Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Striking the Set

Picture this: for the past two months of your life, you have worked very hard on a project. You and a group of others work approximately four hours every single weeknight to meet the project deadline. Both your body and your brain hurt as work on the project takes incredible physical and mental stamina. But through it all, you find comraderie and fellowship with those laboring next to you. Finally, the big day has come. You and your teammates are ready to present the project to the public. The public loves it. They applaud you for a job well done. You feel a sense of accomplishment and purpose. Then, you and your friends turn around, and tear the project apart piece by piece with your bare hands.

Sound crazy? It's more common than you think. In the theatre world, this is what is known as "striking the set." For an actor, it's perhaps the most dreaded, unwelcome task there is.

I used to hate strike. Not only are you completely exhausted after pouring your heart and soul into that night's performance, but you have to stay around a few extra hours after closing night to tear apart the set, pack away the costumes, and take down all the lights. The entire time, you are conscious of the fact that you are voluntarily destroying your hard work and creativity. I distinctly remember taking an unusually long time on closing night to undress, take off my makeup, and make my way back to the stage to help with the strike efforts because I couldn't bear the thought of it. I haven't set foot on stage in ten years, and I still can't bear the thought of it!

Perhaps you've never been in a play, but you can still relate to what I'm saying. Now that the Christmas season is winding down, some of you will be taking down your Christmas tree, packing away the ornaments, and removing all the trimmings from around the house. It can be a depressing thing to dismantle the hard work, the creativity, and the love and care that went into decorating your home for Christmas. After everything is put away for another year, the house can look so empty and bare. A few days after this process, you may feel a little sad. It's hard to see something so beautiful come to an end, but it must. It can't stay Christmas forever.

If it's this difficult tearing down your Christmas decorations and saying good bye to 2008, imagine what it will be like when it is time to say goodbye to all of human history.This ritual is magnified by the fact that it often coincides with the sinking feeling of saying goodbye to another year. We look back on friends we've lost, opportunities gone by, and good things that came to an end. This can be especially hard when a loved one has died in the past year. For this reason, New Year's Eve has always been a difficult time for me personally. As a former existentialist, I tend to view the past year as some sort of thick liquid that holds certain precious moments in suspension. As I move forward into a new year, those moments stay trapped in the past, and I cannot take them with me. There is a reluctance to let go of the old. I don't want to say goodbye. I want to cling to that year and never let it go. This feeling is only natural, and I think it speaks volumes about our human tendency to cherish wood, hay, and stubble.

Tonight we merely say goodbye to one calendar year. And if it's this difficult tearing down your Christmas decorations and saying good bye to 2008, imagine what it will be like when it is time to say goodbye to all of human history.

They say all the world's a stage. If that is the case, then we can expect one day for the biggest strike of all time to occur. One day, this stage is going to be torn down by the very One who built it, and each of us will be required to help out. As the Creator of the Universe burns entire cities to the ground, each of us will have to shed the costumes we wore in this life, remove our masks, and wipe off all our makeup. For those who do not know Christ, it will be a sad time. They will ask the rocks to fall on them so they don't have to participate in striking the set. They will weep and mourn over the loss of the cardboard walls they built around themselves, never realizing that all the while they were rehearsing in front of an Audience of One when they thought no one was watching.

When strike comes, what will be your response? Will you cheerfully tear down your career, pack up your reputation, and throw away your accomplishments? Or will you be the actor going through the wreckage, crying, "Oh, no! I hate to see this one thing get thrown in the incinerator!"

We do not know the day nor the hour. But when the Great Director comes to strike the grand set, there will be no opportunities to salvage the curtains and the backdrop. There will be no autographs to sign. There will be no second bows. There will be nothing left except our crowns, to be cast at His feet.


~Jennifer and Geraldine would like to wish our readers a Holy New Year~

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Deconstructing Christmas?

We recently received an email from a reader (or visitor perhaps) warning us about the "dangers" that are associated with Christmas. Here is an excerpt from that email:

I would just like to warn you in the Holy Ghost that this so-called Christmas season is not of God. In fact it is an abomination unto Him and as a child of the Most High God I must warn you of this . . If it were really of God the world would have nothing to do with it. They hate Jesus. Jesus was not born on Dec. 25th. He was born around October and not only that but there is no date given in the Holy Word of God . . . There is not one scripture in the Bible admonishing us to celebrate his birth. We are told to celebrate his death, burial and resurrection which we do when we have the Lord's supper. There are lots of good websites which have all the information re this idolatrous false worship . . I admonish you to take heed to God's Word regarding this abomination and flee this idolatry for that is what is.
I would like to publicly applaud this person for being gracious enough to sign her real name to the email. This person should be commended for her willingness to identify herself to me. Too often people claim to have strong convictions, but those convictions apparently aren't worth attaching their names to them, and they hide behind the title of "anonymous." Kudos to this sister for openly standing by her convictions.

I also want to thank this person for simply taking the time to write this email and send it. It is obvious that this person is very passionate about this issue and wants to alert as many people as possible to the reasons why she views Christmas as an abomination. That being said, I am sure she will not object to me sharing a few "warnings" of my own.

Before I do, I want to make it clear that the writer of this email is correct when she states that there is no mention of Christmas in the Bible, and that much of what we know regarding the Christmas holiday is intermingled with pagan practices. Many years ago, I received a pamphlet written by Russell Tardo entitled, "The Shocking Truth about Christmas." You can read that pamphlet here. The argument set forth in this pamphlet were further solidified by my good friend and brother in Christ, Jim Jones of Grants Pass, Oregon. Jim, a former wiccan and Druid Priest-turned-evangelist, went to be with the Lord just last month. This past year, Jim granted my friends three interviews explaining the pagan origins of Halloween, Easter and Christmas. You can to those radio interviews by clicking here.

In any case, my objections to this perspective are as follows:

I am not making an argument for Christmas, rather I am making a stern warning against speaking for God where He has not spoken. If the Bible is silent on the issue of Christmas, we cannot claim to know how He feels about it.1) Speaking for God.
My first concern regarding this email is that statements are twice made to assert the idea that God views Christmas as an abomination: "In fact it is an abomination to Him," and then later, "I admonish you to take heed to God's Word regarding this abomination." This email makes it clear that there is no mention of Christmas or the date of Christ's birth in the Bible. This is true! However, if God makes no mention of it in the Bible, then how does one know that He views it as an abomination? Please note, I am not making an argument for Christmas, rather I am making a stern warning against speaking for God where He has not spoken. If the Bible is silent on the issue of Christmas, we cannot claim to know how He feels about it.

Some may respond that this is a deconstructive argument. In other words, I am totally destroying the original intent of the text by questioning its subtext (that which is not openly stated, but implied). A popular deconstructive argument that we've all made in childhood is this:

A: Mom didn't say you could do that!
B: Yeah, but she didn't say I couldn't, either.

Clearly, B has deconstructed A's position by tossing out that which Mom has implied, simply because Mom technically didn't say so. In like fashion, we have the following situation:

Email: The Bible doesn't say we should celebrate Christmas.
Jennifer: The Bible doesn't say we shouldn't, either.

Normally, we could stop here and say that my argument is a deconstructive one. But in order for this to be considered deconstruction, I'd have to be intentionally undermining what Scripture implies. In this case, I am not destroying what scripture implies, because the forbidding of Christmas is not what scripture implies. In fact, I can go a step further and demonstrate that the Bible literally says the opposite:
One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. (Romans 14:5-6)

So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ . . .Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? (Colossians 2:16-17, 20-22)

If God has convicted you of some sin involving the celebration or observance of Christmas, then praise God and obey what He has said. However, if a sister in Christ has not had the same conviction, you are not to impose those regulations meant for you upon someone else:
I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. . . .Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense. It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin. (Romans 14:14, 19-23)

Just as the writer of the email felt compelled to "admonish" us regarding this "abomination," I feel just as compelled to share this perspective, because this is what the Bible actually says. It warns us against enforcing regulations upon one another which God did not intend.

My other objections to the above perspective are not as complex, but still warrant attention:

2) Reference to "World involvement". The writer of the email states that if Christmas was of God, then the world would not be so involved in it. I do not think this is a strong argument when you consider the many ways in which the world opposes Christmas due to its connection with Jesus. For instance, at the workplace we are told to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas". In many cases, the world views Christmas as highly offensive and has even taken legal action to suppress it. Most recently, a parent tried to sue her child's school over the song Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer because she felt it was too religious. The reason? The song makes reference to "Christmas." While some feel the world participates in Christmas, others would have good reason to say that the world is offended by it.

3) Use of websites as "proof" texts. The email recommends typing "Christmas Idolatry" into a search engine, and then presupposes that the vast number of people who hold to this view are 1) correct; and 2) true believers. First, a consensus of opinion does not prove that something is true. Secondly, a consensus of opinion among men does not reflect the opinion of God. If there are Christians who view Christmas as an abomination, again I say, praise God and let's encourage them to live out their faith by abstaining from that which is offensive to them. But again, an abomination to a group of Christians does not necessarily equal an abomination in the view of God.

The other day I heard that gold-medalist Michael Phelps eats something like 20,000 calories a day. For me, that would be a gluttonous sin. But for Michael, it is not sinful at all. His heart does not condemn him. In fact, he needs to eat that many calories in order to maintain his strength. Celebrating Christmas, or even merely observing it may be a sin for you, as it was for my friend, Jim Jones. As a former wiccan and aspiring Druid priest, Jim could not celebrate any of these festivals upon becoming a Christian. But for the rest of us, Christmas may simply be another expression of worship. Some may find that hard to swallow. Some might say, "But how can you celebrate Christmas when you consider its origins? The origin of a thing may or may not reflect how that thing is perceived in the present. The Swastika was a symbol of goodness for thousands of years. Today, it is offensive to us because it has come to represent evil. As the Bible says, everything is pure unless we personally consider it unclean. (*Please note: I am not taking a postmodern position by making this statement. I strongly believe in moral absolutes. I just believe, based on Romans 14 and Colossians 2, that celebrating Christmas is not one of them.) We should not spend so much time and energy on moons, festivals, and holidays, for these are merely a shadow of things to come.

Again, I am not trying to make a case for or against Christmas. Instead, I am encouraging each to be convinced in her own mind as to what she wants to do about this issue.

Father, I thank You for the woman who had the courage to write to us as strangers and give us what she viewed as a warning from You. I pray You will bless her for her compassion toward us. I also pray You will give her and others the freedom to worship you not from a set of rules and regulations, but from an agreement between You and each sister, based upon Your unique relationship with them. We do not know the day You came, but we are grateful that You came. In like fashion, we do not know the day or hour when You will return, but we wait for You with hopeful expectation. You are our hope, You are our peace, You are our life. May all that we do be done for Your glory. In Christ's name, Amen.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Romanticizing the Past

Every fall semester I put in a few extra hours and teach a course at a local community college. One of my favorite ways to begin the semester is to ask each student, "If you could be one age for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?" It never fails: the number of students who choose an age in the past always outweighs both the students who choose an age in the future and those who choose their current age combined.

Most of us will admit to doing this as well. We've looked back at a time in the past and thought, "Wow, I wish I could be (x) years old again!" I think this is especially true for women. When you consider the pressure that the world places upon women to be physically attractive, it is easy for us to look in the mirror and lament the days when we were 20 years younger and 20 pounds lighter.

But worse than this, we have a tendency to romanticize the past. Again, everyone has experienced this phenomenon from time to time, but I feel women especially are prone to this temptation because our emotions run very deep. In our hearts, we may still have ties to certain people, places, and things from the past which will tempt us to yearn for that particular time in our lives all over again. The Bible warns us not to fall into this mentality, and provides the reason why:
Do not say, "Why is it that the former days were better than these?" For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this. (Ecclesiastes 7:10)

When we lament "the former days", we are not exercising wisdom. There is a certain seduction that takes place when we start romanticizing the past. When our present situation appears less than fulfilling, we suffer from a selective memory. We choose only to remember that which was good, and forget that which was not so good. Suddenly the past seems so inviting, and we are despairing for "the good old days." We may feel as though we'd give anything to go back to that time in our lives. Our present situation, as well as our future, seems bleak.

I believe this is a tactic of the enemy to destroy our hope. Consider the skewed perspective of the people after the Lord had freed them from slavery and brought them out of Egypt:
Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, "Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at." (Numbers 11:4-6)

These people were not speaking from a place of wisdom. Yes, they had free fish, cucumbers, melons, and the like. But they were slaves! We love to read this account, shake our heads in disbelief, and ask how these people could be so foolish. Yet how many times have we have fallen victim to the very same deception?

The holidays are just around the corner and you're single. Suddenly, you're wishing you were back together with your abusive ex-boyfriend. Or perhaps you are noticing more wrinkles and gray hairs, so you think back on how attractive you were when you were eighteen -- and completely dead in your sins. Maybe you are sick of your job and wish you could go back to a time when you were unemployed -- and homeless. The book of Ecclesiastes is clear: when we think this way, we are not speaking from a place of wisdom. We are deceived into believing utter foolishness.

The reason it is foolish is we are taking our eyes off Christ and focusing instead on circumstances that we falsely believe will bring us happiness if we could just get them back. In Luke 17:32, we are warned to remember Lot's wife. As God spared her from destruction, she grieved the things she was leaving behind. She looked back, and was turned into a pillar of salt. Jesus cautions us that whomever wishes to save his life will lose it. Have you ever lost yourself in trying to hang on to the things of this world that are passing away?

The only time we are ever instructed in scripture to "look to the former days" is when we are commanded to remember the great things God has done for us to bring us out of various trials and difficulties. After considering all God has done, our present should appear far better than our past ever could be!

You have a choice: you can either lament over Yesterday as the Beatles did, or you can rejoice in Tomorrow. Which song best reflects the attitude of a person who has chosen to be not conformed to this world, but transformed, by the renewing of her mind?When we find ourselves longing for the day when we are released from our current circumstances, we can look to the past, or we can look to the future. Looking to the past produces nothing but despair because the past is elusive. We can never get it back. It is completely out of our grasp, forever. But looking to the future gives us hope, because the future is guaranteed to be delivered into our hands. God promises He will not only deliver us from these unpleasant situations, but also from our sin! And He will not stop there. God will take it one step further and deliver us into His own hands. He is preparing a place for us, where we can live with Him forever in eternity.

Our film of the month, Annie, was chosen because the most famous song from this story is a song called "Tomorrow." It may seem foolish to endorse what has been long heralded as a children's song, but this simple song is packed with wisdom. Just thinking about tomorrow will clear away all of the sadness, depression, despair, and hopelessness of today. Contrast that with a song like "Yesterday". After listening to that song, it's no wonder so many people say the Beatles are satanic!

You have a choice: you can either lament over Yesterday as the Beatles did, or you can rejoice in Tomorrow. Which song best reflects the attitude of a person who has chosen to be not conformed to this world, but transformed, by the renewing of her mind? (Romans 12:2).

Praise God, He is coming soon. Perhaps it will be tomorrow!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Is Christianity Arrogant?

Back in May of 2006, I was privileged to attend an Evangelism Boot Camp in New York City (which is where I met Geraldine). One day, the group of us went to Washington Square Park and we sat around the fountain, taking turns preaching. As a brother named Donovan was preaching, a heckler reacted angrily to Donovan's assertion that he would be in heaven. The heckler stood up and challenged Donovan, saying, "You are so arrogant!" Donovan probed him for an explanation and the heckler said, "You're arrogant because you say you know that you're going to heaven! You are so full of yourself!"

I never wanted to be preaching so badly as I did at that moment. I wanted to push Donovan off the fountain, take the microphone out of his hand, and explain to this heckler that he was looking at the issue from the wrong perspective. It all goes back to Charles' Stanley's illustration on faith vs. hope. I detailed this illustration back in July, but I will review it here again to demonstrate why Donovan's claim was not arrogant at all.

Suppose I see a man that I fancy. I am completely smitten with this man, and I think to myself, "Oh I just know he feels the same way! I just know in my heart he's the man I'm going to marry." The months go by. The man doesn't talk to me. But I keep right on telling everyone that I just "know" this man is my husband. Then one Sunday morning it is announced in church that the man is engaged to someone else. Huh? What happened?

Now suppose instead that this man actually begins pursuing me. He verbally asks me to marry him. He gives me an engagement ring and brings me to meet his parents. I tell my whole family, church, and friends that this man is going to be my husband. Would it be fair to say that my claim is arrogant?

God is Trustworthy

Something is not true because we believe it, rather, we believe something because it is true. In the Christian faith, the primary evidence we have that something is true is God's word. At this point, a heckler may respond by saying, "Well I just don't believe the Bible." There is a lot in the Bible that people do not believe. And as I just stated, truth does not hinge upon what we personally believe. But let's go with this premise for just a moment.

After three years of street evangelism, I have noticed that the main problem people have with the gospel message is that it offends their pride. The only way around the offensive stuff is to simply cherry-pick the scriptures we like, and throw out the rest. The result is we've created a god in our own image, in our own likeness, to suit ourselves. (The Bible calls this the sin of idolatry.)

This is when I will generally reason with the heckler by asking him, "Would you say your god is a good god?" Generally people will agree that "goodness" is a quality they have assigned to their own personal god. I then ask, "Would you say that your god is trustworthy?" Again, trustworthiness is another quality that most will assign to their personal deity. Then I ask, "How do we know that someone is trustworthy?"

The obvious answer is, a trustworthy person will mean what he says, and say what He means. God is trustworthy. When He says "I will never leave you nor forsake you," you can put your faith in that. When He says, "I will be with you always," we can believe that as well. But God's trustworthiness doesn't end with pleasantries. If your god is truly trustworthy, he will follow through with those scriptures that warn, "Repent, or ye will likewise perish" (Luke 13:3,5).

Those of us who choose not to believe these scriptures are selling ourselves short. We have chosen to believe in a god that does not mean what he says 100% of the time. If I cannot trust that God is going to punish the wicked, how is there any hope for me that He will save those whom He has called righteous?

Christianity is not arrogant, for we boast not in ourselves, but rather, we boast in Christ. Donovan's claim that he was going to heaven was not based on some prideful assumption that God was going to be so impressed with him, He'd have no choice but to let him into heaven. No, Donovan's claim was based on the trustworthiness of God's word: "For there is one name under heaven by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

If we have placed our faith and trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, and if we have repented of our sins, we can boldly proclaim with confidence that we will be in heaven when we die. That might be offensive to an athiest. It might be offensive to a Muslim. It might be offensive to a Jew, a Catholic, a Baptist, a Presbyterian, a Methodist, a Hindu, an existentialist, or a Quaker. But that doesn't make it any less true, nor does it make us arrogant for saying so.

There is a popular bumper sticker which reads, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." A few years later, another bumper sticker was printed with this rebuttal: "God said it, that settles it, whether I believe it or not." So which God will you put your hope in: the God who means what He says, or the one whose word is not trustworthy? The Bible was written so we may know we have eternal life (1 John 5:13). This is why He is our hope. He means what He says, and we can trust what He says. So let's get out there and proclaim His truth with confidence!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Misguided Hope

A few years ago, I was in a Bible study with some new believers. One night we were examining Matthew 17. When we came to verse 20, which reads: "If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you," one of the girls in the study suddenly blurted out, "That's not true!"

We were all quite stunned by the outburst, but I asked her to elaborate. She explained that as her grandmother lay dying in a hospital, she prayed to God earnestly to let her grandmother live. "It says here to have faith as a mustard seed, but I had much more faith than that! She died anyway. It doesn't work." I asked her to define for me what she meant by "having a lot of faith." She said faith was believing with all your might. I explained to her that the reason her grandmother died was because she didn't have any faith. Instead, she had described hope. We like to think these words are synonymous, but there is a difference.

I once heard Charles Stanley give an excellent illustration of faith, based on the actual definition given in Hebrews 11:1. The Bible defines faith as the "evidence" of things unseen. Faith requires actual evidence! If you do not have evidence that something is true, yet choose to believe it anyway, you do not have faith. My friend in the Bible study was told her grandmother was dying. She had every reason in the world to believe her grandmother would not live, yet she blindly chose to ignore the evidence. She became disappointed when her grandmother passed, even though she "believed with all her heart" she would live. The result? She grew angry with God, feeling as though He had betrayed her. Friend, haven't we all been there?

Some of us are growing weary in our faith because we are choosing to base our trust in God solely upon our hopes, and not upon what He has actually promised:
Faith: Jesus is coming back soon. (Evidence: He actually said so.)
Hope: Jesus is coming back today. (Evidence: None.)

Faith: Jesus died to save sinners (Evidence: The Bible tells us this is true.)
Hope: My father will one day be saved. (Evidence: None.)

Faith: God will supply all my needs. (Evidence: Scripture, past examples of how God has been faithful to me.)
Hope: God will supply me with a husband. (Evidence: None).

Hope is a wonderful thing. It fuels our faith and keeps it fresh. But it is not the same thing as faith. If we learn to separate God's promises from our desires, we will find that our walk with Him will be much more sweet and satisfying.

The difference between hope and faith can also be noted by the fact that two distinct words were used to describe these two terms in the original Greek. Take, for instance, 1 Corinthians 13:13, which advises us to abide in faith, hope, and love. The Greek word for faith is pistis, which means something that is true or gives an assurance. The word for hope, on the other hand, is elpis, which means an anticipation, usually with pleasure.

Here's another example: is your husband a Christian? Is there some sin in his life you wish he'd repent of? Have faith. God promises in Philippians 1:6 that He will complete the work He began in your husband. But if you stop expecting God to do great things, your faith will become nothing more than a dry knowledge, instead of an exciting, passionate anticipation of what God is doing in your life and your husband's life.

By the way, when we consider this difference between faith and hope, we can safely assert that there is no such thing as the Hindu faith, the Muslim faith, the Baha'i Faith, the Jewish Faith, the Catholic Faith, the Protestant Faith, etc. Religion is a man-made system of wishful thinking. Those who put their trust in religion can only hope in an afterlife. Those who put their trust in Christ have faith that He is actually preparing a place for us. This is why there is only one faith: The Christian Faith. Anything else is just misguided hope.

For further reading on the subject of faith and hope, see this prior post.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Jennifer Gives the 411 on "Annie"

After a month of depressing stories, courtesy of my testimony, I thought I'd lighten things up a bit and choose a theme of "Hope" for the month of December. The Film of the Month to accompany our theme is Annie. Now I know what some readers might be thinking, "Annie? That's for kids!" or, "Hrm, I think I'll skip this one this month." Stay with me on this. Annie is more than meets the eye.

STATS
Year: 1999 (Not Rated - Made for Television by Disney)
Directed by Rob Marshall, based on the stageplay by Thomas Meehan (book) Charles Strouse (music) & Martin Charnin (lyrics)
Starring Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, Audra MacDonald, Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth and a special appearance by Andrea McArdle
Setting: New York City, 1933.

Content warning: No objectionable content observed, however Annie does lie and steal during the "Tomorrow" scene with the police officer. The film takes the position that deceit and theft are wrong.

Please Note: I strongly recommend the 1999 Disney version with Alicia Morton as Annie. I do not recommend the 1982 version with Aileen Quinn. I present a summary of the difference between the two versions further below. In the meantime, here is the trailer for this film:



WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1. The special relationship between fathers and daughters.
2. The precious blessing of adoption.
3. The message of hope throughout the film.

TRIVIA
Andrea McArdle, who played the title role in the original Broadway production, makes a cameo appearance as the aspiring starlet in the "NYC" number. What a treat! Click here to see rare footage of Andrea singing "Tomorrow."

The 1999 version we are recommending is in "moratorium" status, so it will soon be hard to come by. If you wish to buy a copy for your family, you can get it for a great price on Amazon.

THE HISTORY BEHIND ANNIE
Annie has long been dismissed as a movie for children lacking in any real substance. But do not be fooled. Annie has a rich heritage rooted in American history and politics. The title character has lived through the Great Depression. She speaks up for what's right. And she inspires hope for the underdog. Truly, she is a slice of American culture that still speaks truth to us today.

Annie first appeared on the scene in 1885 as the subject of a poem entitled, Little Orphant Annie. The poem later inspired the Little Orphan Annie comic strip in 1924. The comic strip was originally intended for children, but with the onset of the Great Depression, the storylines turned very dark. Harold Gray, the strip's creator, began to use the strip as a platform for his political views. By 1931, Little Orphan Annie was read by more adults than children.

Gray's political views, which were a cross between conservative and libertarian, drew ire from Democrats. Gray was a strong believer in an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. His themes focused on human depravity, especially greed. Many of his villians were corrupt businessmen. His strip was accused of being fascist by its critics, and The New Republic even referred to it as "Hooverism in the Funnies." This naturally was a reference to former President Herbert Hoover, a Republican who was blamed for much of the economic fallout that resulted in the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, Annie had moved from print to radio. During the 1930's, the story catered once again to a child audience. But the political and historical themes present during the Great Depression were revived again in 1977, when Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin produced the first musical version of Annie on Broadway. Interestingly, the show deviated from the comic strip's conservative roots and instead took a more left-wing view on the depression. This is evident in three of the show's musical numbers.

"Hooverville" presents a chorus of homeless people living under Manhattan's 59th Street Bridge. The homeless characters are openly angry with President Hoover and the lyrics make several references to Hoover being one of the reasons for the Great Depression. It is one of the most political numbers in the entire show. (Some productions have gotten downright vulgar in their portrayal of disgust over the Hoover administration.) The play also features a reprise of "Tomorrow" sung by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt character. Roosevelt, a Democrat, is portrayed as a hero in the Broadway version. The finale is called "A New Deal for Christmas," and the show ends with an implied promise that FDR's series of economic programs will usher in the relief the country so desperately needs. In the Broadway version, it is Little Orphan Annie herself who serves as the inspiration for the New Deal with her positive outlook on life. The irony here is that Gray, the strip's creator, despised FDR and his policies.

In 1982, a film version of the Broadway musical was made, featuring an impressive all-star cast including Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Tim Curry, Bernadette Peters, and Ann Reinking. In 1999, Walt Disney Pictures produced a made-for TV movie -- it is this version of the film we are recommending to our readers, not the 1982 version.

A WORD ABOUT THE 1982 FILM
The 1982 version deviated quite a bit from the Broadway script. As a Broadway purist, this film is difficult for me to watch as Columbia Pictures virtually slaughtered the original stageplay. Aside from many of Strouse and Charnin's wonderful songs being cut and replaced with new ones, most notable is the inclusion of Punjab. Punjab is one of the regular characters from Harold Gray's comic strip. In the 1982 film, Punjab is a swami who performs miracles through the use of Hindu mysticism. This character is not present in the 1999 version (as with the Broadway play).

The 1982 version of the film also makes some immodest choices. As much as I love Bernadette Peters and Carol Burnett, their portrayals of Lily St. Regis and Miss Hannigan are indecent compared to 1999 interpretations of the same characters played by Kristin Chenoweth and Kathy Bates. Other instances of immodest dress appear in some of Anne Reinking's dance numbers, as well as the "Let's Go To The Movies" sequence. The film makes no attempt to clean up the dozens of times Warbucks says "damn", nor does it filter out Miss Hannigan's constant use of the Lord's name in vain. There are also several references to drunkenness in this version.

Finally, the climax of the 1982 version involves a very dramatic, cat-and-mouse chase which ends in Annie dangling from a bridge. The entire scene is over-the-top but also very dark, complete with Rooster (Tim Curry) threatening to kill Annie. She is finally rescued via helicopter. It is a terrifying sequence (I saw the film in the movie theater when I was 8 years old). Throughout the film, child abuse and neglect is used as a vehicle for comedy. Needless to say, these are the reasons I do not recommend this version as it is inappropriate for children. If you wish to view this scene for yourself, you may do so by clicking here.

The 1999 version, on the other hand, has remained true to the original Broadway production in many respects. The Disney version has removed most of the political references from the story. It has also cleaned up much of the dialogue from the Broadway script to make it more family friendly. But aside from that, all of the music comes from the original Broadway score. The music is outstanding and you will enjoy the wonderful arrangements.

CONCLUSION
Whether she is being used to support Republican or Democratic political views, Annie has been a symbol of hope during tough times. Her message of optimism is a timeless one which we may need to revisit as we enter a new chapter of American history -- a chapter in our history that is strangely reminiscent of the America portrayed in Annie's time. As the book of Ecclesiastes tells us, "There is nothing new under the sun." In present times of economic crisis, our hope is not in Republicans, nor in Democrats. Our hope is not in money or stable employment. Our hope is in Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, we can "hang on 'till tomorrow, come what may." He is coming soon.

And you thought Annie was just for kids!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Day I Came to Life

My senior year of high school was a depressing time. My relationship with Jason was officially over. As a symbol of my "independence," I cut off all my hair. I wanted people to think I didn't care, but I was absolutely devastated. The grief over losing my best friend was magnified by the increasing pressure to devote my life to meaningless activities, like playing the French Horn. I was talented. But if I was going to live a mere projected seventy years, I wanted my brief life to make an impact on humanity. Playing the horn would not suffice. What I really wanted be was a writer.

I once wrote a story about a very talented young girl who was admired by all, but because she saw no reason for her existence, she committed suicide. Nobody found the body for four days.That final school year I found comfort and solace in various existential writers and poets. They were able to articulate the extreme sense of despair that I felt, and gave me the sense that I was not alone in the way I was feeling. I began to record my own thoughts in a journal I was required to keep for English class. Nearly every single page of that journal reflected just how deeply in bondage to existentialism I had become. For example, I once wrote a story about a very talented young girl who was admired by all, but because she saw no reason for her existence, she committed suicide. Nobody found the body for four days. I still have that journal.

I wrote each entry knowing my English teacher would be reading. These days, the things I had written would have earned me a psych eval. But back then, my stories earned me an A accompanied by phrases like, "Brilliant!" or, "You have such an amazing talent!" It just made me more depressed.

In the Fall of 1992, I entered college as a Theatre Arts major. I figured this was the best way to make an impact on humanity. Theatre Arts allowed me writing opportunities, but also the chance to live out my pain and frustration through my characters. Plus, the greatest existentialists of the 20th century were not self-proclaimed philosophers, but rather, playwrights. I thought a good start would be to follow in their footsteps. So I started taking classes.

In January 1993, I befriended a girl in my "Musical Theatre Technique" class. Her name was Amy, and she noticed I was wearing a cross around my neck. Amy asked me if I had a Christian background. "Well," I said, "I'm Catholic." I certainly wasn't going to tell her the truth: that I was a tortured soul grieving my own mortality. Amy invited me to church, but I flatly refused, explaining that I vowed I would never set foot in a church again. So Amy backed off a bit and asked if I'd settle for studying the Bible with her. I immediately accepted her offer: "I have always wanted to see for myself what the Bible had to say about life, but I just couldn't understand it." We agreed to meet for lunch after our next class. I had no idea what was about to happen to me.

We met in the student lounge. Amy began by asking me, "Why did Jesus die?" I scoffed at the question. "That's easy!" I said. "To pay for our sins." (If there was one phrase I had memorized from my Catholic upbringing, that was it.)

"Okay," she said. "Do you know what that means?" This is where I became a bit embarrassed and admitted that I did not know what that meant. "In fact," I told Amy, "I"ve been asking that question since I was eight years old." So the next thing Amy asked me was if I had ever read the Bible.

When I was ten years old, I asked my parents for a Bible for Christmas, but I didn't get one. My Aunt Barbara had given me an illustrated Children's Bible the following year, and I began reading it from the first page of Genesis. I thought I had to read the Bible all the way through, like a regular book. Even though it was a children's Bible, I still got bogged down around Kings. I never made it to the New Testament. But amazingly enough, I had read just enough to set off a chain reaction with Amy years later.

With no prior knowledge of how much I had read, Amy asked me, "Do you remember the animal sacrifices that were performed in the Old Testament?" I said I did. Then Amy said the magic sentence: "Well, that's why Jesus is called the Lamb of God."

At that moment, something happened. I felt as though something inside my soul had burst wide open.At that moment, something happened. I felt as though something inside my soul had burst wide open. Amy kept talking. I saw her lips moving but I couldn't hear what she was saying. My mind was flooded with enlightenment. Lyrics to Christmas songs suddenly made sense. "Born to raise the sons of earth! Born to give them second birth! Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the new born King!" It was as though my entire life was all a bad dream, and I had just woken up. "Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth!" I suddenly felt as though all the secrets of the universe had been revealed to me. As my brain was making the connection between Old and New Testaments, I finally understood why it was called The Greatest Story Ever Told.

At the time, I wasn't exactly sure I knew what was happening to me. But I was born again on the spot. No Ten Commandments, no mention of what a sinner I was or my need to repent. I did not make a decision, I did not say a prayer. In fact I was quite passive the entire time. All Amy did was correlate Jesus to the sacrificial systems in the Old Testament. I had become a new creature. I had miraculously been given the answer to my most pressing question and I was filled with so much wonder I had no choice but to throw myself at His feet. Life suddenly had meaning. There was a purpose to all of this!

Later that night, I opened the Bible Amy gave me and read the New Testament until I could no longer keep my eyes open. I read from Matthew straight through Galatians. I finally turned out the light at 3am, unwillingly.

I woke the next morning, acutely aware that His presence was filling the room. He had always been there. I just didn't see Him until now. Then I remembered something I read the night before:

"Unless a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God."
"Unless a man be born again, he cannot see . . . "

I can see.

I can see!

I CAN SEE!!!!!

And with that, I began Day 2 of my new life in Christ.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

My Teenage Romance: A Tragedy in Two Acts

In preparation for our theme of the month, I surfed the internet a bit and came across an article by J.T. Webb entitled Existential Depression in Gifted Individuals. I can pretty much stop here and just have you read the article. It describes my adolescence with frightening accuracy, particularly with regard to interpersonal relationships. Webb states: "Isolation recognizes that no matter how close we become to another person, a gap always remains, and we are nonetheless alone." No example from my adolescence could illustrate this concept better than my high school romance.

ACT I: 1988-1990

Jason and I became fast friends early in the 1988-1989 school year. Toward the end of that same year, Jason passed me a note. "Jen, I really like you and I want to ask you to be my girlfriend," it read. That was the start of a whirlwind romance that would continue for the next two years.

Jason was the sweetest, kindest, most thoughtful, sensitive, and compassionate human being I had ever met in my fifteen years on earth. (Hands down, his best quality was his generosity.) The more time I spent with Jay, the more I came to realize what a beautiful person he was. There was also a lot of chemistry between us that was difficult to ignore. We were so deeply enmeshed. We did everything together. Life was perfect - until my existentialism started interfering with the relationship.

Despite the fact that I was incredibly happy and I would even venture to say I was in love with Jason, I was simultaneously miserable. I knew my happiness was based on conditional circumstances. It was painful to think that Jay would eventually be taken from me in one of two ways: either he and I would one day cease to be friends anymore, or we'd be together for the rest of our lives and then simply die. The heightened awareness that I would surely lose the one person who meant everything to me was unbearable. Coupled with everything else that was happening in tenth grade, I felt I was going to crack under the pressure. I didn't want to end it, but I needed out.

He never saw it coming. Tears welled up in his eyes. He asked why, but I couldn't give him a straight answer. How could I? What was I supposed to say? "I can't see you anymore because I'm having a midlife crisis 30 years earlier than expected?" I assumed if I was going to eventually lose the only person who meant anything to me, it might as well be now. I couldn't see any point in postponing the inevitable.

ACT II: 1990-1991

After about six months, I recanted my original decision. Jason was my best friend. He was also, in a sense, my only friend. In spite of my belief that everything was pointless, I wanted to restore this relationship. I didn't have all the answers, but I thought I'd figure them out along the way. I reached out to Jay in the summer of 1990. By November, we were an item again. I promised myself that this time, I was going to really let him in and be honest about my existential struggle. I just wasn't sure how to do this.There is a profound sense of emptiness that accompanies the idea that any intimacy you shared with a person was all a smokescreen to begin with.

I started by dropping hints here and there. I tried to start philosophical conversations, hoping he'd bite, but nothing. Then one day, I purchased a gift for him that symbolized everything that was festering inside me: it was a religious pendant. This was more than a gift. This was a gesture on my behalf that said, "Please see me for who I am, and all that I am wrestling with in my heart! I am desperately searching for meaning and I want you to know me! I want you to know the real me!"

When I gave it to him, he took one look at it and laughed. "This is the ugliest thing I've ever seen!" he exclaimed. He asked me to take it back. I know Jason didn't mean to hurt me, but I still felt humiliated and rejected. Looking back, I can say in Jason's defense the pendant was pretty ugly. He was just a boy of 15. He didn't understand the things that kept me awake at night. He wasn't even aware that I wrestled with such issues. At that moment, I realized he would never understand me. I feared perhaps nobody would. Webb states:
When gifted children try to share these concerns with others, they are usually met with reactions ranging from puzzlement to hostility. They discover that others, particularly of their age, clearly do not share these concerns, but instead are focused on more concrete issues and on fitting in with others' expectations. Often . . .these youngsters . . . feel isolated from their peers . . . as they find that others are not prepared to discuss such weighty concerns.

There is a profound sense of emptiness that accompanies the idea that any intimacy you shared with a person was all a smokescreen to begin with. Jay was in love with the person who was responsible for all my high school achievements. But the person I truly was underneath was a complete stranger to him. It was becoming more and more obvious with time that we had two separate worldviews that were diametrically opposed. Then one day we had a terrible argument that ended it all, and we completely stopped speaking to one another.

EPILOGUE

Two and a half years after that awful day, I broke the silence when I approached Jason and told him I had become a Christian. He looked at me with a hint of disdain in his eyes and said, "Oh, so you're into all that religion @&#*!" My heart broke for him. I tried to explain to him that my faith was not a religion, but he didn't understand, nor did he care.

I saw him once more, six years after that conversation. His father had passed away, and God had placed me in the right place at the right time. I went to the memorial service, got up in front of about 300 people, and shared the gospel. It was terrifying, but I'm glad I did it. That was nine years ago, and I haven't seen Jason since. It may have been my last chance to share the gospel with him.

Sometimes, I believe God brings us through seasons so we can preach His Word with authority later. If I had not been so close to the family for those three years or so, I would not have been able to establish the credibility I needed to get up in front of all those people that day. I even had several complete strangers approach me afterward to thank me for what I had shared. As for Jason, he appeared both surprised and deeply touched by my compassion. After the memorial service, he could not say anything to me other than "Thank you so much for coming! I can't believe you came! I just can't believe you came!" I don't know how much of an impact the gesture had on him, but I pray God was glorified.

In my time as a Christian, I have come to learn that I do not need to work hard to be known or understood. The Bible says that God searches the hearts. My identity, meaning, and purpose is constant in Him. Friends may come, friends may go, but The Lord has never abandoned me. I have also come to learn that even though nothing on earth lasts, God has given us our blessings to enjoy while we're here, and we are not to mourn the end of those things. Still, a part of me mourns for Jason. While it saddens me to think he never knew or understood the real me, worse is the thought that he doesn't know or understand the real God. There is a desire to reach out and do more, but God has asked me to entrust Him with Jason's life and to simply pray for him instead. I still think of him every year on his birthday and pray that one day he will be born again.

I have been praying for Jason nearly sixteen years . . .

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Fool Remembered

Since this month's theme is "Testimony," I thought I'd take a break from my own story and share the fascinating testimony of a dear brother in Christ, Jim Jones. Jim had plans of starting his own coven just before The Lord saved him. Here is Jim's story, in his own words:

You've probably noticed, choosing a man that has grown up with the name of an infamous cult leader and calling him to evangelism shows our Lord has a sense of irony.

I was raised going to a Seventh-Day Adventist church, because that is what my family did. I also attended private church-run schools up through and including two years of college, where I gained a fair amount of knowledge in scripture and religion. I even studied for the ministry. However, a walk with a church as opposed to a walk with Christ wasn't enough to sustain me. Eventually, I turned away and took a path that lead into drugs, the occult and other dark shadows.

I practiced Wicca as a solitaire for about three years. I flatly tell the Christians that think witchcraft and such are just make believe, they're very mistaken. Things happened! I read Tarot cards, and from what both friends and strangers told me the readings were disturbingly accurate. Later, my wife & I joined a Druid grove where I initiated and became an understudy to the high priest. I went deeper into circle work, rituals and spell craft. When we moved to Oregon, it was my full intention to start a new coven or grove here.

Looking back, I don't dwell on it too much, because I don't want to glorify the enemy or give the demonic more attention than it is due. Praise God that our Savior redeems! I believe He permitted that experience so that I can witness and relate to a group and counter culture that most of the church either writes off or is outright frightened of. As Joseph told his brothers... "what you meant for evil, God has used for good."

God took hold of me on February 29th, 2004. I was broken and sobbing; stripped of my self-righteousness. I realized the crimes I’d committed against God’s holy law. I’d lied, stolen, lusted, blasphemed His holy name and more. I deserved His wrath and judgment, and justice meant Hell. There was nothing I could do. I finally understood what Jesus had done, and it changed everything. As I faced the Judge of the Universe, Christ stepped in and paid the fine I could never hope to with His precious blood. I stood there, undeserving at the foot of the cross. I gave it all over to Him, and He handed back mercy and grace.

When I finally surrendered and passed through the narrow gate of repentance, other doors also swung open. Christ brought a teaching called Hell’s Best Kept Secret across my path. As I listened to it, I felt a missing puzzle piece fall into place. A spark of evangelism came to life and the Lord fanned it into a flame.

With the support of my wife, Kelly, I’ve begun a ministry of street witnessing and open air preaching. I'm a graduate of the School of Biblical Evangelism, and have also become the leader of a local evangelism team. Evangelism isn’t just a priority – it’s a necessity. The more I read of my Bible, I just can’t see it any other way. People are dying and souls are going to Hell.

This is my guiding scripture...

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. 2nd Timothy 4:3-5 (NASB)


Evangelism is one of the values of Reformed SHEology. It is so important that we share the gospel with those who are perishing. I know I am a Christian today because someone shared the gospel with me. For this reason, I am thankful for Jim's faithfulness to the lost. In light of the stories I've shared so far this month concerning my own battle with existentialism, and the heightened awareness I have that the only work that lasts is that which is done for the Kingdom, Jim's ministry has taken on a heightened significance for me today.

You see, at approximately 1:27pm (PST) yesterday afternoon, Jim was hit by a truck while riding his bicycle. He is now at home with Jesus.

Jim leaves behind his wife, Kelly, and their two daughters, Holly and Willow. But he also leaves behind a legacy of fulfilling the Great Commission. When I think of the lives Jim has touched, and the souls who have heard the gospel as a result of his dedication to preaching the Word, I cannot help but rejoice. I will admit I am grieving the loss of a faithful brother who I could always count on to give me godly advice. But as a former existentialist, who once woke every morning wondering why I should bother with life at all, I am actually encouraged.

Yesterday, I was actually thinking to myself that perhaps my posts this month are a little too depressing for our readers. But today I am reminded that this blog is written for the audience of One. Apart from Christ, life has no meaning. In Him we find our identity. We find our consistency in a changing and uncertain world. We find our security and hope. And in Him we find our life, because HE CONQUERED THE GRAVE!!
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.(1 Corinthians 15:55-58)

Friends, we are not promised tomorrow. Let's make today count for eternity, while we still can.


PRECIOUS IN THE SIGHT OF THE LORD IS THE DEATH OF HIS SAINTS.
Psalm 116:15


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Young, Talented, and Depressed

Tenth grade was perhaps the greatest year of my pre-regenerate life. It seemed like everything I touched turned to gold. Academically, I was on top of the world. I got spectacular grades in all my courses (much of the time without even trying), which placed me tenth in my graduating class (of 186). I was now the head of the French Horn section in the school band, and got invited to participate in the All-County orchestra. Upon auditioning, I was named first chair French Horn player (which loosely equates to being the best in the county). The music department took notice of my leadership and talent and cast me as the lead in the school musical. The show immediately catapulted me into social renown among students, teachers, and parents. If that weren't enough, I also won a place of honorable mention in my school's Mark Twain Literary contest. It was quite a year. But it was awful.

Underneath the awards and accolades, I knew that everything I held in the palm of my hand was fleeting. And there was no way to stop the process. Being classified as one of the "music kids" gave me a sense of identity and belonging. But when I began to excel in other areas, I became extremely confused. Whereas other kids were discovering they had one talent, I had several. Other kids had the luxury of focusing on just one strength, and planned to make a career out of it. I, on the other hand, hadn't a single clue what to do with my life, because I had so many choices. In fact, I had too many choices, and knowing I only had one shot at life made the pressure to make the right decision positively frightening.

I opened to Ecclesiastes, and began reading, hoping to find some answers. But what I discovered in the pages of that book made me sick to my stomach.The only way I knew how to cope with everything was to embrace the expectations people placed on me to excel, excel, excel. As meaningless and stupid as it seemed, it provided me with a sense of structure and familiarity that gave me a taste of comfort in an uncertain world. The praise and adoration I was receiving from my teachers also supplied me with a temporary high that would distract me from the reality that each day time was running out on my life. But the high would wear off every night when I turned out the light and was left alone with my thoughts. Why am I here? Why was I born? Will people remember me when I die? What is the meaning of life? Then one day, my English teacher presented the class with a voluntary reading challenge. We were to be given extra credit for reading some of the greatest works of literature. The catch? We could only read what the teacher assigned to us. My teacher handpicked for me to read the King James Version of Ecclesiastes.

I was excited to actually sit down and read the Bible. From early childhood, I always had always had a curiosity about the Bible. I went to my local bookstore and bought a copy of the KJV for about six dollars. I opened to Ecclesiastes, and began reading, hoping to find some answers. But what I discovered in the pages of that book made me sick to my stomach:
There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after. (Ch. 1 vs. 11)

I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. (Ch. 1 vs. 14)

For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. (Ch. 1 vs. 18)
No! I silently prayed that there had to be some hope found in the pages of that book. But with each Chapter, Ecclesiastes just got more depressing:
The wise man's eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all. Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity. For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool. (Ch. 2 vs. 14-16).
I remember looking up from the page and thinking, "There is no hope. Even God Himself thinks my life is meaningless!" My misunderstanding of the scripture at that time started a chain reaction. I began to devour works by Sartre and Camus. I also became completely obsessed with this song. Every now and then, I'd turn on the TV and see some news story about a high school superstar from a neighboring school district who was tragically killed in a drunk driving accident. While his death was mourned by those who knew him, my life continued, unaffected. And I knew that if I was in that kid's shoes, life would go on without me, too. All of my achievements would one day crumble with time and eventually amount to nothing. The more I thought about it, the easier it was to come to the conclusion that my life was totally unnecessary.

FAST FORWARD TO PRESENT DAY

Ecclesiastes is my favorite book of the Bible. Why? It reminds me how everything I held dear before my conversion - including my life itself - was nothing more than an idol. The book of Ecclesiastes helps me to remember that my talents were given to me by God, not for my own glory, but for the express purpose of glorifying Him.

For people who do not know Christ, there is only one truth: existentialism. All of their toil and accumulation of wisdom, wealth, and pleasure is nothing more than vanity and chasing after the wind. The world offers many suggestions for dealing with an existential crisis. But truly, there is only one solution to this problem:

But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)

I thank God for the example of the Apostle Paul. Truly, the praise of men cannot compare to that of the King when He says, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant!" Nothing is worth doing unless it is all for Him, even if it is done well.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Existentialism 101

My teenage years appeared to be picture perfect on the surface. I was an academic superstar, artistically talented, and always had a smile on my face. Yet no one knew that beneath my sunny, cheerful exterior, I was hiding a dark secret. Between the ages of 13 and 18, I was a closet existentialist.

By the time I was fifteen years old, the philosophy literally dictated my every thought and deed from the moment I woke up, to the moment I went to sleep at night. Upon hearing that I was once lost in existentialism, most people will look puzzled and ask, "What is that?" So before I continue with the remainder of my testimony, I thought I would take some time to address what existentialism is, and why it is so dangerous.

Existentialism is a philosophy that is not easily defined, because it has no set definition. Basically, the idea is that life has no meaning apart from the meaning that we create and apply to it. Essentially, each person is responsible for defining himself and assigns purpose to his own existence. As a result, man finds himself exposed to the futility of this exercise, and often will succumb to feelings of dread, despair, nothingness, anxiety, and absurdity. These five words accurately describe my secret life as a teenager.

The trouble arises when one desperately tries to assign meaning and purpose to one's existence, only to realize that it is nothing more than a smokescreen. An excerpt from Wikipedia explains this wonderfully (emphasis mine):
When our meaningful representations of the world break down (which they may do at any time, and for any reason - from a tragedy to a particularly insightful moment on the side of the individual), and we are put face to face with the naked meaninglessness of the world, the results can be devastating . . . the concern with helping people avoid living their lives in ways that put them in the perpetual danger of having everything meaningful break down is common to most existentialist philosophers. (Source)
When we understand that we cannot control anything beyond our circumstances, life becomes very frightening, depressing, and desperate. For example, suppose I am a talented musician. My entire identity is built upon making music. Thus, I have constructed my own meaning and purpose upon this foundation. But suppose I am involved in a horrible accident that leaves me paralyzed, so I am unable to breathe on my own or move my fingers? I would never be able to play my instrument ever again. My existence, my purpose, and my reason for living are now gone.

Now imagine I am a talented musician, and I am perfectly healthy. I am still able to operate within the confines of the meaning and purpose I have given myself. I have not been involved in any accident at all. But the possibility that I could suffer physical harm on such a grand scale remains. Although I am healthy and making music, in the back of my mind, I know this truth exists only as long as my circumstances allow. Knowing that my purpose can be taken away at any moment is terrifying. And ultimately, my purpose will die, because one day, I will die. And everything that I ever created will be lost, because I am no longer able to act as the author and finisher of my purpose.

Existentialism is dangerous because it seduces the individual into coveting God's sovereignty. The insatiable desire to create meaning and purpose usurps the authority of the meaning and purpose that was made by the ultimate Creator.Depressing, isn't it? That's not even the worst of it. Existentialism is dangerous because it seduces the individual into coveting God's sovereignty. The insatiable desire to create meaning and purpose usurps the authority of the meaning and purpose that was made by the ultimate Creator. The Bible says, "All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being" (John 1:3). When we seek to manufacture our own meaning, we are rejecting the notion that the reason for our existence starts with God, not us.

A second reason why existentialism is so dangerous is because it is true (to an extent). Just read the book of Ecclesiastes and you will see what I mean. Everything will one day fade away. This is Biblical truth. But only when we take our eyes off God and look to our circumstances, only when we embrace the things of the world instead of the things of God, does this become a problem. A healthy outlook on God's sovereignty is the cure. The Bible says, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away" (Matthew 24:35, Mark 13:31, Luke 21:33). When we focus on God's sovereignty, we can channel this truth into the ability to let go of the things of the world, and instead cling to the only thing that truly matters: the Cross.

In Christianity, who you are determines what you do. In existentialism, what you do determines who you are. Perhaps you are familiar with the words of the old hymn: "On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand!" The Christian stands on Christ, the solid rock. The existentialist, on the other hand, has staked his territory on all sorts of sinking sand. This is why existentialism results in a lifestyle of despair. When you realize that everything you hold dear will one day be torn from your hands, either by death or circumstances, it leaves you with a feeling of uncertainty about everything.

Thank God, He has delivered me from existentialism. It is a complex philosophy that I don't think many people understand, yet most have been affected by at one time or another. For this reason, I hope to shed light on the impact it has on the human soul by sharing various highlights of my testimony.

For a more detailed introduction to existentialism and its themes, I encourage you to listen to R.C. Sproul's message by clicking here. The message is approximately 20 minutes long.

Now that you have a working idea of what existentialism is all about, keep this in the back of your mind as you read the rest of my story . . .

Monday, November 10, 2008

Right Place, Right Time

In the year 2006 I was blessed to be a part of Evangelism Boot camp in New York. I had that previous year heard the life changing message Hell's Best Kept Secret and had my eyes opened to many things in the faith that were not taught or revealed to me previously. One such thing was exactly what sin is and why Jesus died and rose again. Foundational truths yes! But no one told me anything about them! The only messages I heard were "Jesus loves you so much that he died for you" and that was it. There was no explanation of what sin is or the reason Jesus had to die in the first place.When I arrived I felt overwhelmed with the fact I made it through the flight alone!

Born Again.......Again!
Well, with feeling like I was born again, again (!) and my heart on fire to evangelise (see my last post) I heard of a ministry that went out, hit the streets using the principles taught by Way of the Master, a ministry birthed from the HBKS message. With nothing like it over here and feeling really lonely in my longing to evangelise I wanted to go to one of these "boot camps" to meet like-minded Christians. The only problem was it was all the way in New York and I live in England. Yet, a few months later I found myself at the boot-camp. It was surreal. When I arrived I felt overwhelmed with the fact I made it through the flight alone!

It was an amazing experience. I preached open air for the first time on the underground train!, met many good friends one of whom happens to be a certain Jennifer, creator of Reformed SHEology. But as good as it was I felt I had not really had that chance to speak one to one with anyone. Hearing all the amazing testimonies at the end of each day left me feeling disheartened. Then I would feel bad because I should be rejoicing in what God was doing. I even began to wonder if it was God's will that I even came to boot camp.

As the second to last day drew to a close and having no real conversations I was beginning to feel pretty useless especially when I saw so many in my group witnessing. I know it was wrong to compare myself to others but I couldn't help it. I decided to take one last walk alone praying to God about how I was feeling.

God-incidence!
As I made my way to the quieter part of Washington square, an area with steps and shaded by trees, I saw a woman (who I'll call Trish) sitting on the steps looking a little upset.I just couldn't believe my ears! I approached her and asked if she was OK. I could see she had been crying and was trying to hide her tears. I asked her if I could pray for her. I will never forget her heart-wrenching reply. As she reached into her purse she said, “Yes, but I'm afraid I don't have any money.” I just couldn't believe my ears! I then became overwhelmed with pity and ashamed that she had to feel that I would want money in exchange for prayer. Immediately I knelt beside her and cried “I don't want money, I want to help!”. I then explained how I was over from the UK with the church to meet like minded Christians and evangelise. Then I prayed for her. Trish then began to cry and tell me her story. Her daughter wasn't well and she was feeling overwhelmed with her circumstances. She shouldn't even have been at the square but she needed somewhere for a moment to gather herself and then we met. I told her it wasn't coincidence and she became encouraged after our meeting. After she left I realised I didn't preach the gospel to her but mentioned Christ, the fact I am a Christian, and gave her a tract. But then I knew that God was totally in control of the situation and He had answered my prayer in the most amazing and beautiful way. That one single meeting made the whole trip so worth while.

I learnt that day that as important as it is to preach the gospel, each encounter is always unique and we should never overlook an individual's needs in a desperate scramble to tell them the good news. I made sure she did have the message in the form of a tract however. I love how the Father puts us in the right place at the right time!

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Tract that Came Back

This story is a bit longer than usual, but it's worth the read! If you have ever wondered whatever became of the tract you gave to that complete stranger, then let this story encourage you.

Facing my mortality at thirteen was a turning point in my life. I suddenly viewed the world as a meaningless exercise in futility. The only hope that remained was my belief in the existence of a God who knew the answers to all my burning questions. In an effort to learn more about who God was, I took very seriously the religion I was born into, which was Roman Catholicism. But after a very disappointing incident on the day I made confirmation, I became completely disenchanted with the Church. That same night, lying in my bed and staring at the ceiling, I was seething with anger at God. "I'm sick of this!" I said to the ceiling. "Why won't you tell me who You are?" I waited for a response. I had no idea what to expect, but I never got one. "You know what?" I threatened. "I'm done! I am never setting foot in a church ever again as long as I live!" Again, there was only silence from the ceiling. Discouraged, I threw myself over on my side and went to sleep.

ONE YEAR LATER

When I was fifteen I managed to get a job in a grocery store called Waldbaum's. I worked as a cashier, but there was a boy who worked over in the Bakery department that had caught my eye. His name was Steven Hutter. I had never spoken to Steven, but there was something about him that peaked my curiosity. One day, I saw Steven talking with a customer and I overheard him call her "Mom." I watched the way Steven interacted with his mom, and wondered what it was about this boy that I was so drawn to. About 20 minutes later, Steven's mom had made her way over to my register with a very large grocery order. I wanted to make a good impression on her, in the hopes that perhaps I could learn more about Steven, and try to put my finger on what was so different about him.

I made sure to be extra friendly to Mrs. Hutter. She handed me a stack of coupons and I began to ring up her order. I made small talk with her and got so wrapped up in our conversation that I never deducted her coupons. She paid for her bill and began to leave the store when I noticed the coupons still sitting on my register. I called her back and had a manager come by to give her the cash value of the coupons, which totaled over $50. Mrs. Hutter was very grateful and thanked me several times. At this time I turned on the false humility and told her, "Oh, it's nothing. In fact, I don't know what made me look down in the nick of time and notice those coupons just sitting there."

She handed me a little pamphlet with a butterfly on the cover. The title was something like "You can be saved." I had no idea what it was. I had never seen anything like it before.Mrs. Hutter looked me dead in the eyes and said, "I believe THE LORD made you see them at that moment!" I was so stunned, I didn't know what to say. On Long Island, people don't talk about "the Lord." They will refer to "God", but not "The Lord." She must have noticed the look of shock on my face, because she added, "I really believe that!"

I was pretty uncomfortable, so I just said, "Uhhh, okay." I smiled and gave her the $50. "This is for you," I said. "Thank you," she replied. "And this is for you!" She handed me a little pamphlet with a butterfly on the cover. The title was something like, "You can be saved." I had no idea what it was. I had never seen anything like it before. I remember thinking she was a little weird, but even still, I was so curious to read that pamphlet! As soon as I was able to go on break, I took that pamphlet up to the ladies' room, locked myself in one of the stalls, and eagerly went through every word to see if it would tell me the answers I was looking for.

"Believe in Jesus, and you will be saved." I thought to myself: "I already believe in Jesus. This didn't tell me anything I didn't already know." I was so disappointed, but my eyes were closed. God would not open them for another three years. Once I did become a Christian, God brought to mind how I had demanded He reveal Himself to me, and how He did reach out to me that day through Mrs. Hutter. God is faithful. He will always answer prayer. It just might not happen in our timing.

SEVEN YEARS LATER

I was late to Bible study again. I had been saved at 18 while I was away at college and after graduating, I managed to make a few Christian friends back home on Long Island. That night we were meeting for a social activity and each of us were asked to bring a snack to the event. I parked my car in the first empty space I saw and ran into Waldbaum's -- the very same Waldbaum's where I had worked as a cashier back in high school. I grabbed the first bag of Doritos I could find, and then tossed it on the express lane conveyor belt. There was only one customer ahead of me, but the transaction was taking forever. I felt myself getting irritated. "This is supposed to be the express lane!" I thought. "What is taking so long?"

Suddenly I became aware of a presence behind me. I looked up to notice a gentle-mannered woman loading her groceries onto the conveyor belt. To my surprise, I recognized her. It was Mrs. Hutter. She had absolutely no idea who I was. How could she? I was just a stranger she had handed a tract to seven years before. But I remembered her. And being a Christian now for about three or four years, I knew that if I were in her shoes, I'd want to know what had become of the tract.

My heart was pounding. I didn't know what to say. The man in front of me finally finished his transaction, and I knew it was now or never. So I cleared my throat and said, "Excuse me, Mrs. Hutter?" She looked puzzled, as if she wondered how I knew her name. I continued, "You don't know me, but I went to high school with your son, Steven."

"Oh, how nice. What's your name?" She asked me.

I saw her eyes widen and I could hardly breathe, but I blurted out, "Mrs. Hutter I didn't get saved that day, but I wanted to tell you that I did get saved.""It's Jennifer. But I doubt Steven would even know who I am. We never really had any contact in high school." Mrs. Hutter smiled and nodded, still unsure of what I was getting at, but so patient and kind as she waited for me to continue. "Anyway, uh, I used to work here with Steven, at this very same grocery store." She nodded. "And one day, you came to my register. You gave me a gospel tract that day, and I read it. That was seven years ago." I stated again, "At this very same grocery store." I saw her eyes widen and I could hardly breathe, but I blurted out, "Mrs. Hutter I didn't get saved that day, but I wanted to tell you that I did get saved."

Tears began to form in her eyes. With reckless abandon, Mrs. Hutter threw her arms in the air, right there in the express lane, and shouted, "OH PRAISE THE LORD! HALLELUJAH!" She grabbed me and embraced me tightly. Everyone in the store was looking at us like we were insane. I felt a bit self-conscious, as this is not the typical scene one might witness in a grocery store on Long Island, or the rest of New York, for that matter. But I couldn't deny the excitement and wonder of that moment.

I had paid for my Doritos as she thanked me over and over for speaking up and encouraging her. She said she never knows what happens to the tracts she gives out, and it was such a joy to see what had become of a tract she gave to a stranger seven years before. The next thing I knew, I was in the passenger seat of her car, and she was praying for me. Then I was off to my Bible study.

I think I may have run into her once or twice after that. To my knowledge, she still lives on Long Island, in my hometown. Perhaps the next time I am in town to visit my brother, I will look her up and ask if she remembers me. I know I will always remember her as the first person God used to reach out to me and make Himself known.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Thirteen and Mortal

It was the summer of 1987. At thirteen, there was not much for me to do aside from having the occasional friend over, completing my assigned summer reading for school, and watching television. One of the television shows I watched religiously was A Current Affair (not to be confused with the Australian program by the same name). A Current Affair was a New York based, television tabloid show that focused on scandals. Unsolved murders and celebrity deaths were a regular topic on the program, but the Summer of 1987 was an unusually popular season for death. That's because August of 1987 marked the 10th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death (August 16) as well as the 25th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe (August 5).

Every weekday I watched this program. It seemed there was an endless amount of stories to report about Elvis or Marilyn: how lonely they were in life, how they both tried to reduce their emotional pain with drugs, superficial relationships, and material possessions. Both their lives ended in despair, as neither felt truly loved. Yet they both left behind millions of adoring fans who continued to grieve over their loss years after they passed. I was captivated by these stories. My interest soon grew into an obsession. Before long, I had posters of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo all over my bedroom walls.

I began the eighth grade that September. I continued to watch A Current Affair after school, and within a few weeks into the school year, I was faced with a frightening realization: I am going to die one day.

One night I had gone to bed and it just hit me. My life is going to end, just like everyone else who came before me. As I lay quietly in my bed, I suddenly became very aware of the sound of my own heartbeat. I imagined my heart stopping one day, my skin growing cold, and my body being placed in a coffin. I imagined the sound of dirt being shoveled on top of the coffin. It was dark. I would never see the sunshine again. My skin would rot, my hair would fall out. I envisioned worms crawling through my eye sockets and nasal cavity. I reasoned with myself that when I die will not be conscious of these things; that I was only feeling frightened because I was imagining my burial as though I were being buried alive. But it didn't help. I was scared. I did not want to die, but worse, I knew there was nothing I could do to stop the process.

I was literally paralyzed with fear the entire night. It felt as though there was a crushing weight on my chest and I could not breathe. I just remained on my back, staring at the ceiling, my arms pressed tightly to my side, and I stayed that way until morning. I was too tired to go to school that day, but I had no choice. So first period, I found myself in P.E. class.

My teacher came over and tried to help, but all I could manage to tell her was, "I'm going to die! I'm going to die!"As I exited the locker room, I looked across the gymnasium at my classmates practicing basketball drills. Suddenly, an intrusive thought entered my mind: "One hundred years from now, not one of these children will be here anymore." I imagined the gymnasium suddenly empty, the bouncing basketballs abandoned on the floor. The fear gripped me again, and I started to panic. My fear gave way to uncontrollable sobs and I started hyperventilating. A classmate asked me what was wrong, but I couldn't answer. My teacher came over and tried to help, but all I could manage to tell her was, "I'm going to die! I'm going to die!"

I don't remember how I got to the nurse's office. I just remember lying there paralyzed again. It was not long before I heard the sound of my mother's voice consulting with the school nurse. The nurse told me that my mother was taking me home. I was glad to be able to process this a bit with my mom. But once we got in the car, my mother became very angry with me.

"What is wrong with you?" she screamed. "You're thirteen years old and you're acting like a baby! Do you have some kind of mental problem?"

"No, mom." I squeaked.

"Well do you want everyone to think you have a mental problem?" she asked.

"No." I whispered.

"Then knock it off! Don't you dare embarrass this family!"

Before you think my mother was horribly cruel in her reaction, there is something you need to understand about Italian-Americans. We do not air our dirty laundry outside the family. (This blog, and especially this story, is an extreme violation of this cultural code of honor.) We also have a tendency to ignore problems within the family, hoping they'll just smooth out on their own. It is all part of fare bella figura, which basically means "to create a beautiful figure (or image)". We will knock ourselves out to present an overdeveloped facade to outsiders. We are a proud people. We don't want anyone to think we have any problems.

I went home that day and stuffed my feelings down as far as I could, but they kept resurfacing. In public, I was a happy, well-adjusted child. But privately, I was hiding a secret from everyone: I was mortal, I knew it, and I was terrified.

In hindsight, I now know that what I had experienced that day was a series of severe panic attacks. Obviously, this is not the end of the story, but allow me to end here for today to reflect upon my favorite, most cherished psalm, Psalm 116.

Praise be to One who conquered the grave; who died that I may live.