Thursday, December 17, 2015

How to share Star Wars on social media without spoiling it for the rest of us

Our oldest son Drew, a die-hard Star Wars fan, has taken a break from social media until he watches "The Force Awakens."  Why? He doesn't want someone to spoil the plot.  This time around, it's going to get a lot more serious on social media than when people get upset over everyone posting that Glen died or later that he didn't die in the Walking Dead.

How can we share our experience with the Force Awakens without ruining the movie for the folks who haven't seen it yet?

  • Share your opinion as to whether you liked the movie, or not.  That's fair game.  People are going to go either way, and at least you got to share how well you liked it, or not.  
  • Share how much you liked or disliked the acting, special effects, or the plot-line, but all without giving any details.  That's easy enough to do, and people will be interested in your thoughts too.
  • Share who you went with and how much fun you all had fighting the massive hordes who took all the good seats.  That will make the rest of us, who didn't go opening night, feel vindicated...
  • If you do plan to share a plot spoiler, bury it deep enough down in your post that you can warn people to not read your post in the first sentence.
I can't wait to see the Force Awakens, and hopefully we'll see it within the next day or two, and hopefully I'll practice what I preach.  

Will we be worse off because of 2015 -- "the year of victimization"

It used to be said whenever we gather together with friends and family around the holidays, to be polite, we should avoid talking about religion and politics.  Nowadays it seems it’s nearly impossible for us to talk about anything, at anytime, without offending others.

Lately, as a culture, we bristle at the very idea of being offended.  I’m not just talking about reactions from sharing the good news either, though I wonder about future implications when it comes to sharing the gospel.  We’ve been impacted negatively by a prominent cultural shift that has weakened our caliber of character & temperament -- we’ve reached a point where we collectively collapse into a blubbering puddle whenever someone disagrees with us -- or heaven forbid, they offend us.

Have we forgotten Christmas and Easter are offensive?  Simply put, the idea that God would have to enter our world as a baby and then grow up, to die to save us (which implies we need rescuing) can be a slap in the face.  Most of us recognize we are far from perfect, but we like to think we are basically good people at heart.  Therefore, some people ask, “How dare God insinuate we are sinful, weak, broken, and lost without Him?”

God can communicate all of this and more, not only because it’s true, but because He is in the process of redeeming all things (for an example, read Col 1:19-23).  Yes, the gospel is offensive to humanity, but it’s not insulting.  The gospel offends, but it isn’t degrading either -- it’s uplifting once the message gets past our defenses.  Remember, the gospel can be foolishness to some or an intellectual/religious obstacle to others, just like Paul writes about in I Cor 1:20-25.

Jesus was Crucified because He offended the religious establishment.  And, remember Peter clarified Jesus was the “rock of offence,” “For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.  (1 Peter 2:6-8 ESV)

If I’ve recognized a single theme which epitomizes this year, I’d say we could encapsulate the sentiment of 2015 as a year where people have become so hypersensitive and inflexible in their thinking, that people are too easily offended.  And, we can’t “offend” anyone without risking retaliation or being labeled as an intolerant hate-monger.  This all smacks of an immature smokescreen that has hijacked mature dialogue.

From the red cups at Starbucks to college professors telling students to wear whatever Halloween costume they want, and from fights over Confederate flags to stores who say “Happy Holidays,” to the latest PC trend, to the need for gender-neutral language on college campuses, in 2015 it has become the year where offending others is now the Cardinal sin of all times.  Sadly, it’s become chic to feign victimhood and claim you are offended.  This current trend will not end until we’ve become a society that embraces complete censorship of any divergent ideas.     

Which is why we need to embrace being offended.  I’m not saying people should ever be indecent, crude, rude, belligerent, hateful, ugly, or mean.  I’m NOT endorsing racism, ethnocentrism, discrimination, or bigotry.  I am saying it’s necessary to experience being offended in order to grow.

Believers need to embrace this truth, there’s nothing inherently malicious about delivering a message that offends others.  And further yet, at times it’s necessary to be offended if we are to reach maturity.  The Apostle Paul wrestled with this, as we read in Gal 4:16, “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?”

Emotionally, we are handicapping an entire generation of young people when we neglect this fact: Tolerance, which our culture highly values (rightly so) requires by definition that there are opposing views being expressed.  

We have to get to the place where we no longer dismiss someone because they offend us, and we can no longer shelter people who might be offended by the beliefs of others.  In reality, none of us are always right 100% of the time, and, our personal opinions aren’t always the most important perspectives in the room.  As I look around and see how much we’ve empowered this position of weakness which can’t tolerate being offended, this whole situation where we’ve been culturally hijacked by the fear of offending others, it reminds me of the “Emperor's new clothes.”

If we can’t offend people because we are intimidated by their reactions, then sharing the most offensive message will become nearly impossible to articulate -- in fact, evangelism will probably become illegal hate speech if we allow this pattern to continue.  

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Feeling blessed

Dash holding Evelyn Kay Cottongim for the 1st time

I know I should go straight to bed now, it's almost midnight and we are pouring 60 yards of concrete at 7:00 in the morning.  This past Friday evening, Tammy and I drove through the night arriving in Little Rock around 6:30 a.m., which meant we were up for over 24 hours.  We made it in plenty of time; Evelyn Kay Cottongim arrived healthy and whole Saturday at 5:32 p.m.  Today, I drove back home.  By time the week is out, I'll be needing to change the oil in our car again.

I'm tired, but I'm feeling rather blessed.  Being a grandparent is nothing new to mankind, but it surprising how joyful it is.  While Tammy and I took care of Dash for a little while this weekend, he told me to tickle him and he ran around their house giggling, wanting to be chased.  Evelyn is a beautiful baby girl, and thankfully Laura and Evelyn are both 100% healthy after a lonnnngggg labor.  And, I'm so proud of our son Drew, he's now going experience something I never have, raising a daughter.  I can't wait to see how this baby girl will transform our entire family.  

God is good.  We know God is good, but it's times like this as we celebrate a newborn's arrival that we are reminded of the gift of family, life, and love.  All I can really say is, I'm so thankful to be part of this -- so blessed to be able to see & experience this wonderful gift.  I could say so much more, but I think the picture above is worth more than a thousand words.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Hunger Games MockingJay Part Two: why people flock to this type of story

Tonight, millions of fans around the world will flock to watch MockingJay part two.   I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading stories within the same genre -- enduring stories like Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and more recently, Lois Lowry's four-part series beginning with the Giver.  Why do we love dystopian stories?  

It seems strange to migrate towards these bleak stories, especially considering their settings are filled with Totalitarian regimes, the dehumanization of society, and they rarely have happy endings.  Furthermore, as dependent on technology as our culture is, interestingly technology rarely rescues anyone in these stories -- instead, tyrants hatch schemes to suppress people with technology.  

In such stories, many of our deepest fears take flight.  For example, computers conquer and enslave humans, dictators rule hawkishly, nature harshly turns her back on us, and the main characters are henpecked by peer pressure to conform to a decoy of civilization.

But then dystopian plots snare us with the old “battle of good vs. evil,” and as we become emotionally engaged, we eagerly root for the protagonists throughout their transformational character arc.  Even though the odds are stacked against the heroes & heroines, in a clutch they eventually soar past their enemies as they overcome with limited resources & a little grit, the strength of their community, and through a common determination to be free.  

If you were to raise a duckling in a desert wasteland, instinctually it would long for the wetlands.  Likewise, deep inside we know we are made for heavenly realms.  To some degree, existing east of Eden, we inhabit just the opposite of Utopia.  Since our world often has pockets of brutality & fanaticism and the dystopian genre confronts similar topics, we are drawn to these stories -- regardless of how much we might brood over them.

Basically, there’s enough reality within this intimidating genre to draw us in (along with the potential for these stories to actually happen), and we cherish freedom from bullies who seek to break the will of the masses.  We naturally long to be victorious over oppressive forces -- so maybe it’s not so cryptic that we enjoy these gloomy stories.

The dystopian genre isn’t a fledgling storyline, it’s been around ever since people have put quill to parchment, just take a gander at Scripture.  For example, in the opening of the book of Genesis we see disorder and chaos ruling over nature, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2 ESV)

Something cataclysmic happened in between Gen 1:1 & 1:2, perhaps a great battle resulting in satan being cast to the earth -- he is after all already strutting around the Garden when we meet Adam & Eve.  Also, consider the crisis mankind faced in the antediluvian period before Noah’s voyage.  And, what of John’s Apocalypse...?

Is it hard to see a dystopian world when you read this passage? “Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon.  It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed.  It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived.  And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain.  Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.  This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.” (Revelation 13:11-18 ESV)

Maybe in the end, the dystopian genre resonates with us because it’s a story-pattern as old as time itself -- with a niche lasting until the end of time.  So, if you are like us and you plan to see MockingJay part two this weekend, keep an eye out for Biblical principles such as good standing firm against evil even when it’s painful, the effect power has over us when we lose sight of goodness/compassion, and redemption.  Remember, many spiritual lessons can be learned from secular stories, since the story of humanity, created in God’s image but stained by sin, is so interwoven within them.   

Monday, November 9, 2015

Why boycotting Starbucks will backfire

We live in a time when people think inactivity is activity.  Such as the latest "christian" boycott of Starbucks over their bland holiday cup.  The thinking goes, if "we" don't purchase "their" goods, we'll show "them!"  But what really happens in a "culture-war" boycott?

People, in general, want to protect and rescue those who are being attacked.  So, when "christians" attack Starbucks over their red cup, the majority of people will naturally want to rescue Starbucks -- it's just the way we are wired.

What else happens?  People who boycott Starbucks over their red cups show their own inconsistencies are beyond measure.  Last time I checked, gas comes from oil and a lot of oil comes from the Middle East.  There are some people in the Middle East profiting from our oil consumption who really, authentically, hate Christians  -- and they don't use red cups to prove their point.  How come I've never heard of people boycotting gas stations over the ideologies of the nations producing the oil?

And, the old saying "There's no such thing as bad publicity" is true.  The more people rant about Starbucks, the more free advertising Starbucks receives.

Now, as far as I'm concerned, I could care less what Starbucks uses for their holiday cups.  We have two sons who work for Starbucks, and our sons have thrived with Starbucks.  We're very proud of our sons.  Our sons have had many opportunities to share their Christian faith & let their light shine by being engaged in our culture simply because they do work for Starbucks.  

It's highly inappropriate to assume the motives behind the red cup and many people are almost on the verge of slander with the claims they make.  All they really do by boycotting is reaffirm in the minds of people that Christians are hateful people who complain a lot.  Besides, if you want to change the culture, you engage it lovingly, you don't hide behind a paper cup.  


Saturday, October 24, 2015

What is the "greatest" threat to the church?

Many are asking these days, “What is the greatest threat to the Church?”  Typical responses to this question may focus on recent cultural advances within the homosexual community, the breakdown in the family, modern-day Christian persecutions -- both physical and prejudicial, the residual results from the removal of prayer/Bible reading from our public schools, the misunderstandings around the actual purpose of “The Separation of Church & State,” and the perceived influences of Darwinism or secular science.  

If I were to single out our most dangerous threat, I think there’s an even more prevalent threat to the health of the church than any of the possibilities I just mentioned.  And, the actual threat I have in mind is growing daily in its influence over all of us.

It’s truly an exciting time we live in, having such easy access to information; advances in research and education and much personal growth have been made possible in recent years.  Make no mistake about it, humanity needs access to information & advances in knowledge.  Yet, we live in an unprecedented era of information overload and instantaneous communication.  One of the negative results of this constant bombardment of data is we are too easily distracted now.   

Basically, the biggest threat to the church we currently face is that we have lost our ability to pay attention for any period of time.  I think the theological term I’m searching for is “Space Cadets.”  

For example, if you watch Cable News you’ll notice how a talkinghead throws out questions to their guests, expecting an immediate answer from people who haven't had time to think through the issue or meditate over a good answer.  While their “expert” is cobbling together an incomplete answer based on the freshest news of the hour, across the bottom of the TV screen scrolls an endless stream of Stock Reports, weather updates, and miscellaneous news reports from the four corners of the world.  And for us, the audience, we get bored and distracted if the topic doesn’t change every 15 seconds.  Worse yet, a poor example has been set and now we too think we should have an instant opinion on every subject without taking the time to think about it.

In light of our shrinking attention span and our increasing appetite for the latest soundbite, the ancient Hebrew wisdom of Solomon is worth considering,  “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.  What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.  Is there a thing of which it is said,  “See, this is new”?  It has been already in the ages before us.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8-10 ESV)

How have our weakened attention spans affected the church?  Who reads their Bibles anymore?  Who takes the time to think through the deeper questions of meaning, purpose, life, or eternity?  Sermons lasting much more than 15 minutes, risk losing an entire audience.  Beyond this, believers have a hard time concentrating on spiritual realities.  We also have a hard time having a conversation with each other without checking our phones for Facebook updates or responding to text messages.  I know, because I struggle with this too!

Why does this lack of attention even matter?  It takes time to listen to God.  Many Biblical characters traveled far and wide and spent many years seeking God’s direction.  Spiritual maturity isn’t a microwaveable discipline, it’s more like crockpot cooking.  With our shortened attention spans, our tendencies to be bored, and our desire for instant information, it will become harder to hear and to obey the voice of God.

What can we do to face this threat to our spiritual maturity? Recognize our distractions will only increase; there’s no escaping the impact of information overload on us.  We also need to become comfortable saying, “I don’t know” and we need to allow ourselves space to say, “I need more time to think about this.”  

Also, we need to realize that old information isn’t worthless just because it isn’t modern.  I’m not saying doctors should go back to using leeches or we pretend to believe the earth is flat.  But, just because a book is five years, fifty years, or fifteen hundred years old, it doesn’t mean it’s out of touch.  Read and re-read the classics in Christian literature like the writings of C.S. Lewis, or going further back, Augustine.

Do yourself a huge favor, unplug periodically, take long walks with a loved one, set aside time to be contemplative, and read books written by people who are long gone -- books that are timeless and that can challenge you to live a life of substance.  And in all of this, strive to listen to God’s still, quiet voice, which is stronger & wiser than the thunderous waves we are used to surfing.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The "Intern" sells Success at what cost?

This past week I went to see the Intern with two of our sons.  It was a good movie, even though the underlying message which came through wasn't so great.  There were many worthwhile leadership/mentoring lessons in the movie, along with highlighting the need for intergenerational relationships, and the plot was well written.

De Niro's character is a retired widower who experienced a long career, goes to a lot of funerals, who after he has traveled the world in his retirement, he is so bored and unfulfilled he longs to be back (at age 70) in the office once more.  Hathaway's character is a Thirty-something career-driven mom, with a stay at home dad.  She neglects sleeping and eating, and her family.  

In the end, the Intern glosses over the sacrifices people make to achieve success, even though the damage to Hathaway's life isn't marginalized in the plot.  De Niro who "fathers" Hathaway and encourages her to eat well and sleep more, still tells her in the end she should pursue her path and not feel guilty about it or take the blame for the fallout in her marriage.  And there's the catch.

Had the screenplay been written with the roles reversed, or even if it portrayed an all male cast, people wouldn't have blinked an eye.  But, they placed Hathaway's role as a wife & mom who seeks to run a successful startup online company.  This was all done to disguise the movie's moral code.  In other words, the audience risks feeling sexist if we deny Hathaway her shot at glory.  But the point isn't about gender.

In reality, the trade off De Niro admires which Hathaway embraces -- where you sacrifice personal and more so family health for work, comes up short.  I believe in hard work, and having a strong work ethic.  On the surface, this movie seems to promote this too, claiming the seductive lure of hard work always leads to success.  

Really though, afterwards, I questioned the lack of valuing "balance" in the plot, that balance between work and life which helps us enjoy the fruit of our labors... and the need for our culture to redefine success.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Review of The Martian: Cast Away meets Apollo 13

This afternoon we went to see "The Martian" staring Matt Damon, it's based on the book (which I've not read) by Andy Weir.  Let's get the big problem out of the way, most people watching the movie will think the planet Mars has such a thin atmosphere, the huge dust storm that's key to the plot wouldn't be possible.  Here's an image from the Hubble showing a dust storm on Mars:

So, Mars does have huge dust storms...

The plot to The Martian is surrounded by a lot of science but it's not dependent on science to be as good as it is.  The real depth of the plot is the human condition called community.  The story reemphasizes the intrinsic value of friendship and the fact that life as fragile as it is, is priceless.

After the huge dust storm separates Mark Watney (Matt Damon's character) from his crew, survival isn't the only crisis Watney faces.  Watney has to endure many months of separation from all human contact, he's not just alone, he can't even communicate for a long period of time.  When you think about it, separation is the harshest form of punishment we know of, from time-out for toddlers to solitary confinement for hardened prisoners.

As the plot develops, it doesn't take long for the movie to feel like two of Tom Hank's best movies, Cast Away and Apollo 13.  The solitude and the urgency of sustaining oneself physically, as the main character, along with some interesting ingenuity are both center stage.

What really helps the plot though isn't just Watney's condition, it's the entire team that tries to rescue him.  I won't spoil the plot and give away whether he's rescued or if he starves to death.  It's a slow moving plot, and appropriately so.  Watching The Martian, there are many times you empathize for Watney, feeling deep frustration or even anger over the bureaucracy of NASA and the political posturing of people who try to cover up the facts and save face.

The big take away though is the fact that life is too precious and valuable to just let someone die, even if you have to travel halfway across the solar system to try to save them.  There was only one reference to God in the movie.  Jeff Daniels's character asks another NASA administrator during an attempt to launch supplies to Mars if he believes in God.  The response is the other character's one parent was a Baptist, the other parent Hindu, so he guesses he has no choice but to believe.  Daniels's character then says, "We'll take all the help we can get."

But, as I watched that scene and the entire movie, I felt if human life is just a product of blind chance, survival of the fittest, and unguided nature, then one human life isn't worth one gallon of rocket fuel.  Therefore, The Martian shows once again the emptiness of nihilism, or of any philosophy that dehumanizes us, removes the divine from our meta-narrative, and loses sight of the holiness of life.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Confident people are less.... judgemental

Recently my wife and I went out for lunch, it was right after church and when we pulled in the restaurant parking lot, it was starting to fill up.  I dropped my wife off at the door to get in line to find a table for us.  It took a while for me to find a parking spot since the lunch rush was just about to explode, and all I could think of as I parked was how long it would take for us to be seated.

As I walked to the front door of the restaurant, I saw an elderly couple approaching too.  I hurried ahead of them and opened the door for them.  Even though I wanted to join my lovely wife as soon as possible, immediately I saw another couple walking up, so I held the door open for them.  Then a young family was walking to the door too, so I held the door open for them too.

I’m not bragging about being polite.  Trust me, normally I would hold the door open for an elderly couple anyday but then I would follow and simply walk on in.  I certainly didn’t plan to hold the door for that many people.  But it struck me as I held the door -- it’s easier to hold the door open for others when you know your seat is being secured.  Maybe that’s why Jesus tells us in John 14 He’s going to prepare a place for us, maybe it’s to help us feel secure, even confident.  

I don’t believe in the doctrine of “Once saved, always saved,” but here’s the spiritual overlap to holding the door open during the lunch rush -- when people are confident in their relationship with God, I think they feel less threatened by other people.  Whether it’s by new ideas or by doctrines they don’t agree with, when you are confidently close to God, you stop seeing other people as your competition.  And, overall, confident people are less judgmental.  When we trust God loves us and has forgiven us, we are free from the mental trap that God will accept me as long as I’m better than others or when I have a better understanding of the Bible than “they” do.  

There’s a problem with thinking your church/denomination is the only group of Christians going to heaven -- none of us are perfect in our knowledge or how we practice our faith.  Of course there are cults and yes there are groups who claim to know God, but really don’t.  Even so, with the imposters and the false teachers out there, this doesn't’ mean there’s no one else on the right path besides your tribe.

Even Jesus’ closest disciples seemed to wrestle with this.  I don’t know if they were overzealous, or if they were insecure.  But one thing is certain, even though they didn’t want other people to make claims on Jesus that they thought were theirs exclusively, Jesus didn’t agree with their position,  “38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 For the one who is not against us is for us. 41 For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.””  (Mk 9:38-41)

It’s one thing to be blessed, it’s quite another to be blessed and to know it.  Those who are blessed but ignore the fact they are blessed are usually thought of as being snobbish or as whiners.  A lifetime of reading has filled my head with priceless treasures; having a great wife to share life with has filled my heart with immeasurable joy; serving a God who has set my heart on fire has brought me endless gratitude.  The more blessed I feel, the less worried I am.  And, the more blessed I am, the easier it is to smile when I see other people walking through open doors or pearly gates.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The arrogance of preaching:

Today I ended up working 12 hours in concrete, but it's Monday. The preacher in me can't rest on a Monday when I don't have a good head start on Sunday's sermon. This evening as I started to think about Sunday's message, I began to think through the topic I plan to talk on, and I thought about the needs of the folks I preach to...

And then it kind of hit me. How arrogant it must seem, to have someone tell you how to live, how to serve God, to tell you what the Bible says about X,Y,Z. The very act of preaching assumes that people need some sort of course correction on their journey through life towards eternity, and we who stand in the gap have the answers.

 Thankfully, in my over 20 years of preaching, I've realized I don't have all the answers. Thankfully, I don't feel like the Bible Answer Man, and I don't feel like an expert.  And thankfully, I see preaching as a calling, a role that God established not to build up the preacher, but to build up His people.

While I've had seasons of life where I was an arrogant preacher (a much younger time in life...), I don't see the role of preaching as arrogance.  Instead, the danger of arrogance and the task of sharing God's Word has become humbling, even intimidating for me.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Planned Parenthood & a Message to the Church

I'm sharing a guest post here from a friend, Mike Lattier, who has articulated well how history will judge us if we remain inactive.  Mike himself has done more than just write on this topic, and he is an inspiration to all who would seek to do more.

A Message to the Church

Published by MIKE LATTIER on September 2, 2015

Image Courtesy of lifevesting

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. Psalm 139

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life ... Declaration of Independence

There are certain times in the history of modern civilization when the Church, the body of Christian believers, is called upon to rise up against man's inhumanity to man. Infrequently, the Church does rise to the occasion. The abolitionist movement against slavery in this country was one such occasion when the Church led the cause to abolish that inhumane institution. Similarly, the Civil Rights movement was nurtured and sustained by black churches and pastors.

Too often though, the Church has remained silent in the face of mass destruction and brutality. The Church in Germany was largely silent when anti-Semitism was on the rise and later when Jews were being transported by the millions to German death camps. German Christians saw their government systematically wiping out an entire race of people and lifted not a finger in protest. Recently, the Church in America has stood passively by while thousands upon thousands of Christians in Syria, Ethiopia and Iraq have been beheaded, shot, raped and exterminated by ISIS.

The Church is now in the midst of another time of historical significance. We are witnessing in our own country the literal butchering and slaughter of the most innocent among us. Unborn babies are being treated no different, indeed even worse, than slaughterhouse cattle. These babies are being crushed, decapitated, having their faces split into, having their limbs ripped from their bodies, having their body parts spread out on a plate and picked through for their "valuable" organs, and even being delivered out of the womb and then murdered. And every member of the Church who pays taxes is forced to support the organization that is doing this. The level of brutality being committed against these innocent babies across the country is beyond comprehension. It is certainly no overstatement to say that it rivals the brutal medical experimentation carried on in the concentration camps by Nazi Joseph Mengele.

Yet, how has the Church responded to this wanton destruction of innocent human life in our midst? Have Church pastors, elders and leaders issued calls to action or, at the least, spoken out against it to their congregations? Have protests and marches been organized? Have Christians united en masse to demand action by Congress? Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is no. Although many may be shocked by the revelations, on the whole, the entire body of believers has been deafenly silent, while the blood of the innocents cry out from their waste can graves.

Are you, Christian, the proverbial priest or Levite passing to the side of the man lying beaten and dying on the side of the road? Perhaps your answer is simply to pray for the situation. Perhaps you're not "led" to become involved. Well, Jesus did not give you that option.

The Good Samaritan took pity on the man lying in the road. He bandaged his wounds, pouring on precious oil and wine. He picked the man up, put him on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. He took his own money and paid the innkeeper to watch over the man. In other words, he stopped his routine. He got up off the donkey to care for the man. He broke a sweat. He gave of his time and money. In short, he showed love to the man, not by his prayers, but by his actions.

Will you be the Good Samaritan to these innocent lives? Will you give of your time and money? Will you get up out of your chairs and, yes, even off your knees and do something - anything? Will you show love to these children? Or, will you live through this time knowing that you spent 50 hours a month on Facebook or watching TV, but not one minute fighting to prevent further slaughter of these unwanted children. Will future generations look back on us Christians and ask: "How could they allow this to continue and not do anything to try to stop it?" Pastors, how will you answer the questions about the lack of leadership in the Church; how will you respond to those who ask, "How could you remain silent in the face of such inhumanity in your own communities?" We have witnessed fundamental changes being brought about by small minorities of committed individuals. How much more can be accomplished with the entire body of believers engaging in united action.

This is the time. We are at the moment. Will you answer the call to action? Or will you instead go inside your houses and close the doors so as not to smell the smoke rising from the incinerators? The choice is yours alone to make.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Does getting caught nullify sincere remorse?

These days Josh Duggar is on the hot seat, but his 15 minutes of fame will flicker out soon enough.  The next time around it will be a big name celebrity, a well known athlete, some politician, or a famous megachurch pastor who gets caught, forgive the pun, with his pants down.

Of course Duggar "is sorry," people say, but only because he got caught with an online "Ashley Madison" affair seeking account.  And, Duggar's wife reportedly is going to forgive him and move on, which has people all over the place infuriated, and this has people asking the question is he really sincerely sorry?

Let's rephrase the question: If someone continues to misbehave, but only quits after their deeds come to light, are they truly remorseful..., or are they only sorry because they were caught in the act?

I'm going to say, a person who gets caught red-handed can be authentically sorrowful, even though they didn't slow down in their wickedness until they were exposed.  Why?  Well, in a perfect world people would feel bad about their actions and then quit; but we don't live in a perfect world, because in a perfect world people don't turn their lives into train-wrecks.  And in a perfect world people don't need to quit bad behavior, because they avoid hurting their loved ones before they even get started.

Maybe, just maybe, the best thing that can happen to some people, ones who are entrapped in a dark sin, a bondage they can't break free from, is to get caught.  For some people, they only will stop when they are confronted with their dark secret.  Being sorry doesn't depend on if you get caught or not, being sorry doesn't depend on the reason why you quit, being sorry rests somewhere else.

Sure, to those on the short end of the stick, it would be more believable that the other person is truly remorseful if they quit all on their own, and then fessed up.  That's not too realistic, not for any of us.  And, there's a little bloodthirstiness on the line when people on the outside refuse to be satisfied by another person's apology.

Again, why am I convinced that a person can continue to make matters worse right up until they get busted, and they can still be sincerely apologetic and completely remorseful and 100% genuine when they say they are sorry?  I read a story about an ancient king who had a philandering problem.

This king who had his way with the women got an attractive women pregnant, and then killed her husband after a botched attempt to cover up the pregnancy.  It was only after the king was confronted by a prophet did the king feel bad about his actions.  Afterward this king wrote one of the most famous pieces of poetry in all of history.  I'll share a snippet of the poem:

“8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (PS 51:8-17)

Just for the record, I hadn't heard of Josh Duggar before his fall from grace, and I've never watched their family's reality show.  I hope for the best for him and his wife, I've learned in counseling people that you can forgive anything if you want to, and if you let God heal your wounded heart.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Divinely dealing with Drama

Drama is draining.  No, I’m not talking about watching a movie or stage performance.  I’m talking about being exhausted by people who seem to be addicted to chaos and conflict.  They’re always troubled, attracting problems like a dorm room collects clutter.  The type of people who are constantly at odds with the world around them and who would like you to champion their cause too.  With a forearm to their forehead and pain in their voice, they are constantly in need of sympathy from everyone they know.  What can we do -- what should we do with people who unknowingly wear the label “Drama” like a merit badge?

My guess is, you feel trapped by them as they dominate every conversation with their latest dramatic circumstance.  I’m also guessing you occasionally feel obligated to step in and remedy their “critically desperate” situation.  Ask yourself, how healthy is this for you?  

Maybe you’ve noticed a pattern, after a while anyhow, either you can’t solve their problems or once you do, they are right back in another crisis.  Why does this cycle keep on repeating?  Perhaps their identity has become that of a victim, and...

And you can’t rescue a perpetual victim -- because they don’t really want to be rescued.  The more you intervene, the worse the situation becomes.  What they really want is your full undivided attention and they want you to take on their anxieties.  Actually, they want you to care more about their problems than you care about your own responsibilities.  In fact, you could say these victims of drama are selfish.  What can we do when we are in relationships with drama-centred people?  

Number one, realize we can’t fix them, only they have the power to change.  We can help by pointing them to resources or solutions, but we can’t save them.  It is compassionate or empathetic to say, “This situation is obviously painful to you.  If there were some healthy way that I could be helpful, I would be glad to help.  But, I simply can’t change the situation.  I hope the best for you, and I’m here for you, but again, this is out of my hands.”  Also, we can establish healthy boundaries in the relationship to prevent them from taking advantage of our time and energy.  Next, we can refuse to engage or participate in their drama -- that means don’t get sucked into their mess when they try to drag you into their drama.  And finally, we can model a lifestyle of peaceful calmness.  Does this sound too harsh?  

Our deepest obligation to others is to help them mature in Christ, it’s not necessary fixing their woes (real or imaginary) and we are certainly not called to enable immaturity.  We are called to love one another, and love refuses to assist in an arrested development.  Only one person on earth had the ability to resolve every problem that was presented to Him, but did He?

Jesus didn’t didn’t try to fix every mess that people laid at His feet.  “Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”  But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?”” (Luke 12:13-14 ESV)
I think it’s very liberating to realize the One who could meet the demands of people every single time, didn’t.  You and I don’t have to feel guilty when we don’t rush in and try to rescue people who are addicted to drama.  Sometimes the best help we can give people isn’t the quick fix they hope for, instead, we help people best when we follow Jesus’ example.  


Thursday, August 6, 2015

Could A Capella music send you to hell?

I am thankful for how my faith & thinking have been shaped within a cappella churches. My faith journey began in a mainline church of Christ and though I'm not in one now, I still hold tightly to our Restoration Movement principles.  Many people who practice non-instrumental worship think using an instrument in the worship service is a sin that leads to damnation. What if it is actually the other way around?

The argument against instruments goes basically like this: Instruments were Old Testament, and we are New Testament Believers; the Bible, particularly the New Testament, is silent on the use of instruments, therefore instruments are unauthorized.  

It is interesting or ironic that the early church as recorded in the book of Acts and throughout the rest of the Bible, the early believers, didn't differentiate between what we call the Old Testament, and the New. The Bible which Jesus, Peter, Paul, and everyone else recorded in the New Testament preached out of was actually what we call the Old Testament.... So if we want to say the first churches were making a Biblical stance for non-instrumental worship, one would be hard pressed to back that up.

People who make a case for a capella music often say the change from using instruments to non happens at the Cross, even though the Bible never makes this statement.  What changed from the Cross to the resurrection in the practice of our worship to God?

* Sacrifice practices clear: Heb 7:18-19, 9:23-28

* Temple/location clear JN 4:21-24

* Priesthood clear I Pet 2:4-5

Considering the Nature of God we need to ask: If God changed His mind about the use or acceptability of instruments, and now instruments are forbidden, wouldn't He dedicate one simple verse saying in the Bible communicating, "Instruments will condemn you..."?

Scripture warns against adding to and taking away from the Bible, Deut 4:2, Deut 12:32 and Rev 22:18.  If God's word gives instructions and promotes instruments and never has a single passage forbidding the use of instruments, then we must be careful we aren't adding to, or taking away from the inspired word.

But what about how instruments aren't authorized in the New Testament?  Number one, it's hard to argue from silence... Number two, the New Testament refers to the Old and says "all Scripture is profitable..."  II Tim 3:16-17.

Many people who argue from silence and say instruments are no longer appropriate will interpret/apply Scripture through a methodology/hermeneutic that looks for Commands, Examples, or Inferences.  There are plenty of passages in the Old Testament to support the use of instrument, but what about the New?  

Since  Jesus, the Apostles, and everyone else recorded using a Bible in the New Testament would've been using the "Old" Testament, it's fair to say they would have noticed what the Bible communicates about instruments -- so further instructions as in commands might not be necessary.  

But what about examples or inferences?  Are there actual examples or inferences of New Testament-Christian-Believers using instruments, recorded in the Bible?  Yes.

Where are the examples or inferences? Acts 3:1 Peter and John were going to the Temple at the hour of prayer.  What took place in the Temple?  The use of instruments.  

Also, Acts 5:42 mentions that daily the early believers were in the Temple, again a place where instruments were used in worship.  

Paul is in the Temple fulfilling some Jewish vows in Acts 21:26 ff. when he's assaulted.  Paul is fulfilling the vows to prove that as a Christian he strictly observes the Mosaic Law, see Acts 21:20-24.  
I'm not interested in arguing for or against the use of instruments.  I really don't mind either form of worship.  I do mind when believers argue and give off the wrong impression to non-believers.  When we are argumentative and judgmental towards other believers, we give the whole church a bad reputation and it negatively impacts our ability to reach the lost. 

No, I don't think a cappella is going to send anyone to hell -- but the wrong attitude could jeopardize one's salvation.  I am worried about believers who take a stance that people who use instruments are going to hell.  Jesus says, "Judge not lest you be judge... your standard of measure will measured against you." In other words, Matt 7:1-2 clearly communicates if you expect perfection from others, God will require that from you.  How you judge others, God will judge you. 
I think it would be shame to forfeit one's salvation based on condemning others to hell over a matter of opinion, a grey area, a subject God Himself didn't use one single verse to condemn.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

From the other side of the pulpit

We need vibrant churches to enjoy a thriving community where families are spiritually healthy and people know true peace.  And we know, a lot is riding on the person in the pulpit.  If your congregation recently replaced anyone on staff or if you’ve ever called a new minister to serve, I imagine you put a lot of thought into what you hoped for out of the ministerial relationship.  More than likely, you clearly communicated your needs to your church leader.  Chance are, most of the folks in your church are unclear about the needs of the church staff.

Maybe you’ve noticed, we don’t have many young people going into professional ministry.  By the way, the word “professional” isn’t just the opposite of an amateur, it began as a religious word, as in one who professes God’s word.  And these days there can be a high turnover rate in many pulpits.  Ministry is stressful, exhausting, and it takes a toll on those who God calls to serve and their families too.  Is there anything we can do to address this?  

Since the Reverend, Pastor, Preacher, Minister or Evangelist, (or whatever title your church uses for the person in your pulpit) might not tell you what they need too, please allow me to share some insights from the other side of the pulpit.

Before I go further, one of the reasons I even have the freedom to write this, is because I’m blessed to serve in a really loving church.  We have families in church who make me feel special and who go to great lengths to express their appreciation to me.  I even have an “adopted mom” who calls me son.

Sadly, I know too many ex-ministers who weren’t so fortunate.  I’d guess if you looked around your sanctuary Sunday mornings, there are more former ministers sitting in the pews than there are people serving on your pastoral staff.  I also, from my past experiences, know firsthand what it’s like to serve in a vampire church -- those churches can drain the life out of their ministers, leaving them depressed and bitter.  

For many of us who shepherd the flock, we occasionally suffer from bouts of feeling inadequate.  After all, we deal with some of life’s deepest concerns and who is ever fully qualified to speak on eternal matters week-in-week-out, guide people, counsel people, pastor people, and allthewhile stay fresh, relevant, engaging and dynamic?  You can’t hit a homerun every time you are up to bat and here in church there’s no off season.  Yes, the person in your pulpit occasionally wrestles with questions over their calling.  Monday mornings can be difficult as we replay Sunday over in our minds.  

Summer is a busy time for many families, with vacationing and an increase in outdoor activities, and church attendance can lag for the typical member.  Though most ministers won’t mention this, we tend to feel personally responsible when attendance dips at anytime.  No, “nickels and noses” aren’t the best signs for measuring how healthy a church is, but nobody's perfect and we in ministry grapple with the ups & downs of church life.  Stay in touch with your church staff, I promise, they are thinking of you even when you aren’t there.

I’m blessed to have a very supportive family.  A minister's entire family sacrifices for the church since they share the minister's time with everyone else’s family more so than any other individual.  Much like a “sport’s widow” who loses her husband to the couch every football season, the minister's family sees less of their loved one, especially on Sundays.  Your minister probably feilds more phone calls, makes more visits, attends more meetings, and is involved in more activities than they will mention from the pulpit.  Please remember this the next time you are tempted to rehash the old joke about how preachers “only work a half hour a week...”

So while your minister will never demand the respect they deserve or complain about the fatigue they carry (as they “grin & bear it), what I hope to encourage you to do, is to express your appreciation for your church’s leaders.  Write your ministers encouraging notes, because believe me, they hear from plenty of people who aren’t happy more often.  Share a meal with your minister, congratulate them on a well delivered message, and thank their spouse for sharing their loved one with the flock.  

If you are feeling really thankful, give your minister a giftcard to a bookstore, send them to a seminar to continue their education, send them & their spouse away for a weekend, or consider their need for a paid sabbatical.   Chances are high your minister will never ask for anything like this for fear of rejection or of seeming weak, needy, or selfish.  And keep this in mind: Ministerial burnout doesn’t just hurt the preacher and his family, it impacts the entire body. Sadly, ministers go without the refreshing they need until it’s too late.  The truth is, it’s a lot harder to pump water from a well that’s gone dry...

Finally, give your minister permission to preach on the tough topics (not just the timely ones) as in the perennial topics like lust, greed, materialism, selfishness, gossip, justice and the need to care for the downtrodden.  Don’t shackle or bind the person God has called to deliver His word; they have a fire in their bones and they need to know that when they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, they won’t end up being thrown in a cistern by the brethren -- a “moving” sermon shouldn’t include packing up a UHaul for its conclusion.  

Saturday, July 18, 2015

You won't always be the headliner in life, and that's fine

(Brandon Heath opening for Toby Mac in Kingsport TN at Funfest 7/16/15)

Parents simply don't tell their young kids, "When you grow up, you can be anything you want, you could be the Vice President!"  As a culture we undervalue anything short of 1st place.  Is that healthy?  What does it take to bring out our potential anyway?

The only way we get better at whatever our craft is, is to keep doing over & over what we are trying to perfect with practice, effort, feedback, and hopefully with a lot of encouragement from those who count along the way.  

Whether it's music, writing, any art or task, we have to keep working at getting better.  In life, no one sets out to be the opening band, that's more like a starting place in the minds of most.  Yes, die hard fans, committed family, close friends & loved ones love the opening band, still the opening band knows many of the general fans came to see the headliner.  

The truth is, the opening band is hardest working crew on stage.  They are pouring their heart & soul into their music, they are hungry, and they won't settle for anything but giving their fans their best effort.  Headliners can leave us with the sense they are going through the motions, it's all routine. 

I think building your reputation as an artist or craftsman or practitioner is much more rewarding than resting on past accomplishments. To be future oriented is healthier than thinking your best days are behind you. "Arriving" is a moving target that is ever allusive. 

If you find yourself in the "opening band" category of life and you wrestle with it, one step that will help bring you peace is the realization you aren't in competition with the headliners. You are your own standard. You are unique. 

The other night as I waited with our son for Toby Mac to take the stage, the opener, Brandon Heath, was so humble and he played his heart out in such a way, I was impressed, it gave me a new appreciation for the folks in life who show up and work hard even though most of the crowd is waiting on someone else.

Brandon Heath also showed me the difference between performing well, and putting on a performance to just impress people.  Brandon definitely accomplished the former.

In life we won't always be on the center stage, we won't always be the name on the marque, sometimes we are the ones off to the side.  Trying to get published, recorded, filmed, or wherever you are trying to make headway in won't be easy, but it's even harder if you think you are going make it there the easy way... and everyone else is your competition.  

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Skin like Styrofoam

As a kid I loved drinking out of Styrofoam cups.  When I was finished with my drink, I liked to bite off chunks all the way around the rim.  I'd chew the Styrofoam and then, well, spit it out.  Then came the days when people complained that Styrofoam wouldn't ever go away in our landfills and you couldn't recycle it, it was bad news.  I still enjoyed biting my cup anyway.

You have to be careful when you hold Styrofoam; if you hold it too tightly, you'll crush it.  It works great for coolers, but they break easily too.  Lately, I've come to think of people as having Styrofoam skin.  It looks like it's strong, but it's looks are deceptive.  There are a lot of loud people who act strong, but are about as sturdy as a Styrofoam cup.

Somehow as a culture we've lost our ability to be flexible and roll with being offended.  Frankly, I think we are setting an unhealthy trend.  People need to be able to be offended, and we need to quit acting like it's the end of the world when someone says or stands for something we don't like.

PC, politically correct correctness has evolved, or maybe better said devolved, into an emotionally handicapping state of affairs.  If it's not PC, then it's people being offended over phrases or symbols or stances they find unacceptable.  You may not like what someone says or what they stand for, but you shouldn't crumple emotionally over the situation.  Get over it and move on.

If we as a culture or nation can't handle being offended, we won't be able to defend ourselves from real threats, threats that can destroy us.  We will no longer be the land of the free or the home of the brave, not if we chose to live in mamby pamby land, and the idea of mamby pamby land makes me want to spit.