Thursday, December 31, 2009


This morning I imagine God looking down on me and the rest of humanity; in some places lives are out of control and in some, there is complete order. More often, lives are found somewhere in the middle. God observes. The owner of a large fish tank of sorts. Some fish swim in schools and yield to the environment around them, while others thrust back and forth hoping for escape. Chaos and peace in union with one another. And as I contemplate on God looking down on creation, I feel as if I get a very small glimpse of how He sees us.

I’m realizing that our relationship with God is much of the time in complete opposition to the culture around us. While we strive to gain just a hint of control in our lives, God subtly whispers for us release any semblance of control to Him. Maybe stability will only be found through instability. Maybe peace will only be found through chaos. Contentment will only be found through our souls being discontent. For only at that point do we realize our true dependence on God. A child can only throw so many temper tantrums before he releases all that pent up anger and frustration, and falls limp into his father’s arms and submits to what he knew was right in the first place. But with that release comes peace; a “peace that transcends all understanding.” (Philippians 4:7)

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart…” This is one of those verses that seems to tie everything together. It makes complete sense and yet for some reason, it comes so difficult to all of us. Whether from our parents or culture, we are taught from a very early age to trust in ourselves. To be in control of your own emotions is the ultimate goal because if it feels good, do it. Maybe the answer lies in sometimes doing what doesn’t “feel” right. Maybe it’s somewhere in between.

Do you remember the episode of Seinfeld, where frustrated with failure, George comes to the conclusion that the answer to his success might come from doing the complete “opposite” of what he had always done? As with most concepts in Seinfeld, it was ridiculous, pointless and revolved around “nothing”. But I found that there was actually a grain of truth in George’s thought process. As George threw caution to the wind, in a somewhat helpless attempt to find success, he finally became honest about who he was in many aspects.

I wonder if there might be a hint of theology in this as well. The gospel according to George? Do we throw caution to the wind and do everything opposite of what we have always done? Well, if you remember correctly, in subsequent episodes, George finds that failure still finds him, even in doing the opposite of what his instincts have led him to do. But maybe in some areas of life, our first instinct is not always the best choice to make. Maybe trusting our emotions and feelings is not always what guides us in the right direction.

Scripture tells us that there is a way that seems right to man, but God’s ways are not our ways and part of our understanding of God lies in the fact that we cannot always understand Him. Acknowledging that God is God, and we are not, gets us to a place where we have no other alternative but to submit to Him and the fact that He just might know what’s better for us than we do. After all, Scripture is filled with examples of people that futilely tried to do things they’re own way, only to hit proverbial the brink wall. Peace and success are realized in the lives of those who learned to be in full submission to His sovereignty and will. Those that finally decided that they might just be better off doing the “opposite” of what they have always done.

"Serenity" - Watercolor by Judi McWilliams -

Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar and Worship

Yesterday afternoon, my oldest son and I ventured out for some "guy time" and saw Avatar. If you haven't seen the movie yet, let me just say that if you saw the 1990 epic, Dances with Wolves, you already know the basic story line. In fact, one could easily say that it's just a futuristic rip-off in CGI form. Don't get me wrong, Avatar is an amazing and beautiful journey into pure fantasy and was worth the money. It's an escape, which is what most of us need these days. But is there much more to it?

Despite the usual political rhetoric regarding "evil" humans, and how we are too stupid and greedy to avoid destroying ourselves, and eventually other planets, the movie is very enjoyable. But I'll warn you... you may walk out of the movie carrying a burden of humanistic guilt the size of a Mountain Banshee! There's also the whole "Colonists suck, Indians rock" theme going! Avatar also smacks of universalist theology, pantheism and goddess worship, but what can you expect from Hollywood, and the man who arrogantly prides himself on miraculously discovering Jesus' tomb? The plot is very predictable and leaves you with the underlying theme that it is uncool to be Human.

Believe it or not, it is not my intention to slam Avatar. Like I said, I liked the movie and was very entertained, and I usually try and keep political agendas out of the picture. I'm not a film critic, but as with any movie I see, I always try and dissect the underlying theological significance and how it applies to today's culture. After watching Avatar, this wasn't difficult to do. One aspect resonated with me more clearly than any other movie in many years. It's subtle, but definitely there, and is also one of the main objections I had to the movie: the faith and worship of the alien civilization around which the movie revolves.

The Na'vi are a primitive race of aliens that inhabit the planet Pandora. As the movie progresses, you begin to see the lifeblood of this culture, which is its faith in their deity, Eywa. The center of worship is The Tree of Souls, which seems to be the point of spiritual contact with Eywa and the civilization's ancestors. The energy that emanates from this tree, and Eywa, is a living network that carries through all of nature, living creatures and the Na'vi themselves. It's the center of life on Pandora.

The point is, the Na'vi saw their deity and it's power as the center of their lives. Nothing existed independently from their god. To this culture, there was no distinction between faith and life. All aspects of life were united and flowing together, with their god at the center. It was a holistic picture of faith and one of the more beautiful images in Avatar. No, it was not Christian worship and I acknowledge that this movie paints a picture of a false god, and a fantasy god at that. But what I am focusing on, is the simple act of worship within this culture and what I think we can learn from it as believers in Christ.

As I've said before, we live in a very compartmentalized culture with very pluralistic belief systems. One compartment holds our faith. One compartment holds our family. One compartment holds our work, hobbies, friends, etc. Very rarely do we encourage, or even want the elements of our faith intertwining with other compartments of our life. But what would it look like if we did? What would it look like in our churches, if all elements of our lives revolved around our faith communities and the worship of Jesus Christ? What would it be like to see the power of the living God transcending every compartment, until we were left with a holistic picture of life, with God at the center? Everything moved within and intertwined until there was no distinction. No conflicts. No barriers. Just faith in a God that lives within us as Scripture says.

The ancient Hebrews knew this well, and it makes me wonder where we've lost hold of this essential key of worship. In Deuteronomy 6:4-9, God encourages His people in saying "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates."

In John 15, Jesus reinforced this essential holistic relationship with God when He said, "I am the vine; you are the branches." Just before this in John 14, He says, "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me;" Do you see this holistic picture that God has been painting since He first spoke to the people of Israel? God is the essence of all that has life. He lives in us and through us, and gives life to all that is around us. Why should we not then attribute all the aspects of our individual lives to God, and see that He is the object of our worship, not what He has created, but Him who is the creator? Worship as a lifestyle? Not just a Sunday morning ritual? Now that's an alien concept!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Nostalgia and Corner Stores

Did you know that “nostalgia” used to be considered a mental disorder? In my case, that would make sense, but lately memories of my youth have been creeping in and out of my mind. I’m not sure why, but I’ve been rather nostalgic over the last couple of weeks. And this has actually made me think a lot about my relationship with God, and how good He has been to me in the 40 years that I’ve been blessed to walk this earth. It’s almost as if God has been guiding me through a museum of elaborate paintings that are windows of the past. Each painting is like a snap shot of a significant period of life that was pivotal in the development of who I am today. Let me share one of these paintings with you.

When I was growing up, my grandparents lived down the road from a little corner store named O’Bannon’s. This was back in the mid to late 70’s, so some of that old fashioned Americana still penetrated into modern society, and this was one of those rare gems. These were the days when a pocket full of change would buy cavity-inducing treasure, and you would still have a little left over. I still can still feel it. I can still see it with vivid clarity. I can still smell it.

Each summer, my brother and I would always spend a week at my grandparent’s house, and walking to O’Bannon’s was the highlight of each day. Most mornings, we darted out of the kitchen that had one of those old wooden screen doors that creaked before it slammed shut, just like on the Walton’s. We ran past Paw Paw’s upholstery shop and across the drive way covered in rock and oyster shells. I could feel the embrace of the morning sun on my back and on my bare feet as the concrete warmed up a little. Down a cracked sidewalk we would run before dodging between a couple of houses and through a few backyards. Eventually we would come to the well worn path that led to the left and the back of O’Bannon’s. Through heavy trees and bushes the path would wind until it finally ended at the cracked black asphalt parking lot. The bright summer sun would greet us again as we skipped across the cracks and potholes and eventually to the cool covered sidewalk that ran along the front of the store. To the right was an old rail covered in cracked and peeling paint that divided the walk from the parking spots. To your left were the dirty glass windows of the store, revealing cloudy glances of the treasures that lay waiting inside.

As you opened the front door a bell would ring and you were instantly met with a cold burst of air, which was very welcome on a hot and humid morning. My grandparents had no air conditioning back in those days, so this was like heaven. Our pace would slow as we enjoyed the cool air and made our way over to the candy isle. Since we usually only had a dollar or so, we immediately inspected the lowest row, which held the colorful bins of penny candy. Imagine how many pieces you could buy for a dollar? But we always made sure that we had 25 cents for a soda. I don’t know about you, but soda tasted much better, and stayed colder, back in the day when it came in tall glass bottles. But as usual, I digress. What does all of this have to do with God and theology in general?

In Ecclesiastes 12, Solomon says, “Don’t let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator. Honor him in your youth before you grow old and say, “Life is not pleasant anymore.” He goes on to emphasize the natural passing and general order of life in several verses that culminate with, “the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it. Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless.”

Meaningless, huh? Is there really no point to our wandering through this world? Is the substance of our lives simply being born into this world, living a relatively short life and then returning to the earth that we walked upon? Well, I don’t think that’s what Solomon is saying and I believe that our existence has much more significance than simply taking up space and wasting air. Rather, I think that the point is that our time on earth is short. The past, although filled with significant memories, no longer exists. The future is uncertain and that leaves us holding on to our present, which will soon pass on to the history we make of it. Those of us that have a relationship with Christ, are called to embrace the present existence that we have each second of the day. And one of the problems we all have is “nostalgia”. Come to think of it, maybe it is a mental disorder after all. I find no benefit in walking through the corridors of the past. And as God seemed to be walking me through these lost moments of life, maybe His point was “release”, rather than “embrace”. I can’t go back in time. I can’t recreate the memories of youth that I store away in the “Nostalgia” file. But there are two things that God has revealed to me as I finish this blog and stop rambling. These memories are gifts from a Holy God that have carved me into the man I am today. And although I sometimes long for the days of my youth, I must honor him now, before I get much older and say to myself with regret, “Life is not pleasant anymore.” Because it really is meaningless when compared to my eternal relationship with God.

So I guess I’ll focus my thoughts on “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which god has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14)