Niceness vs. Redemption

We have just completed a week filled with anguish. The Charlottesville protests and anger that they have stirred has brought our nation to a low point indeed. In the midst of this anguish, people say things about changing the rhetoric and promoting understanding—all very nice, but never getting to the core of the problem, which is sin.

C. S. Lewis, in his Mere Christianity, delivers the truth about niceness vs. redemption.

We must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might even be more difficult to save.

The world wants niceness; God wants to redeem us. There’s a real distinction here that the world doesn’t recognize. Lewis continues,

For mere improvement is no redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man.

God is seeking to make us part of His family, which is a goal the world cannot conceive of, nor does it want to grasp. Man normally wants to improve himself, to a degree, where he is not quite as bad as he was before, whereas God demands a complete overhaul by submission to His Lordship. He wants to give man an entirely different type of existence.

What man, in his natural condition, has not got, is Spiritual life—the higher and different sort of life that exists in God. . . .

And that is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.

When the next series of despicable events occurs (possibly even today) and we see the handwringing and the calls for civility, we need to be the voice of God’s truth to this dazed and confused world and point them to His redemption. That’s where the solution must begin because it’s the only answer to sin.

Natural Disasters & the Will of God

Moore TornadoOn this day after the horrendous tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma, we feel for the families who lost children or other loved ones. By all accounts, this had to be one of the worst tornadoes in American history. Normally, they don’t stay on the ground as long as this one did, and the winds may have approached 200 miles per hour. No sin caused this; it was what is usually termed a “natural” disaster.

Some people promote a theology that seems to attribute any natural disaster such as this to the hand of God. While it is true that God is the ultimate sovereign and could, if He chose, direct all things that happen in this world, I personally don’t subscribe to that theology. Yes, God can and has used the elements to bring judgment on some, but when we try to fit all natural disasters into that theme, we go astray.

Jesus spoke to this when he related to his disciples that the tower of Siloam that toppled, killing eighteen people, was not a result of those people’s sins. Don’t suppose, he taught them, that those who died in that event were necessarily worse than those who survived. That tragedy was not some kind of judgment from God. He did use the occasion, though, to warn them with these words: “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” None of us knows when we may be the victim of a similar catastrophe; if we’ve never repented and received the forgiveness the Lord so freely offers, we will die in our sins, leading to the ultimate judgment.

Jesus also taught, in the Sermon on the Mount, that the sun shines and the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. There are laws of nature that He has established that continue on, not making a distinction between His people and those who have rejected Him.

Man’s sin did, however, change the course of that nature. Rebellion against the rule and sovereignty of a loving God led to a degradation of the natural creation. The apostle Paul explains in the book of Romans:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.

Yes, for now, we live in a troubled world with natural disasters all around. That will not change until this very world is set free from the bondage caused by sin. That day is coming. All will be made new. Our task until then is to show those who are alienated from the love of God the path of redemption. A loving God continually reaches out to each of us, but it’s always our choice whether to reach back or reject His love. Natural disasters have one redeeming feature in this present age—they jolt us and make us think about the day of our death.

What will follow that day?

Movie Review: Unconditional

As I left the theater on Saturday, the words that came to my mind most readily were “beautifully done.” I had just experienced a movie that was the rare combination of high-quality acting and production values and a solidly redemptive message based on God’s unconditional love. The film, Unconditional, is the best Christian-themed product I’ve ever seen.

It doesn’t preach at all, yet the message is crystal clear: bitterness and revenge destroy; the reach of God’s love extends into the midst of all the bitterness and brings forgiveness, understanding, and reconciliation. I give the screenwriter the credit he deserves. He eschews heavy-handedness and artificiality. There is subtleness as he portrays how the love of God can work in a human heart and then spread to others.

There is a true story behind the script. All of the events in the life of “Papa Joe” Bradford are the backdrop for the interweaving of at least three, perhaps four, character and plot threads. “Papa Joe,” who is one of the co-producers of the film, has an inner-city ministry in Nashville, the setting of the story.

He providentially meets his childhood friend, Samantha, when she takes a young girl to the hospital after a traffic accident, a girl in Joe’s neighborhood, one to whom he has been ministering. Samantha had planned to take her own life that night until the accident interrupts her plan. She is despondent over the death of her husband, the victim of a shooting. Her story arc is the struggle to overcome her anger toward the perpetrator who got away.

As the film deals with Samantha’s tragedy and inner bitterness, it simultaneously provides Joe’s background: the racism he had to handle as a child, the foolish act that landed him in prison, the time in solitary where he received God’s forgiveness, and his need for a kidney donor.

What the movie accomplishes so splendidly is its ability to tug emotionally on the audience without descending into sappiness. Both the script itself and the superb acting transcend cheap emotionalism and replace it with genuineness. Its depiction of life in the projects is gritty and real. The sense of lostness and despair hangs in the air. Yet it also realistically shows how the love of God can penetrate that despair and offer hope.

This film deserves our support. It needs to stay on the big screen for an extended period. It has the potential to lead viewers to rethink their relationships with God and others. It is, as I said above, “beautifully done.” See it yourself and spread the word.

Book Review: Illusion

Frank Peretti is back. Nearly twenty years ago, I picked up my first Peretti book, This Present Darkness, and marveled at his storytelling prowess. After that, I grabbed every Peretti book that came out. Some were more graphic than others in their depiction of sin, death, and the misery men bring upon themselves, but they all were faithful to the message that sin kills, both physically and spiritually. But Peretti didn’t stop there—he always contrasted the consequences of sin with the redemption available through Christ.

Peretti has been notably absent for some time now. I went into the bookstore last week to pick up a certain novel I had heard about, only to discover it wasn’t there. As I perused the shelves, I found, to my delight, that a new Frank Peretti book is now available.

As I read the description of Illusion on the front flap, it drew me in immediately. It’s a fine mixture of science fiction, action, and romance, all within a Christian context. It doesn’t preach, but it does deliver a sobering message about those who try to play God, the potential of a marriage based on Christian commitment, and how to deal with the loss of a loved one. I refuse to give away the plot, but suffice to say that the plot, along with the character development of the protagonists, held sway in my mind over the four days it took to finish it.

Perhaps one of the reasons I found it so fascinating is that the main characters were both born in 1951—an auspicious year, to be sure, since I also was born then—and what they knew, I knew also. All the cultural connections were real to me, as was the poignant fact of the characters reaching that landmark age of sixty—not quite decrepit yet, but identifying with the man who was wondering why it no longer was as easy as it used to be to run, climb the stairs, or perform all the other daily duties in life.

Yet it’s not just a book for “old” people like me. It speaks to every generation.

If you’ve never read Frank Peretti, this is your opportunity. Try him, you may like him. If you’re like me, a Peretti fan from previous years, you should welcome this new addition to his collected works. It will also be a welcome addition to your library.

Movie Review: October Baby

Christians don’t need to be embarrassed anymore by the quality of films depicting a Biblical worldview. The Narnia movies have made that clear, and there have been others lately with explicit Biblical themes such as Robert Duvall’s Seven Days in Utopia. The most recent entry into this genre is October Baby. I saw it last night; it was superb

How would you feel and what would you do if you discovered at age nineteen that you were adopted and that the only reason you are alive is that you were the result of a botched abortion? Further, you realize that all the health issues you’ve experienced throughout your life are due to being born prematurely? The protagonist in the movie, played very well and poignantly by Rachel Hendrix, is tortured by the thought that her life has little value. She begins a search for her birth mother, but is devastated by the rejection she finds at the end of the quest.

Yet, in the midst of her despair, redemption comes. It doesn’t come in a preachy manner, but as a natural development in her understanding of true love, starting with God’s and, by extension, to the parents who sacrificed everything to give her a new life.

There is little forced or artificial here. Character is central to the story. If you watch and listen with an open mind and heart, you can’t help but be affected and drawn to the forgiveness offered by the One who loves better than anyone else.

When the closing credits roll, don’t leave just yet. The actress who portrays the birth mother, the one who tried to have the abortion, begins to offer her personal testimony. Shari Rigby knows the part only too well; she didn’t have to act because it was her own story. She tells it with emotional power. Don’t miss that.

Solid plot; well-developed characters; a message of God’s redemption and the value of life—October Baby delivers on all three. I urge you to support this effort to show our decadent culture the essence of genuine spirituality. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

We Once Were Lost

Newt Gingrich’s rise in the polls is bringing renewed scrutiny into his past. I have no problem with a candidate being fully vetted. It would have been nice if the mainstream media had done that to Barack Obama. Maybe we could have avoided the last three years.

Gingrich does have issues in his past, both personal and political. He has dallied with the idea of the individual mandate for health care. His concern for the environment led him to make a disastrous public service announcement with Nancy Pelosi, a move he now calls one of the dumbest of his life. Give him a check mark for acknowledging that one.

For those like me, whose concerns are grounded in the spiritual/moral climate of the nation more than the possibility of global warming, Gingrich’s marriages need special scrutiny. He’s now on marriage number three, and with each one he was seeing the next Mrs. Gingrich while still married to the current Mrs. Gingrich. That is, as we like to call it, baggage.

For some Christians, there’s no desire to look any further; he is to be dismissed for that part of his life alone. Yet we need to investigate more thoroughly. The story going around that he went to the hospital bedside of his first wife who was dying of cancer and presented her with divorce papers turns out to be an internet legend with no factual basis. How do we know? The daughter of that first wife has explicitly stated that it never happened. In fact, that former wife is still very much alive. That doesn’t relieve him of the divorce, but it seems she was the one who initiated it.

Christians are also people who should understand redemption. After all, isn’t that what we say has happened in our lives? We all were lost, and God’s grace found us. Has this occurred in Gingrich’s life? There’s some evidence to indicate it might have.

In 2007, he went on James Dobson’s radio program and confessed he had acted wrongly in his personal life. He then became a committed Catholic. He wrote a book about getting God back in our nation. Last week, when questioned about his past indiscretions, he commented that at age 68, and as a grandfather, he has a new perspective on life. He has matured.

Is all of this true? Our task is to watch carefully, point out any inconsistencies, yet not be overly critical. After all, we once were lost, but now we’ve been found by a God who continually offers his love and forgiveness.