Category Archives: Spiritual Formation
A word about surrender. Surrender does not mean that you fight to the last drop of blood of the last man and then call it quits. That is called, “being defeated.” The only way surrender can actually be defined as surrender is when the person, or persons, doing the surrendering actually have the capacity to keep on fighting, and possibly of even overcoming, their enemy. Surrender is taking your entirely healthy team and walking off the field in the third quarter when you are only down by a field goal. Walking off the field when you are down by 7 touchdowns, there is only three seconds left in the game and you are down to 8 players is not surrender. Let’s be honest about our terms.
A word about apocalyptic. An apocalypse is a written account of a special vision given to a messenger of God relating to an explanation of the reality of human events as seen from heaven’s perspective. It also contains a message about future judgment – of reward for the obedient faithful and punishment for the rebellious guilty. Apocalypses were written to encourage the faithful to keep the faith, to look at things from heaven’s perspective and not from the perspective of the world. Apocalypses are ultimately about victory. God is in control, even death cannot change the eventual outcome of the game.
So, why speak of an apocalyptic surrender? Simply this – the only way to achieve victory from the point of view of heaven is to quit playing the game from the world’s point of view.
In other words, surrender whether it looks like you might still win or you are hopelessly overmatched. Because, ultimately, if you win according to the world’s rules you will lose according to God’s rules.
I think the church needs to learn this. I think the church needs to learn how to surrender. We need one huge, global act of apocalyptic surrender.
We need to quit playing the game according to the rules of the world. We need to quit trying to make the church more pleasant, more attractive, more relevant, more beneficial, more consumer friendly. The one who established the church died on a cross, for crying out loud. And we are trying to “attract” people by making that cross – more attractive??
We need to quit playing power games. The world will not be transformed by political machinations. We can legislate until we are blue in the face and all we will accomplish is a deeper shade of blue. Jesus surrendered every form of power except the power of selfless surrender. In other words, Jesus embodied apocalyptic surrender. He looked at victory from God’s point of view, and transformed the concept of power to the idea of submission.
We need to quit playing public relations games. We need to regain the moral capacity to call sin, sin. We need to realize, and confess, that we are sinners – every stinking wretched one of us. We cannot be forgiven until we are condemned, and we cannot be condemned if we have eliminated the concept of guilt. But, when we say that sin exists and that we are guilty of sins as well as every other person is guilty of sins we violate every principle of public relations. Public relations demands that we whitewash over our own sins (to create and maintain a healthy “self-esteem”) and to whitewash over the sins of others (to create and maintain healthy inter-personal relationships.)
Apocalyptic surrender demands that we have a complete reevaluation of our behavior. We, as disciples of Christ, need to change not only the way we act, but even the way we think. In apocalyptic thinking losing is winning and winning is losing. We become victorious through surrender. The Lion of the tribe of Judah is the Lamb who, though slain, stands as conqueror.
I must admit, I’m not exactly sure how to do this. I am far too much a creature of the modern world. I just know that I need to quit. I need to surrender.
And at the end of the journey
We shall bow down on bended knee,
And with the angels up in heaven
We’ll sing the song of victory.
(from the song, “We Shall Assemble”)
Today’s excursion in daily Bible reading brought me to 2 Timothy 2:1. As I am reading in this cycle through the God’s Word Translation, I came across this reading:
My Child, find your source of strength in the kindness of Christ Jesus.
Not remembering ever having heard this verse phrased this way my figurative ears were pricked immediately. The God’s Word Translation is more of a dynamic translation, meaning that the translators focused on translating the thought of each portion of the text rather than slavishly following a word-for-word translation, so I asked the questions, “Are they accurate here?” “Have they taken extreme liberties with the literal text?” “Why is this reading so different from some of the more formal, or word for word translations?”
I am far from a scholar of the Greek New Testament, but a little research brought me to a rather firm conviction: this translation of this verse is very appropriate, and very powerful.
To cut to the chase, the key word here in this verse is transliterated, endunamou. Both my Analytical Lexicon and my Parsing Guide identify this word as a 2nd person singular, imperative middle verb (I don’t truly trust my own parsing skills). So, in layman’s terms, this is an imperative, a command, but it is in a middle construction – that is it is an action that a person does to or for himself or herself. The basic meaning of the verb form from which this verb is derived is to make strong. Therefore, the command Paul gives Timothy is that he (Timothy) is to make himself strong.
But here is the kicker – how is Timothy supposed to make himself strong? The older (and many of the newer) translations translate the next important word as “grace.” So, for example, the RSV translates, “You, then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” That is basically how I remember this verse. There is certainly nothing wrong in that translation.
However, the force that the GWT brings out is that the verb is actually something that a person is to do, to engage in, to make oneself stronger. The RSV simply as a form of the English verb “to be.” It is one thing to say, “be strong” and another thing to say, “make yourself strong” or even “make yourself stronger.” And, the GWT adds a flavor to the word “grace” that, in my most humble opinion, really brings out the irony, or the paradox of the command Paul is giving Timothy. Paul is telling Timothy to “make himself strong” or to “strengthen himself” in the kindness of Jesus.
Now, one might quibble that the word kindness is borrowing too much from the concept of grace. But I would counter that “grace” has become such a loaded, and very often twisted, religious concept that sometimes a synonym is valuable, provided it is not too far afield of the word’s basic meaning. I happen to really like this phraseology – “Timothy, make yourself stronger by remembering and patterning your life on the kindness of Jesus” (Paul Smith paraphrase).
Americans have, perhaps to overgeneralize, a John Wayne theory of strength. Get the most people, arm yourself with the biggest guns, build the biggest bunker, obtain the most and the highest educational degrees, write the most books, attend the most conferences. Each of these makes you “stronger” than someone who has fewer people, smaller guns, a tar-paper shack, a high school education, who is illiterate, or who refuses to pay extortionist fees to attend conferences. How many times have you been encouraged to “make yourself stronger” by practicing kindness? Or grace, even?
This is why I love reading from different translations on a regular basis. We become comfortable with phrases that become set in our minds, and very often we skip over very important topics simply because our eyes, and our ears, become numb to the words we read or hear. A new translation causes us to hear the common in uncommon ways. Sometimes these translations are not so good, and sometimes they are very good.
I think we need to do more preaching about making ourselves stronger by lifting the weights of kindness. Not just any humanistic, “do-gooder” kindness, however. We must be limited to the “acts of kindness” or the “grace” that is in Christ Jesus. But that should give us enough to work on while we are on this earth.
I think that is a gym at which we all need to buy a membership.
My thoughts turn today to a conversation between Peter and Jesus. It is a loaded conversation, and deserves far more than this little space can give it. Maybe I will return to this conversation another time.
The conversation is found in Luke 22. I quote it here from the Revised Standard Version (If the RSV was good enough for St. Neil Lightfoot of Abilene, then it is certainly good enough for me.)
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren. Luke 22:31-32
Have you ever read that passage carefully? Meditatively? Have you ever stopped to consider the time references that Jesus incorporates into that one little sentence? And, of the profound theological implications of what Jesus told Peter?
First, Jesus was telling Peter that there was a great cosmic fight over Peter! Satan and Jesus, fighting it out over some run-of-the-mill fisherman from Galilee. Of what possible use could some salty sea-dog be to Satan? Who knows, but we all know (because we know “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say) how important Peter was to Jesus.
I do not want to make a “one-to-one” comparison here. Not all of us can be a Peter – or a Mary sister of Martha for that matter. That is an hermeneutical shipwreck that destroys a lot of really important passages. We are not all Jeremiah’s in the sense that God does not call each and every one of us from our mother’s womb. We are not all Job’s in the sense that God and Satan duke it out when we have a severe medical crisis. Putting ourselves in the sandals of our biblical heroes is theologically suspect, and psychologically destructive as well. Let us focus on who we are and learn from these characters without trying to duplicate them.
That having been said, I do believe that we can learn something from this passage about our worth, both to God and Jesus and to the great deceiver. Is it possible that Satan wants you, not because that you would be of any particular value to him, but because you could be of so much greater value to Jesus? Just as not everyone has it in themselves to be another Peter of Galilee, very, very few of us have it within us to be another Adolf Hitler. But, Satan does not need us to be another Adolf Hitler. All he needs us to do is to minimize Jesus and his church in our life. His perverted will is thereby accomplished, and to the world around us we can still be “good, moral” people.
Second, Jesus prayed for Peter, but he knew that Peter was going to fail Him, and thus in one sense his prayer was NOT going to be answered. Peter’s faith did fail, at least momentarily, and in a profound way. Not, mind you, to the degree that Judas’ faith failed him. But Peter had three chances to confess Jesus, and despite being specifically warned what was going to happen, Peter denied Jesus anyway.
Now, you may argue that Jesus, knowing Peter would deny him, just prayed that Peter would eventually return. But that is not the way I read that text. Jesus’ prayer was that Peter’s faith would not fail. Pete’s denial could hardly be described as a stellar display of faithfulness. That is why I said, “in one sense” Jesus prayer was not answered. Certainly Peter ultimately returned to Jesus, and so that aspect of Jesus’ prayer was answered. But let us not gloss over the significance of the totality of what Jesus is saying.
Many people have the concept that, “if I pray for it, in full faith, God has to give me what I want.” Did not Jesus tell us the same? Yet, why were some of Jesus’ most fervent prayers not answered? Why did Peter deny him in the courtyard? Why did Pilate not release him? Why did Judas betray him? Why did he have to drink that “bitter cup?” I wish I had the answers to all those questions. But, I would rather live in the reality of the mystery of God than try to create and live in the falseness of a human idol. The fact is that Jesus prayed for his disciples, and they let him down repeatedly. We pray for our children, and they fail us. We pray for our sick parents, and they die. Not every prayer is automatically granted. If we could control God with a few selfish whims He certainly would not be a God worthy of worship.
But, third, Jesus told Peter, “when you have turned again.” Jesus did know the “rest of the story.” More than that, he was instilling within Peter the belief that Peter was ultimately a worthy disciple. I just wonder how much those words would meant to Peter in the first few days following the crucifixion, and in those first few days following Pentecost. They had to be amazing words for Peter to remember and to take comfort in.
I don’t remember much about my football career. Mostly because it was over my freshman year in high school (the Minnesota Vikings never knew what they missed!) But I remember one practice with such crystal clarity that it might as well have happened yesterday.
We were working on a drill we affectionately called “hamburger.” Two players faced each other, then lay down on the ground with about a yard separating their two helmets. On the coach’s whistle the players were to jump to their feet and try to get past the other player in any way they could. Four posts marked a very small “battle zone” so there was no running around a bigger opponent (my preferred method of “winning.”) Well, one day it turned out that I stood against Bubba Baker, who was to be my opponent. Now, Bubba was our first string full-back. The coach placed me as the fourth string full-back simply because we only had four full-backs and he had no other place to put me. So, I mostly stood on the sideline, safe in the knowledge that it was a statistical impossibility for the three guys in front of me to all get hurt in the same game.
So, anyway, back to my story – here we were, our very big and very hard hitting first string full-back was staring at me and then looking at the coach as if to say, “hey coach – I really don’t want to hurt the little guy.” I was staring at Bubba and then looking at the coach as if to say, “hey coach – listen to Bubba!!” The coach, having that sixth sense that most coaches have, looked at both of us and said, “what are you two guys waiting for – get down!” And then he uttered the only four words that I can remember from that entire season - “Smith can do it.”
I honestly remember very little of what happened next. I remember the whistle, and I kind of remember jumping to my feet, and then I remember hearing the loudest bang and feeling the most incredible pain I have ever experienced shooting down my neck through my shoulder and all the way down to my finger-tips. I never lost consciousness, but I sure felt weird the rest of the day. I can pretty confidently say that I did not win that battle, but those four words were absolutely etched into my psyche. If coach White said that “Smith can do it” I would have run into a brick wall thinking that I could knock it down. To his great credit, Bubba apologized for knocking me into the middle of the next week, but he was doing his job the best he knew how.
So, in a very small way, I kind of know what Peter must have felt when Jesus spoke to him by the sea when he asked him three times, “do you love me?” And then Peter could remember those five words Jesus spoke to him, “when you have turned again…” Then Peter the denier became Peter the preacher, and eventually, Peter the martyr.
What an amazing couple of verses. What an amazing story. What an amazing Lord and Savior we have.
Every year, or at the very least, every other year, I try to read some of the classics of Christian spirituality – whether ancient or modern. One book that I return to frequently is Richard J. Foster’s Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. No matter how many times I read it I am encouraged, challenged, and hopefully I grow just a little bit more in my prayer life. I highly recommend the book.
Today, as I was finishing the book for the I don’t know how many times, I came across this little phrase. Foster was talking about “authoritative prayer,” the prayer that occurs when we call upon God’s power to act immediately in this world. He was discussing the possible pitfalls to such prayer, and in particular, his own reticence in even using authoritative prayer. And then he said this, “In my concern over falling off the deep end, I realized that I just might fall off the shallow end.” (Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, p. 235).
I’m a sucker for beautiful phraseology, and Foster is one of the most gifted Christian authors I have read. This book is full of memorable quotes and powerful, life changing lessons. But perhaps none is quite so powerful as the idea of being so afraid of doing something wrong that we fail to do anything at all. That particular fear has been expressed for millennia – but I have never heard of the fear of falling off the shallow end.
Anyone who has gone swimming knows the fear of being in water that is “over our head.” That means we cannot touch the bottom of the pool, lake, ocean, river, etc. We must depend upon our swimming skills, or at the very least, our floating skills. But who is ever afraid of going into the kiddie pool? Who is afraid of knee-deep water? Who is afraid of falling off the shallow end? It is a beautiful metaphor.
But metaphors are useless if we fail to understand the deeper message behind the image. When we fear that which should cause no fear at all we betray our lack of faith in God. If God can and does give us the ability to swim, or at least float, when we have fallen off the deep end, why are we so terrified of the wading pool?
The church has never been defeated, and will never be defeated, by the great cataclysms of life. In fact, in the face of great trials and persecutions the church has not only survived, it has thrived.
The church in the United States has only recently started to experience a major exodus, a major weakening of numbers, and it has occurred at precisely the moment when the church is the most affluent and protected that it has ever been. We have failed to speak with boldness and clarity on social issues and political issues and moral issues that are confronting us every day and from every possible angle. We are being defeated not by the enormity of the opposition, but by the inadequacy of our own faith. Increasingly the church is viewed as irrelevant and archaic. We have feared “falling off the deep end” and we have succeeded in drowning in the wading pool.
Foster’s book is powerful and challenging. No matter how many times I read it I gain new insights and am pricked to deepen my prayer life. I need to pray each of the chapters that Foster discusses. I need more inward, upward and outward prayer. I need to have more faith in the God who not only gave me the avenue of prayer, but commanded me to use it. I do not want to be guilty of thinking that I can do everything by myself. I want to be more thoughtful of others in prayer. And I want to tap into the awesome power that God has promised me through the avenue of prayer.
And, I especially do not want to be guilty of falling off the shallow end of the pool anymore.
Turn to me and be saved, all who live at the ends of the earth, because I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:22, God’s Word Translation)
I was following along today in my daily Bible reading schedule and this verse caught my attention. A question came to my mind – “Why do we read Scripture?” It is not as easy a question to answer as you may think.
This is a personal confession, but for me the vast majority of my Bible reading is academic, professional, or related to debate and confrontation. That is to say, I read to find out what a passage “means,” I read to find out how to present the message to others, or I read in order to make my point or to refute the arguments of others.
In rather stark terms, I totally misread Scripture. Not always, but far too frequently. And, I might add, with disappointing results.
Scripture, the very word of God, was not written to be used as a billy club, an instrument of terror and abuse. It was not written to be a forensic textbook, a guide to win arguments and destroy enemies.
God spoke to his prophets, servants and apostles in order to win people back to Him. God’s messages were always personal, even if delivered to a large crowd, or even an entire nation. God’s messages were written in first person singular – “I.” The object was almost always “you,” although on occasion it could be “them.” The prophets in the Old Testament and the apostles in the New Testament never spoke about, or taught about, or tried to explain God. They simply spoke for God. Theirs was the message, “Thus says the LORD God…” This is a critical point to grasp, because we (speaking generically) do not read our text this way.
Everything changed when the Greek philosophical mindset overcame the Hebraic worldview. Even before the coming of Jesus the Greeks had a history of trying to figure out the question of deity and how the gods related to man. And so, as Christianity spread from its Judaic cradle the discussion ceased to be, “What did God say?” and became “What is a god?” or “What is a man?” We can document this in the early debates and struggles of the church. In the first few decades following the death and resurrection of Jesus the message was simple – “come back to God through the blood of Christ.” But, that did not last for long. Soon people started to ask questions like, “How could Jesus be God?” and “How could a god become man, anyway?” So, academics replaced evangelism, ontology replaced faith, and we have never really rid ourselves of that Greek desire to figure out the “how” instead of simply answering the “what” question: what are you going to do with the message of Jesus?
The bottom line is that I do not believe Scripture was written so that I can explain God. Quite simply, God does not need to be explained. Either we believe in Him or we do not. We can’t explain him anyway – Plato and Aristotle’s noble attempts notwithstanding.
Scripture was written so God could win us back to Him. The divine “I” still speaks to the human “you.” Sometimes that word is painfully personal. Sometimes it is national, or even universal, in scope. But, it was not written to be an academic treatise, a manual for succeeding in public debate, or as a introductory text in biology and physics.
I still fall back into my old habits, but I am learning. I hope that I will be able to get better as I learn to read deeper. And I hope you will too.
Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) 271 pages of text, with 4 appendices and 29 pages of endnotes.
In terms of statistical studies, this book is beginning to show its age (published in 2005, with research being completed some time earlier), but the information it provides is still valuable, at least as far as I am concerned. This was the second book I read to inform myself of the current state of young people in the teenage-college age bracket (the first was Chap Clark’s Hurt 2.0). This book is far more conventional in the sense that the authors performed a standard survey information gathering process and followed that up with a detailed interview process with a selected number of those who had completed the earlier phone interview.
Without going into serious information overload, here are some basic numbers: the initial phone interview involved 3,290 teenagers and their parents from all 50 states between 2002 and 2003. From that number, 267 teens were selected for an additional in-person interview to follow up on the information that had been gathered from the phone calls. One interesting side note, the teens and parents were both paid for their time for the phone call interview, and the teens were paid for their time in the face-to-face interview. The next time some political party calls me to ask me who I am going to vote for, I am going to ask them to show me the money.
Anyway, back to the book. The results reveal the standard “good news/bad news” that research tends to provide. On the good news side, the research showed that teens are far more religious than some doomsayers are trumpeting. The teens largely follow the faith of their parents (or leading adults in their family). There is very little of the “spiritual but not religious” trend among teenagers that some people are so fond of reporting. And, with one very important caveat, religion is having an impact on the lives of teenagers.
Now for the distressing news: even though teens are religious, they are almost totally incapable of articulating what that means. For example, they may know that premarital sex is not appropriate, but they cannot articulate why. The best reason they might come up with is the dangers of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. This reveals that, in a broad general sense, religious groups are doing an abysmal job in presenting what they believe to teenagers. Another issue that I saw in the reporting was that, even among the most religious teens, life decisions were very often made in violation of those religious beliefs. So, there appears to be a large degree of compartmentalization among teens. Religion and spirituality is for church, but dating is for sex (not necessarily intercourse) and cheating on tests is almost required to get ahead. What this tells me is that churches may be doing an okay job at aiming for the head, but we are missing the hearts of teenagers by a mile.
This is an involved read. It is a long book, and the reporting of numbers and statistics is complicated. However, each section of analysis is accompanied by a graphic chart, so the material is there in both narrative and chart format. Those who are familiar with statistics and research will undoubtedly have an easier time reading the book than I did (I have absolutely no clue what a “multivariate regression analysis” is!) However, if you are a youth minister, a minister, a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, or simply a person who is deeply concerned about today’s teenager, you will want to buy, read, and even study this book.
I have to add a couple of (even more) personal comments. One reason I bought the book was because of a referral by way of the phrase, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (chapter 4 of the book) Basically, MTD is the term that the authors used to describe the primary religion of American teens. It is moralistic – teens do have morals, but the morals are tied to what works – therefore the “therapeutic.” And it is connected to a form of Deism – the idea that there is a supreme being, but that being only really exists to help in bad times or to make people feel good about themselves. And the authors point out that there are several different forms of MTD – conservative MTD, liberal MTD, – whatever “brand” of religion the teen leans toward has its form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This chapter is worth the price of the book in and of itself, but you really need the rest of the book to fully understand what the authors intend by placing the chapter as the fourth in the sequence.
Many of the results of the surveys and interviews confirms what is common knowledge or common sense: girls are more religious than boys. Teens in the south are more religious than teens in the northeast or northwest. Younger teens are more spiritual than older teens (although, not as significantly as may be expected). Teens with both parents at home are more religious, and parents who are more religious raise more religious teens. Conservative parents and groups produce more religious teens, mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics do not score as highly. And, not surprisingly, Mormon families score the highest in producing religious teens, as well as producing teens who are the most articulate in expressing their faith.
The authors use 7 categories to describe religious teens – Conservative Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and non-religious. Appendix “D” gives the denominational breakdown of how the authors categorized each group, and the results are, shall we say, interesting.
I learned a lot from this book. I was encouraged as well as discouraged. I was challenged and I saw a lot of my own faults in the book. The authors certainly stepped on my toes. It is important to know, for example, that teens are looking for something greater than themselves. They desperately want their parents in their lives (even if every word or action seems to say otherwise). They need limits. And they are willing to respond appropriately when given the information they need. If anything, this book puts the responsibility of raising spiritual teens right where it belongs – on the adults who should be providing that guidance in the first place.
Then a blind and dumb demoniac was brought to him, and he healed him, so t hat the dumb man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand; and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?” (Matthew 12:22-26, RSV)
I’m feeling rather rantish this morning, so if this post seems a bit prickly I apologize. Or, maybe I don’t. Maybe I intend to be prickly.
A person cannot follow any kind of Christian literature today, either print or online, without being assaulted by two deafening drum beats: one, that the church is declining, and two, that the solution to the decline of the church is to become more like the world so that the world will quit hating us so much and then they will come and be a part of us because we are so much like a part of them. I’ve heard of circular reasoning before, but that has to take the cake.
The manner in which this doctrine is presented is actually quite multifaceted. On one extreme you have the “we have to start all over from scratch” crowd that looks upon the current church situation with disgust and unfeigned superiority. All mostly under 30 years of age, these folks have all the answers to all the questions (even as they suggest there are no definitive answers to the questions), and they view anyone over the age of 40, especially those of us who still love and cherish the church, with utter disdain. If anyone even tries to identify the group they meet with as a “church” they are dismissed. Heaven forbid the group try to own the facility in which they meet, or have any type of creedal or doctrinal statement. Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed – no difference. All roads lead to heaven, God is love, anyone who thinks different needs to get over it.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who say they want to maintain a doctrinal or creedal form of the church, but they just want to do so in culturally relevant ways. Now, these folks are up against it, because it is pretty much impossible to be doctrinal in a doctrinally adverse culture. So, the church assembly is still important, but the preacher, or preacherette, needs to “preach” in ripped blue jeans and a ratty “Grateful Dead” t-shirt. While this “preacher” is “preaching,” there needs to be a YouTube video or a carefully selected clip of an “R” rated movie shown on three (count ‘em, three) larger than life video screens. If someone gets too bored with the “sermon” (and we all know that boredom is the chief killer of the post-modern Christian faith) the “congregant” (by the way, you don’t have to profess any kind of allegiance to be a member of this church) can go down the hall to a “prayer labyrinth” where they can indulge in any one of a number of Eastern religious practices, all under the guise of deepening their “Christian” faith. Buddha and Mohammed still will get you to heaven, but these folks will argue that their pagan roads will eventually at some point intersect with the Jesus highway. There are quite a number of goatee-growing (except for the “preacherettes”) ripped-jean wearing advocates, although I’m not sure they would feel comfortable being in the same room with each other. Sometimes even the brand of ripped jeans does matter.
What does all this have to do with Matthew 12:22-26? Just this: I’m not sure that Satan has to fight very much anymore. I truly believe he has already captured a large section of the “church” and he is perfectly content to let his minions do their thing. Satan is certainly not going to fight against Satan, so if the disciples of Christ are not going to fight him, why does he need to be militant at all? All Satan needs to do to maintain his kingdom today is lay back in a hammock and sip lemonade.
During this summer break I have been trying to zero in on the culture that I am attempting to address. So I chose two books to help me, Chap Clark’s Hurt 2.0, and Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s Soul Searching. Talk about your depressing summer reading. It’s not that the books are poorly written. They are both excellent books – I highly recommend both of them. But the results of both books are terrifying. The generation of young Christians now in high school and college are profoundly ignorant of the basic Christian truths. Many young people do not think that Christianity does have exclusive claims, and even if they are vaguely aware of those exclusive Christian claims, they are totally incapable of verbalizing or embodying those claims. I grew up hearing the phrase, “It only takes one generation for the church to go into apostasy.” Folks, it is here.
I write as a member of and minister to the Churches of Christ. In less than a generation (slightly more than half of my life) the changes that I have seen in congregations of the Church of Christ are staggering. I realize we are not alone – in the late 1950′s C.S. Lewis was writing that the Anglican Church (American Episcopal Church) would never even allow female priests. They now have openly practicing homosexual bishops! So much for Anglican doctrine. The practices that I hear preachers openly advocate today would not even be whispered 30-40 years ago. Progress you say? Maybe for the kingdom of darkness. We have effectively let Satan go on vacation. Why does he need to work if the disciples of Christ are so effectively accomplishing his goals?
I know I am a dinosaur. One day those who agree with me may become extinct. If it is the will of God, so be it. But for the time being I long for the day in which a preacher will actually stand for Christ and against pagan culture. I want to hear preachers preach for holiness and against making peace with the world. I want to hear the distinctive nature of the church praised instead of condemned. I want to hear Christ lifted up and exalted instead of lowered to the ranks of Buddha and Mohammed. In other words, I want to be encouraged to “march into hell for a heavenly cause” and take the fight to Satan on his turf, instead of having to defend myself from my fellow disciples simply because I believe the Bible teaches inviable, Incarnate Truth with a capital “T.”
Really, people. If the human race is so depraved that we cannot listen to a 30 minute sermon and grasp the truth of the gospel without being assaulted by an “R” rated movie clip, then let’s turn out the lights and all go home.
I’m tired of hearing the church fight Satan’s battles for him. Can we please stand up and fight for Jesus?
Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers by Chap Clark. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011) 202 pages of text with an appendix explaining research methodology, extensive endnotes and bibliography.
Anyone who has teens, will have teens, loves teens, works with teens or is just interested in the lives of teens needs to get and read this book. But be forewarned: it is not an easy book to read and sometimes borders on maddening.
First, for the hits -
Chap Clark wears many hats. The back cover of the book lists his duties: “…vice provost for regional campuses and master’s programs and professor of youth, family, and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he also serves as director of the Student Leadership Project and the Institute of Youth Ministry.” (I wonder what he does after lunch.) This is simply to point out that the reader cannot discount the results of Clark’s research as he presents it in this book. For the sake of brevity, let us just acknowledge that Clark knows what he is talking about. He understands the teenage culture, and is more than qualified academically to present the findings of his research.
This book is based on solid research, but not of the kind usually reported in books of this nature. For example, I am also reading Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers and that book follows the template most of us are familiar with. First a researcher, or a team, formulates a hypothesis, creates a list of questions to either verify or modify that thesis, and then surveys a reliable number of respondents and then draws legitimate conclusions. The better the questions, the more inclusive the list of respondents, and the more in-depth the analysis is, the better the results are. Clark does not do that in this book. In this book Clark researched by immersing himself in the teenage culture – as a substitute teacher and as a careful observer, questioner, and participant. Thus, whereas in one research project you get a bunch of numbers and percentages, in Clark’s research you end up with a smaller set, but deeper analysis. Clark and his team also used surveys and questions for a larger “set” of teenagers, but his primary research was deeply personal and “up close” to where the teens live.
Clark’s ultimate conclusion is that teens in America today have been abandoned, and they know it. Thus the title – American teens are “hurt” and they live in a world of pain. They live in a world “beneath” the world of adults. They have an entirely different set of survival skills than what their parents or grandparents experienced. The difference between the two worlds is not always understood by adults, and so the gulf that separates the teen world from the adult world is deep and getting deeper.
In many ways reading this book is terrifying. Clark writes like a skilled surgeon uses a scalpel, but even a skilled surgeon causes pain when he or she cuts through the outer skin of our protective nature. I have lived on the edge of this teen world for many years, and I must say that Clark opened my eyes to much of what I should have seen, but because of my experience as a teen I simply overlooked, or misinterpreted. I am sure that as you read the book you will be tempted at places to say, “But that is not how our teens are!” I would caution you before you get too adamant. Clark’s research is impressive, and his conclusions are solid. Before you disagree with his conclusions I believe you must devote the amount of time that he did in living in the teen culture. Simply having a teen or teaching a teen Bible class does not qualify you to overturn the material in this book.
Now for the misses -
Clark wrote this book as an advocate for the teens that he researched, lived with and continues to minister to. As an advocate you take the position for your client. In this case Clark writes passionately for the cause of American teenagers. There were times, however, when I believe that this advocacy was so pronounced that I felt that Clark was blinded to certain other realities in the world. For one example, in an early section Clark makes the following assertion:
Due to the midadolescent’s recognition that for most of his or her life the norm has been a lack of authentic concern and care at almost every turn, few are able to easily trust an adult who does reach out.
And then a few sentences later:
If adults cannot be trusted to be authentic, committed, and selfless advocates, then the only alternative available to adolescents is to flee. (p. 39)
At this point I wanted to scream – how in the world is an adult supposed to gain the trust of a reclusive teenager if the standard for gaining that trust is set so impossibly high? Who gets to set the bar for “authentic, committed and selfless” when the world itself is so impossibly fake, transient and selfish? And who is to be the judge – an adolescent with all of 15-18 years of experience? This is an impossible standard to even attempt to meet, and is a significant weakness of the book. It is all one sided. I would love to hear Clark’s message to today’s adolescents – I am sure he has one. But I can just hear the teenager’s response after reading Hurt 2.0 - “That’s what I am talking about – it all your fault and I cannot be held responsible for any of my issues. If you would straighten things out then my life would get better.”
Clark writes as an unapologetic advocate for the American teenager, and we who are concerned about teens need to read this book. Clark does give some “strategies” for reversing the sense of abandonment that teens feel (but, considering the length of time he spends describing the problem, the strategies are far too short and almost trite). You must judge the contents of a book based on the intent of the author, and Clark does accomplish the goal he gives in the preface. But, as valuable and as necessary as this book is, I would also suggest that a companion volume is also necessary – the volume dedicated to today’s hurt and abandoned teenager. That volume needs to stress that, regardless of one’s situation, blame for one’s own choices cannot be laid at the feet of an earlier generation. There is another concept at play in today’s world, one that is virtually ignored in this book, and that is sin. Today’s teens might be dealing with the fallout from the sins of their parents, but this has been the situation ever since Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Today’s teens may be hurt – after reading Clark’s book I am convinced they are – and in ways I had no way of fully comprehending. But the choices that today’s teens are making reveals that they are hurt by the great Deceiver far more than they have been hurt by their parents or grandparents. None of us chose the world we were born into. We were all born into a world of sin, and Jesus came to heal the the primary pain of all mankind. The gospel is for teenagers as well as for adults. That gospel includes grace and holiness, forgiveness and a repentant life.
It must be remembered that the gospel message is that, once we allow the great physician to take our hurts and heal them, and to take our sins and absolve them, we are totally responsible individuals for how we respond to those who hurt us, and for the choices we make that cause further hurt to ourselves and others.
Bottom line – get this book if you even think you might be interested in helping today’s teenagers. But, just be aware that this is a book genuinely devoted to presenting only one side of the issue.
I have been given the opportunity to preach again this coming Sunday (yea!) and in the process of working on what I wanted to say a thought occurred to me. Now, it’s not everyday that I have thoughts that occur to me. I was actually pretty excited.
Anyway, this is what came floating through my mind, and pardon the stream of consciousness thinking here – I hope everything will make sense by the last word.
We (and I am speaking inclusively here, obviously there are exceptions to every general statement) have been working diligently over the past who-knows-how-many years (more than a decade, less than a generation) to make every verse in the Bible easy to understand. That is to say we have been teaching what the books and sections and verses of the Bible mean. But we have overlooked one very important issue that has now come back to haunt us.
We have been forgetting to teach that the Bible means something anyway.
You see, we can teach the exact meaning of every single verse in the Bible, but if we fail to teach that the Bible itself has meaning, then all of that instruction is pointless. You can teach me what every word Karl Marx wrote means, and I will say to you, “So what?” You can teach me the precise meaning of every word that Joseph Smith wrote down and will respond the same way. The writings of Marx and Smith mean nothing to me, so the meanings of each individual section, sentence or word are completely meaningless to me.
So, today, we as teachers and preachers and parents and other church leaders can exegete and decipher and work out the meaning for every jot and tittle in the Bible, and the sum total of our efforts is a big fat zero because of one fundamental fact: the Bible is totally irrelevant to a large and growing population of the United States.
So, I think we need to back up a little bit and ask a fairly basic question: what does it mean to say that the Bible means something, anything?
To my generation, and certainly to generations preceding mine, it was just assumed that when you spoke from the Bible that most people would care. They might disagree with what you said, but at least the Bible mattered to them. Today I do not believe that is a valid assumption. It is my experience that a large number of people, if not a majority of people today, simply look at the Bible as a collection of myths and fairy tales. This is especially true among the college age and younger generations. So, even if you get the meaning right, it doesn’t mean anything.
We are truly living in a post-Christian, post-biblical world. I think we are going to have to stop teaching in paragraphs and go back to something a little more basic. I think we are going to have to go back and teach the alphabet.
And that means we are going to have to start living like we believe the Bible means something, before we can teach that the words within the Bible mean something.
In my last post I talked about the necessity of a pilot keeping a scan going of all of his/her instruments during flight in instrument meteorological conditions – otherwise known as weather that ducks refuse to fly in. That got me to thinking about another aspect of flying that I think can have a profound theological application.
Except, I just can’t think of one. Or, maybe I can, but not in the precise way I want to express it. So, here is my brilliant analogy, I will leave it to you to come up with an equally brilliant application.
Many people think that flying in a single engine airplane, especially a little airplane with a propeller in front, is the most dangerous thing a person can do, short of jumping out of that airplane with a parachute on. For them the sight of a single engine with a single propeller is just too much, or too little rather, and they refuse to climb in the plane. If they see a plane with two engines, even two reciprocating propeller engines, they figure, “well, if one of those propeller thingies quits turning, at least the other one will get me where I am going.” Well, yes, and no.
If you as speaking of jet engines on large, commercial aircraft, then yes. Rest assured, the FAA mandates that an airplane with two engines be capable of all phases of flight with just one engine operating. (Few jets are manufactured with three or more engines today). That means that even in the event of an engine failure during the take-off roll the plane can still take off, circle around and land with just one engine. Now, if one engine were to fail before a certain point the pilots would certainly abort the take-off. But, still, the plane is designed to fly on one engine.
But with reciprocating (gas-powered) engines the story is quite different. With a reciprocating engine the FAA only mandates that the multi-engine airplane be capable of flying in a “cruise” configuration in the event of an engine failure, and even then very few planes can maintain altitude unless they are very, very lightly loaded. There is a powerful and very little understood reason for this.
(BTW – I never was trained to fly turbo-prop aircraft – airplanes that have jet engines that turn propellers. I am not sure of the dynamics of those aircraft, except to know that they have certain safety features that make them easier to control in the event of an engine failure, but certainly not without the risks of having that inactive propeller out there.)
In a small gas-powered twin-engine aircraft, when both engines are operating at peak efficiency you might say the plane has 100% of its power and lift. Twin engine airplanes can, with few exceptions, fly higher and faster than single engine airplanes. They have the capacity to fly in more inclement weather. There are many advantages to having that second engine and propeller. But when an engine fails the plane loses far more than just 50% of its power. That is what most people think: 2 – 1 = 1, so therefore the plane should still be able to fly just fine, albeit maybe a little slower. Not so!
It is kind of complicated to explain here, but when a small twin-engine plane loses an engine the plane actually loses 80% of its capacity to fly. It loses 50% with the loss of the power of the engine. But it loses another 30% or more with the resulting changes that occur when that engine fails. If the plane is light, and other conditions are favorable, the plane can maintain altitude just fine. Load it up, fly it high, throw in some other nasty variables and the plane will come down – slowly perhaps, but it will not be able to stay in the air.
There is a saying among freight dogs (small twin-engine airplane pilots whose job it is to ferry freight all over the country) that the purpose of the good engine is to fly you to the scene of the crash. Freight dogs are good with gallows humor.
I flew some of the best maintained, most wonderfully designed and built twin-engine airplanes ever to grace an airport. I would strap one of those planes on any day and fly it in just about any weather that the southwest could dish out (I hated ice, but my trusty steed could still handle an amazing amount of the stuff). If a human could have a love affair with a piece of machinery, then I was in love with those planes. But I still was aware that if I loaded it to its capacity, in the event of an engine failure I was going to end up on the short end of the stick. It was a dangerous love affair, to be sure.
So, I know there is a theological application out there somewhere. maybe there are several applications out there. This is a wonderful parable. I just wish I could come up with a good theological punch line.
To all my twin-engine pilot friends out there – keep the shiny side up and both feet on the pedals. Practice those engine out procedures and single engine approaches. May the number of your successful landings always equal the number of your take-offs.