Hollywood Moses v. The Real Moses

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.  He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. – Hebrews 11:24-25

This Sunday Huntingtown United Methodist Church is beginning a church wide study on Moses: Following God into the Unfamiliar. Whenever I read stories about Moses, I can’t help but remember Ben Kingsley’s Moses, the animated Prince of Egypt, and The Ten Commandments, my favorite.

I grew up being fascinated by Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments every Easter. I still love it, even though it takes artistic license with the story, including Moses. Comparing and contrasting the Moses of the Bible with the Moses in the movie makes for some excellent table discussions Here are a few examples:

An Egyptian princess named Nefertari appears throughout the first half of the movie.  She and Moses have an interesting palace romance, but she does not appear in any Jewish literature. In Exodus, Moses gets married to Zipporah, a Midianite whom he saves by a well.

Charlton Heston was a classically-trained orator, but the Old Testament says that Moses had a speech impediment. This was one of his fears when God sent him back to Egypt. Moses had to relay all of his messages through his brother, Aaron.

In the movie Moses descends from the mountain with hair highlights from the Mount Sinai salon. There is no reference to Moses’ hair color, but we do read that his face glowed after being in the presence of God. It was scary enough that people kept their distance from him. 

Moses was a son of a Jewish slave growing up alongside Egyptian royalty. Maybe, like DeMille, I’m stretching my imagination to fill in some gaps, but I don’t think so. I imagine the younger Moses as a looked down upon outsider who lacked confidence and self esteem. He likely was educated and had military training and experience. Despite its artistic license, the The Ten Commandments does remind us that Moses’ upbringing in an Egyptian palace, good and bad experiences, prepared him for the calling he receives from God.



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Waking Up: Reflections on The Matrix

“Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14].

Even if you have not seen The Matrix, hopefully you will still understand the point of this post: We are adjusting to a world of change.

 I have difficulty enjoying new movies these days, so often I dust off precious gems from the past. Occasionally I notice new details and gain new insights when watching old movies. One such movie is the 1999 science fiction film The Matrix.

Keanu Reeves stars as Neo, a computer hacker who senses that something isn’t right in the world and seeks the Matrix. He meets Morpheus, who shows it to him. The Matrix, as it turns out, is a program that has been feeding images directly into Neo’s consciousness, creating a computer-generated world designed by machines.

“Welcome to the real world,” Morpheus says when he rescues Neo from his imprisonment in the Matrix.  His eyes hurt and muscles are atrophied, because he has never used them. He has spent his entire existence in a pod, hooked up in a system of cords and hoses, being harvested for energy. His world of streets, workplaces and relationships was never real. He was not a computer programmer who attended discos, but a slave to oppressive machines in a post apocalyptic world. When Neo learns this, the truth is more than he can bear and he vomits on the floor.

It’s not easy adjusting to a new reality, which is what many of us are doing during this pandemic.

Like Neo in The Matrix, churches are experiencing a disorientation and reorientation. The world we once lived in is different from the world we live in now. Close church families are scattered. Reliable ministries are struggling to find servants. New conflicts arise, while old ones re-emerge. Like Neo, we have a host of unanswered questions and a sense of being lost. As Morpheus puts it, we “feel a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole.”

Christians notice that the film sees Neo as a Christ figure. A man refers to Neo as his own “savior, his personal Jesus Christ.” After meeting Morpheus, Neo is told that he’s “the One” they have been waiting for to liberate humans. Near the end of the movie Neo comes back to life after being killed by agents, the guardians of the Matrix. He discovers his powers and realizes his mission to liberate others and defeat the Matrix. In a rapidly changing world, we have a Savior.

The opening scene in the film sums up what the movie is all is about, and is perhaps the most important message to churches. Neo is asleep in front of his computer, and on the screen it says: “Wake up, Neo.” Neo’s new reality required a rigorous process of adjustment. He shred his old certainties and asked tough questions about his new reality. He used abilities he had never used. He discovered gifts he didn’t know he had. Churches who wake up to their new reality must follow a similar process. 

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Sin, Forgiveness and Transformation in a Conflicted Church

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Matthew 5:9

We are all unique, We have different perspectives, desires, and priorities. These can be beneficial to us, our congregation and our ministry teams. They can stimulate productive dialogue and encourage creativity. We can appreciate the diversity of God’s people. We can fellowship and serve with people who see things differently from us (Romans 14:1-13). Or they can produce unhealthy conflict.

Pentecost painting (Jyoti Sahi, India)

Unhealthy conflicts in the church show us our need for God’s grace. The worst of human nature can emerge in our conflicts. Our broken humanity can contribute to, or be the source of conflict. We react, and devote energy into defending our position. As James 4:1-2 teaches, not all conflicts are beneficial. Sinful attitudes, motives, and behaviors lead to and grow out of conflict.

Unhealthy conflicts result in broken relationships and unconfessed sins. Dietrich Bonheoffer said that our life together as Christians involves our confession of sins to one another. Scripture urges us to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16). Jesus urged taught his disciples to declare the good news of God’s forgiveness to one another (John 20:22-23). These can be powerful means of grace to those in need of healing consolation, and reconciliation.

God transforms us in our conflicts. Approach someone whose words and actions have offended us. Patiently listen and try to understand one another. Pray for and with one another. Do these with a genuine desire for healing and reconciliation. When we do these things we can be the mouthpiece of Christ, who alone can bind and loose our sins (Matthew 18:15-20). We will discover our own need for repentance and confession. Someone’s rough edges can serve as an unlikely means of our spiritual growth.

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80 Year Old Methodist Rules That Can Save Churches 

  1. “…doing no harm, avoiding evil of every kind…”
  2. “…doing good of every possible sort, and as far as possible to all.” 

The early Methodists were well known for small groups of people who helped one another grow in Christ, by offering one another encouragement and support. They were little churches, and their life together was guided by John Wesley’s General Rules. 

With the emphasis on the individual and the deterioration of community in the world, it is easy to see these simple rules as only applying to individuals. However, our personal relationship with Christ should always support the church family’s life together. The General Rules can help believers orient both their individual and corporate lives toward Christ.

Methodist Class Meeting

Our need for community is constantly threatened by self-centeredness.  Churches have never been without controllers, dissenters, and faction builders.  The Church must take care that it is not killing community through divisiveness, pride, criticism, and selfishness.  Those who create such confusion in the body of  Christ should consider Wesley’s first General Rule to “do no harm.”

Just as the threat to community is self-centeredness, the vital builder of community is other-centeredness.  The second General Rule tells us to do every possible good to all persons.  Practical concern for the homeless, the orphan, the widow, and the social outcast exemplifies this principle.  This kind of corporate spirituality goes against our fallen instincts for isolation, self-gratification and control.  But the greatest experiences of joy take place when we are serving and sharing our lives with others.  Our personal relationship with Christ is expressed in the ways we love and serve the people around us.  

A congregation’s effectiveness depends on how clearly its members understand their purpose, and hold themselves accountable to that purpose.  By evaluating their work in light of the General Rules, they can measure their contribution to building the body of Christ and serving Christ in the world.  This corporate accountability would serve to keep the church’s work and the personal relationships of its members focused on its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ. If we do not seek to walk as Jesus walked, we weaken and ultimately break our covenant relationship with God and with each other. 

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Embarrasing Texts, Careless Speech

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. – Ephesians 4:29

This Sunday I am continuing a sermon series on peacemaking. Intentional or not, many conflicts begin with words. We have to be attentive to our words, including our texts. I’ve had some awkward moments with texting.

Claude-Guy Halle, “The Deliverance of St. Paul and St. Barnabas”

One reason we now call cell phones smart phones must be how they help us text. The auto complete feature spares us the cumbersome task of typing entire words and sentences. Instead, it finishes them for us. Auto text suggests one or two word replies to an incoming text. Auto correct is handy when we don’t use proper spelling or grammar. 

These are helpful features, but they can create problems. I’ve learned the hard way that if I don’t keep a watchful eye on my phone, I risk sending humorous, ridiculous or embarrassing messages:

A few years ago my mother in law’s dog unexpectedly died while she was visiting. I texted a trustee asking if it was okay to bury my mother in law in the back yard. Fortunately the intended message was clear.

A parishioner invited me to lunch one day. I responded to his text by explaining that I couldn’t because I was imbalanced. I meant to say I was unavailable. A friend texted that he was at his mother’s funeral. Because of auto text, I inappropriately replied “That’s great!”

These are examples of what can happen when we don’t pay careful attention to what we are communicating. Perhaps they also teach a broader lesson: We must be very attentive to the words we say (or text) and how they are received. Regardless of our intentions, words can have a lingering affect: We can build someone up with our words just as easily as we can tear them down. Proverbs 18:21 reminds us not to underestimate the power of our words:

The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

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Vincent van Gogh, Joseph and Living in Contrast

Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Isaiah 40:26

People have experienced Van Gogh’s Starry Night in different ways, so it has been interpreted in different ways. One interpretation suggests that the painting is related to Joseph’s (in the Old Testament) description of his dream that he shares with his jealous brothers: 

“Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” Genesis 37:9

There are eleven stars in the painting, so maybe Van Gogh was thinking of Joseph’s 11 brothers as he painted. To his brothers, Joseph was a dreamer and an outcast and spent several years in prison. Van Gogh considered himself an outcast and dreamer in the world of art, and painted Starry Night from an asylum. Maybe he could relate to Joseph. 

Whether or not Starry Night is a direct reference to Joseph’s story, we can see contrast in both. The stars contrast with a gloomy village, the light contrasts with darkness, and hope contrasts with despair. Joseph provides an example of living in bright contrast during dark and difficult experiences. 

The church is a contrast society.  As individuals we can live in contrast to people who lack hope, understanding and joy. We can be that light on a stand (Matthew 5:13). As a church, we can live in contrast to the division, anger and isolation that are prevalent in the world. We can be that “town built on a hill that cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14). 

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Do Pets Go to Heaven?

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them (Isaiah 11:6).

Arthur Poulin’s “New Jerusalem (daytime)”

This may not be the most essential question, but it is a tough one. Pets are a part of the family, so losing one can be painful. If someone hopes to see their beloved pet again in heaven, I don’t want to squash their hope. Here are some thoughts from Scripture:

When God created the world, the creation of humans was unique from that of the animals. We are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27). Humanity has a unique destiny. Jesus entered history as a human being, God’s message of salvation and eternal life is given to humans. At death, we reach complete holiness (2 Corinthians 7:1) and await the restoration of our bodies at the day of the Lord. When that day comes, we will reflect the image of our God with perfection. Animals are not described in the Bible as having unique thinking abilities that allow them have a personal relationship with God. Consider Psalm 32:9: “Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.” Still, I believe there will be animals will be in heaven:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9.

It would be strange to use animals to illustrate future peace, even though animals will not be around in the end. It looks to me like animals are going to be around.

What about pets in heaven? We can only speculate. Heaven is a place where God intends for humanity to be fully happy: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). If a pet is essential for humanity’s happiness, I suspect pets will be there. That’s what I might say to a child who is devastated over their dog being hit by a car. Here’s a question worth asking, that isn’t just about pets in heaven: Does anything have such an important place in our hearts that we can’t be eternally happy without it?

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Where did the first sin come from?

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1).

The Bible doesn’t begin with the beginning of evil, but its existence. Humanity is created innocent, creation is good and the deceitful serpent is already there.

How did the serpent become deceitful and humans become susceptible to temptation? I don’t know. I believe that angels and humans were created with free will, but that doesn’t explain why good creatures with good hearts experience the imperfect impulse to rebel. Free will is an accurate description of the first created beings, but not a full explanation of why they sinned. Free will is a name for a mystery. 

Here is what I can say: God is sovereign. Nothing happens apart from God’s plan. God causes some things directly and permits others indirectly. The serpent’s desire to deceive the first humans into rebelling against God, and humanity’s succumbing to temptation were all a part of God’s plan of salvation.  Sovereignty is an accurate description of God, but not a full explanation of why the rebellion was a part of God’s plan. It’s the name of a mystery. 

I end where I began: how the very first sin in the universe came about is a mystery to me. I do know that God demonstrates both sovereignty and holiness again and again in the Bible. God is sovereign over all things, including sin, and God is never a sinner.

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God-like Anger

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions (Galatians 5:19-20)…

Anger is everywhere: We watch it on television, read it in the news, hear it in political commentary, experience it in our minds and our emotions and it comes out in our speech. When the apostle Paul lists sins, he especially identifies out-of-control desires that include anger.

Anger is destructive: It separates friends, breaks marriage covenants and crushes our children. It can take different forms: murderous rages, grumbling and complaining (Numbers 14:2, 11), and in a cold shoulder or silence. At some point, it can poison us all.

Moses Throwing Down the Tablets by Simon Gaon

Anger is blinding: We can’t always see our own anger and its impact on others. Our anger feels like, “I am right” or “I am above you.” Some words of wisdom: “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18). Angry people can be the last to know that they are sinfully angry.

God does get angry (more than three hundred times in the Old Testament), but his anger is not his final word:

“His anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love” (Micah 7:18)

“For my name’s sake I defer my anger; for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off” (Isaiah 48:9).

One way to fight anger is to first ask how our anger reflects God.

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Debates, Factions and the Gospel

John 7:43 (NIV): Thus the people were divided because of Jesus.

I am very interested in politics, and I enjoy political discussions. Sometimes good faith disagreements exist, but I do step on the occasional land mine. Political allegiances are rooted in deeply held convictions and feelings, so sturdy debate can offend sensibilities or even trigger wounds. The power of words are easily misused, especially when it comes to political disagreements.

In John 7:40-42 there was a fierce debate over Jesus.  Some saw him as the Prophet and others saw Jesus as the Messiah. Others rejected both viewpoints, because Jesus came from Galilee and not Bethlehem. These were not good faith differences in theology. Factions had formed, each group deeply suspicious of the other. 

The Pharisees Question Jesus – James Tissot

Political allegiances create division today. Political parties have different ways of seeing the world: one group believes they produce good, while the other side produces evil. When these viewpoints are irreconcilable, the result is usually demagoguery and hostility. In such a climate, debate is unavoidable and fruitless.

John 7:33 (NIV): “I am with you for only a short time, and then I am going to the one who sent me.

In John 7 Jesus stands apart from a divisive debate, but not because the subject wasn’t important (it was about Him!).  Jesus was not one to shy away from debate. In his earthly ministry he publicly confronted error with truth, and hypocrisy with righteousness. In this instance Jesus resists identifying with a particular group, but instead chooses to talk about his relationship to his Father in terms of his mission.  Perhaps he did not want a label or a fruitless debate to distract from the Gospel.

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