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hell house 2

Tomorrow is Halloween.  All across the country, costumed children will be trick-or-treating their way through neighborhoods, house by house, filling their bags and plastic jack-o’-lanterns with sugar-laden treats.  Some older kids and young adults will be out pulling pranks, ranging from relatively harmless “gotchas” to outright vandalism and criminal destruction of property.  Like it or loathe it, Halloween is an American cultural tradition.  Many churches have sought to counter the darker side of the holiday with activities of their own.   Fall festivals, harvest celebrations, Good Guy Carnivals, hayrides, and Trunk or Treat have provided more festive, family-friendly alternatives to the demonic and macabre associations of Halloween.  However, some churches have taken a radically different approach by co-opting the horror motif of secular haunted houses.  Welcome to Hell House.

Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas, has been credited with popularizing the Hell House phenomenon.  A 2001 documentary, aptly titled Hell House, focused on this church’s innovative and controversial evangelistic outreach geared toward teens.  Some churches use the name Judgment House.  Here in Tulsa, the most popular version is Nightmare, now in its 17th year of production at Guts Church, a local megachurch with a wide range of trendy ministries.  Regardless of the nomenclature, the concept is much the same.  Groups of visitors are led by a guide through a series of dramatic scenes that are heavy on screams and theatrical blood.  There are graphic portrayals of automobile accidents, school shootings, abortions, teen suicides, drug use and overdose, domestic violence, and homosexuals suffering with HIV/AIDS.  Hell Houses may also include a Passion of the Christ-like dramatization of the crucifixion of Jesus and a depiction of heaven.  The intent is simple:  show sin and its consequences, portray the destiny of the damned, and offer a call for salvation through Jesus Christ.  Kids flock to Hell Houses by the thousands.  Most scream.  Many cry.  Some vomit. 

At the end of the tour, visitors (mostly teens) are taken into a Decision Room while their heart rates and adrenaline levels are still elevated.  They are asked a simple question, “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven or hell?”  A church leader in the documentary tells rattled teens at Trinity Church, “You have six seconds to decide….five seconds…”  Those who want to make a decision to follow Jesus or rededicate their lives as Christians are asked to go into a room to pray with counselors. 

I understand and appreciate that faith in Christ is not only rational and reasoned; it is also strongly connected to our emotions.  But, when does the appeal to emotion cross the line into manipulation?  It is my opinion that Hell Houses cross that line.  I have deep concerns about impressionable hearts and minds that are asked to either accept or reject Jesus under that level of emotional duress.  Yes, I know that Jesus talked more about hell than anyone before or after Him in the Bible.  Still, it was not His typical means of saying, “Come, follow Me.”  And the apostles?  Just think what they could have accomplished on Pentecost with a Hell House instead of just preaching Christ and Him crucified! 

If souls are led to a sincere, lasting faith and full obedience to the Gospel of Christ, then I won’t quibble too much about methodology.  But, I worry about teens’ faith being sustained after their hearts have stopped beating in their throats and the nightmares have ended.  I would far rather inspire heaven in their hearts than merely scare the hell out of them.

Five Words

I am nearing completion of a sermon series at the Broken Arrow Church of Christ entitled, “Dear Church,” based on the book of I Corinthians.  The series has examined Paul’s intimate relationship with the church in the city of Corinth and what the Holy Spirit desired to communicate to them through the apostle by means of this letter.  Sunday before last, the lesson was centered on I Corinthians 14 and was titled, “Dear Church: Can You Hear Me Now?”  Many of the Christians in Corinth had been granted wonderful spiritual gifts of prophecy, knowledge, and tongues (languages) that were intended to enable communication of the Gospel and enhance understanding and maturity within the church.  However, selfishness and immaturity in the exercise of these gifts had resulted in chaos and confusion in their worship assemblies.  Paul directs them toward a use of their gifts that would bring about enlightenment, edification, and strength.

About halfway through the sermon, I was addressing I Corinthians 14:19 in which Paul states that “in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.”  Bottom line: five words that you can understand are far more valuable than ten thousand that you can’t comprehend.  As I sought to emphasize this point, I excitedly (and totally spontaneously) told the congregation that I would prepare and deliver a Five-Word Sermon in the near future.  Note to self:  Stick With the Outline!

So, this is where you come in, fellow blog travelers!  Where should I go with this?  Please share your insights and suggestions.  Five words!  It is likely that I will construct a lot of visuals to go with the lesson, along with accompanying Scriptures for the congregation to read on the screen, but I will limit my spoken communication to five words.  I’ve already received a few suggestions from members here at BA.  Hey, this might even turn into a Five-Word Sermon Series!

october 2009

I was in Cullman, Alabama, last week helping out my parents who are both in poor health right now, and Dad and I stopped by their favorite local barbeque restaurant to pick up dinner one evening.  Johnny’s Bar-B-Q is a great place to get pulled pork, whether it is served on a sandwich with coleslaw, on a platter with a few side items, or loaded onto a ginormous baked potato.  “We’ll Serve No Swine Before Its Time” is their company motto.  Johnny’s is open for business Tuesday through Saturday each week.  A sign on the front door explains what happens on the other two days.  “Closed Sunday for church.  Closed Monday to rest.”  When I saw the sign last week, my first thought was, “Wow!  Their Sundays must be a lot like mine!”

Do you ever feel like you need a day of rest after Sunday?  If you are an infrequent church-goer or one who attends a morning worship assembly and then moves on to other things for the rest of the day, you may not know what I am talking about.  But, if you are a heavily involved church member or a church leader, then you know exactly what I mean.  The day starts early with worship and Sunday School, then there is a quick lunch before a succession of activities that can easily run until nearly bedtime:  committee meetings, work groups, training sessions, service projects, evening worship services, small group meetings, and youth activities.  The larger your church, the more susceptible you are to “activity overload.”  Many of us feel pangs of guilt if we ever start to question the rationality or healthiness of such a frenetic start-to-finish pace on Sundays, because all of these activities revolve around good things; needful things; spiritual things.  But, for a people who believe and teach salvation by grace and not by works, we Christians sure do measure a lot of spiritual faithfulness, commitment, and maturity (in ourselves and others) in terms of the number of ministries involved in and the number of organized activities attended.  Saying, “No,” to a good work is tatamount to denying the faith.  A hole in your Sunday schedule means that you are not trying hard enough.  If I seem to know whereof I speak, it is because I am a Recovering Perfectionist and People-Pleaser.  “No” is just not in the acceptable, conditioned vocabulary of our church culture. 

In His covenant with Israel, God made a provision for the Sabbath, a day of respite and rest from the weekly grind.  By the time of Jesus, it was traditional and acceptable for Sabbath activities to include a visit to the local synagogue, but, beyond this time of worship, prayer, and reading and exposition of the Law and the Prophets, Saturday was a day to chill.  Still, an elaborate, loopholed  “system” ultimately developed which granted you a handy license to do just about anything you wanted to do or provided a convenient excuse to exempt you from anything that you preferred not to do.  Jesus was fairly unmerciful in exposing the hypocrisy and the excessive man-made burden of such a system. 

I know that Sunday is not the “Christian Sabbath,” despite the fact that a surprising number of Christians believe that God somehow “transferred” the Sabbath (and its prohibitions against work) to the first day of the week with the advent of the Christian age.  Sunday is Resurrection Day; the day that both Biblical and secular historical sources verify was the primary day of Christian assembly for worship, Communion, prayer, and fellowship.  Sabbath prohibitions had no relevance to this New Covenant day of worship.  “Blue laws” in the U.S. have no basis in Scripture, but rather can be traced to the influence of Puritanical interpretations of the Bible in the early history of our nation. 

Still, mankind has a need for rest.  As church leaders, we often lament the breakneck pace of our culture and the overcommitment of time that Christian families make between work, school, ballgames, and social events.  Then, we respond by packing as many activities as possible into the one remaining day of the week.  No, I am not calling for an end to the multitude of ministries and good works in which God has called His children to be involved; just asking for some balance and moderation.  With all of the special-emphasis Sundays that churches celebrate, maybe we could observe a periodic “Worship Sunday” in which the church calendar is cleared and a moratorium is declared on all official, organized activities, with the exception of an expanded morning worship assembly lasting an hour and a half or two hours.  No Bible classes (give your hard-working teachers a morning off!).  No fellowship meal.  No small groups.  No evening worship assembly.  Just an hour or two to become “lost in wonder, love, and praise” and then dismiss for the day. (Props to Charles Wesley for that phrase from his hymn Love Divine.)  Perhaps then we would not feel like we needed a day of rest after Sunday before we began the rest of our week.

“Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.”  (Jesus)

 

A couple of days ago, I heard Alan Jackson’s Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)? on the radio.  It had been quite some time, probably three or more years, since I had heard it.  The tears immediately began to flow as I re-lived the pain and shock of September 11, 2001.  Last month, our nation observed a somber eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that forever changed America.  Nearly 3,000 lost their lives in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.  The death toll is listed at 2,974, with some calculations being higher or lower depending on the source.  This massive, tragic loss of human life and the magnitude of the devastation is still overwhelming.  Added to this human toll are the 5,233 U.S. servicemen and women who have sacrificed their lives for their country in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11.

Another recent event also caused me to think about the September 11 terrorist attacks.  For several days in a row I had read in the Tulsa World about homicides in our area.  You would think that after living in the Dallas Metroplex for 12 years that I would be significantly desensitized to reports about violent crime.  Still, there was something about the brutality and senselessness of these killings that deeply disturbed me.  I started wondering about the cumulative impact of homicides in the U.S., so I checked out the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports and became even more unsettled.

In 2001, excluding the deaths from 9/11, there were 16,037 homicides in the U.S.  The total from 2001 through last year was 131,913; an average of 16,489 per year.  Maybe that doesn’t surprise you.  Maybe you keep a mental, running tally of acts of brutality in our country.  But, the number simply blew me away!  Why wasn’t I aware of this?  Maybe it is because the numbers are spread over a population of 300 million and are only reported a few homicides at a time in our respective communities.  Maybe it is because most of us reading this blog don’t live in the neighborhoods and walk the streets where these crimes are committed.  But, on average, every 66 days there are as many murders in the U.S. as there were on 9/11.  These aren’t just statistics.  Each number represents a human being and an eternal soul; a father, mother, husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, sister or neighbor.  When cruel offenses like rape and aggravated assault are included, there were 1.3 million violent crimes committed in the U.S. in 2008.  That number does not include the increasingly less-mentioned deaths of 1.2 million unborn Americans by abortion last year.  That subject merits a blog post of its own.

2,700 years ago, God delivered this charge against His people through the prophet Hosea, “Listen to the word of the Lord, O sons of Israel, for the Lord has a case against the inhabitants of the land, because there is no faithfulness or kindness or knowledge of God in the land.  There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing and adultery.  They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed,” (Hosea 4:1-3).  Those last two sentences could be a synopsis of recent headlines from the Tulsa WorldThe Dallas Morning News, and other newspapers from across the country.

As vital as our prayers are for our nation and its leaders, we must not allow our petitions to the Father to salve our consciences or absolve us of any sense of additional responsibility.  This is not a matter of political ideology, elections or legislation.  It is a matter of Christian influence, salt and light, through which Christ can impact individual lives and hearts and the collective consciousness of our communities with the Gospel of peace.  This is about a call to repentance, a call for mercy and compassion, and a call for brother to not lift his hand against brother and neighbor against neighbor. While I certainly do not have a quick or easy answer for stopping the bloodshed, neither can I remain complacent or dispassionate about the 45 funerals that will take place today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and the next and the next…    

 

"Mr. Cub" - Ernie Banks

"Mr. Cub" - Ernie Banks

In light of the controversy over the selection of U.S. President Barack Obama to receive this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, I found this NPR interview with Ernie Banks really refreshing.  Hall of Famer Banks played his entire Major League career with the Chicago Cubs from 1953 to 1971.  Known as Mr. Cub and Mr. Sunshine, Banks won the National League MVP award in 1958 and 1959 and was a perennial All-Star.  What stood out to me in the interview was Banks’ enduring love of the game of baseball, his humility, and the unexpected revelation that his childhood dream was not to play professional baseball, but to win the Nobel Prize for Peace.  Maybe next year! 

By the way, does anyone recall the winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize?  Anyone?  Anyone?   Bueller?   Bueller?

Click the link below to listen to the interview.

NPR Interview with Ernie Banks

Back from the Brink 5

A year ago today, I was at the lowest point of my entire life.  The days were dark, and I felt like there was a weight on my heart that would crush me.  I had questions about my physical and emotional health, my future in ministry, and my future, period!   From a human perspective, there was no way forward.  I cried out to the Lord like I never had before; and, often, I just cried.  I was spent, with no strength of my own to offer.  My tank was empty and my well was dry.

“But, God …”  Those two powerful words!  They make all the difference!  Read Ephesians 2:1-10 and notice how these two words at the beginning of verse 4 provide the radical turning point within that context.  Only God could part the clouds and dispel the darkness.  Only God could bring healing and strength.  Only the Almighty could restore joy and hope.  Can I get an “Amen” to His faithfulness and grace?

A year later, so many prayers have been answered and so many remarkable blessings have been granted to me, my family, and my ministry that I find myself questioning, “Was that really me?”  It seems impossible, and, in truth, it is; humanly impossible!  Jesus said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible,” (Matthew 19:26). 

Thank you, Father, for loving me.  Thank you, Jesus, for saving me.  Thank you, Holy Spirit, for abiding with me.  Thank you, Kim, for loving and believing in me.  Thank you, Hannah and Coleman, for trusting me.  Thank you, friends and brothers and sisters in Christ, for encouraging me.

I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined to me and heard my cry. 

He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, and He set my feet upon a rock, making my footsteps firm.

He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God;

Many will see and fear and will trust in the Lord.

(Psalm 40:1-3)

Flags and Fireworks

Several weeks ago, Coleman and I attended a Tulsa Drillers game with a couple of friends and their sons, compliments of another Christian brother who had some tickets that he couldn’t use.  The Drillers are the Double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies and compete in the Texas League.  Although it was hot and humid, without the slightest hint of a breeze, it was still a great night to be outdoors enjoying a baseball game.  It happened to be “Fireworks Night” at Drillers Stadium, and after the game there was perfect synchronicity between the shutting off of the field lights and the explosion of the first barrage of pyrotechnics.  Coleman literally came up out of his seat and jumped into mine.  (By the way, he is about five feet tall now and weighs about 140 pounds!)  However, the initial shock quickly wore off and he settled back down into his own seat.  He seemed to really enjoy the rest of the show!  I would augment the noise by shouting “Boom!  Boom!  Boom!” after the shells exploded.  He smiled and laughed.

Since that night, Coleman has prompted Kim and me to say, “Fireworks!  Boom!  Boom!  Boom!” by making a fist with his right hand and shaking it beside his head.  This is almost identical to his sign for “bell” and “I have to go to the bathroom right now!” so we have to use context to determine his precise meaning.   He has also started looking up fireworks videos on YouTube.  Another post will document his web surfing abilities!

Last Saturday morning, the three of us went to Lowes to buy some azaleas and dwarf crepe myrtles to plant in the back yard.  Needing a couple of additional items, we walked into the indoor section of the garden department.  Out of all the items stocked on the shelves, Coleman spotted the small decorative American flags.  He used to love it when I would line both sides of our sidewalk and the front edge of the lawn with these flags on Memorial Day and Independence Day.  He enjoyed watching them flap in the strong Texas wind.  Coleman pointed to the flags at Lowes, so I got one down from the shelf for him.  As soon as the flag was in his left hand, he began signing “fireworks” with his right hand.  We couldn’t believe it!  I had no idea that his mind had ever associated fireworks with the American flag.  The boy has been paying attention!!!  Once again, we were humbled and amazed by how uniquely God has gifted Coleman and how we so often sell him short in regard to what he understands.  Thankfully, he is very patient and keeps gently teaching us what he wants us to know.

Elizabeth Smart

Elizabeth Smart

Yesterday in federal court, Elizabeth Smart testified about her kidnapping and captivity by Brian David Mitchell.  In 2002, Mitchell and Wanda Ileen Barzee abducted the then 14-year-old Smart from her Salt Lake City home.  Smart was found nine months later on March 12, 2003 in Sandy, Utah, about 18 miles from her home.  State courts have ruled on two different occasions that Mitchell is incompetent to stand trial.   This led federal prosecutors to file an indictment.  Yesterday’s court appearance by Smart, now 21, was her first public description of her nightmare in captivity.  According to a report by NPR, “For 100 minutes, Smart described Mitchell as a sex-crazed hypocrite who used religion to get sex, food, drugs and alcohol.  She maintained her composure when describing her first rape shortly after her abduction.  She said Mitchell raped her three to four times a day during her nine months as his captive.”  Prosecutors praised Smart’s grace and strength in her testimony. 

I cannot begin to imagine the effect of these crimes upon Elizabeth Smart and her family.  Yet she has had the remarkable courage to carry on.  I don’t know if I could.  I don’t know what kind of mess I would be emotionally if this had happened to a member of my family.  Smart has recently completed her music studies at Brigham Young University where she played the harp.  She leaves next month on a Mormon mission to Paris, France.  Young women who serve as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints typically make an 18-month commitment, with expenses provided by themselves and their families.

While I strongly reject much of Mormon theology and practice as unBiblical, I am amazed at Elizabeth Smart’s resilience and resolve.  The most inhumane and torturous treatment imaginable did not destroy her faith or lessen her commitment to her beliefs.  Rather than blaming God for the evil she endured, her ordeal only strengthened her desire to serve Him.  Her example inspires me!  And, to a degree, it shames me!  

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