Message at First Baptist Woodstock on the Tower of Babel

Below is the message from the 9:30 worship service. Yes, that’s a gingerbread house behind me. The children’s musical was that night.

Making a Name – Brian Jennings from FBCWoodstock on Vimeo.

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Sports, Ponies & Humanity’s Quest for Community

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image2559459For centuries, most humans found community in fixed and enduring institutions, organizations, and groups. Strong communities were formed through family, religion, tradition, professional, ethnic and national identity. These communities remained relatively fixed and shaped the identities and destinies of their members.

Not so much anymore. Now the individual endlessly customizes, changes, and rearranges their life to fit their personal preference, deciding for themselves who they are and what they want to do. As a result, Millennials are abandoning traditional sources of community like a sinking ships. Half of all babies born to millennials are out of wedlock . Thirty percent now claim no religious preference. They expect to stay in a job for less than three years. Just under half claim to be patriotic persons.

Community based in God, family or country may be fading but the yearning for community is alive and well. Even as many choose not to identify with a religion, plenty are identifying with a team. Just half a century ago only 30% of Americans considered themselves sports fans. By 2012, the number had risen to above 60%. Sports feeds the hunger for community by uniting thousands of people across gender, class, and racial lines. We watch the games and buy the apparel to be accepted and then talk about our teams using pronouns like “we”, “us”, and “our.” Academics Chris Beneke and Arthur Remillard explain the phenomenon in an essay for The Washington Post,

“Modern sports stadiums function much like great cathedrals once did, bringing communities together and focusing their collective energy. This summer, the Archdiocese of New York is expected to outline plans to close or merge some of its 368 parishes; 26 Catholic schools in the archdiocese have ceased operation. By contrast, the city and the state of New Jersey spent hundreds of millions to build new baseball and football stadiums.”

Or consider the phenomenon of My Little Pony, a 22 minute cartoon promoting colorful toys for preteen girls that draws 12 million viewers, has 92,000 followers on Twitter and 815,000 on Facebook. The mantra of the show is that “friendship is magic” and it tells the story of six ponies whose friendship is the superpower that makes the world safe. This picture of community is contagious. It is estimated there are 7 to 12.4 million people in the United States who identify as “bronies” – a name that is a combination of “bro” and “pony” adopted by adult male fans of the show. These fans are typically college educated and between the ages of 15 and 35. They create artwork, post in forums, write fan fiction, wear “cutie marks”, attend conventions (8,000 attended BronyCon in Baltimore in 2013), and do charitable work. The show’s creator, Lauren Faust, explained to New York Magazine that “Friendship is Magic” came from her first real experience of friendship as a teenager:

When I made those friends, they were so precious to me. Sometimes I wonder if that’s the appeal of the show. When you take a look at the Bronies, they’re probably the odder kids in their school. They’re not typical. They must have caught on to that message under the surface of My Little Pony: that friendship means we’re all being ourselves and we’re all accepting of one another.

Humans hunger to be themselves and be accepted by a community. Whether that community is the Big Blue Nation of Kentucky basketball or BronyCon.

Yet our modern idea of community is contradictory. We want all the benefits of real, authentic, enduring community enjoyed by humans for centuries but on the terms of the individual; it cannot be too restrictive, time consuming, or dogmatic. We want community to make us better people while we cry foul every time it intrudes into our personal space. We want it to give us powerful emotional bonds while we remain noncommittal, options open. We want it to be meaningful and significant while we abandon ancient doctrines for slogans and trends. The community our culture wants ultimately doesn’t exist and the attempt to attain it will leave us empty and unsatisfied.

The church can be the answer. Not by conforming to culture’s design by stripping away doctrine, softening commands, and fluffing up worship, but by being the kind of community God gave us in the New Testament. A community that changes people because it has the audacity to intrude into life and tackle sin and suffering (Galatians 6:1-2). A community with strong bonds because it meets regularly for worship, encouragement, and service (Heb. 10:22-25) despite the costs. A community with eternal significance because it is united by enduring and revealed truth from God (Isaiah 40:8) rather than trends or products.

Many won’t accept the church because it’s not on their terms. Yet for those left empty by the culture’s version of community, the church can become salvation – not just from sin and death but from meaningless, anonymous isolation.

Community in the church doesn’t magically happen alongside of programming and a busy calendar. Many have turned to sports and internet for community because churches have failed to be what God has called them to be. Yet if the church has a passion and plan to get people into gospel community the world may see that “friendship is magic” can’t compete with the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It may see that sharing a favorite team is small potatoes compared to sharing membership in the Kingdom of God.

The gospel is the best hope for a culture seeking out community in plastic toys and rubber balls. Are our churches working hard to build gospel-centered community that points the world to Jesus?

-Brian

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Is Disney World Heaven?

Castle4This question spurs a brief and comical battle in my heart. If you’ve never been, it might seem ignorant and senseless to ask. As a lover of Jesus, student of the Bible and one who has cashed in her hopes for eternity, I say, no, Disney World is not heaven. But. That’s where I honeymooned. That’s where we vacation. That’s where I ran my first half marathon. That’s where my dreams come true. Let me assure you, in an age where pleasure is paramount and pain is abundant, the question is appropriate.

Walt Disney World is pure, concentrated magic. Peerless ambience, entertainment and customer service consecrate this 25,000 acre paradise as the third most visited tourist attraction in the world. Guests can choose from 20 resort properties, ranging from economy to luxury, each boasting exceptional thematic detail. Manicured lawns, artisan menus, ornate pools, regal architecture and costumed employees work in tandem to transport you to the time, place and activity of each resort’s theme.

The four theme parks are more impressive still. Each is a contained world of impossible glory: fountains dance to music, characters confined to a page or screen are walking and waving, castles shadow your steps and every attraction is whimsical yet sophisticated and more incredible than the last. There are plant sculptures, streams of parades, exotic animals, brilliant sounds, countless shows, vibrant colors and a polished staff of thousands ready to perfect your day. Every girl a princess, every boy a pirate and every parent amazed.

Days are governed by play. Smiles are effortless. Your room becomes home. As you pack your mouse ears to leave, a sobering cloud settles over your soul: Disney World is not home. Bills, homework, repairs, conflicts, deadlines and the mundane grind of daily life await you.

To sidestep this Disney depression, some have abandoned their careers and cities to relocate their families to Orlando for immediate, unfettered access to the most magical place on earth. Herb Leibacher, founder and chief executive of World of Walt (an independent Walt Disney World information website) recently called for such testimonies; they came in droves.

“Many of the people in the story talked about the ‘Disney bubble,’ which is a term that talks about how things are magically perfect while on Disney property. That contrasts with the real world, where things are dirty, disorganized, messy, and sometimes dangerous.

“In a sense, some people long so much for the ‘Disney bubble’ experience that they want to have it all the time.”

One woman viewed her husband’s job loss as the perfect opportunity to move:

“The kids fell in love with Disney (what kid doesn’t!) and Ron saw how happy people seemed to be who worked there. When we got home to GA, I began talking to him in earnest about making the move, and finally he agreed. I have wanted to work at Disney since I first saw Walt Disney World in February of 1972. Ron began working at Dixie Landings as a third shift custodian in 1996. I began my career in Adventureland Merchandise…”

Leibacher revealed how some manage permanent residence on Disney’s property:

These folks stay at the [Disney] campgrounds for months at a time. Some stay all year long. In effect, they become permanent residents of the campgrounds by renting a parking spot day after day. They are often known as the folks who create extravagant Christmas and Halloween displays around their RVs.”

Moving isn’t odd. People relocate to new cities and states for different reasons every day; employment, education, family and cost of living are popular ones. There is a different dynamic at work in the flight to Orlando (50,000 people per year). Time in the Disney bubble reminds people real life is not as it should be. To Leibacher’s description of the real world, I would add disappointing, wearisome and downright sad. Many believe Tinker Bell’s wand contains sufficient pixie dust to wave away every ache. They are wrong.

Planet Earth provides no air tight escape from sin and its effects. There is no debate: Disney delivers an unparalleled vacation from life’s mediocrity. However, we must never convince ourselves that running to Walt’s arms is the permanent fix for a broken existence. Our fix is found only in Jesus, who has made a way for all to live with Him in the real heaven.

These three things distinguish Disney from heaven. First, heaven is a real place; Jesus called it paradise (Luke 23:43)! Disney is real insomuch as it exists, but visitors are called “Guests,” because there are no true citizens; the employees are called “Cast Members,” because it’s all a show. They turn out the lights and go home to the same challenging realities we do.

Second, heaven is eternal. Paul wrote in second Corinthians 5:1 “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Like the Summer Bay Resort, nine miles west of Disney World, swallowed by a sinkhole two weeks ago (a day before Leibacher published his article), every magnificent Disney structure will be swallowed, if not by a sinkhole, by time.

Lastly, heaven has Jesus. Mickey is great, but he can’t save. Walt had a genius for making magic, but he is dead. Our Savior lives and only by Him and with Him can we receive salvation and paradise.

Leibacher’s article reveals humanity is hungry for heaven. Christians have the privilege and responsibility to reveal with our words and lives the existence of the true heaven. I am guilty of Disney infatuation; my earnest prayer is that my song for Immanuel dwarfs my song for Epcot. Nevertheless, I am forever assured of the truth in these lyrics– “On Christ the solid rock I stand/all other ground is sinking sand.”

-Emily

Manipulated by Mega Sharks

sharkweekWho doesn’t love Shark Week? That one week out of the year when the Discovery Channel devotes almost all of their programming to those fascinating predators of the deep that capture the imagination and inspire fear among land dwellers. But after 26 years of Shark Week, how do you keep viewers interested? We’ve seen the Great White Shark fly through the air to kill its prey. We’ve seen the Whale Shark calmly navigate the Great Barrier Reef. We’ve seen the aftermath of a Bull Shark attacking surfers. We’ve even seen Jaws shred a boat, Bruce the Shark treat fish as friends, and Sharknado bring those horrifying teeth to land. What is there left to see?

Enter the Discovery Channel’s Megalodon special to kick off Shark Week. The Megalodon was the largest shark ever to live. It could grow up to 50 feet long with teeth the size of an adult human hand and jaws that could crush a car. The show was called “Megalodon: The Shark that Lives” and took viewers to South Africa to investigate a rash of attacks and evidence that the massive shark could still be out there. The only problem is, according to National Geographic and marine scientists, the Megalodon is long extinct. The evidence and experts on the Discovery Channel special were faked.

There was a disclaimer in small white font that flashed on the screen briefly. One would likely need a DVR with a pause button to read it. Yet, Discovery’s online poll reported 29% of viewers believe Megalodon still swims and another 47% say it may be possible. You read that right. Three-fourths of viewers accepted to some degree the findings of a fake documentary. The show even brought in record ratings for the channel with 4.8 million viewers.

Critics have attacked the show because Discovery Channel claims its mission is:

“to satisfy curiosity and make a difference in people’s lives by providing the highest quality content, services and products that entertain, engage and enlighten.”

According to a number of critics, they failed in their mission by airing a program that probably belonged more on the Sci-Fi Channel than on Discovery and by deceiving their viewers.

The Megalodon Shark Week special reminds us how easily we can be manipulated even by sources we trust. Most of the information we “know” comes to us mediated through a variety of sources. For example, most of what we know about the universe comes from a relatively small number of astronomers; we haven’t charted the stars personally. Most of what we know about politics comes to us through biased reporters and commentators; we haven’t spoken to the President personally. Today, more and more of our “knowledge” comes from segments on the Today Show, popular YouTube videos, Twitter trends, cable news debates, sensationalized History channel shows, agenda-driven bloggers, celebrity interviews, cleverly edited documentaries, and more. These sources form our knowledge, shape our opinions, and direct our lives.

Christians are often accused of blindly trusting the Bible as a source of knowledge. Yet is a Christian who trusts the Scriptures somehow more blind than the non-religious person who puts their trust unquestioningly in the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, their Twitter feed, or Wikipedia? The Bible has withstood 2,000 years of scrutiny and been tested in the lives of millions of followers of Christ and still remains.

The Shark Week special reminds us to be saturated in the only source of knowledge that will never fail or mislead us: the Word of God.  As the Psalmist says in 119:41-43:

41Let your steadfast love come to me, O Lord,
    your salvation according to your promise;
42 then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me,
    for I trust in your word.
43 And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth,
    for my hope is in your rules.

The Psalmist has put his trust completely in God’s word. It is his source of knowledge; it assures him of God’s love, his salvation, his hope, and his answer for those who question him. Other sources of information can be false, mislead, or be mistaken but not God’s Word.

The Shark Week special also reminds us to not be lazy with the “knowledge” we receive. We shouldn’t unquestioningly accept everything we hear, even from reputable sources. Most of the distributers of information in the world are motivated by earning money, winning praise, advancing ideology, securing power, or boosting pride. This doesn’t mean what we receive is wrong, just that it may be tainted and we should look closely before we run off and change our lives based on a new “study”, revise our thinking based on new “data”, or update our values based on a new “expert.”

Jesus told his followers in Matthew 10:16, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” To be wise, we must be saturated in the tested source of knowledge that is God’s Word. We must also test and evaluate the knowledge we receive from other sources. In this way, our lives will be well directed, our opinions well informed, and we’ll be able to enjoy a swim in the ocean without worrying about the 50 foot shark that might still be swimming around.

-Brian

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Four Thoughts on Women’s Ministry

keep-calm-and-stay-the-courseIf you are in the trenches of serving the Lord by ministering to women, here are four simple things to sharpen and encourage you.

Events are good

Events have a soiled reputation in many women’s ministry circles as marshmallow-y gatherings that produce nothing of worth for the Christian woman. Yes, some women’s events lack vision, are poorly executed and are laced with bad theology, but blanketing all women’s events with this grid is not wise. Strategic, gospel-centered, well-executed women’s events are open doors. They can provide a comfortable environment for non-Christians, opportunities for Christians to use their gifts and they creatively speak to the uniqueness of the female through the lens of the Bible in enjoyable ways. As a general rule, women love events. Put great effort into planning, serving and attending quality women’s events.

Your goal is not to be voted Prom Queen

Some believe serving in women’s ministry, whether in an official capacity with a desk and title or unofficially as a volunteer or teacher, means you are a well-liked, well-known, super-sweet extrovert with a manicure, lots of friends and a knack for biblical truth and fun. You are the woman all the women in your church want to be like, be with and learn from. Every woman, ages 19 to 98, just loves you. These things could certainly be true, but they aren’t always, nor do they ever have to be. Doing ministry correctly often means you make very unpopular decisions. You’ll be misunderstood, misinterpreted and sometimes ridiculed.  You won’t be able to please everyone. When women repent and believe in Jesus, their lives will change and their non-Christian husbands might actively despise you. You will make mistakes and not be forgiven. You might be doing an incredible job with very little energy and excitement surrounding the work. Your goal is to make much of God’s name rather than make a name for yourself.

Not everyone is excited about truth…yet

Have you ever gotten in your car, loaded down with notes, commentaries, possibly a bag of ice-breaking Hershey Kisses and a fat Bible, excited to teach women God’s truth? Have you ever exhausted yourself in that teaching to the point of joyful tears, swelled to the brim with the Spirit, wanting nothing else in the world than to live in that moment? Have you ever then walked back to your car, heavy and tired, because no one seemed to care? Allow God to lift your head. Don’t let perceived or actual apathy curb your zeal for conveying God’s truth. The women you serve need it, even if they don’t know or believe so. Love them, don’t judge them. Be patient, not demanding. Trust God to use your passion and faithfulness over time.

Expect great sorrow and great joy

When you kneel down into the dirt of life with women whom you are ministering to, you will unearth both trash and treasure in their lives. You aren’t trying to avoid one and find the other…you are actively looking for both; some women can’t tell the difference between the two. They are unaware they’ve rooted in a dangerous place and are headed for destruction. You will see great sin. You will hear of situations that make you physically ill.  You will earnestly pine for a woman’s salvation and she will ultimately run from God. You will weep with many who weep. And yet, you will witness the hand of the Lord move and work so mightily you will at times be unable to stand because of His goodness. Women who were once ensnared by the enemy will be released and worship the living Christ. The adulteress and the abused will turn to Jesus and become disciple makers. Homes will change. There will be tears of joy. God’s goodness and provision will overwhelm you.

Don’t let the trash deter you. There is great treasure to be found in the work of women’s ministry. Stay the course, dear sister.

-Emily

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Mother’s Day: Not Just for Mothers Anymore

momTraditionally, many churches go to great lengths to recognize moms on Mother’s Day.  It is a great day, but can isolate the barren, those who have lost children, single women, and those whose children have abandoned God and their parents. In your congregation this Sunday, many women will sit next to you in the pew, heavy with these quiet realities.  What about these women? Is there room for them on this special day?

Regarding philosophy of children, we are working with a broad spectrum complete with two extremes. As a I write, abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell is on trial for the murder of four babies, one adult woman and hundreds of counts of illegal abortions over the last ten years in his “house of horrors” located in Philadelphia. Americans are postponing parenthood longer than ever before to work, travel and live. Simultaneously, there is a revival and reclaiming of parenthood among evangelicals, praise God. Christian couples are more actively pursuing parenthood both naturally and through adoption. Even in this goodness, however, there is an extreme.

Some Christians don’t consider you a true parent until you birth four children in as many years. The argument has moved past birth control and on to, “Is there a reason for a woman to ever quit bearing children?” Others relentlessly chase after parenthood in hot (sometimes idolatrous) pursuit, believing life without kids would be impossible. Just as they have become inconveniences for our world, have children become ultimate for Christians?

Children truly are a blessing and inheritance from the Lord as the Psalmist wrote. However, the reality is not everyone will be a biological parent. Paul wrote the Corinthian church and told them he wished everyone was single; this path, if done in a Christ-like manner, leads to childlessness. Bareness is a recurring theme throughout Scripture and the Lord does not always choose to reverse it. If children are ultimate for Christians, how can God allow this?

In his book This Momentary Marriage, John Piper writes: “The purpose of marriage is not merely to add more bodies to the planet. The point is to increase the number of followers of Jesus on the planet.” His statement is affirmed by Christ Himself. In a speech to His disciples, Jesus said,

 “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”- Mark 10:29-30.

Here, in acknowledging that we are called away from even our children to serve Him, Jesus affirms that the gospel message transcends parenthood. It is ultimate, not children. Regardless of whether or not we are gifted with biological children, God has called every Christian to the task of spiritual parent as they make disciples.   Toward the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul made this request: “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well (16:13).” Paul recognizes the value of his spiritual mother and honors her in his letter.

Mother’s Day is a good celebration, lest we forget to include every mother. Christian woman, whatever you state this Mother’s Day – whether a van full of car seats, college tuition bills on your desk or a house all to yourself- God has called you to be a spiritual mother to someone. Maybe the kindergartners you teach Monday through Friday. Maybe some teen girls who sit on the back pew of your church. Maybe the woman in the cubicle next to you. Ask God to equip you for this task and embrace it. Church member, encourage mothers this Sunday…all of them.

-Emily

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Christianity Isn’t Cool: No Matter How Much You Want it To Be

napoleon-dynamiteWe all want to be cool whether it’s dressing up as a Jedi for the premiere a new Star Wars, debating the latest Indie film while wearing skinny jeans, or starting at point guard for the school basketball team because with coolness comes acceptance and belonging. As human beings we crave to be accepted and to belong to a group. That group may be as small as a third grade lunch table or as large as the American culture. Either way, we want to be “in” and not “out”.

The teenage years are the crucible of cool. Teens adjust their mannerisms, accentuate their appearance, acquire possessions, and arrange their lives in an attempt to be accepted. The stakes are high and winners get happiness and losers get misery.

Sometimes I wonder if we ever truly graduate from this.

A lot of Christians are concerned with making the faith “cool”. Not cool as in a church with a band that sounds like Coldplay and pastor who preaches from his iPad. Rather, the kind of cool that brings acceptance and belonging; that gets Christians a seat at the political table and earns the praises of communities, cultures, and cable network commentators. Many are warning that if we don’t shape up, we will be left behind – and it will be worse than anything Tim LaHaye wrote about. We will become irrelevant and unwanted; a dead faith surviving on the life-support of our traditions.

American Christianity is afraid of becoming like the kid who sits alone at school and receives the taunts of his classmates. We are told we must change or die the slow death of rejection. After all, there is nothing worse than holding a faith most of America considers foolish and harmful. Many Christians – some quiet well known – are filling up sermons, books, blogs, twitter feeds, and Facebook posts calling us to turn on our past, kick the dust off our shoes, and progress into a better faith that can survive the twenty-first century.

The problem with this desire to make Christianity fashionable is, well, Jesus. He said in John 15:18-19, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” Jesus is warning us about a harsh reality: no matter how many people we liberate from slavery, malnourished children we feed, free block parties we throw, pairs of Toms we wear, or art galleries we support, as long as we follow the Jesus of the Bible the world will never accept us.

Why? Because Jesus claims to be Lord of all. He says in Matthew 28:18, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” And in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” All of humanity will be judged by him in Matthew 25:31-32, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” When Jesus makes these claims it immediately puts him into conflict with all the lords of the world from presidents and kings to sex and money.

How do you make Christianity cool? How can Christians who worship a counter-cultural Jesus be accepted and belong to the wider culture? Follow some of the advice out there and water him down.

Create a god who is more loving and affirming; that never judges or condemns. Tell a story where humanity is the hero, progressing to a more peaceful and enlightened future. Compile Scriptures that offend less and inspire more. Define sin as anything that doesn’t make us happy and whole. Recast the cross as the compelling end of a social revolutionary and the resurrection as the product of our collective hopes and dreams. Build marriage, gender, and sexuality on the shifting cultural consensus. Construct a faith where only actions matter, not beliefs. Craft a Jesus who is only one option among many.

This will create a Christianity that is cool and acceptable, but that is no more compelling than the United Nations or the Peace Corps. Just one more option for doing good in the world.

But if you’ve embraced the fact that being cool doesn’t mean being right, if you’ve realized that acceptance by the world is nothing compared to acceptance by the One who made the world then worship the God who is both loving and just; who has wrath and grace. Tell the story where Jesus is the hero rescuing sinners for the glory of God. Meditate on the Scriptures that both inspire and offend. Stand in awe of the cross where the Son took the punishment for our sins and the resurrection where he conquered death. Wage war on sin that is an offense against the character of God. Celebrate marriage, gender, and sexuality in the way God has given them for our good. Live out a faith strong in belief and action. Follow a Jesus who is not simply another Ghandi but the author of life and necessary for every person.

You may not be cool or accepted. They probably won’t give you your own talk show or invite you on theirs to talk about how much they love what you’re doing. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:13, “We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” You can’t make Christianity cool without tearing it down and rebuilding it in your own image. So let us not labor to make the world love us and instead let us love the world, shrugging off any hatred it throws our way. We follow a rebel King. And in his mighty company there is singing, joy, and pleasures forevermore.

-Brian

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