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A LOOK BACK:Monster Squad

Read Luke 9:49-55

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17, NLT)

monstersquad3

One of my all time favorite novels, as I have expressed in the past, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As a fan of the novel, one who has read it several times over the years, I am also a fan of Dracula films. Not one of the films ever does the novel justice, in my humble opinion, but I love them all the same. One of my favorites, is Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, which tried to remain true to the novel, but also explored the sensual side of the story as well. In fact, my main beef with the film is that it went overkill on making it erotic, taking away the beauty of the subtle eroticism that is inherent in the novel. As a result, it felt more like a romance than it did a horror.

In this film Dracula becomes a sort of tragic antihero. The film opens with the historical Dracula who is defending Romania, and Christendom, against the Turkish Muslims who are invading his land. One of the Turks attached a note to an arrow and shot it through a window in Dracula’s Castle; the letter was subsequently read by Dracula’s wife. The note stated that Prince Vlad Dracula had been killed in battle. Bereaved and beside herself, the princess committed suicide by jumping out of the castle window and fell to her death into the river below. When Dracula returned home, he found his dead wife laid out on the chapel floor. Before he could begin to even process what had happened, the priests told him that his wife’s soul had been damned to hell for committing suicide.

This graceless and condemning pronouncement of his true love sent Dracula into a rage. He grabbed his sword and stabbed it into a stone cross, which immediately began to gush with blood. Dracula then grabbed the Eucharistic chalice and, after he filled it with the blood, drank from it. It is in this moment that man died and the monster was born. Honestly, though, Dracula became a monster as a result of another monster in the room: GRACELESS THEOLOGY. It was the theology of the priests, who are supposedly Christ’s representatives, that killed Dracula the man and created Dracula the monster. Dracula’s response to the priests is best summed up by the lyrics of the song “Dracula” by Iced Earth: “I am the Dragon of blood, the relentless prince of pain. Renouncing God off His throne, my blood is forever stained. For true love I shall avenge. I defy the creed that damned her.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am certainly not justifying with Dracula’s reaction, nor am I suggesting that Dracula was right to “defy God.” What I am saying is that there is no greater monster than graceless, bad theology. Some Christians have placed themselves as judge and jury against what they feel is sinful or immoral. Yet, has Christ called Christians to be judge or jury? Or has Christ called us to be representatives of and witnesses to the love and the grace of God? I think the answer is clear. And I think it becomes clear who the real villains were in this particular telling of Dracula. Monstrous theology makes monsters of those who believe in it, and it also ends up either destroying and/or damning its victims, sometimes creating monsters out them as well.

In the spirit of Halloween, let us become the “Monster Squad.” Let us hunt down and eradicate the demons, the ghouls and the monsters that lurk in our theology. Let us be thoughtful and prayerful about what we believe and how express that. Let us be humble in our faith and recognize that ONLY GOD IS THE JUDGE and that we are not called to take the place of God. Let us remember that Christ has called us to be representatives of the Kingdom of God, to be witnesses of God’s grace, to to be bearers of God’s profoundly unconditional, limitless, and enduring love. Let our theology be the kind that points to the sacred worth in all people; and let us lay to rest any theology that sets out to destroy.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“One of the main tasks of theology is to find words that do not divide but unite, that do not create conflict but unity, that do not hurt but heal.” – Henri Nouwen

PRAYER
Lord, help me to be humble and to be faithful in representing your grace and love to all people. Amen.

A LOOK BACK: No One Can Judge

Read Romans 7:14-25

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged.” (Matthew 7:1, NLT)

Annex - Lugosi, Bela (Dracula)_05

Every year, around this time, I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is a tradition I have carried on since I was in high school. I absolutely love that tale, which is ultimately a tale about HOPE in the midst of darkness. There is one scene in the book that is absolutely striking to me. Mina Harker had recently been bitten by Count Dracula and, to make matters worse, had drank some of his blood. As we find out, this fuses Mina to him and begins to make her one of his. At one point, upon finding out that she drank Dracula’s blood (as she was in a trance when she did it), she cried out, “Unclean, unclean, God help me, I’m unclean!”

One can only imagine the absolute horror that Mina was going through. She had lived her life in a manner that was pure, always priding herself in her manners and behavior. She was a loyal person and loved her husband dearly, yet now she was tainted by this monster’s blood. She is absolutely revolted by the Count and horrified by what he as done to her; however, because she is spiritually bound to him, and as she begins to watch her humanity slowly fade away, she comes to a realization.

Looking up at her husband Jonathan, she asks that if she becomes like the count that he will put an end to her and put her soul at peace so that she may be with God. But her plea doesn’t end there. She also begs that he find the count and put an end to the monster so that the man trapped inside may find peace as well. Whoa! It is almost unfathomable for her husband Jonathan, but she makes him agree. He cannot understand how she could have even the remotest bit of sympathy for this savage beast, this wretched demon, this accursed vampire.

In Romans, Paul spent a good amount of time writing about the self-perpetuating cycle of sin. We know that certain things are good and often gravitate away from them. Conversely, we know that certain things are not good or healthy and yet we find ourselves doing those things anyway. No matter how hard we try, we often find ourselves stuck in the mire of our sins.

Paul knew, just as Mina came to realize, that there is a bit of monster in us all. We all let certain things get the better of us. We all are, to one extent or another, controlled by the negative things we allow into our lives. Perhaps some do more than others, but we all get caught up in things that God would otherwise wish to set us free from. Yet, we also tend to look at others as if they are worse than we are and, like Jonathan, we often get too caught up in our own self-righteousness to see that we are really in the same boat as the ones we judge.

Rather than being in the prison of our own judgements, we are called by God to be humble and to see the humanity in others, including ourselves. Even though we may not agree with the actions that people take, and even though we might even be forced to act against the evils that people perpetrate, we are still called to see the child of God beneath the sins that entrap them. We are all children of God, loved by God, and God wishes to free us all from our sins…in particular, the sin of judgment. All we have to do is be humble and let God guide us from the darkness of our judgments to the light of God’s unconditional love and grace.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“The least amount of judging we can do the better off we are.” – Michael J. Fox

PRAYER

Lord, humble me so that I might not judge others. Open my eyes and my heart to your mercy, your love, and your grace. Amen.

A LOOK BACK: The Masks We Wear

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the LORD, who has compassion on you.” Isaiah 54:10

The Masks We Wear

Ah, I can smell Halloween in the air! I love this time of year, the leaves are falling like heavy feathers from the trees. The crisp cool breeze rustling the leaves on the streets; the hollow rattling sound the trees make as they brace themselves for another wintry slumber. The smell of burning wood beginning to emanate from rooftops wafts to the noses of little ghouls and goblins as they dress up in their costumes and masks, getting ready for a night of being on the prowl for the world’s cheapest, and yet greatest, sugary delights. Yes, I love Halloween.

One of the things I always loved about Halloween was dressing up! I have been many things for the holiday over the years. I have been a hobo, Cousin It, Moses, Dracula, the wolf-man, Jack Skellington, a zombie and many, many other things. I always looked forward to being able to dress up and be whoever it was I had decided to be. Halloween was the one night, all year-long, where I didn’t have to be me…it was the one night, all year-long, that I could be whatever I wanted to be and not worry what others thought about it.

As a pastor, and previously a youth pastor, who has served in ministry over the past several years, I have come to recognize that the ritual of mask wearing extends far beyond the annual holiday of fun and goodies. Most people, if not all of them, put on masks every morning and don’t take them off until late at night as they are slumped over from another day in a year full of not being themselves. The kind of mask I am talking about is not one made of latex, or face paint, or any other kind of removable synthetic substance; rather, this mask is a metaphor that represents the reality that most hide who they really are and only display what they believe people want to see.

Perhaps you are wearing a mask. Perhaps every day you wake up and paint a smile on your face. Perhaps you dress your best and head off to work like you are at the top of the world, when deep in side you feel like a child who’s been lost in the darkness of the forest for hours. Perhaps you find yourself constantly seeking to please others, constantly trying to live up to the expectations that bosses, colleagues, friends and family members are placing on you. Perhaps, you are trying live up to the image that you think others have of you, and each day you wake up and put that mask on you feel further and further from who you really are.

If this is you, if you are a bearer of masks, if you wear a thousand fake faces in order to hide the real you, know that there is hope. There is a God who knows you. There is a God who loves you. There is a God who sees through your mask and accepts you for who you are regardless of what you have or have not done. There is a God who is calling you to remove your mask and enjoy the beauty of God’s handiwork. There is a God who has forgiven whatever it is you feel you might have done. There is a God who LOVES you unconditionally. There is a God who continues to give up everything just to be with you. And there is a community of God’s people that God is calling you to be a part of, a community of people that God is calling to be a part of you. Regardless of where you find yourself, know that God is calling you to be nothing more than who you are, and that you are already loved and accepted!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“It’s just better to be yourself than to try to be some version of what you think the other person wants.” – Matt Damon

PRAYER

Lord help me to see myself as you seem me. Remove my mask and help me to shine in the ways you created me to. Amen.

A Look Back: What’s In A Name

Read John 10:14-18, 25-30

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“But now, O Jacob, listen to the LORD who created you. O Israel, the One who formed you says, “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are Mine.” (Isaiah 43:1 NLT)

Have you ever given much thought to your name? Just the other day I was in a conversation with someone who was talking about how her granddaughter just started to write her own name. Instantly, I was transferred back to when my daughters were first able to write their own names. I remember what a milestone it was to see them do that. What’s more, this conversation also caused me to reflect on my own name, and the moment I was first able to write it. Indeed, I am not sure I remember when I first was able to write my own name. I definitely remember learning to write, and then learning to write in cursive, but I am not sure I remember when I first wrote my own name: Todd.

Then I began thinking, “What is Todd? Who is Todd? What is it that a Todd is supposed to do? How is a Todd supposed to look? How is a Todd supposed to act? What makes a Todd a Todd? What makes me more a Todd than I am a Howie or a Jonathon or a Leonard?” Now this may sound silly to you and, indeed, it feels a little silly writing those questions down; however, have you ever stopped to think about how you got your name and what makes you fit that name, or what makes that name fit you?

The truth is, I am not sure I can fully answer that question. My name is Todd because my parents chose to name that. The name Todd actually comes from my dad’s side of the family. I was named after my grandma’s maiden name. Her name was Jeanette Elizabeth Todd before marrying my grandfather and becoming Jeanette Elizabeth Lattig. For the first few months, I had no self-awareness of any  name. Over time, I learned that those people who are always holding me and feeding me call me “Todd”. Eventually, at some point, I started answering to that name and claiming it to be my own. No doubt, if someone asked me when I was a Toddler (ironic…I know) what my name was, I would say, “My name is Todd.” And eventually, I began to write my name as a way of marking whatever I was writing it on as being “mine.”

So, here it is that I am, indeed, a Todd. But what does that say about me beyond what name I go by? In reality, we are so much more than our names; yet, truth be told, we invest all that we believe we know about ourselves into those names. And others do the same. If you were to ask one of my family members or friends who Todd is, they would no doubt shower you with all they thought that I am. But that would be who they believe this Todd to be…that would say nothing about every other Todd out there.

While we may identify ourselves by our name, and while we may associate our characteristics, strenghts, flaws, personalities and other things with that name, the truth is that our names do not really define us or who we are. Rather, God does define who we are and calls us according to that definition. So whoever you, the reader, are, you are so much more than the name and all the things that you attribute to that name. You are more than you could ever imagine. No matter how well you think you know yourself, and no matter how much others think they might know about you, God is the only one who knows EXACTLY who you are and all that you are capable of. God knows your possibilities and your full potential…and God is calling you, not only by NAME but according to WHO YOU ARE, to reach your full potential. All you need to do is TRUST IN GOD, and take the step forward to answer that call…knowing that God will guide you each step of the way.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” – Jesus of Nazareth, John 14:1

PRAYER
Lord, reveal to me who I really am and guide me to what it is I am really called to do. Amen.

A LOOK BACK: The Beast Within

Read Luke 15:11-32

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32 NLT)

Just recently I sat down to watch the remake of the Wolfman. Of course, the original 1941 Wolfman starring Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Bela Legosi and Evelyn Ankers will always be one of my favorite monster movies ever; however, with that said, the 2010 remake of that film does pay homage to it, all the while adding its own twists and spins.The root of the story is the same. Larry Talbot returns home after his brother dies suddenly and horribly. Upon getting home Larry ends up getting bit by what he believes is a wolf, and when the moon shines full and bright in the sky, things begin to get a bit hairy for Larry (pun totally intended) as well as for the village. In the remake, which is where the film departs from the 1941 storyline, we learn that Larry and his father, who is cold and quite distant, had a falling out years earlier over the death of Larry’s mother (among other things). Since that time, Larry had distanced himself with his father and his family (including his brother), and did not wish to return…that is until he learns of  his brother’s death.

When he does finally return he is not welcomed warmly, as is the case in the story of the prodigal son; rather, his father greets him coldly and indifferently. Clearly both father and son have a resentment toward one another and the result is, in the end, catastrophic. In more than one way, the fact that Larry ends up turning into a werewolf serves as a metaphor the hatred, bitterness, anger and unresolved hostility that is caged up inside of him. That is all being said as a matter of observation, without affirming or denying the justification he had to be angry, bitter, and hateful of a father who, in many ways, failed him from his childhood onward.

The truth is that we all have the beast that lies within us beneath the surface, don’t we. For most of us, we are able to supress the beast, to keep it locked away, and to move our lives forward in a positive, constructive and meaningful manner. Yet, there are some who have truly been beaten up in life, or at least the feel as if they have, and it is very hard for them to move beyond what has happened to them. It’s not right, or wrong, it just is. The problem is that, when we are unable to move beyond our past, that past comes back to haunt us and that is when that inner beast comes out in full force.

Today’s challenge is for those of us who have a hard time moving beyond our past, beyond the hurts, the pain, the abuse, and/or the perceptions we have of those we feel have wronged us (whether they have or not). If you are a person who struggles with this, know that forgiveness is attainable. There is a God who has forgiven us of our past and that same God is calling us to forgive others as well. Forgiveness does not mean that we forget what has happened, or that we somehow pretend it didn’t. Nor does it mean what happened to us is okay, or we should somehow justify it. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we ignore when wrong is being done, nor does it remove the obligation we have to seek justice, as well as reconciliation.

It is also important to note that forgiveness is not just to the benefit of the ones we are forgiving, rather, it is a benefit for us…perhaps even more so than the ones we forgive. Forgiveness is our way of saying that no matter what others do to us, God still loves us and cares for us and we aren’t going to harbor anything against anyone. We are defined by God not them, and in that recognition comes a liberation that not only keeps the beast at bay, but eliminates it altogether. Remember that no one is without the need to be forgiven; therefore, no one is above forgiving others. Forgive and be set free!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

PRAYER
Lord, give me the strength to forgive, even as I seek to be forgiven, and move me beyond my hurts and pains to a life of joy and peace. Amen.