Thursday, November 29, 2007

Great time in Mississippi

My wife and I just got back from a 6-day "Thanksgiving" visit with our daughter Rebecca and her family in Gulfport, MS. It's so much fun to be with them, to see how they've all grown and matured, to witness God's patient work in the two churches my son-in-law pastors, to play with my grandkids...and to experience just a LITTLE bit of winter (as compared to Florida!).

Some highlights of the trip (yes, I probably gained 10 pounds on this trip):
  • Fried turkey
  • Pecan pie
  • Sweet potato casserole
  • Lunch at the "pancy new McDonald's" (grandson Eben's term for the new McDonald's with computer games inside!)
  • Sunday morning worship at Handsboro Presbyterian Church
  • Smoked ribs
  • Fried shrimp po' boy and onion rings
  • Riding the carousel with Eben
  • Giving Tyler and Eben "towel throws" and "towel rolls" on their mom & dad's bed
  • Getting grandson Tate to laugh and talk to me
  • Watching the movie, Shattered Glass (a great rental)
  • Laughing at Dancing with the Stars
  • Steak on the grill
  • Playing the game Compatibility and laughing at all the times sex came up
  • Walking with my wife
  • Shopping for Christmas toys for the grandkids
  • Take-out from McAlisters
Ah, the pleasures of being a husband, father, and granddad.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Knowing, Growing, and Serving

For those of you who attend my church, it may be instructive to reflect upon the fall series of sermons I finished last weekend. The nine sermons I preached between September and November were grouped around our church's mission statement, which says that we exist to help people know God, grow together, and serve others.

You probably did not know this, but a team of twelve people called the Congregational Life Team helped me considerably with this sermon series. Back in August and September, the Team and I collaborated on identifying "Nine Marks of a Transformed Life." These nine marks are simply an elaboration on Knowing God, Growing Together, and Serving Others. They identify the core traits of someone who is growing more and more conformed into the image of Christ. Of course no one will ever attain perfection in this life, so these nine marks are really goals toward which we are always striving. But they provide a way for us to know if we are on track with our planning, programs, and activities at UPC, and give all of us something to aim for in our Christian walk.

So here's a list of my sermons this fall, each of which is matched up with one of the Nine Marks of a Transformed Life. If you want to listen to a sermon, go to our church website (www.upc-orlando.com) and look for the Audio Resources tab.


KNOWING GOD

1 - The transformed person enjoys God in worship

Sermon: "Captivated by God" (Psalm 84)

2 - The transformed person engages in God's Word through study and prayer

Sermon: "How To Overcome Bible-Phobia" (Psalm 119:97-112)

3 - The transformed person lives by God’s promises

Sermon: "Preach the Gospel to Yourself" (Galatians 2:20)


GROWING TOGETHER

4 - The transformed person applies the gospel of grace in relationships

Sermon: "How To Get Along with Others Who Don't" (Romans 12:9-21)

5 - The transformed person invests time and energy in a small group

Sermon: "Being Authentic" (Hebrews 10:19-25)

6 – The transformed person fulfills his/her church membership vows

Sermon: "Church -- You Gotta Love It" (1 Timothy 3:1-16)


SERVING OTHERS

7 - The transformed person exercises his/her gifts and passions in all of life

Sermon: "Living Deliberately" (1 Peter 4:7-11)

8 - The transformed person practices biblical principles of financial stewardship

Sermon: "Giving Deliberately" (Malachi 3:6-12)

9 – The transformed person shares his/her faith in word and deed in Orlando & around the world

Sermon: "We Can Change the World" (Matthew 5:13-16)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thankful

Today is Thanksgiving. Here are just a few of the things that I'm grateful for today...
  • I'm thankful I have a family. Today I drove some homeless people "home" after our church fed them Thanksgiving dinner. A man named Jim told me his unhappy story of parents he has not seen in years, a sister who doesn't want to have anything to do with him, and a wife who killed herself some years back. There are thousands of people like Jim throughout the world. By contrast, I had parents who provided well for me. My family members genuinely love each other. I have a wife who has loved me well for 31+ years. And I have children who love God and are filling & subduing the earth and using their God-given gifts for his glory. For this I say, "Thank you, Lord."
  • I'm thankful I am healthy. I have a friend in SC whose daughter has breast cancer. A lot of people in my church have to put up with chronic fatigue, bad backs, arthritis, bad hearts, tumors, leftover pain from surgery, and a host of other maladies. By contrast, I played tennis this morning. I'll play racquetball tomorrow. My heart beats irregularly every now and then, but other than that I seem to be in great health (subject to change any moment, of course!). For this I say, "Thank you, Lord."
  • I'm thankful for friends. A lot of people go through life alone. I see a lot of lonely people every day and even at church on Sunday. By contrast, I'm in a small group and we laugh together and share the hard things of life together. I'm in a men's group and we talk about marriage and kids and identity and vocation. I have pastor friends scattered around the country and friends from previous churches with whom I still connect. And at my church I count scores of people as my friends. For this I say, "Thank you, Lord."
  • I'm thankful for America. I could have been born anywhere but here, at anytime in history other than now. But God allowed me to grow up in a place of freedom and in a time of prosperity. Certainly there are spiritual dangers associated with comfort, affluence, and plenty, and America is not perfect. But think of our freedoms - to get an education, to worship, to vote, to dissent, to own property, to earn a living, to travel, to build a business, and many others. For these I say, "Thank you, Lord."
  • I'm thankful for the Bible. There are people groups in the world that don't have the Scriptures in their language. There are countries in the world that do not treasure the Bible, governments that suppress it from getting into the hands of men and women, boys and girls. There are churches in the US that once preached the Bible but now hardly open it. By contrast, I belong to a church and a denomination that sees the Bible as God's inerrant, infallible, authoritative Word. God has seen fit to give me a sound theological education deeply rooted in the Reformed tradition. He has surrounded me with godly men and women who have taught me the ways of God. He has spoken to me over and over from the Bible. And countless people gave their lives so that I could own an English Bible and read it for myself. For this I say, "Thank you, Lord."
  • Most of all, I'm thankful for Jesus. I am a really big sinner. There's an old hymn by Thomas Pollack that pretty well sums up the general state of my heart. I'll quote stanzas 1-4 in full:

We have not known Thee as we ought,
Nor learned Thy wisdom, grace and power;
The things of earth have filled our thought,
And trifles of the passing hour.
Lord, give us light Thy truth to see,
And make us wise in knowing Thee.

We have not feared Thee as we ought,
Nor bowed beneath Thine awful eye,
Nor guarded deed and word and thought,
Remembering that God was nigh.
Lord, give us faith to know Thee near,
And grant the grace of holy fear.

We have not loved Thee as we ought,
Nor cared that we are loved by Thee;
Thy presence we have coldly sought,
And feebly longed Thy face to see.
Lord, give a pure and loving heart
To feel and know the love Thou art.

We have not served Thee as we ought,
Alas, the duties left undone,
The work with little fervor wrought,
The battles lost or scarcely won!
Lord, give the zeal, and give the might,
For Thee to toil, for Thee to fight.

I'm thankful for Jesus because even though all those things are true about me, He traded places with me on the cross. He gave me the benefits of His obedient life and His submissive death. He gave me His righteousness and took on Himself my sin. And because of Jesus, I am forgiven, justified, adopted, sanctified, loved, accepted, treasured, pursued, included, and redeemed. For this I say, "Thank you, God!"

Monday, November 12, 2007

Silly cat



These are some recent pictures of our cat Cleopatra. Suzy and I borrowed a "Cat Sitter" DVD and thought it would be fun to see Cleo's reaction to it. You can see that she loved it. It's just one long video of mice, gerbils, birds, and cats, complete with sounds. Cleo was transfixed by it.

The third picture shows Cleo with a plastic thing around her neck. We had to take her to the vet yesterday because the incision from her spaying the week before came undone (!) and was getting infected. Yuck! The plastic thing keeps her from licking her wound. Yiiiickk!!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Grrrr!

I just paid $3.25 per gallon to fill up my gas tank! (I have to put mid-grade fuel in my minivan.) Yikes!

This is crazy. Mass transportation, here we come!

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Hoax

My wife & I rented the movie The Hoax, starring Richard Gere, last week. It's about author Clifford Irving and his attempt in 1971-72 to write a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes and pass it off as genuine. I thought the movie was extremely interesting, very well acted, and effective at recreating the feel of the early '70s. Alfred Molina, who plays Irving's cohort Richard Suskind, was especially good at showing Suskind's sad victimization by Irving.

The story itself was fascinating. While I remember the whole mystique about Howard Hughes quite well, I was not familiar with Irving and the fake autobiography. I was 18 years old when the book was published by McGraw-Hill. It's amazing that Irving got as far as he did with it, fooling the publishing world with forged letters from Hughes and elaborate stories of his interviews with the strange billionaire.

From a spiritual perspective, The Hoax gives a very clear depiction of the blinding, enticing power of sin. It shows the truth of Jeremiah 17:9 - "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" While Irving's sin was a lot more "out there" than ours, it was no different in kind from our more subtle forms of lying, using people for our own advantage, manipulating circumstances to get out of trouble, blame-shifting, and violating our promises.

According to the movie, Irving needed money and he was plagued by a guilty conscience. So rather than repent and look to God for mercy, he tacked on the "fig leaves" of a grand plot to write a best-selling novel and pass it off as an autobiography of an eccentric figure. He thought, "If I can just become rich and famous, people will like me, forgive me, and validate my existence." I can think of plenty of times when, rather than face the truth, confess my sin, and deal with it head-on, I either lied my way out of it or found something to distract my attention away from my pain. The Hoax shows very convincingly that "your sin will find you out" (Numbers 32:23), and that persistent sin only leaves in its wake broken lives and hearts.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Priceline

I think those Priceline commercials featuring William Shatner are great. But I had never actually used Priceline until today. I needed to rent an SUV for a trip my family and I are planning around Christmas time, so I gave Priceline a try. All the rental prices I looked at elsewhere were astronomical. So just on a whim I entered a much lower figure on the Priceline website...and it was accepted by Avis! It was about half the going rate from the cheapest rental car company. Even with taxes and fees added in, it looks like I saved over $400.

Next time I'm looking for a hotel or car or something, I'll check out Priceline again.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween

OK, I admit it...I love Halloween.

The costumes, the trick-or-treat, the candy, everything.

In fact, as I write this post, I am sitting in my living room waiting for another knock on our door so I can dole out candy bars and Skittles to another cute kid.

I know that many people would say a Christian shouldn't love Halloween, but I do. I always have. It was great fun as a kid dressing up and going around the neighborhood collecting candy, and then stuffing my face with it after I got home. And then when our kids were growing up, Halloween was almost more fun for our family than Christmas. I still remember some of the more hilarious costumes our kids wore. They were usually quite creative. My favorite was the year David wore a Richard Nixon mask.

The churches I've served (until the present one) seemed to think Christian children ought to have a "Halloween alternative" (which translated means: dress up as Bible characters, Disney characters, football players, etc. - just not witches and ghosts and demons - and collect candy and stuff your face with it after you get home). I was never a big fan of those events. I have always felt that Halloween gives Christian families an unparalleled opportunity to walk around the neighborhood, meet the neighbors we rarely talk to the rest of the year, have fun with the kids, and show people we're normal. It has always bothered me that many Christians withdraw from the culture and have their "alternative" celebrations.

I know the arguments, and if you believe Christians shouldn't participate in Halloween I see your point. I just think that, as long as your kids aren't dressing up like Satan or something, it's pretty harmless. It's a time for community, for family, for being salt and light.

And eating a lot of candy.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Logos Bible Software

Wow. I'm excited about a new software program I invested in for Bible study and sermon preparation. It's called Logos, and it's amazing. I got the Scholar's Library edition, which says it contains over 335 different study resources. I've been playing around with it and seeing what a help it will be to my exegesis of Bible texts.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Kingdom

I saw The Kingdom tonight. It's a brutal look at America's fragile relationship with Saudi Arabia, through a story of a terrorist attack on an American compound in Riyadh. Though fictional, the story was inspired by real events that occurred in 2003, when suicide attacks attributed to Al-Qaeda killed 35 Americans and injured more than 160.

It's a scary movie, in the sense of putting you in the heart of the tension.

I found myself getting scared that on the way home from the theater, some car bomb would go off by the roadside. It was that graphic. The bombing and gunfight sequences were amazing and terrifying.

I was a bit surprised by the politically incorrect perspective of the movie. I expected more of an anti-war, anti-American message. Americans were portrayed as genuine heroes. Unfortunately, they were way too invincible. Like comic book figures, they somehow escaped getting killed by all the bullets and rockets that came flying at them. Jennifer Garner was especially indestructible. There were also too many cute comments by the actors.

The Muslim extremists in the film were exactly that...extreme. The movie takes you into the heart and mind of the terrorists, shows you how they make car bombs and suicide vests, and gets uncomfortably close to a scene of torture.

You also get a sense of the dutiful blindness of terrorist religion. It was sad to watch as commitment to Allah drove many of the Muslims in the movie to senseless, horrific acts of murder. It was particularly uncomfortable to see children getting killed and being used as soldiers of Jihad.

As hard to watch as this movie was for me at times, what's more depressing is to realize that while I sit comfortably writing this post, that stuff is really happening over there in the Middle East. The only hope for this world is the TRUE kingdom. It's a kingdom of peace, not violence; of love, not hate...with Christ, the Prince of Peace, on the throne.

More than ever I want to pray, "Thy kingdom come!"

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Catching up

I have not posted anything for WEEKS! So, here's an overview of the Top Ten Things That Have Been Keeping Me Busy...

1) Travel. I took a week off to visit my daughter and her family in Gulfport, MS. Always a great treat! It's wonderful seeing how God is using them to build the kingdom in a place that has experienced a lot of pain. I got to spend lots of time with my grandkids. They make me happy in so many ways. Plus I brought a present back with me -- a cat named...

2) Cleopatra! She was a stray cat that showed up at my daughter's home. She was skinny and unhealthy looking, but now - thanks to some tender loving care - she's healthy and happy as can be. She's an illustration of redemption - God taking us on when we're His enemies, loving us when we're unloveable and have nothing to offer, and adopting us as His children. His love transforms us from orphans into sons and daughters. Under His loving eye, what was once duty becomes choice.

3) Ministry. It's been a fun and refreshing challenge to serve as interim pastor at my church while we look for a new senior pastor. I love preaching every week. I love the shepherding role. It keeps me in the Word and pushes me forward in faith. The people at my church are fantastic. They are excited to see what the future holds, and their excitement encourages me to be excited too.

4) Teaching. I teach a preaching lab at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. It's fulfilling helping guys hone their preaching skills. I'm inspired when a guy breaks through the fear and delivers a passionate sermon.

5) Marriage. My wife and I are still adjusting to the empty nest. It's strangely quiet around the house now that our youngest son is in college. We are being challenged to grow and stretch in new ways so that our lives don't lose the energy of earlier years.

6) Movies. I've seen Elizabeth: The Golden Age (beautiful cinematography, questionable history, great acting, sloooooowww story!), Michael Clayton (great story though it took me quite a while to figure out what was going on), Bourne Ultimatum (best action film I've seen in years, and I finally understood a Bourne movie), 3:10 to Yuma (totally engrossing).

7) Facebook. Yes that's right, I'm hooked.

8) FSU. I'm becoming a fan...although it's a miserable season for switching allegiances.

9) Car repairs. Seems that both our cars are choosing to persecute me right now. We had to get a new A/C for our '02 Kia Optima (100,000+ miles) and now the "check engine" light is on...again. Our '95 Nissan Quest (211,000+ miles) is experiencing dementia and arthritis.

10) Friendships. My wife and I are doing a marriage study with our small group that meets every Tuesday night, and it's quite good. I enjoy playing racquetball with two guys twice a week. I meet with a men's group for lunch every Monday. I am getting together often with the elders and deacons of my church and love getting to know them better. I enjoy our neighbors next door, who are also in my small group. And I play tennis sporadically on Fridays with another friend of mine. God has surrounded me with men and women I enjoy knowing and who spur me on.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Tate has a car


It's the week of birthdays for two of our grandkids. Our grandson Tate turned ONE this past Thursday! We sent him this car.

He's come a long way in one year, from lying around like a helpless baby to crawling to walking...and now driving!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Tyler

My granddaughter Tyler turns SIX YEARS OLD in four days! Wow, that's unbelievable to me. I'll have the pleasure of visiting Tyler (and her family, of course) for a few days next week and we'll celebrate her birthday while I'm there. Our daughter Rebecca asked Tyler what special place she would like the family to go to for dinner that night. Her reply: CiCi's Pizza!

Today, Tyler called me. We had the longest talk on the phone we've ever had. I believe we talked for an HOUR! She is so interesting and has so much to say. When she finally ran out of things to say, she said, "Dad-Dad [that's me], you can get off the phone now."

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Busyness

If you're one of the people who check out my blog from time to time, you've noticed how much less I'm posting these days. Since taking over the "interim" role at my church, life has gotten way more unpredictable and busy. It's made me appreciate Jesus more, as I read about his rather leisurely pace in spite of the fact that he had such a limited amount of time to do his earthly work.

When I'm pressed for time, I pick up the pace. I skip quiet time and race here and there, desperately trying to squeeze all my duties into the day. Not so, Jesus. Like in Luke 6:12 it says, "One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God."

One of my favorite books is The Contemplative Pastor, by Eugene Peterson. It's very convicting. The title itself seems to raise the bar to an impossibly high level. But I do aspire to be a contemplative pastor. Peterson, a pastor himself, poses a very good question: "How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything fit into place?" He goes on to say bluntly,

The word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.

So if you think of me, pray that I will increasingly become an un-busy pastor. If Jesus needed time to think, pray, muse, rest, and connect with God and other human beings, how much more do I!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Bible reading

I should have posted this a few days ago to give you more time to respond, but...I'll go ahead and ask. I'm preaching Sunday on the importance of Bible reading. It would help me if a few of you would answer this question:

What obstacles do you encounter when it comes to having a regular, meaningful, and satisfying Bible reading discipline?

I can imagine some of the obstacles. "Kids" would rank way up pretty high on some lists, I'm sure. But what else?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Advertising horror

Every year about this time around Orlando the big theme parks put up billboards promoting their Halloween events. Busch Gardens in Tampa offers "Howl-O-Scream." Universal Studios has "Halloween Horror Nights." To their credit, Disney World promotes what they call "Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party."

It's those first two events that I'm talking about. The billboards are over the top this year. If I were a kid looking at those pictures, I'd freak out. I'd have nightmares. The pictures are more graphic than ever before. The "Halloween Horror Nights" billboard features Freddy Krueger, Jason, and Leatherface, the "stars" from movies like Nightmare on Elm Street and Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The show is called "Carnival of Carnage." The Busch Gardens billboard is equally frightening. I bet every time you young parents drive past those signs you have to lunge for your kids to cover their eyes.

It's irresponsible to put up billboards like that.

At the same time, it's a commentary on our culture's fascination with death. There are an amazing number of horror movies made every year in the U.S. Each one seems to get more graphic and disturbing than the one before. Many (like Saw) are unnervingly violent. What does this say about us?

The Scriptures teach that human beings fear death more than just about anything (Hebrews 2:15). So perhaps making slasher movies and creating horrible Halloween experiences are ways we try to "tame" death - confining it to the screen or to a theme park - so that we can walk out of the theater or the theme park unscathed and feel like we've beaten death after all.

But death can't be tamed. It can be beaten, but only through faith in Jesus who conquered death when he rose from the grave.

When Jesus stood by the tomb of his friend Lazarus he wept (John 11:35). He was "deeply moved in spirit and troubled" (John 11:33). Death made Jesus furious. Death is hell's revolt against God, a spit in the eye of the Creator who breathed life into man. Death is a sign of the curse. It's no wonder that death terrifies human beings, because it ushers them into eternity -- an eternity in which many people find no comfort or reason for hope.

So in a strange way, I think people are trying to find hope. If they can only show that death may look horrible but it's really impotent, then they can be comforted about the future. What they need is real hope, which is found only in a relationship with Jesus.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Vision Awareness Sunday

Today was Vision Awareness Sunday at our church. It's one of the "big deals" that we have every year about this time. Even though it exhausts me, I love it.

Today's production was a parody of Lord of the Rings mixed with a little Wizard of Oz and Pirates of the Caribbean. Here are just some of the things I liked about this year's Vision Awareness blow-out:
  • Clay sounded just like Gollum and was a lot funnier. He's quite the talent.
  • Matt....where did THAT accent come from? It was hilarious!
  • Brent V. deserves a studio contract. He's a great actor.
  • Karin also! Great stage presence.
  • Erik has a great pirate "AARRGGHH!!"
  • Fiona our narrator. She could say anything and sound brilliant. Which is one of her favorite words.
  • Loved the volcano!
  • Brent L. is one of the funniest guys I've ever met. He needs to make a movie.
  • Jonathan and the band were ON...especially for "Waiting for the World to Change."
  • Jason R. - the new UPC guitar god.
  • We have a great sound/media crew...they make everybody look good.
  • The Congregational Life Team worked so hard during the summer to get everything ready for the big day. What a great pleasure to work with them.
Today's production will be hard to top next year!

I'm glad to be part of a church where we can do things like this.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Security

My friend Ken sent me this quotation today. It's from Eugene Peterson's book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction:

"All the persons of faith I know are sinners, doubters, uneven performers. We are secure not because we are sure of ourselves but because we trust that God is sure of us."

Friday, August 31, 2007

Facebook

Believe it or not, I'm on Facebook. It seems very complicated to me right now, but I'm learning. It's fascinating to me that there are more and more ways people can connect with each other. That's a good thing. But I can see that a person can spend all day "connecting" yet never actually see anybody. That's not a good thing.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Mother Teresa and doubt

It's been in the news a lot lately that Mother Teresa (1910-1997) struggled more than anyone knew with doubt and a sense of alienation from God. What strikes me about this is that people are surprised by it. The public figured all along that if there's anyone (besides Billy Graham perhaps) who was perfect, it was Mother Teresa. Even Christians invoke her name when trying to illustrate the standard of perfection to which God calls human beings.

Time magazine called her doubt "Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith." Raymond Flynn, former Ambassador to the Vatican, called it "the work of the devil." Whatever (or whoever) the source of her struggles, I'm sure atheist Christopher Hitchins feels vindicated for calling Mother Teresa "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud." I prefer to think of her as an ordinary woman who knew and expressed the love of Jesus a lot better than I do.

Not that I wish doubt upon anyone, but in a way it's good the world is talking about Mother Teresa's feelings of emptiness. Perhaps it will lead some to the truth that Christianity is not a "things go better with Jesus" kind of religion. Perhaps it will lead some to read portions of the Bible like Psalm 13 ("How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?"), Psalm 22 ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"), Psalm 55 ("My heart is severely pained within me, and the terrors of death have fallen upon me"), or the books of Job, Lamentations, and others.

I ran across an excellent essay on Scriptorium Daily called "Why Was Mother Teresa Sad?" The author, Fred Sanders, offers these 10 possible reasons Mother Teresa often went through the dark night of the soul:

1. Maybe it’s depressing to be immersed in the lives of the poor of Calcutta, every day for your whole life. Think about the last thing you saw that “ruined your day.” Then think Calcutta.

2. Maybe she was very empathetic. See point 1, repeat.

3. Maybe her sense of God’s nearness was so intense for a brief time in the 1940s that everything after that seemed, by comparison, empty. The key is, “by comparison.”

4. Maybe she inherited from her religious culture an unrealistic set of expectations about the level of spiritual intimacy to expect in her emotional life. Whether it is the expectation of “being visited by extraordinary consoling graces” in a Catholic context or “he walks with me and he talks with me” in an evangelical context, the gap between the rhetoric and the daily reality can be a steep drop.

5. Maybe her special gift was more about outward activity than inward contemplation, and whenever somebody asked her to write down her big sins, she came up with besetting doubt. So her life is 95% obedient service, and 5% darkness and doubt. (A corollary of this one is, Maybe she wasn’t perfect)

6. Maybe the twenty-one thousandth time you wake up thinking, “Hey, I’m pretty cool, I bet Jesus is really pleased with me,” – only to catch yourself at that nonsense — you get a little depressed that this sinful self-congratulation thing isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

7. Maybe she developed, over the years of prayer, Bible study, church attendance, and service, an appropriately elevated sense of how high and exalted God is compared to any human achievement or conduct. It could be that the people who throw themselves into obedience the most whole-heartedly are the ones who are most able to see how exalted God is, and how petty, partial, and weak our best response is.

8. Maybe a life-long relationship with Jesus Christ is a life-long relationship with a person whose presence is spiritual rather than physical, whose standard conduct is not to reply verbally when spoken to, whom “having not seen, we love,” and who is currently at the right hand of the Father from which he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

9. Maybe prayer is talking to a God who is invisible and silent, and everything in our nature cries out that visible and speaking would be more gratifying.

10. Maybe all creation groans for the revelation of the glorious freedom of the children of God, and those who have the Holy Spirit groan in greatest solidarity with the rest of creation.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Two goodbyes in one week

Last Monday, I said goodbye to our church's Senior Pastor, who after 16 years at our church accepted a call to a church in Colorado Springs.

Tomorrow, my wife and I say "goodbye" (in a way) to our youngest son Michael, who is starting his freshman year at Florida State. Actually, he's been up in Tallahassee for a week looking for a job (which he found!). But we're taking the rest of his personal belongings to him, setting up his dorm room, and leaving him in the hands of...whom??!!

God.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Sanctity of Human (and Dog) Life

For weeks now, we've heard story after story on the news about Falcons' QB Michael Vick and allegations about his cruelty to animals. Today, it's official. Two of his co-defendants pled guilty and implicated Vick as one who tortured and killed dogs in connection with dogfighting.

According to Fox News, Vick and these men collectively "executed approximately 8 dogs that did not perform well in 'testing' sessions" at the alleged dogfighting compound on Vick's property "by various methods, including hanging and drowning."

Certainly, no one - especially a Christian - should turn a blind eye to acts of animal abuse. Proverbs 12:10 says, "A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal." According to the Old Testament, animals are to enjoy the same Sabbath rest as their owners (Exodus 20:10). When an ox or donkey was seen fallen on the road, the Israelites were supposed to help its owner get it to its feet (Deut. 22:4). There's also that well-known verse about making sure a work animal gets enough nourishment while it's working: "Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain" (Deut. 25:4, 1 Timothy 5:18). In Deut. 22:6-7, God even promises a long life to those who care for mother birds (even though He gives permission to take the baby bird or eggs for food).

Humans should take care of animals because God does, and we are created in His image. God "provides food for the raven when its young cry out and wander about for lack of food" (Job 38:41). Jesus taught us that God feeds the birds of the air (Matthew 6:26) and knows when a single sparrow falls to the ground (Matthew 10:29).

Nevertheless, there's something really wrong here.

Where are the news stories about the roughly one million human lives that end every year in America by abortion? How can the same Americans who are outraged about Michael Vick find it enjoyable to pay to see slasher movies and watch depictions of human torture and killing on film? How can the same states that outlaw dogfighting (and cockfighting and taking sea turtle eggs and killing endangered species, etc.) at the same time legalize physician-assisted suicide and let murderers (like Mary Winkler) go free?

For killing eight dogs, Vick could spend 5 years in prison and pay a $250,000 fine. Mary Winkler shot and killed her husband but spent just 5 months in a county jail, followed by 2 months of therapy for depression and PTSD. She's now back to work at the same dry cleaners where she was employed before the murder.

And don't forget about O. J. Simpson.

The same Scripture passage that says God knows when a sparrow falls to the ground, goes on to say that "you are worth more than many sparrows" (Matthew 10:31). Human life is qualitatively different from and superior to that of animals. We have a soul; animals do not. We are the image of God; animals are not. God gave human beings dominion over the animal world (Genesis 1:28). Animals are subject to, and inferior to, us. We can use them to make our work easier, we can train them to obey our orders, we can buy them and sell them, and - hold your breath - we can even eat them.

Our dominion over animals does NOT justify animal abuse in any form. However, we should mourn the loss and abuse of human life far more than we do the alleged crimes of Michael Vick.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Dentist

I went to the dentist today. That is one of my most dreaded and unpleasant experiences. I think it goes back to my childhood days. My dentist in Union, SC, was trained I think by Nazis. He was a sadist! So when I go to the dentist now, I still tense up like crazy and have a hard time being a nice Christian pastor.

My dentist here in Orlando is the nicest, most gentle guy in the world. It's his dental hygienist that intimidates me. Which is weird, because she's this petite young thing with the softest voice you ever heard. But then when she gets that sharp, steel instrument in her hands she gets brutal! And the debridement...ohhh my, she becomes an expert in torture!

Look, I do my teeth right. I floss every night, I use this special electric toothbrush sold by my dentist, I brush at least twice a day. So why must she carve up my gums and dig down between my teeth like she does?! Every time she starts working on me I think of that awful scene in Marathon Man (1976) where Laurence Olivier (playing a Nazi-trained dentist like my childhood dentist) straps Dustin Hoffman into a chair and drills holes in his teeth. It's one of the most unwatchable movie scenes ever!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Fab Four

Last night I took my son Michael on a short road trip. We drove over to Daytona Beach. First we ate out at the Outback Steakhouse, and I told him that money was no object - we were going to eat anything we wanted. Michael had a big steak, and I had a full rack of baby back ribs. Delicious. Then we went to a concert. Since we are both big Beatles fans, I had bought tickets to see The Fab Four. It's billed as "the ultimate tribute to the Beatles"...and I'd agree. They were excellent!

Their website looks really cheesy, and at times the concert was too. But these guys are amazing. They dress, look, talk, and sound like the Beatles. They came out first as the Beatles appeared in their U.S. concerts in the mid-'60s, and did a set of the old standards: "She Loves You," "A Hard Day's Night," "Eight Days a Week," etc. They used all the same instruments as the Beatles, and had mastered their idiosyncrasies, vocals, guitar-playing styles - everything. Michael & I were impressed that "Paul" was even left handed.

Then after a short break, the band came out dressed in the uniforms from the Sgt. Pepper album. They played a set of songs from that era. Then another break, and out they came dressed as the Beatles appeared after their break-up when they were doing solo albums, to perform another set of songs from the Let It Be and White Album days.

I liked watching "George" best. Not only was he an excellent guitar player, but his imitation of George was spot on. "John" sounded most like . . . John. (Unfortunately, he performed Lennon's song "Imagine" late in the concert, which is one of the saddest songs ever written because of its vision of a world without God and thus without the hope it tries to promote. But, "John" performed the song very well.)

Best songs of the evening: "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "A Day in the Life." How those four guys, without any pre-recorded effects or other musicians, did such faithful renditions of those two songs, I'll never know.

This was a symbolic road trip for me. Michael heads off to FSU next weekend. So I wanted to have one "last" good time with him before he's officially a college student. Of course, our relationship is not ending. But I saw this as a fun way to close one chapter of our relationship and begin another.

The Fab Four tours a lot, so if you like the Beatles you will definitely like them. I'll go again!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth


While on vacation I saw the movie Pan's Labyrinth. It's a Spanish movie with English subtitles. It's set in 1944. While brutally violent at times, it's a wonderful story that is beautifully filmed and well acted. The special effects are amazing. Best of all, the theme of redemption is prominent. I don't want to give away the plot, but there's a close, Narnia-like connection with the gospel.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Hiromi

I'm not normally a huge jazz fan, but I am a huge fan of this woman - a jazz pianist from Japan named Hiromi Uehara. She performed three nights this week in Daytona Beach (as part of the Florida International Festival), and I went last night with my son David and daughter-in-law Lindsay.

Hiromi and her band (featuring guitarist Dave Fuzinski, below) played in a little venue called The Bank and Blues Club. We had seats close to the band, and it was just inspiring watching Hiromi set the piano keys ablaze! Check out her website for some free music downloads.

What happened in Vegas...


My wife & I celebrated our 31st anniversary (Tuesday) with a 3-day trip to Las Vegas! We just got back yesterday. It was great! A lot more fun than I was expecting.

I've gotten all sorts of shocked reactions from everyone when we told them our destination. Things like...
  • "What?! You went to Sin City?!"
  • "A preacher going to Las Vegas?!!"
  • "What kind of shows did YOU go see?!"
  • "How much money did you lose?"

Well, for the record, let me say that Suzy and I did not put one quarter in a slot machine, and the only showgirl we saw was on a billboard. Sure, there was plenty of nefariousness to be had if one wanted it. But we had a lot of fun walking up and down the Strip on sensory overload, looking at all the shops and hotels we could in the time we had.

The main attraction that took us to Vegas was the Cirque du Soleil show, Love. I've blogged about this show before. It's built entirely around a collection of Beatles songs. I came up with the idea several months ago that Suzy would love seeing that show on our anniversary. I can't describe in words how good it was. Not only did the songs sound better than ever, but if you've ever been to a Cirque show, you know how good the performers are and how surreal and breathtaking the choreography can be. All the superlatives apply! We were in awe for 90 minutes.

We also saw the Broadway musical Mamma Mia! Suzy and I aren't big ABBA fans, but the show was good and fun.

What else did we do? Well, we stayed at the Mirage hotel, and they have this humongous swimming pool where we hung out for a long time on Tuesday. We spent time walking around and gawking in Caesar's Palace, Venetian, MGM Grand, Luxor, and Paris hotels. We walked a LOT. And to finish up our stay in Nevada, we drove to the Hoover dam on Wednesday. It was amazing too.

On the down side, it was sad walking through the casinos and seeing people wasting their money on such a grand scale. But, it's just one more reminder of the fact that everybody, including me, has that God-shaped vacuum in their hearts.

Say, maybe I could plant a church in Las Vegas...

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Surrender

I'm auditing a week-long counseling class at Reformed Theological Seminary this week. It's called "Sex and Sexuality," and is being taught by a counselor from Colorado named Sharon Hersh. It's excellent.

Later I will post some of my reactions to the class. But the main takeaway so far has been one word: surrender. On Monday we listened to an audiotaped testimony of a man who struggles with same-sex attraction. He's a Christian. By God's grace his life changed when he came to a point of surrendering his same-sex attraction to Jesus. In the testimony he said this: "I surrendered my homosexuality to Jesus because Jesus asked me to."

It was a moving testimony and the highlight of the week for me. I've been asking myself, "What have I surrendered to Jesus just because He asked me to? Something that cost me as much to give up as that man's same-sex attraction meant to him?"

The Christian life is about many things, but one of the main things is surrender. It's what Jesus meant when He called us to deny ourselves, carry our cross daily, and follow Him. It's what He meant when He said we have to die in order to live.

I think we in the Christian community treat this subject very superficially. When we talk of surrender it's usually in terms of surrendering our "hearts" to Jesus (synonymous with conversion), or surrendering our wills to Jesus (synonymous with consecration). But I wonder if Jesus is calling us to a much more specific, personal, practical - and painful - life of surrender. Examples that come to mind are:
  • Surrendering our wish for a different marriage partner
  • Surrendering our desire to be healthy
  • Surrendering our love of people's praise
  • Surrendering our addiction to gossip about people
  • Surrendering our love of TV watching
  • Surrendering our need for a new _________ (fill in the blank)
  • Surrendering our secret world of sexual fantasy
Surrendering one of these types of things feels like death. It's scary because what if God doesn't fix my marriage and I'm stuck for the rest of my life? What if I end up not being well-known or respected? So surrendering calls us to die. But isn't that how Jesus experienced surrender?

What have you surrendered to Jesus just because He asked you to?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What I'm reading...

Blood Done Sign My Name, by Timothy B. Tyson. It's a personal and very engaging reflection upon the racial divide that existed in the author's hometown of Oxford, NC, during his childhood in the 1960s. Tyson, the son of a Methodist minister, is about the same age as I am. His description of conditions in the south during his childhood brought back my own memories of growing up in the small textile town of Union, SC.

I clearly remember the many ways African Americans were demeaned and discriminated against in my hometown before the 1970s. At my doctor's office they had a separate (and much smaller and plainer) waiting room. In downtown businesses they had separate water fountains and bathrooms. They had to sit in the balcony in the Duncan Theater. They had their own funeral home, taxi cabs, and restaurants. Even their obituaries were announced on the radio at a separate time from whites. They lived literally on the other side of the tracks.

My parents always employed an African American maid, as far back as I can remember. I loved them. They washed and ironed our clothes, cleaned our house, and stayed at home with me while my parents were out working. I remember riding in the car when my mother drove our maids home at the end of the day, seeing the shacks they lived in. I remember feeling very sad. But, as Tyson points out in his book, it was unfortunately the accepted way back in those days. I even remember a Ku Klux Klan rally in the fairgrounds not far from my house.

One of my most vivid memories about the racial divide in my hometown is the time there was an uprising of black high school students during the days of integration. It would have been 1970 or '71. It was scary. One day they ran through the halls of our school smashing trophy cases and windows. Eventually things calmed down, but there were National Guard troops on my high school campus for several days in a row. The whites and blacks on my football team cried together and helped keep unity during very trying times. But I can understand the anger that fueled the emotion of those days. I have not experienced, as they did, my beloved high school getting turned into a middle school...losing my school mascot and having to adopt that of another group of people who didn't want me around...or growing up knowing that many people in my town thought they were superior to me.

I recommend you read this book to get a little bit of a feel for the African American experience. Granted, it's through the eyes of a white Southerner, but that makes it all the more important.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Sermon preparation of another kind

I'm preaching this Sunday on what to do when you're stressed out. Well, God had a sense of humor today and wanted me to experience stress firsthand instead of getting my sermon done.

Here's what happened.

First, I was awakened at 3:00 a.m. this morning by the sound of our clothes dryer. It seems that one of our family members, who will remain unnamed, decided to do HIS wash in the middle of the night.

I couldn't go back to sleep.

So I decided to get up and work on my sermon a little bit. I had put 8 hours of work into it the day before. When I tried to find it on my computer, it had magically disappeared. I thought, "No problem, I'll go to the church later this morning and synch my documents with the server and it'll pop up." I didn't want to lose it.

But alas, it wasn't on the server either.

So I got our computer service company on the phone, and spent the next 2-3 hours doing everything he told me to do...to no avail. By noon today it was obvious I would have to start all over again.

Oh, one thing I forgot to mention is that earlier this morning I also played raquetball. I lost both games.

So now it's noon, right. I'm hungry. I go to Chick-Fil-A for a chargrilled chicken combo. When I walk into Chick-Fil-A it is crammed with people. There are these huge families that had emerged from big vans, and everybody's dressed up like cows. Seems Chick-Fil-A was doing a promotion of some kind today: come dressed like a cow and you get a free meal. Well, these moms brought their huge families, and the moms and all the kids were dressed like cows. It took forever for them to get their free meals.

And while I'm waiting in line to order, in behind me comes wave after wave of high school cheerleaders. They must have been at some cheerleading camp at UCF, and decided to go to Chick-Fil-A for lunch all at the same time. So after I get my food, I can hardly walk anywhere because of the throng of cheerleaders. I am not kidding, they took up every square inch of Chick-Fil-A.

I finally got to a table, sat down and ate my pitiful chicken sandwich.

So I had to start all over on my sermon this afternoon. Hopefully it'll be ready by Sunday. What's ironic is that my sermon's all about trusting our sovereign God during times of stress.

Guess I've got a lot to learn about that too.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

UPC motto, continued

A while back I posted, for interested readers, the early thoughts of my church's Congregational Life Team about a new church motto. The comments and feedback we've received since that time have been most helpful. So I thought I'd follow up that earlier post with an update. Again, I welcome your insights and comments, as this is a work in progress.

We think now that we'll stay with our old slogan, "Transforming Lives in a Changing World." That slogan has guided our church's mission for 16 years, and it still communicates well. But, like I said before, we need to make more clear to people what transformation really looks like, or how it happens. So we are proposing the following:

UPC's mission
  • Transforming Lives in a Changing World
UPC's strategy
  • Knowing God
  • Growing Together
  • Serving Others
You might be saying, "Big deal. We've rolled out slogans and models and approaches before. What makes this one different?" My answer is that this one is simple and clear. If we adopt this 3-point strategy (or something like it), our church will be able to offer a more concrete process for spiritual growth. We will also have a way to integrate our ministries and a tool to measure our effectiveness. Our plan would be to communicate everything we do in terms of this strategy. The worship folder, signs and posters in the church, ministry plans, and other materials would reinforce the words of this strategy. I would use the strategy to guide my sermon planning too.

We want those who attend UPC to understand why we do what we do, how things fit together, what they can expect to experience at our church, and how they can grow more mature in Christ. We believe this statement of mission and strategy will help.

Your reactions?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Keaggy

As I've often said, Phil Keaggy is my favorite Christian songwriter/performer. He's one who has stayed the course for several decades as a faithful believer, family man, guitar virtuoso, and inventor of new things musical. He's an animal when it comes to putting out new records and touring.

I haven't enjoyed his more recent offerings all that much, but today while driving downtown I played some of my favorite Keaggy numbers on my iPod. I have just about everything he's ever recorded. Listening to him put me into a Keaggy frame of mind.

My favorite Phil Keaggy albums:
  1. Crimson & Blue
  2. Way Back Home
  3. Sunday's Child
  4. Find Me in These Fields
  5. Back to Nature
  6. Acoustic Sketches I
Below is a picture of Phil with his hero, Paul McCartney. I did not know the two ever met. In some of his songs, Phil comes closer than anyone I know to matching the sound and style of the Beatles...which is one reason I like him so much!

Good news, bad news

The (VERY) good news is, it's been raining a lot in Central Florida lately.

The bad news is, I have to cut my grass every 3 or 4 days!!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Nickel Creek coming back to O-town!

I'm excited that Nickel Creek will make a stop at Orlando's House of Blues on Monday, October 8! I've already bought tickets. NK will be on their "Farewell (For Now)" tour. I hope "now" will be a short time. They are too good to part ways!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

"Interfaith absurdity"

Check out this post on The Scriptorium Daily about a priest named Ann Holmes Redding in the Episcopalian Church USA. She says she is both a Christian and a Muslim. The post by Greg Peters quotes her as saying, “I am both Muslim and Christian, just like I’m both an American of African descent and a woman. I’m 100 percent both."

That's bad enough, but what's even more amazing is that Redding's bishop is quite OK with a priest in the Episcopal church being both a Christian and a Muslim. According to the Seattle Times, “Redding’s bishop, the Rt. Rev. Vincent Warner, says he accepts Redding as an Episcopal priest and a Muslim, and that he finds the interfaith possibilities exciting.”

In Pilgrim's Progress, the classic book by John Bunyan, there is mentioned a character named Mr. Facing Both Ways. Ms. Redding is like Mr. Facing Both Ways. She's an example of someone who wavers between two mutually exclusive opinions (1 Kings 18:21). A person cannot believe in Jesus, who claimed to be the one way to God, and at the same time adopt the Muslim faith.

But then such "interfaith absurdity" (as Peters calls it) should not surprise us, for in our day truth has been trumped by tolerance, and theology by ecumenism.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Tate update

My grandson Tate is now 9 months old. Isn't he something! He's grown up a lot since my first post about him. I think this picture shows Tate's fun personality really well.

Leadership

I'm reading Rudy Giuliani's book, Leadership. He published this in 2002, so it has a lot of information about 9/11 and how he responded to it as mayor of New York City. Whether you like him or not as a presidential contender, Rudy is a great leader and his book is very relevant to me right now.

I particularly like the chapter called "Develop and Communicate Strong Beliefs." Giuliani says, "Expressing ideology is one of a leader's most powerful tools." I've watched and listened to Giuliani when he speaks in public, and he's really good at it. It's true...those who lead must know what they believe, stick to their beliefs in the face of opposition, and communicate those beliefs with confidence and clarity.

Which brings up a question I've thought about quite often...why doesn't President Bush use his bully pulpit more often? I mean, it seems like -- with issues like terrorism, the war in Iraq, immigration reform, tax relief, and health care reform breathing down his neck all the time -- a President would WANT to go on prime time TV at least once a week and speak about the things he believes are right. Nobody listens to those Saturday morning radio broadcasts. So why not get before the public on TV and tackle the issues directly? Wouldn't he pick up some support? Wouldn't he at least be able to educate people about stuff we may be totally ignorant about? I mean, he could use charts, give us the inside scoop, quote the experts, answer questions people are asking, etc. That seems like a no-brainer to me.

If I were President (God forbid) it seems like that's what I would do.

Presidents are the civic shepherds of the people. Wouldn't it get Bush some much-needed capital to talk directly to his sheep a LOT more often? If he can't put together a good talk, couldn't his peeps prop him up with a well-crafted explanation of why he believes we need to fight in Iraq, why we need to reform immigration laws, and the like? I'm not talking about a speech to some gathering of veterans or a news conference...I'm talking about a 30-minute address from the Oval Office to us, the people, every Sunday night, on an issue about which there is a lot of debate. Maybe people will disagree with his ideas, but at least they'd know what he believes and why.

Take immigration, for example. The legislation that Bush favored went down in defeat in the Senate this week. News reporters said over and over again how much Bush wanted that legislation to pass. He lobbied senators hard. He talked about it to the press. His press secretary Tony Snow talked about it on news shows. But I can't recall a single time Bush himself got before the people of America and told us why we need immigration reform. Maybe I just missed it. But my impression is that the legislation failed because in the absence of his leadership, conservatives on talk radio won the hearts and minds of the American people. I still don't know what I believe about that legislation. Maybe Bush was right about it. But he never told me why.

Giuliani writes, "A leader must not only set direction, but communicate that direction. He usually cannot simply impose his will -- and even if he could it's not the best way to lead. He must bring people aboard, excite them about his vision, and earn their support."

Thursday, June 28, 2007

I met a genuine low talker!

You remember Leslie, the low talker on Seinfeld (in that classic "Puffy Shirt" episode)? Well, I met somebody like that today. It was so funny! I could barely hear her! I had to bend toward her, and even then I had to read her lips!

So there really are low talkers out there. Ever meet one?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bible reading

I am enjoying a new Bible reading method. If you have struggled to read the Bible consistently, or stopped reading altogether, you should check out this website. It offers 13 different plans for daily Bible reading. The one I'm using takes me through the Bible chronologically in a year.

What's neat about this plan is that everyday I get an email with a link to the day's reading. I don't have to think about where to go in the Bible, I don't even need to have a Bible - it's right there on my computer screen. Also, the link allows me to pick whatever Bible translation I want to use. I'm currently using the English Standard Version.

It's important for us to be reading the Bible in some regular, systematic way - even in small portions.

Unfortunately, trend-watchers tell us that Christians are growing more and more Biblically illiterate. A few years ago, some research was done on incoming freshmen at Wheaton College. Most of these students had been raised in Christian homes and attended church all their lives.
  • 1/3 of them could not put the following in order: Abraham; the Old Testament prophets; the death of Christ; and Pentecost.
  • 1/2 could not put the following in order: Moses in Egypt; Isaac's birth; Saul's death; and the Exile.
  • 1/3 could not identify Matthew as an apostle from a list of names.
  • When asked to name the book of the Bible in which certain events are recorded, 1/3 did not know Paul's missionary journeys are in Acts; 1/2 did not know the birth of Christ is in Matthew; 1/2 did not know the Passover story is in Exodus.
George Barna has documented the rejection of key Bible doctrines by many professing Christians today. For example, only 35% of mainline Protestant church members believe that Jesus was sinless; only 34% believe the Bible is totally accurate; only 27% agree that works don't get a person into heaven; and only 20% believe that Satan is real.

The point is not that we should all make A's on Bible trivia tests. But if we don't have a basic working knowledge of the Bible we won't know Bible doctrine. And if we don't have a grip on doctrine, we won't be prepared for the dangers, heartaches, challenges, and tragedies of life.

What Bible reading method has worked for you?

Monday, June 25, 2007

A new motto for UPC

Most of the people who read my blog are members of my church, so I'd like your input on some work my leadership team has been doing to come up with a new motto for UPC. And if you don't go to my church, your input would be helpful too - maybe even more so.

First, some background. My team is called the Congregational Life Team. Our charge is to help UPC equip adults for spiritual maturity and create authentic community. One of the things that became apparent in our early meetings was that UPC has tons of good things going on, but that these things are not always connected with each other or aligned with the mission of the church. Many people do not even know what the mission of the church is. We have a long mission statement but we do not often refer to it.

Also, people who are new to the church often do not see a clear path to follow for spiritual growth or know what is expected of them. They may not know where to look to find places of connection and service. We need to do a better job of communicating what we want people to do and what we hope they will experience.

So my team thought that a new motto, or slogan, would be an important first step to help create an atmosphere where people "get" who we are and what we want them to do and experience.

Up until now, our motto has been "Transforming Lives in a Changing World." That's an excellent motto. But we think it does not adequately communicate a process for spiritual growth or tell people who we are. So we came up with two ideas. Each one consists of a headline with three bullet points.

IDEA #1: "UPC - A Community of Grace"
Knowing God...Loving Others...Serving People

IDEA #2: "UPC - A Family of Grace"
Knowing God...Connecting with One Another...Serving the World

Last night, my team hosted a meeting of UPC ministry leaders. We presented these two ideas to the group, and led a time of discussion and brainstorming to get their input. Out of that meeting came

IDEA #3: "UPC - A Community of Grace"
Knowing God...Growing Together...Serving People

Obviously, you can wordsmith forever, and no motto will perfectly say everything that might be said about an organization. But as you look at these ideas, what are your reactions? Which phrases do you like and dislike? Put yourself in the shoes of people new to the church and in the community. Do you see where we're trying to go, and do you think we're on the right track?

If we do come up with a new motto, my team believes it needs to be more than just words on a piece of paper. It needs to be integrated into and used consistently throughout the church. So what ideas do you have about how the motto can become an integral part of the life of UPC?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

So you think you're having a bad day?

I found this picture while Stumbling recently. Wouldn't you just love it if you walked in on this disaster?

Friday, June 22, 2007

An invention that shouldn't have been...

Touch-free paper towel dispensers.

It seems like every one I've ever tried to use either does not work, no matter how much I wave my hands over, under, and beside it, trying to find that elusive spot where it acknowledges my presence -- or it feeds out such a pitiful little piece of paper that I end up grabbing it and pulling to get more paper -- thus negating whatever benefits I was supposed to get from a touch-free paper towel dispenser.

Just give me that old-fashioned kind with the hand crank. It always worked just fine, and I never got anybody's germs.

At least I don't think I did.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Ocean's 13

Suzy & I saw Ocean's 13 a few days ago. It was a good movie. Nothing special, but fun. Better than Ocean's 12, that's for sure. I liked the way the bright colors and other camera techniques gave a sense of nostalgia for movies of the 1960s. Al Pacino was a good addition. There were a few moments of suspense, when we thought the guys were going to get caught red-handed. But of course, they had the whole thing planned just right.

I think what people find appealing about these Ocean movies is that we all want to control and manipulate life's variables so that we reach our goals, stay out of trouble, make the bad guys pay, and all that. We all want to be the masters of our fate, to pull all the right strings, to come out on top. These guys make it look soooo easy, and we like watching them beat the odds.

The trouble is, life is beyond our control. God is God, and we are not.

Hebrews 2:5-7 talks about how God has put everything under our feet. He made us a little lower than the angels, and crowned us with glory and honor. But the reality of life in a fallen world is that "at present we do not see everything subject to [us]" (Hebrews 2:8). People and events resist our manipulation. The dice do not always fall in our favor. Our best-laid plans fall apart. Unpredictables happen all the time.

"But we do see Jesus" (Hebrews 2:9). He's the one constant in a world filled with change, pain, and failure. Over all of life Jesus reigns. So our anchor in this crazy world is not our clever planning or our intelligence or our friends. Those things got Ocean and his buddies what they wanted, but they don't work in the real world.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

VBS at UPC

It's Vacation Bible School week at our church. I love Vacation Bible School. I was thinking about it . . . I've either directed, taught, led music, and/or acted in some church's VBS every summer for the past 23 years! I think VBS is a great thing because it capitalizes on kids' love of fun and games and exposes them to the gospel in a creative way. It also reaches their parents and gives the church a great chance to work together.

This year at our church I'm once again the Bible story teller, which means I get to dress up in all these crazy outfits and teach kids the Bible. Even though it's a bit embarrassing to put on silly costumes, it's the easiest job of them all. I don't have to manage children, do crafts, memorize lines, or anything real hard - I just have to be gullible enough to dress up and act like a Bible character.

Here are pictures of two characters I've been so far this week. At left I'm Jonah just after his experience in the belly of the big fish, and below I'm Nashpenaz the repentant Ninevite. It's fun to get in touch with my hippie alter-ego.

As you can tell, our VBS this year is all about the book of Jonah. It's a great story about God's mercy.

The most fun thing about my role is that the kids get a big charge out of telling me that I'm really Pastor Mike. Then when I'm out of costume they think they're big stuff when they come up to me and say, "Hey, I know that was really you up there!!" It's fun playing dumb and acting like I don't know what they're talking about.

Tomorrow I have to be a worm. Read Jonah 4 if you don't know how that fits into the story of Jonah.

One of my favorite VBS memories goes back to my years as a seminary student in St. Louis. I was hired to be the student assistant to the pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church. The pastor asked me to revamp the church's Vacation Bible School program. Now this was a church with a rich history. Francis Schaeffer had been pastor of this church back in the 1940s when it was located in downtown St. Louis. In order to reach the kids of the inner city with the gospel, Schaeffer and his wife Edith ran a 4-week-long program they called Summer Bible School. Under Schaeffer's guiding hand the Bible School was enormously popular. He bused kids to the church from all over St. Louis.

Believe it or not, the church kept Schaeffer's 4-week Summer Bible School going every year even after Schaeffer left and the church moved to the suburbs. As time passed, it became more like a school than a fun summertime activity for kids. So when I took over I changed it to a 2-week program and some people in the church were aghast! We EVEN changed the name to "Vacation" Bible School, and made it (of all things) FUN! As people found out that we really weren't damaging the children, they got enthusiastic and we soon had a big VBS going with a new curriculum, music, games, crafts, and Bible stories.

And I've been a believer in VBS ever since.

Friday, June 08, 2007

FSU Orientation reflections

Earlier this week my wife and I accompanied our son to his orientation at Florida State University. It was a 2-day thing, mostly talks by various campus reps. It was well done. I appreciated the parent-friendly tone.

Some thoughts I thunk as a parent during my son's orientation:
  • The current emphasis on students' privacy rights was unheard of when I went off to college. I find it annoying and a little disturbing. But I'm glad to say that FSU at least says they want parents to be involved and in the know about what their students are into.
  • Dining hall food is pretty much as bad today as it was when I was in college.
  • But it's amazing to me that FSU students can go to Einstein Bagels, Chili's, Quizno's, Hardees, and a number of other eating places on campus instead of the dining hall. Call it Food Court U.
  • A word heard more times than necessary: "Diversity"
  • A sign I saw tacked up on the student activities board: "Full Moon Skinny-Dipping Friday Night." Oh boy. Time to start praying.
  • I think I figured out how to get around in Tallahassee.
  • Student orientation leaders are all the same no matter what college you're talking about.
  • Most impressive speaker: the woman who heads up the FSU Counseling Center.
  • Worst speaker: the man who heads up Financial Aid. He was no help.
  • Date my first check is due for Michael's room and board: July 1. Oh boy. Time to start praying.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Vacation over

I haven't been posting anything because my family and I spent a week at the beach last week. We stayed in two condos at Amelia Island Plantation. We had a great time! God blessed us with perfect weather every day of the week. It was sunny and mild. It didn't rain until Saturday morning when we were trying to pack up and leave for home...and then it rained like crazy, thanks to the tropical storm that blew through the area that morning.

On Friday, we all gathered on the beach for a family picture. Left to right: our son David & his wife Lindsay; me; my bride Suzy; our daughter Jennifer and her husband Tim; our daughter Rebecca holding grandson Tate; Rebecca's husband Scott with grandkids Tyler & Eben; and son Michael. Missing from the picture is my mother-in-law Nell who couldn't join us on the beach.

We try to get away together as a family once a year. Last year it was skiing in the Catskills. The year before that it was a week at Crescent Beach when Jennifer got married.

One of the things I most enjoyed this year was that each night, a different couple or group was responsible for the family meal. I haven't eaten so well in months! Sunday night Jennifer & Tim made kebobs. Monday night Rebecca & Scott made fajitas. Tuesday night David & Lindsay made an Italian dish with a name I can't remember. Wednesday night was Suzy's and my night; we grilled hamburgers. Thursday night was ladies' night; they made up a huge salad with all kinds of stuff in it. And Friday night was guys' night; we had steamed shrimp. It's hard to say which meal was best!

Some highlights of the week:
  • Most fun activity of the week: body-surfing
  • Most fun game played: Catch Phrase
  • Biggest surprise: It cost $20 to rent two beach chairs and an umbrella!
  • Least friendly person we met: the woman in whose private parking space we parked one day
  • Best read: Mere Christianity
  • Grossest activity: picking up garbage after raccoons got into the trash cans outside
  • Grocery store of the week: Harris Teeter (what a name)
  • Worst restaurant experience: the "Happy Tomato" in Fernandina Beach (inappropriately named)
  • Best time with my wife: riding bikes around Amelia Island
  • Biggest pizza ever: we got a pizza delivered for lunch on Sunday...I figure it had to be 3' by 3' square at least (see picture)