Homosexuality, RFRA, Religious Freedom…and a Christian Response

Unless you have been holding up in a bunker somewhere, you are aware that homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom have been in the news of late.  Especially if you live in Indiana where the latest RFRA law was signed by Gov. Mike Pence and was followed by a media storm that was experienced from coast to coast.

This is a debate/issue that will not cease to exist anytime soon.  In fact…I believe we are simply seeing the beginning of this tension.  As debates heat up, individuals voice their opinions, and the world delves into the ambiguity that is homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom, there is a great opportunity for the Church to truly be the Church.

At Newburgh UMC…we addressed the Christian response to everything that is going on around this issue.

You can check it out in the full version…or the 5-minute breakdown version below:

5 minute breakdown:

Full message:

3 Reasons You Should Tell More Stories

Every time I drive to Indianapolis, I first go to the public library and check out a book on CD.  I figure if I am going to spend that much time in the car…I should make the best use of that time.  Usually I get a leadership book or a book that delves into some interesting research.  Today, I grabbed The Hunger Games.  I love the movies and love the books.  I figured, “This has to be equally as awesome!”  I put the CD in my computer to check it out (I always do this for a couple minutes to make sure it is something I really want to listen to).  It took about 30 seconds for me to be completely disappointed.  It was the same story…so why wouldn’t I like it?  For starters, the woman’s voice reading it did not fit my mental picture of the main character.  I can get past that.  What I couldn’t get past was that this was a woman reading a story to me.  That is not good for me.  You see, I don’t want someone to read a story to me.  I want someone to tell me a story.  There is a big difference.  A difference I have been aware of for quite some time.  So…it got me thinking:

There once was a time when the vast majority of people could not read.  Educational institutions were not readily available for people to become literate…nor was it a priority at the time.  However, stories of the past continued on…without textbooks, various idiot’s guides, and the internet to provide a wealth of written words to pass along information.  Instead, the population relied on the telling of stories.  This oral tradition was critically important for so many areas of knowledge and wisdom…especially when it came to the transmission of the story of God.  Yes…for quite some time, the history of God’s redemptive work was an oral tradition.  Passed on from one generation to the next, people told stories to keep the grand story of God alive for years.

But, over time, more people were able to read, the Bible was written, and there became a false assumption that everyone can read (not to mention there is a general expectation that everyone DOES read…which is also false).  As preachers, teachers, parents, and simply people who are concerned that the upcoming generations are becoming more ignorant to the stories of God…we must rekindle the great art of storytelling.

Why?  Well…here are 3 reasons (whether a preacher leading a church, a parent raising kids, or someone trying to share Jesus with your neighbor) you should tell more stories.

  1. Not everyone is reading the Bible.  According to Wycliffe Bible Translators, the entire Bible has been translated into more than 500 languages and more than 1,300 languages have a portion of the Bible.  A lot of people have access to Scripture.  But, that does not mean they are reading it.  Nor does that mean they understand it.  According to Statistic Brain Research Institute, approximately 32 million adults in the United States cannot read and of those who can read, 43% of them are at a basic or below basic reading level.  Have you read the Bible?  Some parts are difficult to understand for an above average reader…let alone someone who struggles to read above a 5th grade reading level.  What does this tell you?  Maybe it is time to consider sharing the story of God through…well…stories.  The people sitting in the pews on Sunday mornings are probably not reading the Bible.  Rather than reading it to them and then explaining it…try telling them about it in the form of a story.  My son just told us about his favorite story in the Bible.  He is five.  He cannot read…but he remembers in detail a story he was told.  I am not talking about getting away from Scripture.  Rather, I am talking about sharing the story of God.  I mean really sharing the story.  You know…like they used to.  Tell the story in a way that grabs the listener’s interest.
  2. Stories are powerful.  I cannot tell you how many times people have told me how much they liked a part of my message on a given Sunday morning.  Rarely (if ever) is it because of my elegant way of wording theological concepts or philosophies.  Nor is it because of the way I read the Word of God to them.  It is almost always one of two things.  Either they connected with an illustration I used from my own life that told a Biblical Truth, or I told the story of God in a different way.  Storytelling is powerful and transforming.  According to Joshua Gowin, Ph.D., studies have shown that when a storyteller tells a story an amazing thing happens.  The listener’s brain actually begins to mirror that of the storyteller.  Through scans of the storyteller and listener’s brains, researchers were able to show that when the listeners heard the story in their own language (when compared to hearing the story in another language) their brains synchronized.  When the storyteller had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too.  When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs.   By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.  There is amazing power in stories to transmit ideas, thoughts, and emotions.  Maybe this is why when the focus was on an oral tradition the stories actual transmitted from generation to generation.  Today, using the written word alone…we find generations of Biblically illiterate people longing to know the story of God.
  3. Stories are shareable.  “Better people make people better”.  That was the “catchphrase” of a message I delivered last year.  There was a story that went along with that and an explanation about why better people make people better.  About a week later, as the UMW was preparing for the annual craft auction, I discovered that someone had made a decorative plaque for the auction.  On the plaque were the words, “Better people make people better. – Rev. Tony Johnson”.  I thought that was pretty awesome.  Not because they quoted me (well…I thought that was awesome too.  I consider myself published now) but because someone heard a story that they wanted to share in a different way.  Rarely do I find people going to their family and friends to share the part of a message that that discussed the theological depth of a specific passage.  They go to their family and friends to share how a story I shared about my kids spoke, not only to the Biblical text, but also to them.  People are bombarded with information every single day.  As a preacher, what makes me think bombarding them with more information is going to get through?  However, if I am able to couple that information with stories that hold some entertainment value…then…just maybe…they will leave having experience Christ in a new way.  And, isn’t that our ultimate goal?

Stories can and will change lives.  Let’s be clear.  I am not saying that we have to water down, dumb down, or take away from the Biblical Truth that is the Word of God.  Rather, I am saying that we must, whether teachers, preachers, or parents, find new and creative ways to pass along that Truth.  Stories have done that for many years…and they will continue to do that.

I may not be sitting in your pew or your kitchen any time soon.  However, someone will.  And when they do…you have the opportunity to impact their life in amazingly powerful ways.  Don’t take that opportunity lightly.  Don’t just “read” them a story.  Tell them a story.  They will be better for it…and so will you.  Maybe that takes us back to, “better people make people better.”

How Did You See Jesus Today?

cropped-380278_4560414522010_431921390_n.jpgI decided recently that I would ask one question at the dinner table with my family.  I don’t ask about their baseball (although I want to) and I don’t ask about school (even though that is important).  Instead, I ask the same question I ask those in my small group: “How have you seen Jesus today.”

I remind you….I am asking a 7 year old and a 5 year old.  At first, they didn’t know what to do with the question.  Look at dad with a blank stare was the common response.  But, after a while, they started to realize that dad was going to ask this question every time we sit down to eat dinner…so they better be able to answer it.

When they began to respond, I received a lot of great answers over the first couple weeks but it was just the other day that I received an answer that warmed my heart and terrified me at the same time.

I saw Jesus today in your love daddy – Canaan

I was humbled.  Don’t get me wrong.  I do my best to show my love to the kids every single day and as a follower of Christ, it makes complete sense that my son would see Jesus in my love for him.  But, as a father, to hear those words…the reality that my son experiences Jesus through my love for him…well…that will warm your heart like no other.

Along with that warm fuzzy feeling, I became a little terrified.  The words of a great professor in seminary reverberated through my mind:

“As a father, you will be the primary experience of God for your kids.”  – Dr. Steve Seamands

I guess Canaan’s words reminded me of the significance of my role as a father.  Yes, it is my job to raise my kids.  It is my job to ensure that my kids have ethics, morals, and sound judgment.  More important than all of that, it is my role to be the spiritual leader of my family.  That is a big role…and a role that I cannot do on my own.  Thankfully, I am not asked to do this alone.  I have the power of Christ guiding me along the way.

Maybe this response from my son was something needed.  A kick in the butt kind of reminder that if I am going to be the spiritual leader for my family, I must first follow Christ.  The words of the Apostle Paul seem to be appropriate here:

Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ – 1 Corinthians 11:1

Maybe you are in the same boat.  Humbled and blessed with the honor of raising and caring for one (or more) of God’s children…all the while a little terrified at the huge responsibility.  If so, never forget, you are not alone.  Follow the example of Christ and they will see in you something amazing…Christ Himself.