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 I think I know where that name "Cheap" came from. Somebody at 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


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 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.