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.

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#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!

“Ready Player One” Review AL

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I can read, but just barely. When I force myself to partake in this arduous task it’s either to take in a dose of God’s Word or to better myself in regards to youth ministry and deepen my own spiritual walk. Rarely (or more like never) do I read for recreation. Fiction, for me, has always been a dish best served with popcorn and soda at the theater. Despite this tendency, I had heard stirrings about this book and my interest was piqued when I learned that Steven Spielberg was brought on board to direct the film adaptation of this book. My good friend Matt (who is much better read than myself) had “Ready Player One” on his bookshelf and when I asked him about it, he recommended it to me. I decided to take him up on his offer to lend it to me. See, this is the problem with reading, way too much exposition. On to the review!

WOW (inside joke for those who have read the book intended)

This book enthralled me! The page count is just over 350 (might as well be 1,000 for a slow reader like myself) but I zoomed through the book in a mere 10 days. Set in a grim future where society have neglected the real world and opted to spend the majority of their time in a virtual “oasis” where people go to school, shop for clothing and accessories for their avatars, play games, and visit amazing worlds. The main character, Wade, finds himself in the middle of an epic adventure. And it all starts with a death.

James Halliday, the creator of this virtual reality, has recently passed away. Upon his passing, he released a message indicating that he programmed a hidden “easter egg” inside the massive virtual world. To find it, egg hunters must solve clues to find three keys that grant them access to three gates that contain complicated challenges. Collect all three keys and clear all three gates and you will find the egg that will grant the one who finds it the Halliday’s entire fortune and ownership of his company. Pretty cool right?

The greatest thing about this book is that Halliday grew up in the 80’s and was an avid fan of the music, movies, tv shows, and video games that shaped the pop culture of the decade. All egg hunters, or “gunters”, have to now familiarize themselves with everything from Rush songs to Pacman to try and win the prize for themselves. The book is packed full of 80’s references. I found myself listening to all the songs that Wade, the main character, listened to and felt myself immersed in this future world where knowledge of the right lyrics, movie lines, or arcade game strategies could lead you straight to fame and fortune. Even as I write this review, I’m watching “War Games” with Matthew Broderick for the first time.

It was a delight to decipher some of the reference clues from some of the knowledge I already had and put myself to building on this knowledge as the plot unfolded. All the while, the virtual world in which this easter egg hunt takes place has entire planets dedicated to fictional worlds like Middle Earth as well as real ones like the town Halliday, the creator, grew up in. All the while your avatar can go from planet to planet in an x-wing or a supped up DeLorean time machine.

The 80’s references were endless and the story was compelling. The book is well written and describes the world it takes place in with amazing detail. I cannot wait to see this story adapted for the big screen.

Review AL: “The State of Youth Ministry” by the Barna Group

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The Barna Group has been instrumental in putting out a handful of books, few of which that have found a home on my bookshelf. I remember reading “UnChristian” by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman for the first time and being impressed with the data they were able to present and interpret thanks to the Barna Group. Same goes for “You Lost Me” and “Churchless”. When I heard they were putting out a book specifically geared towards youth ministry I was quick to find room in my budget to purchase it. As a service to my fellow youth ministers, or anyone who might be considering purchasing this book, I’ll tell you what I discovered from my reading experience.

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The information communicated is helpful. It really does help in envisioning a broader perspective on how youth ministry is being handled beyond your congregation or your denomination. It is comforting to see that other youth ministries are struggling with the same issues your youth ministry is struggling with; but on the other hand, it is a little disheartening that no solution to these issues is presented.

I was surprised at how many times the youth ministry goals and perceptions of all three surveyed parties (parents, youth ministers, and senior ministers) actually matched up. The default perception seems to be that there are huge disagreements between the youth minister and parents or the youth minister and the senior minister when it comes to the “why” of youth ministry. Barna shows that that perception is for the most part quite negligible. Now, the “how” of youth ministry definitely remains a source of disagreement amongst these three parties, but that probably doesn’t come as a surprise to any youth minister. Those disagreements, however, pale in comparison to what youth ministers reported to be their biggest obstacle.

The biggest obstacle youth ministers say they face in their youth ministries?

Busyness. The biggest obstacle youth ministers say they face in their youth ministries is the busyness of their teens. The percentage did have a declining trend in 2016 at 74% as compared with that of 2013 at 86%. However, this is still the main obstacle that youth ministers report. There is little surprise in that result as we’ve all seen our society pressure our students to do more and elevate “achievement” as the greatest good.

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As per usual, Barna was sure to add many aesthetically appealing illustrations and graphs that illustrate the survey results of hundreds of protestant youth ministers, senior ministers, and parents of youth group students surveyed in 2013 as compared to those surveyed just last year. These illustrations are a great aid in visually understanding the numbers they discuss. I do get somewhat frustrated when I’m taking in the same information two times (one via illustration and one written out) but that is a minor qualm.

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Overall, this book was helpful to read as a youth minister. Getting to understand the perspectives and issues of youth ministries in churches both large and small, suburban/urban or rural, white or not was beneficial. In truth, it gave me a sense of solidarity and kinship with my fellow youth ministers throughout the nation. It’s undeniably true, the data can be a little dry, but it is interesting and beneficial.

Perhaps the biggest benefit to me was the message towards the end of the book where youth ministers are challenged to think beyond perpetuating the status quo of youth ministry and to purposefully look towards the future of youth ministry. It lists the following as the top 8 challenges we will be facing (if not already) in our youth ministries:

  1. Rising Bible skepticism
  2. Increasing loneliness
  3. Pervasive Pornography
  4. Confusion regarding human sexuality
  5. Me-first morality
  6. Pressurized Christian identity
  7. An era defined by achievement
  8. Conversation-challenged disciples

This list is spot on. Each of these categories is briefly fleshed out. They don’t go so far to pretend to have the answers for every youth ministry in regards to these challenges but they do point towards some of the important questions that we should be asking and discussing as youth ministers (or even volunteers, parents, and Christians). I would definitely recommend this book to anyone connected to youth ministry and anyone at all who concerns themselves with the spiritual upbringing of the church’s young people.

Thanks for reading! If you’ve read this book and would like to add your views, please do so by commenting or message me directly!

 

TheatricAL: “SPLIT” SPOILER REVIEW

 

This past weekend, the wife and I caught M. Night Shyamalan’s latest movie. This is going to be a review on that film WITH SPOILERS. This review will be spoiling the ending and important plot points of the movie, “Split.” Do not read this review if you have not seen the movie. The ending is such that you’ll likely enjoy seeing the movie with no spoilers. You’ve been warned!

It seems like the marketing for this movie started in the early fall last year and ever since my wife saw the first trailer, she was very intrigued and really wanted to see it. This desire came more out of an appreciation for James Mcavoy’s acting chops than a trust in Shyamalan’s directing track record. In fact, it’s that track record with such stinkers as “The Last Airbender”, “The Village”, and “The Happening” that has caused me and many casual movie-goers to avoid his films. I’ve heard some say that “The Visit” that came out a little while back about the creepy visit to the grandparents (never saw it) was not terrible but there weren’t any reviews that made me want to go see it.

I’m here to tell you that Shyamalan’s most recent film, “Split,” is really good. No joke. Not kind of good, not average, it is really good! Now, right up front, I will say that this movie isn’t for everyone. The tone of the movie definitely delivers on being a creepy psychological thriller without much of a scare factor. James Mcavoy delivers so well in his performance. You don’t get to see all 23 (24) of his personalities but the 5-7 that he does get to showcase are AMAZING. Truly, he’s a master of his craft. My favorite of his personalities was definitely Hedwig, the 9-year-old boy. He added some awesome comic relief in a movie that I didn’t think could pull off comic relief well at all.

His performance of Dennis pretending to be Barry (a dissociative identity impersonating another disassociative identity!) was truly inspired. How many others actors could actually pull that off?

I was starting to have some big question marks with the story when Mcavoy’s therapist explained the abilities her DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) patients could possess. Even more question marks were raised when Mcavoy turns into “the beast.” Although, I will say that I was grateful that restraint was shown in this transformation. If he grew hair, claws, and went throw some kind of werewolf transformation I would’ve checked out.

However… with the frame of reference provided at the very end of the movie, his abilities made perfect sense. Here is the bomb… it’s revealed at the end of the movie that Split is a story told within a shared Shyamalan universe. Bruce Willis is seen at a bar at the end of the movie, watching the news story about Mcavoy’s villain and mentioning a “Mr. Glass.” If that ending confused you at all, here’s what’s going on.

Shyamalan directed a movie in 2000 that was an understated, realistic superhero movie that starred Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. That movie was “Unbreakable.” This movie had much critical acclaim and was generally a well-accepted film by general audiences. The ending of “Split” reveals that this movie is in the same universe as that of “Unbreakable.” Mind-Blown! This means that there will be another if not multiple movies set in this universe where Bruce Willis’ superhero character will be pitted against Mr. Glass, The Hord (of the beast), and possibly more villains that Mr. Glass has been recruiting. I am so psyched for this!

Is this movie a complete return to form for Shyamalan? Has he completely redeemed himself for his past directing blunders? Perhaps not yet. But he has definitely taken some big steps in that direction. One of my favorite scenes in this film is when Shyamalan portrays a character (he cameos in almost all of his films) that has access to security video footage that Mcavoy’s therapist needs. As they view the footage, the therapist teases Shyamalan’s character for eating too much junk food and “getting soft in the middle” to which Shyamalan replies guiltily, “I know.” This seemed a clever line of dialogue in which Shyamalan poked some fun at himself for not making great directing choices in the middle of his now possibly turning career.

I’m curious to know what you thought of the movie. Did you get the big reveal at the end? Did you catch the “Unbreakable” soundtrack playing right before they revealed the shared universe? Should we forgive Shyamalan? Let me know!

 

The Most MagicAL Place on Earth?

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Hello, my name is Alan Middleton and I never visited Disney World until I was 29 years old. Before my first visit 2 weeks ago, anyone I ever told that I had never been treated me like I had been severely deprived. They’d ask, “Did your parents not love you?” or, “Are you afraid of flying?” But I assure you that my parents loved all 8 of their children and were wise enough not to even attempt such a trip with that many kids. Also, my fear of flying is confined to who I’m going to be stuck sitting next to or if Spirit will lose my luggage or not. #neveragain

It’s interesting to me how people would describe Disney to me before I went earlier this year. They’d proudly proclaim that it is, in fact, the most magical place on earth. They would describe it as a kind of paradise for the family where everyone was struck with unearthly happiness. There would be boasting of the bigness of the park itself, its shows, and its fireworks. They’d also boast of the attention given to the smaller details such as park cleanliness, well-hidden security cameras, and cast member (employee) etiquette. Indeed, the park goes through tremendous lengths to immerse their patrons in this world and suspend any type of disbelief.

Despite Disney’s best efforts, I was disappointed. Now don’t get me wrong, I had an AWESOME time there. It captured my imagination (or rather the figment of my imagination) and was truly a magical place. Getting to experience it with my wife (who had been twice before) as well as my brother, sister-in-law, and their two boys (my amazing nephews) made even more so of an enchanting excursion. I rode so many amazing rides (Everest and Haunted Mansion were my favorites) and saw so many cool shows (Lion King, Phantasmic, Star Wars, and my personal favorite I got to star in… Indiana Jones!). The food was amazing, the aura was intoxicating, and the experience was one I’ll never forget.

So why was I disappointed? In a word… Heaven. Heaven is the reason it disappointed me. Now it’s no lie that Disney World was sold to me by those who had been pretty hard. The expectations I had going in were pretty high. It’s fair to say that in many ways, Disney World exceeded my expectations. But through it all, I had this voice inside me that kept seeing the humanity in it all. By that, I suppose I mean that Disney World wasn’t transcendent to what I thought a theme park could be. There’s no doubt it’s the best theme park I have ever been to or likely will ever go to. But it is there that lies in the thought of… this is the best attempt we can make towards a truly magical kingdom. When I compare that in my mind to what I believe and know heaven will be, Disney World falls remarkably short. At Disney

When I compare that in my mind to what I believe and know heaven will be, Disney World falls remarkably short. At Disney World, my feet grew tired from power walking everywhere to see as much as possible in three short days there. There will be a day when those who wait on the Lord will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not become faint. At Disney World, they are ingenious with their methods in getting you to spend even more money while you are at their park. There is a day to come where we will want for nothing. At Disney World, there are still lines, there are still ill-mannered and rude patrons as well as cast members. There are rides that shut down. There are crowds to fight. There are unpleasant weather conditions. There is greed, selfishness, jealousy, arrogance, immorality, etc.

Disney World was a great vacation. It was a great place to visit. But to keep everything in perspective, I still look forward to the perfect place that one day we won’t just be visiting. In that perfect place, we’ll move in for good. And indeed, even now we are (the church) bringing this kingdom to earth. I eagerly welcome His kingdom, the most magical place on earth.

Matthew 25:34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.'”

TheatricAL: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” Non-Spoiler Review

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the most recent installment in the Star Wars cinematic universe. I’d be surprised if you didn’t know that already since you are currently reading this review. However, what has surprised me is just how many casual moviegoers and even fans of Star Wars are confused about what this movie is and what it isn’t. Let me briefly clarify in case you find yourself confused about when this movie takes place in the Star Wars timeline.

This movie is not Episode 8. It is not the sequel to The Force Awakens. We won’t be getting that movie until December of 2017. As opposed to being one of the main saga films of Star Wars, this movie is a spin-off film. That is to say that it is a smaller story outside of the main storyline (but still very much tied to it) that is still made by LucasFilm/Disney. Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, has dubbed Rogue One as a type of “experiment” meaning that Disney is seeing if these type of Star Wars spin-off films will sell tickets. With Rogue One generating a very healthy $155 million its opening weekend (Forbes) and other spin-off films already in the works (i.e. an untitled young Han Solo film and a Boba Fett movie) it’s safe to say we’ll be seeing more Star Wars movies from Disney. Fans are also almost universally clamoring for a Obi-Wan Kenobi film which Disney has been holding off on… possibly due to his involvement with Star Wars Episode 8 and/or 9… but that’s a story for another time.

Now that hopefully we’ve cleared up what Rogue One isn’t, let’s get to talking about what it is! Rogue One is the telling of the story through the eyes of our lead female, Jyn Erso, and a group of rebels that form specifically for the seemingly impossible mission of obtaining the plans to the DeathStar (after discovering its existence) and getting said plans into the hands of the leaders of the Rebellion to set up the events which transpire in Episode 4: A New Hope.

NON-SPOILER REVIEW

This movie is not your typical Star Wars movie. While you will watch this movie and it will be undoubtedly set in the Star Wars universe, the movie plays out much more like a grounded and gritty war film that it does epic space adventure/opera. For instance, we are very much used to seeing the force being used and seeing Jedis wielding lightsabers in every Star Wars film we’ve seen so far. Not the case in Rogue One. In fact, there are almost no characters who seem to be even “force-sensitive” with the exception of Darth Vader (Who definitely appears in this film which I don’t consider a spoiler since he was in the trailer. More on his appearance later.) and arguably, maybe, sort of one other character. But this film’s identity was very much centered around telling the story of this group of rebels that didn’t have the luxury of using the force to accomplish their mission.

This film did so much to explore more of what the Rebellion really looks like in this universe and how it wasn’t all about good guys versus evil guys. There are definitely shades of gray on both sides. It did so much to show the “war” in Star Wars, the heart-wrenching sacrifices to be made for the cause and the inevitable collateral damage that ensues.

The characters and casting were all just brilliant. Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso, Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor, and even Alan Tudyk’s voicing and motion capture of K-2SO were all on point and captivating. Now there are some characters from A New Hope, I won’t say which, that are CGI’d into the movie. While this type of technology is getting more and more impressive, it did take me out of the movie a bit to realize that these characters were more or less animated. That being said, I’m still thrilled that these familiar characters were in the film.

This brings us to Darth Vader. The usage of Darth Vader (who is still voiced by the unequaled James Earl Jones) in this film was very well done. I was worried that they would use him to little and I’d be frustrated that they just used him to sell more tickets or that they’d use him way too much and detract from the purpose or the flavor of the film. Neither was the case in my opinion. They used him well and left me wanting more… in a good way. I think this movie had the perfect amount of Darth Vader and that it used him in a way that made sense.

Another thing this movie did really well was having well-placed easter eggs and references to the larger Star Wars universe and movies that we know so well. This included having references to the animated Clone Wars and Rebels series which I haven’t gotten into but it’s still neat that it’s there. For the sake of not spoiling anything, I won’t go into what they all are but I will say to keep a sharp eye and ear out for little details looming in this film. I might do a spoiler review later that contains these easter eggs. If you’re anything like me you’ve already googled what they are immediately after seeing the movie.

Things I didn’t like… it was kind of a slow build. While I was so excited to see this movie and ultimately really liked it, it took quite a while for the story to build any momentum. The third act is really where things turn up and everything gets really exciting. But there is a bit of a disappointment in how long it takes to get there.

There were also some things about the way they portrayed the Rebellion that I think actually detracted from how I’ve always thought of them in regards to the original trilogy. I’ve always thought of them as a hanging by a thread, last-ditch kind of organization that was just barely avoiding annihilation by the Empire. In this movie, the Rebellion seemed a little too well put together, if that makes any sense. Their fleet is substantial, endless x-wings at their disposal apparently, and many more groups of peoples seem to be in on the cause. I can’t say much more without getting into spoiler territory but I will say that is one of the things that I thought actually took away from how I’ve always viewed the original Star Wars movies.

Lastly, there is one scene that is super strange and features a pilot being interrogated by this really weird alien… if you’ve seen it you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. But that whole scene was super weird and took me completely out of the movie with how ridiculous it was. It made me think of the Rathtars (big ugly ball and tentacle alien that grabbed Finn on Han and Chewies new ship) from The Force Awakens and how many people didn’t care for that plot device either. This scene in Rogue One was the Rathtar scene from The Force Awakens. Other than that, not a whole lot to complain about.

I’ll end this review by saying if you enjoy Star Wars in the least you’ll definitely like this movie. Some nitpickers don’t love it and I get why (haters). Rogue One ends in such spectacular fashion that I wanted to IMMEDIATELY watch A New Hope again because of how well the ending of this movie ties to Episode 4.

That’s all for now! What did you think of the movie? Let me know what you thought and be careful about posting any potential spoilers at least for a couple weeks until everyone who wants to has had a chance to see it. Thanks for reading!

 

EducationAL: Ideas for Student Ministry in Public Schools

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Just this week I finished an 8-week curriculum with a small group at a local public middle school through a program called TEEN LIFE (formerly Teen Lifeline). I’ll talk more about their curriculum and my experience, but I first want to address the student ministers who happen to come across this blog post. Finding ways to do student ministry well in a public school setting can be difficult. Depending on the policies of your state and the practices of a specific school, it seems student ministers receive a red carpet welcome on certain campuses and jump through flaming hoops just to visit for lunch at another. This aspect of student ministry is one I consider a weakness in my ministry. As such, as I share my experiences of things I’ve tried, please please please comment or reach out to share ways you’ve experienced success in practicing student ministry in a public school setting.

Visiting  Campus

Whether you are just popping in to visit with your students for lunch, showing up for a pep rally, or slipping notes of encouragement in lockers, it’s good to have a presence at the schools of your students. This not only allows you to meet your students’ friends but it also gives you familiarity with some the staff and the halls your students traverse every day. When you do go to visit for lunch, I always like taking some other youth ministers from other local churches with me or at least have a game or two handy in case conversations get stale. Make sure you bring a photo ID anytime you go for a visit and be aware of the school’s policies that protect their students.

School Events

Visiting your students’ games, recitals, performances, and shows is a great way to show your students interest in their extracurricular talents. However, depending on the size of your youth group and the number of schools they attend it can become very time-consuming and expensive. In some districts, they distribute special cards for youth ministers that allow the bearer to get into sports events for free. Always worth asking! Having a calendar in your youth room specifically for your students to share the dates of their events can also encourage your students to attend each others’ events.

Getting Involved

These schools are always looking for volunteers for special events. Getting in contact with your students’ school’s PTA will keep your options open as to where you can help out. Supervising school dances/banquets, helping serve food for the teachers, and helping out at fundraisers are just a few of the ways you can likely volunteer with the PTA.

Do you know your students’ school’s counselors? Expanding your network with the school’s counselor can also open up opportunities to mentor students or even be a standby grief counselor in the event of the death of a student. Networking with teachers, coaches, or any school staff is always a great way to stay informed on opportunities to get plugged in with your students’ schools.

Teen Life is a program that trains student advocates (such as youth ministers) in an 8-week curriculum that focuses on equipping a small group of students. The curriculum illustrates several tools that help students deal with their problems that they encounter on a daily basis. In my case, the counselor at one of our local middle schools reached out to me and other youth ministers who had taken the training and she personally selected the students that made up each small group. The curriculum was very practical and contained several points I plan to use in my student ministry. Of course, the curriculum itself contained no faith-based  elements outside the allowance of a belief in a higher power. Even so, the experience of helping at-risk students that largely had no youth group or church family to turn to was very rewarding.

If you are interested in learning more about the TEEN LIFE program, visit their site at https://www.lifelivedbetter.org/.

That’s all I have to say about that. Please do take some time to comment and let me know what your youth minister did to minister at your school. What are some more ways a youth minister can get involved at public schools?