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Caterpillars

Beneath a grey, complaining sun,
we wandered, I and you,
disconsolate and dubious,
to where the milkweed grew.

But there were monarch caterpillars
nestled in the ‘weed,
and puffy green ballooning fruit
that scatters swan plant seed.

We glimpsed a tiny second-instar
feasting on a leaf;
The big ones wore their velvet stripes
in black and gold relief.

Behold! He clothes the tree and worm:
are we not God’s delight?
O anxious heart, seek first His realm,
and He will prove His might.

– C. 17 June

Film Review: Risen

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I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to “Christian” or faith-based movies. Perhaps it’s the need for mass-market appeal, or the pressures of getting a box office success. But not only are most faith-based movies not that good artistically, they’re often theologically suspect. The Prince of Egypt calls the viewer to a vacuous “there can be miracles if you believe” (in what? yourself?). The Passion of the Christ’s main inspiration is from a Catholic mystic’s fanciful dreams and meditations. Then there are the flat-out untrue depictions of biblical stories and characters on the big screen – Russell Crowe as Noah the eco-terrorist, Christian Bale as Moses the schizophrenic barbarian, and the myriad of actors as shampoo-commercial Jesus. While the power of film make these portrayals emotionally compelling, I find it hard to get excited about them.

Risen – directed by Kevin Reynolds has just been released in time for Easter. It’s a novel premise – Roman soldier Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is a battle-hardened veteran fighting to keep the peace in Roman-occupied Judea. He witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus, but three days later is tasked  by Pilate with job of detective: finding out why Jesus’s body is missing from the tomb. It’s cleverly written in that this skeptical Roman soldier is woven into many familiar Biblical narratives of Jesus’s death and post-resurrection appearances, and meets many of the same characters in these eyewitness accounts (e.g. the centurion, Barabbas, the Romans guarding the tomb, Pilate, Jesus’s disciples, and eventually Jesus himself) Spoiler alert: Jesus is alive!

After watching it yesterday morning with low expectations, I was actually pleasantly surprised. In summary, while it’s not for everyone, it’s a pretty good film and a great conversation starter for both Christians and skeptics alike.

There are already some thoughtful reviews from Christians (here and here), but here are some of my own specific observations.

  • For a $20 million budget, Risen came across as well-produced, with a high-calibre cast and crew. The Roman characters in particular were well cast and portrayed convincingly. There’s a good battle scene, and some nice special effects, and moments of breath-taking cinematography. It didn’t look and feel like a cheesy Christian movie, except at a few points (usually when Jesus and the disciples showed up).
  • It wasn’t too long – I thought it was going to be 147 minutes but it was only 107 minutes. Great.
  • The script had some great questions (all posed by the skeptical Romans). Clavius is the character you identify with the most. He asks the questions that we would ask ourselves about the resurrection story (is it true? how do you reconcile the facts? what does it mean?). He expresses hopes and dreams that all of us harbour. And he has my favourite line of the film: “What is it you seek Clavius?” “Peace. Certainty. A day without death.” All hopes that we have, whatever our backgrounds. And all hopes that the Christian gospel gives a satisfying answer to.
  • The plot weaves in all the different possibilities and explanations that were given for the tomb being empty (e.g. disciples stole the body), and how Clavius investigates each one and finds them to not to be true. These are great conversation starters.

Some cringe moments or things to be cautious of:

  • The portrayal of the disciples was pretty mediocre. You’d think after having the Scriptures opened up to them they’d have understood that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in [Jesus’s] name to all nations…” (Luke 24:36-47) But they don’t mention any of that. Instead, there’s vague talk about becoming more loving and peaceful. The movie depicts one of the disciples in particular as becoming changed, yes – but changed into a crazy, Ned Flanders-type Christian, just a little bit too unhinged to be convincing. And for someone who was the first to see the risen Jesus, Mary Magdalene just seemed to be away with the fairies.
  • Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) is in the movie. He even seemed like petulant Draco. I guess you can’t leave some characters behind.
  • It was a bit weird seeing Jesus portrayed by Cliff Curtis from Once Were Warriors (and now the first Nuzilund Jesus it seems). This would also an issue if you believe the portrayal goes against the 2nd commandment (not to make a graven image of God).
  • The crucifixion scene is portrayed in the first 15 minutes, and it’s gruesome (though thankfully it’s not as gratuitous as the Passion of the Christ)
  • There’s a bit of war violence and scenes with dead bodies being dug up (no zombies though)

I think Risen is good enough to watch, whether with Christians or non-Christians. It’s a great starting point for a further conversation or exploration of the historicity of the biblical accounts, but also the spiritual significance of these events. Perhaps after the movie, you’d want to affirm people’s deep desires, and wrestle with the evidence that Jesus did rise. But ultimately, this movie (or any movie) can’t do the job of answering the question of why the resurrection matters. For that, you’d need to do what Jesus did:

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” – Luke 24:27

Risen is a film that poses great questions about the historicity and significance of Jesus’s death and resurrection – timely as we approach public holidays in his honour. But only the good news of Jesus, explained in the Bible, can provide the best answers to these questions, and satisfy our longings for peace, certainty, and a day without death.

If music be the food of love…

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Last week, thanks to some generous people babysitting our girls, Cheryl and I enjoyed a night out at the Pop-Up Globe in Auckland. It was a pretty unique experience watching William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” in a to-scale replica of the Globe Theatre, the space where Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed in. The circular theatre was great, everyone had a good view, the witty and talented cast had us roaring with laughter. We didn’t care much for the lewdness that came along with the drunken scenes (played up to the crowd’s delight); it was also telling that the only “religious” character was portrayed as the most villainous and mocked mercilessly.

I wasn’t a big Shakespeare buff as school, so had never read Twelfth Night before. But the story was fairly easy to pick up. Orsino is in love with Olivia, who falls in love with Viola (dressed as a boy), who falls in love with her boss, Orsino. Other people have love interests too. Comedy ensues.

While much of the Elizabethan English slipped past, hearing the words spoken live made it much easier to understand than reading scenes in English class. One thing was clear: Twelfth Ngiht was an exploration of romantic love. This was clear from the very first line: “If music be the food of love, play on!” And as the play progressed, love was described in various ways – as pain, as an “appetite” to satisfy, as “fell and cruel hounds”, as a “plague”, as unfulfilled.

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Later that week, while preparing a sermon on Jesus’s claim to be the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-21), I found it quite striking to note how differently God describes love and suffering.

Consider this: where the good Bard preaches love as a cause of suffering, the Good Shepherd preaches suffering for the cause of love.

“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep….” (John 10:11)

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends…” (John 15:13)

And elsewhere in John’s letters:

“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16)

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

God’s word reminds us of how the gospel truly is the greatest love story.

In the drama of the cross, you have the most compelling portrayal of love: a God of grace who loved us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8) through the sacrifice of His Beloved Son. A Good Shepherd, whose “abandoned life secured our abundant life”.

Or, in the Bard’s own words: “Love sought is good, but giv’n unsought is better.”

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Prone to wander: balance, family and priorities

As I look back at our calendar over the past 12 months, it’s easy to be puffed up.

We are the perfect family where I write interesting things, preach, lead worship, study, read, go cycling, play. Cheryl is the perfect housewife who bakes, sews, binds books, cooks, teaches the girls. It’s easy to rattle off what we’ve done and convince ourselves that being busy, doing stuff, going from one thing to another, means we have it all together.

But that’s not true.

That’s not who we are as a family. We struggle with sin. We’re tempted like everyone to make good things ultimate things in our lives. We need to keep bringing ourselves, our idols, to the foot of the cross and find forgiveness and grace in Jesus.

So here is an honest reflection, and an invitation to pray with us and to encourage one another.

One area that’s been a struggle for us in the last few months is in balancing between church and family commitments. And this is an area where I’m the one most at fault. And so earlier this week, after the helter-skelter of organising conferences, planning induction services and all kinds of ministry stuff, it was good for Cheryl and I to sit and think through where we were at.

We got to reflect on many things, including:

  • How easily I’ve said yes to ministry-related requests, even when I knew it was directly at the expense of serving the family.
  • How easy it’s been for date nights and family times to be put aside in exchange for an important ministry task.
  • How my heart is tempted to see up-front ministry as more spiritually formative than reading and praying at the dinner table.
  • Wondering out loud if – Lord forbid – I was willing to sacrifice my children on the altar of ministry “success”.

Faithful are the wounds of a friend, no less my best friend. It was difficult but good to wrestle with the truth: these are my temptations and struggles, from a heart that should delight in the love of Christ more than the praises of men, but is still “prone to wander”.

And perhaps they’re your struggles too. Whatever your vocation.

Maybe, like me, you’ve hidden behind your computer or phone screen because it’s easier than resolving the argument with your wife or kids.

Maybe, like me, you’d prefer chatting with the someone who showers you with praise on Sunday morning, than chatting with your wife about what chores need to be done. 

 


 

Last Sunday, the elders of Howick Baptist commissioned Richard and Sam Cutforth into full-time service as Senior and Assistant Pastor respectively. During the commissioning, one of the elders read out 1 Timothy 3:1-7 to remind everyone of the characteristics of an overseer. It was verse 4 and 5 that stuck out to both of us.

“He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)”

This isn’t just for “elders”. This is a mark of a mature Christian. Faithfulness to the family – how I set my priorities in my home life, how I love Cheryl and the girls, how I serve them – all this determines how effective I am in any kind of gospel ministry.

By God’s grace I hope I don’t forget this.

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My submission to the Health Select Committee regarding euthanasia / assisted suicide in New Zealand

Until Monday 1 February, The NZ Parliament’s Health Select Committee is inviting the public to share their views on euthanasia / doctor-assisted suicide. The most significant thing they want to know is whether people think it should become legal to help someone else commit suicide.

From my own interactions, I can see that people on both sides of this debate have sympathy with suffering people and want everyone to die peacefully, with dignity and without pain. The difference seems to be how this should be achieved, and what lengths should be allowed to do so.

If you want to make your own submission, you can go here – it’s free, you can even just say one sentence, and it’s a great way to be involved in the discussion of what’s literally a life-and-death issue.

If you’re interested, my submission is below. It’s certainly not the best (even reading it now I wish I had worded things differently), and there are other much better examples out there. But it’s personal and I hope it’s a positive contribution to the discussion.

 


 

Select committee: Health Committee
Item of business: Petition of Hon Maryan Street and 8,974 others
Submission date: 2016-01-18
Reference number*: WV481O8

This submission is made by William Chong in a personal capacity.

I would like to appear before the Committee to speak to my submission.

I do not want assisted suicide / euthanasia to be legalised.

Any act of deliberately ending the life of someone, even at their request or the request of close friends / relatives, is unethical.

The proposed exploration of euthanasia would stand at odds with NZ’s current suicide reporting regulations. On the one hand, media should not report on suicides to discourage others from doing so. On the other hand, media are championing and encouraging others who wish to, or have done so. This is a contradiction of values.

The proposed exploration of euthanasia is also a personal concern. A close friend of ours suffering from mental illness attempted suicide a number of years ago. This person received the support of friends and family and life-affirming treatment from medical and healthcare professionals. They are now living a healthy and meaningful life.

If the option of euthanasia was made available for this person’s “intolerable mental suffering”, it’s likely they would not be here today.

In addition, legalising euthanasia would put other vulnerable people, such as the elderly and the disabled, under increased pressure to end their life in order not to be a burden to their family. Instead of celebrating and valuing life, we would be in danger of moving towards practising / enabling physician-assisted eugenics where those who are deemed by society to be of no value are killed.

The freedom to choose what we do with our bodies is important, but it should not be an inalienable right. For society to thrive and flourish, we sometimes limit our rights in day to day living. The right to actively kill another person should not be enshrined in law as legal.

Finally, as a Christian, I oppose euthanasia based on the conviction that human life and death are given to us by God.

In addition, I consider human beings, regardless of disability or state, as inherently valuable to God as image-bearers, and it is unloving to take the life of an image-bearer.

In addition, I consider old age, disability and suffering, even immense suffering, as permitted by God for a higher purpose, and not something to be avoided at all costs. Furthermore, the God revealed in the Holy Bible is not uninterested in suffering; rather, He chose to enter into our world in Jesus, and to suffer Himself in order that death might not be the last word.

Based on these convictions, I conclude that that the Health Select Committee should not recommend any legal allowance for assisted suicide / euthanasia.

Other NZ resources I have found helpful are stated in the following places:
www.goodlife.org.nz
www.carealliance.org.nz
www.euthanasiafree.org.nz