The Buddy System

Laura pretty close to dragged me out on a run this morning.  I just about loathe being cold and wet, and I hate having rain on my face.  (it’s an artifact from when I wore glasses…I hated having water on my glasses and still don’t like rain on my face)  So since it was raining outside this morning I was planning on skipping it.  But she got me out of the house and we hit the road together.  We went for a pretty good 5k this morning, which made me think of Solomon’s wisdom concerning life lived in community in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12:

9 Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.
10 For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.
11 Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone?
12 And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.

image There is power in having good and faithful friends around to help us do what we need to do!  I wanted to back out this morning, to take it easy, to chill out and skip my run because I don’t like running in the rain.  My running buddy, though, wouldn’t let me.  She had the courage to say, “Come on!  Let’s get our shoes on and take a run!”  And with her encouraging me I went.  Now, sitting at my computer in the afternoon, I am very glad that I listened to her.  She reminded me that it’s important to have others around, because when I fall, she can and does lift me up. (verse 10)  Without her there I would have just taken the day off and been lazy, but having a running partner made all the difference in my habits today!

God works in our lives in community, plain and simple.  When I have others in my life who can lift me up when I am weak and keep me moving in the right direction I can reach incredible heights.  This is a common theme in a lot of movies and hero dramas (and villain dramas too); Batman had Robin, the Skipper had Gilligan, Butch Cassidy had the Sundance Kid, and the list goes on.  Even “The LONE RANGER” had Tonto!  We are built to serve God in community, to have a friend or friends around us who can help us be strong and serve the Lord. 

Therefore 1encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.  (1 Thess 5:11)

But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:13)

So with that in mind, I had a couple of questions for myself this afternoon that I thought others might benefit from:

  1. Am I cultivating real and authentic relationships with people who can encourage me and lift me up?  Am I building friendships with people who want my best and encourage me to serve God and be the best I can, or am I allowing people to pull me down to their level?
  2. Am I being an encouragement or a discouragement to those around me?  Am I an excuse for them to slack off or am I helping them be strong when they can’t? 
  3. If I had to characterize my life, would it look more like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, (think about his community [caution: language in the link) or like Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus?  Which would you prefer at the end of your life?

Friends who encourage us in Christ are not plentiful enough to waste.  So go thank the people who share your life and make it better, who encourage you to be the best that you can be.  And make an effort today to be an encourager to those around you!

My Crafty and Innovative Evangelism Strategy

What a week I have had!  The past 7 days started by helping Laura run a marathon; I was her “mule” (carried stuff for her, brought her new juice bottles, etc.) and encourager and had a great time while being totally wiped out.  I got a really angry email from a student about what a horrible professor I was, then had lunch with that student and patched everything up. (thanks, Lord, for reconciliation!)  I officiated at not one but two funerals in three days.  I was involved in helping a couple work through a really significant marital crisis.  I am trying to help a young man gain direction in life and keep his relationship with his dad and step-mom manageable.  These are the things that make for a draining week!

That all pales in comparison to the meeting I had on Friday afternoon, though.  I have been meeting with a man who I have known since just before the first of the year, evangelizing and witnessing to him.  He is older than me and has seen a lot in his life; he has significant amount of health challenges, to the point that at one time he didn’t want to live any more.  I have been really praying that the Lord would get hold of him before the health problems did.  He had all the information that he needed about God and Jesus; he simply needed to find the desire for Christ.

Well on Friday we met like we have been, but this meeting was different.  He sat down across from me and told me that the previous Friday night he had waited for the sun to go down, shut off all the lights, and had a very deep and honest conversation with himself and then with God.  And at the end of that conversation he told the Lord that he believed in Christ and wanted Him to have control over his life.

What a day for him!  I was so joyful and excited for my friend.  The pain in his body hasn’t gone away, but now it has meaning.  The challenges of life are still there, but now they are redeemed and redeemable.  He finally found that place where he could be honest with himself and with God, and in that place he found everlasting life.  It wasn’t in response to an altar call in church (I rarely if ever give those), or an inability to counter some great apologetic defense I gave for the resurrection of Jesus.  It was him, his Bible, and time alone with God.

I am always so humbled when God allows me to be an instrument in His hand that He uses to bring someone to Himself.  It’s a joy and a pleasure to be part of His work.  I thought about it a lot this week, and am more convinced than ever that at least for men the evangelism strategy that I have been using can be very effective in our current time and culture.  It’s not a strategy that is cutting-edge or particularly innovative, but it has worked for me and by sharing it I pray that it might help you too.

First off, evangelism is a lifestyle.  I befriend the unchurched men in my life and make it a point to share some interest with them.  When I meet a guy through someone at my church or through school or a friend of a friend I try to get to know them and their interests.  Whether that is running, shooting, hunting, football, MMA or something else I try to take a real interest in them.  I also try to help them out without being too churchy or preachy, meeting them at their point in life.  If they need help moving I help them if I can.  I watch the fights with them and enjoy our time without making every outing a chance to witness with words.  I have found that this builds trust and authentic caring, not only in them but in me.  They are not a witnessing target but a human being of worth and dignity.

Once we have a relationship I am open about God in my life.  I don’t preach, but invite them to share some about God and their thoughts on Him.  And then once they are a little interested in the things of God, I ask them some questions.  Where is God in their life?  Have they ever truly met Jesus for who He really is in the pages of Scripture, or just heard about Him in the media?  Have they ever taken the challenge to see what He really says?

If they are open to that discussion, I ask them if they will take a challenge.  Then I give them a Bible if they don’t have one and bookmark the gospel of John.  I ask them to begin to read it, and then offer to meet with them every couple of weeks to answer their questions about what they read.  Why John?  Simple: John is the only book in the Bible that specifically tells us that its purpose is evangelism:

30 Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;
31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.  (John 20:30-31)

John tells us that the purpose of his book is to lead people to faith in Christ.  So rather than trying to convert someone by my logic or charm or whatever, I have focused on allowing the word of God to do what it says it will do.  John Correia is limited in many respects, fallen and sinful and imperfect.  On the other hand, the gospel of John is God’s inspired and inerrant Word!  So I figure that God works better through John the Apostle than John the pastor and weirdo. 

So my grand evangelism strategy is to ask men who are my friends, who show an interest in God, to read the gospel of John and talk with me about it.  I answer their questions and reinforce the main points in the story as often as I can, allowing God to speak to them through His word rather than having them take my word for it.  See, there are a million people telling them what God says. (and usually asking for money for the privilege of listening)  I want them to read it for themselves, to hear it from the lips of God rather than through me!

Does it always work out perfectly?  No, not by any means.  I can think of at least one man who didn’t respond to what John wrote.  Then again, I am not overly bothered by that fact, because it wasn’t my fault that he didn’t!  I wasn’t the key to his belief or lack thereof; the issue was between him and God, not him and me.  I can also now think of at least four men in the last couple of years who have responded to that approach.  So I am glad for it. 

Perhaps it can help you in your interactions with those who are not Christians as well.  I have personally found that I really appreciate that it takes pressure off of me, because I don’t have to be perfect in my logic or witness.  I just have to be faithful, pray for my friend as they are reading, and open to answer their questions.  I need to be honest, available, and walking with Christ.  Everything else is between them and God, and that is a good place for me emotionally.  And when I get to see God get hold of someone and know that He has converted them to Christ and not to John Correia’s charisma, I know that He has hold of them in a way I never could.  That means the world!

So use God’s method of conversion rather than a man-made, microwave, “sitcom-style” evangelism strategy.  Yes it takes longer and is more work, but the results are worth it. 

To my friend who accepted Christ this past week: I know you read ABF.  I am so excited for what God is going to do with you now that you are His!  Watch out, because now that you know Christ life will never be the same.  I am looking forward to our friendship growing.

The Quest for Greatness

I love the Olympics.  I mean it, I am a total Olympics junkie.  I told my TiVo to record every bit of Olympics coverage it could find on my extended basic cable, and if it had to record over Dirty Jobs to bring me curling and women’s ice hockey then so be it!  I mean, it’s the Olympics!  It’s amazing competition, patriotism, and zany sports all rolled up into one giant consumerist package.

I even love the Winter Olympics, though I live in Phoenix where it hasn’t snowed since before the Flood so the summer games are closer to my heart.  Last night we watched the skiing moguls finals and talked about how the participants must require knee replacements at 35.  We watched the short program in pairs figure skating too, which is of course among the most popular.  (One parenthetical request, please, Olympic skaters: stop dressing the men in blouses.  Just stop it.  Be theatrical, but dress the men somewhat remotely like men rather than in flowing ruffles) 

We watched the biathlon, which had to be a drunken bet at some point.  Can you imagine a bunch of fraternity brothers at the Kappa Sigma house at North Dakota State University (I am making this all up as I go) wondering how they can get away with taunting the pledges without getting caught and coming up with this?  “I know guys…we’ll make up this sport where they will have to ski cross country for a few miles with a gun strapped to their back, then shoot some really small targets while prone, ski some more then shoot targets kneeling, and finally ski a bunch more then hit tiny targets while standing.  Only the best get in!”

In reality I love the Olympics for the drama of world-class athletes competing their hearts out on a world stage.  The difference between the gold medal and last place is hundredths of a second, fractions of a point.  The athletes have trained for a MINIMUM of four years for this event, and many have trained for over a decade or more.  They are the very best at what they do, competing head to head for a victor’s medal.  Add in the patriotic angle of national medal counts and I am in!

The Olympics weren’t foreign to the world of the New Testament, either.  Far from it, they originated before Jesus’ time and were important civic festivals.  The Olympic Games were the most celebrated, but right behind them in importance in first-century Greece were the Isthmian Games.  These games were played near Corinth, and Paul used them as an image his readers would have been well-familiar with in his description of what the Christian life looks like:

24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.
25 Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.
26 Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air;
27 but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

Paul drew on this athletic contest to describe what living for Christ looks like.  He gives us the same ethic that drives Olympic athletes: “Run in such a way that you may win.”  Athletes who dog it never make it to the big games; likewise we will never reach our potential to glorify God by running our race without energy, enthusiasm, and tenacity. 

I love the combination of images in this passage.  First of all Paul reminds us that the “victor’s wreath” of the games was perishable.  While a gold medal isn’t as perishable as a wreath, can you name the women’s figure skating champion from the last winter games without Googling it? (ten bucks says that after googling you STILL don’t know who won it)  Exactly…very perishable.   The wreath we strive for, though, will be eternal!  The reward of a life lived for Christ will be a faithful evaluation from Him on judgment day and the opportunity to serve Him in big ways for all time.

Paul also says that winning takes discipline.  Participants have to discipline their bodies to compete at the highest levels, but their discipline pays off at the competition!  I reminded a lot of the runners at the marathon Laura ran this past weekend that if it was easy anyone would do it, and that is Paul’s idea here.  Competing in the games means training hard and playing according to the rules.  It’s not a safe endeavor to push the limits of greatness, but Olympians compete to show what total dedication and commitment can do.

It takes discipline to train and discipline to compete, but the rewards are worth it!  Likewise in the Christian life, the discipline and dedication it takes to live life for Christ are not “easy.”  Living in the grace of God means denying ourselves and living for Him.  It means saying “no” to our own temptations, our own goals, our own rights and instead making the goal of greatness more important than complacency or being “normal.”  However, the rewards are worth it.  Hearing “well done, good and faithful servant!” will FAR overshadow any playing of the national anthem in Vancouver this winter. 

So enjoy the next 10 days of Olympics.  Cheer for the participants.  Root on the home town heroes and the underdogs.  But while watching, remember the application to your walk with Christ and the lesson of the cost of competing on a world stage.  In the Olympics there can be only one gold medalist, but in Christ anyone with the desire and the dedication can stand side by side on the top of the podium, receiving the crown to cast at the feet of Christ.

The Book of Books

It is not too often that I go see a “guy movie” with my buddies that leaves me wanting to go home and read my Bible.  It’s a rare event that a secular movie makes me want to be a better follower of Christ.

The Book of Eli is just such a movie on both counts.

That said, DO NOT GO SEE THIS MOVIE if your conscience is bothered by violence.  The movie is borderline gory in parts; after all, it’s a survivalist tale set in post-apocalyptic America.  For the record it earned every bit of its “R” rating, so it is definitely not for kids.  There are lots of scenes of violence, as well as quite a bit of language.  There is violence against women, and a scene where sexual violence is implied off screen.  If those elements in a movie bother you, I would avoid it.  You can find a full rundown of the elements of the movie for good or bad at PluggedIn.  Personally I am not sensitive to these areas, though I am quite sensitive to sexual content.  There was nothing in the movie that bothered my conscience or caused me to stumble from that respect.

If the violence doesn’t scare you off then this movie is a must-see for Christians.  It is, as the Plugged In review suggests, the most explicitly Christian film produced by a secular film company in…well…a long time.  (The Passion of the Christ doesn’t count because it was in effect an indie film made by a rich guy, not a secular company)  I saw it with 5 other men from church tonight and we all agreed that it challenged our walk with Christ in good and meaningful ways.

WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON. 

There was so much about this movie to like from a spiritual level.  First off, the Bible is treated by Eli with reverence and respect.  His whole mission in life is to protect it, because every known copy was destroyed after a nuclear holocaust because people believed it was the source of the war.  He reads it every day for 3o years!  He knows it so well that he is able to quote it verbatim whenever the situation demands it, even when his life is in danger.

This knowledge of Scripture ends up being phenomenally important to the plot of the movie.  Eli ends up losing the Book to the bad guy, Carnegie.  However, that loss ends up being of no consequence, because in his daily reading he has literally memorized the entire Bible in English.  He is able to reproduce it from memory!  He ended up not needing a Bible in front of him because it was written on his heart and seared into his mind by constant reading and memorization.  It reminded me of what God said in Jeremiah 31:33 when declaring the New Covenant:

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”

I found this to be a great reminder that I am not serious enough about my Bible memorization.  Sure I spend time studying the Bible, but I need to spend more time in memorizing Scripture.  I don’t think that I can memorize the whole Book, but I can certainly work on a paragraph!  We had to memorize about 15 verses for a theology class I had in seminary, so I know I can do it.  I just have to take it seriously enough to actually do. 

I also loved how Eli grew as a character and a Christ-follower throughout the movie.  Early on we see him moving west at the urging of God from within him, but not paying particular attention to some of the greater commands in the Book he is reading.  He allows a woman to be raped because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his mission to protect the Book, though clearly throughout the movie he is supernaturally protected.  It is only when he is willing to sacrifice himself, and even the Book, to show love for another person (Solara, the female lead) that the plot of the movie takes a major step forward.  Once he begins not only to know the content of the Word of God but to put it into practice, he begins to truly live out his mission from God. 

What a lesson!  It’s not simply knowing Scripture but living out what God says that makes for transformed lives.  This is just what Jesus says in Luke 6:46, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”  Do we know the Word or do we live the Word?  Eli was so stuck on protecting the Book from harm that he didn’t take the time to live it out in the world he lived in, as crazy as it was.  That ethic plays out in our lives in many ways as well, as we study it and debate it but often fail to live it.

The struggle between those who misuse the Scriptures and those who want God to be seen through them is also clear in the movie.  Eli wants God’s Word to be held high and esteemed, while Carnegie wants to use it as a weapon to enslave people.  Eli has good intentions, while Carnegie only wants power over others.

In the end it is clear that God protects Eli to accomplish his mission and in the end takes away everything Carnegie seeks to have because of his greed and ambition.  This is not overly subtle, which in my mind was great.  God protects His Word from misuse eventually, even when it looks like the bad guys win.  I can hear the Psalmist calling out for vengeance against enemies in this movie, and hear and see the Lord answering.

I also loved Eli’s sexual ethics.  While the other characters treat women as objects for sexual gratification, Eli does not.  Solara is basically offered to him as a prostitute to bribe him, but Eli won’t even consider sleeping with her.  Instead he offers her a meal and teaches her to pray before she eats and thank God.  He didn’t evangelize her, but he also didn’t ask her permission to be open and talk to God.  He protects Solara from being raped later on in the movie and sacrifices himself and the Book for her life.  It is clear that his interest is not in any way sexual.  His respect for others extends beyond this, as he is even very polite to good people who he comes across:

There were several funny (if morbid) moments in the film too.  I loved it when he tells a random bad guy in the beginning that if he touched him again that he would not get his hand back.  (It was almost like he was a red-shirt on a Star Trek away team at that point…you knew he was gonna die!)  After a good bit of butt-kicking, the bad guy whose hand is of course removed is in shock and trying to scoot over to get his dismembered hand, but Eli moves it away from him, saying, “I told you that you wouldn’t get that back.”  He isn’t mean-spirited about it, just matter-of-fact.  Yucky, but funny.

There were only a very few elements that I balked at.  At the end of the movie, what the world has is an English New King James Bible.  That’s great, but it was written in Greek and Hebrew!  It is placed on a shelf next to the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible, or the Christian Old Testament) and the Qur’an, so it’s not given special place by the library it ends up in.  The Tanakh appears to be in Hebrew, but in the movie there will then be no New Testament in Greek which is troublesome for this Bible geek.   We have no inerrancy outside of the original languages, and as Martin Luther famously said,

“And let us be sure of this: we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the larder in which this food is stored; and, as the gospel itself points out, they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments…Hence, it is inevitable that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish.”

I was grossed out by the cannibalism in the movie, but that is part of the post-apocalyptic vibe.  Thankfully this is never explicitly shown, though there is some “meat” at one point that probably was human.  Blech.

At the end of the day, for those who are not bothered by strong violence or language I can wholeheartedly recommend this movie.  Go see it with some friends and then get a cup of coffee and talk about the biblical issues it presents.  Consider your commitment to God and to His Word.  Think and talk and pray about whether you know the Bible or live it.  Which side of James 1:22-25 are you on today, and is that the side you want to be on?

22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.
23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror;
24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.
25 But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.

Till Death Do Us Part (Part 1: The Problems)

Boy has marriage been on my heart and on my pastoral schedule a lot lately.  I have seen an increase in the number of marriages that are on the rocks over the past year or so, and I think that is due at least partially to the economy.  When everyone was refinancing their mortgage every two years to buy new cars and take vacations (like their home was an ATM machine), and receiving bonuses for showing up to work on time on a semi-consistent basis it masked significant issues between husband and wife.  Now, though, the economic security has been removed from many and with it the salve on the wounds of many a marriage.

With that said, I actually think the economic crisis is in reality a good thing for marriages, even marriages that are struggling!  That might sound weird, but bear with me.  The problems that many marriages are facing didn’t just show up when there was more month than money; the financial stress just brought to the front problems that were hidden.  The cracks in the foundation were already there, they were just under the carpet!  Now, though, they have come to the surface and refuse to be ignored.  If that’s you, it’s good to remember a couple of important principles when your marriage is rocky:

  1. You aren’t experiencing anything that is totally out of the ordinary.  In fact what you most likely have is a bad case of the normals!  Trust me, there are plenty of couples who are struggling with issues that are similar to yours.  As the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “there is nothing new under the sun.”  Your marriage is almost certainly not broken in a way that someone has not worked through to build a successful and happy relationship.  That’s not to make light of sometimes serious issues, but it is to say that if they could solve it you can too.
  2. While it is never fun to deal with problems in life, when the cracks in the foundation show up at least you can identify the problems and then work on making them better.  When things lurk under the surface there is seldom true joy, but nothing to put your finger on.  Now at least it’s identifiable and therefore solvable.

So if you’re sick of “Saturday Night at the Fights” in your marriage, it’s time to make changes in the way you treat your spouse, marriage, children, etc. to change the dynamic.  And even if you’re not experiencing the terrible screaming matches, pulling your relationship out of the doldrums is possible if you’ll commit yourself to the process of improvement and stick it out no matter what.   No one ever gets married looking to get divorced, so let’s get after the process of making it better!

STEP 1: GET OVER THE MISGUIDED IDEAS

Nothing stands in the way of marital improvement like preconceived notions.  This is especially true of ideas of marriage that are ludicrous but so prevalent in our media that we believe the lies.  Some of the more misguided ideas I have experienced or seen people fall prey to include:

  • The “sitcom” mentality: Thinking that all problems get solved in 30 minutes with two commercial breaks.  We’ve been programmed to see all problems as simple and all solutions as quick and easy.    News flash: life ain’t like that!  Cliff Huxtable (the favorite TV dad of all time…) may have been able to do that…but he wasn’t real!   It took you years to get into this mess; likely it will not be fixed overnight.
  • “Genie in a bottle” syndrome: The belief that as long as you pray about improving your marriage (especially if you end the prayer with the magic phrase “in Jesus’ name, amen”) then it will automatically get better.  This oftentimes comes from a misunderstanding and misapplication of verses like John 14:13, but when we realize that’s not the point of this verse then we realize that God uses prayer to change us more often than He uses it to change others.  God most often uses hard work and sacrifice by both husband and wife to make a marriage joyful and fulfilling.
  • The “Song of Songs” myth: Some couples read Song of Songs (also called Song of Solomon…right before Isaiah in that part of your Bible that is pristine because it’s not been read much) and think that their marriage should always sound like Solomon and the Shulammite do.  If the birds aren’t chirping and the bliss isn’t so thick you can cut it with a knife, something must be terribly wrong!  Umm…that’s a love poem.  It’s awesome, but anyone who’s ever written a mushy letter to a spouse can tell you that’s the ideal and an expression of the heart, not the workings of day to day life.  I can just imagine Solomon passing gas under the covers or the Shulammite spending too much money on a designer purse, then the two idyllic lovebirds having an argument over it.
  • The “Incompetence” fallacy: Sooooooooo many couples I know feel like they should know how to live happily ever after without any help beyond their Bible and their wedding vows.  Where we ever got the idea that we should be able, without guidance and mentorship and community and help, to solve all of our problems I will never know.  But too often we feel like we should know how to be happily married by osmosis, like we absorb it through the air or something.  Since we obviously didn’t, we’re a terrible failure and therefore should just give up.  This one usually comes when the first three fallacies have all come to pass.
  • The “One Way Street”: Believing that one or the other spouse is responsible for all of the problems in a marriage.  Certainly one spouse can cause an awful lot of problems, and I am willing to admit that every now and again a husband or wife will go completely off the deep end and torpedo a marriage.  For 99.99% of us, though, our problems come from putting two people who share at least their depravity in close proximity.  (that’s Romans 7:14-25, even among devout Christians, for anyone wondering…) We need to own our part of the problem and especially our part of the solution.

Once we get over the misguided ideas that have stood in the way of real improvement we’re ready to actually make some progress.  By realizing that improvement in our marriage relationship is neither simplistic nor easy we finally come to the place where we can start to make some strides.  Here, where we are hurting inside but unwilling to take the path of least resistance, is where we find that the grace of God can finally take over. 

In the next part of this series, we will start down the path to marital improvement by acknowledging what our individual responsibility in our marriage is and how we can serve Christ by serving our spouse.