Something Good from Wicked

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I sat in a theater recently at Tulsa’s Performing Arts Center, enthralled by the performance of Wicked. For over two hours, the performers held my mind and emotions captive.  Even after the curtain’s final fall, my thoughts continued to dwell on the musical.  Wicked’s story and how it is told by the cast and orchestra are woven seamlessly together.  The full experience is moving, both mentally and emotionally.

Had I simply read the script, I may have enjoyed the plot line.  Elphaba’s story may have elicited intellectual sympathy.  But to truly be moved, it took the entire production.

Who is it that created us to think and feel?  God, obviously.  He planted within us the capacity to appreciate beauty, to sense the connection between concepts and their emotional ramifications.  May I suggest that in our day of dumbed-down literature and shallow entertainment, we are missing great opportunities to experience the fullness of life God’s way?  Let me give an example.

Though I don’t like the use of the word “sucks,” it has worked its way into our vocabulary.  Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker which says: “Life sucks; then you die.”  Not a very profound statement; yet, it captures the tragic truth of life in a fallen, sinful world.

Consider now, essentially the same thought from a famous passage from Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. In the play’s fifth act, Macbeth, the man who has gained the crown of Scotland through murder and treachery, hears of the death of his wife, and he utters one of the great speeches in English drama:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.  Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

The meaning of the two, the bumper sticker and Shakespeare’s passage, is basically the same: life is nasty, meaningless, and short.  Yet there is a sense in which Shakespeare’s words enrich the reader’s understanding in a way that the bumper sticker does not.  Carl Trueman wrote, “The language, the sounds of the words, the images, the metrical structure – all provide an elaborate and complex expression that draws the audience into a deeper, more striking encounter with the absurdity of existence.”

Shakespeare touches on an aspect of life we knew already, but he does so in a way that actually deepens our knowledge in subtle yet appreciable ways.  Both the bumper sticker and Shakespeare tell us that life is short and apparently pointless, but only Macbeth’s soliloquy actually confronts us with the full complexity of the truth and then transforms us as a result.  Put simply: what is being said is inseparable from how it is being expressed.

Let me carry this thought to the critical importance of the Psalms in Christian life and experience.  The Psalms meet us where we are.  They capture life, with all of its vagaries, frustrations, and joys, and they allow us to express our deepest emotions before God.  Just as Shakespeare’s words cannot be separated from how he expressed them, the Psalms cannot simply be read intellectually; they must be experienced.  They meet us where we are, and then they take us from where we are to where we need to be.  They are a moving drama.

For these reasons, I believe reading the Psalms is critical for Christians.  They keep our faith authentic.  God did not create us as merely physical bodies with calculating minds.  He fashioned us in His image, and we find in Scripture that He is a feeling Being.

Can it be that we have made the mistake of reducing theology to cerebral facts?  Christian teaching is often presented only on the intellectual plane, just ideas.  But read the Old Testament sometime, particularly the Psalms.  These books bleed the full, robust human experience!  They move the reader deeply, engaging the mind but also powerfully triggering the emotions.  Even after the curtain falls and we place the Bible on the shelf, the words and images continue to haunt our thoughts.

Reading and experiencing the Psalms keeps us authentic before a watching world.  Of the words non-believers use to describe Christians, hypocritical and inauthentic score high on the list.  Mark Twain said, “The church is always trying to get other people to reform; it might not be a bad idea to reform itself a little, by way of example.”

A sure way to reform ourselves, to be more authentic, is to live religion God’s way.  And His way always engages both our minds and emotions.  Like a moving drama, God’s Word enters every aspect of who we are.  It renews our minds and transforms our whole person.

Why not consider reading the Psalms each evening before bed during the month of December?  Read at random – there are 150 chapters!  Or read methodically, starting with chapter 1 and reading three or four each night.  The goal is not how much you read but becoming immersed in the soul-changing, mind-enriching, life-altering experience.

Shopping for a Church

Marketers, it seems, have rendered Thanksgiving null and void. They have declared the day after Halloween as the season opener for Christmas. Don’t believe me? Just turn on your radio, where Christmas carols will greet your ears. Peruse your mail and newspaper inserts, which are loaded with Christmas specials. Thanksgiving doesn’t promise retailers enough profit potential, so they skip over it in favor of Christmas.

Kicking Thanksgiving to the curb is a topic for another day. Shopping is on my mind today, but not the kind you’re thinking. While America gears up to Christmas shop, many people are also shopping for a church. Selecting a church ranks as one of the most important and yet most difficult decisions. Regrettably, much of American Christianity complicates the situation by embracing a consumerist attitude.

If we Americans understand nothing else, it is consumerism. Marketers compete intensely for our well-earned dollars, the end result of which is a demanding culture that seeks immediate gratification. This serves consumers well when it comes to selecting a restaurant, cell phone provider, or fashion jeans.

We must ask, however, whether this consumer-driven approach serves Christ’s church? I believe the answer is a resounding, no. How is Christ glorified when churches compete with one another for the attention of people who are “shopping” for a church? Taking cues from marketing, these churches craft their worship services and advertising to appeal to consumers.  Well aware that people shopping for a church hear trendy music and embrace limitless media throughout the week, churches hope to appear “relevant” by attempting to match the world’s entertainment. In truth, even large, wealthy churches fail to compete against Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Their music and messages are second-rate, at best.

The great tragedy is that churches cater to the wrong audience: worldly consumers rather than God. They seek to entertain people rather than exalt Christ. By contrast, the only audience portrayed in biblical worship is God. Man’s role is not to be entertained by ministers but to remove all thoughts of himself as he attempts to humbly glorify his Creator.

“Relevant” is a term churches throw around as they describe their unique approach to ministry. By “relevant,” too many mean, relevant to consumers. What a colossal misunderstanding of Christ and His Word!

The gospel is the epitome of relevance; it defines it. By definition, Jesus’ Word, message, and mission are precisely what mankind needs. Attempting to dress up these “boring” or “outdated” concepts tarnishes Jesus’ holiness and reeks of manmade pride. It suggests to God as well as church-shopping consumers that Jesus and the Bible are not enough.

Pastors and churches have apparently grown ashamed of the gospel and self-conscious about preaching the actual Bible. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, wrote recently: “Contemporary preaching suffers from a loss of confidence in the power of the Word, from an infatuation with technology, from an embarrassment before the biblical text, from an evacuation of biblical content, from a focus on felt needs, from an absence of gospel.”

Combine these consumer-driven churches with church-shopping consumers. It is a recipe for disaster! Neither approaches church accurately. Church-shopping consumers, trained by billions of marketing dollars, carry their consumerist expectations into the church.

They view themselves as shoppers to be pleased, or they will find another church that meets their needs better…and there is always one ready to try! They compare the music to that of another congregation or even the professional music industry. Preeminence is placed on personal preference and satisfaction rather than godly lyrics, theological depth, and true reverence. They critique pastors based upon how well they entertain or tell stories. They fail to emphasize whether the man of God actually delivers the Word of God, truly preaching the full message of God’s miraculous Bible, the only power that effectively changes lives.

Who, I ask, is the god here? Have we not unwittingly removed God from the throne of His church and placed ourselves squarely upon it? Have not church-shopping consumers and members elevated themselves to the position of judging a church’s effectiveness? Is this not God’s job?

How much longer will the church seek to entertain people rather than exalt Christ? I say, it’s time for the church to start being the church! Let’s stop being ashamed and self-conscious. Let’s stop courting the world and minister to it instead. Let’s stop trying to mimic culture and begin speaking prophetically into it. Let’s stop entertaining and start serving. Let’s stop spending on ourselves and start investing our dollars in the kingdom.

As you shop this Christmas season, if you also find yourself in search of a church, please don’t shop for one. Go, worship, and leave changed. Should the church exalt Christ and encourage service in His name, join. Pour your life into the fellowship. Give, learn, love, serve, go – all to the glory of God!

Lessons from the Deer Woods

A majestic whitetail buck speaks powerfully of his grand Creator

I just returned from a hunting trip with my brother, Terry, and a friend, Steve.  Four awesome days in God’s beautiful creation – it doesn’t get any better!  In fact, as I contemplated life from my tree stand, some twenty feet high in a water oak tree, I puzzled over mankind’s blindness to the God of creation.

A majestic whitetail buck speaks powerfully of his grand Creator

If modern man would momentarily escape the world of hectic paces and pervasive media disturbances; if he would plant himself in a pristine woodland and just open his eyes and soul, he would see what the apostle Paul spoke of in Romans: “For what can be known about God is plain to [mankind], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:19-20).

I stared with wonder each morning into the clear, cold, November sky, waiting for sunrise.  How, I wondered, can someone not question who holds the stars in orbit.  Deeper still, where did they come from?  How is it that there is perfect order to the endless points of light, so much so that mariners reliably steer their coarse by them?  Man cannot and did not manufacture the heavens’ brilliance; again, begging the questions: how, who, when, why?

Sunrise served to lower my gaze to the forest floor, where dawn awakened the woodlands.  The quiet, sleepy woods yawned itself awake.  Birds chirped, squirrels scampered about, entertaining God with their aerial acrobatics.  Creatures of the night slinked off to sleep the day away.  A flock of turkeys, roosting in the tall oaks just behind me, descended with a whoosh, calling to one another with gentle clucks.

A flock of turkeys prepares to descend for a day in the forest

The armadillo’s awkward march, the goose’s raspy honk, the owl’s charming hoot, the crow’s piercing caw, the wild hog’s gravely grunt: each cries out to man, hoping to pique his interest.  How can such varied life forms coexist peacefully?  And for those that engage in predator-prey activity, how do they do so in such a perfect, food-chain-preserving manner?  Surely the man or woman who honestly ponders these questions will at least consider the possibility of a divine Creator who intricately designed the existence of multiple kingdoms of plants, animals, birds, trees, etc.

Finally, I was treated to the most majestic species of the Oklahoma woods, the whitetail deer!  A remarkable blend of elegance and toughness, they bring to mind Tolkien’s Woodland Elves from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

As I write, shortening fall days and changing atmospheric conditions are sending bucks and does into their annual breeding season.  Blessed is the hunter who witnesses the courtship of brawny stags chasing fleet-footed does, trying to impress them with their strength and stamina.  Watching the dance play out – but always beyond my arrow’s reach! – I couldn’t help but discern God’s handiwork even in the design of whitetail deer.

For instance, God’s deer constantly remind the hunter that he himself is a creature and that God is the creator Lord of the universe.  Deer achieve this feat by prompting comparison between their simple minds relative to man’s complex mind.  How, I ask, can an animal with an incredibly small, simple brain – a creature driven by instinct – foil the efforts of cunning men bent on slaying them?  How?  God created them to laugh in the face of superior pursuers, constantly reminding man that even though he chases with more “evolved” wherewithal, his efforts typically fail.

With God-ordained timing, bucks and does begin their annual mating season rituals

We hunters stumble into the woods with more gadgets and implements than yesteryear’s deer slayers could imagine.  Armed with state-of-the art weapons, scent reducing clothing, and authentic deer calls, we imagine ourselves to be unequaled masters of the forest.  At our fingertips are a plethora of new technologies such as satellite maps, GPS, moon phase information, motion-activated cameras, automatic feeders, etc.  Our collective, mammoth knowledge base, driven by the hunting industry’s staggering profitability, renders our contest with whitetail deer almost child’s play.  How can we not win every time?

And yet quiet, graceful, simple, stealthy deer escape bowhunters almost every time!  Is not God’s handiwork seen even in this?  Does He not humble our Herculean efforts, reminding us every deer season that our chase against an inferior beast is often met with failure and frustration?

We fancy ourselves as superior in every way to God’s creation; yet, a humble deer puts us in our place!  Even in this, God, in His wisdom, gives man one more opportunity to pause and consider that he himself is a creature, fully dependent upon his Creator.  Even as man derives pleasure from a day afield, God hopes that he will see the connection between creation’s beauty and man’s capacity to enjoy it and to recognize his joy in it.  God hopes that man will bow to the truth of which Paul wrote: “For what can be known about God is plain to [mankind], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:19-20).

If you haven’t stared with wonder into God’s spectacularly wild world in a while, do so soon!  You will come away with a deeper sense of awe for God’s majesty and a compelling desire to bow humbly before Him.