Where do you gather? (pt. 4)

This post is the most difficult of the four in this series thus far (see them here: #1, #2, #3) and is the reason I began writing on “where” we gather. A growing problem in the Western Church’s consumerism is the idea of commuting to one’s church (I know the church is more than just a building, but for the sake of this post I will use the term “church” to refer to that place where the family gathers–typically on Sunday mornings–and to the family that one wishes to be a part of).

What’s wrong with that church?

I haven’t forgotten that question asked by Rev. Blundell my Freshman year in college. We were sitting in Spiritual Life class discussing the idea of driving an hour or so to church on Sunday’s when he gave the following example:

Say you are in the process of leading a friend to Jesus (or he is a new believer and you are mentoring him). You have invited him to church and he agrees to come with you. You leave Sunday morning and as you make the hour long commute to your church, you begin to pass other churches preparing for their worship services. Your friend, becoming more confused as you keep driving, asks you, “What’s wrong with that church that we just passed? Why don’t you attend this church? Or that one? What about this one?”

What do you say to your friend who isn’t sure why you just drove an hour to Church, outside of the community in which you live, and passed by at least a couple dozen church buildings on the way? How do you answer his continual questions?

Yes, some churches have legitimate doctrinal errors that could potentially be dangerous to be a part of. Yes, other “church buildings” you may pass could actually be Unitarian Universalist or Kingdom Halls– neither of which being truly in the Church. But what about the other ones that you pass by?

I don’t like the [insert pet-peave here] at that church

Think back to the first post in this series. How did you answer the questions there? What is it about the church (family) that meets five, ten, or fifteen minutes down the road from you that disgusts you so much? Or have you even visited them? Is it their music? Do they only sing hymns? Have they completely switched to modern songs which are the bane of your existence? How about the sermon? What is it about the pastor’s message each week that drives you away? Or maybe think about the one you drive 45-60 minutes to get to. What’s so special about that community in that city? What is it that they are doing “right?”

One couple I knew got married and shortly after moving to another city, continued to commute an hour to their church each Sunday and throughout the week for any thing else they were involved in. They loved the people of that church (with good reason, as there is much to be loved there), but they lived an hour away and couldn’t  realistically build great community with people from so far away.

Begging the question

Here are the things that I tend to wonder about these situations:

  1. How big of a role did the church play in your decision to move to another city (or across town)?
  2. If the city you live in now (whether moved to, or lived in for a long time) is good enough to live, work, and rest in, then why is it not good enough to worship in?
  3. Are the differences and difficulties you face in your local church really big and important enough to make you want to drive longer to attend a different church?
I don’t intend these to be condemning, nor do I think there is a set distance which one is allowed to travel to church. But I do think we tend to offer very many excuses to “get out of a church” when we should be more focused on how to serve where we are. So instead of loving the community we live in, we flee to a farther community because they have the coolest toys.
To be concluded…

Where do you gather? (pt. 3)

In the previous post, I asked about our spiritual gifts and whether we know what they are or not. Today I’d like to revisit the questions from the first post regarding why we worship where we worship.

But first, a story

I don’t know when exactly they began to attend our church, but they’ve been a part of this fellowship for quite a while. Faced with a new state, town, and situation, meanwhile figuring life and ministry out, this family began to search the area for a church they could call home. After looking into two or three, they settled on our church, FBC of South Portland.

Having two young kids, one would think that the top priority for them would be to find a church family that had a thriving children’s ministry. I don’t know what the state of the children’s ministry was when they arrived (I think it was doing pretty well, though), but I do know that wasn’t the biggest driving force behind their decision. Yes, they wanted their children fed but, knowing the primary responsibility for leading their children fell on them, they chose this church based off of the gifts they had and the needs of the church.

Now you might think this arrogant: “Really? They wanted to attend a place where THEY could use THEIR gifts? What about being fed? What about letting the Church minister to you? Isn’t that a better and more humble way to choose a church family?”

The Sin of Consumerism

In a few short years the slogan, “Have it your way” has gone from describing personalized burgers to defining the life of the average American. If you don’t like the way something works, by all means complain about it and make sure it’s done differently. But this is hardly the proper attitude of Christians within the Church. It is easy to hop from church to church seeking to be fed and find the one ministry that has it “right;” but that is far from one’s purpose in the Church. We are not meant to be consumers.

Yes, we must be fed the Word of God. Yes, we must fellowship with other believers. Yes, our children need ministering to (even though that is primarily the job of their parents). But beyond all of that is our need to serve others within the Church. I cannot remember where I heard it said, but it’s true that “If Christian maturity were based off of the amount of resources consumed, the American Church would be the most mature in the world.” The sad fact is that our output (love, generosity, graciousness, servitude) is minuscule compared with the many sermons, books, devotionals, songs, etc., that we take in.

We exist not to sit here consuming resources but to share our gifts, be generous with God’s stuff, and to worship as a body.

You won’t get it your way

If we follow the example of the couple above and repent of our sin of consumerism, we will hardly get our way. Instead, we will be conformed to the way of the cross: the way that sacrifices our false desires while making way for true love and service for others. So we won’t (or shouldn’t) be so concerned about our church having the “right” music, “right” programs, “right” sermons, and “right” ministries. Instead, we’ll be concerned with following God where He’s going. “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37.4) is a call to seeking the things above so that that the things above can influence our lives below, starting with our choice of church family.

For more on this, see James Emery White

You’re the only one who can leave!

Spoiler alert! As I move forward in these Once Upon a Time posts, there may be cases where I give away the endings to certain episodes. So if you have yet to watch the episode, put off reading it until you have. This post corresponds to episode 4: The Price of Gold.

It seems fitting that this post is being formed in light of this past week’s events off the Coast of Italy. If you haven’t heard, the cruise ship from the pictures in the link ran aground and the captain of that vessel jumped ship before the ship had been completely evacuated. Even though lives were still at sake, he left.

In this series on Once Upon a Time, I have made a connection between Emma and the role of the Messiah. As time progresses in the series we begin to wonder what is keeping Emma in Storybrooke if she doesn’t believe what Henry has been saying. To Regina’s dismay, she has stayed for a few weeks and still feels somehow compelled to do so.

Temptation

Ever present in this series is the idea of greed. Greed is what makes Rumpelstiltskin make vicious deals with everyone; greed is why the queen attacked happiness in the first place; you might even say it is greed that convinces Cinderella to trade something for happiness in the first place. Isn’t that the case for us? Greed is ever present in our lives. If we aren’t experiencing it personally, we at least know others who practice it regularly. This form of self-centeredness tells us that our plans are far greater than anything or anyone else that might be in the way of accomplishing those plans. Emma has seen great amounts of this greed in her time in Maine. But some how, she seems apart from it up to this point. She even risks her safety by making a deal with Mr. Gold in order to save Ashley’s (Cinderella’s) baby.

Jesus wasn’t greedy

Imagine if Jesus had been greedy. Imagine if He came to earth, realized it was difficult, and left because it was outside of His will. What would have happened? At the temptation in the wilderness Jesus was offered the prospect of giving up His mission, but He refused. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed that the cup of suffering may pass from Him (Matthew 26.36-46). He wanted out, but chose instead to remain until His mission was accomplished. He suppressed the temptation to greedily take His life as His own and instead stayed here and sacrificed it on our behalf. He wouldn’t have made the sacrifice because He would have thought Himself better than that (cf. Phil. 2.1-11).

Emma could have left Storybrooke (or not even come in the first place) but she stayed because she loved her son. The captain of the ship mentioned above should have stayed for all of those still in danger, but left out of love for himself. In the same way, Jesus loves His people and stayed until it was finished. And He finished it well for us.

This is part five in an ongoing series on finding the themes of Scripture in the television series Once Upon a Time. For previous posts, click the links below:

Why do we love happy endings?

Spoiler alert! As I move forward in these Once Upon a Time posts, there may be cases where I give away the endings to certain episodes. So if you have yet to watch the episode, put off reading it until you have. This post corresponds to episode 3: Snow Falls.

If there is one thing that we like in entertainment, it’s happy endings. I have discussed this in a previous post, but it is beyond worth mentioning again. Think about it. Unless you’re a sucker for bad endings, you want the good guy to win, get the girl, etc. That’s why Star Wars Episode 5 ends with a hopeful note (Luke’s hand being repaired). It’s why the Matrix trilogy ends with a happy scene in some sort of new Matrix (yes, I agree the second and third movies weren’t that great). Even the last movie I discussed here had a happy ending (despite not having the padded “prosperity gospel” ending).

Why is this? Well, as with Once Upon a Time, movies, T.V. shows, et cetera are looking forward to the ultimate happy ending. It’s the world we all want! Like Snow White, we want that hero to come and rescue us. But unlike Prince Charming, Jesus is after more than just some jewels in a pouch, he’s after our hearts. But we continue to reject God and His plan. We have been attacked by His enemy and so desire to live a life apart from this God. In fact, we’re so bent on not wanting His ways, that we steal from Him daily. Yet He pursues us. When we were still sinners, He came after us. When we were dead in our trespasses, He died for us. This is the draw for us. We know there is something or someone out there who cares much for us, but because we refuse to see Him at times, other, less meaningful things become the focus. We replace this fountain of living water for broken cisterns that can hold no water. We replace our Charming for the pearls He carries.

This is part four in an ongoing series on finding the themes of Scripture in the television series Once Upon a Time. For previous posts, click the links below:

Convince Me

Spoiler alert! As I move forward in these Once Upon a Time posts, there may be cases where I give away the endings to certain episodes. So if you have yet to watch the episode, put off reading it until you have. This post corresponds to episode 2: The Thing you love Most.

I don’t envy Henry. He has the daunting task of convincing everyone in Storybrooke that they are all Fairy Tale characters under the curse of an evil queen. However, he has taken to this seemingly impossible task with joy and hope that a reluctant Emma will actually come through and save the day. How futile his hope seems, yet how urgent the need for this truth in Storybrooke.

The consequence of the truth

One cannot help but wonder at the opposing possibilities at this stage in the show. Two options- both have massive implications for Henry and the rest of the town. On one hand, Henry could be 100% right: everyone is actually a character from the book and the queen must be defeated in order to ensure Happily Ever After. If Henry is right, then it’s imperative that the town believes him and stands up against the queen. But what if Henry is wrong? Then everything that he has done– getting his birth mom to come, disobeying his adoptive mom, his attempts at convincing others– will have been in vain. There is no chance of, “well at least we had a good time” if he is wrong about this. His correctness in this matter means life or death for the inhabitants of Storybrooke.

Not in vain

Paul hammers a similar point home in 1 Corinthians 15.12-19:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

For us, there is no hope to say, “If we’re wrong, at least we lived a moral life.” If we are wrong about the gospel of Jesus, we are to be most pitied. My life has been wasted if Jesus is not who He said He was. Later on in this same chapter, Paul will tell us that if Christ has not been raised, we should continue eating and drinking to our hearts’ content for “tomorrow we die” and it doesn’t matter!

But it does matter. Jesus did come; He died; He rose again from the dead to assure our hope in Him. And why? So that we could come to Him and trust in what is ultimately important- His finished work at the cross. And He brought change! The moment He stepped foot on this earth, Jesus began a change in this world; He defeated sin and death and they are being conquered daily. Like Emma in Once Upon a Time, Jesus stood up to our greatest enemy and began change in individuals and our situations. But ultimately, this change will only be defeated when we are able to say, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory.” O death, where is your sting?”; when Jesus returns and finalizes what He started nearly 2000 years ago.

This is part three in an ongoing series on finding the themes of Scripture in the television series Once Upon a Time. For previous posts, click the links below:

Welcome to Storybrooke

When Emmalie and I started watching Once Upon a Time, we knew we were in for a treat but we didn’t know what kind of truth we could harvest from it. Then as I was researching some pictures from the show, I found this:

Once Upon A Time is, at its core, a story about hope. “For us, that’s what a fairytale is. It’s that ability to think your life will get better. It’s why you buy a lottery ticket—because if you win you get to tell your boss that you’re quitting and you get to move to Paris or wherever and be who you always wanted to be. And that’s Cinderella, right? One day she’s sweeping up and the next she’s going to the ball. Adam and I just wanted to write about something hopeful that for one hour a week allows one to put everything aside and have that feeling that your dreams just may come true.”
– Edward Kitsis, Co-Creator/Executive Producer (from the website; read the show’s synopsis, here)

Looking for hope

I couldn’t agree more! In the end, most of us are looking for hope… but why? Why are things not the way we think they should be? Or better yet, why on earth should we hope for and expect a better life? In Once Upon a Time, things are supposed to be a certain way. Everyone is about to experience “Happily Ever-After” but then something happens: a curse comes upon all the inhabitants of Fairy Tale Land (or whatever it’s called!). This curse affects everyone. It is brutal. It is all encompassing. But with the curse comes a great promise that means hope to our beloved fairy tale characters: Emma, Snow White’s Daughter, will return when she turns 28 and save everyone from the curse. Like clockwork, on night of Emma’s 28th birthday, her son shows up to bring her to Storybrooke to break the curse. And they plan on accomplishing this by convincing everyone that they are part of a Fairy Tale.

Far as the curse is found

We are under a similar curse. Like the citizens of Storybrooke, mankind was created for a happy ending; we were made for peace with our creator. But something happened. No, our enemy didn’t curse our happiness, but he provided the temptation necessary to place us under the curse of sin and death. So our bed of roses became a hedge of thorns, and we were expelled with a promise:

 The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen. 3.14-15)

With this promise came hundreds of other promises and foreshadowings of one who would crush the head of the serpent (Satan) and break our bondage to sin and death. And like clockwork, Jesus came. He came to break our slavery to sin and rescue us for His Kingdom of light.

And time ticks on

When Emma made the decision to stay in Storybrooke to figure out what was going on (as she doesn’t yet believe Henry’s tale), the town clock began to tick again. Until this point, everyone had been frozen in time– suffering with no end in this un-happily ever after. But Emma stayed, and the second hand moved… and kept going. Her coming had started something and we have seen that every time since then that she has done something new, more areas of the curse have been lifted. In the same way, Jesus’ incarnation (which we celebrate with Christmas in two weeks) was the initial swing of the pendulum. And with His coming, things began to change; He started to show new aspects of His long awaited kingdom in that,

“…the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Matt. 11.5-6)

It has already begun- His initial victories were won in the Manger, the Wilderness, and at Calvary; we now await His coming when He will take back what is His. And He will! And Happily Ever After will belong again to Him and His people!

This is part two in an ongoing series on finding the themes of Scripture in the television series Once Upon a Time. For the first post, click below:

Every story is a reflection

Emmalie and I have recently been enjoying the new ABC series Once Upon a Time, a show which takes a different look at the origins of the fairy tales that we all know and love and tells a new tale of the characters being trapped by an evil curse in a place with no happy endings (which happens to be a fictional town in Maine… go figure).

Aside from the fact that it’s intriguing and suspenseful at times, Once Upon a Time has inspired some theological thoughts to spring up in my mind. For quite some time I have been moved to think about how the media and culture of our world serves to reflect the themes of Scripture (probably thanks to this and more so this). Throughout history God’s people have made connections (for better or worse) between the things of this world and the things of Christ. And why not? As we have watched through the first five episodes of this show, I have come to the realization that in one way or another our media will usually reflect some aspect of God’s story. This is true for all stories because God made us to be creative creatures; a great reflection of His image.

Over spiritualizing?

We have done Movie and Theology at youth group a few times and on occasion some kids will say to me, “It’s just a movie Jakob! It’s not meant to be torn apart like this!” And as I go on reviewing some theological themes of Once Upon a Time some of my readers may feel the same way. I certainly want to maintain my focus on the themes of Scripture without crossing the line into over spiritualization. This means that I’m going to try to avoid making unnecessary connections; in other words, not everything in the story is going to reflect the story of God just as not everything in the parables Jesus taught had a connection to the spiritual truth He was teaching. One example of what I won’t be doing (in the case of episode three) is looking at the scene with the trolls that Snow White and Prince Charming have to fight off and saying, “Now the trolls represent our sin, and…” No. The trolls are just a part of the story that serve more as a detail in and not as the support of a major theme.

That sounded confusing. I hope that as these posts come out, you will begin to see what I see in Once Upon a Time. I would encourage you to watch the previous episodes and join with me as we explore some of these things over the course of the series. I’m a bit behind in getting started, but am looking forward to what the future holds.