Thoughts on the movie Ragamuffin

Last Friday, the Bradenton branch YMCA allowed us to host a showing of the movie Ragamuffin, the story of the late Christian musician Rich Mullins. Normally “Christian” movies are synonymous with “cheesiness” and bad acting. While the Ragamuffin actors may not ever see an Academy Award, I thought they did a fantastic job. Whereas with movies like Fireproof, you just have to give them a pass because its a “Christian” movie, I didn’t feel that at all with Ragamuffin. I could gladly show this movie to a non-Christian friend or neighbor and not be embarrassed.

While the acting was way beyond what I anticipated, the story-line gripped me and the honesty sucked me in. It was real. Rich was a real dude. He yelled at people, he was lonely, he was possessive, he cussed, and he drank. A lot.  The guy who wrote, “Sing praise to the Lord” and “Awesome God” had a drinking problem. He was a flawed human being, with feelings of emptiness, guilt, worthlessness despite a successful career in the music industry. As a fellow deeply flawed human being I resonated.

One takeaway from the film was the importance of a father’s love. Rich never felt loved by his dad. No matter how much he sought it, it just never came. And it stayed with him his entire life. His mother loved him, but his father’s love was as necessary as it was elusive. Dad’s matter. The words “I love you,” from a father are powerful and emancipating.

Still, we are reminded in this film, that we are not forever stuck in a bad-dad quagmire. An earthly dad’s love is not ultimate. While an earthly dad’s love is powerful, the gospel speaks hope of an even better Father. The journey is tough and slow, but the Christian can hear “I love you,” from the Ultimate Father. And that itself has the power to change.

Rich struggled his whole life. And so do we. The gospel is the power to save (Rom 1:16) us and change us, but it is first of all an announcement or proclamation that Jesus has already dealt with the problem of sin. We never stop struggling in this life. It might not be as visible as alcohol or drugs, though it just may be. The gospel is good news to all kinds of strugglers.

I think this film will make you cry. I cry way more now that I have three kids. I think with each one, I became more prone to this expression of emotion. I cried long before Rich died. And then when he did, I continued to cry, thankful for the dark room.

The most surreal experience was Rich’s brother Dave Mullins (who introduced the film and actually interviews the actor playing Rich in the film), standing next to me singing Rich’s song. I’m just a guy who knew little about Rich, yet was having trouble holding it together. And his brother who knew and loved Rich, was filled with joy, singing Rich’s song right next to me. Wow. Dave believed the gospel, and his singing called me to believe as well. Rich though he died, yet shall he live.

If you can’t find a showing on the tour, then you can purchase it in early May. I’m certain I will.

 

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The relational pre-requisite to deeper understanding of gospel

At our last YMCA preview service I preached on one of our core values: gospel-centered. We looked at this passage from Colossians 2:1-5

I want you to know how hard I am contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.”

Because I only have a limited amount of time, and I try to have one major point for each sermon, I wasn’t able to discuss the relational component of the passage. Instead I’ll be highlighting that core value this Sunday when I preach on Ecclesiastes 4. But one aspect of this passage that struck me was the relational prerequisite if folks want to get to a deeper understanding of the gospel.  For instance, Paul’s goal that the recipients of his letter “be encouraged in heart and united in love” was “so that they may have full riches of complete understanding.”

You cannot get very far in understanding the gospel without healthy Christian community. In fact, what this verse tells us is that a Christian community who doesn’t love each other well, will miss out on understanding the riches of the gospel. If they are not united in love, they will miss out on experiencing love from each other and experiencing the love of Christ. Divisive folk get a little relationship and consequently only experience a little of Christ. Not that He loves less, but we may experience His love less.

The final goal of Christian community is not Christian community but Christ. It’s not less than a community united by love, but a community that is growing in love of its Savior. You can have a community that loves each other and yet does not grow in love of Christ. Relationships are not a gospel substitute but should point you to the gospel. If you demand relationships to be the bottomless treasure that only the gospel is, you will be extremely disappointed. You’ll think something is wrong with the relationship. Yet the problem is that you have made the relationship the main thing. You will become frustrated and angry. Relationships should point us to Jesus, who is the “lovely source of true delight.” If your relationships point you to Jesus, you’ll find satisfaction in both relationships and in Christ. If you use Jesus as a means to get relationships, you’ll find satisfaction in neither. If you value church community more than Christ, you’ve reversed the order. Many people taste and experience the community of Christ before they experience Christ. That is beautiful and we should expect any missional oriented community to expect this. But it is never loving to leave people in such a place.

Personal gospel study and prayer is required but is not sufficient in itself to fathom depths of gospel. In other words, you can’t simply go off and study the bible and other helpful books by yourself, and expect to go all that deep into the gospel message. It’s like having one hand tied behind your back. If you’ve ever been in a good community group, you know that others bring out riches that you had forgotten or didn’t know existed. More often than not I walk away from teaching and leading a group with greater knowledge simply because I’ve listened to people give different answers to my questions than I had anticipated.

 

Cade, Goliath, and a Giant Penguin

I have two boys who love the bible stories. I have one who really loves one bible story more than any others. My almost three year old Cade can’t get enough of David vs Goliath. Most of the time, it’s the only one he wants to hear. He rehashes the story over and over. Of course, he pretends to be David (I guess that’s better on a number of levels than pretending to be Goliath). And I can see why. He’s a little guy for his age, and he, like all of us, wants to be the winner of the story. 

Last night Cade set up a giant stuffed animal penguin (though not quite as big as the penguin in Billy Madison), and pretended it was Goliath. He of course struck him down down dead. Thankfully he didn’t decapitate it, because that could have been costly as well as messy.

Cade’s impersonation is cute. Once again, he’s a little guy.

But when he gets older, would it be good to let him continue to think of himself as David? 

I don’t think so, and its not just because I’m an anal pastor type concerned primarily with theological precision. The reality is that most people exegete the passage the same way my three year old does. Most people find themselves to be David in this cosmic good/underdog vs evil/overdog saga of life. And its natural that we see ourselves as such. 

But let’s consider what’s really going on.

In Cade’s Toddler Bible he has begun to notice certain people. Who are those guys Daddy?

Those are the God’s people, scared to death.

No one can face this giant.

That picture tells much of the story. God’s army is on one side, the Phillistines are on the other side. One representative is needed. The Jesus Storybook Bible (the dialog of which Cade has basically memorized and recites when playing with his toys-its really pretty cute if I can say that) depicts Goliath looking to fight a representative of the people. If that representative will fight and beat him, the Phillistines will become subject to slavery. If that representative loses, the opposite will become true. 

The point of the story is not that you or I can rise up and be that brave person and beat our own personal demons, Goliath’s, or El Guapo’s in our lives for that matter. The point is that God HAD to send a representative, who would become King, who would do battle for us. If we are on this brave King’s side, then we are on the right side. That was the message to those who first read the story. Get on David’s side (Davidic line of kings). But of course, the story doesn’t end there. 

Jesus, the brave King, also born in Bethlehem, said “I will fight” for God’s people in order to deliver them. I will be their representative. I will not let this cup pass from me.

Our representative had his shot and blew it in the Garden (Romans 5). Yet Jesus does exactly what David did, but this time on a cosmic scale.


If we would begin to find ourselves as the army which was too scared and faithless to fight, we would begin to see Jesus more clearly in our lives. He is the one who fought for us while we were not only scared and faithless, but while we were yet enemies (Romans 5:8). Instead of trying to muster up the courage we may never have, it’s much more freeing to see how Jesus points us to David. And if that is so, we don’t stand up and lead a bunch of other people who simply can’t get their stuff together. We humbly get in line behind a conquering Savior and point people to Him. There’s plenty of adventure in following Jesus (a la Steven Curtis Chapman) because we can’t see the end of the story except through faith.
If Cade wants to dress up like David for Halloween, I’m OK with that. After all, my five year old already has some sense that David did “big sins” and Jesus is the real hero of the story. So it may not be too long….

But in the end, let’s not forget those scared Israelites waiting for someone to “step up” and deliver them. That’s us. Not a very glamorous start but the end sure is. 

Here’s a video of Cade Vs the Goliath Penguin

Shark Week 2013 Gospel Reflections

Every year towards the end of summer, I have one thing on my mind: Shark Week. Well, that’s not totally true, particularly now that we’re starting this church plant (somewhat thought consuming!), but you probably get the point. For many Shark Week marks not simply the close of summer, but also perhaps its zenith.

And for those who do actually anticipate the new week, they can almost always be confronted with the disappointment of re-runs and less than spectacular material. While this year kicked off with a mock-u-mentary (that wasn’t even subtlely revealed to be fake until the end of it) on the pre-historic Megalodon, it seems to have let me down far less than other recent Shark Week’s.

I love to hear the stories of shark attack survivors. Those are always my favorites. I’m not there to see the un-cut material, but I really do think Discovery does a good job with letting people mention God or Jesus. There is almost always a snippet of a survivor giving praise to God the Father or the Son (still waiting for a Holy Spirit “shout out” but that may come…). In a previous season, one story actually ended with Romans 8:28 being quoted after the wife had been killed by a Tiger Shark. This year was no different.

One South African lad of only 15 years experienced the wrath of two Great White Sharks attacking him and his surfboard. Here is Animal Planet’s version. Unfortunately everyone abandoned the scene, so he was left to fend for himself. In his words, “Jesus, I need some help here…..” Suddenly a big wave came and carried the lad in.

Jesus’ “saving wave” was actually quite formative, for several years later, someone else surfing near him was attacked. Knowing what it was like to be left alone (and knowing what it was like to have been saved by a “third party”), he paddled over to rescue the other lad instead of swimming the other way.

What a great picture of how the gospel frees us from bitterness. That’s a natural reaction when folks let us down, or for this lad, when people leave you in the water to die at the teeth of two not so friendly White Sharks. We become especially bitter when people scatter at pivotal times in life. Instead of only giving us a new life freed from bitterness, the gospel grants us a new mission, and a new motivation to move forward in that mission. No longer bound by what people did/didn’t do for us (if they abandoned us) nor what people may do for us (praise or curse), we have a much fresher and lasting motivation. Freed from bitterness, and set free to serve.

Our bitter experiences can be redeemed and open the door for mission if we remember the truth of the gospel message:

At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. II Tim 4:16-18

Riley, Repentance, and Redemption?

After several months of “Rome-less” radio down in Bradenton, my wife let me know that Jim Rome was actually available on FM. That was music (ironically we’re talking about ‘sports talk radio’) to my ears. Rome discussed the whole Riley Cooper racist tirade caught on video while at a Kenny Chesney concert (his first mistake). The “N” word was dropped like a set of dumb-bells by a meat head in a weight room. Only this meathead wasn’t big enough to scare people after the racist ranting video went viral. Tebow’s former teammate, and roommate, is in some serious trouble.

While the NFL doesn’t seem likely to suspend him right now, it is tough to rebound from such a debacle. Remember Michael Richards who played Kramer on Seinfeld after his tirade? While he certainly has a career to think about, Cooper has to come to realization very quickly, that what he said (and probably thought-though seeing into the heart of another is impossible) was terrible and the consequences of said words could be around to stay long after.

Marcus Vick, who has done nothing good, well ever, has never been a great spokesperson for his older brother Mike. Getting kicked off Va Tech’s football team opened the door to playing for the Miami Dolphins. For a pre-season. But with the help of a famous brothers name, and twitter account, you can always make enough noise to be heard by a number of folks. He actually put out a “bounty” (a la Greg Williams and the Saints, allegedly) of a 1,000 for a safety to take out Cooper in a game. Not sure where he gets that kind of cash, but that’s for another day.

For today, I want to look at Vick’s response.

“I know what type of person he is,” Vick said of Cooper.  “That’s what makes it hard to understand but easy to forgive him.”Mike Vick also disagrees with his brother’s remarks about Cooper, saying that Marcus should “not show a level of ignorance himself.”

Receiver Jason Avant also forgave Cooper.  “I just know him,” Avant said.  “He’s not racist.”

I wonder if there’s also something else going on. Most people are centering their forgiveness around the words. But what about the thoughts? Could that be forgiven? If so, by who?

By someone who had been forgiven of something really big. Really stupid. 

Mike Vick did jail time for his role in dog fighting. It was bad. It was stupid. It was evil. But I wonder if that plays into his quickness to be able to forgive. Grace begets grace.

In Jesus parable in Luke 7:36-50, which he tells to some self righteous religious folks, he poses the question which person would be more thankful, someone with a small debt cancelled or bigger debt cancelled? The answer is obvious. Then he expostulates: 

47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
   
Whoever has forgiven Vick, or whomever he feels forgiven by-whether God, teammates, owner, friends, fans-it probably plays into his take on forgiveness. He has loved Cooper much because he has been forgiven much. For those unwilling to forgive such racist remarks, or racism in general, it reveals how small a debt they had cancelled. Of course it does take time, and it seems as though it may take time for other teammates to come around. But if there is belief in the gospel, even racism, not just words, but beliefs, can be both called out as evil, while the forgiveness process (provided there is repentance) can begin.  

Deeper than Weezer: Opening up a redemptive Pandora’s box

One of my prayer requests for the “core group” of our church plant (obviously including me) is for a deeper personal conviction of sin. What I mean is that we would be aware of, and regularly repent of our particular sins. Not just that we engaged in sin like gossip, lust, jealousy, envy, selfishness, self-righteousness, or didn’t engage in what we were called to (sins of omission), but why we did the things we did. Why chose to gossip (to tear down instead of considering how Christ builds us up) to lust (failure to see Christ as worthy of our gaze) or selfishness (failure to heed Jesus promise that there is more joy in giving life away). Why would a pastor pray for something like this for himself and Christ’s sheep?

If that seems like a strange request, I promise you it is a prayer that will bring praise to Christ, joy to the believer, and blessing/opportunity to neighbors/co-workers/friends. To repent of particular sins and recognize personal sin in general opens up the opposite of pandora’s box: the deep treasures of the gospel to you and others.

1.) For your neighbors benefit: The more you are aware of your own personal sin, the less self-righteous you become. You become the biggest sinner you know. You don’t look down upon someone else for doing _____. Instead you look sideways, seeing them as a fellow sinner, also in need of grace. The difference is…you have received grace, not that you’re a “better” person. Often you’ll find you aren’t! You become a better neighbor when you realize God doesn’t need your good works but your neighbor does (a la Martin Luther).

2.) For your benefit. Obviously you have to turn to Jesus, but if you have a constant recognition of your own sin, then you have a constant rest, appreciation, and joy that God’s love for you is grounded not in your performance but in the person and work of Christ. That is freeing and makes you want to make a joyful noise to Jesus. The flip side is also true: if you have little understanding of your own sin, you have little need for Jesus. Maybe you needed him back a few years ago, but now, not so much. What happens? You’ll find yourself becoming more and more self-righteous, angry, and bitter. Remember the “other prodigal son?” If not, check out how his self-righteousness made him and angry SOB (Luke 15:11-32). We miss out on joy and become more self-righteous by ignoring our sin.

We don’t repent from personal sin regularly so that God will give us more stuff (health and wealth gospel), but so that God will give us more of Himself. On the other side of the cross there was joy for Jesus so that on the other side of repentance, which is faith, joy will abound to us.

3.) For the sake of the Commission. A deeper understanding of sin led Isaiah into volunteering for a mission done got himself killed (Isaiah 6). And he volunteered for it! In the presence of God’s Holy throne he came undone (no it wasn’t because someone pulled the thread of his sweater as he walked away a la Weezer) because of a deep recognition of his own sins of the tongue. Once God cleansed and symbolically atoned for his sin, he said, “Here I am, send me.” His own sin, and the forgiveness by God, moved him toward mission. It moved him to sacrifice even his life for his neighbors. It move us to sacrifice comfort and convenience when we recognized that Christ has atoned the sins of our tongues (among a plethora of other sins). In contrast, a lack of personal sin is what led Jonah to self-righteously and unwillingly preach the gospel, and then actually, angrily hope for the worst (Jonah 4). Notice the difference?

4.) For the sake of Christ. One of the reasons we have been saved is so that we would praise God for the glorious riches offered to us in the in person of God the Son, with those promises sealed to us by God the Holy Spirit (Eph 1). Instead of morbid introspection where we spend time thinking how bad we are, we quickly turn from looking at our personal sin for the day or sin in general, and immediately cast our gaze upon Him who is already looking down from Heaven with a smile. When our countenance meets His, we burst forth in song, praise, and possibly dance (depending upon denomination or skill level). Regular, albeit brief glances at our sin leads to a panoramic view of Christ and His work.

The TV show Breaking Bad, probably better than any other show I’ve seen, reveals the cosmic affects of personal sin. But the gospel message and power invite us to live within a different narrative. Personal sin has/has had cosmic consequences, but personal gospel dynamics also have a cosmic redemptive affect.

If you’ve read this and think of someone else who needs to take sin more seriously, you’ve missed the point. If you’ve read this and think I’m writing this about YOU in particular, well there’s a Carly Simon song you might remember called “Your So Vain-I bet you think this post is about you.” But if you read this and have begun to recognize how messed up you really are, and then how perfect, righteous, gracious, satisfying, loving, merciful, powerful, holy, giving Jesus is, and that he offers all He demands, then you’ll have read this post correctly. 

If you begin with your goodness, you’ll love Jesus and your neighbors a whole lot less. On the contrary if you begin with your sin, Jesus will be honored and your neighbors blessed. They may just thank you-even if they don’t understand exactly how such sacrificial love was kindled.