And I Never Saw It Coming

“This guy is a complete Jerk!”  I had just finished getting breakfast for my kids when I got sucked into Facebook far too early. Those words hovered at the top of my feed posted (along with more of the all-to-common venom) by someone I respect.  But that’s not what bothered me most… that came later.  I read his little hate-rant and then mindlessly scrolled through my feed for another 30 seconds before one of the tiny humans in the other room asked for seconds on Cheerios.

Luckily, that was enough to break me out of Facebook’s hypnotic state so that I wasn't sucked back in when the bowl had been refilled.  I finished getting ready and was on my way to work when the real problem occurred to me: I hadn’t been effected by that post.

I realized that over the past several years I had been administering little doses of hate every day so that little-by-little I had built up an immunity to this poisonous emotion.  The kinds of things my friend said should have made me recoil and be disgusted, but I read them and continued on as if he had merely mentioned what he had for lunch.

And, he was a Christian.  In fact, many of the people who have helped me develop my immunity to hate have been Christians.  Whether they couched it in a political statement, or worse, a prayer request, their tiny doses of hate have worn away at the lining of my heart until I didn’t even notice the ulcer that had appeared.

There is only one cure for what we have done to ourselves.  There is only one thing that can repair the damage to our hearts:  Love.

Please hear me out.  When I say love, I don’t mean the sappy thing that is written about on flower-covered cards this time of year or the emotional high championed by basically every hallmark movie.  That’s love… I’m talking about Love. 

I’m talking about the deepest power in the universe.  I’m talking about the Love that causes mothers to jump in front of cars to protect their children.  I’m talking about the Love that causes young adults to leave careers to alleviate poverty.  I’m talking about the Love that binds two souls together for 50 years until they are parted only by death. 

I’m talking about the Love that sent a only-child to live amongst foreigners to show them a new way. I’m talking about the Love that died on a cross to heal the brokenness created by hate.  I’m talking about the one thing that can bring true hope and healing.  I’m talking about God.  Right?  

Because the Bible says crazy things like “whoever does not love does not know God.”  The Bible says that “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”  Why is that?  It’s simple, because “God is Love.”1

Listen! It’s time for us to talk about love, to offer it to a world so sick with hate that they don’t even know it.  It’s time for us to let go of the hate we have incorporated into our own lives and allow God to transform us, to overwhelm the hate with Love.  It’s time for the church to become an uprising of Love so that the world may truly know God.  

Let us tweet Love instead of hate.  Let our words be so filled with God that they could only be described by the hashtag #godislove.  Let us speak it to our friends and act it out to our neighbors.  Let us believe it so deeply in our hearts that the Love overflows wherever we go.  

And when we are offered another little hit of hate?  Let us refuse it.  Let us teach our children to Say No To Hate the same way we teach them to say no to drugs.  Let us reach out across our boarders to share love with every kind of person so that the world may know that God SO LOVES THEM that he sent his sons and daughters to love them right where they are to lead them forward into a bright new future.  

May it be so.

 

 

If you’d like to explore God’s love with a group of people who need it, we’re doing that over the next several weeks on Sundays at 5:00pm at Christ UMC in Mobile, AL.  Or, just send me an email (cumcnextgen@gmail.com) and we can talk about this uprising together no matter where you are.


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1 All verses from 1 John 4

Spiritual Christmas Gift Ideas for Every Budget

We give gifts at Christmas because thousands of years ago, God gave us the greatest gift in Jesus!  That is why each year I try to help you put some gifts under your tree that will help the people you love grow closer to (or discover) God.

$5-$10

Starbucks ($5-$10) Before I go into the “real” gifts.  There are a lot of people in your world who would grow closer to God if someone in their world (cough) would just take them to coffee, listen, and pray for them.  Why not start with relationship this season?  Don’t get me wrong, everything else here is good too, but people need the presence of the Body of Christ (that’s us!) more than they need anything else on this list.

Interior Castle by St Teresa of Avila ($4-$20) This is not some sort of Christian fiction.  Rather this is one of the core texts of Christian mysticism.  Saint Teresa instructs readers through a structure of prayer that seeks a mystical union with God.  For those who love prayer or for those who have longed for the mystical side of the faith, this is a great book!

 

Veggie Tales on Amazon Prime (Free Trial then $99) - As I was adding a tried and true favorite of my kids (Esther, the Girl who Became Queen) I realized that I have unlimited access to every Veggie Tale through my Amazon Prime subscription!  And the app allows me to DOWNLOAD the videos before a trip so I don’t have to use a cell connection!  If you don’t already have it, check it out or give it to your grandkids for the huge selection of great Spiritual Children’s videos!

Jesus Storybook Bible ($9.98) If you have any child in your family between three and eight, they need this one!  It has, hands down, the most beautiful illustrations of any children’s Bible, and each story is long enough to not be childish and short enough to not be distracting.  Just right.  It’s why we mail these to kids in our church!

 

$10-$30

Organic Wesley by William Guerrant Jr. ($11-$19) What we believe has a lot to do with the choices we make when we eat and purchase our food.  For those who are considering the moral, ethical, and theological implications of their interactions with their food, this is a must-read.  As it turns out John Wesley has a lot to offer the modern thinking on this ancient issue.  Simply Brilliant.  Also available from Seedbed directly.

 

The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer ($17-$21) Want a fantastic, spiritual gift for a teacher?  Look no further.  Parker Palmer takes teacher through a journey that helps them connect with this sacred vocation.  It is built on a simple premise:  good teaching is more than technique, it is is rooted in the identity and integrity of the teacher.  This looks great on a desk with a $5 Starbucks gift card attached :)

Dateable: Are You?  Are they? ($12.20)  If you could lock teens away for several years it might be easier… might, but that is against the law.  The reality is, in our culture, Teens are going to date.  That’s how our culture (good or bad) helps people select mates.  This book exists in the real world where Christian teens date, and gives them real-world tools and advice to help them come out of those relationships healthy and with their morality and faith in-tact.  Also, every teen I have given it to (well over a hundred now) loved it… and read it.  Buy 2. 

The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth Bailey ($17.23) Kenneth Bailey is one of the leading scholars who specializes in cultural background to the Bible.  In each of nine passages, Kenneth Bailey unearths the power of the good shepherd metaphor through middle eastern culture and shepherding customs.  This is not light reading, but it is powerful.

 

$30-$80

Glo Bible (Reg. $89 on sale for $35!) This Bible software is some of the best for almost everyone.  Unless you are a greek scholar or looking for the highest level critical commentary, this will help the Bible come to life! 140+ Maps 450+ virtual tours, 3.5 hours of HD video, 650+ works of art.  And, it’s on crazy sale at Amazon! Mac or PC.

NIV Study Bible ($49.98+) I get asked two questions more than any other about product recommendations, and this is the answer to the number 1.  What Study Bible should I buy?  This one.  It has serious scholarship, no super crazy slant one way or the other, and it is attached to a rock-solid translation.  The second question is what Bible I like to read.  For that, I like a single column without notes  that looks like any other book.  This is a good one of those.

Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived it DVD by Adam Hamilton ($37.51) Ever wanted to explore the history of Wesley in England?  This will allow you to do it from your couch.  Adam Hamilton takes you to six of the most important places.  This is the DVD of the larger study. 

 

Genesis Word Biblical Commentary Volumes 1 & 2 (74.31)  At just under 1,000 pages of commentary on Genesis (968 to be precise), this is by far my favorite place to start a study of Genesis (though Bruggemann is brilliant as well).  This will take you as far into the deep end of scholarship as you want to go.  The reason I love this series as a starting point is because it gives you a sense of the conversation between different schools of thought and offers a wealth of references to read more.

 

$80 and up!

The Contemplative Journey Volumes 1 & 2 ($132.76)  Contemplative prayer is one of the most ancient prayer practices in Christianity and is taught here by one of the spiritual greats of our time: Thomas Keating.  Over these 20 Hours he teaches step-by-step through his technique for practicing this profound method for connecting with God.  This is not a novice course, but is something you may end up listening to back to back.

Interpretation Commentary Set ($701 total for Old Testament and New Testament) Now, I am obviously being a bit ridiculous here.  However, if you teach the Bible and have some significant change to spend, this will give you the most bang for the buck.  I have a handful of these myself because this commentary series is built with the preacher/teacher in mind while not holding back on the scholarship. If you are wanting to get some great resources or give an overwhelmingly generous gift to a pastor or church library, this is great.  

Honorable Mentions: 

The Class meeting by Kevin Watson: Take your small group to a whole other level as you explore one of the best models for living life together.

Wesley and the People Called Methodist by Richard P. Heitzenrater: If you read one history of the Wesleyan movement, this should be it.

In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen This is the only book on leadership I have ever enjoyed or recommended someone else read.  Brilliant.  Powerful.  

Basically Everything Henri Nouwen: Really, scrap everything I said above and only ready his stuff.

>>>Read More: God Focused Gift Ideas of Children

The Gift of Anger and Outrage

This average day in church was about to be turned upside down by a visiting pastor.  The scene was normal.  People milling about, prayer requests being shared between friends, and most everyone slowly making their way from the entrance to the sanctuary. 

There were a lot of people there, so the volume of conversation had risen well above the contemplative level, which wasn’t going to happen anyway because of the smell from all the animals present.  That’s probably why the money changers had to yell their prices as loud as they did, and why the faithful were acting like this was just another public gathering space.

That’s not how the foreigners felt.  Though they were welcome in this chaotic area of this first century temple, they dared not venture past the wall.  It was more of a large step than a wall because no one would want to actually have such an in-your-face separation between God and the average person. But, the wall was there none the less.  It was more of a sign holder, really.  

Though everyone ignored the sign and pretended that the faith of these people proclaimed a God who loved everyone, the sign was there nonetheless proclaiming a very different message.  Inset into the wall close to every opening was a copy of the sign that read “No foreigner is to enter this forecourt and the guardrail around the sanctuary.  Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.”  In other words, welcome.

No one is quite sure what it was that set Jesus off as he entered the temple that day.  Whether it was the lack of decorum, the theft in the name of commerce, or the threat of death to the outsiders seeking God, Jesus was angry.  He was outraged, and rightfully so!  

He yelled, turned over tables, and drove people out with a whip because they had completely lost the point of the temple (often referred to as “the light of the world” in those days).  God’s people had lost their way, and something had to be done!

That story has particular power for today because we can be confident that anger and outrage are as much gifts from God as are love and hope.  God gave us all our emotions for specific purposes.  Love binds us together. Hope helps us envision a future, and anger and outrage allow us to get off our backsides and do something about things that matter.  They helps us effect positive change in the most important issues.

However, far too often we squander the gift of anger and outrage. We spend this precious gift on things that are far from worthy.  Whether it be a sports team or a cultural non-issue, we get up in arms as if those things were worthy of one of the most powerful gifts we have.  

Slums in Chennai

Meanwhile, people are dying, ACTUALLY dying and no one is fighting for them.  Children are getting sick from the water their parents give them and no one is creating a viral video on their behalf.  Families are being forced from their homes and moving into the most horrific conditions in urban slums and no one is making a hashtag in their name.  Christians are being executed and worse without a single segment on your favorite taking head news station.

That is why I am refusing to squander this gift of God this holiday season on things that do not rise to the level of holy crisis.  I will not be a social media foot soldier in the war on something unimportant.  I want to follow Jesus.  That means getting angry and outraged about the right things, and allowing it to move me to action.  Will you join me?  Will you use your #holyanger for something big?

 

Unlocking the Bible Code

The words in your Bible may be different than you thought.  Let’s look at a good example.  The Bible says(ish) in Deuteronomy 5:2 that “The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb.” (NIV)  

That is a good translation that gets the main thrust of the Hebrew across in English.  However, when you look at the original text that’s not exactly what it says.  In fact, no one ever really “makes” a covenant in the Old Testament.  That’s not the word they used.  Instead, the verb for “covenanting” is “to cut.”  That is because every covenant was sealed with the blood of an animal.  Instead of signing on a line at the bottom of a piece of paper, you cut an animal and performed a ceremony involving its blood.

Why not say “cut a covenant” instead?  If we did this with every Biblical word, you would have to have a Master’s degree to understand what on earth the Bible was saying.  Therefore, Translators try and get the MAIN idea across so that the average person can understand what on earth the Bible is saying.

The Bible is full of words and imagery like this! Since we read it in our language, we often bring with us the cultural values we have attached to whatever word or concept that translators have used to convey the truth of the original Hebrew.  This can, of course, cause a good bit of confusion because those values are not always the same.  For example, What does marriage mean when it is not tied to monogamy? What does family mean before the rise of the American obsession with the “nuclear family?”

It’s kind of like the Bible has been written with layers and layers of code.  The basic meaning is there for anyone to pick up and read, but for those ready to go deeper, there is unfathomable depth available.  Each concept can be lifted out, given new life and new beauty through careful examination.  

That is where my thoughts are heading in a new series of teaching that is focused on unlocking this “code” and mining its beautiful depths. For those nearby, I am teaching on Sunday nights at 5pm in the evening worship service at Christ UMC in Mobile, AL.  For everyone else, check back here for audio versions and even a bit more text!

A Gateway for Grace

I am not God.  Though in times of extreme anger I may wish to have the almighty's smiting power, and in my moments of megalomania I might imagine myself to be divinely enlightened. In my brief fits of complete sanity, I know at the deepest level that I am not God, none of us are.

I am a Christian. I am instructed by my faith to follow the example of Jesus' life-giving love. I am offered the opportunity to enact his grace-filled teachings. I am forgiven despite the fact that I am constantly failing to either enact or follow the footsteps of Jesus.

My faith offers incredible paths of healing for mind, body, and soul. Though I have experienced that healing and long to offer it to the world, I am not the healer.  

The words of Jesus reveal roads of reconciliation. They have quelled wars. They have united tribes, and they have restored shattered families. Though I have walked these well-worn ways of reconciliation in my own life, I am not the reconciler.  

At the heart of my faith is full, vibrant life. It is the fullness that comes from whole relationships and access to deep spiritual wells. It is the brilliance that powers the sunsets and the lightning. Though I experience this full life more and more, I am not the giver of life.

The true mystery of Christianity "is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God." (Henri Nouwen In the Name of Jesus)

That is what I do. No, that is what I strive to do. No, that is what WE strive to do as Christians. We strive to prop open our own little gateways so that the love,healing, reconciliation, and full life can flow though them into the world.

Though we strive, it doesn't always work. Please excuse us when the little wood wedge slips and the gates close. Forgive us when we forget our place and try to hoard that which we are to give away. 

Please don't attribute our faults to our God. Know that when we offer sickness instead of healing, brokenness instead of reconciliation, death instead of life, it is not coming from God, it's just a broken gate.

From AL.com  

>>> Read More: Sorry for the Bullhorns

A Prayer for the Methodist Church (and Annual Conference)

God of all grace, creator of the universe, Father, Son, and Holy spirit, I pray for our Methodist church.  I pray for each annual conference gathering that is taking place and the one I will attend in the Alabama West-Florida Conference. 

I pray that these days ahead where we come together to engage in what Wesley called “Christian Conferencing” will be a time where we stretch beyond what we can accomplish by ourselves and reach what is only possible when we practice true social holiness.  Not merely polite debate, not merely respectful difference, but that brand of spiritual gathering that enables us to surrender more of our hearts to your transforming love.

I pray that where differences are discovered that you would bring unity and resolution not just through a divided vote that ensures people stay on the opposite side of an issue; rather, I pray that you would pour out your Spirit on all those gathered in every annual conference and make them one with Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to all the world.  

Empower those who disagree put down their dividing rhetoric and pick up the words of peace and reconciliation.  Enable those who approach life from different points of view to receive a holy vision of what the world looks like through the eyes of the other.

But more than all of that, I pray that you would awaken the Methodist church from its slumber.  I pray that these annual conferences would be the moment where the statistical decline of the United Methodist church in America ends. I pray that you would use these gatherings do do far more than decide on minimum salaries and direct billing.  I pray that you would begin something new, that you would spark the next great awakening.  I pray that you would call your people to prayer and fasting and that our world would be set on fire by a passion for scriptural holiness.  

May these annual conferences be a profound means of grace in the lives of thousands across our connection.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit I pray.  Amen.

Sorry for the Bullhorns

There I was, minding my own business downtown in a big city when a guy walks up across the street, pulls out his bullhorn and starts yelling all sorts of horrible, hate-filled, hell-fueled words at everyone who was walking by.

I cringed, sunk down in my chair, and hoped no one recognized me as a minister of the religion the bullhorn guy was claiming to represent. 

I wanted to walk across the street and debunk every misquote.  I wanted to yell over him the loving words of Jesus “Come to me all who are tired and overburdened and I will give you rest.”  I didn’t because I didn’t want to start a public fight as an opening act to his concert of hate.

But, he was quoting the Bible right?

Well, yes. There are a handful of random verses that you can pluck out of their context and use  to slice and dice people as they walk by on a street corner, but when you take the whole of Christian scripture the vast majority Christians discover a God of love not hate, a God of healing not sickness, a God of acceptance not rejection, a God of hope not despair, a God of forgiveness not condemnation.  

That is the God that the Christian next door or in the cubicle across from you serves. That is the reason they wake up early on Sunday and spend some of their vacation days serving at the soup kitchen downtown.

That is why they keep going when they mess up and ask forgiveness when they hurt you.  

So, I’m sorry if you have been hurt by one of these rogue Christian knock-offs.  I want to apologize for all the times you may have been yelled at by the bullhorn guy, accosted by the hellfire pamphlet person or disgusted by a tear-filled preacher asking for money on TV.  

Know that we are as irritated as you are by all those twisted versions of our love and grace-filled faith.  And, if you are willing, we’d love a second chance.  We’d love to have the opportunity to introduce you to the faith that billions of people find transforming and empowering.  

We’d be honored to let you see the supporting community inside our churches and let you experience our love. Because it’s love that Jesus told us should be our hallmark.  It is love that best expresses the truth of our faith.

That’s why Jesus said “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:35)  So please, seek that out. Judge us by love. When you find it, you will know you have found true disciples of Jesus Christ.

From Al.com

A Plea to Every UMC Leader: Elect the Next Generation

The statistics are in and they are as disappointing as they are predictable: the people most likely to be making decisions for the United Methodist Church are those who will spend the least amount of time living with the consequences.

According to data from the GCFA, the delegates to the last General conference were overwhelmingly older in age.  The largest single decade of delegates were those in their 50s who composed 36% of all the delegates present.  If you take all those who have more of their life (on average) behind them than ahead of them (those 40+), you reach an astonishing 85%.  When it comes to the youngest group (those under twenty) you get 4.  Not 4%, but 4 total delegates (or 0.6%).  This is a problem.

Wikimedia: Richard Cooper

Wikimedia: Richard Cooper

Disclaimer:  Because of my status as a provisional elder, I am not electable as a delegate. This means that what I am about to say is in no way in service of my election.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore the older generations in my life.  They provide me and all the younger generations with perspective and grounding.  They have modeled for me a brilliant work ethic and amazing loyalty.  I am in no way suggesting we need to flip the statistic to be as unrealistically weighted towards younger delegates, but I believe that if the Church is going to survive and thrive in the future, we MUST promote and empower the younger voices among us.

I have found an inverse relationship between my age and optimism about the future of the UMC.  The more I speak with leaders, I find the same to be true anecdotally among those in my social network.

When any organization loses an optimistic vision of the future, it loses the ability to harness present problems for future success.  Instead of seeing any of the myriad of current issues as containing the potential for the expansion of the Kingdom of God, we see them as one more reason that the church cannot survive as it is much longer.

The problem is that the younger a leader is, the less likely they are to have powerful connections and the less likely they are to know how to campaign successfully for office.  IN fact, many of the young leaders I know are turned off by the political side of the church and would feel disgusted with themselves for mixing politics and religion so thoroughly.  They need your help.

That is why I am asking, no begging, the UMC leadership in every annual conference to let go of half of their votes that would normally be spent on the standard guard of skilled church politicians and spend them on the future.  Rather than voting for all the top contenders from last General conference, vote for the young leaders who will spend the majority of their lives living with the decisions made at the next General Conference.

For those who have developed the skill of church politics and have been to General Conference before, I ask you to let go of your seat and use your considerable political capital to get a next generation leader elected who would have never been able to do it themselves.  What if you told everyone who asked if you were “running” that you would like them to vote for the young clergy in the smaller church down the street?

But how do you know which one to choose?  Without a track record and years of conversations in the hallway between annual conference sessions, how do you find a young leader worthy of your vote?  I’d like to suggest a couple qualifications, and none of them have anything to do with how they feel about your pet church issue (I know you will handle that yourself).

1. They Are in Love with the Theology and Practice of Ministry of John Wesley:  Seminary (or church history for those not ordained) can do one of the two things for people.  It can make them bored with their heritage, or fall deeply in love with it.  It is my opinion that the only way that we will make a difference in the future is if we recover the Wesleyan theological vision and reclaim the movement that John Wesley and Francis Asbury helmed.  We need people who long for a truly Wesleyan movement.

2. They Aren’t Begging for Bureaucratic Power:  We have plenty of church bureaucrats.  Most people I know either come into church leadership because they are passionate about Jesus or because they are passionate about power.  We need far less of the latter.  I know that we can find leaders who love Jesus and see the burden of bureaucracy.  When they are empowered, they are not in awe of the bureaucrats and are not afraid of making sure we have less of them.

3. They Are Optimistic About Our Future:  If we want to find new solutions to problems, we have to have people involved who believe those solutions exist.  When we find people optimistic about our future, they do not enter a discussion presuming only one of the existing options will work.  If we want to have a viable movement in the future, we have to give the reigns to leaders who are ready to chart new ground in old discussions because they know there is a solution that hasn’t been discovered.

That’s it.  Find those people.  Elect them, and pray that God would continue to use our church to spread scriptural holiness across the land.

From: United Methodist Reporter

Life’s Best Answer: I Don’t Know

I’m not sure where the turning point was, but at some point during my teens I started to feel bad about saying “I don’t know.”  

It may have been a mix of being a leader among my peers and having a deep, inescapable hunger for knowledge.  It may have been the fact that so much of my life was wrapped around learning and testing in school where your worth is directly tied to “knowing,” or it may have been some deep repressed trauma in another dimension… I’m not really sure.

What I do know is that along the way I discovered the difficult inner life of a person who always had an answer.  I remember arguing with people about small things so that I could develop my bigger argument at the same time.  I remember completely fabricating facts to support my ideas.

But there was something that really began to eat away at the part of me behind the “knowing” mask.  In order to have a defendable belief about something, I would say I believed things that I knew I did not believe.  In order to appear that I “knew” something, I would become an intellectual (and sometimes practicing) hypocrite.

Then I walked into a training seminar being led a man named Michael Yacconelli at a youth ministry conference.  It was there that I came face to face with the mess I had made.  Mike was the head of the biggest deal in youth ministry.  He was a published author.  He was a pastor.  He was a smart, successful, and influential person.

You can imagine my surprise when he started talking about his major questions about Christianity.  He talked about life-shaking doubt, not believing that his prayers had any effect, and how he struggled with feeling worthy.  The whole time I couldn’t take my eyes off him because it was as if he had been living inside my head for the past ten years.

Then, the bomb dropped.  During the question and answer time, someone got up and asked him a question I remember thinking I already knew the answer to.  After the questioner finished, Mike was silent.  He just sat there for a bit… THINKING!  I was just about ready to step up to the mic and answer it myself when he said a phrase that had been conspicuously absent from my vocabulary: I don’t know.

After he said that, he explained why he doubted all the popular stock answers (including mine) laying bare all their philosophical vulnerabilities.  After he was done, he taught one of the most powerful lessons I have ever learned.

Mike said “And another thing, you youth leaders need to get way more comfortable with that phrase, ‘I don’t know’ because, let’s face it… most of the time, you don’t.”  I didn’t.  He was right. “When you don’t know something and act like you do, your kids learn that it’s not okay to say ‘I don’t know’  they learn one of the most tragic Christian values: to pretend you are someone you are not.”  

I was undone.  I was raw.  Then, he landed hard.  “When you say, ‘I don’t know’  you let them know that it is normal and ok to question.  You let them know that it is ok to learn, and you let them know that the point of Christianity is not having all the right answers for the test.”

After that, I begin to work on letting go of my need to be the one with the perfect Theology.  I let go of pretending and tried my best to let others see my faults so that the bubble of the perfect Christian life was burst and we could deal with our brokenness.

When I did I experienced the joy of freedom.  The pressure for answers and perfection was gone and I could relish finding answers when I discovered another “I don’t know” area.  I could share in the joy with the people to whom I could offer the answers I did have.  

Somehow I thought all of the best answers were the ones that actually answered the questions, but I had discovered that life’s best answer is, “I Don’t Know.”

Why Church Hopping Isn't Evil

Church hopping! Oh, for fear!  Oh for shame!  How can an individual ever recover from such a backslidden, deranged, un-holy practice as this?!  At least that’s what you’d think by reading some of my favorite Christian blogs over the last couple months.  I don’t agree.

Image: Getty Images

Image: Getty Images

Besides the fact that I think the church needs a LOT less guilt and a LOT more love, I think this act can be quite healthy even if it can make pastors pull their hair out from time to time.

It can be difficult to talk clearly about “church hopping” because it seems every blog entry assumes a vastly different definition as universal.  I am going to address each definition I’ve found in turn and explain just why I think you might need to do a little church hopping yourself.  We’ll go in order from the least to most depraved.

1. The Occasional Hopper:

Every once in a while a friend’s church is having a special service or program or a guest speaker on Sunday morning.  Responding to the universal plea of every pastor ever, they “invite a friend.”  Since so many Christians are friends with other Christians (can you imagine!) you are the friend who gets an invitation.  

After posting a mention of a possible illness on Facebook, you wear a wig as you get in their car when they come to pick you up, and you enjoy an unusual spiritual treat at another church.  

I cannot for the life of me imagine why anyone would have a problem with this, but they do.  (I also don’t understand how anyone could have a problem with real butter, but that’s another subject altogether).  

If you attend another church regularly, please, please, please visit other churches with your friends occasionally.  Enjoy the special treats, and bring a fresh perspective back to your own church!

2. The Dual Resident:

I have a friend who alternates church attendance between a more traditional congregation and a more Charismatic one.  I know this because she flaunts this heathen practice all over Facebook posting pictures from both places on consecutive Sundays.  Can. You. Believe. That.

Ok, It’s not that hard to believe.  As strange as it may sound to the Christian blogosphere, it is a very healthy thing for her. It works because of the weird way the church has developed over the past several centuries.  Instead of going into every Christian church and experiencing the beautiful diversity of the ways people worship God, you get one narrow expression.  

Maybe it’s 1950s style (often called traditional) or maybe it’s the 1990s version with fake ficus trees and “Light the Fire Again,” or maybe it is a more beautiful, more ancient ritual that connects you to the earliest roots of the faith. 

Whatever the case, to walk into almost any Christian worship service is to experience the ghettoization of Christian worship.  As it turns out, God moves in beautiful ways through ALL of those types of worship, and you may be the type of person who loves more than one.  

If that’s you, go for it!  Be a dual citizen.  Live in two congregations and don’t look back, you are much closer to seeing what would be an accurate view of Christian worship than someone who experiences one style every week for the rest of their life.

3. The Mad Hopper:

Can you believe they would change the carpet that your great grandmother donated in 1902!  The nerve!  I don’t know how you could ever set foot in such a disrespectful church again! 

Look, we all get mad.  We all have issues with worship, and personality conflicts with leaders.  Sometimes we get hurt.  Sometimes our relationships become so broken and painful we need to move on.  Is it the ideal?  No.  Would it be better to live in a world where there is no death, or mourning or crying or pain?  Yes.  

We don’t live in that world. If you need to leave a church because of broken relationships, it’s ok.  I would encourage you to do it with a lot of care and grace, and after seeking to make peace and reconcile with those who you hurt and have hurt you. But, if leaving means you can be free to worship, do it.

I can tell you as a pastor, that most of the people I have seen come because they were mad at another church end up spending time at our church resting and healing and then go back home after a while.

And, let’s be completely honest, people don’t leave church over changing carpet.  There is always something way deeper than great grandmother’s carpet.  If you are leaving, deal with the real issue, and if you are talking about someone who has left, don’t make them out to be so shallow.

4. The Free Spirit:

I was in high school the first time I met a truly “free spirit” in the church hopping sense.  A friend of mine had attended the youth group I had attended on Wednesday nights (that’s right you caught me… I was a dual resident in my teens) and just dropped out.  

A couple weeks later I saw him at a revival service at another church and asked him where he’d been.  “Man, I’m just following the move of the Spirit, and it is moving strong here like it was at your place a couple months ago.”  I wasn’t sure what to say, and I was relieved when the band took away the awkward silence.

This is the one I have most trouble with because it is so far from my personality.  I like to get to know people, I like to have roots, and I think for me (and for most people) this is the most healthy way to journey through faith.  But as soon as I say that a couple faces pop up in my mind of dear friends who are not like me.  They don’t stay in one place for long.  They don’t spend their whole lives in one career, and the only people bothered by it are others.  They like their nomadic life.

To those people I would say you still need community, you cannot practice Christianity in isolation, but that community can be in your home on Tuesday nights or over Skype a couple times a month.  You can make roots that are a bit more flexible than most everyone else’s, but you probably already know that.

Be free!

I say all of this to say, let go of any guilt or shame you have if you are a church hopper.  It doesn’t make you a second class Christian.  It doesn’t make you a horrible person.  The body of Christ extends beyond any denominational boundary and definitely beyond any church property line. 

When we hold membership in a single congregation or denomination up too high we start to miss the central call of Jesus on our lives.  Jesus didn’t say to follow Grace United Baptist Reformation Community Church, and as much as I love the man, Jesus didn’t say to follow John Wesley either.  His call was simple:  Follow Me.  So, do that.  Follow Jesus.

Behind the Scenes with Old Saint Nick

Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas

The person known as Santa to us has developed over many years, coming through a merger/acquisition between Sinterklass and Father Christmas inc. in western Europe after Sinterklass’ fame surged as a result of a book highlighting his exploits in the 19th century.  

There was of course the dark period when Sinterklaas was outlawed in the 16th and 17th century mainly because Martin Luther didn’t like his Catholic heritage. Luther encouraged people to celebrate ChristKindle (the Christ Child) instead, but his new term ironically morphed over time into Chris Kringle.  

It all started with a holiday named Saint Nicholas Day (December 6) that celebrated a pretty cool guy named Saint Nicholas. Before Nicholas was “saint,” he was born to a wealthy family on the coast of what is modern day turkey.  He spent his early life in school and church waking up to celebrate communion before dawn with his family each Sunday.  

Unfortunately, his life was not to be all candy canes and wrapping paper.  When Nicholas was only eighteen years old his mother and father passed away.  Though the young Nicholas took it well, he wanted to spend some time contemplating the direction of his life.  He now had a huge inheritance and total independence.  After much prayer, he decided to spend his life and money in the same way: however God wanted.  

It was at that point that the young man Nicholas began to work in the church.  As he was preparing for the ministry, he became aware of a family in his town that was in a precarious position.  There was a father who had three daughters who was desperately poor and was not going to be able to provide a dowry for the daughters when they came of age.

This may not seem like the end of the world to us, but in the world of Nicholas in the late 200s this meant a life of prostitution for the man’s daughters.  Nicholas would not allow that to happen.  So, on the eve of the eldest daughter’s coming of age, Nicholas went out in the middle of the night and tossed a bag filled with a portion of his inheritance through the window to save the life of the eldest daughter.  The next morning the family awoke to salvation in the form of a small purse filled with money.  

Nicholas repeated the act of kindness with the second daughter.  When it came time for the third daughter to receive this extravagant gift, the father decided he would wait up all night to see if he could catch a glimpse of this generous saint.  Like clockwork Saint Nicholas walked up to the house and tossed the purse through the window.  The father leapt to his feet and ran outside thanking Nicholas profusely.  Nicholas gave a simple response.  He asked that the man not tell anyone that the gifts came from him.

The rest of his life was a roller coaster that saw him ordained bishop around 35 years of age, imprisoned for being a church leader shortly thereafter, released by Constantine and being one of the bishops in attendance at the Council of Nicea.  In spite of his success and eventual fame, he followed the same pattern of generosity throughout his life.  

In that area, people would often leave their shoes outside at night.  When Saint Nicholas heard of a need in a community he was serving, he would go out under the cover of darkness, take a portion of his own funds, and leave it in the shoes of the family in need.  

No wonder within a short amount of time after his death Nicholas was one of the most popular names in the region. No wonder he was one of the most painted saints (second only to the Virgin Mary). No wonder his powerful memory has pushed through the centuries making it all the way to today.

It’s funny though that we have taken this model of selfless, anonymous giving and made him the justification for a particular sort of selfishness that surfaces this time of year.  I am hoping to be different this year.  I am going to try my best to honor the memory of Saint Nicholas and make this Christmas about reaching out to those in need and helping them without any credit.  Imagine the power of Christmas if we all followed Nicholas’ example.  Here’s hoping for a happier holiday!

If you are interested in more Saint Nicholas Background, you can get a full chapter of it in Investigating Christmas!


What if I'm not 100% Sure I Believe?

No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition

No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition

Every once in a while, in a moment of complete honesty, someone sitting in my office whispers a confession: “But, I’m just not 100% sure.  I mean, I think I believe, but what if I’m wrong?  What does that mean?  What do I do with that?”

Often, the person sitting in my office is looking around to see if agents of Spanish inquisition are going to burst through the door and cart them off for their heretical confession.  For many this is the first time they have ever mentioned this to anyone. They have lived alone with this doubt for far too long.

The reality is that most of the world lives well below the 100% mark, even ministers and priests and monks, even major players in the Bible.

That’s right, even the “big names” of faith in the Bible question.  In fact, I find that every time I think I have come up with a new way to question my faith, I find someone in the Bible having the exact same struggles, and these aren’t the minor characters either.

Ever had the whole, “It would be a whole lot easier to believe in God if you could see God” question?  Moses was right there.  After following pillars of cloud and fire right through a parted red sea and receiving the ten commandments, Moses pressed God for visible confirmation in Exodus 33:18.  

Have you ever felt like God had completely forgotten about you?  Felt that God wasn’t keeping up God’s end of the bargain?  David knows exactly what you are going through.  The Psalms are FULL of verses like Psalm 13:1 that say things like “How long will you forget me?”

Don’t even get me started on the number of people in the Bible who asked for (ok, a bunch of them were skating pretty close to demanding) proof from God.  Even one of Jesus’ disciples, who had spent three years watching Him raise the dead, heal sick people and talk to strangers like he’d been reading their mail, wouldn’t believe Jesus had risen from the dead until he put his hand in the holes in Jesus’ body (I know, gross).

That’s just the people in the Bible!  If you thumb through the writings of almost any major church leader or saint, you will find lives lived in pursuit God in the face of doubt and question.  They all doubted.  They all questioned.  None of them had 100% belief 100% of the time.

I say all of that to say that if you aren’t 100% sure you believe, you’re in good company!  As it turns out, 100% belief is far from a pre-requisite for a life of faith.  As far as this pastor is concerned, having doubts and questions is a sign of spiritual health.  It means that you are seriously engaging with faith in a God that is not bound by human ability and cannot be completely understood by even our best minds.

Let yourself off the hook of being 100% sure. Grab a friend; hang out with the pastor in your life and question together! 

This article first appeared on AL.com

>>Read More: The Church Could Use a Few More Skeptics

The Real Problem with Our Kids and Social Media

Many of the problems online stem from the same root cause and if we don’t find a work around, we will endanger the long-term welfare of our children.  I know that statement sounds extreme, but I believe that the root problem at the center of all the social media woes people like to blog about (cyber-bullying and the like) is one that is inhibiting our kids'  basic psychosocial development in the years from 10-18.  

At these stages, children/teens are developing many fundamental skills that allow them to understand and relate with their world.  They are learning how to interpret social cues, how to offer accurate snapshot impressions of themselves, how to deal with interpersonal conflict/pain, and through all of this they are developing an understanding of who they are in the world.

Those tasks are not completed by reading a book or even by spending time in a therapist’s office.  They are learned by interacting with people in the real world.  

Kids go to school and make an offhand comment about a friend’s clothes. When they see their friend’s face fall, they realize that people can be hurt by offhand remarks about their appearance.

At another time while meeting someone new, they begin sharing about something too personal for a new acquaintance only to see the person squirm and walk away.  They realize that it is important to begin getting to know people with less intense subjects.

Later, they are sitting with a group of friends and make a sexual comment only to see how uncomfortable most people are at that age with the subject, and they learn that sexuality is something more private and intimate.

These all happen best when they happen through non-mediated communication.  Let me explain what I mean by that term.  Every way that we engage with others that is not full-on face-to-face interaction is a mediated form of communication.  If we are talking on skype, there is a screen and a lack of personal presence, if we are talking on the phone, we loose the visual cues.  If we text, we loose the intonation cues.  On and on. 

With each successive level of mediation, we loose a lot of information.  After all, who hasn’t had a friend read a text the wrong way and get offended?

In the world of social media, we generally loose another level of interaction: immediacy.  This means that a person can log on to a social media platform, make a post, and hours later have a friend read it, get hurt by it, and go to sleep upset. By the time the friend got hurt, our original poster was watching an episode of their favorite show on Netflix.  

The original poster has no idea that they hurt their friend, they did not get the immediate feedback so they could learn how those words affect people. In fact, by the time they receive any of that, they may have lost all memory of what was going on in their head when they made the post. 

That is a problem because the more mediated the communication is during this crucial season of development, the less our kids are able to grow and learn how to live and be in this world.

So, we all throw our computers and iPhones away and ban our kids from engaging in social media, right?  Nope, that could be as dangerous to our kids’ future as the opposite.  Our world is moving more and more into making online a primary mode of communication, and in order to succeed in the future our kids need to be fluent in this language.  

I think they're are a couple of first steps.  I am sure there will be many more.  

First, our kids need community of people monitoring their online interactions and helping them understand what is happening on the other side of the screen.  They need parents and teachers and ministers who are engaging with them online AND in person to help them develop while engaging in this medium. 

Second, we need to make sure we discuss social media implications when we are processing big ideas.  At church we might say “How do you love your neighbor when you are on snapchat?”  It needs to be part of how we process all our life so that we help plant those initial concepts in the minds of our kids.

Last, we need more personal interaction.  That means when we see kids studying over Skype with a friend, we offer to get the friend and bring them over.  It also means encouraging our kids to put their phones down when they are with friends, or if they have to have it out, to share the experience with the person sitting next to them.

It is a problem, but it is not an impossible problem.  If we take time to think about what is going on and take some simple steps we might be able to succeed at only damaging our kids as much as our parent’s generation damaged us!

Am I a Hypocrite?

Hypocrisy points to one of the deepest truths in the universe that seems to be written into the core of our existence.  We know at the deepest level that it is wrong for us to say/believe one thing and do the opposite. This principle is the everyday expression of a profound truth: knowledge has claims on action.

Whenever we come to know that something is true it cannot merely become a bit of information stored in our brain.  We must live in accordance with this newfound truth.  When a child discovers that touching a hot car in the parking lot causes pain, they must stop touching hot cars.  When we discover that betraying a friend hurts us and them we must stop betraying people.  When we learn that 5+5=10, we must give at least ten dollars when we buy two five dollar items.

I know that seems elementary, but this reality has serious implications when it comes to how we live in the world as Christians and do ministry as the church.  If we, for example, believe that Jesus offers us an example of how to live AND that Jesus loves us exactly as we are and calls us to be more, that has very practical claims on how we live our lives.

We simply cannot live a life of constant condemnation and rejection.  We cannot separate ourselves from the “sinners” in our world.  We have to accept them.  We have to love all the best parts of who they are just as they are.  

At the same time, we cannot be passive people.  With anyone who will allow us, we have to be about helping people grow, and we have to be about striving to be who God wants us to be.  

It is the same for the church.  There is no place for judgmental exclusivism.  There is no place for passive acceptance.  If we are to live out our beliefs our churches have to be a place where people are loved, accepted, and challenged to grow.

That is just two beliefs!  Just imagine if we sought to express all of our beliefs about God in our lives and ministry!  It's time to discover if we are hypocrites. It's time to take a moment to look at your beliefs about God and ask a simple question:  How does this belief tell me to live?

As for the church, I think it’s time for us to take a break from whatever the latest ministry fad we are following and figure out how beliefs tell us we should be doing ministry.  In fact, that is the main premise of my book Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry, If you want a field guide for working this out, you can get it from Seedbed or Amazon.  Let me know how it helps!

>>> Read More: The Church is Full of Hypocrites

The Secret Behind Questions about Faith

“What if I’m not 100% sure if I believe?”  There are ton of questions like these.  You know the ones.  They are the questions we never say because we think (for a reason totally unclear to this pastor) that we should know the answer already.  How many times have you wondered, “How do I know the sound of God’s voice?” or “Is there truth in other religions?”  I bet more than people think.

I’m going to let you in on a secret, everyone (even pastors… even me) have these sorts of fundamental questions about the faith.  Having those questions doesn’t mean you are less spiritual than you should be, and it doesn’t mean you are in some sort of state of spiritual babyhood that should embarrass you. 

In fact, having those sorts of questions indicates a level of spiritual health.  It is not that a lack of knowledge indicates spiritual health; rather, the what is showing spiritual health is the ability to know what you don’t know and have questions.   Assuming you have all the answers you need generally means you have stalled in your spiritual growth and its time to give yourself a little push.

What’s the solution?  There’s two.  For those of you who have questions, ask them.  In your Sunday school class, with your christian friends, ask the question!  You will not only discover that others have wondered these things as well, but will have given yourself fellow investigators to help discover the answer you need.  

For those of us who haven’t really given time to thinking about these sorts of root-level questions, it’s time to take a look.  That’s the second solution.  It may have been a long time since you spent time considering how it is that someone knows something is a sin, or whether or not church attendance is central to faith, but it’s time to step back and look for where your questions are located.  It’s time to give yourself an opportunity to sure up the weak areas of your faith understanding.

This sort of probing and questioning is nothing to be afraid of and definitely nothing to be embarrassed about.  That is why we are going to be exploring all of those and several other questions this fall.  We’d love to see you at five at our church (they'll also be on my podcast), but if not, ask those questions anyway!  Check out this lineup of great questions:

9/7 What if I’m not 100% sure I believe?
9/14 Why does the church ignore greed and gluttony?
9/21 Who is right about the Bible?
9/28 How do I know the sound of God’s voice?
10/5 How can you tell if it’s a sin? 
10/12 Is there truth in other religions?
10/19 Do I really have to go to church?
10/26 Should I feel guilty about enjoying earthly pleasures?

A New Community for Wesleyan Youth Ministry

I believe that the love-driven, grace-filled theology of John Wesley is uniquely suited to help the next generation grow closer to Jesus.  

I have watched as they have shut down while listening to another guilt-driven evangelist’s plea. I have seen them become disenchanted with a faith that didn’t help them make earth look more like heaven, and I have counseled them as they dealt with questions that had been silenced by well-meaning Christians.

I did this knowing all along the way wishing that there was a stronger voice for the Wesleyan theology I used to heal the wounds and awaken their souls.

The problem is, it can be difficult to find published youth ministry resources that come from that beautifully Wesleyan perspective that highlights how the fullness of God’s grace and blessing is offered to everyone everywhere.  It is hard to find youth resources with that grace-filled theology that maintains a steadfast hold on personal and social holiness.

That is why I was beyond excited when I began a conversation with a thoroughly Wesleyan publisher who wanted to offer this very specific voice to the youth ministry world.  It is why I am so happy to be announcing today the launch of the Youth Ministry Collective... a new voice in the Wesleyan youth ministry world.

We have gathered many of the most successful and innovative youth ministers from all over the United States with a single goal: offering distinctly Wesleyan youth minister resources for the church.

All that talk about theology can worry some people because youth ministry is not merely about theological abstractions.  Our commitment is to be intensely practical and theologically Wesleyan.  

That means that there will be games offered every week as well as monthly theological reflection.  There will be couching and tips and lessons rolling out throughout each month all for free because we want to see another great awakening.

From there, we will keep on building this Wesleyan voice through books, curriculum and whatever the Holy Spirit decides to grow within this group of youth ministry rock stars.  I hope you come by and meet this incredible team: youthministrycollective.com  Keep coming, there’s new stuff coming several times each week!

 

 

You Know More about God Than You Think

Let's start with a simple truth most people know intuitively: God loves everyone.  Not only that, he offers the fullness of his grace to them at all times even before they choose to follow Jesus. (1)  Wesleyans call this the “wooing grace” grace of God.  It is part of what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon when he explains that God “… causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45).  In other words, God blesses everyone whether or not they believe in him.

God not only blesses everyone, he communicates to everyone.  Romans 1:19 clearly states that God calls out to the world through what has been made.  Every time someone has seen a sunset or held a newborn, they have been hearing the voice of God calling out to them. 

All of that without a single loving word from a believer or a single page of the Bible to read.  Why?  Why does God do all this?  Because he loves every single person he created, and he wants to have a relationship with them all.

This wooing grace changes everything! It has a massive impact on everything spiritual.  We no longer see ourselves as “bringing Jesus” to some lost soul.  Rather, we recognize that Jesus has been at work in the life of every person from the moment they were born.  

Our conversations about faith with non-believers are no longer based on fear and judgement, but on helping name the God they already know in part.  We say things like, “I bet you know more about God that people think.” We begin talking about Jesus by recognizing that “I bet you have experienced God more than most people know.”  We say these things not as some trick or clever technique, but because they’re true!

This beautiful Wesleyan perspective is uniquely fitting for life in a pluralistic world where proselytizing is taboo and demeaning other religions is unacceptable.  Into that world we are able to come with grace and love helping people see that God has been at work in their lives from the beginning.  God has never stopped loving them, and never will.  And, if they are willing he will bless them with an even more full life lived in relationship with Him.

All of this is to say, take heart.  You are not some pioneer out in the wilderness of a sinful world trying to convince people to buy something they’ve never seen and walk down a path they’ve never known existed.  God has gone before you preparing the way.  All you have to do is be available to the Holy Spirit and help convey the wooing love of a God who wants to set your friends, neighbors, and colleagues free!

>>> Read More:  Wesley for the Broken Hearted Lover

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1. This idea of God offering the fullness of his grace to everyone (even those who have not yet chosen to follow god) is a key component of Wesleyan theology which is the stream from which I come. 

The Church is Full of Hypocrites (Kind of)

random church.jpg

"Why would I want to go to church and sit next to John Bibby while he acts all holy when I know for a fact that he is cheating on his wife?"  I knew what was coming next.  I knew the criticism my friend was about to level against the church just down the street from his house.  "The church is full of hypocrites!"

It's true.  John Bibby was cheating on his wife and if you walk into any church this Sunday, you are probably going to sit in the pew right next to someone who is a habitual liar, abusive to their family, drinking more than they should, or, dare I say it, eating more than they should.  

You will likely see people whom you have heard utter a choice word about their boss, cheated on their taxes or lied to their spouse. The church is full of people like that.  But the fact that they aren't perfect isn't what makes them hypocrites.

Hypocrisy is saying one thing and doing another, right?  What makes this all hypocritical is not one's imperfect life, but the fact that the definition of Christianity is tied to some level of holy perfection.  To be a Christian is to be someone who is close to sinless. 

Not really.  At the most fundamental level, to be a Christian means to recognize the exact opposite of that definition.  

The Bible is clear:  Every person sins. Not only that, but we neither have the power to rid ourselves of sin nor the power to repair the brokenness it creates in our lives and in our relationship with God.  The teachings of all Christian denominations say that Jesus is the answer to that problem.  He is the only way that a sinner can deal with his or her sin.  Following him is the only path that leads away from the fractured life created by sin gone unchecked.

What does that mean about Christianity? Being a Christian means recognizing that you are sinful and cannot deal with it on your own.  You cannot fix it, and you need the unconditional grace of a forgiving God to heal the wounds.  

From there, we try to grow in holiness.  When that desire for change gets filtered through our brokenness, it can be expressed sometimes as judgmentalism and at other times as permissive acceptance -- which shouldn't be a surprise knowing that our first step is recognizing that we are hopelessly messed up.  

All of that begs the question: Why do Christians allow the holier-than-thou definition of our faith to persist and make us look like hypocrites?  To be completely honest, I'm not really sure.  Maybe it makes people feel better than the person across the street, or maybe it helps them hide the things they do that make them ashamed.  

All of that is to say that if you know you are broken and are looking for a place to experience healing, forgiveness and restoration, if you are well aware of your own sin and could use a community of sinners to support your quest to change, give that church full of hypocrites down the street a try.  There is grace, forgiveness and healing available to all who ask.

From: Al.com

>>>Read More: 5 Simple Ways to Keep Skeptics Out of the Church

Why Purity Rings Don't Work (and How to Fix It)

Take your pick of teen sex curriculum for churches and you will find a common outcome for the majority of them: a purity pledge often accompanied by a purity ring.  Since this focus has been so widespread and been going on for so long, we have more than what we need for a scientific study on its effectiveness.

You probably know what’s coming.  After doing a large, scientific study around the effect of purity rings and pledges, Janet E. Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that “Taking a pledge doesn't seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior,”(1)

No effect at all.  Teens who made these commitments started having sex at the same age, with the same number of partners, as if they had done nothing at all.

Which begs the question:  Why?

For that, we need to dive into another field of science:  Economics.  It may surprise you that Economics studies much more than money.  In fact, the field is all about trying to study how complex problems work and how different incentives affect those complex interactions (kind of like how purity rings might affect the overwhelmingly complex world of sexuality in teens).

In economic terms, the purity ring or pledge is something called a commitment device.  That is a device used to make your future self do something that the current self is having a hard time doing.  The problem is that these sorts of methods are notoriously bad at producing the intended result.

Steven Levitt, a renown economist and best-selling author explains that as clever as your current self is at devising these commitment devices, “the future self desperately wants whatever is being denied and finds ways around it.” (2)

That’s not to say that commitment devices don’t ever work, but they are often not nearly powerful enough to work.  That is what is going on with the purity rings.  They simply aren’t powerful enough.  Violating the pledge or ring carries no tangible consequences.  In fact, the only consequences it carries are guilt after it is broken, and guilt is a poor motivator.  Generally all guilt succeeds at is making sure people hide things.

But that’s not the most concerning part.  The thing that this commitment device does succeed at is very dangerous.  Though I have my own opinions as to why, the the Johns Hopkins Study found that people who sign purity pledges and wear purity rings are far more likely to NOT use any sort of protection their first time having sex.

When well-meaning people do a great job at getting teens to pledge to not have sex until they are married, they are doing nothing to prevent pre-marital sex while at the same time causing the teens to be more likely to not use a form birth control like a condom.

What do we do?

This definitely doesn’t mean the church should stop talking about sex.  It also doesn’t mean that we should stop encouraging abstinence.  It means that our job is just not as easy as we had hoped.  The solution to helping teens stay sexually pure isn’t as simple as getting them to sign a card or wear a ring.  

Which means that we can drop all the time and energy spent on pushing those things and use that time in a more productive way.  What is that way?  I thought you’d never ask!

We need to be equipping teens with the knowledge and tools they need to make better decisions and get better at self control.  Rather than drawing an arbitrary line in the sand about “how far is too far”  we need to help them understand why certain physical expressions of love are appropriate in some relationships and not others.  

Instead of practicing some form of “just say no,” we need to teach them decision methods that can help them process big issues and help them see right from wrong when they are alone in their boyfriend/girlfriend's house.

All of this needs to be seen in light of God’s presence in the world.  All of this needs to be placed within the context of scripture and discerned in partnership with other members of the Body of Christ.

All of this is what was behind my approach to Sex education in the new UMC Resource Sex: A Christian Perspective on our Bodies, Decisions, and Relationships.  It doesn’t have a purity pledge, nor does it tell students to draw a line somewhere between holding hands and having intercourse.  

Rather, it seeks to equip young students (6th-8th grade) with what they need to live out holy lives in relation to their sexuality.  I hope you’ll check it out.  It’s available for download (coming) or on a USB thumb drive (now). 

>>>READ MORE: 5 Simple Ways to Recruit and Keep Volunteers

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1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/28/AR2008122801588.html?hpid=topnewshttp://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/28/AR2008122801588.html?hpid=topnews

2. http://freakonomics.com/2012/02/02/save-me-from-myself-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/

Going to the Movies with Jesus

Which Jesus is the real one?  Every time I go see another Jesus movie, I am faced with a new version of the Son of God, and I have to ask myself, which is the best?  Which is closest to the real thing, and more importantly, why are they all so different?

All of these films show us Jesus through the eyes of a certain time and place.  Though they have the same subject and similar plot every decision, every casting, every word in the screenplay is made by people who have a particular understanding of Jesus.  From the pacifist Jesus in the 1961 King of Kings to the Hippie Jesus in Godspell, we see much more than Jesus, we see how Jesus looks to the creative hearts of the writers, directors, and actors.  
 
The first talking american film that focused on Jesus as the primary character and story was produced in 1961.  Directed by Samuel Bronson, King of Kings tells the story by expanding the roles of four of the supporting characters in the Gospel.  Through the Roman soldier who saw Jesus die on the cross (here names Lucius), Barrabbas (the Jewish prisoner released by Pilate), Judas (the disciple who betrays Jesus), and Mary (mother of Jesus), we see a messiah of peace and love who lives much closer to the side of pacifism than the oppressive political environment portrayed by the setting in a Roman-ruled province.  

It is a fascinating and incredibly entertaining depiction of this powerful story that everyone should have the pleasure of seeing and it is the first film in the line up for the Imago Dei Film Festival we are hosting at our church.  

Whether or not you live in Mobile and can come watch movies with us, looking at these films is important.  It's important because through these films we not only get to explore the story of Jesus but see how far too often we re-make Jesus in our own image so that he fits comfortably in our life.  We discover parts of Jesus' story we have forgotten along the way in the service of our own re-make.  

Maybe after looking at Jesus through so many different lenses, we might be able to get a good idea of who the real Jesus is and how he is challenging us to live in our world.

Question for the Comments:  What Jesus Movie is Your Favorite?  

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