Tag: Preaching

Being a Pastor Post Covid-19

What is it like being a pastor of three congregations right now in the midst of such an unusual crisis? What is it like being a rural pastor, where people can tell you more in a hug or a handshake than in an hour of conversation? How has ministry continued in the midst of a complete shutdown of physical attendance in our sanctuaries, and visitation in our homes as we “social distance” from one another? Perhaps I can give a few word pictures of what it has been like as we enter our fifth week of protecting each other from the pandemic while doing ministry.

We usually start off most days with exercise at the YMCA, where I can walk the track and read for upcoming sermons and teaching while the two little ones get childcare and my wife enjoys the gym. Ransom is at school most school days, and Harper is easier when she is alone and can’t bother her big brother. I am usually in the office most afternoons working or doing visitations. Around 4:30 pm, I come home for dinner with the family, then in the evenings there are often meetings or an occasional Bible Study being lead.

There is no such thing as “normal” now.

Days start early with the kids eating, then move into schoolwork, then into play, and then into some cartoons, then into lunchtime, then into outside exercise, then into nap-time. This is the time I am able to have about two hours of uninterrupted writing, reading, communicating, calling, prayer, preaching recording etc. Two hours or less depending on the nap. Amanda is usually gracious when I’m on a deadline but I usually have 3-4 hour blocks to practice guitar, worship, think through problems, pray and meet up. The day goes by quickly, because we are at home more, eating at home more, in spaces more, the house gets messier more which means more cleaning time, more dishes, more time cleaning up after the kids. All things come in randomly, and so work happens whenever it can happen. I have a Kindle I can grasp, Facebook groups for prayer, Live Video at designated times, iMovie on the laptop for quick worship editing, cell phone receiving texts with special music and calls and texts for prayer and comfort while members are going through tough times.

The first two weeks of having no service physically and working from home were two things. (1) A blinding light of “just get stuff done” all over the place. Easter was coming! I watched every news report, read all the articles, followed the Bishop’s communications, prayed with people over the world constantly, and when the smoke cleared, I realized as well that it was: (2) An incredibly stressful experience completely reorienting ministry from a ministry of presence, to being present virtually. Sunday mornings were the toughest. I had to imagine my congregation as I preached, and get into the sense that the Spirit of God would spread the Good News despite the lack of touch – which is the very sign of the incarnation and the center of our theology in Christianity. That God is physical, not just a spiritual entity without a care for our very physical world. I had to learn to give lots of “hearts” on comments, and wish folks “Good Morning” on a video premier and on Youtube comments – while wrestling our very active and loving children, who like myself, are very loud.

And listening to myself preach. Well, I’ll just say that it is very hard to sit and watch oneself – knowing how much better one can be without the distractions. HOLY SPIRIT TAKE THE WHEEL! “Lord I pray you’ll speak through me, but if not, speak in spite of me!” The greatest prayer for a preacher speaking on the word of God.

As pastors, we love our congregations, the people, so much it is hard to convey how it feels to do Zoom meetings that just aren’t as organic or warm as meeting together in a fellowship hall. I also am reminded of the lament of having to cancel our Elder’s Music and Food Fellowship meetings, a Homecoming that would have united one of our church family’s members in dispersal, men’s breakfasts, women’s mission and prayer meetings, youth groups, exercise groups, and servant leadership development, and not to mention the countless ways that God’s saints meet on the side and show love to their neighbor.

But before I lament too long, I have to highlight what the Lord continues to do among us as a Kingdom that is unshakeable. Every evening our young people have been meeting for devotion and prayer and there has been a depth gained from that kind of discipline. Our worship services, which are online now, seem to be reaching between 300-400 people regularly, often with over 1,000 views of the services. Musicians have been sending music, and in the future we will have a stockpile of worship services to share with the community, the homebound, for those in other states of countries. Personally, my mom and dad have joined in worship and Bible Studies on Zoom, and we have had someone from London, England join us regularly.

There is something of a quiet revival happening under the surface, and I pray that the Lord continues to breathe new life into our many currents so that when we return together (oh how glorious it will be!), we will be remade from this temporary monasticism which has been forced upon us by a natural disaster called Covid-19.

God can use this trial to refine us and prepare us for a greater good to come. I say that not to minimize the grieving of the 40,000 people in the us and 160,000 people who so far have lost their lives, but I say it in faith, because I know as a pastor who presides over funerals and also baptizes and also officiates weddings – that God holds us in the palm of His hands in Life and in Death. Nothing can separate us from the love that is in Christ Jesus! Absolutely nothing! See this:

“What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.” No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:31-39 NLT

Right now, I am praying that the Lord would continue to guide us. I also pray that I am being the leader our people need right now. That as we are in this “pause” that we don’t lose the opportunity to reset the clock, and ask the Lord if we truly are doing what God is calling us to do and not our own selfish desires, or what is comfortable. Let us be refined in this fire, and may the same God that got Daniel through the Lion’s Den, and who saved his friends from the firey furnace, the same God who delivered the Hebrews from Egypt, the same God who gave us his own presence through Jesus Christ, and who laid down his own life – lets be listening and ready, because on the other side of this hill is a promised land we can’t imagine. We simply have to keep moving, and we will get there.

As a pastor, my jobs is to remind everyone of the faithfulness of God through the ages, so that we might remember and see the future more clearly. Certainly, we now have the time for reflection. Let’s take the deep breath together and feel out what this all means for our churches, our families, and our communities. May compassion flow from these old riverbeds, and may new life grow in the deserted places, as a pathway for the Lord is laid, and the wilderness prepares to bloom again. God is good, and is always with us. Let’s stand and see what’s to come.

-Pastor Daniel R. Griswold,

The Ridgeville Charge of the United Methodist Church of South Carolina

Some Questions I Ask Myself When I’m Preparing to Preach

  
Preaching is a huge responsibility and takes some good time and effort each week seeking to properly proclaim God’s word. Personally, I’ve been falling deeper and deeper in love with Jesus Christ and His ministry as we’ve been following the Gospel texts of the liturgical calendar. Yesterday, celebrating Communion after ruminating over Jesus’ words, “I am the bread of life,” really heightened and reminded us of the prominence of the Lord’s Table and the spiritual significance of “The Bread” sent from heaven to us. 

As part of my process I’ve been asking lots of questions of God, myself and others, so I thought I’d write some of them down in journal fashion. This is not comprehensive, but is more of what is on my heart and mind right now. Some are groupings of questions related so I bunched them:

(1) What does the scripture say? How do I get beyond my own personal interpretation?  Have I asked God to open my spiritual eyesight? 

(2) What does all of scripture bear on this passage? Is it something new, or is it emphasizing and continuing what God has done before? 

(3) Who is the author and what is the theological and practical thrust of the book, letter, prophecy, etc.? Where does this fit in this movement of the writer/speaker?

(4) What does the church and other reliable preaching and exegesis bear on this text?  Church Fathers? Doctors and Contemporary Preaching and exposition? Commentaries?

(5) Who is the word being spoken to, and what is this scripture saying to them today? Know the crowd and seek to give God’s word to them, stand as a messenger bringing Good News. Can it be communicated in a creative and interesting way that can be heard and integrated without distraction? 

(6) How is the Holy Spirit working today and giving us hope that this passage can challenge us today? How can we live out this challenge? Are we capable of disequilibrium and will this inspiration become action? 

(7) After the sermon is given: Was I faithful? Did I guard against accidental heresy? Will there be questions because I didn’t explain well enough or didn’t chew enough to understand it myself? Was the gospel preached and Jesus Christ proclaimed? Was God glorified and the Holy Spirit revered? Lastly, What is the movement of the Spirit as we prepare for a week of action and return as the church to preach once again. 

What questions do you ask when you stand to preach?

Image Source: (http://www.credomag.com/2013/01/03/how-to-preach-the-gospel-from-every-part-of-the-bible/)

Sermon: “The Heart of Fire,” April 19th, Hilton Head Campus

Download and Listen to Sermon “The Heart of Fire” Sermon

Hilton Head Campus, Saint Andrew By-The-Sea UMC

Campfire_Pinecone

On Sunday April 19th, I had the opportunity to preach at Saint Andrew By-The-Sea UMC’s Hilton Head Campus on the Gospel of Luke chapter 24:13-35, also known as “The Walk to Emmaus.”  As I studied the text, and experienced how Jesus revealed himself in this very unique story of two men who were “discussing” fervently the loss of hope and possibility, I felt myself in the text and realized that we all have worries and doubts about the future.  As we experience the season of Easter, The risen Christ meets us on the road, and the Holy Spirit blows oxygen onto the spark igniting the fuel, Christ’s presence, that unleashes the Kingdom of God among us now, in anticipation of the fullness of it, when Christ returns.

(Here is the Original Transcript of “Heart of Fire”)

Sermon: The Heart of Fire

Daniel Griswold

Main Idea: “Life is like fire, we need fuel, which is the presence of Jesus Christ.”

Scripture: Luke 24:13-35 (NRSV)

The Walk to Emmaus

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.  18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.  Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

(The Word of God for the People of God – Thanks Be to God)

Prayer: (Let us Pray) “Open our ears, O Lord, to hear your word and know your voice. Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills, that we may serve you today, now, and always. Amen.”

Illustration: Have you ever just stared into a campfire? I have. I’ve noticed at camping trips that when the sticks are gathered, a small teepee with kindling is set, and the flicker of smoke wisps upward, people begin to gather. A glow begins to catch and the fire maker puffs a bit to allow oxygen to fuel the flame, and that’s when the big logs of wood are brought out. That’s when people get really serious, and if everyone isn’t there yet, they are when the flames begin to stretch upward and the sound of popping and cracking begins. Twilight descends into darkness, and there is only one light illuminating the faces of those who have circled around the warmth of this burning wonder. Across all cultures, a good flame brings warmth and light to those who gather. Stories are told, songs are sung, friendships are bonded, and the spirit of God often inspires like the people of Israel below the flames of Mount Sainai; but at the center of the campfires are simple things: paper, sticks, logs, (maybe lighter fluid – if you’re a bit crazy) and oxygen; in other words – A good fire needs fuel; And so do we!

On the Text: In the gospel of Luke, we heard the story of two men, disciples of Jesus who had just been crucified, who were now walking on the road from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus. We’re not quite sure of the exact location of Emmaus, but we know it was seven miles outside of the city, which is a good long walk; and these two men had plenty to talk about. It seems from the language of the text, that they weren’t just having an ordinary conversation, but there may have been a bit of a frenzy to it – a frustration. They were not just talking, they were “Talking AND Discussing,” which may be a way of saying they were deeply invested in what had happened in Jerusalem.

Jesus, the one they’d hoped would save them from Roman rule and a corrupt religious system, who had been talked of as a prophet and a king and perhaps their Savior/Messiah – well, he had just been crucified.   They couldn’t believe what had happened, they didn’t know what to think, their hearts were heavy and full of doubts about the future; and in that they were just like us.

Over the last six years, as I’ve prayed and cared for all our families here at Saint Andrew, I’ve noticed that there is something that all of us have in common, and it is that we all worry about something, Often we are anxious and believe the fear that everything is going downhill, because we don’t know the future. Our hearts are heavy when the world turns in the opposite way we’d hoped for – everything seems lost and we don’t understand – how could this have happened to me? To us? To us all? If Jesus were to come next to us to speak new life into our souls, would we be able to recognize it? (PAUSE)

The two on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize it at first, when Jesus Christ, newly risen from the dead, came alongside them on the road. I suppose they weren’t expecting him, which is a problem. But Jesus tries to get a pulse on their situation,  saying something so ordinarily wonderful – “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” Their response? “They stood still, looking sad.”

Like a little league baseball team that just lost the match 20 to nothing, they stood there as if they’d about lost it all. Maybe we just ought to fall into the dust and die. The pit of the stomach aches, and we all know that very soon the coach has to tell a really inspiring speech in a really soothing tone to get everyone to rise again for the next game, and the team chaplain’s got a big prayer ahead. Somehow they’ll need to rise from the ashes.

“They stood still and looked sad.” Jesus asked them, what’s wrong? And one of the two, named Cleopas, snapped:

Are you the only one who doesn’t know what happened in Jerusalem? Jesus of Nazareth did miraculous things, and they killed him! We thought he was going to redeem Israel. But he’s been dead three days, and now women have gone nuts telling us he’s not in the tomb, but guess what – it’s true – one of our guys went and his body isn’t there. The whole world is upside down and we don’t know what to make of it.”

That’s my paraphrase, but you can tell, these guys were in the train wreck of their lives and they’d. Just. Stopped.

I’d like to say that Jesus was kind and gentle with these two in their darkest moment, but something else happened. – Jesus called them out. How foolish and slow of heart, don’t you understand what the prophets had spoken? Hmmm. Fair enough. They’d definitely lost the plot. BUT thankfully the story doesn’t end there. After a good slap to the senses, Jesus began to explain the scriptures to them starting with Moses and pointing them towards a renewed hope that the Savoir had to suffer, that he would rise, and salvation was at hand.

So slowly they began walking again, and before they knew it they were in Emmaus inviting this teacher (remember that they didn’t yet know it was Jesus), to stay the night and to eat and drink with them. And as they started the meal, Jesus broke the bread and their eyes were opened – Jesus was with them all along.  And as quickly as he came, he was gone from their site. When they realized that they were with the Lord, their Savior, who had been the subject of all their hopes and fears, and then hopes again, they exclaimed:

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

Their hearts were pumping again – they were not still – his presence fueled the rejuvenation of their breath and passion so much so that they ran that day all the way back to Jerusalem (7 MILES!!) to tell the other disciples, and in doing so were some of the first witnesses to the risen and living Lord, Jesus Christ. Their hearts burned with a living fire This new beginning is something amazing, and there’s something here for each of us seeking the same kind of renewal. We need fuel for the fire – but where is that fuel?

Illustration: Saint Andrew By-The-Sea UMC is a church in the Methodist tradition of being disciples of Jesus Christ. John Wesley, the founder of the movement, once had a crisis of faith much like the two we’ve already met on the road. John, however, had just experienced a failure all his own after a brief few years as the minister and missionary to the natives for Governor Oglethorp. As a minister he would have too heavy a hand with the parishioners who were not ready for his intense methodical religion. It was after a relationship with a woman he loved deeply had ended and she married another, he eventually denied her communion. Her father, the magistrate of Savannah stirred up charges against Wesley, who was forced to leave covertly or else be arrested. Having been run out of Savannah; Wesley returned to England feeling the weight of his failure, but also feeling spiritually dead and he said in his journal at this time “This, then, have I learned in the ends of the earth, that I ‘ am fallen short of the glory of God ;’ that my whole heart is ‘altogether corrupt and abominable;’ . . . that my own works, my own sufferings, my own righteousness, are so far from reconciling me to an offended God, that the most specious of them need an atonement themselves; . . . that, ‘having the sentence of death’ in my heart, . : I have no hope . . . but that if I seek, I shall find Christ, and ‘be found in him, not having my own righteousness, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.'”

Despite his depression, he was still seeking the assurance that he was truly saved. Like the two travelers, he looked sad, he was still, and the weight of his sin and the world’s guilt pushed his hope into the ground. But that would not last, because Christ comes near in many ways. On May 24th, 1738 Wesley wrote, “In the evening I went very unwilling to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”  

Application: What had happened to him? John Wesley encountered the presence of Christ in that room, and he felt the fire of God’s spirit revive him. And those words, “I felt my heart strangely warmed,” have inspired millions to seek that same presence, the same presence that those travelers on the road to Emmaus experienced as they exclaimed, “Were our hearts not burning!” Their hearts ignited and the scriptures were opened up in new and exciting ways. We too can be people who experience the real presence of Christ – in fact He is with us here. We can ask Him to open up understanding and wisdom as we study and pray. As we come together as the community of faith – as His very body, we are His members and He is here.

We all want to hear good news, and there is no better news than to see what was once dead come back to life. Jesus Christ died, defeated death, and rose again so that through Him we could become the people of new life. His presence is the fuel like a mighty campfire that never goes out. He is with us, and always will be, and he lifts our eyes to the heavens. Let us experence that walk not as a text of two legendary figures, but let us walk with Jesus ourselves, and in His power, we become conduits of life and grace to a world in desperate need of warmth. “He is alive, He is my fire, and I want to be with Him forever.” Amen.

The Prodigal Son(s): Notes on Kevin DeYoung’s Sermon on Luke 15:1-32 at TGC 2013

Luke 15:1-32

Sermon Notes on Kevin DeYoung‘s Talk at The Gospel Coalition Conference 2013

(1) The Context (Parable)
Tax Collectors and Sinners chilling w Jesus – Pharisees unhappy
Sinners – those not following the law (not good Jews)
Tax Collectors – people who paid Rome in order to have the right to collect taxes (were seen as cheats, swindled ppl out of money for profit ) – bid on what they thought they could collect.
Picture Jesus sitting w Judges ruling against Christians, hanging with scientists, atheists(?)

(2) Characters – 3 main Characters – Analogy is w the attitude portrayed, “How much more is God than this?”
A, Shepherd – God seeks sinners
God is active in this process
B. A Woman searching for her money diligently – Searching like a mom (find what is lost)
C. Father and his son – goes out to his son while he was a long way off. God is seeking people to save them

In every City – God is seeking

(The mission Field of the last century is booming – Have we been bad stewards while our shepherd sought the lost?)

Zaccheus – The son of man came to seek and to save the lost

*The Point: God rejoices when the lost one is found! Divine Joy – It is public – it is shared, there is eye contact, it overflows

Godly vs Worldly grief (repentance vs shame)

1. Lets be mindful of the relationships and the repentance

Are we friends of sinners? Remember wisdom. No one has been more inclusive of sinners and yet so rejecting of sin.

2. Let us be prepared to seek and to find all sorts of sinners

The older brother needs grace too. The Father goes out to him. The older brother just wants Justice. Nevers vs Always. “I never get this. You always have me.” Can we minister to the repentant and the bitter/Jealous?

3. Let us be marked in our lives by the experience of Joy

The Kingdom always comes with joy. God is radically committed to your joy and his. God seeks and he finds. Do you have an expectation of Joy? Are you waiting for something amazing from God?

On Rational Faith

Today I was at a meeting with some of the men from my church, and we were talking about life, and living – just regular stuff.  Because it is a group of Christian men who are all working on our personal journeys of faith, I found myself analyzing quickly “Why I believe”.  Specifically in God, but also in the universe and seeing it as God’s craftwork, and in humanity and our ability to think and believe in things.

Some people would just say that “I just believe” and that they have no reasons and perhaps do because its been passed down through the generations to them.  Some people say “I feel that God is real” and base their belief in emotional experiences where God met them and changed their life in an impacting way.  Some people are skeptics and believe despite their obvious struggles, and they challenge other believers when their faith is stagnant.  There are obviously many different ways to believe, and many probably not mentioned here.

I thought, at this moment, “Why do I believe?”  It caught me off guard for a second, because I live my life now under the assumption that God exists, is in control, and that I work for God as a vocation but also as one small part in the community of Christ.  I am a believer.   If I could freeze that moment in time though (and it was only a few seconds), I had to rediscover why I believed.

At times in my life I have believed on an emotional premise, as I poured my heart to God not at first by desire, but by necessity.  I had an innate need to realize I was not the center of the universe in my teen years, and that everything I was trying to control and in the middle of emotional turmoil I found great healing through the Spirit of God emptying me of despair and filling me with hope.  It wasn’t really weakness that brought me to my knees, but something mysterious within that led me to pour out my soul and decentralize my understanding of self.

Throughout the college years I continually tested my faith and the faiths of the world in a rigorous Religion/Philosophy degree.   I dealt with the question “Is this true?” and played the skeptic, while simultaneously believing.  During this period I was at odds with just about everyone in the community of faith.  I put aside my parents faith as I discovered my own identity.  I was in contention with the views of my professors despite their brilliance, and I was always side stepping what was presented and in a perpetual “What if?” kind of state.  My peers were much more skeptical than I, and studied religion more for its sociological significance.  I did too, but it was deeper for me.  I wasn’t looking at other people, rather, I was looking at myself and asking “Why?”  In college that seems to be the main thing that we learned.  The ability to ask a question and seek out the answer, though I think more questions were presented than answers would ever come.  I desired to discover more.

Seminary was about knowledge.  I determined that my feelings and beliefs were for one reason or another close to the evangelical in spectrum.  Not in its most conservative or most liberal branches, but I wanted to know orthodox (as in the faith of Christianity through the ages, not actual Orthodox church) Christianity, and since I didn’t believe in transubstantiation or the application of celibacy in the priesthood among a few other things, I would seek out Protestant Evangelicalism.  I wanted to KNOW my faith, and to KNOW it well.  Four years of seminary prepared me to find answers to my questions.  It also prepared me to know that there is mystery in faith, and some things are beyond our own experiences.  I learned why the scriptures are reliable in their sources, and when seen through good lenses, we can find truth about humankind’s relationship with God.  I learned Greek and Hebrew, and translated from old and new testaments that had been put together rigorously from various codices, scrolls, and cross checked sources from antiquity.  I began to trust the texts more and more and saw how the Trinity, though seemingly fabulous beyond my understanding, is attested to by imagery in the scriptures at the Baptism of Christ.  The father, the son, and the Holy Spirit are together – but are one in the Heavens, the skies, and the earth.  I studied the faith, and realized how much one can know (and still feeling like I know nothing at all).  I continue this study of the faith today.

So where does that bring me now?  In the moment I mentioned previously, how do I relate to my faith now?  It is still emotional like in the beginning, it is passed down from my parents (but not my parent’s faith), it is a tested faith with a hint of skepticism that keeps me searching for real truth, and grounded in solid methods of finding answers through ancient and modern sources including people living the faith today.  I have all that behind me, and yet I am at a different step than I once was.  At that moment I realized that my faith is the mish mash of all these things.  All encompassing of who I am.  My understanding of God underpins my understanding of self – and self worth comes not from my own success or failure but from God – who has no failures, and whose activity is always successful.

My faith is about deep thinking while feeling – it is about searching and holding onto something that is beyond what pop culture and consumption can bring us.  This deep within me is beyond the questions that distract us from what seems to me to be evidence that God created all things, that God wished to create a people who would take care of the created universe, and that despite the imperfections of us as a people, God is constantly reaching out and asking people to come back and trust in goodness – in a positive view of him – and in the wholehearted, wholeminded, and wholehanded devotion that goes where God goes, sees what God sees, and seeks to help all people realize that they have dignity not just because they are a wonderful creation, but because God loves them so much that we are each allowed to exist (rather than to not exist at all).  To me that is a beautiful start to the faith.  Existence is a chance to be with God through challenge and prosperity, pain and pleasure, all through our lives.

I am a rational being, not tricked by a shaman, or trying to trick others into believing something I know isn’t true.  I have read about humankind’s experience with God, how He destroyed the fake gods that people make with their own hands and minds, and how those who have faith in him in past and the present have a great future, when their trust isn’t just in our abilities to change the world, but in the One who made us to change the world.

Pass It On: Easter is Coming

The easter season is still on us people.  My pastor came to me wanting to show this video in service, and I was blown away.  It starts off so heavy, but you’ll find it is powerful and well worth it.  If you haven’t thought about the power of Jesus, a guy that lived 2,000 years ago in the Middle East, this video may refresh and inspire.

Teaching Series Illustrations Completed

My friend Mark and I finished a series of illustrations (at the end of this post) for Grace Chapel in Lexington, MA.  They have made them into Trading Cards and each will be released as the character is preached on.  The schedule looks like this:

June 28 – Hero: Tabitha Acts 9:36-42

July 5 –
Hero: Cornelius Acts 10

July 12 –
Hero: Esther

July 19 –
Hero: Ananias Acts 9:10-19

July 26 –
Hero: Jethro Exodus 18:1-27

August 2 – Hero: Nathan

August 9 –
Hero: Priscilla/Aquila Acts 18; Romans 16:3

August 16 –
Hero: Obed-Edom 2 Samuel 6:10-12

August 23 –
Hero: Jonathan’s Armor Bearer 1 Samuel 13:16 -14:23

August 30 Hero: Onesiphorus 2 Timothy 1:16-18

September 6
Hero: Matthew/Levi Luke 5:27-29

Check out www.grace.org if you want more info or want to attend their services to listen and collect the cards.  Mark and I also have a site www.6amcomics.com, and a blog sixamcomics.blogspot.com if you want to see some of our other work.

Sexual Ethics in “Circle of Friends”

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I sat down to watch a movie titled “Circle of Friends” starring Minnie Driver as the main character “Benny”.  I’m not sure about the rating, but I’ll just let you know that sex is a central theme (***Spoilers ahead***).  The setting of the movie is a small conservative Catholic-Irish community outside of Dublin, where three girls who have been friends since childhood (a shopkeeper’s daughter: Benny, a more wealthy man’s daughter: Nan, and an orphan in the care of nuns: Eve) grow up and eventually go to college.  Some scenes set up the plot and begin a strange trajectory.  1) The girls wonder about boys in small ways at first.  2) The priest speaks of premarital sex as sin, and puts the burden of purity on the girls in a sermon.  3) A professor at the college begins to speak about a small tribal group where adolescents are given complete freedom at puberty, and they blissfully engage in sex.  So these three scenes unleash the experimenting in the rest of the movie.  Each of the three girls awkwardly yet romantically find a man that they feel that they are in love with, and slowly through parties, they begin relationships with them.

An ironic twist in the movie really causes a new stir in the plot.  The girl who was raised by nuns, gains access to a house the nuns have kept up for her that had once belonged to her parents.  Since nuns go to bed at 8 pm and they won’t come to help upkeep it, the home becomes a place for parties for the college students to dance first, and then pair up.  Out of the three girls, Benny and her date played by a really “cute” guy named Jack (Chris O’Donnell), are the most conservative because Benny decides to listen to Catholic doctrine and keep herself pure.  Eve plays around, but is not fully developed as a character, but Nan becomes the antagonist by dating a wealthy Protestant (taboo) who says he loves her. They then use Eve’s nun-house as a rendezvous for her boyfriend’s fantasies, and eventually she becomes pregnant.  That boyfriend, Colin (Simon Westward – one of my favorite actors), ends up being a jerk.  He decides that they cannot keep the baby, or become public because of the Catholic-Protestant tension, and he writes her some guilt money.  Nan, scandalized and hurting, makes a bad decision.  She goes on a Rugby trip with Benny’s boyfriend Jack, and then when he is incredibly drunk, she sleeps with him.  A bit later, she announces that he, Jack, is the father of the Baby!  And then they are honor-bound to be married to support the child because they are Catholic with Catholic values (Though they have not lived out these values in private, a baby forces public values…).

Benny finds out, is hurt deeply, and throws herself into her work because her Dad had just died.  This doesn’t last long though, because Eve eventually finds out about Nan’s scheme, and exposes the whole plot.  This is where the movie gets really strange to me.  Benny, instead of holding onto her values when Jack was unfaithful, decides that the reason that Jack was unfaithful, was because she too wasn’t giving him sex!  He comes over and declares his undying love for her, and that he’s always loved her.  Benny turns to him romantically and forgivingly; after some time she decides to lose her virginity to him that day.  They go up to the nun-house, and the movie ends with a pan out of the nun-house, and the line, “Forgive me father, for I have sinned.”

I was furious. Shaking my head, and unable to remain seated, I could not believe that the movie ended this way.

Let’s apply logic to the ending. Nan had given herself to a man who said that he loved her without ever testing whether that statement had any proof or everlasting context.  That was the root of the problem and the reason for deception (evil) in the movie: Non-Committed Love!  And here, at the end of the movie, Benny gives herself to Jack in the same way.  In a Non-Committed, unproved fit of emotion.  She has completely removed the rational process from her decisions.  So in my opinion, that is not the end of the movie.  In fact, that ending sets up the same problems that the plot tried to solve.  And yet the film’s writers glorified in pre-marital sex as if that were the seal of a relationship.  The Fallacy is, as we have already seen demonstrated in the same film, that it is fully possible once the man (which the community priest is silent towards a man’s responsibility to purity of self and other) has sexual union with the woman, that the man can walk away without any burden.  This causes distress for the woman, who had expected endurance of relationship, not a walk away.  They show two different situations, one with consequences, and a second which is nearly identical, yet because the credits roll, we imagine a better ending.  By why should we expect a good ending?  There is no commitment to endurance, to everlasting love!  No societal accountability, to ensure that the union lasts, and is supported by those older and wiser.  There is no vision for a future, or the furtherance of a family, or productivity to one another’s benefit.  No, either party is free to walk away at any time.

From the beginning of the movie, the society was very conservative.  The priest, though he was wrong putting the burden of chastity solely on the girls, showed that there was societal limits that were in place for some reason or another.  Perhaps it was for protection and sacredness of marriage and the marriage bed, or perhaps it had degraded into the “proper” thing to do and people could not remember why they were to be “proper”.  It does not matter, it was a conservative culture.  Then the professor spoke on the Tribal People and their happiness with unbridled sex between adolescents.  This thought (idea) was somewhat analogous to a Beetle being brought into a new environment, where having no natural predators, spreads and destroys the native vegetation.  Trees die, and the ecosystem is changed forever.  The striking image of the Bold and Confident Professor is singed with sadness to me, because his proclamations are said with no consideration of the consequences of introducing such an idea to a more controlled society; particularly to a specific young group, whose identities are being formed, and who are curious and ripe for experimentation.  By merely saying a few words of caution, the Professor could have started a dialogue about how this “idea” would interact with the current social system were it to be implemented, but like a Mad Scientist, he leaves his findings free to be interpreted and applied in individual ways, regardless of the damage it caused.

And I wish not to be judgmental.  I only wish this post to be a conversation and a warning.  The movie itself demonstrates that there are consequences, though there is no dialogue to hash it out.  You have to figure it out on your own that the relationship between Benny and Jack will now be tinged with his unfaithfulness, and that lingering doubt that they will last, that the future is secured by a committment that is ideal, and beyond our frailties.  People get hurt, and relationships are irrecovicly damaged, when a group decides that Non-Committed “love” and Sexual Experimentation are to become the norm rather than an exception that can be cared for.  I see within this movie, and its problems, seeds for an argument against a basic set of values in Hollywood’s films.  A quick assessment:

1) The traditional roles of Husband and Wife are a joke (see Transformers 2, beginning scenes; also: Simpsons/Family Guy)

2) It is assumed that sex is a test (rather than a gift saved) for the possibility of marriage (see Friends, Monica and Chandler)

3) Those living in chastity are fools (40 year old Virgin)

4) Sexual exploit stories are part of the coupling adventure (Every Hugh Grant Film ever)

And none of these values are correlated with the Love that Jesus Christ and his follower Paul, spoke of:  “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.  For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.  Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed.  The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” (Paul’s letter to the Romans)

What the priest forgot in “Circle of Friends” is that it is not just the woman’s responsibility to maintain purity until a Committed, Accountable, and Society Supported Relationship (called a marriage by most) is formed – It is everyone’s responsibility.  The man must protect the woman, the woman must protect the man, and each must look to ones own purity.  This is not meant to hold people back, but to ensure the best quality relationships for the future.  Relationships based on Trust, Long Lasting Love, Hope, and Giving.  Not on Fear, Indulgence, Resentment, and Taking; all of these being the modern symbols of marriage, perhaps because people have modeled marriage as inhospitable rather than what it can ideally be.  But the ideal stands.  It is love that goes outside of oneself and protects the other – and commits to the object (person) of that love by giving him or her alone, the goodness of the marriage bed.  It is my belief that if Sexual Ethics would be preserved as a good discipline, and not despised as a hindrance to fun, then more people would see marriage as Sacred, and not the joke that it has become, while things like Adultery, Sexual Exploitation, and Non-Intimate Relationships would decline, and children of the future would see that this generation was committed to making a safe and loving world for their nurture and education.  It is possible to turn culture in another direction, but there has to be vision, and beyond that vision, people can commit to one another and role-model self sacrificing, self disciplined love, which are ingredients in the strongest of all possible relationships that lead to good marriages.

With every movie I see, I get angrier at our assumed values.  Though no one can live a perfect life, I do think that people can at least speak of an ideal, something that we can compare our lives to in order to see if we are doing well, or need to do better.  Do you agree?

Five Movies That Changed My Life (or) The Proper Context of Illustrations

What stories have shaped you as a person? What movies or books or family histories have molded you to be who you are today?   Over the last few years of doing Youth Ministry I’ve found that some stories are more meaningful than others, and some are downright epic.  I have a few and I’ll share them in the middle of this post. But what makes a story epic? I suppose it is the story that hits us hard and challenges our notion of what it means to be human and forces us to act on it in real life.  The basis of a good story is the “idea” or kernel of why the characters do what they do and think what they think.  In our own lives, amidst our comforts, we often become complacent in what we have become and how we do things.  Anyone or any group at any time may stop challenging themselves – to be better, or to be more disciplined, or to go beyond what they already know.  It is these stories that push us past our previous borders, that are epic – larger than life.  They mold us and they take us places we never thought we would go.

These epic, life changing stories are also ripe for sermon illustrations to your youth and congregations.  From time to time I’ve found myself rifling through illustration banks, and through files of saved illustrations that have hit me in the past, only to realize that some of the stories don’t mean anything to me.  They are just stories that have happened that illustrate a logical point that I’m trying to prove.  The problem with this, is that crowds do not respond to calculated messages.  This cold preperation is noted by the audience, and the ideas you are proving get placed exactly where you had them before your sermon – in a folder, tucked away, where no one will be able to remember or act on them.  This is the benefit of remembering your “epic” stories.  When you tell these stories something different happens.  You light up before the audience, you smile, you frown, you may cry, or burst out into laughter.  These pieces are not just fragments from paper, they are the fleshing out of your soul.  You’re identity is wrapped up in them, and they make you better because of them.  Think about it.  If you have been changed, and radically moved by these stories, so will your teens, your congregants. And when the story illustrates God’s plans of redemption and interactions in the lives of the people of the world; the story goes beyond epic and finds a proper place as you bring the heavens to bear on the earth, and God’s ways to shed light on how we should live despite our own ways.

It is true, that such preaching and speaking may lead to mistakes, because such passioned stories sometimes bring us to the depths of our emotional being.  Some illustrations are too cutting to share, and should be kept to our trusted confidants rather than to a congregation, and that is up to our discretion to ensure that we are not treating out listeners as a group psychologist, but rather as a group of people who need to see and understand God’s glory in real and tangible ways.  Story is a way to do so, so be wise in your illustrations, and even wiser as you apply them to real life and move forward from the life in the Holy Scriptures.

Personal Epics: So as you share your own epic stories here, I will take some time to share some of mine.  Since I am an avid movie goer I will share Five Movies That Changed My Life, and I will give a breif set of examples of why they changed me, and then give one way that the movie can be used as a powerful, “epic” illustration.

(1) Groundhog Day – A man finds himself trapped reliving one day over and over and over again.  The cycle of reliving the same day, begins to wear on him and as he discovers himself, finds refinement, and moves beyond the superficial life that those of us trapped “in time” can become slaves to.  The viewer relates to this man who doesn’t know how to react to this strange situation, and each day we ask, “Will he see another day?”  He first uses his power to live one day forever for his own self satisfaction, but begins to discover the warmth and goodness that humans can attain with proper thought and reflection.  Illustration: The truth behind this is that we often don’t find the time to stop and experience the good that is all around us.  The main character must do as Jesus taught:“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25).  The message is powerful and with a good setup for context, and a few scenes throughout your message, this can be a powerful illustration.  The application can be immediate as students can begin dialogue on “Who they think they are,” and the difference of “Who they think they should be,” and how that relates to their relationship with Christ.

(2) Gladiator – ***Spoiler alert*** A Roman Soldier lives during a bloody transition between Caesars.  His livelyhood is taken because of his knowledge of the new Ruler’s criminal ascension, and the the Soldier’s family is hung.  He runs ends up being sold into slavery in a far away province where he becomes a Gladiator (warning; it is a bloody movie and can be very gritty if you have a weak stomach).  The Soldier, named Maximus, seeks to find justice for the murdered Caesar and his family.  As he rectifies the situation, the new Caesar (a villain), sets up an unfair fight, and there is a devastating death of the hero in the midst of victory.  The tragedy is that the hero ensures justice at the same moment that his life is taken away.  Illustration: The end of the movie is the most powerful after watching a man fall from greatness, then become nothing, and then seek justice and rise again only to be hewn down by evil in the midst of victory. The audience is unable to celebrate, but The Good of the empire is secured, so the future is free to have life.  The correlation to Christ’s sufferings and his victory in the midst of his own death show that sacrifice is often the only way to bring about more life.  Whether that is sacrifice of things, or misconceptions of life, or just showing the power of God’s victory over Death on the cross, this last scene hits hard with students troubled by the problem of evil, so be prepared for the “Why do good people die?” question.

(3) The Secret of Nimh – This is a movie about a mother mouse who has a sick son.  Their home is within a cinder block in a field that is about to be plowed, so they need to move.  Unfortunately, her son Timmy is so sick that the move would kill him.  She then goes on a journey to seek wisdom on how to move her home so Timmy does not have to leave their home.  Illustration: The lengths that Mrs. Brisby goes to save her son, show a deep love that young people may or may not have experienced.  This is a deep, dedicated love that goes beyond the consumeristic, “I love that.” It’s tie ins about going to great lengths to find wisdom and discovering reality are powerful learning tools for youth.  There are also many moral dilemmas in the movie, involving some self-centered, power hungry rats who manipulate the good impulse to help a mother and her son, and turn it into a way to kill a very wise and influential leader for their own power gains in the community of intelligent rats.  Several scenes of perseverance and journeying are relevant if set up properly.

(4) The Devil Wears Prada – This movie is about a journalist who enters the fashion world thinking she will be able to just make a living, but finds out how serious and hard working the people there are.  She deals with a super-demanding boss (thus, “The Devil”) and has to live up to her expectations.  The movie is grueling, and anyone who has ever had a demanding boss that forces personal sacrfice for status, would relate to this movie.  Illustration: Perhaps give a picture of the title, and explain the dilemma of an over demanding boss.  The point would be to highlight the climax of the movie where the journalist must decide whether or not she wishes to live a life of high power and prestige, or keep the things that really matter, like her dream to be a good journalist and to have a meaningful relationship with her boyfriend.  Application can be about being who you are rather than living up to others expectations, and then tie it into Genesis, and explore who God wants us to be.

(5) Searching for Bobby Fischer – This movie is simple.  It is about a boy who is seen as the next “Bobby Fischer” in his community, and it tells the story of this Chess Genius as he stuggles with being a kid, and being talented.  This movie is great for us Youth Ministers to watch and be ministered to.  Watch specifically the Dad push his kid too hard to be a Chess Winner/Proffesional, rather than the fun loving kid that happens to be a Chess Genius.  The Illustration/Application in this one comes as you watch a boy struggle with growing up, accidentally discovering a gift, and then dealing with the different pressures and pulls from the many people in his life.  It really brings me to think about how we as Youth Ministers can really pressure our kids, and so can their parents.  The question becomes, how can we make life worth living, and work worth giving again, after so much intense pressure sucks the life out of living.  I’ll let you wrestle with that, but I know I often find myself sitting with my youth leadership students, and realizing that we just need to have fun, or just sit and be human again.  This film can be used to help show that to us, and to our students.

So those are my flicks, some epic stories that changed my life. Watch em and see if you are impacted like I was.  These stories speak to really deep parts of what it means to be Human and made in God’s Image without being scripture.  When used appropriately, these stories can be experienced together and processed.  Some work better than others, and some might be more for older students than younger, but try some of the above out.  There is nothing like a powerful story to kindle the imagination and get a kid thinking about God reaching out to them.  God is there, and since we are so limited at times, we forget to reach out.  Illustrations help us show kids that there is something more, something beyond.  Let’s do it right, and mean what we say.

-Daniel Griswold