Is Christianity Like Improv Comedy?

The TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? is probably the most-widely-known form of improvisational comedy, and one of my favorites.  Four performers act out short scenes based on a set of rules for each scene or game, spontaneously adding their own creativity and (if successful) humor.  For example, in the “Props” game, pictured, the performers were given two “P” shaped props to make jokes about.  The show wouldn’t be any good if they just showed us the props and explained the rules over and over again.  The show is pointless without spontaneous creativity.  But why am I writing about improv on a Christian blog?  Today is the next post in the series on listening for our Master’s voice, and in God’s (and Gideon’s) victory over the Midianites, the Bible leaves a key point unsaid, leaving us to ask: Whose Plan is it Anyway?

Whose Pun is it Anyway?

In Judges 6-7, God delivers Israel from the Midianites using Gideon, who thought God couldn’t use him because “my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.”  At times, Gideon doubts God is speaking to him and that He really means what He says, but God patiently answers Gideon’s questions and performs miracles, encouraging Gideon to move forward.

Eventually, Gideon and his 300-man army attacked the enemy army, which was “like locusts in abundance, and their camels were without number, as the sand that is on the seashore in abundance.[1]  After Gideon split his army into three groups, this was the plan of attack:

So Gideon and the hundred men who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just set the watch. And they blew the trumpets and smashed the jars that were in their hands.  Then the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the jars. They held in their left hands the torches, and in their right hands the trumpets to blow. And they cried out, ‘A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!’”[2]

Whose Plan is it Anyway?
This is where improv comes in: the text does not tell us who came up with this wacky attack plan.  Was it God’s idea or was it Gideons?  Why leave it ambiguous?  I think it is because, either way, it is not a decisive factor in the victory.  The attack plan works because of God’s involvement, no matter whose idea it was.  If it was Gideon’s idea, he was only using the abilities his Maker had given Him for the purpose of glorifying Him.  If it was God’s, Gideon was also only using the abilities God gave him and dedicating them to God’s glory.

What’s amazing is that Gideon went from testing God with fleece to carrying out this attack.  God had Gideon convinced it would work, and that it would work because God would make it work.  Victory didn’t come from any advantage Gideon had or created, and all along God was determined to get the glory.  The plan would have failed if God had not put fear into the camp, and let Gideon know about that fear by way of a dream a Midianite soldier had.

Like improv comedy, God’s rules only go so far before the performers need to take over.  God gives us patterns, which are like the rules of an improv skit, not step-by-step instructions in every aspect of our lives.  Adam and Eve were shown a pattern in the Garden of Eden, Moses was given a pattern for the tabernacle on the mountain, and Jesus lived a pattern of how love the Father and our neighbor.  Beyond the patterns and rules there is so much to do and explore.  His will is for His people to make the world like Eden, to worship Him as He should be worshiped, and to love the world the way Jesus loved.

The Little Things
To hear and obey His voice, we must spend time with Him in prayer and study, diligently learning the patterns He has laid out for us, but He does not expect us to stop there. At some point, we must take the guidance we have and move forward with the wisdom and creativity He has endowed us each with.  When we do we will be like the servant who successfully invested his Master’s resources, and in return “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’”[3]

However, if we either do not diligently seek Him, or if we say He has not given us enough, we may find ourselves cast out from the Master’s presence, hearing: “you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.”[4]

In Gideon’s story, we see God’s compassionate understanding toward His people who struggle to hear and obey His voice but keep trying.  We, like Gideon, are not always faithful over the little things such as prayer, study, and regular worship.  But Only He fully knows the depth of our doubts and struggles, and He provides what we need to trust Him and move forward in faith, knowing our doubt is never fully overcome until eternity.

In the story, we also see that we must often act on trust, even when we think we have incomplete information.  Like Gideon, we should be imperfectly persistent, wrestling with God who knows our faith is imperfect.  He can bridge the gap to us in His unlimited grace.

So, where does God’s guiding voice stop, and our God-given creativity begin?  Like a good improv comedy scene, the parts can come together perfectly, glorify God, and encourage His people to come along in faith, as the men of Naphtali, Asher, Manasseh, and Ephraim joined the battle against the Midianites once it was clear God had delivered the victory[5].  When we seek Him and find Him, and in faith move forward to spread His character and creativity in the world, glorifying Him.

God is glorified when His people attempt things that sometimes don’t make sense, then succeed because He provided the way.  It’s always His plan anyway.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Judges 7:12
[2] Judges 7:19-20
[3] Matthew 25:21
[4] Matthew 25:27
[5] Judges 7:23-25

A Spiritual Lesson from a Roller Coaster

Intimidator 305 at King’s Dominion. The first hill at the top, with the following airtime hill in the middle.

My teenage son is a roller coaster enthusiast.  He memorizes how tall they all are, how many inversions they each have, who the manufacturers are, how they work, and anything else he can find out.  He takes lots of pictures of roller coasters, including the one I used for this post.  Fortunately, I like them too.  We’ve been on well over 100 different coasters together and will ride anything, but we do have slightly different tastes.  Usually, he likes airtime more than I do, and I like intensity more than he does.  As an enthusiast, he’s the one who told me what a greyout is: “a transient loss of vision characterized by a perceived dimming of light and color, sometimes accompanied by a loss of peripheral vision.”[1]  Caused by low brain oxygen levels, a greyout can happen on roller coasters and can be a precursor to fainting.

Intimidator 305 at King’s Dominion in Virginia was my first greyout.  The ride, with a 90-mph top speed on the 300-foot first drop, is themed after NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, whose nickname was “The Intimidator.”  At the bottom of that first drop, the track banks into a 270-degree turn to the right, and the first time on it, the edges of my vision began to fade as blood rushed to my legs and feet.  I felt the intensity rising, and my field of vision gradually narrowed into a small pinpoint, and I nervously tensed up.  However, before I knew it, I was fine and back to enjoying the ride.

After we got off, I mentioned my greyout and my enthusiast son explained why I recovered so quickly.  It was no accident.  Intimidator 305 was designed by people who knew what the ride would do to people, so after the 270-degree turn, there is a 150-foot airtime hill.  As the train comes up this hill, the track bends down at a lower angle than the train would go on its own momentum, which not only gives riders “airtime” as they feel weightless, but also gives a rush of blood to the brain.  So, by design, I experienced greyout, followed by an amazingly quick return to normal, without fainting. 

What’s the spiritual lesson in this?  There are times where our lives feel like we’re in that disorienting 270-degree turn at 90 mph.  Our awareness narrows to where we can only see the problems in front of us and our body begins to feel stress.  In some cases, the stress itself might become the only thing we can see, having forgotten what caused it.  That intense turn can seem like it will never end, and we can’t see the relief ahead of us.  Sometimes it comes after a great success, perhaps right after the thrill of dropping down a hill at high speed…Or perhaps after experiencing a miracle.  Peter had such faith that he walked on water, “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’”[2]  Even Apostles felt hopeless sometimes.

Like Peter, when we cry out “Lord, save me” we may need a reminder of 1 Corinthians 10:13, where Paul wrote: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

We may need a reminder from a Christian enthusiast, or maybe from our Father Himself, that we have a way of escape by design. After every sharp turn we think will never end is a refreshing moment where we feel weightless, held by our Lord in His loving embrace. In Peter’s case, “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.[3] In the Father’s wisdom, relief will not always be immediate – it may take longer than we expect, but it is inevitable because He promises it.

That day, we rode Intimidator 305 three more times and every time I wasn’t as worried about the greyout because I knew that airtime hill was coming.  It’s now one of my favorites.  Thankfully, our lives also are in the hands of a Designer who knows how to teach us to trust Him, and also how to heal us when life’s troubles feel like they’re going to knock us out.

[2] Matthew 14:29-30
[3] Matthew 14:31-32

The Death of Chairman Mao – History for September 9

Photo by manos koutras on Unsplash

On this date in 1976, Mao Zedong, or Chairman Mao, founder of the communist People’s Republic of China, died at the age of 82.  Some look at Mao’s death as a positive turning point for Christianity in China, since under Mao China had expelled all Western Christian missionaries between 1949 and 1953.  However, while it is impossible to come up with precise numbers across a 3.7 million square mile country, Christians probably were about 1 percent of China’s population when Western missionaries were kicked out, but by the 1980s about 5 percent of the population went by Christ’s name.  The Christian population grew by ten times, while the overall population doubled.  How did this happen?

Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, authors of the book “Clouds of Witnesses” say the key to this growth was “the resilience of the Chinese believers themselves…securely rooted in Chinese life before Mao.” [1]  In expelling missionaries, Mao was in part responding to “treaty ports” created at the end of the 1839-42 Opium War.  Through these ports foreign powers had extra territorial rights, allowing influences including missionaries to come in, but these ports also allowed opium to flow freely into China from Western countries.  Therefore, in the mind of many Chinese, Christianity became linked with both Western imperialism and opium addiction.  When Karl Marx said “religion is the opiate of the masses” he may have been thinking of this connection.  But native Chinese believers, sometimes planted by Europe-based evangelizing organizations like China Inland Mission, remained behind and spread resilient forms of Christianity that were attractive to the Chinese population.

John Sung
Several of these Chinese Christians are profiled by Noll and Nystrom, including John Sung who lived from 1901 to 1944, before Mao’s communist revolution.  Around Christmas 1926, Sung heard child evangelist Uldine Utley preach a sermon at Calvary Baptist Church in New York, near where he was attending Union Theological Seminary.  This sermon, along with other influences, countered the liberal Christianity he was being taught where the Bible was just “a collection of myths.”  He returned to China, determined to spread the gospel in the land of his birth with frenetic energy.  In a one-year period in 1931-2, Sung and a small group of missionaries “traveled over 50,000 miles, held 1,200 meetings, preached to more than 400,000 people in thirteen provinces, registered more than 18,000 ‘decisions’” for Christ.  Many of these new Christians formed traveling bands themselves.  Sung is considered the last great evangelist in China and Southeast Asia before Mao’s reign. 

Dora Yu
Even earlier, another driver of this resilient, Chinese Christianity was Dora Yu (1873-1931).  Dora’s ministry benefitted tremendously from a 1905 decision by Dowager Empress Cixi to replace China’s traditional Confucian civil service examinations with general public schools.  Under this system, mission-run schools became a valued option, and one of Dora’s early ministries was to train “Bible women” to not only educate women generally, but also to teach them the Bible, pray with them, and teach them to live by faith.  Mostly traveling by foot, in “1903, Dora Yu visited with 925 women and 211 children.”  Later, her ministry grew and she became famous for itinerant preaching, reaching many others who would carry on the Lord’s work.

Because of our proneness to look at
the bucket and forget the fountain,
God has frequently to change His
means of supply to keep
our eyes fixed on the source

Watchman Nee

Watchman Nee
In 1920, Nee Shu-Tsu would hear Dora Yu preach.  Later known as Watchman Nee, he “planted at least four hundred Christian churches over a thirty-year period of active ministry.”  He died in 1972 in a Communist prison after spending 20 years there.  Watchman Nee wrote that “Because of our proneness to look at the bucket and forget the fountain, God has frequently to change His means of supply to keep our eyes fixed on the source.”

Whether it is a European missionary, a child preacher in New York City, a Chinese man temporarily studying in New York City, or a Chinese woman walking miles through the countryside:

How beautiful upon the mountains
            are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
            who publishes salvation,
            who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” – Isaiah 52:7

As Jesus said in Matthew 16:18 – “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  This rock is the gospel of the kingdom of God, and not even a brutal regime like that of Chairman Mao could prevail against it.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Noll, Mark A.; Nystrom, Carolyn.  Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia (2011).  This post is drawn from chapters 12 and 14.

Letting God Pick Our Battles II

Photo by Andrey Grinkevich on Unsplash

The Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” yet he also wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 that “to keep me from becoming conceited,” a “thorn was given me in the flesh.”  He writes: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

The nature of Paul’s “thorn” has been disputed for centuries, but Galatians 4:13 suggests it was a physical problem, a “bodily ailment” rather than a moral shortcoming.  So, the lesson of the “thorn” is not that God prevented Paul from overcoming some specific sin to keep him humble – He wants Paul (and us) to be satisfied with nothing less than righteousness.

However, one lesson of the “thorn” is that Paul didn’t mean by “I can do all things” that he could do whatever he wanted and succeed.  Instead, the “thorn” is an example of a battle Paul would not win, because this “thorn” had a purpose in bringing Paul closer to God’s grace and power.  In God’s wisdom, Paul was better off with this ailment than without it.

Yesterday’s post said “Picking your battles, rather than trying to fight and win every fight that comes your way, is a good piece of advice.  However, who should pick which battles to fight?”  In the case of the “thorn”, God picked a battle for Paul not to fight, telling him instead to focus on growing in faith.  The thorn had a purpose in Paul’s striving toward righteousness, which was more important than any physical ailment.  Had Paul continued to insist to God that the thorn should be removed, he would still have the thorn, but he would also not grow in his relationship with his Lord.

Sometimes there are battles He wants us to fight in His strength for His glory, and sometimes there are battles He tells us not to fight so we can focus on His grace and power while in this life, in light of His promises to heal our physical ailments in Paradise.

Today’s post closes the same way as yesterdays: “Sometimes life is hard on purpose, so that God alone may be glorified in victory, and also so that we may grow in our faith in His strength.  When we let Him pick our battles, we learn that His righteousness is the only thing that will satisfy us.  Nothing less will do.”

Letting God Pick Our Battles

Image by Richard Mcall from Pixabay

Picking your battles, rather than trying to fight and win every fight that comes your way, is a good piece of advice.  However, who should pick which battles to fight?  The Old Testament book of Judges is a record of the consequences of Israel’s failure to completely conquer the promised land, a battle God gave them to fight and win.  Judges also shows more generally what happens when anyone picks the wrong battles to fight: they end up with less than what God intended for them.

For example, Judges 1:19 tells us: “And the LORD was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron.

This verse, especially the second part, is written from a human perspective.  God did not tell Israel to conquer all of the promised land, except for the plains.  God is not afraid of chariots.  He told them to conquer all of it, but Israel thought that chariots couldn’t be defeated, so they decided not to fight in the plain.  By using their own judgement and preferring to fight in hills or forests where chariots were less effective, they failed to fully receive what God had promised them.

An application to us is that our inheritance is Christ’s righteousness, and Jesus tells us “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.[1]  Jesus is telling us that righteousness is like food and drink.  We can never have enough because no matter how much we eat and drink, our hunger and thirst soon return.  We are all in different places, at different levels of knowledge and maturity, but in Christ we are all on the same path and have an appetite only He can satisfy.

To be satisfied, we cannot settle for what we have already accomplished, the hill country we have already taken.  To be satisfied, we must fight the chariots in the plains if that is what God wants us to do, so that we learn to rely on His strength.  To be satisfied, we move from only fighting battles we choose based on our own wisdom and ability to choosing the battles we will win in His strength.

Sometimes life is hard on purpose, so that God alone may be glorified in victory, and also so that we may grow in our faith in His strength.  When we let Him pick our battles, we learn that His righteousness is the only thing that will satisfy us.  Nothing less will do.

[1] Matthew 5:6