True Grit

The new Coen Brothers’ movie, “True Grit” begins with Mattie Ross, the protagonist saying, “You must pay for everything in this life. There is nothing free except the grace of God.” That is a loaded sentence which sets the table for an intriguing and thought provoking remake of the John Wayne classic. I am slightly ashamed to say that I have never seen the original, but even without that frame of reference I think Jeff Bridges plays an amazing Rooster Cogburn.  But getting back to the opening line, through the entirety of the movie that quote floated somewhere in the back of my head, directing my thoughts between the harshness of life in a competitive world and the Creator of the world who speaks freedom and mercy into it.

Often people blame God for the sadness of the world and reject any possible hope that could be spoken into it. Sometimes the blame goes to God and people put their hope into the inadequate systems that people create. However, in the moral failings of leaders and the imperfect actions of organizations, governments, and even religious institutions, one must recognize that even humanity’s best attempt at solutions are responses to its own brokenness and the consequences of selfishness and greed.    

Certainly, many of the actions and attempts of mankind to positively affect its world are noble and grand. However, in the realities of a broken world with broken people, the ultimate hope and answer for the world is the free and perfect gift offered by the Creator.  The movie rightly applauds the tenacity and amazing toughness of Mattie, the 14 year old girl seeking justice for her father’s murder. She is so gritty and savvy that it is impressive and at times hilarious the way she puts people in their place. Also, her dedication to bringing about justice and leaving her mark on the world is inspiring as well. And as she continues on with full purpose, the realization remains that there is a cost to all the things we do, and even the noblest causes have a price attached to them. Even someone with the best intentions cannot escape reality and the fragile nature of life. But in all of that, God responds to His creation with mercy and forgiveness, offered with no catch. It’s not a trick or a contract or a game.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5.1-5; ESV)

It’s all too easy to confuse grace, and make a system out of it. We can think that we earn grace or bargain with God to get it. Or we receive grace but have to do certain things that look a certain way to others in order to keep it. However the power of grace is that it is offered freely, and the realization of the magnitude of that gift brings about life change. People who have truly encountered God’s grace through Christ realize that they didn’t earn it, and to exclude others by self-righteousness is hypocritical to the core. The life of a believer reflects love, mercy, purity, and charity not because it’s part of some contract, but because of the magnitude of the free gift and the response it allows. And believers challenge one another and seek authenticity with one another to honor and reflect the call to follow Christ found through that gift. Authentic discipleship finds its source there.  So, grace is free but as Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote, it isn’t cheap.  A free gift offered to each in his or her most broken state can never be cheap. It saves one from despair with no ugliness or deceit or selfishness about it. It is the offer of a loving God, and its acceptance freely reflects a call to follow Christ.  The freedom of grace doesn’t remove a response, but the response flows freely when grace is truly received. The nature of grace is free to all at even the lowest point of despair. It can sound too good to be true or hard at times to believe when we see that nothing else in this world is free. But the beauty of God is that there is no one and nothing like Him.

Floorplan

I returned home to Houston for a few days just recently to celebrate Christmas with my family. It’s always a bit of a trip down memory lane because my parents still reside in the same house that I grew up in. So, the house I returned to for the holiday is the same house I lived in when I graduated high school, the same house I drove home to after football practices, the same house I skateboarded out in front of, the house where I celebrated each birthday, the house where I played pranks on my sister, the house where I got sent to my room when I acted like a punk, the house where I took my first steps as a toddler, and the same house I was brought home to from the hospital when I was born.  Until I left for college, it was all I knew of living arrangements. 

Over the few days I was home for Christmas, as an effort to offset the ridiculous amount of food I ate with the family, I went on daily walks with my dad. On one of the walks, I took notice of a house in the neighborhood that was the exact same architecture of the house I grew up in, just a few streets over.  I never had much reason to go down this street as a kid, and the few times I might have passed this house I hadn’t taken much notice of the similarity. My old neighborhood was designed in the 1970’s, and one of the marks of neighborhoods from that era or before is that basically every house has a different build and floor plan. Very rarely are copies found. But this house was the exact same exterior as my parents’ house. I walked past it, examining it as I strolled by on the sidewalk, but quickly it struck me that while this house was the exact same on the outside, it was a completely different home. My parent’s house was no different at first glance, sharing the same floor plan, but what happened on our same floor plan was totally unique. Our laughter, our disagreements, our dinner time discussions, our movie nights, our anxieties, our jokes, our tears, our accomplishments were all totally unrepeatable.  Our adventures and moments were totally unique, as theirs in the other house would be. 

In our culture, it is easy to feel like you are a copy of everyone else. We struggle with identity. One thing I appreciate about teenagers is that they wear identity crisis on their trendy sleeves. One day they are a skater, then a jock, then the next they are wearing all black all the time, dressing like they might be tempted to bite you and then fly away. They clearly wear their search for identity.  Adults hide it and try to assuage the feelings by buying stuff or living vicariously through their kids.  However, the feeling of needing to be unique or different still nags at us, and we try the goofiest things to conquer that feeling.  Men often put sports and identifying with an athlete as a top priority in their life. Women often gossip about each other to justify their feelings of wanting to be more important. On social networking sites, people will post the most intimate everyday details of their lives and their family members’ lives as a way to one-up their peers. I’ve come up with a term for this: Hyperposting.  It means going overboard on status updates about mundane things.  I believe this comes from a need to convince ourselves and others that we are unique and valuable. We struggle with all of this identity crisis and social competitiveness, but the fact of the matter is you live a life completely unique and important to yourself and the immediate people around you. Your outside architecture doesn’t define the importance of what’s happening inside. I love the ending of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  It speaks directly to the importance of experiences and relationships that we tend to overlook. Many of our behaviors come from social competiveness and fear of our social worth instead of a pursuit of a life modeled after God’s interests and ideas of a life well lived.     

The familiar parable in Matthew’s Gospel of the two men who built houses comes to mind. The parable never tells us what their houses looked like.  But as I picture it, they would have been similar on the exterior, yet they were built on different foundations. As you might remember, the house built on rock stood firm through the storm, and the house built on sand could not weather the storm.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7.24-27, ESV)

Jesus tells this story as a closing to his teaching on the ideals of the Kingdom of heaven and what a life built around that resembles. His teaching starts with the Beatitudes (a list of things beautiful in God’s eyes that may be counter-cultural to the world) and continues with urgings of forgiveness, prayer, purity, faithfulness, and love.

The point is, a life may not be extraordinary by superficial standards, but in actuality it may be beautifully unique and precious by the standards of God’s kingdom. You might feel like just another house or apartment in just another neighborhood, but you are not defined by that. You are defined by the life you live and the way you portray God’s beauty and grace within those walls and out in the world around you.  No two lives, however similar, are the same by God’s standards. Every life is unique.

On to the Next One

Don’t get me wrong, I’m focused on Christmas, especially considering I still have shopping to do.  amazon.com completely hooked me up, and I knocked out a strong majority of my shopping on the laptop with Monday Night Football in the background which is unarguably the best way to shop, but there are still some elusive gifts I need to track down. On a more serious note, we have had a great Advent worship season, which will conclude on Friday night. Our theme is “Light in the Darkness,” drawn from the beautiful Scriptural imagery of Christ being the light of the world and challenging us to live out that light. So, Christmas is forefront on my mind, and I cannot wait until Christmas day; however, today I found myself thinking about the New Year.  Don’t forget about the greatness of New Year’s Day. It’s quite the holiday, too.  Why…? I’ll tell you.  1) College Football kicks into overdrive via Bowl Mania. 2) Black Eyed Peas (not Fergie and her friends, but the food). 3) All the optimism and changes found through resolutions.  So my thoughts recently about New Year’s really revolved around #3, and my excitement for NorthPointe in 2011.  We have had tons to celebrate in 2010, and I expect more of the same in this next year. 

In 2010, at NorthPointe, we celebrated 5 baptisms, welcomed 15 new members to join our church, launched 3 new LifeGroups, and named volunteer leaders to step into ministry roles: Nursery Coordinator, Children’s Ministry Coordinator, and Youth Coordinator.  We’ve seen remarkable growth in our Bible Study participation numbers, from an average of 20 people per Sunday in the summer to an average of 34 in November.  We had our most successful VBS this last June, our best Trunk-r-Treat, and our Thanksgiving Thankfulness Fellowship was amazing.  Also, our Girl Scout Families Outreach Banquet was a success.  In September, NorthPointe organized its first mission trip as 4 of our members shared the Gospel and built relationships with West African Muslims in New York City.  We set a NorthPointe record for Operation Christmas Child boxes, and we partnered in support of the Arlington Pregnancy Center.   I’m sure I am leaving out some things, so please forgive me, but we have had a great year with so much to celebrate.

And that is why I am in a state of optimism for the next year.  In 2011, I want to see our LifeGroups continue to grow and launch new groups. I am prayerfully committed to helping our groups be places of community and welcoming environment.  I am looking forward to growing our Leadership Team with people who will help us accomplish our vision. I am excited about finding new ways to support and meet the needs of the community around us. I am excited to communicate clearly the church’s needs and encourage each member to give in a variety of ways to our church, taking a vital role in its growth. I am anticipating new members and visitors, new relationships and friendships, and the continued strengthening of our community at NorthPointe.  Lastly, I am blessed in looking forward to another year of worship with our church family. 

I hope you close out this year well, and move on to the next one with a sense of anticipation that God is alive and well, and working in your church and your life.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3.12-14, ESV)

Hitchens

I love Christopher Hitchens. I know that it might seem very strange for a pastor to be expressing positive emotions towards the world’s most ardent and frank atheist. But I can explain.  My draw towards him doesn’t come from being persuaded by his arguments or liking in any way the cause he is championing.  And it doesn’t merely rest on Jesus’ command to love your enemies; however, that is an inescapable challenge by Jesus and at the very least is a cover against those who would be offended by my first sentence in this blog.  Certainly, in regards to his purposes, I find them quite sad and destructive.  But I am intrigued by his complete and total authenticity. He attacks theories and thoughts full on, and he abruptly challenges the stodgy, complacent place that religion has settled into and the emanations from that it sends out. He shrinks away from no argument, and he boldly challenges the hypocrisy rampant in organized religion.  Ironically, in that regard, he could end up being the wittiest, unwitting champion of a Christian revival.  By that I mean, some of his critiques of organized religion are correct and could act as a healing balm or an intervention. Religion is full of hypocrisy, and it does often wear the clothes of mere socio-cultural inherited behavior.  So as I listened to Mr. Hitchens last week at a debate with William Dembski in Dallas, I listened closely and thought of ways to answer him in forms of agreement.  I imagine creating common ground with his critiques and laying out the true Gospel through that.  Defenders of faith, or apologists, often paint themselves into a corner, appearing defensive and on the run.  Yet, there are points of logical agreement that can yield to the unsurpassing truth that God is good and Christ is Lord.  I am no chiseled apologist, but here are some positive affirmations of faith that could be applied to Mr. Hitchens’ arguments.

First, Mr. Hitchens claims that religion poisons everything. He states that religion is a human construction based upon socio-cultural behavior. These behaviors come from our fears and our need to control and be controlled. In a sense, I agree. Religion does certainly manifest itself as a human construction. Often, religion can be void of any spiritual yearnings or desire for truth. It can fall into the hands of the greedy, selfish, ignorant, perverted, and angry.  But all of this is a human problem not a God problem. Humans can poison anything, be it marriage, business, politics, or the environment.  My response to Mr. Hitchens would be that any system is at the hands of the people, and that he and I agree there is a problem with religion, but I would assert that people are that problem.  Therefore, Jesus was hardest on the Pharisees and religious zealots in Judea during the time of the New Testament.  He recognized the destructive tendencies of those who use religion for power, and Jesus’ purposes were to bring the outsiders in to covenant and offer hope to the lost.  These are characteristics of truth and beauty, while mere religion carries with it the pockmarks of its sick people, who need transformation as much as anyone else. Far too often, we design God in our image.  And his purposes are grander than religious structure.  Thus, the church is expressed in the New Testament as the bride of Christ, not to merely exist as a religious organization but to progress as a community seeking and living out God’s communion.  However, people in their essence are broken, and the brokenness will manifest itself in whatever they get their hands on.  But this in no way devalues God or His goodness. Mr. Hitchens does not believe in God, so his critique of God is merely an indictment on humanity, yet he offers no solution. My position as a person who believes in God is one of indictment on humanity yet with hope in the ultimate sovereignty of God.  So my point is, yes, the brokenness rampant in humanity is the problem, and that has always been the case. The only sure hope I have is the Creator is personally and actively redeeming and renewing.  That is the story of Scripture.

Secondly, Mr. Hitchens struggles with Scripture. He finds it to be at times offensive, strange, and contradictory.  I certainly testify to Scripture’s divine inspiration and its true testimony to God, but I too at times struggle with Scripture, as should anyone who has read it closely and passionately.  It is the story of the Creator God’s work amongst humanity!  How can we not wrestle with it?  Mr. Hitchens’ opponent William Dembski won his best and most persuasive points when he said, “The Bible is not a book of systematic theology.  It is messy.”  I love this.  The Holy Scriptures have been overly sanitized and held with kid-gloves.  The beauty of the Scripture is that we have to wrestle with it. It is challenging and difficult because it is the narrative of God working through broken people.  There has always been war and sin and destruction, and God chooses to reveal himself within that fractured frame.  We are reading a brutally honest account of God working in a fallen world, through fallen people and systems.  In Scripture, at times God works through war and at times God works through disaster.  These things are not pleasing, but they are a result of creation’s fallen nature, which God still decides to accomplish His grand purpose of redemption through.  Also, the people found in Scripture error and fall short.  Yet the account of God’s creative activity, His covenants, His plan for redemption, and His promise for fulfillment are evident throughout.  Scripture is true and trustworthy because we recognize the reality and truthfulness of what it deals with.  Our world can be very ugly, and the redemption of it marches on through history.  Thus, Scripture faithfully tells the story of that, and at times it is messy.  In Genesis, Jacob wrestles the presence of God.[1] Scholars argue about whether that is an angel or God’s personal presence himself, but the point is much larger.  God demands our honest and utmost attention.  And sometimes, we must wrestle with Him and His purposes to truly be in communion with Him.  Faithfulness is sometimes found in authenticity as opposed to mere piety, and in the Scriptures we find a testimony that shakes us up and stretches us from our comfort zones.  Struggling and wrestling with Scripture is not a problem.  The problem arises when religious people ignore Scripture and refuse to authentically encounter God through it. 

I could continue on, but it might be best to wrap it up here and maybe pick it up some more at a later time.  Ultimately, those who believe need to be more honest about faith and religion.  In many ways, the church (broad sense of the word, meaning believers through history) has let the world down by functioning on the superficial road of religiosity.  The call of a Christ follower is to be pure in thought and deed, non-judgmental, authentic, passionate, selfless, and defined by love and justice.  All of those things only come about through courage and honesty. From this debate, I gather that sometimes the harshest critics are the best motivators.  May the truth of God be reflected by imperfect, yet holy people, people passionately pursuing ultimate truth and the welfare of creation in the name of the one who promises to redeem it Himself.             


[1] Genesis 32:22-32

July 19th, 64 AD

On July 19th, AD 64, a terrible fire broke out in Rome. It burned for three days and three nights, slowed down, and then broke out again. The narrow streets and the structure of the buildings made the city burn like a campfire, and massive destruction resulted. Naturally, the Roman people were incensed. They demanded answers. Nero, the emperor, was the prime suspect. His obsession with building made for an obvious motive. Many Romans were arriving at the conclusion that he had purposefully set the fire so he would have an opportunity to rebuild the city in his fashion.  Nero responded predictably. Basic knowledge of human behavior tells you that when someone is feeling the heat of accusation, he or she is often quick to point the finger at someone else. Such was the case with Nero. In quick need of someone to blame, he chose the Christians in Rome. They were the perfect target: they were a small group and little was known about them. What was known about them was either conjecture or total falsity. For instance, many of the Christian practices of community and communion had been mistaken for sinister, mysterious practices. While nothing could have been further from the truth, the populace’s ignorance made the Christians a quite misunderstood group. So, they were perfect targets for the Emperor. Nero’s plan to blame the Christians worked, or at least it served as a distraction which then opened the door for Christians in Rome to be persecuted for the next two and a half centuries (the level of persecution varied during this time dependent upon the emperors. Some were worse than others.) Under Nero’s rule, believers were forced to battle wild animals in gruesome spectacles, they were burned at the stake during the evening time while Roman socialites partied, and they were generally made to be hated outcasts through the empire. 
These dramatic events could very well be the backdrop for Peter’s first letter to Christians living in the farther reaches of the Roman Empire. He knew firsthand the persecution and struggle they would be facing soon, and he writes so that they might be encouraged and reminded that God is sovereign even in the most difficult and pressing of times. The general consensus amongst scholars today is that the letter is written to Gentile Christians. The earliest church consisted of Jewish Christ followers, and as they preached and professed that Jesus Christ was the promised messiah, the faith grew in great numbers amongst the Gentiles. While the Jewish people and Jewish Christ followers certainly faced persecution from the Roman Empire, the Gentile Christians had very unique pressures and issues different from their Jewish brothers and sisters.
For Gentile believers, they were converting from a pagan life, with no Judeo reference point for their faith.  So, along with Peter’s encouragement for them in the face of physical persecution, he also challenged them to endure emotional and social persecution. The Gentile believers, coming from a pagan background marked with decadence and licentiousness, would feel the social pressure of leaving that life behind. Many of their friends and peers would question them and ridicule them as to why they left that life behind. The pull of the past and of former practices and behaviors would haunt them at varying degrees at various times. And Peter calls on them to endure and live towards something greater, something that can pass through the fires of life and still be found pure and true.  He called them to honor their faith in God.

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith- more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire- may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1.6-7 ESV)

In our ALIVE worship services on Wednesday nights, we are walking through 1st Peter. We’ve introduced the series focusing on the background and context of the book.  It is vitally important to know the background and context of the books of the Bible. Knowing the reality of the struggles of the people and the world context at work enables you to read it in a much more connected sense. These were real people with real pressures living amidst major world events. Many people face physical persecution for their faith all over the world. The book of 1 Peter speaks directly to the pain and struggle of such a frightening reality. Many people face emotional and social pressure as they live out their faith. Maybe it’s a person leaving a lifestyle or a debilitating habit behind. Maybe it’s someone whose friends or family don’t understand why faith is so important to them. Maybe it’s someone who feels like they are constantly battling temptation. Maybe it’s someone who is worn down by the constant news of terror and violence all over the world.  1 Peter speaks directly to all of this.  Peter wrote to people trying their best to make sense of faith in a crazy world with sadness and threats and disregard for life all around them. He wrote to people trying to live out their faith in a culture that put no real boundaries of truth on human behavior, practice, and experience.    
May the story of perseverance of those who went before you through trial and temptation connect you more closely with the testimony of Scripture and strengthen your hope that even in times of difficulty God’s truth and beauty can prevail.

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