Category Archives: Opinion

Hard Times in a Hard World

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Oftentimes, life has a way of being self-policing and self-punishing.

It’s like when a little kid sees a freshly baked batch of cookies on a hot oven tray and reaches out to grab one even though mommy and daddy already said no. In such a situation, no parent in their right mind is going to take the time to add a spanking to an already burnt hand. The child learned the lesson the hard way.

If you’ve followed sports news (or news in general for that matter) over the past 48 hours, then there is a good chance that you have heard about the famed race car driver, Tony Stewart, striking and killing a fellow driver with his race car. Moments before, the two drivers found themselves racing side-by-side, Stewart on the inside, Kevin Ward jr. on the outside. Coming off of the corner, Ward got squeezed into the wall, cut a tire, and came to a stop. The caution flag waved and Ward got out of his vehicle and waited for Stewart to come by in order to show his displeasure with his fellow racer. As Stewart drove by, his car hit and killed Ward.

The investigation is ongoing and while there are currently no criminal charges pending, many are suspecting and calling for Stewart to be charged with manslaughter or even accidental homicide.

Now, I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know much about the in’s and out’s of what qualifies as manslaughter. However, I am a racing fan and I can give you my perspective of what happened. Regrettably, I did watch video of the incident and I truly wish that I had not. (If you really want to see it, you can find it on YouTube but I will not post it here — viewer discretion advised.) I do not presume to know all the facts but from what I have read and seen, this is what I gather:

Some people question why Ward got out of his vehicle onto a track with moving race cars (even though they were under caution). Yet, this happens literally all the time in racing. In fact, it happened in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race just a few hours earlier and a couple of towns over from where the Stewart/Ward incident took place. Probably every race car driver has done that at one point or another. When you get wrecked, one way to show your displeasure is to wait for the field to come around the track and point at them to let them know you are unhappy (many drivers will wait and throw things at their competitors — like a helmet or their gloves). This happens all the time. Is it a wise decision to make? Probably not. But you cannot fault Ward for what happened.

Now, for Stewart. Some say that Stewart gunned the throttle right before he went by Ward (which might make him look more guilty). In a dirt sprint car, hitting the throttle causes the rear of the car to slide out to the right. It also causes dirt to fly up to that side of the vehicle. Now, Tony is undoubtedly a hothead with a well reported temper. It would not surprise me one bit if Stewart saw Ward standing there and he decided, as he went by,  to give his competitor a little mud-bath. Much like Ward’s move of getting out of his vehicle to show Stewart his displeasure, Stewart’s throttling up would have been just another way of nonverbal communication that is not uncommon in motorsports. I am not saying that is what Tony did — I wasn’t there. That is just possibly what happened based on what I’ve seen and read.

So, what we have here are two common, though probably unwise, maneuvers that resulted in absolute tragedy. Had Ward been a little bit further back or had Stewart timed his throttling a little differently, no one other than the fans there that night would have known what had happened; which would have just been another mild case of racers losing their tempers. Unfortunately, that is not the situation.

My heart mourns for the Ward family and I have been praying for them ever since I heard about what happened. At the end of the day, what we cannot lose sight of is that a young man has lost his life and there is a family who is mourning.

But I guarantee you, Tony Stewart is also mourning. What happened Saturday night changed his life forever and not in a good way. He was scheduled to run the NASCAR race yesterday — he backed out. That is hard move for a race car driver to make. And even though I have never been a fan of his, I can tell you that there is not a single person on this planet who loves racing more than Tony Stewart. He did not back out of that race (or any other future races) lightly. Some people see Stewart as a murderer who needs jail time as punishment for his crime. I see a man who is deeply wounded and doesn’t need to be kicked when he’s down.

See, some events in life are self policing. Who knows, maybe by the rule of law Tony Stewart did commit manslaughter. But don’t you think that the guilt that he is going to carry for the rest of his life is more than punishment enough? He will never be the same person he was before that race on Saturday night. He will always question everything about those moments and about himself.

Life is oftentimes self-punishing and the last thing that man needs right now is to be put on trial.

My thoughts and prayers go out to the Ward family. But I also pray for Tony Stewart and for justice to be served (which may mean leaving the legal system out of it).

 

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Beyond the Failure

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I am going to be a little open, honest, and self-revealing here.

The idea of failure is something that I struggle with. I realize that I am merely human and that failure, from time to time, is always going to be inevitable. But failure is something that, for some reason, is something that I have never wanted to be associated with.  I think that I would like to believe that I am above failure. Perhaps this is only my own pride shining through but, for me, failure is just not an option.

Yet, obviously, failure happens — even to me. I am not above it and I cannot always avoid it.

About nine month ago now, my wife and I moved to a tiny town in eastern Oregon known as Vale. The purpose of our move was to pastor a small church of about 10 people. This was my first assignment. Within a year’s time I graduated college, got married, and ended up in my first pastorate. The transitions in life were coming hard and fast and I was just trying to hold on. Of course, I had no intention of failing.

The goal for this church, from the beginning, has been to bring it back to a healthy and stable place. It was not always as small as it has been but various factors resulted in some difficult times. I had hoped to be able to come in here and bring new life to a church that desperately needed it; however, I have learned very quickly that this is not a very easy thing to do. Nine months out from the move and not only has our congregation been unable to grow, it has shrunk.

A couple of weeks ago, I prayed before the service for God to give me a glimpse of what He has in store for the future of our church. I just prayed for a glimpse. On that Sunday, we had the smallest attendance of any week since I had been there. I do not think that anyone saw me, but as we sang the words to “Shout to the Lord’, I could hardly sing a note and I just there crying. Feelings of failure just overwhelmed me and I felt completely defeated. Somehow, I made it through the service with composure but I finally broke down in tears once I was back home with my wife. I told her, “I know it’s probably not true, but I feel like I’ve come in here with all that I have but I’ve failed”.

I have learned that sometimes failure catches up to you and it does not care whether or not you have considered it to be an option but it is going to overwhelm and consume you until you realize that you are not immortal regardless of what your pride tells you. Failure is always an option whether you, I, or anyone else wants it to be. I have had to learn this the hard way.

So, there I was. I had given it my best effort, but, obviously I had failed. What next?

Well, I am still working for the church and we have not missed a Sunday yet. Our attendance is not up (we have actually had a couple of Sundays with even lower attendance since). But my outlook is very different today than it was when I fist arrived in Vale because I am learning to live beyond the failure.

As humans, we will always experience failure. Not every moment in our life is going to be a success or an achievement. So, we have to decide whether or not we are going to allow ourselves to be defined by our failure or be defined by something greater.

The day after “Failure Sunday”, I spent about an hour or two in the church in prayer just asking God what He wanted from me. I spent most of the time just sprawled on the floor in front of the alter asking if God was done with me — He made it clear that He was not. But, finally, I was where I needed to be: face down before God. Over the next few days, I began to realize that there never was any way that I could “grow” the church. I could read 100 books about church growth and try all the ideas of this and that but the only way that the church would grow is if, in fervent prayer, we gave control up to God.

Living beyond failure is learning to first depend upon God and leave the results up to Him. Yes, I will work as hard as I can to be His hands and feet but, at the end of the day, it is not about me and it certainly is not depending on me. It is not about my pride or my fear of failure. It is about giving up control to God.

Since that Sunday, I have challenged myself and everyone in our congregation to find two hours over the course of the week to pray for our church. This is where it has to start. And let me tell you, I believe that our greatest days are ahead of us. I say this not because I believe that I cannot fail (I most certainly can) but because I do not believe God makes mistakes and it is more clear now than ever that this is where God has called me to be. We have exciting things planned for the next couple of months and I am blessed to see where God is going to take us beyond the failure.

 


Planet of the Flawed and Broken: There is no “Us” or “Them”

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This last weekend I went to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and I’ll be honest and tell you that I thought it was one of the best movies I have seen in years.

Really? A sequel to a reboot of a remake from a movie based off of a book about talking apes is really that great of cinema? Absolutely! Not only is Dawn a visually spectacular popcorn flick, it is one of the most thought provoking and intelligent blockbusters in recent memory.

That said, I am not writing this to review the film (though if I were, I would be giving the film five out of five stars and calling for Andy Serkis to finally get an Oscar). I am writing to share something that I learned from watching this movie that I believe everyone needs to understand.

We as a people tend to look at other individuals and put them into one of two groups. People are either “us” or they are “them”. They are either Christian or Secular. Democrat or Republican. Pro-Choice or Pro-Life. Good or bad. I think back over my life and I can see how I started doing this at a young age. Growing up, there were two rival high schools  in my home town (Tulare Union and Tulare Western).  My dad attended Union and so did my sisters and, eventually, I did as well. In this rivalry, it was very clear where my immediate family stood. I remember when I was really young hearing about the two schools and I came to the conclusion that since my family was on the Union side that those who attended or cheered for Western were somehow “bad”, or at least, “not as good” as those of us who were for Union. I do not know if I would have worded it that way but it is how, as a young child, I thought about people who were on the other side — how I thought about “them”. Whether it was something as simple as a school rivalry or as complex as politics, those who were “them” were just somehow misguided, bad, or lesser than “us”.

I might begin to think that this was just because I was a child and I saw the world as black and white, but the reality is that I still continue to see these kind of trends as I have grown older. Regardless of whether it is politics, religion, race, or nationality we like to make things simple and assume that the entirety of other people are all the same and not as good as the side that we are on.

I am pretty sure I am right on this. How often do those of us who hold to the Christian faith label things as “secular” simply because they are not inherently Christian? When I was a teenager, I would only listen to “Christian music” (which honestly meant nothing more than whether or not it was sold in Christian bookstores) because I had some crazy idea that all “secular” music must be bad. I know I was not the only one to think like that.

And it is not just with religion — it’s with everything! In political debates, the entirety of the other side are simply labeled as “bigots”, “narrow-minded” or “uneducated”. It is always the other side that is ignorant — it is always “them” and never “us”.

So what does all of this have to do with talking monkeys (Apes)? Everything!

In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, two worlds collide when a band of humans in a post-apocalyptic world run in to a group of genetically advanced, talking apes. The two sides quickly find themselves on the brink of war. There are those on each side that want peace and those on each side that want war. There are those on each side who are good and those on each side that are bad. Yet, both groups tend to look out for their own and find themselves superior to the other species.

What I learned from this film is that when we create an “Us” vs. “Them” mentality, we see everything that is in “them” as bad simply because it is different — and that difference scares us. So we react, at time rashly, against other groups that are different. We create these false lines that separate “good people” from “bad people” because these lines make things simple and easy. The problem is that there is no “Us” or “Them” — there are just people who are flawed and broken. We see the flaws in the other side and define them by those flaws when, ultimately, the same flaw that we see in “them” tends to also be in ourselves.

There is this powerful scene in the film where Caesar (the Ape leader) admits that there is not much of a difference between humankind and apes — they are really the same. There are those who are good that seek peace and there are those who are evil that seek war. He admits that he had always seen apes as better than humans and this caused him to trust those whom he should not have trusted and distrust those whom he should have.

Ultimately, it is the “Us” vs. “Them” mentality that leads to some major problems for both apes and humans. Their lack of ability to see their own flaws and the quickness to see the flaws in others lead to their downfall.

Those are some pretty powerful ideas that you will not find in your typical summer blockbuster.

But I think I see these same ideas in scripture. Paul tells us in Romans 3 that “there is no one righteous, not even one;” and that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We are all in need of grace, we are all flawed. There is no one group that has everything all together. When you think about it, that is the whole purpose of Jesus — the one who can save and redeem all of us — yes, even “them”.

Perhaps it is time that we stop drawing lines in the sand and labeling the faults in other people and start to realize that we are ultimately all the same. Whenever we start assuming that other people are lesser simply because we do not understand them or they are different, we tend to all start acting like a bunch of stupid apes.

 


Not Your Flannelgraph Noah

Russell Crowe as Noah

If you have yet to hear of the latest blockbuster hit, Noah, then I am going to assume that you live under a rock.

It seems that everyone, especially in Christian circles, has an opinion on the latest Biblical epic to hit the big screen regardless of whether or not they have seen it. Many Christians are boycotting the movie because of its “unfaithful” portrayal of the character and story found in Genesis. Many Christians claim that it is blaspheme to take a story from the Bible and make such drastic changes to it. Others are saying that said Christians are being overly sensitive — after all “it’s just a movie”.

Now, to be fair, when a film comes out that is based off of a bestselling novel, we all know that the avid readers of the book will be quick to call foul when the film director and writer make changes to their beloved story. It should not surprise us, then, to see people of faith call out a director who makes such changes to a story they love.

But are the “artistic changes” worthy of all the uproar they have caused? After seeing the film, I have a few opinions in regards to that question. (Minor plot spoilers will follow).

First off, as the title of this article says, this is not the flannelgraph story of Noah’s Ark that you may have heard in Sunday school. This is a dark film portraying a dark time when desperate men and women do desperate things. This is no film for children.

Nor should it be. The biblical account of Noah tells of a world gone adrift from God. The wickedness of humankind is so bad that God decides to destroy the world — yes, to kill every man, woman, and child with the exception of Noah and his family. If one is to take scripture seriously then one is going to understand that this is, in fact, a dark story. Making light rather than dark of it would be the greater offense.

But it is not just the tone and violence that the film contains that have surprised and angered many — it is also the changes to the story itself (such as adding rock giants known as The Watchers — a loose interpretation of the Nephilim found in Genesis 6). To this, I must admit that the film does add a great deal of material that is not found in Genesis; however, what I found surprising was that the filmmakers took little out of the story. Yes, they certainly added a great deal of things, but very little was subtracted from the original story. The film begins with Noah being told about the flood and ends with a rainbow. In fact, hypothetically speaking, if the Noah account had happened historically as depicted in the film, the account found in Genesis could be seen as a mere summary of the events (not finding it important to mention the fact that Noah may have questioned in the end if he had failed God or not).

The end reality is this: film and scripture are two entirely different things that have an entirely different purpose. A movie is primarily trying to tell an entertaining story (though this films’ ambitions were far more than that).  Scripture, on the other hand, attempts to teach us about God and how we can have relationship with Him.

The problem that I find with arguments that urge Christians to stay away from this film is that it misunderstands what the movie is trying to do. Noah is not trying to be scripture. It is not trying to say, “this is how it happened”. It is not trying to undermine scripture in any way, shape, or form. All this movie is trying to do is tell us an entertaining story that, in the process, teaches viewers some powerful messages about God, justice, love, and mercy. This particular movie just happens to be loosely based on a relatively brief portion of scripture.

Honestly, I must admit that this story made some pretty interesting interpretive moves that do not line up with scripture. That said, the God depicted in the film very much resembles the God of the Bible. A God who is both loving and just. A God who at times seems very present but at times very distant. A God who at times shows his wrath but is always seeking to offer redemption. A God who shows grace to the one’s who are desperately seeking His will (even if they don’t always get it right).

So, if you are wondering whether or not you should see this movie, maybe I can offer a little advice. If you want to see the movie to see how well it lines up with the Bible, then save your money. You will be disappointed by the changes and probably thus be distracted from the heart of the film. If you can’t handle violent films, then you should probably also stay away. Although the film is PG-13, it is on the closer end of the spectrum to R than PG. But, if you can handle the violence, and are wanting to see a story with strong Christian themes about God, love, justice, and grace — then Noah is a film for you.


Taking Back Sabbath

Time is one of those things that we never seem to have enough of.

Last week between my two jobs (and the commute between the two), I worked over 60 hours. Of course, that doesn’t count my responsibilities at home such as cooking, cleaning, etc. It was the kind of week where I would wake up every morning and work until I could not work any more — then I would go to bed.

I have had a lot of weeks like that recently; hence why I have been so hit or miss in the blogging world since I “rejoined”.

Somehow, someway, I am going to need to prioritize my time in such a way that I can return to posting regularly. Writing is one of those things that is just downright therapeutic for me and if I fail to write anything for too long, I fear that I will go insane.

I do believe, though, that I am beginning to learn ways in which I can find that time.

Every Saturday, my wife and I take a “Sabbath”. We don’t call it a day off because day’s off are the time that most people use to catch up on things that they don’t have time for the rest of the week. We call it “Sabbath” because it truly is a day to cease from our labor (a concept that I believe is both biblical and healthy).

The problem is that once Sabbath comes around, I have no energy for blogging or writing so it often ends up feeling more like a wasted day than anything. A lot of times I will open up my computer with the intention of writing yet nothing comes to me.

I’m beginning to learn, however, that taking a Sabbath is anything but a wasted day. It is because of that day that I have the strength and energy to do the work that I do throughout the week. Maybe a day of doing absolutely nothing is exactly what I need. Perhaps, with time, the spiritual discipline of Sabbath will allow me to have the time that I need to do the things that I love so that I can better be the man that God created me to be.

Working for the good of others is a must — but if I fail to take care of myself then I am not doing anyone any good.

Scripture tells us that after six days of work, God rested. If God needed to rest, then how arrogant is it for me to think that I do not need it.

I think there are times when the humble thing to do is to take time to take care of yourself — a difficult lesson that I am attempting to navigate in this stage of my journey.

God bless.


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