Saturday, June 14, 2014

To Be Loved

Something good happened to me recently.  Some people would have seen it as a victory, but to me?  It felt hollow.  I didn’t understand.

But it was like a man who threw a party.  This man was me.  I put together a surprise party for someone I believed was special.  A good friend.  My best friend.  So I prepared the whole thing—got it all ready and invited people over.  I told them to bring gifts because, although it wasn’t my friend’s birthday, he deserved it.  And everyone shows up.  They’re all there and waiting.  They wanted to see this friend too, because he must be a great guy if I prepared a celebration for him like this.  It wasn’t a small gathering.  And these people show up and we wait. 

And we wait all day. 

Some people begin to wonder why I brought them here.  Was it a joke?  I say “no, it’s no joke.  He’s coming.”  But it’s too late, they tell me.  They have families and things to do.  They are polite as they leave, and eventually it is just me, sitting in this house, waiting for my friend to show up.  I keep running to the window when a car drives by, or a person walks past, or when a dog barks, or there’s a bump on the roof, despite knowing he wouldn’t come from that way.  (First, because he’s not Santa Clause, and second, there’s no chimney anyway.)

Three days go by.  I wait, just to make sure.  But every phone call that is not him, every wrong car, every false alarm—even the lack of emails in my inbox—eventually becomes too much.  I can’t sit there anymore.  I have things to do, too, and I have put them off for too long.  So I give up, and I leave.

Then I throw another party, this time for someone I know will be there.  And again, people come and join in.  The guest of the party shows up, and everyone has a good time, except me.  Because this time, the person we were celebrating?

That was me. 

The friend in my story was Jesus, and I have to ask—

Has this ever happened to you? 

Have you every approached a point in life where you wanted to see the power of God, but…didn’t?

I am no fool.  I know God didn’t have to show up to a “party” I threw for Him.  He’s God.  He does what He wants.  But what if you felt like God was the one who told you to throw the party in the first place?  Someone might say, “well if God didn’t show, obviously He didn’t tell you to do it, because He’s God.”  Again, God does what God wants, and God never lies.  But do you believe the Bible, I ask?  Because the Bible was written by people that believed God was speaking to them.  How do you discern the difference?  And if you were seeking God when a message came from who you believed God to be, and He had already made evidence of that by revealing His nature to you, how would you then abandon that belief?  And how long would you wait for Him to show?

You see, God spoke to me, a while ago, during a time in my life that I needed Him to.  It was the first time I had ever heard the Voice of God clearly.  In speaking to me, I finally understood the truth that the Bible had outlined for me my entire life.  God spoke, and there was light.  I cannot relate the joy and freedom that I felt during this time.  I decided I would never pursue the things in the world again.  I would live here, but I wouldn’t be from here.  An alien in a foreign land.

For awhile God continued to speak.  He continued to guide me and, even during many stupid mistakes on my part, be patient with me while he taught me a new reality.  God revealed a different kingdom than the one I had worked for my entire life; a kingdom that was infinite and beautiful.  God’s voice was a comfort I didn’t want to live without.

And then, one day, it just…stopped.

I didn’t understand.  I thought maybe I had some unrepentant sin I wasn’t confessing.  As though God were controlled in this way.  I tried changing the channel on all the old ways I had heard from him.  Adjusting frequencies here and there.  But all I heard were the echoes. 

“Be loved, son.  Learn to be loved.”

But nothing else.  So, I thought, maybe if I throw Him some parties, He’d show up.  He had to.  I gripped anything I thought would bring Him back.  So I threw Jesus a party, and I waited.

How long would you wait?

I waited three years to hear His voice again.  During those three years I tried to throw more than one party, all with the same result.  What was perhaps more confusing was that I saw the evidence that God was working in other people’s lives, even through the truth I shared with them during my walk with the Almighty God when He was speaking to me. 

I began to despair.   Once to a point where I thought I would not come back out a believer.

But finally, God did speak.  Perhaps the final time in a long time.

He was at the party, he said.  I responded that I never saw Him, but He assured me He was there.  Where?  I asked.  Where were you!?  Why would you come to a party disguised?  Or through the back, making me look like an idiot in front of my friends while I waited!?  How is that good!?  I didn’t understand.

“Son, I was at the party, but I was waiting for you.  A different party, in the same house.”

The parable of the prodigal son was suddenly so relevant.  I was the lost sheep that God found and rejoiced over.   I was the son who returned.  I thought I would arrive at my Father’s house and give Him something…anything.  Because I wasn’t worthy.  I wasn’t holding onto excuses, but I wanted to give something back to God, despite owning nothing of value. 

And instead God was waiting to take me inside to His celebration. 

I believe the way this plays out in the lives of Christians is that the Spirit, God’s gift to mankind through the cross of Christ, is available if we learn to be loved.  I never wanted anything except to inspire people to hope in Jesus, and I thought I would do this by creating a circumstance where God had to show up.  When He didn’t, I felt that maybe my radio wasn’t tuned correctly, or that the method I had used previously to communicate with Him was somehow broken.  But I knew that, if this were the case, then all the truths and joys I had learned about God during my walks with Him could also be called into question.  The freedom I found in God could be merely psychological, and the joy a result of manmade, selfish desires.  There was no way to prove otherwise.  But because the life of God was so beautiful when I knew it, and that hope began to look less promising when He didn’t show up to my parties, I began to despair.    

But the hope was always there.  In another room, waiting for me to respond.  God wasn’t speaking anymore because He wanted to reveal his Spirit in me, and He couldn’t do that if I was addicted to his Voice.  Like Peter, so bold when Jesus was alive, but a coward when his Lord died, I began to fear, thinking that maybe the Savior had died.  I didn’t realize that the Spirit was being hindered in my life as I desperately clung to the Voice, as I’ll call it.  Not that the Voice was bad, in fact it was incredibly good, but it was only the beginning.

Peter eventually was sent out to spread the Gospel, the Truth, even after he had denied knowing Jesus at all.  God, in his mercy, met Peter where he was in his fear, and called him home.  He gave Peter the robe and told him that He loved him, knowing that Peter would respond, and follow Jesus fearlessly.

If you are Peter before the return of Jesus, I want you to have that hope.  I cannot give it to you, and you cannot create it yourself, but we can both know that God is there and real, ready to accept you into the family and celebrate your return.

Maybe He’s just in another room, waiting to start the party.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

God's Not Dead, But Compassion Might Be

I saw the movie “God’s Not Dead” recently.  If you haven’t seen the movie yet and you want to, I would leave right now, as I will basically outline the plot in the next few paragraphs.  If you know anything about the plot, and about movies in general, then you should know basically what happens, but still…[SPOILER ALERT].

I want to preface my review of this movie with an apology.  The more I thought about this movie, the more I began to hate it, and I wish this wasn’t the case.  And I wish this because there are a few people who I really love, and would probably sacrifice my blood plasma for (which is huge considering my ludicrously unsubstantiated fear that the blood donation clinics are secretly run by vampires, and that I just generally hate losing any one of my humors,) and I wanted to enjoy this movie for their sake.  So I am sorry, people I love, for your sakes, that I couldn’t simply enjoy this movie.  I hope that you’ll give me a chance to explain myself, for I believe my reasons are not unfounded.

First of all, the contraction bothered me.  The actual quote is “God is dead.”  What?  That isn’t enough for you?  Fine. 

Actually, I think I’ll start out with what I really enjoyed about the film.  The first of which can be summed up in four, wait…five words: “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.”  Yeah that was definitely four words.  I love Kevin Sorbo.  He will forever sit in a special place in my memories as the helpful and lighthearted son of Zeus.  

A helpful visual aid.
It was so strange watching him be the bad guy.  Sorbo, if you’re reading this—awesome!  Please send me an autographed 8x10 so that I might frame it and put it on my wall, and fully creep out my girlfriend.  I felt he did the best he could with a relatively weak script, and he was ultimately the only character in the movie I truly felt any connection with.  He was the most human, even during the moments we were supposed to hate him.  He was also the atheist professor.  I felt this ironic, given the title of the movie.

Other things I enjoyed were the philosophical debates between Josh, who I assumed was the movie’s protagonist, and Kevin Sorbo.  Most of these arguments I also wrestled with as God began to reveal His Son in my life.  I like the truth, and the genesis of the universe has always been an incredible source of evidence for an eternal, all powerful creator.  Had Sorbo’s character been given the chance however, we as the audience could have been treated to dozens of arguments more intriguing than the Anthropic Principle.  But that wasn’t the message of the movie, so I get that the directors didn't include these so as not to confuse their audience.  They were out to convert…*

…Aaaaand here’s where it starts to roll like Jack and Jill down a steep embankment.

First of all, storytellers, tell your story.  The movie bounces between six almost completely unrelated narratives, all of which come together in a very superficial and anti-climactic way; at a Newsboys concert.  And I love The Breakfast Song, ok?  I’m not anti-Newsboys.  I just don’t think a bunch of rock stars singing in front of sparkly lights can encapsulate the relational power behind the true deity of the cosmos.  God speaks on the wind in a whisper. I feel like subtlety is often lost on our culture.  Anyway, Crash was pretty good, so occasionally multiple threads can create a compelling narrative, so maybe I'm wrong here.

But storytellers of Christian propaganda, please, PLEASE don’t make the most relatable and/or intriguing characters your antagonists.  You started off right.  Josh, the protagonist, is set up from the beginning to be a mythical superhero, an underdog set to take on the “hero’s journey,” against the evil and soul-crushing Professor Hercules.  He is given a tool—the podium, from which he can do battle, and a wise counselor—the pastor, which he can turn to for guidance, and finally a noble goal—to defend what he believes is true for the sake of his people.  All of these should be able to turn his story into something the audience can root for.  Go Josh!

But then we learn that Sorbo’s character has actually been greatly traumatized as a boy upon the death of his mother.  His heart is hardened, not out of a selfish desire to exert superficial control on his classroom philosophy noobs (or freshman, as he states derisively,) but because he has experienced great loss and come to the conclusion that a loving God could not possibly allow his servants to die.  Josh shows an amazing amount of hubris (something mentioned by the professor) and insensitivity, when after learning of this uses it against him during a debate.**  (At this point in the movie, the protagonist became to me, the ultimate villain.  The idealist who, with good intentions, has now used the weaknesses of his enemies against them, turning the would be hero into the greater tyrant.)  What has Josh lost?  His blonde girlfriend?  Oh I’m real shaken up.  I was actually a little annoyed that Josh wasn’t a little more honest with her about his intentions anyway.  And also that he somehow missed her incredibly glaring personality flaws after being together for SIX YEARS.  C’mon bro. 

Also bear in mind that Josh’s advice from the pastor was to “Just tell the truth.  Don’t try to be clever.”  Josh apparently forgets immediately the profound implications behind this impressively insightful advice, mind you, and proceeds to be clever.  In every.  Subsequent.  Argument.

So now for the coup d'etat.  The movie builds with all the grace and poise of the Kool Aid Man attempting ballet (seriously, I cringed in parts), and has now brought its audience to the end where, we hope, the professor is either defeated in single combat, like a boss in a videogame (which is sort of how it goes down), or redeemed.  And OH, was I hoping for redemption.  The movie made it clear that the man was struggling with inner demons the entire film, and that his wonderful, educated life with his hot mistress wasn’t as cracked up as he hoped it would be.  He has moments where he’s cartoonishly villainous, but I was willing to forgive those points because it looked like he wanted to change.  It was his time. He could do it.  He didn’t have to be the Smaug to Josh’s cocky Bilbo.  He could be like Darth Vader at the end of Star Wars.

…which is exactly what happens.  He’s on his way to,what we assume is apologize to his girlfriend(?), when it starts to rain.  There’s an “oh great, could this get any worse?” expression from Professor Strong Arms when…BAM!  OH YES IT COULD!  He’s struck by a car.  And it’s fatal.  *sigh

I was seriously devastated at this point.  I had sat through two hours of painful acting and occasionally even painfuller dialogue, only to watch as my one hope became a hood ornament on a hit-and-run.  There’s even a bizarre slow motion scene where we see him doing a back flip over the car.  But not to worry!  The purpose of the story of a pastor and his missionary friend (the only Christian character I actually cared for) is finally revealed, and it’s to…lead him into the afterlife…with his dying breaths?  Hercules hasn’t shown even an iota of interest in the person and work of Jesus, and suddenly, with seconds to spare, he decides a life of hating the very idea of God was a terrible mistake?  This is where the mistake of telling multiple stories begins to hinder the movie’s credibility.  No self respecting atheist I know would deny their beliefs.  They would take it to the grave, unless someone convinced them, through incredible self-sacrifice on their part, that God truly loved them.  I guess God only knows the condition of Kevin’s heart, and maybe he had changed, but we didn’t witness that as an audience, and it was to the detriment of the entire final section of the film. 

To make matters worse, as the man I had hoped would redeem himself to the people he had wronged lay dying on the rain soaked asphalt outside, Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame tells a whole crowd of people at the Newsboys concert to text the words “God’s Not Dead” to all their friends, chain-letter style.  Ha, that’ll show those pesky atheist professors from coming up with genuine arguments against the existence of a benevolent creator!  The power of a text message will show everyone how we care for them and our God, while a man literally dies outside the walls of our shiny stadium.  It was so weird.  I felt like the makers of this film didn’t live on the same planet I did. 

Anyway, rants are over.  I actually had other problems with the film, like why the good guys came out so successful, when the ancient defenders of our faith suffered so much at the hands of truly evil men, but I’d be here for days if I started on that.

I love movies, and I love Jesus, and I know it’s probably cliché at this point to criticize Christian movies, but I also want to believe that there is room for reform.  The message is still good.  God is still good, and He still has cards He’s preparing to play even now.  I hope that one of those cards, in the future, is a movie with Christian influence that more deeply reflects the infinite love and inescapable beauty of the one Creator, and that His people are able to be excited about such a film.  I hope for real characters and empathy for a world dying without the freedom found in Jesus Christ.  It’s possible.  I know it is because I’ve read the Bible.  David didn’t stick Saul in the face with his own spear, even though he could have.  He also wasn’t spotless, despite being known as the man after God’s own heart.  Jonah delivered the message of God, and was sad when God didn’t destroy an entire civilization.

I don’t want to be like that, but I am, and have been.  But I am also redeemed because God reached out to me in my bitterness and fear and saved me.  Can we send that message?

*(or convince for the purpose of conversion)
**(Look for the moment when Josh is practically yelling in the professor’s face “Why do you hate God!?”)