DEEP & WIDE – BOOK REVIEW AL

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The third book I decided to read this year is Deep & Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend by Andy Stanley.

This is a book I admittedly put off reading for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s kind of long. Being new to books I’ve been content with a 200-page book but Deep & Wide extends past 300. Another thing is that I had heard others talk about this book and what it discusses. There were many topics spoken of that resonated with my thoughts on the church as a minister and I bought the book with enthusiasm, about a year ago. I wanted to be endowed with the knowledge to help the church I was serving in to develop into the church I thought it should be. Before I cracked the book I started to see through my naivety and considered how little I’d actually be able to change on my own and as a youth minister. I was fearful that Andy would nail us with the obvious changes we needed to make as a church and that I’d be powerless to do anything with that knowledge. I have since recanted and decided that putting off reading this book based on those fears was foolish. So I read it and I’m glad I did.

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In case you don’t know, the title “Deep & Wide” refers to the fact that Andy believes the church is a place that contains deep truths for transforming and restoring lives (“deep”) and that they’d also be places where truly anyone feels welcome to attend (“wide”). Andy begins his book by recounting his own story. He tells of his upbringing in the church, being the son of a preacher at a large church in Atlanta, growing up to be a minister at that same church, the conflict between his father and him, and the eventual planting of the North Pointe Community Church. In fact, he dedicates his book to those 708 charter members of that church. While I think all of this storytelling eventually pays off in providing context for his perspective on the church in the rest of the book, it did seem to take up an inordinate amount of space and was tough to get through at times.

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Once he gets to the establishing of North Pointe Community Church, he speaks on how from the very beginning the goal was not to create a carbon copy of the church he was familiar with but instead wanted to ensure that their church would be one that would unapologetically be geared towards unchurched people. How can you argue with that? I will say that part of that basic premise upsets me on some level because I’ve always thought of the church as the communing, edifying, educating, worshipping, safe place for believers. It’s not that I believed that non-believers weren’t invited, I just didn’t view evangelism as one of the main focuses of what takes place on Sunday mornings. I kinda thought that’s what the members of the church were supposed to be doing on every day of the week. I don’t want to start pulling out scriptures or anything but I do think it’s worth considering what the Biblical purpose of the church (as in the assembled community of believers) is compared to the purpose given to the individual Christ-followers who make up the church. Are they the same? I think there are probably some important differences.

Andy goes on to talk about the plethora of tactics his church uses to be guest friendly. Many of them I thought were just genius. Of course our buildings should have good signage that helps those who have never been before. Of course we should look at our classrooms and meeting spaces the way a guest would. What are we communicating by the way we decorate, clean, organize, and take care of our facilities? Does each room communicate it’s purpose by how it’s arranged? It should. Of course it’s important to consider your order of worship and accomplish what is important in the best possible fashion for your church. Of course the church website should be updated more than once a leap year. There were so many things like this that Andy mentions that I think honor our members, our guests, and most importantly, honor God. Andy offers so many helpful guidelines for how we should put serious thought into how we do Sunday church that I do find myself wishing every minister, elder, ministry leader, small group leader, really any kind of church leader would pick up this book, if only to give thought to the intentionality we put into what occurs when we meet.

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All that being said, I also believe that there are some dangers going too far down the “Deep & Wide” line of thinking. It seems obvious, but I don’t want to attend a church that focuses solely on “the show” and is empty in the content on Sunday mornings. Andy covers this concern at times in his book. But I can’t help feeling that authenticity will always trump what looks shiny. Andy doesn’t downplay authenticity at all, I’m just fearful that’d be tricky to make sure authenticity doesn’t get left behind.

Deep & Wide is a good book to keep on the shelf. As a youth minister I do have some control over the environments I create for our youth group and that fact alone has made this book a great benefit to me. I highly recommend that if you lead in any capacity at your church that you read this book and digest it with others at your church.

Have you read Deep & Wide? What did you think? Next time I’ll be reviewing the fourth book I read this year, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul by John Eldredge.

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LOVE DOES & EVERYBODY ALWAYS: BOOK REVIEW AL

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So I finished my first two books of the year last month. As stated in my last post, I decided to start the year off with something optimistic and not too difficult to read. After I attended my youth ministry conference at the beginning of the year (NCYM) I got to hear and meet Bob Goff and decided I’d give his two popular books a try. Because I read them back to back and because of their similar content, I’ll review them as if they were one book.

These books are both the most whimsical and idealistic pieces of literature I’ve ever read.  No joke. Now, be sure to take into account that I’m trying to read 52 books this year because I’m not very well read at all. Even still, I was taken back by his unapologetically positive tone throughout both books. At times I felt something that might be referred to as optimism fatigue. But, for the most part, I felt encouraged and inspired by much of what Bob has to say in these books.

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Bob tells some incredible stories throughout these two works. In fact, most of his chapters are collections of stories and anecdotes from his own life or someone else’s who is close to him. It seemed like most of these stories are aimed at disarming what our usual responses would be in the mundane with a response that is fueled and informed by love. While some of those stories could seem trite, many of them were pleasantly surprising and inspiring. Now, there was no shortage of “Bob Goff leads a very different life than me” extreme stories that were pretty tough to relate to as well. But by and large, Bob writes in a way that is accessible, inspirational, and with a kind of whimsy, that had me grinning without my even realizing I was doing it. The tone is reminiscent of Donald Miller (who wrote the foreword to Love Does and helped Bob write both), especially for those of you who have read his book A Millian Miles in a Thousand Years.

There were several stories that would seem to come to a very normal and unsatisfying end given the typical person’s reaction. But Bob is certainly not your typical kind of guy. He’s a “be awesome” and “just say yea” kind of guy. Many of his stories felt like they could be gripping scenes in a movie. Bob was set to tell stories that would thrill or at least make you feel like anything was possible. I laughed to myself when I realized I had read about 5 separate stories between his two books that included the phrase, “So I tossed him/her the keys.” And I think that’s a good example of what these books are about. The letting go of the expected in lieu of something that has the potential to be greater, better, more loving, riskier.

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In these collections of Goff parables, Bob seems to be aiming at the typical churched person who has only been able to view the act of loving others through the lens of ordinary and comfortable. Loving others is so much more than a sentiment, it’s an indiscriminate and bold action. His subtitle for Love Does is “Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World”. For Everybody Always, its subtitle read, “Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People”. While the books are different, they both seem to be aimed at the same concept. That concept is that love is capable of more than we think and that it’s for more people than we’d think.

Are these books important for youth ministers to read? Probably not. Who is this book for? If you’re currently in a dark place or in need of some encouragement to be freer with yourself, with your interactions with people, I’d definitely refer these books to you. All in all these books are fun, joyful, and have earned a place on my bookshelf. Have you read Bob’s books already? What did you think?

Next time I’ll be writing on the book I’ve most recently finished, Andy Stanley’s Deep and Wide.

 

Book Review AL ~ Resolving to Read

Hello there! Happy New Year to you!

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It’s 2019 and for me, that means it’s a time for making New Year resolutions. It seems that recently there’s been a lot of negativity surrounding the concept of making New Year’s resolutions because of our tendencies to give up on them. They really get a bad wrap. It troubles me to hear people say they aren’t going to make any resolutions because they typically don’t keep them. They don’t like being reminded of their failed attempts of keeping last year’s resolution so they sometimes despair at the thought of making new ones. NOT ME!

While my own personal success rate for sticking with these resolutions is not particularly high, there’s something so enticing about setting goals for the person I’m aiming to become at the start of each new year. I love dreaming of the person God is shaping me to be and that I’m aiming at becoming. Do I always make realistic goals? Absolutely not. But I’m very much an enthusiast, an optimist, an idealist, a number 7 on the Enneagram. So here I am again in the infancy of 2019, reviewing my past year and setting goals to push myself to get a little bit closer to the person I’m aiming to become. Hopefully, someone who looks a little more like Jesus.

I’ll spare you my hopes and dreams of being a powerlifting, six-pack sporting, model of physical fitness and skip to the goal I think I might actually be able to keep up with this year. I’m resolving to discover in myself a new discipline for reading books. By the end of this year, it is my goal to have read 52 books. For me, this goal is very ambitious. I probably only read 8 books last year. However, it’s becoming apparent to me that with the growing availability of audiobooks and the expanding libraries of companies like Audible are taking away the excuses I’ve made in the past. Excuses like, “I’m not a fast reader”, “not having the time”, or “I’ll wait to watch the movie.” I really didn’t like reading that much when I was younger. The biggest motivation I got to read was (surprise surprise) getting a free personal pan pepperoni pizza from Pizza Hut. Thank you, Book-It!

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I’ve been trying to think of other ways I can make it easier on myself to take on this task of reading 52 books. One youth minister friend of mine from Kansas gave me some sage advice when I was complaining about how I was going to accomplish this goal. “Just read shorter books!”, he said. Not a bad thought! Aside from getting my hands on some pop-up books on theology, one of the ways I’m going to try to keep myself accountable for staying on track with this goal is to write some very simplistic reviews on my blog site that no one reads. This will help me process what I’ve read, help improve my typing skills, and hopefully help keep me on schedule. If you read one of these books I’m reviewing and find yourself wanting to chime in on your thoughts, please feel free. If you have suggestions for books I need to add to my list, let me know. I only have about 20 on my list to read (or finish reading) right now. Turns out there are way more than 20 books out there.

I just finished books 1 and 2. I had never even heard of Bob Goff before this year. Okay, that’s not true. I had heard of him and his first book, “Love Does”. I just hadn’t taken time to learn anything more about him. The first full week of this year I went to the National Conference on Youth Ministry that I attend every year. This year, they had Bob Goff come and give a keynote. If you’ve ever met Bob or read his books you know what I know now. Bob is incredible! He has an energy that would wear out any kid hopped up on Mountain Dew. He has a generosity of spirit, unlike anyone I’ve ever met. What a treat to be able to listen to him and meet him in person.

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Bob speaks the same way he writes. His joy and whimsical nature are so contagious you can’t help but let our own imagination start to run wild. He tells stories of taking his children on epic adventures, recounts situations that were very dangerous but always worth the risk, and he illustrates through personal experiences all the ways he’s come to learn that the type of love Jesus teaches us to love with is the type of love that does things for everybody, always. I want to say more but I’ll save it for next time when I write my review of his two books, “Love Does” and “Everybody Always”.

Until next time, I’m curious to know, what goals have you made for yourself this year? What books are you reading? What are you doing to make sure you make time to read? Let me know!

 

Will someone please get me this t-shirt in an XL?! 😀

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Halloween Movie Review

Well, I haven’t written one of these since my review for Infinity War. Although I’m not always the most gung-ho on the Marvel bandwagon I have to say most movies I’ve seen since then paled in contrast. Nevertheless, it’s time to get out of the funk and write a pizza-themed movie review!

Before I get to it, I’m planning on writing more reviews on not just movies, but also more ministry-related books in the future. If you are a minister and particularly a youth minister stay tuned for my upcoming review of the book “Growing Young” by Powell, Mulder, and Griffin.

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HALLOWEEN

(SPOILERS AHEAD!)

I’m a newcomer to the some of the slasher classics and I’ve really come to appreciate the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween movies. There are few truly scary moments, save the occasional cheap jump scare, but I love these movies that try to straddle the line (at least somewhat) between a killer grounded in reality and a supernatural force of evil. None of these characters seem to get it quite as well as the Michael Meyers movies in my opinion. If you want full on gritty realism I suppose Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a better way to go but I like the hint of something beyond, the unexplainably uncanny ability for Michael to keep being driven to kill and somehow not be killed himself.

I’ve only seen the original Halloween (1978) movie fully but I’ve seen bits and pieces of the cascading sequels and reboots. While I am a fan I don’t hail Halloween (1978) as some kind of classic film although I’d be quick to defend its status as a classic Halloween season film. Some will claim Halloween (1978) shaped the slasher genre but I’m content to let it be a fun popcorn scare flick of the late 70’s.

Halloween (2018) features Michael Meyers being found after 40 years from his murdering rampage in an insane asylum where he is for some reason depicted being chained to a giant chess board. I was hoping this was some kind of foreshadowing for the rest of the film but it seemingly used just for a stylistic shot. Michael is visited by 2 podcasters who are unbearably pretentious and out-of-touch and serve as little more than expendable characters for Michael to kill on his “search” for Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis’ character from the 1978 original who survived his attacks). I say “search” because the rest of the movie seems to be a random occurrence of Michael running into people, killing them, and somehow very conveniently eventually getting to Laurie Strode’s house to kill her.

The Laurie Strode character is written well as someone whose life has been stained by the killings from 40 years ago and who can’t seemingly overcome the effect it has had on her. She’s prepped and trained for the moment she meets Michael Meyers again and her family thinks her mentally ill.

There were many other characters in this film, none fleshed out quite as much as Laurie and Michael and some were laughably thin as to their relevance to the plot. Characters such as Laurie’s grandaughters boyfriend or the cop who “was there too” 40 years ago all make dumb decisions and serve the plot very poorly.

That being said, there were multiple callbacks and homages to the original Halloween movie that made me smile. The Halloween theme song was used and it sounded just like it does in the original. The character of Michael Meyers was true to the original in the way that he’s enigmatically one part serial killer and one part force of evil. The end of the third act played a nice twist on the original as Michael pushes Laurie out of a window to see her supposedly unconscious body on the ground, he gets distracted by a noise from downstairs and when he looks back she is gone. After that point, Michael experiences what being hunted feels like as he struggles to find Laurie’s character and she pops up on him from behind. Loved that 3rd act.

Overall the movie was fun, had some issues keeping a consistent tone as it was too funny at some points, but a nice homage to the original 1978 Halloween movie. Definitely nothing groundbreaking but a good time at the movies.

I give Halloween 6.5 slashed slices out of 10 with ghost peppers.

Avengers: Inifinity War SPOILER Review

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Just want to repeat that the following review will be a spoiler review for Infinity War. If you haven’t seen the movie stop reading now! We will be getting into all spoiler details of this movie. I apologize in advance to those who haven’t nerded about these movies as much as I probably have. I’ve seen the movie twice over the weekend and I have lots to process. If you don’t want to read this crazy long review head to the end where I just say what I liked and didn’t like. Alright, let’s do this!

Firstly, can we just acknowledge the amazing feat that this movie accomplished?! Not only was this movie the culmination (at least part 1 of a culmination) of 10 years within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s also one of the best superhero movies ever created. No other movie franchise has accomplished what Kevin Feige has done with the MCU, although Star Wars might catch up one day with the spin-offs they are coming out with. Either way, Disney will have all the money and have their own infinity gauntlet levels of power.

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DIRECTORS

The Russo brothers have knocked this movie out of the park. It isn’t a perfect movie by any means but I can’t even imagine how difficult it would be to juggle all these amazing characters and give them all their moment to shine. I’ve been a big fan of the Russo brothers’ work before I even knew who they were. Their work with the TV shows Arrested Development (shout out to the Tobias Funke blue man easter egg) and Community is stellar and both shows contain some of the best comedy I’ve ever watched and rewatched on TV. What’s more, they got me to like Captain America movies. I had huge problems with the first Captain America movie. It’s still one of my least favorite MCU movies to watch. However, Winter Soldier and Civil War were brilliantly made movies. Civil War (Avengers 2.5) definitely showcased their ability to balance a large cast of popular characters. I marveled (!!!) at the balance that this movie had. It didn’t feel bloated or even too confusing with the multiple plots going on. Well done Russo brothers!

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VILLAIN

Thanos!!! I had no idea why I should care about who Thanos was when he first appeared in the post-credit scene from the first Avengers movie. Man oh man do I know why he’s a force to be reckoned with. Josh Brolin’s performance as Thanos was incredible. He is by far the best villain the MCU has ever had. Loki might be considered second but I have a hard time counting him with his story arch as a villain/anti-hero. Thanos was clear and committed to his purpose to put the universe in balance. I wish we got a little more backstory of Titan and how he was cast out for suggesting the random genocide of half the population but I don’t think the movie could’ve handled too much more exposition. Right from the beginning of the movie we got an idea of his power when he easily put the hurt on Hulk (more on him later). I totally bought into his motive and even his love for Gamora. I thought that scene was set up so deftly when him holding young Gamora’s hand in the flashback was mirrored in him dragging her by the arm to throw her to her death to get the Soul stone. I do wonder how long he will be content upon accomplishing his goal in wiping out HALF OF ALL LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE but I guess we’ll see next year.

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INFINITY STONES

On top of all the people characters in the movie, I almost felt as if the stones themselves became characters in their own right in this movie. As he started collecting each infinity stone the movie was great about showing the audience what that particular stone gave him the ability to do. Power stone clearly lets him destroy almost anything (including Thor’s head almost!). Space stone let him teleport around the galaxy, which was an important plot point for the movie. Reality stone was one of the coolest in its abilities. It allowed Thanos to alter the reality of how things appeared or behaved. I legit thought that Mantis and Drax were dead when he changed them to blocks and spaghetti. When he used it on Quill when he almost shot Gamora and when he used it on Gamora when she tried to kill herself was genius. Soul stone was a little bit of a convenient plot device. Wasn’t completely on board with why the Soul stone needed a sacrifice from its user when the other stones just required you to grab them but whatever, it definitely worked in building Thanos’ character. I even felt some alluding to the Abraham and Isaac sacrifice on the mountain. I loved loved loved that they brought back the Red Skull as a cameo. I had always wondered if we’d see him again and while it didn’t make 100% sense, it was cool to see him again and I wonder if we’ll see more of him in the next movie. I heard some people complaining that the Soul stone didn’t really give him a power but I’d argue that the Soul stone is what allowed him to snap his fingers and disappear all living things with a soul. You’ll notice half of the trees and birds in the movie didn’t also fad away, just people from earth or other worlds. Time stone was used brilliantly as well in this movie. Dr. Strange using it to see 14,000,000,605 different outcomes was really cool. And the fact the only one of those that they actually win includes Thanos getting the Time stone was very interesting. I was blown away when Thanos turned back time and made Scarlet Witch not only endure killing Vision but having to watch him come back only to be killed again by Thanos. ROUGH! I’m interested to see how time traveling will be involved in the next movie. Finally, the Mind stone. This one might have the most ambiguous of powers. Vision uses it to phase in and out, shoot laser beams, and change his molecular density? Unclear on which of those powers came from Vision and which came from the stone. Loki used the mind stone to get people to do his bidding but we haven’t witnessed that parlor trick in a minute. Loved that the movie included the completion of the infinity gauntlet with all 6 infinity stones.

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THE SNAP

Sooooooo…. he did it. I was really expecting that this movie was going to end right when he got all the stones, or maybe even end right as he snapped and we were left wondering what actually happened when he did it. I was so relieved to actually get to see the completed gauntlet, the snap, and the aftermath of the snap. DARK! Way darker than Empire Strikes Back for those of you making the Star Wars comparison. There are some different opinions out as to who is actually really gone and who won’t come back. I’m of the thinking that everyone who died before the snap (Gamora, Vision, Loki) is not coming back in the next movie. Obviously, there are ways they could bring them back, I mean this is comic book stories. I did wonder for a second if all the talk about Vision is more than just the stone and all the effort into reprogramming his connection to the stone in Wakanda (or whatever Shuri was doing that apparently made no difference) was a precursor to him being able to survive without it but it seems to me that he is really gone. I’ve heard some say that because of how Gamora died in connection to the Soul stone that she could come back but I still think they are all really gone.

What about the people who faded away? At first, I was just in awe during the movie that they actually went through with the snap. I couldn’t believe Marvel was willing to let all these characters we knew and loved disappear into nothing. But then Spiderman disappeared, heart-wrenching, but doesn’t he have another movie coming out? Then Black Panther disappeared. Didn’t that movie just make Disney a billion dollars? At that point, I was actually put at ease because I knew that there was no way that these characters were actually gone for real. It’s my opinion that everyone who disappeared will be brought back. However, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a majority of our heroes that remained were part of the original Avengers group. I think this movie is setting us up for some type of major sacrifice from our OG Avengers or there may even be some type of reversal where they take the place of the disappeared. Only time will tell. Captain Marvel (Cosmic Superwoman?) will obviously play a big part in that next film (although I know next to nothing about her) and the end-credit scene just insured that her movie next year will make bank.

THE FUNNY

I go back and forth with my youngest brother about the MCU being a little too bright and jokey at times. Rewatching Thor: Ragnarok actually included a little more cringing at the humor than I anticipated. However, I will say that I enjoyed so much of the humor in this movie. Thor referring to Rocket as a rabbit, Peter Dinklage being a giant dwarf, “I am Groot” “I am Steve Rogers”, “It’ll kill you!” “Only if I die” “Yes, that’s what killing means”, Drax trying to be invisible, Rocket’s continued fascination with robot body parts. So much of this comedy landed with me. There might be just a few situations where I thought that a joke was out of place due to the tone of the scene or really the gravity of the entire movie but those were few and far between.

THE GOOD

  • The story was compelling and not too confusing despite its ambitious scope.
  • Characters were true to their own movies within this movie.
  • Thanos was an excellent villain.
  • Stakes were high and actually felt. People actually died.
  • Humor was well done.
  • Long movie but didn’t feel it at any point. Great pacing.
  • Woman Avengers fight scene. Very cool!
  • Thor’s new Axe/Hammer, “Stormbreaker”. That thing is legit!
  • Black Order. Since when is there a movie where the henchmen are actually pretty cool?

THE BAD 

  • Misuse of a couple characters
    • Drax. I’m upset that he really has served almost no purpose in the past two movies he’s been in other than just a joke maker. He’s not particularly strong apparently. In the fight scene with Thanos on Titan, I think Drax’s contribution was holding one of Thanos’ legs? Lame.
    • Hulk. The Hulk is my absolute favorite Marvel character. But it has bothered me that the only movie he’s really been able to shine in was the first Avengers. He’s constantly not being the strongest there is. He gets beat up by the hulkbuster armor, gets beat up by Thor in Ragnarok, easily gets tossed aside by Thanos. When will Hulk get a chance to actually get angry and throw down?! I actually liked that he didn’t want to come out for the rest of the movie once Thanos beat him up. It highlighted that maybe he actually feared the strength of Thanos. But it’s only worth it if they actually redeem him in the next movie and let him have his moment.
    • Vision. Love Vision as a character but I didn’t like how helpless he seemed in this entire movie.
    • Groot. Although he had a nice little story ark it seemed superfluous. Didn’t care for Stormbreaker have a wooden handle either.

RATING

This movie is well balanced and has a little bit of everyone’s favorite characters. I give it 9 out of 10 slices of supreme pizza. However, it leaves you with a hunger for another whole pizza! Too bad delivery will take a year!

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“Love First” Book Review

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I just finished this book Monday and I really love what the author, Church of Christ preacher Don McLaughlin, does in this book. In the introduction, he is quick to point out that in the history of Christianity and more specifically the church there have been grand meetings where church leaders and scholars have come together to form different creeds to clarify what the church believes. There was the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD and the Apostle’s Creed in 390 AD that both served the very specific purpose of affirming doctrinal beliefs such as the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. McLaughlin goes on to point out that all this energy and intentionality was given to the establishment of these creeds to serve as the doctrinal structure for the church, yet they left out one of the most important creeds cited within scripture. That is the creed to love.

When I first read the title of the book I considered a little cheesy and possibly even a little too similar to Rob Bell’s title of “Love Wins” or Francis Chan’s “Crazy Love.” Both decent books in their own right but ones that I definitely had issues with. I was pleasantly surprised to read that Mclaughlin’s take was neither too emotionally driven nor was it unfounded in scripture. He intentionally cites the biggest push that Jesus makes in his teaching to love above all else. He further uses Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13, or the “love chapter”, as a template for breaking down what a “love first” movement should like in the church based on these different facets of what love is.

There were parts of this book where I was a little wary of where he was going but there were even more parts were my pride was hurt because there are many practices, or maybe more accurately behaviors, that are prevalent in the church that directly infringe upon Jesus’ emphasis to love others at first contact. As a church, it is common for us to bicker, argue, or even disfellowship each other based on differences in doctrine. Sometimes these differences are quite minute. Whatever the difference, the church should always be a proponent of Jesus’ love creed, the creed to love first. There are many who point to the church’s inability to unify and love each other as the reason why the church is not a place the helps and heals but rather contributes to the problem. McLaughlin does a wonderful job of succinctly pointing out how the church needs to change to a love first mentality if it’s to accomplish the purpose it was made for in healing this world.

Is Your Faith Unbelievable?

The New Year is upon us and with it comes the inevitable New Year’s resolution. I actually look forward to this inevitability. While I’m sure many consider making these resolutions to be cliche or overly optimistic, I personally find it healthy, necessary, and even enjoyable. More on making resolutions for 2018 later.

One of my resolutions for 2017 and for 2018 has been and will be to read more books. I read pretty slow and have always been of the mindset that I’ll just watch the movie instead when it comes to books. Trouble is, not many movies hit the theaters that are concerned with how one can be a better youth minister, Christ follower, man of God, and husband. (If you know of any, let me know!) Now that I think of it, Chris Pratt portraying a youth minister who has to teach his youth to protect themselves from Satan, Thanos, or dinosaurs could be pretty cool…

 

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Something I’ve always been interested in since my days of being a teenager in a youth group is apologetics. “Apologetics” is just a word describing the reasoning through arguments and writings for a belief. I was interested in apologetics specifically about Christianity. The spiritual and emotional reasons for my faith in Christianity came pretty easily for me, even in my Christian infancy. But I tended to neglect the intellectual reasoning for Christianity as I grew into my faith. Why? Probably because I was fearful somewhere deep down that Christianity couldn’t hold up to the definitive, cold, hard facts of science. I also wasn’t even sure if my faith made complete sense on a philosophical level. My confidence for my faith to hold up against questions of science and philosophy has since grown thanks to my professors at Oklahoma Christian University and the few books I’ve visited on the subject. However, my curiosity to keep exploring these intellectual faith questions lingered and I wanted to keep exploring the arguments brought against Christianity as well as those for it.

Then I found “Unbelievable?”. A podcast put on by Premier Christian Radio in the UK hosted by Justin Brierley. I shouldn’t say I found it. My father and eldest brother had both been listening to it before me and encouraged me to give it a try. I’m not normally a podcast guy. My commute to work isn’t very long and I figured if there was a podcast really worth listening to they’d probably just make a movie out of it. Eventually I gave in on a day that I was travelling into Fort Worth and gave Justin’s show a listen. Let me briefly give you an idea of what the format of “Unbelievable?” is like.

Justin typically invites two individuals on his show who are both scholars, authors, and/or reputable professionals in their fields to argue opposing positions on topics of faith. Sometimes the topic will concern a theological issue the two individuals disagree on. However, the show is more known for its debates between believers and atheists. Their website describes it this way, “Unbelievable? engages in fundamental questions on Christianity with the intention to openly discuss different opinions between Christians and non-believers.” – www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable

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Certainly, this wasn’t a new idea. But what Unbelievable? brings to the table is a refreshing conversational dynamic that usually has a friendly tone of mutual respect (but certainly not always!). It’s this dynamic that drew me to this program. At times I lose myself to the idea that because I believe, conversations with nonbelievers is destined to be full of conflict and name-calling; unfruitful to even initiate. Unbelievable? has shown me that friendly conversations between believers and nonbelievers is possible and really should happen more!

Justin does a fantastic job as a, for the most part, neutral moderator for these conversations. He enforces fairness in giving equal time to all sides and always encourages his guests to be respectful to each other. More than this, he often takes up the cause of the listener in that he will summarize his understanding of what has been said and ask questions or ask the guests to unpack anything that might be uncommon knowledge.  The conversational dynamic, mutual respect, and impressive quality/caliber of his guests makes this apologetics debate program stand out (especially in comparison to the frustrating YouTube clips I sometimes catch of people angrily debating in an attempt to “own” the opposition). Justin’s podcast has been a delightful source for exercising my grey matter on the questions I have about my faith as it relates to science and philosophy in the face of atheistic arguments.

The reason for today’s post (I know, 5 years later) is that I recently read Justin Brierley’s book, aptly titled, “Unbelievable?”. This book comes at Justin’s 10 year mark of hosting Unbelievable? and it is great! Why is it great? Because I said so! No, but really, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Justin takes his 10 year experience of hearing some of the most educated, intelligent, and respected atheists and theists hash out the existence of God and faith itself. Not many people have that kind of resume (CV) and even fewer have written on that experience in such accessible fashion.

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Justin starts his first chapter by addressing exactly what his experience entails as host of this apologetics debate program and what Unbelievable? is. Furthermore, he addresses the need we have as Christians to create better conversations with nonbelievers beginning the chapter with a perfectly suited quote from Joseph Joubert, “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”

While I certainly agree that more conversations need to happen between believers and nonbelievers, it is the remainder of this book that has intrigued me and benefited me the most. Justin methodically and deftly lays out the main questions posited by atheists about theism and gives his personal response to each one informed by his 10 years of conversing with and reading the works of some of the smartest believers living today.

  • Does God make sense of human existence?
  • Does God make sense of human value?
  • Does God make sense of human purpose?
  • Was Jesus an actual historical person?
  • Did the Resurrection actually occur?
  • How can an all powerful God be all good in the midst of suffering?

*He also recounts a short conversation he has with former atheist Jesus, Richard Dawkins. In that section he also gives a brief history of where atheism is today given the New Atheism, or “Atheism 2.0”, movement.*

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(Just a Joke! 🙂

Hearing these familiar arguments fleshed out from his unique perspective and following his conclusions on how God does make sense in all of these questions was educational and reassuring. Nothing has fundamentally changed about my belief in God. Faith remains a sightless assurance; something I can’t definitively prove to the nonbeliever but that still makes sense. But the questions about my faith I’ve tried in the past in vain to quell on my own are now helpful instead of harmful. Questions about faith, even the unanswered ones, are not scary. They are liberating. They create space for conversation between believers and nonbelievers. Studying these questions have even taught me some of the unhealthy arguments Christians sometimes utilize to point to God, such as the “God of the gaps” argument.

If you have found yourself, like me, sometimes in an aura of doubt and fear concerning the questions you’ve tried hard to ignore that seemingly oppose your faith, then I encourage you to address those questions head on. Search the scriptures, read a book, listen to a podcast, talk to a nonbeliever, even bring those questions to God in prayer. Yes, you need to be weary of the validity and academic integrity of some sources. Yes, some of the questions you have may not be completely satisfied. But remember… “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” Decide to grow your faith by asking questions instead of stunting it with ignorance and fear.

In conclusion, I HIGHLY recommend the Unbelievable? podcast as well as the book.

Have you read other books or heard other podcasts that also address questions of God ad faith? I’d love to hear about them! Comment or post below to share sources that have helped you with questions you’ve had about your own faith.

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” – 1 Peter 3:15

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STAR WARS: The Last Jedi – Was it Awful? (spoiler-free review)

It’s finally here! Episode VIII of the Star Wars cinematic saga, The Last Jedi. If you haven’t yet seen this movie, you are in the right place. This review will not give away any critical details or plot points for The Last Jedi. Rather, this review should give you an idea of where to place your expectations going into the movie. If you have already seen the film, I can’t wait to discuss with you the spoiler details about this movie. There is certainly much to discuss. Feel free to message me and let me know your thoughts. PLEASE DO NOT comment with any spoilers for those who have not yet had the opportunity to see The Last Jedi.

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Rewind to two years ago in December, there was an enormous amount of hype for the first installment in the newest trilogy of the Star Wars saga, Episode VII, The Force Awakens. Hopes were astronomically high for this movie to help heal the wounds dealt by the prequel trilogy, recapture the magic of the original trilogy, and convince a completely new generation that Star Wars is indeed something special. A daunting task that would inevitably not leave everyone happy. While many complain that J.J. Abrams (director of The Force Awakens) was guilty of rehashing too many similar themes from episode IV, A New Hope, it’s my humble opinion that he did a stellar job and did indeed recapture the magic of Star Wars with exciting new characters and familiar old ones.

While the hype for the long awaited installment that kicked off this latest Star Wars trilogy could not be matched by this film, there was still much anticipation for TLJ, especially concerning questions posed in TFA that we craved answers to. So much so that fan theories were flying left and right as to the true identity of Snoke and the parentage of our main protagonist, Rey. Fast forward two years…

I was fortunate enough to see this film opening night with my amazing wife who dressed like a storm trooper to match my Darth Vader attire. Nerd goals right?

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So now that I’ve seen it and had a few days to digest it, take it all in, what can I say about this film? It was… different. Different in a good way? Absolutely! Different in a bad way. Without a doubt, yes. To be clear, I don’t mean different by way of a complete departure from the Star Wars universe that we know and love. It certainly feels like Star Wars. Everything from the AMAZING score with numerous call backs to the original trilogy to the cinematography made this movie feel like it definitely belongs in the Star Wars universe. However, there were elements that would make even some of the most amateur Star Wars fans scratch their heads and consider what Rian Johnson (director) was thinking. I’ll try to make a list of the pros and cons now that may be kind of vague to be sure I don’t get into spoiler territory.

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Cons: Cause I’m a bad news first kind of guy.

  1. Jokes – While there has been comedy injected to many of the Star Wars films, this one takes the cake for the most undeserved, unsettling, and unthematic attempt to solicit laughs. At times this seems because the joke seems to worldly (as in our present reality’s version of humor). For instance, think back to the previous installment, TFA, when Finn exclaims to BB-8. “Droid, please.” Other times the humor seems to be thoughtlessly thrown in amongst moments that were very serious or were pivotal points in the story. Just seemed irreverent at times. Not all of the jokes were off key, but the ones that were stuck out like a sore thumb.
  2. Irrelevant Plot Points – If you’ve seen this movie already, you know exactly what I’m talking about. There are adventures that some of our characters go off on that don’t affect the main story arc at all. They seem to be time fillers that are intended to show character arcs but instead end up feeling superfluous. At a run time of 2 hours and 33 minutes, this movie could have easily benefited from adhering to a more traditional 2 hour run time.
  3. New Characters – While I LOVED many of the new characters we were first introduced to in TFA (Rey, Kylo, Finn, Poe, even BB-8) there are more introduced in this movie that seemed completely unnecessary. Some because of the performances given. Others gave very convincing performances but didn’t seem to serve the story at all. Can’t say much more about that without getting into spoilers!
  4. Retroactive Plot Holes – Part of the curse of using different directors on these movies is that some plot points and questions that were emphasized in one installment may not be as important to the agenda of the next director. J.J. Abrams, and now Rian Johnson, have both introduced elements to Star Wars that make the sweaty nerds quote Han Solo, “That’s not how the force works!” Especially in TLJ there are some moments of force utilization that we have witnessed on screen before that make us ask, “Why wasn’t the force utilized similarly in these other scenarios in past Star Wars films?” While it’s really cool to see some of these new effects of the force, it does seem irreverence for the original trilogy and how the force is depicted in those movies is to blame.
  5. Ending – The very last scene is garbage.

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Pros: Enough negatives, on to the good stuff!

  1. Music/Sound Design – The aforementioned score is out of sight and a delight to enjoy in this film. John Williams can never die! There were so many callbacks to the original trilogy’s soundtracks that put a smile on my face every time I recognized one. At the same time, there’s new stuff that melds with the themes of original soundtracks beautifully. On top of that, the sound design for this movie was also quite astonishing. There were scenes that seemed liked all the air was sucked out of the room. So many scenes were served by such brilliant sound design. Once you see the movie I’m sure you’ll be able to pick out some of the scenes I’m referring to.
  2. Characters/Acting – Getting to catch back up some of the characters from the original trilogy and the new ones from TFA was just awesome. Mark Hamill’s performance is out of sight and Carrie Fisher is amazingly good! The dynamic between Rey and Luke, between Rey and Kylo, and between Kylo and Luke are all extremely well done and enjoyable to watch. So much more I could go on raving about in this category but I can’t without spoiling the movie!
  3. Cinematography – To the uninitiated, this is just a fancy word to talk about how a movie looks. This movie was gorgeous! Space battles in particular were just a nonstop thrill ride to watch. There were so many scenes that would make amazing posters or even better desktop wallpapers. There was one moment in particular that just left the entire audience breathless because not only of the weight of the moment story-wise but also just because of how that moment is depicted on the screen. Just incredible. Wisely, Rian Johnson did use practical effects were he could, following the example of J.J. Abrams who had learned rightly that a big problem with the prequels was the overuse of CGI. HOWEVER, there is an entire sequence that relies on CGI creatures in this movie that are distractedly unthematic and terrible looking. Aside from that sequence, the movie gets 5 stars from me in the area of cinematography.
  4. Unpredictable – There were certainly themes from Empire Strikes Back as well as other Star Wars movies. Even so, the movie is truly originally and one of the most delighting aspects of this movie was that there were moments where I thought I knew exactly what was going to happen and I was very wrong. Some of those moments made me angry but many of them were pleasant surprises and ultimately more satisfying than what I thought was going to happen.
  5. Ending –  Aside from the very last scene, the conclusion of this film actually seems genius to me. It doesn’t end on quite as much as a cliffhanger as TFA but it goes to a place that leaves me asking, “What is going to happen after all that?!” While it is definitely the 2nd movie in a trilogy it didn’t feel like a half or a third of a story. The ending seemed very fitting to the story told in The Last Jedi and I can’t wait to see Episode IX!

Hopefully that wasn’t too much to take in. I do hope you’ll now go into The Last Jedi with some tempered expectation. There were moments that felt like a straight up gut punch for hardcore Star Wars fans… but… I had an absolute blast seeing this movie and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it when I see it again. It certainly has some problems I take issue with but is overall an exciting addition to the Star Wars saga.

Please comment below with your thoughts about The Last Jedi. Did you like it? Did you hate it? Whatever you do, don’t post any spoilers! Don’t be a nerf herder!

And for those of you who want to see The Last Jedi without having anything spoiled for you, you’ll probably want to go see it sooner rather than later!

Official SpeshAL Rating: Not Awful – 8 slices out of 10 from Pizza Planet

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Book Review AL: “MANVOTIONALS”

 

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Today is my father’s birthday. In honor of him, I want to write a quick review of a book I recently completed and utilized as a template for a curriculum in my class for our young men. This seems fitting not just because it’s my dad’s birthday and this book is about old school manliness (what boy doesn’t love to boast his own father’s manliness) but also because my dad could definitively beat up your dad.

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In all seriousness (don’t worry it won’t last), I greatly enjoyed this book, “Manvotionals: Timeless Wisdom and Advice on Living the 7 Manly Virtues” by Brett and Kate McKay. The McKays started The Art of Manliness Blog and Youtube channel that feature Brett tackling a variety of skills and giving advice on current issues men face with an old school flavor. According to their website, artofmanliness.com,  the purpose of their blog, books, and videos is that…

“Many men today feel adrift and have lost the confidence, focus, skills, and virtues that men of the past embodied. In an increasingly androgynous society, modern men are confused about their role and what it means to be an honorable, well-rounded man… Ultimately, the Art of Manliness aims to encourage our readers to be better husbands, fathers, brothers, citizens — a new generation of great men.”

Let me promptly put up a disclaimer. This book is not anti-women or sexist somehow. Far from it! The book is written specifically for men but in the book the McKays remind us that all virtues are pursued by men and women. However, often when these virtues are attained they are expressed different ways in either sex. “Two different musical instruments, playing the exact same notes, will produce two different sounds.” (p3)

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The authors, Brett and Kate McKay are certainly people of faith. However, in most of their AoM content they intentionally leave out scripture. I tend to think this was with the intent to teach truths that are Biblical to a wider audience. This book is certainly one that has Biblical truths and virtues buried throughout and it took very little effort to use it for our young men’s Bible class on Sunday mornings with the benefit of apt scriptures.

I think what’s so great about AoM’s content and this book is that it brings to light an understanding of manliness that is not sextist, elitist, or juvenile but instead grounded in bedrock morals and virtues shared by many societies as well as the Bible. They aren’t locked into the superficial definitions of manliness but instead redeem the term “manliness” to take on the meaning your grandfather and his father assigned to it. The first chapter of this book seeks to elucidate the reader on this new understanding of manliness.

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Manliness used to mean that a person possessed and practiced a particular set of virtues. In their book, “Manvotionals”, the McKays construct an outline based on seven specific virtues that they believe make up a manly man: Manliness, Courage, Industry, Resolution, Self-Reliance, Discipline, and Honor. Certainly these are honorable virtues for men and women. In each chapter, the McKays start with their own synopsis of the virtue for that chapter. Then they take excerpts from essays, letters, poems, and articles from great men in history. From Theodore Roosevelt to Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Babington Macaulay to Walt Whitman, Aristotle to Mark Twain, this book is packed with amazing excerpts and quotes from classical authors and gung-ho US Presidents.  I’m not a well read man by any stretch of the imagination but I got the joy of feeling like one after reading this book. Poetry, Aesop’s Fables, letters from our founding fathers, even a couple chapters from the “Army Field Manual” from 1941, each of these were likely pieces of literature I dare to say I would hardly encounter on my own.  So much profound and straight-forward wisdom told in some of the most articulate and simplistic ways can be found in this book.

I’ll list some of my favorite quotes at the end of this post.

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As I read it, I started to imagine the advice that my father’s father would have given him about becoming a man; and his father before that. It does seem apparent to me that our definition of being a man has been greatly diluted over the past couple generations. I don’t mean to say that my father didn’t teach me what it meant to be a man, just the opposite. Dad made sure we always treated mom and all women with respect, that we worked hard when we gave our word to work, that I didn’t have to do what everyone else was doing, that slow obedience is a form of disobedience, and that Middleton men treat others with respect and honor.

However, culturally, the prolonging of adolescence has eroded some of these ideals and even staved off the point young boys actually come into manhood. I’d love to write something coherent (yeah right) one day about rights of passage and how our culture has suffered in lieu of a type of “manhood ceremony” in the vein of a bar mitzvah but with less presents and puberty. Within the introduction there a brief statement that captures exactly the sentiment what manhood is and what it isn’t: “There are two ways to define manhood. One way is to say that manhood is the opposite of womanhood. The other is to say that manhood is the opposite of childhood.” They definitively lean into the latter definition. Part of me is convinced that the much needed swing towards gender equality is starting to adversely affect the inherit goodness within these virtues of the manly man. “Mansplaining” seems to have given way to “manshaming”. But I digress, for this post I will stay on task.

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“Manvotionals” is certainly a great book for fathers to read with their sons. I would highly recommend this book for pastors looking for resources on how to preach on the expectations of a “godly man” and the duties therein that many men are abandoning in churches today (another post for another day). But highest of all, I would recommend this book to you, the young man who is thinking to himself that he might benefit from a clearer definition as to the type of man that he should be. Buy this book and read it. It will give you much needed direction.

In closing, I’ll just say that the book is good and that I certainly needed it as a reminder of the type of man my earthly father, as well as my Heavenly Father, have always taught me to be.

Thanks Dad. Happy Birthday.

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I thought I was only going to list five of these but I couldn’t whittle it down! Hundreds more in this book.

TOP TEN FAVORITE QUOTES

  1. “Living a life of virtuous excellence is harder than learning to tie a tie or start a fire, but no other pursuit will be as supremely rewarding.” – Brett and Kate McKay
  2. “We need the iron qualities that go with true manhood. We need the positive virtues of resolution, of courage, of indomitable will, of power to do without shrinking the rough work that must always be done.” – Theodore Roosevelt
  3. “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” – C.S. Lewis
  4. “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” – Thomas Edison
  5. “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” – Benjamin Franklin
  6. “There is not a man of average ability but could make a striking career if he could but will to do the best that is in him” – Arthur Brisbane
  7. “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  8. “No steam or gas ever drives anything until it is confined. No Niagara is ever turned into light and power until it is tunneled. No life ever grows until it is focused, dedicated, disciplined.” – Harry Emerson Fosdick
  9. “Do not consider anything for your interest which makes you break your word, quit your modesty, or inclines you to any practice which will not bear the light, or look the world in the face.” – Marcus Aurelius
  10. “In great matters men show themselves as they wish to be seen; in small matters, as they are.” – Nicolas Chamfort

 

Thank you so much for reading! Are there any quotes or books on manliness or any of these manly virtues that you often turn to? What Bible verses often convict you to be a better man of God? Do you think manliness is indeed a lost art in today’s culture? Would love to hear your thoughts!

Spiritu AL: My 5 Favorite Places to Pray in Cleburne, TX.

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Jennifer and I have lived in Cleburne for 3.5 years now and we have come to enjoy exploring all the mom and pop shops and local restaurants that Cleburne has to offer. Something that has also been fun is exploring the parks and scenic areas that lend themselves to spending time with God Almighty.

Thought I’d share 5 different places that have become great places for me to spend time with God in prayer, meditation, or just quiet time. Please comment and share your favorite places to pray and spend time with God!

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#5 My Car

This one might seem like a cop-out but some of my best praying happens in my car. The appeal of the car prayer is not the luxurious interior of my 2000 Honda Accord (AKA: the Silver Bullet). The appeal is that my car takes me to the places where the people I care about are. Somedays, I find myself parked in front of other churches where some of my friends in ministry work and I’ll stop and pray for them and their families. Somedays, I’m parked in front of one of our schools where our students attend and I’ll pray for their safety and their courage to live out their faith in their classrooms. Many time, I have to approach God in prayer when I’m parked in front our Westhill Church building. Whether it’s before class, morning services, a special event, or just another day of work I often pray for God’s blessing on our many ministries, our leadership, and our members.

There’s just something about sitting in a parking lot, the physical building that represents the people I care about in front of me, and having a solitary moment to pray before going on with life. Plus, this is a place anyone can approach the Almighty!

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#4 Lake Pat Cleburne

I think being near a body water brings to mind how often Jesus taught near (sometimes on) water and used water multiple times in his teachings.
There’s something about being near water that is soothing and offers a sense of tranquility. Lake Pat is pretty full right now and it’s a perfect place to get away for a quiet lunch at one of their covered picnic table areas. Ideal for having a bit of God time. It’s usually pretty quiet and offers nice views to take in while you commune with the Almighty.

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#3 Church Sanctuary
This one seems almost too obvious. This is the place we are almost guaranteed to pray in at least once a week. And it’s for that very reason that the sanctuary or auditorium seems like the perfect place to pray during the week. Ever notice in the movies when the troubled protagonist (Clark Kent in Man of Steel for instance) goes to an empty church sanctuary to commune with the Almighty over a very tough issue or loss. Why don’t we do that more? The church sanctuary is already typified as a “holy place” and they are made to be aesthetically pleasing.

I remember being a young man and getting chills walking into our auditorium back home in Wichita, KS when it was empty and the lights were off. It always felt like God’s presence had saturated the walls, the pews, the very air in that room.

I encourage you to give it a try! Maybe even try visiting some different church sanctuaries during the week. Some are very beautiful and can be a great deal more ornate than the typical church of Christ auditorium.

McGregor Park

#2 McGregor Park (Hulen, Buddy Stewart, and State Park)

Cleburne features a handful of beautiful parks. Some are better for walking and some are better for mountain biking. But the most convenient one for prayer, in my opinion, is McGregor Park.

While the whole park is beautiful and makes for a nice walking trail, my favorite spot is underneath the tree in the center of the “maze”. Makes me think about the Garden of Eden somehow with the tree in the middle. Awesome place to sit in quiet and be with God.

Which park is your favorite?

Prayer Garden

#1 Prayer Fountain

 

First one is the prayer fountain on the North side of First Christian Church on Nolan River Rd. It features a well-kept garden that serves as the home of three wooden crosses with three stone benches. The fountain and babbling stream is soothing as it fills your ears. There are “memory stones” that are available to be tossed into the stream and are meant to represent God’s past blessings. Plus, the fountain was dedicated in the name of one “Bob Middleton”. Pretty sure there is no relation but I’d like to think he was a kindred spirit.

I confess that I don’t know First Christian’s visitor policy but they haven’t ran me off yet. Great place to quiet the mind and connect with God!

 

Thanks for reading! 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says to simply “pray continually” and it helps me to remember that prayer can happen at any time and any place. Please share your favorite prayer spots below. In doing so you just might be encouraging the prayer life of a fellow Christian!