Monday, January 26, 2015

Temple Gets Cleared (John 2:13-25)


Something snapped in Jesus when he visited the temple complex for Passover at the beginning of his ministry (John 2:13). He had visited before, both as a boy (Luke 2:41-51), and likely as a faithful, Jewish adult. On this trip, however, the clutter of sheep, oxen, money-changers, and dove-sellers set him off. The distractions to worship exceeded others' passion for God. The clutter of the marketplace crowded out Gentiles from their court. God was barred by human debris. So Jesus made a whip and a scene, overturning tables and showing zeal for God's house. This story should give us fresh eyes to the distractions and clutter we bring to worship. Both the selfish intentions of our hearts and disorganized state of our church facilities may hinder worship. We must let Jesus inspect us.

This sermon inspired an inspection of our church facilities. I'd fallen prey to what Andy Stanley calls the "time in erodes awareness of" principle. When trying to create "irresistible environments," he warns the church building is the message before the message (see Deep & Wide, pp. 157-172).

A cursory glance at our walls and decor scream: "It's time for an update." Every counter top collects clutter. The walls bear marks and smudges. The classrooms and foyer have no discernible theme (except for the nursery and youngest children's area). Unfinished projects cower in the corners.

When I threw together a visual tour, I felt a mixture of embarrassment, inspiration, and holy rage.


My messy church from Leesburg Grace on Vimeo.

When I invited the congregation to share their own feedback, using the "Be the Guest Assessment" from Mark Waltz's book First Impressions (pp. 35-36), my findings were confirmed. Waltz pastors at Granger Community Church, a trailblazing ministry, which prides itself on creating "WOW!" moments for visitors. We are not so remarkable: We offer "HUH?" moments.

Our corporate assessment yesterday revealed a few such HUH? comments:

  • What are the geometric shapes on the auditorium walls? (Ans. Acoustic panels)
  • Why do we serve puffs so often for fellowship time? (Ans. They're on sale)
  • What are the names of the classrooms? (Ans. The kids' rooms, youth room, and "yellow room for adults")
  • Where do I find information on getting more involved? (Ans. Listen to the announcements)
  • Can we dim the lights for worship? (Ans. Not really. Florescent tubes are not versatile)
The GOOD NEWS for our church, of course, was the clear and consistent recognition that the people -- the part of the church that makes her the church! -- reflect a love for God and one another. We celebrate our children, welcome visitors, eschew presumption, and preach the Bible. A little less clutter, a little more signage, and a simple upgrade to our decor, survey says, will go a long way.


The question for me is how do we get from here to there? How do we move beyond "eroded awareness" to "improved environment"? (Note: I'm not ready to say "irresistible," "wow," or "awesome.")

Below are a few ways to inspect and improve the environment:

Note Crowded Zones: Ask yourself where people tend to congregate and consider how to tweak those environments to minimize crowding. In our church people gather around the coat racks and snack counter. Placing some food at a table away from the coffee creates more space to move. Some churches wisely create large coatrooms set off from their foyer to guard against logjam at the door.

Note Cluttered Zones: The unspoken rule in our building is this: If the surface is flat, you can leave stuff there...forever. Some examples include: tabletops, file cabinets, book shelves, coat racks, hymn rack beneath the seats, worship stage floor, and sound booth counter. Of course, you cannot remove every flat surface from the church, but when I began looking, I noticed how much frivolous furniture filled our building.

Look Elsewhere: Take a tour of other churches. Pay especially close attention to use of hallways and walls (how are rooms marked, missions celebrated, ministries advertised), worship stage and podium (decoration, design, and use of AV), foyer and fellowship area (spacing, seating, and printed materials). Not everything one church is reproducible in another, but fresh ideas emerge when inspecting other worship spaces.

Use the Be the Guest Assessment: See above for the reference to this resource in Waltz's book, First Impressions. Give the tool to people in your church. Invite friends to visit and provide it to them for a new perspective.

Constantly Tweak: Change the stage for each sermon series. Rearrange the seating in the auditorium (if possible) to give people a different viewing angle. Experiment with lighting. Even we have three sets of overhead florescent, giving us 4 options!

Ask, If money were not an issue, I would change...: Perhaps the question seems cruel because money is always an issue. But the answer to such a question betrays a value. Once you determine that key value, scale it to your budget and stage it into reality. For example, if money were no problem, I would change everything. And FIRST, I would get rid of all our old decorations and furniture and start fresh with simple and colorful options (something to offset the color "Cinder Block.")

Be honest and accept limitations: I lead a church of 80-90 people. Our budget barely exceeds $100k. We have no debt and money in the bank. Our building provides a central location for worship, community, and ministry. But it is a pole barn in a farming town. WOW! is not in the blueprint. I'm content with our limitations and the freedom they bring. What enrages me (e.g., Jesus in the Temple) is self-inflicted distractions: clutter, noise, and eroded awareness. Accepting limitations is not the same as settling.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Groom Gets Wine (John 2:1-11) & the Joy-filled Life


This sermon on John 2:1-11 depicts the momentary joys of wine and weddings as a glorious pointer to life with Jesus. When he shows up at the wedding in Cana, He proves himself as the true Bridegroom. He simultaneously validates earthly celebration and heavenly anticipation.

The passage is a good reminder for those of us who struggle to embrace joy in daily life. Some of us deny joy, knowing it is fleeting; hard times always come. Others of us idolize joy, making moments into monuments. When the "good old days" consume our thoughts, we fail to relish in the delights of food, family, success, and beauty.

Joy should mark Christ-followers, for they should become experts at identifying the glory of the moment.

Below are five ideas for making joy complete:

Motivate by Memory: The past should inform and inspire, not accuse us (see Philippians 3). It's easy to remember when we were young and focused, driven and dreamy. At some point, reality hits us all--the challenges of monthly bills, power struggles, and personal failures shrink our imaginations. We begin to think of past successes as impossibilities for today. We'll never have the weight, savings accounts, career impact, and relational capital we did when we were young. This line of thinking, of course, is fallacious. Joyful people think: If I did it once, I can do it again. The past catalyzes.

Laugh at Yourself: You are not God, so you can be mocked. It's better to beat others to the punch(line). A healthy dose of self-deprecation is not such an unhealthy thing. If you slip up with your words, trip in public, or forget an appointment, rather than being overly apologetic, admit you're not perfect. Replay the event in slow motion. Say your stuttered line louder. Let's be honest: We all pick our noses, pass gas, and stumble on occasion when we're putting on our pants.

Set Small Achievable Goals: And achieve them. If you're discouraged with your prayer life, pray for five minutes. If you're disappointed with your Bible reading, plan to read a chapter. If you're depressed about your health, deny one snack stop or fast food drive-by this week. After you achieve your goal, tell yourself, "I get a point," and pump your fist in the air. Then set another goal to build momentum. 

Make a Gift Inventory: In the book of James, the Lord's brother reminds us that "every good gift is from God, the father of Lights" (James 1:17). Instead of focusing on stresses and failures, make a concerted effort to make note of (and meditate on) God's charity toward you. I try and write four things I'm thankful for on a daily basis. Not only does the discipline continually put me on the receiving end (a reminder of my neediness), but it forces me to focus on something larger than myself: my benevolent Father in Heaven. A self-consumed life is joyless; a God-directed life is full.

 

Look at Some Cat Posters: It's healthy to laugh. Especially at the stupid, mindless trivia on the Internet. Perhaps, cat posters are not your fetish. Fair enough. An occasional article on the Onion, BoredShorts video on YouTube, or Jimmy Fallon clip also does wonders to a dispirited person. Just remember that when distraction becomes escapism, it does not cheer the soul, but spoils it.


God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Monday, January 12, 2015

Jesus Gets Found (John 1:19-51) and the Art of Discovery


God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

A few years ago a friend tipped me off about a band called Page CXVI. The female vocalist has a mesmerizing voice. The instrumentation is simple, articulate, and luring. The band modernizes hymns, making the old new again. I would have never discovered them had it not been for a friend's suggestion.

Until recently, my music tastes were restricted to what an in-law, peer, or oily Karma employee suggested. Then came Spotify. I plugged Page CXVI's name in the search bar and listened. They captivated me. I wanted more music like theirs. So I began to explore. A musical discovery is a click away.

A new era of musical exploration has arrived. The technological climate is right. Voices cry out from the fiber-optic highway. Discovery has never been so easy.

Messianic discovery may not have been so different. Some of Jesus' first disciples came to Him at the suggestion of a trusted mentor. (If you like John the Baptist, you'll certainly like Jesus.) John pointed his finger out at Jesus and said, "Behold the Lamb." From that moment forward, followers began to pile up. Andrew and Peter and Philip and Nathaniel discovered Jesus.

And as the story unfolds, it is clear they can't wait to show and tell others. Discovering Jesus is contagious.

Sadly, just as a song fails to retain its audience captive (not a problem of the song as much as its patron), followers of Jesus lose their sense of discovery and wonder. We (for I am one of them) turn our eyes from the Lamb and tune our ears to our laments.

What I suggest are a few tips to rekindle a sense of spiritual discovery.

  • Ask for recommendations: Just as we ask others what music they listen to, movies or television shows they watch, books they are reading, and their favorite place to eat Mexican food, we should ask them about their spiritual habits. How do you worship? How do you pray? How do you study God's Word? Others are good pointers.
  • Look for new solutions: Authors of the book Creative Confidence suggest keeping a "Bug Sheet" handy, a one-stop document or notebook where you write things that pester you. Innovation, they argue, stems from finding new solutions to lingering problems. For example, I'm harassed by my lack of prayer; so I'm writing a book about to exorcise that demon. You might be bothered by poor Bible reading habits. Try a YouVersion plan.
  • Get lost: I don't always drive with a map or GPS. I almost always get lost. But not forever. Eventually, I find my way through city traffic or country roads with a better sense of my location. Getting lost in a Lego project, web search, podcast, or Bible reading marathon helps you discover new landmarks. Try reading Isaiah in two sittings. I dare you.
  • Limit your senses: One of the worst parts of getting a cold is losing your sense of taste. I always notice, however, my sense of texture increases. I notice the rubbery feel of eggs, the grainy feel of salt, and the scratchy feel of toast. The limitation of one sense boosts the others. Discovery comes when we take silent retreat, fast, or shut our eyes (or, perhaps, open them) during prayer and worship. 
  • Show and Tell: When Andrew found Jesus he showed and told Peter. When Philip found Jesus (or was found by him), he showed and told Nathaniel. Perpetuate discovery by passing it along. And don't be afraid to say, "Eureka." It's biblical.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Dwelling on Jesus - Tips to Make Personal Worship a Way of Life

I'm no Grade A worshiper. My thoughts regularly migrate toward monetary concerns, my next meal, house chores, and work obligations. On better days, I sneak in a thought or two about Jesus--the Son of God who came in flesh to reveal God's glory, defeat sin, overcome death, and draw the world back to himself. Wow! When you cram all those mighty deeds in a single sentence, it's a shame I spend more time dwelling on snowfall and sports scores than the Word of God.

Fortunately, I have two routines built into my life that give me time to dwell on Jesus. First, I preach sermons weekly, which requires time of prayerful preparation and empathetic concern for people in my church. Not every sermon is driven by deep compassion and conviction. But most sermons grip my personally. Moreover, I vow never to be a preacher who simply goes through the motions Sunday morning to get a paycheck. Preaching drives me to dwell on Jesus.

Second, I have the first hour of most mornings without interruptions. Of course, coming off Christmas break and a nasty cold, this feels more like a memory than a reality. Nonetheless, when I have my time of worship in the morning, I juggle journaling, prayer, and Bible reading. My Bible reading plans are not always thought through or taken to completion, but better is some plan than no plan. My prayers are not always focused or specific, but better is some prayer than no prayer. My journal notes are not always meaningful or reflective, but better is some scribbling than no scribal work.

I recognize not everyone has the luxury of preparing sermons, but anyone can find a quiet ten to forty minutes in the day to dwell on Jesus. Perhaps others are better at weaving thoughts of him hour by hour. I'm not one of those. To dwell on his goodness, care, power, empathy, grace, wisdom, will, and return, I must put the thoughts at the beginning of my day.

Here are some other tips to make personal worship a way of life...
  • sign up for daily Bible texts or reading plan PUSHES on your mobile phone (e.g., Biblegateway or YouVersion)
  • write a favorite verse on an index card and set it in your car or over your kitchen sink
  • set Bibles throughout your house--kitchen, bathroom, coffee table, bedside--so its easy to find one no matter where you are or what you're doing
  • pick one song from the Sunday corporate worship set to serve as your anthem for the week
  • every time you see something glorious in creation, tell Jesus thank you for making it.
Inspired by yesterday's sermon - God Gets Flesh (John 1:1-18). Listen here:

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Prophetic Arrival - The sermon and Prezi

Here is what I said: The Sermon.

Here is what it looked like on the big screen.


If you have questions about prophecy in the life of Jesus, send it in the comment button. I predict I'll respond.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Unleashing the Prophet Within - Five Ways to Speak Like a Prophet

By nature, humans are predictive creatures. We forecast the weather, write out budgets, consider oil futures, and bet on players to score big in fantasy football. (My dog and fish make no such predictions; they merely replay their predictable routine--eat, poop, bark, breath, sleep--day after day.)

Indeed, humans are predictive animals, but I want something greater for God's church. I want us to be prophetic: speak for God to our fellow human. Prophetic godspeak includes prediction, but goes well beyond fortune-telling and draft pick projections.

Evangelical Christians tend to collapse the latter into the former. Recognizing this tendency, I highlighted the prophetic voice in the Christmas story yesterday.  Gospel writers, apostles, and Christ Jesus himself cite the prophetic voice of the Old Testament in their writing and preaching (e.g. 1 Peter 1:19-21). They say God's promises have been fulfilled (2 Corinthians 1:20; Hebrews 1:1-4). 

Looking back, these authors can see what the original speaker could not: Jesus is God's Messiah.
Looking forward, however, the picture was not so clear. Hosea's prophecy (11:1) is a perfect example. 

In context, Hosea leads his people in a reflection on the past. God delivered us once from Egypt (Exodus 12-15). The covenant curses promise a future exile if we continue to disobey God (Deuteronomy 28), which we are doing! But even if we do return to Egypt, God will call us out of Egypt again (ch. 30). Thus, the prophetic force of Hosea spoke words of rebuke and comfort to the people of his day.

Ultimately, all prophecy serves as a word from God to the people of the day.
When Paul encourages the gift of prophecy for the church (1 Corinthians 14; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21), he envisions the people of God proclaiming the word of God to all people. We've lost that sense of the prophetic--the word that edifies, exhorts, and consoles--instead reducing God's Word to a printed version of an ancient text.

But God still speaks today. His word is living and active (Hebrews 4). It comes alive in preaching, counseling, teaching, (blogging?), and spiritually sensitive conversations. And here are Five Ways to Unleash Your Prophetic Voice:

  1. Pray for a Word: In his magnificent book, Life Together, Bonhoeffer tells his readers between every human relationships stands Jesus. He intercedes for us. To speak a prophetic word of admonishment, we should ask Jesus to give it to us.
  2. Meditate on the Story: The Old Testament prophets immersed themselves in the saving acts of God. They thought about it, sang about it, and, naturally, talked about it. Their prophetic voice emerged from a strong historical consciousness. Make an effort to retell mighty acts of God.
  3. Memorize God's Word: The prophetic voice always speaks in concert with itself. When we memorize passages and ideas from Scripture, God may bring them to our minds at the proper time. Who knows when you might need to say to someone, "Be still and know He is God"?
  4. Consult with Other Prophets: Find people who evidence a close walk with God. These people are listeners. Their words carry weight. They pray without ceasing. Like Elisha to Elijah, become a prophet-in-training, so you can take their mantel when the time comes.
  5. Open Your Eyes to Animate Your Lips: The prophets were not only historians, they were story-tellers, poets, bards, and thespians. They inhaled the riches of God's creation and breathed them out as fresh metaphors. The hope and criticism in their sermons was intensified by what imagery inspired them: sheep and shepherds, bones and blood, vines and branches, brides and whores. Take note of the world: what grabs your attention may serve as a prophetic word to another.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Unleashing the Poet Within - Five Tips to Spark Poetic Creativity

This Christmas I'm taking a cue from characters in the Nativity Story. Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon each bring a poetic voice to the birth of Christ.

Mary's poem, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) rejoices in God's ability to reverse the fortunes of His servant. She spoke the prayer after six months of bearing the Christ-child.

Zechariah's poem, the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79), blesses God, remembering His promises and looking forward to His redemption. He spoke the prayer after nine-months of waiting for the birth of his prophet-child.

Simeon's prayer, the Nunc Dimittus (Luke 2:29-32), expresses Simeon's relief at God's salvation. He spoke the prayer after decades of waiting for God's promised Messiah. God had told him he would not die until he laid eyes on His Anointed.

I would argue these poems did not spring from the authors' lips spontaneously. Rather, these were carefully crafted reflections on the nature and mission of God. Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon displayed a poetic theology, answering C.S. Lewis's essay question, "Is Theology Poetry?" long before it was raised. Indeed, humans are "poetic animals," as Lewis' stated.

I would further argue our aching and amused world does not need more spontaneous expressions of Christian praise, but more poetic voices. Christians must learn to unleash their inner poet. We are, in fact, wired for poetic expression, as divine image-bearers. God spoke poetically to Job and Isaiah. He spoke poetically through Solomon, David, and Moses. Even Jesus's sermons and Paul's epistles were laced with poetry. We can speak poetically, too.

While I do not assume I can convince someone she is poetic, I will, at least, provide the courtesy of five poetic tips to living a more poetic life.

  1. Start. Get a writing instrument and go. Don't worry about its quality or completion. Some poems aren't worthy of a conclusion. But you'll never improve if you don't begin. 
  2. Set strict limits. Start with a known form, like Haiku, chiaism, or acrostic. Boundaries do not restrict creativity, but focus it. Another way to set limits is to use a timer (e.g. 5 minutes) and write as many words and phrases for a given topic (e.g. snowfall) in the allotted time. You can come back later and fashion the pieces into poetry.
  3. Forget rhyming. The definition of poetry (whatever one you chose) does not include rhyming. Figures of speech, imagery, honesty, and rhythm are more important to good poetry.
  4. Choose topics that interest you. Write about your passions. Write about your experiences. Don't wax poetically about slave trade only because it's a trend. Don't write about scars you don't bear. Your initial inspirations should be personal.
  5. Turn your emotions into an image. Poetry makes abstract matters concrete. Pick a normal emotion like rage and describe it in action. My fists pounds the wall / my eyes flash red. Then play the action out to its end.