Category Archives: Culture

Christian Films: Best of 2016 and advice for future filmmakers

Two weeks ago Hillary Scott won a pair of GRAMMY awards for her album, Love Remains, and the hit song, Thy Will, in the contemporary Christian music category – a category that has been around since 2012. The recording industry presents awards in this category to performances that are expressly Christian in their content, and not merely to Christian singers who perform another genre such as country or pop.

To date, the film industry has not created a similar category for faith-based films, despite the growing number of filmmakers who weave their stories through a distinctly Christian worldview. This may, in part, be due to the significant quality gap that exists between faith-based and secular films, similar to the gap that existed in the music industry through the early 1990s. Of course, Christian musicians eventually achieved a level of production quality comparable to their secular peers.

Though Christian filmmakers have recently closed the gap in production quality (as well as in direction, special effects, stunts, and acting), a sizeable one remains. However, 2016 may be the year all that changed. This past year witnessed a significant improvement in overall filmmaking quality, particularly in screenplays, direction, and acting within the faith-based genre. It is a trend that will no doubt continue as Christians in the industry hone their craft.

That said, Christian films will never attract widespread audience interest (and industry recognition) beyond the church community unless several critical changes occur – changes that will also improve the overall quality of Christian films.

First, eliminate the heavy-handed and preachy dialogue. Those who want to hear a sermon go to church on Sunday morning not to the movies on Saturday night. Nothing interferes with a good story like incessant melodramatic sermonizing, which also exposes the directorial limitations of the filmmaker. Scriptwriters and directors should learn the art of subtlety in communicating the Christian message through cinema. That doesn’t make it doctrinally spineless, just less overt.

Second, develop multi-dimensional Christian characters with real flaws. Too often directors portray Christian characters as morally upright individuals who make good decisions, use churchy language, behave like Christ, and exhibit few flaws. But such superficiality does not reflect reality. The Christian encountered on the screen rarely mirrors the Christian encountered in everyday life, and such caricatures do a disservice to the Christian community and the film industry alike. Christian filmmakers who really want to connect with a secular audience must create authentic characters – those who struggle and sin like the rest of us.

Third, exercise creativity and be original. Too many Christian filmmakers and scriptwriters adopt a formulaic approach in telling their story (a flaw that pervades Hollywood and the studios as well). Such laziness neither inspires nor interests the audience. Instead it leaves them feeling fleeced. It is true that originality requires considerable time and effort, as well as reflection and research. But a final product that captivates audiences and manifests industry excellence makes it worthwhile – and honors the Lord far more than a cheap, sluggish imitation.

Finally, with the Motion Picture Academy set to announce their awards tonight, I thought it appropriate to select a few winners in the genre of Christian films since the Academy does not award Oscars in that category. I exclude films nominated for an award tonight, like Hacksaw Ridge and Silence, even if they had a Christian lead character or Christian theme. [By the way, their recognition by Hollywood demonstrates that films with a clear Christian message are taken seriously by the industry when excellence is achieved].

Now, without further ado:

Best Picture: Risen

Perhaps the best Christian film in recent memory. What makes this movie so original is that it unfolds through the eyes of a skeptic, a Roman Tribune tasked with finding the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. He dismisses the rumors of Christ’s resurrection as poppycock and simply wants to locate the dead body, on orders from his boss, Pontius Pilate, to quell the growing unrest in Jerusalem. It powerfully communicates the gospel without being preachy, exemplified by the cognitive dissonance displayed on the protagonist’s face when he encounters the risen Christ surrounded by His disciples in the upper room.

Best Actor: Joseph Fiennes (Risen)

Fiennes excels at nuanced expression and accurately captures the skepticism and urgency of his character. His performance is a tour de force and establishes a standard of excellence for other actors in faith-based films.

Best Actress: Madina Nalwanga (Queen of Katwe)

Sublime performance for newcomer Nalwanga, who plays a young girl in the Ugandan slums whose innate talent for chess creates an opportunity to improve not only her and her family’s life but to inspire her nation as well.

Best Comedy: The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

The strength of this film is two-fold: the performance of lead actor Brett Dalton, who nails the role of faux-Christian Gavin Stone, and the levity it brings to the faith-based genre. The film never takes itself too seriously and often pokes fun at churchy talk and Christianesque behavior. The approach is both refreshing and the source of many laughs, and communicates its message without being too preachy. [As an added benefit it reveals the ease with which people can come into church and fake their faith for the purpose of advancing a selfish agenda – a timely warning].

Agree or Disagree? What films and actors would you award for excellence in 2016? Post your thoughts below.

Solving America’s Addiction to Anger.

Have you noticed an escalation in the frequency and intensity of heated outbursts across the country? When the slightest affront drives individuals to erupt in anger you have to ask whether an epidemic has gripped the nation. From road and jet rage, to campus and urban protests, to venomous political discourse, man’s fury seems to surface on a moment’s notice. And nowhere is that aggression more evident than on social media where seemingly harmless comments can fuel blistering attacks and scathing condemnation from friends and contacts.

Instead of respecting other opinions, politely resolving our differences, and pursuing reconciliation when offended, society increasingly expects and encourages us to rage against those with whom we disagree. You don’t have to be a sociologist to recognize this trend is detrimental to a healthy society. Nor do you have to be a psychologist to diagnose such anti-social outbursts as bordering on the psychotic, which makes society’s approval of them all the more alarming. It all makes me wonder: is America addicted to anger?

If so, how does America cure this nationwide addiction? Well it can’t, at least not on its own. Because it doesn’t understand that the source of anger flows from a rebellious heart. And you can’t solve the anger epidemic until you first transform the rebellious heart.

Which provides the church a tremendous opportunity to impact society. When Scripture informs our response to insults, disparagement, and verbal attacks, our behavior captures the world’s attention because it contrasts with societal norms. This does more than defuse explosive situations, it give those around us a glimpse into the transformative power of God.

So what’s the biblical model for handling conflict with aggressive, nasty, and confrontational people? Jesus provides a succinct but specific blueprint in His Sermon on the Mount. “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, NKJV).

Wow. Jesus’ words are as revolutionary today as they were in the First-Century. Loving our enemies requires us to exercise mercy, not judgment, and extend forgiveness, not revenge.

But what if people yell obscenities and malign us with innuendo? Jesus tells us to bless such individuals with kindness. And when they adopt an adversarial posture, level hateful tirades, exploit, and even persecute us, what then? Surely such situations require a more combative approach. On the contrary, Jesus expects us to pray for and do good to those individuals.

If all of that sounds insane, well it is. But in that display of insanity an irate and pugnacious world witnesses the power and grace of God. And that offers a compelling – and appealing – contrast to those suffering anger-fatigue. In that moment we are a light unto the world, a beacon of love for those shipwrecked on the rocks of animosity.

Wells Fargo Fraud Evidences Troubling Trend.

Recent news of the massive fraud perpetuated by thousands of Wells Fargo employees exposes troubling trends with America’s great institutions. According to multiple reports the company opened up more than 2 million fake accounts for customers who did not request them. Ongoing since at least 2011 (though it now appears it may have begun as early as 2009), the fraud negatively impacted consumer credit ratings and resulted in fees charged to account holders.

If you or I illegally opened an account under someone else’s name, we would be criminally charged with fraud and/or identity theft and almost certainly spend time in jail. But not so with our nation’s banks. Not so with corporate weasels and their minions. No one faces criminal charges. No one goes to jail.

In fact, CEO John Stumpf refuses to call it fraud, insisting it was simply an ethical lapse. But his refusal to come clean doesn’t stop there. He also contends low-level and low-wage employees executed the fraud without involvement or awareness of senior leaders and executives. Nothing systemic, he claims with a straight face. In the aftermath 5,400 employees were fired while the executive who oversaw the department received a $125 million golden parachute to retire.

Essentially, Stumpf wants us to believe that he and other Wells Fargo executives are the brains and talent behind all the success the bank enjoys (and therefore deserving of their eight and nine figure compensation packages) but have no responsibility for anything nefarious that occurs in the bowels of the company. Like other corporate shysters, Stumpf wants it both ways. Claims credit for the good. Pleads ignorance for the bad.

It reminds me of the court scene in the movie, A Few Good Men. Jack Nicholson’s character has just chastised Tom Cruise’s character for suggesting he doesn’t have control over his military base, Guantanamo Bay. He explains his soldiers always obey orders; otherwise people die. After he allows the jury to absorb that assertion, Cruise wonders how it is that two of Nicholson’s soldiers administered a code red – a serious form of discipline – against a third soldier since Nicholson previously claimed to have ordered the practice stopped. Nicholson hems and haws and says the two men charged for the crime took matters into their own hands. No, Cruise reminds Nicholson, that’s not what happens on your base. Soldiers obey orders or people die. He goes on to expose the colonel for the lying hypocrite he is.

Which brings us back to Stumpf and Wells Fargo. How is it possible for so hideous and extensive a practice to thrive unabated and unknown for more than five years? Either Stumpf and his leadership team are utterly incompetent and therefore undeserving of their plutocratic incomes or, like Nicholson’s character, they knew what was going on and chose to ignore it until it became public – at which point they shifted to cover-up mode.

Like other corporate executives who administer cultures of fraud, greed, and unethical behavior, Stumpf believes us fools. And he knows the American system is designed to allow such behavior to continue. Sure he has to go before a Senate committee, take a few bi-partisan whacks, and suffer several minutes of public shame. But tomorrow it’s back to the basics of pretense and fabrication.

Sadly, neither Stumpf nor Wells Fargo will suffer any substantive consequences. The bank was fined a figure that amounts to peanuts relative to its considerable annual profit. Stumpf will remain at the helm and continue to rake in his hefty income. The Senate committee threw some shade but otherwise accomplished nothing.

What needs to happen (as well as what this says about modern capitalism and our government) is another story. I’ll offer thoughts on those subjects in subsequent posts in the next week or two. Suffice it to say on this issue dramatic change is required because our nation can no longer tolerate the pattern of fraud, dishonesty, and malfeasance that permeates a growing number of banks, corporations, and insurance companies. Their prioritization of profit over integrity is changing more than the culture of corporate America; it’s changing the culture of America itself. And that evolution leads down a primrose path of peril. So it must stop and it must stop now.

How to Make 2016 Your Best Year Ever.

As 2015 disappears over the horizon and yields to the dawning of 2016, many of us are looking into the future, taking inventory of our lives, and identifying areas for self-improvement. Others are creating resolutions that challenge them to implement long overdue changes in exercise regimens, career paths, relationships, diets, and daily routines. Some will even subject their lives to a complete overhaul as they embark on a new venture or decide the time is right to finally pursue a dream they’ve tabled for years. And a few will focus on ridding themselves of some vice or bad habit they embraced long ago, such as smoking or drinking soda.

And while such efforts are all well and good, and may lead to more happiness, healthier lifestyles, and greater satisfaction with life, if you really want to optimize 2016 you ought to consider less traditional changes as well. Here are five things you can do to make 2016 your best year ever.

1] Put God First. This may seem obvious (and require no change) since most Christians insist God is already first in their lives. But take a moment to examine your life for evidence that supports that claim. Does your daily schedule reflect His preeminence or does it expose your assertion as mere hyperbole? If we are honest with ourselves, many of us will have to admit we spend too little time alone with God. We are simply too busy to dedicate substantive amounts of time developing a real and vibrant relationship with Him.

Is that you? If so, maybe 2016 is the year you decide to get serious about aligning your schedule with your contention that God is first in your life. And there is no better way to do that than to carve out regular time with Him each day. Start with fifteen minutes. As that becomes a habit, gradually increase the time until you’re spending thirty minutes alone with God on a daily basis. Use half the time to read (and study) the Bible and the other half to communicate with God in prayer. Share what’s on your heart, ask Him to share what’s on His, and take a few minutes to worship Him.

Don’t allow the distractions of the world to interfere with this time or cause you to skip days. While it may at first feel more like an obligation than a privilege, you will eventually grow to love your time with God and may even find yourself looking to add more and more to it.

2] Serve Others. Identify one opportunity to serve a group in your community on a regular basis, perhaps as often as once a week but no less than once a month. The range of possibilities are broad and include: helping displaced refugees settle into the area, volunteering at an agency that assists victims of domestic violence or human trafficking, serving with the Special Olympics, investing a few hours visiting the elderly at a retirement home, or making meals at a food bank.

Don’t wait for February to arrive before exploring your options. Take time right now to identify a couple opportunities and then reach out to the appropriate agency to learn how you can volunteer. Few things will bring you as much genuine satisfaction in 2016 as serving those less fortunate or undergoing a traumatic experience.

3] Take a Mission Trip. Invest a few days or a couple weeks and go outside your comfort zone to share God’s love with others in another country or a different culture. Opportunities abound and vary from working with kids, to helping with micro-loan programs, to providing basic home repairs, to evangelism. If your local church doesn’t offer a trip that’s a good fit for you, look around. Many churches send out mission teams and you don’t always need to be a member to participate. You may find the ideal opportunity at a neighboring church you’ve never attended.

And remember to go with a loving and humble attitude, which will go a long way in building bridges and creating friendships. Seek to learn and listen more than you teach and speak. And if you go to a different culture (especially to a developing country), prepare to be stretched, challenged, and even convicted – in your faith, your priorities, and your lifestyle. Watch how they worship, the emphasis they place on their relationship with God, and the generosity they extend to strangers despite their meager resources. Most of all prepare to be transformed. You will not come back the same person. I guarantee it!!

4] Eliminate Ongoing Sin. Though we strive to be like Christ and desire to attain perfection, we will never be fully free of sin until God calls us home. In fact, no matter how mature our faith there likely exists some sin that plagues us on an ongoing basis. Perhaps you cannot resist gossiping about others, or boasting about yourself, or consuming pornography, or casting aspersions on others.

What sin have you ignored or allowed to flourish for too long because you didn’t want to make the effort to eradicate it. Commit to making 2016 the year you put it to death. Inform God of your desire to be free from this sin and ask Him to empower you – through the Holy Spirit – to defeat it. Let your friends and family know of your commitment and solicit their help. Ask them to hold you accountable and point out instances when you slip (e.g. when you gossip, boast, or cast an aspersion).

It may help to identify a godly attribute that can replace the sin. For example, instead of casting aspersions, you edify others. Instead of staring at porn, you study Scripture. Rather than brag or gossip, you learn to listen or share the Good News. You won’t win the battle overnight but if you remain diligent to uproot the sin, you will experience victory over time.

5] Love Others. Have you noticed the world seems increasingly dangerous, with escalating levels of anger, hate, and bitterness? At the same time it appears to be growing more callous and cruel, filling people with despair, gloom, and hopelessness. And with these emotions comes an alarming acceleration of destructive and corrosive behaviors that threaten to crush civil society. Jesus once remarked that there would come such a time as this when, “The love of many will grow cold.” I can’t help but wonder if we have reached that time.

Has your love grown cold? Do you find it easier to fire an unkind word when someone mistreats you? Do you allow anger to dictate your behavior when offended? Has a spirit of bitterness or anger taken root in your heart? If so, 2016 may be the time to reignite your love for others, and not just friends and family. Everyone. Strangers. Enemies. The helpless. The hopeless. Those that spite you, ignore you, and disrespect you. Everyone. And extend to them the same unconditional love that God extends to you.

After all, love is the only real antidote to the rising tide of charged and treacherous emotions embroiling the globe. And while love may not immediately overcome the effects and actions of those harboring such sentiments, it will certainly begin reversing the tide. And it will help make 2016 your best year ever.

Refugee Response Reveals Selfish Spirit.

Throughout history the Church has aligned itself too often with monarchs, regimes, governments, and political parties that institute policies, practices, and philosophies that contravene Scripture and challenge Jesus’ teachings. In almost all of these instances the Church has sided with the powerful, wealthy, and influential at the expense of the weak, poor, and ostracized.

While such alliances have yielded power, prosperity, and prominence for the Church it has come at great cost, undermining and often severing its relationship with God. For those who view Christianity as nothing more than a means to achieve selfish and worldly goals, that consequence seems immaterial. But for believers who yearn to obey and glorify God, that effect is disastrous and troublesome.

Sadly, another example of this trend has emerged recently in this country. A growing number of voices within the Christian community (especially among Evangelicals and self-professed conservatives) have resisted plans to allow refugees from North Africa and the Middle East (particularly Syria) to enter the United States. They claim their motivation lies in protecting the nation’s safety and security, and insist that the possibility of terrorists hiding among refugees, however remote, combined with the government’s inability to identify and remove those terrorists before they cross our borders, requires a hardline stance against any program involving refugees from countries with a strong terrorist network. Some also argue we cannot afford to admit immigrants because the cost is too high.

Those positions, however, reveal a spirit of selfishness and a passion for maintaining the status quo. Worse, they demonstrate a remarkably ill-informed understanding of Scripture and a lack of faith in God. When did Jesus ever advise His followers to only do the right thing when it is safe, convenient, or inexpensive? Never. His message focused on helping and loving others no matter the cost. In fact, He went to great lengths to explain that His example of love, mercy, kindness, and generosity would impose considerable cost on His followers. We need look no further than the parable of the Good Samaritan to grasp this truth.

In that parable a man is attacked, robbed, and left for dead by thieves. Two self-righteous religious leaders (a priest and a Levite) come across the man on separate occasions and both move to the opposite side of the road to pass. They express no concern for his well-being or survival, and fail to offer love and kindness. Their faith is useless. Both men ignored the opportunity to demonstrate faith in substance by helping the stranger. Instead, both viewed him with contempt, treating him as a potential threat, an inconvenience, and a roadblock to more important things.

In contrast, the compassionate Samaritan saw the humanity of the injured man and exercised love, compassion, and mercy toward him even though it cost him time and money, and jeopardized his safety. His selfless sacrifice exhibited a notable contrast to the selfish pride of the two religious zealots. Jesus’ message could not have been clearer: Genuine faith always manifests itself in action, not in self-righteousness or outward appearances.

What does it say about God and our faith in Him, then, when we ignore His teachings in order to stay safe, remain comfortable, and enjoy the good life? In adamantly opposing the relocation of battered, marginalized, and oppressed refugees to the United States, our actions and language reveal a great deal about our beliefs. We are essentially telling God:

  • “We do not believe you are powerful enough to protect us if we do the right thing and embrace your call to love others, especially our downtrodden neighbors in the Middle East.”
  • “We do not believe you are omniscient and therefore cannot trust you to help our law enforcement community to identify and remove terrorists who might try to sneak in with beleaguered refugees.”
  • “We do not believe you care about the safety, welfare, and survival of those escaping the brutalities of the Middle East and North Africa as much as you care about us maintaining our lifestyles of comfort, pleasure, and leisure.”

What a sad testament to the condition of our Christianity when we categorically ignore and reject what God’s word says about our responsibility to refugees and ‘the least of these’ and instead embrace a false gospel that declares our wealth, safety, and lifestyle of greater importance to God.

I wonder if, perhaps, God is using the tumultuous events in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere to accomplish the Great Commission, which remains unfulfilled in part because we fail to prioritize it in our churches and our lives. While we have made some progress, we have not made nearly enough – especially in light of the overwhelming resources God has provided us. In a country where the average Christian gives about 2% of his income to the Church, and the Church spends more than 90% of its funds on programs, priorities, and capital projects that benefit its own congregants, it is safe to say we have been negligent in prioritizing God’s call to reach the world with His good news and His love.

So in His wisdom He might now be bringing the world to us; not just Syrians, Iraqis, and Somalians, but also Latin Americans and Asians. He is giving us a second chance to reach all tribes and nations of the world. And what is our response? Is it joyful celebration that God is providing us another opportunity to join Him in His work? No. It is vocal opposition to their admittance and advocacy for stronger laws that keep foreigners out.

With that response we risk failing God a second time. Moreover, what message does that response send the world? They might rightfully ask, ‘Where is your love, compassion, generosity, and mercy?’, and might reasonably conclude that any God whose people are so selfish and inwardly focused is no God worth pursuing. What a sad testimony to leave our non-believing friends, family, and neighbors. Let’s instead leave a legacy of God’s love in action and capitalize on the second chance He is offering us to make Him known to all peoples.

If instead we continue (as a nation and as Christians) to turn our backs on the oppressed, the hurting, the marginalized, and the condemned, it should not surprise us when God turns His back on us.

 

Are You Planning for the Right Retirement?

Every quarter I receive a newsletter that encourages me to review my retirement strategy to ensure I have the funds needed when I retire. While the articles vary, the message remains the same: retirement is not cheap; healthcare costs are skyrocketing; lifestyles rarely change in retirement. Invariably, a litany of charts follow, reinforcing the narrative and explaining how much I need in my accounts based on several factors: how long I plan to live (not sure how much input I get in that variable), my current income, and inflation, to name a few.

Like hundreds of similar investment documents published each month, the newsletter emphasizes the need to plan now so I am not caught unprepared for the future. One common theme highlights those adults who assume they’ll have enough for retirement but never bother to do the math to validate their hypothesis. Almost always, we are told, those assumptions prove false. As a result, they fail to plan properly and must delay retirement, reduce their standard of living, or forgo retirement altogether.

Sadly, many Americans adopt a similar approach with respect to eternity. They assume they are going to heaven or that no afterlife exists. Either way, they neglect to invest any time or effort investigating the question of everlasting life and the existence of God. Instead, they prefer to trust their instincts – convinced that whatever reality they embrace will be revealed as truth once they pass from this world.

Of course, as Christians we recognize the danger with that worldview and ought to explore opportunities to share our faith and Jesus’ teachings with those who hold that opinion. He had much to say on the topic of eternal life and His message of mercy, grace, and salvation is one society desperately needs to hear and observe these days. Like the newsletters, we ought to inform and warn, prod and challenge those around us to prepare for eternity and not ignore such a critical decision.

Similarly, Jesus’ teachings also provide a powerful reminder to those of us in the church – that we, too, ought to prepare for heaven while still in this world. Too often we conclude that once we check the salvation box, all is good. But that view contradicts the truth shared by Jesus and the apostles. Let’s examine a few important verses that should shape how we prepare for eternity.

First, we need to remember we are not citizens of this world; rather, our citizenship is in heaven (see Philippians 3:20). Consequently, we are (in the words of Peter in his first epistle) pilgrims and sojourners in this world – here to serve as Christ’s ambassadors (see 2 Corinthians 5:20). As with any ambassador, our assignment is temporary – until the Lord calls us home – and requires us to reflect in speech and in conduct the one we serve.

That conviction is critical if we are to redeem our time on earth (see Ephesians 5:16) and live according to God’s will. Otherwise, we fall into a common trap: the belief that God wants us here to eat, drink, and be merry. In other words, our pleasure is His desire.

While God definitely wants us filled with joy, hope, and contentment, it is His pleasure that ought to be our desire, and not vice versa. When we lose track of that distinction, we risk becoming ensconced in the world, falling prey to its distractions, and adopting its priorities. In the process we cease to represent Christ and begin to reflect the world.

So how do we remain in the world without being of the world? By abiding in Christ. Any ambassador, to properly fulfill his or her role, must maintain frequent and substantive contact with the president. The same is true with us. As our relationship with Christ matures and our passion for Him deepens, we become a more accurate reflection of Him and ours ways align more closely to His.

As that happens, we focus more on things with genuine value (the eternal) and less on things with no lasting value (the temporal). That transformative shift in perspective equips us to handle the trials and tribulations that result from our faith in Jesus. Paul explains this in his second epistle to the church at Corinth. “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17-18, NKJV).

So as we consider retirement, what would Jesus have us do as His ambassadors? Should we adopt the world’s perspective and save lots of money in a retirement account so we can maintain our current lifestyles until we die? Should we work extra hours now so we can retire early and get a head start on the pleasures and comfort of retirement? Should we wind down our Christian service as we wind down our careers? Of course not.

Why do so many of us assume God makes no claim on our retirement – that we can pursue the same retirement strategy as our non-believing friends and colleagues? Do we cease to be the Lord’s when we retire? Does retiring from our career correspond to our retirement as Christ’s ambassador? Not at all. On the contrary, retiring from our career ought to serve as a catalyst for us to redouble our efforts to redeem the time as God’s representatives – and usher in a new season of serving Him with renewed vigor and focus.

For those on the verge of retiring or already in that stage of life, I encourage you to consider the possibility that retirement is an opportunity to finalize God’s call on your life. Resist the temptation to embrace the worldview that you’ve earned a restful retirement and deserve to enjoy the good life as you sail into the sunset. Instead, ask the Lord to reveal His retirement plan for you, what community you might serve on His behalf, and how you might fulfill the Great Commission. It might be quite different then your original plans – and much more satisfying.

For those still many years away from retirement, consider these words from Jesus as you craft your career and ascertain how best to invest your resources. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; rather, lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21, NKJV).

Unfortunately, too many Christians focus entirely, or primarily, on acquiring treasures on earth, building a legacy with the world, and pursuing temporal success. But Jesus informs us in unambiguous terms that such endeavors are a fool’s errand. They produce nothing of eternal value. Worse, they risk corroding, or even severing, our relationship with God.

Don’t be that seed that fell among thorns: those who hear the word of God and briefly trust Jesus but “the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:19, NKJV). Those who chase worldly accomplishments, recognition, and treasure enter into a Faustian bargain. And when eternity begins they will have nothing to show for all the time and effort they invested in this world. And they will have had very little time to enjoy the fruits of those worldly labors – even if they live to be a hundred.

Instead, invest in true treasure: the souls and lives of those around you. In doing so you will deposit into an eternal retirement account a value that exceeds exponentially everything the world has to offer. Nothing is as sound an investment for your time and resources. And that truth is something you can take to the bank.

Winning the Culture Wars.

Evangelicals and conservative Christians are apoplectic with last week’s Supreme Court ruling and if you have to ask which one you’re not paying attention. Using social media, pastors, leaders, and laity alike decried the ruling and insisted it represented another chink in America’s moral armor. Some even claimed the decision would expedite God’s imminent judgment on the nation.

Widely embraced by evangelicals and orthodox Christians, the heart of this message has flourished for decades and always blames society for the unraveling of the nation’s moral fabric. From the secularization of public schools, the explosion of the abortion industry, and the filth of Hollywood, to the radicalism of colleges, growing antagonism toward God, and the celebration of hedonism, many Christian voices insist America’s pending downfall is due entirely to increasing immorality outside the church walls.

Tellingly, Christians often fail to consider the possibility (or likelihood) that the church owns as much responsibility for the nation’s moral decay and God’s pending judgment as does secular society, perhaps more. Despite this, the church and individual Christians have contributed significantly to the dramatic shift in our country’s values. In fact, absent our complicity the nation would not have fallen so fast and so fully into the moral abyss it now finds itself, nor would it be in jeopardy of experiencing God’s immediate correction.

In what ways are we, as Christians, complicit? We have created classes of sin and determined that some sins are worse than others. The worst sins are those that offend the church and pious Christians. Such sins are widespread in society and easily identified as the cause of God’s anger. They represent all that is wrong in the world. But for these sins, we insist, our nation would be ready for Christ’s return. The church quickly and forcefully condemns these sins and describes them as scourges to society.

In contrast, another class of sin fails to raise the church’s ire. Though denounced by the Bible they thrive in our hearts and our sanctuaries. We wink and nod at these sins, giving little more than lip service to their eradication from our lives. We ignore the manifestations of these sins in our church leaders and ourselves. They are de facto acceptable and go unchallenged.

An excellent example of this class of sin is pride. Officially the church and serious Christians agree it must be uprooted from the heart and cast out. Sermons are preached against it and universal agreement exists that it offends God. Many Christians even know Scripture that highlights its danger – for example, ‘pride goes before destruction.’ Nevertheless, it endures and flourishes in the Christian heart and within church walls: in the pulpit, the choir, and in the congregation.

Doubters need only listen to language used by ministers, worship leaders, and lay Christians alike. ‘I’ and ‘me’ predominate, with a special emphasis on the work Christ is doing them. The celebration of self within the Christian community has reached epidemic proportions and shows no signs of slowing. Of course, spiritual narcissism hides behind a mask of false modesty, feigning humility while feasting on self-exaltation.

Another excellent example of this class of sin involves idolatry. We know it is wrong. Pastors openly preach against it. The Bible strongly condemns it. Yet it survives and thrives in our hearts and churches. Our love for the world, its treasures and pleasures, and all it has to offer is difficult to deny. It is obvious to our non-Christian friends, neighbors, and colleagues who love the world unashamedly and see that same love in us.

So how do we avoid cognitive dissonance without admitting our hypocrisy? We simply tell ourselves we don’t love the world, its treasures and pleasures, and all it offers. Despite evidence to the contrary we insist our love for Jesus knows no bounds. And if the overwhelming majority of our time, income, and energy is spent chasing the world and everything in it, we rationalize away the implications of that fact by declaring that God wants us to enjoy ourselves, have fun, and be happy. Nothing wrong with that even if such pursuits define us, consume us, and remove any doubt as to what we’ve made lord of our lives.

If we are serious about preventing moral bankruptcy from ruining the nation, we must keep in mind several important truths. First, genuine change always begins with a transformation of the heart. Always. Imposing morality by judicial edict or legislative fiat never produces substantive, enduring change. It only masks the real problem: sin. Only Jesus removes the stain of sin and empowers authentic and permanent transformation.

Most believers understand this truth and yet still focus a disproportionate amount of time and effort fighting cultural wars at the statehouse and in the courtroom instead of in the prayer closet. This misplaced priority needs to change if we want America’s moral landscape to change. The issue is primarily a spiritual problem and we ought to wage the battle using spiritual weapons such as prayer, service, intercession, and evangelism. Ignoring these disciplines all but guarantees the nation’s moral implosion.

Let’s also recall that God was willing to spare Sodom if as few as ten righteous were found therein. Wouldn’t He apply the same principle with us? I imagine so. Rather than fretting over the sins of others, then, let’s instead redouble our efforts to live righteous lives that honor God. If enough followers of Christ do so we may yet see the nation spared from approaching wrath. Rejoice then, that God gives us an opportunity to stand in the gap for our nation.

And remember, the die is not yet cast. There remains time for the nation to reverse course and avoid the ruin that awaits if we continue down our current path. Doing so, however, will require Christians to take the lead. We must recognize our responsibility for the situation, confess our sins (individually and collectively), repent from our iniquities, and rekindle our love for the Lord. We ought also pray for God’s mercy, intercede for the nation, and pursue Him with single-minded purpose. If we are unwilling to follow this prescription, then we have no right to criticize the culture for its failures. We will be as responsible as secular society for the nation’s collapse. More so in fact, because we had the chance to stop it but chose to remain ensconced in our sin instead.