Amazingly prophetic and drenched in truth and love…

MartyrsIt doesn't happen very often in my world…some people seem to be extraordinarily gifted to be able to capture in words and in images thoughts and feelings that challenge as well as comfort the heart.  For the last 25 years I've become a book-a-holic.  I can't seem to read enough to quench my soul's thirst for more knowledge, insight, and perspective.  Over those years, despite literally 100's of books being read, only a few authors rise to the top…those authors whom God supernaturally gifts with an ability to share through words truths that are healing, prophetic, insightful, comforting, challenging and artistically imaginative.  My short list includes CS Lewis, George McDonald, Dallas Willard, John Ortberg, Richard Rohr, David James Duncan, Thomas Cahill, Rob Bell, Alan Jones, Alan Hirsch, Mike Frost…I could go on.  I've read everyone of their books for various reasons and still enjoy and hunger to hear more from each of them. Yet I have to admit the ONE author, a blogger and web presence extraordinaire, Ann Voscamp has not only delighted me but ministered to my heart in ways that are difficult to comprehend and share.  Ann is one of those uniquely gifted people who not only writes well but also expresses herself poetically in a way that is captivating, encouraging and enlightening all at the same time.  It is truly a rare gift, one that I am so blessed to be able to behold and to which I joyously open my heart and life.  Ann is one of those authors that come around rarely in every generation.  In a market full of fluff, how to books, and authors published simply because they have a following and can sell books NOT because they have something meaningful to say, Ann is an exceptional delight.  

This past week, 21 Christians were martyred in Egypt.  Although I've read many "takes" on the situation, Ann's blog post entitled, "The Wake Up Call that is ISIS:  Who in the Church is Answering?" has captured my imagination.   I wish I could force everyone I know to read it…that's impossible, I know.  But the LEAST I can do is to bring it to your attention.  If you follow Jesus, please read this post.  Meditate on it…pray over it…and ask Jesus to lay on your heart how YOU will respond or "answer" this wake-up call!  Thanks Ann…I was so moved by your post…I'm still praying on how to respond and your words won't leave my heart and soul for some time…that's about all I can say!  

Click HERE or on the picture above to access the blog post.  

A Video worth watching…”Before Public Speaking”

I'm an addict of the TED talks.  I'm a willing addict for a couple of reasons – first, I admire and am intrigued by presentations.  Since many of us in pro ministry are "on the spot" in front of "audiences" awaiting a word or two of intelligence, challenge and spiritual encouragement, I find that I need to be a student of presentations.  TED talks are a necessary resource in that passion to constantly be growing as a communicator.  Secondly, I find that I can keep another finger on the culture by watching what the "brightest and best" are entertaining intellectually.  TED is a wealth of ideas on a broad spectrum of topics that are meant to bring about curiosity and intrigue in the mind and heart of the viewer.  Although I would LOVE to be present at an actual TED conference, I've discovered that the video library of TED talks is something that I can fit into my schedule and something that definitely protects my tender pocketbook.

The Video I am going to recommend for you to view has to do with communication.  In light of what has become a "debilitating" and unnecessary habit of tearing down and attacking others on the internet, Julian Treasure offers some well timed guidance.  If you want others to listen to you, there are some guidelines that can open up conversation and enable a safe and considerate (I would call, "loving") verbal give and take.  I listened to this short video and immediately was convinced that WE as 5-2, Mission-driven, risk-taking spiritual and sacramental entrepreneurs would be well served to watch, listen and apply these brief suggestions.  Interestingly, they are taken directly from something with which we are familiar – the scriptures, Ephesians 4:20-32.  Even so, in this context, Julian's encouragement, once applied, can not only enhance our own communication but also set some good boundaries on how the Spirit calls us to treat each other!  I think it is way past time to make a personal and 5-2 commitment to be people who practice God-honoring communication in relationships.  And when there is communication that is not God-Honoring, we need to remember that there are NOT too many people really listening.  Thanks to God for that!

The first reasonable salvo regarding “50 Shades of Grey” that I’ve read

1390662975_50-shades-of-grey-official-movie-poster_1OK – it is coming next week.  Believe it or not, on Valentine's Day.  Isn't that just grand.  I'm sure there are going to be MANY "interesting" conversations after couples watch that film.  It is amazing to me that something so obviously "abusive" got so much press and so much of a following, especially among women.  I guess I shouldn't be surprised since culture is bathed in sexual imagery and permissiveness.  If you know me you will know, I'm not a prude.  I'll go see a R rated movie if it is merited (I usually check out the reasons why a movie is rated as it is).  I made a decision a long time ago to watch what I watched…I recognized that some imagery, once in my head, just does not go away quickly.  I decided to have a bit more discernment about what I let into my mind and heart.  Jesus said that the eye is the gateway to the heart…a lesson I can validate by personal experience.  

Back to 50 Shades..I know what's going to happen…the culture will most likely "crown" this movie a success even before the crowds start to line up to see it.  The industry will attempt to create a buzz.  It really does amaze me.  I've got some huge concerns about how many young people are going to be exposed to its "worldview"…I'm concerned how many couples may be thrown into an argument as sexual habits are discussed following the film.  And let's not even begin to talk about abuse…by the way, if there was any of this type of stuff that happened in the marketplace, Mr. Grey would be without a job and most likely sued for sexual harassment.  But I digress…I could go on but I thought I would share with you a a blog post I read written by a trusted source this week that, if you are interested, you might give some of your attention to as you consider how you are going to spend your Valentine's weekend.  Without any more delay, take a gander at what Walt Mueller wrote:

Fifty Shades of Grey thoughts by Walt Mueller

Some of the most frightening words in the Bible are these words from the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians: “Flee from sexual immorality” (I Corinthians 6:18). I remember talking to a room full of curious middle school students in the mid-1980’s. Our little middle school youth group had gathered and I was speaking openly and honestly to them about things they were all feeling, discovering, and wondering about as they were experiencing the dawn of one of the most incredible, good, and glorious gifts God has given to humanity. But like all other human beings, they were living in a world that encouraged them to indulge the good gift of their sexuality without borders and boundaries. My job was to communicate the words of a different voice as clearly as possible. . . specifically the Designer’s plan for how to indulge their sexuality to His glory. I also knew that every adult in that room could attest to the goodness of that plan, especially as we communicated that our knowledge of that goodness came not only from knowing the plan’s Source, but from the ways each of us had strayed from that plan – in thought, word, and deed – over the course of our own lives. And so, we talked about Paul’s command to “flee,” likening the sin of indulging our sexuality without borders or boundaries to eagerly seeking and choosing to stay in a burning building. I’m not sure it’s the best metaphor, but it was the best we could muster at the time.

My newspaper, television, the Internet, and that book store display I saw the other day in the airport are all telling me that over the course of the coming days, we will all have the opportunity to choose to walk into a burning building. The long anticipated film, Fifty Shades of Grey, is set to release. Yes, there will be plenty of men who willingly venture into the flames. But the largest draw by far, will be for the women. . . young and old alike. . . who will go to see the film. I don’t think that we should be at all surprised that Fifty Shades of Grey will be dubbed “blockbuster” after it’s first few days of release. After all, all those voices I was warning those impressionable young middle schoolers about thirty years ago have been convincing. But for the Christian, the one who has chosen the costly life of following Jesus, making the choice to read or watch the story is flat-out foolishness and compromise. Still, the power of those cultural voices and the choices to which they have and will lead (choosing a movie and at least some level of life style), is already clear from the fact that the debate over the movie among Christian women has gone public, especially in the blogosphere.

We’re hearing of more and more Christian women who are eagerly and almost girlishly giggling with eager anticipation over the film’s release. Is there no desire, sense, or wisdom to even consider Paul’s loving warning to “flee from sexual immorality?” Over the coming days, I hope to offer some thoughts that I hope will serve to add to the conversation for the simple reason that the decisions we make on this matter. For today, I thought I would re-post the words from my first blog on Fifty Shades of Grey. . . a post from almost three years ago. Here’s that post. . .

The conversation was between me and two of the women in my life. . . my wife and one of my adult daughters. We were driving from church to Costco. The conversation began with some comments and questions about Fifty Shades of Grey, the first book in E.L. James’ best-selling fiction trilogy. The books are all over the New York Times’ Bestseller List and it seems like women everywhere are devouring them. I listened as the ladies discussed the literary phenomena. None of us have read the books. But like everyone else, we’ve heard about them. During our short drive and conversation we talked about the content. We talked about the plot. And we talked how curious and disturbing it is that so many women are immersing themselves with reckless abandon in a work of erotic fiction that sounds like a Harlequin romance novel on steroids.

In case you haven’t heard, Fifty Shades of Grey is about the exploits of a young college graduate and a businessman. The story is summarized on Wikipedia this way: “The plot traces the relationship between recent college graduate Anastasia Steele and manipulative billionaire Christian Grey. Steele is required by Grey to sign a contract allowing him complete control over her life. As she gets to know him she learns that his sexual tastes involve bondage, domination and sadism, and that childhood abuse left him a deeply damaged individual. In order to be his partner she agrees to experiment with bondage/discipline/sadism/masochism, but struggles to reconcile who she is (a virgin who has never previously had a boyfriend) with whom Christian wants her to be: his submissive, to-do-with-as-he-pleases partner in his ‘Red Room of Pain.'”

As we discussed this current cultural trend, I wondered out loud about doing what I always think is the responsible thing when it comes to evaluating and commenting on a cultural artifact. In this case, the responsible thing is to read the book. The response from my wife and daughter was immediate and direct. . . and I’m glad it was. They told me I didn’t need to go there. I was reminded of what I tell youth workers all the time. . . “Don’t cross the line. . . and you know where the line is for you.” Sometimes we need others to remind us of where our lines should be. I know that the directive of these two ladies was good advice. I’m not going to read this book. . . . for the simple reason that I don’t need to look at pornography to know what it’s about. And from everything I hear, Fifty Shades of Grey is literary pornography. Upon arriving at Costco, I bee-lined to my favorite place in the store. . . the book table. It’s a regular habit. As always, the book table was surrounded by browsers. The browsing was particularly dense on one side of the table. It was dense with women. What they were looking at and loading up on was a fast-diminishing pile of books. . . which happened to be the E.L. James trilogy. I eaves-dropped and quickly realized that everything I had been hearing and everything we had been talking about in our car was true. One conversation in particular rattled me. A younger woman was holding the book and pondering the purchase. She had an inquisitive and slightly guilty look on her face. An older women standing nearby happened to see the same inquisitive and guilty look and decided to engage the younger lady in conversation. . . . a conversation that pushed the latter to a tipping point. “Thinking about reading it?”, the older woman asked. “Yes, but I hear it’s a little dirty,” the younger woman replied. At that point, the young woman’s husband appeared behind her with their cart. Noticing her husband was now privy to the conversation, the young woman turned a little red and muttered something about her husband showing up. . . as if the conversation needed to come to an end. She looked like a guilty kid who had been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. The older woman. . . probably in her mid-60s by my estimation. . . looked at her, gave her a little wink, and said, “It’s ten dollars well spent.” With that, the young woman placed the book in her cart. . . . and I watched her exchange a sly little smile with her husband.

That was an interesting mentoring moment that says a lot about who we are and what we’re becoming as a culture. I’ve mentioned before that research shows that on any given Sunday, our church pews in evangelical churches hold people who struggle with pornography. That research says that 50% of the men and 20% of the women in those pews are addicted to pornography. My friends at Harvest USA define pornography as “anything the heart uses to find sexual expression outside of God’s intended design for relational intimacy. It is anything that tempts and corrupts the human heart into desiring sensual pleasure in sinful ways.” (It’s well worth your time to read the full article that this definition comes from). In general, men are drawn to visual pornography. And in general, women are engaging with literary pornography. Fifty Shades of Grey seems to fit the bill. And so we seek it out, we read it, we love it. . . and we don’t see much wrong with doing any of those things. We’re in trouble folks. Al Qaeda might as well just sit back and wait. . . we’re doing a fine job of taking ourselves down. Anyone else hear Paul Simon quietly singing “Slip Slidin’ Away”?

Some practical “churchy” advice from Ed Stetzer

1look_clip_art_21842219_stdYep, I met Ed at a conference in Texas last fall.  I had been looking forward to hanging out in Ed's "presence" for quite some time.  He has a wealth of information tucked into his brain in regards to what is the pulse of churchworld in America.  In addition, at that conference, he was very bold in specifically encouraging leaders in the denomination in which I serve on issues that are important and, yes, sensitive.  This article is helpful especially for those of us in historical denominations who are looking NOT to grow for growth's sake but to be faithful to Jesus in joining Him on His mission in serving and making disciples.  Here's some thoughts from Ed:

Missing the Mission: Looking for the Right Results While Loving the Wrong Things by Ed Stetzer

All churches love certain things. Some love fellowship, some worship, some prayer. Those are good loves. Some are neutral loves. Some are not. Other churches love their building, their history, or their strategy. Those can be good or bad, depending on what we mean by love and how we value those things. But, some things churches love that hurt their mission and hinder their call. Here are three I've observed from my work with thousands of churches.

1. Too many churches love past culture more than their current context. It's remarkable, and I've said it many times: if the 1950's came back, many churches are ready. (Or the 1600's, or the boomer 80's, depending on your denomination, I guess.) There is nothing wrong with the fifties, except we don't live there anymore. We must love those who live here, now, not yearn for the way things used to be. The cultural sensibilities of the fifties are long past in most of the United States. The values and norms of our current context are drastically different and continue to change. The task of contextualization is paramount to the mission of the church because we are called to understand and speak to those around us in a meaningful way. We can learn much from the Apostle Paul's example recorded in Acts 17:16-34. So, a church on mission– in this time and place– engages the people around it. Yes, in some ways, it resembles its context– a biblically faithful church living in its cultural concept. But, if your church loves a past era more than the current mission, it loves the wrong thing.

2. Too many churches love their comfort more than their mission. The fact is your church probably needs to be less focused on what makes it happy and more focused on what pleases Jesus. This is an easy trap to fall into because it happens very subtly. Most churches have worked hard to get to a place where congregational customers are happy– their needs are met. The problem is that we are not called to cater to customers. We are called to equip co-laborers. When we win the affections of those inside our circles, it becomes hard to pull away from the affirmation we receive. Again, this only becomes a problem when the affirmation of those on the inside works to the detriment of our mission to those on the outside. It is a lot easier to settle down with the people who are like us than to reach the foreigner or alien among us. So, a church does not exist for the comfort of its people. Actually, the Bible reminds us again and again that we are to "provoke one another to love and good deeds" (Hebrews10:24), to "bear one another's burdens" (Galatians 6:2), and more. But, if your church loves its comfort more than caring for others, it loves the wrong thing.

3. Too many churches love their traditions more than their children. How can you tell? They persist in using methods that are not relevant to their own children and grandchildren. Far too often church leaders, in an effort to protect the traditions of their congregations, draw lines in the sand on non-essential issues. This is not to say that "tradition" is wrong. It depends on how you define it, but I think most will know what I mean. Christian scholar Jaroslav Pelikan said, "Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living." Churches that love tradition that way will choose their traditions over their children every time. Too often churches allow traditions to hinder their ability to humbly assess their missional effectiveness. Moreover, they allow traditions to trump the future trajectory of their demographic. I know of several young pastors who have been exiled from their local congregations because they didn't fit the mold of what had always been the ethos of the leadership. Sometimes this is because impatient pastors try and force change too quickly. Other times it's because settled churches resist change so forcefully. Undoubtedly, there are always times to defend the traditional stances of essential doctrines in the local church. But we should not have a cultural elitism that hinders passing the torch to a new generation of leaders. If your church loves the way you do church more than your children, it loves the wrong thing. It's time to evaluate your church. Love is good, and everyone wants a loving church. However, loving the wrong things leads you the wrong way. Loving what is good, including our context, Jesus' mission, and the next generation (to name a few things), moves the church in the right direction.

The church should be always reforming, that is, humbly looking at itself and assessing its ability to reach people with the good news of Jesus. Sadly, many of the people Jesus devoted His time to would not feel welcome in our churches. What about your church? What does its posture, behavior, practices, and activities communicate to your community? I think all of us want to understand the culture and community we are ministering in so we can communicate the gospel with absolute clarity. To do this we need to ask ourselves the hard but needed questions. Who are we reaching? Are we primarily reaching people who are like us? Are we primarily reaching people who are already believers? Are we primarily reaching people who understand Christian subculture and taboos? What about the people who don't have a church background? What about the people who are unfamiliar with Christian beliefs? What about the people who don't understand church subculture and behavioral taboos? To say we are unable to reach the lost because of our traditions or preferences is simply unacceptable and antithetical to the mission of God.