MEMORIAL DAY - Don't Take Freedom for Granted

It is the day that we are supposed to pause, remember and be thankful. Unlike other holidays, Memorial Day is centered on our nation's collective grief. This is a day where sacrifice is celebrated. We pause to remember those who have served in our nation's military and gave their lives in that service for a cause larger than self. Begun in 1868 following the Civil War and originally called "Decoration Day," this federal holiday is our moment to acknowledge that which we experience daily in this nation cannot be taken for granted.

Freedom Isn't Free

The reality that our freedom as Americans came at a high cost is lost on some. Fortunately, not on all. For the family who watched the arrival of a flag-draped coffin of the loved one who did his/her duty in service to our nation, this reality is clear. For the fellow servicemen/women who are home but live with constant reminders that some of their brothers/sisters-in-arms did not have that privilege, the sacrifice is known. For those who have been by a cemetery and have taken the time to read headstones of young men and women (far too young, by the way) who died in war defending freedom, the truth is known.

I am not like some who get angry when families take the time on this three-day weekend to go to the beach, ball games, theme parks or cook outs. In fact, those opportunities that seem frivolous to some are actually moments that should be cherished and celebrated. Having the freedom to do such things should be a continual reminder that what we have is a great gift. Just don't forget!

Enjoy the day. Spend time with friends and family, but remember and be thankful for those who sacrificed so you can. Let's not take our freedom for granted.

Lightstock_127216_small_david_tarkington

Ultimate Freedom

As a Christ-follower, today is a good reminder that the ultimate freedom offered was by God and as is always the case with freedom, it did not come without a sacrifice. Christians have been set free, not by our goodness, our abilities, or our morality, but by a great gift - a sacrifice from the only One who could pay the price. Live fully. Live free and abundantly. Let's not take our freedom for granted.

 


MOVIE REVIEW: "War Room" by the Kendrick Brothers (Coming August 2015)

Last night, my wife and I previewed the new Kendrick Brothers' film "War Room." The Kendricks are the men who brought "Flywheel", "Facing the Giants", "Fireproof" and "Courageous" to theaters and have found great success in placing Gospel-centric stories on film in an engaging and challenging way. 

They also have discovered how to make Christ-centered movies that I'm not embarrassed to invite non-Christians to view. The production quality and the acting has increased with each film.

I have been seeing teasers and the trailer for "War Room" for weeks and, to be honest, I was not drawn to this story initially as I was to the previous three films. Maybe it is due to the fact that there were no firetrucks, police cars, guns, or even football games presented in the story. Yes, that's a stereotypical male response, but this is my blog, so I figured I'd be honest.

War-room01

The "Pastors' Preview" was held in Jacksonville on Tuesday and the theater was full. Each of us received our "gift bag" with promotional items and a survey card for the distributors. 

Trailers of two other faith-based films were shown. These look really good as well ("Woodlawn" coming in October 2015 & "Risen" coming in January 2016). Then, the new film then began.

Images of the Vietnam War filled the screen. It appears the partnership with Sony and Tri-Star provides some quality footage for the filmmakers. Narrated by Miss Clara initially (a major character who leads by example as a true "prayer warrior") we see the story of family, joy and heartache revealed. The "War Room" motif is connected to the room where Miss Clara's deceased husband served during the war in planning next steps against a powerful enemy.

Flash forward to present day and Miss Clara is a senior adult seeking to sell her home so that she can move in with her son. Welcome newcomer to film, but not to the Christian audience viewing (especially the women) Priscilla Shirer. Shirer plays the main character in this film. She is a real estate agent in a troubled marriage. However, this is different than the marriage story presented in "Fireproof." Kudos to the Kendricks for touching on a powerful subject, but not just rehashing the same story but with an African-American couple rather than Kirk Cameron and Erin Bethea.

The main characters' troubles leave me and every other pastor in the room thinking "Yep, I know a couple just like that." It's not stereotypical type-casting. It is more a revelation of the real world and real battles that our friends, family and church members face.

Don't Worry - No Spoilers Here

I am not going to spoil the movie for those who have yet to see it. However, I do wish to say that as the story unfolded, I was moved. I know it's just a movie, but God works through story and often a story played out on the screen allows for some very hard truths to be revealed in one's heart. This is true for me, at least. In the area of prayer and forgiveness, I was confronted with conviction, not by the Kendricks, but by God. It's amazing how he uses story.

This film is focused on prayer. That is no secret. That's the "War Room" that Miss Clara has in her old home. A closet where she goes to pray and do battle. It's a literal interpretation of the Scripture.

But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:6 (ESV)

Miss Clara affirms that a physical closet is not the point, but a quiet, intentional place for prayer is.

The story in the film unfolds. God does amazing things. I'm glad that not all problems are solved, but the sense of the sovereignty of God and the love and grace he bestows upon his children is clear.

The message is obvious - PRAYER WORKS!

Prayer for family members, loved ones, circumstances, situations, relationships, etc. are all valid. I'm reminded of the reality God has shared with me over the past year. . .

Prayer is our active weapon against the enemy. As long as it remains our passive response when we feel all else has failed, we will continue to feel and live defeated. . .and we don't have to.

I left the theater thinking how amazing God is in bringing the message of prayer through this film at a time when I have been discerning His voice regarding the church and our often weak, passive prayer strategies. Also, the personal conviction that my prayers have been less than adequate for a man seeking the face of God and leading others to be "battle ready."

One of my favorite scenes is the one embedded below. . .

 

As a church, we will likely purchase all the tickets for our local theater during opening weekend again, as we have done with "Courageous" and other films like "October Baby." Yet, this outing is less a night of entertainment and more of a resounding call to pray like we mean it.

Prayer is not a manipulation of God to get Him to do what we desire. Rather, it is our humble admission of His sovereignty over all and our invitation into intimacy with the Father.

Final Words About the Film

Just some closing, random thoughts. . .

  • Priscilla Shirer is excellent in this role. This was her first film role and she did wonderfully. Very convincing (though now all her friends will be talking about her feet - explained in the movie.)
  • T.C. Stallings is perfectly cast. The man is strong and it's good to see him reformed from his time as a gangsta in "Courageous." He can act, but man can he Double-Dutch jump rope, too.
  • The other members of the cast did well. At no time was there a cringe-worthy moment of poor acting.
  • Beth Moore is in this film, not for long, but she's in this. With her and Priscilla, the Kendricks have just locked in to a target audience of every woman in Southern Baptist churches who have done a LifeWay Bible Study.
  • When you see the film, check out the digital clock in the bedroom. It's no accident that the time on the screen is 7:14. (Check 2 Chronicles to know what I mean.)
  • There are a number of Easter Eggs throughout the film that hearken back to the previous four Kendrick films. Actors you recognize reappear. The car dealership from "Flywheel" is once again referenced, subtly. Oh, and check out the name of the Paramedic Company on Michael Jr.'s EMT shirt.
  • Plan to view this on opening weekend. Don't wait for the DVD or for Netflix to have it.
  • We'll have tickets available at First Baptist Church of Orange Park, if you live in the Jacksonville area.

Why Change Is So Difficult & Yet, Needed

Over the past few weeks, the Leadership Team at our church has been praying and mulling over some potential changes in schedule, function and emphasis. As with many other organizations, change is often needed. We can all give illustrations of organizations that refused to change when given the opportunity and are now just examples of being left behind (Blockbuster Video, anyone?)

Tumblr_nkyjwgtQ581sfie3io1_1280The added challenge of change when implemented in the local church is that the church is more than a business or community organization. The church is a living, breathing organism given an incredible mission and mandate by God to make disciples and grow His Kingdom. Since we know the "gates of hell will not prevail" against His church, some question the legitimacy of change. While all change is not good, we can all agree (I think) that at times it is needed. 

What never changes is the Gospel and God's Word. 

That needs to be said numerous times and, like most pastors, I repeat it often. Structures change. Organization charts change. Buildings change. Worship times change. Worship styles change. Even church leadership changes.

What never changes is the Gospel and God's Word.

Recently, Dr. Charles Stone, a minister gifted in leadership skills and nearleadership, especially, wrote an article titled "8 Reasons Why Church Change Is So Difficult." I believe he is accurate in his assessment and I share the main points below:

Brain insight helps us understand hidden processes around which we can design our change initiatives. Awareness of how people’s brains work in response to change can help you craft more lasting changes. Here are eight reasons why change is hard…

  1. People naturally assume the worst. Our brain is wired to pick up threats and negative possibilities around us more than the positive. 
  2. People usually fill in knowledge gaps with fear instead of faith. Uncertainty about the future (and change) breeds this fear. The less information and the more people have to fill in the knowledge gaps, the greater the fear and resistance to change.
  3. We don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression. Poorly introduced change will always start your change on the wrong footing.
  4. Emotions influence receptivity to change. Although we may prefer it not to be so, most people make decisions based on emotion.
  5. The brain can only handle so much change at once. Trying to create too much change too quickly can engage the brain’s fear center and cause people to resist, thus hindering change (Hemp, 2009).
  6. Old habits die hard. The older we get we more easily default to what we know. 
  7. Resistance to change often increases the closer you get to the change. Uninformed optimism gives way to informed pessimism.
  8. The brain often interprets change as a threat which in turn creates resistance. The brain is organized around a fundamental principle: Minimize threat-maximize reward that results in either resistance or openness. Change seems like a threat which often breeds resistance from others. Change brings uncertainty and the brain doesn’t like uncertainty.

We know that the reality is that change for the sake of change is a waste of energy and capital. Therefore, to make any adjustments in ministry, staffing, organization, small groups, worship times, etc. just on a whim is unwise and asinine. 

However, as we begin to better understanding the makeup of the 21st century culture (we've been in this century for 15 years now, so it's about time we analyze it, right?) the truth is that change is happening at breakneck speed all around us. While the message of the Gospel is unchanging, the process of sharing the Gospel and gaining an audience with those who see no need for God or the local church must change. 

Without change in processes, we will remain stuck in time, wondering why our strategies that worked in the 1980s seem to fall flat. Rather than adjust strategies or schedules, many churches will collectively shake their heads, blaming the media, government, school systems, community leaders or other likely targets for influencing our children, grandchildren, neighbors and co-workers too much and abandoning Christian values.

And, in about 25-30 years, as 70% of funding toward evangelical churches in America disappears (as reported by John Dickerson in his book The Great Evangelical Recession) the unchanging Gospel will remain strong, but the unchanging local church buildings will be up for sale.

The challenge is clear. Change must happen, but our human nature HATES it. There are at least eight resistors to change hard-wired into our brains. This is not God's cosmic joke, but His divine plan in the creation of our brains and neurology. Resistance does not mean stopped. We can change and we must change, but often it is not enjoyable (at least through the process.)

Yet, even as Christians we celebrate change. That's the message of the "personal testimony" or "story." As a child of God relates his/her story of salvation, the joy is in the change. God takes our hearts of stone and changes them into hearts of flesh.

We are given a new nature when we become a child of God. That's change.

We are given a new heart when we become a child of God. That's change.

We are changed from death to life through Jesus Christ.

While not all change is good (remember New Coke?) we must understand that wise, prayed over, God-led change is needed. No, the gates of hell will never prevail against Christ's Church. That truth is solid. Let's just ensure we have our ears and eyes open so that we can hear and see how God is leading us, His church, into a culture for His glory and as His change agents.

________________________

Click here for Charles Stone's blog and full article on change.

 


Love Is Love? Love Is All You Need? Really?

It's a word that everyone knows and says they understand, yet there are over 12 meanings of the word in the dictionary, and that doesn't include the verb usages and idioms. The word is LOVE.

Couple on bench in city

From "All you need is love. . ." to "Love Wins" to the trending #LoveIsLove, the concept of love is something that has gripped humanity since the beginning of time. Even in the Garden of Eden love between Adam and God and then with Eve reveals the amazing power of the word. 

Love Is A Choice

I remember talking with a friend a few years back about some things going on in his marriage. He said what so many have said over the years to me when seeking to justify their desire to get out of a relationship. He said, "I'm just not in love with her anymore." To which, in my caring, grace-filled, mercy-laced way I responded, "Bull!"

You see, love is more than a feeling. Even Boston knew that (vague 1970s rock music reference - look it up.) Love is a choice. 

 

Love Wins

A few years ago, Rob Bell authored a book that took on a life of its own in social media and among Christian circles. The book is titled Love Wins and even prior to being published, it was a best-seller in pre-orders. This was primarily due to Bell's controversial book promo online.

Bell is an incredible communicator and his church in Michigan was a popular mega-church. His Nooma videos had been used in churches for years and there was no denying his ability to draw in an audience through his teaching. Yet, something about the message conveyed in Love Wins (which is a title that millenials love) was off-center. In fact, it was clearly unbiblical and now with Bell's most recent statement about the irrelevancy of the "ancient writings" known as God's Word, the Holy Bible, Bell's belief system has been laid bare.

And it's unfortunate.

Yet, what's more unfortunate is that many in our fast-moving culture still wave the banner of "Love Wins" as if it means nothing matters ultimately, but love (but what definition of love?).

Love Is All You Need

The Beatles said that all that is needed in life is love. John Mayer says that this is a lie.

Again, the question is "What definition of love?"

Love Is Love

Now, the trending video on YouTube and on social media is from the Ad Council and features images of skeletons embracing, holding hands and kissing, only to have the people come from behind the screen to "shock" the audience as to who they really are. The message is that love is not defined by race, age, disability or even gender. . . since it's all love, right?

The phrase is meant to diffuse those who would seek to define relationships. While the video features numerous people, the primary message is clearly regarding LBGT relationships and perhaps the acceptance of same-sex marriage. That's why the video is trending. That's why the imagery is moving. 

But "love is love" is a phrase that provokes responses while doing what every English teacher in my life told me I could not do - use a word to describe the same word.

Button-tweet-thisThe underlying false message of this video, and subsequently many in our culture, is that love must come with full affirmation.

Nevertheless, once you strip away personal justification, political positioning and theological word-play, the reality is that true love is what ever human being is truly seeking.

Button-tweet-thisTrue love is that which is selfless, unconditional and permanent.

Love Is. . .

God revealed the elements of this type of love in Paul's letter to the Corinthian church. . .

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:4-13 (ESV)

Love Is Not Possible Apart From God

That sounds very limiting and intolerant, but based on John's word in his third letter, the very nature of God is love - the ultimate, perfect, agape love and apart from knowing Him, true love remains elusive. 

Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 1 John 4:8 (ESV)

 Button-tweet-thisTherefore, if you do not know God through Jesus Christ, you cannot fully love.

 


Grandma's Wisdom

I found an old article I wrote for the local paper back in 2002 earlier today. Thought I'd share it again. . .

IMG_5419In October 2001, my grandma, Berna Tarkington, went to be with the Lord. At her passing, a family friend, Stephen Oliver, wrote our family a letter regarding my grandma's wisdom. My grandma used to watch Stephen and his sister when they were children. Stephen wanted to share some things he learned about life from grandma. Upon reading his list, I was reminded about how special and how wise she was.

LESSONS LEARNED

  • Be nice to your brother or sister. They may grow up to be just as big as you are one day.
  • Go to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. Not only will you learn about Jesus, but the Kool-Aid is good, too!
  • Use a black skillet to fry potatoes. It will always taste better.
  • Always remember to tell the bus driver where your stop is. If you don't, who will.
  • Mountain Dew is much colder in a glass bottle kept on the back porch in the Frigidaire.
  • Don't skip a page when reading a book to a child. They usually know the difference and you never know what you'll miss.
  • At the end of a rough day, it's always a good idea to sit on the front porch in a swing and let someone else help you with your problems.
  • Watch out for cracks in wooden bridges. If you have little feet, your shoes might get caught in the cracks.
  • Play with your neighbor, and let her choose what game to play today. You can choose tomorrow.
  • Quiltins and hog killins always mean good food, lots of neighbors, and tall tales.

I miss my grandma, but wisdom and truth never die. Maybe you can learn from her lessons, too.


Canadian & American Euthanasia - The Growing Culture of Death

When the Canadian Supreme Court ruled last Friday that laws against euthanasia were to be struck down the cultural pendulum continued to swing wide from what was considered right and acceptable just a few years ago. It is no secret that since 1996, culture has shifted greatly in the United States and Canada. This is evidenced in the quickly moving shift regarding same-sex marriages and in this case - the so-called “right to die” movement. 
 
While the Canadian Supreme Court ruling doesn’t actually impact us directly in the United States, the fact that some states have similar laws on the books now (e.g. Oregon, Vermont & Washington) under the title of “Death with Dignity” means that this movement will pick up speed and likely be a federal law in the near future.
 
These laws, as with the case of the Canadian ruling, are direct reversals of previous acts and mandates. In fact, Canada ruled on this in 1993 and upheld the nation’s laws against physician-assisted suicide.
 
While “Dr. Death” (Jack Kevorkian) was mocked and demonized just a few decades ago, he now appears to be a pioneer in an area that is picking up steam. This is unfortunate.
 
As Dr. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary recently stated, “We’re looking at a massive change in the culture that has affected even the dignity and sanctity of human life. And of course it didn’t begin with euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. It began on other issues, most importantly, the issue of abortion.”
 
The emotional connection that comes with physician-assisted suicide leads people to discount the broader pro-life issues. Some would say that this has nothing to do with the issue of abortion. However, the full issue is one regarding the sanctity of human life. Whether in the womb or on a nursing home bed, at the starting line or life or closer to the finish line, the fact that “death with dignity” becomes a tagline shows that many in our world are excusing what has become a culture of death.
 
Hospital feet
 
Under the banner of “rights” the reality that murder (a word that many would seek to avoid) is now celebrated is troubling.
 
This is a slippery slope and it is growing more slippery. European nations have pioneered this era of death to tragic results. In Belgium, for instance, the aged and ones with severe diseases are candidates for assisted suicide. However, the deeper challenge comes in determining who makes the designation of “old” and the grades the severity of disease. The Hippocratic Oath goes by the wayside as ethics is redefined. Now we see where the Belgian government has ruled that children as young as 12 must constitutionally have access to physician-assisted suicide. This is little more than extending abortion rights through puberty.
 
The culture of death is here. It’s impacting many and its boundaries are continually being moved. This is a sad day for our friends in Canada and for those in our culture as well.
 

Guest Blogger Ashley Tarkington: "My Journey From PK to Child of God"

Growing up in a pastor's home is not easy. Oh it can be a tremendous blessing, but there are also the pressures that those who do not live in this "fishbowl" just don't understand. My daughter, Ashley, is graduating from the University of North Florida this spring. She has been a pastor's kid (PK) her entire life. She's known no other story. While many PKs find themselves pushing strongly against the values and biblical worldview that is taught in the home and echoed in the church, and thereby creating the bad stereotype that is joked about often within church circles. However, there are many more PKs who discover a faith that is their own, not just a carbon copy of their parents. That faith is right and true and Gospel-centered and leads them onto journeys that rightfully bring glory to God.

This summer, Ashley plans to serve internationally as a summer missionary. As always, God has the right to change those plans, but her prayers and opened doors seem to leading down this path. In preparation for this summer, she must be able to clearly articulate her story of faith (i.e. her personal testimony.) She has been journaling for years and today at lunch, she shared the following with me. So, here's Ashley, my "Guest Blogger" speaking truth as a Pastor's Kid, but more importantly as a Child of God. . .

In 2000, a movie was released based on the popular book series, Left Behind. Now, it wasn't a great movie, but there was a message at it's core that had me asking questions. I was only six years old and up to that point (and even up to today) I had been in church all my life. At the time, my dad was the youth pastor at our church. You could say that I had never missed a Sunday or Wednesday service. As a child, my life revolved around church. Not only did I attend all the children's activities and events, I was also "cool" enough (at least that's what I still believe) to go to many youth events.

Staff - atarkAt the time of this film release, I was six years old. I was in first grade. I knew right from wrong. I knew that every Sunday I would sit in the front pew with my dad, while mom sang in the choir. Dad would stand down front at the close of each service with our pastor waiting for people in the congregation to come forward for prayer or to make a spiritual decision public in their lives. At this time, to me at least, it seemed like people were coming down front following the worship services to make a decision every week. It always seemed like there were baptisms happening as well.

Now, as much as my six-year-old self could understand, this was a great thing. People were being saved! Then, I thought to myself, "Am I saved?" 

I knew who Jesus was. I knew most of the major stories in the Bible. I knew Jesus going to come back one day. The Left Behind film was shown at our church when it was released and the building was packed. The story showed how horrible scenario was for those who were not saved. To me, so many in my church were making decisions for Christ and the thought came to my mind, "What if what happened in the movie happened now? I would be left behind. I'm only six-years-old, my mom pretty much did everything for me. I can't be by myself."

It was a moment of panic for me.

One Wednesday evening after church, I was riding home with my dad in the backseat of our Honda. I was asking questions. I didn't want to be left behind. The movie was just that. . .a movie, but my dad shared more about God and his promises. I prayed to God and received Jesus into my life as Savior. I was so excited. A few weeks later, I was baptized, and the cool part was that my dad baptized me. It was a great day! I even told my teacher at school about what happened.

But, life just kept going. I still attended every church thing that was offered. I grew in knowledge and as a Christian and did all the "churchy" stuff. As the years went by, some things changed in our lives. Right before I entered high school, my dad became the Lead Pastor at our church. Our previous Senior Pastor retired. I always said that dad was now the "big man." It was cool, I guess, but there weren't as many fun trips with him anymore. 

I went to the youth group, but it wasn't the same as when my dad was the youth pastor. High school was. . .well, high school. It didn't change me. I knew who I was and I was not ashamed of it, but I was pretty quiet most of the time. I behaved like I was expected to, how a PK should. I never pretended to know it all. Lord knows I never did. . .or will, but people would act like I did, or should. That was probably one of the most frustrating things.

I thought youth group was supposed to be more than it was. I wanted to be more involved and be a leader so I could make an impact. My life was pretty busy, though. I played basketball at school and during the season we had a lot of mid-week games, so it was impossible to make the leadership meetings.

I felt like I had nothing to offer. I was not blessed with the ability to sing or play an instrument. I wasn't super-outgoing and bubbly, so I wasn't sure how to engage with new people. I wasn't sure how to relate to people. In some ways, I felt that people were intimidated by me because of who my dad was. I hated going to youth group at times. I felt as if I didn't really belong, but no one could tell. I was good at putting on masks.

This was high school and at this point you're supposed to figure out where you belong and somewhat about who you are, right?

Then, my senior year began (2010-2011.) It was finally here! I was so excited. This was the year that I was going to become somebody and excel in the sport I loved. I was so ready for basketball season to begin. I had the potential to play in college. There were three schools looking at me at this point. Then, during our first game of our season, I suffered an injury - an ACL tear. I was  so angry and upset. 

Why me?

Wasn't I showing Christ to my teammates?

Did I not use my ability to play basketball to impact people for Christ?

My basketball career was over. I didn't know what to do.

This was the first time I cried out to God. I knew He had it all under control and that he had plans for me (Jeremiah 29:11), but I had to get to the point I truly believed that. I had to be able to see my complete identity in Christ. 2011 was the year that I felt I really became close with Christ. Our relationship went to an entirely new level for me. I knew I didn't want to just settle and live comfortably. I wanted to live for Him. I wanted, and still do, want people to see Christ in me way before they even see me.

Now I know this is pretty long and I've been told that testimonies, if you call this that, should only take two minutes to share, but this was just the beginning of my story. It's still being written. God is always working in my life, giving me desires and passions for Him and His glory that I never thought possible.

I find my identity in Christ. In some ways, I always have. I had to figure out how to bring Christ everywhere I went, to live for and become more confident in Him. 

It does not matter that I have not been given a talent as a singer or artist. God can, and does use me the way I am, exactly how He created me. 

I'm not as quiet anymore (I know some of my friends and family would laugh in agreement with that statement.) It's funny - when you get excited about Christ and what He does for you, you just can't really shut up about Him.

So, here's my two minute "testimony":

I was lost. I asked questions. I didn't want to be left behind. Christ died for me. He forgave me. I live for Him. I can't just keep that to myself.

I mess up. I sin. Yet, He still loves me and his grace is overwhelming.

I am saved. 

Now, I'm ready to go into all the world.

To tell others.

Everyday I try to live for Him and become more like Him.

As I said before, my story isn't over. Christ has put a passion within me that I am ready to act upon. Im ready to be sent. That could be across the street or across the world. I want to make an impact for His kingdom. I want to pour into teenagers and college students the truth of the Gospel. I want to be a part of the "big picture" - to live missionally and worship Him daily. To encourage, engage and serve.

I want to go.


"Now It Gets Real!" - Church Planting in the Suburbs

Our church has been advocating church planting and partnering with church planters throughout nation and Canada. Some of our planting partners are in urban cores, others in college towns and still others in the suburbs. 

Each church is unique and each planter/pastor is seeking God's lead in how the church will honor Him and reach the people in their respective communities.

Some of these churches are planting in community centers. Others borrow space from local businesses or even other churches. Still others are renting out public school facilities on the weekends. 

1342346_75720596There is a new church beginning soon in our county. I have met with the planter and his wife and even participated in his assessment through our network. We seek to help them in any way we can to engage the community where they are planting. 

This new church will begin with a "kick off" service on February 8. They have secured a cafeteria/auditorium in the local elementary school and have already sought to truly bless and encourage the teachers and administrators in the school.

Recently, they posted on Facebook about their kick off service and had their first taste of push back from the community (or at least one person in the community.)

The argument is not new. It's been used before.

How is it OK to have a church that operates out of a state and federally funded elementary school? Is this not in conflict with the separation of church and state? And then to have the audacity to advertise to the local community of taxpayers...

Whenever a church, especially in our nation and in our community, rents a public school facility for meeting, there are those who seek to stop them from doing so on the grounds of "separation of church and state." Instances in Brooklyn over the past months have pushed this to the forefront once again, but as has been stated, even by the organizations that pride themselves on being anti-church (under the guise of civil liberties) have admitted these churches are not breaking any laws by meeting in schools.

Here's a brief statement regarding these issues from the Freedom From Religion organization's website:

The Freedom From Religion Foundation often receives queries from shocked members of the public who receive flyers at their home inviting them to attend “church” at their local public school. Or citizens notice prominent signs at public school entrances on Sundays advertising church meetings. “Public schools can’t host church meetings, can they?” we are asked.

Unfortunately, two decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court provide for the use of public school buildings by churches, religious and political groups on a viewpoint-neutral basis, if the public school districts are already renting their facilities after hours to other community groups. The subsidy involved in use of public schools by religious organizations, however, continues to create concern, confusion, and litigation. The law on the limits of church use is not completely settled. While schools are not permitted to discriminate against religious groups because they are religious, schools can create regulations that impact church use of school buildings (see Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Educ. of City of New York). One appellate court, the 2nd Circuit, ruled in 2011 that a school board’s prohibition of hosting a particular type of activity, religious worship services, was constitutional.

Since public school districts often have the least expensive rental rates available in a community, rental to churches often involves what many of us consider taxpayer subsidy of congregations. Start-up churches often take advantage of low school rental to establish themselves. They obtain a prominent site for a new church, collect church donations on public property, and use their savings to eventually buy their own tax-free buildings. No wonder many taxpayers are concerned! (Full text here.)

I disagree wholeheartedly with this organization's motives and purpose. Yet, even in their concerted effort to shut down churches meeting in such venues, most often through threats of litigation and even verbal bullying, the facts of the matter, even as stated on their own site, is that churches have the legal rights to meet in public school buildings.

When I saw the response on my friend's announcement post, I messaged him. He admitted feeling some shock and wondered what should be done. Should he seek legal counsel? Should he respond? What's the best?

I counseled him as best I could and reassured him that these battles are not new and the fact they're showing up for him now can be viewed as affirmation that the church God's planting through him is needed at this time and in this area. The Enemy doesn't like this new plant already and the battle lines are being drawn. I encouraged him to press on, seek God's face continually and be strategic in his blessing strategy and serving plans for the school and community.

Christ will be proclaimed in this church. God will be honored (He already has been) and the real battle will be won, resulting in life change for many. 

This pastor said to me "It's really made this whole process leading up to Launch a more 'real' thing - that it's not just the attractional side, but the spiritual side as well. We haven't forgotten that, but we have been focusing on decor, and music, and kids and other necessary things and a simple attack is helpful in remembering that our goal is to show God's grace to all people, not provide a comfy thing to do on Sundays."

Amen, pastor. 

It's getting real now.

(And it's going to be worth it.)


The Shepherd Who Breaks The Sheep's Leg

I was reading this morning a portion of the book Conversation Peace by Mary A. Kassian and came across this story. I shared it with my wife and we both were encouraged and amazed at the simple truths revealed.

On one of her daily walks, a woman visiting Switzerland happened upon a sheepfold. Venturing in, she saw the shepherd lovingly tending a single sheep, which was lying on a pile of straw apart from the rest of the flock.

Sheep"Its leg is broken," the shepherd offered. Upon inquiring how such an unfortunate thing could happen, the shepherd sadly shook his head and explained that he had intentionally broken it. "Of all the sheep in my flock, this was the most wayward. It would not obey my voice and would not follow where I was leading the flock. On more than one occasion, it wasndered to the edge of a perilous cliff. And not only was it disobedient - it was also leading my other sheep astray. I had no choice but to break its leg."

Shocked, the visitor exclaimed, "But what will happen when it walks again? It won't follow you after what you've done to it!"

"Not so," replied the shepherd. "After I broke its leg, I took the lamb some food and it tried to bite me. But after letting it lie alone hungry for a couple of days, I went back. It not only eagerly took the food, but licked my hand and showed every sign of submission and affection."

"And now," he continued, "when this sheep is well, it will be the model sheep of my entire flock. No sheep will hear my voice so quickly or follow so closely. It will be an example of devotion and obedience. Breaking its leg was an act of kindness. Through its sufferings, it will have learned to follow."

Following the shepherd is always in the best interest of the sheep. I know many who are going through difficult times. In some cases, the difficulties are obvious attacks by the Enemy. In other cases, the challenges are self-made (still an attack by the Enemy, but one that was walked into knowingly.) Perhaps the challenges for those who are God's children are just instances where the shepherd has "broken their legs" for the purpose of saving them?

_____________________

Kassian, Mary A., and Betty Hassler. Conversation Peace: Improve Your Relationships One Word at a Time. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2004. Print.


"Unbroken" Is Broken Without the Epilogue

As has become a bit of tradition in my household, the family went to a movie on Christmas Day. After apologizing to the young ladies selling tickets and concessions for making them work on Christmas, we entered into the theater designated for the 8pm showing of "Unbroken." 

This film had been promoted for weeks. The biography by Laura Hillenbrand had been a NY Times Bestseller for months. The buzz about Angelina Jolie's directorial debut was strong and with such negative press about the Sony comedy "The Interview" and the only other real opening day competition being "Into the Woods" it was no surprise to see the theater packed for this film.

"Unbroken" is the amazing story of survival and life-change of American Olympic track star and World War II POW Louis Zamperini. For sports and military historians, as well as those who follow the history of the Billy Graham Crusades, Zamperini's story is well-known. However, for most people, Louis Zamperini's story is being heard for the very first time.

In the late 1950s, Universal Studios secured to the rights to Zamperini's story. They intended to produce a film with Tony Curtis portraying Louis. The film was never made, but Universal held onto the rights. When Hillenbrand's book hit shelves and shot up the NY Times list, it was inevitable that a film would be made.

There are numerous reviews of the film online now. The reviews swing from "Loved it!" to "Disappointed" and every level between. 

Some pan the Angelina Jolie direction of the film, but most likely due to a distaste for Jolie rather than actual dissatisfaction with her direction. 

Others dislike the portrayal of "The Bird" by Japanese pop-star Takamasa Ishihara. It is Ishihara's first feature film and with that taken into consideration, he performance was definitely above average.

The celebrated Coen brothers are credited with the script and while there are some great lines in the film, the dialogue was not excellent. 

10387292_697866970284464_9113511582935429008_nI have not yet read the book, but did receive it for Christmas. Therefore, I did something that I wish I hadn't - viewed the film before reading the book.

I'm not a film critic (I just pretend to be on my blog) but overall, I enjoyed the film. I admit that I entered the theater wanting to enjoy the film, and no doubt that led me to like it more than others may. However, since I'm now a pretend critic, here are some thoughts I had during the viewing (SPOILER ALERT):

  • The back-story of Louis as a child was good, but seemed choppy. I know the film had to hurry and get to the POW camp, but there just seemed to be more to his upbringing and entrance into the track & field world that should have been told.
  • The Olympic scene in Berlin was great. The Jesse Owens cameo was nice, as a reminder of the times and the biggest story of the 1936 Olympics.
  • Loved the line about running in the Tokyo Olympics being the true goal for Louis. I knew this would come full-circle.
  • The time in the life-boats with Louis, Phil and Mac seemed to take forever. Maybe that was the point, but that portion of the film seemed much longer than it needed to be. On a side note, while watching this part of the film, I could not help but think of my friend Edgar Harrell and his account of beging stranded at sea with others from the USS Indianapolis upon its sinking. His story is incredible and has been put in book form (and should be a movie as well) under the title "Out of the Depths."
  • When Louis and the boys catch the shark and beat it to death in the liferaft, I chuckled a little. This really happened, I'm sure, but it just seemed over the top.
  • When the shark jumped up to attack the men, my daughter and just about half the audience jumped out of their seats. That was worth the price of admission.
  • Jack O'Connell's portrayel of Zamperini was great. I believe we may have a new silver-screen superstar revealed in this film.
  • Watching life in a POW camp, as portrayed on film, is always heart-wrenching for me. As those I know who experienced this personally can attest, the despair and challenges just cannot be presented fully in a movie. However, I applaud the filmmakers for how they protrayed this.
  • The statements "If you can take it, you can make it" and others seemed overdone and a little too much like the motivational posters seen in some offices. 
  • The movie ended and the images and statements during the end credits were nice, but as many have stated, there is so much more to Zamperini's story left untold that I left the theater feeling that I was able to eat the appetizers and a few parts of the main dish, but didn't get the full meal and definitely missed dessert.

The average rating for the film on IMDB is 6.7 out of 10. That's about right, I'd say.

As for some of the criticisms I'm reading and hearing, here's my take:

Angelina Jolie does not claim to be a follower of Christ. She appears to be a big fan and friend to the late Louis Zamperini. Apparently, she desired to make this film as an homage to him and sought his approval along the way. Louis was a Christian. His life was forever transformed by Jesus Christ. There are definitely large portions of his story that are covered in the book by Hillenbrand, but omitted from the film. Some are offended that Jolie didn't cover these aspects. I'm not offended because I would never expect her to understand fully the impact of Christ upon a life, having not (based on her own faith statements) never experiencing this personally. It's hard to convincingly portray that which you do not know.

Therefore, I believe she did a fine job of telling a portion of Zamperini's story. Louis' family apparently approves as well.

Nevertheless, there is a "rest of the story" that reveals the depths of transformation and life-change in Louis Zamperini's life. My friend, Rick Wheeler, recently shared this on his Facebook page. Here is a portion of his posting:

The story of Louis Zamperini is about the enduring and resilient human spirit. His triumph over everything life threw at him is unquestionably one of the most inspiring stories of modern history.

But there is a bigger and deeper story that the book presents that the screenwriters and the director of the movie missed: When Louis came back from the war, he was deeply wounded - not just physically but emotionally and spiritually. His hate for his captors and for "the Bird" prison guard in particular created a new prison in his life. One he could not escape from or endure by his resilient spirit. He was so tormented by his inner demons and nightmares of his captivity that he turned to alcohol and violence. Before PTSD was something doctors knew about, Louis' life was out of control and headed toward a destructive end.

Then, as a last ditch effort, his wife invited him to a Billy Graham event in 1949 in Los Angeles. That night, Louis acknowledged that he was broken and gave his heart to Christ. According to his own interviews, he had been experiencing nightmares every night since returning from his imprisonment. The night he was transformed by the gospel, he was freed from this torment and the nightmares immediately ceased. His faith was not just a crutch to get him through, it became his pathway to healing that would take Louis back to Japan on a mission of forgiveness. Louis wanted to free his former captors from the prison of guilt and shame he knew they were experiencing. The human will does not lead you to this kind of compassion, surviving a tortuous war and beating the odds does not transform a life in this way. The most incredible element of Louis' life was omitted from the movie. The pathway to redemption is not survival and resilience (if I can take it, I can make it) it is forgiveness that only comes from acknowledging that we are broken. The movie leaves the viewer with this false hope that extraordinary human effort is sufficient to overcome the internal and external conflicts of life.

I know that Louis and his family are pleased with how the movie portrays his faith and I would never want the movie to be presented as a religious film - on the contrary, I want the full truth of Louis' story to be told....because it was the part about surrender to Christ and forgiveness that met me at a broken place and brought healing.

The movie leaves this part of the story to text pages during the final credits. Camille (Rick's wife) and I could not believe that part of the story was left on the editing room floor. Overcoming adversity is always a great story. But the end of the war was not Louis' salvation as the movie depicts - in fact, the end of the war sent Louis careening out of control. Only Jesus can transform a life that has been so brutally tortured and change it into a force of forgiveness and healing. Resilience is not enough - only the gospel story will get you through your worst day. 

I agree with Rick in his assessment. He says more about the film and the book in his posting on Facebook. While I enjoyed the film, it did feel incomplete. I have told people that it is a good film. I believe it is. However, I wouldn't say that it's a great film. 

Here's why I believe this film is good. It will lead many to want to know more. Sure, many  will watch the film, leave the theater and say "Hmm, pretty good movie. Now let's go see another." However, others will be intrigued by Louis Zamperini's story and they'll want to know more. Some will read Hillenbrand's book. Others may read Zamperini's autobiography or perhaps watch the documentary produced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Louis Zamperini's story is incredible. It's inspirational. It's challenging. Yet, until one knows the full story, it will always remain incomplete. 

Ultimately, until Zamperini realized he was "broken" he could never discover completion. He surrendered to Christ, was made whole at that moment and now is home. His story continues to be used by God to draw others to Himself.

And that is good.

______________________________________

Books & Documentaries referenced & recommended:

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

After Unbroken: The Rest of the Louis Zamperini Story by the BGEA

Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian's Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II by Louis Zamperini & David Rensin

Don't Give Up, Don't Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life by Louis Zamperini & David Rensin

Out of the Depths: An Unforgettable WWII Story of Survival,  Courage & the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis by Edgar Harrell & David Harrell