Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The Last Supper Remixed?

Photo Source: unknown (via Facebook)
In your opinion, what constitutes "Sacrilege?" Does this picture do it? Why or why not?

Sacrilege, noun
1. a technical and not necessarily intrinsically outrageous violation (as improper reception of a sacrament) of what is sacred because consecrated to God
2. gross irreverence toward a hallowed person, place, or thing (Source: Merriam-Webster)

As I first looked at this, I thought to myself that there are bound to be some folks who would be offended by this picture, but then I quickly also wondered, why? Aside from the obvious, what makes this picture different than the original The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci? In Leonardo da Vinci's depiction of Jesus' Last Supper, there are also likely several misrepresentations, especially that Jesus and his disciples are depicted as seated around a table, when the cultural norm is more likely that they were reclined at the table.

I guess therein lies the main point; Jesus is, or can be, relevant to each generation. Leonardo da Vinci painted his version of the Last Supper in a way that was consistent with his European culture, just like the unknown artist in this rendition depicted Jesus in a way that is more consistent with current American culture. It is probably just as likely that an African artist would paint this differently yet again. No, for me that picture is not sacrilege; it is still tastefully and respectfully done. I see the same picture but simply represented in a different culture than Leonardo da Vinci's version.

"The Last Zombie-Supper"
Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons
Certainly the secular world has created all sorts of parodies of the Last Supper, such as the Last Zombie-Supper.  In my books, this one is much more offensive. On a search through Flickr I even found a Last Cannibal Supper, but I wasn't about to publish those pictures here.

So what's the difference? Why am I OK with the first picture and not the second? Again, the first picture is respectfully and tastefully done. Unlike the second picture, it does not mock the event of the Last Supper. Even today Jesus has disciples. They may not always dress like the often idolized and utopian 1950's version of the church, but they are there, in every culture and every generation. Who knows, but I suspect that if God chose to first reveal His Son in our day and age and North American culture instead of the Jewish culture of 2000+ years ago, perhaps this first picture wouldn't be too far off the mark.

The second picture, well, what can I say? I never did understand this weird cultural fascination with zombies. The zombie phenomenon may be nothing more than innocent folkloric fun to many, but according to the previous Wikipedia link, it has its roots in witchcraft. Combine that with its utter disrespect for the things of my Lord, and well, it has turned into sacrilege, at least in my books.

Probably one of my all time favourite TV sitcoms of all time was MASH. Having said that, let me leave you with that classic "Suicide is Painless" from the 1970 movie M*A*S*H. Do you see their parody of the Last Supper in this video clip? Is this sacrilegious too?

What constitutes "Sacrilege" in your books? Is there even such a thing today? Thoughts?

Sunday, 24 June 2012

of Church Plants and the Spirit-Filled Christian

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons
Is it possible to pre-plan one's spiritual walk? Is a church "plant" even biblical? Ridiculous questions, you say? Maybe, but stay with me for a minute and I will try and explain where I'm going with this.

Many of us say that we are "Spirit-filled" or "Born of the Spirit" or simply "Born Again." While sometimes I may have silently questioned that among some based upon their lifestyles, my point is not to discern the truth or falsehood among those of us who have made such professions. My point is simply to consider something that Jesus said to Nicodemus about being born of the Spirit and then to look how that example relates to many of our Christian walks today.

Please understand, this is in no way a judgement call against anyone individual or group, but is rather simply my personal musing on the subject and something that has made me sit up and say "Hmm" a time or two. Jesus said,
"Do not marvel that I say to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." (John 3: 7-8; ESV) 
The first thing I see here is that a Spirit-filled (or born again) believer is likened to the wind. In other words, you know when they're there and when they're not. Likewise you're not sure where they were last nor where they'll be next. They're completely free (like the wind) and not tied down anywhere. They will blow in and blow out, sometimes at what we deem appropriate times, and other times what we deem inappropriate. It is as impossible to tie them down as it is impossible to tie down the wind.

Having said that, please allow me to digress for a moment in order to consider another question. What comes to mind when I say "Church Plant?" What probably comes to mind is that we think of a new Christian work in a specific geographical area. It likely starts with an individual or small group of a few families. It may begin my meeting in a home or rented school gymnasium. It often will eventually also include some sort of building program.

The very word "plant" also suggests that, whatever was planted, has also taken root and become essentially immovable. I saw a wall hanging in someone's home years ago that said, "Bloom where you are planted." It was nice, it sounded pleasant, it was in a beautiful Christian home, but is "Bloom where you are planted" a truly Christian concept?
Are Christians to be planted or free like the wind?
For me this raises an important question concerning how we deal with the traditional institutional church building. It is planted and has taken root. Likewise the Christians that call that place their church home are often also planted and have taken root. When I belonged to a specific institutional church system years ago, virtually everything that we did concerning our faith was in that place. We had clearly taken root. The vast majority of what many of us do today in the practise of our faith is rooted to a specific place, that is, a church building.

Please understand, this is not intended as a judgement call; it is simply an observation. Certainly the Spirit of God can and has moved in such places. No doubt the Spirit will yet move in any place where Christians are gathered. "Where two or three are gathered ..." I get all that.

But what I am wondering about concerns the Spirit in us. If everyone born of the Spirit is like the wind, am I right to assume that a Spirit-filled Christian will never take root anywhere, but will also come and go in complete freedom - like the wind?

It may be that the Spirit of God takes us into an institutional church building from time to time, but I do not believe that He does so in order to plant us there and have us take root. When He does so, is it fair to say that He blows us in like the wind to minister to or bless an individual or group? In that case, the individual or group doesn't know where we came from or where we are going next any more than they can identify the coming and going of the wind.

It may be that the Spirit of God takes us to a nursing home instead on a Sunday morning, because in that home there is a dear old saint who is feeling all alone and who has been praying to God about his or her solitude. As a Spirit-filled Christian, could it be that the Lord suddenly blows you or me into that seniors lodge in answer to that saint's prayer? Could it be that God's blessing to that saint comes by you or me spending an hour or two Sunday morning having coffee there instead?

It may be that the Spirit of God takes us to a decrepit downtown park instead on a Sunday morning, because He wants to introduce you and me to a homeless person who is even now considering suicide. This person doesn't need our judgement; he only needs to know that someone cares. So grab a couple coffee's and BigMac's and go to the park. The Spirit within will guide us to just the right person.
Often the best sermon people will hear is YOU.
The tendency is to be planted. Though it is the human way, Jesus seemed to say to Nicodemus that it was not the Spirit way. The Spirit way is "as the wind blows." The Spirit way is discovered by listening and constantly moving. The Spirit way may visit those on the pews, but doesn't take up residency there.

Anyway, that's the way I see it. Peace.

Monday, 18 June 2012

The Stranger

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons
A few years after I was born, my Dad met a stranger who was new to our small town. From the beginning, Dad was fascinated with this enchanting newcomer and soon invited him to live with our family. The stranger was quickly accepted and was around from then on.

As I grew up, I never questioned his place in my family. In my young mind he had a special niche. My parents were complimentary instructors; Mom taught me good from evil, and Dad taught me to obey. But the stranger, he was our storyteller. He would keep us spellbound for hours on end with adventures, mysteries and comedies.

If I wanted to know anything about politics, history or science, he always knew the answers about the past, understood the present, and even seemed able to predict the future! He took my family to the first major league ball game. He made me laugh, and he made me cry. The stranger never stopped taking, but Dad didn't seem to mind.

Sometimes Mom would get up quietly while the rest of us were shushing each other to listen to what he had to say, and she would go to the kitchen for some peace and quiet. (I wonder now if she ever prayed for the stranger to leave).

Dad ruled our household with certain moral convictions, but the stranger never felt obligated to honour them. Profanity, for example, was not allowed in our home - not from us, our friends or any visitors. Our long-time visitor, however, got away with four-letter words that burned my ears and made my dad squirm and my mother blush.

Dad didn't permit the liberal use of alcohol but the stranger encouraged us to try it on a regular basis. He made cigarettes look cool, cigars manly, and pipes distinguished.

He talked freely (much too freely!) about sex. His comments were sometimes blatant, sometimes suggestive, and generally embarrassing. I now know that my early concepts about relationships were influenced strongly by the stranger. Time after time, he opposed the values of my parents, yet he was seldom rebuked, and NEVER asked to leave.

More than fifty years have passed since the stranger moved in with our family. He has blended right in and is not nearly as fascinating as he was at first. Still, if you could walk into my parent's den today, you would still find him sitting over in his corner, waiting for someone to listen to him talk and watch him draw his pictures.

What is his name, you ask?

We just call him: TV.

No, the preceding story is not original to me. It was forwarded to me recently by email. I have no idea as to it's original source, and so, unless I learn otherwise, I will list its authorship simply as "unknown."

Photo Credit: Matthew Burpee, Flickr Creative Commons
Yet, it made me think. It made me think of how subtly the world has influenced the church. As much as we like to think that the church is (or ought to be) a light in the dark world, I cannot help but wonder if maybe the world hasn't been the greater influencer. It seems to me that maybe the church looks more like the world, than the world looks like the church. Could it be? Is such a scenario possible? Or is it just me?

Please understand, this is not intended as a judgment call against anyone in particular. I am certainly not pointing fingers at you if you have invited "the Stranger" to come live in your home, for I have done likewise. Sometimes I regret that decision, yet "the Stranger" remains. I am also not advocating that we all throw our TV sets out the window, though I have joked about that before. I am also not suggesting that all of Christianity's woes are to be blamed on TV. I am simply wondering at how "the Stranger" may have influenced our lives, our values, and our Christian ethics.

I also wonder what the Christian home might look like if we spent even only half as much time in genuine fellowship, prayer, and reading the Bible, as we do sitting at the feet of "the Stranger."

Anyways, that's the way I see it. Peace.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

There, But For the Grace of God, Go I

Photo Credit: Ashley Sturgis
Flickr Creative Commons
I have a confession to make that I’m not very proud of. It has to do with addictions. No, not mine, but those of another. More specifically, it has to do with the way I responded to the addictions of another. It has to do with the way I responded to the homelessness of another.

I encountered this individual in the foyer of a large commercial building. He was between two sets of doors, one set locked to the inside and the other open to the street, and he was clearly quite drunk or high on something. I remember thinking to myself, “There sits another drunken ****** (racial slur).”

God forgive me.

What did I do about it? Well, what I didn’t do was act very Christ-like. I called the security guard and had the poor soul evicted from his warm refuge between the doors. My Christian “love” put this man back outside on the street.
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15)
Photo Credit: Dan Iggers, Flickr Creative Commons
In retrospect, he really wasn’t hurting anyone. The locked inner doors saw to it that he couldn’t wander around inside the building. He was just minding his own business. So what was my problem? Yes, “my problem!” Ultimately my problem was that I was judging him by judging his addiction.

It’s been said that looking at an addict is like looking in a mirror. The problem we have with the addicted individual is the very problem that deep down we have with ourselves. Granted, we may not have a cocaine addiction like the guy down the street, but we do have our own addictions. We all do. We may not all confess that, but I would argue that it’s true; we all do.

Some of us are addicted to tobacco or alcohol. Some of us are addicted to a banned and illegal narcotic. Some of us are addicted to food. Some of us are addicted to religious institutions. Some of us are addicted to shopping, clothes, TV, cars, book and music collections. And dare I say it, many of us are addicted to Facebook and other social media (ouch).

I was at a seminar a while ago where the guest speaker, an expert in the area of addictions, suggested that society’s war on drugs is actually quite misdirected. Could it be that the church’s war with the ways of the world; that is, on sin, drugs and addictions is just as misdirected? How so, you ask?

Photo Credit: Occupy Posters
Flickr Creative Commons
In the case of society, instead of trying to find out what causes someone to turn to drugs, we bust the pot-smoker and incarcerate the cocaine addict in detox centers. Instead of trying to find out what causes someone to turn to alcohol or tobacco, we raise the taxes to on these products believing that a cost deterrent will solve to problem and curtail people from buying booze and smokes. Do we really believe that curing them of their addiction is as simple as that?

In the case of the church, do we focus too much on the sin of the unchurched and the addicted street bum, instead of seeing in them a brother or sister for whom Christ also died? Instead of seeing someone who we have written off as hopelessly lost, dare we see ourselves sitting among the 99, while Jesus on the other hand, goes looking for that specific one lost sheep? Instead of focusing on the stink of his body odor, urine, reek of alcohol, and who knows what else, do we really need to be reminded that “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6; NIV)? Bottom line, with our noses perched high in the air due to our self-righteousness, do our eyes look down on them in an act of judgmental condemnation? Hmm, I wonder.

Photo Credit: LMAP, Flickr Creative Commons
I am going to go out on a limb here. At the risk of over simplifying the problem of addictions, I believe that all addictions have this in common: there is an unpleasant emptiness inside that the individual feels. What if I started taking a real interest in people, might that not reduce the emptiness? What if the church (not the institution; but the people) really started to care for and love her neighbors, might that not reduce the emptiness? What if we all were to stop judging one another long enough to see the hurting person behind the addiction, might that not reduce the emptiness?

It has often been suggested that most of us are really only one paycheck away from homelessness ourselves. Think about it, if you lost your job today, how long do you think it would be before the bank came knocking and forced you out into the street? What if we really started to believe that, there but for the grace of God go I? What if we started to see our reflection in the face of the next addicted or drunken street bum we meet?

Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon, Flickr Creative Commons
What if instead of calling the security guard to evict the drunken bum, I had taken a few minutes to sit with him and maybe even buy him a cup of coffee and a burger? What if I, busy as I think I am, made a phone call or two on his behalf to some shelters to see that he doesn’t have to sleep out on a park bench or under an overpass again tonight? What if I acted a little less self-righteous, looked beyond the addiction of another, and beyond my own religiousness, and instead looked at the man with the compassionate eyes of Jesus?

Hmm, what if? Anyway, that’s the way I see it.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Justice is Served?

Photo Credit: Michael J. Linden
Flickr Creative Commons
I remember an old funny story about two guys hiking in the woods when suddenly a big bear appears on the trail in front of him. The one guy turns and begins running like mad. The other guy calls after him and says, "You can't possibly outrun this bear. " The first guy replies, "I don't have to outrun the bear; I just have to be able to outrun you."

I'm reminded of the story of Elisha who was taunted by a pack of disrespectful boys from Bethel, a city know for its apostasy (see 1 Kings 12:25-13:34). Judgement from God was swift and immediate as "two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys" (2 Kings 2:24). What are we to make of that? Coincidence, harsh punishment or divine justice? The context seems to suggest that God was using the bears to deliver his justice.

In another instance, a prophet that God sent to the same city, to Bethel, did not fully obey the Lord, and as punishment met his demise by another member of the the wild kingdom; a lion. "And as he went away a lion met him on the road and killed him" (1 Kings 13:24).

Let me ask a couple of questions. Does God still use the wild kingdom to punish offenders today? Certainly He can if He sovereignly chooses to. Has the nature of God changed from Old Testament times to today? Does God still repay the wicked and unrepentant man for his sin?

We rightly preach the grace and love of God, but have we perhaps become a little lax in also preaching the justice of God? Are not both attributes correct? God is love, but He is also Holy and just, and as such will one day, in one way or another, punish the unrepentant.
"Will he not repay man according to his work?" (Proverbs 24:12). "For the Lord is a God of recompense; he will surely repay" (Jeremiah 51:56). "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord" (Romans 12:19). "The Lord will repay him according to his deeds" (2 Timothy 4:14). "The Lord will judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:30-31). "Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works" (Revelation 2:22-23; ESV). 
Did you notice that? It is the same message in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Has the nature of God changed from Old Testament times to today? Does God still repay the wicked and unrepentant man for his sin? Here's another thought, are there still consequences for sin? Hmm.

To illustrate where I'm going with this, let me share a short story that appeared in our local newspaper on Saturday June 2, 2012. The headline read,
Bear ate missing B.C. murderer
A man whose dead body was partly eaten by a bear on a remote road near Kamloops, B.C., was a convicted murderer who had been reported missing last week. The B.C. Coroner's Service and the RCMP say 53-year old Rory Nelson Wagner had been living in Kamloops before he vanished. The National Parole Board has confirmed Wagner pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 1994. He and two others were charged with killing a Langley, B.C. man in 1993 who they believed had sexually assaulted their family member. The parole documents show the murder victim was charged with sexual assault, but was found not guilty before he was killed. Authorities say they don't believe Wagner's death in his car was a result of suicide. The bear dragged his body out of the vehicle, ate part of it and buried the rest.

Hmm. Please understand, I am not suggesting that this man's death by the bear actually was divine justice and punishment, but that concept certainly did cross my mind, even if it was only in jest. Yet just maybe, justice was finally served after all, even if the courts and justice system couldn't seem to get their acts together to properly convict the murderer.

Anyway, that's the way I see it. Peace.

Monday, 4 June 2012

The Snakes that Charmed the Church?

Photo Credit: Chapstickaddict, Flickr Creative Commons
Church history is full of strange and bizarre things that have been done in the name of Christianity. In our generation the antics of the Westboro Baptist Church comes to mind, as does the recent "end of the world" fiasco by now disgraced pastor, Harold Camping.

If we want to see some really weird stuff done in the name of religion, we never need to look too far. If we go back a few years, we come to a time in which a previous generation's headlines included such things as the Jim Jones and Charles Manson tragedies. Even Mormonism has had its share of bizarre racist teachings, that perhaps many today aren't even aware of, or have simply chosen to forget.

Photo Credit: Adam Rice
Flickr Creative Commons
In fact, if our quest was to mention weird religious stuff, we would quickly find the task much bigger than we perhaps at first figured on. But you get the point; weird stuff happens all the time in the name of religion.

As I looked through our local newspaper this past Friday, I encountered what I thought yet another bizarre religious story. The headline read,
Preacher Dies From Snakebite At Service
It featured an Associated Press photo of a man holding a snake rather closely to his face while he speaks into a microphone. The story said,
In this 2011 photo Pastor Mack Wolford, a devotee of the Pentecostal "Signs Following" tradition, handles a rattlesnake during a service at the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, W.Va. Rooted in Appalachian folk practices and the King James Bible's Book of Mark, the "Signs Following" tradition encourages believers to handle deadly snakes, drink poison and speak in tongues as a testament to their faith. Wolford died Sunday after being bitten on the thigh by a timber rattler during an outdoor service. He was 44.
I must say, the first thing I thought of when I read that, well, let's just say it wasn't very edifying, and is probably best not repeated here. But really? Snake charming as a central part of worship services? Am I missing something here? I looked online and found the fuller story here.

Photo Credit: Nagesh Jayaraman
Flickr Creative Commons
OK, it's not really "snake charming," although there are a couple similarities. Snake charming, which pretends to hypnotize the snake by the playing of a flute-like instrument, is largely a con-job that preyed on the less educated masses of yesteryear. Today, partly due to stricter government regulations in places like India, and better educated masses, the practice of snake charming has all but died out.

What are the similarities between snake charmers and this bizarre story out of West Virginia? In my way of thinking there are at least two. First, there is the obvious. According to Wikipedia"a typical performance may also include the handling of snakes or performing other dangerous acts." Certainly that is exactly what's happening in this particular "Signs Following" church.

The second similarity, in my way of thinking, is related to the hypnotism part. Please forgive me if this sounds critical, but in watching the video below, even I felt almost hypnotized. From the handling of the snakes to the music to the constant movement and dance, taken together I couldn't help but think of the pseudo-hypnotic trance of the snake charmer's snake.

I was also reminded of what a missionary friend of mine once said about some of the strange blends of Roman Catholicism and Voodoo he encountered while working in Haiti. There may be elements of orthodox worship present, but there is also a bunch of other weird stuff there too.

However, this goes beyond the addition of weird stuff to the worship service. At issue is the belief that there is biblical justification for snake handling in the worship service. At issue is the question of proper hermeneutics. At issue is the question of whether or not the Bible was properly interpreted. At issue is the question of whether or not Mark 16:18, which they quote, means that God would have us to deliberately drink poison and play with serpents.
they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them
Photo Credit: Ken and Nyetta, Flickr Creative Commons
I have a couple problems with this. First, the section where this verse is found also contains this in the footnotes: "Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16: 9-20." What does that mean? It means that the text in question, while found in some early manuscripts, isn't found in all of the earliest manuscripts. At the very least, it suggests that these verses may have been added at a later time. If that is so, then in my books, that becomes potentially problematic.

Perhaps the footnote in the ESV Study Bible will help explain this better. It reads,
Some ancient manuscripts of Mark's Gospel contain these verses and others do not, which presents a puzzle for scholars who specialize in the history of such manuscripts. This longer ending is missing from various old and reliable Greek manuscripts (esp. Sinaiticus and Vaticanus), as well as numerous early Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian manuscripts. Early church fathers (eg., Origen and Clement of Alexandria) did not appear to know of these verses. Eusebius and Jerome state that this section is missing in most manuscripts available at their time. And some manuscripts that contain vv. 9-20 indicate that older manuscripts lack the section. On the other hand, some early and many later manuscripts (such as the manuscripts known as A, C, and D) contain vv. 9-20, and many church fathers (such as Irenaeus) evidently knew of these verses. As for these verses themselves, they contain various Greek words and expressions uncommon to Mark, and there are stylistic differences as well. Many think this shows vv. 9-20 to be a later addition. In summary, vv. 9-20 should be read with caution.
Can we trust such verses as truth when their source is in question? Maybe we can. However, in the end, I suppose each of us needs to decide that for himself. The point is, though, should we not be careful with such verses, and especially so, when our very lives may depend upon it? Should it not be "read with caution?"

Photo Credit: Jaci Lopes dos Santos
Flickr Creative Commons
The other issue I have with the way this group interprets these verses has to do with putting the Lord God to the test. Certainly God can heal if He so chooses to do. I have no problem with that. But to put ones self directly in harm's way just to prove your faith that God will heal, well, sorry, but I cannot go there. Yes, God can heal us if we get run over by a truck while playing soccer on the freeway, but that doesn't mean that we should play on the freeway.

It's perhaps ironic that the devil, also commonly identified with the serpent (Genesis 3:1), also played a part in Jesus' temptation. Having said that, does it not seem bizarre that we should want to play with serpents today? According to Matthew 4:7, when Jesus was tempted by the devil he said,
You shall not put the Lord your God to the test
Have we done that? Are we guilty of putting the Lord our God to the test? I wonder sometimes. I do feel sorry for the families involved that they lost their pastor and loved one in this way. I wish no ill on anyone, but the way I discern the handling of poisonous snakes, and the deliberate drinking of poison, well, it sure looks like putting "the Lord your God to the test." Or is it just me?

However, lest you or I get too smug with ourselves looking at that speck in our brother's eye, perhaps we should first check to see that there are no logs in our own eyes (Matthew 7:3-5). Am I perfect in my walk with the Lord? Not in a long shot! What weird stuff have you and I added to our faith walk? Hmm, I wonder. Strange, isn't it, how we often see each other's faults better than we see our own? Still, as the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 5:10, "try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord," and ultimately, that is all that I want to do; I want to discern what is pleasing to the Lord and walk in that.

That's the way I see it anyway. Peace.