Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Brothers

I was not terribly excited about seeing Brothers today. My wife and I were in Jacksonville visiting our daughter and son-in-law, and we decided to go see a movie. This was the only one that halfway appealed to us. I'd read several ho-hum reviews of the film, so I was expecting to be disappointed.

Not only was I not disappointed; Brothers is an excellent movie. We were all caught up in this well-acted, tense, moving drama. It's rated R for language and violence. I did not feel there was anything inappropriate here considering the setting and story.

Brothers stars Tobey Maguire as Marine captain Sam Cahill, called into duty in Afghanistan; Natalie Portman is his wife Grace; and Jake Gyllenhaal is Sam's brother Tommy. Sam and Grace have two young daughters named Isabelle and Maggie. They are played by amazing little actresses who show an incredible range of emotion and sincerity. They brought me to tears a couple of times.

Here's the story (without spoilers): While in Afghanistan, Sam's helicopter is shot down by Taliban fighters, but somehow Sam survives and is taken prisoner. However, he is reported back home as killed in action. Naturally Grace and the girls are devastated. Sam's younger brother Tommy, on parole for robbing a bank, is transformed by the event and becomes the family protector and surrogate father for the little girls. When the news arrives that Sam is not dead after all, the stage is set for all kinds of personal and family drama.

I can't say much more without spoiling the movie for you.

Among other things, Brothers is a study in family systems. The relationships Sam and Tommy have with their father Hank (played ably by Sam Shepard) are performance-based. You see how a lifetime of conditional love affected the two brothers entirely differently - one becoming a military leader, the other a deadbeat - yet neither brother has a healthy relationship with their father.

Sam and Tommy thus illustrate the two brothers in the Prodigal Son story of Luke 15. Jesus told that story to show that both the moral person and the immoral person need the gospel. Sam and Tommy's very different stories intersect at the point of deep spiritual need. Neither one has the kind of relationship with their father that can carry them through the traumatic events that unfold here. However, they do have each other, so the movie is a touching look at the nature of brotherly love.

The movie is also a study in the nature and effects of guilt. But that's all I'll say about that.

See Brothers. It's raw and emotional, but I think you'll love it as much as I did. My wife and I walked out of the theater almost trembling from the tension, heartache, and energy of this movie.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Guitar

This is my Christmas present from Suzy - an Epiphone SG (G-400) electric guitar. I had told her that's what I wanted this year, and she let me pick it out. I found it used on Craigslist. It's in really fine shape, and I like the look and feel of it. The action is really good and it has a nice sound.

I've played guitar since I was little, but I've never owned an electric guitar. My brother had a nice Gibson electric which I played from time to time, but this is my first. Epiphone is owned by Gibson, and the guitar I bought is patterned after the 1962 Gibson SG.

Christmas decorating

I finally got around to putting our lights up on the house for Christmas. I'm always the last one on my cul-de-sac to do this. One of my neighbors had his house all decked out before Thanksgiving. Suzy and I typically seem to wait until Christmas is two weeks (or less) away. I doubt we would decorate our house at all were it not for the fact that we host a couple of Christmas parties in our house every year! Well, that's not true. I would keep putting it off, but eventually I would get around to it.

I have great memories of Christmas during my childhood - until I went away to college. That's when my parents did what I'm doing now... slacking off.

It had been a great tradition for my dad and my brother to go out together and chop down a Christmas tree on some property Dad's company owned out in the country. I was sad when he no longer wanted to do that. But I can understand it now. A few years ago, Suzy and I did the unthinkable: we bought a fake tree.

I knew my parents were really getting older when they didn't even bother to put up a fake Christmas tree. Instead, they bought a dinky little 6" thing and put it on a table.

Please, if I ever do that, hit me over the head.

This year we went in with all our neighbors and bought luminaries to benefit the local school PTA. You can see a few of them in this picture. Seeing every house in the neighborhood displaying their luminaries was pretty cool.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

This Is It

I've always been a half-hearted Michael Jackson fan. I love many of his songs ("Thriller," "Billie Jean," "Leave Me Alone," "Remember the Time," etc.). But like everyone else in the world, I'm weirded out by the oddball habits he acquired in the latter part of his tragic life, by his appearance, and (especially) by his relationship choices. He's a study in all kinds of psychological phenomena. He was an angry, messed up man and a victim of untold abuses by family members and fans. And many of his songs - the syrupy-sweet and socio-political commentary ones in particular - grate on my nerves.

So when my wife and I went to see the new documentary movie This Is It, my expectations were low and my defenses high.

But I want to see it again. It was that good.

I liked just about everything about this behind-the-scenes look at MJ's rehearsals for the 50-date tour that never happened. From a technical standpoint it's a fascinating movie to watch. I love documentaries anyway, and this is one of the best ever made. You see a lot of the work that goes into mega-concerts and you come away with a great appreciation for the talent and skill of concert producers. Plus MJ's songs sound really excellent here. I was not expecting to hear such great sound and clarity. The musicians, dancers, and singers he recruited for the tour are amazing, especially a female guitar player that stands out. Michael's voice is sometimes flat, but he explains several times that he's trying to save his voice for the real thing, and you believe him.

Even Michael the man comes off impressively in the movie. He's a perfectionist but a gentle one. He knows what he wants but he's not arrogant about it. He compliments people and, best of all, you like him. His dancing is understated here, but once again you realize that if this were the real concert he'd amaze us. I expected him to look more sickly than he does in the film. He's thin but not emaciated. The movie leaves us with the Michael Jackson we all wanted him to be and wished he could be.

Of course, the whole movie is tinged with sadness because you know, the whole time you're watching the movie, that the show did not go on. All that work, all that talent, all that time went into a concert tour that never happened because of Jackson's untimely death on June 25 of this year - less than three weeks before the London kick-off of the This Is It tour. Because of the mystery surrounding his death, you're left with unanswered questions. My wife and I wonder if MJ took his own life because he feared the failure of the concert tour. Or was it his final act of rage and revenge against his abusive parents? We'll never know.

Michael Jackson's life and music stand as a testimony to the reality of God's common grace and to the sadness of a life lived to the glory of man rather than God.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

More Talitha


Here are a couple recent shots of my new granddaughter Talitha. I left for Japan a few days after she was born, so I miss her very much! Suzy was able to spend some time with David, Lindsay, and Talitha while I've been gone.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Greetings from Japan

I'm in Chiba, Japan, assisting with the Japan Church Planting Institute November 2-7. Not much to say yet, as it was late afternoon yesterday when I arrived at Tokyo's Narita Airport and it was already getting dark. It's now early morning on Sunday, and I'm preparing to preach at the Oyumino Alive church in Chiba.

But this is funny. I woke up early and got on Facebook. I wanted to make the next move in online Scrabble, which I play with my daughter Rebecca. I got this message that said "Error: Invalid Country."

So Japan is an invalid country?! Not to God.

Japan is only .4% Christian, but it's a valid place for the gospel and full of valid, God-created people. I pray God will fill me and the team with love and energy to spread his gospel.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Talitha

This past Friday, October 23, my granddaughter Talitha Kelsi Osborne was born to my son David and his wife Lindsay. Talitha weighed in at 7 lbs., 7 ounces. She was just under 20" long. As you can see in this picture, she has lots of very dark brown hair. I think she's beautiful. And of course that's a perfectly objective, unprejudiced assessment.

David and Lindsay live in Tallahassee, Florida. My wife and I drove up there on Friday as Lindsay was in labor. She delivered Talitha at 9:05 p.m.

Many people have asked about the name "Talitha." David and Lindsay pronounce it with the accent on the first syllable (TAL - i - tha). The name is found in the Bible in Mark 5. In that chapter, Jairus, a synagogue ruler, comes to Jesus and pleads for him to heal his 12-year old daughter who is dying. While Jesus is on his way to Jairus' house, he stops to heal a woman who has had an issue of blood for many years. Meanwhile, Jairus' daughter dies. Nevertheless, Jesus goes to her and raises her from the dead. In Mark 5:41-42, we read:
"He took her by the hand and said to her, 'Talitha koum!' (which means, 'Little girl, I say to you, get up!'). Immediately the girl stood up and walked around."
So whether "Talitha" was the actual name of Jairus' daughter or not, it means "little girl" in Aramaic. Whenever I think of Talitha I think of Jesus giving his love, power, and life to one who is lost, empty, and without hope. In other words, the gospel is bound up in that one word "Talitha."

It was such a moving experience holding Talitha in my arms. For one thing, this is the first child of my first son. Just watching David and his wife go through this enormously life-changing event gives me chill bumps. But added to that is the memory of my own first childbirth experience, and knowing that now David and Lindsay get to have that. The whole thing is solemn, joyous, sacramental. Each day with your first baby is a brand new discovery, at once exhausting and exhilarating.

All my other children were there this weekend for the big event: Rebecca with her 3 kids, Jennifer (pregnant, due in March), and Michael.

I am a very blessed man indeed. To live to see my children's children is a rare privilege. To know that my children are walking with God and rearing their kids to do the same is even rarer.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Soloist

The Soloist is a story about homelessness. It's a story about mental illness. It's a story about friendship, and music, and family, and the power of words. It's a (true) story about a musician named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Jr. and his "unlikely friendship" with a journalist from the Los Angeles Times, Steve Lopez. Above all it's a story about grace.

Jamie Foxx stars as Ayers, and Robert Downey Jr. is Lopez. Both give sensitive, genuine portrayals of their characters. It's directed by Joe Wright, who also directed Atonement, one of my all-time favorite movies.

Nathaniel Ayers grew up in poverty in Cleveland. He was a musical prodigy. After completing high school he attended Ohio University on a music scholarship. Then in 1970, at the age of 19, he was accepted in NYC's prestigious Julliard School of Music, one of the few African American students there.

Ayers was trained to play the double bass but taught himself to play cello, trumpet, violin, drums, and harmonica. Every indication was that Nathaniel Ayers was bound for a lifelong career in a famous orchestra. But two years into his time at Julliard, something went wrong. The pressure of studies started getting to him. Known to be a fastidious dresser, he began to show up for class disheveled and unbathed. His grades took a nosedive. He grew angry and confrontational. He started hearing voices in his head. He talked incessantly and drew graffiti all over his living quarters.

One night Ayers snapped. He was taken to Bellevue Hospital, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and given heavy doses of Thorazine. It didn't help. They gave him shock treatments, which only frightened him and turned him into a zombie. He ended up back in Cleveland, then drifted to the streets of California, lugging battered musical instruments with him. Finally Ayers settled in the streets of LA, sleeping in the tunnel under 2nd Street, beating the rats away with drumsticks, and playing his violin for the pigeons and anyone else who happened by.

One day in 2005, Steve Lopez heard Ayers playing his violin in Pershing Square next to the statue of Beethoven. And thus began the relationship that led to Lopez writing articles for the Times, then a book, a piece on the CBS show 60 Minutes, and this movie, The Soloist.

Watching the movie was an experience on several levels. For one thing, it's just an amazing story about an amazing person. Deeper than that, it moved me to look at homelessness in a new light. I tend to be dismissive of, impatient with, and offended by these people. Through the eyes of Steve Lopez, I saw them as fellow human beings who happened to have not had some of the advantages I did, who are suffering and desperate and need help.

Deeper still, The Soloist reminded me that I am the desperate one in need of grace.

At one point in the movie, Lopez tells his ex-wife of the profound experience of something that he's had in his relationship with Ayers. "What is it?" he asks. She says, "Sounds like grace."

How right she is. Grace is the connecting spark between someone who is desperate and someone else who cares no matter what. That's what Lopez experienced as Nathaniel Ayers - initially just the subject of a newspaper column - soon became a friend. And that's why The Soloist is a fresh bath in the gospel.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning

Talk about pushing buttons, Sunshine Cleaning hits them all... death, suicide, family, God, the afterlife, poverty, sex, friendship, yearnings, dreams, loneliness, and more. It's a movie that touches on lots of heart issues. It hit me hard and I loved it.

The acting is great. Amy Adams plays Rose Lorkowski, a single mom trying to establish herself and raise her little boy while facing challenges on several fronts. She and her sister Nora (played by Emily Blunt) wind up starting a "biohazard removal" business, i.e., cleaning up bloody crime scenes. Meanwhile we find out what's eating away at their souls: when they were little girls their mother committed suicide. Ever since, Rose and Nora have searched for something or someone to take away their heartache.

Really, each character in the movie is yearning for God, they just don't know it. Parents, friends, lovers, and careers all prove unfaithful in some way. In a telling scene, Rose picks up a CB radio and talks to the heavens, hoping her mother is listening. The gospel hears and replies, "God is."

I'm struck by how well Sunshine Cleaning depicts our fallen world. Like a horrific crime scene, signs and symbols of death are everywhere we look. Beauty has been defaced. The creation has been ruined by sin. But it's into this smelly, rotten world that Jesus came to bring sunshine and clean up the mess.

At present, as the author of Hebrews says, "we do not see everything subject to him" (Heb. 2:8). That is, the cleanup process has only begun; there's a lot more carnage yet to be removed. But if we look carefully "we see Jesus, [who tasted] death for everyone" (Heb. 2:9). In other words, the incarnation means that we are not alone in this crime scene called earth. Jesus experienced our sadness and loss on the cross, and rose again to offer hope to all who call on him.

(Caution: Sunshine Cleaning is rated R for language, disturbing images, some sexuality and drug use.)

Friday, October 02, 2009

Tyler is 8!


It was one of the proudest moments of my life when my first grandchild was born. The date was October 2, 2001. My daughter Rebecca and her husband Scott were living in Jackson, Mississippi, when Rebecca gave birth to a healthy, beautiful baby girl named Tyler Suzanne. She turned eight years old today.

I've told you about Tyler before (and here, as well as other briefer mentions). She's quite a special girl, with many outstanding qualities.

For instance, God has gifted Tyler with a tender and loving heart. She cares for her two brothers with incredible tolerance and patience (often convicting me of my own lack thereof!).

She also fits the description in 1 Corinthians 13:4-5 of love that is not proud, rude, or self-seeking. Tyler is a humble person, always seeing the good in other people and situations. When the family goes on long car trips, Tyler is patient and cheerful, finding things to keep herself occupied and rarely complaining about anything.

She's an amazing reader. Rebecca and Scott have read to their kids for years, and Tyler has picked up a love for books. She's read dozens of books way above her age level in difficulty.

Another thing that makes Tyler special is the way she brings joy to others. Her smile is contagious, and her positive attitude makes others feel better just by being around her. In a word, she is radiant.

Well, I could brag forever. But I thank God for bringing Tyler into our extended family. Happy birthday, Tyler Suzanne. May you forever be "clothed with strength and dignity" and "laugh at the days to come" (Proverbs 31:25).

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How to help your kids treasure God's Word

One of the things that's a bit frustrating about preaching is that I always have more to say than time to say it. My friend and former boss Mark Bates refers to this as leaving material on the cutting-room floor. Every Sunday there's at least another 10 minutes worth of sermon that I wish I had time to deliver. Perhaps we should all move to Africa where Christians don't check their watches during the sermon.

Anyway, last Sunday my sermon was about how to study the Bible. My text was the familiar story in Luke 10:38-42 about Mary sitting at Jesus' feet and listening to his words. I used this sermon as an opportunity to teach a method of Bible study often referred to as the inductive method.

What I wanted to add, but didn't have time, was that parents play a critical role in helping their kids develop a love for the Scriptures. The five steps of Bible study that I outlined in my sermon could easily be applied in the context of family devotions. Fathers (or mothers, in the case of single moms) should get the family together in the evening, read a passage of Scripture, and ask one or more of the questions that I cited during my sermon. This way, rather than making the kids sit still and listen as Dad shares what he thinks the passage is saying, the whole family embarks on an adventure of discovery. Another benefit of doing this is that the kids learn a method of Bible study they can use on their own.

One of my regrets is that I did not do this kind of thing enough when my children were little. We had family devotions, but I did not read through books of the Bible, asking thoughtful questions and initiating family Bible study. So if you are a parent of young children, learn from my mistake. Seize the opportunity to build Bible reading into your family's daily routine. If your kids are involved in a regular discipline of family Bible study, they will carry that habit into adulthood and be well equipped to face the challenges of life.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The sweetness of God's Word

I ran across this excerpt from Jonathan Edwards' Personal Narrative. It speaks so eloquently of the value Edwards saw in the Word of God:
“Oftentimes in reading [the Bible], every word seemed to touch my heart. I felt a harmony between something in my heart, and those sweet and powerful words. I seemed often to see so much light exhibited in every sentence, and such refreshing food communicated, that I could not get along in reading; often dwelling long on one sentence, to see the wonders contained in it; yet almost every sentence seemed to be full of wonders."
I pray that God will so move in my life that I will discover and taste and relish the wonders in every sentence of God's Word, the Bible.

Friday, September 25, 2009

New UPC website

Our church has a new website, thanks to a bunch of our guys that gave away hours and hours and hours of their time (I really should say months) to design and develop it.

I love it. I've looked at a lot of church websites and, if I do say so myself, this is one of the best. It's good looking and it's easy to navigate. Plus we have a "My Story" section where church members can share testimonies about things they've experienced and learned. I hope we can put up a new story every week.

I admire people who can do technical stuff like designing websites. Especially when they use their gifts and passions to benefit the church and extend the Kingdom.

Oh, there's a "Mike's Blog" section of the new website too. Which means that sometimes I'll post things on my church blog that I would have posted here, and vice versa. But in general, I'll use the church blog to share thoughts related to UPC, and I'll use my Greener Grass blog to post movie and book reviews, family-related stuff, and various other topics of (perhaps) wider interest.

Monday, September 21, 2009

David passed the bar!

My son David learned today that he passed the Florida Bar exam. It was the culmination of three years of law school at Florida State University, followed by tons of studying to prepare for the bar.

David graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2003 with a degree in political science. He worked in Orlando for a few years for Congressman Ric Keller. Meanwhile he got married to our favorite daughter-in-law, Lindsay Gumport. They're expecting their first baby in mid-October.

Now David needs a job. If you know of an opportunity for a Christian who wants to influence law and politics, let me know.

Pictured above are David and Lindsay at David's graduation from law school earlier this year.

Way to go, David & Lindsay! I'm super proud of both of you.

Grizzly Man

For thirteen seasons, a Californian named Timothy Treadwell (real name: Timothy Dexter) traveled to the Katmai National Park & Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula to live among grizzly bears. Treadwell was something of an eco-warrior and claimed a special understanding of grizzlies. He got up close to them, talked to them, filmed them, named them, and felt called to be their special protector from poachers and tourists.

Over 100 hours of video footage shot by Treadwell was obtained by filmmaker Werner Herzog and used to create the documentary Grizzly Man in 2005. I watched it with my wife, son, and daughter-in-law last week. It's hilarious at times, disturbing at times, and tragic throughout.

Hilarious because it has the look and feel of one of those "mockumentaries" directed by Christopher Guest (e.g., A Mighty Wind, Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, etc.). We sat there watching the DVD and often said to each other amidst laughter, "This CAN'T be true!" There's one scene that's especially funny, where a guy talks calmly about all the people found inside one of the dead grizzlies.

But aside from the funny moments, of which there are many, it was sad and disturbing to watch the deterioration of Treadwell into a man completely deceived by his hollow worldview. He grew so in love with grizzly bears that he lost hold on reality. To him, grizzlies were the intelligent, virtuous creatures and human beings were the evil, ignorant, land-grabbing, environment-destroying, bear-killing capitalists. Treadwell perfectly illustrates Romans 1:25 - "They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator - who is forever praised. Amen."

If you rent Grizzly Man, be forewarned: A LOT of profanity comes out of Timothy Treadwell - this sweet, nature-loving environmentalist - especially at one point where he curses the park rangers and just about everything else that walks on two legs (but him). Sadly, Treadwell's video footage shows him to be the very opposite of what he claims to be.

About halfway into the film, after you figure out this guy Treadwell was for real, things get very interesting. Herzog interviews the people who knew Treadwell best. They are a mixture of critics and devotees. And then you find out what happened to Treadwell. In October, 2003, he and his female companion got attacked, killed, and eaten by one (maybe two) of the grizzlies. Of course that wasn't captured on video. But if you're in a sadistic mood, you can listen to what purports to be nearly two minutes of audio, supposedly captured by a camera Treadwell left running inside his backpack. (I seriously doubt it is genuine, however.)

For an interesting interpretation of Treadwell and what happened to him, go here.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mother (1925-2003)

My mother passed away six years ago tomorrow (September 18, 2003). She was just a few days shy of turning 78 when she died. Normally a healthy woman whom I predicted would outlive me, she died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. She was visiting my brother and sister-in-law in Tennessee when it happened. Needless to say, her death was completely unexpected. My brother and I had just been through the passing of our father, and now we had to hurriedly arrange for another funeral, clean out the family home in Union, South Carolina, sell the house, and adjust to life without parents.

Mother was born in Greenville, SC, and lived all her life in that state. She graduated from Greenville High School and Furman University (my college alma mater). She and my father were married for something like 52 years.

She had a tough childhood. Her father was an alcoholic who left his family when Mother was only four or five years old. My grandmother raised my mom and her brother pretty much by herself, during some hard years in our nation's history.

Several positive qualities stand out when I think of my mom's life and character. She had incredible drive. When she set about a task, such as cleaning the house or writing poetry or serving on the board of the town library, she went all out. She was organized to a fault. She categorized and recorded all sorts of things, from favorite recipes to newspaper articles about my brother and me to coupons to medical records. She devoted lots of time to causes, church activities, and supporting my dad's career (he owned and managed the hometown AM radio station). She loved serving. Her vocabulary was unbelievable. No one could beat her at Scrabble or crossword puzzles. She was a poet. She succeeded in getting a few of her poems published in South Carolina journals. My brother and I found tons of rough drafts and finished poems among her papers after she died, things she'd never shown us or shared with anyone during her lifetime.

There were things about Mother I didn't like at all. She was not a warm person, and she could be terribly manipulative and controlling. But considering the things she endured as a child and young adult, I'm not surprised. She was faithful to my dad, devoted to her kids, and a model in many areas of her life. After Dad passed away in 2000, she grew both lonelier yet more mellow and fun to be around. My favorite memory is the time in 2001 my wife and I took Mother to Orlando's SAK Comedy Lab. She laughed her head off, like I'd never heard her laugh before. It was a healing, delightful night.

Thanks, God, for memories of a loving mother.

Monday, September 14, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

My wife and I went to see (500) Days of Summer the other day. It's a romantic comedy about the up-and- down relationship between two 20-somethings named Tom (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel).

Some things I liked about the movie:
  • The development of Tom and Summer's relationship was done in a really creative way.
  • The acting was good.
  • There were some pretty funny scenes.
  • You learn the value of friendship, love, and honesty.
  • OK, Zooey is really pretty.

But here's what I didn't like: Tom and Summer toy with each other's emotions and sexuality outside of marriage, choosing convenience and pleasure over commitment. And while all the damage is neatly cleaned up and packaged with a nice bow on it at the end of the movie, thousands of people in counseling rooms today can attest to the damage that such playing-around with intimacy leaves behind.

Instead of loving herself enough to have boundaries, Summer teases Tom again and again with a "maybe I will, maybe I won't" attitude that (understandably) drives Tom crazy. Tom, on the other hand, fails to play the man and call Summer to commitment and integrity.

It makes me sad that Tom and Summer are typical of many couples who unveil their deepest hearts to each other, wanting to experience the benefits and delights of marriage, but are so afraid of commitment that they refuse to go to the altar to be held accountable by each other, their friends, their relatives, and God.

I know. Many people say they don't want to get married until they're sure they've met the "right" person. So when a guy and girl meet and start getting close, they often move in together and try it out for a while. After all, doesn't it make sense to take a test drive before you buy a car? According to a recent study by the University of Denver, 70% of couples are living together before marriage these days.

The problem is that even when you buy a car, you don't know all there is to know about that car regardless of how many test drives you take. There's always the risk - in fact, the certainty - that some problem is hiding under the hood, waiting to disappoint you some months or years down the road. That's life. Nobody's not a lemon. Marriage by definition is the union of two incompatible people who decide to work at getting compatible. My wife and I discovered long ago that that's a lifelong process. Nearly every day we discover things about each other that we like and other things we don't like. Love is a decision to stay faithful to our marriage vows in spite of the things we don't like. That's part of the adventure, as well as the chaos. You'll never meet "Mr. Right" or "Ms. Right," if by that you mean someone who doesn't have some serious flaws.

Interestingly, the University of Denver study referred to above found that
"...couples who live together before they are engaged have a higher chance of getting divorced than those who wait until they are married to live together, or at least wait until they are engaged. In addition, couples who lived together before engagement and then married reported a lower level of satisfaction in their marriages."
That shouldn't surprise us. God's directions really work. So if you're single (and if you don't want to stay that way), find someone you're reasonably sure you'd like to spend the rest of your life with. Hold that person and yourself accountable to sexual purity while you date and get to know each other better. Then get married. Don't keep putting it off; in the Bible's down-to-earth language, "it is better to marry than to burn with passion" (1 Corinthians 7:9).

Friday, September 04, 2009

Why are we here?

Since I'm a pastor, I do a lot of thinking about the purpose and mission of the church - my church particularly. I was able to take a sabbatical this summer. A sabbatical (a break from the normal everyday stuff) is good because it helps you separate the things that are most important from the things that are less important. So I did a good bit of thinking, praying, and writing about the things that are most important for our church.

I put my reflections on paper and have been sharing them with others in leadership. I'd like to post them on my blog for you to read too. Since they deal with different subjects I will break them up into smaller pieces and, when necessary, add some commentary. I welcome your feedback.

Here's the first piece:

What must be the focus of UPC? Winning, equipping, empowering, and sending mature followers of Christ (i.e., disciples) into east Orlando and around the world who are deeply grounded in the gospel and armed with a rich theology, love for God and neighbor, and the know-how to help unchurched people become friends and friends become followers of Jesus – the goal being nothing short of the transformation of the entire culture to the glory of God.


Simply put, our purpose is to obey the Great Commission. We are here to grow the Kingdom of God. Our mission is to:

o Win – convert, attract, persuade

o Equip – build, develop, establish, disciple

o Empower – enfold, enlist, identify gifts

o Send – deploy, commission, anoint


To borrow from Mark Driscoll, “The mission of [UPC] is nothing less than bringing the entire world to Christian faith and maturity.”


To do this, we need constantly to remind ourselves why we’re here: not for ourselves, but for those outside the family of God. As Jesus came not for the healthy but the sick, so must we reach outside our walls to those who do not know the Savior. We are here for them. It’s not about UPC. We are here not to be served, but to serve. It’s time to turn the arrows out.


We also need to be clear that we want to win lost people, not steal disgruntled sheep. This will necessarily require that we constantly contextualize the gospel. We will speak to the needs, concerns, and problems of our east Orlando culture. We will keep our message consistent with the Word of God, while freely adjusting our methods with the unchurched resident of east Orlando in mind. It also means we will take whatever risks are necessary and pay whatever price is required to reach non-Christians in our community and throughout the world.

I don't know what risks God may be calling us to take. But I do know this: it's time to make some hard choices. Our church is 18 years old. We are like that 18-year son or daughter who must decide whether to live for self or for others. It is very tempting for us to say to ourselves, like the rich fool of Luke 12, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." But that would be a denial of Jesus' plan for his church.

We're at a critical place. Let's ask ourselves:
  • Do we exist primarily for ourselves or for lost people?
  • Will we grow by programming or by relationships?
  • Do we want people to go to UPC, or from UPC? (see the difference?)
  • Will our ambition be to build a church, or disciples?
  • Will we stay the same and be comfortable, or be willing to change and welcome the conflict it may bring?

Let's turn the arrows out.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Tell your story

It's Day 2 of Dan Allender's "Story Workshop." It's pretty exhausting, not just because of the long days but because in our small groups we go deeply into each other's story.

By that word "story," what Allender is talking about is the narrative or chief themes of our lives crystallized into one slice or piece of that narrative. I am writing a story about a time in high school when I felt publicly humiliated and my father did not come to my rescue. That story reveals a recurring theme of shame, perfectionism, and failure that has run through my life.

Here are four things about story that I'm learning:
  • God has written my story. Even though there's evil in it, my story has been authored by a sovereign, loving, often mysterious God. The Bible teaches this. As Job reminded his wife, the Lord both gives and takes away. I can trust that things haven't happened randomly and purposelessly. I may not know the purpose behind things that happen (and probably don't). I may not like the purpose. But the Author of my story knows best.
  • God has written my story to reveal his goodness. My story contains themes of death, resurrection, and ascension. The more I understand and the better I explore those themes, the more I get to know Jesus and his work in my life.
  • My story is not over. I continue to partner with God in the writing of my story everyday. This is sort of like the popular saying, "Be patient with me; God's not finished with me yet." The mysterious thing about life with God is that even though he's already written my story, my choices matter. It's the old antinomy: God is sovereign, yet we are responsible. In partnership with God, I can shape my future.
  • My story is inconceivably beautiful. To use C. S. Lewis's words, it bears a "weight of glory." However, I don't believe this about my story ... just as you don't believe it about yours. Dan Allender put it like this: "You can't know the beauty of your story apart from others reading it." I cannot interpret my story alone. I need others to hear my story, see how it reveals God's goodness, and help me shape my story in the future. Lewis writes,
"It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you see it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare...There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal."
This is why we need to share our stories with each other - to help us see the glory of our own story, and to point each other to the great Author of our stories.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Seattle Day 1

I flew out of Orlando at 7:30 AM today bound for Seattle, to begin the last piece of my sabbatical. Tomorrow is the first day of "The Story Workshop" at Mars Hill Graduate School. It's a workshop based on the book by Dan Allender entitled To Be Told: Know Your Story, Shape Your Future.

Hopefully the rest of my time in Seattle won't be the disaster today was. For one thing, my baggage didn't show up at the Seattle airport. That's never happened to me before. I think I know what happened. I flew American Airlines from Orlando to Miami, changed planes and flew Alaska Airlines from Miami to Seattle. I think the Alaska folks dropped the pass from American at MIA. So I'm still waiting for a call from Alaska Airlines saying "We've found your bags!" So far, I haven't heard from them.

Another thing that happened: The hotel didn't have a record of my reservation. I had reserved a room at a Best Western hotel in Seattle through CheapTickets.com. I think I know where that name "Cheap" came from. Somebody at CT.com forgot to let the Best Western folks know I needed a place to stay. Thankfully, after a phone call to the Cheap guys and a long time being put on hold, I got it straightened out. I'm writing this in my room... and they have free WiFi!

My son Michael came here with me. He's going to check out the city while I'm slaving away in the workshop each day. We'll be here until Monday.

I'm looking forward to the workshop because it will help me take a closer look at the themes that God has written into my life and be more purposeful with my life in the future. I'm also hoping that my story can help others understand and share their stories.

I'll post an update each day I'm in Seattle. Pray they'll find my luggage.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What's wrong with this picture?!

I saw this sign outside Hooters on my way home from work and had to get a picture. No, I didn't go inside.

This reminds me of the time my mom and dad (now deceased) took our son David and his cousin Stephen to Hooters in Atlanta when the boys were just about 10 years old. (Maybe they wanted to cash in on free food, too!) I know my parents didn't know anything about Hooters. They just thought it was a burgers & wings kind of place. I wish I could have seen the look on their faces when the waitress came up to take their order.

Later, we found some Hooters "trading cards" in a box under David's bed. Each one a picture of a Hooters girl.

Well, you never can start sex education too soon I guess, right?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Julie & Julia

I suppose some of my male readers are going to jump on my case about how I like chick flicks. If you look through all my posts, you'll find I often go to movies of that sort. I confess: I loved The Notebook. I loved Rachel Getting Married. Heck, I even enjoyed He's Just Not That Into You!

And I really liked Julie & Julia, the new movie about Julia Child (played excellently by Meryl Streep) and the New York City woman named Julie Powell who blogged her way through Child's famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

There are many things to like about this movie. Streep is fun to watch as the woman who introduced French cuisine and cooking to the American public back in the '60s. Amy Adams is perfect as the woman who, in her own words, went "from dead-end secretarial job to a 110-pound dog and a job writing in my pajamas."

It's an inspiring story. It shows what an impact each of us can have on other people simply by following our dreams and using our gifts. Granted, Julia Child was larger than life (literally!) and had opportunities most of us do not. But all she really did was wake up one day and say, "I don't like my life. I want to find out what I was created to do." She went from not knowing the first thing about cooking to being one of the world's most beloved chefs.

Aside from that, what I loved about Julie & Julia was its celebration of food and of people - two things that God has created for his glory and our good (1 Timothy 6:17).

Take food, for example. The message we hear all the time about food is how bad it is for you. We're told to cut back on calories, eat low-fat meals, reduce carbs, eat more fiber, avoid sugar, and so on. And I know, all that's true. But lost in all that advice is the goodness of food! Throughout the Bible, food is presented as a rich and wonderful gift from God. Feasting on delicious food is a wonderful thing. In Psalm 63: 5, the writer is thinking about the goodness of God and he says, "My soul will be satisfied [with God] as with the richest of foods." How can he compare God to the richest of foods if he's never tasted them?

Some of Jesus' most important teachings were delivered in the context of a meal (not the least of which, of course, was during his last supper with the disciples - a Passover meal). He told stories about feasts and banquets. His first miracle took place at a wedding feast. Jesus loved good food, and as we have the means, so should we.

The other thing presented in the film is the importance of celebrating people. I'm going to be preaching on that theme this coming Sunday. Both Julie and Julia turn again and again to their friends for strength and wisdom. They celebrate with their friends over food. They weep with them and rejoice with them (Romans 12:15).

People are God's greatest earthly gifts to us. I want to do a better job of celebrating with my friends in the years remaining to me.

Finally, Julie Powell says in the movie, and on her blog, that her life was changed by Julia Child. May we who know Jesus be just that bold in our boast that our lives have been changed by the One whose passion for us took him to the cross.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Listening

I want to be a better listener.

Don't you hate it when you're talking to someone, and you can tell their mind is elsewhere? They're looking around at other people, or checking their cell phone, or interrupting and changing the subject, or something like that.

Well, all too often that person is me.

I came across something in my reading the other day that inspired me. Somewhat surprisingly, it's about Sigmund Freud.
"A man once said of Sigmund Freud, 'He struck me so forcibly that I shall never forget him. His eyes were mild and genial. His voice was low and kind. His gestures were few. But the attention he gave me, his appreciation of what I said, even when I said it badly, was extraordinary. You've no idea what it meant to be listened to like that.'"
When I was a kid, I didn't feel listened to. I could always tell that my parents' minds were somewhere else when I was talking to them. They would give me a perfunctory "um-hmm" now and then, but I grew up feeling quite alone much of the time. So I have an extra bit of sensitivity to being heard but not listened to.

I know a man who has a special gift of listening. It's my wife's Uncle Tom. Suzy and I are always struck, when we are around him, with how well he tunes into people. He looks them intently in the eye, asks excellent questions, shows unfeigned interest, and gives them undivided attention. When Tom listens to me, I feel loved and celebrated.

You've no idea what it means to be listened to like that.


I want to be a better listener.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Why I use media in my preaching

John Piper is a man I admire a great deal. I've read many of his books and am consistently challenged and enriched by his preaching. I often check his ministry's website to get his take on a variety of subjects and Bible texts.

In a recent post on the "Ask Pastor John" section of the Desiring God website, he responded to the question, "What are your thoughts on drama and movie clips in church services?" That caught my attention because I use movie clips in my sermons from time to time. We have also used drama upon occasion, although not so much recently.

After making the point that Scripture doesn't forbid it, Piper said:

"I think the use of video and drama largely is a token of unbelief in the power of preaching. And I think that, to the degree that pastors begin to supplement their preaching with this entertaining spice to help people stay with them and be moved and get helped, it's going to backfire. It's going to backfire. It's going to communicate that preaching is weak, preaching doesn't save, preaching doesn't hold, but entertainment does. And we'll just go further and further. So we don't do video clips during the sermon. We don't do skits."

I agree that there is power in the preaching of the Word, and that the Word doesn't need "help" to accomplish its purposes. Isaiah 55:11 assures us that the Word that goes out from the mouth of God (e.g., by preaching) will bear fruit. It doesn't need any clever additions from me to be the living and active sword of the Spirit. The gospel is inherently powerful.

I also believe preaching is vastly underrated today. I bristle when someone refers to my sermon as a "talk." It's not a talk, it's a message from God's Word. Mark Driscoll, a popular figure among young Christians today who freely uses media in his sermons, writes that "preaching is the first priority of ministry that leads God's mission" (Vintage Church, pg. 88). He goes on to say that "Preaching is not sharing or chatting but rather proclaiming with authority and passion the truth of God's Word about Jesus."

And there is no doubt that lots of preachers neglect the close, tedious study of God's Word. Many preachers over-rely on media to compensate for their lack of passion and understanding. Charles Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, said it well: "We cannot...be excused if our discourses are threadbare and devoid of substance."

So why do I use movie clips, YouTube videos, and other media helps in my preaching? For at least two reasons.

First, in the Bible I see examples aplenty of people using visual and other aids to get God's message across. They didn't just stand up and preach. For example, the prophet Ezekiel acted out the Babylonian seige of Jerusalem (Ezek. 4:1-13). You might say it was a kind of skit. He also did a little drama with his hair to symbolize God's judgment of Jerusalem (Ezek. 5:1-4). Jeremiah put a yoke on his neck to warn the people of his time of their impending subjugation by Babylon (Jer. 27: 1-2). He used a linen belt to illustrate Judah's unfaithfulness (Jer. 13:1-11). And of course, Jesus taught using parables, current events, stories, and figures of speech. Many other examples could be given. People learn in different ways. Apparently God thinks it's OK for his messengers to use a variety of (dare I say it) techniques to communicate his truth.

Second, there is the issue of contextualization. Contextualization means making the church as culturally accessible as possible, without compromise. It means to communicate the unchanging message about Jesus in ways to which a particular culture can relate. The Apostle Paul said, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (1 Corinthians 9:22). He didn't change his message; he changed his approach, depending on his audience. He became like a Jew to win the Jews. He became like a Gentile to win the Gentiles. We might say that he changed his style, depending on the group to which he was ministering.

A perfect example of contextualizing the gospel is the JESUS film. A project of Campus Crusade for Christ, the JESUS film has translated the gospel into more than 1,050 languages, with a new language being added nearly every week. Since 1979 the JESUS film has been viewed by several billion people around the world, and has resulted in more than 225 million people responding with a decision to follow Jesus.

I'm not comparing a sermon to the JESUS film; I'm comparing preachers to missionaries. In my opinion, when a preacher uses a movie clip or something like that in a sermon, he is doing nothing different from a prophet using drama, or Jesus telling a story, or a missionary showing the JESUS film. Granted, dramas and parables in the Bible are inspired, infallible, and inerrant. Movie clips in sermons are none of those. But in my view they are illustrations that shed light upon the Scriptures and help people in a particular context understand the Scriptures better.

As with many other things, it's possible to go too far. I could neglect my study and depend on a clever video illustration to do what only thorough exegesis and passionate proclamation can do. But I don't intend to do that. So, unless I'm persuaded otherwise, I'll continue to pull out a movie clip now and then when I think it serves a good pedagogical function.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Back in the office

Well, sabbatical 2009 has come to an end. At least, the greater portion of it.

I was given a 5-week sabbatical from my senior pastor duties, and four of those weeks are over. Later this month, I'll attend The Story Workshop at the Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle. I came back to the office today, to be greeted by these amazing works of "art" by some of my beloved colleagues on the staff. My office door was entirely covered by a stupid picture I'd taken of myself to show off my new haircut. And if that weren't enough, in my office these same friends had hung smaller versions of that picture from my ceiling!

Thanks for the love, guys!

Here are a few of my favorite sabbatical experiences...
  • Favorite fun: Two weeks at Crescent Beach, FL, with my amazing family
  • Favorite book: Probably Deliberate Simplicity, by Dave Browning
  • Favorite restaurant: Cap's on the Water, St. Augustine
  • Favorite movie: The Hurt Locker
  • Favorite news: My younger daughter is pregnant!
  • Favorite Sunday morning service: Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church in Lecanto
  • Favorite time with grandkids: Putt-putt with Tyler and Eben
  • Favorite exercise: running on the beach
  • Favorite date: celebrating my 33rd wedding anniversary with Suzy
  • Favorite milk shake: Chick Fil-A peach
  • Favorite sandwich: New Yorker at McAlister's in Ocala
  • Favorite new music: Sara Bareilles
  • Favorite lesson learned: Slow down and focus

Monday, August 03, 2009

The one and the many

I was reading Romans 16 this morning. It's one of those chapters of the Bible we often just scurry past or ignore, like the appendix of a book or the P.S. of those fundraising letters we get in the mail.

But there are treasures in Romans 16. Like how about verse 20 - "The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet." That's one of the Bible's most heart-encouraging promises. Or this directive in verse 19 - "Be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil." What great practical advice that is!

What hit me most in my reading, though, was God's concern for both the one and the many.

In verses 1-16, Paul sends greetings to 25 different individuals by name, as well as to a handful of other unnamed persons, families, and house churches. Each of them gets some kind of pat on the back from the great apostle - and, we would say, from God...
  • Phoebe gets recognized for her service to the church.
  • Priscilla and Aquila get thanked for risking their lives for Paul.
  • Mary gets a shout-out for working hard, as do Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis.
  • Apelles gets the label "tested and approved."
  • Rufus's mother gets special notice as a woman who was a spiritual mom to Paul.
  • Andronicus and Junia get honored "as outstanding among [or in the opinion of] the apostles."
And on the list goes.

I'll bet many of the people listed in Romans 16 were just ordinary folk like you and me, living their daily lives to the glory of God. Scholars believe some of them were household slaves. Yet their names got recorded for posterity because God cares about individuals. He sees every act of service performed in his name, even the most menial, as eternally significant.

Yet as much as God cares for individuals, he also cares for nations. Verse 26 says that God revealed the gospel "so that all nations might believe and obey him." God's purpose is to bring men and women, boys and girls, from every tribe, language, people, and nation under heaven into his kingdom. God has the macro in view as well as the micro.

God, give me your heart for individuals as well as your passion for the nations.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Evangelical individualists

Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today magazine, wrote an excellent article in the July issue called "Is the Gay Marriage Debate Over?" You can read it here.

Galli first establishes the point that what makes gay marriage wrong, aside from Biblical directives, is that it's based on the wrong premise.
"The thrust of the pro-gay-marriage argument rests on the assumption that the happiness of the individual is paramount, and that the state's responsibility is to protect the rights of individuals to pursue whatever they think will make them happy, as long as no one gets hurt."
Galli answers this argument by saying that marriage "is inescapably connected to children and thus family, and family is inescapably connected to society." In other words, to argue for gay marriage (or any marriage, for that matter) on the basis of individual happiness is to deny the very meaning and purpose of marriage.

But then Galli goes further. He says that if we evangelicals are going to fight gay marriage, we'd better repent of our own radical individualism.

Where does our individualism show up? Galli cites several examples:
  • Our use of birth control. Galli says that our "easy acceptance of artificial contraception" shows that we believe "sex is first and foremost a fulfilling psychological and physical experience" rather than part of our responsibility to God, neighbor, and community. (By the way, I do not believe the use of birth control is necessarily a sin. However, I do believe God intends that married couples try to have children. It is part of our creation mandate to fill the earth and subdue it to the glory of God.)
  • Our high divorce rate. Why do Christians divorce? Often it's for the same reasons non-Christians get divorced: "We grew apart." "We no longer met each other's needs." "Irreconcilable differences."
  • Our "penchant for changing churches" and "our need to test every church and pastor against our personal reading of the Bible." Galli points out that we Protestants have managed to turn two medieval churches (Orthodox and Catholic) into 30,000 denominations! Why? Because "we are, of all Christian traditions, the most individualistic."
  • Our avoidance of accountability and church discipline
  • Our evaluation of a worship service on the basis of "the personal experience of the worshiper" rather than what God thinks of it
Galli then adds these convicting words:

"We [evangelicals] cannot very well argue for the sanctity of marriage as a crucial social institution while we blithely go about divorcing and approving of remarriage at a rate that destabilizes marriage. We cannot say that an institution, like the state, has a perfect right to insist on certain values and behavior from its citizens while we refuse to submit to denominational or local church authority. We cannot tell gay couples that marriage is about something much larger than self-fulfillment when we, like the rest of heterosexual culture, delay marriage until we can experience life, and delay having children until we can enjoy each other for a few years.

"In short, we have been perfect hypocrites on [the gay marriage] issue. Until we admit that, and take steps to amend our ways, our cries of alarm about gay marriage will echo off into oblivion."

Very challenging but needed words.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Forgotten disciplines

Beginning August 9, I'll be preaching a series of sermons on what I'm calling the "forgotten disciplines." My title for the series is "The Impractical Life." Let me explain why I came up with that title.

Everything these days is about practicality. You want to find the nearest seafood restaurant? Well, as the popular commercial for the iPhone says, "there's an app for that." Don't know where you're going? Your GPS will get you there. Need a family budget? Quicken will draw one up for you. Don't have time for a lengthy Bible reading? Just put a Verse-for-the-Day on your Google home page, and off you go. Don't want to talk on the phone? Send a text, and abbreviate all the words.

I like all the technology available to us today, and I use much of it. But I'm wondering how much silent damage it's doing to our souls?

It seems to me the walk with Christ is by definition impractical. While there are plenty of tools out there to help me grow spiritually, there is no "app" that just - poof! - makes it happen. To be someone's real friend means I should expect pretty frequent interruptions in my schedule. To hear God's voice means I will need to put aside other things, get quiet, sit still, and carefully read and study the Bible. To commune with God means I might need to clear my calendar for an entire day. I might even have to stay up all night, like Jesus did. To sharpen my understanding of Biblical doctrine means I will need to wrestle through a difficult book or listen to lectures that I wouldn't otherwise.

In other words, knowing and becoming like Jesus requires effort and costs us something. If we're serious about spiritual growth, we have to make some changes.

So that's why this series of messages is entitled "The Impractical Life." We'll be looking at five spiritual disciplines that will interrupt our schedules, slow down our pace, affect our diets, and cost us time, money, and energy.

Specifically, the disciplines I want to talk about are:
  • Listening - to God, to others, and to our own hearts
  • Feasting - celebrating and enjoying our friends and neighbors
  • Fasting - refraining from things that we look to to find life
  • Remembering - telling stories that show how God has been at work
  • Resting - experiencing shalom through the rhythm of Sabbath
I'd love to hear stories about how one of these forgotten disciplines has affected your life.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Important reading for men

Mark Driscoll has written a booklet for men entitled Porn Again Christian: A Frank Discussion on Pornography and Masturbation. You can download and read it for free here. (Scroll down to the bottom of the page.)

As the title says, it's very frank. But that's what we need, right? Men need a clear, honest word on what Biblical sexuality looks like. You may not agree with everything this pastor says, but the gist of it is right on. I appreciate his willingness to step out and speak forth on a sensitive but important topic.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Hurt Locker

It probably comes as no surprise to my friends that on my sabbatical I've seen a few movies. Last night I went to see The Hurt Locker. It's a tense, realistic film about a U.S. Army EOD unit in Iraq - that stands for Explosive Ordnance Disposal. For two hours you're on the ground following these three amazing soldiers around the streets of Baghdad as they find and defuse bombs.

I love war movies, and this is one of my favorites. I was in knots the whole time, it was that exciting. And unlike many war movies, this one is not about the politics of war. It's war as seen from the ground, from the soldier's perspective.

It's inspiring as well. This is the story of men specially trained in sniffing out and disarming bombs that are buried in Iraqi soil, hidden in car trunks, strapped onto human beings, and - get this - even stuffed inside corpses. The bravery of these guys is just unbelievable to me. They have to put on special body armor and walk right up to suspicious items on the ground, identify them, and - if they are bombs - deactivate them.

Some interesting things about this movie... First off, it's directed by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow. It's not often (ever?) that a war movie is directed by a woman. Mick LaSalle of the Houston Chronicle writes,
"[Bigelow] makes guy movies — and she makes them better than guys do. For most of her career, her superior talent has had to reveal itself through lesser material, but in the The Hurt Locker...Bigelow finds the perfect vehicle to show what she can do that others can't touch."
Second, the movie is based on recently-declassified government information about these bomb disposal squads. It was shot in Jordan, next door to Iraq. The screenwriter, Mark Boal, was embedded in Iraq for some time with a bomb disposal unit. The details, acting, camera work, and battle scenes make you feel like you're right there. You feel the indecision, the fatigue, the suspense, and the ever-present question: "Is this thing going to blow me to smithereens?"

Some well-known actors show up for brief scenes: Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, and Evangeline Lilly, for example. Also, the three main characters are played very well.

I couldn't help it. I saw Jesus in this movie. Jesus laid it all on the line for us. Like Sgt. Will James walking up to those IEDs, Jesus Christ carried his cross to Calvary and embraced the explosive wrath of God in our place. He said to sinners, "Stay away. I'll suffer for you. I don't want your help. Stay back. It's my mission. I will bear in my own body the weight of your sin. I will not only risk my life for you, I will give it for you. I will die that you might live."

And now this Jesus, who defused the wrath of the Father on our behalf, calls us to walk into enemy territory and set others free. We for whom Jesus suffered and died now must pick up our own cross, embrace a fallen world, and risk our lives for the gospel.

I ask myself...

Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb,
And shall I fear to own His cause,
Or blush to speak His Name?

Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?

Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?

Sure I must fight if I would reign;
Increase my courage, Lord.
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy Word.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

So what have I learned so far on my sabbatical?

That's probably a question some of my church members would like to ask me, now that I've been on sabbatical for three weeks.

My answer: a lot.

But probably the best thing is not so much what I've learned as what I've experienced. I've been able to spend extended time with my wife, kids, and grandkids. I've stayed at the beach for two weeks. I've done a TON of reading. I've gotten back to blogging. I've picked up my guitar again. I even found out my younger daughter is expecting a baby! It can't get any better than that.

One of my goals was to get a sharper focus on the future...that of both my own life and my church. It's still a work in progress (probably always will be), but I feel pretty good about where I'm at now compared to three weeks ago.

A book that has been a tremendous help in this regard is The Leadership Challenge, by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. This is far and away the best book on leadership I've ever read. It's not light reading. It's not one of those "Who Moved My Cheese"-type books on leadership that you can finish in a couple hours. I've been working through Kouzes and Posner for some months, and I'm still only halfway. But if you want to grow as a leader, it's worth the time it takes.

The value of the book is the "Reflection and Action" sections at the end of each chapter. I've tried to do these exercises and they've really helped me.

The authors put forth five practices of exemplary leadership:
  1. Model the way
  2. Inspire a shared vision
  3. Challenge the process
  4. Enable others to act
  5. Encourage the heart

For each practice, the authors describe two specific behaviors that help you learn to lead. It's too much to go into here, but my most valuable takeaway from the book so far are these two sentences:
"Before you can become a credible leader...you have to find your voice. If you can't find your voice, you'll end up with a vocabulary that belongs to someone else."

You know, that bit of advice doesn't just apply to leaders. It applies to everyone who hopes to make a difference, whether in a church, a family, a place of work, a neighborhood, or wherever. You have to find your unique voice, and then speak out of it.

So on my sabbatical I've spent considerable time listening to God, exploring my desires, looking at my past, surveying the future, and hearing what my own heart is telling me...with the goal of more clearly finding my voice.

There are an incredible number of voices shouting at church leaders today. My goal is to listen to the voice of my Senior Pastor (Jesus), and thus be better able to find and share my voice with others.

One thing I've heard Jesus telling me very clearly is that I need to spend my time differently. I've been spreading myself way too thin, trying to accomplish too many different things and have my fingers in too many different pots, and not spending adequate time doing the things that only I can do and that God has called me to do.

Another thing I've heard is God's call to UPC to be more missional - that is, to be more intentional and determined to be a church that makes a difference in the world. The thought occurred to me that the widening of Rouse Road (the street our church is located on) is kind of a metaphor for our need to widen our reach (how's that for alliteration??). I'll be sharing more thoughts along that line in the weeks and months ahead, but here's a foretaste that I recorded in my journal the other day:
What must be the focus of UPC? Winning, equipping, empowering, and sending mature followers of Christ (i.e., disciples) into east Orlando and around the world who are deeply grounded in the gospel and armed with a rich theology, love for God and neighbor, and the know-how to help friends become followers – the goal being nothing short of the transformation of the entire culture to the glory of God. Simply put, our purpose is to obey the Great Commission. We are here to grow the Kingdom of God.

Anyway, that's where I am. I have another week to go in this part of my sabbatical. Long story short, it's been a very restoring, refreshing time.