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The Shack: A Story On Suffering and Hope

Last Friday evening I watched the film The Shack directed by Stuart Hazeldine. This film is based on the 2007 novel of the same title by William P. Young. Having read the book, I wanted to see the film too. Like most film adaptations of a book, the movie loses some of the dialogue. Nevertheless, it’s still a good movie to watch.

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In fact, here is the little response I posted on Facebook after watching the movie:

“I just returned from watching #TheShack at the theater. Though the movie, and the novel of the same title it’s based on, is fictional, it tells a wonderful story and powerful truth about God and life, love and forgiveness, faith and hope. Having buried my oldest son, Kenny, nearly fifteen years ago, there is so much I resonate with. From the question of suffering to the hurt and anger that ultimately inflicts more harm on one’s soul to the conflict and encounter with God, I resonate. The thought I had when the movie was over was a reminder that though I have sinned in life, made many mistakes, and often judged both God and people when that is not my business, God still loves me, is at work for the good in my life, and how much I just want to love others and be a part of that Good which God is bringing about in Jesus Christ.”

As you can tell, I resonate with so much of the drama because of the tragic loss of my own son. However, that doesn’t mean I abandoned my theology hat when I watch the film. So from a pastoral-theological standpoint, I also liked the movie.

Of course, some are quite critical of the movie. Some of those critics are Christians who are concerned about the doctrine and theology of the film, like this review by Al Mohler (or for a much more balanced critique, see the review by Focus on the Family). But this really misses the point of the film in my opinion.

First, sometimes it seems like some Christians almost go looking for something to disagree with. In that’s our objective, we’ll find that something in almost everything we do. It’s even more frustrating when a minor issue is made into a bigger issue than it really is. Are their some elements of the dialogue in this film that I question from a theological standpoint? Of course, there is but I didn’t watch the film to get bogged down in little particular details and miss the major point of the film.

The beauty of this film is its journey into the world of suffering where there is brokenness and deep pain along with doubt and uncertainty that evokes a crisis of faith for anyone unfortunate enough to be on this journey. I have and still an on this journey, though I have learned how to walk along this way. This film is about the healing that everyone suffering needs. This is a healing that comes knowing that God still loves them, that the grace of God is still for them, and that they can trust in God again even though they don’t always understand.

And I’m telling you, as one who has suffered, there are people you meet every day who are dying from the inside out. Maybe they’ve buried a child, been through a divorce, been sexually abused, are drowning in drugs and alcohol… they’re the broken and what they need is not a lesson in the fine particulars of Trinitarian theology but a reminder that God the Father, Son, and Spirit love them and long to redeem them. That’s what The Shack reminds us of. So don’t get lost in the details and miss the big story, for if you can hear the big story then you just might be better equipped at helping someone who is dying on the inside find life again.

Lastly, I don’t normally recommend books I haven’t read but since I know this author and trust his judgment, I’ll recommend his book as a companion read. John Mark Hicks, Meeting God at The Shack: A Journey Into Spiritual Recovery, 2017. Besides being an apt theologian, Hicks has traveled on the road of suffering and so I believe you’ll bennefit from his perspective.

While Shopping At Target This Week…

The author of the post below, Tim Pyles, is a fellow minister who serves with the Broken Arrow Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I’m thankful for his reflection here. Read on…

Thinking Out Loud

target store

I needed to purchase a few household items on Tuesday, and I just happened to be driving past the SuperTarget store that is near our home. I was vaguely aware of Target’s recent policy statement regarding the use of their restrooms by transgender individuals, and I had also seen an online headline or two about the American Family Association’s initiation of a petition to boycott the retailer. If you find it hard to believe that I wasn’t thoroughly steeped in all the sordid details of the “outrage du jour” among some conservative Christians, trust me when I tell you that my father’s death and funeral last week have kept me from being overly concerned about this latest skirmish in our nation’s culture wars.

So, I walked into Target on Tuesday and…. everything seemed so perfectly normal. The people looked perfectly normal. Well, normalcy is relative; everyone at least looked “big…

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Another Shooting and Our Futile Talk

I wrote this post originally in January of 2014 after a shooting occurred at a local mall. While it’s too early to know the exact details of what motivated yesterday’s shooting in Oregon, these mass-shooting happen all to frequently. So I’m reposting this blog because while I believe that our society needs to have a conversation about guns, mental-health, and some of the other social factors that seem to play a role in these shootings, I also think we are missing the deeper issue. Thanks for reading!

Kingdom Seeking

It happened again. I’m talking about another mass shooting. Except this time it happened in my city, at The Mall in Columbia, a mall that my family and I frequent regularly. Three people, Briana Benlolo, Tyler Johnson, and the gunman himself, Darion Marcus Aguilar, died. Five others were physically injured and many others traumatized. As far as my wife and I can tell from the news reports, the Howard County Police have done a great job with a very difficult and tragic situation. A word of appreciation is also in order to the many other Law Enforcement agencies as well as the Fire and EMS agencies for their response in securing the mall and helping the injured and the many other by standbys to safety.

But I’m angry!

I’m angry not because of this tragic shooting but because violence like this is seemingly becoming a social trend, and epidemic. By epidemic…

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Pentecost Today: When the Church Welcomes this Message (Acts 2.14-41)

Since last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday, so this is a short message I preached a few years back on what it might be when the church welcomes this the message proclaimed in Acts 2.

Kingdom Seeking

Below is the manuscript for the opening address I gave at this past weekend’s Hearts of Fire Conference for the various house churches that meet across the Denver metro area on Saturday, May 22, 2010.  The address is titled “Pentecost Today: When the Church Welcomes this Message” and it was meant to be a challenge based on Acts 2.14-41.  The conference was attended by Christians from a variety of backgrounds, including Churches of Christ as well as other Christian traditions.  The message and challenge was well received and I am thankful to God for being able to “preach” a bit.  I also taught a break-out class titled “A Christian Response to Suffering” that fostered a guided conversation on how Christians should respond to others who are enduring suffering.  It too went very well.

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Pentecost Today: When the Church Welcomes this Message

Tomorrow will be fifty days from Passover.  For…

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On Blessing and Rejoicing!

“Envy is poison in the soul; rejoicing, on the other hand, is fuel for the soul.”

Those words came to mind earlier today after reading several Facebook posts of people complaining about what others have that they don’t have.

In ancient Hebrew to speak of the soul meant referring to the entirety of one’s life. Everything about the way life is experienced physically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and so forth has to do with soul. It’s who you are that is your soul.

Throughout life we will experience many different things, some good and some bad. It would be nice to experience more good than bad but that is not entirely in our control. What is in our control is the way we see the world and the story we will tell ourselves. If we tell ourselves that we are entitled and somehow achieve some great accomplishment, then we think we did it all on our own. If we tell ourselves that we are entitled but never quite succeed in obtaining what we think we deserve, then we loathe anyone who does have what we don’t. On the other hand, if we see the blessings we have in life then we become thankful for what we have and rejoice for the blessings that others receive even if that means that others may have more than us.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice!” said the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:4. And if you’ll read his entire letter to the Philippians then you’ll know that he wrote those words as a prisoner facing the possibility of execution for preaching about Jesus while there were others freely preaching for selfish gain. Yet Paul rejoiced because Paul understood that he was blessed.

I’ve told this story before but my Grandma Elsie Gibson was the second of seven children. Her mother died when she was still a teenager and her dad abandoned the children, leaving my Grandma and her older sister, Aunt Thelma, to care for their younger brothers. Eventually my Grandma married and had three children (my Mother being the youngest) but her oldest son died as an infant baby. Several years later, when my Mother was only twelve years old, my Grandpa died from leukemia. Now a widow, my Grandma had to finish raising two girls on her own with little financial resources. To make matters worse, a year after this her house suffered considerable damage due to a fire.

With all of her struggles and challenges, my Grandma’s favorite hymn to sing at church was Count Your Many Blessings! I never heard my Grandma complain about what cards she was dealt in life, so to speak. Did she have her moments of asking “why?” I’m sure she did… as a parent who also has lost a son, I know she did. Yet she also chose to see the blessings that she had… from the brothers and sister she had, the husband she loved, the children she had, the five grandchildren she had, the home she lived in, the times she was able to travel, etc…

How will we see the world today? Will we be thankful and rejoice? Our soul is at stake here, for how we see the world and the story we tell ourselves will either blacken our soul with envy or refresh our soul with life.

“Envy is poison in the soul; rejoicing, on the other hand, is fuel for the soul.”

Closing A Church: Remembering and Celebrating Life

Church ClosedWith this final post on closing a church, I want to talk about what to do once a church has made the decision that it is time to disband. In the three previous  posts on closing a church, we have looked at why this is a necessary conversation that some declining churches must deal with, what the actual question of discernment is for this conversation, and why the conversation is an open-ended process. Those posts will provide more rationale for how a church discerns that God is leading the believers to disband. The question now is what should a church do once it has arrived at this point?

Some Friendly Advise…

This is about closing with dignity and grace. Since many of the members will have a long history with the church, closing is losing something. Like the death of a friend or family member, there is a sense of grief and loss. The leaders should not dismiss this burden but show great pastoral care as members process what is happening.

Another local pastor who had helped a church through closure before gave me some advise that he learned the hard way. He told me, in speaking about the Columbia Church of Chris, that we should not close immediately once we have decided to disband but that we should take some time to celebrate what God has done among our church. In doing this, it will help everyone transition to another congregation in a healthy manner.

So with this wisdom in mind, there are two steps for closing a church in a healthy manner:

  1. Share your feelings with one another. Every member will have different feelings and different stories to share. Give some space and time to openly talk with each other so that as a body of Christ, there is some very cathartic mutual edification. It’s time to heal and one of the ways most people do that is in being allowed to express their feelings.
  2. Celebrate the life of your church. While closing is not something anyone wishes for and it seems like a loss… a death, there is still much to celebrate about what God has done among and through the church throughout its existence. Planning a final memorial/celebration gathering where the church worships and fellowships together, including sharing in communion one more time together, is a great way to celebrate. It’s a time to remember what God has done and remind everyone that this because of the resurrection, this is not the end but a transition into a new chapter of life that is lived with hope for the day when Jesus comes again.

Once the Columbia Church of Christ came to the conclusion that God was leading us to disband, we stopped having a traditional “adult Bible class” before our Sunday morning worship gatherings. Instead we used this time to for people to talk about closing and the transition, what new church they will look for, and any other concerns people had. Because we were also registered as a 501c3 Non-Profit Organization (as most churches are), there were some business decisions that the leaders had to deal with.

Our final Sunday worship gathering was held on Sunday, January 25, 2015. We announced this date ahead of time and invited former members who could make it, to join us at this last gathering to remember and celebrate what God had done throughout the history of our church… and believe me, God had accomplished some amazing things. I didn’t preach. After some singing, I got up and framed the day with the gospel and then invited people to share memories they had with the Columbia Church of Christ. After that, we share in the Lord’s Supper together, sang a few more songs and then shared in a fellowship meal together.

One Final Thought…

Disbanding as a church is has been bittersweet. As a minister it is certainly not something I ever thought I would be a part of and never want to be a part of again but… I want to close this post with a reminder of the gospel, the new life that God is creating through the death and resurrection of Jesus. While the Christians who made up our congregation no longer meet together as the Columbia Church of Christ, we are still Christians following Jesus with the promise of hope that one day Jesus is coming again. When he does, we will reunite with every other believer throughout history.

Our story is not one of closing in despair and hopelessness. What led to our decision was the question of how was God leading us to participate in his mission? Asking this question does not mean that your church will not necessarily lead to closing. Some congregations will discover new ways of participating in the mission of God together. But should your church discern that it is time to disband, I want you to know that it is not the end of life. Though it’s the end of one chapter, the story continues…

Jesus is coming again and until then, God is still present with his people through the Spirit leading them to live as faithful witnesses of this victorious life that has overcome sin and death. Go in peace, go on mission with God!

Closing A Church: An Open-Ended Process

Church ClosedIn the previous two posts on closing a church, we looked at why this is a necessary conversation that some declining churches must deal with and what the actual question of discernment is for this conversation. In short, we must realize that there are some churches in such decline that it may be time for them to consider closing and this has to do with participation in the mission of God rather than preserving a local church. The question then is how does a church determine if God is telling them that it is time to close as a local church so that the members can find other healthy churches to worship and serve with?

The simple answer is prayer and listening, as we hear God speaking through the conversations with each other. However, we need to unpack this or else we might misunderstand and in the worst case, never listen to anyone except our own voice.

To begin with, we must keep in mind that the question of discernment is an open-ended question. In asking how is God leading the church to participate in the mission of God, closing might be part of the answer but the church must also remain open to the idea that God may be calling then into a new chapter of participation together. I actually know of a church that was considering closure and in the process discovered that God was calling them to remain together, and now they are discovering once again how to participate in the mission of God together.

Where the question of discernment begins is with the realization that the church cannot continue as it has, that the church is declining and something must change. This alone is a hard reality for many church members to accept. In fact, I found in my experience with the Columbia Churches of Christ that accepting this reality was a grieving process that went through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). So coming to the realization that the church cannot continue business as usual is necessary for discerning the way forward. For that to happen, time and space along with pastoral leadership are absolutely necessary.

Coming to terms with reality and discerning the way forward can create a lot of anxiety, so the ministers and other leaders must have a non-anxious presence. This means serving in a pastoral role, having compassion as the church struggles in grief but speak candidly about the reality of the church. There are two other factors that I believe are very important:

  1. Give the church as much time as necessary for processing the grief. Any attempt to rush the process will only cause further problems. Yet in giving as much time as necessary, the minister and other leaders must hold the conversation about the state of the church before others. That requires sensitive pastoral wisdom and decisiveness that encourages people towards prayer, listening to others, and dealing with the painful emotions.
  2. The space for such a conversation is gathering around a table for a meal together. When a church gathers together for a meal a more relaxed atmosphere is created. In a conversation where there will be some disagreements, people are more likely to listen and respond in manner that allows for healthy and meaningful dialogue. With the Columbia Church of Christ, we positioned the tables so that everyone was facing each other.

I want to end by saying that in discerning where God is leading, churches must remember that they are loved by God. I’ll say more about this in the last installment of this series on closing a church but this needs emphasized here… God loves these churches as much as he loves the large and vibrant churches.