Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Review - 7 Men and the Secret of their Greatness

I love to read about people in the past.  I like big, detailed books, like 500 page biographies that leave no question about the subject unanswered.  I also quickly recognize that a great number of people look at a book like that with horror.  They could not fathom having the time, energy or interest in plumbing the depths of a tome like that. 

Yet there is often much to learn from a well-written biography, especially a biography of a fellow Christian.  While we are obviously called to spend our lives following Christ and not other believers, learning how other believers put their faith into action can be incredibly encouraging to our own faith.  After all, it is what the apostle Paul taught when he wrote, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”  (1 Cor. 11:1)

With that in mind, let me introduce you to Eric Metaxas’ book 7 Men and the Secret of their Greatness.  Metaxas is well-known for his excellent biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as his contribution to the Breakpoint radio commentaries.  In this book, Metaxas provides 7 short (about 30 pages each) biographies of seven men who, in living out their faith, became men to admire in unique ways.

The seven men highlighted in the book may by surprising.   Some of the men come from recognized evangelical faith traditions.  William Wilberforce was a force behind stopping the slave trade and reforming manners in England.  Eric Liddell, made famous by the film Chariots of Fire, was a world-renowned athlete and a committed missionary.  Charles Colson, the former Nixon White House “hatchet man” came to Christ and founded Prison Fellowship.

Others come from a faith tradition outside of what is commonly understood as evangelicalism.  George Washington, America’s first president, lived out his belief in a quiet, faithful way that demonstrated what leadership should be like.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran, faithfully resisted the scourge of Nazism and ultimately lost his life for being implicated in an attempt to end Hitler’s evil power.  Pope John Paul II, head of the Roman Catholic Church, displayed his greatness on a world stage and changed people’s perception of the world’s largest church tradition.

Perhaps the most surprising man in the book is Jackie Robinson, the first African-American man to play baseball in the major leagues.  Metaxas tells a story that is significantly different than the one laid out in the popular movie 42.  In the movie, Jackie Robinson displays incredible endurance and grace in the face of racial hatred.  Metaxas provides a broader picture, also displaying Robinson’s endurance and grace, but grounding those characteristics in the Christian faith he had trusted since his childhood.

All and all, 7 Men and the Secret of their Greatness is well worth a read.  In these days when our society glorifies celebrities that are not on any way worthy of emulation, 7 Men is a valuable reminder that there still are admirable men out there.  True heroism and greatness is on display in each of the lives portrayed in this book.  And where does that heroism and greatness come from?  It flows from the faith of these men and the transforming work of Christ in their lives.  7 Men is a wonderful reminder to all who read it of the power of God to make sinful, flawed human beings truly great.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Dear Angelina Jolie

Dear Angelina Jolie,

Let me say right at the beginning that I appreciate your talents as an actress and a film director.  And I want to thank you for putting the amazing story of Louis Zamperini to film.

Over the past 15 years or so, I have heard snippets of the Louis Zamperini story.  Track star.  World War 2 veteran.  POW.  But it was not until Laura Hillenbrand’s wonderful book Unbroken came out that I got the whole story of Louis’ life.  It truly is an amazing story – one worth telling in many ways and forms.

When I heard that Louis’ story was going to be released in movie form, I was excited.  I don’t go to many movies, but this was one that I was planning to pay to see in the theater.  I remember telling my wife that just a week or two ago.

Since then I have read some reviews from advance screenings and have changed my mind about seeing the movie in the theater.  Although the reviews I read praised the movie, the acting and the story-telling, they also make it clear that you and the writers chose to only tell part of Louis’ story.  Once again, Hollywood seems to have an aversion to really telling the story of someone with genuine, transformative Christian faith.

In fact, I even would say that choosing “Unbroken” as the title of your film was disingenuous.  Yes, Louis did persevere in many areas of his life.  He endured in his life as a track star.  He endured in the military.  He endured weeks marooned at sea.  He endured years as a POW in a Japanese prison camp, undergoing all manner of abuse.  By all outward appearances, Louis Zamperini was unbroken by all those experiences.  And that is the story you tell – Louis returning home to be reunited with his family.  It is a wonderful story of the triumph of the human will in the face of cruelty and evil.

While Louis returned home appearing to be unbroken, that was a lie.  As the next few years of Louis’s life proved, he was broken.  He endured all those traumatic and terrible things during the war, only for his brokenness to be made apparent on his return.  He suffered terrible nightmares – when he closed his eyes, his prison guards were waiting for him in his dreams.  Running, which once gave him joy, was now joyless.  He started drinking heavily.  He raged at his wife.  He exhibited all the symptoms of what we understand now as P.T.S.D., which can break a person from the inside out.

One day, all of that began to change for Louis.  It was not because of greatness of his will overcame his inner demons.  It was not because a wise counselor set him free from his struggles.  No, change came to Louis’ life in the person of Jesus Christ.  The brokenness the world around him could not heal was healed, day by day, bit by bit, by the transforming work of Jesus Christ in Louis.  That is the real story of unbrokenness – that Someone could take a human being who is truly broken from the inside and rebuild him, heal him and put his unbrokenness on display for a whole nation to see.  The real story is that a man could be healed to such an extent that he could return to Japan and express his forgiveness to the guard who beat and abused him.  That is a story of hope, a story of real change, a story of the complete transformation of a life.  It is a story that is increasingly needed in our dark days of terrorism, economic troubles and racial tension.  We need that kind of hope.  We need that kind of change.  We need the kind of power to forgive.  That is the story I wish you would have told.  Unfortunately for me, there is too much in Unbroken that is left unspoken, much to my personal disappointment.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Why Do We Sin?

I think we can all relate to the power of sin.  We can relate to the struggle against sinful habits.  We have experienced the discouragement and frustration that comes when we fall into temptation and sin. Perhaps that sin has become so habitual, so ingrained, that we don’t even see it as a sin anymore.  Maybe we excuse ourselves away with statement like these: “I just don’t suffer fools.”  “I have a temper, that’s who I am.”  “I always speak my mind.”  And in stating these self-identifications, we do not recognize the carnage that sin is causing in our lives and the lives of those around us.

Situations like that are difficult ones.  Persistent sin is discouraging and it is damaging.  We know we should not live like this.  And yet telling ourselves to do better, to do things differently, to do more things like praying and reading the Bible, is often not sufficient. When we come face to face with sin, the question we want to ask is this:  what will it take to bring true change at the core of our being?   What will it take to bring heart change?  You see, that is the kind of change that is necessary – not just new habits or new actions, but a transformation that happens at the center of who we are.

In looking for that transformation, perhaps we should ask ourselves another question:  why do we sin?  There are many potential answers to that question.  We can defend ourselves and justify ourselves with our answers.  But the question really only has one true answer.  Why do we sin?  Because we love the sin more than the Savior.  The sin is greater in our affections than Jesus is.  We prefer the self-righteous adrenaline of anger over a spirit of forgiveness.  We prefer to think of ourselves than consider others ahead of ourselves.  We love the satisfaction we get when we put someone else in their place more than the joy that is found in being gracious to others.  Our sin is the result of what our hearts love most, and practically speaking it is often not the One who died for us.

Bryan Chapell, former President of Covenant Theological Seminary, shares some thoughts on this in his book Holiness by Grace:  Delighting in the Joy that is our Strength.  He notes that often the apostle Paul, as he is writing to churches and praying for churches, began with “knowing” rather than “doing.”  He began by expressing to the churches what they knew before he shared about what they should do.  He began by unpacking salvation and the wondrous gift found in Jesus Christ before he moved on to telling the church how to live in light of that gift.

All too often we are guilty of reversing that order.  We put a lot of emphasis on doing over knowing.  Doing can be a good thing, but truthfully, we cannot really do until we know.  There is no real foundation to our action if we do not know first what Jesus has done for us. 

If you are like me, your typical response to sin in your life goes something like this:  I sin.  I feel convicted.  I confess that sin to the Lord.  And then I pledge to try harder, to do more, to be more committed, etc.  What would happen if we changed that response?  What would happen if, after we confessed that sin to the Lord, instead of doing, we concentrated on knowing?  What would happen if we focused our efforts on preaching the gospel to our hearts rather than trying to do better?  What would happen if we targeted our affections rather than our habits? 

The most powerful spiritual weapon a believer has in his arsenal is the truth of the gospel of Christ, the mercy of God as revealed in Jesus.  What place do the truths of the gospel have in our hearts?  In light of the gospel, what do we know about God and about us?  Let’s be faithful in preaching the gospel to our own hearts.  Meditate on God’s eternal love for you.  On Christ’s humble birth.  On his perfect, sinless life.  On his selfless, substitutionary sacrifice.  On his victorious resurrection.  On his present and coming glory.  Meditate on the blessings found in the gospel.  Redemption and forgiveness.  Reconciliation and adoption.  Righteousness both now and for eternity.  The gospel is the message that transforms our hearts.  The truth of God’s love displayed in Jesus Christ is the only thing that can truly change our affections.  If we want to have victory over sin, it starts with loving Jesus more that we love our sin.  And that can only come when we invite the truths of the gospel to invade and transform our hearts.