Keeping Up Appearances

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ReDiscovered Word 18

(1 and 2 Samuel)

Both kings were handsome, but the resemblance ended there. 

Saul, the first king, was more handsome than anybody else in Israel. He was tall and good-looking and everything people wanted in a leader.

David, the second king, had nice eyes and red hair, but he wasn’t the first one you’d notice in a crowd. Unlike his brothers, and unlike Saul, he was never described as a tall man.

Saul’s appearance commanded attention, but David’s usually didn’t

The differences between them went much deeper than appearance, though. The trouble with Saul was that his life and his reign were defined by appearances. Saul’s philosophy was encapsulated thousands of years later by a famous camera commercial. “Image is everything.” As long as he looked good, he saw no real reason to do good.

Saul and David both disobeyed God. Both were confronted by angry prophets, and both paid dearly for their sin.

But Saul lost his kingdom, while David kept his. Saul’s line was wiped out, while David’s line was preserved forever. Have you ever wondered why?

The answer is found in how each man responded to God’s discipline.

Saul’s first instinct was to keep up appearances. He cared about how he looked. So he denied and evaded responsibility and refused to admit his sin. And when he finally was forced to acknowledge what he’d done, he was more concerned about being embarrassed in front of the people than he was about making things right with God.

On the other hand, David’s first response was to admit his guilt and acknowledge his sin against God. He made no excuses and offered no evasions. He replied with one sentence: “I have sinned against the Lord.” He was more concerned about being right with God than looking good in front of others.

When God called David “a man after God’s own heart,” he wasn’t saying that David was sinless, or even that David was particularly nice all the time. He’s saying that David’s heart was soft toward God, in tune with the fact that God cares more about who we are than about how we look.

David knew that in order to remove his sin, God had to expose it. He knew that receiving grace required him to admit he needed it. And in the final analysis, that’s what defines everybody who has a heart after God’s own.

You and I, we also need grace. We are sinners. Like Saul and David, we’ve disobeyed God over and over. The only question left is whether we will allow His light to pierce our shadows. Will we let His mercy overcome the lies that separate our hearts from His, or will we try, like Adam and Eve and Saul, to hide from His all-seeing eyes?

David, the man after God’s own heart, knew the truth: Grace arrives just in time for those who need it most. For those who know they need it. For those who ask for it. There’s no keeping up appearances in the presence of God. He loves you too much to let you get away with that.

So will you hide, or will you step into the light of grace and find the forgiveness and love you so desperately need?

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An Interview with Riot Studios

Believe_Me_Film_PosterThe new film Believe Me tells the story of four recent college grads who jump on the Christian preaching circuit in order to make some quick cash. The problem? They don’t really believe anything they’re saying. At the heart of the film are questions about the integrity of our Christian subculture and our search for deeper truth behind all of the religious hype. It’s not your typical Christian film, and I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of the story and the quality of the film-making.

The movie was written and produced by Riot Studios, an independent film group located in Austin. Some of the stars of the film are familiar faces like Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) and the rapper LeCrae (who plays a small role).

Michael Allen, one of the screenwriters, was a student in my wife’s seventh grade class back when she taught school (yes, as much as I hate to admit it, we’re that old). Michael went to Texas A&M and we’ve kept in touch over the years. So he and Will Bakke (who directed and co-wrote the film) were kind enough to answer a few questions about their new film and about the relationship between quality art and Christianity. My questions are in bold type and their responses are below. Enjoy!

What originally motivated you guys to jump into Christian film-making?

Michael: I don’t know that we ever endeavored to jump into specifically Christian filmmaking. We got our start making documentaries about some trips we took during college to explore our own personal faith. The fact that we’re Christians ourselves, and the films are about us, naturally brings about the label “Christian films,” but honestly we don’t feel limited to only telling stories about Christians or Christianity.

Who is the main audience for Believe Me? Christians or non-Christians or both?

Michael: I think it’s both. We’ve found there are a lot of people who wouldn’t identify as Christians currently, but they’ve grown up in or been exposed to the church culture, which is the subject of most of the humor in Believe Me. We’ve heard from people of all different perspectives that the authenticity in the characters makes the film more uniting than polarizing. No matter where someone is coming from, he or she can find a character to relate to in this story.

What was your primary goal with the film? Is there a particular point you were hoping to communicate?

Will: Our primary goal was to tell a compelling story. Something we really set out to do was to not put any kind of message or agenda ahead of the story. We’re a part of a generation that can smell an agenda a mile away, especially in film. We’ve found more success in asking the right questions instead of handing people the right answers.

How did you want this movie to be distinct from other Christian films?

Michael: Well, we’ve tended to resist that label in the first place (“Christian film”). For us, it’s not about distinguishing Believe Me from other Christian films, but rather about being true to our own voice and trying to make an honest production with good writing, acting, cinematography, and editing (probably the goal of most films, though arguably not always in “Christian films”)

Tell me a little about your creative process. What goes into generating a film idea and seeing it through to completion?

Will: This was Michael’s and my first feature to write and so we felt like we were making a lot of it up as we went along. We weren’t just inspired by other movies but all different forms of art. Music was a big factor in creating the world that we wanted these guys to live in and so we spent a lot of time in the early story phases just trying to understand the tone of the film. Once we had a rough script, we had countless writer-friends go through it and tear it apart. We feel like whenever you create art, it’s best to have people with good taste around for critique.

The Christians in the film seem to be a gullible group of people. Do you think Christians are more gullible than others, or just more optimistic about people?

Michael: The latter. I think Christians can tend to see the world through rose-colored lenses because so many have a more hopeful perspective on life than unbelievers. With that said, however, we’d also like to distinguish the Christians in this film with all Christians. We display a few caricatures in the movie for the sake of humor and conflict, but our audience shouldn’t assume we’re trying to make mass generalizations for people wearing a certain label.

Are the characters based in any way on real people? Do you think there are Christian speakers or musicians who are deliberately deceptive like Sam and his friends?

Michael: All the characters are based on real people in some way. Most of them involve combining different characters we’ve met in our own lives. And yeah, I’m sure there are some “Christian” speakers here and there that fake the belief for money, fame, or acceptance. Just recently there was a widespread story of a well-known Christian rock band that admitted to not really believing. At the same time, you can’t make assumptions or judge. You can never really know what someone believes in his or her heart, as fake or earnest as it may seem. That’s one of the major themes in Believe Me.

What advice do you have for young Christians who want to get into film-making?

Michael: Make great films and don’t rely on a handicap because you’re young or Christian. Start making short and/or simple films right now if you haven’t (I wish I’d started younger) and use this time to discover your voice. Once you have a hold on your voice, stay true to it and don’t force it to fit a mold of what Christian artists have done in the past.

Will: Don’t wait for permission. Go make good, true art.

How can Christians work toward the goal of creating high quality art that is consistent with their belief in Jesus?

Michael: Growing up in church culture, I had this quasi-guilt about creating honest art. I thought if I didn’t write only worship songs, or make only Christian movies, I was betraying Jesus. Imagine if you applied the same concept to any other profession. For instance, imagine if all Christian architects only designed buildings shaped like crosses. There would be pretty limited use for Christian architects in culture at large. The goal of any Christian’s vocation should be to work hard, deal honestly, and bless the world with the results of his labor. We can do that without forcing a sermon into every production.

Thanks to Michael and Will for taking the time to answer my questions. If any readers have any comments or thoughts, feel free to add them below!

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When Saints and Heroes Gathered

Worship Gatheringsat among saints and heroes. Few of them looked extraordinary, and none of them were famous.

If you knew them, though, you’d see what I saw.

I saw a man whose family has been riddled with tragedy lately, who has seen more than one family member taken by death. He smiled at me, gave me a hug, and offered words of encouragement. He told me it was a great day because he was on his feet, alive, able to worship. He reminded me that life is God’s gift and that death is bound to lose eventually.

I saw a young woman, a college student, who quietly placed her money in the offering plate. She closed her eyes and sang about God’s love, and I think she meant it. She reminded me that small gifts aren’t always small, because God’s economy is different from ours.

I saw parents with tired eyes who tried to keep their babies quiet, and I wanted to tell them how glad I was that they showed up at all. There’s something supernatural about getting there within fifteen minutes of the right time, about waking up early on the weekend and getting everybody dressed. They reminded me that Jesus loves each little one and beckons all of them to come inside.

I saw an older man who loves his wife dearly and can’t understand why she’s so sick. As he guided her to her seat, his eyes were filled with both love and pain. He was kind and tender and grateful to serve her for one more day. He reminded me of my own promise, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, and he strengthened my resolve to keep it.

I saw men and women with their eyes on the floor, struggling with guilt because the weight of sin is heavy. They came looking for mercy, for forgiveness, for hope to keep fighting, and I pray they found Good News that morning. They reminded me that nobody is beyond the grace of Jesus, not even me.

Together we reached for God, imperfect, sinful, but together. We clung to the truth that each of us is a member of Christ’s body, and we need each other as surely as we’re needed.

Some days it’s easy to see our flaws and sins, to wonder if we’re doing anything right. It’s easy to criticize and to withdraw from one another.

It’s easy listen and sing without noticing that we sit among saints and heroes. Saints in progress, and heroes with feet of clay, but saints and heroes all the same. My church is a special place, but yours might be too. Look around you. Linger after the service or show up early. Pay attention what God has done and what God is doing.

His Spirit is present and active in His church, slowly shaping us into who we ought to be. We worship among saints and heroes, ordinary holy people, set apart for God’s own possession. We proclaim Him as we sing, as we preach, as we suffer, and as we serve.

We are nothing special. But then again, maybe we are.

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The First Commandment is the Hardest

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(Exodus 20)

The First Commandment is the hardest. 

“You shall have no other gods before me,” He told them. Even then, God knew they would choose other gods. Under every tree on on every hill, they would build their images and bow down to gods they could manage, gods they created out of stone and silver and wood.

The gods we build are small, and completely unable to promise what they deliver. We like them because we can control them. They don’t threaten us, because they are utterly powerless.

God’s jealousy is not borne of insecurity. He insists on exclusivity because He is the only living God. He is jealous for us because He loves us. He knows — and we so easily forget — that Life is only found in Him.

To put it plainly: There are no other gods. Anything we worship besides God is a product of something He made. We worship the creation rather than the Creator. Every time we bow to a foreign god, to an idol, to our own desires, we lose a little bit of the life He has given us.

No other god can deliver life, or love, or security, or peace. The gods of the Canaanites promised so much: sexual pleasure, abundant crops, victory in battle. They promised so much, and they delivered nothing but nothing. Their gods were not much different from our own.

The First Commandment is the hardest, but it’s an immeasurably good gift. The God who made us wants to know us. He wants to give us Eternal Life that can never be taken away. He simply insists that we recognize its Source. “Seek first the kingdom of heaven, and all of these things will be added to you.” We try to reverse that order and wind up with empty hands and broken hearts.

To worship God alone is not to abandon Life, but to receive it. But it’s so hard to do. Like the Israelites, we construct our own gods and believe their false promises. We are as unable to obey as they were, as desperately in need of help as our ancestors. We need help, so God provided it.

We would not return to God, so He came to us instead. He came, God in the flesh, the only Son, to show us the Life that only He could provide. He swallowed death and sin in victory and promised to live with us and in us forever. To wash away the idolatry and rebellion that corrupted our hearts. To demonstrate that His jealousy is good, because He is the only God who can promise Life and then deliver it.

Yes, the First Commandment is the toughest, but it is good. Like the One True God who gave us Life.

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The God Who Never Sleeps

Moses kills an EgyptianReDiscovered Word 7

(Exodus 1-14)

Never mistake God’s silence for indifference. He is patient, but He never sleeps. 

For 400 years, Jacob’s children felt the whip on their backs. They lived under a cloud of fear and oppression, slaves in a land far away from the home God promised. Generations came and went, all of them desperate for liberation. They cried to God in the middle of their suffering and heard nothing at all. The silence of God felt deafening, but He was never asleep.

Pharaoh forgot about Joseph, but God never did. The One who never sleeps or slumbers was waiting patiently. Not wanting any to perish, He gave the Amorites of Canaan 400 years to repent. When the time had come, He stretched out His mighty arm to crush the king of Egypt and set His people free. God is patient, but He’s never late.

We look at our world and we look at our lives and wonder if God sees the suffering of His children or hears the cries of His people who live under the ever-present shadow of death. We wonder when He will judge those who manufacture evil and perpetrate it without shame.

We cry to the heavens, and we wonder why God stays silent. But know this: God’s silence is not indifference, and the Day of the Lord will arrive right on time. God is patient, but He’s never late.

He waits for even the worst sinner to receive grace, but meanwhile He hears every cry for freedom. His eyes see the dark corners of our world and take note of every injustice. Rulers and kings may deny Him, and wicked men may mistake His patience for approval. But the day of judgment and liberation will come swiftly and surely.

Just as he did for Jacob’s children, God will move to set the slaves free and crush the proud in heart. The resurrected Redeemer will one day part the sky, just as He once parted the sea. Those who fall on His grace will be saved, delivered to the land He promised us, a land no evil can touch.

Meanwhile, we wait and pray and cry for deliverance. Our hope rests in the God who delivered His people from Egypt and delivered His Son from death. He is patient, and He is sometimes silent, but He is never asleep.

Wait for His coming.

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Why I’m Taking a Blog Sabbatical

Over the past year, I’ve made a point of blogging at least once a week. I enjoy writing, and this blog provides me with that outlet, along with a chance to connect with friends and readers on a regular basis.

At least once a year, though, I try to take a short break from blogging. Doing so allows me to rest, but also to read and to learn. One danger of always creating new content is that after awhile one’s output can exceed one’s input. When that happens, there’s not much left to say. For that reason, I won’t be regularly posting until at least July and this “blogging sabbatical” might extend to August.

In the meanwhile, there are two projects I want to focus on. The first and most important one is prayer and preparation for Grace’s third campus, where I will be the teaching pastor. We have a lot to do, and I want to spend the necessary time making sure my heart and mind are ready for this huge transition. The second priority for me is to consider what direction I want to take my writing in the next few years. I’m increasingly captivated by the grace of God in Jesus, and over the years this blog has moved more and more in the direction of exploring that grace in writing. As I’ve seen that theme emerging naturally in my writing, I want to consider how to focus things even more specifically. But I need to step away from the self-imposed demand of regular blogging in order to do that.

I imagine that I’ll still be writing here and there, and I might even put up the occasional post. But it won’t be on a weekly basis for the time being. On my Facebook page, I’ll periodically post links to older posts, along with short reflections and ideas.

I look forward to connecting with readers again toward the end of the Summer and into the Fall. 

Matt

A Father’s Prayer

Dear God,

You are a perfect Father. The longer I parent my own children, the more stunning I find the reality of Your perfection. Your love is infinite, Your righteousness is perfect, and Your grace is always present. You always seek the best for Your own children, and You provide all that we need and more.

You know that I am far from a perfect Father. Sometimes I permit what I should prohibit, and I prohibit what I should permit. I’m too easily angered, and at times I’m just plain lazy. Some days I prioritize my own desires more than the needs of my kids. Forgive me.

And help me.

Teach me not to view my children as an inconvenience. They’re noisy. They’re needy. Sometimes they break things that I’ve worked hard to purchase or build. I suppose I do the same things to You sometimes. Please help me to share myself with them. Remind me that my time and possessions belong to You. Remind me that they aren’t an inconvenience, but a stewardship.

Help me remember that my kids aren’t created to make me look good. That request highlights an ugly part of my soul. How many times have I tried to control those little ones because I feel embarrassed? If I’m honest, I’m often frustrated when I feel like their childishness makes me look bad. Make me more concerned with their inward character than I am with their outward displays of virtue.

Remind me to pause and enjoy them. I always feel busy. There never seem to be enough hours to accomplish everything I would like to do. But they need a father who is present and engaged more than they need one who is well-accomplished. I need the courage to trust You for tomorrow. Tonight, I want to laugh, play trucks, tickle, and listen. I want to put away my phone, my computer, and my book, and just enjoy them for a little while.

Give me strength to model Your character for them. They seem to be watching and listening, even when I’d rather they wouldn’t. I don’t want to simply preach about integrity without modeling it. Help me to honor You even when I don’t think they’re watching or listening.

Give me strength to train their hearts to trust You. I’m such an imperfect father, and I know they need a better One. I know that one day they’ll realize I’m just a man. I’m doing my best, I’m trying to follow You, but I still fall so short. So please fill the gaps for all of us. When I’m distant, please be close. When I’m unforgiving, be their Grace. When I can’t protect them, do it for me. All I can do is reflect You. But like all men, I’m a tarnished mirror. Let them know the God who shines so perfectly.

Wrap them in Your grace. Fill their hearts with the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. Enthrall them with the One who lives to reconcile them to You, their Heavenly Father. And let them be conduits of Your grace to a world that needs You so badly.

And one day, when they are parents, let them reflect and trust You, despite the weaknesses and failures of the man they call Dad. And for Your sake and theirs, make me a better mirror, to reflect a perfect Father.

Amen.

The Heartbeat of My Church

I’ve had the privilege of serving as the college pastor at my church for the past nine years. I am making a transition to a new role at Grace, one centered on communication. I’ll be helping Grace expand its reach around the world, because I believe strongly in our message that God’s grace is freely given through Jesus. I think it’s a message that the world needs to hear, and I want to use my gifts as a teacher, writer, and communicator to get the message out more broadly.

I also believe strongly in our church’s ministry to college students, which is why I’ve given the past decade of my life to it. I don’t see my new role as a complete departure from college ministry, but instead as a way of furthering the church’s ministry to students around the world.

Some of my readers might be unfamiliar with Grace’s college ministry, so I thought I’d use this week’s post to share a short video that highlights what we do. If you’re interested in learning more, go to our website at www.grace-bible.org.

Impact The World For Christ – College from Grace Bible Church on Vimeo.

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Doubt Lets the Grace In

 

Sometimes I doubt.

That might be surprising, even disconcerting, to some. Is it normal for a Christian to doubt what he believes? Is it alright for a pastor to have doubts?

I used to ask myself the same questions and wonder what was wrong with me — why couldn’t I attain absolute certainty about matters of the faith? Yet the more I’ve studied the Bible and talked with mature Christians, I’ve come to recognize that faith seldom (if ever) exists without a degree of doubt. To take it a step further, most people who are absolutely certain of everything haven’t really wrestled deeply with the bigger questions of life. Faith is not the same thing as certainty. Faith, by its very nature, is trusting in God even when we cannot attain certainty — I think this is the key point of Hebrews 11. We believe what we do not see. If we saw everything clearly, we would no longer have any reason to trust in the unseen.

Absolute certainty about anything is an illusion. Why? Because we are finite creatures. Whether we’re talking about scientific discovery or spiritual truth, my limited point of view necessarily means that there will be a bit of doubt lingering around the margins of my faith. (That’s why doubt is not merely a part of the Christian experience, but a part of the human experience.)

Most of us freak out when we experience doubt, and as a result I think we often miss one of its greatest benefits: Doubt is often a conduit for the grace of God. Doubt inherently places us in a position of helplessness and need. We cannot see everything, we cannot understand the things we think we do see, so we are utterly dependent upon the wisdom and kindness of God.

When James tells us that the doubting person will not receive anything from God, I don’t think he means that absolute certainty is required when we approach the Father in prayer. I think he means quite the opposite, in fact. The word for “doubt” in the Greek language carries the idea of “double-mindedness.” I think James is telling us this: The person who approaches God for wisdom, yet thinks he already understands everything with certainty, isn’t truly inclined to listen to what God has to say. He’s curious about God’s wisdom, but isn’t desperate for it. As a result, he doesn’t receive wisdom. Wisdom comes to those who approach God single-mindedly, asking Him to provide what we do not possess.

When Peter experienced his own bouts with doubt (see, for example, Matthew 14:22-34), they became stunning opportunities for the grace of Jesus to pour into his life. True, Jesus chastised Peter for his doubt, but it was sinking into the water that caused Peter to cry, “Lord, save me!” Only by sinking did he learn to cry out to the one who could pull him out. Peter had to learn faith through the troubling lens of doubt and fear, and Jesus knew that. The bold Peter we see on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) would not have existed were it not for the lessons he learned on the water, and the pain he experienced when he denied His Savior.

I’ve learned to view doubt as a frustrating but necessary element of the Christian life. Until we see Jesus face to face, we will have to operate by faith rather than certainty. In the meanwhile, God uses our limitations and our doubt to reshape us. Through the process of wondering and questioning and asking God for the wisdom we lack, we slowly begin to grow in our own faith. Seeing God move in our lives despite our doubt and fear encourages us to take another step closer to Him.

To put it simply, doubt lets God’s grace come in. That’s true, if we view doubt as a renewed opportunity to trust Him. On the other hand, if we push away the doubt with our own reasoning, our own intelligence, and a sense of arrogant self-sufficiency, then we will not find the faith we’re seeking. Nor will we find certainty. Instead, we’ll become proud and distant from God. It’s only by acknowledging the doubt and bringing it to the feet of our all-knowing God that we can grow. Wisdom isn’t found in certainty, but in a growing understanding of our own limitations and our utter and absolute need of God’s wisdom.

So what do you think? Is doubt inappropriate for Christians? Do you ever struggle with it? How do you handle it? 

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