On Fools and Disciples

About 8 years ago I was attending a church in another state for about 4 months. During that time, the pastor of the church was caught in a scandal and subsequently left town. I remember having conversations with different people about the details behind the incident, and I as not too surprised by the events that transpired, but I remember saying, “His sermons leading up to this big mess were really good!” After I said that, someone else spoke up and said, “It’s interesting that the sermons get better the closer they hit home for the pastor.”

It’s true, you know. As a preacher, I often find that when I preach on things I am going through (while not abusing the pulpit by using it as a place of personal confession, and not revealing personal information) my sermons seem to have more of an impact.

[Disclaimer: I am fully aware that I am just a tool God uses to communicate His truth, so I am not trying to take credit for anything good that comes from what I preach.]

Recently, I have been obsessed with the Gospel of Mark. In particular, I am most interested in how Mark portrays the disciples. In Mark chapter 4, Jesus seems to set up a distinction between people who are “on the inside,” to which the secrets of the Kingdom of God are given, and those who are “outside,” who do not understand God’s Kingdom nor Jesus’ parables. However, in at least 20 instances throughout Mark’s Gospel, the disciples are the only ones who either a) don’t understand something Jesus says, b) appear clueless as to who Jesus is, c) don’t believe Jesus can do what he says he can do, or d) outright deny things that Jesus says will happen.

Only once does a disciple say something right: Peter’s confession of the Christ. But immediately after that, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” because Peter refused to accept that Jesus was going to suffer.

In contrast, everyone else Jesus encounters throughout Mark’s Gospel either a) have faith that he can heal/forgive, b) believe he is the Son of God, or c) react completely opposite to how the disciples react to Jesus’ teachings. Characters such as the Samaritan woman, Blind Bartimaeus, and even the centurion at the foot of the cross exhibit more faith and understanding than the 12 disciples who spent every day with Jesus over the course of 3 years!

I still have a hard time wrapping my head around this, because it doesn’t make any sense at all! How is it that people who barely know Jesus exhibit more understanding than someone who has daily conversations with the man, listens to his sermons, and watches him perform miracles? And how is it that those ‘on the outside’ seem to know more about God and His Son than those who are ‘on the inside’?

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In truth, I have often found myself in the shoes of the disciples. I have been a Christian ever since I can remember, and there was never a time when I did not know who Jesus was. Yet, I frequently wonder who in the world this man is. I am confronted with the question: ‘Who is the Christ?’ more often than I care to admit, because the more I reflect on it the more I notice how little I know of Jesus. I read the Bible, and the more I do so the more contradicted I feel because how God acts and speaks simply does not make sense to me.

Maybe it seems strange that a pastor would admit that, for him, having faith is difficult. Sometimes I struggle to know what God’s plan is for my life (or even if he has a plan for me life. Maybe He just wants me to pursue whatever is in front of me…), or whether or not He is who the Bible makes Him out to be. And much like the father in Mark 9, I find myself repeating this prayer in my head: “I do believe, but help my unbelief!” Referring back to what I said earlier, it seems that the power of the content of my preaching has changed a bit since I began writing sermons on this very topic.

During my second year of my undergraduate studies, when I was confronting many challenging questions about my beliefs, I was having a conversation with my mom where I admitted that there are many questions I am hesitant to ask because I have no idea how to answer them. It was then that I began feeling like the blind man whom Jesus healed in John 9 who said, “[Who he is] I do not know. One thing I do know. I as blind, but not I see!” Sometimes that is the only thing I can confidently affirm.

Surely God exists and has been active in my life, because I have seen evidence of that fact. Surely His Son lived, died, rose again, and His spirit dwells inside of me because I have felt the power of that truth. Beyond that, I have many questions and even some doubts. But, I think that is okay. If Jesus’ disciples had such a hard time figuring out who Jesus was when they literally walked with him every day, then certainly Jesus can use me even if I haven’t a clue what is going on.

I am sure many of us have found ourselves in similar situations, or perhaps we are currently in that place of doubt. While it is easy to doubt, perhaps our seasons of doubt help to strengthen our Faith in the end.

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On Cimena and One-on-Ones

The other day I was sitting shotgun while a good friend of mine and I were taking someone home from the airport. A conversation started that revolved around the movie God’s Not Dead. I only said one or two things about it; how my friends who saw it thought it handled the philosophical aspects of theology with kid-gloves, and how it was obviously made for a Christian audience instead of a non-Christian one. The other people in the vehicle talked about how it blatantly showed stereotypes like the Muslim family and the atheistic classmates, and how it only presented canned answers to easy questions.

[Side note: apparently they showed the movie at one of the local universities here and right from the beginning one of the Muslim students up and walked out on it (because it was one of ‘those’ movies: Christians and their families are good; everyone else and their families are bad).]

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I have never seen the movie myself, so I can’t offer a meaningful critique outside of what others are saying. But, I have been noticing a trend among Christian media that is a bit disheartening to say the least.

Some who know me already know that I am not a big fan of ‘Christian’ films. This is mostly because I’m not particularly fond of the typical plot development they build off of: person has an imperfect home life > person rejects advice from Christian friend/relative > major life crisis happens > person fails at fixing situation themselves > ‘coming to Jesus’ moment > person struggles > another life crisis > everything gets fixed, and all conflicts are resolved > the end. Quite frankly, I wish that Christian movie producers and writers would wrestle with deep issues and not have every ending be ‘happily ever after.’ I’d even love to see someone develop a movie with a similar development and story as Requiem for a Dream. Let’s be honest with each other, just because you have a relationship with God does not mean that all your problems get fixed.

But that’s not really the biggest reason I’m not a fan of Christian films. I think my biggest reservation is that we tend to become dependent on them to start conversations with non-Christians, and we tend to rely on them to do the evangelizing. Barring the fact that most non-Christians would never see a Christian film (I mean, c’mon, how many Christians would willingly go see a film with an overtly atheist/Muslim/agnostic message?), we should realize something very important…

Some years ago I was spending Thanksgiving with my extended family and several of us were bemoaning the fact that stores had stopped displaying the message “Merry Christmas” and had opted to only use the phrase “Happy Holidays” on their banners, commercials, and wherever else stores display things. After a bit of discussion, my uncle spoke up and said, “Well, it’s not their responsibility to share the Christmas message; that’s our responsibility.”

I feel the same truth applies to Christian media in some way. Although I am glad Christians have stepped into the movie-making business and are producing some good quality films (in terms of production quality, not necessarily screenplay), and that they are using their talents to glorify God (even though I feel you can glorify God without telling an overtly salvific message), music and movies only go so far. In the end, true disciples are made through relationships, and you can’t develop a relationship with a movie that tells one story in almost two hours.

Christian films should not be used for evangelism. They can be tools in evangelism, but at the end of the day they serve mostly to support Christians’ pre-conceived notions and thus far have not truly wrestled with things that a non-Christian would wrestle with. At best, the message being sent through the screen is this: “Oh, you don’t believe in God? Well, you should! Why should you believe in God? Because something good happened to the person in this story for doing so, and his life was fixed. If you don’t believe in God, then your life will be a mess; but if you do then you won’t have to struggle with losing your daughter or having your spouse divorce you. You say the real world doesn’t work like that? …This movie says different, so don’t focus on reality; just watch the movie and have someone pray for you.” Not a very welcoming message.

Evangelism and discipleship are responsibilities we have been given. Perhaps someday ‘Christian’ media will be at the place where non-Christians will actually want to watch them, but the true heart of the Church’s mission still lies within each of us. And so it is up to us to not depend on televisions to do our work. If we are disappointed with how movies with Christian messages are received by non-Christians, then we ought to reevaluate what exactly we’re doing – we could be causing more harm than good.