Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bless This Home - Week 3: "Persecuted"

This week we are concluding the three-part sermon series, "Bless This Home: Lessons for Families from Jesus."  We've been guided by some of the very words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: three short passages found in Matthew chapter 5.

Over the past couple of weeks we've been highlighting the difference between having a "Christian" home as opposed to having a "Christ-centered" home.  In todays culture, it's easy to let the word "Christian" trip off of our tongues when we describe ourselves or our family life.

But what we've come to understand is that the word "Christian" doesn't always have the most positive connotations for emerging generations of people in our culture.  Far too many people equate being Christian with bigotry, intolerance, judgement and a holier-than-thou attitude.

We've been trying to reframe the conversation a bit by highlighting the differences between merely saying that you are a Christian or have a Christian home and actually being a follower of Jesus.

The first week of our series we learned that in a Christ-centered home, righteousness is always on the menu.  We also learned that righteousness is a word that means, "right standing with God," but that it has a deeper meaning--a family that hungers after righteousness (who always has it on the menu in their home) is the kind of family that lifts up the things of God more than anything else.  This is the kind of family that longs for the world to be as God wants it to be.

The second week of our study we learned that a Christ-centered home is a space for peacemakers.  We explored the difference between what it means to be a peacekeeper who avoids conflict as opposed to a peacemaker who embraces it in order to resolve it.

This week we are going to demonstrate what it's like when a family strives to have a Christ-centered home, and meets resistance from the surrounding culture. Our key take-away--the main idea that is going to guide us today is simply this:

A Christ-centered home isn't like all the other homes. 

More specifically, today we are going to be highlighting the differences between what's normal and what's weird when it comes to families.

Every family has weird traditions--things that they do for no apparent reason that make perfect sense to them, but no one else.  But just when you thought that your family traditions were weird---get a load of these that I gathered from the interwebs:

The guys writes, "My dad pays my sister to not be a jerk on family holidays."

Here's a nominee for Dad of the Year:  "My dad will only steal trees for Christmas--he never buys them.  He says it's to honor the Grinch, but I think it's just because he's cheap."

How about this: "Whenever a member of our family has been dating someone for a significant amount of time, my 89 year-old grandmother will initiate them into the family by throwing a coconut cream pie into their face."

Or this:  "We take pictures of our dead in their coffins. I didn't know it was strange until I showed a picture to a friend of mine and he said, "OMG she's dead!"  I still think it's a good idea."

Another guy writes, "We go to the graveyard on Christmas Eve and pour the favorite drink of our dead relatives on their graves.  I'm from Denmark."

I love that last line---as if being from Denmark explains everything.

So what is considered "normal" for families in our culture?  And I don't mean what is considered normal based on ideals, images, or stereotypes.  What I mean is what is actually considered normal?

I have some ideas.

Normal is broke in our culture.

And by broke I mean in debt, max'd credit cards, upside down mortgages, high interest rate car loans and a host of other fun stuff. That kind of broke--broke from conspicuous consumption.  Conspicuous consumption means that you buy things that are easily recognizable as awesome by other people in your sphere of influence and even beyond.

There was a recent hit song by the rapper Macklemore that I rather liked called "Thrift Shop," with lyrics that praised the virtue of buying clothes from thrift stores rather than paying "$50 dollars for a t-shirt."  It was a great sentiment, but  in every photo I've seen of Macklemore out on the town he's decked out in expensive clothes and jewelry because he needs to demonstrate to all of the haters that he's "made it."

I'm pretty sure that half of my congregation got lost on that last illustration--but there you go.

Normal is divorced in our culture.

We talked about this a couple of weeks ago, but the number one issue facing Christian families today is divorce and broken homes.  It's normal to get divorced in our culture when it gets too hard to stay together.  The reason why we get so excited when people celebrate double digit anniversaries is because they are rare--they aren't normal.

Normal is churchless in our culture because other things got in the way, or because it just isn't a priority.

Many years ago when I was a youth director, I took my high school Sunday school class out to one of our local parks during our church service. I had them go around and ask various people in the park why they weren't in church that morning.

Some people got mad at them and told them it wasn't any of their business.  But others responded, and shared how they weren't very religious, were too busy, felt like they didn't need to go to church to be close to God, a variety of things.  I get it.  Busy families sometimes go so hard during the week and even on Saturday that by Sunday morning everyone is exhausted.  So it's normal not to go to church.

Normal is too busy to take time for the important things.  Normal families in our culture are over-scheduled, to say the least.  We wear busy-ness like badges of honor.  I have sat on the sidelines of my kids soccer games and listened to dads and moms compare their schedules in a litany of one-ups-manship that defies the imagination.  And, to be fair, I've been one of those parents on occasion, not to be outdone.

Listen, there is a fine line between shuttling your kids back and forth to a different activity every day and actually spending time with your kids.

Busy-ness can also dominate our work life, or social life to the extent that the important things--the things that really matter get shunted to the side in favor of work, social obligations, keeping up appearances, you name it.

Finally, Normal is self-indulgent because denial isn't just a river in Egypt.  Denial is something that most people in our culture practice when they either lie to themselves about their self-centered behavior, or don't practice when it comes to getting what they want.

I saw an advertisement once that said, "Life is short, play hard." I agree to an extent.  But normal families in our culture seem to do nothing but play hard--never denying themselves any desire, want or pleasure.  Families are so over-extended when it comes to money and time, so self-indulgent that they have no room for self-care.  Kids are being raised with a false sense of their importance in the world--believing that they are smart and special and that the world owes them a living.  Addiction, Infidelity, Bankruptcy, Disillusionment... all of these things follow self-indulgence.

That's normal.

And not surprisingly, the opposite of what's normal in our culture doesn't seem to be all that popular.

Which brings us to our Scripture passage for today from Matthew chapter 5 verses 10-12:
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, (remember what that is?) for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven.
Listen, being persecuted for righteousness...  being insulted or falsely accused or reviled for being not normal has been going on for a very long time.  

The Genesis account of Cain and Abel highlights this very human, very pervasive problem throughout history.  Cain and Abel were brothers who both prepared sacrifices to God, but God only found Abel's sacrifice to be worthy. The lesson is that the actual offering itself was secondary to the spirit within which it was offered.  Because of this Cain grew jealous and killed Abel in a rage.  Abel didn't preach at Cain.  He didn't lord over Cain the fact that God was pleased with the way he was living his life.  Abel's righteous life bothered Cain so much that he couldn't stand it.  

When you're not like all the others---it can cause you problems.  

But on the other hand, I would much rather have problems with people--than to have problems with God, can I get a witness?  

Normal isn't working.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out.  So you can keep having a normal family, be like everyone else that is broke, divorced, churchless, too busy and self-indulgent---or you can try something different.  

Maybe it's time to be "Weird" and risk some persecution.  

You see "Weird" is being a good steward with your money.  It's striving to get out of debt, to not buy things you don't need, to live like no one else (as Dave Ramsey is fond of saying) so that one day you can live like no one else.  When my wife and took Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University Class for the first time, I was skeptical.  I didn't like the discipline of having a budget, working hard to pay off debt and not buying whatever I dang well pleased.  But we worked at it.  And over the course of a couple of years we paid off over $150,000 worth of debt.  We're not normal.  Normal isn't working. Normal isn't working.  We'd rather be weird.  

Weird is working on your marriage because its worth it.  Recently one of our church members passed away and at his memorial service his wife said that they had never had an argument in over 60 years of marriage.  My wife and I have been married for nearly 23 years.  I can't say that we have never had a fight in all of those 23 years, but I can say this:  We've never had a fight that we didn't resolve through mutual submission, humility, hard work and prayer.  Even when I do the dumbest stuff imaginable and make her madder than a hornet, I still want to reach out to my wife in the middle of the night to where she's sometimes laying as far on the other side of the bed as she can get--depending on how bad I was.  She feels the same way.  We're not normal.  Normal isn't working.  We'd rather be weird.  

Weird means going to church as a family plan.  I mentioned this in an earlier service, but it bears repeating.  When we were young parents of a then three-year old little boy we made a deal with one another: We would always find a way to be involved in church.  I will never forget the moment when I realized how much this meant.  We had just started attending the small Presbyterian church where I would eventually join the staff---I knew none of those things at that point.  My little boy was standing in the aisle when Pastor Breck came in to the sanctuary wearing his robe and stole.  He walked up to him and asked, "Are you God?" Pastor Breck knelt down to where Jay was standing and said to him, "No, but I know him pretty well."  We've been in church ever since.  We're not normal.  Normal isn't working.  We'd rather be weird.  

Weird means spending time together even if it costs us.   When I take the time off that is allotted to me as a pastor, I will often get some criticism. People believe that pastors only work one day a week anyway, so I have heard. And I've been told  more than once how some members are displeased when I am not around.  When my wife goes on vacation or out of town on family trips, it costs us money because she owns her own business.  But in both of these cases we have made the decision that spending time with our family is worth whatever it might cost us in criticisms, our careers or finances.  We all face the same kind of choices--we can either cheat on our jobs or we can cheat on our families.  We choose not to cheat on our family.  We're not normal.  Normal isn't working.  We'd rather be weird. 

Weird means not giving in to our desires for others' sake.  Because we've worked so hard to follow Dave Ramsey's advice on finances, my wife and I have been able to afford a lot of things that we used to not be able to afford.  But we also make choices not to give in to our desires so that we can continue to have a good quality of life for our kids, prepare for our future, and leave a legacy for our family that will last.  Not all of our desires need to be fulfilled.  I knew a couple once who both lived in complete selfishness.  Whenever she would buy something, he would buy something.  He bought a motorcycle. She bought a new car.  He bought a new TV, she bought herself a spa weekend.  Not surprisingly, they ended up in debt, angry at one another and eventually divorced with their kids splitting time between them.  We always try to choose our family's greater good over our own desires.  We're not normal.  Normal isn't working.  We'd rather be weird.  

Listen, I'm not trying to set myself and my family up as some great bastion of goodness.  We have plenty of issues.  But we are trying to put these things into practice.  And because we do, we often get push back from people who are living "normally."  I imagine that you would experience the same. 

In John 15:18-20 we have this warning from Jesus:  "If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first... If you belonged to the world, it would love you as it's own..."   Following Jesus isn't always a walk in the park.  

But you could always be normal...  

I'd rather be weird.  I think it's time for a lot of us to try weirdness on for size.  It might not make us popular with our circle of friends, or maybe even our extended family---but to the One who matters the most... yeah, it will make us plenty popular with Him.  Hey, if God had a wallet, you're picture would be in it.  That's how much he loves you and wants the best for you and yours.  

There is an ancient Jewish custom before the Shabbat meal where a father will take his prayer shawl--called a talit--and will raise his arms around his family, embracing them with the shawl as he prays a prayer of blessing over them.  

I love the beauty of that symbol.  But I also know that families are complicated today.  So here's what I want us to do during our worship.  I want us to come to the Cross.  We have one in each Sanctuary.  I want us to be reminded of the outstretched arms of Jesus on the Cross, and how his sacrifice, his submission resulted in our redemption.  Like a Jewish father embracing his family with a prayer shawl---let the grace of God flow down from that image of Jesus' outstretched arms on to you and your family.  

We're going to be inviting our church members, families, couples, friends, relatives who are gathered together to come to the Cross today.  I heard a story of a priest who was conducting a service in a small village church.  The entire service he observed a woman kneeling at an adjacent altar and clinging to a cross on top of it.  He asked her why she was holding on to the cross, and she replied, "My heart is breaking, my family is falling apart, I don't know what else to do but hold on the cross---and this is the only place I know that has one."  

Come to the Cross today.  It's time for renewal.  It's time to stop being normal because normal isn't working.  

It's time to embrace the fact that a Christ-centered home isn't like all the other homes.  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Bless This Home - Week 2: "Peacemakers"

This week we are continuing the sermon series that we began last week--a three-part series entitled, "Bless This Home: Lessons for Families from Jesus."
And we're focusing primarily on three verses--all of which are found in the Beatitudes, the very beginning of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount from Matthew chapter 5.

In the first installment of this series we talked about how there is a difference between saying that you have a "Christian" home as opposed to having a "Christ-centered" home--a difference that is highlighted in the things that we long for in our homes.

Matthew 5:6 reads, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they will be filled."  We determined that righteousness--which is a shorthand way of saying a "right relationship with God"--is always on the menu in a Christ-centered home.  In a Christ-centered home the things of God are lifted higher than anything else.  The family in a Christ-centered home longs for the world to be as God would have it.

Today we're going to be exploring the following seriously awesome and life-changing truth:  A Christ-Centered Home Is A Space for Peacemakers.  

In Matthew 5:9 we have the following verse, which will guide us today:  "Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God." 

Listen, there are so many things that can mess up the peace in your family, but I think improper texting is pretty high up on the list.  Consider these few moments between parents and children:

That moment when technology claims another Baby Boomer victim
This Dad needs to win Father of the Year 
Dad apparently thinks his kid has some sort of chip planted in his brain where he gets text messages even when his phone is no where near him.  
I probably shouldn't have included this one, but... 
Classic moment when the Rosetta Stone module on texting abbreviations would have come in handy. 
There were others I couldn't use as you might imagine.  Some of you will probably go on the interwebs now to find them.  Shame on you.

So here's the thing--a lack of peace in your home can be exacerbated by things as simple as misunderstandings caused by improper texting, which by now you realize isn't as big of a deal as I made it out to be earlier---or it can be something a bit more serious...

When a home is not a place or space of peace, it quickly becomes a space for conflict where bad feelings, anger, frustration, angst, doubt, fear and a host of other issues manifest themselves in all kinds of unhealthy ways.

In short, it becomes dysfunctional.

So, what causes these peace-killing conflicts?  We talked about some of them last week, but they bear repeating:  Marital Problems, Lack of a Father Figure, Financial Problems, Busyness, Lack of Communication, Negative Cultural Influences... You can also add to that Addiction and Infidelity, which could be argued are symptoms of those bigger problems.

And even though we hear the words of Jesus about how we are supposed to be peacemakers we seem to insist on being peacekeepers instead.

You might very well ask at this point, "What's the difference between being a peacemaker and a peacekeeper, Leon?  Aren't they kind of the same thing?"

As it turns out--they aren't even close.

Peacekeepers avoid conflict to keep the peace.  And they do it in a variety of ways that are familiar to all of us.

I read somewhere that peacekeepers take on the form of four different kind of "children" in a family system.  And I know this is not news to most of us either, but when I say "children" I don't just mean the actual children, but anyone who sort of falls in that role in the family system.  Sometimes parents can act more like children than their children...

To begin, there's the Responsible Child, who tries to keep the peace and fix the disharmony by achieving.  They think if they can just do better, do more, be excellent... that it will make everything better.

There's the Rebellious Child who tries to keep the peace and fix the disharmony by acting out.  They become the focal point of the families negative attention so that no one really has to focus on the actual causes to the lack of peace.

Then there's the Reclusive Child who tries to keep the peace by ignoring the lack of it.  They believe that talking through issues, confronting them and trying to solve them out in the open is more painful than putting their head in the sand.

Finally there's the Reprobate Child, who tries to keep the peace by being the clown in the family--never letting things get serious or real.  This person believes that laughter is the best medicine, especially if laughter means avoidance.

Like I said, Peacekeepers avoid conflict to keep the peace.

But Peacemakers embrace conflict to keep the peace.  They aren't afraid to wade into the moment of conflict and to speak grace and peace into it.  They aren't afraid to admit they might be the cause of the disharmony.  They don't keep score.

In Romans 12 we find a thumbnail sketch of what it means to be this kind of person--the true Peacemaker:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible as far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone. Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good. 
 From this short passage of Scripture we can see what Peacemakers do that Peacekeepers do not...

First, they tell the truth in love.  The Apostle Paul once wrote, "But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ," - Ephesians 4:15  Lots of Christian-y people love to quote this verse.  The only problem is they would rather leave off the "in love" part of the "speaking the truth."  If your truth isn't spoken in love, it will serve only to create more conflict.

Second, peacemakers apologize when they are wrong.  In the book of James we find this, "Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective." - James 5:16  I have known far too many people who operate under the assumption that they own no part in whatever conflict is going on in their family's lack of peace--and they refuse to apologize.  A peace-filled home is one where saying your sorry is the beginning of grace and growth.

Third, peacemakers forgive and let it go.  In Paul's letter to the Colossians we find this: "Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive." - Colossians 3:13  The key part of this verse is "as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive."  It's easy in the midst of family conflict, especially when we aren't the primary cause of it to grow bitter and intractable---and to forget how unbelievably forgiven we are by a God who gave up everything in order to redeem us.

To that last point--which is perhaps the most important--Jesus told a parable about a servant whose master forgave him the equivalent of millions of dollars in debt--debt that he had no way of ever repaying, and which would have landed him in prison.  No sooner than this guy was forgiven, he went out and strong-armed a fellow servant who owed him like five bucks.  When the master found about it---he threw the ungrateful servant in prison.

Acknowledging our own brokenness and healing in Christ should always bring us to our knees in humility.

When we make this part of our life---when we seek to be peacemakers rather than simply peacekeepers--amazing things can happen.  Like me, you might have a moment when you realize the implications of this kind of shift for your family.

You see, when you cultivate a home full of peacemakers, the result is a peace-filled home.

The other night, I lost my peace and I lost my temper.  It had been a long day filled with chores, work, errands and a host of other things that left my wife and I feeling pretty worn out.  I had been feeling pretty stressed about a number of things, decisions that I had to make, and some that were being made for me--all of which left me feeling tense.

But still things needed to be done.  The kitchen needed cleaning, our littlest boy needed a bath and his night-nights on...

My wife volunteered to handle the littlest boy, and I got the kitchen duty.  As I stood in the kitchen trying pick up the dirty dishes and do my part---I suddenly realized something: My two older boys were both playing video games in the next room.  A feeling washed over me that was more than just righteous indignation.

I went into the room where they were happily blowing things up on the TV screen and began to let them have it.  They were lazy, they were ungrateful, they actually had the stones to let their middle-aged, tired parents deal with the aftermath of toys, books, shoes, dishes and the like that were strewn all over the house...

Then my wife had the misfortune of walking into the moment of my ire along with my littlest boy--who was now squeaky clean and wearing his superman peejays.  Everyone was stunned at how upset I was.  Heck, I was, too.  It felt like another person was saying all of the mean things that were coming out of my mouth.

Finally, my wife said, "Honey, we all know that you are stressed.  We get it.  We love you.  But you don't have to take it out on us.  We love you."  Then my littlest boy hugged my leg and said, "Yeah, we love you Daddy."  My older boys grinned at me.  "It's okay, Dad. We love you."

We had a group hug.  The peace of Christ washed over me like the forgiveness and grace my family had given me.  I told everyone how sorry I was, and how much I loved them.

I realized then that because my wife and I have done our best to cultivate a house full of peacemakers--we more often than not have a peace-filled house.  Like I said last week, we fail as often or more times than we succeed---but in the words of the great theologian Richard Rohr, we are "falling upward."  We are stumbling after Jesus---in the right direction.

Because a Christ-centered home is a space for peacemakers.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Recovering The Sermon Part 4: Processes, Furniture, Remodeling

Welcome to Part 4 in the "Recovering The Sermon" blog posts--loosely based on a preaching workshop I facilitated recently for pastors, preachers and communicators.

In this post we get down to the nuts and bolts--the old nitty gritty--where the proverbial rubber meets the proverbial road.  I can't think of any more cliches.

We're going to begin with antennae.

A few posts ago, I mentioned that when you are planning your sermons or talks several weeks or months in advance, you will find that you walk around with your antennae up, so to speak.

But I would argue that the great communicators always have their antennae up--they are always open to seeing God, truth, Jesus, hope, beauty in the world around them.

"Have your eyes open to the world, be alert to the things that are curious, that speak.  If you find the world interesting, you will be interesting." - Rob Bell

Rob Bell famously uses a term called "buckets" to describe where he stores the ideas he accumulates.  I first heard him speak about this many years ago at a Youth Specialties Conference in 2001, then again at the Poets Prophets and Preachers conference in 2008, then again in every single event of his I've attended.

He's been filling buckets for a long time.  And he's still doing it, even though he no longer officially preaches to a congregation every week.

Rob told us a story once about a day when he was in Chicago near the beginning of Spring. There were some young guys throwing a bright green frisbee on a small piece of grass in the middle of downtown.  The sun was out and it was barely warm, but there they were.  Everyone was watching them with smiles on their faces--the kind of smiles that only people from the Midwest who have been enduring winter for like eight months smile.  Suddenly the frisbee overshot the outstretched hands of one of the young men and sailed into a busy intersection.  Everyone held their breath for a moment and then a cab came driving through and crushed the green frisbee into a hundred pieces.

Rob went to the intersection, gathered the pieces of frisbee and put them in an envelope.  He said that was several years ago, and he still had the pieces in an envelope in his garage.  One day, he told us, he would use them.

If your eyes are open--you will see plenty of things that will help you communicate better.

We walk around with smartphones that have state-of-the-art digital cameras built into them.  There are so many things throughout the course of a week that we see, experience or witness that should strike us as curious or interesting.  We can easily record these events via video or photo, and save them for a rainy day.  It may not make sense to us in the moment--other than "That's cool!" or "I love that!" But one day---it might.

I use Evernote to organize my buckets.  Evernote is like a huge filing cabinet in the cloud where you can file websites, photos, notes, documents, videos and just about everything else you can think of in notebooks that are searchable.

I literally have notebooks for every topic I can think of.  Whenever I find something cool on the interwebs or I see something interesting that requires my capturing it by photo or video---I share it with my Evernote.  About once a month I go through Evernote and organize all of the files.

I have learned that you never know when you will need something to bring a sermon or a talk together---and the best place to look is right in your buckets.

For example, I preached a sermon recently where I remembered a video I thought was amazing two years before.  Sure enough, I found the link in an Evernote notebook and was able to use the video as an illustration for my sermon.  It was literally the thing that drew the whole sermon together.

The Fast and Slow Thinking Process

Sermon preparation is a combination of "fast" and "slow" thinking.  The fast thinking usually occurs on the front end of the sermonizing process.  I typically start by reading through a stack of commentaries gleaned from my library.  Rob Bell calls this knowing "the theological conversation."  At some point I begin reading the same comments over and over again so I know I'ver sort reached my limit on commentary absorption.  I do take extensive notes during this process, which I use later.

Then I leave the commentaries, my notes and go do other things.  I even take a day off, typically after completing this little exercise.  At this point you might go running, for a drive, surf, skate, play video games, anything that doesn't require a lot of thought.  This will allow what you've just read to sink in a bit and for you to ruminate over the whole thing.

After this "fast" thinking, comes the "slow" part of the process.  I often ponder the questions that I have about the passage.  "Why does it matter?" or "Why do I find that curious?"  I might even begin to wonder what is going on in the context of the passage.  "Who wrote it? Why? Who was the audience? What was happening historically?"

Rob Bell suggested that you allow yourself to become "familiar with the emotional contours of the passage so that it sinks into your gut."  This kind of slow thinking can only happen when you aren't doing the "fast" work of studying, cramming, taking all of the notes you can while reading.

The Controlling Idea

The days of sermons that are constructed of "three points and a poem," are long gone.  People don't want a lecture.  In their recent book, "Why No One Wants To Go To Church Anymore," Thom and Joanie Schultz identified that "getting lectured," was one of the reasons people didn't really care to come to church.  Who would, right?  And yet, that's what thousands upon thousands of preachers do each and every week: they prepare a lecture and deliver it to their congregation.

I have come to understand that when there is more than one point to my sermons, I've done something wrong.  Andy Stanley refers to it as the "one thing," or the "big idea."  Rob Bell calls it the "controlling idea."  Either way it means the same thing.  There's one point to the sermon.

Rob cited the example of one of the Nooma videos that he shot years ago about forgiveness.  The controlling idea of the video was, "Forgiveness is when you set someone free and you realize it's you."  The entire video was centered on this one idea--an idea that shaped the way the video moved, how it was shot and the story that was taking place behind Rob's teaching.

Last week I preached on having a home where everyone hungers and thirsts after righteousness--where the things of God are lifted up above all other things. The controlling idea of the sermon was:  "In a Christ-centered home, righteousness is always on the menu."  I try to keep the one point of my sermon concise and memorable.  I also state it at the beginning of the sermon, perhaps throughout the middle and definitely at the end.  I also include it on the sermon notes, it appears on the power point the congregation sees and I make sure to forward the one point to all of the worship leaders ahead of time so they know exactly what I am preaching.

Andy Stanley said something once that has shaped the way I construct the controlling ideas of my sermons ever since.  He said, "You need to be able to tweet your sermon."  Which means you need to be able to distill the essence of your sermon down to 140 characters or less.  In case you were wondering, this is the most difficult part of the sermonizing process, but once it's done---you can really begin creating.

Writing, Arranging, Shaping 

"Get every piece of furniture into the room, and then organize the furniture." - Rob Bell 

Once you begin actually writing, or outlining your sermon, it's important to get all your ideas down--even if it doesn't all make sense in the beginning.  Rob Bell told us that it was like getting all of the furniture into the room, and then working to organize the room so it looked good, had some feng shui or maybe had a rug that drew the whole thing together (for all you Big Lebowski fans).

One way to do this is by storyboarding your sermon.  Here's a possible way to shape a sermon using storyboards:  

Maybe you have a story--or a passage of Scripture that you want to begin with.  So you draw a box and put a description of the story, or a synopsis of the Scripture in it.

Then you have a question about that story or Scripture that creates some tension.  Maybe it's a question about "What kind of God would allow that...?" Or maybe it's one that begins something like, "Have you felt as though...?"  The question creates a tension that perhaps didn't exist before the story or Scripture was read.  So that question goes in a triangle next to the box.

After this you draw a circle, and you write a brief synopsis of an illustration or an example of how there is something in that question that speaks to all of us, there's a universal connection to it that we all sort of feel.

Then you return to your Scripture (or go to it for the first time) and bring the tension back--digging deeper into the context of the passage--and all of this goes in a triangle.

After this you draw another circle and you tell a story that illuminates why the thing we all feel is true, and the reason we feel it so deeply is because we were made to--or something like that.  But at this point you are alleviating the tension that you caused with your questions, and your hints and allegations.

Then you draw another box and you outline a brief affirmation that is guaranteed to not only end your sermon but send the congregation out the door feeling as though they have been on a journey.  They are wrung out, stunned, amazed, uncertain of how to even find the door.

This would be a good thing.  Envision this.

Perhaps merely storyboarding the sermon will enable you to keep from having to write a manuscript.  I'm of two minds on this because on the one hand I see the benefit of being able to speak "off the cuff" so to speak without feeling scripted, and on the other hand I think that it's important to put your ideas down at some point so you can go over them and evaluate whether they make sense or not.

I tend to do a bit of both.  I storyboard and then use the storyboard to create a brief outline that is printed in the bulletins at my church.  Then I write a blog post that serves as my manuscript.  I do most of the sermon without it, but I do consult it from time to time if I want to get something complicated right.  But I will say, I am trying to move away from even that little bit.

When I am preaching more practical sermons--sermons where I am challenging my congregation a bit---I often use a sermon shape that I learned from Andy Stanley's great book, Communicating for A Change.  He typically uses a form that employs the following "movements:" Me, We, God, You, We.

When you use this pattern, you begin with a disarming story about yourself, perhaps.  "When I was in seventh grade--I was the ugliest kid you could ever imagine..."

Then you move to include the audience, "We all know what it's like to feel awkward, and outcast, to be on the margins..."

Then you transition to your Scripture, "We're not the only ones to feel this way, as it turns out---thousands of years ago there was an outcast woman in ancient Palestine who met Jesus and had her life changed...."

After doing some exegesis, teaching from the text, telling the story, etc., you transition to the next part of the pattern by saying something like, "You may feel as though God is challenging you to change your life, to let go of your past---but all you want to do is talk about religion."

Then you move into the conclusion of the sermon where you paint a picture for "We" that moves the congregation into the future.  "What would it look like if we simply trusted the One who knows everything there is to know about us, and accepts us anyway?"

Me, We, God, You, We.

Now, you might be thinking, "Doesn't that get boring to preach like that?" or "Doesn't your congregation get tired of experiencing the same patterns?"  Not really.  There are literally limitless variations that can be used within the Me-We-God-You-We pattern to keep it fresh and relevant---both for you and your congregation.

I also have a different pattern that I use when I am doing more of a study-style sermon where I am teaching through the text, letting it guide the shape of the sermon--and then conclude with some universal observations about the truth imbedded in the story, and a particular application for everyone to walk out the door with when we're done.

Regardless of the shape of the sermon, however, I always strive to have one controlling idea--even though I might have a couple of ways to reinforce it.

Next Installment:  Creative Presentations & Idea Links

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Lesson On Making People Hate Church

If you are a church leader, pastor, or otherwise church-y kind of person---this will sting a little, but it needs to be said:  You are probably the reason someone, somewhere doesn't want to ever go to church again. 

I know.  Feel the sting.

It's like Bactine on a knee-scrape.

Admitting you have a problem is the first step.

The second step is asking the obvious question: "In what ways have I caused others to hate church?"  Or to put it in corporate terms, "What is my church doing to make people hate coming to church?"

A lot, as it turns out.

There are hundreds of things that church-y people do to make people who aren't that church-y feel like an outsider because... they aren't that church-y.  It could be the way a church welcomes--or doesn't, insider-friendly worship, closed groups, you name it.

But I have come to believe that the biggest culprit when it comes to antipathy toward church is when a congregation, faith community or denomination's beliefs, values, vision, statement of purpose or mission are defined in negative terms.

Simply put, it's when your congregation, faith community or denomination is known more by what it is against, than what it's for.

This is an actual letter on the website of an actual Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church.  Disclaimer: I used to attend these kinds of churches when I was a youngster, so I am completely not shocked by this kind of thing....
You probably will not like Liberty Baptist Church. 
We are an old-fashioned Bible believing, Bible preaching, independent Baptist church. We believe and teach that the only way to get Heaven is by faith in Jesus Christ as your personal Savior. 
We believe that those who reject Christ will suffer eternal punishment in Hell. We are a soul-winning, bus-running church actively engaged in spreading the Gospel to every creature. We are conservative in our standards and music. 
We are against communism, socialism, liberalism, and materialism. We are against naturalism, moral relativism, multi-culturalism, pragmatism, utopianism, existentialism and post-modernism. 
We believe in a literal six day creation of the world and universe by the direct action of God and reject the theory of evolution as a philosophy spawned by the Devil. 
We believe God is real and that someday every person shall stand before God to give account of himself.
We believe the Bible is the Word of God and it is the final authority for faith and practice in our lives.
We believe in the literal, bodily resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and that at any moment He may physically return to rapture His redeemed people.
We stand unapologetically for the old-time religion.
If this is the type of church you are looking for, or if you are brave enough to try it, you are welcome to attend Liberty Baptist Church.
-Pastor McSpadden  
It's not too much of a stretch to say that the folks at Liberty Baptist probably aren't very welcoming to people who vote Democrat, and they probably aren't too fond of people who think psychology, sociology, science and education have something to offer to society.

If your cultural heritage is something other than American, they aren't interested in you talking about it.

And they aren't interested in recycling, feeding the hungry, fighting poverty, ending war, etc. because the world is just going to get worse and worse and then be destroyed in the end--but only before they are snatched away by Jesus to safety so they can go to heaven while all of the rest of us heathens burn for eternity.

You can easily read between the lines and imagine all of the people that aren't welcome in this church.  You can also read between the lines and imagine what this church teaches about women in leadership, homosexuality, etc.

This might seem like a pretty extreme example, but sadly this letter explicitly states on its website what is hidden below the surface in far too many churches and Christian communities.

The vast majority of conservative, evangelical churches in America affirm the very same things that the Liberty Baptist folks affirm in this letter--only they do so with a bit more panache, and a whole lot less out in the open.  

On the other hand, I have also experienced what I call "the fundamentalism of the left," in some so-called progressive faith communities where my being a Southern, white male was a perfect, trifecta of evil.  

When I was in seminary, I remember one of my classmates proclaiming that she didn't know how anyone who drove an SUV could be considered a Christian. I remember listening to many of my fellow students, who are now ordained Presbyterian ministers lambasting "godless" Republicans and equating President George W. Bush with the Devil.  

I've come to understand that in church-y world it's important that people know what and who you are against.  

This accomplishes two things:  

First, it serves to keep out the people you don't want in the first place--people who ask questions, who think, who would challenge what you believe and teach, etc.  

Second, it makes it easier to kick the aforementioned people out of your church when they violate your essential tenets.  Or at the very least ostracize them so much that they want to leave. 

It also keeps out the vast majority of people who don't have a relationship with Jesus, and who honestly aren't sure if they want one after reading the list of what you are against.  

Especially if what you are against happens to be them.  

So here's a lesson on making people hating church: 
If you really want people to hate church--keep defining your church by what it isn't.  

But if you want people to start falling in love with Jesus, maybe it's time for a different approach.  Maybe it's time to start talking about all of the things you are for.  

And if the list of what you are for is dwarfed by the list of what you are against, maybe it's time to wonder why you are doing any of this in the first place.  

If it's just to create a community of people who all look, think and act like you---then be honest about it, sort of like the Liberty Baptist folks.  

But if you actually want to introduce people to the life-changing, amazing love of Jesus... 

I'm thinking that "against" page on your website needs to get deleted, along with the narrow religious message that gave birth to it.  

Friday, July 11, 2014

Bless This Home - Week One: Hunger & Thirst After RighteousnessRom

This week we are beginning a brand new three-part sermon series entitled "Bless this Home: Lessons for Families from Jesus."  And as part of our study, we're going to be focusing on a few key verses from the introduction to Jesus powerful Sermon on the Mount--what some people call "The Beatitudes."

This is the first full-blown sermon series that I've preached on the issues that are facing families in our culture in a very long time--perhaps the first time since I've been at First Church.  Which might seem odd at first, but I gave some thought as to the possible reasons.

To begin with, it's a broad topic.  Where do we even begin?  How do we figure out what areas to focus on when it comes to family issues--because there are so many things that families in our culture seem to be struggling with right about now.

Secondly, family dynamics in our culture are changing more rapidly than in any other time in recent history.  Our understanding of what constitutes a family has also changed.  We've had to leave behind the images of family that were largely created and sustained by marketing throughout the 1950's and 60's, and are hard to shake in some parts of our country even now.

The fact of the matter is simply this: Families are more complicated than ever, and so are the problems they are facing.

I did a quick survey on the interwebs, particularly to websites that talk about the problems facing "Christian" families.  And virtually every single survey result I saw had the same issues.  So, care to guess what the top four problems facing Christian families today might be?

4.  Finances - not surprising here.  Money problems raise their ugly heads in all kinds of relationships, not just Christian ones.

3.  Lack of a Father Figure - if you read the statistics, fatherlessness is perhaps the one consistent factor in the background of the vast majority of convicted felons in prisons all across America.

2. Busyness - this one lands on me like a ton of bricks.  What is getting replaced by our devotion to work, zillions of activities for kids, constant scheduling...?

1.  Broken homes/divorce--listen, I am not casting any stones here. But it just seems funny to me that this was the top item on a list for Christians.

Here were some honorable mentions:  Materialism (otherwise known as keeping up with the Joneses), Work/Life balance (we always cheat on something is it our jobs or our families?), Communication (as in lack of) and Media Influence (referring to all of the negative images we see every day).

And to add insult to injury--the divide between generations which is essentially a cultural as well as a generational divide has taken on epic proportions.  Consider how just in the past five years things in our culture have been transformed with the reliance on mobile communication devices, obsession over connectivity through social media and the ever-expanding universe within the world wide web.

Consider these nine movies that you cannot explain to kids today...

1.  Psycho - a woman embezzles money from her employer and then checks into the Bates Motel, a creepy old place inhabited by a psychotic killer who dresses up like his dead mother.
Kids today would be like, "Why didn't she just look up the ratings and customer comments on Yelp, or Trip Advisor, man?"  

2.  The Breakfast Club - five teenagers are forced into weekend detention and overcome their differences to collectively raise their fist to the man who is always trying to keep the down.
Kids today would wonder why anyone would bother looking up from their smart phones long enough to even see each other in detention. 

3.  Grease - Good girl Sandy and bad boy Danny fall in love over the summer then fall out of love, and then suddenly discover that they are attending the same high school in the fall.
Kids today would be like, "They would have been facebooking one another or texting all summer long and would have totally known..."  

4.  An Affair to Remember - two lovers played by Deborah Kerr and Carey Grant agree to meet on Valentine's Day at the Empire State Building if they are still in love after six months, but she gets hit by a car on her way and is too ashamed afterward about her injuries to ever contact him.
Kids today would be like, "That dude would have totally been texting her and blowing up her phone--someone would have answered it or he would have seen something about the accident on the internet." 

5.  You've Got Mail - Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks play business rivals who fall in love through email without knowing they are in competition with one another.
Kids today would be like, "No way would that ever happen--I'd be stalking them all over facebook and twitter to find a photo of them or something."  

6.  Mrs. Doubtfire - A woman divorces her husband and denies him visitation with his kids so he dresses up like an old English nanny and gets hired as their housekeeper/nanny.
Kids today would be like, "Are you kidding? She didn't go to Angie's List? She didn't do background checks or at least Google the nanny's name to see if it was legit?" 

7.  Home Alone - A little kid's family boards a plane for France and leaves him home alone in their Chicago suburb during Christmas.
Kids today would be like, "There are a zillion ways they could get a hold of him, email him from the plane, call a neighbor to supervise, text him through his iPod..."  

8.  The Blair Witch Project - three film students go off in search of an urban legend supernatural witch serial killer kind of thing and end up terrorized and dead.
Kids today would be like, "If just one of them had a smart phone they could have Google mapp'd their way out of that mess." 

9.  Roman Holiday - Audrey Hepburn plays a princess fed up with being a princess and runs away to freedom and anonymity where she befriends and falls for a reporter.
Kids today would be like, "Are you serious? A princess couldn't do anything without everyone on the internet knowing it.  Plus, her photo would be all over the place."  

Those are just nine...  there are many, many more.

So how do we bridge the divide--a divide that is growing and becoming more and more daunting by the year?

Well, we could start simply.

Here's a verse that will help guide us:  Matthew 5:6 - Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.

Jesus meant this for his followers--for those who were going to forsake all others, and all the world had to offer and simply walk in his footsteps.  But his words speak to all of those who would follow him even now, to stumble after him as best we can.  And I think these words speak right into the heart of the issues Christian families are facing today.

And when I use the word "Christian" families, I use it loosely.  I'll explain why in a moment, but first a question:

What kind of home are you making?

What are the things that you hunger for in your home...? what's on the "menu" so to speak...? And I don't mean what's on the menu--literally--for dinner.  Could someone like me tell what your family hungered for by the way you spent your time, for example... or the things you talk about... or the things you spent your money on...?

I know that this might sound a bit cheesy, but when you read Matthew 5:6 with families in mind you kind of have to say the following:  "Righteousness is always on the menu in a Christ-Centered home."

What do I mean by "righteousness?"  Well, some people want to translate that into "holy-living" and focus on ideas surrounding behavior.  I don't think that even comes close.  In nearly every part of the New Testament that mentions the word refers to it as "being set to rights" with God.

And further, it has the connotation that this being "set to rights" is something that is not of our doing, and can't fully happen in our present state.  In other words, it's God's doing, and when it happens we get a glimpse of what its like where God is.  This is kingdom talk in other words.  So when you hunger after righteousness, you are simply hungering, longing for a world, a state of being a space where the things of God are lifted up higher than the things of this world.

This can happen in your own home... In fact, that's the best place for it to happen...  At least at first.

Now--if you are trying to change the focus of your family's hunger, here
s what won't work: being lukewarm in your faith.

When I say lukewarm, again, what I don't mean is someone who sins up a storm by not keeping all of the rules and regulations that the church-y people say your'e supposed to keep in order to be "on fire" for God.  I simply mean when there's not enough relationship in your religion.  If you have all the trappings of faith, but have no real desire to follow Christ, to love the world as he does...  you might be lukewarm. And your'e family will completely get used to that lukewarm Christian-y water and won't long for anything else.

This also won't work:  Being legalistic in your faith.

When I say legalistic, I do mean someone who is obsessed with the rules and regulations--someone who has too much religion in their relationship.  If following Jesus for you means that you reduce the very essence of Christianity down to do's and don'ts you might be legalistic.  And if you are, then your family will inevitably suffer when the questions get too difficult to answer, or the rules get too impossibly hard to keep.

I went to hear one of my favorite authors speak, and he told us about a buddy who came to him for advice.  It seems the man's daughter was dating an absolute loser of a boyfriend--a kid who wasn't keen on Christianity, had no desire to really work for a living and was a sleeze-bag who had no respect for women.  He told his friend that he was seriously considering taking the kid for a very long ride out into the country and making him disappear.  But everyt ime he talked to his daughter about the boyfriend, and his lack of faith, or respect for her she would storm out, slam the door and refuse to talk to him.  She refused to go to church, started sneaking out at night--all of the things she'd once held dear were getting thrown by the wayside.  She told her father that she didn't even know if she believed in God any more and was tired of living by his rules.

The speaker told us that he made a suggestion to his friend.  He said, "Your daughter has created this new storyline for her life that is incredibly dramatic and way more compelling than the one you are offering.  In this story, you and God are big bullies trying to keep her from her misunderstood love.  You need to give her a better story."

And so the man cancelled their family vacation plans and scheduled a trip to Mexico where they would engage in mission work for three weeks.  The daughter cried, she threw tantrums, she wouldn't speak to him for days.  But she went.  And she served.  And she had her heart broken.  And she felt the presence of God in ways she'd never known.

And when she came home----she broke up with the boyfriend because she realized that God had given her a better story than his sorry butt ever would.

What this man discovered was that it wasn't about just being a Christian.  It wasn't just about saying to other people, "We're a Christian family," or "Our family---yup, we're Christians."  That's meaningless in our culture, to be honest.  In fact, to a lot of emerging generations it's worse than meaningless it's detrimental to their faith.

When it comes to your family--it's not about being Christian, it's about being Christ-centered.

Here's Psalm 63:1 - O God, you are my God, I seek you,
    my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
    as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

But what if we look at it in the Revised Family Version:
O God, you are my God, we seek you,
    our family's souls thirsts for you;
our flesh faints for you,
    as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

What the man discovered through his efforts with his daughter was that she longed for a better story--she longed for something that was compelling, and true and meaningful... But since there didn't seem to be anything better than what she could find on her own--she began hungering and longing for the wrong things.

When he showed her a better story, a more beautiful purpose, even more compelling ideas and truth and meaning----she embraced it.

Now, not everyone embraces the goodness of God when they are confronted with it.  But unless we are willing to be intentional about centering our family on Christ, how will they know otherwise?

There are three basic steps that any family can do right now to begin the process of changing what's on the menu in their home...

First, have daily conversations about God and what God is doing in the world.  They don't have to be deep theological discussions--just conversations.  Find God in the good moments.  Thank God for your blessings.  Praise God even when things are difficult and trust God when its hard to do so.  These kinds of conversations can happen every day.  And they accumulate over time.  They become part of your family vocabulary.

Second, make church non-negotiable.  When I was a kid we went to church three times a week if we needed or not--and we didn't always need it in the way it was provided, let me tell you.  So I am not advocating for church becoming an idol that replaces the other idols in your family life.  But it should be a non-negotiable, completely understood family plan.  Just because your church experience sucked, doesn't mean that your kid's experience has to... Find a church service that your family can attend together---one that fits your schedule, your tastes, etc. And then put your flag in that hill---because you mean to die on it.  I had years of my life where I had nothing to do with church, but I absolutely credit the fact that I didn't have even more of them because my parents were non-negotiable about us attending it together.

Third, demonstrate with your life, actions, attitude and beliefs that knowing and showing Jesus is fun. Serve together as a family, give as a family, help others as a family.  Make sure that the story of your faith is the most exciting, incredible, crazy fulfilling story of your life.  Tell that story to your kids, demonstrate it with your life together.

We had these friends once---and we went over to their house for dinner where they did something kind of weird and uncomfortable for us. They all held hands and then went around the table sharing things about their day.  We held hands, too.  The kid next to me was sweating profusely--or maybe it was me.  I dunno.  It freaked me out to sit there while they acted all strange.

Then this past Advent we became those people.  We read prayers around the table before we ate, shared the things we were grateful for, and we sang Christmas songs each night--which at first was kind of awkward but then became really, really awesome.

But we didn't hold hands the hold time.  Which made it less weird, I'm thinking.

It was a little thing.  But maybe it wasn't such a little thing.  Maybe one day when I am an old grandpa and my wife is a hot grandma our kids will tell us how much it meant for them that we talked about God that we made them go to church even sometimes when we didn't want to go either (which is kind of harsh since we're the pastor's family) and we actually did our best--even though we failed as often as we succeeded--to show them just how incredible it is when you have a Christ-centered home....

Where righteousness is always on the menu.