Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Family's coming

This will be a great Christmas because my whole family will be together. It's been at least 2 years since that happened!

Our youngest son Michael is already home from college. On Christmas Eve our daughter Jennifer and her husband Tim will arrive with their Great Dane Li'l Bit. Late Christmas Day our other daughter Rebecca, her husband Scott, and their 3 kids will pull in after their all-day drive from Gulfport, Mississippi. Finally on Friday our older son David and his wife Lindsay will get here.

So it'll be a house full... but I'm so glad!

I came from a small family. It was just my parents, my older brother, and me. We didn't have many aunts and uncles or cousins. I never knew either of my grandfathers. My dad's only sibling, a brother, was killed in WWII. My mother had only one brother also, and he and his family lived out in California. Other than that, I had these somewhat mysterious relatives that I only heard about when my parents talked about them so I'd know they existed. But most of them I never met or don't remember.

So I consider it one of God's most wonderful gifts to me that my wife and I have four children, and that one of them already has 3 kids! Lord willing, all of my children will one day be married and have children of their own, so the Osborne family tree will grow a lot bigger. I want to do my little part to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it to the glory of God!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Frost/Nixon

In March, 1977, disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon sat with talk show host David Frost for more than 28 hours stretching over 12 days, in a historic set of interviews about Watergate and other subjects related to the Nixon presidency. My son and I saw the movie about those interviews last night. Frost/Nixon is a film adaptation of the 2006 play of the same name, and it's directed by Ron Howard, one of my favorite movie directors.

It may not sound like the kind of thing that would make for a good movie, but I was totally engrossed the whole 2 hours. Of course, I'm already fascinated by everything Watergate. But this movie does what no documentary would do. It takes you inside the lonely heart of Richard Nixon. Frank Langella plays Nixon to the hilt. Without trying to "act" like Nixon (like an impressionist would do), Langella sounds like him, hunches over like him, and displays both Nixon's arrogance and sadness so well I felt like I was really looking at the man.

Beyond a treatment of Nixon's complicity in Watergate (he basically confessed during his last interview with Frost), what this movie does is show how the two adversaries - Frost and Nixon - were really after the same thing. They were both looking for satisfaction in a world they felt had rejected them.

Tim Keller, in The Reason for God, defines sin as "the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from him." Looked at in that light, Frost/Nixon is an excellent glimpse into the soul of a sinner who has yet to find a relationship with Jesus Christ. In totally different ways, both Frost and Nixon broke the first of the Ten Commandments - "You shall have no other gods before me."

Monday, December 15, 2008

I may be totally wrong, but...

I'll say it anyway. I don't like going to Christian concerts and listening to an overly-long plea to get involved in a cause (like Samaritan's Purse, World Vision, Compassion International, etc.).

I know this makes me sound like a total, insensitive, selfish heel. And I am.

Still, I've been to two concerts by Christian bands recently, and both times there was a REALLY long appeal to contribute money, sponsor a child, or whatnot. This seems to be par for the course at Christian concerts. I'm going back in my mind to all the ones I've been to over the years (DC Talk, Audio Adrenaline, Michael W. Smith, Newsboys, etc.) and it seems there's always a "ministry" time during intermission or at the end. And if memory serves, it's normally way too long and guilt-motivating.

Conversely, I've been to "secular" concerts where there was no such appeal, and the time was entirely given over to the performance of great music, so that we the concert-goers could celebrate the talents of the artist without hearing one of them say, almost apologetically, "You know, it's not really about the music, it's about caring for people."

One of my concerns is that a lot of non-Christians attend Christian concerts and I'll bet they get completely turned off by this. Plus I'm afraid it communicates something we don't really believe.

A Biblical worldview says that you don't have to baptize art with a Christian message for it to be worthwhile. Now hear me out... I'm not suggesting for a moment that these wonderful Christian artists are consciously doing that. They have good hearts and pure motives when they ask us to meet needs around the world. And I sincerely appreciate what they're doing. They could have chosen to be in the music industry for the glory and fame, but they didn't. And I'm proud of them for that.

But I would argue that it would be better to give us more of their art, without suggesting (even unconsciously) that the art has to be servant to a cause of some kind. For if music or art is just a means to an end, it becomes manipulative and superfluous. For the Christian, the arts are ends in themselves, a display of the glory and beauty of God.

Let us enjoy that without feeling guilty for not contributing to a cause.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Eben Update

I've posted about my grandson Eben a couple of times before. He's now 4 1/2 years old. He's big into soccer. Here's a great picture of the young competitor getting ready to score some goals.

Every time I think about Eben I am reminded of God's faithfulness. God miraculously preserved Eben's life while he was in his mother's womb. Every day is a gift from God to Eben and his family.

For that matter, isn't that how we all ought to view our lives?

Sixpence None the Richer

My wife and I joined our good friends Jonathan and Amanda a few nights ago for the Love Came Down Christmas concert featuring Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, and Sara Groves.

My favorite part of the concert was hearing Leigh Nash and Matt Slocum, aka Sixpence None the Richer. We also got to meet Leigh after the concert, pictured here with my wife Suzy. Leigh's voice is wonderful and I find many of Sixpence's songs creative and mesmerizing. (You might know them best from the song "Kiss Me" in the 1999 film She's All That.) They've just come out with a Christmas album called The Dawn of Grace. I especially enjoy their arrangement of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." Our church's worship team recently led us in song with that arrangement.

There's an interesting piece on ChristianityToday.com about Sixpence. They were on the David Letterman Show about 10 years ago. Letterman asked where the band's name came from. Leigh explained:

"It comes from a book by C. S. Lewis…called Mere Christianity. A little boy asks his father if he can get a sixpence—a very small amount of English currency—to go and get a gift for his father. The father gladly accepts the gift and he's really happy with it, but he also realizes that he's not any richer for the transaction…"

Letterman then remarked, "He bought his own gift."

Leigh: "That's right. C.S. Lewis was comparing that to his belief that God has given him, and us, the gifts that we possess, and to serve Him the way we should, we should do it humbly… realizing how we got the gifts in the first place."

In a rare show of soul, Letterman replied, "Well, that's beautiful. If we could just keep that little sliver of enlightenment with us, things would be so much better."

I love it when Christian artists are able to win credibility in the culture and speak winsomely and clearly from a Biblical worldview.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Most recent guilty pleasure

Sour cream doughnut from Dunkin' Donuts, heated up in the microwave until just soft and warm.

The Diet Coke I had with it cancelled out the fat and calories.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Rachel Getting Married

This movie is a sad, serious, nearly interminable look inside a dysfunctional family. And while I didn't "enjoy" this movie, I thought it was really good (if you can figure that out). Don't see this movie if you're already in a depressed mood. Or then again, maybe it will cheer you up to realize you're not half as bad off as this family!

Anne Hathaway plays the part of Kym, a drug addict in rehab, who comes home for the wedding of her sister Rachel. There are numerous very awkward and painful exchanges between Kym, Rachel, their parents, step-parents, and friends who are all gathered for the weekend of the wedding.

Hathaway is amazing in this movie. In fact all the acting is great. You can't help but get swept up in the constant banter and arguing as Kym, Rachel, and their parents dredge up old wounds and navigate the swirling waters of anger, bitterness, guilt, and denial.

I have several gripes about the movie, but I'm willing to bet the director intentionally did these things to make you feel the dis-ease of Kym and her family. One is the constant fiddle music being played in the background by Rachel's assortment of artsy, goofy friends. I couldn't wait for the movie to end just to stop hearing those annoying tunes! Then there was the LONG (understatement) wedding reception scene. It reminded me of all the times I've been stuck at wedding receptions for people I didn't know. Again, I'm sure it was a device to make you feel the utter despair of a family that failed to really love one another all along the way.

It was humorous to see Bill Irwin playing the part of Kym and Rachel's father. Irwin was a familiar face throughout my parenting years, as Mr. Noodle on Sesame Street. He's also been a character actor in lots of other TV shows including The Cosby Show. But in Rachel Getting Married he's effective as a father who desperately wants to rewrite the family history but cannot.

One thing I really liked was the positive way Narcotics Anonymous is portrayed in the film. It is a piece of redemption and grace in a movie otherwise devoid of those things. Kym's determination to find healing and friendship among fellow addicts is a picture of how we in the church should pursue authenticity and sanctification with one another. It was inspiring to see Kym make an effort to finally confront her mother, but sad to see how poorly her mother responded.

This is one of those movies that absolutely begs for the gospel. I am so very thankful for what Christ did to free me from my past and break the cycle of family dysfunction. Not that I've arrived by any means, but as I watched this movie I couldn't help thinking, "There but for the grace of God go I."

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Cardboard testimonies

This past Sunday, our worship service concluded with something called "cardboard testimonies." Our worship director and I picked up the idea from a video we'd seen from another church, and he invited a number of our people to participate.

About 25 people came forward at the end of the service and walked across the stage holding a cardboard sign written on both sides. On Side A was a brief description of something each person has struggled with at some point in the past, or still struggles with. On Side B was an equally short description of what God has done to help them with that struggle.

It was very moving. Many of the testimonies were about very personal things, and I was inspired by the people's willingness to be real. The fact that the testimonies were written on cardboard, rather than spoken, took away the intimidation factor. The congregation was visibly moved as they read how God has helped real people with addictions, loss, unhealthy relationships, perfectionism, and the like.

It's so encouraging when people tell others how God has stepped into their pain.

Wycliffe's inspiring vision

I have the privilege of serving a church attended by many people who work for Wycliffe Bible Translators. Recently I went to a celebration of Vision 2025 at Wycliffe's Orlando headquarters. Vision 2025 is their plan to see a Bible translation program in progress in every language still needing one by the year 2025.

I was amazed to learn that a new Bible translation program begins somewhere in the world every 5 days. With advancements in computer technology and new methods of working together, our friends at Wycliffe expect to translate the Scriptures into other languages at a much faster rate than had at one time been possible. The 2025 goal, while ambitious, is doable.

Today, however, about 200 million people around the world still do not have a Bible in their own language. If it's the truth that sets people free, we should all get behind Wycliffe Bible Translators with our prayers, encouragement, and financial support... so that Vision 2025 can become a reality and every people group can hear the good news about Jesus.

Friday, November 14, 2008

GSTV

Have you seen what's new on TV? It's the Gas Station Television Network. I pulled up to the local Wal-Mart station today ($2.02 a gallon by the way!), and was met by a television screen mounted on the pump. A woman was giving me the Orlando weather report, then it was on to some news and a couple of commercials.

I thought, That's exactly what I need: more information -- all the time!

A little hint of what's ahead, 1984-style? Will there be nowhere to go to get away from noise and flashing images?!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What's wrong with higher taxes and socialized medicine?

Someone asked me why I believe high taxation and socialized medicine are contrary to a Biblical worldview. I am not an expert on such things, but here's how I replied to her. Feel free to sharpen my thinking where it needs improvement:

The Bible commands us to pay our taxes (Romans 13:7). But government should not levy a tax rate that effectively cuts God out of the picture. As tax rates rise, people have less and less money to save, invest, spend wisely, and give - things the Scripture commands us to do. Higher taxes limit freedom of choice (e.g., choosing a school or college for our children to attend) and undercut personal responsibility. In effect the state takes over the roles that the individual, the family, the church, and the community are supposed to have.

As a Christian I'm particularly concerned about what happens to the cause of church advancement and world missions when people stop tithing because they can't afford to give. The state usurps the place of God by taking more and more of the money that rightly belongs to Him. It also creates a culture of entitlement in which people grow up thinking the government is supposed to solve the problems that God wants the individual, the family, the community, and the church to solve.

The reason I object to socialized medicine is neither that it is much more inefficient than our present system (see the Canadians coming to the U.S. for healthcare); nor that we don't have to change our present system in order for the poor to get healthcare (they can get it now). The main reason is that it's just another form of entitlement program, teaching people they can rely on the federal government to do for them what they can and ought to do for themselves and what the church ought to do for the needy.

Also, socialized medicine kicks the legs out of charity. Why should I sacrifice my money to help organizations like the Red Cross or St. Jude Children's Hospital when the government will mandate healthcare through taxation? Enforced charity is no charity at all. Socialized medicine parades as compassion when really it kills compassion. It takes responsibility away from me and vests it in the federal government. Generations later, virtue and sacrifice will have virtually disappeared from our culture.

The role of government is, in the Bible, limited in scope. It is to administer justice, keep the peace, and protect the citizenry - what Romans 13:1-7 teaches as the "power of the sword." Socialized healthcare (like the other forms of socialism we've been seeing like government bailouts and takeovers) expands the role of government beyond that intended by God. The hardworking, entrepreneurial person gets penalized, while the lazy person gets rewarded - a violation of Scripture (e.g., Proverbs 10:4-5).

Here's a good article to read on the subject.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Lou

I write this post in honor of Lou, a deacon in my church. He died this past Wednesday at the age of 62, after a nearly 4-year battle with melanoma. Doctors gave him 6 months; God gave him 3 1/2 more. I'm glad, because it was during those "extra" 3 1/2 years that I got to know him.

Lou was one of the humblest people I've ever known. He was a brilliant engineer, earning the Outstanding Technical Achievement Award for career contributions to highway safety in 1996. He was the project manager for the design and construction of our church's worship center. His designs for safer roads were picked up by Chinese engineers who found Lou on the internet and came over to the US to meet him. His career spanned 36 years. Despite his accomplishments, he moved about quietly and selflessly.

Lou loved our church and her people well. As the deacon in charge of facility care, he gave generously of his time whenever we had a problem. "Call Lou," I would often say to our office staff when things went wrong. He would drop everything and come solve the problem. He was so proud when we dedicated our new worship center, and we were all proud of him. He was equally generous with his money, because he loved the King and his kingdom.

I will miss him very much. WE will miss him very much. Yet his life and labors will continue to shape generations of people to the glory of God.

Thank you, Lou.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Resources for your marriage

For the past two Sundays, I preached on marriage using Paul's words to wives and husbands in Colossians 3. You can listen to the sermons here. Thanks to two members of my church, I was able to tie my messages in to some excellent resources available to married people.

One of those resources is the movie Fireproof. It stars Kirk Cameron in the role of a firefighter named Caleb Holt, who instead of giving up on his marriage finds new hope in Christ and wins back his wife's heart by relentlessly loving her. It's a film full of hope for every married couple, even those with a healthy marriage.

Both Sundays, I used clips from Fireproof to illustrate the principles in Colossians 3:18-19. In addition, for the past month or so we sold discount tickets to the movie and asked our couples to make it a date night. We reserved a number of seats at a particular showing, and encouraged our members not only to attend that show but to invite another couple along and bring them to church the next day for my final message in the series.

Many people said they loved Fireproof, especially because it was connected on Sunday to the Biblical teaching of Colossians 3:18-19. The whole idea of using the movie to help our couples came from a person in my church - thank you, Jennifer!

The other resource I found very helpful is The Marriage Prayer: A Prescription to Change the Direction of Your Marriage. Written by David Delk, another member of my church and president of Man in the Mirror, The Marriage Prayer is an entertaining, interactive manual that shows couples how to invite Christ into the struggles and challenges of married life. The book is built around a simple prayer that husbands and wives can pray for each other every day. We made signed copies of The Marriage Prayer available for purchase after the worship service.

In addition to making the book available, I asked couples to take a 14-day Marriage Prayer Challenge. Every day for 2 weeks, dozens of husbands and wives in our church will pray for each other using the Marriage Prayer. To make it easy for them, we distributed the Marriage Prayer Card that Man in the Mirror has created to go along with the book. (You can view and order the card here.) It was inspiring to see husbands and wives throughout our Worship Center committing themselves to prayer. God moves when his people admit their need of grace.

I am grateful for this valuable resource and recommend it highly to married and engaged couples looking for practical, creative ways to experience renewal in their relationship.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Duchess

If you want to visit another time and place when sex-addicted men married love-starved women and brought ruin and heartache to everyone around them, go see The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes.

Knightley is great as Georgiana Spencer (1757-1806), who at the age of 16 wed William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire, and thus became the Duchess of Devonshire. Ralph Fiennes plays the role of the despicable Duke convincingly.

It's an interesting movie to watch if only to learn about the extravagance of the British aristocracy, the divide between rich and poor in the late-18th century, the value royals placed on having male heirs, and the elaborate fashions and architecture of the day. I loved the beautiful scenery and attention to detail. All the acting is superb.

The Duke was apparently just an awful man who cared for nobody but himself. The Duchess found that out on her wedding day. Later she acquiesced to a life of sharing her home and husband with the Duke's mistress, Elizabeth Foster ("Bess").

The themes of betrayal and loneliness are prominent. Also you see a moving picture of sacrifice, as Georgiana gives up her one and only love (Charles Grey) for the sake of her children.

Interestingly, among Georgiana's descendants was Lady Diana Spencer -- the late Princess of Wales -- who, sadly, suffered from the sins of the fathers.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Movie catch-up

It's been so long since I've posted that I bet my friends are wondering what's happened to me - no movie reviews??? Well, here are a few recent movie experiences...

Ghost Town - My wife and I really liked this movie, a romantic comedy perfect for date night. Ricky Gervais is a dentist who sees dead people (a clever take-off on Shyamalan's Sixth Sense). There are some hilarious and genuine interchanges between Gervais and his love interest, played by Tea Leoni. Underneath the comedy is a deeper message about human brokenness and the important part we all play in healing others' wounds. Thumbs up.

The Counterfeiters - This is a German film that I noticed earned a whopping 94% on RottenTomatoes.com...deservedly so. It's very good but very dark, very violent, and is another one of those movies that takes you kicking and screaming into the sad and scary world of German concentration camps during WWII. It tells the story of a group of Jewish printers and artists recruited by the Nazis to counterfeit British pounds and American dollars to promote the German war effort. I never heard such a thing happened, so it was educational from that angle. The courage of one of the Jews (Adolf Burger) who repeatedly and single-handedly sabotaged the operation was quite inspiring. (By the way, he appears on one of the DVD special features.) His example made me ask myself: Would I imperil my life and the lives of my friends for the cause of freedom and justice? Thumbs up, but not for the weak of heart.

The Lives of Others - My favorite of these three. A long, intense movie (at 137 minutes), it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film (German) in 2007. The story takes place in and around 1984 in East Berlin, before Glasnost and the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Georg Dreyman is a playwright suspected of pro-Western sympathies, so his flat is bugged by the East German secret police. It gets too complicated to tell the whole story here, but 3/4 into the movie I was completely captured by the interwoven stories of Dreyman, his lover, and the police captain who heads up the operation. It's a poignant commentary on socialism, the politics of fear, and the theme of loyalty vs. betrayal. I'm glad I'm an American. Thumbs way up.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Children in Worship

As long as I've been a pastor, the question of whether children should be expected to sit through the Sunday morning worship service has stirred controversy. It's a question about which good people differ.

In my particular church, which has two worship services, we offer a complete Sunday School program for all ages during the early service. During the late service, we have classes only for children from birth through Grade 2. Our goal was to make it possible for families to worship together (at least with their older children) during the late service. For most people that works well, but parents with a child in 3rd, 4th, or even 5th grade sometimes find it a challenge to expect him or her to sit through what is normally a 75- or 80-minute service.

So what do I say to those parents who have a tough time keeping their young child quiet and attentive during worship?

I say, the Bible says you're doing a good thing.

When you search the Scriptures, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that children should participate in the corporate worship of the covenant family. Here's a smattering of Bible verses:
  • Joshua 8:35 - children participated in Israel's covenant renewal ceremony
  • 2 Chronicles 20:13 - children stood before the Lord along with their parents when Israel was threatened with attack
  • Ezra 10:1 - children were there when Ezra led the people in repentance
  • Psalm 148:7-13 - children are told to praise the Lord along with everyone else
  • Colossians 3:20 & Ephesians 6:1-3 - children were in the assembly when letters from Paul were read and explained
  • Matthew 19:14 - children were welcomed, blessed, and prayed for by Jesus
  • Matthew 21:15 - children shouted at the arrival of Jesus on Palm Sunday
My favorite Bible passage about children participating in corporate worship is Deuteronomy 31:12-13 -

"Assemble the people - men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns - so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess."

Notice what Moses is saying. Children should listen, learn, fear the Lord, and obey God's law...just like everyone else.

The bottom line is that children are an important part of the believing community. They not only get blessed by the Word of God and the worship of God, but they are also a blessing to the rest of the church family.

I realize that kids get restless and sometimes disturb other people. That's why I think parents need to come to church prepared with activities and rewards, and everybody else needs to be 100% understanding. When our children were young, my wife came to the sanctuary with a good supply of papers, crayons, and treats. If a parent needs to get up and walk around in the back of the sanctuary with his child for a few minutes, go right ahead. If a child makes noise, so what? I'm sure those Israelite gatherings referred to above could be noisy affairs.

In this as in so many areas, we have to resist the consumer mindset that is always knocking on the church door. Maybe there could be nothing better for our families, our churches, and our nation than to welcome little children into the worshiping community.

I conclude this post with an excerpt of a sermon by John Piper:

"...we live in a day in which pressures from all sides are on the family to be fractured and atomized. Fathers are worked to a frazzle and so are too dogged to spend quality time with children; mothers are lured away from their little children to the work force; children have their own activities, and the one thing that pulls them all to the same room makes zombies out of them all: the television. Stir into this a general cultural mood of 'me first,' and my rights and my self-realization, and you have got a powerful anti-family milieu. In this atmosphere, the church, as the preserver of biblical principles, must find ways to say 'no' to these pressures and affirm the depth and beauty of familial bonds. But where and how? It seems to me that the high point of our corporate life together is the place to start. Let’s make worship a family affair as much as we can."


Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Odes Project

This morning at our church, the Worship Ministry performed a number of songs from The Odes Project. I have fallen in love with this music! The songs are modern translations and arrangements of ancient Christian hymns called the Odes of Solomon. For some fascinating information about the Odes Project and the songs on which it is based, go here.

Jonathan Noel, our Director of Worship and Music, contributed his voice and piano-playing to the original recording of the Odes. On the website referenced above, you can listen to some of the songs and order the CDs. They are an inspiring collection of worship music.

The folks in our worship ministry did an outstanding job this morning and I thank them all.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Cars I've had

I thought it would be fun to see if I could find internet pictures of all the cars my wife and I have owned during our married life.

We got married in 1976. Our first car was a 1972 (?) Volkswagon camper like this one (only ours was white). I bought it just before my senior year of college. As we drove away from the church on our wedding day, our friends threw bucket-loads of rice in it. For months we kept vacuuming rice out of it. We adored this car. I bought it because I was quite the back-to-nature closet-hippie type guy back then, and VW campers were the statement for the times. Suzy made colorful curtains for the interior. The tiny engine was in the back. There were all sorts of neat storage compartments inside the van, as well as a small refrigerator. The top popped up and there was a cot you could sleep in up there. The back seats folded out into a good-size bed. We took this car on lots of road trips and our friends thought we were really cool. We had to give it up when Suzy got pregnant with our first child Rebecca, because it got too hard for her to shift gears (it was a stick). And in its place we bought...

... a 1974 (?) Toyota C0rolla station wagon. It looked like this, only white with blue interior. Why we bought a station wagon I don't know. But it was fun to drive. Problem is, the transmission crashed after a couple years and we bought...

... a 1967 Chevrolet Biscayne! This thing was a boat. You could put 4 people in each of the two bench seats. It looked just like the Chevy Impala of the day only it was a 6-cylinder, two-door version. I remember it had no air conditioning. Suzy and I took it on several long trips, including one to Florida, and just about roasted alive. The color was an ugly sort of dull green. This was the car we brought our 2nd child David home from the hospital in, and it's the car we drove to St. Louis when we moved there for seminary. We sold it to our next-door neighbor who was also our landlord. Then we bought...

... a 1978 Plymouth Volare station wagon. By this time we'd had our 3rd child Jennifer, so we figured we needed another station wagon. It was red. It's probably the worst car ever made. It gave us nothing but problems. So we moved up in the world after I got my first job as an associate pastor and bought...


... a beige 1984 Dodge Caravan. It was like the one in the picture but didn't have the wood-grain on the side. It was the first year these cars were made I think. The neat thing about our Caravan was that it was a 5-speed stick. I've never seen one like that since. We bought it from a well-off family in our church and it had low miles. We felt we'd finally arrived, as far as cars are concerned. We had this car when our 4th child Michael was born in St. Louis. When I took a church in South Carolina, the Caravan died and we bought - you guessed it...

... another station wagon. This one was the station wagon of all station wagons: an Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser. I think it was a 1987 or -88 model, and was blue with a wood-grain piece of vinyl on the sides just like the one pictured here. This was quite the luxury model of the day. It had electric windows and electric front seats. It stretched about a half-mile long and had a fold-up bench seat in the "way back," as we called it. This is probably the car our kids remember best, as it was the car we took tons of vacations in. It was indestructible. Because it could get really hot in the way back, we put a little fan back there and connected it to the cigarette lighter.

While we were in South Carolina we thought we'd try leasing a second car. So we shopped around and fell in love with a red 1994 Nissan Sentra. It became my wife's car. Sadly, not long after we got it, it was totaled in a terrible accident, thanks to a guy who drifted over into my wife's lane and rammed her head on. Praise God she was not hurt, and he came out OK too. But the car was finished. Too bad, we both loved that car!


So when the Sentra was totaled we decided to buy rather than lease, and we bought a 1995 Subaru Legacy, similar to the one in the picture (only brown). Loved this car!




In 1996 we relocated to Ocala, Florida. I sold the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser for $100 at a junk yard and bought a 1995 Nissan Quest minivan. It looked just like the one in the picture, only the hatchback door was dented in by one of our kids (I'm not naming names), who backed into a mailbox soon after getting her drivers' license! I've blogged about this car before. It was a wonderful car and took us all over the country. We had it for 10 years. We sold it not long ago to a family in our church and it had 218,000 miles on it. For the first time in our lives we bought a new car...





... a 2008 Toyota RAV4. We wanted the model with an extra third seat in the back, so when our kids come to visit we have room enough for everyone.





It's funny how cars tell a story of love, of family, and of memories that are far more precious than money can buy.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

See

I don't usually go around telling people I read People magazine (actually, my wife does... I just kind of glance at it, you know, when she's not reading it. So that's OK. I'm not culpable, just an innocent bystander).

But this week's issue has a wonderful article about how Steven Curtis Chapman and his family have been dealing with the tragic loss of their youngest child Maria back in May. I was moved by their honest words in the interview and the strong bond they have both with each other and with Christ.

What especially moved me was the story about the drawing Maria had been working on just prior to her death. It's a picture of a flower with six petals - apparently one petal for each Chapman. Only one of the petals was colored in. Steven says in the interview,

"She had drawn a flower with six petals with only one colored in, and she had written the word 'see.' And I knew God was there. We really believe that Maria's petal was colored in for a reason - that she is the most alive of us all. We kind of feel like we have these little bread crumbs left by God and Maria, things that mark the trail and say, 'Keep going. You're going in the right direction.'"

The article goes on to say that Steven's wife Mary Beth had the drawing tattooed on her wrist. The one colored petal represents Maria. Beside the picture on Mary Beth's wrist is the one word "see."

Perhaps Maria's drawing with the mysterious word beside it is a message for all of us. I think one of our hardest but most important callings as Christians is simply to SEE. We have to remember to "see" spiritual realities when tempted to focus only on the junk of this world. We have to remember to "see" people around us as the image of God instead of as interruptions and annoyances. And especially we have to remember to "see" Jesus now crowned with glory and honor (Hebrews 2:9), instead of growing weary with suffering.

What do you "see" in Maria's drawing?


Friday, August 15, 2008

Back to the empty nest again

This has been an eventful week. My wife and I drove up to Tallahassee on Monday to help our son Michael move into an apartment and prepare for his second year of college at FSU.

We enjoyed having him home all summer. One of the benefits was that he and a friend of his (who also shared our upstairs for the summer) took turns mowing the lawn for me! Now I'm going to have to go back to sweating it out behind the lawnmower every 5-7 days by myself again.

Seriously, though, it was great having Michael around for an extended time, after being without during his freshman year. I enjoy eating out with him and watching certain TV shows we both like. We are also both movie-holics. I forget all the movies we saw together this summer. The worst one was You Don't Mess with the Zohan. Please, don't see that movie. Don't rent the DVD. It's awful. If you didn't like Zoolander, you REALLY won't like Zohan.

Anyway, it took two cars and a U-Haul truck to get Michael's stuff moved into his apartment. We had bought him a bunch of new apartment furniture at Ikea here in Orlando. Have you ever been to Ikea? It's a regular metropolis. Enormous place. The good thing is, the furniture they sell is cheap and it looks good. I'm not sure how long it will last, but it looks good. When we arrived in Tallahassee it took a couple days to put everything together. Now his apartment rocks.

The directions they pack inside Ikea boxes are funny. I guess they're printed up in Denmark or Sweden or wherever Ikea is headquartered. There are no words, only pictures. It takes a while to figure out what the symbols are trying to tell you, but once you get them figured out it's actually pretty easy. I just wish they would name items with words that make sense in America. Like, the name of Michael's bed is "Malm." The name of his sofa is "Klippan." What is that supposed to mean?

So now it's down to Suzy and me again. The house is quiet, especially the upstairs. Nobody's coming home at 2:00 in the morning. We can park easily in our driveway. No Radiohead songs on the stereo. No Coke cans and water bottles scattered around. Now I can raise the thermostat upstairs again and save a little money.

I miss him already.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Dark Knight

My wife and I saw the latest Batman movie tonight. It was quite a ride! All the buzz about Heath Ledger as the Joker was accurate - he gave a chilling, creepy performance, making his tragic death earlier this year all the more ironic.

Besides all the theatrics, pyrotechnics, fight scenes, chase scenes, and other scary moments, there were a few strong hints of the gospel scattered throughout the movie. In one particular scene, two ferryboats full of people get to decide whether or not to pull the trigger on each other in order to save themselves. I'll let you see the movie to find out what happens, but the scene poses the age-old dilemma whether, given the opportunity, we would choose to let an innocent person (or in this case, many people) die to save our own skin. Just the fact that they consider doing it reveals what the human heart is like. According to Jeremiah, the heart is sinful and beyond cure. We have to have a heart change to love others unselfishly.

There are other pieces of redemption in the film but since many of you probably have yet to see it, I'm not going to spoil it for you.

One thing I do wonder, though, is why there is such a plethora of superhero movies out there these days. They are big-budget action thrillers that get us all excited and earn a ton of money. But we know the bad guys are going to lose out in the end. The movies pretty much all tell the same story. So why do we like them so much? Are we so devoid of real-life heroes that we need a constant stream of computer-assisted super-humans to satisfy our need for deliverance? Or is it just the special effects, music, and costumes that we enjoy?

Personally, I prefer the quieter independent films that have a creative story and real human beings doing the acting, without a lot of help from special effects departments.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

My approach to Ecclesiastes

I'm preaching through the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes right now. It's a very challenging book to understand and apply. It's full of what scholars call "polar tensions." For example, in 7:3 the author says, "Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart." But in 11:9 he says, "Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth." Here's another example: In 7:11 the author says, "Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun." But in 2:15 he says, "What then do I gain by being wise? I said in my heart, 'This too is meaningless.'"

So I've struggled to come to terms with these tensions, to figure out who is the man (known in Hebrew as Koheleth, which means Preacher, Teacher, or Professor) who wrote Ecclesiastes, and to decide how to apply the book to contemporary Christians. I've been most helped by the commentary on Ecclesiastes by Tremper Longman III. While his interpretation is not bullet-proof, I think he offers the most sound argument for understanding the book as a whole.

What Longman and others say is that Ecclesiastes is the product of a godly narrator (1:1-11 and 12:8-14) and a skeptical sage (1:12-12:7). You can tell there are two speakers by the change in voice from third-person in the prologue to first-person in the long middle section, and back again to third-person in the epilogue. The narrator opens with a summary of the teaching of the Preacher, including the famous theme verse: "Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!" Then, beginning in 1:12, the Preacher shares his observations and reflections on life. In the concluding section, the narrator comes back to critique the views of the Preacher and tell us the better way to view life under the sun.

For me, the breakthrough in understanding Ecclesiastes came when I discovered that Koheleth really and truly believed everything is meaningless. He wrote as a skeptic and a pessimist, not as a person in covenant with God. His thinking reflects a sub-Christian or secular worldview. He reached the point of resignation and believed that efforts to find purpose and lasting joy in work, relationships, and even wisdom are pointless. In that sense he is correct. Life "under the sun" (i.e., apart from faith in a personal God) really is ultimately frustrating. Koheleth said the same thing numerous artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, philosophers, and thinkers have said who view life through a secular grid and come up empty. For example, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote:

"It was true, I had always realized it - I hadn't any 'right' to exist at all. I had appeared by chance, I existed like a stone, a plant, a microbe. I could feel nothing to myself but an inconsequential buzzing. I was thinking...that here we are eating and drinking, to preserve our precious existence, and that there's nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing" (Nausea, 1938).

Sartre sounds exactly like the Preacher of Ecclesiastes who said, "Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both...man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless" (3:19).

One problem with the view I am espousing is that Koheleth makes frequent references to fearing God (3:14, 5:7, 7:18, etc.) and receiving life as a gift from God (2:24, 3:13, 5:18, etc.). Also, the epilogue seems to commend the Preacher as a wise man who "wrote [what] was upright and true" (12:10).

But, in context, the fear the Preacher advocates appears to be an impersonal, slavish fear rather than the reverent, trusting fear of a man who knows God to be not only sovereign but also good, kind, and loving. (Contrast Ecclesiastes with the Psalms, for example.) And the verses that mention enjoying life strike me more as a resignation than an affirmation. It's like the Preacher is saying, "Oh well, since there's no meaning to life you might as well live for the moment and enjoy the ephemeral blessings that come your way. Carpe diem." Finally, Tremper Longman offers an interpretation of the epilogue that differs quite a bit from the NIV translation, and shows how rather than commending the Preacher, the narrator criticizes him and warns the reader not to be persuaded by his argument.

Koheleth is not an atheist; he acknowledges the existence of God. But he never refers to God using the covenant name Yahweh; it's always Elohim. There's no mention of atonement, or forgiveness, or trust. So God exists, he's just not personal or loving. He seems to be rather like the God of deism.

Furthermore, many of the statements made by Koheleth are in conflict with the clear teaching of the rest of the Bible. Life, while frustrating at times, is not meaningless - not for the Christian anyway. Work is not pointless. Sorrow is not better than laughter. It is not true that "the dead know nothing" (9:5) or that time and chance happen to everyone (9:11) or that human beings and animals all wind up in the same place (3:20) or that "a man cannot discover anything about his future" (7:14). There are many other instances of statements that come not from the heart of faith (or even doubt) but of unbelief. So Koheleth is someone with a secular worldview. He speaks for many skeptics and unbelievers today who see the problems of the world but do not look in faith to a God who has intervened in time and space through Jesus Christ, has identified with us in our sin and misery, and lived under the sun with us as our Substitute and loving Lord. It's the narrator who, in the end, speaks of living in covenant with God.

Whatever is the best way to view Ecclesiastes, one thing's for sure: It screams for the gospel. It reminds us that life cannot be found apart from relationship with God, and shows us the vanity of all pursuits when divorced from faith.

Perhaps it's by deliberately NOT offering answers, that the book of Ecclesiastes drives us into the New Testament to seek the ultimate Answer in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Monday, July 14, 2008

North Georgia Vacation

My wife and I just got back from spending a week in the North Georgia mountains with our son Michael, daughter Jennifer, her husband Tim, and their dog Li'l Bit. We stayed at a house my in-laws own in a "town" called Sky Valley. It's about halfway between Highlands, NC, and Dillard, GA. I'll post some pictures soon, but here are the highlights of the week:
  • Relaxing on the back porch with a couple of books. (Love the no humidity!) I started re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia.
  • Eating dinner at the Dillard House - fried chicken, pork loin, BBQ chicken, country ham, pole beans, sweet white corn on the cob, okra, lima beans, sweet potato casserole, 2 kinds of bread, strawberry cobbler AND coconut creme pie! If you've never been to the Dillard House, you've missed out.
  • Whitewater rafting down the Chattooga River (that's me on the left of this picture, in the middle). We had the best guide, and we were all in the same raft together. I went overboard once (but it was not my fault!). (BTW, if you are comparing, I recommend our outfitters, Southeastern Expeditions. The guides were all really good and made the trip a lot of fun for everybody.)
  • Eating hamburgers at the Mountain Man Restaurant in Dillard... a real taste of mountain culture. Friday nights they have free bluegrass music for your dinner-time enjoyment!
  • Buying fruit and vegetables from a roadside produce stand. The peaches, watermelon, and corn were wonderful. (Why don't they have good produce in Orlando?!)
  • Hanging out in Highlands. The five of us spent several hours walking through the shops, sampling food, browsing the bookstore, etc. Suzy & I bought some old books for our collection. We like old books with interesting covers and subject matter. We bought a biography of Martin Luther and a collection of Shakespeare's sonnets.
  • Hiking down to Glen Falls near Highlands. Suzy and I took our shoes off and hiked down the river a ways (North Georgia lingo). We also climbed up the rocks and walked behind the falls. There were some beautiful views. We came across a section of smooth rock that reminded me of Sliding Rock, NC, so against my better judgment I slid down it into a pool below, jeans and all. It was tons of fun though I stubbed my toe and hit my elbow on a rock... which leads to the only bad news of the week...
  • I lost my BlackBerry. Before I went sliding down that rock, I took my phone, wallet, and keys out of my pockets and set them on a rock. Afterwards, my clothes were so wet I asked Suzy to carry my phone. Somehow it fell out of my wife's pocket and went who-knows-where. We never found it. We walked up and down the 1.5 mile trail several times, and by the end of the day we were exhausted. We figure it went down the river. I had to buy a new phone when we got back to Orlando. Boo!
Except for that last item, the week was fantastic. It was great fun being with two of our four kids for an extended period - although we wish the whole family could have been there.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Once

My son Michael turned me on to a movie I'd never heard of called Once. We watched it today. It's a modest little independent film about an Irish street musician. He's heartbroken over a lost love and wants to break into the recording industry. Along the way he meets a young, equally heartbroken and talented Czech woman, and together they succeed in making some demo records. It's very touching, and romantic, and thought-provoking. A good date movie.

Earlier this year, the movie won an Oscar for Best Original Song ("Falling Slowly"). It was either nominated for or won a surprising number of other awards. The music is quite moving, and if like me you're a guitar player, or you like acoustic music with good close harmonies, you'll really enjoy the many songs in the film. They're all sad, but well done. The thing I liked most was that most of the music, as far as I could tell, is performed live in the movie. You don't see that very often, if ever.

The movie illustrates that every one of us is broken and empty. We are looking for the Eden we've lost, but can't find it. Through music, writing, art, work, and other things, we express our longing. We look for new lovers, new jobs, interesting places to visit, and so forth. Friends come along, and that helps. Perhaps we find that one soul mate we've always desired - that helps even more. But like Koheleth in Ecclesiastes, we find the longing persists. Not until Christ returns to restore the brokenness and re-open the gates to Eden will we find the one true thing our hearts desire.

I won't spoil the ending for you, but there is a note of redemption, which made me think of what Jesus did for us by giving up that which was most precious to him so that we could be put back together again.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Beach vacation

I just finished a great week of vacation at Daytona Beach with my wife and oldest daughter and her family (plus brief, overnight visits from two of our other kids). We stayed at the Wyndham Ocean Walk Resort, which turned out to be an awesome place for our 3 grandkids (ages 6, 3, and 1). There's enough to keep you occupied at this hotel that you could almost get away with not going out on the beach.

But of course, we did spend many hours on the beach.

My favorite thing to do at the beach is get up under a beach umbrella, sit in a chair, and read a book. And doze off to sleep every now and then. When I get hot I go ride a few waves to cool off. This time, since our 3 grandkids were with us, I would often play with them in the waves or walk them down to the ice cream truck to get them an ice cream bar. It cost me $3 every time Tyler, Eben, or Tate talked me into buying them an ice cream bar. But I wouldn't care how much it cost, this was a highlight of the week for me! Granddads have to buy ice cream bars for their grandkids.

One of the books I read this week was Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog, by John Grogan. Grogan is a journalist who wrote this book about his yellow Labrador Retriever, Marley. It's a fun and easy read but breaks your heart at times and makes you want a dog...which is OUT OF THE QUESTION!!

(By the way, a movie based on this book will be coming out this Christmas. Also, Grogan maintains an interesting website that consists of his blog and readers' stories about their dogs. Dog lovers should visit that.)

I also spent some time reading commentaries on Ecclesiastes, which I'm going to be preaching through in July and August. You may think that's not something a minister should do on vacation, but truthfully I don't ordinarily get time to leisurely read commentaries, and I actually enjoy it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Plant a sequoia

My friend Scott gave me a great phrase today. He said that in the church, what we are doing is planting sequoia trees. That is, we are building spiritually mature, Biblically informed, sanctified men, women, and children. But like sequoia trees, they don't start out that way. So you have to plant little saplings, be patient, and have a long-range vision. Meanwhile, do the little things that eventually result in a sequoia: teaching & preaching, care, love, mentoring, and so forth. As the prophet Zechariah put it, don't despise the day of small things (Zechariah 4:10).

The same can be said about parenting. Your goal is a strong, fruitful, healthy adult. But you have to plant a "sapling" and adjust your expectations while he or she grows. You can't get impatient and angry and resentful just because they're not sequoias yet. One day they will be. But for now, you have to do the slow, tedious work of discipline, love, and nourishment.

So, whether you're parenting a child or discipling somebody or leading a church, it helps to remember that you're planting a sequoia. Keep the end in view, but love people for who they are and where they are. It is God "who makes things grow" (1 Corinthians 3:7).

Friday, June 13, 2008

Back again

I've really been lazy about blogging lately. My excuse is that life has gotten a lot crazier since becoming the senior pastor of my church. But I'm back, and I'll try a little harder.

Of course, this assumes someone out there is actually reading this stuff.

Besides being lazy about blogging, I've been angry and upset about things happening in the world these days. Out of sight gas prices (I heard today gasoline may soon reach $6 a gallon)... stocks plunging... a presidential election I'm not excited about... friends getting cancer... dumb decisions in Washington... and many more such things have been getting me quite depressed.

But I'm preaching through the book of Acts, and I've noticed that the early Christians had it much worse that we do. I mean, we don't experience near the kind of religious persecution they did. We don't experience near the degree of marginalization and discrimination those 1st century believers did. They had it tough in so many ways. I haven't been stoned lately, have you?

Yet, for the most part (there were exceptions, like Ananias and Sapphira), the early Christians maintained their integrity. They kept their focus on God. They had a boldness about them that reveals an underlying spirit of optimism. They loved and served each other, and reached out to the lost. They didn't get all depressed and whiny. They seem to have stayed positive.

Why? I think it's because they were well established in their belief in the Kingdom.

Behavior is always rooted in ideas, and there's no better idea than the Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God means his rule, reign, and dominion. Some people suggest that Kingdom is the unifying theme of the entire Bible, and I'm inclined to agree. When it comes to the book of Acts, I notice that Kingdom frames the whole book. In Acts 1:3, it says that Jesus spoke to his followers about the Kingdom of God. In Acts 28:31, it says that Paul preached the Kingdom of God. The book of Acts opens and closes on the note of Kingdom.

So maybe the early Christians were not blown away by the events of the day because they were persuaded Jesus was still on the throne. Plus, they remembered such Kingdom teaching in the Hebrew Scriptures as the following...
  • “The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).
  • “His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him” (Daniel 7:27).
  • “He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him” (Psalm 72:8, 11).
  • “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (Daniel 2:44).
It's my thesis that the early Christians had a Kingdom confidence that we need today. I certainly need it.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Lars and the Real Girl

My wife and I watched Lars and the Real Girl earlier this week. Loved it. Ryan Gosling is excellent as Lars Lindstrom. He suffers terribly from family history issues of which we're given only bare hints. He plays the unusual role convincingly and with passion. I won't spoil the movie by telling you what he does to cope. While unusual, it's really not that different from what we all do to find hope in the midst of our brokenness.

What I liked most about the movie was its portrayal of the "pastoral care" given Lars by his family, co-workers, and church. (Yes, finally a positive picture of church life!!) It's very uplifting - and, I must say, convicting.

Interestingly, Nancy Oliver, who wrote the story, attended Florida State. Her screenplay was nominated for an Oscar.

Go Magic!

For a guy who never watches NBA, I'm having fun watching the home team do well in the playoffs! It's now 3-1 against Toronto. Woo-hoo!! This may be what I need to (finally) become a fan.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Worship of God Conference

This weekend I'm enjoying the Worship of God Conference at Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee. Jonathan Noel, our church's worship director, is here with me. This is the second time I've been to this conference at CCC. The first time was way back in 1997 or '98. I am here to be refreshed after several intense weeks at the church, and for Jonathan and me to spend time together talking about our lives, about worship, and about our hopes and dreams for our church.

This morning we heard a very meaningful message by Nate Larkin, author of Samson and the Pirate Monks. He shared his story about the many years he put up a "Saint Nate" front and hid his true self from people, rather than being open about his addiction. Through the gospel, and particularly through community with other believers, Nate was able to learn to live authentically in the church. His talk inspired me to live more honestly before others. I also want to look into starting up a Samson Society meeting of men at our church.

Here are some of my take-aways from Nate's talk that deserve some more pondering:
  • It's not so much our sin that keeps us from God but our supposed righteousness.
  • The gospel is too big for one person to carry. We need someone else in our journey to remind us of the gospel every day.
  • Every day, I need to pick up the phone and tell someone else the truth about what I'm feeling, what I'm doing, and/or what I'm thinking about doing. (Scary!)
  • Christianity is a team sport. Jesus brought me into a personal relationship with him, not a private relationship.
  • Moralistic Christianity leads to either delusion ("I'm invincible") or despair ("I'm such a loser").

Friday, April 11, 2008

Not a good re-start for "The Office"

I didn't think the season "premier" (post writers' strike) of The Office last night was very good. Sure, it was kind of fun to see the couples getting together, and Dwight was funny when he came to Michael and Jan's house with his babysitter. But it seemed to me the writers must have still been on strike and they got the B Team to write this episode.

What I especially didn't like was the new Jan. She was downright crazy. The dynamics used to be a lot funnier when she was the sophisticated boss being turned off/turned on by Michael's shenanigans. Last night was kind of like watching Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner going at each other in The War of the Roses. It was embarrassing, not funny. And Jim and Pam didn't do much besides look at each other and the camera with those befuddled looks on their faces.

Not a good start out of the gate for me. Hopefully it'll be The Office I've always loved next week.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

What I'm reading...

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, by Lesslie Newbigin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).

Newbigin, who died in 1998, was a Scottish Presbyterian minister, missionary, and theologian who encouraged the Church to have a vibrant gospel witness in the postmodern world.

In chapter 18, Newbigin has some outstanding things to say about what a vibrant Christian congregation looks like. He says it's marked by six things. I'll list them for you, using Newbigin's own words:
  1. It is a community of praise. We live together reverently and thankfully toward God.
  2. It is a community of truth. We hold onto the Scriptures as God's authoritative revelation.
  3. It is a community that does not live for itself but is deeply involved in the concerns of its neighborhood. (I like Newbigin's analogy: the Church is "God's embassy in a specific place.")
  4. It is a community where men and women are prepared for and sustained in the exercise of the priesthood in the world. ("It is in the ordinary secular business of the world that the sacrifices of love and obedience are to be offered to God." So to Newbigin, the church needs to be "a place where its members are trained, supported, and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world.")
  5. It is a community of mutual responsibility. (Newbigin calls the church "a new social order . . . where God's justice and God's peace are already an experienced treasure.")
  6. It is a community of hope. ("The gospel offers an understanding of the human situation which makes it possible to be filled with a hope which is both eager and patient even in the most hopeless situations.")
By striving toward these ideals, says Newbigin, the church can take the "high ground" in our pluralist society, and both challenge and change public life.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Church and prayer

I have been reading through the book of Acts lately and will be preaching on it for the next 10 weeks. One of the big ideas in Acts is the relationship between dependent prayer and spiritual renewal. The early Christians were a praying people. Over and over in Acts you see the church in prayer: when the apostles needed a replacement for Judas Iscariot (chap. 1), when they first met resistance from the Jewish religious leaders (chap. 4), when they needed deacons (chap. 6), when Peter was imprisoned (chap. 12), and when they were ready to take the gospel internationally (chap. 13), the early Christians met for prayer.

And it appears they didn't just pray now and then or when it was convenient. Acts 1:14 says "They all joined together constantly in prayer." Acts 2:42 says "They devoted themselves to . . . prayer."

So my question is, How can we in our churches today experience a sustained level of fervent, corporate prayer?

As a pastor, I've run the gamut of ideas: weekly prayer meetings, early morning men's prayer groups, National Day of Prayer gatherings, round-the-clock prayer campaigns, and the like. These meetings typically draw the same small core of people that show up for everything else, and they run out of steam pretty fast. They often die a slow, depressing death. It takes months or years for the church to feel ready to try prayer again.

This is going to sound uncharitable, but one thing I've observed is that prayer meetings and prayer groups often attract people with a defective view of justification. For these individuals, prayer is a means of performing before God and achieving status with people. Curiously, however, they outdo many other, more mature Christians in the area of prayer and set an unrealistically high bar for the church. So the prayer ministry of a church, in my experience, is often the place some of the most unbalanced, undiscerning Christians wind up. Don't get me wrong. As Richard Lovelace puts it, "Even bad prayer is better than no prayer." But prayer groups not grounded in the gospel are not very attractive to the wider body of Christ, and can even kill a prayer ministry altogether. I certainly don't want to tell a brand new Christian to go to a prayer meeting led by one of these folks.

Yet I'm convinced there's got to be a way the church today can experience prayer on the level of the book of Acts, without adopting a wacky theology of prayer.

I think that prayer is probably not going to happen very much in our churches unless there is first a deep sense of need. Again to quote Richard Lovelace in his book Dynamics of Spiritual Life, "the minimal prayer accompanying many projects in the church may indicate that what is being undertaken is simply what human beings can accomplish pretty well by themselves."

Not until we see what desperate straits we're in, how weak we are, and how great the challenges are before us will Christians meet together with urgency and faith and ask God to rend the heavens and come down. Maybe we need to start by asking God to "pour out . . . a spirit of grace and supplication" on the church (Zechariah 12:10).

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr., died last week at the age of 82. He was someone I admired a great deal. As a teenager and young adult, I often watched him on TV when he hosted the PBS show Firing Line. (That show ran from 1966 to 1999, making it the longest-running public affairs show with a single host in TV history.) Conservatism may not find its voice in anyone of Buckley's stature for years to come.

He was quite the Renaissance man. He wrote over 50 books. He played piano, painted, sailed, served in the Army, served briefly in the CIA, and founded a magazine. But it's his character and Christian faith that I admired the most. He was a devout Catholic. He and his wife were married for 57 years before her death in April '07. He spoke up for Jesus, for the unborn, and for Christianity, and was not afraid to criticize people like President Bush for betraying conservative principles.

Among Buckley's more memorable sayings are these:
  • "I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University."
  • "The best defense against usurpatory government is an assertive citizenry."
  • "I would like to electrocute everyone who uses the word 'fair' in connection with income tax policies."
  • "A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling 'Stop!'"
  • "Liberals, it has been said, are generous with other people's money, except when it comes to questions of national survival when they prefer to be generous with other people's freedom and security."
In a 1970 interview with Playboy magazine, Buckley and the interviewer had this exchange:
  • Playboy: Don’t most dogmas, theological as well as ideological, crumble sooner or later?
  • Buckley: Most, but not all.
  • Playboy: How can you be so sure?
  • Buckley: I know that my Redeemer liveth.
Richard John Neuhaus had this to say about Buckley after his death:

"Bill Buckley was a man of almost inexhaustible curiosity, courtesy, generosity, and delight in the oddness of the human circumstance. He exulted in displaying his many talents, which was not pride so much as an invitation to others to share his amazement at the possibilities in being fully alive. He was also, in and through everything, a man of quietly solid Christian faith. I am among innumerable others whose lives are fuller by virtue of the gift of his friendship. May choirs of angels greet him on the far side of Jordan."

I like that.

Friday, February 29, 2008

What I'm reading...

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, by Tim Keller.

Keller is a fellow Presbyterian pastor in New York City and is one of the outstanding leaders of my denomination. I listen to all his sermons and learn much from them, so I'm excited about his book. It's a Christian response to a number of questions that skeptics and doubters ask about the faith. Questions like why God allows suffering, how a loving God could send people to hell, how Christians can lay exclusive claim to truth, and the like.

You can learn more about the book at this website.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

For all who miss "The Office"...


...you can watch some really funny deleted scenes from Season 4 at this website: http://www.nbc.com/The_Office/

Loony eclipse

I happened to catch a hilarious remark yesterday, but I tried not to laugh. I was in a store and I overheard two sales clerks talking to each other. One of them said, "Did you know tonight there's a total eclipse of the moon?"

The other said, "Oh, does that mean we have to turn our clocks back an hour?"

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

La Vie En Rose

If you're in the mood for a really sad movie, rent La Vie En Rose. It's a French film with English subtitles. My wife and I watched it last night. Whew! It wore us out. Not only is it a long movie, but the subject is a tragic one. It's the true story of Edith Piaf (1915-1963), generally recognized as France's greatest pop singer. The title of the movie is the title of Piaf's signature song.

I must admit I'd never heard of Edith Piaf. As depicted in this film, she was an amazingly talented singer and entertainer. But her life was SO hard. She was abandoned by her parents in early childhood and was raised for some years by her grandmother who ran a brothel. She developed keratitis and was blind for a few years. Her father, a circus performer, eventually took her back and the two of them lived from handout to handout on the street. Her talent as a singer was later discovered and Edith grew to become France's most popular entertainer and an international star. But along the way she became addicted to morphine and alcohol. If the film is accurate, she was also a thoroughly belligerent, self-absorbed person. She died lonely, angry, and sad.

While it's quite an ordeal to watch, this is an important movie. It illustrates the message of Ecclesiastes: all is vanity without God. In Edith Piaf's life you see the aching need of the human heart for love. In a scene near the end of the movie, Edith is interviewed by a magazine reporter. The reporter asks, "If you were to give advice to a woman, what would it be?" Edith replies, "Love." The reporter then asks, "To a young girl?" Edith again replies, "Love." Finally the reporter asks, "To a child?" And Edith again says, "Love."

When the need for love is not met by parents (especially in the critical early years) we carry throughout life a wounded heart that may never be healed. In the movie, a few people tried to supply the pieces missing from Piaf's life. But as Blaise Pascal said, the vacuum in the human heart is God-shaped. No amount of success, fame, or human love can do what only God's love can do.