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.