Creative Biblical content at the intersection of life and faith.

Review of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray - A Commentary on Conscience

I think I had a renaissance at thirty. . .I think.  For some reason I suddenly became interested in art, reading and more thoughtful forms of music.  I became more serious about developing my writing skills, about becoming a better public speaker, about becoming a deeper man.  I can blame my renaissance for not only killing my online XBOX NCAA football career but also for going back to seminary.  Seminary killed the video star (only those of us who watched “Night Tracks” and MTV back in the eighties can really appreciate that line).


My renaissance has also caused me to revisit all the books I was supposed to read in Junior High and High School but never actually did.  Over the last few months I have begun to explore some readings from all the classic literature I once considered about as interesting as a dead bug.  I now realize what I have missed and regret the wasted time.  Vocationally I relegated my reading to only Christian stuff, the ultra expensive shelves at Lifeway kind of stuff, you get the drift.  I realize that was a mistake.  I have found that reading broadly makes one not only a more well rounded individual but in my case, interestingly enough, even more appreciative of Biblical truth.  After reading lots of those type books for the last fifteen years I feel overly saturated.  It may sound a bit pompous because it is indeed a bit pompous, but much of what is being produced in Christian print is not fresh.  At least that’s my opinion.  


So I’m reading old stuff, particularly old short stories and novels.  Some people would call it a renaissance, some would call it maturity.  Either way you put it, it is just a more kosher way of saying I am marching closer to death and that “It is time to use the noggin old man.”


A couple of weeks ago I picked up Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  It is amazing how much poetic truth can emanate from tortured souls.  


The young Dorian Gray is a masterpiece.  He becomes the infatuation of artist Basil Hallward who uses Dorian as the object to revitalize his career.  During one of his portrait sessions Dorian meets Basil Hallward’s colleague Lord Henry Wotton, an annoying cynic who introduces the young and innocent Dorian Gray to a hedonistic worldview.  Wilde uses Lord Henry’s character as the philosophical vessel that moves the ideology of the story along, that ascetic beauty is the only nobel pursuit in life.  


Upon seeing his completed portrait Dorian loathes the idea that the canvas will forever preserve his beauty while his own flesh is doomed to fade.  The portrait would become a torturous reminder of what he once was.  Realizing this doom Dorian enters a reckless prayer requesting that the opposite would somehow become reality, that he could forever wear his beauty while the portrait would somehow suffer the strains of life and time.  Dorian’s prayer is mysteriously heard.


The irony of the story is that the portrait would indeed remain a torturous reminder, not of Dorian’s youthfulness, but instead of the corruption of his own soul.  Exploring Wotton’s hedonistic world Dorian’s face remained the picture of innocence while the portrait became a commentary on his conscience.  Without ruining the story for those who have never read the book the conclusion is riveting and becomes a borderline horror flick.


Personally I was struck by Wilde’s open acknowledgment of the corrupting effects of sin upon the human soul and how try as we may to atone for our ways we are incapable of doing so.  I do not have an English degree although I know five or so people who do.  I am not trying to offer a scholarly critique of this book, a task to which I am incapable.  I did a limited amount of research on Wilde and his own ascetic hedonism.  Given that, I did not see a man trying to justify himself but in the story I could almost hear the cry of a man who was desperate to escape his own soul.  Was he like Dorian in the end hopeful for atonement but at the same time far past hopeless?  Kellen O, Shannon S, John Mac, Linda M who has no idea how to use the internet, cuz John John - any English nerd who would like to weigh in on this one I would love to hear your thoughts. 


In any event I thought this book was like the portrait, a commentary on conscience.  I found it timely especially since I will be beginning a series on Romans this Sunday, another commentary on conscience but with a far more hopeful ending in that its author does find atonement.  Paul provides us the picture of one who can indeed rescue the soul.  At this point I would say both, together Ocar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Bible’s Epistle to the Romans are must reads.  

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Close to Almost

I think we are all still wondering exactly what it was we witnessed with Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals in the Beijing Olympics. Sports Illustrated has released eight frame by frame underwater shots of Phelps' final stroke to overtake Ian Crocker by .04 seconds. I am not sure any of us can truly quantify just exactly what .04 seconds is. In this case it was the difference between one more stroke for Phelps and Crocker’s instinct to stretch and glide toward the wall. .04 seconds was the difference in you and I celebrating one of the greatest athletic performances of all time for Phelps, or our celebrating Crocker’s defeat of one of the greatest champions of all time. .04 seconds sealed athletic fate.

There is nothing about this thought that is original but it would be frightening to know how close to “almost” we come over the span of a lifetime. For the past several weeks I have been reading through Proverbs. Every verse is a testimony to how the decision of a moment can forever shape a life. The things we do in “almost” moments are the basic instincts of our character. What a man does in .04 seconds can make the difference in marriage, in his wallet, or even in eternity. A moment can make or break a man.

What is more frightening about Proverbs is that it teaches us that life does not always have an immediate finish line. Sometimes the failures of our “almost” moments do not bear fruit for years to come. These “almost” moments are not always about immediate consequence but most often about direction, destination, and the course of life. A miscalculated moment today can bring with it cataclysmic failure decades from now. It is all about sowing and reaping. The Book of Proverbs has a way of pointing us back to the “almost” moments of a person’s life that shaped them. Character becomes instinctive. “Almost” moments are presented and in .04 seconds a man reveals his fatal flaws. This statement may be a grammatical nightmare, but a man does what he is.

.04 seconds, how do you quantify such a moment in your mind? Is it the blink of an eye, the flap of a hummingbird wing, the time it takes a bullet to travel a hundred feet? I have no idea. But we will always remember these Olympic .04 seconds as the time it took to make one of sport’s greatest champions or the time it took to "almost" defeat one.
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A Dollar's Worth

I want to recommend a blog to you from a friend, current church member, and co-laborer in Christ. His name is Jason Dollar and he posts some interesting articles from the field of Christian Apologetics. Jason really stays on top of the current trends in popular thought, does a great job discerning the issues, and has a great way of communicating to a broad audience. Currently (8/11) he has posted an interview he conducted with a former Jehovah Witness leader from his hometown. Jason has put a lot of work into this one and it is a very informative read.

Also, if you are looking for a great speaker I would highly recommend Jason. Although his primary ministry focuses on teens, from what I have observed of Jason he is effective in any audience setting. Youth pastors – once you get over your summer hangover and start planning for next year you must include Jason on your calendar for D-Now or camp!

Access Jason’s article here.

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Discerning Theological Athletespeak

I blog and I read blogs, I am blogalicious, blogocentric, a blog-a-holic to the point that one day I will probably inexplicably develop blogaphobia. The thing I love about blogs is that they give voice to actual people, which can be a train wreck, but in some sense has loosened the monopoly of information provided by the talking heads in the media. I do not read blogs about the things someone did between 3:30 and 5:00. I don’t enjoy blogs that are overly laced with how a person “feels.” That being said, over the past few years I have stumbled across some worthy blogs I read on a regular basis. I share this entry from C.J. Mahaney’s post on the Sovereign Grace Ministry blog (which I accessed via Between Two Worlds) not primarily due to the Art Monk comment, but due to the following insight from Mahaney.

“From my view in the cheap seats, too many pro athletes who profess Christ appear theologically ignorant, have little or no involvement in the local church, and have no pastoral oversight in their lives. Monk’s speech appears to be the fruit of good pastoring. If more professional athletes participated in churches where sound doctrine was taught, there might be more examples like Art Monk and Darrell Green.”

Given how many media types and athletes make God references on the tube and how Christians for some reason are drawn like ants to sugar to deem any popular media type who mentions God a great theological voice for the cause of Christ – I submit this entry as a note on the importance of discernment, good theology, and the intrinsic role of the church in the life of any true professing believer. With that Pauline type run on being said – here’s the good stuff.

I read these words with tears in my eyes.

Art Monk stepped to the podium next to deliver his induction speech. His words are worth reading carefully. He said,

… Getting here did not come without controversy, as I'm sure it did with some of the guys sitting behind me. But through it all, I'm here with a greater appreciation for something that not every player is able to achieve and for the people who stood up for me and spoke out on my behalf. …

What I’ve tried to convey to those who were upset about the process was that I was okay with it. But in all due respect, that as great as this honor is, it’s not what really defines who I am or the things that I’ve been able to accomplish in my life. …

And even now as a Hall of Famer, the one thing I want to make very clear is that my identity and my security is found in the Lord. And what defines me and my validation comes in having accepted his son Jesus Christ as my personal savior. And what defines me is the Word of God, and it’s the Word of God that will continue to shape and mold me into the person that I know he’s called me to be.

So I’ve learned a long time ago never to put my faith or trust in man, for man will always fail you. Man will always disappoint you. But the Word of God says that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. And He will never fail you.

And that is what I live by and what I stand on. Being included into this fraternity is a pretty humbling experience for me. I always grew up seeing these guys as giants and legends who make significant contributions to the game of football. And it’s pretty hard for me to believe that I’ve now been included as part of them. Growing up I was never voted the most likely to succeed. And there was never anything about me that would have given anyone the impression that I would have played in the NFL, let alone to be standing here.

There’s a scripture that I think about almost every day and I’ve come to personalize it to my life. It says: “Lord, who am I that you are mindful of me?” [Psalm 8:4]. And the Apostle Paul says, “Think of what you were when you were called. Not many were wise by human standards. Not many were influential. Not many were born of noble birth” [1 Corinthians 1:26]. And when I look at my life and how I grew up, I certainly had none of those qualities or benefits.

But I understand and I know that I’m here not by, in, and of my own strength—but it’s by the grace and the power of God upon my life, who I know gave me favor along the way, and who provided opportunity and room for me to use my gifts.

So I am very grateful to receive this honor, and I can stand here before you and say, “Hey, look at me, look at what I did.” But if I’m going to boast, I’m going to boast today in the Lord, for it’s because of him that I’m here and I give him thanks and glory and honor for all that he has done for me.

Art Monk’s words reveal humility, are theologically informed, and are mindful of an eternal perspective (as were Darrell Green’s).

From my view in the cheap seats, too many pro athletes who profess Christ appear theologically ignorant, have little or no involvement in the local church, and have no pastoral oversight in their lives. Monk’s speech appears to be the fruit of good pastoring. If more professional athletes participated in churches where sound doctrine was taught, there might be more examples like Art Monk and Darrell Green.

But I want you to notice that early in the speech Monk mentions the controversy over his postponed induction to the Hall of Fame. For seven years he was denied entrance into the Hall, though his stats were obviously as good as other receivers already in the Hall (such as Michael Irvin, who was inducted in 2007). And Monk addressed the controversy head-on, but with humility. After a long and controversial wait, we hear a humble man who places his trust beyond the reach of man, and who doesn’t live to be honored by men.

Monk’s speech reflects the words of Jeremiah 9:23-24.

Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”

The quiet sports star stepped in front of thousands of fans and used the moment, not for self-congratulation, but to glorify God. Standing beside a bronze bust of himself, his speech is no celebration of human achievement, but of amazing grace. In a place built to enshrine human achievement, Monk reminded us all of human weakness.

Sunday Art Monk provided a compelling example for fathers and their children of true greatness—humility before God. I try to seize these moments as teaching moments for my soul and my son. And I am freshly provoked to provide my son with a similar example of humility.
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Review of "Simple Church"

Simply stated, Simple Church (B&H, 2006, 252 pages) is the millennial version of Rick Warren’s 1995 Purpose Driven Church. Another way to describe Simple Church is that it is Purpose Driven Church with really good research. Substituting Warren’s “purpose” for the more kinetic term “process” Rainer and Geiger seek to prove the thesis that catchphrases and slogans are not enough for church growth. Churches must actually facilitate a linear path that will move a person into a deeper level of commitment and service. Be a church that has made a “great commitment to the great commission.” Use a very cool alliteration to describe yourself – but find a way to implement your vision and allow those words to actually shape congregational life.

Citing examples from the Google homepage to the iMac the authors demonstrate that “simple is in.” The effectiveness of the program driven church of the 50’s-80’s era has been replaced by the vibrancy and growth of churches that are able to keep it simple. The mega-church era called for high quality programs, lots of them, all of them, all at the same time. Every conference and book recited a long list of “must have” programs that promised an immediate return. Pastors went to conferences with wheelbarrows, but Rainer and Geiger carefully demonstrate that the program heap does not add to congregational life. The heap actually confuses the membership. No one really knows what the church is about. Furthermore the program heap diminishes effectiveness as it continually calls for more energy and time from each member. The alternative is simplicity. Set your path. Work the plan. Refuse everything that does not fit the vision. Rainer and Geiger submit four words to the reader to describe the process: Clarity, Movement, Alignment, and Focus.

While not the most profound book I have ever read I did find it timely as our church is just weeks away from moving into a remodeled factory site that will be our new campus. Although the information was not new per se, that does not mean it was not helpful. Thom Rainer was for all practical purposes my pastor while I was a short term student a Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY (this was just before my eleven year break). While serving as interim pastor of an area church I attended, Dr. Rainer preached the greatest series on the Book of Acts I have ever heard. In a lot of ways his series was formative to my current ministry. That being said, Dr. Rainer is a powerful communicator but he is also an academic and one can get lost in the research statistics charted in Simple Church. But this does not diminish the book, or others like it as a must read for those who are outside the circle of church leadership and academics.

Pertaining to this book and others like it, this would be my recommendation. First of all to pastors and church leaders, read books like Simple Church cite them, reference them, glean from them, but openly credit and recommend them. Let people know these books exist, put them in their hands, and teach them to read! Most people think their pastor exists in a fantasy land and that his ideas are birthed in the REM stage of sleep, which explains why the word “change” is a four letter word in the church. We have led our people to believe we have no reference point because we are notorious for neglecting to make “reference.” So what if it’s not your idea. Be honest and open with people, introduce them to the academics, the Rainer/Geigers of the world, do yourself a favor and add to your credibility.

And now to the laity. . . Read books about church. Your pastor doesn’t sleep much and so he hardly ever experiences REM. His ideas are more founded than you may believe. Give your holy man some credit. Support your pastor by keeping current on the trends and ideas birthed by solid research. Everyone who claims the name of Christ is called to educate themselves in all things that would add to godliness. Studying church would surely be in that fold. Read theology, Bible studies, Christian life, even Christian fiction, but don’t leave out books about church. I know books like Simple Church are usually exiled to the dusty boring parts of the bookstore called “pastor helps”, but just so you’ll know – Dr. Rainer is THE man at Lifeway – Simple Church will be right out front! Even still, while you’re there, go to the dusty, boring, exile section of the bookstore and pick up Dr. Rainer’s The Unchurched Next Door. For all practical purposes “Unchurched” it is a much better read than Simple Church. My staff and I actually took our people through The Unchurched Next Door a couple of years ago. It was a highly beneficial experience.
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The Year of Living Biblically

Instead of simply offering a laundry list of books I enjoyed from time to time I thought I would try to add to my blogging experiment some review on the books I read. Hopefully this will not only offer a preview before you throw down your next twenty dollars at the bookstore, but will help me better digest content. So for my first attempt at public book review I offer you A.J. Jacobs’ bestseller The Year of Living Biblically, One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. (Simon & Schuster, 2007, 332 pages)

A.J. Jacobs is the editor at large of Esquire magazine. He is agnostic, a true New Yorker, extremely secular, and Jewish “in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant.” The Year of Living Biblically chronicles his participatory journey into fundamentalist Biblical literalism by trying to live every commandment, principle, jot and tittle of Scripture as closely as possible. From stoning adulterers in Central Park to being faced with administering his child’s first spanking Jacobs’ quest involves applying even the most quirky commandments to daily life. Without ruining the read for you the comedic value is high in this one.

The journey is not without an agenda. He writes, “I would do this by being the ultimate fundamentalist. I’d be fearless. I would do exactly what the Bible said, and in so doing, I’d discover what’s the great and timeless in the Bible and what is outdated.” Being a devout Christian I encountered Jacob’s purpose with my own sense of skepticism. I figured by the end of the book I would be exhausted by the rehearsal of the common secular/agnostic/intelligent New Yorker/agnostic/media type conclusions about people like me, people of faith who follow Jesus. You know the song and dance, that we’re basically flat earth idiots who should be exiled to a strange island where we can spend our nights sitting around a fire singing Kum Ba Yah to our happy slappy God delusion.

I was wrong.

The more I read the more I found myself actually rooting for Jacobs. His story was humorous and honest. I think he was surprised by two things. One, that even the most obscure commandments in the Bible can be meaningful. Even if we never understand their purpose they still possess the capacity to deepen life, all of them are in some way wise. The more Jacobs applied Scripture to his walk, at times just for a laugh, the more he grew. He learned to be thankful, prayerful, and thoughtful. Jacobs was surprised at how truly deep and transformative the Bible is when applied to every facet of life. I think the second thing Jacobs found surprising was that people of faith are not flat earth idiots. From his visit to Ken Hamm’s creation museum, to Jerusalem, to a trip to a Tennessee snake handling church (as odd as even I think snake handling is), Jacobs found that people of faith are a diverse and profound people. Sure each of us may have our own odd idiosyncrasies but the term fundamentalist does not necessarily mean stark raving, uneducated lunatic.

At times the book rambles along and seems long, but you can’t help but be drawn in to the day by day account. As a pastor and student who has spent a good portion of my life concerned with the interpretation of Scripture, I loved some of the ways Jacobs found to apply the text to even the mundane moments of life. There were a few borderline crude moments, but the story is what it is, a man that does not believe in God trying his best to do what God has spelled out for all of us to do. And for this reason I was rooting for Jacobs on every page; hoping that in the next chapter, the next day he would meet God. At times when it seemed as if he were close to the truth, realizing that Scripture is not just ancient moral codes, but a directive toward a passionate relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ. But in those moments that bordered too closely to truth Jacobs pulled in the reins and would not allow himself to go there. SPOILER WARNING: In the end, I was disappointed when he reduced God to a ten minute feeling of mystical euphoria. The Creator of the universe, the Heavenly Father is not a mystical but actual. He is God.

Personally I was convicted by the book in that here is a guy who is agnostic, who allows his world to be cataclysmically restructured by the Bible. Here I am, a believer and follower of Jesus Christ, and I look around wondering what in my world has been so cataclysmically impacted by my faith? Don’t get me wrong, I think my life is profoundly shaped by the Bible, but at times it becomes so routine I wonder what it is that I am truly sacrificing, giving, restoring, exploring, restructuring that I may conform more of myself to Christ? Am I constantly and meticulously evaluating every thought, action, and moment of my life against the Word of God? At times Jacobs was overly compulsive to the point of stifling the Scriptures, but all in all I found it convicting that he was willing to go so far.

Sure, he did it for a book deal, but I honestly think Jacobs found in the Bible more than he bargained for. Sure, it was massively Old Testament and he may not have given the New Testament a fair shake, but I truly appreciated the book just the same. My prayer is that Jacobs’ journey did not end with a shave and a manuscript. I hope that in his mind and heart he continues to explore faith, because I know that in his mind and heart now there is so much Scripture that surely the power of God in the gospel is making an impact on him. Perhaps it will fruit unto salvation.

Quick Note: Jacobs employs an array of spiritual advisors who range from theologically conservative, to skeptical, to liberal. He attends an evangelical gay event, he struggles to find the place of alcohol in the Biblical walk – he is unapologetically agnostic. This book is not a Bible commentary or a Sunday School lesson. If you want a book that is Baptist, conservative, and “in the circle” per se, this is not it. If you have a hard time reading books that question the truth and validity of Scripture, this is not it. It is what it is, an agnostic, secular New Yorker trying to participate in a world that is foreign to him – and he writes honestly from his perspective. This is not a Christian book! To borrow from Jacobs’ humor, this is a Christian book in the same way that Garth Brook’s “Unanswered Prayers” is a Christian song! I enjoyed the book because I think it is interesting to see how people who do not believe in Christ perceive the ways and means of our faith.

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I received an email today directing me to one of our missionary’s blogs. If you read through the older posts you can see that they are obviously serving in a very dangerous place and have recently suffered the tragic loss of the husband/father. Reading things like this help me keep perspective on what the gospel and living for Christ is really all about. I found the most recent post “Compelled to Write” deeply meaningful.

compelled to write

Nights have been a good time for me after A is in bed to read, think, talk with people, e-mail and read letters and journals from P. It's been a good time for me to be with people and grieve and cry and all that good stuff. So in reading his journal I ran across this entry. I am glad we talked about these things. He was good at putting things into words, but really good at making it into simple phrases, easy to memorize and follow. I hope this helps many of you who are also grieving as it has helped me.May 14, 2006"Esther and I talked as we were falling asleep last night about the possibility of being caught or tortured. I'm not a brave person and I'm definitely not tough to withstand torture. worse than thinking about something happening to me though, is thinking about my girls being without me or thinking about something happening to one of them. I couldn't take it. God, give us strength to follow you no matter what you bring into our lives.living is a chance to follow Jesus...suffering is a chance to know Him better...and dying is a chance to see Him."
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Work 40, Eat 3, Sleep 8

Work 40, Eat 3, Sleep 8

My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. Proverbs 2:1-5

· Receive my words
· Treasure my commandments
· Make your ear attentive
· Incline your heart
· Call out for insight
· Raise your voice
· Seek it
· Search for it

Knowing God is not for the man who wants only to live – work 40, eat 3, sleep 8, fit in. Our souls were designed with the capacity to stretch for a lifetime. God has designed life to be a metamorphosis. Each day we can become deeper and different. We are not merely bodies. The mind is not just a brain. Living is not the ability to breathe in succession. We were created to understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.

· Learn
· Value
· Pay Attention
· Desire
· Ask Questions
· Cry
· Journey
· Explore

For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. Proverbs 2:6

Position your soul at the mouth of God.

· Read
· Memorize
· Think
· Discipline
· Ask More Questions
· Pray
· Journal
· Turn the Page

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Ehrman and Wright on the Problem of Evil

Tomorrow (6/8/08) I will be preaching a message entitled “The Edge of Evil” as a part of a series on The Book of Esther called “The Endgame.” In the Book of Esther there are no miracles, no dreams or visions, no one prays, and most striking of all is that there is no mention of God; yet this is a book canonized in the Biblical Scriptures – a book we believe is inspired by God and is basically the story of God redeeming the world. Biblical Christians believe God knows what is happening in our world and that He is intimately involved in it. But if God is involved in the world, why is there so much evil within it? You could ask the question like this – if God is the author of the world – why is the story going like this?

These are great questions with no easy answers. I dealt with this problem in a sermon on Easter morning entitled “Does God exist, know why, or even care?” That sermon was basically an apologetic that showed that just because evil exists we cannot rule out the existence of God. Tomorrow’s sermon “The Edge of Evil” will deal mainly with the problem of gratuitous evil – if God exists, why is there so much evil?

In no way would I consider my thoughts on the matter definitive or even unique. I recently recovered from a four month headache called Intro. to Philosophy by Dr. Robert Stewart of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary – it was the most difficult class I have ever taken but at the same time one of the most beneficial classes I have ever taken. I would consider it to be a formative event in my Christian walk. Dr. Stewart – thanks for the class and the headache, it was worth it; your teachings have peppered my most recent sermons. But I said all of that to say this, there are some much better reads on this subject than me – and I would like to recommend one that is very fresh.

Bart Ehrman and N.T. Wright recently entered an online debate on the problem of evil on Beliefnet.com. It is a great read and very informative. Here is the link to the opening page. The interface is a bit awkward in that the entry on the home page is actually the last entry. On the right side of the page you will see a log of entries as they occurred – in that log you can access the first entry by Ehrman which opens the debate. Ehrman’s opening statement is actually a testimony of how the problem of evil was a major factor in his journey from being a devout Christian to becoming a staunch agnostic.


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Page 125

He simply breathed, al all of us do, the toxic cultural air of a disenchanted world in which the mark of sophistication is to reduce wonder to banality. Even more, the acids of intellectual urbanity turn sacrifice into delusion, generosity into greed, and love into self-aggrandizement. In academic circles, this is called “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” meaning that things are interpreted to reveal that they are not in fact what they appear to be. At least things that seem to suggest the true, the beautiful and the good are not what they appear to be. They must be exposed and debunked if we are to get to “the truth of the matter.” The false, the self-serving, the ugly and the evil, on the other hand are permitted to stand as revealing “the real world.”

Reverence is vulgar; irreverence is chic.

An Excerpt from Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Neuhaus, Basic Books, 2000.

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Audio: “Is There Life After Death? “Cryin’ Out Loud”, seven things Jesus said that you’ve always wanted to know.

Is there life after death? How can we possibly know for sure?

Listen to audio of: “Is There Life After Death?”

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What is Wrong With Us? Part 1 of a series of reflections on Jesus' words from the cross.

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Luke 23:34

“They know not what they do.” Were they ignorant or are we to believe Jesus was naïve? Is it honest to say about such a deliberate act as the crucifixion that those involved did not know their role?

On Saturday I was awakened by a tiny kiss. My wife had gone out for breakfast; I was practicing second sleep[i]. During Saturday second sleep I am almost comatose; it is as close to a near death experience as I will probably ever get . . . but I felt the tiny kiss. I opened my eyes only to find that my vision was filled by the round smiling face of my youngest daughter. She then turned, walked out of the room and closed the door behind her, the smile never fading, almost Mona Lisa in nature, serving only to raise suspicion, to stimulate thought. I did not think how pleasant it was to be awakened by a tiny kiss. I did not think of how loving my little girl is. My first thought of the day was that I had been betrayed by a kiss. I knew something was wrong. Investigation revealed her desire to pull out all of her big sister’s clothes and play dress up; a situation that would require hazmat clean up. She kissed me to see if I were actually dead, thus giving her freedom to create disaster.

We like to laugh about it, but we know in all of us exists potential for mischief. If we could kiss and kill our conscience there is no limit to the evil we could imagine. We stand in the world like a child who has just shattered the cookie jar.[ii] We know something bad is about to happen. We know something has gone horribly wrong.

After Adam tasted forbidden fruit he realized something was horribly wrong. For the first time he felt shame. For the first time he felt fear. For the first time he hid himself from God. Adam had never considered these feelings; no one had instructed him on how to cover sin, there was no lesson on guilt, he just knew. He was afraid – instinctively afraid.

Chuck Colson said, “Someone has quipped that the doctrine of original sin is the only philosophy empirically validated by thirty five centuries of recorded human history.”[iii] All we need to do is live, view, listen, experience, express and we know something is wrong. Catalog only a few passing thoughts from your day, thoughts never shared, and you know your heart is not what it should be.

Jesus was not declaring their ignorance, nor was He exposing His own nativity. Jesus was declaring that something had gone horribly wrong. “They know not what they do.”

It was indeed a horrible scene, a naked man, disfigured, beaten, covered in blood, writhing in pain, fastened to wood with spikes, encircled by death. Mel Gibson interpreted the scene on film, it was rated “R.” As blood drips from his feet soldiers play a game of chance, the winner gets a dying man’s cloth. The air is filled with insult, cursing, and satire. Lending more color to callousness is the fact that nothing about his scene is uncommon. Jesus’ death is only one of three this day, and theirs only three of many scheduled to die on a hill called skull.

The Academy Awards celebrate the best stories of our year recorded on film. The five most nominated films of 2007 were rooted in plots that portrayed the worst of humanity. They were filled with images of blood, corruption, violence, vulgarity, curse, lust, dishonesty, and greed. Is this our world? Is Hollywood right? Is art merely imitating life or is art now corrupting life? Do we live in an “R” rated world? Perhaps the proper question is an unusual one. Do we feel these films? Are we not like actors on red carpet who walk playfully in and out of a world filled with vulgar images? Vulgarity in our world is so common that we can no longer feel it. In our newspaper are stories of murder and birth, divorce and engagement, molestation and education, disease and athletic accomplishment, car wrecks and coupons – and it all fits together so well, like oil on canvas. This is the image of our world. Today someone will go to the mall and buy shoes, someone will enter a dark room and inject heroine into a vein, someone will eat bar-b-q, and someone will pay a woman to spend an hour with them in a hotel while their wife is at home feeding their children.

We walk the red carpet. Look beautiful. Continue to believe life is imitation film. Perception is reality. What is that you are wearing and who is the designer?

The description of us in Romans 3 is poignant, “their throat is an open tomb; with their tongues they have practiced deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” No one wants to be a viper, it is difficult to agree with this description when it is your soul that is involved . . . but neither does the asp taste its own poison. Death resides in the mouth of a viper. Everything he eats he swallows whole. His throat is an open grave. Whatever he eats is laced with his own poison.

We cannot taste our poison.

Our television shows, movies, books, words, thoughts – the images of our culture are laced with our poison, we swallow them whole, a rated “R” world. We have grown as accustomed to the images of our world as the Romans were to three men dying on a hill called “The Skull.” Death and brutality were common. It felt natural. The winner gets the cloth. Let’s play.

“They know not what they do.”

Ultimately it was rebellion. They posted a plaque that declared Jesus was a king, but they killed him because he said he was God. Nietzsche said that God was dead. He believed with the execution of God that man would move away from the supernatural and concentrate on the actual. Without the trappings of God man could fulfill his ultimate potential, redefine himself.

It was the same issue in the garden. Cast off the restraint of God and man would be able to create his own definition of morality. The forbidden fruit represented potential, man becoming as God. Legalize sin and it is no longer sin. Yet, when a doctor inserts forceps into the skull of a half born baby we prove we are not capable of handling moral autonomy. Just because abortion is legal does that make it any less of a holocaust? Some things the conscience cannot legalize. Guilt is not a judicial decision; it is a prison for the heart.

We do not know what we are doing, yet we are not ignorant. Something has gone horribly wrong, we can feel it. We cannot kiss and kill the conscience. How can we become what we have proven we are not . . . clean?

“Father, forgive them . . .”

(To be continued)

[i] I first mentioned the concept of “second sleep” in my entry, “Interpretations of Jesus.” Since I first mentioned it people have become so interested in the subject I may need to develop a manual, or at least a Wikipedia article.
[ii] Richard John Neuhaus, Death on Friday Afternoon
[iii] Chuck Colson, How Shall We Now Live

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Audio: What is Wrong With Us? “Cryin’ Out Loud”, seven things Jesus said that you've always wanted to know.

Something has gone horribly wrong. We stand in the world like a child who has just broken the cookie jar. We may not be sure what is about to happen, but we know it is bad. Jesus’ first statement from the cross was, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Were the people crucifying Jesus truly ignorant of their actions, or was Jesus simply naïve?

If the gospel is personified in a moment it is this one; the bloodied Son interceding with the Father on behalf of sinners.

Listen to audio of: What is Wrong With Us?

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Some Books You Might Want to Read (2)

Here is another list of books you might want to invest in. I try to read a book a week. Seminary makes this a difficult discipline, but I try. When I am really busy I read one of those cardboard books in my daughter’s room. If I feel really motivated I will read two. Elmo can be very philosophical, especially his biography about potty training. So outside of some cardboard Elmo, here is your next trip to the bookstore:

The Jesus Way – Eugene Peterson (Highly Recommend)
The Contemporaries Meet the Classics on Prayer – Leonard Allen
The Path of Celtic Prayer – Calvin Miller
Uprising – Erwin McManus
The Gospel According to Jesus – John McArthur
Culture Shift – Al Mohler
Back to Jerusalem – Paul Hattaway
There is a God – Anthony Flew (This one is a headache waiting to happen, but a must read!)
The Art of Personal Evangelism – Will McRaney
Unlearning Church – Michael Slaughter
I Am Legend - Richard Matheson (If you read Calvin Miller’s Unfinished Soul he writes a parable entitled “Red Book, Blue Book”, this was my attempt at a blue book. My review is that it was way better than the movie but unfortunately not as clean).

By the way, “Red Book, Blue Book” is not necessarily about reading books about vampires, but it is about widening your scope a bit, reading some things that offer different ideas, that are written from a different point of view. Unlearning Church can be a blue book in my circles, or squares; but I thought it was fantastic.

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Interpretations of Jesus: A reflection on Matthew 16:13-20

We are Saturday experts. My family takes pleasure in creating great Saturdays. There are plenty of things that will destroy a Saturday, i.e. yard work, house work, work. But there are a few ingredients that make for a great Saturday. For me, the first ingredient is what I would call “second sleep.” Second sleep is when everyone wakes up at around 7:00 a.m., my daughters crash the bed, injure their father, drag their mother away as a spoil of battle, and there is calm after the storm. Second sleep comes during that calm. I am not a good sleeper, but for some reason in that second set of Saturday morning sleep I am almost comatose. That is second sleep, a Saturday morning coma that occurs between 7 and 9 a.m., and if I am lucky can last as long as 10.

And then there is breakfast. You cannot have a great Saturday without a great breakfast. Through the week we start the day with cereal, yogurt, pop-tarts, a stick of wood, a jar of glue – anything that has any decent nutritional value that can be consumed in about three seconds. But on Saturday breakfast is a renaissance.

A couple of weeks ago we put together a jewel of a Saturday. Following second sleep we went to The Original Pancake House at Five Points on the Southside of Birmingham, AL. Granted it was almost eleven when we got there, but we realized there are tons of people who practice second sleep and treasure a renaissance breakfast. Following breakfast we went to the Alabama Museum of Art to take in the Pompeii exhibit. Unfortunately, at the museum, we ran into about a quarter of a million people who do not practice second sleep on Saturdays; we were already about six hours behind them in line – no exaggeration. So we decided to visit the free/lineless galleries reserved for Saturday second sleepers.

The first gallery we visited was the gallery of contemporary art. Compared with the historical progression of art I witnessed throughout the museum, my initial conclusion is that the longer we are on this planet, the weirder we get. Contemporary art is a metaphor for the fact that we have almost completely lost our minds. I thought art was mostly paint, clay, and stone – colors, shapes, and figures, but apparently art can also be video – really high-def., plasma, video. On the wall were two monitors, one containing the image of a man (shoulders and head), the other of a woman (shoulders and head). The woman and the man had a blank forward stare, sort of eerie; I uncomfortably stared back. Their staring was only interrupted by very pronounced slow-mo blinks. They would stare and then they would slow-mo blink. Suddenly you realize they are in water because they slow-mo rise out of the water. During the slow-mo rise you notice how water slightly changes the tones, colors, and shape of their skin. And then, they take this slow-mo fall back into the water. The slow-mo makes the disturbance of the fall, the splash and the swirls almost seem chaotic. The chaos of the water makes the man and the woman lose their shape, they are just dark non-descript images beneath the water, no longer distinguishable from one another. The video ends.

I struggle with culture as does any southern fried Georgia bred male, and so this moment for me was a total enigma. I hate feeling stupid, unfortunately it does not take much to get me there – art makes me feel beyond stupid. I like it, but I do not understand it. To add to the level of my discomfort there were several people in the room watching the video art who were not stupid. Every once in awhile the non-stupid people would let out an intellectual grunt, an appreciative grunt. So I tried to fit in and play along, I grunted just after they grunted as if to acknowledge I saw it too. But what did they see grunt worthy? Was it that they appreciated this blink even more than the previous blink? Did they know the meaning of water, what does water mean? Honestly, my first impressions were that these televisions would be awesome during college football season and I can’t wait for the weather to warm up so I too can get in a pool. I knew my grunting was only an intellectual façade, I was looking at the same thing they were looking at, but I was not seeing what they saw.

And so I read the information plaque beside the video art and it told a little bit about the story. Later that week I got on the internet and tried to learn more about what I had seen. It is a piece by an artist named Bill Viola called Dissolution. Dissolution is the last segment of a seven piece movement of video called Purification. It was inspired by an opera and is an artistic representation of the process of change through purification and sacrifice. In the end the man and the woman meet as lovers in Dissolution. It is an impression of what it is like to love. There were two distinct people, but when they fell into the water they looked the same, they sort of dissolved into images that were strangely similar and non-descript, indistinct from one another. Then it became provocative to me because I saw it like the artist intended it. This is what it is like to love, to lose yourself in someone else. When you find that person who changes you and you can’t imagine your life being defined without them. Your relationship with them changes you into someone else and you have a similar effect on them. In the Bible it is called “the two shall become one flesh”, dissolution.

Dissolution is when you are so in love it makes you want to jump into a pool. Strangely, when I am around my wife I have a sub-concious urge to swim.

Art has a way of making something happen inside of us. It provokes thought, captures your imagination, it helps you feel. Artists take intangible concepts and attempt to impersonate them with colors, textures and shapes, images – that take something indescribable and make it tangible: anger, sadness, confusion, joy, melancholy, love, hope, desire, freedom. Artists have a way of connecting with your thoughts and emotions through paint, clay, marble, and video.

You approach the piece with shallow first impressions – it’s a slow blink on LCD, “hmmm, oh yes, very intelligent.” Obviously even though you are seeing what everyone else sees, you are not seeing what everyone else sees, more importantly you are not seeing what is really there. And then you learn of the artist’s intentions, his or her story or background or interpretation of what they wanted you to see. After you get that, you begin to see even more and now you see it differently, in almost a moment. Now that you share the artist’s knowledge it frees you to see even more. You identify with it – yes, this is the way love feels, this is what love does, this is the way love looks, like dissolution.

Our souls desire to make a connection with intangible things:

Forgiveness – what is it like to know you are forgiven?
Love – what is the greatest love? How far can love go?
God – can we really know God? If we can, what is He like? Does He know what just happened to me?
Hope – What’s next? Will it be better than this?
Eternity – Is this life all there is? What will happen to me after I die? Does life end?

Jesus asks His disciples for an interpretation. When you look at me, what do you see? What do you think? Who am I to you? How do you interpret me? He called for all the options. “Who do men say that I am?” After the options were on the table He asked of them personally, “Who do you say that I, the Son of Man, am?”

So what are the options? Who is Jesus?

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, believes God is bad for man. Religion has inspired men to kill, to persecute, and to brutalize. He believes God is bad for science. There can be no valid science that begins with the idea of God. If science cannot begin with God it will render honest conclusions, namely that there is no God. The story of the Golden Compass echoes this thought that the world would be a better place without God and His church; that people would be better if they were free to experience magic dust and think and act as they feel. The atheist has no room for God, no place for miracles, and no tolerance for Jesus.

Post-modernism, the something and nothing of our culture, is very spiritual in nature, but revisionist in practice. Post-modernism encourages spirituality but discourages definition. The Jesus Seminar is the reputation of the idea and “The DaVinci Code” was the entertaining of the idea. The idea that what we have been led to believe about Jesus may not be honest. The traditional Christ is only an invention of the modern church, a projection of what they wanted Him to be, but never was. To Oprah Christ is one of many valid paths. On the island of LOST Christianity and Hinduism are a potpourri of mysticism that helps us explore the meaning of miracles, forgiveness, prayer, and ultimate reality.

Religion presents its interpretations of Christ. To the Catholic Church it is the institutional Jesus, that through the vehicle of sacraments, papal authority, and the administered graces of the church you will find forgiveness in Jesus. The cultic Jesus says he is not God, but a god. Jesus was a man like you and me who struck gold on a path to deity, an inspiration for the rest of us prospecting for immortality. There is the bubba Jesus, the icon of southern fried culture, the man who will help us believe just enough so that we can escape Hell. Jesus is the moment we fear fire, fear death, but at the same time dread actually changing the way we live our life. We will make a deal so that we will not burn. Jesus is sort of like a booster shot, every couple of years you may need one. I don’t know if you realize this, but almost everyone who dies in the south goes to heaven. At some point in time we have almost all believed in Jesus, we made a deal so that we would not burn.

“Who do you say I, the Son of Man am?” Every person has an interpretation of Jesus. It is sort of like art; we are looking at the same thing, but we are all seeing something different. But are we seeing what is actually there?

Peter interpreted Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Peter was raised in a religious culture. Peter was raised in what I would consider to be the forefather of post-modernism, Roman pluralism. Some people believe that Peter was raised geographically near Jesus; he may have known Jesus his entire life. But now, he saw Jesus in a way he had never seen Him before.

It is when we hear the artist’s story, his or her intention and explanation of the metaphors, of the images, of the colors, of the textures, of the motions, of the shapes, that we begin to see what is really there. When we see what the artist sees it connects us intellectually and emotionally to intangible, sometimes unexplainable, concepts like sadness, joy, melancholy, passion.

Our first impressions can be misleading. The atheist’s interpretation of Jesus is hopeless. The post-modern Jesus is confusing, He is and isn’t. The religious Jesus is lifeless. The southern Jesus is shallow. It is ironic that sometimes we can all be looking at the same thing, but see something completely different. More importantly, we can look at something and not see what is really there. Sometimes our interpretations are biased based on what we want to see; but how can we ignore that which our soul truly craves: to be forgiven, to be loved sacrificially, to have hope, to have a place in eternity, to know life is meaningful, to know God? God has a way of revealing truth to us in grace by making a connection with the cravings of our soul. Jesus said to Peter, “Simon Bar-Jona, flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Simon, also called Peter, you now see what God sees, this is God’s interpretation, that Jesus is the anointed savior of the soul.

We are constantly presented with Jesus, almost to the point of confusion, very near apathy; and then a moment comes in which God powerfully shows us what is actually there. In a moment He connects our soul to forgiveness, to hope, to eternity, and to Himself through the reality of Jesus. We see Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. For Simon Peter and for those with whom God makes a connection Jesus is not simply a confession, but He is a revolutionary of the searching soul.
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Sermon: Praying for Forgiveness

Are you certain that when you pray for forgiveness that God answers your prayer? Do you find yourself asking for forgiveness for the same sins over and over again? If I ask God to just forgive me in general, does that cover it, or do I need to actually name my sins one by one? The prayer for forgiveness is a prayer we need to get right. In Luke 18 two men go to the Temple to pray. One man prays for forgiveness and leaves the Temple right with God. The other man prayed, but he was basically just talking to himself. This story, as well as three conversations with God from the Old Testament (Cain, Jeremiah, and Ezra), teach us about God’s attitude about our sin and how we should approach Him in asking for forgiveness.

Listen to the sermon "Praying for Forgiveness."

Also available through iTunes Podcast

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A Few Good Books You Might Want to Read

Here is a list of some books I have enjoyed over the past few months. This doesn't mean I agree with everything in them or with the people who wrote them. It just means they challenged me and I appreciate what they had to say.

A Contrarian's Guide to Knowing God: Spirituality for the Rest of Us - Larry Osborne
Soul Cravings - Erwin McManus
The Barbarian Way - Erwin McManus (I read this one about 2 years ago, but had to mention it, awesome!)
Eat This Book - A Conversation on the Art of Spiritual Reading - Eugene Peterson
Prayer- Finding the Heart's True Home - Richard Foster
Joseph - A Man of Integrity and Forgiveness - Charles Swindoll

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Fallacy of Religion # 3, You are Alone

Fallacy of religion: The people sitting around you don’t struggle nearly as much as you.

Truth: You are not alone; it’s just that no one is talking.

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. - James 5:16 NLT

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A Fallacy of Religion

The ego will drive you further and further into self. Once it grabs onto religion the ego converts spirituality into sensuality and tells you as long as you enjoy it, as long as it holds your interest, as long as it is positive, it must be God working and moving in your life. As long as you agree with it, something spiritual must be happening.

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A Fallacy of Religion

As long as you don’t get caught, you’re still holy.

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