The God of Joyful Tears and Sorrow

Baby-casket_2621_w350Last Thursday was one of the most joyful and somber days of my life. We often speak of life as a journey of mountaintops and valleys, but rarely do we experience the joy of the mountain and the sorrow of the valley so close to each another.

The morning began with the good news that my youngest brother’s wife was in labor, about to deliver their first child. I stopped by the hospital on the way to work, and then again at the end of the day, excited to become an uncle again and to see my brother and his wife begin a new chapter.

The joyful anxieties of childbirth were our family’s chatter all day. How many centimeters dilated? What position is the baby in? How much will he weigh? Who does the baby look like?

Once the joyous moment arrived, pictures flooded iPhones and FaceBook posts. A little boy arrived at 4:51 p.m., lungs full of passion and eyes filled with wonder at this strange new world.

~~~~~

An hour later, Corina and I were standing at the graveside of a stillborn baby. Some dear friends of ours, seminary friends and partners in ministry, had come back to middle Tennessee to bury their little girl, their fourth child, who – without any sign of trauma or any cause the doctors could discover – fell asleep quietly in the womb.

The pictures of the baby girl broke our hearts. The little casket and the little hole in the ground, the weeping family, the somber service.

As we stood at the grave and sang “In Christ Alone,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” and “It Is Well,” my thoughts bounced back and forth between the joy we’d experienced in the hospital and the deep pain we were feeling at the graveside. From the joyful arms of a new mother to the tearstained grief of a precious family…

As the sun began to set over the hill and the warm breeze caressed our faces, I thought to myself: God is big enough for both.

The God who meets us in the tears of joy is the same God who meets us in the tears of sorrow.

And somehow, there is joy and pain mixed in all the seasons of life.

The delivery room is a place of great pain, but also joy as a woman awaits the arrival of new life from her womb. The graveside harbors a family’s great grief, but also, an insuppressible hope and joy as we feel the birth pangs of a world that is passing away and look forward to the world that is to come, a world in which a little girl whose first sight was the eyes of Jesus will receive her little body back and bow before her Maker, a world in which God Himself will wipe away our tears, a new world born out of the pain and suffering of the old.

~~~~~

We don’t know the ways of God. We don’t understand the intricacies of His plan. Who can fathom the infinity of His mind?

Like Martha, our questions are heartfelt, Lord why? If you had only intervened, if you had only come… And like Martha, we also find hope in the resurrection at the last day.

But it’s when that day seems so far away, when what should have been a celebration of birth becomes a memorial of death, that Jesus meets us and reminds us – the resurrection is not just an event. It is a Person. “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Because of Him, though we die, we shall live.

Spring is coming, because He is coming. And when the Resurrection returns, joy will overflow its earthly banks and drown our griefs forever.

twitter-contextIn recent months, we’ve seen the rise of “the Twitter Battles” around hot-button issues like Hobby Lobby, gay marriage, religious freedom, evangelical orthodoxy, etc. They tend to develop this way:

  • A well-known person with a large following from a particular tribe says something shocking or inflammatory, intended to provoke a response from his or her ideological opponents.
  • Or the battle begins when one well-known person engages another well-known person on a hot-button issue where emotions run high.
  • The two ideological opponents banter back and forth a few times, reducing the complexity of their views into 140-character soundbites.
  • The followers from both tribes act like fans in the stands, cheering on their hero either by praising them or by bashing their opponents.
  • Everyone gets properly outraged and the conversation ends wearily.

I know what a Twitter battle is because I’ve engaged in them a time or two. After the last one, I came to the realization that these online interactions are virtually useless in creating and sustaining real and meaningful conversations about highly-charged issues.

Twitter is a place for conversation, but once we go into battle mode, I think the legitimate conversation is already over. Twitter battles are like putting on a spectacle for the perverse pleasure (or dismay) of the Twitter audience. Has anyone watching one of these debacles ever said, “You know what? You convinced me! I’m wrong and you’re right.” No one. Ever.

I’ve declined to engage in most Twitter debates, but after jumping into the ring a time or two, I’ve decided not to do so anymore. I love conversing on Twitter, but once I see the conversation devolving into the battle, from this point on, I’m going to step out. Here’s why:

1. Twitter Battles are Dehumanizing.

This is the big one for me. People tend to read their own emotions into a Twitter battle, which is why the rhetoric gets quickly ratcheted up and everyone comes across as angry and mean. At least, that’s what it seems like to me.

This is one place where social media and technology let us down (or where we simply aren’t up to the task). We don’t really know the people we are bantering with. It is all too easy to place people in camps, read into their every tweet the worst assumptions, and then create an ideologue of our own imagination rather than a real person.

I am not my avatar. Neither is my opponent.

I don’t want to assume the worst of people I debate, and Twitter makes that hard for me. Why? That leads to point #2.

2. Twitter isn’t the best place for thoughtful dialogue and debate.

Most of our deeply-held and sincere beliefs simply aren’t reducible to 140-character soundbites. I worry that in reducing everything to the world of Twitter, we’re not doing justice to the complexity of our positions or the people who agree or disagree with us.

It’s not a problem with the technology. Twitter is what it is. But maybe Twitter isn’t the best place for the biggest debates.

I have seen some good interaction on Twitter. If you are engaging with a good-faith critic who is gently probing wrong assumptions or a problem with a point you’ve made, then Twitter can become a place where you are sharpened. It can at least get you thinking.

But while Twitter may be a helpful tool in starting some good conversation, it probably shouldn’t be the place where such conversation ends. I’m not against criticism or critical interaction, but I don’t want anything to do with the flesh-pleasing spectacles that characterize many of the battles I’ve seen online.

Blogs have limitations too, but at least there is room for some thoughtful analysis and solid argumentation. If a good question comes up on Twitter, I’d rather give it some thought and devote a blog post to it, not try to answer from within the limitations of the Twitter format.

3. Twitter battles are a waste of time.

Chat and instant messaging can be an efficient form of communication within an organization, but Twitter is like a public chat with cheerleaders on both sides expanding the conversation until the balloon becomes full of hot air. The continually buzzing phone is a magnet that draws us into a vortex of increasingly hostile rhetoric until the true lines of division are hidden behind masks of outrage.

Twitter is a platform I enjoy and benefit from. But Twitter battles are another thing altogether. They simply serve to reinforce the worst stereotypes about us and our ideological opponents. That’s why we should yearn for thoughtful interaction with each other’s points of view, not immediate and incendiary reactions (and all sides of a debate can be guilty of this!).

Twitter may be the place where good interaction begins, but our time would be better served if we continued important conversations elsewhere.
 

Trevin Wax is the Managing Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum developed by LifeWay Christian Resources. He blogs daily at Kingdom People. He is also the author of Holy Subversion (Crossway, 2010) and Counterfeit Gospels (Moody, 2011).

 

Noah_Russell_CroweI didn’t get the chance to see Noah this weekend, but it appears the movie has done respectably at the box office, enough to fuel future biblically themed epics.

The intriguing thing about Noah is not the movie itself but the Christian response, particularly the evangelical response. I don’t ever recall seeing evangelicals so divided about a film. By and large, we stick together.

Evangelicals en masse rejected Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. I was just a kid then, but I remember hearing about this “blasphemous” movie. On the other hand, we flocked to Prince of Egypt, an animated though reverent portrayal of Moses’ story. And, of course, The Passion of the Christ stands out as the biggest biblically-themed blockbuster of all time. In the decade since Mel Gibson’s Jesus hit the screen, we shrugged at Evan Almighty, ignored the TV movie of Noah, and rallied around Sherwood Baptist Church’s films.

But then came Noah.

It’s a movie that’s made waves among evangelicals (pun intended), but let’s be honest: we’re not all in the same boat here. In fact, I struggle to remember any film that has drawn so much praise and criticism from churchgoing Christians.

Here’s the rundown of options as I see them, scrolling daily (hourly) across my FaceBook and Twitter feeds:

1. Cheers

I haven’t seen any evangelical leader claim that Noah gets the Bible right, but many have lauded the cultural opportunity this movie affords. Focus on the Family President Jim Daly and pastor Erwin McManus appeared in a video encouraging Christians to attend. Popular film reviewer, Phil Boatwright, pointed out the extra-biblical elements, but recommended it as a discussion-starter:

“Noah is an epic movie experience that engages not only the cerebral but the emotional. On the way to the car, people discuss it… That’s when you know you’ve experienced true art. It’s not just a time-filler before going to some other time-filler. It’s a film that demands debate.”

Christianity Today featured an extensive, seven-page review of the film. It begins with an encouragement for evangelicals to engage this film and then offers five reasons why:

  1. Noah is a good movie made by good filmmakers who pursue important questions and think of movies as art.
  2. Noah is a solid adaptation.
  3. Noah is visually and imaginatively compelling.
  4. Noah re-enchants the ancient world in powerful ways that counteract some of the worst excesses of modernity.
  5. You should actually see it for yourself.

Greg Thornbury, president of The King’s College in New York City, points out two major theological objections but believes the film is path-breaking and will help re-enchant a new generation with the biblical narrative:”

Aronofksy’s Noah is a way of putting ourselves before the Bible’s “dangerous question” as Barth put it. The grim, gritty, and supernatural antediluvian biblical world takes us back into ancient history, of origins. Who are we? What has gone wrong with the world? Where is justice? Is God there? What does he have to say? That ancient world sets us back on our heels and forces us to take stock in this strange new world inside the Bible.

Jerry Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, offered 5 positives and 5 negatives, and then encouraged Christians to engage rather than boycott:

The main events from the Noah story are depicted in a powerful way on the big screen by name brand actors and quality production. Christians should be ready to engage moviegoers in conversation about biblical and cultural themes that are portrayed in this movie.

2. Jeers

Those who are critical of the movie fall into one of two camps. First, you have the Christians who think the movie fails at the level of storytelling. Brian Godawa (a Christian who’s no stranger to Hollywood productions) thinks the movie fails at fundamental levels:

“On the nose” dialogue. Flat characters that you just don’t care about. A sick twisted hero that you just don’t care about. Look, I know your hero has to have a character flaw, but this is so extreme that you can’t stand Noah, and you just want to leave the theater.

The second category of critics are those who believe it fails because of its unfaithfulness to the biblical story. Ken Ham didn’t mince words:

Friends, last night I watched the Hollywood (Paramount) movie Noah. It is much, much worse than I thought it would be—much worse. The director of the movie, Darren Aronofsky, has been quoted in the media as saying that Noah is “the least biblical biblical film ever made,” and I agree wholeheartedly with him.

Sophia Lee of World sees the film as missing the mark, primarily for being an epic that shows God’s judgment without His mercy:

Expressed only through dreams and nature, Noah‘s God is mythical, impersonal, and devastatingly involved. Any references to God are seen through Noah’s perspective. That’s a good sum-up for the film itself—a wholly human approach to figure out deep yet simple theology with great intellect, emotion, and creativity, yet somehow missing the crux of it. That’s the true tragedy of Noah.

Al Mohler’s response is similar:

The odd elements are not the problem, the movie’s message is. Furthermore, the way that message distorts the Genesis account is a far larger problem when it becomes clear that the misrepresentation extends to the master narrative of the Bible – including the character of God.

3. Mixed

While some are jumping out of their theater seats to applaud Noah and others are taking to social media to express their disdain for this film, a smaller number are greeting this movie with mixed feelings. They are neither ecstatic in support or categoric in their rejection. For example, Joe Carter sees his take as falling somewhere in between the cheers and jeers:

Noah is an art movie masquerading as a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, an incongruous hybrid that is unlikely to satisfy most movie goers. Yet despite all its flaws, Noah is a worthy addition to the deluge apocalypse genre. It’s not a great film—it’s barely a good one—and it certainly isn’t the biblical masterpiece many of us were hoping for.

And my friend Aaron Earls views the film from the perspective of the director, Aranofsky, who is a secular Jew. He concludes his review with an insightful analysis of a backwards-facing Noah, and why Christians are bound to see the film’s theological component as lacking:

Aronofsky can give us a Noah who longs for creation, but he cannot show us a Noah who looks forward to the cross. There is no covenant from the Creator to promise a future redemption. This time, the serpent’s head goes uncrushed.

The ark in this film can only remind us of what was lost and try to salvage as much as possible, it cannot point beyond itself to the place we can run into and find ultimate salvation and the eventual redemption of all of creation – humanity included.

The film raises tremendous and worthy questions about sin and grace, justice and mercy. I’m thankful any time we have a chance to discuss those in culture. We can enjoy it as a film and an opportunity for significant discussions.

But it cannot give us the right answers because this Noah is faced the wrong way. With only creation in view, Noah has its back to the cross, leaving viewers adrift in an ocean of opinions and wishes without any solid ground to provide true hope for what comes next.

Noah found salvation in the ark, but without turning our gaze to the cross, there is no room for us.

What about you? Who saw Noah this weekend? And would you recommend I go or wait until it’s out on DVD?

terrifiedWorld Vision has announced that its American branch will adjust its employee code of conduct to allow same-sex couples who are legally “married.”

Hoping to keep the evangelical organization out of debates over same-sex marriage, president Richard Stearns adjusted the employee code of conduct to sexuality within the confines of “marriage” whether between man and man or woman and woman. In other words, while declaring to not take a position on redefining marriage, his organization has redefined it.

Some observers are elated.

Evangelicals are shocked.

Many are outraged.

No matter what you think about this decision, I hope you feel a sense of grief… for the children. This is a story of deep and lasting significance, because there are children’s lives at stake in how we respond.

Children will suffer as evangelicals lose trust in and withdraw support from World Vision in the future. It will take time for evangelicals to start new organizations that maintain historic Christian concepts of sin, faith, and repentance.

In the meantime, children will suffer. Needlessly.

That’s why critics of the evangelical outcry toward World Vision will say, Get over it! Kids matter more than what men and women choose to do romantically!

Strangely enough, we agree. In fact, this is one of the main reasons we’re against redefining marriage. We believe kids matter more than gays and lesbians having romantic relationships enshrined as “marriage.”

Children are the ones who suffer when society says there’s no difference between a mom or a dad.

Children are the ones who suffer when a couple’s romantic interests outstrip a child’s healthy development, whether in no-fault easy divorce laws, or in the redefining of society’s central institution.

Children are the ones who suffer when Mom and Dad choose to live together unmarried, as if their relationship is one lengthy trial or audition, a decision that can’t provide their children with the security that comes from marriage.

Children are the ones who suffer when careers matter more than marriage, when romance matters more than reproduction, when sex is a commodity, when a marriage culture is undermined.

Children are the ones who suffer when organizations like World Vision, under the guise of neutrality, adopt policies that enshrine a false definition of marriage in the very statement that says no position will be taken.

Children are the ones who suffer when President Obama (rightly) mourns the rampant fatherlessness in the African-American community, while simultaneously campaigning for marriage laws that would make fathers totally unnecessary.

Children are the ones who suffer and die when “sexual freedom” means the right of a mother to take the life of her unborn child.

Sex is our god. Children are our sacrifice.

So, yes, we grieve for the children across the world who will be adversely affected by World Vision’s decision and the evangelical response.

But we also grieve for children here at home who are growing up in a culture in which sexual idolatry distorts the meaning of marriage and the beauty of God’s original design.

Today is a day to grieve for the children.

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