Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Narnia Christmas

I have yet to meet a child that didn’t like magic. As a matter of fact, every Christmas Eve, I do a little magic show for my kids and even my teenage daughters enjoy it. Every trick is tied to something in the Christmas story. Perhaps the reason children enjoy this is that their innocent hearts know there is something to it. I’m not saying magicians like David Copperfield are really flying between buildings and making the Statue of Liberty disappear. I’m saying that there is a real and noble “magic” in the world that lives in the realm of God’s workings. And, perhaps more than any other time, Christmas makes us think of such realities. If you’ve seen The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, you know that there is an unbending law that governs all of Narnia. It is called “the deep magic” and is binding on all residents of the land. It is the natural law of Narnia written by the Emporer-beyond-the-Sea which cannot be violated without destroying the Narnian Universe. At one point in the story, a character named Edmund betrays his siblings. And the deep magic of Narnia says that when there is such a betrayal, the betrayer must forfeit his life as an act of justice. Edmund eventually realizes that he’s been tricked by the White Witch and feels sorry for betraying his brother and sisters, but justice demands that his sin be paid for nevertheless. And there is a scene in the movie where the White Witch demands that Edmund be punished for his crime because the deep magic demands it. Listen to the White Witch as she cites the deep magic to Aslan: “You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to kill.” Later she talks about Aslan’s knowledge of the deep magic and says, “He knows the Deep Magic better than that. He knows that unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water.” Because Edmund sinned, justice demanded that the sin be paid for. What’s interesting about this is that Narnian law reflects universal law in our world. An articulation of this law is found in the Bible in Hebrews 9:22: In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Hebrews 9:22 (NIV) This is cosmic, divine justice. Sin must be paid for. Wrong must be made right. Sin must be penalized. Another way of putting it is: sin always results in a sacrifice. All of us have committed many sins. We’ve betrayed our families and our friends. We’ve all stolen and cheated and lied and slandered and gossiped. All of us have committed so many sins against the real, deep magic that we couldn’t count all of them. But here’s the great news about Christmas. We have hope. You see, there is a deeper magic than even the deep magic. The Bible calls it a number of things. It’s known as the “New Covenant” (or the “New Testament”), the “Law of Faith,” and the “Law of the Spirit.” In Narnia, the deeper magic states that if someone who is perfect and without sin takes the penalty of the sinner on himself, the deep magic will be appeased and death will be reversed. Forgiveness will be offered to the sinner. Remember, the most traumatic part of the story is when Aslan is humiliated and killed on the stone table by the White Witch. Aslan doesn’t fight back at all and voluntarily offers himself. Soon after this, Lucy and Susan (Edmund’s sisters) hug Aslan’s dead, shaven body and weep over him thinking all is lost. Lucy says she’s cold. Winter is without Christmas. But when they get up to leave, something happens. All of a sudden, Aslan’s body is gone and the stone table breaks in two: “. . . though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” When Jesus came on the original Christmas, He came to give his perfect life to appease the true deep magic, the Law. He came to sacrifice Himself for our sins as the Law demanded. He appeased moral justice. And when he died, the holy curtain in the Temple in Jerusalem actually ripped apart like the stone table broke apart in Narnia. With the death of Jesus all sacrifices for sin were paid in full. The Old Testament temple sacrificial system was no longer needed. The stone table is no longer necessary. All that is required for the sins of the entire world has been paid. Look at Hebrews 9:15. Christ came with this new agreement so that all who are invited may come and have forever all the wonders God has promised them. For Christ died to rescue them from the penalty of the sins they had committed while still under that old system. Hebrews 9:15 (TLB) We’re not under the deep magic any more, we’re under the deeper magic of God’s grace. Christmas is about a plan that God conceived to save the human race from it’s own destruction. It’s about God’s Son coming to Earth and dealing with our sins. Now, with all that in mind, here’s an idea. During the Christmas Season, watch the movie The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe with your kids and tell them about the deeper, true magic of Jesus Christ. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." 13Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." Luke 2:8-14 (NIV) Merry Christmas! Pastor Rusty

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Biblical Genocide and Zombies

Recently, I preached a message on the consistency between wrath and love in the character of God. In the message, I touched upon the rather uncomfortable portions of the Bible in which God orders Israel to wipe out entire people groups. What could possibly justify such violence? The following is one way I have wrestled with this question. I want to be honest with you about something that you’ve probably felt before. There are some troublesome passages in the Bible that are difficult to understand. Someone referred to these as "the embarrassing uncle of the Christian faith." All of us have an Uncle Fester who burps a lot and tells everyone he believes in Bigfoot. It's understandable that we might want to avoid him with guests. And there are passages in the Bible we typically don't want quoted at the family reunion. Those passages are the ones when God orders Israel to kill entire people groups. For example, in Deuteronomy, God tells Israel to completely wipe out the Canaanites. And He commands them to kill everyone in the city, no survivors. He doesn’t tell them to just kill soldiers, He tells them to kill everybody. How do we deal with that? Here’s how I deal with it. God knows everything and he sees every heart and every potential. And, apparently, there have been a few times in history when an entire people group became so wicked that it was beyond repair. In other words, every part of their society was completely consumed by evil. And history bears this out. Historians have noted that among the atrocities of the Canaanites were child sacrifice, bestiality, torture for amusement, incest, and other extremely evil practices that I simply cannot describe in a public forum. Put it this way, when you study the Canaanites, it’s like stepping into a horror movie and everyone is the killer. And God sees it, so He deals with it. We get a glimpse of all God sees in Gen. 6:5 before He unleashes the flood judgment. Look at what Moses tells us: "The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time." Genesis 6:5 Notice, evil had deeply infected humanity. God saw that every single inclination of the hearts of these people was only, always evil. There have been times in history when a people group has been so evil that God was forced to remove them. He, in essence, saved the human race by removing a plague of wickedness. He checked evil. Such an action is never given to us as normative and is rare in the Bible itself. But God has apparently stopped the spread of evil in the human race in this way in the past. Now, I was thinking about how this could be illustrated and I thought of Zombies. I know, what in the world? Hang with me. Right now, Zombies are very, very popular. One of the top cable shows of all time is "The Walking Dead." Right now, books about Zombies are top sellers and there are a ton of video games about Zombies. Brad Pitt just made a very successful movie called "World War Z" as in World War Zombie. And the most popular music video of all time is "Thriller" by Michael Jackson, which has a bunch of Zombies dancing with Michael in it while Vincent Price actually uses the word "y'all's" in a rap (how bizarre is that!). Even my own neighborhood park is having a Zombie Run soon and you can run a race dressed as a Zombie. Zombies are huge now! Interestingly, the typical Zombie story has a basic pattern: people become infected by evil and they are so infected by it that they become the walking dead. Anything good about them is completely gone. And all they want to do is kill. Therefore, the theme of all Zombie books and movies is this: The only way to save us is to annihilate them because if you don’t destroy them, they will destroy us all. Evil will consume the entire human race without radical intervention. Here’s a question. Is it possible that a society could become so evil and so satanic that the entire society becomes like Zombies? I wonder if that’s why we have this fascination with Zombies. Maybe we know that we are capable of becoming like them. Maybe, deep down inside, we know that even an entire society can become that depraved. And, apparently that level of evil is possible because the Bible describes it in places like Sodom and Gomorrah. So, what did God do with places like that? He dealt with them because, apparently if He had not, the human race was at stake. Now, that doesn’t answer all the questions about those passages, but if God is God, then I trust Him to do what’s right all the time, even when I don’t understand it. I should also mention that nowhere does God ever tell us this is normative. Nowhere in the Bible does God say that we as Christians are to engage in genocide or an unjust war. So, any group that takes isolated biblical incidents of divine judgment and normalizes them into a mandate for murder is profoundly unbiblical. Jesus is very clear that as Christians we are to love our enemies and reach the lost with the good news of Christ. The rest is up to God and the comforting thing I find in Scripture is that God knows what He’s doing even when I don’t know what He’s doing. It's also comforting to know that should Zombies start to take over, we have a God who will deal with them.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Great Emails

Just had this sent to me via my friend, Pastor Brian Petak. Helpful: Write E-Mails That People Won't Ignore by Bryan A. Garner | 8:00 AM February 21, 2013 Your clients and colleagues don't have time to engage fully with every e-mail they get. Some of them receive hundreds of messages per day. That's why they start with the ones they can deal with quickly. They may never get around to answering — or even reading — the rest. So how do you earn their attention? Try these tips: Stick to standard capitalization and punctuation. Conventions of good writing may seem like a waste of time for e-mail, especially when you're tapping out messages on a handheld device. But it's a matter of getting things right — the little things. Even if people in your group don't capitalize or punctuate in their messages, stand out as someone who does. Rushed e-mails that violate the basic norms of written language bespeak carelessness. And their abbreviated style can be confusing. It takes less time to write a clear message the first time around than it does to follow up to explain what you meant to say. Get straight to the point (politely, of course). Be direct when making a request. Don't butter up the recipient first — although a brief compliment may help ("Great interview. Thanks for sending it. May I ask a favor?"). Spell out deadlines and other details the recipient will need to get the job done right and on time. Be brief — but not too brief. People find long e-mails irksome and energy-sapping. The more they have to scroll or swipe, the less receptive they'll be to your message. They'll probably just skim it and miss important details — or skip it altogether. So rarely compose more than a single screen of reading. Focus your content, and tighten your language. But as you're trimming the fat from your message, keep the meat intact. When giving a project update, for example, supply enough background information to orient your readers. Consider your message from their perspective. They aren't as immersed in your project as you are, and they probably have many other things going on. So remind them where things stood when you last sent an update, and describe what's happened since then. Plot out what happened, and when. When a serious dispute arises at a company, the lawyers will typically ask their clients to produce a "chronology of relevant events," detailing the most important incidents leading up to the dispute. This document helps everyone involved think more clearly about how things unfolded. Try taking a similar approach when writing your e-mails. It will help you organize your thoughts into a coherent narrative. A story with a clear beginning, middle, and end will hold your readers' interest more effectively than jumbled facts interspersed with opinions. Add a short but descriptive subject line. Before hitting "Send," check your subject line. If it's generic or blank, your message will get lost in your recipient's overstuffed inbox. Are you asking someone to take action? Highlight that in the subject line. Make your request easy to find — and fulfill. Copy people judiciously. Include only those who will immediately grasp why they're on the thread; don't automatically click on "Reply All." Your correspondent may have been over inclusive with the "Copy" list, and if you repeat that mistake, you'll continue to annoy the recipients who shouldn't be there. And avoid using BCC unless you are quite sure it's necessary. It could get you a bad reputation as being indiscreet. This is the third post in Bryan A. Garner's blog series on business writing. The series draws on advice in Garner's new book, the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. See original post at

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Musings on Music

Below is a link to a post written by my younger brother, Steve, who is also a pastor. The text is also below. Thought I'd share his insights with you about Christian music.

Cajun Roast Beef

Thoughts on Life, Religion and Stuff

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Christian Music That Isn't Embarrassing
I grew up in the church, and, in the mid-late 80's, I became obsessed with Christian music. Bands like Petra and White Heart and artists like Russ Taff and Michael W. Smith were commonplace in my tape deck (that's right, I had a tape deck!). Heck, I even went to a Stryper concert! I was a bonafide Christian music junkie.
But at some point Christian music lost it's soul, and it became rehashed top 20 radio with a "Christian" message. Really, it felt like a cheap imitation of top 20 radio. At some point I became embarrassed by it. I wasn't embarrassed that it was music about Jesus, but that it was music that, in my opinion, wasn't good art, and therefore didn't make Jesus look good.

Some of my issues were just typical college-age angst, but some of my thoughts were very legitimate. I still have a tendency to feel that way about much of the Christian music that hits Christian radio. So, what I try to do is scour iTunes for Christian music that is artistic, original, non-cliche' and grace affirming. Lately, I've found a few artists who meet my picky criteria, and I'd like to share them with you.

Now, I am an open music snob, so you have to factor that in. Some of my criticisms are probably unfair, and I am certain that most of the artists who make music today are extremely talented. These are just some of the artists and songs that are hitting me these days. I hope you enjoy this list of Christian Music that Isn't Embarrassing:

Daniel Crawford - Home

I haven't been this excited about a collection of songs by a Christian artist in a long time. The writing is honest and artful, the music is folksy, but with enough pop influence to make it playable, and the production is fantastic, especially for a self-released record (can you call it a record anymore?). Listen to Prodigal Son, Brought Me to You, and Changing Lanes. Really, the whole thing is excellent. Watch out for this guy, because he's really good. Oh, and by the way, he's an Aggie (which isn't necessarily a good thing, but might interest some of you who read this. You know who you are.).
Here's Daniel's song, Prodigal Son:

Vineyard Worship - Discover Roots Worship

This collection of grass roots worship is full of honest songs, the kind you could listen to on a dirt road or around a pool table. These songs reverently exalt Jesus Christ, but they are unlike the slick, overproduced numbers that pass for most mainstream worship these days. Not all of this record is great, but it definitely has its moments. The songs that feature Ryan Delmore are particularly good (Find My Joy and Flood). This one's worth a listen.

Citizens - Citizens

This band, if I'm not mistaken, is associated with Marc Driscoll and Mars Hill Church. While I appreciate and respect Driscoll, I'm not a huge fan. This band, however, has tremendous potential. The song, Hail The King, is one of the most original Christian rock songs I've heard in a while. Some people won't like the punk rock flair, but I really like it. There's a lot of passion in this one.
Need to Breathe

This band has really grown on me. The lead singer has a Kings of Leon feel, but the music is layered and unique. They will get some Christian radio air time, but this is not a band that seems overly concerned with the mainstream. They're sort of Creedence Cleerwater Revival meets Coldplay in the sense that they blend country soul with concept pop, and it really works. It may take a little while for it to fit, but if you're patient with it, you'll be really happy you gave it a try. This may be the next Christian super group (Not sure such a thing exists, but you know what I mean), and if it is, that would be real progress.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Why Tebow Will Be Fine

I'm a big fan of Tim Tebow. Despite the fact that he was so successful in college over my beloved LSU Tigers, I loved the character and inspiration he displayed. He is an outstanding young man and a worthy role model. While he may or may not put on another NFL uniform (which, by the way, I think will happen again), he will be just fine. Here's four reasons why:

1. He's truly a good person. People like Tebow, who are so kind to others, will have the kindness repaid eventually. As the old saying goes, you reap what you sow. Tim has sowed a lot of genuine goodness and it's been my experience that good people usually land on their feet.
2. He is a great athlete. As an athlete, Tim is elite. He may not have the greatest quarterback mechanics, but he's as strong as a bull and has the work ethic to squeeze every ounce of athleticism out of himself. I could see him continuing as a quarterback, transitioning to a tied end, being a fullback, or even calling plays as a "defensive quarterback" (a linebacker). But let's say he doesn't go back to football. Does anyone think he wouldn't be a great motivational trainer? Forget Tae Bo. Think Tebow!
3. He has tremendous charisma. With GQ looks, a cheerful disposition, leadership ability, and a heart for the hurting, he is a welcome alternative to the self absorbed celebrity of today. Tebow would be a great host for any humanitarian reality show. He could also continue his celebrity status indefinitely as a college football sports analyst. And I'll bet most college teams would love to have him on their coaching staffs.
4. He's close to God. Enough said.

So, I'm not worried about Tim Tebow. Although, out of all these options, my hope is that another NFL team will take him on and parley his tremendous potential into a successful career. I love watching the guy play and I love the role model he represents to our country. Geaux Tebow!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Can I Lose Salvation: 3

This is the Third of Five Posts on the Topic of Salvation. This post examines the magnificent Epistle to the Romans:

One of the clearest Epistles, and probably the most theologically rich, is the Epistle of Romans. It spends a lot of time on salvation. St. Paul wants us to understand salvation.

So, let’s dive into it a little. Let’s begin with Romans 3:23. St. Paul says,
. . . all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. Romans 3:23 (NAB)

Here, Paul states the obvious. None of us are perfect and we don’t deserve God, ever. We have “all sinned” and have not, and cannot, earn “the glory of God.” We don’t deserve to be in God’s house. But check this out:

They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus. Romans 3:24 (NAB)

Justification here is offered “freely by his grace.” Works are not added. Salvation is an act of grace (“unmerited favor,” or “favor without works”). And, just to be clear, Paul specifically says good works are not part of the salvation equation (although they are very important):

A worker's wage is credited not as a gift, but as something due. 5But when one does not work, yet believes in the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness. 6So also David declares the blessedness of the person to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
7"Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven
and whose sins are covered.
8Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not record." Romans 4:4-8 (NAB)

What’s the natural reading of this text? Paul is comparing the idea of earning salvation through good works with the idea of receiving salvation solely as a gift. If you work for something, it’s not a gift. But something received through trust or faith is a gift: “his faith is credited as righteousness apart from works.” This isn’t vague language. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone.

Other passages that teach, very clearly, this principle are the following:

But what does it say?
"The word is near you,
in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we preach),
9for, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:8-9 (NAB)

Notice, there’s a promise, a done deal sealed in the heavens, “you will be saved.” Also, the faith is more than mere profession, it’s real faith, from the heart.

But if by grace, it is no longer because of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. Romans 11:6 (NAB)

Here, St. Paul is emphatic. Grace cannot be confused with works. If works have anything to do with grace, grace is no longer grace. This is very clear.

What then can we say that Abraham found, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2Indeed, if Abraham was justified on the basis of his works, he has reason to boast; but this was not so in the sight of God. 3For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." 4A worker's wage is credited not as a gift, but as something due. 5But when one does not work, yet believes in the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness. Romans 4:1-5 (NAB)

Again, Paul makes it clear that the “credit” we receive is not our own, but Christ’s and is given as a remarkable “gift” and not earned.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Can I Lose Salvation: 2

Another passage that has often hit me is John 5:24:

"Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life." John 5:24 (NAB)

Notice, again, true faith changes something permanently. The believer “has eternal life,” “will not come to condemnation,” and, “has passed from death to life.” It’s interesting to note that in the Greek text (the original text John wrote this in), the verb “passed” is in the perfect tense. This tense refers to a completed state. It’s a done deal.

One other St. John discussion is worth noting: John 6:28-29:

"So they said to him, 'What can we do to accomplish the works of God?' 29Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent." John 6:28-29 (NAB)

The main deal, the thing God looks at as the saving condition is belief--that is, life-altering faith.

One of the rules I use in interpreting the Bible is “Use clear passages to interpret confusing passages.” That is to say, some passages in Scripture are like the picture on the box and some are like jigsaw puzzle pieces in the box. Use the picture to figure out the puzzle pieces. Picture passages are clear. They’re very easy to understand without adding a lot of interpretation. If you never read the Bible and were an unbeliever and read these passages, you’d come away thinking, “The Bible teaches that eternal life is given to you when you believe.”

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Can I Lose Salvation?

Years ago, I led a class on Catholicism and Evangelicalism at my church. I have many friends and family who are Catholic, so I read all of Vatican II plus a number of other official Roman Catholic documents. I also took a course on it in my doctoral program. I loved studying it and came away with a great appreciation for my brothers and sisters (or to use Vatican terminology, our separated brethren) in the Catholic Church. At any rate, when I did the class, a nice woman who was Roman Catholic actually came to my church to take the course. She was very engaging in the discussions and asked some excellent questions. Eventually, she wrote me a lengthy letter asking for clarification on the issue of salvation and works. Over the next several posts, I will be sharing my answers to her questions. I suspect that they are questions that most of us, in some form or another, have asked. I hope this blesses you as much as it did me in writing it.

Born Again

Let’s begin with the classic, “football game verse,” which is probably the most famous verse in the Bible: John 3:16:

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life." John 3:16 (NAB)
Notice, the passage begins with God’s love (“God so loved”), followed by grace (“that he gave his only Son”), followed by faith (“everyone who believes in him”), followed by eternal life (“not perish . . . eternal life”).
The requirement in the passage for eternal life is faith. Not a superficial profession, but a true faith, a life-altering trust in God, alone, for salvation. Now, what’s the context of the passage? It’s a theological discussion Jesus is having with Nicodemas, a Pharisee who knew his theology well and thought that people were saved by doing good works. And Jesus says something remarkable to him. Look at John 3:3:
Jesus answered and said to him, "Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." John 3:3 (NAB)
The NIV translates “born from above” as “born again.” Either way, the clear idea is that there is a new birth that happens. Something is radically changed. This person is re-created.
Nicodemas is stunned by this and asks the following:
Nicodemus said to him, "How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother's womb and be born again, can he?" John 3:4 (NAB)
Then Jesus launches into his discussion about belief and how the Holy Spirit actually causes someone to be born again. So here’s the question. If salvation is given at the moment of belief as John 3:16 suggests, and the Spirit causes such a change in the heart of that person that he/she is described as “born again,” can a person become “unborn” by his/her bad works and undo what the Spirit has done in his/her heart?
I don’t think so. The text speaks in permanent images. It says that we receive “eternal” life at the point of belief. Not “temporary life that could turn into eternal life if you keep your nose clean.” The text also presents the state of salvation as a constitutional, permanent change: “born.” It’s permanent. Birth is not reversible.
However, it also suggests that this new state of salvation is more than just a mere profession accompanied by smells, bells, and sprinkles (or, in our case, dunks and saw dust trails). There’s a life-altering change. Once I’ve truly believed, my heart is changed. I’ve been born again and, while I will struggle with the temptations of sin and fall at times, I have been altered, at the soul level, to do good works.