Tag Archives: Jesus

Replacing God With Ghosts

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As modern western culture continues in its post-Christian march away from religion, what is filling the gap of God? Does disbelief in God translate to disbelief in everything supernatural or transcendent? Recent evidence seems to indicate a resounding “NO.”

As much as we talk of a strictly materialistic and rationalistic landscape in our Scientistic society, there seems to be a lingering (and growing) sense that there must be “something out there” beyond us, something that doesn’t abide by the laws of the natural.

Just this week an article in the New York Times highlighted the fact that in Norway, one of Europe’s most secular countries, “God is out but spirits and ghosts are filling the vacuum.” The article states:

Ghosts, or at least belief in them, have been around for centuries but they have now found a particularly strong following in highly secular modern countries like Norway, places that are otherwise in the vanguard of what was once seen as Europe’s inexorable, science-led march away from superstition and religion.

While churches here may be largely empty and belief in God, according to opinion polls, in steady decline, belief in, or at least fascination with, ghosts and spirits is surging.

Also this week an article in the Wall Street Journal noted the surge in Hollywood and pop culture’s fascination with demons and possession: “Some 40 years after ‘The Exorcist,’ demonic possession is back, spewing out movies, TV shows and books.”

These include recent films like The Conjuring, The Witch, Paranormal Activity, The Possession and The Vatican Tapes; TV series like Cinemax’s forthcoming exorcism drama Outcast and Discovery’s Exorcism Live! and The Demon Files; and novels like The Merciless and A Head Full of Ghosts.

Fascination with demons and the supernatural also shows up in Rodney Ascher’s gripping (and terrifying) 2015 documentary The Nightmare, which you can watch on Netflix. The documentary examines sleep paralysis, a real phenomenon of debilitating and recurring dream encounters with “shadow man” characters (think Nightmare on Elm Street but real) and oppressive demonic presences. By interviewing those who suffer from sleep paralysis, The Nightmare leaves it up to the viewer to discern whether what they describe is a psychological rather than supernatural phenomenon, but the plagued dreamers themselves seem mostly to believe it’s the latter.

Not all pop culture today is taken up with a belief in the supernatural, however. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar last year, for example, made a point of demystifying the supernatural by showing that what appear to us as “ghosts” are simply phenomena of very advanced science.

Still, there does seem to be growing sense in the western world that our enclosed, naturalistic, secular order is insufficient. In A Secular Age Charles Taylor describes it as the “immanent frame,” which “constitutes a ‘natural’ order, to be contrasted to a ‘supernatural’ one, an ‘immanent’ world, over against a possible ‘transcendent’ one.”

If not God, humans will search for transcendence in other spiritual realms. We are hard-wired to believe in something beyond the material.

Perhaps this is why things like ghost-hunting, neo-paganism and Wicca are enjoying a resurgence in many parts of post-Christian Europe. I certainly saw evidence of this on a recent trip to the UK, particularly in one encounter in an Edinburgh restaurant.

I was eating dinner in this restaurant with eight others from my church (we were on a ministry trip together, visiting churches in the UK). It was a hip local restaurant with trendy design and great “New Scottish” food. However the more time we spent in the restaurant, the more we sensed a dark presence there. We noticed a very disturbing, large demon head statue mounted on the wall as decoration. Something was off about our waiter: he never smiled or made eye contact with any of us and seemed eager to get us out of the restaurant. A girl in our group with particular sensitivity to spiritual warfare was so affected by the place that she could hardly sit through the meal. As we left, she boldly asked the waiter if she could pray for him. He at first said no, then he twitched his head in a disturbing way and bowed slightly before saying “yes” and walking away. We don’t know his story or how that encounter affected him (if at all), but something spiritual was happening in that restaurant that night.

Of course it’s not hard for me to believe in supernatural encounters with darkness and the whole idea of spiritual warfare. I’m a Christian. I believe in a guy who cast out demons, healed people and was himself raised from the dead.

What’s encouraging to me is that even in the midst of our increasingly secular age, even those with no belief in God are at least open to belief in the supernatural. This is an important step if they are ever to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I think the materialism of our age is sometimes overstated. We have to believe in something beyond this world and bigger than ourselves. We have to believe in something that transcends our immanent frame.

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The Horror of Grace

In Lee Chang-dong’s film Secret Sunshine (2007), there’s a scene that absolutely floors me, because it captures something so true about the way humanity deals with grace. The scene takes place in a prison, as protagonist Shin-ae (whose son was recently kidnapped and murdered) goes to visit her son’s murderer, in prison for life. Shin-ae, a new convert to Christianity, wants to forgive her son’s killer. Her friends tell her she doesn’t have to see him face-to-face in order to forgive him. But she insists. She wants to see him in person and (truth be told) wants to witness the look on his face when she offers him the gift of forgiveness.

And yet when she sits down to confront the prisoner on the other side of the glass from her, Shin-ae finds him unexpectedly happy, peaceful, even joyful. “You look better than I expected,” she tells him. She goes on to tell him that she’s found peace, love, and a “new life” in God, and that that’s why she’s here. She’s “so happy to feel God’s love and grace” that she wanted to spread his love by coming to visit him. But then the shocker. The prisoner has also come to faith in Christ.

“Since I came here, I have accepted God in my heart. The Lord has reached out to this sinner,” he says.

“Is that so?” replies Shin-ae, crestfallen and shaken. “It’s good you have found God…” she says, very tentatively.

The convicted murderer continues: “Yes, I am so grateful. God reached out to a sinner like me. He made me kneel to repent my sins. And God has absolved me of them.”

And this is where Shin-ae begins to wilt, as she’s confronted by something she didn’t see coming.

“God… has forgiven your sins?” she mutters in disbelief.

“Yes,” he replies. “And I have found inner peace… My repentance and absolution have brought me peace. Now I start and end each day with prayer. I always pray for you, Ms. Lee. I’ll pray for you until I die.”

This hits Shin-ae hard. When she leaves the prison, she collapses, overcome by the horror of an idea she had not considered: that even the killer of her own son could be saved by God’s grace, and that God could beat her to the punch in forgiving the killer, offering him the only real absolving he needed. Unfortunately, Shin-ae can’t accept this seeming injustice–how can a law-abiding, good citizen like her and a convicted child-killer be on the same leveled playing field in terms of God’s grace? She can’t take that, and abandons God because of it.

This, I think, is the greatest, most mind-blowing quality of God’s grace, while at the same time being the hardest for humanity to swallow: His grace is sufficient for all, and it saves unconditionally, based not on our merits or relative levels of moral stature. We’re all sinners, fallen short of the glory of God and alienated from him, and thus we all need exactly the same grace from Him to repair the breach.

I need the same grace as anyone who has ever wronged me.

Trayvon Martin needs the same grace as George Zimmerman.

Jason Russell needs the same grace as Joseph Kony.

Barack Obama needs the same grace as Osama bin Laden.

Mother Theresa needs the same grace as Hitler.

Charlie Sheen, Tim Tebow, Whitney Houston, Joe the Plumber, Kim Kardashian,  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Benjamin Netanyahu, the pepper spray cop, Susan Boyle, Madonna, Jerry Sandusky and the boys he molested… All are hopeless and condemned without the exact same grace. That is: the grace of God, freely given through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, who–though perfect and undeserving–bore our sins on that dreadful but majestic cross.

It’s absolutely scandalous, and for many, a pill too hard to swallow. We’re prideful creatures, us humans. We want to believe that “right” living warrants us  a better standing in God’s eyes than, say, the killers and thieves and pedophiles. We don’t want to believe that we are in exactly the same predicament and in need of exactly the same salvation as the world’s most evil person. We want God to reward us for being good and punish others for being bad. Deep down, pride is what leads many to resist the free gift of grace… because they can’t stomach the notion that earning or deserving are not words that exist in God’s economy of grace.

But if we can just get over our pride, emptying ourselves in the same way Christ did both in how he lived and died, the “free to all” nature of grace begins to look beautiful rather than horrific (as it did to Shin-ae). Grace becomes life-transforming precisely because it takes us outside of ourselves, freeing us from our sinful chains and narcissistic self reliance, instead focusing our attention on Christ–and what HE did that Good Friday not just for me, or you, or the “good people,” but for the world.

Holy Week Prayer Requests

We praise you for the wait, oh Lord.

For the now: the darkness building all around, the tornadoes, the hoodies, the fear.

For the not yet: the reconciliations to come, the healing, the sunrise, the joy.

We praise you for the tension of light meeting dark, valley meeting mountain, weariness meeting rest.

In the midst of our political malaise, economic hardship, cultural degradation and existential funk, give us hope.

Grant us patience for Sunday, even as the blows of Friday take their toll.

Quiet our hearts this week, Oh Lord, and help us to remember your passion.

Help us to remember it on the stressful days, when we’re sitting in traffic, doing our taxes, staring bloodshot into a screen, locking ourselves out of this and that.

Help us to remember it on the lonely days, when we want to see someone but can’t and want to be somewhere other than where we are.

Help us to remember it on our prideful days, which is every day. Remind us constantly of your sacrifice, and of our calling to pour ourselves out for others, as you did.  Help us to love one another, to lay our lives down for our friends.

Knowing that you defeated death–that you made a way–let us go forth with courage, saying the things we struggle to say, embracing the pain we so ardently avoid, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call.

Let the morning we celebrate–the morning you rose–be the morning ever on our minds, even through the long nights.

Christians Need to Love Each Other More

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“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This is one of the last things Jesus said (John 13:34-35) to his disciples on the night before he was crucified. He told them to love one another in the same way that he had loved them.

This is a verse that gets a lot of play in many churches today. The necessity of love is increasingly heard from pulpits, Christian books, radio shows and so on. Churches and Christians everywhere are scrambling to love the world and serve it selflessly. And that is a wonderful thing. I’m glad to see love making a comeback.

But what about Christians loving one another? Are we as good at this as we are at loving those outside the church? In the Christian world of feuding factions and denominations, theological catfights, and near constant bickering, I sometimes wonder.

Read the words of Jesus again.  He doesn’t say people will know we are Christians because we have so much love for the world. He says people will know we are Christians because we have love for one another.

Perhaps Jesus did mean something more human and universal when he said “one another.” But it almost makes more sense if he was talking specifically about the church loving its own members—his disciples loving each other. Why? Because an unconditional love between people of such diverse backgrounds (Jew, Gentile, poor, rich, black, white) bound only by a common allegiance to Christ IS the most noticeable kind of love. There aren’t many circumstances in this life where people of every sort of class, race, circumstance and struggle are unified and bound by unconditional, unearthly love. But this is what Christianity is supposed to be. And when it IS this way, it is such a powerful witness.

Christianity is about becoming a community of disparate believers who nevertheless fuse together under the auspices of that most binding and barrier-breaking of all sealants: Christ’s all surpassing love. It is only natural that this will look countercultural to a world that more often than not divides itself along whatever lines (ethnic, class, gender, nationality) it can come up with. The Christian church distinguishes itself (ideally) by putting aside these arbitrary dividing lines. As D.A. Carson famously described in Love in Hard Places, we are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake:

The church itself is not made up of natural “friends.” It is made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of that sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have all been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance.

Christians loving each other may prove to be the most difficult love of all (because heaven knows we are all so broken and annoying and stubborn), but in the end I think it proves to be the best witness.

I’m sort of tired of Christians fighting with each other so much, tearing each other down, etc. If from the outside, Christian communities look as petty and unkind as anyone else in the world (or worse), why should anyone be interested in Christianity? But if Christians love each other with the sort of unconditional, self-effacing altruism that Christ modeled for us, we will live up to our namesake and people will know we are Christians just by looking.

So let’s put aside our differences, look to Christ, and love each other more.

It’s a Good Day

I always wondered why it was called “Good Friday.” I mean, Jesus was brutally tortured and hung on a cross. There were dark skies and earthquakes and torn veils. Seems more like “Bad Friday,” doesn’t it? Really, has humanity ever had a worse day? The one time the God of the universe was actually walking around in human form on earth, and what do we do? We kill him. That’s pretty bad.

Yet we call it Good Friday. And sure enough, it is a good day. In spite of the horrors of the crucifixion, in spite of the horrors of our own sin and depravity, it is a good day. Why? Because of the last words Jesus uttered before he gave up his spirit: It is finished.

These are words to remember.

In the darkest hours of the night, when nightmares and migraines and monsters keep us from sleep. When car crashes and hospital bills and blood tests make us fret. When sirens and helicopters and cancer loom in the background.

It is finished.

On the days when you don’t want to wake up because you know there is way more to do than can be done, when you feel like you’ll never make a dent in the checklist. When all that you wish you were is exactly what you cannot be. When you say the wrong things and love the wrong people. When you long for the good ole days. When scotch is the only way you can make it through. When you look at the world and it hurts your gut.

It is finished.

When it all comes crashing down: bones, taxes, therapy, pottery, dishonesty, Sunday School, workman’s comp, babysitters, yoga, coffee, car insurance, insecurity, vitamins, piano lessons, treadmill, facebook, failure, success, love, loss… remember that all the trouble we’ve seen has been seen before, every hardship endured on some other rocky road. Christ took it upon himself and assumed the burden. Friends: it is finished.

“In this world you will have trouble,” said Jesus on the night before he died. “But take heart!” he continued. “I have overcome the world.”

Overcome the world? You better believe this is a good day.