Our Shepherd

I purchased a book at a very inexpensive price at the Half Price Bookstore at the end of June that was originally published back in 2001. It was written by Max Lucado and it is titled, Traveling Light.” It’s been republished since then but this particular copy is an original hardcover copy from 2001 (and it’s new, too). I’ve owned this book before but it is currently stored in a box in a storage unit in another state that at this point in time I wonder if I’ll ever see that stuff again since it has been in storage for over five years now. Of course, when I put my stuff in that storage unit over five years ago that came from the last apartment I lived in back then, I never dreamed it would be still be in storage five years later. I figured at the time it might be in storage for six months, max. Guess it falls under the category of Life happens.”

If you’ve read my blog posts lately you’ll know that my almost 96-year-old father died on June 22, 2019 (see blog posts titled, A Eulogy for Dad,” published on June 22, 2019, and Remembering Dad,” published in July 23, 2019). I purchased the book mentioned above on June 30, 2019. I drove to Iowa on July 10th (a 2000-mile round trip drive) to the state where my father lived to attend his visitation and funeral that was held on July 13, 2019, and I spent a week there (July 11-17). And I drove back to the city and state where I’ve been living for the past three years arriving back on July 18th.

I’m glad I went back home for that week. I got to see family members and others who are scattered around in several states who also returned for Dad’s funeral, and I learned about estate sale pickers–a term and occupation I was totally unaware of until Dad’s death (and there is something sort of vulture-like about that particular occupation). I’ve now been back where I’ve been living for about a week and a half, and it’s been over two weeks since the funeral was held on July 13th. I’m still sorting through the mix of emotions I’ve gone through since I first heard Dad was dying in early June, and from being back in my hometown for that week to attend his funeral.

On the list of top ten major stresses in life, death of a loved one (in my case, Dad’s death) holds the #1 spot (source here). Add in other stresses that naturally occur in one’s life, and I’ve been on overload since returning from Dad’s funeral. Being primarily a positive type of person, I’ve found it hard to get back into that positive mode as the grief can still be overwhelming when it hits, and I have a few other challenges right now that add to it but they are things that come up in one form or another in everyone’s life from time to time.

As I was thinking about how to find a way to get out from under this “funk” (grief does take a long time to process), I came across that book I purchased on June 30th mentioned above by Max Lucado titled, Traveling Light.” The subtitle is “Releasing the Burdens You Were Never Meant to Bear,” and that certainly describes my situation right now. I feel buried under a major burden compounded by other “stuff,” and I need a release from it. The book is based on Psalm 23, and here are the words to that psalm:

The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord

Before I quote a story found in the book, Traveling Light, let’s take a look at what is meant by the phrase, The LORD is my Shepherd.” GotQuestions.org gives us the following answer:

The clause “the LORD is my shepherd” comes from one of the most beloved of all passages of Scripture, the 23rd Psalm. In this passage and throughout the New Testament we learn that the Lord is our Shepherd in two ways. First, as the Good Shepherd, He laid down His life for His sheep and, second, His sheep know His voice and follow Him (John 10:1114).

In Psalm 23, God is using the analogy of sheep and their nature to describe us. Sheep have a natural tendency to wander off and get lost. As believers, we tend to do the same thing. It’s as Isaiah has said: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). When sheep go astray, they are in danger of getting lost, being attacked, even killing themselves by drowning or falling off cliffs.

Likewise, within our own nature there is a strong tendency to go astray (Romans 7:58:8), following the lusts of our flesh and eyes and pursuing the pride of life (1 John 2:16). As such, we are like sheep wandering away from the Shepherd through our own futile self-remedies and attempts at self-righteousness. It is our nature to drift away (Hebrews 2:1), to reject God, and to break His commandments. When we do this, we run the risk of getting lost, even forgetting the way back to God. Furthermore, when we turn away from the Lord, we soon find ourselves confronting one enemy after another who will attack us in numerous ways.

Sheep are basically helpless creatures who cannot survive long without a shepherd, upon whose care they are totally dependent. Likewise, like sheep, we are totally dependent upon the Lord to shepherd, protect, and care for us. Sheep are essentially dumb animals that do not learn well and are extremely difficult to train. They do not have good eyesight, nor do they hear well. They are very slow animals who cannot escape predators; they have no camouflage and no weapons for defense such as claws, sharp hooves, or powerful jaws.

Furthermore, sheep are easily frightened and become easily confused. In fact, they have been known to plunge blindly off a cliff following one after another. Shepherds in Bible times faced incredible dangers in caring for their sheep, putting their own lives at risk by battling wild animals such as wolves and lions who threatened the flock. David was just such a shepherd (1 Samuel 17:34–35). In order to be good shepherds, they had to be willing to lay down their lives for the sheep.

Jesus declared that He is our Shepherd and demonstrated it by giving His life for us. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Through His willing sacrifice, the Lord made salvation possible for all who come to Him in faith (John 3:16). In proclaiming that He is the good shepherd, Jesus speaks of “laying down” His life for His sheep (John 10:1517–18).

Like sheep, we, too, need a shepherd. Men are spiritually blind and lost in their sin. This is why Jesus spoke of the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4–6). He is the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for us. He searches for us when we’re lost, to save us and to show us the way to eternal life (Luke 19:10). We tend to be like sheep, consumed with worry and fear, following after one another. By not following or listening to the Shepherd’s voice (John 10:27), we can be easily led astray by others to our own destruction. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, warns those who do not believe and listen to Him: “I did tell you, but you do not believe . . . you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:25–28).

Psalm 23:1–3 tells us that the shepherd meets the sheep’s every need: food, water, rest, safety, and direction. When we as believers follow our Shepherd, we, too, know that we will have all we need. We will not lack the necessities of life, for He knows exactly what we need (Luke 12:22–30).

Sheep will not lie down when they are hungry, nor will they drink from fast-flowing streams. Sometimes the shepherd will temporarily dam up a stream so the sheep can quench their thirst. Psalm 23:2 speaks of leading the sheep “beside the quiet [stilled] waters.” The shepherd must lead his sheep because they cannot be driven. Instead, the sheep hear the voice of their shepherd and follow him—just as we listen to our Shepherd, Jesus Christ—in His Word and follow Him (John 10:3–51627). And if a sheep does wander off, the shepherd will leave the flock in charge of his helpers and search for the lost animal (Matthew 9:3618:12–14Luke 15:3–7).

In Psalm 23:3, the Hebrew word translated “paths” means “well-worn paths or ruts.” In other words, when sheep wander onto a new path, they start to explore it, which invariably leads them into trouble. This passage is closely akin to the warning in Hebrews 13:9: “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings.” The apostle Paul also alludes to this idea in Ephesians 4:14.

Finally, the shepherd cares for the sheep because he loves them and wants to maintain his own good reputation as a faithful shepherd. As we’ve seen in Psalm 23, the analogy of the Lord as the Good Shepherd was also applied by Jesus in John chapter 10. In declaring that He is the shepherd of the sheep, Jesus is confirming that He is God. The Eternal God is our Shepherd. And we would not want it any other way. (Quote source here.)

In Chapter 4 titled, “The Prison of Want: The Burden of Discontent,” in the book, Traveling Light,” on pp. 32-34, is this reflection:

Are you hoping that a change in circumstances will bring a change in your attitude? If so, you are in prison, and you need to learn a secret of traveling light. What you have in your Shepherd is greater than what you don’t have in life.

May I meddle for a moment? What is the one thing separating you from joy? How do your fill in this blank: “I will be happy when ________________”? When I am healed. When I am promoted. When I am married. When I am single. When I am rich. How would you finish that statement?

Now, with your answer firmly in mind, answer this. If your ship never comes in, if your dream never comes true, if the situation never changes, could you be happy? If not, then you are sleeping in the cold cell of discontent. You are in prison. And you need to know what you have in your Shepherd.

You have a God who hears you, the power of love behind you, the Holy Spirit within you, and all of heaven ahead of you. If you have the Shepherd, you have grace for every sin, direction for every turn, a candle for every corner, and an anchor for every storm. You have everything you need.

And who can take it from you? Can leukemia infect your salvation? Can bankruptcy impoverish your prayers? A tornado might take your earthly house, but will it touch your heavenly home?

And look at your position. Why clamor for prestige and power? Are you not already privileged to be part of the greatest work in history?

According to Russ Blowers (1924-2007), we are. He [was] a minister in Indianapolis. Knowing he would be asked about his profession at a Rotary Club meeting, he resolved to say more than, “I’m a preacher.”

Instead he explained, “Hi, I’m Russ Blowers. I’m with a global enterprise. We have branches in every country in the world. We have representatives in nearly every parliament and boardroom on earth. We’re into motivation and behavior alternation. We run hospitals, feeding stations, crisis-pregnancy centers, universities, publishing houses, and nursing homes. We care for our clients from birth to death. We are into life insurance and fire insurance. We perform spiritual heart transplants. Our original Organizer owns all the real estate on earth plus and assortment of galaxies and constellations. He knows everything and lives everywhere. Our product is free for the asking. (There’s not enough money to buy it.) Our CEO was born in a hick town, worked as a carpenter, didn’t own a home, was misunderstood by his family and hated by his enemies, walked on water, was condemned to death without a trial, and arose from the dead. I talk with him every day.”

If you can say the same, don’t you have reason to be content?…

What will you gain with contentment? You may gain your marriage. You may gain precious hours with your children. You may gain your self-respect. You may gain joy. You may gain the faith to say, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Try saying it slowly. “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Again, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Again, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Shhhhhhh. Did you hear something? I think I did. I’m not sure… but I think I heard the opening of a jail door. (Quote source: “Traveling Light,” pp. 32-34.)

So go to the Shepherd. He’s the only One who can release you from your burdens.

The LORD . . .

Is my shepherd . . .

I shall not want . . .

YouTube video: “I Just Need U” by TobyMac:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

Forever Changed

It’s been two weeks since I’ve been on my laptop as I’ve been a little busy. I spent eight days between July 10-18, 2019 going back home (and driving 2000 miles round trip) to my hometown in Iowa to attend my father’s funeral that was held on July 13, 2019. Dad actually died on June 22, 2019, just one month shy of his 96th birthday, and I wrote a eulogy for him on that day on my other blog titled, A Eulogy for Dad.”

Dad had a hand in putting together his own funeral service before he died, and he made new friends before his passing with the people at the funeral home. His mind and sense of humor were sharp right up until he drew his last breath. He even included three songs in his funeral service that tells a story in song of his life. The first song was Unforgettable; the second song was Amazing Grace”; and the last song was Joy to the World/Jeremiah was a Bullfrog by Three Dog Night.

Vintage T-6 Texan from 1944

Dad enlisted in the US Navy in 1943 during WWII, and he received his Gold Wings as a Naval Aviator during the war and remained in the Naval Reserves for a total of 21 years. During that time, he flew 19 different WWII Navy fighter planes up to and including swept wing jets. He loved to fly whenever he could and flew 37 different aircraft (including the T-6 Texan pictured here during WWII), both military and civilian throughout his life. He was extremely proud of his military service and career. (Source here.) More history about Dad is written in his obituary at Resthaven Funeral Home.

Dad’s funeral service was a tribute and celebration of a life well lived. His graveside service included a 21-gun salute, a “fly-over” by a T-6 Texan aircraft that circled the graveside a couple of times, and two sailors in dress uniform–one sailor who presented the flag draped over Dad’s coffin to my niece, and the other sailor who played Taps.” Not many folks make it to almost 96 years of age, and he was one of those who did. We were fortunate to have had him in our lives for so long, but even with him being around for that many years, his death is hard to bear. As my older brother said during his eulogy for Dad during Dad’s funeral service, we thought he would be around forever since he had been around for so long.

But no one lives forever, at least not on this earth. We all die someday, but this is not to be seen as a grim reality. A reality it is, but “grim” is only a choice if we choose to make it so. My two brothers and I lost our mother back in 1983 when she was only 54 (from health issues that started with adult onset diabetes that she was diagnosed with shortly after my parents divorced in the mid-1960’s when I was 12). I was 30 at the time of Mom’s death, and it propelled me into a new direction in life that I had never previously thought about taking. Within five months of her death, I ended up cancelling the wedding I had planned shortly after her death before I made what would have been a huge mistake by marrying that particular guy; and I enrolled at a state university to finish the last two years of my bachelor’s degree that I had started in 1977 when I completed a two-year associate’s degree in 1979. I quit the job I had for several years at a hospital, and I found an editorial secretary job at that state university that worked around my class schedule. Two years later I received my bachelor’s degree, and eventually I went on to earn a master’s degree, and shortly after that I was awarded a one-year doctoral fellowship in the area of higher education administration and adult education.

With Dad’s death, I am now 67–over twice as old as I was when Mom died. There is far less “future” at this age for me then there was at 30, but no one knows how long they will live (not even those who are young). Since Dad’s funeral was just eight days ago as of this writing, I am still in the process of getting my equilibrium back as to what the future will hold now that both of my parents have died (and also my very significant stepmother who died in 2011). It’s an odd feeling to no longer have a parent around, even at a distance. Parents–whether good, bad, or indifferent or any combination of the three (or any other combination to add) are our “anchors” in life. If it were not for them, we would not exist.

In a January 19, 2018 article in the LA Times titled, What the death of a parent can teach us, if we’re willing to learn,” by Alene Dawson, freelance writer and journalist, and LA Times contributor, she writes:

“We tend to think of ourselves as ‘children’ until we lose our parents. It is only then that we are on the front line of mortality,” said Debra J. Umberson, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the bookDeath of a Parent: Transition to a New Adult Identity.” “This gives us a very different perspective on our own lifespans and where we fit in terms of generations.”

David Kesslerfounder of grief.com and co-author with Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross of the influential bookOn Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss,” said many adults — regardless of age — struggle with feeling like an orphan after a parent dies. “I try to remind them that you still stay connected with that person even in death.”

An era gone by

“Our parents are our first relationship… So when a parent dies, it is your anchor being taken away,” Kessler said. Los Angeles resident Abbe Andersen took care of her mother, who had Alzheimer’s, and when she died at 88, Andersen felt her point of life reference had died, too. “It’s a lost feeling,” she said. But it also allowed her to rethink and reshift personal priorities: “What’s important are your connections… dear friends and family.”

Rituals can help

“Having a place that reminds the child of the parent and going to that place to talk things through with the parent can be very comforting,” Umberson said. Planting a tree, or assembling a special photo album or scrapbook can also help.

Grieving what never was

Some are perplexed to find themselves mourning a parent with whom they’ve had a bad relationship. “We believe we only grieve people we love but that actually isn’t true,” Kessler said. “My definition of grief is a reflection of a connection we have lost… Sometimes we have to grieve for what never was, for that ideal parent we never had.”

For some, a new freedom

Jeanne Safer, author ofDeath Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult’s Life – for the Better— the book cover is a birdcage with an open door — says that after a parent dies, many people feel more free to marry outside their religion or ethnicity, “people come out [as gay], people leave religion, people come to religion, people get divorces – all kinds of things – it’s fascinating.” And it’s nothing to feel ashamed of.

Kessler pointed to an example of a client who was grieving his abusive father’s death. But as time passed, the man felt a safety in the world he hadn’t felt before. “We think a parent ideally will enrich us but some people do have parents that diminish them,” Kessler said.

Take a psychological inventory

Safer advised taking some time to think about your parent’s legacy, and your own: “Four questions to ask yourself about your parent’s character are: ‘What did I get from my parent that I want to keep? What do I regret not getting? What did I get that I want to discard? What did I need that my parent couldn’t provide?’

“What you didn’t get but needed, go out and get from other people or yourself,” Safer added.

The first two weeks… then a lifetime

When you lose your parent as an adult, there’s often much to do, such as contacting relatives, planning the memorial and funeral and sorting through possessions. “The reality is you are swept up in the busy-ness and then in about three months to a year it really hits… And it’s usually about that time where their support has moved on,” Kessler said. Then family traditions change as first holidays and birthdays without them pass. “The second year is the year we realize they’re never coming back, we’re never seeing them again–this is us now.”

Reach out for support

“Time does not heal all wounds but the pain of loss does lessen with time. My main advice is to not expect yourself to quickly recover and to not feel there is anything abnormal about intense feelings of grief,” Umberson said, adding that it can be comforting spending time with others who’ve gone through a similar loss, whether it’s friends or strangers in a support group. “Seeking this kind of contact is a concrete thing people can do to help them move forward.”

Kessler says sharing your grief online can also help. “Posting a photo of your mother on the anniversary of her death can connect you with friends and family who are also grieving. You can also find a closed Facebook group where people unite on the type of grief they have,” Kessler said. “We have a primal need for our grief to be witnessed. Our psyche doesn’t want us to be an island of grief. We need each other and grief is a universal connector.”

To read this article in Spanish, click here. (Quote source here.)

In another article titled When a Parent Dies,” by Le Anne Schreiber on Oprah.com, she writes:

It’s always a shock. But grieving grown-up children may be surprised to find that despite the sorrow, the life changes following loss are often positive….

…What I have learned from my friends is that a single death can transform your life, especially if the death is that of your mother or father. And it doesn’t matter whether that parent was beloved or resented, whether the relationship was close or distant, warm or cold, harmonious or hotly conflictual. It doesn’t even matter how old you are, or how old your parent was at the time of death. For most people, the death of a parent, particularly when the parent is of the same sex, is life altering.

Anyone who has lost a mother or father knows this, and yet there is little social recognition of parental death as a milestone of adult life. Even more remarkable is the near total vacuum of professional research on this subject. There is an enormous, burgeoning field of psychology called bereavement studies, but in the 814 pages of the Handbook of Bereavement Research, the bible of the field, only four are devoted to the subject of an adult child’s loss of a parent.

Miriam Moss, one of the few researchers who have studied the impact of parental death, suspects that ageism is largely responsible for this neglect. “Old people are not valued in this culture,” says Moss, senior research scientist at the School of Public Health at Drexel University. “The loss of an elderly parent is not seen as particularly important.” What reinforces that ageism, Moss adds, is the fact that “it’s normative, expected. The attitude is, Oh well, she was old. How old was she? Seventy-eight? Oh, I’m sorry. What else is new?”

Disenfranchised grief is the term for mourning whose death is not socially recognized, and it has a silencing effect on the griever. It also, says Miriam Moss, has distorted and trivialized our understanding of the loss of a parent. “A parent’s death,” she says, “has a very strong impact, and it’s not just emotional. The whole meaning of who you are is very much attached to this person.”

Most of Moss’s research has looked at the effect of parental loss within the first six months to a year after the death, when grief is keenest. But it is often in the following years, when a new emotional equilibrium has been achieved, that many people register the deeper, more lasting consequences of being motherless or fatherless. And about these unfolding long-term changes, there is virtually no professional research. There is, however, a growing body of anecdotal evidence, written and oral, arising from Baby Boomers, myself included, who have never been prone to silence about anything on their collective mind.

With the goal of further opening up this subject, I conducted interviews with a small sample of women, ages 46 to 66, about how their lives had been affected by the death of a parent. Although the stories they told, and the parent-child relationships they described, were highly individual, a remarkable consistency began to emerge. Without exception these women described profound changes, both internal and external, which they directly attributed to their parents’ deaths. Most surprisingly, they characterized the changes as positive. That, in fact, is why they seldom, if ever, had talked in detail about their reactions to becoming motherless or fatherless. They were afraid that speaking of the good that had followed would be unseemly, disrespectful, too easily misunderstood as being glad that a parent had died. And that indeed would be a misunderstanding.

“I wish my mother could see me now” was a commonly expressed sentiment—paired with the complex irony that “if she could see me, I wouldn’t be anything like I now am.” (Quote source and the rest of the lengthy article is available at this link.)

David wrote in Psalm 68:5-6 that God is A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, and he leads out the prisoners with singing”…. For those who believe in God, he is the source of the greatest strength and comfort and guidance in hard times and times of grief for anyone who genuinely seeks Him. He is the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-5). He makes crooked paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6), and Psalm 34:18 states, The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” And he is always there when no one else is around (see Hebrews 13:5-6).

I’ll end this post with these words from Father to the Fatherless: A Call to Worship from Psalm 68

This is God . . .

Father to the fatherless . . .

Defender of the desolate . . .

YouTube Video: “Amazing Grace” (Live) by Il Divo:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit–family photo
Photo #3 credit here
Photo #4 credit here

Rules of Engagement

There is no more favorite place for a book lover to be than in a used bookstore. It’s almost like finding hidden treasure. I can spend hours looking around at all the books, CDs, DVDs, and other stuff found in them. And they don’t just sell used stuff. They have new stuff in there, too. I’m referring to a particular chain of bookstores known as Half Price Books. They have over 120 stores in Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas (their flagship store is in Dallas), Washington, and Wisconsin.  And, there are several in the area where I live, too (in Texas).

The other day I was in one of their bookstores looking at their clearance section which has fabulous prices. I’ve picked up a number of books, DVD’s and CD’s for $2-$3 dollars each in the clearance section, and the other day was no exception. They’ve given me fodder for more than just a few blog posts, too. This last time around I picked up a book titled, Rules of Engagement: Finding Faith and Purpose in a Disconnected World (2010), by Chad Hennings, a former American football defensive tackle for the Air Force Academy Falcons, and a member of the team that won three Super Bowls in his nine years with the Dallas Cowboys, among other accomplishments.

I didn’t realize when I looked at the book that it was written specifically for men. It is an autographed copy of the book to a woman named Rochelle and signed by Hennings, and it is in excellent condition. I opened the book in the store and read a brief section in the opening chapter titled, “Crafting Character and Casting a Vision,” and I decided to buy it for $3. Once I got back home I made the discovery that it was a book written specifically for men, so I decided, well, at least I could learn more about men by reading it… 🙂

It was the title of the book that caught my attention–“Rules of Engagement.” His subtitle of “Finding Faith and Purpose in a Disconnected World” was intriguing, too. It’s not easy navigating our way through life and it doesn’t get any easier with age, either.

As Christians, we can too often get into an “Us verses Them” mentality when engaging with our society and the various cultures that exist all around us. We too often reflect a “my way or the highway” viewpoint without realizing how we might be coming off to others, or really listening to what others have to say, or understanding another cultural context besides our own which is too often insulated behind our church walls.

In an article published in May 2015 titled The Rules of Engagement,” by Martin Saunders, deputy CEO of Youthscape, a contributor to Premier Youthwork and Premier Christianity, and a host at the annual Youthwork Summit, he states the following:

I have, by the grace of God and three different editors, been writing this column for five years now. I’ve written at least 60 articles in this slot, on subjects as diverse as dieting and Internet porn, “Game of Thrones” and “Mr. Tumble.” I’ve used the words ‘vital challenge to the Church’ more often than I should have, and suggested a ‘third way response’ enough times to have reasonably expected a lawsuit from “Third Way” magazine. In that time I’ve also significantly changed my approach to engaging with culture.

The problem with the Internet is that it never forgets. In 2001, I wrote my first ever piece of Christian cultural commentary for the Premier Christian Radio website. Entitled “Is Harry Potter a moving staircase too far?” (shudder), it raised grave concerns about the “grey areas” in the first film depicting JK Rowling’s schoolboy wizard. It even included the line: “Harry Potter is a large doorway to the occult, and if we lead children to it, there’s a possibility they may nudge it open.” Nearly 15 years later, that article still regularly comes back to bite me, and while I’ve mellowed significantly, one can only imagine what my 22-year-old self would have made of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

For many Christians, however, this is still a semi-accurate caricature of what cultural engagement looks like. We’re naturally suspicious of film, television and video games; visual media with the power to ‘corrupt’. We worry about the world views espoused in music and literature, and displayed by the flawed role models who fill our newspapers. There’s the Church, and there’s the world, and the one should be very nervous of the other, only making raiding runs into enemy territory to grab gospel-affirming movie clips or song lyrics to spice up a flat sermon.

Even for those of us who unashamedly love movies, music and all of the arts, Christian cultural engagement usually means one of two things. Either we pull out lines, scenes, images or quotes to affirm our world view or, at the other extreme, we suggest a sort of gentle (or not so gentle) boycott of the things that don’t. So “Rev.” gets two thumbs up (until the protagonist starts to veer off the rails, at least), and “Jerry Springer: The Opera” draws a disapproving glare, or even a protest. I’ve suggested both of these responses in previous culture columns, of course.

All of which is fine, I suppose, if we want to hold to that old Christian saying (a heavy rewrite of John 17:16- 18) that we’re to be ‘in the world but not of it’. But the longer I’ve been writing this column, the more I’ve started to believe that taking such an arms-length view of the culture around us can seriously undermine our attempts at mission.

Why Cultural Engagement Matters

Good evangelism starts with listening. We don’t launch into telling people our story before we’ve given them a chance to tell us their own. Otherwise we come across as religious zealots, convinced of our particular version of God, and determined to force him upon anyone who will listen. I believe that part of that listening process should include listening to the cultural context in which the people we’re trying to talk to live their lives.

There’s an oft-quoted biblical precedent for that, too. In Acts 17, Paul famously speaks in the meeting of the Athenian Areopagus, and demonstrates his knowledge and understanding of Greek culture: their cultural story. And that’s not all. He uses it to connect with the story that he’s come to tell them, seamlessly weaving together the words of Greek poets and his own gospel presentation. And, as verse 34 tells us: ‘Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.’

This is of course the standard set text on cultural engagement, yet perhaps its familiarity causes us to overlook it. At first glance, Paul appears to take a quote (it might as well be a video clip) from Greek poetry, and use it in his sermon as an illustration. In fact, Paul had precisely the right quote, from the right poem, at his fingertips and he used it in connection with a sculpture–another work of art–that he had observed while walking around Athens. It seems to me that far from picking out a couple of cultural proof texts, Paul soaked himself in Athenian culture in the hope of finding points of connection with the gospel he sought to share.

Affirming Truth

In his references to both poetry and sculpture, Paul is actually very affirming of their creators. He points out where he believes the Athenian artists have already got it right and builds on this platform. Their altar ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD’ gives him a perfect platform to speak in a language the people understand, and on a subject that they find interesting. He demonstrates that he has listened to their story, and agrees that there is truth and wisdom in it.

I think this should also be our starting point for cultural engagement. When we think about modern culture, we might naturally gravitate towards some of its ‘evils’ (more on this in a moment), but there is so much good to point out. Whether it’s the on-the-nose Christian allegory of the “Narnia” stories, “Thor” or the final chapters of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the spiritual themes of “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Selma,” and “Les Misérables,” or the songs of “U2” and “Mumford & Sons,” there is so much that is actually complementary to the Christian narrative.

Beyond those specifically Christian-affirming examples, add “Frozen,” “Life of Pi” (both the book and film) and “The Help,” all of which are brimming with wisdom and truth that are entirely complementary to the gospel.

There are also stories in culture that paint a bleak picture of humanity, and which clearly illustrate the need for God and his grace; the modern equivalent perhaps of that Athenian altar. Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road” is one good example, in which God is noticeable by his absence. It is as if God checked out when the apocalypse happened (Tom Perrotta’s post-rapture book “The Leftovers” does the same thing in a different way) and has left behind a world entirely bereft of hope.

In a very different genre, Liam Neeson’s recent ultra-violent action flick “Run All Night” shows the emptiness of a world view without grace, as members of New York’s Irish mob retaliate following one another’s deaths until they are all annihilated. We can use these stories as evidence for our need for God: a bigger picture way of thinking about them, which allows us not to get too hung up on the swearing and violence they might contain.

Critiquing What Doesn’t Work

I’m not suggesting, however, that we should wholeheartedly embrace the culture around us. As people who are called to “seek justice” (Isaiah 1:17), it is only right that we speak out when something in our culture promotes the opposite. We shouldn’t stay silent about “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a book that seems to promote and glorify violent, unloving sexual relationships.

Sexually explicit or violent lyrics, video games that glorify killing and films like “Saw” and all its sequels, which ask consumers to enjoy the creative destruction of human beings, should be critiqued. Junk food culture like this doesn’t do us any good as individuals or as a society, and Christians should feel able to point that out.

People of faith are most famous for taking offence when culture goes a step further and decides to critique or poke fun at us. I think God is probably big enough to deal with that without us needing to leap to his defense. Most mentions of blasphemy in the Bible are either aimed at God’s own people or found in accusations leveled at Jesus himself. In fact, I think we’re much better served saving our critiques for when culture totally misses the point.

In Athens, Paul twice comments on the ignorance of his contemporary culture’s great and good. He calls them ignorant for not knowing who God is (v. 23), and again for thinking that the true God can be manufactured by human hands (vv. 29-30), like some sort of superhero for people to look up to. So, as we read, watch, listen to and absorb our culture, we can follow Paul’s example when God is glaringly absent.

Christopher Nolan’s recent film “Interstellar” is a good example of this. The film pushes humankind to the furthest reaches of the universe, then performs gymnastic leaps of logic, which manage to make humanity its own savior and prove ultimately unsatisfying. “The Hunger Games” trilogy does a similar thing, and likewise suffers from an almost hopeless conclusion.

I believe that when we point to these kinds of stories, whether in the context of a sermon or a conversation down at the pub, then our perspective–that the absence of mystery and divinity in these stories makes them weaker–will resonate.

Knowledge, Not Assumptions

Being able to talk with some authority about our culture’s stories requires us to invest in that culture. A conversation on a film, TV show or book we have never seen will always have limited depth. That’s why I believe that, like Paul, we should get to know and understand the culture around us in some detail. That might not always mean visiting the cinema to see the latest 18-certificate movie (“Fifty Shades” being a pertinent example), but it could mean reading around it and taking time to listen to the perspectives of Christians who have.

When we have listened to those stories and found elements within them that we can either affirm or critique, there are lots of creative ways of building bridges to the story we want to share. Rather than using a clip from a film to make a point (cinema’s version of the proof text), how about watching an entire film together as a congregation or small group and using this as a springboard for discussion? Instead of referring to a song lyric, how about using the whole song in an act of worship?

Once we’re engaged in listening properly to culture’s story, and to affirming, redeeming and constructively critiquing it, those creative methods of engagement will surely flow. As they do, however, we should never lose sight of why we’re doing this. Our mission as Christians is to follow Jesus and to help others do likewise. That’s why it is vital that we understand the culture in which we’re ministering, and the stories with which we seek to connect our own. To simply consume culture without seeking to interpret it is, for me at least, still a moving staircase too far. (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with Paul’s wise words found in Romans 12:18If it is possible…

As far as it depends on you . . .

Live at peace . . .

With everyone . . . .

YouTube Video: “Speak Life” by TobyMac:

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