Thursday, January 9, 2014

Those P and E words

I wonder if Paul knew what a debate - often contentious - he was beginning when he wrote the first part of his letter to Ephesus. It is one of the great passages in the Bible which we now call Ephesians, chapter 1. In it Paul refers to the spiritual blessings we have in Christ. Among those blessings are "predestination" and "election". or the "chosenness" of Christians. Those two blessings have caused a whole lot of consternation among believers in Christ. I was leading a Bible study on this text this week with men who have met together for a long time and who are serious students of the Bible. The lively discussion circled around the questions of "what about free will?, and "doesn't predestination mean that we have no choice?" One man, obviously vexed that we would talk about these things at all, said it just leads to division and doubt. One man brought  up the hyper Calvinist angle: what about all the people this passage excludes, those who are non-elect, not chosen and not predestined to salvation? A few men said that they believed all are chosen, or predestined but not all accept (which begs the question why Paul even brought this up then?) There were one or two who shrugged and said it is a mystery, the mind of God, after all, who can understand that? Most concurred that we are not going to understand it and a discussion of these things usually leads to more heat than light and what's important is that we believe in Jesus. In other words, a pretty typical discussion of election and predestination. I sensed some frustration among the group and I wondered if people left feeling like, "well that was a waste of time!"

I don't think it was. I think it's an important passage for a number of reasons. We tend to take what Paul said out of context. He was not writing about predestination or election. They are part of the spiritual blessing package Paul unpacks in Ephesians 1. Some theologians have taken those concepts farther than Paul ever did. Second, Paul is writing about what God has done. He has predestined us… etc. This is from our point of view in history. When we become believers in Christ, it is not long until we realize who was responsible for our believing. God was at work in us by his Holy Spirit way before we acknowledged his activity in our lives (before the foundation of the world, Paul wrote). That's predestination. That means He is still at work in us even if we don't sense that at times.

Next, Paul uses the idea of our being chosen to make us aware of God's grace. He chose us because he chose us. It had nothing to do with us. We made a choice for God somewhere down the line but it was in response to Him. It was not our idea nor our performance nor anything else within us that got us chosen. We are not in charge of our spiritual lives, God is. That means we are still chosen on our bad days.

Next, the whole point of his chapter is Jesus Christ. What God has done for us, he has done in Christ. These spiritual blessings come by means of our relationship with Christ. That means our lives are Christ centered, not me and my spiritual life centered.

Finally, Paul is painting the Big Picture here. This is what God is doing, calling out a People for the praise of His Glory. Not our glory. This is not about us. It is about God. We are chosen, not for our individual talents, abilities or just general all around nice qualities, but we are chosen to be the People God is shaping to live out the gospel of Christ in the world. Now and forever. Amen. That means no matter what is going on for us or with us today, we are part of something much bigger and greater that God has going on.

I think Paul knew what he was doing.

Friday, January 3, 2014

New Year's Day

New Year's Day is a big day for new resolutions and for making fun of the making of new resolutions because we all know something about failing to keep new year's resolutions. For many years, before we rang in the new year, I would drag my family into the living room for a discussion of resolutions and goals for the new year. To the loud chorus of groans, I would explain my goals for our family for the new year. Then, I would ask them for theirs. Even though I had given them fair warning that this little exercise was coming, they looked at me like I was asking for something they had never heard of. Usually, this exercise in goal setting and resolution making was a total waste of time. Like most of the resolutions I made. However, I will not admit it was a total waste of time. There is value in reflection and discussing future hopes and dreams. Maybe, the trick is not calling them goals or resolutions which seem doomed to fail. We don't often hit what we aim for.

I don't do resolutions any more. I don't set any goals. I have learned that the road of life is littered with shattered resolutions and goals. That may sound a bit over dramatic so I have learned that there are more obstacles to keeping goals and resolutions than I can possibly foresee in my new year's goal setting sessions. I have learned to survive and one of those survival skills is to go easy on setting goals for yourself and don't ever do it for others!

The gospel of John, chapter one, is my favorite Biblical chapter for the new year. It is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible for any time. But, especially, for the new year. Jesus doesn't talk much about grace in the gospels. He shows it, he lives it. But, the teaching about grace comes mostly from Paul. Yet, here in John 1, John teaches grace. Scott Hoezee calls verse 16, grace squared, grace cubed, grace raised to the power of 10. John writes that from the fullness of grace in the "Word made flesh", we have received "grace upon grace'. Some translations say blessing upon blessing but the word in the original is grace. Grace is a blessing that never quits. In our lives of failed goals and resolutions we never run out of our need for more grace.

John 1 reminds us that as a new year turns it really is not about what we are going to do to make things right or better with ourselves or others or the world. It is about living in God's grace for us, always has been, always will be.

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street has not gotten particularly good reviews from the critics and it has not made the kind of money that would qualify it as a box office hit. The Wall Street Journal critic, Joe Morgenstern, said he could not wait for it to end and called it "hollow". I have not seen it nor do I intend to. From the reviews it is easy to see it is an exploitation of the excesses of Wall Street. It is a caricature based on a slim memoir by a very small player who nevertheless lived very large. His foray into the world of Wall Street earned him a reputation for greed and excess - a reputation largely of his own making - for the film is based on his book! The film which boasts some big stars is an over the top picture of the worst of what Wall Street does best, make money. The money which was made hand over fist was used to fund parties, bling, drugs and stupid human behavior. Not to mention lots of crude language and nudity. Lots of it. So my point is not to go see the movie because it is so crude it earned every bit of it's R rating. There are lots of movies like that. My point is why would someone go?

When I was in college at a midwestern Christian school, the students signed a pledge vowing they would not go to movies. Movies showed a worldview that was not conducive to living a holy Christian life. We used to wait until the movies came out on tv and wondered what the big deal was. It did make us stop and think though. Film is not mindless entertainment; it has a point to make. Is it a point I need to consider. In it's own way, the college I went to wanted to remind us that we don't consume media and the arts - or shouldn't - without reflection. It is also a matter of choices because there are other things to do with your time, some better than others.

Given my college history I have watched the Christian culture change since my college days with some measure of amusement or amazement or both. Christianity Today now reviews most new release films. The reviewer of The Wolf of Wall Street teaches at a Christian College which in my college days was known as more conservative than the college I went to. She wrote a long review and gave it four and a half stars out of five calling it a great and possibly terrific movie. Near the end of the review she makes an explicit list of some of the behaviors depicted in the film that earned it a hard R rating. It reminded me of the ads for drugs that go on for a page or two enumerating all the possible side effects if you take this drug. She seemed to be warning her audience of what was in store for them if they go to see this "great and possibly terrific" movie. She acknowledges that few of the readers of CT will be glad they saw this movie because of the "side effects". So why go see it? Well, it graphically, really graphically, shows how money is the power to get what you want, and that power is intoxicating and, ultimately, totally corrupting. As the reviewer admits, it is not an uncommon theme in movies and tv and I would add many novels. The thing is the reviewer seems to be saying that if you are the kind of person who is troubled by these kinds of depictions in film then be warned and stay away from this movie. However, if you are mature enough to navigate this moral minefield safely then go see it. This reminded me of Paul's discussion in 1 Corinthians about the weaker and stronger brethren in the body of Christ. So, if you see yourself as one of the stronger members of the body of Christ, you can handle it.

Given the long caveat at the end of the review, I wondered if the reviewer, knowing her audience, felt she had to lay down a solid defense for why she went to see the film and found it so good. Clearly, she could handle it. Others may not. It's a question of maturity. On the other hand, to read the reviews, and choose to do something else with three hours of your time, may say something about maturity, too.