Last Friday, my wife and I visited a “church” of sorts, a place where Americans spend more than $10.4 billion a year. We were greeted at the front door, ushered towards the room on our ticket and invited to purchase food and beverages. When we walked into the main room we saw a sea of strange faces, but we did encounter a couple of friends. We exchanged pleasantries as we walked down the aisle, then we took our seats. A type of liturgy flashed across the screen reminding us to turn off our cell phones, to limit our talking, and to be sure we knew the location of the exits in case of an emergency. Before the main event, we sat through another welcome followed by several announcements of upcoming films. And there we were, sitting in the cold, dimly lit sanctuary of the movie theater.
I love movies. Anyone who’s heard me preach in a worship service expects me to reference a movie at some point in the sermon, whether it is planned or sporadic. Since Americans see so many movies a year, and since critically-acclaimed movies along with huge blockbusters have been seen by the majority of the people sitting in the pews of a congregation, it makes sense to me to draw examples out of the most popular movies of the day or classics from cinema’s past when I get up to preach. What really gets me excited about movies is when I see religious references or undertones in the storytelling. There are Hindu references in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Buddhist and Taoist influences in the Star Wars films, and Jewish and Christian archetypes permeating Superman.
So you can imagine my excitement when I found a connection between Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi thriller, The Martian, and three parables (simple stories that teach spiritual lessons) from the Gospel of Luke. Be warned that the following discusses plot points from The Martian and contains minor spoilers.
If you have simply seen the trailer for The Martian, you know that Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, gets left behind on the red planet following an accident during an emergency evacuation. His crew believed he died on Mars, so Watney is left all alone on the desolate planet with only his ingenuity, creativity, potatoes, and disco music. He also has a home base from which to work, a rover with which to explore, and several other items from past missions, rovers, and satellites that he must seek out in order to survive.
Meanwhile, on earth, satellite imagery picks up movement on the red planet which can mean only one thing: Mark Watney is still alive. The folks from NASA start discussing what to do to ensure he stays alive, what the press will do with the news, and whether or not to tell the crew who are ignorant of his survival. But in an unscripted moment during a press conference, Vincent Kapoor (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) boldly states, “We will do everything within our power to bring him home.” This one sentence became a bridge from the movie to the Gospel of Luke.
Luke groups three of Jesus’s stories together in chapter 15 of his Gospel. We commonly refer to these stories as The Parable of the Lost Sheep, The Parable of the Lost Coin, and The Parable of the Lost (or Prodigal) Son. At some point in the movie, Mark Watney assumes the roles of all three lost items: sheep, coin, and son.
Jesus asks a mixed crowd of supporters and haters what they would do in a certain situation: You have 100 sheep and one goes missing. Which of you wouldn’t abandon the 99 sheep to go out and find the one lost sheep? When you come home with that sheep, you’d throw a party, right? Now, there are several practical questions that must be asked, but hold onto those for the moment. Right now, I would like you to simply consider why astronauts would travel to Mars. Perhaps it is because we all have an innate animal instinct to explore the unknown, to travel out into the wilderness, and discover the undiscovered. In a way, the crew of the Ares III were like sheep who decided to leave the relative safety of their flock in order to venture out into unknown territory. Thus, Mark Watney becomes the Lost Sheep.
Jesus doesn’t stop at sheep; he goes on to tell a story about a woman who has lost a silver coin which is part of a collection of 10 coins she wears in a special headpiece. The woman sweeps the room and searches diligently until she finds the coin. After recovering it, she throws a party for the neighborhood to celebrate. But here’s the kicker: the party probably cost more than the value of the coin she found! Again, there are questions regarding the practicality of such party, but for now consider this: the coin had no control in whether to be lost or found. It was an item that fell to the will of gravity, physics, space & time. The woman had to make the effort to search and retrieve the Lost Coin. Such was the fate of Mark Watney. He could not control the antenna apparatus that knocked him to the surface of Mars hundreds of feet away from his crewmates. He became the Lost Coin, an object that had no control of its surroundings, at the mercy of the elements, and subject to physics, space & time.
Let’s pause for a moment and talk about the practical issues raised by these parables and by The Martian. Why would a shepherd leave 99 sheep defenseless in search of one lost sheep? Isn’t it better to cut your losses, protect the 99 you’re sure you have right now, and make sure you don’t lose another one? And the woman who found the lost coin: why throw a party valued greater than the coin which was found? It makes no economical sense to do such a thing! And as my wife pointed out in the car ride home from the movie theater: “Imagine all the good that could have been done for the hungry and the homeless, the refugee and the uneducated with all the money that was spent on trying to save one person who was lost on Mars.”
I agreed from a utilitarian perspective that more good could be done with the money, brain power, energy, and time spent on a rescue mission to bring Watney home from Mars if instead those monies and resources were spent on all the people who suffer here on earth. As we drove down Poplar Ave, she continued, “Was it selfish of Mark Watney to allow all those resources and all that money to be spent on him? Is his life more important than anyone else’s life?” Jeff Daniels’s character states, “It’s bigger than one person,” to which Sean Bean’s character replies, “No, it’s not.” Is it possible to justify the use of these resources for one person?
At this point in the conversation, it suddenly hit me: The Martian is a parable! It's almost as if Jesus began telling a story that started out, "How many of you after losing an astronaut wouldn't do everything within your power to bring him home?" Now, before my fellow nerds get in an uproar, yes, I know that there are many applicable skills for space travelers found in this movie, and I know that the science is pretty rock solid. But when asking the theological and philosophical question, “How big is God’s Love?” the answer will always be, “God’s Love is bigger than the universe! God will stop at nothing to bring you home!” When a non-believer says, “Explain God’s character to me,” the response of Christian believers should be, “God will use up all of God’s resources to find you, rescue you, and offer you a life that is greater than the life you are living right now.” This may not make any sense to us practically, and it may not fit our systems of logic. But it doesn’t have to. This is God we’re talking about, and our minds cannot comprehend the mind of God. God’s actions exist outside of our logic, and God’s plans are greater than our own plans.
You may be asking, “So, how is Mark Watney like the Lost Son?” I’m glad you asked! The son sets out on his own, does some things he probably shouldn’t do (Luke doesn’t go into great detail, but let’s just say the words ‘squandered’ and ‘dissolute living’ show up), but at some point he comes to his senses. He realizes that life is better with his father; life is truly a life worth living when he’s back home with his family. He has to eat some nasty food and work some shady jobs before he sets off for home, but he did it all to survive. He makes the conscious decision not to die.
Watney decided he wasn’t going to die on that planet. He used science to create water in a controlled environment, used human feces to act as fertilizer for his potatoes, and put his life on the line numerous times to simply survive as a castaway millions of miles from home until help arrived. But just like the Lost Son, Watney had to make the decision to survive, had to wake up to his reality, and had to put all his efforts into finding a way home.
All of us get lost at some point in life whether we’re like the coin that doesn’t even realize it’s lost, or the sheep that follows its animal instinct to wander and explore, or the son who makes questionable choices before waking up to turn his life around. Or maybe you’re like the Lost Astronaut who feels abandoned and alone and thinks maybe your life isn’t worth saving. Dear reader, listen to me when I say that God’s Love for you is bigger than the universe! God will stop at nothing to rescue you and bring you home!
God’s grace covers us all, but grace requires sacrifice. God’s own Son died on cross for the world to know how great God’s love is. There was no greater sacrifice than that! When we accept that love, we start making the conscious choice to change, to sacrifice, and to allow parts of our old self to die so that we may become more like Jesus. When this transformation occurs and our lives as New Creation begins, we start to see others the way God sees them, to love others the way Christ loves them, and we encounter the Holy Spirit living through our neighbors.
The story of God’s rescue mission is about one person: You! God loves you so much, that God made the greatest sacrifice imaginable in order to bring you home. You may say that this makes no sense, but it doesn't need to make sense for it to be true. God loves you and there's nothing you can do to stop it.
If you’re like me and you’re looking for a great movie to see this weekend, I highly recommend The Martian (a.k.a. The Parable of the Lost Astronaut). It currently has a 93% approval rating on rottentomatoes.com and it’s Certified Fresh. The Martian is rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity (i.e. Matt Damon’s buttocks). If you see any other spiritual undertones or metaphors in Ridley Scott’s The Martian, please share them in the comments section.
+Peace and Love from Pastor Kris
Susan and I have been active members of Collierville United Methodist Church for the greater part of our lives. We love our church, and we love telling others about it! Through the years we have served on dozens of committees, work areas, and both local and international mission teams. So when the opportunity arose to collaborate with Pastor Kris in the planting of a new church, we eagerly volunteered for such a unique outreach.
In spite of the hundreds of congregations found in Collierville and in neighboring towns, some folks still have a hard time finding themselves in church these days.
Peace Tree UMC is a new type of church plant supported by Collierville United Methodist Church. We are committed to reaching friends and neighbors who are currently M.O.S. “Missing on Sundays.” Many people who are not connected to a faith community are people who live and work amongst us: they attend local schools, serve in restaurants, work in hospitals, repair our cars, guide us with our investment portfolios, prepare coffee at Starbucks, and even exercise with us at the gym. Peace Tree wants to form new relationships and share the promise of God’s love with all people in all kinds of places and spaces, every day of the week.
The question that Susan and I have asked is, "How do we help foster these new relationships?"
Recently, we attended a New Church “Boot Camp” hosted by the Memphis and Tennessee Annual Conferences. One of the topics of the 3-day conference was a fascinating but unsettling session regarding millennial attitudes and impressions towards Christians and traditional worship. We were surprised to learn the statistics on how poorly Christians are viewed by a majority of 18 to 39 year old young adults who do not have a regular connection to a faith group. In the follow-up session, the leaders of the workshop presented us with case studies of helpful techniques used by successful church plants that have brought thousands to Christ.
Once we completed "Boot Camp," Peace Tree UMC formed a Launch Team, and we regularly meet for worship, fellowship, and ministry planning. The primary way we hope to build community is by planning a network of House Groups in preparation of Peace Tree's official launch. By sponsoring weekly house meetings as well as small group meetings held in public spaces, we hope to connect our Mid-South neighbors with new friends in the faith. Our prayer is that these small groups of believers will connect with other small groups within the Peace Tree family in order to one day form a larger missional, worshiping community. There is much work in front of us, but we look forward to what God has in store for Peace Tree!
+Len & Susan
We thank you for who you are. You are the Creator of everything we can touch, taste, and see, and yet you take the time to walk with us, to listen to us, and to care for us in our daily lives. You don't need us in order to accomplish your goals, but you've honored us by asking us to work in your harvest and to reach your people.
This day, as we eagerly anticipate our first community event in Collierville, we ask that you would bless our work. Please build upon the energy and excitement that has gone into the planning of this event. May the plans that we've discussed not be our plans, but instead may they hopefully be your plans for Saturday in Suggs Park.
Bless the people whom we will meet. May they feel comfortable in sharing their stories with us. May those who have left the Church find their way back with the people of Peace Tree walking by their side. May those who have had questions about Christianity and have expressed doubts over their faith find hope and promise in the House Groups that are forming.
Watch over the children who will come and enjoy life in the playground and spray park. Keep the dogs in the dog park healthy. Inspire the musicians who will share their gift with all those at our Field Day. Bring neighbors together around the games that will be set up. And cool everyone down with the pure, clean bottled water and the juicy goodness of ice-pops.
Above all, may we delight in your presence! Allow us to truly connect with our neighbors so that we may fulfill our mission of "Loving God by Loving Others." Send your Holy Spirit upon us this Saturday so that all those who encounter the Peace Tree squad will also encounter God. And thank you for all the times you've remained faithful to us.
In the mighty name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
This past Saturday, our Launch Team held its first meeting. It was a Spirit-filled time together as we sat in a living room, sang hymns, prayed prayers, listened to a message from Danielle Strickland (a church planter with the Salvation Army), discussed important dates, and planned future events for when Peace Tree launches this year.
As we began our work together, I thought of the quote from the philosopher, Lao Tzu, that you see above: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." I honestly believe and have faith that God is planning to do something special with the people who will make up Peace Tree. We have yet to hold a House Group worship gathering. Neither have we hosted a Celebration Service where we will come together, worship God, and celebrate all the amazing things that God has done over the past week. But we have taken our first step in that direction. I do believe that the journey will be one of "a thousand miles," not just a half-marathon, or a walk around the block. There is much to do, but we have taken a single step down the path that God has prepared for us.
Sitting in that living room, talking with the enthusiastic members of our Launch Team, I also thought about Christ and the original disciples. God started a movement with one person named Jesus, who then shared God's mission and vision with others who came alongside him to do the work of God's Kingdom. And before you knew it, there were 13 where there was once 1. All of us are following Christ and being discipled to Christ, and thankfully our numbers are slowly growing as well. We all look to Jesus to be our shepherd, and I am grateful that I have the awesome responsibility of serving as the Lead Pastor.
God may be calling you to join us. God may also be calling you take on another task, another project, or a different type of ministry. Whatever it is, whether it be great or small, remember that your journey will also begin with a single step. May God give you the courage to take that step.
+Peace and Love from Pastor Kris
Today, my heart is saddened as I think about my brothers and sisters living in the Palmetto State mourning the loss of nine South Carolinians who were killed while attending a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. In times of unspeakable tragedy, we ask the question, "Why?" Why did this happen, why were good people murdered, and why did God allow this to happen? While the stock answer is "Everything happens for a reason," I want to suggest that this answer is not fair to the families and community experiencing this great loss, and perhaps this answer is too quick and easy an explanation for such a complicated world created by such a mighty God.
Fellow pastor Adam Hamilton wrote a book in 2011 entitled Why? Making Sense of God's Will. In it, he shares, "The sweeping message of the Bible is not a promise that those who believe and do good will not suffer. Instead the Bible is largely a book about people who refused to let go of their faith in the face of suffering." Already, the people of Charleston have shown us that they refuse to let go of their faith in the midst of this tragedy. Christians, city leaders, and members of the community gathered this morning at Morris Brown AME Church for a prayer vigil. Others gather on the street in front of 'Mother Emanuel' to pray with one another and to comfort one another. The people of Charleston have rightly showed us that, while there may be no answer for these thoughtless killings, true comfort and hope is found in God. When you are asking the question "Why?," turn your eyes upon Jesus.
Even as we hold onto faith, we ask why tragedies occur in a world that was called "good" at its creation. For this, Hamilton supplies three foundational ideas:
I have often said that God's answer for the injustices of the world is humanity! Human beings are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus. The Church serves as the Body of Christ. And the redemption of the world came in the Son of Man. We are responsible for this world, but at times we choose what is evil over what is good; we choose the wrong path as opposed to choosing God's path. But with God's help, we can choose what is just and good; we can right the wrongs of this world and help usher in a day when God's Will shall be realized on earth as it is in Heaven.
During the writing of this post, the suspected gunman, Dylann Roof, has been apprehended. Many will call for swift justice and will want to take his life for the lives of those he murdered. As a Christian, I first seek out Peace, and today I call for Peace with Justice. We have a responsibility to choose good over evil and to walk the Way that Jesus walked. How can we look upon Dylann the way that God sees him? How can we treat him as a Child of God who must now live with the consequences of his actions?
I challenge the stock answer "EVERYTHING happens for a reason." I see no reason in last night's mass murder. And I do not believe that God willed this event to happen. But I do know that God will never leave my side, and I do trust that God is with the members of Emanuel AME Church and the people of Charleston at this very moment. For those of you who do not know where to turn, I encourage you to look to God. Adam Hamilton writes, "Rejecting God doesn't change the situation that has caused our suffering; it only removes the greatest source of hope, help, comfort, and strength we have." Remember that evil and tragedy do not have the final word. God is Love, and Love Wins.
+Peace with Justice from Pastor Kris
When I was growing up as a teenager in South Carolina, my family loved watching the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway? We never knew what was going to happen next since it was "the show where everything is made up and the points don't matter." The art of improvisational comedy intrigued me and further held my attention as I attended seminary. A group of fellow pastors-in-training formed the improv troupe Axe of the Apostles, and during one of their performances, I got called up on stage as a volunteer from the audience. The lesson I learned that day is one that can serve very useful and helpful to all Christians as we answer the call to ministry and take up our cross to follow Christ: always say Yes!
There are several stories in the Bible where individuals are called by God to perform a task or deliver a message. Some of those individuals say Yes! while others have fought God and initially say NO. Two persons who said NO come to mind; their names are Moses and Jonah. Moses cited his speech impediment to excuse him from delivering God's message to Egypt, and Jonah did not want to travel to the wretched city of Nineveh and had pre-judged them from the outset. The long story short is this: God is able to lead us from No to Yes. God finds a way to take our excuses and seemingly solid justifications and shows us how God's way is truly the best and most righteous path to take. God has a way of turning our No into a Yes. I consider all the people who said Yes! to God from the beginning and the outcome of their stories - Samuel, Isaiah, Mary, and the disciples as they were invited to follow Jesus. If you are new to Christianity, then Google "the Gospel of Luke" and read Mary's response to God's angel in the first chapter. I pray that your response to God's call on your life will be like Mary's. Keep reading through that gospel to see how the disciples drop everything to say Yes! and follow Jesus.
In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey continues to build upon the improv rule of "always say Yes!" when she adds, say "Yes!...And..." Sometimes, simply agreeing to a task or situation is not enough; we have to say, "And..." This keeps an improv sketch alive so that everyone continues to pretend that Drew Carey's belt is really a snake and that Wayne Brady can actually speak German. Without saying "And..." the entire movement of the bit would come to an awkward halt. Watch the revival of Whose Line on the CW this summer, and you'll understand the power of agreeing to a situation with YES and the momentum of building upon previous events by saying AND.
All of us who have breath are being called upon by God for a task of one sort or another. Turn to the examples of Isaiah and Mary and the disciples to see how people have been blessed by answering YES to God. But don't just stop there; be sure to keep the story going by saying "And..." Whenever we say YES, we become part of God's larger story. By saying AND, we get to add our God-given talents and abilities to the situation. Just imagine the conversation: Yes God, I will feed the hungry, AND I will work with local organizations to start a new soup kitchen. Yes God, I will follow you to the inner city, AND I will invite others who may be wrestling with the same calling in life. Yes God, I will share the good news of the Bible, AND I will help train up new leaders to share their God-stories as well.
Take a page out of the improv comedy playbook: don't be afraid to answer Yes! to God. But don't just stop there. Keep God's story going with your AND.
+Peace and Love from Pastor Kris
How often do you think about breathing? For almost all of us, breathing comes naturally and happens without thought. Not much effort goes into breathing in and exhaling out.
Now, how often do you think about prayer? I confess, that most of my prayers come before meals, at night as I prepare to sleep, and if a major need or emergency arises and I need God to do something for me right now and right away! The truth is that most of us don't pray every moment of every day, and if called upon to pray for a meal or for a friend most would say, "I'm not qualified to pray!"
But a pastor that I greatly respect recently met with me and others and shared the concept of a Breath Prayer, something that anyone can do and can do well. Breath prayers are meant to be short and constantly repeated until they become second-nature (just like breathing). And breath prayers are simple enough to complete in three steps:
1. Claim the need that you have in life. For some, the greatest need is for Patience. For others, it's Understanding. And yet for others still, the need is for Peace. Whatever it is, the first step is claiming the thing that you need most.
2. Address God with the term you most closely identify God with. For some, it's Lord Jesus, Messiah, or Christ. Or it can be as simple as Father, Creator, or just God.
3. Ask God to fulfill your need. It's as simple as that!
We recommend addressing God as you breathe in, and then petitioning God for the need you named earlier as you breathe out.
So, a breath prayer can look as simple as: "God, give me peace," or "Lord Jesus, help us to understand." Jesus himself prayed a breath prayer while dying on the Cross: "Father, forgive them..."
I encourage you to try it out for yourself. Follow the three steps and create your own breath prayer. Now, start praying this simple prayer, this most basic request, for a full 24-hour day. You'll be amazed by the impact it'll have on your day and your outlook on the future. And you'll realize that God is with you always, just a breath away.
+Peace and Love from Pastor Kris
Peace Tree is our humble attempt to answer the call that Jesus gives to all disciples who would follow him: "GO and make disciples..." Many of us who are part of the Peace Tree family thus far are part of a large church family found at Collierville United Methodist Church (CUMC). That church is serving as our "mother congregation" as we venture out of the walls of the building and into the community to reach our neighbors, our classmates, and our co-workers. We desire to connect with people who feel as though they are far from God.
We have some ideas about how we can best do Church in a non-traditional sense. But we still need risk-takers to join our team. If you're an individual who sees visions and dreams about a future where people belong, are welcomed and loved, and feel close to God, then we hope you'll join us. God is creating something new and exciting here, and we look forward to what the next few months and years will bring.
+Peace and Love
Follow the journey of a new church as we answer the call to reach people in Collierville, Memphis, and the Mid-South.