Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"As an Athiest, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God"

Very cool article in the Times Online (UK) from columnist Matthew Parris. Parris reflects on the missions work being done by Christians in Africa, and concludes that though he doesn't believe in God, there is something being accomplished there that simple aid programs cannot do. A quote...
"Travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good."
Go check out the full article, and be reminded of the power of the gospel.

HT: Justin Taylor

The Second Season Begins

Well, the NFL regular season came to an end Sunday, and while some coaches have already had the axe drop on their futures, 12 teams are preparing for their shot at a Super Bowl. With an overpowering, then collapsing, then come-back-and-win-it-at-the-end 33-31 win over New Orleans, the Panthers earned their first NFC South title since 2003 and their first playoff bye since 1996. Now, we wait for our second round opponent - either Minnesota, Arizona, or Atlanta - to come to Charlotte for a Saturday night showdown on January 10th. Anything can happen in the NFL's second season, but the opportunity is there for a return to the Super Bowl for my Panthers, which will hopefully produce a different result from their last trip. Did your team survive for playoff time? Who do you think will be punching a ticket to Tampa? Let me know in the comments.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Friday's Featured Film - 12/26/08

New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.

Mamma Mia!

Perhaps the best way I can explain Mamma Mia! to you is to call it the best musical I’ve ever seen based on the music of a quasi-obscure European 70’s pop band. For some of you, that may well be enough to go pick it up. If it’s not, then I’m afraid I don’t have much else to offer you here. Heather got the DVD for her mom (who loved it) for Christmas, and so we all sat down and watched it last night. While it didn’t seem like it would be my cup-o-tea, I went in with an open mind. After all, I do like musicals, and the movie adaptations of Phantom of the Opera and Chicago are fantastic. Mamma Mia!, not so much.

Based on the music of ABBA, Mamma Mia! tells the story of a young bride-to-be named Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) who lives with her mom, Donna (Meryl Streep), helping her to run a hotel on a Mediterranean island in Greece. She desperately wants to have her father give her away at her wedding, but there’s a problem – she doesn’t know who her father is. After reading her mom’s diary, she comes up with three possibilities - Sam (Pierce Brosnan), an architect, Harry (Colin Firth), an uptight banker, and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), and adventurer and writer. Unbeknownst to her mom, she sends each of them an invitation to the wedding, certain that she can figure out who her real dad is before the ceremony. When they all show up, the entire event is thrown into a tailspin.

The premise is entertaining enough, and all the actors (Brosnan, Firth, and Skarsgård especially) do a capable job of making it fun. The music is almost annoyingly catchy (I dare you to get “Dancing Queen” out of your head in less than an hour), and the light and campy tone, while a bit much, keeps this in a ballpark in which it can be an enjoyable musical. Therein, however, lies the problem. This is a musical...and nobody can sing. The producers seemingly decided to cast the film with name actors rather than actors with musical talent, and it shows, sometimes painfully. Seyfried is the best voice in the bunch, but when everybody else belts out a number, you can’t help but notice that they’re at best decidedly average. Brosnan, much as I like him, is absolutely awful. I mean, really, really bad. After seeing the movie, I decided to check out a few reviews and see if anyone else was thinking the same thing, and this quote from critic Matt Brunson pretty much sums it up – “[Brosnan] looks physically pained choking out the lyrics, as if he's being subjected to a prostate exam just outside of the camera's eye.” It’s that bad. Most of the rest of the cast are varying degrees of mediocre, but that’s just not good enough when the draw of the film is its music. There were several moments when I thought, “Huh, that’s catchy,” but none where I thought, “Wow, that’s really good.” That just doesn’t cut it. Director Phyllida Lloyd, whose previous work was confined to the stage, doesn’t seem to realize that this is a movie and not a Broadway production, with her cast painfully overacting at points.

Look, I understand that I’m not the target audience for this film. My mother-in-law assures me that at the screening she attended, the entire theater (mainly middle-aged women) was dancing during the credits. If you’re a fan of ABBA or musicals and this looks fun to you, by all means, take a look. It wasn’t boring, and it was, at times, entertaining. However, where it lacked, it lacked in areas that a good musical simply cannot lack. That, at the end of the day, is what kills it for me. But hey – I took a chance. - ** (out of four)

Mamma Mia! is rated PG-13 for some sex-related comments.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve Reflections

As you enjoy this evening with family and friends, I leave you with "A Big God For Little People - Seven Christmas Eve Meditations." It was written by John Piper in 1980, and I found it a great tool for focusing my thoughts on the significance of Christ's birth. Give it a read, and may God's grace dwell in you richly this Christmas.

A Primer on Prayer

D.A. Carson has long been a favorite author of mine. Ever since hearing him give a series of lectures during my freshman year of college, his writing has had a great impact on my spiritual life – most notably the way I think about the love of God. For that reason, I picked up a used copy of one of his books I hadn’t read – A Call to Spiritual Reformation. This book is a study of the prayers of the apostle Paul, intended to help us to reevaluate and reinvigorate our prayer lives.

This was a bit of a curious book from Carson. It’s obviously written with the layman in mind, with each section ending with questions for study and reflection. On an organizational front, this would be a great book for a small group study in the local church. On a content front, it also seems tailor-made for such an endeavor. Time after time, Carson offers insights into the discipline of prayer that the church definitely needs to hear (I say this because I definitely needed to hear them). Some of the middle chapters started to feel repetitive, but the book’s final chapter was incredibly good, with several instances of excellent insight into unanswered prayer. He is better than most at examining theological truths that are not only hard to understand, but hard to accept. My favorite Carson writing is his material dealing with aspects of God’s love that often don’t feel very loving to our human hearts (I highly recommend The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God and Love in Hard Places), and I think he is equally adept at offing counsel on a prayer life that feels like it’s hit a brick wall.

However, the curious nature of the book comes from the fact that, though it seems like a perfect fit for a lay group study, Carson’s writing may be over the head of much of the audience. Carson is an incredibly smart guy. However, I felt at times that the way he wrote wouldn’t really connect across the spectrum of theological literacy. The book seemed to have the pastoral heart of his love books, but the academic tone of Exegetical Fallacies. It was a combination that didn’t always mix well. In final analysis, though it’s not perfect, and it’s not my favorite Carson book, it’s definitely worth a read for someone who is struggling to learn how to pray. Just bring your pocket theological dictionary.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Leave Room For the Secret Things

"The secret things belong to the Lord," Moses tells us, "but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever" (Deut. 29:29). That means that we will always have gaps as we construct the puzzle; it means that clumsy players will try to force some pieces into slots where they do not belong and may be tempted to leave some pieces out because they cannot see where they fit in.

So we must beware of those kinds of consistency that wittingly or unwittingly eliminate part of the Scriptures' witness, or that force the pieces of the puzzle together with such violence that we construct a warped picture, one without gaps, and fail to see that we have denied the existence of the secret things. God himself becomes domesticated, neat, controllable." - D.A. Carson

Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday's Featured Film - 12/19/08

New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.

Run Fatboy Run

I’m a huge fan of British actor Simon Pegg. I think he’s one of the funniest actors on the planet. Most well known for his two genre-spoofs Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (both of which feature collaborators Nick Frost and Edgar Wright), Pegg is a terrific physical comedian with great timing and a very likeable on-screen persona. He’s the kind of guy you root for while doubling over in laughter. That combination works perfectly in his new film, Run Fatboy Run, the directorial debut of Friends actor David Schwimmer. This being Pegg’s first leading role apart from Frost and Wright, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but the movie delivered laughs aplenty and a sweet story that uses every Rocky-inspired stereotype in the books but pulls it off well.

Pegg plays Dennis Doyle, a security guard at a women’s clothing store who epitomizes the word slacker. His life’s regret is having left his pregnant girlfriend Libby (Thandie Newton) at the alter five years prior. He misses her and he loves his son Jake (Matthew Fenton), but he can never find it in himself to do anything with his life. That changes, however, when Libby begins seeing a new boyfriend, Whit, (Hank Azaria) who is everything Dennis is not – driven, athletic, attractive, wealthy and successful. When Dennis begins to realize that Whit is gaining a better presence in his son’s life than he has, he decides that he has to make a change. Since Whit runs marathons for charity, Dennis decides that’s what he will do. Coached by his best friend (Dylan Moran, who Pegg fans will remember from Shaun) and eccentric landlord (Harish Patel), Dennis sets out to prove to himself and his family that for once in his life he’s capable of finishing something.

As I said, the story here is nothing innovative. Lovable loser trains hard to compete athletically against big, bad, champion. You’ll be treated to the same training montages, crises of confidence, and dramatic finishes you’ve come to expect form a hundred other films. What sets Run Fatboy Run apart is not what it does, but how it does it and who does it. Schwimmer is a pleasant surprise in his first turn behind the camera, pulling off all of the above conventions in a way that never feels cheap and overused. The cast is excellent, especially the dynamic between Pegg and Moran. Azaria ends up mainly playing the straight man, which I didn’t expect, but he does a great job, as does the rest of the supporting cast. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and the movie does a good job of balancing the more subdued British humor the cast plays to with the more straightforward gags that an American audience expects. Comedy is an extremely subjective genre to evaluate, and those easily offended by sexual humor may be more uncomfortable than humored by some of the jokes (though not on the level of a Wedding Crashers or even the Austin Powers films), but Heather, myself, and the friend we watched it with laughed and laughed a lot. This was a really fun film, and I’d certainly recommend it, especially if you’re a fan of Pegg’s previous work. It’s no Hot Fuzz, but it’s a nice holdover until the conclusion of Pegg, Frost, and Wright’s “Blood and Ice Cream” trilogy arrives in a couple years. - ***1/2 (out of 4)

Run Fatboy Run is rated PG-13 for some rude and sexual humor, nudity, language and smoking.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sola5 Wednesday Recap - 12/17/08

This weekly topic is an effort to recap the Wednesday night Bible study I teach at Sola5, my youth group. I hope it serves to help us all in contemplating the ceaseless riches of God’s grace as revealed through the Scriptures.

Last night was our final youth gathering before Christmas, so we took the opportunity to celebrate the birth of Christ – and to take a hard look at the place that he has in our lives. We opened by remembering Christ’s coming through readings from Isaiah 9 and Matthew 1, and then spent time in reflection as we listened to “Amen, Amen” from Sojourn Community Church’s fantastic CD Advent Songs (currently available as a free download through NoiseTrade). After singing “O Holy Night” together, we began our time of study by considering the anticipation that often accompanies Christmas.

Remember back to your childhood. Doubtlessly, you could recall great (and often humorous) memories of the long wait for Christmas morning to arrive. My students had many great stories, from trying to rewrap presents they’d dug into in the middle of the night to hitting the stairs in such a frenzy that they fell and rolled all the way to the bottom. Why did we do so many crazy (and often stupid) things on Christmas as kids? Because our thinking was completely consumed with anticipation for what was to come. What sort of anticipation grips our hearts, however, at the thought of the birth of Christ – the coming of our savior? In Luke 2:22-38, we examined the life of a man named Simeon whose expectations were sky high – and they completely dictated the way that he lived his life.

We know very little about Simeon, save that he was old, righteous, and devout. He would have been quite familiar with the Old Testament Law – God’s expectations for how we are to live. However, we are also told that he was waiting expectantly for “the consolation of Israel.” What a strange thing to look for. Israel was, after all, the chosen people of God, the ones to whom he had revealed himself and entered into covenant relationship with. They were his favored nation. Why, then, were they in need of consolation – of comfort, of lifting up? Simeon knew the answer. As a devout man, he not only knew the Law’s commands, but he knew of his own inability to keep those commands. He, like all of Israel, stood guilty before God – a perfect God, as perfect in his justice as he is in his love. This fact was hammered into his mind and heart by a ritual system where animals were constantly sacrificed as a reminder of the people’s guilt. Yet he, like all the Jews, looked to God’s promise of a savior, of one who would redeem his people. The promise can be traced all the way back to Genesis 3, and it finds echoes throughout the prophets. Simeon waited with eager expectation for the Messiah to come. God, in his grace, had revealed to Simeon that he would live to see the birth of the Christ child. For this moment he yearned.

Following his birth, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to fulfill the Law’s rituals for a firstborn child. As they entered into the temple, the Lord revealed to Simeon the nature of the child they carried. As he held the long promised savior in his arms, Simeon proclaimed that salvation had come to earth – a light to the Gentiles who had until now dwelled in darkness, and a new hope for the people of Israel. He could not but proclaim the coming of Christ, for it was the most important event in the history of the universe. He proclaimed the hope of his birth. He proclaimed the sorrow and pain that would accompany the task of redeeming people from sin. We see in the final few verses that he was not alone, an old widow named Anna spread the news of Christ’s birth to all those in Jerusalem who were eagerly anticipating it.

How should anticipation factor into our Christmas? After all, we look not forward but back, back to the birth of a child more than 2000 years ago. However, even for us today, the promise of Christmas has still yet to reach its full fulfillment. We live having experienced the promised grace of Christ, lavished upon us through his death and resurrection, but we still look forward to the consummation of all things, to the time when, as the hymn says, “in his name, all oppression shall cease.” We’ve experienced the beginning of the Christmas story, but we still eagerly await its ending. Are you waiting for it? Does the promise of Christ’s return even register as a blip on your radar, much less the dominating factor around which your life is built? Why do we celebrate Christmas? Moreover, why do we file into sanctuaries week after week to worship? I told my students last night that I have little interest in wasting their time. It boils down to this – if the Christmas story is true and Christ is who he said he is, than he is everything, and every aspect of our lives, our thoughts, our relationships, our time, our finances, our careers, our affections, should be constructed around him. He is the only hope that we have of being accepted by God, sinful as we are. If Christ is not real, if the manger and the virgin birth and the wise men are mere fairy tale, then we are wasting our time. Christianity carries as much significance as the platitudes on the candy hearts on Valentine's Day. Better to sleep in on Sundays and get an early start on the NFL pregame shows. There is no third option - he's either everything or he's nothing. So I ask you - examine your heart and mind. Do you believe in the Christ of Christmas? The Christ of the cross? The resurrected Christ? This Christmas, enjoy the abundant joy that Christmas brings – time with family, the wonder of the season, the festivities and the gifts. However, never for a moment forget why we celebrate. Never for a moment forget why we live. Christ is all. Without him there is no hope. With him is joy and purpose beyond our minds' farthest ability to comprehend. Glory in him this Christmas, and let his glory shine through you.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Why We Don't Understand Headship in Marriage

"Just as Jesus redefined greatness as being a servant in Matthew 20, Paul redefines being the head [in marriage] as having the responsibility to love, to give oneself, and to nurture [his wife]." - Jeff Stinnett
Check out the full sermon, preached at my church on December 7th, here. Great stuff.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Now THAT'S a Buzzer-Beater

The Ultimate Inspirational Speech

If this doesn't inspire you to go and win the big game/slay your enemies/conquer your fears/do something moderately important, nothing ever will.

HT: The Blazing Center

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday's Featured Film - 12/12/08

New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.


My favorite animated film of all time is without question Finding Nemo. Pixar is the most consistently entertaining movie studio around, and all their films are good, but Nemo stands atop them all (closely followed by Monsters, Inc.) as the perfect combination of charming humor, beautiful animation, and a simple, touching story. Nemo director Andrew Stanton has returned with Pixar’s latest, WALL-E. Heather and I had the chance to watch it over Thanksgiving, and though it didn’t dethrone Nemo in my mind, it’s certainly Pixar’s best since and in the top tier of animated masterpieces.

WALL-E is a robot, a Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth Class, to be exact. In the future, the human race’s ability to produce trash has finally exceeded it’s ability to dispose of it, and thus, people have left the earth on the Axiom, a large cruise-spaceship operated by the Buy-n-Large corporation (with Fred Willard in a nice cameo as their CEO) while robots clean up the mess and prepare for their return. However, the job has proven too large, and WALL-E is apparently the only one of his kind left. Over time, he’s developed emotions, made friends with a cockroach, and found relentless desire to collect little trinkets he finds while cruising around the planet. So continues his lonely, quiet life, until a sleek and fascinating robot named EVA (Elissa Knight) shows up. EVA is seeking plant life, a sign that humanity can return to the earth. Once she finds a plant in WALL-E’s possession, they embark on a journey that will take them across the reaches of space to the Axiom in order to save the human race.

The movie overflows with classic Pixar charm, and is remarkable for its simplicity. In an age when most children’s entertainment is loud and bombastic, WALL-E contains no dialogue whatsoever for about the first half of the film. WALL-E doesn’t talk, but he’s instantly endearing – a huge credit to the movie’s writers and the animation team that brought him to life. Pixar has long been notable for making films that appeal equally to adults and kids, and I wondered for a while whether this film would be too paced and quiet for kids. However, I watched the movie with my two cousins (ages 7 and 4), and they were quite entertained by WALL-E’s antics. I almost instantly recognized the musical work of composer Thomas Newman (Road to Perdition, The Shawshank Redemption), and while his score wasn’t as memorable as his work on Nemo, it still exuded a peaceful beauty that perfectly accompanied the tone of the story. While this is the most dialogue-light film of the Pixar library, there is still some good supporting work from Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Garlin, and Pixar mainstay John Ratzenberger. WALL-E is the star, however, and this endearing little robot steals the show. I don’t know how he does it, but Stanton once again crafts a tale that’s deeply heartwarming without ever felling schmaltzy. I can’t wait to see what he does next. - **** (out of 4)

WALL-E is rated G.

Sola5 Wednesday Recap - 12/10/08

This weekly topic is an effort to recap the Wednesday night Bible study I teach at Sola5, my youth group. I hope it serves to help us all in contemplating the ceaseless riches of God’s grace as revealed through the Scriptures.

Chances are that if I asked what the area of your spiritual life you’d most like to improve is, a lot of people would say their prayer life. It’s an area that we all know is of paramount spiritual importance, but yet it’s an area that we all so easily neglect. How many times do your prayers feel empty, like you’re just going through the motions? How many times do you find yourself saying the same thing you said the day before – and the day before that. If you’re honest, how many days do you not say anything at all? Last night, we talked about the topic of prayer, and looked at a helpful model to focus us on what the Bible has to say about prayer in the hopes that it will help us jump start our own prayer lives.

The model is a familiar one to many – ACTS, an acrostic that serves as a reminder of several aspects of a healthy prayer life. When we think of prayer, usually the first thing to come to mind is praying for someone or for some situation in our lives. Requests have become nearly synonymous with prayer. Indeed, Jesus calls us to cast our cares and concerns upon him and to pray for those around us. However, if that is all that our prayer lives consist of, then we are missing the boat. ACTS is a way to remind us of that. The A stands for adoration – praising God for who he is. Look throughout the Psalms, which largely function as prayers, and you’ll see this type of prayer everywhere. The character and nature of God should be enough to move us to worship, and we should express that worship to God through the way that we pray. A great way to gauge how we’re doing on this front is to ask ourselves the question, “When I pray, which word is more prevalent – ‘I’ or ‘you?’” Look at Psalm 145 – notice the constant focus on God and his glory. This is a great way to open our prayers, as it causes us to meditate on the greatness of God – the one on whom we depend for every single breath, and who is able to supply any needs we have.

The C stands for confession – seeking forgiveness of our sins. Having established the greatness of God, we then recognize our own fallenness, and our dependency on God’s grace. Psalm 51 is a great place to look here, as David’s brokenness as a result of his sin is in full view. The Bible commands us to bring our sins before God with the confidence that we will find forgiveness. Why can we have confidence? Because God is all the things that we’ve declared him to be in our prayers of adoration. That’s another great thing about the ACTS structure – each part lends increased faith and confidence to the following parts. The T stands for thanksgiving, which can be easy to confuse with adoration at times. The best way to differentiate the two is this – if adoration is praising God for who he is, thanksgiving is praising God for what he’s done, for his action in our lives and in the world. Psalm 105 provides a cool example as the psalmist spends verse after verse recounting God’s covenant faithfulness to his people. The net result? An increased confidence in his faithfulness in the future. All of us can be thankful for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and for God’s regenerating work in our hearts, and we’ve all had instances in our lives where we’ve seen God’s faithfulness displayed. Thank God for these areas, and thank God also for the people he’s placed in your life, like Paul does in many places (Philippians 1:3-4 being a prime example).

Finally, the S stands for supplication – bringing our requests before God. If the word supplication is a new term for you, remember it by thinking of the word “supply” – we’re asking God to supply our needs, and the needs of others. Even in this area, we need to broaden the spectrum of who we’re praying for. Our prayers should include brothers and sisters in Christ (Acts 12:1-5), and ourselves (Psalm 70), but also people we’ve never met (1 Timothy 2:1-2) and people who hate and mistreat us (Matthew 5:43-44). It’s no coincidence, either, that supplication comes last in the list. Think of the benefit of having spent time contemplating the greatness of God, his grace in our sin, and his faithfulness to us through time before we bring our concerns to him. What a boost in confidence! As you go through your life this week, take time to be intentional about prayer, and seek to expand the scope of your prayer life. You’ll find that it helps you to be more God-focused in your attention and your affections.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Monday Night Magnificence

A couple weeks ago, I posted about the fact that my Carolina Panthers were getting no respect despite the best start in franchise history and one of the top records in the NFL. I have a feeling that's about to change. The Panthers shredded the lauded Tampa Bay defense en route to a resounding 38-23 win last night on Monday Night Football. The Bucs had allowed only 1 rushing touchdown all year, but Carolina's tandem of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams (or as they're becoming known, "Smash and Dash") gashed them for 300 yards (Williams 185, Stewart 115) and 4 touchdowns. Add in another explosive night from Steve Smith and it was a party atmosphere in Charlotte last night. Our last 3 games are very tough, but Carolina now controls their own destiny for home-field advantage in the playoffs - win out, and we're the NFC's #1 seed. At any rate, I don't think we'll be seeing many more hack job pieces like this one written by SI.com's Adam Duerson last Friday.

Monday, December 8, 2008

A Lesson On the Value of Human Life

"One way of catching class attention is to ask what advice [medical] students would give when presented with the following family history. The father has syphilis, the mother tuberculosis; they have already had four children -- the first is blind, the second died, the third is deaf and dumb, and the fourth has tuberculosis. The mother is pregnant with her fifth child, and the parents are willing to have an abortion, should you so decide. Assuming there aren't too many Catholics in the class, you will usually find a majority in favor of abortion. You congratulate the class on their decision to abort -- and then you tell them they have just murdered Beethoven." - L. R. C. Agnew of the University of California School of Medicine at Los Angeles, quoted in "A gripping lesson on abortion," The Palo Alto Times, September 27, 1977.
HT: Vitamin Z

Following Christ in Hitler's Germany

Time Magazine has recently rereleased this amazing article, originally published in 1940, about the German Christians who gave their lives in opposition to the Nazi regime during World War II. I don't know if I'll ever be required to suffer for my faith like they did, but after reading their inspiring accounts I pray that if so I would value Christ enough to stand for him at any cost. Don't miss this one.

HT: Denny Burk

Friday, December 5, 2008

Friday's Featured Film - 12/5/08

New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.

Get Smart

I love The Office. I think Steve Carell is one of the funniest actors of our time, and is to this decade what Jim Carrey was to the last – a hilarious everyman who can pull off both the silly and the serious with near equal effectiveness. When the trailers for his update of 60's spy spoof Get Smart began to hit theaters earlier this year, I was more interested than I figured I’d be. Most old TV comedies that get turned into movies don’t exactly turn out well (Starsky and Hutch still gives me chills). However, if ever there was an actor tailor-made to step into Don Adams’ shoe-phone, it’s Carell, and I wanted to see if he could pull it off. A couple weeks ago, Heather and I rented it, and I found it to be quite funny and a just-plain-fun movie.

Carell plays Maxwell Smart, an over-eager analyst for CONTROL – a spy organization from the Cold War that the CIA claims no longer exists. They tackle only the most secretive cases, and Max dreams of finally being promoted to agent status. However, despite his great aptitude for compiling intricate reports, his hand-eye coordination isn’t the world’s best. However, after an attack results in the death of most of CONTROL’s agents, Max is paired with the stunning and deadly Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) and sent out to save the world. With star Agent 23 (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and The Chief (Alan Arkin) backing them up, Max and 99 attempt to halt the latest plot of the worldwide terrorist juggernaut, KAOS.

It’s the same cornball setup from the 60’s TV show, and the tone of the jokes is much the same, merely updated for our modern world. I think your enjoyment of the movie will likely hinge on your enjoyment of Carell – if you find him funny and charming, you be entertained, if not, this will be a long hour-and-change. I thought he was great, Hathaway had surprisingly good comedic timing playing the straight-man (er…woman), and the plot of the film was just tight enough to hold my attention as it basically served as an excuse to funnel Max and 99 into one sketch after another. Director Peter Segal (whose track record includes both charming surprises like 50 First Dates and embarrassments to humanity like Anger Management) skips many of the easy, dumb jokes common in this type of movie and generally plays it pretty smart. Even the movie’s action was entertaining enough, surprising in a movie that clearly is billed as a comedy. At the end of the day, though, it’s a solid comedy with a solid cast. It was a great popcorn film all-around, and I’d recommend it in a heartbeat. It’s nothing you’re going to remember five years from now, but for a fun Friday night at home, it’s a winner. - *** (out of 4)

Get Smart is rated PG-13 for crude humor and some language.

Sola5 Wednesday Recap - 12/3/08

This weekly topic is an effort to recap the Wednesday night Bible study I teach at Sola5, my youth group. I hope it serves to help us all in contemplating the ceaseless riches of God’s grace as revealed through the Scriptures.

Two weeks ago, we wrapped up our series in the Gospel of John. After a week off for Thanksgiving and before venturing into another book study, I decided to take a couple weeks and revisit our “You Asked For It” Q&A series from the summer. We had a few students’ questions left in the box when the series ended, so I decided to spend last night answering one of them. The question involved whether or not we should judge those who are in sin. To find our answer, we first tried to think about what is meant by “judging” someone. That word carries a very negative connotation in our culture. When asked, my students said that it brought to mind thoughts of a holier-than-thou person laying into people they didn’t even know based upon generalizations or stereotypes. Certainly all of us have seen Christians exhibiting this kind of behavior (or even been guilty of it ourselves!) at some time or another. How do we avoid it? Should we avoid passing judgment on others altogether? What did Jesus mean by “Judge not?”

For our answers, we took a look at Matthew 7:1-6. The passage begins with Jesus’ famous words, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” This passage is among the most frequently quoted (and misused) in all the Bible. Upon first glance, Jesus seems to be saying that God will judge us by whatever standard we apply to others, so it’s best to be gracious. However, when examined in light of other parts of the Bible (Galatians 3:10, James 2:10-11) or even Jesus’ words from this very sermon (Matthew 5:17-20, 43-48), that idea makes no sense. Those passages make it pretty clear that God will judge us all by the same standard – his own holiness. So what is Jesus saying here?

He’s warning us that our standard of judgment will be turned back upon us by those whom we judge. When you point out a fault in someone else’s life, what’s the first thing they tend to do? They look for something to fire back about you. It’s human nature. When we’re told we’re wrong, we look for the opportunity to label the accuser a hypocrite so that we can dismiss whatever it is that they’re saying. Jesus wants us to realize that this is what we can expect when we point out sin in someone else’s life. So, he tells us to make sure we take care of ourselves first. He gives the humorous example of a man who tries to take a speck of sawdust out of his friend’s eye while he has a tree protruding from his own. This is silliness – and we look just as silly when we make judgments about other people’s lives while remaining blissfully ignorant of our own shortcomings.

We might be tempted to stop here, and imagine that Jesus is just telling us to mind our own business and let others mind theirs. That’s the American way, right? One of my students pointed out last night, “But if we don’t help each other fight sin, we’ll all end up in bad shape.” Very true, and that’s why we need to notice what Jesus says in verse 5 – “First take the log out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” When we are waging war against the sin in our own lives, we will then be able to help those around us. We will have the right humility, the right attitude, and the right dependence on God that we need in order to be beneficial in the lives of others and not a hindrance.

Ultimately, Jesus is giving us a warning here, not a rebuke. Though we carry a lot of negative connotations with the word “judge,” the Greek word Jesus used simply means to express an opinion or view on matters of right and wrong. It carried no connotation of pride, arrogance, or bitterness. The word was used of those who were wise and just leaders and rulers. Jesus isn’t telling us not to stand up for what is right and speak out against what is wrong. If he was, then he’d be quite the hypocrite, since he did his fair share of both. He’s telling us how we ought to judge, putting away pride and taking on humility, and with the attitude of Galatians 6:1 ensuring that we can be used for good in the lives of the people we care about.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Out With the Old, In With the Older?

Just when I thought I'd seen it all in the sports world. Today, my Carolina Hurricanes fired coach Peter Laviolette and replaced him with...the guy that they fired 5 years ago whom Laviolette replaced, Paul Maurice. I just don't get it. Laviolette wins you the first Stanley Cup in franchise history, and you can him after two disappointing (and injury-riddled, I might add) seasons. This year has been no different - the Canes are hovering around .500, but have lost a ton of guys to injuries in the young season. It's this same "what have you done lately" attitude that had people calling for Carolina Panthers coach John Fox's job during the summer - and he's come back to lead them to the best start in team history this year. Doubtlessly, 'Canes management is hoping for the same kind of bounce that Bruce Boudreau brought to Washington when he took over mid-season last year, and I hope Maurice provides it. I'll be pulling for him all the way. That doesn't change the fact that I find this move - and the overall approach to coaches in pro sports - dumb.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Commentary Doubleheader

A couple weeks ago, my youth group and I finished a 58-week study in the gospel of John, the tail end of which you’ve been able to follow here on the blog. It was a great study, and my teaching preparation was greatly enhanced by the two commentaries that I used over the course of the study. I commend them to you.

The first is Arthur Pink’s Exposition of the Gospel of John. This thick volume contains Pink’s insights into the text, many of them drawing from the most miniscule details to produce great insight. That’s the primary reason I would recommend the commentary – Pink often sees meaning in the details of the text that I simply didn’t. I’ll never forget planning the first lesson in the study. I had intended to teach John 1:1-18 the first Wednesday night. I had my outline prepped and ready, only to have the Pink commentary arrive from Amazon on Tuesday. I sat down and began to read that evening, and very quickly realized that there was absolutely no way I could do justice to those 18 verses in one night. Pink challenged me to go deeper and to search familiar verses for truths that I had neglected, which is in effect the job of any Bible teacher. I ended up taking 5 weeks to tackle the passage, and never felt like I was stretching. However, the commentary’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Sometimes, Pink draws out things from the text that I’m just not convinced are there. He is very apt to allegorize narrative passages, and there were several weeks (especially the accounts of Jesus’ miracles) where I didn’t find much of profit despite much reading. There were several occasions where I would ask a trusted friend their take on Pink’s interpretation when the water between profound exegesis and allegorical stretching became muddied. All in all, though, the good far outweighs the bad for a discerning reader.

The second is John Calvin’s commentary on the book from the Crossway Classics series. If Pink was my source for the minute details, Calvin was where I turned for the broader strokes of theme and application. I found his writing spot on and extremely useful, to the point where if I was crunched for reading time during a particular week and could only get through one commentary, it would more often than not be his. His pastoral heart shines through in the way that he applies the text, and often his application would inform my concluding thrust to my students (who says that dead French theologians have nothing to say to modern American teenagers?). In addition, the people at Crossway did a fantastic job of translating Calvin into a very accessible modern English without it ever having that dumbed-down, JV feel that such a translation can easily fall prey to. It was a great commentary on all fronts.

At the end of the day, if I could only buy one, I’d buy Calvin’s. However, both of them read quite differently and are incredibly useful in their own right. If you’re planning a study of John or would just like a commentary to aid you in your personal study, you won’t go wrong with either of these.

Don't Let Your Cell Phone Rule You

"Technology is a great servant but an evil master. Technology is proof of the greatness and grace of God and something we ought to be thankful for. But why, then, have so many of us allowed it to rule and govern our lives?" - Tim Challies

Monday, December 1, 2008

Live from Louisville, it's Irony!!!

HT: Vitamin Z

Bond is Back

I’ve posted before about my high degree of anticipation for this year’s new James Bond film, Quantum of Solace. After the daring, exhilarating masterpiece that was Casino Royale and Daniel Craig’s deep, dark turn as the famous superspy, Heather and I have been waiting with great excitement for the follow-up. Upon its release a couple weeks ago, the movie was met with good, but not great, reviews. Both my brother and my sister-in-law saw the movie during it’s opening weekend, and they both echoed the common summary of the critics – good movie, but nowhere near what Casino Royale was. Thus, when we finally headed to the theater to take it in Saturday, my expectations had been somewhat lowered. Perhaps that was a good thing, because though Quantum of Solace isn’t nearly as good as it’s predecessor, it's still a terrific movie that provides a bit of closure (or, rather, a “quantum of solace”) to Bond’s origin story and sets the stage for the future of the franchise.

Daniel Craig returns as Bond as the movie picks up just minutes after the ending of Casino, a first for the series. We enter the story in the middle of a frenetic and violent car chase as Bond brings in Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), the lead he had captured at the end of the last film, for questioning. Bond is seeking answers regarding his Casino love interest Vesper Lynd, who was blackmailed into betraying him to save her boyfriend. With M (Judi Dench) keeping close watch, concerned that Bond’s desire for revenge will overshadow his duty, he follows a series of leads that takes him to business mogul Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) and the mysterious organization Quantum that seems to have eyes around every corner. Allying himself with a mysterious woman named Camille (Olga Kurylenko) and his old contact Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), he seeks to uncover the truth about Vesper while delving into an organization that threatens the stability of England and the rest of the world.

Once again, Craig hits it out of the park as 007. A character that had descended into caricature over the course of 20 (entertaining in their own right) films is once again explored in much the way Ian Fleming wrote him almost 50 years ago – a coldly efficient killer with a duty to country and strange allure. Craig brilliantly portrays a Bond broken by lost love but channeling the devastation into a brutal rage contained behind an almost robotic exterior. Quantum completes the origin story begun in Casino Royale, and by the time the credits roll we have a sense of who this Bond is and what makes him tick. The movie is also successful as an action film – it’s brief 100 minute running time is loaded with near constant action, expertly staged and frantically shot. Director Marc Forster, more well known for art-house fare such as Finding Neverland and Monster’s Ball, proves a capable captain at the helm of the ship, keeping the movie tightly focused and never boring. The supporting cast is good, especially the holdovers from the previous film such as Giannini and Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter. Amalric is good, but Greene lacks the interest and magnetism of Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre. Similarly, Kurylenko’s Camille is a strong, if underexplored, character, but she can’t hold a candle to Eva Green’s Vesper. She’s not supposed to – after all, despite the presence of two Bond girls (Gemma Arterton joins the cast as a British support agent), Vesper is in a way the strongest female presence in the film, despite never appearing onscreen. That, perhaps, is the best indication I can give as to what to expect from Quantum. The film functions as an entertaining though unspectacular epilogue to Casino Royale, not the groundbreaking success that film was (how could it be?) but a great addition to the new Bond canon nonetheless. It will be interesting to see how the franchise breaks into new territory in the next outing. Until then, Bond fans, go in with the right expectations, and you’ll enjoy this one immensely. - ***1/2 (out of 4)

Quantum of Solace is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some sexual content.