Archive for July, 2011

Yes, I’ll admit it up front.  I’m a superhero geek and I absolutely love those kinds of movies.  If it involves superheroes, I’ll, at least, give it a try.

Last night, I had the chance to see “Captain America” and I’m moving that up the list in my favorites in the genre.  It is another continuation of Marvel Entertainment’s efforts to move toward the ultimate story — the formation of the Avengers.

As I watched Captain America and thought about some of the other Marvel movies that I’ve enjoyed recently, I started to see some clear patterns.  I’m sure others can do a far better job than I will here.  Have at it.  These are just some thoughts.

Story matters.  Some of the worst superhero movies are the ones that assume everyone knows the story already.  They leave out huge details and important character moments.  However the latest Marvel efforts have done an incredible job of telling the story.  I, for one, was never a particular fan of Thor and had little expectation for the movie. But the movie told me a story of someone dealing with his own arrogance, running away from something he didn’t really want to be and struggling to find his place.  At the end of it, we all share a common story.  Is there a lesson for the church?  Everyone is a part of the story and the way the church forms community is when we start to share those stories together.

Bumps and All.  Maybe it’s out of fear that we sometimes want to present ourselves as having it together better than others.  Maybe that’s why I’ve been most impressed with the Marvel efforts.  Even superheros struggle.  Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, is arrogrant, a loner, who is living in the shadow of his father and dealing with his own legacy as a weapons maker.  Thor is arrogant and thinks more of himself than maybe he should.  Yet, in one of his most vulnerable moments he learns compassion and empathy and is prepared to sacrifice himself.  Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, begins as a weak person who doesn’t have a desire to hurt others.  He simply doesn’t want to see bullies win.  These complications are our story.  How does the church capture this? We get real with one another and journey together.  We realize our own strengths, our own weaknesses and our own struggles on the path to growing more and more in the image of Christ.

There is a bigger picture.  One of the fun things about Marvel’s movies comes at the end.  You sit through the thousands of names of people who worked on the movie and through the additional songs added to the soundtrack to get you there, but you do it for a reward.  The reward is a brief snippet, a 90 second clip, that takes the story you’ve just watched and ties it to the bigger picture.  The overall vision is the formation of the “Avengers.”  Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor — They are all just a small part of a bigger story.  What about the church?  What’s that lesson like for us?  Maybe it’s that we need to stop seeing the local church as the only place where God is at work.  God works in all kinds of people and all kinds of stories.  The reward for us working our way through the credits, in reading through the bigger picture of Scripture, is that we find they are connected to what God is ultimately doing in the world.

Strength in unity.  The endgame of Marvel’s efforts with its current string of movies is to launch its Avengers brand.  Part of the clip contains Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, asking one of the new Avengers, if this individual thinks they are the only superhero in the world.  The truth is that any group benefits from that business world term of “synergy” when talents are shared.  Synergy means that the final output is greater than the sum of its parts.  Yet, we struggle, even in churches, with pride, jealousy, greed, the insistence on doing it my own way.  What an incredible and life-changing group the modern “church” could be if the end goal was really about saving the world and not about attracting others away from another church and another denomination?  What if the endgame really was to build the Kingdom of God and not simply restock the castle of the church?

Leaders lead. Part of the fun of the superhero movie is seeing a character make that transition from running from their gifts to using them to help others.  There’s an awesome scene in the movie, “UnBreakable,” where Bruce Willis’ character is pulled out of the water (his kryptonite) and as he pulls himself to the side of the pool and stands up straight, we know that his life is never going to be the same again.  At some point, all heroes take on the mantle of leadership.  Not every decision works.  But leaders take responsibility and they take on the risks of leadership.  What’s the lesson for the church?  All churches desperately need leadership, someone pointing toward a vision, and someone who is willing to risk personally to ensure that God’s Kingdom grows.   When there is no leader, a power vacuum opens up that will be filled in some way.    It doesn’t take a hero to lead; just someone who is willing to take on the risks required to make it happen.

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Last week, I had the opportunity to attend BigStuf with the youth from St. Mark. What an awesome adventure and a great time of spiritual recharging.

Ben Crawshaw, who is at Northpoint Church, spoke one night on the fact that we are created in God’s image.  But he took it even a step farther — we are created uniquely in the image of God.

Sometimes, in those moment fueled by the Holy Spirit, a simple truth can sound so profound.  And as he traced through this thought on uniqueness, he hit me squarely with the thought that God NEVER asks us to give up that uniqueness as we worship, love and serve Him.

Being a pastor isn’t always the easiest of routes in God’s calling.  Sometimes, and I know you might never believe this, sometimes, people have an expectation of what you are supposed to be as a pastor.  Unique gifts don’t matter so much.   You’re supposed to be like so-and-so who served at the church five years ago or that person they saw on TV, or the guy with the really big church who yells a lot.

Or you’re supposed to dress a certain way all the time and say “preachy” things to people.

Or you’re supposed to move around or not move around or speak at a certain level in a sermon.  Or you’re supposed to say something in a sermon a certain way or view a text just like someone else does.

And there is value sometimes in those opinions.  If there’s a nugget of truth there that can help you become a better pastor, then sure, listen, take it for what it is and move on.  But the string of voices can become overwhelming to the point that you begin to wonder who you are and what you are doing and where you ended and this “creation” of the Sunday pastor began.

And then we get back to a simple statement.  You are created uniquely in God’s image.

The reason that statement hit me hard, right between the eyes, is because I realized it  had been a part of my struggle.  There was a sense that I just couldn’t be what someone expected me to be every week.  It was an unrealistic burden to place upon someone and a sign that love, grace, mercy and acceptance were not a part of the relationship.

But yet, I’m created uniquely in the image of God.

The things that I’ve experienced are unique and they are a part of my story and my journey.  The mountaintop moments and the valleys — they are part of my story.  My sense of humor and my different way of teaching a passage.  The fact I like to move around during a lesson.  Those things are part of what has made me uniquely created in a God’s image.

And in that moment, I was able to let go of some of the things I’d been holding onto, some of the pain I was carrying and I realized that it was part of my “running” moment.

At a camp for kids in Panama City, in the middle of a worship service, I just let something go.

And it has led me to be more open about what I’m experiencing right now.  To share more of my own journey with those I speak with each week.  In a sense, I’m finding that by allowing myself to be open, to trust others more and to let myself be vulnerable, that I’m starting to feel more alive.

Just another day in the journey of transforming me.

By Pastor Dean Lollis

We are all “konnekted.”  Sure, it’s a funny way to spell it, but our connection with God and each other was at the heart of this year’s trip to BigStuf camp in Panama City, Fla.

A total of 98 youth and adult chaperones, the largest contingent ever from St. Mark, spent five days together experiencing everything from fellowship and fun to intense worship and study.  Through the amazing work of Julie McLaughlin, our director of ministries for children and youth, and others, our group never seemed to be as big as it was.
Through songs of praise and high-energy worship, more than 1,500 youth and adults were urged to make connections with the God who loves them and others in their own lives.
The messages that students heard included:  We are all connected in God; God is present in everything, even the common and ordinary; we all have a place in what God is doing; God has made us in his image and we are unique; and God wants you to do something big for the Kingdom. The entire week points to the challenge for young people: Do something now to connect with God’s Kingdom!
A BigStuf day begins with breakfast around 7:30 AM, followed by a worship service.  Then, the youth have their own session together while the adult volunteers go to training until lunchtime.  Following lunch, youth have a few hours of free time to spend on the beach, to participate in sports tournaments, to spend time with their leaders and to get prepared for the evening time. During free time, the Konnect lab was also open.  This allows participants to interact with a student in Kenya.  Through the use of iPads, we could write a letter to a student in Kenya.  Those students, in turn, would respond back to us with letters about themselves.

Following dinner, BigStuf observes a time of quiet study and preparation  and many youth spend their time on the beach, reading their Bibles and praying.  Then, the evening gathering leads to more intense worship and another message related to “Konnekting.”  At the end of service, individual churches have time where youth and adults talk through the messages that have been heard and anything that has opened up in the hearts and minds of youth.  Usually, that ends just as the 11:30 PM curfew begins.  And the next day, it starts all over again!

It is an intense time together in the presence of God and BigStuf has a “life-changing” impact on youth. Here are some of the thoughts of those who had the opportunity to attend:
·    Jack Ball says, “The highlight of BigStuf for me was probably the last church group time on the last night, listening to all the amazing stories that everyone shared really touched me in a way I didn’t think possible. Attending has changed my life in numerous ways first and foremost being it made me realize how broken some of my relationships were and helped me figure out what to do about that.”\
·    Katelyn Miller says, “The biggest highlight for me was just looking around and seeing so many of our youth worshiping God and giving their life to him. It made me so happy because that was me last year and I know how amazing my journey has been and I’m ready for them to feel the ‘konnection’.”
·    Christine Philcox, a chaperone, says, “I wasn’t expecting BigStuf to speak to me nearly as much as it did. What amazing worship experiences! However, the best part was getting to watch these young people move closer to God through the songs, messages, worship experiences and quiet time, but especially through the love and support they gave each other. This group moved me to tears on multiple occasions – they really are an inspired bunch that can go on to make quite an impact in our church and community. What a blessing to spend the week with them!
·    Anna Grace McLaughlin says, “Attending BigStuf has changed my life in so many ways. It has made me a better Christian and has also shown me that I shouldn’t complain about what I have when there are so many other people all over the world that have so much less.”
·    Candace Carawan says, “The best part of BigStuf was seeing how many people I relate to using the lights when they asked questions. (During this worship time, those who answered yes to a series of questions were asked to hold a light up in the air. It showed how we were not alone).  Attending BigStuf made me look at my life differently. I learned to look at things in a better more positive way because it only brought me closer to God”

Another powerful moment of the trip was a worship service we held on the beach Thursday evening.  With all 98 attendees gathered around, we sang songs, prayed and talked about baptism.  Then, I had the opportunity to baptize, with Julie’s assistance,  Hayden Harwood, Rusty Hughes and Taylor Ramey in the Gulf of Mexico.  It brought chills to me to hear the sounds of youth cheering for their friends as they remerged from the water!

Hayden says that the week at BigStuf has changed his life.

“I am now closer to my friends than I ever was,” he says. “People talked to me about what’s going on in their lives and were opening up to me, and I felt like I helped out a lot of people.”

As the buses were returning to Greenwood, the students were initiating conversations among themselves on how they continue to experience what they’ve experienced this week.

BigStuf has opened our students eyes to the amazing potential of God.  As a community of faith, it’s now our turn to encourage them to take it to the next level.

This is a group that can and will do “Big Stuff” for the Kingdom.

Welcome to the land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

As a church meeting in America, we know a great deal about this word, freedom.  We use it and celebrate it often.

I can barely remember 1976.  If you weren’t around then, it was the 200th anniversary of 1776 and the declaration of independence.  As a very small child, I remember walking around the square in Laurens during what seemed like a festival.  Lots of blues and reds and whites and people dressed up as Uncle Sam and other characters from our nation’s history.

Throughout our nation’s history, there are many who have served, died and suffered for what we call freedom today.   And today, they continue to do so in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

And this weekend, there are all kinds of events held in all kinds of places across the US to celebrate freedom – at least the cultural version of freedom.

Much as I have, you have probably grown up hearing that word or experiencing those moments when we celebrated freedom.

Maybe you were around in 1980 when the US hockey team defeated the Soviet Union in the Olympics and later brought home the gold medal.  We celebrated in freedom and called it the Miracle on Ice.

And then following the events of Sept. 11, flags appeared everywhere – businesses were giving out flag decals and slogans focused so much on the theme of being an American and united.

We talk about certain freedoms – the freedom of religion, of the press, of freedom in speech, freedom to choose, freedom to be happy and many others.  We say there are God-given rights and freedoms.

The question we face then, is the idea of freedom that we have in our everyday life different from the idea of freedom that the Bible presents.  Is there some difference, is there some parallel?   How do we balance these two ideas?

Then let’s turn to the one place where we can find what God has to say about this idea of freedom.  We’re going to look in Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia.  We might call this Paul’s angry letter.  In all of his letters, but this one, there’s a pattern and Paul always expresses how thankful for the folks in the church he is writing to.  But not here – Paul is angry and he has something to say.  The church that Paul started and left behind has fallen into some bad teaching.  People are telling the Christians there that not only do you need to become Christian, but you also need to become Jewish.  In other words, for males, that means you need to be circumcised.  If you don’t know what that is, google it.

So let’s see what Paul says as he responds to this issue and to the idea of Christian freedom.  It comes from Galatians 5:2-21.

2 Look, I, Paul, am telling you that if you have yourselves circumcised, having Christ won’t help you. 3 Again I swear to every man who has himself circumcised that he is required to do the whole Law.

This is a huge part of what Paul believes.  He’s saying if you want to go and be legalistic about one thing in the Jewish law, then you must submit yourselves to all of the Jewish Law.  It’s an issue of grace vs. law and Paul always chooses grace.

4 You people who are trying to be made righteous by the Law have been estranged from Christ. You have fallen away from grace! 5 We eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness through the Spirit by faith. 6 Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.

This is the ultimate truth in love.  You’ve gotten away from God’s grace and you’ve really messed up.  The rules don’t matter.  What matters is having faith that works through love.

 7 You were running well—who stopped you from obeying the truth? 8 This line of reasoning doesn’t come from the one who calls you.[This isn’t of God] 9 A little yeast works through the whole lump of dough. 10 I’m convinced about you in the Lord that you won’t think any other way. But the one who is confusing you will pay the penalty, whoever that may be. 11 Brothers and sisters, if I’m still preaching circumcision, why am I still being harassed? In that case, the offense of the cross would be canceled. 12 I wish that the ones who are upsetting you would castrate themselves!

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Paul can be pretty straightforward sometimes and he is right here.  He’s also really saying, in love, I get that you didn’t intend to turn your back on God’s grace, but it happened and the one who did this is going to pay a price.

13 You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. 14 All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. 15 But if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other!

Do you hear that key?  You were called to what?  Freedom.  That doesn’t mean that because we have Grace we have the opportunity to go out and do whatever we want and know we are covered.  True Freedom in God means living the law of Love.  Loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.

So, if we could sum this up in one easy message it would be:  God frees us to love.

Now, let’s talk about some principles that can help us to understand this statement that God frees us to love.

Freedom is not about rules – it’s about the relationship.  We live in a society that often functions by rules.  And most often, the pattern is that we don’t make less rules, we make more.

Churches can get carried away.  Check out this cartoon of what the church kitchen might look like.  It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but there’s always some truth there.
And it isn’t just a new phenomenon.  Paul is battling this group that isn’t convinced that Christ is all that.  They want these new Christians to have to follow more laws.  And Paul responds by saying we are called to be freedom in God.

For a moment, let’s talk about what Paul means here by “freedom.”  The Greek word that is used here for freedom is eleutheria and it has a specific meaning.  It means that you are free to cut out, to not do, the things that are not connected to salvation.  It’s a word that we might also think of as liberty.

Having freedom, or liberty, in Christ means that we are removed from being a slave to things that don’t matter to our salvation.  We are freed from earthly forces that attempt to tell us what to believe and how to do it.  In God’s freedom, we are free to come to God.
In other words, freedom in God is not about the restrictions or the rules.  It’s about the relationship.

The problem with a lot of what passes at times for Christian messages and Christian behaviors is that we’re attempting to regulate and restrict our way to God with enough do’s and don’ts to make your head spin.  That’s the opposite of what Paul is pointing to here.

It is not because we follow rules that we move closer to God.   Rules don’t lead us to salvation.  It is in the relationship with God, when that is a solid faith relationship, that our behavior changes.  We do the things of God.

But what about the issue of Grace?  How does that play into what Paul is telling us?

We sometimes, maybe not sometimes, maybe all the time, are stubborn people.  There’s a phrase about being self-made, of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and of making it big despite even modest beginnings.

We honor that.  We call it the American dream.  And it is success stories such as that that resonate with us as a culture.  Many movies are basically human redemption stories with a character making it where he or she is supposed to be at the end. It’s a story we know and understand.

But that’s where the problem really starts to hit for us.  When it comes to God, we simply are not capable of earning it.  We can’t read enough scripture, pray enough prayers, go to enough church services, make enough donations to the foodbank to take care of this.  To experience God’s freedom, we have to open our hands to the grace that God gives us.

And this is something we can talk about all day long, but we struggle to live it out.  Grace frees us to love everyone, to care for everyone, to love the unloveable.  Grace really frees us to do the things that Jesus would do.

Look at verse 4: “You people who are trying to be made righteous by the Law have been estranged from Christ. You have fallen away from grace!”  What a terrible statement on what can happen.  We get so wrapped up in being “right” that we lose sight of what it means to be righteous and holy in God.  We fall away from grace.

Truly being Free in God, requires us to let go of our efforts to control our own destiny and let God’s grace work in us and through us. To truly be free, we must experience Grace.

Now that we’ve talked about how this freedom from God is based in relationships and grace, then let’s look at what it means to us.

With our modern views, we can read a scripture passage such as this one from Galatians and get wrapped up in the wrong issue.  This really isn’t a passage about circumcision.  It’s a passage about how we ignore the grace of God, and thus, ignore our freedom when it comes to relationships.

Circumcision isn’t that big of an issue for us today.  Honestly, it might impact male membership in church if we required it.  But, we have our own versions of circumcision that we can get wrapped up in when it comes to church.

We have issues of doctrine and theology.  People can wrap themselves up in this view that this is the only way to believe and anyone who doesn’t share my view can’t possibly be a Christian.  Churches and people divide and split over a vast array of issues from the color of the carpet to homosexuality to views of hell.

Another modern version of circumcision is civil politics.  There’s a push to make churches and denominations be the mouthpieces and supporters of particularly policy items and party planks.  So, if the church doesn’t support my party, right down the line, I’ll just pack up and keep looking until I do. If you don’t vote exactly like I do, if you don’t support the candidates I support, then you aren’t really a Christian.

Honestly, if you’re looking for a lot of political support from Jesus you’ll be disappointed.  He’s neither Republican nor Democrat.  He’s not even American. But it’s a modern day circumcision issue.

Another issue comes in terms of status whether it be economic, race, class, social, etc.  At the bottom of this issue is the notion that I want to be in a church filled with people who look just like I do, who talk like I do, who think like I do, who make what I make or more, etc.  And what we get in the process is communities of faith that fall short of reflecting the tapestry of diversity that we find in God’s kingdom.

In all of these things, we just take and wrap ourselves in chains.

Chains aren’t from God; they are from us.  These chains are about our preferences, our attempts to create a God in our own image. When we get wrapped up in all of these things that don’t matter, we sacrifice our freedom.  We absolutely give it away.

When we get twisted up in the chains of our modern day circumcision, we do so at the detriment of our relationships.

Let’s look at vs. 13 again.  “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love.“

Christian freedom isn’t about all of the things that distract us.  Christian freedom is completely about the relationships that unite us — the relationship with Christ and the relationships with others.

When we get so wrapped up in freedom being about me doing what I want, when I want, and my freedom to go where I want and to find the pastor and the church that say exactly what I want, or read books only by a certain string of authors, or use only the King James Bible 1611 edition.  When we get to that point, we have completely lost our freedom.

It is heartbreaking to see someone throw away years of relationships in a church because someone said something they didn’t agree with at church today.

How do we approach this as Christians and Americans?

We realize that while we pledge allegiance to a flag, we do not worship it.  There’s always a higher power, a higher allegiance for us.  We are Kingdom residents first and then everything else, including national identity falls in line.

We realize that as Christians we are called to love all, all the time.  The toughest call of the Gospel isn’t to say I love everyone.  The toughest call of the gospel is to say that I love you, individually, even with everything I know.

Lastly, we realize that, in terms of our country, what we experience as freedom came 235 years ago with the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  However, as Christians, we realize that our true freedom came a couple of thousand years ago through a Cross and empty tomb.