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Pixar And Preaching

February 21, 2014 at 1:41 pm

Up_Ellie_and_Carl-800x448As most you probably know (since my readership consists of me and my Mom. I LOVE YOU MOM!), I recently ended a three-month sabbatical. I am truly blessed to be part of a church family that respects the spiritual discipline and blessing of rest.

Though the time was not “restful” in the way we hoped (we adopted four kids; more on that soon), it did give me some great time to think about “ministry,” etc. Since one of the things I love to do is preach, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about preaching. I’m not saying I’m great at preaching, just that I love to do it. That’s not always a great combination, is it? Someone who loves doing something they’re no good at can be quite a sight. Do you see the lengths I’ll go to just to make a Seinfeld reference? It’s really quite sad. But I digress.

I remember a comment one professor made while I was at seminary. I can’t remember which professor it was, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my actual preaching professor. Anyway, speaking of sermons, they said: “Longer is not always deeper,” meaning that longer sermons are not always the deepest sermons. This has been something I’ve thought a lot about over the years because, since I tend to swim in “reformed” streams, I’m surrounded by people who love long sermons. If a sermon is short, it is automatically perceived to be shallow. If a sermon is short, it is automatically considered to be irreverent to the text.

Not only do I love preaching, I love poetry. I don’t necessarily mean I love sonnets or that I prefer it when things rhyme. I mean, who’s got the time? Even though so many of us preachers do have a thing for alliteration. To clarify: Billy Collins and William Carlos Williams are some of my favorite poets. I believe the essence of poetry is saying the most possible with the least number of words possible.

One of my favorite movie moments happens in Pixar‘s UpPixar says more about a genuine love story in four minutes than most major-league movies do in an hour-and-a-half. Don’t believe me? Watch now:

 




 

I want my sermons to be like this. I’m not as good at interweaving stories and illustrations into my sermons as I’d like to be, but I am trying to learn to say the most possible with the least number of words possible. Believe it or not, it’s actually more difficult to preach a shorter sermon. Anyone can preach a long sermon. You have time to develop points. You have the luxury of  providing filler. But the Christian life is not about filler. It’s about cutting the filler out.

And yet, anyone can preach a short sermon too. Just look at most mega-churches. The short, pithy sermon is par for the course. Sometimes these sermons will include the Gospel. Sometimes they won’t. But they will rarely exceed the seventh-grade level of comprehension. This is not what I’m talking about.

I want my sermons to tell God’s story the way This American Life tells our story or the way Radiolab tells the story of everyday discovery. Easily digestible but provocative segments. Again, I’m not saying I’ve arrived at my goal. I’m not even saying I understand completely how to do this. But what I am saying is that many of us need to re-examine the notion that longer sermons are somehow “better” and that others of us have no attention span. Both are lies.

What if every preacher struggled to find his own voice in his own community? What if we stopped paying attention to the way the celebrities do it? What if we stopped measuring success by buildings, butts and budgets? What if we all tried to regain the subversive beauty of the Gospel? What if we all hungered for more encounters with Jesus rather than the transfer of information?

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This Too, Shall Become Part Of Your Backstory

November 14, 2013 at 2:42 pm

downloadAll the cool kids these days are talking about the idea of “life as story.” This was the theme of Donald Miller’s 2011 book A Million Miles In A Thousand Years: How I Learned To Live A Better Story and subsequent Story conferences. N.D. Wilson explored the theme first in Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl and again in Death By Living.

I love the concept of understanding life as a story. I mean, come on, who doesn’t like a good story? Stories can convey truth without preaching. Stories can disarm people. Parties are always better with good stories. Find the person with the best stories and you’re likely to find a crowd as well.

And, unless the person is just a big fat liar, good stories aren’t easy to come by. They require effort because they require us to actually live. No one wants to hear about how you sat on the couch for six hours eating cereal and watching reruns of Family Matters. N.D. Wilson says:

“There is a difference between asserting that life is a story and actually living life like a story. And then there is another difference between living life like a story and living life like a good story.”

The reason so many of us don’t have good stories is because we don’t understand what it means to live like a story. Imagine your life up to this point as a story. And don’t pick a particular genre (romance, travel, adventure, etc.) because good biographies include many “cross-genre” elements. Would you buy the book of your life? Would you even read it? Would anyone else? Would anyone want the movie rights?

This is probably a good place to pause and say that to live life like a story does not mean that you have to constantly try and place yourself in dangerous or even necessarily exciting scenarios. You don’t have to risk your life everyday. But you have to be a character worth reading about. N.D. Wilson says it this way:

“which character are you? Who are you? Are you the guy who is there just to make the actual hero look good? Are you the guy who is there to die just as a morality tale, as a lesson, a cautionary tale for other people? And you might not be one of the real villains, you might not be a lecherous youth pastor or an unfaithful husband. You might not be egregiously bad, but you might be, well, you are something. You are the backstabbing friend, you are the irritable Dad, you are the horrible boyfriend, you are the gossip of a girlfriend. You are a complainer, you are a whiner, you are someone. And you are someone that you would probably not actually like if you saw them on screen. You probably wouldn’t like that character if you read that character as described by a master novelist.”

Living life like a story simply means living well. Be the kind of person you would like to read about. And understand that, this too, wherever you are currently at in life, no matter what you’re going through, good or bad, happy or sad, shall become part of your backstory. There will come a day in the future when you will tell the story of this phase of your life. Will you have to fudge the details to make it more interesting? Or will you rise to the occasion and life the good story?

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Your Own Piece Of Creation

November 4, 2013 at 7:56 am

outskirts4-269772-mEveryone wants their own piece of creation. Land disputes are as old as the Bible itself (Genesis 13). At its crudest, this desire manifests itself as suburbia; little sections of land cordoned off from one another with a “home” placed squarely within its borders.

But I believe that this desire is about more than just wanting privacy. It’s also about self identity and self-expression. Everyone wants to carve out their own section of creation. Their own place of being; where they can truly be themselves.

Think again to what many refer to as the “cultural mandate,” drawn from Genesis 1:26-28:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

As creatures uniquely created in God’s image, we are creators. Of course, we cannot create ex nihilo, as God does; we must use existing matter, but mankind is called to “subdue” the earth and have “dominion” over it. But this is not the type of tyrannical rule many people associate with such words. It was not until after the Fall that the earth and animals rebelled. Prior to that, Adam and Eve’s vocation would have been as gardeners, grounds-keepers, but not just tidying up, they were to extend the garden.

The idea of “culture” is uniquely associated with agricultural ideas. Adam and Eve were called to create and spread culture, to tame the earth as they saw fit. And, as more people were born, more personalities created, more ideas about how to express that dominion spread. Yes, the Fall made the task that much more difficult but it did not nullify our obligation to show the world who God is and what He is like. Part of the way we do this is by tending to our own piece of creation; the sphere of our lives. Not just our physical life, but our entire lives.

We all want a place (or life) where we can truly express ourselves without fear of judgment or the need to earn other people’s approval. And this is exactly part of what we have been called, as God’s stewards to do. But the paradox is that, when we allow our “boundaries” to be porous and we allow others, who are also truly learning to be and express themselves in and out of our spheres, we grow. Ideas cross pollinate and creativity blossoms. And, as each one of us becomes more confident in our individuality, we also become more acceptance of other people’s differences because we realize that its the quirks that make us special.

As we become responsible for our own “sphere” of creation, we work together, celebrating our differences and standing in our common goal of bearing God’s image to and through the world. How are you expressing God’s character in your sphere of creation?

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Manufacturing Opportunities

October 28, 2013 at 9:13 am

dumb-bell-1272846-mThis might come as a surprise to some of you but I am not in the best of physical shape. I mean, come on, I am a hunk, but I’m more like a hunk of soft cheese.

I live such a sedentary lifestyle that I have to manufacture opportunities to exercise. It does not come naturally to my office-based, stationary American, screen-filled life.

I try to eat well and exercise but, to be honest, it’s something I have to make an effort to do. Most Americans, myself included, live such a still lives that we have to manufacture opportunities to work our muscles. Whereas physical labor was once the norm for many people as part of their daily routines, we are now slow, lazy and fat.

Exercise is no longer something that comes naturally, so if it’s going to happen, it’s going to take intentionality. We have to consider our schedules and our priorities and we have to muster up the self-discipline just to get out and be active. Though the American lifestyle presents a lot of people with luxury, that’s not always a good thing. Comfort breeds complacency and complacency leads to atrophy.

But the need to manufacture opportunities doesn’t just apply to exercise, especially if you’re a Christian. Discipleship/Evangelism is expected to be a normal part of the Christian life. And yet, most American Christians never share their faith. And many American Christians don’t even know any non-Christians. In fact, we’ve inoculated ourselves from those who don’t yet know Jesus. We build mega-mall-churches with coffee shops, restaurants, sports leagues and the like, all pursuing a “safe, family-friendly” environment.

But just like our sedentary lifestyle means that we must manufacture opportunities to exercise, our isolationist Christianity means that we have to manufacture opportunities to spend time with those who don’t yet believe. This means that we must examine our schedules and consider our priorities.

It may even mean that we should do fewer “Christian” things; attend fewer Bible studies, etc. Christian community is a non-negotiable for the Christian life, but it should never mean that the result is that we don’t even know anyone who believes otherwise. We must manufacture opportunities. It’s not difficult, it’s just uncomfortable for many Christians for a variety of reasons, most fundamental is that many Christians just don’t feel comfortable articulating basic truths of our salvation.

This means that churches must adopt new measures of “success” and/or “failure.” We cannot base such assessments on our corporate gathering attendance. We have developed a culture in which the most “holy” people are often viewed as the ones who are at the church building the most or who are at the most events. However, if this comes at the expense of sharing our Savior, we have missed the point.

Living faithfully to Jesus takes effort and initiative just like living a healthy lifestyle. Get out there and manufacture opportunities. Join a club. Join a team. Go to your kids’ events. Opportunities are all around us. But are we pursuing them?

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I Like Some Music Lately

October 24, 2013 at 8:30 pm

And here’s some of it:

solarmotelChris Forsyth: Solar Motel 

I am an unashamed former jam-band fan. I don’t care what you think. We don’t all have to have the same musical tastes, now do we?! OK, so I get a bit defensive. People write off jam bands as aimless noodling (which is can be). But at its best, it is the soul of jazz improvisation in rock and roll form. It is the essence of the creative moment: the connectedness of musicians and audience.

I would exactly classify Chris Forsyth’s music as jam band. Nor would I place it in the loosely and ill-defined “American Primitive” category. But those worlds are at least touchstones. Forsyth calls his music “Cosmic Americana.” It’s captivating and often borders on seeming to unhinge from itself but the melodies weave it all together. Don’t let my talk of jam bands lull you into thinking that this is hippy-dippy background music. This is like when Sonic Youth jams, which they can and do.

Watch “Solar Motel Part II” live at “The Bazaar at the Gathering Place” earlier this year:

 




 

modernkinModern Kin: Modern Kin

Drew Grow and the Pastors’ Wives made my favorite 2010. But after a car crash and a personnel change, the band also shifted its vision and sound. Which led to a re-birth as Modern Kin. The band just released their debut, self-titled album and it’s quickly become one of my favorite albums of the year.

Here, why don’t you see for yourself. Check out a live performance of “Big Enough To Cook” for Oregon Public Broadcasting:

 




 

northernhustleNorthern Hustle: Forgether

OK, so I’m a little biased on this one. These are local guys and we’ve had the opportunity to host them for a house show. But, trust me, their debut album, Forgether is really good. It’s the first installment of a proposed three-album concept. The band says that they’ll be done once the story is done.

Here’s to hoping the story continues. Check out the band performing “Northland” at an Habañero Collective house show:

 




 

overseasOverseas: Overseas

Overseas is what happens when old friends David Bazan (Pedro the Lion, Headphones), Will Johnson (Centro-Matic, South San Gabriel), and Bubba and Matt Kadane (Bedhead, The New Year). Imagine what Will Johnson and David Bazan would sound like fronting the rhythm section from Bedhead. Well, actually, don’t just try to imagine it, hear it for yourself.

Watch the official video for “Ghost To Be”:

 




 

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The Disproportionate Blessing Of Blessing Others

October 24, 2013 at 2:34 pm

scale balance 2There are times when I look at some of the aspects of my faith and I know that it is God’s work in spite of me.

I mean, of course I’m going to say that I’m not as bad as other people. But I’m a pretty selfish person. Just ask my family.

And yet, I have been contemplating the words attributed to Jesus by Paul in Acts 20:35: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Though we do not have the exact situation for this saying recorded in Scripture but we also have no reason to doubt Paul. John himself closes his Gospel by telling us that there are other things that happened that were not written down (John 20:30). In fact, so many other things that if they were all written down, the world couldn’t even hold the books (John 21:25).

Paul, though, certainly attributes this saying to Jesus. So it might help to initially ask if this is something in keeping with the known teachings and sayings of Jesus that we do have. It certainly seems to be in line with other sayings from Jesus. For example, Matthew 20:28 reminds us that the Son of Man: “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” But Jesus didn’t just talk the talk, He walked the walk, actually laying down His life for the sake of others. All, as the writer to the Hebrews tells us (Hebrews 12:2), Jesus went to the Cross for the joy set before Him.

But Jesus is God! How can I be expected, as Paul commands in Philippians 2, to consider others as more significant than myself? I mean, after all, it’s survival of the fittest, right? If I don’t look out for number one, number two will become number one, then I’ll be number two!

But Jesus replaces our natural inclinations. He replaces our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36). And by laying not only His “rights” but His life down, He frees me from the chains of selfishness and reveals to me a new way of living and loving. Jesus demonstrates for us that love, by definition, seeks the benefit of others. This is a difficult thing to grasp, because it seems so foreign that it really is better to give than to receive.

And yet there’s a bit of everyday wisdom here, isn’t there? My mother-in-law says that when you do something nice, it makes you feel good under your left rib. But, are warm fuzzies really enough to convince me that I should put others before myself? I mean, though having eight kids, is a lot of work, it can be quite tiring, as much as I love the kids. What if there’s something deeper than an emotional response from serving others? What if this is what it means to be truly human after all? Rather than seeking our own benefit, what if we have been created, not only to exist in community, but to serve others. And, as we serve others, our community becomes stronger, and as the community becomes stronger, we also become stronger.

What if our real good is not found in getting ahead, but in helping others get ahead? Could this be part of the reason that God tells Israelite captives in Babylon to seek the welfare of their captors’ city because in the city’s good they will find their own good (Jeremiah 29)? And as we place others before ourselves, we are not displaying that we have become partakers of the divine nature, as the Spirit in us enables us to live as God commands.

What if Jesus meant what He said? There’s only one way to find out. Let’s all go out and serve others. Let’s prefer giving to receiving. And then let’s come back and talk about it.

 

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Is This Really What We’ve Come To: “Now You Look More Pastoral”

October 22, 2013 at 9:29 am

1429552_orig

I try to keep my rants to myself. Oh, who am I kidding, it’s one of the only reasons I blog; because no one listens to me in real life. OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration as well. I mean, after all, I get to preach, so people have to at least pretend to listen to me once a week.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about talking about is something I have already talked about, which is often the case. As a pastor, one of the things I desperately want for people is the freedom that Christ brings. So many of us are weighed down by life and Jesus promises that His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11:30). That means, many Christians are still trying to carry burdens Jesus has told us to drop.

This carries over in to all areas of life, but one of them that really troubles me is Christian community (or the lack thereof). As deeply as Christians should feel free to be the unique expressions of themselves, we are shallowly guilty of promoting stereotypes that actually constrain our ability to serve others.

What I mean is this: holiness is a messy business. And it doesn’t look the same for all of us. We don’t all mature at the same pace. We aren’t all going through the same things. We all have different quirks (some good, some bad). We all have different tastes and expressions. Except when we don’t.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise to most people that Christians are often just as guilty as cramming each other into stereotypes as everyone else. We just have our own stereotypes. Trust me, I am expected to fit them all. OK, maybe that’s another exaggeration, but being a pastor can be frustrating business. Not only are pastors expected to give their entire lives to others with no agreed-upon expectations or hours, it often seems as if we have to earn the right to sacrifice for others.

Case in point: I had a beard for almost 8 months and I decided to shave it because I love my wife more than myself (or my beard). It wasn’t long before I heard from several people that I looked more “pastoral” after shaving. Really? What does that even mean? I didn’t fit the image of what you think a pastor should look like?!  Jesus had a beard for crying out loud! Was he not pastoral? Or was that OK for his cultural context and not ours? So now, I have to meet false cultural considerations about my facial hair so that I can earn the right to sacrifice my life for the sake of people who are concerned with whether or not I have a beard?! . . . whew . . . Sorry about that. I just had to get that off my chest. I mean, come on, Christians have argued about beards for years. But the issue is not really facial hair, is it?

The issue is that we equate someone’s love for Jesus based on silly stereotypes rather than actually getting to know people. After all, if Not Every Local Church Is For Every Person as I suspect, then what you think of as “pastoral,” may be nothing more than a stereotype of someone you think you’d like to follow. When people complain that their pastors don’t meet their expectations, we’re saying more about ourselves than that particular pastor.

Christians of all people should be able to leave stereotypes behind and love each other for who we really are. Only then, when we’re freed from unnecessary and often unspoken expectations will we be able to love each other sacrificially.

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