Author Archives: Mark Hughes

GOD’S NOT DEAD BUT THE CLICHÉS SHOULD BE

The latest Christian film to hit theaters has done so with a flourish of great success. God’s Not Dead sat in the top 5 for a month and grossed over $40 million before it almost literally ran out of steam and dropped off the flat edge of the earth. During the first 3 weeks they had lineups at the theaters and had to turn people away. By the time I got to the theater, five weeks after the release, it was playing to thinly filled movie houses. Apparently the ‘target audience’(Christians) had all seen the picture. It was great to see that the Christian community came out en masse to support it. This alone should ensure that more Christian films will be made and will survive in a universe filled with mostly ‘live’cartoon superhero action movies.

By half way through Kathy could see me fidgeting, and as we walked out of the theater after the credits she turned to me and said, “Now don’t say anything negative to anybody about this movie and ruin it for them.” She knew right away what was going through my mind. Now don’t get me wrong, there are lots of things to applaud here. The production values were excellent, much better than others I’ve seen from the bible belt Christian producers. (Mark Burnett’s The Bible and Son of God are in a different category altogether.) And personally, I got a huge kick out of Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson’s ridiculous and random cameo. When a reporter accuses him of luring ducks to ‘maim and eat them’, he claims that ‘that’ would be cruel to eat them while they were still alive and so he makes sure he kills them first. Very funny… although I may have actually been the only one in the theater laughing. Kevin Sorbo did a great job playing the atheist Professor Radisson (he was Hercules in Xena the Princess Warrior) until the last 15 minutes when the writers had him fall completely out of character. Shane Harper did a stand up job as the uncompromising Christian freshman Josh Wheaton that was unwilling to deny his faith.

For the record, I really wanted to like the film and I do not want to come across as one of those overly critical people that I am always complaining about. But here is where I need to disagree with some of the rave reviews I have been hearing from many of my friends and peers. For me, the script writing threatened to kill an otherwise great idea for a story line. Before you write me off as just a grump, let me tell you what I mean because I think it is important for the cause of the gospel. The portrayal of every single non-Christian as a horrible human being was embarrassingly overdone. They were cruel, selfish, angry, bitter or all of the above. Actor Dean Cain’s character was depicted as downright sub-human and didn’t look like anyone I have ever met. The lone Muslim man in the script was portrayed as violent and abusive. The Christians on the other hand were for the most part principled and virtuous. The contrast was so stark as to be sure to offend any and every non-Christian sitting in the audience. It is impossible for me to even describe how exclusively they reinforced the unhelpful Christian stereotypes that make our job of presenting the gospel to skeptics even more difficult. The very thing the writers were trying to accomplish, answering the objections to the Christian faith, they successfully undermined by including the Christian cliches that make our message entirely unpalatable to those who would hold a non-christian worldview. They ran the entire length of front pew from the right wing politics, to Christian dating, to the notion of being the persecuted underclass, to the gross overuse of campy Christian slogans. “I am beginning to think we are unequally yoked.” and “God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good”… over and over again. Seriously as the producers employed one bible belt cliche after another I began to hope there was actually no non-christians in the theater watching it.

Perhaps the biggest misstep of all was the main premise of a philosophy professor requiring every student to sign a statement that ‘God is dead’. It was incredulous at best and the fact that 79 of 80 signed it was ridiculous. And then after Josh’s presentation, all remaining 79 changed their minds and were willing to publicly rebuff and embarrass their professor by declaring that ‘God’s not dead’. I felt this hyperbole insulted the intelligence of every viewer and took away from Josh’s actual presentation which was easily the best part of the movie. He did an inspiring job of arguing some well-reasoned apologetics. But again the producers dropped the ball by presenting Sorbo’s character as defeated and speechless, when anyone in his position would have come back with a volley of reasonable rebuttals. If you haven’t seen the movie I won’t ruin the ending for you but for me it was just another cliché.

To say this movie was preaching to the choir would be an understatement. Among Christians I asked what they thought of the movie, their responses ranged from ‘really good’ to ‘the best movie ever’. I think the most revealing exercise is to go on the IMDb website. The disparity between Christian viewers and non-christians was more than slightly disconcerting. Believers tended to rate the movie a 9 or 10 whereas non-christian viewers almost exclusively gave it a 1 out of 10 with comments like, “worst movie ever”. I guess the big question is; what are Christian movies trying to accomplish? If they are just trying to reinforce (arguably unhelpful) existing stereotypes to the Christian population then they are succeeding. If they are trying to reach the non-christian segment of the population and try to get them to rethink the possibility of finding faith then they are failing miserably. I feel we need to do better. God’s not dead but the clichés should be.

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ISN’T JESUS ENOUGH?

I am sure by now most of you have heard about our Star Wars Easter. Even though we have been doing these thematic services on Easter for a decade or more people still seem to see them as something of a novelty. The Winnipeg Free Press did a half page story on the service as they did our Batman Easter a couple of years ago. When we did Star Trek a few years ago we were the lead story on the Global National TV news.

What some of you may not know is that we are the subject to some very vicious criticism. There are entire websites that become obsessed with thrashing me as a non-biblical and compromised seeker sensitive pastor. Others produce videos accusing me of blasphemy and heresy. I am not going to post any of these links because I don’t think these mean-spirited, modern day pharisees need any more traffic than they already have. The easiest thing in the world is to hide behind a computer screen, do nothing productive at all for the kingdom of God yourself, and to throw rocks at others who actually are. To be honest I don’t even read them myself as nobody needs to subject themselves to that kind of abuse. You risk either being hurt or developing a hard heart instead of a thick skin which is just as bad. However, it is never good to entirely ignore your critics as your enemies actually keep you sharp. I have staff that are more than willing to share the highlights with me. Remember Jesus said “Woe to you when all men speak well of you.” If you never hear any criticism that is again a good indication that you maybe you have become too uninspired in your approach.

There is one major criticism that I think is worth discussion.  Again and again I hear this; “Isn’t Jesus enough? Does the gospel really need Elvis or Batman or Luke Skywalker? Is the gospel story too boring for you?  Why don’t you just preach the gospel of Jesus instead of dragging the world into the church?”  And so it goes.  These questions seem very noble and righteous on the surface but they are  missing the context of what we are trying to do entirely.  First off, of course I think Jesus is enough.  As an evangelist at heart everything I do is designed to bring people to the place where they would see that Jesus is not only enough, He is everything.  The harder question is this; how am I going to get them in the door to hear that?  If I spent a million dollars advertising ‘This Easter come and hear how Jesus is enough… the Old Rugged Cross will be performed by the choir’… the only people that would come are those that already believe that Jesus is enough.  Unfortunately our world has tuned out the gospel.  They think they already know it, which of course they don’t!

What non-christian people do know is Pop culture. Star Wars in particular is wildly popular and Disney has just paid $4B for franchise. This Easter we had somewhere over 6000 attend one of our 5 services.  That is over double what we would have had without the theme.  That is 3000 new people that heard that ‘Jesus is enough’ because they were intrigued enough to come and check us out. Dozens of them came to faith in Christ and filled out decision cards.  They have been invited to a 4 week course that teaches them how ‘Jesus is enough’. These people were lost for all eternity last week and now they have discovered the gift of eternal life… but instead of rejoicing the modern-day pharisees become like those of old who objected, “It is not lawful to heal on the Sabbath”.

Perhaps the most ironic thing of all is that even Jesus resorted to the same approach. He did not walk through the streets shouting, “Don’t you people know that I am enough?” Instead he told parables about fishing and farming and ranching and sheep and goats and seeds and vineyards etc. What was that all about? Why did He have to drag the world into his preaching? Because He lived in an agricultural society He was using the cultural metaphors that his hearers understood to communicate the complexities of the Kingdom of God. In fact almost all of Jesus’ preaching was the use of stories and illustrations of the world in which He came to reach.

I believe it is the single most effective way to preach the gospel. We do exactly the same thing in world missions.  We study the culture to discover the redemptive analogies that most easily relate the gospel and then use them to point the people to Christ. In Muslim countries the most effective evangelists actually use the Koran to introduce Arabs to Jesus. Some well-meaning Christians find that offensive. I say, unless they can do a better job, they need to keep their mouths shut and go find something better to do.

On Easter morning I admit that I did start my message with an elaborate reference to Star Wars and I was dressed up as a Jedi Knight.  I do understand that could look goofy.  (John the Baptist may have looked goofy in camel skin and I don’t even want to know what people thought of Isaiah as he walked around barefoot and naked for three years – Isa 20) But for the remainder, my message included 15 scriptural references, dealt with the history and origin or Satan, his fall from heaven; the creation and purpose of man, the fall of man, the consequences of the fall and finally the plan of salvation to restore man to his rightful place with God through the work of the cross and the resurrection. That would seem like a lot of biblical ground to cover in just 30 minutes and hardly qualifies as a watered down gospel. At the end of the day scores of people young and old made a commitment to follow Christ. If criticism is the price I have to pay to see people rescued from a fate worse than death, then bring it on!

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GOD AND MAMMON

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”  (Matt 6:24)

In our Western affluent culture you don’t hear too many pastors preaching on this verse. It is among what I would call an ‘untouchable sin’… meaning that pastors won’t touch it because it is so widespread they fear offending the guilty.  There are several of these untouchable sins in our culture, like gluttony for example.  We may hear sermons railing against the evils of ‘drunkenness’ but almost never on its biblical companion ‘gluttony’.  Why not?  Too close to home!  Overeating is as much a part of our culture as breathing.  Not to mention the fact that many of my contemporaries would have no personal credibility on the issue … if you know what I mean.

Mammon is an Aramaic word, that I believe Jesus carefully choose for this verse, because of its specific meaning.  It does not mean ‘money’ per se but would be better translated ‘riches’ or ‘wealth’.  However the translators choose not to translate it at all since it really means more than that.  It is a personification of wealth to the level of something you could actually worship.  The best example we have in English language is when someone would accuse another of “worshipping the almighty dollar”.  They don’t worship it in the traditional sense, but because they have allowed wealth to get such a powerful hold over them, money has become the master and they have become the slave.  We all know people like this.  The desire for greater wealth and possessions seems to drive every decision and nothing is too big a price to pay to achieve more.  They sacrifice their marriages and families, friends and employees, and often eventually their morals and ideals.  Bernie Madoff comes to mind.  He defrauded every person he ever met out of some $65 billion in the world’s largest Ponzi scheme.  In 2009 he was sentenced to 150 years in prison for his efforts.  The good news is that he is eligible for early release in 2139 and can spend some of the money he hid abroad… assuming he lives to 201.

Madoff is an extreme secular example of course, but there was a story coming out of South Korea last month that should alarm us all.  David Yonggi Cho the pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel, the world’s largest church, was sentenced to 3 years in jail for his part in embezzling $12 million from his congregation.  Cho, 79 founded the church 56 years ago in Seoul, South Korea and today boasts some 800,000+ members.  Over the last couple of years 28 of his elders have been accusing the iconic pastor of misappropriating close to $500 million from the church.  The allegations include privatizing church assets, borrowing money for other projects and not returning it, and electing to pay himself a $18 million severance package when he officially stepped down as senior pastor.  Last year at this time the 28 elders were all expelled from the church for not withdrawing the allegations.  Last month the Korean court agreed with Cho’s accusers on at least one count; that of selling the church shares of a stock for 4 times their actual value.  Cho claimed his miscreant son Hee-jun Cho, the church’s former CEO, had him sign to approve the purchase but he neglected to read the 1000 page document.  The court did not accept the ignorance plea but in the end gave the senior Cho a lenient 5 year suspended sentence and required that he repay $4.6 million.  Meanwhile Junior got sent up the creek for 3 years.  Cho’s defense was weak in that Hee-jun has a bad track record of 4 failed marriages, affairs with national celebrities and has already served prison time for similar crimes.  These facts alone proved that, at the very least, David Cho used extremely poor judgment in trusting his son.  It still doesn’t explain the whereabouts of the other millions of dollars the elders claim is missing. The story is far more complicated than I care to take time to explain but you can get most of the sordid details from this news report.  http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/611326.html

When the news broke I read in sheer disbelief at astounding amounts of money involved in this scandal. I had an opportunity to meet Cho briefly once at a conference and heard him preach in person. I have read many of his books and it is impossible not to admire what the man has accomplished in the church world. The whole thing is very disappointing. This wasn’t a mistaken entry in his automobile mileage expense… it was millions and millions of dollars that belongs to God ultimately and not the church, and certainly not him and his family. Power corrupts, but apparently so does mammon.

The untouchable sin of mammon in the church today is most insidious because instead of preaching against it, we often hear preaching in favour of it.  In the Western church we have taken the American dream and woven it seamlessly into the gospel.  We take the scriptures that deal with prosperity and elevate them to a disproportional level.

“The blessing of the Lord makes one rich and He adds no sorrow to it. (Prov 10:22)

“Beloved I pray that you would prosper and be in good health just as your soul prospers” (3 John 1:2 ) 

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9) 

All true and valuable promises of God, if kept in the proper context of their counterbalances like:

“A faithful man will abound with blessings, But he who hastens to be rich will not go unpunished.”  (Prov 28:20)  

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25)

“But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.”  (1 Tim 6:9)

Scripture presents money as both a blessing and a curse.  It is a blessing when restricted to a means to an end… to buy food and shelter, pay the bills, advance the Kingdom of God and care for the poor.  It is a curse when it becomes an end to itself.  When it turns into the ‘love of money’ the desire for the things of this world begins to consume us so that we no longer have money, money has us.  We in North America have become accustomed to listening to some highly gifted and articulate preachers with oratory skills that surpass any speakers in any field, secular or otherwise.  They have built mega-churches, written best-selling books and in the process have amassed enormous sums of money.  Some of them have adopted lavish lifestyles, living in gated mansions, driving Rolls Royces and flying Lear jets.  What message does that send the faithful?  How about, that you can serve both God and Mammon?

This is supposed to be the home of one of your favourite female preachers.  Which one belongs to her?  Apparently, all of them.  I wouldn’t know for certain as I have not been invited for tea.

This is reported to be the home of the man sometimes known as the Prophet of Prosperity.

A 34 year old preacher was shocked when he was criticized for building this 16,000 square foot home.  His initial defense was, “It’s not that great a house.”

I realize that it is easy to criticize when you are in a place where you do not have to deal with the burden of great wealth.  Fortunately there are still good examples out there of preachers that actually figured out that you cannot serve both God and Mammon.  When Rick Warren pastor of Saddleback Church in California wrote The Purpose Driven Life he was surprised that it became the second best-selling non-fiction book in history next to the bible itself.  Instantly he was a multimillionaire and needed to figure out what to do with the money.  He started a charitable foundation with a focus of helping some of the biggest social problems on earth including poverty and AIDS.  He gives over 90% of his income away, lives in the same house as before and drives a 12 year old truck.  He also paid back his salary for the first 25 years and works as a volunteer pastor now since he really doesn’t need the additional income.  The contrast to many other uber-successful preachers was significant enough that Forbes (the money magazine of the rich and famous) ran an article on it.  http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertlaura/2013/03/21/pastor-rick-warren-is-practicing-what-he-preaches-and-getting-ready-for-retirement/

The interesting thing about mammon is that you do not need a lot of it for it to get a hold of us.  The love of money is never restricted to the rich.  I have seen 10 year olds that have already fallen prey and have developed a greedy spirit.  They then go through life as takers and not givers.  The antidote to greed is generosity.  If we cannot give it away when we have a little… we will never be able to give it away when we have a lot.  You simply cannot serve both God and Mammon.

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GEE WHIZ

A few weeks ago a friend told me a story about having a craving for a Cheez Whiz sandwich.  He went to the fridge found the jar, made and ate the sandwich. Later he asked his wife how long she thought the jar had been sitting in the fridge.  He checked the label and it said; Best before May 2009.  It was 4 1/2 years old, – still looked perfect and tasted delicious.  How does a jar of cheese stay fresh for 4 1/2 years?  I buy a block of cheddar and in a week it is so moldy I have to throw it out.  After only a few seconds online I discovered a story in a National Post article about Dean Southworth.  He worked for Kraft and had developed Cheez Whiz for them in the 1950′s.  Now retired and living in Florida he bought himself a jar and made a sandwich. Unlike my friend he however almost gagged and said the stuff tasted like axle grease.  I guess my friend has a poorly developed palate when it comes to fine cheeses.  He contacted Kraft and demanded to know what they had done to his cheese.  Long story short, they had taken a key ingredient out of Cheez Whiz… it no longer contains…wait for it… it no longer contains cheese.  Another friend that works for Safeway told me they don’t even refrigerate the stuff at the store and it will sometimes sit in the warehouse for 6 months before it even goes on the shelf.  Question: If you take the cheese out of Cheez Whiz, what do you have left?  … just whiz!

The bible mentions food, diet, farming and farming practices hundreds of times in scripture. Why?  Because God created the human body and he knows exactly how best to feed it. Unfortunately most Christians have discarded the dietary teachings of the Old Testament claiming that they were abolished in the New Testament.  I would not disagree that we not bound by Jewish dietary law, but for the life of me I do not see how Jesus dying on the cross makes pork or shellfish somehow healthy.  He also abolished the 10 Commandments, but last time I checked He still frowns on murder and adultery.

I am one of the few preachers today that preachers on diet, exercise, farming practices, the food supply etc.  I actually see them as moral issues. When was the last time you heard some preach about the sin of gluttony?  We go on and on about drugs, drinking, smoking, sexuality etc. but no one will touch gluttony with a 10 foot pole… I can think of a great joke here, but it would come across as just plain mean. Frankly, I am less concerned about the sin than I am about the consequences.  Heart disease, diabetes, bad backs and joints are just a few of the eventualities of obesity.  We often pray for people for healing for things that I know could be resolved by diet and exercise.  Gluttony was considered one of the 7 deadly sins in the middle ages and is no less deadly today.

But this is only half the picture.  I have become increasingly alarmed by what is happening to our food supply.  Even if you try to eat healthy, most of the time you don’t even know what you are eating.  Many things on the shelves no longer resemble food.  Who would have thought  that Cheez Whiz wasn’t actually made out of cheese?   The grocery store shelves are literally stacked from one end to the other with processed type foods.  Any nutritional value is long gone and they are loaded instead with salts, sugars and scary sounding preservatives like acesulfame-K, butylated hydroxyanisole, butylated hydrozyttoluene, potassium bromate, sodium sulfite, sodium dioxide and the list goes on and on. None of these ingredients are foods and most are either poisonous or carcinogenic. They are in almost every packaged food on the shelf. Then there are the hydrogenated vegetable oils which again are in almost everything which, like Cheez Whiz, are basically vegetable based plastics. This is one of the reasons why they do not spoil in the cupboard.  I also have a 4 1/2 year old jar of axle grease in the garage that has not gone bad either, but I would never spread it on a piece of bread (or bread-like slice).

In a recent sermon on our Christian responsibility to care of our environment WATCH HERE I took a swipe at the biotech industry and their GMO (genetically modified organisms) crops.  Specifically I referred to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola. It is a transgenically engineered crop that has had a gene from a bacteria inserted into it so as to make it resistant to the non-selective herbicide Round Up (also made by Monsanto). My point was that man has crossed over a line into the realm of playing God.  Bio-tech companies are creating new forms of life that do not exist in nature.

Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth” (Gen 1:11 ). God’s system of re-creation to continually replenish the earth revolves around the ingenious law of sowing and reaping. God created all the species necessary for man to live on the earth and every one of them reproduces after its kind… until recently when man decided he could improve on God’s design. Man just does not have a very good track record when it comes to messing with nature. We have been destroying the rain forest, the ozone layer, possibly the polar ice caps (depending on what you think about global warming), polluting the rivers and streams. It is hard to see how when it comes to nature we are making real improvement.  God said that on the Day of Judgment He “should destroy those who destroy the earth.”  (Rev 11:18) I do not think we should be taking this warning lightly. We really have no idea how GMOs will alter the food supply. The majority of canola (where we get our cooking oil and margarine) in Canada is GM. We also do not know what eating transgentics will do to our health or if it will affect our own DNA.

After the sermon aired I got a slew of mail from farmers and agricultural people telling me that I had no business using the pulpit to talk about such matters. They told me to stick to the gospel and theology and  leave agriculture to the professionals and farmers who feed the world. They were mostly polite, but clearly dismissive that I was ignorant and uninformed on the subject. Most people do not realize that I am an Agriculture grad from the University of Manitoba. I was also a personal acquaintance of the late Baldur Stefansson who developed the low erucic acid rapeseed that became canola. I spent many years in the industry as both a producer and grain buyer. Even though I am no longer involved in the agricultural industry I have followed the progression of the Ag and Bio-tech industries and have both written and spoken about it for years. I left the Ag industry years ago because I felt producers were going to become slaves to growing powerful Agri-biz machine. I feel my fears are being realized today. I do not own their stocks out of principle, and as a health conscious (to a bit of an extreme) individual I just want to know what is in my food before I eat it. As mentioned earlier I believe what many of us eat is actually killing us. In our home we TRY to eat organic, fresh and natural. It is very difficult in that things are omitted on the labels. The fact that these bio-genetic giants refuse to be forthcoming is my bone of contention. Monsanto says right on their website that they oppose the labeling of GMO foods. They are also on record of spending multiple millions of dollars to oppose it. If they are proud of their accomplishments then why do they go to so much trouble to hide them?

If the science of all this is not of interest to you skip this paragraph.

GMO proponents argue that once canola is processed into the oil it no longer retains the GM traits of the modified canola. This is not true and and I got accused of misleading my listeners when I said that our margarine was GM. If anyone is guilty of misleading the public, it is them not me. I have read several peer reviewed studies on the subject. The myth of DNA-free GM oil continues to persist even though the ability to detect the DNA in the oil has been around since 2010. I am aware that there many researchers that would not support that claim, but there are others that have proven exactly the opposite. One example of several is “Determination of DNA Traces in Rapeseed Oil” by Hellebrand, Nagy and Mörsel.  They concluded that “DNA fragments were successfully identified in samples of cold press oil, as well as in the samples of the refined oil.” Even if the foreign DNA was not detectable within the canola oil it does not change the fact that it was still produced by a trans-genetically modified organism. In my sermon I was careful not to use scare tactics such as citing the (largely dismissed) Seralini study where rats feed GM corn died cancerous deaths. Nevertheless, the fact that such possibilities could exist should at least give us pause. That GM foods are not required to be labeled also tells me that the biotech lobby has way too much influence. I would love to think that the motivation behind this is the altruistic desire to feed the world, but in reality I know it is the billions of dollars the biotech industry makes by manipulating nature. This kind of money can buy any research it wants… and any government for that matter.  One of the other mis-truths of the biotech industry has been that inserting new genetic material into a plant is really no different than this process of plant selection which plant breeders have been doing almost since the beginning of agriculture. Not so. Transgenics cannot happen in nature.  Some are now saying mutated plant genes are equivalent to transgenics, but again, the gene is still from that plant, not from another species! I am concerned in my heart that genetic engineering (including cloning) will end up being a catastrophic mistake.

To me what is going on with the food supply is a spiritual and moral issue that I believe is well within my scope to talk about.  I guess my biggest concern about my sermon that day was for the farmers who have little choice but to move forward with the latest technological advancements. I could see how my words could have been offensive to them. They are just doing their job and trying to feed the world and GM crops are both increasing the food supply and their ability to make money. But I feel even worse that they are being held hostage to a growing multi-national bio-tech industry that MAY not have honorable intentions.  Gee whiz… we live in such strange days.

 

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