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4.8.14In John 5 there’s a verse that puzzled me for years. One of the times Jesus entered Jerusalem, he encountered a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. What he asks this man almost seems insulting at first:  “When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, ‘Do you want to get well?’” (John 5:6). Was this a rhetorical question? Was Jesus mocking him? Why would this man not want to get better? Shouldn’t it be obvious?

But as I got older and I began to interact with more people in ministry, I realized the penetrating nature of this question. Sometimes people who are sick don’t want to get better. Sometimes people who need to make a change are unwilling to do so. You’ve lived through this. You have a family member. You have a close friend. You know they need to change. You’ve had an intervention where you’ve pleaded with them to get help for something. In a moment of clarity they’ve even admitted that they need to change. And yet they haven’t. They’re not ready to get well. They’re comfortable in their brokenness. It’s painful, but it’s what they know. They’re not ready to make a change.

Before you rehash old arguments and get angry at your family all over again, stop for a moment and ask yourself this same question: do you want to get well? What area in your life do you know you need to change? What habit or addiction has your family pleaded with you time and time again to change? In what area have you been unwilling to fully surrender to God and make a change?

Like the man who had lived with a debilitating condition for 38 years, Jesus still asks you, “Do you want to get well?”

Well, do you?

Do I Belong?

April 1, 2014 — Leave a comment

Project HopeOne of four fundamental questions all humans ask is: do I belong? (Re)discover the amazing truth that in Jesus we have hope for a home. (Sunday message on March 30 at Mt Vernon Church).

 

3.29.14The movie Noah has been a lightning rod in the Christian community. To see it or not to see it? But I heard it contradicted Scripture! But I heard it was made by an atheist! But I heard Noah is portrayed as an eco-terrorist! But I heard the ark doesn’t even look how it did in my Sunday School quarterly growing up!

While I’ve already posted about why you should see the movie Noah, what’s been surprising to me has been the outright hostility and condemnation of a movie before it was even seen. “Frozen” has some anti-biblical elements and yet we sing its praises. “Noah” has many more biblical elements than “Frozen” yet we vilify it. If we’re going to vilify movies, let’s at least be consistent. The larger question for me becomes: how do we respond to a culture that is becoming more and more anti-biblical? Do we embrace it? Do we condemn it? Or do we engage it and try to redeem what we can?

Paul had to wrestle with this same dilemma when he encountered a deeply anti-biblical society in ancient Athens:

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. Acts 17:16-18

When invited to speak to some of the leaders of the city, how did he respond? Did he embrace their gods? Did he vilify and condemn them, wishing them safe travels on their journey to hell? Or did he attempt to engage and redeem what he could?

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. Acts 17:22-23

If the apostle Paul were alive today I wouldn’t put it past him to watch the movie Noah and use it as an opportunity to preach the gospel. I’m not saying that’s why the movie was made. I’m not saying movie Noah is completely accurate biblically.

I’m saying that the level of condemnation and vilification for a movie not yet seen has been disheartening. Noah was a good movie with many redeeming elements. Noah was easily the #1 movie in America this past weekend. Millions of people saw it. But if all the Christians sat home, then who will engage non-believers today about the movie and use it as an opportunity to explore the biblical concepts brought out by Noah? Millions of people are talking today about sin, judgment, and the Creator. By removing ourselves so early from the conversation, we’ve missed an opportunity to engage others in some of the deepest problems affecting mankind.

QUESTION: If the Apostle Paul were alive today, what do you think his response would be to the movie Noah?

P.S. I heard Christian Bale is playing Moses in a movie coming out in December. Anyone want to be the first to condemn that?

 

3.29.14WARNING: Noah (the movie) is a radical interpretation of an ancient story that directly contradicts our sanitized-VBS-idyllic notions of how we think the Noah story went. Now mind you, I didn’t say that Noah (the movie) directly contradicts Scripture. It just gives an interpretation different than we grew up with in Sunday School. It’s not a fairy-tale depiction of a doting grandfather with a flowing beard whose biggest dilemma is finding out where to put all the cute cuddly animals that made it onto the ark. It’s a movie about the end of the world. That’s what has the bloggers and talk radio hosts and Facebook prophets up in arms.

Here’s what I appreciated about Darren Aronofsky’s version of Noah and why I think you should see it (don’t worry, no spoilers ahead. If you want the spoilers, read Genesis 6-9):

  • He brought to life a vision of what the pre-Flood world could have looked like, something that’s always intrigued me. Aronofsky is if nothing else an incredible storyteller and filmmaker.
  • He told the true point of the story: the apocalypse. When we tell a sanitized version of the story to kindergartners, we keep it about all the cute and fluffy animals that got to ride on a big boat. He kept the focus on the tragic destruction of humanity. We may not be comfortable with that truth, but judgement was the central point of the story.
  • God was very much a central figure in the film. Now some are up in arms because they referred to him as “the Creator” rather than “God.” He has several names in Scripture, take your pick. They portrayed him in a way that we might not be comfortable with but falls (I believe) within the bounds of a biblical viewpoint. (I’ll admit, it’s right on the edge, but it’s just inside the edge).
  • Noah doesn’t whitewash the reason for judgment: the wickedness of mankind. I’d heard rumors that Noah would be portrayed as some eco-terrorist who was destroying the world because we were mean to trees. Not the case at all. The reason for the apocalypse was clearly presented: the wickedness of mankind.
  • Aronofsky did a beautiful job weaving in the dichotomous virtues of justice and mercy in a way that spoke to fundamental values in the human experience.
  • The last picture we see of Noah in Scripture has always confused me: a naked passed out drunk. Why not finish with the rainbow and let everyone walk away happy? Aronofsky’s interpretation of this event is the first I’ve seen that makes perfect sense.
  • Aronofsky portrayed Noah as flawed. I loved that. Too often we mythologize our Bible characters and forget the fact that they were sinners. This Noah struggled. He seemed, well, human. That gives hope.

Here are some things that made me scratch my head (a little):

  • Noah’s interpretation of the Nephilim in Genesis 6. When you watch the movie, you’ll encounter some characters that seem completely farfetched. But it’s not as farfetched as you think. Pastors like me avoid Genesis 6:2 like the plague because we have no idea what it means. He gave an interpretation of that verse. To be completely honest, it’s about as believable as all the animals joining together to help Steve Carrell build the ark.
  • The Bible is clear that the wives of all three sons were on the ark. In this movie, that truth came as a twist towards the end. Not as straight forward as we’d expect, but that doesn’t make it unbiblical. I mean, this is the same God who promised Abraham a son and then waited until Sarah was well beyond child bearing years to do anything about it. God loves a good twist.
  • In Genesis we see God’s commands given to Noah. But how were they communicated? Verbally? In written form? Through dreams and visions? Aronofsky definitely went the unusual route, but that’s his prerogative.
  • Perhaps my biggest beef would be Noah’s role vs. God’s role in deciding the fate of humanity. His interpretation is not one I’m comfortable with, but I’m not ready to throw him to the wolves for it. It’s the same tension we see between man’s will and God’s sovereignty. They’re both there, but reconciling them properly is difficult.

All in all, I’d recommend you go see Noah for yourself. You will not see a movie that is intentionally anti-biblical. You will see a movie that stretches our imagination and challenges some of our time-honored traditions about the Flood story. I’ve thought for years that those interpretations needed to be challenged, and Aronofsky has come along and done it. And he’s made a beautiful movie along the way.

But don’t take my word for it. Go see it for yourself. Just leave your flannel graphs and stuffed animals at home. A battle axe is a better choice for this movie.

QUESTION: What did you think about the Noah movie?

Project HopeThe first time I truly encountered hopelessness was in the mid-90s. To be honest, I’d had an idyllic childhood growing up: strong family, good education, great Christian college. The summer after my freshmen year in college I went on a mission trip to Russia. “Culture shock” was an extreme understatement to describe what happened when my worldview was shattered once and for all.

I remember walking through the airport in St. Petersburg, noticing the layer of grime and neglect that seemed to cover everything. But it’s the subway where I truly encountered hopelessness for the first time. Now, I’ve been on many subways in many different parts of the world. They all feel a little similar. Everyone usually keeps to themselves. But this was different. I wasn’t prepared for the hollowed out vacant stares, the absolutely expressionless faces, the catacomb-like quietness. Despair hovered over us like a suffocating blanket.

Being in Russia for a month, I saw a glimpse of the world through their eyes. Their government was corrupt, taking more than it was giving. Their economy was in shambles with no constant accept for volatility. There was little beauty to be found as millions of people lived in drab, utilitarian apartments. The worst aspect was that after decades of communistic rule, atheism was king and religion was dead. These people  had no hope for this life and no hope for the next.

Coming back to the States, I began to see hopelessness all around me, as friends would share their stories of growing up in alcoholic, abusive, or broken homes. As a youth pastor, I saw teenagers trapped in hopeless situations time and time again.

The longer I live and the more I pastor, the more I’m convinced that hope is the most valuable commodity in the world. With hope, you can endure anything. You can suffer through tragedy, you can cope with loss, you can sacrifice for the greater good. But without hope, you’re lost. We can live without many things in life, but I’m convinced that we can’t truly live without hope.

QUESTION: How has hope helped you through a difficult situation?

3.25.14We don’t have an “invitation” at the end of our services, and there’s a very good reason why. To be honest, this is the first church I’ve been at with no invitation. Growing up, it’s just what you did as a good Baptist. You’d go to church and listen to the pastor drone on about something in the Old Testament. He’d throw in a two-minute gospel presentation at the end and you’d endure six verses of Just As I Am, secretly hoping that no one would walk down the aisle so that you could beat the Methodists to lunch.

Mt Vernon doesn’t have an invitation at the end of our services and it’s not because we’re heretical or anti-gospel. It’s not because we’re Calvinistic or we don’t consider ourselves Baptist anymore. It’s because we don’t think a traditional invitation is the most effective way to invite a response from the people.

There’s the obvious fear of walking down in front of complete strangers. That hinders many from even taking a step. Then you have the other extreme, those who love the attention and come down every other week for a prayer request or to rededicate, savoring the attention of the crowd. But perhaps the biggest knock against the invitation is the amount of time you’re allowed as a pastor to counsel for a decision. When someone walks down, you’ve got 30-45 seconds to accurately assess their spiritual state and determine the validity of their decision before you declare it to the entire congregation. Too many times I’ve rushed a counseling situation because the clock was ticking, only to find out later that they came down for something else or their decision wasn’t genuine. Some churches still do an invitation but take all of the people that come down back to a counseling room and don’t present them immediately. I think that’s a great step.

So, how do we invite response? We direct everyone at the end of each service to our Next Steps form (the backside of our Connection Card), where we ask them to fill out one of many decisions they might be considering making. They put it in the offering box on the way out, and from there a staff person contacts them one-on-one to follow up on their decision. What about people taking a public stand for Christ and not being ashamed of the gospel? That’s what baptism is for. We still baptize in front of the entire church, and we even make them video tape their testimony (that’s another blog post for another time).

Is it a perfect method? No. Has it cut down on the number of rushed or illegitimate decisions that can happen with a traditional invitation? Absolutely. Has it decreased the genuine decisions we’d get from a traditional invitation? We don’t think so. Call us anti-traditional (that label definitely fits), but don’t call us anti-biblical or anti-gospel. We’re calling for a response to the gospel at every service, and decisions are made at Mt Vernon every week. We thank God for that.

QUESTION: Does your church utilize a public invitation at the end of the service?

big_idea.250w.tnMonday I shared six months worth of BIG Ideas, one sentence statements that captured the biblical truth I was conveying that week. Here are the second half of 2013′s BIG Ideas:

“Mission Creep” Series

Jul 6 – Mission creep begins when you fear man more than you fear God.

Jul 13 – Mission creep gets crazy when you become lazy.

Jul 27 – Nothing fuels the fire of mission creep more than money.

Aug 4 – The problem with the church is that we’ve made church for church people.

 

“Front Porch Gospel” Series

Aug 11 – The world is won through Christ’s great love.

Aug 18 – Winning the world starts with seeing a world that’s winnable.

Aug 25 – Your actions illuminate what you adore.

Sep 8 – Invest and invite is the way to win right.

Sep 15 – The Kingdom explodes exponentially when we’re united in purpose.

 

“Picture Perfect Family” Series

Sep 22 – Your family has issues; deal with it.

Sep 29 – Where do you find your value?

Oct 6 – Are you doing the work required?

Oct 13 – Are you being salt and light?

Oct 20 – Are you committed for the long haul?

Oct 27 – Whom are you serving?

 

“Blessed” Series

Nov 3 – You’re blessed with a need.

Nov 10 – You’re blessed with a burden.

Nov 17 – You’re blessed to tell your story.

Nov 24 – You’re blessed to be a blessing.

 

“Advent Conspiracy” Series

Dec 1 – Spend less.

Dec 8 – Give more.

Dec 15 – Love all.

Dec 22 – Worship fully.

 

big_idea.250w.tnEach Sunday when I preach I give one BIG Idea from Scripture to the people, something tangible (and hopefully memorable) that they can hold onto. Some I’m proud of, some are honestly lame. Some rhyme, some should have been word-smithed a little more. Many are original, and some of the best are borrowed from other pastors. But, for better or worse, here are my BIG Ideas for the first six months of 2013:

“One” Series

Jan 6 – “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” (Nehemiah)

Jan 13 – There is nothing more valuable than the human spirit.

Jan 20 – “Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (prayer of the apostles)

“Catfish” Series

Jan 27 – Americans have the wrong idea about God.

Feb 3 – My God is for me.

Feb 10 – Good people don’t get into heaven; saved people do.

Feb 17 – God’s chief aim is to glorify Himself.

Feb 24 – God allows evil to exist because to destroy evil He would have to destroy humanity.

“Losing My Religion” Series

Mar 3 – Jesus hates graceless religion even more than you do.

Mar 10 – To stay off God’s last nerve, don’t allow tradition to trump the Word.

Mar 17 – For the church to be its best, it needs to treat newcomers as guests not pests.

Mar 24 – Jesus walked towards the messes, and so should we.

Mar 31 – Jesus fulfilled religion so that you don’t have to.

“Culture Wars” Series

Apr 7 – When the world presents you with only two options, take option three.

“Deep Roots” Series

Apr 14 – To know the root, check the fruit.

Apr 21 – The better the soil, the better the roots.

Apr 28 – To kill a weed, you have to pull it up by its roots.

May 5 – God prunes the good so that the best can flourish.

May 12 – To see spiritual gain: don’t strain, remain.

“The Other Guy” Series

Jun 2 – There is no church without the Holy Spirit.

Jun 9 – The Holy Spirit is our guide to help us experience our maximum potential in Christ.

Jun 16 – The Holy Spirit is God’s explosive power in your world.

Jun 23 – Spiritual gifts are the Holy Spirit’s custom-designed way for you to impact your world.

Jun 30 – We’re filled to be spilled.

Dreary DayYesterday was a balmy day in Mississippi. Mid-70s, t-shirts and shorts weather, all the kids playing outside. Life was how it should be. This morning the weather is in the low 30s with strong wind gusts that make it feel even colder. We’re having weather whiplash down here.

It’s amazing how much our mood can tend to follow the weather. Yesterday was optimistic, today is pessimistic. Yesterday was beautiful, today is dreary. Too often, our attitudes ride the roller coaster of the circumstances around us. Life is good, things are going well, and then one off handed comment and our attitude goes into a tailspin.

Too often we feel like a storm battered ship, tossed about the high seas in the midst of a hurricane, unable to control the ebb and flow of our emotions. If you’ve ever felt that you have no control over your attitude, remember this: at the end of the day, your attitude is a choice. When the headwinds of negative circumstances or an offhanded comment (or something as silly as the weather) gets you down, choose to get back up. Choose to fight. Choose joy.

That’s why the apostle Paul can command us in Scripture “Rejoice in the Lord always! I will say it again, rejoice!” Philippians 4:4. The Bible wouldn’t command us to do something that we have no control over. Our mood, our attitude, isn’t ultimately about circumstances, it’s about a choice. Our circumstances are simply a crutch.

So get up, brave the cold weather (or negative circumstances or whatever) and choose joy. God is still on his throne. His mercies are new everyday. He wants to overwhelm you with his grace today. He wants to use you as an instrument to change lives. Choose to fight for joy, even on the dreary days.

The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10

2.3.14If you watched last night’s beatdown handed out by Seattle, then you know that the Seahawks are the undeniable champions of the football world. What was hyped as an epic showdown between the #1 offense (Broncos) and the #1 defense (Seahawks) turned into an embarrassing rout by a Seattle defense that had their foot on Denver’s throat from the first snap (literally) and never let up.

In numerous post game interviews with the historic Seahawks defense, a common thread came out: they played all year with a chip on their shoulder. In fact, I think that was their secret weapon to winning the Superbowl. The #1 defense in the NFL this year wasn’t comprised of bunch of first-round draft picks. All the blue chip picks went to other teams. Seattle’s defense was made up of guys that went in the third or fourth round, guys who were undrafted, guys who got cut by other teams. These were guys who sat there on draft day while other guys got picked ahead of them and “got theirs.”

So, did the Seattle defense have something to prove this year? Absolutely. They were the group that everyone else discarded. They were the leftovers, the second string. And they used that as motivation. When life beats you down, you can use it as proof that you’re not up to snuff, or you can use it as motivation to push you to the next level. Seattle used its chip to propel its defense to historic heights.

They’ve proved their point. They’ve got the ring. “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” 1 Corinthians 1:26-27

QUESTION: What’s the chip on your shoulder?