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.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Anniversary

Today is my 33rd wedding anniversary. Suzy and I were married in downtown Orlando, Florida, on a blazing hot July afternoon in 1976. We said our vows in the Reformation Chapel of First Presbyterian Church. Charlie Horne, who had been Suzy's youth pastor, officiated. My dad was my best man.

It was a long ceremony. At the time, Suzy and I belonged to a house church that was, to say the least, a bit on the intense side with some of our practices. So we had chosen all these Scripture verses for the pastor to read during the ceremony. We wanted to be sure there was lots of Bible in our wedding!

A friend of ours sang a special song, "One Hand, One Heart" from West Side Story. The congregation also sang a hymn. Oddly enough, we had chosen the hymn "Be Still My Soul." We picked that hymn because of the lines
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as he has the past.
...which is a fine hymn, except that it's very somber and has more to say about death than about marriage! I remember standing up there thinking that hymn would never end. Could the organist have played it any more slowly?!

My biggest memory from that special day, however, was seeing Suzy walk down the aisle toward me. Before that, I was shaking like a leaf I was so nervous. But when the doors opened and Suzy's dad began walking her down the aisle, all nervousness disappeared. I was overcome that God had brought this woman into my life.

After the reception, which was at the church, we changed and ran out through the crowd to the VW camper which I was driving back then. At the time, people still threw rice at weddings. I remember I never got rid of all the rice inside that car. It was even in the cuffs of my pants legs for months. We drove to Cocoa Beach for the first leg of our honeymoon. The rest of our honeymoon we spent at Ormond Beach and my parents' house at Lake Murray in South Carolina.

Thirty-three years later, I'm a very blessed man. I love you, Suzy.
Make of our hands one hand,
Make of our hearts one heart,

Make of our vows one last vow:

Only death will part us now.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

That's news?

It really bugs me how news gets juxtaposed with pop culture drivel on some of the major news outlets.

You've seen what I'm talking about, right?
Male TV news anchor: "...and we'll continue to update you with the latest from Santa Barbara, where a wildfire has consumed 8600 acres and destroyed nearly 100 homes. Many lives are in danger. But right now, over to you, Megyn, for the latest on swimsuits we can expect to see hitting the beaches this summer..."

Female counterpart: "Thanks, Bill! That's right, take a look at these pictures. Wow, these bikinis are sure to light some fires on the beach...!"
One of the worst offenders I've seen is FoxNews.com. Now I'm a fan of Fox News. But their website absolutely drives me crazy. The top part of their homepage is headlines and breaking news. But then if you scroll down a little further, what you have is a display of "news" from Hollywood and other items meant to titillate and scandalize.

For instance, on today's homepage of FoxNews.com, here's what you can find out about:
  • "Hef's Twins Sweet Treats" (this is talking about the latest Playboy centerfold)
  • "Sexy Beach Body Contest" (you can vote on the "Summer's Sexiest Bod")
  • "Eyebrow Shaving Freaks" (supermodels without eyebrows!! Wow!!)
  • "Kiss Your Way to Better Sex"(the teaser asks, "Are your kissing skills up to par?")

What, do the folks at Fox News think we're all so infantile that we need that kind of stuff to come back to their website? (They may be right, unfortunately, but that doesn't excuse them from responsibility to stick to their mission.)

A couple months ago I wrote an email to Fox News about their website. Here's what I wrote:
Guys at FOXNews.com,

I wish you would try to put less sordid and sexual stuff on the "Features and Faces" section of your website. I love Fox News, it's the only cable news channel I watch, and I check your website throughout the day. So I'm a fan. But c'mon. Here's what you have on the website as "Features and Faces" right now...
  • Kim's One Hot Sweater
  • Elle Liberachi's Sexy Tune (with accompanying fleshy picture)
  • Fergie Admits Lesbian Past
  • Hottest Bisexual Stars

And this is typical fare. Lately, it seems like this section of the website is where you're competing with Cosmopolitan magazine for attention. As a father and a person who doesn't think American citizens need any more titillation than what's out there already, I'd appreciate a more "newsy" website with less emphasis on the scandalous and sexual. That's not news.
I didn't get a reply.

Another arrow in the quiver

My wife and I received news today from our #3 child Jennifer that she and her husband Tim are expecting! This is their first baby, and our fifth grandchild.

I'm so proud!

I was thinking about the high view of children presented in the Bible. Psalm 127 says,
Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their opponents in court (Psalm 127:3-5, TNIV).
I feel so blessed by God to have a growing quiver of children and grandchildren. We have four kids of our own, three of whom are married, and now all three married couples have been blessed with children.

Lord, watch over this little life and let your eye be upon him or her throughout the coming months and years. As Hannah prayed in 1 Samuel 1:28, may this child's whole life be given over to you for your honor and glory!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How to change the world

I read something yesterday that gave me a whole new perspective on the mandate Jesus gave us to make disciples of all nations.

In an earlier post I reviewed Mark Driscoll's book, Vintage Church. In his last chapter, entitled "How Could the Church Help Transform the World?", Driscoll tells the story of a trip he once took to a remote third-world village. In this village was a river polluted with garbage and human waste. The stench of it made him sick, but what he saw was even worse: children swimming in the river, women washing clothes in the river, people even drinking from the river.

Driscoll uses the image of that river to drive home a radical but obvious point. To change the situation of those poor villagers would require much more than trying to clean up just that section of the river. In fact, attempting to do so would be a waste of time, since new garbage would just flow right in to replace the old. "Instead," writes Driscoll, "the only hope was a complete transformation upstream wherever the filth originally entered the river."

Note the word "upstream." Change must take place at the top, where the dirty water originates.

Driscoll refers to an address by James Davison Hunter, Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia, given in 2002 to the Board of Trustees of The Trinity Forum. You can download the address here. In his address Hunter said that Christians have "extraordinary, even unprecedented, opportunities to strategically engage the world we live in for good." But we must adopt a new way of thinking.

Most of us, according to Hunter, believe cultural transformation occurs by multiplying the number of people who believe in God and live by godly values. The way I've heard this put many times by Christians is, "changing the world one life at a time." The problem with this theory is that it's not borne out by the facts. The vast majority of Americans adhere to some kind of religious faith, yet secularism has won the day. The church seems to be declining in influence, if anything. By contrast, think of the sweeping and permanent cultural changes that have been introduced by small groups of highly influential people. The Jewish community in America is one such example. The homosexual community is another. Gay people make up at most 3% of the US population, but in a short time they have transformed the way homosexuals are portrayed, perceived, and treated. Hunter says that out of the billions of human beings who have lived since 600 B.C., as few as 150 to 3,000 people are responsible for the thoughts and ideas that now define our culture.

Hunter and Driscoll say that if we want to change the world, we must go upstream. We must capture the hearts and minds of that relatively small group of people who hold the "cultural capital."

Driscoll writes,
"Culture changes from the top down and rarely from the bottom up. ...most cultural creation and transformation begin upstream and flow downstream. This is because the cultural gatekeepers who decide what does and does not go into the river of culture are upstream. They run the law schools, fashion industry, banking industry, political parties, media outlets, and the like. They decide which bands are signed to record contracts and placed on the radio, which films are funded and distributed by the movie studios, which clothes are sold at the store, and which books are published. This is because those who hold the cultural capital are also networked with those who hold the funding capital, media capital, and political capital, and together they are the cultural gatekeepers who decide what goes into the river of culture, how it is introduced, and when."
If this is true, the goal of cultural transformation will not be reached by changing one heart at a time - although we should continually share the gospel with individuals and labor for their conversion. Driscoll and Hunter would say that we must do more. We must take the gospel upstream, where the world changers live and move. If we could reach out more effectively to Hollywood executives, musicians, college presidents and professors, newspaper editors, politicians, judges, news commentators, and the like - if the gospel could penetrate these strata of society more powerfully - if we could equip and send people into these circles of influence - if we could plant more churches in large cities where the cultural capital is found - we would see dramatic world change.

Hunter calls leaders of change the "elites, gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management to the leading institutions" of society. They and their networks of fellow leaders have the credibility and authority to be taken seriously. They have the brains, connections, power, and money required to "shape and direct the lives of individuals." Like the headwaters of a stream, they create the ideas and values that eventually get swallowed by the masses. I like the way Hunter puts it: they are the ones who have the ability "to name things." They are the world changers. If they can come to love the gospel, think of the dramatic effect that would have on the rest of the world.

Hunter ended his 2002 address by pointing to Jesus and his followers:
"...even Jesus created a network of disciples (who, over time, became spiritual and cultural leaders). Though they originated on the periphery of the social world of that age, they moved to the provincial center of Jerusalem, and then, within a generation, to the center of the ancient world - Rome. They too created new institutions that not only articulated but embodied an alternative to the reigning ways of life of that time."
Driscoll's main point in his book is that we need to plant churches in urban centers. I see that, but my thoughts were drawn to the amazing opportunity we at UPC already have. Around the corner from our church is the University of Central Florida. Fast becoming one of the largest universities in America, UCF is equipping men and women for influence at the center of culture. Graduates of UCF walk into leadership in fields of science, industry, the arts, education, law, medicine, politics, etc. What more could we be doing to reach them during the short time they are here in east Orlando? How can we build multiple bridges of relationship with the faculty and administration? What can we do to give more support to Ande Johnson and Reformed University Fellowship? How can UPC become more true to its name: "University Presbyterian Church"?

Incidentally, not to be ignored is the fact that a highly respected liberal arts college - Rollins College in Winter Park - is just 10 miles from our church in the other direction. We already have a Rollins professor worshiping with us. Additionally, Full Sail University is just 6 miles from UPC and is one of the premier media arts schools in the world. Several students and teachers from Full Sail have made UPC their church home over the years.

As Mark Driscoll says, "...we were created to make culture and spread across the earth to create culture." God has been very gracious to our church. He has given us 26 acres of land in close proximity to several major universities. We don't have far to go upstream.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Seeing clearly

This morning I went to an optometrist. Last time I went was three years ago. I need new glasses because mine are pretty scratched up and I want some different frames. So to get new glasses, I had to have my prescription updated by an optometrist.

When I took off my glasses and tried to read those little letters at the bottom of the eye chart, I realized why I need glasses. I'm 55! My "far" vision is pretty good, but my "near" vision is terrible. Things are really blurry up close. It was embarrassing.

It was a good reminder to me about why I'm taking a sabbatical to get away from the "day-to-day" of church ministry. Things get really blurry when they're up close. To see clearly, I need new eyes. I need to step back, look at the big picture, and listen to God. Then he can give me his vision.

This goes along with a good book I started today: Leading on Empty, by Wayne Cordeiro. The subtitle is "Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion." Cordeiro is the pastor of a huge church in Hawaii. The book recounts his experience with burnout and recovery. It's also a clarion call to build your inner life and honor reasonable boundaries, to make sure you finish well.

Cordeiro says the same thing I have read over and over again during my sabbatical: "Do the things only you can do."

Cordeiro says that 85% of what we do, anyone can do. With a little training, most people could do another 10% of what we do. But unfortunately, because we are insecure, or refuse to delegate, or are just undisciplined, many of us give our time and attention to that 95%, and neglect the 5% that only we can do. It's that "crucial 5%" that God will one day hold us accountable for.

I spent some time recalling what God has particularly called me to as senior pastor of UPC. I came up with these priorities:
  • Set an example of a sinner growing in grace in my personal, family, and community life;
  • Study, pray, and preach the gospel on a weekly basis;
  • Provide overall vision and direction for the church;
  • Equip and guide the elders and staff; and
  • Raise up other leaders.

If I can do that 5% to any degree of success, praise God! That's enough!

Obviously, we all have to do things that lie outside our job description from time to time. But I think Wayne Cordeiro is right. We all need a new way of seeing. We can't - we shouldn't - do it all. If we try to do it all, we'll wind up leading on empty.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Two Lovers

My wife and I rented the movie Two Lovers on our vacation even though we'd never heard of it before. Normally when we do that, we pick losers. Not this time; I give this one a thumbs up. We like the two main stars, Joaquin Phoenix (despite his ridiculous showing on Letterman a while back) and Gwyneth Paltrow, and they are excellent here. Keep in mind it's rated R for language and "some sexuality," although my wife and I thought it was way milder than most R-rated films.

It's the story of a Jewish guy named Leonard (Phoenix) who suffers from a psychological disorder of some kind (bipolar? borderline?) as well as heartache from a past rejection. His passion is now divided between a woman who really loves him but who is pushed into his life by his parents, and a woman (Paltrow) whom he really loves but who is psychologically unstable and terribly needy herself.

Two Lovers is a study in how fathers abuse their children (and what that does to them), how manipulative men use needy women, and to what extent we will go to find someone who really values and celebrates us. Leonard loses piece after piece of his heart until he wonders if he has anything left. The love he gains, while not everything he'd hoped for, is enough to give him a foothold in a fallen world. There are spiritual and social lessons aplenty in this dark but ultimately affirming movie.

A good book on leading change...

Who Killed Change? by Ken Blanchard and John Britt.

If you're wondering how to introduce change in your team, company, church, or other organization and don't want to wade through a long, boring book, try this one. It's written in the style of a whodunit, and it took me just a couple hours to read.

It's pretty funny too. You'll follow Agent Mike McNally as he tries to solve the murder of a guy named Change at a company called ACME. The suspects include Carolina Culture, Aidan Accountability, Peter Performance Management, Perry Plan, and my personal favorite - Bailey Budget.

It's entertaining, but there's a lot of wisdom here. At the end of the book is a concise summary of what a leader needs to do to lead change. A couple of my biggest takeaways:
  • Create dialogue, not one-way communication, with those being asked to change. Find out their concerns, hear their questions, consider their ideas.
  • Include lots of people in the planning process. Include those who might be resistant to change.
  • Spend money on infrastructure before implementing change.
  • Help people see what is wrong with the status quo. "Frame the change in terms of a cause that is motivating."
  • Know the culture in which you're trying to introduce change. Identify things in the culture of the church or organization that could inhibit change.
I won't tell you who killed Change.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Eben is 5!


Today my grandson Eben turned five years old. Since that's a pretty important landmark in a little kid's life, I thought I should share the amazing story of his birth with those of you who are new to my blog.

Here it is.

Happy birthday, Ebenezer!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Death

I'm on sabbatical the whole month of July and part of August. But so far, it's been weird. It has certainly not been a relaxing time emotionally. Three people with whom I'm connected in some way have died during the past two weeks. I participated in two of the three funerals. One person was a member of my church about whom I posted a few days ago. Another was my father-in-law. Both these deaths were expected at some point, but that doesn't erase the deep sense of loss. Then, tragically and unexpectedly, the wife of a friend of mine took her own life last weekend.

I'm not just sad, I'm angry.

These events remind me why the Bible calls death our enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). Jesus was enraged and "deeply moved" by the death of his good friend Lazarus. Death resulted from the temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan and their subsequent fall into sin (Genesis 2:17).

The good news is that when you put your trust in Jesus, you need no longer fear death. You have eternal life, both now and even more fully in the future. What is more, upon the return of Christ, death will be abolished, thrown into the lake of fire along with the author of death (Revelation 20:14). On the new earth there will be "no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Revelation 21:4).

Perhaps better than anyone else, C. S. Lewis captured what it means to believe that death is but the doorway to eternal life for the Christian. At the end of The Last Battle (the final book in the Narnia series), Aslan tells the children,
"Your father and mother and all of you are - as you used to call it in the Shadowlands - dead. The term is over; the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: This is the morning...." [And Lewis continues,] The things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And as for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read, which goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before.

What I'm reading on my sabbatical...

Deliberate Simplicity, by Dave Browning. The subtitle is what captured my interest: "How the Church Does More by Doing Less." It's an engaging, well-written book as well as a fast read that challenges the old "bigger is always better" paradigm.

The author planted Christ the King (CTK) Community Church in Skagit Valley, WA, in 1999. Since that time it's grown exponentially to become a multi-site, multi-national church. The book is basically a description of the methods used by CTK, although principles outlined in the book can certainly help more traditional churches like ours.

As I read the book, my heart kept saying "Yes! Yes! That's right!" Browning's thesis is that people are too busy, churches are too busy, and church leaders are too busy. We have adopted a Western, perfectionistic, consumerist mindset and veered away from the simple, bottom-up approach of the early church. There are tons of books out there saying that. But what's different about Deliberate Simplicity is its glut of illustrations and quotations from the business world, common sense, CTK, and other churches that support the premise in a convincing manner.

Browning's church focuses on three things: worship, small groups, and outreach. That's it. Other ministries, when they happen, are started and maintained by individuals and/or small groups in the church, not by church leaders. When a program is no longer the passion of those who started it, it's laid to rest.

Browning is critical of adding programs and building buildings that take the focus off the "main thing." He says a church has to decide what it's NOT going to do, and then dig in its heels when pressure comes to get bigger and more complicated.

Here are some of my underlinings:
  • "Small is the new big."
  • "We try to prune the activity branches at CTK, so God has our time and attention."
  • "Is church a place you go to, or a place you go from? When you are a part of an outreach church, church is a place you go from."
  • "What is the business of the church? In short, it is to make more disciples of Jesus Christ."
  • "Sometimes an emphasis on excellence is just a product of unhealthy perfectionism."
  • "The evangelistic effectiveness of mini-churches is statistically 1,600 percent greater than that of megachurches."
  • "In a Deliberately Simple church, we think big but act small. We keep asking, 'What is the simplest thing that could possibly work?'" (That's a great question for a leadership team to ask from time to time.)

I do have some questions for Browning. Like where does educating children fit in? Isn't that the responsibility of the church too? And he says his church is "doctrinally minimalist." Isn't part of discipleship giving people the whole counsel of God, taking them deeper theologically rather than keeping them at a superficial level? (As it says in Hebrews 6:1, "Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity...."). I have not found small groups to be adequate for educating believers.

Aside from that, what I get from this book is that a church needs to be strategic with its time, energy, and resources. We are not called to do everything; we are called to be faithful. I want to share this book with my fellow church leaders. It gives me hope that pressure and fatigue do not have to be the norm for those in leadership, and that we can actually do more by doing less.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

What I'm reading on my sabbatical...

To Be Told, by Dan Allender. This is a book about the importance of knowing and telling your story. I'm reading it because I know there are things about my past that I've yet to understand and share with others. Until I do, I won't fully enter into the story that God has written about me and has yet to write in me, for his glory. I want to be more whole, more at "shalom" with my past and thus more missional in the present.

Allender says that knowing and telling the stories of our lives is essential. I agree. Mission flows out of loving and interpreting our past. We have to identify the themes that have operated in our lives and grow to appreciate them - even those associated with pain and loss.

But spending time on our story takes, um...time! It's slow work. Allender encourages us to take the time necessary to reflect, remember, write down, and share our stories and themes, tragedies and triumphs, with others in the body of Christ. He says that this is a dying art. He says it's as we hear and edit one another's story that we begin to live out of the dreams and passions God has given each of us and so fulfill our unique calling.

All of this would be food for narcissists were it not for Allender's relentless focus on living for the benefit of others. We are to "steward" our story not for our good alone but for the good of the community and world.

One takeaway I found particularly appealing is Allender's call to celebrate more often. He says on pg. 146,

"Stories are food for friends to feast on together. We are called to write and then rewrite, and we also are called to tell our stories to people who love us, people who will celebrate our life. We need people who will ponder our stories and help us write with more integrity and depth. But we need more than mere feedback; we need celebration."

I have told my wife before that my childhood lacked celebration. I did not feel joyfully affirmed by my parents or celebrated for my individuality. As a matter of fact, I grew up feeling an overwhelming and deadening need to comply, to stuff my opinions and emotions, to conform to the wishes of my parents. What celebration there was, was stiff and formal. Here I am at age 55 feeling a great need to feast and celebrate and be glad with friends. Perhaps this book can be the inspiration for more storytelling and celebration at UPC and other places.

Dan Allender is the president of Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle. I'll be going there in late August as part of my sabbatical to Allender's Story Workshop, which is based on To Be Told. I'm eager to write my story and live out of it more confidently in the years ahead.

This would be a good book for small groups to read and discuss together. There's an accompanying workbook that would enrich your reading of To Be Told.


The Taking of Pelham 123

A few weeks ago I went to the new movie, The Taking of Pelham 123, starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta. It's a remake of the 1974 movie of the same name which starred Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw.

If you like action movies, this one has aplenty. If you don't care about character development or realistic storytelling, you'll probably like it. I do, and I didn't.

But the real reason I'm posting about The Taking of Pelham 123 is to point out something that has increased dramatically since 1974 - intolerably foul language in movies. I couldn't believe the number of F-bombs I had to listen to on the way to finding out how the good guys were going to get the bad guys. It was ridiculous. Later, I checked screenit.com, and found there are at least 102 "f" words plus other expletives in this movie.

Is that really necessary? Hollywood people, why do you do this to us? Why can't you build a movie around an interesting story, good acting, compelling dialogue, and things like that? Must you litter the movie with language that leaves us feeling like we need a bath afterwards? Movies about sinful people and tragic events are one thing; movies that depend on profanity to entertain the audience are quite another.

No need to see this movie. You'll know how it turns out after the first 15 minutes anyway.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

What I'm reading on my sabbatical...

Vintage Church, by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears (Crossway Books, 2008). I've become interested in Mark's ministry as pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle since hearing him speak at the recent Gospel Coalition Conference in Chicago. He's bold, blunt, evangelistic, and solidly rooted in the historic Reformed Christian faith. He combines loyalty to the Word of God and the creeds of Christendom with a strong passion to see the church win the lost and redeem culture for God's glory.

I chose this book as one of my reading projects for my sabbatical. I wanted to see how Driscoll's perspective might speak into my conservative, PCA, baby-boomer ways. I'm about halfway through the book.

Of course I differ with him on baptism. Mark is a credobaptist. I'm a paedobaptist. I believe that baptism should be administered to believers and their children, as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace and membership in the community of faith. Driscoll, like most contemporary Christians, holds that baptism is for believers only. One of his arguments is that in every instance when the New Testament records a household baptism, it says "that each member of these households believed in Jesus and was saved" (pg. 116). That is not true. In Acts 16, for instance, Paul and Silas go to the house of the Philippian jailer, where they share God's Word with him and his family. Then verse 34 (in the English Standard Version that Driscoll prefers!) says, "Then he [the jailer] brought them [Paul and Silas] up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God." The text does not say that anyone else in his family believed; it only says that HE (the Philippian jailer) believed. It's a singular verb, as the ESV rightly notes. Nevertheless the entire household was baptized. So Driscoll argues too much when he says without qualification that "each member of the households that were baptized also believed in Jesus, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and served God" (pg. 117).

Apart from that, I'm learning a lot from this book. Driscoll makes a solid argument for male eldership in Chapter 3, and says some great things about the importance of preaching in Chapter 4. The book is a good critique of much that passes for church these days. I particularly liked this paragraph on page 52:

"Building on the modern devotion to the individual, modern Christianity in practice defined the entire purpose of the church in terms of the individual over and above the glory of God and benefit of the community of people. As a result, the modern church in its various forms defined the church as a place where individual spiritual needs are met. What developed was a view of individual Christians as consumers with felt needs and the church as the dispenser of religious goods and services."

In our day, when there is such a low view of the local church, Vintage Church deserves a reading.

Sunrise

As I write this I am sitting on the porch of our beach condo. It's 6:32 a.m. and the sun rose over the Atlantic a few minutes ago. I am listening to the symphony of waves unrolling upon the shore with the unceasing chatter of insects as background music, and watching a lone fisherman throwing out his line. Long clouds surround the sun and magnify its golden glory.

Gazing at the beauty before me, I consider that my friend Chris entered into the joy of the Lord early yesterday morning. Right now, as I sit here on earth, Chris is in a place Jesus called Paradise. Whatever beauty I think I see, Chris is seeing so much more: the sunlit face of his Savior, the blazing radiance of angels, the spirits of righteous people made perfect (Hebrews 12:23), the very glory of God.

"Glory of God." It's a phrase we throw around all the time, we church people. I'm thinking that Chris now knows what those words mean. He's actually looking at it, feeling it, exulting in it! We really have no inkling what the glory of God is all about. But soon, very soon, we will experience it endlessly. Like these waves I see crashing upon the shore at Crescent Beach, God's glory will unroll before our vision with unceasing energy and joy. And we will say with Paul, "Death has been swallowed up in victory!" (1 Corinthians 15:54)

Monday, July 06, 2009

Away We Go

Away We Go is a new movie starring John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph. I saw it today with my wife and several other family members. It's rated R for some strong language and sexual dialogue. With that caveat, I recommend it as a movie with a positive message about love and family. Which is ironic, considering Krasinski and Rudolph play an unmarried couple living together and expecting their first child. More on that later.

Burt and Verona are deeply in love and expecting a baby in three months. They embark on a road trip to find a place to settle down and call home prior to the arrival of their baby. Along the way they visit old friends and close and distant relatives, seeking to discover if they could tolerate life in the same city with them. These visits turn into several hilarious encounters and awkward conversations that keep the movie very entertaining. I laughed a lot at some of the weird people that dot the landscape of Burt and Verona's past.

That's pretty much the plot of the movie until the end, which I won't give away. Suffice to say that a home is found, and Burt and Verona share some touching and inspiring moments that reinforce the bond between them and their unborn child.

As I said, Burt and Verona are not married. Nevertheless, the overall message of the film is that marriage is a good thing, that it's made of commitment, and that children are a blessing. Those are messages that rarely come out of Hollywood. It was refreshing to see some of the characters in the movie genuinely enjoying their spouses, adopting children, grieving miscarriage, and staying together in spite of hardship. Near the end of the movie, Burt and Verona visit Burt's brother, whose wife had recently left him. The devastating effects of divorce upon a child are presented with unmistakable clarity.

One interesting side note is that the final scenes were filmed in nearby Leesburg, Florida.

I thought Krasinski and Rudolph are quite believable in their roles. The supporting cast is terrific. It's a simple, low-budget film that (similar to Juno, for example) uses broken, erring people to reinforce family values.

There is something deep in the human heart that aches not only for God but for human community. Whether in the form of marriage, family, or friendship, we need people to survive. I think this movie scores an A+ illustrating this Biblical truth.


What God is looking for

I read Psalm 50 for my morning devotions today. It speaks to probably the most important question one could ask: What does God expect from human beings? Psalm 50 answers: dependence upon him.

Psalm 50 presents God as an inescapable Judge. He comes from Mt. Zion in majestic, holy beauty, and summons all humanity to stand before him. He presents the charges against us. It's not that we haven't brought him enough animal sacrifices. It's not that we've forgotten to go to church. We've forgotten HIM. We haven't been thankful. We haven't needed him.

What God says he's looking for is dependence. He says, "Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God, and keep the vows you made to the Most High. Then call on me when you are in trouble,
and I will rescue you, and you will give me glory.”

The essence of sin is independence from God, and we're guilty. I'm guilty. I think I can make it through the day with bare lip service toward God. I rush through prayers, I offer a quick apology for not being a better Christian, I hardly notice the evidences of God's glory and beauty around me in people and nature. I give him little or no thanks for his million mercies.

God says in Psalm 50:22, "Repent, all you who forget me." I hear him saying, "Stop being so self-reliant. Stop building your Tower of Babel-independence. Call on me." John Piper likes to say, "Keep buzzing the nurse."

I'm struck that thanklessness reveals more about the heart than anything else. When we fail to give thanks, it reveals that we really don't feel a need for God.

God, help me this day to make thankfulness my sacrifice to you, and to honor you through dependence.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Wimbledon and predestination

My wife and I had a funny experience yesterday. We always watch the Wimbledon tennis matches on and around July 4 each year. So yesterday (July 3) I turned on the TV and there was Roger Federer playing Rafael Nadal. It was the last set of what would become the longest-ever men's Wimbledon final.

Immediately we were transfixed on this match between Federer and Nadal. It was reminiscent of those famous match-ups of Borg, Connors, and McEnroe that we used to watch each year.

But wait a minute, this was the Wimbledon final? My wife and I looked at each other and said, "It's just July 3. Why is the final match already taking place?" (You can tell we don't follow professional tennis very much until Wimbledon.) We surmised that there were no rain delays this year or something, so they were way ahead of schedule.

The play wore on between these two tennis greats, until finally Nadal pulled off one of the greatest victories ever: 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7. We were elated!

Then there was a commercial break. When Wimbledon resumed, they were talking about Federer playing in the men's final on Sunday, July 5. What?! That's when it dawned on us clueless people. We had been watching LAST YEAR'S Wimbledon final! It was all on tape. Obviously we had missed the 2008 matches, and didn't know that Nadal beat Federer last summer.

Then I got to thinking theologically...

What if that's how predestination works? God has decreed whatsoever comes to pass. In his mind it's all taken place already. For God, who transcends time, all of history is one cosmic moment which he has planned down to the tiniest detail. Not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from his will (Matthew 10:29). No power in heaven or hell can circumvent or spoil his plans.

But from our point of view, history unfolds second by second in all its unpredictable and unknowable glory. We experience day by day what has already been mapped out in the mind of God. We exult or weep as triumphs and tragedies take place. We are taken by surprise by events that never surprise God. We get the pleasure of enjoying life and anticipating what is yet to happen, while God sovereignly ensures that his purposes stand fast.

When my wife and I realized what was going on, we laughed. Holy, happy laughter is the only conceivable response to the realization that God is sovereign and in control.

Public Enemies

Last night my wife and I went to see the new movie about John Dillinger, Public Enemies. I agree with one review I'd read: "good but not great."

Getting my criticisms out of the way first, much of the dialogue was unintelligible... the oft-used hand-held camera technique seemed out of place here... Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) moved around a lot and it was hard to know just where the action was taking place. But most disappointing was the lack of character development. Compared to, say, Bonnie and Clyde, this movie gives you little insight into what made Dillinger so evil. When the movie begins Dillinger is well into his life of crime. There's no context. I had to check the internet to discover that Dillinger's mother died when he was just three and he was cared for as a child by his sister. But you see little of that heartache in Depp's Dillinger.

Christian Bale in the role of G-Man Melvin Purvis shows so little emotion that I felt none of the frustration Purvis must have experienced as Dillinger slipped from his grasp time after time. Why do directors not see that actors are just going through the motions, or that dazzling scenery, costumes, and cinematography do not a good movie make?

Having said that, I did enjoy the scenery, costumes, and cinematography a lot! It was a well crafted movie technically. I love seeing details in movies, and there were lots of period details in this movie. One of the shootouts after a bank hold-up was well choreographed, as was the final scene outside the movie theatre. Marion Cotillard was very good as Dillinger's love interest, Billie Frechette.

Unfortunately, some of the "good guys" come off looking pretty bad. I always wonder, is this just another example of Hollywood's bash-American propaganda, or are lawmen really as corrupt and mean as they are often depicted?

One spiritual application I got from this movie is how it illustrates the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12. In one scene, Billie asks Dillinger what he wants in life. He says, "I want it all, right now." The rich man in Jesus' parable had the same attitude. Greed is never satisfied. It leads toward destruction of self and others.

Donald Trump once wrote, "The point is that you can't be too greedy." Dillinger found out that you can.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Prayers matter

Since letting people know about the death of my wife's father yesterday, we have been literally flooded with phone calls, emails, and Facebook messages saying "We're praying for you." I've said that to other people countless times when they need prayer. Now that we're on the receiving end of those messages, it really makes a difference. To know that people who love us are praying, is the best gift of all right now.

Thank you. Your prayers matter to us, and I know they matter to God.

A fan of God?

I'm on Facebook. If you're on Facebook, you know that there are all these opportunities to become a "fan" of something: a celebrity, a restaurant chain, an author, a TV show, a sandwich, and whatnot.

Well I noticed this morning while on Facebook that I could click on a link and become a fan of God. The link said that two other people are fans of God, and I could become one too.

Wow, a grand total of three people in the world, fans of God. Why would I not want to become a fan of God!

This morning I read in my devotions Exodus 19. It describes the time God descended on Mt. Sinai and met with Moses. In the next chapter God would communicate the Ten Commandments. In chapter 19, God was anything but inviting people to be his fan. Here's what it says in verses 20-22:
  • "The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up and the LORD said to him, 'Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish. Even the priests, who approach the LORD, must consecrate themselves, or the LORD will break out against them.'"
What a graphic way to put it: God "breaks out" against people.

God reveals himself in his Word as a King who sets the terms of relationship with him. He invites us to know him, yes he does. He's forgiving, yes. But it's never the same kind of relationship one might have with, say, the Jonas Brothers. In Psalm 2, we're told to "Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling." He is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). He is not to be trifled with. He doesn't give autographs. You don't pose for pictures with God. In other words, you come to him in brokenness and repentance, or you don't come at all.

I tremble when I see how our majestic, fearsome, holy, wholly-other God is often trivialized in pop culture. Even in many Christian bookstores.

Bow before God. Don't become his fan.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

"Dad" - 1920-2009

My wife's father passed away today. He was 89 years old. I called him "Dad." My favorite memories of him are the many times he and his wife would take my family and me to the various amusement parks in central Florida when we came down for vacations: Disney, Sea World, Circus World (no longer there), Busch Gardens, etc.

In his prime he looked a lot like Gene Kelly, the actor. He was a physician. He attended Yale, where he was a member of the diving team, and would have been an Olympic diver had it not been for WWII. He spent most of his life in Orlando.

So part of my sabbatical will be walking with my wife on the path of grief. Pray for us.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

I rented this movie a few days ago. It's a sad, fictional tale set in Nazi Germany during WWII. It's depressing for its poignant depiction of the horror of the Holocaust as seen through the innocent eyes of 8-year old Bruno, whose father, it turns out, is the commandant of a concentration camp - presumably Auschwitz.

Bruno has no idea what's going on inside the camp, or even that it is a concentration camp. His parents lead him to believe it's a farm. All he can see from his bedroom window are smoke stacks and a barbed wire fence, behind which people at the "farm" are wearing clothes that look like striped pajamas. Bruno's parents forbid him to go beyond the courtyard of their house. He and his older sister Gretel are left to deal with their loneliness any way they can. Gretel falls in lust with one of the Nazi security guards, while Bruno secretly ventures out to investigate the "farm." That's where he meets the boy in the striped pajamas - Shmuel, a Jewish boy confined inside the concentration camp.

Bruno and Shmuel strike up a friendship of sorts, and slowly but surely Bruno comes to understand that this is no farm next to their house. However, not until the end of the movie does the truth break through Bruno's innocence with obscene power. I won't give away what happens.

See this movie. While it is about the Holocaust, it's not at all like Schindler's List, Life Is Beautiful, and so on. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is more subtle, less gruesome. But in a way, it brings the Holocaust closer to home better than the more graphic films. As you step into the home of this affluent German family, you see how Darwinian theory captured the imagination of the Nazis and led them inexorably to the tragedy we call the Holocaust.

Sabbatical

I'm on sabbatical! My church has a policy of granting their pastors a sabbatical after seven years of service (I've been at UPC for eight). What a great church!

The word "sabbatical" means "any extended period of leave from one's customary work, esp. for rest, to acquire new skills or training, etc." You can see the word "sabbath" in there, too. So a sabbatical is an extended Sabbath rest. It means to take a break, to stop. Between now and the end of August, I'll be "stopping" for five weeks.

I'm splitting up the five weeks of my summer sabbatical this way:
  • July 4-18 - two weeks at the beach with family and friends... reading, resting, reflecting, rejoicing
  • July 19-31 - two weeks of focused reading and study of several topics: the Lord's Supper, discipleship, and my pastoral priorities
  • August 19-24 - I go to Seattle, WA, for Dan Allender's "Story Workshop"

I have a lot of books to read. Here's a sample:

  • Vintage Church - Mark Driscoll
  • Instruments in the Redeemer's Hands - Paul Tripp
  • Who Killed Change? - Ken Blanchard
  • Ten Stupid Things that Keep Churches from Growing - Geoff Surratt
  • Deliberate Simplicity: How the Church Does More by Doing Less - Dave Browning
  • What Jesus Demands from the World - John Piper
  • Leading on Empty: Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion - Wayne Cordeiro

Overall, what I hope to gain from my sabbatical is, in a word, FOCUS. There are so many things a pastor feels pressure to do. They are all good things. But hey, I'm 55 years old. I want to finish well. I want to do the things that only I can do, and I want to do them well.

One of the things I want to do well is disciple believers. I want to do what Paul did: "proclaim [Christ], admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ" (Colossians 1:28). That's what Jesus commissioned us to do.

Yet day to day, it's hard to know how to really pull that off. How can I help UPC be a place where people grow to maturity? What things do I need to say no to? What must be my priorities? Where should I be investing my time? These are questions I'm asking the Lord. Will you pray for me, that my sabbatical will be a refreshing time to connect with God and hear from him about what's on his heart?