Tuesday, September 30, 2014

UP! and the Brevity of Life

The Pixar animated movie Up! follows the last adventure of a 78-year-old balloon salesman named Carl Fredricksen. It's a great story and a fun ride, but one of the most important elements of the film is Carl's status as a widower. His wife, Ellie, was more than the love of his life—she was the spark and spirit, as well. But because the story begins some time after Ellie's death, the filmmakers had to find a way to communicate the depth and meaning of Carl and Ellie's relationship in a way that didn't take away from the main plot line. 

Their solution is a short vignette at the beginning of the movie that quickly and powerfully details the story of their lives. This vignette basically operates as a short film that could be viewed independently from the rest of the movie. There is no dialogue—only a series of brief scenes perfectly complemented by a musical score. But the result speaks volumes about the thrilling ups and terrible downs we all face in a lifetime.

The vignette starts with a brief glimpse of Carl and Ellie's wedding day, and then moves to their first home and first jobs—Carl as a balloon salesman at a zoo and Ellie as a zookeeper. The couple race up a grassy hill together, then look up at the sky and imagine pictures forming in the clouds. Then the clouds are all shaped like babies, and then Carl and Ellie are painting a nursery together. It's an idyllic look at young love and marriage.

But this isn't an idyllic life. The scene shifts to Carl and Ellie in a hospital room with pre-natal diagrams on the walls. A doctor is talking and gesturing. Ellie is weeping into her hands. Next, Carl comforts his wife by reminding her of an old dream they shared when they were children—travelling to a place called Paradise Falls together. Rejuvenated, Ellie creates a dream jar labeled "Paradise Falls," and into the jar goes all of the young couple's spare money.

Again, however, life happens. First their car pops a tire. Then Carl visits the hospital. Then a tree falls and damages the roof of their home. Each of these inconveniences necessitates the dream jar be smashed and the money spent. Soon, Carl and Ellie have gray in their hair. And in a flash they become elderly.

Near the end of the vignette, Carl remembers their dream of visiting Paradise Falls, and he purchases two tickets from a travel agency. But Ellie collapses on her way back up the grassy hill from their youth. We see her in a hospital bed, with Carl holding her hand and kissing her forehead. Then we see Carl sitting alone at the front of a church. He holds a solitary balloon in his hand. The vignette closes as Carl carries the balloon into his house, which has turned cold and gray. The balloon is a lone spot of color against the gloom, and then everything fades to black. (You can watch the clip here)

It's a wonderful triumph of film making. But more importantly, the series of clips and scenes is a portrayal of the human story. Our lives are fun, deep, tragic, and tender. But they are also brief—"a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" (James 4:14). In the only psalm attributed to Moses, he wrote, “The days of our lives are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they are eighty years, yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away” (90:10). Those aren’t words we want to hear. We want to remain forever young, but Scripture reminds us that the years pass and death will one day arrive.

That leaves us to wrestle with two essential questions: Am I ready to “fly away” at life’s end, having trusted Christ as my Savior? And am I using my fleeting days to please the One who loves me eternally? You can’t control the length of your life, but you can control its depth. How do we do that? Invest our lives in the only two things that will endure the test of time—the word of God (Mar 13:31) and people (Ecc. 3:11). In his autobiography, Just As I Am, Billy Graham wrote, “What is the greatest surprise you have found about life?” a university student asked me several years ago. “The brevity of it,” I replied without hesitation. Time moves so quickly, and no matter who we are or what we have done, the time will come when our lives will be over. As Jesus said, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4).[1]

[1] Billy Graham, Just As I Am (New York: Harper, 1997), 739.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

800 Grams of God

Recently, The Voice of the Martyrs publication, which details the persecution of Christians around the world, featured the amazing conversion story of a Vietnamese spinster named Xuan.

Every day, Xuan would pick through the garbage and find things to recycle for cash to support her family. Her husband had left her. She was paid by the gram for paper. One day, Xuan saw some people worshiping in the area where she was going through garbage. She kept going back to watch them as they sang and prayed. “I found out that they worshiped God in heaven and I realized that they had a different God than me,” she said.

Then, a woman came by and handed her a Bible. She told Xuan, “Read this book.” Xuan took it home and weighed it on her scale. It was 800 grams, not a large amount to recycle, but she could get a little money for it. She thought, “How could God be in this 800 gram book?” So she decided to read the book at the rate of 10 chapters a day. She finished in six months.

“The first time I read it, I did not understand, so I was going to give it back to the lady,” Xuan said. “Then I thought I heard someone say, “I will give you wisdom.” She didn’t have electricity in her home, so she raised the candle she was using to read and looked to see who had spoken to her. No one was there.

“The second time I read the Bible, I still did not understand, then I heard the same voice. I lit a whole newspaper to make light to see who spoke to me,” she said. But there was no one.
The third time she read the Bible through, Xuan heard the same voice saying again, “I will give you wisdom.” Though again she saw no one, she finally began to understand the Bible, and she turned her life over to Christ.

That was nearly thirteen years ago, and today Xuan has read the Bible 21 times through. Today, Xuan is sharing the gospel as a local worker through VOM. Every week she is teaching the Bible to new converts in her church, sharing the gospel on the streets, at work and in another village. One of the young boys she mentored went on to Bible school and is now also in full-time ministry. She owes her new life and the fruit of her ministry to a small, 800-gram God book.[1]

Isaiah 55:11 says, “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it (KJV).” Eugene Peterson paraphrases Hebrews 4:12-13 like this, “God’s Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one is impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what (MSG).”

The Word of God never fails. When it is faithfully declared or read it will comfort or convict, build up or break down, repel or compel. Because God is omnipotent He possesses the power to communicate with us in any way that He desires—whether it’s through the written word or a burning bush or a donkey’s mouth. Because God continually sustains the universe by His word (Heb.1:3) then He can faithfully preserve His word through epochs of time and the sword of persecution.

There is no other book like it. Martin Luther said, “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.” Charles Spurgeon added, “The Word of God is like a lion. You don’t have to defend a lion. All you have to do is let the lion loose, and the lion will defend itself.”

There is explosive power in the message of the gospel because Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. . .” (Rom. 1:16, ESV). We often underestimate the raw power of the gospel in reaching even the most hardened heart. We think we need to add to it, dress it up, make it ultra-contemporary, gloss it over, or even complicate it. But there is distinct power in the simple message of the life, words, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Never underestimate its appeal. Never be ashamed of its simplicity. Never add to it or take away from it. Just proclaim it, and then stand back and watch what God will do.  -DM

[1] “Vietnam: 800 Grams,” The Voice of the Martyrs, 5 September 2014 <http://www.persecution.com/public/newsroom.aspx?story_ID==373034>  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Spiritual Sweat of Self-Control

One of my favorite sports films is Rocky, the classic inspirational movie about a down-and-out, mediocre boxer who seizes an incredible opportunity. When heavyweight champion Apollo Creed's opponent is injured and cancels three weeks prior to their fight, Creed chooses a local fighter, Rocky, to box. It is an amateur's dream.

During one promotional interview some time before the fight, Rocky and a reporter stand in a large meat freezer with a long row of frozen of beef behind them. The reporter asks him how he came to train inside an ice box. Rocky answers that his friend let him in, he hit the beef, and he liked it—and the owner doesn't mind. “Is this a common training method? I mean, do other fighters pound raw meat?” the reporter asks. “Naw. I think I invented it,” Rocky replies. The reporter asks for a demonstration, and Rocky obliges her. He begins punching a side of beef.

Meanwhile Apollo Creed's training assistant is watching the interview on TV. Creed, unlike Rocky, isn't training but is rather engrossed with promotional details. He makes sure he flies his barber in to Philly, confirms ringside reservations, and sends the mayor's wife 200 roses (making sure the newspapers are there to take pictures).

While Creed and the promoter briefly discuss tax breaks and advertising for the fight, the assistant, engrossed with Rocky on TV, leans forward. As Rocky ferociously pounds the meat, the assistant says, “Hey, Champ. You gotta come and look at this boy you're gonna fight on TV. Looks like he means business.” From the background Creed says, “Yeah, yeah, I mean business, too,” and asks for coffee. The assistant has a worried look on his face as he watches Rocky continue his assault on the beef. (Watch the video clip here)

For those of you who have seen the movie then you know that although Rocky doesn't win the fight, but he shocks Apollo Creed and the world by going 15 close, bloody rounds with the champion. The difference maker wasn't that he was athletically gifted, but because he had the “eye of the tiger.” So when it comes to spiritual training you need to ask yourself: “Am I more like Rocky or Apollo Creed in my preparation for battling against the world, flesh and the Devil? Do I exercise spiritual sweat in my personal disciplines?

The apostle Paul spoke often of the discipline of self-control. In Gal. 5:23 it is listed as a fruit of the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul likens then Christian life to that of an Olympic athlete who relentlessly trains in order to win the race and stand on the award stage. “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:25-27). This quality may also be translated as “temperance” and it refers to the mastery of one's desires, impulses and appetites.

We see a good example of self-control implied in Proverbs 25:28: “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls.” The picture is that of an ancient city in which the walls have toppled over and has nothing to stand in the way of an invading enemy. So the person who has no restraint against the baser passions of the flesh—greed, sensuality, anger, etc.—doesn't stand a chance in this pressure cooker world.

The Bible has much to say about this particular quality and the behaviors that accompany it:
·         People with self-control watch their words. They put their minds in gear before opening their mouths: “Be careful what you say and protect your life. A careless talker destroys himself” (Pro. 13:3).

·         People with self-control also restrain their reactions. How much can you take before you lose your cool? “If you are sensible, you will control your temper. When someone wrongs you, it is a great virtue to ignore it” (Pro. 19:11).

·         People with self-control also stick to their schedule. If you don't determine how you will spend your time, then others will decide for you: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16).

·         People with self-control know how to manage their money. The self-controlled learn to live on less than what they make and know the value of a budget is that it tells your money where you want it to go rather than wondering where it went! “In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has.” (Pro. 21:20) 

·         People with self-control know how to turn down temptation. Someone has explained resisting temptation like so: “Temptation is to see Satan standing outside the backdoor of your heart. Sin is to unlock the door so that he may have his way. Victory is to open wide the front door of your heart, inviting the Savior to enter and give you strength to bar tight the back door.” James 4:7 advises, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

This list is not exhaustive, but you get the idea. The exercise of this discipline called self-control prevents desire from becoming a dictator. For the person without Christ, the desires dictate and he or she obeys. Those in Christ, living under the authority of His Spirit and ruled by Him, are able to defy this once-powerful dictator. As a result, we experience a transforming change that others notice. -DM

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Power of Jesus' Name

In his 1875 book on the history of hymns, Edwin Long tells of Reverend E. P. Scott, a missionary, living in India during the 1800s. At the prompting of the Holy Spirit, but against advice of his fellow missionaries, Scott set out alone to visit a remote village. He was determined to share the Gospel with a dangerous savage tribe. His friends sought to dissuade him, saying, "We will never see you again." He said, “But I must carry Jesus to them.”

Several days into his journey, Scott was met by a large group of warriors who quickly surrounded him, each one pointing a spear towards his heart. Expecting to die, Scott made a decision to use his last few breaths to glorify God, and to hopefully stir something within the hearts of his captors. He took out his violin (which he always carried on him), closed his eyes, and began to play and sing “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name,” in the native language of the warriors.

After singing the first verse, the second, the third, and then beginning the fourth, Rev. Scott realized he was still standing, and that all around him was a peaceful quiet. Opening his eyes he saw every spear lowered. There stood those mighty warriors, with tears in their eyes. Throughout the remainder of his life, Scott spent much time with this tribe, sharing the love of God.[1]

We forget that there is power in the name of Jesus. When Jesus sent out the 72 to preach and perform miracles, many returned saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” (Luke 10:17). In Acts 4:12 Peter preached about Jesus saying, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” In John 16:23 Jesus said to the disciples, “In that day you will not ask me for anything. I tell you the truth. My Father will give you anything you ask for in my name.” If that wasn’t enough, Paul reminded us in Phil 2:9-10 that “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”  

The name of Jesus is also a sword in our culture (Matt. 10:34). The name of Jesus brings controversy, division and even hatred. We all have heard people abuse the name of Jesus to express disgust or aid them in cursing. Interestingly, I never hear the names of various religious leaders or so-called gurus being used when someone is angry or upset. So why do people, including avowed atheists, use the name Jesus Christ in this way?

I believe that in their hearts, they know there is power in that holy name. Sure, they are taking it in vain. They are violating the third commandment (Ex. 20:7). But in a way, they are acknowledging the existence of God. Otherwise, why invoke the name of a God you don't believe in? Why say the name of a person you don't think ever existed? Because there is power in that name and when you say it, people pay attention.  

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating that we can use the name of Jesus in a formulaic way to get what we want—like the charismatics tell us. Slapping the name, “Jesus,” on something doesn’t simply make it holy, indestructible or omnipotent. However, the name of Jesus is something of a paradox—it’s common, yet uncommon at the same time.

In the first century, Jesus was about as common in Judea as John, Mike or Larry is common to us. If you were looking at an ancient classroom roll you might see it appear multiple times. However, contained in the name “Jesus” was His unique purpose for it means, “God Saves.” It is the same name as Joshua in the Old Testament. It is given to our Lord because “He saves His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

Jesus is easy enough for a small child to say; simple enough to be the last words upon dying lips; powerful enough to bring us through any storm and merciful enough to save the lowest sinner. “God Saves,” is the greatest and most powerful word humanity has ever known, and it will be the final word that will be spoken when Earth turns to dust and the curtain of history falls. “Jesus” will be the only name that matters in heaven and a lingering rebuke of what might have been to the prisoners of hell.

Juliet was speaking to Romeo when she asked the famous question, “What’s in a name?” She went on to say that a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. Rename it as you will and a rose will still retain its fragrance and beauty. But this principle doesn’t carry over to Jesus. For in His name is the identity and heart of God. In the name of Jesus there is hope, courage, comfort, authority and unity.   -DM

[1] David Jeremiah, “The Power of Jesus’ Name,” Turning Points, 17 April 2014, p.39.  

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Faithful to the End

In 2013 a wealthy collector paid $1.7 million for a ruined, unplayable violin. Its value isn't in its musical quality but in its history, for it was played the last time in April 1912 by a doomed musician named Wallace Hartley aboard the Titanic. Hartley and his fellow musicians reportedly played the hymn "Nearer, My God, to Thee" as the vessel slipped beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Hartley's body was recovered ten days later with his violin strapped to him.

Historians believe that after Hartley’s body was recovered the violin was given back to his fiancĂ©e, Maria Robinson, and remained in her possession where it was all but forgotten. In 2006, the damaged violin was found in the attic of a home in Britain. It was authenticated through an engraved silver plate which read, “For Wallace, on the occasion of our engagement. From Maria.”

One writer commenting on the significance of Hartley’s violin said, “The Titanic was a microcosm of society, because it carried different classes of people aboard that fateful night—a mixture of rich and poor, educated and dumb, heroes and villains. Hartley and his fellow band members, none of whom survived, were chief among the latter group. What they were doing as they played on the sinking vessel was actually causing a sense of calm on that ship. You could only wonder the mass pandemonium that would have occurred otherwise. Their playing helped save a lot of lives.”[1]

When I read that verse I was reminded of Paul last will and testament—Second Timothy—for in the final sentences of that letter he wrote, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (4:6-8).

Wallace Hartley and Paul were a rare breed because of their faithfulness to the end. Faithfulness is the primary quality God looks for in His servants (1 Cor. 4:2, Matt. 25:21). It’s the ability to hang in with an assignment until you are through; the willingness to fulfill responsibility year after year, not needing to be praised or thanked or publicly encouraged in order to do so; to work unto the Lord; to show up on time and to not leave until the work is done.

Survey the Scriptures and you’ll find that there are myriad references to the different disciplines we are called to fulfill. God wants us to be consistent in our giving (Pro. 3:9-10), committed to prayer (1 Thess. 5:17), steadfast in good doctrine (2 Thess. 2:15), faithful to our spouse (Eph. 5:33), regular in church worship (Heb. 10:25), dedicated to good works (Gal. 6:10) and watchful for the Second Coming of Christ (Mark 13:35).

This list is not exhaustive, but you get the idea. There is always some place in the Christian life to start being faithful. Do you have big dreams to accomplish something great for God? I have some advice for you: Be faithful in the little things for that truly pleases the Lord. Faithful servants never retire. You can retire from your career, but you will never retire from serving God.     -DM

[1]  Per Nyberg and Chelsea J. Carter, “Violin played as Titanic sank sells for $1.7 million,” CNN, 21 October 2013 <http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/19/world/europe/titanic-violin-auction/>