Thursday, July 29, 2010

Wherever He Puts Us. . . Whatever It Takes. . .

I saw something amazing while we were on vacation a couple of weeks ago. Lisa and I took an afternoon to explore Swallow Falls State Park near Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland with our friends Ray and Terry. The short trail that led to the falls wound through some woods populated by huge Hemlock trees, rolling terrain, and some very, very large rocks. Our little hike was filled with one awe-inspiring sight, sound, and smell after another.

Then, I came upon something I had never seen before, or even thought possible. And it wasn't just one thing. . . but many. Scattered throughout forest were these trees that had somehow grown on top of some huge rocks. I thought about Jesus and the parable of the sower. Aren't seeds that fall on rocky soil unable to grow? Still, somehow, someway, seeds had fallen on rocks and landed in very, very small, thin, and no longer visible layer of soil. Just enough to sprout. But in order to thrive and grow, the trees had to adapt to their surroundings by sending out their roots in multiple directions over the rocks and then down into the surrounding soil.

Life, I think, is like that. Our sovereign God is in control of every minute and aspect of our lives. We are planted where He wants us planted. And, no matter where we find ourselves, whether it be times of plenty or want, we are to wholeheartedly seek to immerse ourselves in the fertile and life-giving soil of His word so that we might be nourished to grow and thrive. Somehow, this tree tapped into living water against great odds. Wherever He puts us, we must -with His help and by His grace - do the same. Whatever it takes, we must do the same.

This tree reminded me of my need to fill my well with the water of God's Word. It reminded me of my need to remind the kids I know and love to do the same. The abundant life will always be filled with great challenges. While we may be tempted to curse God, we must still seek Him. . . . delighting in and meditating on His word so that we might be like trees planted by streams of water (Psalm 1).

What an amazing tree. What an amazing picture. What an amazing life!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Ministering In The Midst of Pain. . . .

At a time when we should be ministering to her and her family, she is ministering to us. I have been so encouraged by the posts Alisa Parrett is regularly writing for the Caring Bridge site she's using to keep us all updated on her Dad's condition. You might remember from my July 6 posting that my friend and seminary mentor, Gary Parrett, was in a horrific bus accident in South Korea that claimed 12 lives. Gary is still hospitalized in Korea, will be hospitalized most likely for an exteneded period of time, and has still not woken up.

I mention the nature and tone of Alisa's posts because they are testimony to the sustaining grace of God, the hope that is ours in Christ, the power of the Great Physician, the importance of nurturing our children in the faith, and the power of our spiritual legacy. If I remember correctly, Alisa is in her early twenties. She is her mom and dad's only child. I've only met her on a couple of visits to her family's home, but her postings over the course of the last few weeks have allowed us all to see into the heart of young woman whose deep faith is sustaining her during these difficult days. This is significant as Gary has long been a humble yet outspoken advocate of the need for the church and family to educate children, particularly through the process of catechesis. He has recently written two books on the subject, the latest - Grounded In The Gospel - with J.I. Packer.

Gary's investment in the spiritual nurture and education of his own daughter is very evident in her postings. If you read back over what Alisa has written, you will find that some of the hymns written by her father have served to sustain and encourage Alisa and her mom. Gary's is ministering to his family even while not conscious. In turn, they are ministering to us.

Please continue to keep Gary Parrett and his family in your prayers.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Lifeboats, Arks, and How We Spend Our Time. . . .

"Okay, our work is done here." That's more or less what they said, and then they packed up and left. "They" were the two traveling presenters who had come to the university where I was doing campus ministry in 1980. They worked for a large ministry organization that had developed some evangelistic multi-media presentations, one of which they had just shown to a large group of students that had come as a result of our on-campus publicity blitz.

When the mutli-media presention on the afterlife was over, an invitation to come to faith was made by the pair, and then they passed out and collected "comment cards" from all the attendees. Their job was "complete" when they had packed their van, counted up the number of "commitments on the cards," and said "goodbye" to us.

I can still remember the dark spot where me and my ministry partner were standing on that quiet campus late at night as the van pulled away. We looked at each other, both feeling an uneasy sense that what we had just provided for students was a happening, and not something that was really going to have a lasting impact on anyone's life. Granted, I still have no clue how God used that evening and what we did to impact His Kingdom. But from our human vantage point, something was amiss.

The way things were done that night along with seeing countless similar evangelistic methods and understandings both before and since, have combined with a growing understanding of Scripture and God's will to affirm that our feelings of unease were justified. The world is going to Hell in a handbasket, the prevalent thinking goes. Our greatest responsibility as followers of Jesus is to "save" (and we erroneously believe that we play a bigger role in this process than we actually do, all the while diminishing God's role) as many people as possible. Every raised hand, walk forward, or "yes" box checked on a comment card is not only a victory, but an opportunity to utter the words "Okay, our work is done here." But the way in which we understand and live out our mission not only downplays or even dismisses discipleship and sanctification, but somehow misinforms our understanding of what it means to live as God's people in God's world.

These thoughts were spurred this morning as I've continued my trek through Randy Alcorn's wonderful book, Heaven. Just like our misunderstanding of what it means to follow Jesus beyond the initial "yes," most Christians have deep misunderstandings and false notions about the nature of Heaven. Alcorn sets out to describe what Heaven - biblically - is really like. And in similar ways that our understanding of salvation will shape how we our lives, so does our understanding of Heaven. Many times, the two intersect.

For example, this morning I read a short section in Alcorn's book where he speaks about "Lifeboat or Ark Theology?" He cites Paul Marshall's mention of the misguided notion among many Christians that the world is not only wrecked, but beyond salvage. Like the sinking Titanic, nothing can be done about a sinking ship. It's time to jump overboard and sit in the lifeboat, something often referred to as "Lifeboat Theology." You get saved, sit back, and wait. But God has not given up and God is not concerned just with the survival of His people. God doesn't just want us to reach over the edge of our lifeboats to pluck out and "save" other victims, only to float until Heaven when all will be well. Rather, Marshall says that what we need is an "Ark Theology." The ark wasn't about flight. The ark was about returning to God's earth and beginning again. After the flood dissipated, Marshall says, everyone and everything was intended to return again to restore the earth. . . . a restoration that extends to every nook and cranny of fallen creation, because every nook and cranny of fallen creation groans for restoration and redemption. . . and Jesus came to restore every nook and cranny. . . not just people.

"Fill the earth and rule it." That was God's command to Adam and Eve at creation. That was God's command to Noah and his family after the flood. And that's God's command to us. No, our work isn't done here. The good work of making and redeeming culture through our faithful presence in God's world is what we need to be trumpeting through how we live our lives and what we're teaching the kids we know and love. Not only that, it's work that will continue once we inhabit the New Earth. And we must begin in earnest after we say "yes."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Worshipping Lebron. . . .

I'm not a fan of the NBA. I never really have been. Over the years, I've fulfilled my duty as a Philly sports fan by attending a handful of Sixers games, but it never really stuck. After last week, I'm not sure the NBA will ever catch my attention or allegiance. Following all the hype over Lebron James' big announcement on an ESPN special, Lebron and the other two members of South Florida's new holy trinity were introduced amidst loud music, smoke, over-the-top hype, and a heavy dose of ego to 13,000 fans who had gathered in the Heat's home arena. They'd better deliver. Did you see it? All I could think of as I watched is that professional basketball has somehow morphed into professional wrestling.

The history of sport is not something that I've spent any time studying as an academic pursuit. But with 45-plus years of being a fan under my belt, there are some changes that have taken place that when seen in light of where we've come from, should cause concern about where we're going. Flipping through the channels over the last 24-hours confirms it.

First, there's the money. Did you hear that George Steinbrenner died today? Steinbrenner is perhaps the earliest and most notorious practioner of building a winning team by buying good players. He was flying solo back then. He was the only one who had the money and deisre to do so. Today, there are many following in his footsteps.

Second, there are the big egos that the big money creates and buys. The old saying, "There's no 'I' in team" is just that. . . old. Athletes who live out the saying are an endangered species. Oh, there were always big egos. There's nothing new under the sun and the human heart was just as dark back then as it is now. But there was a sense of decency and decorum that kept it all in check. But the swagger that fans once cursed is now celebrated. Just watch what happens every time Lebron James throws that powder in the air in Miami.

Third, there's the marketing. . . which is all a part of making the big money. Last night Major League Baseball attempted to fill Angel Stadium, not for a game, but for a Home Run Derby. Hey, as a baseball fan I think it's a great idea. But when you sit back and watch you soon realize that it's all a marketing thing. Ironically, boredom finally got to me and I started flipping around. I ran across a replay of a 1980 Stanley Cup hockey game between the Flyers and Islanders, along with a replay of a 1987 NBA playoff game between the Sixers and some other team that I can't remember. Do you know what struck me? As I've blogged before, the hockey ice was void of ads. Nothing in the ice. Nothing on the boards. But there was something else I noticed that I had never noticed before. I didn't see any Islanders fan in the stands wearing team jerseys, t-shirts, or hats. . . and the Islanders were the home team. The fans were dressed. . . normal! I noticed the same thing in the stands at the Sixers game. But when I attended major league baseball games in two cities over the course of the last week, team merchandise (hats, shirts, jerseys) was being worn by just about everybody. . . and the lines were long at the team stores!

This is a trend to monitor and address. Idolatry takes many forms, and the world of sport offers our kids many idols. If they learn from us, they'll most likely grow up worshipping something or someone other than the One who made them.

Friday, July 9, 2010

One Man's Pain Is. . . .

This one's just for fun. It all started with my love for the Tour de France. I'm spending a good chunk of my daily time during the month of July watching the race, something I've been doing for years. It's the strategy, the skill, the colors, the scenery, and even the spills that have fueled my growing fascination.

Last night I was telling my family about the large number of crashes that have occurred during this year's first few stages. A quick YouTube search turned up some great crash videos from the 2010 edition of the Tour, along with a plethora of unexpected crash footage new and old from all over the world of cycling.

That's when I ran across this little clip. It seems a sporting goods store has used the footage in a commercial, which adds a little bit of culture to a video that had us all laughing pretty hard. My guess is that if you're in ministry, this is one clip you'll be able to use to illustrate all kinds of spiritual truths.

So. . . . enjoy. . . .

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Stuff I See & Don't See. . . .

My summer mini-sabbatical has afforded me some extended time for indulging one of my favorite childhood activities. I've been taking longer and longer bike rides on the seemingly endless bicycling options here in beautiful Lancaster County. . . a place that the Internet tells me is one of the top 10 cycling locations in the world. I'm not sure who did the research on this one or tabulated the votes, but I believe them. Thanks to the recommendations and help of my buddy Adam Lewandowski at The Bike Lane in Reston, Virginia, I've spent the last three years viewing the scenery from the saddle of a Trek flat-bar road bike. I highly recommend both the shop and the bike. I've only gone over the handlebars once in that time. The rest of the time is spent looking over those handlebars while taking in the view and seeing lots and lots of stuff, including a red fox on my ride this afternoon. Oh, did I mention he was dead on the side of the road?

Recently, I've taken to using my cell phone camera to catch shots of interesting things I come across on my rides. I'm hoping there's a coffee table book in this somewhere down the road. Last week I snapped these photos of a pretty creative planter, a custom pick-up truck (putting that on here for all my friends from Mississipi, Texas, and Louisiana!), and one of the many Scripture signs which sit at the end of a few Mennonite farm lanes. This particular sign deserved to be captured because it wasn't about eternal damnation! Most of them are.

But there's something I haven't noticed much at all on my rides this summer. In fact, its absence is so widespread that it's somewhat stunning. I didn't really notice until I passed a young Mennonite mother and four of her little kids happily watering flowers together in their front yard. That's the picture that's been missing. . . kids outside. . . playing, working, doing anything at all. This reality struck me hard as I pedaled through Elizabethtown last Thursday afternoon. I saw backyards filled with swingsets, playhouses, etc., but no kids.

I mentioned this changing cultural reality to a couple of my friends. One of our CPYU board members, Sam Siple - the President of Eden Christian Academy in Pittsburgh - said that he's noticed the same thing. Sam immediately went into nostalgia mode, reciting the universal summertime kid play code of our childhood which included outside play from dawn to dusk with the requisite complaining whenever one had to come home for a meal (eaten fast to get outside again), bath, or bed time. Chris Wagner - one of our CPYU staffers who is only half my age - recalls the same thing. Culture has changed and it has changed fast.

If you follow the "Youth Culture News" section on our CPYU website you may have spotted this story: "Study: Too Many Video Games May Sap Attention Span." I'm sure (and it's not rocket science) that the advent and rapid expansion of video-games, entertainment, and social media technologies have played a big role in keeping the kids from physical and creative play. The jury is still out on the long-term effect all of this will have on our kids, their health, their relationships (both now and in the future) and our culture, but I'm sure it's not hard to figure out what the verdict will be.

Ok - so this post really makes me sound and feel old. But culture continues to change at breakneck speed. Our duty as people of the Kingdom is to think prophetically about these changes, and then to respond in God-glorifying and redemptive ways. And if we're serious about responding to what we see on our ride through life, the rate of cultural change will make us sound older at younger and younger ages.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Request For Urgent and Continued Prayer. . . .

Yesterday I received word from a doctoral classmate at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary that our dear friend and our program mentor, Dr. Gary Parrett, was critically injured in a bus accident in South Korea. The accident claimed 12 lives. One of the fatalities was Gary's friend Kenny Yee, pastor of Highrock Covenant Church in Arlington, MA and a GCTS alumnus.

The AP ran this video story on the crash:

In addition, the AP ran this article on the crash.

Gary's wife and daughter are currently en route to Korea to be with Gary, who as far as I know at this point, is still unconscious. Gary's injuries are extensive and severe, yet his condition is stable. Initial word is that Gary may be looking at several months of rehab in Korea until he is able to return home. Gary's daughter Alisa will be keeping us all posted on Gary's situation, prognosis, and progress at this website.

I hope you don't mind that I am taking advantage of my large network of ministry friends and the ability to communicate widely through the Internet as a way to solicit intercession on Gary's behalf. Please keep Gary, his wife,and his daughter in your prayers, both now and in the months to come.

So many of us are appreciative of Gary and His heart for Christ and His Kingdom. We are grateful too, for Gary's work on behalf of the church, both at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and through his writings, including his two recently released books Teaching the Faith - Forming the Faithful written with Steven Kang, and Grounded in the Gospel co-authored with J.I. Packer.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Screaming For Freedom. . . .

A few weeks ago I blogged about the critically-acclaimed AMC series Mad Men, the show a young friend turned me onto last summer when he asked if I was a fan. I had heard of it but hadn't seen it. He was hooked not only by the writing, but by the show's depiction of the era of the early 1960's, something he knew I'd like based on my age and vocation.

I filed it away in my mental Queue and Lisa and I finally got around to watching Season 1 several weeks ago courtesy of Netflix. Last night we watched the last four episodes of Season 3 and we're finally caught up. We've watched all 39 episodes of the series and we're ready for the July 25th premiere of season 4.

I noticed that tonight at 8pm Eastern Time, AMC will be starting the first of three weekly Mad Men marathons that will catch you up through the first three seasons. If you haven't watched Mad Men, I would urge you to give it a look. This isn't mindless entertainment. Rather, Christ-followers who watch from the life-foundation of a Biblical perspective will gain some amazing insights into God's world, what we've done with it, and what we're doing to ourselves.

While there's far too much to mention here, here are a few of the realities of life that Mad Men has helped me to better understand.

First, there's the culture of the time. I'm fascinated by the fact that the show depicts the world of my childhood, a world that I remember very, very well. In fact, it does it so well and with such precisions that viewers who grew up in that world might miss some of the many cultural references and depictions. I realized while watching last night that the Draper kids - Bobby and Sally - are about the age I was back in those "olden" days. It hit me hard as they were riveted to the old black and white TV as they watched coverage of JFK's assassination. I was in second grade at the time. I did the same thing and the memory is clear and fresh. I'm not sure I can remember a show that does such an excellent job of not only using the set to accurately reflect the times, but to do the same with values, attitudes, and behaviors. Yep, people really did smoke and drink that much back then. . . . even when they were pregnant.

Second, the show reminds us of just how fast time flies and how equally fast culture changes. It really wasn't that long ago. Sure, it's been almost fifty years. But I'm constantly reminding my young friends that's it will only take a fraction of that time for the stuff that currently fills the "sets" of their lives to be passe.

Which leads to number three. . . the insights the show offers into the evolution and spread of marketing as we know it today. When it comes to marketing, the show serves as a history lesson, offering insights into not only where marketing has come from, but how it operates in our lives. For example, built in obsolescence. . . the cycle of which has snowballed from then until now. Here today and gone tomorrow used to be here this year and gone next.

Fourth, there are the insights into parenting, brokenness, and family dysfunction. The constant flashbacks to Don Draper's childhood may bring tears to your eyes, especially if you are reminded about any not-so-easy events from your own early years.

And finally, if you've ever heard me talk about youth culture and marketing, you know that Madison Avenue exploits kids' self-perceived shortcomings, anxieties, and aspirations to get them to buy products. Ultimately, it's about promising salvation and redemption. It works. Why do you think our kids are so wrapped in materialism, narcissism, and consumption? Like all fallen humanity, they are empty. . . crying and screaming out for redemption. And that's what I like so much about Mad Men. As I've said before, the philandering depicted isn't gratuitous. Rather, it effectively shows a group of people who make big money peddling redemption, but never being able to find it themselves. These people are broken, messed-up, sorry characters who continue to spiral down as their quest for wholeness intensifies. . . and viewers know it.

I'm hard-pressed to remember a show that's grabbed me like this before. This is one to watch and filter through the lens of God's amazing, life-giving truth.