Thursday, February 22, 2018

Backwards Toward Heaven

My devotions this morning involved reading from Catherine of Genoa's Life and Teachings (in Devotional Classics). The subject was waiting on God to bring us to where God wants us to be in the plan God has. Within, I encountered this quote:
If we could see what we will receive in the life to come (as a reward for what we have done here), we would cease to occupy ourselves with anything but the things of heaven. But God, who desires that we see by faith and who desires that we not do good because of selfish motives, gives us this vision little by little, sufficient to the level of faith which we are capable. In this manner, God leads us into a greater vision of that which is to come until faith is no longer needed.
I read that and wondered. God offers us the "reward" of eternal life in the kingdom that never ends. But the vision of that reward is so small. There are only hints and glimpses of it in the New Testament. There are no strong affirmations of what that experience will be. We have the glorified life of the risen Christ as our only tangible hook upon which to hang our "heavenly" hat. There are slight inferences from Paul and Peter and a vision from the Revelation. Jesus gives us a rhetorical picture of bosom of Abraham and a promise of paradise. But many of our pictures of our heavenly reward, when held to the literal descriptions, are wrong.

And Catherine points a finger of accountability at these descriptions. We have created these images not out of a mature faith that has been revealed by God. They are like the scribbles of children given crayons for the first time. The bright colors do not truly convey the hues of radiance. The thin, stick-like proportions of humanity are not the full representations of God's infinite depth. The boxes and circles are not the grand throne and full expanse of the new heaven and new earth. We have drawn these with the limited understanding of perspective and space that are the obvious signs of our immature development.

Faith is not staking our claim on our plot of land for our heavenly home. Faith is living the eternal life here and now. Faith begins with the moment we grasp that we are not sufficient on our own to produce a better life for ourselves. It takes God through Jesus Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit. And from the moment we receive that grace that leads to faith, and increases our faith throughout our journey in grace, we are living the eternal life. Everything that we do - acts of worship, devotion, service, and witness - is part of the work of maturing our faith. God steps in on our short sighted and weak efforts to make something good and powerful. The Holy Spirit enables and empowers those efforts to create miraculous change within those works to produce glorious transformation within us. Our faith matures and grows.

And as our faith matures and grows, God reveals more of the picture of the eternal reward. Our understanding increases as God reveals to us the steps along the journey toward what God intends for our life after life after death. Those steps are intentional picking up our feet and allowing God to put them down where they need to be to move us along the Way. Or, to change the imagery, every step brings us to a higher place here and now to see over to what is next.

Offering heaven to a potential new convert is important. They should know that there is more to life than life here and now. But without focusing on the here and now where transformation begins and matters the most in preparing us to understand what is to come, we set them up to leave them as artists who never trade crayons for glory, stick figures for the multi-dimensional God - Father, Son, Holy Spirit; infinite and personal, transcendent and incarnational, just and gracious.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Bionic Pastor

Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. 
We have the technology. 
We have the capability to make the world's first bionic man. 
Steve Austin will be that man. 
Better than he was before. 

A kid in the '70's knew this intro. The Six Million Dollar Man was part spy, part superhero, completely coolest dude on the planet. If you see the pilot (cause I doubt many people actually remember it), Steve Austin spins out of control in a test vehicle. Upon impact with the ground, he is broken and left hanging on the edge of life and death. But thanks to science, technology, and 6 million dollars, he is rebuilt from the brokenness and improved upon with bionic, the interfacing of flesh and machine, parts. 

In October I had a nervous breakdown. There is a lot of negative aura around that phrase. Wikipedia defines it as: 
A mental breakdown (also known as a nervous breakdown) is an acute, time-limited mental disorder that manifests primarily as severe stress-induced depression, anxiety, or dissociation in a previously functional individual, to the extent that they are no longer able to function on a day-to-day basis until the disorder is resolved. A nervous breakdown is defined by its temporary nature, and often closely tied to psychological burnout, severe overwork, sleep deprivation, and similar stressors, which may combine to temporarily overwhelm an individual with otherwise sound mental functions.
Really all that it amounts to is a person reaches a point in an unhealthy mental/emotional/physical health state where they cannot function as they normally would. Stress, depression, physical medical conditions, emotional conditions, and family interactions all contributed to a point where I couldn't process my emotions or mental functions as I normally would. I couldn't handle anything added to my life. I crashed and broke apart. "Flight Com, I can't hold her! She's breaking up!"

I spent a couple of weeks barely able to process thoughts and emotions. I was in a place I had never experienced before. I had to ask Lisa to read texts that I received and tell me what the person meant. I found a "safe place" in a chair that we have rarely used. I didn't know if I could resume my life I had before the break up. I wondered if I could preach again, pastor still, or do anything publicly. My life was hanging in a balance. "...a man barely alive."

I took a month to renew myself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I rested from labors. I sought things out that lifted my soul. I depended upon the strength of Lisa. But I also had started counseling and taking medication for depression. Those things were not marks of weakness. They were life preservers. I don't know that I could have made it through.

 I also found two little bundles of joy.
 Ollie and Dinah became my support animals. They gave me something to focus on that took my mind off of my state. They needed me to rescue them (because quite literally they were rescue dogs), but they also rescued me. They aren't classified as such, but, for me, they are emotional support animals.

This is where I begin my life as the bionic pastor. I am being rebuilt. I don't know what will be on the other side of this experience. I am hoping for a healthier lifestyle, marriage, family, and vocation. I am praying for clarity of purpose and calling so that I can be who I am supposed to be. I am believing that God has been working at healing me through this process and I will be better, stronger, faster on the other side. It hasn't cost 6 million dollars, but I have paid a lot to come to this point.

I have had many caring individuals tell me that God is preparing me for something on the other side of this. Maybe so. I can't see the future. In fact, there are large chunks of the last year I can't see, either. I can only say that there is a lot of rehab that has been and is happening. Today, for the first time in quite some time, I can remember who I am and what God called me to be and do.

Ephesians 4:11-13 -
11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.
That has been my life verse since seminary. I encountered it one day in study and meditation. That was a moment of clarity for me. "This," God seemed to be saying, "is what I have fitted you for. This is your service. This is what I have preordained you to accomplish with all that you are and are able to do." God gave me to be a gift to followers of The Way. I was given to equip them so they can carry out the work of the kingdom to pursue unity of faith, knowledge of Jesus Christ, and achieve maturity of Christ.

I write this a remembrance stone (Joshua 4:6-7). It isn't for sympathy. It isn't even for any acknowledgement. I write this so that I may come back to it some days. I write for those good days when I may be stronger and better and faster to see how far I have come. I write for those bad days so I can remember how faithful the healing God can be. I write for the possibility that I will be broken again and come here to remember that I have been this way before.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Eddie the Eagle: a movie review

Eddie the Eagle movie review

Lisa and I were going to see Eddie the Eagle when it came out in theaters in 2016. Circumstances didn’t allow for that to happen then. We bought it on home video this past holiday season (when we get movies really cheap). And last night, we finally got to watch it.

This is a great, feel good movie. If you are a fan of Rudy, you should watch this film. It is the same theme of “never quit, never give up” plucky main character. This is based on a true story of 1988 British ski jump Olympian Eddie Edwards. You want to cheer him on as he encounters roadblocks and overcomes them. You want to celebrate with him as he competes at different levels. You (or at least Lisa did) want to bop one character on the nose and put them in their place.

It was timely to watch this movie this week. Two stories on the news popped the morning after we watched it.

The first was the story of Elizabeth Swaney. She is an American competing in the half-pipe ski event for the Hungarian team. There are many of the same points of connection between her and the story of Edwards that some are making the connection and calling her this year’s Eddie The Eagle. She has another story of determination to fulfill a dream when others may not see the need to pursue it.

The other story is about the cost of sending Olympians to the games. The cost is sometimes overwhelming. Not all potential Olympians have the security blanket of ongoing endorsements and sponsors. Some of them struggle to make a living while attempting to compete in their field of expertise. Not all Olympic athletes are professionals. Some are gifted amateurs who have to follow the circuits and pay their own way. The movie points out how Eddie had to struggle to make his way.

The film came out 2 years ago. It was the Summer games year. It really highlights the Winter games, though. It would be a great movie to watch this week or in the aftermath of the Olympic events.

It is family appropriate, for the most part. There are a couple of scenes where sexual activity is hinted at and some non-explicit, implied male nudity.

And Hugh Jackman keeps his clothes on (sorry Lisa).


Saturday, February 17, 2018

Wakanda Forever - a Black Panther movie review

Black Panther movie review repeated at my Facebook page:

This is the most Marvel of Marvel movies. It really seemed to echo the source material most and best. This really felt like they wanted to stay close to the mythos and characters of the comic. It clearly represents that later writing styles. Marvel has done a fairly good job of sticking their characters. I felt Black Panther did that, as a whole, better than any other movie so far from the Marvel collection.

It also represents a 2.0 Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. It doesn’t follow the same jocular, easy atmosphere of previous movies; including the heavy handed Captain America: Civil War. This is not the almost comedic approach that we have seen in Guardians of the Galaxy or in last year’s Thor: Ragnarok. You will have to wait for Ant-Man and The Wasp this summer for another in that line of movies. This is a serious movie dealing with a lot of serious subject matter.

Race and equality is dealt with. Imbalance of treatments that blacks receive, especially in the United States, is touched upon. Racial war (a constant fear of white Colonialists going back to the original seizure of native Africans for transplant) is the underlying “villain” that is to be defeated. There are also issues of family, shattered ideals, honor, and redemption. This is a meaty movie.

That may be why I had such a hard time writing this review. I couldn’t respond to it last night. I went in with high expectations. The early buzz was that this was a phenomenal movie. When I came out, I didn’t feel good like I did with so many other Marvel movies. But I also was not disappointed. It wasn’t that the movie let me down. The movie felt like a familiar Marvel movie, but they made this one for grown-ups.

Chadwick Boseman (who introduced T’Challa in Civil War) carries the weight of portraying a character who must step into a role he was destined for, yet not prepared to assume. Black Panther has always represented a balance in the Marvel comics. He comes from a land that hides itself away from the world out of fear of what contact with the world will mean. But he publicly fights with the Avengers and other hero groups for the welfare of a land that is not his own. He assumes the mantle of king of Wakanda and warrior totem, the Black Panther, to guide and protect his land. But he leaves his people to protect New York (even replacing Daredevil for a while as the Protector of Hell’s Kitchen), the United States, the world, and the universe so often that it leaves the Wakandans on the brink of civil war multiple times. Boseman plays the part well. If it seems that he is a little rigid, I think that nails the characters of T’Challa and the Black Panther well.

Michael B. Jordan is the star on the screen, though. His acting is spot on. When he is on screen, he displays a level of skill and personification of the character that outshines all others in the movie. All of the actors did well with their material, but Jordan took his portrayal to the next level.

If there is one major gripe that I have with this movie, it is the continuation of the gripe that Marvel can’t treat villains right. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a rule written down somewhere that, unless the villain is somewhat immortal (I’m looking at you Loki), then we need to kill them or make them no longer a threat (I’m still looking at you Loki). Three villains in this movie were killed or de-meanied. One of those villlains is a constant threat to Wakanda. One is an arch-enemy of Black Panther. Both of them play important roles in the ongoing battles that Black Panther and T’Challa have to wage. Killing or removing their menace is not doing justice to the history of the characters.

The set design and cg environment, and costume design should win multiple awards. This is the most beautiful Marvel movie yet. Doctor Strange captured a lot of the inspiration and design from Jack Kirby. Black Panther is another of signature Kirby book. His influence can be seen in so many places. The washed out tones were gone. This was a vibrant and bright movie.

For parents, I would caution that there is more realistic violence in this movie. There are also a couple of obvious light profanity words. The subject matter is challenging to sort out, but there should be enough action to keep active kids engaged.

There were two families with unruly small children, so I offer this as a reminder – you and your kids are not the only people in the theater. If they can’t sit down or be calmed/quieted, respect your neighbors and leave. The money you lose by leaving the theater does not equal the loss of other people’s enjoyment. You are not entitled to stay in a movie and ruin it for others.

Parents, take your kids to see this movie. There is a stigma in Hollywood moguls minds that a “black” movie will not be received. I would love to see that stigma shattered in this movie. There is a stigma that women can’t be strong, self-sufficient characters. This movie needs to be lifted up as a counter-argument. There is an attitude that comic book movies need to be funny or dark to be taken seriously. This movie proves that it can be serious and brightly colorful while portraying a comic book hero and villains.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Book Review: Resurrecting Religion

I was reluctant to read this book. Many attempts to discuss religion fall into the critique of religion as a hollow faith existence of following rules and human structures. I was worried that Greg Paul may have been falling into that camp. I was pleasantly incorrect. Paul provides a clear, concise, practical examination of what religion is and how it is absolutely vital to the existence of the Christian faith.

This book responds to two fronts that are dismantling religion as a vital human experience. The first is the "relationship over religion" argument. This grows out of an expression of faith seeking people. They profess that church conduct is no longer relevant. The structures that are in place have put a stumbling block in the way of people finding authentic faith. What matters more is the pursuit of a relationship with Christ.

The other front is the generalized anti-faith argument that religion is source of community unrest and societal problems. This point is raised out of the historical conflicts between, and among, faith communities.

Greg Paul digs into the book of James, supported by the New Testament, to point out the true nature and calling of Christian religion. Paul's conviction of what the Church truly stands for grows out of the work that has been done by the Sanctuary community in Toronto, Canada. Through the ministry of this community, rich and poor, established and street-people, mingle and live among one another. Here, the author points out, is the work of the Kingdom of God.

I have a lot of respect for what seems to be happening in Sanctuary Toronto's witness and work. It would appear that people have removed the structures of race, wealth, status, and power that have been applied, even in most of our churches, so that humans can see one another for who they truly are.

Resurrecting Religion gets to the truest essence of religion - the Kingdom of God. And that is not the image of our churches that we are so comfortable with. It is going out among the people Jesus associated with. It is dealing with the power brokers to upset their authority and comfort to level the mountains and raise up the valleys of society. It is being honest about living out faith.

This book is easy to read. It provides personal experiences mixed with explanation of biblical passages. It would be useful for Sunday School studies. Most importantly, it is helpful to read to gain understanding that not all Christians fall into a stereotypical model. There are some who are striving to do what is represented in the Bible as the service to communities and social structures.

This book was provided as a complimentary advance reader copy at no cost in exchange for a review by Tyndale House Publishers.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Chicks, goats, cows, Worldbuilders, and changing lives

This time of year, I share a lot of posts about Worldbuilders. Worldbuilders is a fundraising organization. It is the creation of author Patrick Rothfuss. The fundraiser contributes 100% of money raised to Heifer International. Pat Rothfuss approached his fans (who are mostly geeks and nerds) to be part of doing something good in the world. Each year, the fundraiser has brought thousands of geeks together who give and promote changing lives.

As a United Methodist and Christian, I believe that giving is important. I feel that it reminds me that I am fortunate. I have comforts that others will never experience. I have necessities that some struggle to get. But it can be overwhelming to find a way to connect my surplus with what feels like a tangible result.

Yes, giving to my church is important. It does good. But I also know what happens behind the scenes. I know where the dollars go. Giving to the church is about giving to the organization that makes my lifestyle possible. I want to do something outside of that and do something good.

Heifer International works around the world to change the future of homes and families, who can then change their communities. Heifer brings necessary livestock, sustainable farming implements, and empowerment to parts of the world where those necessities are not present.

They bring flocks of chickens or geese. They bring a goat or a cow. And they teach people who may have never had direct contact with livestock how to care and increase what they have. Chickens and geese produce eggs. Goats and cows produce milk. Those feed families who may not have access to constant nutritious food. That makes them healthier. But they also produce more than be consumed. That surplus can now be sold to a neighbor. In the case of eggs, they can increase the flock and be sold or add meat into the diet. Goats and cows produce babies. Those can increase the herd or bring even more income into the home. And when they sell animals to someone else, that original family can teach their neighbor how to care for their investment.

$20 buys a flock of chicks or geese. A goat is $120. A cow is $500. I grew up with our house "buying" a cow for beef. That was $750-$1,000 to fill our freezer. The meat would be gone within a year's time. Then we would do it again. $500 changes the life and future of a family.

Worldbuilders takes in hundreds of thousands of dollars. It has crossed over the million dollar mark a couple of years. That money is turned over to Heifer. 100% of it goes to an organization that does good. Heifer uses 75% of that money for programs. Those are chickens and goats and cows and education and business loans that change lives.

I love being a part of that.

There is an incentive that goes along with Worldbuilders. Many fundraisers use incentives. Public radio and television offer you t-shirts and coffee mugs, audio or video collections. Worldbuilders does a lottery. The prizes in the lottery are very geek-centric. There are books, games, and jewelry. There are also big ticket items. There is a geek cruise (Joco Cruise) cabin for two. There are custom game sets (Tak). This year, there is a beautiful hand crafted game table (Wyrmwood Gaming). And every $10 donated provides one entry in the lottery. A flock of chicks provides a family with protein and you get 2 chances to win something cool. As of today, there are over 5,400 prizes to be won.

The lottery is a nice incentive. But I don't believe in luck, so I have the worst luck. So I give to make a difference. I give to be part of something great. I give to feel like I can do something. I want to give more. I know I can give more. And some day I want to make giving a cow something I do every year. For now, I give a flock here and there. And I share this effort with you. Please consider donating to Worldbuilders.