Thursday, May 31, 2012

Summer Bible Bash

This summer will be the first year where Redeemer will actually have a building, and the question came about we would do for the children for summer time. The standard answer the past 50 years is quite simple: do a week long VBS. There is nothing wrong with that-nor there is nothing essentially right with that either. That's why some churches in our area have done soccer camps, and one of the oldest churches is even switching to a 4 Sunday afternoon approach this year. Churches are free to dream and free to fail. The gospel gives us that freedom. And in response to that freedom, here is what we plan to do: Summer Bible Bash.

We will do three Summer Bible Bashes, each taking place from 4-6 pm on the first Sunday of the summer months. They will have a central gathering time for ages 4-5th grade to introduce the time and sing a few familiar songs. The younger ages will break up, as will the older group to go through a lesson centered around Jesus Baptism, His Ascension, and Pentecost. Afterwards both groups will come together for a Covenant Family Feud game before breaking for dinner.

Here's some reasons why we thought it was worth trying:

We wanted to do something that embraces two major components of how we teach and train our children: Family + Church Family.

With the standard VBS set-up, parents who are not serving usually stop, drop, and then shop. They drop the kids off, and then grocery shop. Nothing is inherently wrong with that, but it just doesn't adequately reflect how we desire to do ministry here. We want to equip and train parents to continue teaching their children. As a result, we have an adult bible study going on during the same time, over the same passage of scripture. Parents have the primary responsibility in teaching their kids. Not the only responsibility, but the primary according to Deuteronomy 6:6-8. So we wanted to construct a program that fostered the training of parents to be better equipped to train their kids. Parents should be equipped to follow up with their kids after each session.

We also wanted the whole covenant community/family to be involved. Not just in the teaching, but in the learning. So whether an adult has children or not, we have a place for them to learn. After the lesson time, the kids and adults will team up and compete with each other in a Covenant Family Feud. We actually surveyed the church the week before, so we'll be using those "fun" answers along with review questions for kids and adults. And since we will be having a dinner afterward, at least theoretically, all ages have a chance to connect with one another.

Of course we also wanted to do something to help teach the kids, as that component is more heavily emphasized. The family unit is the primary place where kids learn about Jesus, but it is irresponsible to think that its the ONLY place. We are part of a Covenant Community, and the church should play a big part! So we didn't want to lose that aspect that VBS tends to do quite well. Our kids will be learning about Jesus' Baptism, His Ascension, and Pentecost and how those parts fit in the overall story of the bible. Jesus Storybook Bible Curriulum material does a good job tracing the story of redemption and how each part fits into the whole.

Finally, I've always found follow-up with V.B.S. very difficult. Part of that is that many in our area just hop-not to mention stop, drop, and shop-from V.B.S. to V.B.S. Is there any need to follow-up when parents already have church homes? No. But even with those who don't have a church family, I've never figured out what to do. The best I've seen is doing a cookout after the week is over.

Instead of having the parents come to church to hear their kids sing (which might work for some-and we have tried it before), we've decided to see if they'd be willing to stay for a meal. You gotta eat, or at least that's what Checker's used to say. That way, ideally, they at least have some relational connection beyond "I like them because they teach my kids morals." So we're hoping any visitors and a parent or two will stay for the meal. We'll see what happens.....

If we can teach kids about Jesus, parents about Jesus, the rest of the covenant family/community about Jesus, fellowship and invite others to participate in that fellowship (with hopes they participate in the gospel), then I'd consider it a success. So now we're hoping the Holy Spirit shows up and does His thing.

May the Lord bless and use the various forms of church ministries this summer-V.B.S., Soccer Camps, Bible Bashes- to bring more of His heavenly will down to Earth.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The first grader

I enjoy finding movies and music that other people haven't first found. And with and the 7.99 unlimited streaming Netflix, I"m afforded this option. I have tons of choices of "B" movies with the chance of finding a gem of an independent movie.

On Sunday night I found the latter when I stumbled across The First Grader.  The story is one of an 84 year old former Mau Mau freedom fighter named Maruge who decides to take advantage of Kenya's new free government education for "all people." Just as the bible doesn't mean "every single person" when it says "world" or "all flesh," neither did the Kenyan government. But since he heard it that way, he decides he has the right to sit and learn with the first graders. And he does.

Of course there is tension and conflict with the villagers, as one would imagine when an 84 year old sits next a slew of 5-6 year olds. The storyline and conflict carry the movie. I guess the acting is good, but the story is worth the price of admission itself. It being based upon a true story doesn't hurt either.

Here's what I took from it:

1.) Never stop learning. At 84 years old, he doesn't want to just "mail it in." He really wants to learn how to read and will fight the concomitant embarrassment and harassment one would expect should come from such an endeavor. This is not an African version of Billy Madison. Maruge reaffirmed my belief that folks never reach an age where they should stop seeking to learn. Christians of all people should realize that we never stop learning from God's Word or God's World. Since learning can and should be devotional, why would we not want to? We'll be learning in heaven so why stop now?

2.) Never stop teaching. Whether its a 2-3 year old in a Toddler class or an 84 year old in a Sunday School class, the church needs to teach all those who are willing to listen. Age doesn't matter. Teaching any age pupil is not a waste of time, whether they have a little or lot of time left on Earth. How much time we have here is privileged information anyway. Jesus told his disciples to be teaching and passing all that he has taught us until he gets back. He wants to find us busy at work (Matthew 25:14)

3.) You never know the result of your teaching. It still would have been good to teach an 84 year old man to read regardless of what happened afterwards. That would simply have been loving one's neighbor as oneself. But we also never know what will happen to an 84 year old who learns to read. He went on and visited the United States and played a role in Kenya's education before he died. You never know. Your time isn't wasted when you teach.

4.) You need others in your learning. He received a letter in the mail from the government but didn't know what it said. Even after learning "cat" and "hat" and "bat," he realized that he wasn't ready for the "big words" of this letter. Instead of an individual activity, he learned and discovered the good news with the help of others. In community. Everything needed for the bible is perspicuous, that is, it's clear enough for any reader to know the truth of the gospel. However, if we are to plumb the depths of the gospel, we can't learn in isolation. If you want the roots of the gospel to go deeper in your heart, you need to go deeper into community and let others read the good news to you in a fresh and deeper way.

A great story and great movie. Well worth your time.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Doubt belongs in the church

I regularly check the CNN's belief blog and am almost always glad that I did. I came across this great article on doubt and how it belongs in the church, not outside of it. I hesitate to even summarize it, because it so well written. But the gist is that of a gal growing up as daughter of missionaries with a pile of discontent eventually erupting in her departing the church. Then returning with the doubt, but still returning nonetheless.

Listening to a sermon at my older brother’s church one Sunday, I stood up, leaned over to my father and said, “This is bulls**t.” I made my way to the end of the pew and marched out of the sanctuary. The sermon didn’t sit right with me. The pastor was preaching about Psalm 91, saying in so many words that a person just needed to pray and have faith in order to be protected from suffering.

I've had some folks walk out on my sermons before, but I don't know elicited the same response. Of course, I don't know that I didn't! Fluff that isn't true to the bible or to reality often will lead folks with similar feelings; they just may have enough self control to wait for the next wave and ride that one on in.

More than just that sermon, I was sick of church. I was sick, too, of all the spiritual questions plaguing me: Why does the church seem so culturally insulated and dysfunctional? Why does God seem distant and uninvolved? And most of all, why does God allow suffering?

I would imagine all of these questions have been entertained by all of us at some point or another. If not, we're probably not being honest with a.) ourselves b.) our churches c.) our God. But these questions are more than doubts; I think they are questions of healthy discontentment.
Why does the church seem so culturally insulated?

I know I like to insulate myself from suffering. Then I don't have to suffer and deal with the hard questions of "why does this stuff happen when I'm praying against it?" That's not easy. And so we often choose the more comfortable route of fellowship. Instead of fellowshipping with the broken, we huddle together for the potluck supper. It's more fun that way. One of the reasons there isn't more doubt, or at the very least a healthy discontent, is that we insulate ourselves from suffering. Our lack of doubts isn't necessarily an indication of a healthy faith, but an indication of the people we spend time with: the healthy and wealthy. That's probably why suburbanites like myself don't doubt as much. We're insulated.

I found her challenge to me as a pastor and Christian very spot on. Instead of entering the mess, we run from it. And those who don't run, those who are faithful to follow Jesus into suffering are sometimes left with this discontentment that leads to doubt. In other words, the doubt often comes to those who are faithful. 

She goes on to intimate why she left and why she returned.

In reality, I left the church more because of my own internal discontent than the lure of so-called secular life. When I came back, I still carried that same discontent. I was confused, and still bothered by questions and doubts. I stayed in the back row and didn’t sing or pray. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be there.

And yet I sat there, Sunday after Sunday, listening to the pastor and the organ pipes and trying to figure out what was going on in my dark, conflicted heart.
Although I never experienced that dramatic reconversion moment, I did come to peace with two slow-growing realizations.

First: My doubt belonged in church.

People who know my story ask what I would have changed about my spiritual journey. Nothing. I had to leave the church to find the church. And when I came back, the return wasn’t clean or conclusive. Since then, I’ve come to believe that my doubts belong inside the space of the sanctuary. My questions belong on the altar as my only offering to God.

With all its faults, I still associate the church with the pursuit of truth and justice, with community and shared humanity. It’s a place to ask the unanswerable questions and a place to be on sojourn. No other institution has given me what the church has: a space to search for God.

Second: My doubt is actually part of my faith.

In Mark 9:24, a man says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor called this the foundation prayer of faith. I pray that prayer often and believe that God honors my honesty.

I also believe God honors my longing. The writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said “Faith is homesickness.” C.S. Lewis called it “Sehnsucht,” a longing for a far-off country. I feel that sense of unshakable yearning. It comes from the deepest part of my heart, a spiritual desire that’s strangely, mysteriously connected to my doubt.

Sitting in church every Sunday, my doubt is my desire – to touch the untouchable, to possess the presence of God.

I love how she recognizes that doubt belongs inside the church, not outside of it. We all have varying levels of doubt. Fellowship and worship are two ways to counter that doubt, and in doing so, doubters may bring a healthy discontent to the non-doubter's complacency. It's a win-win.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What Brett Lawrie teaches us about passion

A week ago, Toronto Blue Jays third basemen Brett Lawrie was called out on strikes after two questionable pitches by Tampa Bay Rays reliever Fernando Rodney. He expected that each one would be called ball four and allow him to take first base with one out in the 9th inning of a one-run game. As he jogged down to first, he heard the news. Responding with a George Brett pine tar-esque way, he got up in the umpire's face for quite a tirade. But what really got in him in trouble was that he threw down his helmet and it bounced up and hit the umpire. Not a good idea.

Shortly afterwards he was handed a 4 game suspension and fined.

I showed the video to my son and explained to him this is not how we play baseball.

The reaction from announcers and even his General Manager was not surprising. The sum of the comments amounted to this: this guy plays with passion, and you can't have his passion on the field without incidents like this.

So if one is passionate, he will inevitably do things like this which jeapordize his availability to even play baseball for periods of time, risk injury to others, and represent his team positively to others.

Passion trumps all.

Sometimes those in the church can excuse bad behavior on such basis as well. Whether it be a pastor, theologian, church member, I have seen and heard similar excuses for such behavior. That person has "passion" and we cant' take that away from them.

However I want to posit a few reasons why I this is unwise and un-scriptural.

1.) The idea of "passion" or "zeal" is not necessarily always good. What is it that we are passionate about? Is it really the gospel or is it some other substitute? The Judaizers in the letter to the Galatians were very zealous and passionate about cutting foreskins, but Paul said that was a bad idea because it was a way to add to the gospel. We can very easily become passionate about a cause more than Christ himself. Even if it is a cause motivated by Christ, we can miss the Christ behind the cause. From John Brown at Harper's Ferry to much more subtle passions today, this kind of passion that misses Jesus is clearly not good passion. Instead it has morphed into the kinds of passions that cause fights and quarrels (James 4:1-5). Not all "religious" passion is good.

2.) What does good passion look like? I regularly listen to two different preachers: Martin Man and Jean Larroux. One is soft spoken and the other isn't. Both men are very passionate about Jesus and inspire passion in me for Christ. Yet they both look, sound, talk quite differently. 

We can clearly see the opposite of passion in people in our churches: apathy. However, different people will display passion for Jesus and His Church differently according to different temperments and gift sets. Someone may display his/her passion for Jesus in more diaconal ways (serving the church or community), more devotional ways (spending time in reading God's Word, good books, prayer), more expressive ways in corporate worship (raising hands, closing eyes, etc..) evangelistically (sharing gospel and befriending neighbors). Now of course all of these things are part of the Christian life but some, will out of their passion for Jesus, display that passion differently and with different emphases. Again, passion for Jesus can look like pounding a hammer as not pounding your fists when you preach. One cannot simply look superficially upon another brother and sister in Christ and say, "You have no passion." You may be right, but you could just as easily be wrong. We cannot demand that others display their passion the same way we do. That's what the saying, "These guys have no passion" sometimes really means.

3.) Can someone be passionate about Jesus and not passionate about people? Or put it this way, can someone be passionate for Jesus and not have compassion for people? The final verdict on the Christian is not how "passionate" someone is, but how loving he or she is. In I Corinthians 13:4 Paul addresses "passionate" folks by saying, "If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing." Who gives his body up to the flames without being passionate? Isn't that the definition of passionate? To sacrifice yourself for the good of the cause is about as passionate as you can get. Yet, if you don't have love-or I guess you could use the word "passion" or compassion for others-you gain nothing. Nothing. Wow. You can't be passionate for Jesus without having compassion on people.

As someone who tends to be more high on the "D" than the "I" (the former means JUST DO IT and the latter means "Influencing" people to do it) on the D.I.S.C. test, I think this is a good reminder. We cannot be passionate about reaching a goal without loving people. That may look different in different settings, but everything has to be done in love. Sometimes I don't like that. But we can't fight sin with more sin.

Fortunately this love mentioned in I Corinthians 13 is a personal love. It's Jesus. He's why we can grow in passion for God and compassion for others. He was/is/will be passionate for the Father's glory and compassionate for us. He is why you and I have hope as His love moves us to passion and compassion.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What we can learn from Brandon Marshall

After Junior Seau's suicide two weeks ago, many folks have begun pondering what to do about it. How should we think about it? Is the primary problem the concussions or is that but a piece of the puzzle?

Troubled Bear's receiver Brandon Marshall (formerly Bronco's, Dolphins, and UCF) wrote a thoughtful piece for the Chicago Sun Times about mental health and the stigma. He thinks there is something to learn from brain study but recognizes the best treatment is to "start to treat the living." Marshall offers some helpful insights into the whole question of suicides after football, though this is helpful for all people whether going through the darkness of depression or not. The whole article is brief and worth the read.

There are many people out there who are suffering and have nowhere to turn for help or are afraid because of the stigmas placed on mental health.

Even though so many folks are on medication for depression, that doesn't mean there is still no stigma for those struggling in this area. As an athlete, Marshall feels and has felt that pressure. Real men shouldn't feel depressed, right? Real pastors shouldn't feel depressed either. But I have, and have felt shame over the stigma. Fortunately the gospel began to deal with not only my depression (and still does), but with the fear, stigma, condemnation that comes with treatment and even medication. Believing Romans 8:1, that there really is now no condemnation in Christ Jesus, is tough but completely applicable here. I still feel some stigma here and there, but now I can, somewhat, boast of my weakness (II Cor 12:8-10). Because of it, I've actually had more contentment, not to mention opportunities to minister to those struggling with depression.
As I began to meditate more on Junior’s death, I began to think about this vicious cycle our world is in. The word ‘‘validate’’ started to run through my mind.

The cycle starts when we are young boys and girls. Let me illustrate it for you:
Li’l Johnny is outside playing and falls. His dad tells him to get up and be strong, to stop crying because men don’t cry.

So even from the age of 2, our belief system begins to form this picture. We are teaching our boys not to show weakness or share any feelings or emotions, other than to be strong and tough.

Is that ‘‘validating’’?

 What do we do when Li’l Susie falls? We say: ‘‘It’s OK. I’m here. Let me pick you up.’’
That’s very validating, and it’s teaching our girls that expressing emotions is OK.

I don't think depression is a-physiological. Medicine can help. But working out or doing P90X, and taking medication will not completely deal with it. Sounds like Marshall is on the same page here. You can blame things on concussions and brain damage, which probably play a part in it all. However it's only a part of the puzzle. 

While he doesn't go back to the gospel (though he does admit prayer is a part of it), he does recognize there is more going on. Women can cry. Men are told not to do so. I tell my son there is no crying in baseball when you get out, but it is OK to cry when you get hurt. But try not to do that either. I'm beginning to think that telling him not to cry is more for my good than for his. And if he can only be "tough," and never show emotion, weakness, is that a man I want him to become? Is that a man who believes the gospel, that there is no condemnation before God and others? Nope. This certainly gave me something to think about.

Here's one last snippet where Marshall gets to the root of the problem. Sounds like Tim Keller could have written it!

As athletes, we go through life getting praised and worshipped and making a lot of money. Our worlds and everything in them — spouses, kids, family, religion and friends — revolve around us. We create a world where our sport is our life and makes us who we are.

When the game is taken away from us or when we stop playing, the shock of not hearing the praise or receiving the big bucks often turns out to be devastating.

Sounds like a fantastic description of an idol to me. You go to something for life, affirmation, purpose, and when that something is taken away, so is your life and reason for living.  Nailed it Brandon. Keep up the good work.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Just Another Mother's Day

Yesterday was Mother's Day. Ed Stetzer mentioned that this is typically a day where church attendance really increases. In his article in USA Today he quotes:

Christmas, Easter and Mother's Day have become the three days of male holy obligation when their wives and mothers are able to guilt them into the pews," says David Murrow, author of Why Men Hate Going to Church.

This peaks like a candy kiss on Mother's Day when "pastors tend to gush over women in their sermons," Murrow says.

"But on Father's day, men get a 'straighten up' lecture: 'Dad, get right with God, reconcile with your kids,' etc. You would never hear any suggestion on Mother's Day that women could improve on their relationships," Murrow says.

This sentiment won't happen at Redeemer, but the reasons are more theological and pastoral than equitable (let's make sure we talk good or challenging about both Dads and Moms.) There are reasons why we, and many other churches don't "celebrate" Mother's Day, even though one could argue this makes the least amount of "sense."

It has NOTHING to do with the appreciation that we have with women in general and mothers in particular. There is no higher calling than a mother. You would have more materials if Mom worked 'outside' of the home, but I think your family would still get a lot less in return. I'll settle for less stuff and more of Mom in my kids lives. So in other words, I value mothers. Instead, there are other factors involved.

Before I get to them, I do want to say this. There are some things that I believe are appropriate. Praying for mothers in a pastoral prayer on Mother's Day as long as you pray for the mothers that never were, and for the spiritual mothers in your church too. Our children's church material was Mother's Day specific. Now on to the reasons why we don't "celebrate" it.

1.)  Worship is God-centered not man-centered. God is the one who calls us to worship and Jesus describes the Father as one who actually "seeks worshipers (John 4)." We respond to Him and His grace, offering up our voices, prayers, and tithes. Grace motivates us to give of ourselves and grace comforts us as we realize we don't do so hot all the time. Then because of the gospel, we hear God speak to us through His Word. We respond to the gospel in repentance and belief each week. There just really isn't any room for a Mother's Day highlight or emphasis. It really doesn't fit with a God-centered worship service.

2.) Worship is Christ-centered. We celebrate Jesus life, death, and resurrection each week. We don't want to do anything that would take away from this celebration. The service is about Jesus and what He has done. As a result, I would also not ask veterans, or Dads, or teachers to stand up, though I'm extremely grateful for all of the aforementioned. We are there to worship Jesus. There is plenty of time to appreciate and serve mom, Dad, veterans, teachers outside the worship time.

3.) Pastoral or pragmatic/utilitarian? One could argue, that before the service starts we could have Mother's Day flowers handed out by ushers and greeters. Or we could have mothers stand up BEFORE the service starts. One could make the argument that if you do this BEFORE the call to worship that it wouldn't take anything away from Christ. Hypothetically one could argue that, but there is still another problem. Mother's Day is a very hard day for some women. Very hard. Christmas is a hard day for some (I've never heard Easter being hard though...) because of terrible family experiences or the loss of children. Mother's Day is undoubtedly hard for those desiring to be Mom's, but for some reason the Lord has closed their wombs. Mother's Day is hard for those who've had abortions. I hadn't ever thought through how hard it was until a professor in seminary brought it to our attention; he and his wife would leave every year at the time and get away and mourn. They couldn't face the, "Ok Mom's, stand up now and let's see who is the youngest or oldest,"(like we're at a bridal shower!). I've never thought of Mother's Day in the same way since.

Now for many women, Mother's Day is great. But we can't only think about the numbers game or else we'll fall into utilitarianism: the greatest good for the most number of people is the RIGHT thing to do. If the gospel offends someone, then let them be offended. I don't want to hear about me being a sinner. I'm OK with that.

But as a pastor, I can't put a stumbling block in the way of worship. I don't blame women who have miscarried or never become pregnant for skipping out on church that day (and if you know me, you know I don't think there are many more legitimate reasons to gather weekly for worship!) if the focus of worship or a sermon is motherhood.

Basically the two main principles are those Jesus summed up for us: Love God and Love Others.

While our church has issues, like them all, I think we do a good job with Mother's Day. A woman explained how much she appreciated it how we handle Mother's Day here. Drawing attention toward Jesus and away from us, with a sensitivity toward those who may be more prone to mourn. That's a good Sunday in my book.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Kurt Warner's concerns for safety don't go far enough

 There has been much discussion amongst those in the NFL relating to player safety. The issue with the New Orleans Saints "bounty program,"and recent suicides of former players allegedly due to repeated undiagnosed concussions have brought two main questions to the forefront: what will life look like after the game of football, and do I want my kids to even play this game?

Kurt Warner, a former Superbowl winner (they beat the Bucs to get there in 2000 because of a terrible call which actually spawned a new rule), chose to answer the latter in the negative. He expressed concerns and even desires that his kids would not play football.

This drew the ire of a former teammate (for a year or two) named Amani Toomer and current ESPN analyst Merril Hoge. Hoge called him "uneducated."

Some have labeled Kurt Warner hypocritical. After all, it was the NFL (or at least the path to the NFL) that literally allowed him to stop working at a grocery store. But since Hoge has probably 10 times more concussions than I have had, he's probably not someone I'd be taking advice from.

Kurt isn't alone in his concern. Giants Osi Umeniora had this to say

“Kurt Warner is Right to think how he is thinking about his kids and football,” Umenyiora wrote. “Its an awesome game and has done a lot for me, but i know when im 45 there is a strong chance il be in a wheelchair. If i can avoid that for my son, i will. But if he wants to play i wont stop him.”

I surmise that my sons will be too skinny to play "tackle" football and am grateful for it. It is probably more dangerous than other sports; it's hard to argue against that point. But parents today often steer their kids toward sports or away from certain sports with only physical safety in mind. While that's wise, it is not wise enough.

Parents often do a good job of thinking through the long term physical effects of sports. Will my kid be able to walk after sports? How many surgeries will be needed? But what about our kids "spiritual walk?" Most Christians really don't think through the long term spiritual damage which sports may bring.

If your kid regularly misses corporate worship to play sports when he's under your roof, where will he "worship" when he's in college? Probably Bedside Baptist or Pillow Presbyterian.

What is it that we really want for our children? Is it for them to walk with Jesus in college or simply the chance to get an athletic scholarship (do we realize how hard these are to get)? Sure we'd like both, but our lifestyles often prove which one is more important.

And kids aren't stupid. They are smarter than they look. They really are. Even the ones I think are totally out of it see things in parents that amaze me. They are learning all the time. Like that old drug commercial which depicted the father asking the son where he learned such stuff, "I learned it from watching you, Dad."

Many kids don't connect to a church when they go to college. We wonder why not. But do not we parents play some part in this? I do fear that we have concerned ourselves with the physical safety of our children and ignored their spiritual safety.

I'm hoping professing Christian Kurt Warner attends a Saturday night church with his boys. Because his job, now on the NFL Network has once again continued the pattern of not going to church as a family on Sundays. To care about physical safety is just not enough. May he and all Christian parents wade through these waters with much prayer and in community in order to discern how God may use sports to further His Kingdom instead of our own agendas.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Open letter to Luck and RGIII, and perhaps to Church

On my way to pick up some roofing material this past Saturday evening, I alternated, as usual between sports talk and NPR. This time I'm glad I tuned into the latter more than the former. 

I caught the tail end of an interview with former Denver Broncos Tight End Nate Jackson. Not knowing remembering him during his playing days did nothing to diminish the impact of the interview. Jackson had recently written an open letter to Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III (the 1st and 2nd overall picks from the recent NFL draft). 

The letter eloquently warns these two superstars of what they can soon expect. But I think it can also be read, in some ways, as an open letter to the Church. My favorite snipped, shared during the interview is below:

After negotiating your contracts, you both will surely buy a house in an affluent suburb where no 22-year-old would be happy living. Your new neighbors will be rich as well, facelifted, lipo-sucked, Xanaxed and dripping in diamonds, simply delighted to welcome you to the neighborhood. You will commission an interior decorator, recommended by a neighbor, to furnish your home. This will guarantee it feels nothing like Home. And someday, when all of this is over, you'll walk through and gaze upon the marble columns and the embroidered drapes like artifacts in a museum, wondering why you ever listened to that woman.

Probably some sage advice. Don't pick the most expensive neighborhoods because you won't be friends with your neighbors! But part of it actually reminded me a little bit of John Piper's Don't Waste Your Life. I believe it was in this book that I came across the "novel" idea that just because one makes 100,000 dollars a year, one doesn't have to live off 100,000 dollars a year. Or whatever number you make. Yet that attitude is so foreign to not only NFL players-where it clearly makes sense NOT to live among folks in the same income bracket-but to suburbanites like myself. If you can afford a bigger house, you get a bigger house. You deserve it. 

Now again, there is nothing inherently wrong with a bigger house. Some Christians graciously use every square foot to bless others. But I fear many affluent Christians opt for such a house without thinking one second why or to what end would God have me use this house? Is it to bless others, offer hospitality, host small group bible studies, youth events, etc..? Or is it because we simply can buy this house? And because we simply can, we must. That's more like slavery. I love Nate Jackson and John Piper's advice. Don't just spend money because you can; a good reminder to all of us.

My 2nd favorite snippet is below:

With all of this pushing against you, the role of friends and family becomes very important. There are people in this world to whom you're just Andrew and Robert. Son, brother, lover, friend. You need to lean on these people when the Weirdos start to make sense. You need to run to the familiarity of genuine friendship. But even in this, there will be a loneliness, because, as a defense mechanism, you will have assumed a piece of your new identity, and your loved ones won’t understand it. Caught in between these two worlds you'll drift. You'll feast on the fruits of excess, and will only grow hungrier. You'll dine with familiar faces, and find you've lost the taste. And so you'll get in your Mercedes on your days off and drive to the facility and watch film. Ah yes. Football. That’s what this is all about.

There's much to commend in this, but I'd like to just mention a few. Jackson wisely explains to these two lads that they will "feast on the fruits of excess, and will only grow hungrier." What a prayer this would be for the Church! That we would lose our materialist appetites and hunger and thirst for that which satisfies: thirsting for righteousness (Matthew 5:6). That our clamoring for more stuff because we think we'll be satisfied when we have it would leave us only more hungry and thirsty. Great reminder Nate. I need it.

Andrew Luck and RG III will find themselves torn between two worlds, distasting the extravagances and yet also forsaking the familiar faces of friends. Because of football, they will find themselves pulled back and forth. And it will be lonely.

But even in this, there will be a loneliness, because, as a defense mechanism, you will have assumed a piece of your new identity, and your loved ones won’t understand it. Caught in between these two worlds you'll drift. 

There is a loneliness that comes from being a Christian on a pilgrimage to our New Heaven and New Earth (Rev 21), or as Jackson puts it "assuming a piece of your new identity and your loved ones won't understand it." A non-Christian will find solace and comfort-though temporary or illusory-in all this world has to offer. But just like T.S. Eliot' Magi who found Jesus, and life immediately became harder, we fill find ourselves feeling uneasy in this present age when we return to our former "kingdoms." There is a joy in following Jesus now, yet there is also a precarious uncomfortability which befits the Christian pilgrim. At times it will come to surface in an a subtle uneasiness. That's good. At other times, it will be a dissatisfaction with arriving at an end you thought would make you happy and it didn't; and you feel let down (as all idols do eventually). That's good. Still other times it will lead to a deeper longing in a minor depression or homesickness for a place devoid of tears and physical presence of Jesus. That's growth. 

But it's in these times when you know you're walking with Jesus. Just remember to look at him and hear him say, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." Let him have the final say in your journey. Amidst the sadness of the journey there is great joy and comfort to be found. We'll forever be in this tension until the world we were made for comes down from heaven. Caught between these two worlds we'll drift.

You can read the whole letter here. I really do think it gives the Christian as well as the NFL athlete something to ponder.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Christian's don't need a bucket list: A middle schooler will tell you that

In our Middle School youth group at Redeemer, we spent 4 weeks on the topic of heaven (Revelation 21:1-8; 22-27) and its current application for our lives NOW. It seems strange, almost counter-intuitive, that thinking about something so seemingly "other-worldly" would have any sort of real impact in our lives today. But nothing could be further from the truth. 

For starters, the concept of the final state of heaven (heaven as it exists now is only a "third base") as the New Heaven and Earth in Revelation 21 is anything but "other worldly." God comes down to Earth and dwells with His people DOWN here. It is described as city, where there is non-stop action going on. The gates never close their doors; we called it "the city that never sleeps." Kind of like a Las Vegas without much of what goes on in Vegas. It won't be boring. The best of all cultures will be present and the worst of them will not. 

After opening with the lie from John Lenin's "Imagine"-that if people imagined there were no heaven then they would live for today-we moved into some brief review questions. Then I decided to let the kids, as we've done several times before, create a skit to demonstrate to each other (we always break into two groups for these) what heaven is like and what difference it makes in life. This helps reach those with differing learning styles, as well as challenges the kids to really chew on how to communicate and apply deep truth.

My group, led by a Sr High and myself, came up with the idea of a group of guys wasting their lives away in a bar talking and dreaming about the next thing to cross off on their bucket lists. These Middle Schooler's, on their own (as far as I can remember) came up with this idea. They recognized that there is no need for a bucket list for Christians. If heaven will one day come down to Earth, there will be plenty of time for those things you don't have time, money, opportunity, or quite frankly God's approval, to do now. 

As a result you are free to live without the burden of "I wish I could do such and such" but just can't. Or you can live without the burden of "I need to go do such and such to make me happy." Whatever you way you slice it, the theology of the New Heaven and Earth, is not as much "other-worldly" as it is "down to Earth."

So begin to believe in the final promise of the gospel-freedom from the presence of sin-and live more radically and freely than you would have if you were unaware of the last chapter in God's Story of Redemption. There's more joy here than crossing of another one off your bucket list.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" teaches us about the gospel

Most 80's "hair bands" have simply flamed out because, frankly, they were not very good. 4 chords and an electric guitar with overuse of a "whammy" bar does not necessarily make for good music. Lyrical content didn't get much better. "Mocumentary" Spinal Tap really did a great job of making fun of how overtly sexual lyrics had become with songs like like "Sex Farm" and "Big Bottoms." 

Now I say this with some nostalgia, as the first song I learned on guitar was Poison's "Every Rose Has It's Thorn." I also learned the guitar solo, if that says something to you of the lead guitarist C.C. Deville. Nevertheless, still a good song.

Yet not all of these 80's rockers were equally as bad. Guns N Roses comes to mind; of course they eventually got really bad and broke up. But I wonder if you thought Night Ranger was still rocking. Just saw this on

Apparently front man Jack Blades is still rocking and putting out music. Some of his former band-mates have collaborated on his new project. If you're like me-aware of many of these bands-you may only remember Night Ranger's "Sister Christian." But if you want to go see him, you needn't fear. They haven't forgotten what we remember most about them.

The album features special guests including his Night Ranger band mates Brad Gillis, Kelly Keagy, Joel Hoekstra, and Eric Levy.  He’ll reunite with them on the road with both Night Ranger and solo shows in store this year. And don't worry, “Sister Christian” will be on the set list!

Unlike some folks who score big with a song of almost anthem-like quality like House of Pain's "Jump Around", and yet DON'T want to play that song in concerts because such artist feel they're beyond it, Night Ranger is more than happy to sing "Sister Christian." They don't mind being identified with it. Perhaps even defined by it.
“How can you get bored when you look out at the audience and… just grins across their face, their eyes, happy, singing 'Motoring,' how can you not get into that?” he asks. “It’s been 30 years we’ve been doing this, and every night I get up there and play and it’s like my first night.”

For Christians, it is no different with the gospel. We can never get tired of singing the same song over and over. It's what defines us; its what identifies us. Whether it be for 30 years or 90 years, the Christian is to know, be known, be identified with, and proud of the simple song of the gospel his/her whole life. Our whole lives involve regularly singing it and looking forward to hearing others "covering" it from the pulpit each week.
What I mean by this is that we need to regularly repent of ways in which we disbelieve that Jesus is more than enough to cover our sins and supply all of our deepest heart longings. And then we believe that Jesus still loves us just as much in our struggle to believe, as he does when we seem to "get it." Jesus never repented because he didn't have anything to repent from or for. But he did have faith, and fully submitted himself to the will of the Heavenly Father, and so that faith now counts as ours. 
I love "Sister Christian" and you can listen to it below. For Jack Blades, singing "Sister Christian" never gets old. May it be the same with the gospel. The gospel is a song that should be on our playlists every day.