said (anyone who has read anything by him will not be too surprised by his points), I was encouraged and challenged to see things a bit differently. Something Wright said at the beginning of the book stuck with me throughout the rest of the book and it spurred me on to think through exactly what the evangelical church in America is teaching.

“Christianity thrived precisely among those for whom the major existing philosophies had little to offer.”

Wright was speaking primarily toward Epicureanism and how Christianity thrived during that time because Epicureanism spoke predominately to wealthy people. “If you were an ordinary lower-class person – that is, among the 95 percent of the free population – or a slave, the exhortation to relax and enjoy your life might have rung somewhat hollow.”

Does the message that we preach through our lives echo the Gospel? Or does it simply reiterate what current philosophies of the day have to say? Sometimes I believe that we simply take the current philosophies and add a Christian-themed twist to them. Perhaps this is why Christianity isn’t thriving like it should.

Let’s look, for example, at the American Dream. Our current philosophies say to pursue that dream. Buy a house. Climb up the ladder as quickly as possible. Get a family. Have the new and best of everything. Build your retirement fund. Go into debt to appear successful. Currently, I believe that sometimes the message of the evangelical American church tends to look something like, “how to have it all and still follow Christ.” Even some churches look like this. They buy the best technology, build the biggest buildings, go into debt to appear successful, etc. All of this is in hopes that they might attract people to see Christ. I believe this is admirable, but I can’t quite buy into it completely.

In church jargon, attractional is this idea that you bring people to church to encounter Christ. Perhaps, taking Wright’s statement into play, this isn’t a terrible idea. Jesus’s message always struck a chord with the tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and others whom society and religion had deemed a minority. It struck a chord with anyone who questioned the leading philosophies of the day. It still can.

Christianity should thrive among the poor.

We hear this all the time, but it is still true. In a culture obsessed with money, our message simply cannot be one of how to give to God and get a great tax write-off. It should thrive among those who have nothing to give because God isn’t looking for money. He is desiring people. Christianity should thrive among those who may never own a home or a new car or have a nice 401K.

Christianity should thrive among the child molesters, rapists, and other sexual outcasts.

When society gives out a scarlet letter, Christianity should be showing a redeeming story. I have read story after story of individuals who have no life anymore because of a mistake. This should never satisfy a Christ follower. They are outcasts of society. We shouldn’t celebrate that. We should redeem that. Christianity should thrive among that.

Christianity should thrive among those who are dying of communicable diseases.

With the recent Ebola fear that is plaguing Americans (for some reason), we cannot simply run and hide like the rest. Our response can’t be to cast them out of society. Our response has to be one of love and empathy. Of no fear.

Simply put, Christianity has always thrived among those who realize that they have nothing. It’s harder to realize that you have nothing when you are constantly surrounded by everything. This past summer, I went to Baltimore on a mission trip with some of my students. While there, we worked with an inner city organization that gave to those whom politicians and the rest of society had forgotten. To be remembered by someone was the Gospel to them. I remember having a conversation with the head of the organization asking him how to translate something like this to the suburbs. He looked at me and said, “I have no answer for that.” I then proceeded to ask, “Will it take a complete wrecking of dreams, possessions, and careers, for the Gospel to penetrate lives? And if so, what message should we speak until then?” Once again, he had no answer. Maybe because the answer was too difficult to speak.

Christianity thrives among those who have nothing, but for a long time it has seemed that our target audience has been one of successful appearances. Now this isn’t true for all. I can only speak for the American evangelical church. Perhaps it is time for us to change our message from “How to Have it All and Still Follow Christ,” to “How to Lose it All and Begin Following Christ.”

Wolf of Wall Street

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ImageI’ve been debating writing a review of Scorsese’s recent film, “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It is a film that is filled with f-words, nudity, and drugs. That’s usually how Christians categorize it. Unfortunately, we neglect one of the most heinous of sins that it portrays…consumerism and greed. I love movies and I love Scorsese films. He never disappoints. This film, in my opinion, is a genius portrayal of what consumerism and greed does to our lives.

[Contains spoilers]

When I watch films like this, I try to base my judgment on character development. This film far exceeded my expectation (which is bizarre considering I’ve never been disappointed with a Scorsese/DiCaprio combination). The film is based upon the life of Jordan Belfort. He was a self-made man who ran penny stocks, one of the largest scams in the financial market. As a man driven to succeed, relationships and ethics were quickly thrown out the window in order to make as much money as possible.

The entire film centers around excess. There is excessive language (over 500 f-words), nudity, sex, drugs, and money. The movie is excessively long (clocking in at about 3 hours). And through the excess, we see a genuine portrayal of the contemporary consumeristic mindset. We learn the hard truth that money truly can buy you almost everything in this country. It can even buy your way out of prison. And where we want to say “that shouldn’t happen,” we are left with the depraving fact that it is, unfortunately, the truth. 

Belfort is not painted as an individual we should aspire to be. He is obscene. He is vulgar. He is over the top. The film acts as a personification of those characteristics. Audience members are subjected to that lifestyle and they should know that going in to the film. It is far more than a biopic. It goes deeper than that. Scorsese appreciates art and that is seen, albeit obscenely, in this film.

I am by no means advocating the use of extensive sex, drugs, and language. Just like I don’t advocate the use of extensive violence (as seen in films like Saving Private Ryan, The Departed, Inglorious Basterds, or Django Unchained), a false view of romance (as seen in every single romantic film released to date), or consumerism (as seen in Wall Street, Hunger Games, or The Dark Knight trilogy). I don’t advocate much of what I see in contemporary film; but then again, just because something is portrayed in a film doesn’t mean it is acceptable. Too often, I fear Christians have the tendency to “christianize” sin so that it can be portrayed in film. We see this in many contemporary “Christian” films. What happens is we subject people to a false sense of sin. That’s the biggest complaint I have with Christian film (well, that and the fact that they have no idea how to develop characters). 

Christians long to see justice. I long to see justice. I want to see good characters thrive and evil characters suffer consequences for their actions. Of course, explored further, this is an errant thought of humanity. When we don’t see that in a film that has already subjected us to so much inappropriate material, we get upset. The same is true for The Wolf of Wall Street. We are subjected for 3 hours to Belfort’s and see no resolution, really. There is no payment for his wrongdoings. The closest thing we get for remorse is the scene when Belfort, who was extremely inebriated, tries to take his daughter away from his wife. He backs the car into a wall and we see a glimpse look in Belfort’s eyes that portrays remorse for what his life had become. That thought doesn’t last long This is frustrating to the viewer because he/she wants to see some form of redemption in his life.

Unfortunately, there was no redemption in his life. Belfort still lives promoting an agenda of greed and loose morals and ethics. His life is a representation of consumerism and Scorsese captures that beautifully in his film. The film begs a poignant question: is the pursuit of success worth all of this? Belfort loses family, friends, innocence, possessions, control, and much more for his pursuit of being on top. He is a man that regrets nothing because it is hard to regret things when your primary pursuit is something that is selfish. He buys into the mantra from Gordon Gecko that “greed is good.” And he doesn’t regret that thought. No matter what the loss, he considers his life successful because of all the temporary fame he achieved. 

The film led me to question my own stance on consumerism. Had I bought into that line of thought? It’s appealing at times. You can have your own helicopter, boat, lovers, vices, and anything that you could ever dream of. You can have it all. As long as you are willing to sacrifice it all for that dream. 

My problem with consumerism (outside of it being against Scripture) is that it blends in all too easily with American evangelicalism. From the days of the health and wealth gospel to the multi-million dollar church buildings to the church services that give most concerts a run for their money, consumerism blends in all too easily with American evangelicalism. Many have bought into the idea that bigger is better. Our services, sometimes, even echo that. And we justify it by saying that we will do whatever possible to bring people to Christ. But is that a good justification? Is that a right justification? Is that a Biblical justification? 

Do I condone the content in The Wolf of Wall Street? No, of course not. After watching the film, I immediately thought, “oh my gosh, I can’t believe that all of that was in an R-rated film.” Would I recommend the film to everyone? Of course not. There are several films that I think beautifully capture the state of humanity but shouldn’t be viewed by everyone. I see the artistic ability in being able to tell the story of a person not only inhis/her life and relationships with people but also in content and aspects of the film. It doesn’t mean I support that way of thinking. I wish that things were different…but they aren’t. Consumerism is still a problem that we are battling every day. And before we casta stone, we must first analyze our own lives.

Because the truth is:

I am Jordan Belfort. I want so much more. I have been tempted to sacrifice ethics for my own success. I have given up relationships if they stood in the way of my goals. I have done things I told myself I would never do. At times, I am no different than Jordan Belfort. Seeing The Wolf of Wall Street showed me that. Consumerism is something I struggle with every day. I constantly battle with the thoughts of “what do I need” versus “what do I want.” 

Most of us are Jordan Belfort. Seeing it portrayed in a film showed me that ugly truth. Being subjected to everything showed me the nature of evil and how it slowly hardens your heart to where you need more to operate. Not seeing resolution showed me the unfortunate truth of humanity. Not seeing justice made me long for the day when justice will come to fruition. I pray in that day, however, that God shows me grace for being such a worthless schmuck at times.

My review? Albeit an obscene film, it might be one of the best films when it comes to capturing how many of us operate…even those of us who proclaim Christ. I want to make myself clear: I do not condone the behavior in the film. But I also don’t condone that behavior anywhere and yet I see it all the time…in my life as well as in many other lives.

Come Clean, Church

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I go back and forth with Bill Hybels. Sometimes I really like him and am completely engaged in everything he says. And at other times, not so much. However, I think the reason I have so much respect for him is because of his honesty.

Back in 2007-2008, Willow admitted to making some mistakes along the way. They discussed several strategies that they were going to implement to help them become the church they felt God wanted them to be. I remember hearing this and being shocked. Willow admitted to that?! Bill Hybels admitted to that?! But from that shock, came respect.

There is a fear within the church of admitting mistakes. I’m not talking about personal mistakes (although, there is a fear in that as well), but church leadership mistakes. The funny thing about this, though, is that we are taught all throughout life that admitting mistakes shows courage and makes you a bigger person…but not when it comes to the church. We fear that if the church admitted they took a wrong stance, made a wrong decision, implemented a bad practice, etc., then people would have less respect for her. Instead of admitting mistakes, we say something along the lines of, “God is leading us a different direction.” We immediately shift over the blame to God (which is why we need to be careful when we say things like, “God is leading me to do this…” – don’t associate God with how you are feeling and don’t tie His name to everything you feel “led” to do).

The church has made mistakes in the past and will continue to make mistakes in the future. It is inevitable. The church is run by fallible people, who, granted, are trying to do their best with what they have. Many of these people have the purest intentions, but they will still make mistakes. What we need to do as a church, is admit those mistakes.

In “Blue Like Jazz,” Donald Miller writes a powerful chapter on confession. If you haven’t read the chapter, click on the link. It’s a powerful chapter because of what takes place. Instead of students confessing their sins to the Christians on campus, the Christians confess their sins and the sins of the church. It’s a beautiful chapter. And it is exactly what we need to be doing.

I have a feeling that many churches have this idea that they will fail if they admit to mistakes they are making. But people would rather go to a place that admitted mistakes than to a place that seemed too perfect.

It’s time for the church to stop covering things up.

It’s time for us to begin admitting when we are wrong.

It’s time for us to be open about errors.

It’s time for us to embrace the messiness of humans, including the leaders in the church.

This is the kind of church the world needs. It doesn’t need a church that refuses to admit error. How do we expect people in the church to admit when they are wrong when the church can’t? What would it look like if the church said:

We don’t feed the homeless as much as we should.

We spend way too much money on new carpet and not enough money on the community.

We were judgmental.

We’ve never taken care of the widows and orphans.

We have only supported missions within our denominational branch, and we have to stop doing that.

We have taken a wrong stance on a doctrinal issue.

We spend far too much money on marketing and not enough money on things that really matter.

The list can go on and on. It is filled with things that I think many of us would like to see the church admit. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if it did? It would seem like a place where I could admit my errors and not feel judged for it. It would seem like a place where forgiveness really was offered.

The church is filled and led by fallible humans. It’s time we embraced that and admitted our errors.