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Archive for the ‘Christian Culture’ Category

bluebloodsBlue Bloods, the CBS TV series about the New York Police Department starring Tom Selleck, may be the best Christian drama on television.  I know that seems like an odd thing to say, but let me elaborate.

Blue Bloods premiered on CBS in 2010 and has remained a Friday night staple since, with a viewership of 10-13 million weekly.  While there is always the police versus criminal element in the show, much of the drama surrounds the Reagan family, four generations of law enforcement in NYC.

Frank (Tom Selleck) is now the Police commissioner, the Top Cop, of NYC, after serving on the force his entire adult life.  His father Henry (Len Cariou) had also been police commissioner, but is now retired.  Both father and son are widowed.

Frank has three grown children: Danny (Donnie Wahlberg), Erin (Bridget Moynahan), and Jamie (Will Estes). Danny is a top detective though highly volatile. Erin is a rising Assistant District Attorney, and Jamie is a Harvard graduate with a law degree who has given up law to take up the “family business” as a beat cop.  Another son Joe was murdered in the line of duty before the series opened, a loss that is always close to the surface in this very tight-knit family.

Danny is married to Linda (Amy Carlson) and they have two sons. Erin is divorced and is raising teenage daughter Nicky (Sami Gayle), a good girl but very strong-minded, and Jamie is very eligible.

Every Sunday this entire family sits down to dinner together. Every episode includes this often moving, sometimes humorous, and occasionally tense intersection of the family’s personal and professional lives.  And every meal begins with a prayer!

The Reagan family is Irish Catholic, and they are devout, not in the maudlin manner of Christian TV with everyone holding hands in church, but in what I believe is a more realistic way, in a way that affects every minute of their lives. Sure, there are often references at the dinner table about the homily at Mass that day, and sure, their saying grace is sometimes just a simple family ritual—but there is an assumption in this family that their faith is real and that it is an omnipresent, all-encompassing framework for both their private and their public lives.

And that is why I think Blue Bloods might be the best Christian program on TV!

As police officers, all of them face moral dilemmas almost daily.  Does the right outcome justify using any means to achieve it?  Is life fair when the victims of crime lose and the “perps” walk free on legal technicalities?  When does one keep the letter of the law or opt for the spirit of the law?

Last week’s episode was especially interesting, involving a detective who was cleaning up neighborhoods of drugs, but then buying up the drug houses, cleaning them up, and flipping them for a big personal profit.  After being investigated by Internal Affairs, no one could find anything illegal about this cop’s actions, but Frank maintained it was wrong, even if it wasn’t illegal!  His moral point was that the police must use a higher standard than just the criminal code to evaluate themselves. Not everyone agrees with him—and so the ethical and moral debate characteristic of almost every episode begins.

The drama of the debate, the challenges of their lives are brought to the family dinner table each week.  Often it is the two young boys who innocently raise the moral questions:  “So are you going to kill the bad guy who shot the cop?”

Of course, there is family drama as well: Will Danny be tempted to be unfaithful by women he meets in the line of duty?  Will he cross boundaries in trying to get justice?  Erin and Nicky have the usual single Mom versus teenage daughter issues, and Jamie has such a soft heart—the heart of a priest, as they say in one episode—that he is often in conflict with what is right legally and what is compassionate.

These are not perfect people.  All of them make choices that you wish they had not made, but don’t we all!  The show is almost completely free of profanity—almost—which is refreshing. You can actually admire all of the main characters.  The action and drama are absolutely engaging.

Evil is always evil and never good.  That fact sets this show apart from almost all drama in our increasingly amoral culture.

And God has a lead role.  If you have Catholic hang-ups, get over them and be thankful for a TV show that shows serious believers, practicing their faith publically and privately in the real world. Be thankful for people who believe in truth.  Be thankful for people who pray.

Previous seasons of Blue Bloods are available on Netflix and Amazon–maybe others as well.

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Martin_Luther_King_Jr_St_Paul_Campus_U_MNI can’t remember ever believing that I had absolute freedom to say whatever I wanted to say. 

Terrorists in France attack and kill cartoonists for publishing words and pictures that Muslims find offensive—sometimes even blasphemous.  The world media is appalled at the attack on what many consider a basic human right, that is, freedom of speech.

Most Christians in the United States would stand on the side of freedom of speech, but we are sometimes among the first to want to censor those who oppose what we believe to be true.

Moving out of the world arena and into just a congregational context for a minute, think about how “freedom of speech” is sometimes controlled and/or completely censored among Christians.

I personally know of one congregation where the leadership does not want non-Christian visitors to attend services because they might say something that was not true!  The argument is that if they say something that is not true, then that might lead other people to follow them into untruth.

I know of another congregation where the preacher was instructed never to talk about hell because one of the leaders of the congregation doesn’t believe in hell and nobody wants to offend him.

Some forms of censorship at church are more subtle.  How many of our congregations, for instance, would tolerate the preacher saying anything positive about Obamacare from the pulpit?  Or what about anything negative about the U.S. military establishment? Or something complimentary of Pope Francis?

And it is not just the preacher whose freedom of speech bumps into arbitrary boundaries. I just heard about two congregations who weren’t speaking at all to each other because one of the churches refused to speak out publicly, condemning the use of musical instruments in the assembly.  They were not actually using instruments, but they wouldn’t/didn’t judge others who did. They would not say the right words, so other Christians won’t speak to them!

No one really believes in absolute freedom of speech.  All believe in laws against libel, that is, purposefully publishing damaging remarks about someone which you know are not true.  We Americans don’t believe anyone has the right to threaten the life of the president.

Once we were driving to California when Sherrylee saw a minivan that was splashed with painted slogans all over in 1960s hippie fashion.  The largest words painted on the side which we passed said, “Kill Obama!”  Or so we thought.

She called 911 and reported this to the local police who promised to investigate.  Shortly, thereafter, she got a call on her cell phone from the Secret Service wanting more details, and asking her if it were possible that the painted van said “Kill Osama,” not “Kill Obama,” since they had found and investigated people in an anti-Osama minivan matching her description!  Oops!

God talks a lot about speech—but I don’t think He ever mentions free speech.

Today, at LST we read Ephesians 4, where the Holy Spirit through St. Paul speaks about speech.  These are good words for all of us to hold on to:

          15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. . . .

        Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. . . .

         29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. . . . . 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Something seems to be more important than freedom of speech and that is the truthfulness and the intent of the words, as well as the heart from which the words come.

       “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1)

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churchofchristsignI think many Churches of Christ are caught in a dilemma that they don’t even know will have a long-term effect on them.  See if you agree with me.

Prior to the last quarter century, Churches of Christ viewed as part of their core identity their non-denominationalism.  In fact, the earliest roots of the Restoration Movement in the U.S. were a reaction to the fact that denominationalism had become the means of excluding those from one’s fellowship who had different creedal beliefs.  By laying aside all human creeds and denominational organizations, restorationists believed they were more perfectly practicing the unity of the Spirit in the one Body of Christ.

During the 1970s, many in Churches of Christ began to believe that regardless of our theology, our practice had become denominational.  Churches of Christ had in practice adopted a brand that was defined by its own traditions and that brand was used to exclude rather than include.

Whereas in the sixties, we argued over whether to write “church of Christ” with a capital C or not, by the 70s, those debates were over, and we had become totally tolerant of talking about “Church of Christ” preachers, “Church of Christ” colleges, “Church of Christ” elderships, buildings, JOY buses, and when asked about personal membership “Church of Christ” was the only acceptable answer.  The term “Church of Christ” no longer was just a descriptive name borrowed from Romans 16:16, but rather a brand name and trademark of a very particular group of Christians—the very definition of denominationalism.

Interestingly enough, about the same time period, two new developments began to surface in the broader Christian community:  a number of new non-denominational  groups like Calvary Chapel, The Vineyard,  and The Way were started.  Also the whole Bible church and community church movements flourished. These were typically individual congregations very loosely associated with other churches, if at all.

As these independent non-denominational churches became more numerous, they were seen to be taking advantage of growing tolerance among evangelical Christians in particular.  Congregations of mainline denominations, seeing the tide moving away from denominationalism, began changing their congregational names to more generic names.  New names like Harvest Church, Covenant Church, New Life Church, etc., replaced old names and left old denominational identifications to very small fonts in parentheses, if visible at all.  Some of these churches quit their denominational organizations, but most just changed names.

 So as I see it, about the time the Churches of Christ became comfortable about being one among many churches—at least among evangelical churches (although I myself think we are very inconsistent to only identify with evangelical churches),  those same denominations started moving away from that very position and towards the non-denominational position that Churches of Christ were abandoning.

Here are my conclusions for Churches of Christ:

  • Churches of Christ need to return to their roots and recover their non-denominational theology.  What a great opportunity to be what we have historically claimed to be, a unity movement.  What a great time to preach and actively embrace the unity in the Body of Christ.
  • Churches of Christ need to quit trying to imitate “successful” churches and decide who God wants them to be and what He wants them to teach. Turning to market research for our identity has two big drawbacks: It leaves us being a lesser imitation—a knock-off—of an original, and it means we are always catching up to the “latest trends” often after those who established those trends have moved on.
  • The highly autonomous congregational approach to church is robbing Churches of Christ of the power in community, in fellowship, in “many members but one body!”  We must learn to be more collaborative, to look for true fellowship in the work of the Gospel, and to welcome partnerships with other members of the Body.  Isn’t that the only way to be a whole and healthy Body!

Watch for more on this last point later.

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The fault in our starsIf the new releaseThe Fault In Our Stars, starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, could talk, it would tell you that it unashamedly intends to play on your most maudlin emotions and will use all of the film clichés about death and dying to do so, BUT if a good cry does you good, then you’ll love this film.

I agree with the film—if it could talk!

Two teenagers with cancer meet at a support group, one with an attitude and one with—well, another attitude!  They both are coping with their terminal illnesses within their own understandings about life and death.  One of my favorite scenes and a scene that really demonstrates the quality of the actors is their first meeting at the support group meeting when Gus is just looking and smiling at Hazel and she is trying first to ignore him, then warn him off—both of them speaking volumes without words.

Such a script demands a wide range of emotions from both Woodley and Elgort. Woodley does a remarkable job as the terminal teen, mildly depressed and mildly bitter about her fate.  Ansel Elgort’s performance is equally believable—but only when he is in his relatively idealistic mode; he is less convincing with his dark side.

With no more information than I have given you, you can probably finish the rest of the plot with at least 90% accuracy, that is, the story is quite predictable.  So what makes the film worth seeing?

Here is why I can be positive about the film—as long as you know you are going to need your tissues!

Hazel and Augustus each have very real questions about death and dying for which they hope to discover an answer before they die. 

Hazel Grace wants to know if the lives of her loved ones will be ruined by her death? She is afraid her mother will lose her motherhood, that when she dies they will lose their purpose in life because all she knows of them is that they have spent all of her life focused on her and her illness.

Augustus wants to leave this life having made an impact, being remembered forever, leaving his mark on the world! But what if he doesn’t? What if he sees the end before he has time to live remarkably.

The drama of the film is not about whether they live or die, but whether they find the answers to their questions, whether they are able to find not only love but peace and a measure of understanding.

I hate the title and I hate the way religion is portrayed in the film.  If you are a Christian, then you will also hate the portrayal of the “heart of Jesus” support group which is a caricature of the worst of pastoral care in the name of Jesus.  The film would have been a better film with more realistic and sympathetic people of faith.

With regard to the title The Fault Is Our Stars, there is a disconnect for me between the title and the film script.  Perhaps the title came from the book’s author or the publisher and is appropriate for the book, but the prevailing philosophy in the film is optimistic, not fatalistic, one of hope for something other than oblivion.

Finally, don’t take young teenagers or pre-teens to this film; they will leave thinking it is all about love. And they will remember the obligatory sex scene as much more important than it is.

 

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underthedomeScientists now say that we live in a bubble! According to yesterday’s headlines, our whole solar system exists inside of a hot bubble of gases about 300 light years in length and shaped like a peanut. The thought of living in a bubble makes some people a bit claustrophobic, though 300 light years is quite a lot of space.

The townspeople of Chester Mills might beg to differ. You see, they do actually live in a bubble. Several weeks ago, an invisible dome dropped down, totally surrounding their town. I know it dropped down (as opposed to just appearing) because the rim of the dome sliced cows and houses dramatically in half.

Of course, I’m talking about the fictional town of Chester Mills depicted in the TV series Under the Dome, which is finishing its second season on CBS. The show itself is kind of like Lost for teenagers, with a lot of the show being a bit supernatural. The only mildly interesting part of the show is the reaction of the townspeople to being in the dome and completely cut off from the rest of the world–most of the time. Being under the dome seems to push people to being better people or worse! Of course!

I was walking through our neighborhood early one morning this week as is my somewhat irregular custom. I often pray while I walk, but I also try to look for God when I walk. Sometimes I look for things for which to thank Him; other times I pray for the children waiting at the school bus stop; or for the man with the two tiny dogs that yap at me as I walk by.

On this particular morning as I was walking, I looked up at the blue sky and had the strange feeling that we lived “under the dome.” I’m sure these were residual thoughts from having watched the TV show the night before, but it did give me pause.

How do you feel about being in a glass house, where your life is on display? How do you feel about being trapped on a planet with people you did not choose? How do you feel about whoever dropped this dome or blew this bubble around you?

The way different people react to confinement is the stuff of drama. Some feel sheltered, while others feel imprisoned. Some see a chance for personal gain, while others see opportunity to serve the community. And such close community feels like an invasion of privacy to some, while others love the freedom that transparency always offers.

The Garden of Eden was a kind of bubble, at least as it is described in Genesis: naked transparency, perfect community, harmony. After the bubble burst because of sin and Man was driven out, the world became more dangerous, with less commonality, less community.

You may not like it, but Jesus said the people of God live “in the world” but are not “of the world” (John 17). The “otherness” of the people of God makes many, many Christians uncomfortable in this age of egalitarianism. Admittedly, “otherness” has been misused and abused by Christians past and present enough to deserve this mistrust–BUT, the trajectory of human history as we move closer to the Omega, the End, the Day of Judgment–is that God in His love is restoring and will restore the harmony, the transparency, the community of the Garden.

Just as with the dome, some hate the restriction and the loss of “freedom,” but those who know God will revel in the restored and perfected fellowship that surrender brings.

St. Paul said, “Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8 NLT).

So we live in this big peanut-shaped hot bubble, and our sky is a kind of dome–but what a glorious place to be if we can say, “The heavens declare the glory of God.”

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100FootJourney5373a4c3573be-560x373Distances between cultures can be vast, seemingly insurmountable chasms. What cultures–specifically, what cuisines could be more different than French and Indian? Richard C. Morais brought this cultural clash to life in his book The Hundred-Foot Journey, which Oprah Winfrey then recommended in 2010 for her summer reading list. Just a couple of weeks ago, Dreamworks released the film version of this cultural clash. I highly recommend it to you.

You will delight in this film, not because it is great, but because it is . . . . good! Helen Mirren plays Madame Mallory, the somewhat embittered owner of a famous French restaurant where even the French president sometimes dines. Om Puri plays the head of an Indian family with a long history of restaurateurs and cooks, but a family which is currently homeless and looking for a place to open a restaurant in Europe. Because their brakes fail–“and brakes break for a reason”–they decide to stop in a small village in France and open their new restaurant–directly across the street–just one hundred steps away–from Madame Mallory’s renown restaurant.

The “war” between the two restaurants is fairly predictable, but entertaining. The reconciliation of their differences is also predictable, but carries the message of the film deeper than most viewers might expect.

The title The Hundred-Foot Journey began to take on new meaning to me when I thought about the variety of reasons these one hundred feet were crossed during the film other than just to reconcile differences between cuisines.

For instance, some characters walk the one hundred feet to paint ethnic slurs on the outer wall of the Indian family’s restaurant; others cross the 100 feet to the French side, thinking there to find a better future.  And if I tell you more, I will tell you too much, but every time someone makes that 100 foot walk,  something dramatic happens–so watch for it!

If all “wars” just could be solved so easily! I began to think of our trip to Jordan and Israel last spring and how I literally stood on the Arab side of the Jordan River where supposedly Jesus was baptized and looked at the Israeli side just one hundred feet away. The barbed wired, the armed soldiers, and the many warning signs, however, were all meant to remind me that one hundred feet can be a treacherously long distance.

How far apart are the one hundred feet that separate the black neighborhoods from the white neighborhoods today in Ferguson, Missouri?

How deadly is the one hundred foot path between the militant Muslims and the Christians in Kurdish Iraq?

How far is the journey from life to self-inflicted death for someone who has lost hope because of a terminal disease, or because of broken relationships?

How far is the walk from integrity to dishonesty?  Or from dishonesty to integrity?

And lest we just think only other people have trouble with these hundred steps–how far is the walk from legalism to loving kindness, from condemning to reconciliation, or from self-righteousness to

humble submission?  How many steps–and how hard to make that journey!

Even so, it can remind us that real integrity, sincere concern for others, honest communication,  and a belief that we are part of a greater community than the one on my side of the road–these go far in answering the questions of why we should walk one hundred feet to the other side.

Didn’t Jesus tell us, long before this film, that if a man needed you to go with him one mile, then you should go two?  I suspect he would say, if it will bring peace, don’t draw the line at one hundred feet.

Go as far as it takes.

 

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extreme prayer If we were playing Family Feud, and the word to play was PRAYER,  I would guess that one of the top responses from the audience would be POWER.  Have you read the Christian end times books that have the heavenly hosts completely handcuffed in their last battle against Satan, bound in helplessness until they are released by the prayers of the faithful on Earth?

I read one of those books once and found myself wondering if we are not turning prayer into a power tool that we wield rather than kneeling humbly and letting our requests be made known to Almighty God.

 Asking, knocking, crying out, seeking, supplicating, longing, beseeching, calling out, these don’t sound like power words to me; rather, they sound like words of neediness.

But we don’t want to be needy; we want to make things happen, so we Christians want to turn acts of worship, of submission and surrender into acts that compel or instigate or change.

Greg Pruett has written a wonderful book Extreme Prayer: The Impossible Prayers God Promises to Answer, published by Tyndale House, and available through Amazon.com.

Greg is the president of Pioneer Bible Translators in Dallas, Texas, but before that he and his wife Rebecca, along with their three children, served as Bible translators in West Africa for over twelve years.  I met Greg a few years ago, but we had never really had much time to talk until the North American Christian Convention in Indianapolis earlier this month.

At the end of our time together, Greg gave me a copy of his new book, which I began to read on the plane home, and it captured me with the opening pages.

He begins with a dark time in his ministry, his faith, and his marriage. One of the characteristics of liturgical churches that I wish our churches would imitate is that their liturgy often begins with, but in every case includes, a confession of our own sinfulness and our need for the grace of God before one more song is sung or one more prayer is spoken.  And so it seemed to me a wonderful thing that a book on prayer begins with a confession of unworthiness even to be in the presence of God—which in turn makes His gracious gift of prayer even more precious.

Drawing from many of his experiences in West Africa, Greg teaches us to pray. “This book is centered on . . . extreme prayer—the discipline of maximizing Jesus’ promises about prayer. Each of the following chapters unveils a different kind o prayer that Jesus backs with a blank-check promise (“whatever you ask”—mw). “

I might have been a little nervous about the book still to this point, but then Greg really reveals his message:  “But watch out! Don’t read this book to get your own wishes out of prayer.  God wants something so much bigger than that.

Greg makes prayer about God and not about me!  And that’s the way it should be, but often isn’t.

He teaches us what it means to pray “in the Name of Jesus.”  He teaches us to pray in “faith and faithfulness,“  not making the answer to our prayer the condition of our faith.  Even his shorter chapter on what he calls “shameless” prayer teaches us that persistence is not from entitlement but from the humble acknowledgment of our total dependency on God.

As the small book draws to its close, the writing becomes more specific, more concrete.  We need that kind of instruction, not just the inspirational.

Extreme Prayer taught me about prayer in a way that has grown my understanding of and my faith in Almighty God.  If you read this book—which I highly recommend–you may not hear exactly the same message because it is full of words of Truth, but you will hear the Word, and you will be changed because of it.

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