How Is Your Church Influencing Culture?

table-plugDallas Theological Seminary has a fantastic new podcast that pastors and church leaders ought to be listening to. On December 18, Andy Crouch, Andy Siedel, and Darrell Bock recorded a conversation about how the church impacts culture. If you are a church leader, I want to encourage you to take about 45 minutes to watch two podcasts entitled Culture Making and Creativity. The Seminary has done a good job dividing these into two different segments so that you can watch it in two settings.

The podcasts center around these questions:

What is culture?

How are “things,” not just ideas and thoughts, part of “culture making?”

What results or effects do we experience from “culture making?”

What is the importance of service when engaging in culture?

How are “things,” not just ideas and thoughts, part of “culture making?”

How should the knowledge of “culture making” affect the teaching/communication of pastors and the actions of those in the secular world?

How can we see culture in ways unlike ever before?

For leaders, how should the idea of “culture making” affect how you lead?

You can link to the podcasts here.

Learning New Things About Christmas

The First ChristmasI’ve been a follower of Jesus for a long time now. My journey of faith began as a child, and it was as a four-year-old boy that I prayed and asked Jesus to be my Savior. I grew up in a church-going family. So, from the time I was an infant, I was in church. That means that in my 43 years of life I have heard (and in recent years, I have preached) a number of sermons about Christmas.

When people ask me about the toughest sermons to preach, I almost always respond that  Christmas and Easter sermons are the most difficult to prepare. These two holidays come  every year and it can sometimes be tough to come up with fresh ideas and insights into the familiar and wonderful stories of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection.

I have to say that I am energized about preaching on Christmas this year. One of the reasons is that I’m learning so many new things about Christmas. On Christmas Eve, I’ll be preaching a dramatic monologue sermon. My sermon will come from the perspective of Bethlehem’s innkeeper. In preparation I’ve been reading an old book that I found at a used bookstore several years ago. It’s a book entitled, The First Christmas, by Rev. Denis O’Shea. It was published in 1952 by The Bruce Publishing Company in Milwaukee.

I’m enjoying the book for several reasons.

1) It was written by a Catholic priest. I’m Protestant. That means that my views on who Mary is are very different than O’Shea’s. So, I’m forced to read this book critically. Seeing things from a perspective radically different than mine is a sharpening process.

2) It was written in 1952. This was shortly after Israel was resettled by the Jewish people. The historical context of this book is fascinating. The illustrations that are used about what the Holy Land was like in the 1950’s make me wish I could have seen it then. I’m reading a section about the Samaritan people, and at the time only 260 were living in Palestine. O’Shea had visited with the present High Priest of the Samaritans and the information written about that encounter is fascinating.

3) Like William Barclay, one of my favorite New Testament commentators, O’Shea writes from the perspective of a historian. (If you want to read great stuff on the times of the Bible read any of Barclay’s commentaries.) The quoting of ancient historians, the visuals that he paints about what houses, inns, roads, landscape, food, clothes, animals, etc. were like in the days surrounding Christ’s birth are fascinating. He also does a great job painting a picture of the geo-political culture of the day. Understanding how Herod achieved his position, the world of Caesar Augustus, what a census involved, and why the Jewish people were required to go to the land of their ancestors to register is fascinating. I felt that I could picture the abodes of the first century world, and the inns that Mary and Joseph would have stopped at on their route from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

There is so much more that I could say. Again, there is a lot that I would disagree with in this book, particularly O’Shea’s insistence that Mary was a perpetual virgin. But, all-in-all this book has opened my eyes and my mind to see things I’ve never seen before about Christmas. I can’t wait to share them in the form of a drama on Christmas Eve.

If you are in town, I’d love to have you join us for Christmas Eve services at Woodbury Community Church at 5 or 7 PM. I hope the sermon will be something that you’ll be talking about for a long time.

What is something new that you’ve learned about Christmas this year?

What Would You Do If You Had Only Months Left To Live?

Zach Sobiech is a young man in my son Chris’ class at Stillwater Area High School in Minnesota. He is a senior and this past May he found out that he has only months left to live. I’m told that Zach has one of the most positive attitudes towards life that most of his friends have ever met. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he is choosing to embrace the joy in each day.

Zach is a musician and recently wrote a song entitled, Clouds. He performed the song at Coffee House, a benefit concert at Stillwater High School to raise money so that Zach could enjoy his last months. He gave half of the money to cancer research!

Clouds went on YouTube on December 5, 2012, and in just 12 days it has received over 412,200 views. He is hoping to hit 1,000,000 views before he dies. Will you help him make it? Check out his inspiring song, and then answer the question, “What would you do if you had only months left to live?”

The song is also available on iTunes.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWhen my children were growing up, they performed in many Christmas pageants. They are always such a special part in the calendar of the church. I remember one year when Breanna and Christopher were a part of the cast of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, the classic story by Barbara Robinson about the Herdmans. The book’s description says that the Heardmans are the worst kids in the history of the world. They lie, steal, smoke cigars, swear, and hit little kids. So no one is prepared when this outlaw family invades church one Sunday and decides to take over the annual Christmas pageant.

None of the Herdmans has ever heard the Christmas story before. Their interpretation of the tale — the Wise Men are a bunch of dirty spies and Herod needs a good beating — has a lot of people up in arms. But it will make this year’s pageant the most unusual anyone has seen and, just possibly, the best one ever.

pageant2Well, we had our annual Christmas pageant yesterday. It wasn’t the story The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, (our church kids preformed A Rockin’ Royal Christmas) but it was one of my favorite of all time. After Friday’s horrific events in Connecticut, I treasured watching the children of Woodbury Community Church perform just a little bit more. Their voices seemed sweeter. Their antics were cuter. And, the story of the hope that comes because of the birth of Jesus was  even more poignant.

PageantDo you have a favorite Christmas pageant memory? I’d love to hear about it.

I’m so proud of the kids of Woodbury Community Church. They did a great job presenting the story of Christmas.

Here is a clip from the show:

Video streaming by Ustream

Present at Christmas – Suffering

This Advent Season, I have been preaching through a series entitled Present at Christmas. We have been taking a look at some of the gifts that God gives to his children. Long before this weekend, my scheduled sermon for this Sunday was on the gift of suffering. It is difficult to preach on suffering on a weekend like this, where dozens of families are dealing with a pain that is greater than anything that I have ever been through. Below is my sermon from today. I hope that it blesses you as you continue to move through this weekend’s horror.

 

Christian Leaders Respond to the Tragedy in Connecticut

newtown mourningAny time our nation faces a tragedy like we did yesterday, it is important for us to process our grief. How a nation collectively grieves is as unique as the individuals that make up our great land, and the situations over which that grief has been borne.

As I watched our President grieve at the White House briefing yesterday, I also shed tears. In the past 24 hours I have seen some beautiful pieces written by Christian leaders.

Max Lucado posted this beautiful prayer here:

Dear Jesus,

It’s a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark. I have a good eye for silver linings. But they seem dimmer lately.

These killings, Lord. These children, Lord. Innocence violated. Raw evil demonstrated.

The whole world seems on edge. Trigger-happy. Ticked off. We hear threats of chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Are we one button-push away from annihilation?

Your world seems a bit darker this Christmas. But you were born in the dark, right? You came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Your first cries were heard in the shadows. To see your face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with Herod’s jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty. Dark with violence.

Herod went on a rampage, killing babies. Joseph took you and your mom into Egypt. You were an immigrant before you were a Nazarene.

Oh, Lord Jesus, you entered the dark world of your day. Won’t you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger.

This Christmas, we ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us.

Hopefully,
Your Children

David Platt’s excllent post, The Gospel and Newtown, seeks to help readers wrestle with the age-old question of the goodness of an all-powerful God in the midst of such evil. This should be must reading for all people of faith.

Chris Surber, a pastor in Suffolk, Virginia wrote a beautiful piece entitled, I Want Christmas Toofor the Suffolk News-Herald.

Nicole Unice writes from the perspective of a mother and a theologian in her post Kneel and Pray for Newtown. Her writing helps us understand how to give your children framework for understanding good and evil.

John Piper writes about Jesus and Newtown in two posts entitled, How Does Jesus Come to Newtown? and A Lesson for All from Newtown.

Rachel Held Evans writes about the impact of social media on mourning, and our need to grieve together in her post Grieving Together.

Ed Stetzer writes about Three Ways Christians Should Respond to the Horror of a Broken World, encouraging us to pray, not be afraid to say that the world is horribly broken, and to do something.

Ann Voskamp reminds us of where God is in the dark of this weekend, here. ‘

Mark Becker, a pastor in St. Paul, MN writes about his anger, hurt and fear here.

Al Mohler wrote a healing piece at his blog entitled Rachel Weeping for Her Children – The Massacre in Connecticut, where he challenges us to affirm the sinfulness of sin and the full reality of human evil, to affirm the cross of Christ as the only adequate remedy for evil, to acknowledge the necessity of justice, knowing that Perfect Justice awaits the day of the Lord, and to grieve with those who grieve.

Finally, here are some of the tweets that have appeared in the past 24 hours by Christian leaders.

Anderson Driscoll Feinberg giglio Moore Osborne Smith Smith2 Stetzer Stier swindoll Warren

No Words . . .

NewtownI first saw the news on an Internet web page.

A gunman had once again done the unthinkable. As I write this, 27 people are confirmed dead at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, including 20 children. It is the worst elementary or middle school shooting in the history of the United States.

Incidents like this should never happen. When they do, there are no words that are adequate to numb the pain. Like our President, I view incidents like this from the lens of a parent. When my sons came home from school today, I hugged each one of them. Families all over our nation are experiencing the same thing tonight.There will be those who over the next several days who will ask where God was during this tragedy. It’s a normal question, and a fair one.

I believe with all of my heart that God was right there, with the victims, in their final moments. He was there when teachers made brave choices. He was there as law enforcement officers came face-to-face with the gravity of the situation at Sandy Hook. He will be there tonight, when parents hold each other and cry over the child they will bury instead of give Christmas gifts to. He will be there in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.

While never walking with a family who has lost someone in a school shooting, I’ve walked with far too many families who have lost children. Well-meaning folks will tell families to just trust God day-by-day for their strength. These folks need more than day-to-day strength. They will need second-by-second strength just to make it through.

Our English language has no words for a parent who loses a child. We call those who lose a spouse a widow or widower. We call those who lose parents an orphan. We don’t have a word for those who lose a child, because the pain is just too much. It is not supposed to happen.

24 hours ago was just another Thursday night in America. These precious children were dreaming about Christmas. Parents were sharing a last meal with their kids with no idea of what lie ahead. I’m praying for these families tonight. I’m lifting up those who are leading in Connecticut in the aftermath of a senseless act. And, I’m praying that we don’t have another of these tragedies.We will be praying for these families at Woodbury Community Church this Sunday.

My wonderful Aunt Marlene, a pastor’s wife for decades, put the following prayer on her Facebook page today. It is one she found from a pastor named Mark Jeske.

Dear heavenly Father, We lift up all those families involved in the elementary school shooting today. How monstrous that an armed man should have forced innocent people in an elementary school to be part of his anger drama. How crushed are the hearts of parents who lost their children today in what was supposed to be a safe place. How long their grief will be. Our hearts are with them today and will be tomorrow too. Your all-seeing eyes have witnessed much terrible human cruelty over the centuries, and today you and we had to witness all over again how deeply Satan has his hooks in the human race.

Lord Jesus, you came to this broken world to be broken yourself. You wept at the graves of people you loved. Your human heart resonates with human grief. You know our sadness because you too are sad today. What great hope your first coming and your physical resurrection give us. You came to bring forgiveness of sins and immortality to all, and all who believe it have it. For the Connecticut families, for all the responders, and for all people who are experiencing death right now, we pray that the hope of resurrection in Jesus brings comfort to broken hearts.

Holy Spirit, let your Word move at this time. Let Christians share hope and comfort, and may all those whose lives were invaded by death remember and believe the Scripture’s bold promises that our Redeemer lives. We eagerly look forward to the time when death itself will have to die and we will never be separated again. In the meantime, bring comfort and hope to sad families, and somehow use this dreadful disaster to work some good and advance your saving agenda.

It is only through Jesus’ name that we can bring such huge requests to your throne. Amen.