Friday, October 3, 2014

The Dangers of Freedom

I cherish my freedoms and I would not willingly give up my freedom to make choices pertaining to my life or my family. I strongly prefer living in a country where such freedom is valued and protected for its citizenry. As young people protest totalitarian regimes in Hong Kong, Tehran, Damascus, and elsewhere, I am grateful to have grown up in a place where I could take my freedom to choose my career, spouse, religion, and political beliefs for myself.

That being said, freedom makes for an incoherent cardinal virtue. A cardinal virtue is a virtue that can serve as the foundation for all other virtues. Even in the United States—where we use near-idolatrous language about the importance of freedom—we recognize that my freedoms should not be allowed to encroach upon yours. I am not free to ignore traffic laws while driving, to decline to pay my taxes because I think I can manage my money better, or to leave my house wearing nothing but my birthday suit. Freedom must be checked by other virtues like justice to function properly.
Yet, the dangers of freedom extend beyond the potential threats my freedom poses to yours. My freedom can also threaten me in two key ways.

First, and most obviously, my freedom threatens me because I am prone to make unwise decisions. The freedom to choose does not dictate that I make wise decisions nor does it dictate that I must learn from the unwise decisions I make. It simply allows me to make a choice. When I make unwise choices, I alone am culpable. I cannot blame anyone else unless I come to believe that my freedom was an illusion and that some other force was responsible for my decision. Is it any wonder than in a country that affords so much freedom that we produce so many self-described victims?
Second, and less obviously, my freedom threatens me because it assumes that I must write and star in my own story. As appealing as it may be, it is nevertheless risky. If I succeed in making your life what I wanted it to be, am I not prone to narcissism? If I fail to make it what I want it to be, am I not prone to depression and/or feeling like a failure? It is no coincidence that cultures like our own gave birth to the phenomenon of the mid-life crisis.

One response to the dangers of freedom is to romanticize the simplicity of a bygone era in which children grew up without so many choices. Boys would grow up learning the trade of their fathers. Girls would grow up knowing how to run a household and that their parents would choose their husbands. All children knew that they would likely live out the entirety of their lives within a few miles of the place they were born. They may not have had much freedom of choice in their lives, but at least they didn’t have to feel like a personal failure if they hated their profession or wound up married to the wrong kind of person or, worse yet in their world, unmarried. They did not pretend that they were writing their own stories. They were merely characters in a story that had been written for them. The best they could do was to play their parts.

Simpler though that world may have been, I would not willingly exchange our reality for theirs. Still, it is worth noting that the idea of people writing and starring in their own story is relatively new. For the people of Israel, the Bible served to give a larger story to people who otherwise led small lives. They may have been poor descendants of slaves living in the shadow of imperial superpowers, but they were also the covenant people of the Great Author—not only of their story as a people but the stories of all the kingdoms of the earth both big and small. By seeing themselves as part of that larger story, they could cope with the seeming smallness of their lives.

While we tend to struggle less with smallness than we do with our personal failures to make it big, the Bible can still help us correct the way we interpret the stories we are living. If God is the Great Author, then we—no matter how many real choices we have actually made—are not. As such, our sense of success or failure cannot be rooted in how well we made our lives what we wanted them to be, but rather in how well we used our free choices to connect our own stories with the Great Author’s.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Forensic Epistemology

What you believe matters.

If you believe that we are all sinners in the hand of an angry God, it will impact how you live and how you treat others. You will be generally pessimistic about the potential for all human endeavors and your distrust of others will only grow over time. In short, you will gradually become more like the god in which you believe.

If you believe that God is primarily relational and that all God truly desires is to be worshiped, adored, and kept at the forefront of your mind at all times, then you may indeed derive great comfort and personal fulfillment from your time in prayer and devotion, but you also run the risk of stunting your spiritual growth. We are right to appreciate the sensation of God’s presence, but deep Christian spirituality cannot develop without wrestling with God’s seeming absence. Moreover, if you neglect engagement with the nature of God’s apparent absence in our world, you will become the last person with whom someone who is struggling with God’s absence will ever want to speak. Insisting upon the nearness of God to someone trying to cope with God’s absence is at best insensitive and at worst an insinuation that their struggle is evidence of their spiritual inferiority.

What you believe dictates who you are becoming.

On the surface, such a truth would seem to put us under an unbearable weight to get what we believe right. Yet, living under such weight can have an equally detrimental impact on who you are becoming. If you believe that God is gracious, for instance, but only to people who believe the correct doctrines about him, then you will become someone who spends more time trying to understand God than relating to him. You might come to know your Bible well and be able to teach others about the nature of God, but you might be incapable of distinguishing the stirring of the Holy Spirit in your life from frequent heartburn. Furthermore, those who over-elevate doctrinal purity often find themselves engaged in doctrinal jihad against that which they have judged to be false doctrine. While it is appropriate—even necessary—to address false doctrine when it arises, those who prioritize doctrinal correctness tend to forget that their behavior in addressing the issue is as important—if not more so—than the doctrine in question itself.

Thankfully, God’s grace is sufficient for us all. If God can forgive us the sin we knowingly committed, God can forgive us a misunderstanding of what the bible teaches here and there. Knowing that, some fear that we might all be willing to rest on our laurels and give up trying to understand the truth at all, but if we are truly interested in becoming what we say we want to be, the body of Christ in our world, then we have to maintain the importance of what we believe. While an error in belief might not bar us from our eternal reward, it can stunt us in our quest to become like Jesus.

In that regard, we might on occasion benefit from engaging in what I am calling forensic epistemology. When a crime is committed, investigators piece together evidence from the crime scene. These pieces of evidence become clues that point their investigation to people whom they interview. Together, the interviews and the evidence help the investigators recreate a narrative of the crime that took place. In other words, they work backwards until they can find the culprit.

Whenever I become aware—or am ready to admit—that I have been regularly exhibiting behaviors that are not Christ-like, I approach the problem in a similar way to investigators of a crime. Working backwards, I am often able to find my culprit. If I am battling a sin of pleasure, perhaps my beliefs concerning justification (forgiveness for the sin) and sanctification (the power to live a holy life) are out of alignment. If I am having difficulty forgiving someone, I have likely forgotten how much I have been forgiven. If I am being too selfish, I have forgotten how selfless Jesus was. Working backwards, I can find my way back to the culprit.

Biblical doctrines are not just important because they are true, they are equally important because of how they form us and our grasp of them can be measured in how effective our beliefs are in helping us become like Jesus.

Friday, August 29, 2014

How to Make a Disciple

Evangelism is a dirty word to some. Outsiders to faith view evangelism as the process by which believers attempt to manipulate nonbelievers into believing. They recoil from those that try to evangelize them the same way you might a door knocking Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon.

Surprisingly, nonbelievers are not the only ones who treat evangelism like a dirty word. Whenever I broach the subject of evangelism with Christians, I can see them visibly brace. They associate talk about evangelism with a guilt trip. Previous experiences have conditioned them to expect people like me to use guilt or other manipulative tactics on them in order to motivate them to go out and use guilt or other manipulative tactics on others.

Given the association of evangelism with guilt and manipulation by believers and nonbelievers alike, it is no wonder that evangelism has become to a dirty word to so many. Yet, believers are conflicted as they attempt to believe for themselves while leaving others alone. We recognize that evangelism is a crucial aspect of what it means to be a Christian. After all, Jesus sent us out into all the world to make disciples.

But before we get to the guilt or manipulation that you may be bracing yourself to hear, let’s consider Jesus’ words carefully. Jesus did not send us out to insist to people that God is not dead. He did not send us out to reason with them about the rationality of Scripture. He did not send us out to convince people of their sin. He did not even send us out to teach people god’s plan of salvation. Jesus sent us out to make disciples. All of the other stuff comes after that. The baptizing, the Bible studying, the reasoning, and the doctrines of the faith all come after the business of making a disciple.

That leads me to some good news and at least one piece of tough-to-hear news. Let’s start with the good news. Making disciples isn’t as messy as the dominant methods that believers and nonbelievers alike have come to associate with evangelism. After all, I can’t make you be my disciple. Neither can I effectively manipulate you into being my disciple for long. If I recruit you with guilt or other manipulative tactics, there will come a time when you get wise to me. And you will run. Making disciples isn’t about taking captives and brainwashing them until they think and do what you want. Making disciples demands that the disciple want to be a disciple.

If we wanted merely to make disciples of ourselves, disciple making would be simple enough. We would look only for those people who were attracted to us and who, for whatever reason they might have, wanted to be like us. Yet, if we are thinking about making disciples in a way consistent with Jesus’ intentions, we are not making our own disciples, we are making disciples of Jesus. That leads me to the tough-to-hear news: you can’t make a disciple unless you are a disciple. And the same rules apply for being a disciple as for making one.

You cannot be a disciple of Jesus simply by believing that God exists. You cannot be a disciple just by accepting the validity of Scripture. You cannot be a disciple just because you have become convinced that you are a sinner in need of the grace of God. And you don’t automatically become a disciple of Jesus just by believing, repenting, making the good confession, and being baptized. There is only one way to become a disciple of Jesus. You have to start following him.

To be a disciple of Jesus, we have to be people that put the interests of others above those of our own. We have to be people who are willing to lose the battle so as not to become what we wanted to fight against. We have to people who bless when others curses us, rejoices with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn and who do what is right in the eyes of everyone. We cannot be conceited. We must be willing to listen (and actually hear what the other person is saying). We have to show compassion that is rooted in empathy rather than pity. And we have to people who admit our mistakes.

If we are inviting others to follow Jesus (and not ourselves), then we have to admit when we do a lousy job of it. We don’t have to be perfect disciples—we don’t even have to be good at it yet, but we do have to be disciples of Jesus to make disciples.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Primitive Camping and Modern Privilege

On the night of August 15, Kara and I took the kids camping for Levi’s birthday. We packed up the van with more stuff than we needed and we headed toward Lometa to the land of my ancestors (is that too dramatic?).

When we got there, we transferred the van load to the pickup my grandmother keeps on her ranch and we headed across the pasture to the bend in the creek where I have gradually created a pleasant (yet primitive) campsite. We set up the tents, unloaded the truck, and then I used various attachments for my weed eater as I cleared the brush and cut the tall grass that had grown up where we intended to camp.

Did I mention yet that we did all of this on August 15? There is no way of justifying some kinds of stupid.

Years ago, I carried large rocks out from the creek bottom and erected a crude fireplace. I place a grill grate over the top of it and use the hot coals below to cook. That night, I cooked hot dogs and my dad (my parents and grandmother joined us for dinner only; they are not crazy) cooked a massive single sheet of hamburger meat (to which he inexplicably mixed in a pound of pork sausage to add taste to the meat and subtract years from the remainder of our lives). After cooking the meat, he placed the meat on top of the bottom half of a sheet of Hawaiian rolls, placed the other half of the sheet of rolls on top, and used a pizza cutter to carve them up into sliders. Eating the hot dogs and the tasty sliders, I thought to myself, “Why don’t we go camping more often?”

By the time we had roasted marshmallows, eaten s’mores, and put out the fire, I had my answer. Levi melted down from exhaustion and it took a while to convince him that we were really going to sleep in the tent. He finally gave it up and went to sleep around 9 PM. Kara herded the other kids (my older two and a nine-year-old nephew) to their tent (right next to ours).

Ordinarily, I enjoy the time after the kids go to sleep when I am camping and, to be sure, I enjoyed the time I spent talking to Kara as we looked up at the stars. We tried to guess which moving objects were airplanes and which ones were satellites. We saw at least one shooting star. And we talked about other things too—things that mattered and things that didn’t. It was all very nice except for one minor detail.

Did I mention it was August?

At midnight, the temperature had cooled to a frosty 32 degrees…Celsius (that’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit if you are keeping score at home).

As we lie sweating in our tent and trying to get to sleep amid the chirping cicada, croaking frogs, and snoring kids (seriously, one of them was sawing logs), Kara said. “Nothing reveals our privilege like camping out for a night.”

I certainly like camping more than my wife, but I had to agree with her point. We take so much for granted. To make matters worse, we are rarely content with the comforts we have. There is always something more to aspire to if we allow ourselves. A bigger house. A more comfortable mattress. Easier-to-use tools in the kitchen or the garage. And then there is air conditioning—we sleep in homes where we can determine the temperature inside and we still groan if our west facing rooms are warmer than the rest of the house.

As we struggled to fall asleep despite the absence of our first world “necessities,” I forced myself to remember how privileged I am. In a world threatened by race riots, terrorists, broken ceasefires, and ongoing revolutions, my present hardship was that it was too hot and too noisy for me to fall asleep. I prayed. I started to thank God for what I had, but that felt shallow—just an extension of the very privilege at the source of my trouble. I repented instead. How can I claim to be a disciple of the one whose body was broken for all if I am so easily overwhelmed by the loss of a few creature comforts unavailable to anyone for most of human history?

Maybe I should go camping more often. Maybe then I’d be better equipped to say like Fanny Crosby wrote in her hymn, “Take the World, But Give Me Jesus.”

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

An Open Letter to My Third Child on His Third Birthday

Your sister and brother spent this past week with your Granna and Granbarry. That left you with us. Alone. On your birthday week.

Though you would come around to the idea, you were not initially happy about this arrangement. You wanted to go with them. You love your grandparents in that special way that only a toddler can and I was worried that your jealousy of them could ruin your week. To make matters more challenging, you were not crazy about the idea of spending the week without your siblings. I asked you, “Aren’t you looking forward to a few days with just the three of us?” You replied, “No! I like five!”

Your mom and I adore the way you love your sister and brother. They are as big a part of your world as we are. That is a key difference between a third child and the first two. We felt like we were the primary people in their world for the first years of their life. We enjoyed that, to be frank. But it was different with you. From the word go, you saw yourself as part of a familynot just the child of two parents. I have come to appreciate great beauty in this reality. We all feel like more of a family now that we have had the benefit of seeing ourselves through your eyes.

I have a couple takeaways from our week with you: the only child version.

First, I will start with the obvious. I love you, kid.

I never grow tired of your company—well, almost never. I prefer to sleep without your razor sharp toenails digging into my back.

You are full of energy. You are always good for a laugh and usually good for a hug. You are rowdy. You are loud. You are stubborn, head strong, and independent. You are full of life, self-confidence, and spunk.

Your mom and I never tire of sharing stories about you with each other...and anyone else who is willing to listen.

Second, in a few keys ways, you have not gotten our best effort as parents.

You haven’t gotten the best stuff. A lot of it was purchased before your sister was born. Even as we shopped to buy you a birthday present, we could not bring ourselves to buy you any more toys. After all, you have all of your brother’s old toys. I figure that is a good news/bad news sort of a deal. The good news is that the toys are already there and you don’t have to wait for a birthday to access them. The bad news is that you won’t get to enjoy the newness of these toys the way your brother did. We’re sorry for the bad news part, but seriously—I think we have developed an allergy to new toys.

Beyond the toys, however, is a more egregious crime. We give you less quality time.

We read you less books. We are content to let your siblings be the ones who push your swing and teach you to throw a baseball. This week, as I have watched the delight on your face when I played hide and seek with you or watched an episode of Scooby Doo with you, I realized how much less of my undivided attention you have received than your brother and sister did. I am not sure how this makes you feel, but it makes me sad.

You thrive as the center of our attention. It’s just a quirk of birth order that has prevented you from being that as much as you deserve. All of that said, I cannot imagine life with you without the added benefit of sharing you with your siblings. They may pick on you, leave you out of their fun, and engage in other behaviors typically observed in older siblings, but they adore you. And there is something about seeing the way other people I love love the other people I love. It teaches me brand new ways to love what I already thought I loved completely. I love you as an individual, that much is established, but I also love your relationship to your mom, your siblings, your grandparents, and to so many others (many of which are a part of our church).

To love someone is great, but to love them in the midst of an interrelated web of relationships is better. Sometimes we call that web of relationships community and that is a good word, but the better word is family.

Having a third child has changed our lives. We are poorer, more tired, and less confident than we were as parents of two, but those are minor setbacks when compared to what we have gained by adding you our lives.

Our understanding of the true nature of family is richer because of you. You have taught us that we can draw energy from the presence of the same children who drain it. And I am even more confident that the best way to love another person completely is to share that person completely with the other people that I love. That is what being family is truly about.

I thank our God that we are your parents, son. May God grant us the wisdom and energy we need to be the parents you deserve.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Who Is Really Welcome at Your Church?

Come as you are. 

All are welcome. 

No one is turned away.

These are the kinds of phrases I have heard since childhood while at church. For me, these phrases have largely rung true. I have always felt welcome at the churches I have attended. You may have had similar experiences of feeling welcomed. If so, I can make some guesses about you. Chances are that one of the following descriptions fit you.

You are married with children and your family attends church together. You have relational ties (friends, mutual friends, family, etc.) with the people in the churches you have attended. You grew up in a church that was similar to the churches in which you have felt welcome. You attended a church where significant portions of the people were in the same stage of life (and it is also likely that a significant portion of that church occupied the same economic class as you).

If, however, you have ever attended church after church without feeling welcomed, I can make some guesses about you too (or at least about you at the time). Chances are that one of the following descriptions fit you.

You are single. You are newly divorced. You are in college. You are the parents of children at a church where there were no or very few children of a similar age to yours. You are a Christian and want to find a church, but your spouse does not attend church with you. Most of the people at that church were significantly older or younger than you and you had trouble making friends. You were not connected to anyone at the church and everyone else seemed to be connected along impenetrable family lines. You are significantly overweight or suffer from an eating disorder and common meals (the primary way Christians fellowship) causes you great anxiety.

Church rhetoric about welcoming everyone is generally sincere, but the reality of church life tells a different story. Even if a church wants to welcome everyone, that church has to do more than say they welcome everyone in order to make everyone feel welcome.

Unlike leopards, churches have been known to change their spots from time to time, but it never happens overnight and it rarely happens accidentally. While it is as impossible to make all the people feel welcome all of the time as it is to please all of the people all of the time, there are some simple shifts in our thinking (and thus our approach) that can help us to be more welcoming to more of the people more of the time.

First, we have to eliminate our blind spots. We need to take notice of the people in our congregation who are least likely to feel welcome. And we need to do more than simply saying a word of welcome to them (though that is a nice start). We need to build relationships with them. You can expect for this to be hard and unnatural. If it were easy and natural, it would not be a problem area in almost every congregation. To summarize the great G. K. Chesterton, Christianity never fails because it is tried and found wanting, it fails because it is found difficult and is therefore untried.

I know that our own insecurities present an obstacle to relationship building (especially with people whom we perceive to have so little in common with us), but put yourself out there. You don’t have to think of clever things to say, you just have to think of questions to ask people about themselves. It won’t spark a lifelong friendship every time you try it, but this is a practice that is as much about its impact on who you are and how you see your place within the church as it is about succeeding every time you put yourself out there.

Second, we have to accept our own limitations and overcome our insecurities about them. If someone informs us that they did not feel welcome at our church—especially if it is for reasons that are our outside of our control—we need not get defensive. We should apologize, tell them that we hate that they felt unwelcome, and remind them that God loves them and that our God is a welcoming God even if we don’t always emulate God’s welcoming nature as well as we would like. A little humility can go a long way toward building the kind of relationships that make others feel welcome.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Warmth in a Cold Season

I think I may have overstated a sentiment I shared with a friend last week. I said something like, “I like mild weather and I don’t mind winter weather, but I wish the weather would make up its mind. I can’t take this back and forth bit. Shorts on one day. Heavy coat the next.”
I must have assumed that if the weather made up its mind that it would come down on the side of mild weather. The weather did make up its mind, but it has sided with winter. Now, I must amend my previous statement. “I don’t mind winter weather, so long as it doesn’t come with biting winds from the coldest, darkest recesses of space.” In all due respect to Jesus’ words of warning to the Laodiceans, lukewarm anything sounds pretty nice when you are walking into that wind. (That reminds me of a joke that will go right over the head ofeveryone but my fellow Star Wars aficionados—the rest of you can skip to the next paragraph. Joke: What is the internal temperature of tauntaun? Answer: Lukewarm. Thanks folks, I am here all week.)
All kidding aside, our solid week of winter weather may have forced us to dig deep into our supply of sweaters (warning: if you dig too deep, you might end up looking like Cliff Huxtable), but we managed—primarily by seeking warmth inside. Inside, we turned up the thermostat, lit fires in fireplaces, and cozied up in blankets on sofas. Most of you probably enjoyed a warm beverage or two (though I did not; I don’t do warm beverages—sorry, Sheldon). And while you were inside, you felt good. Sure, you knew you would be right back in it the next time you had to leave home, but for that moment you were warm despite the weather outside.
Life has seasons too. Some seasons are warmer than others. Exciting milestones are met as we grow up, marry, and have children. Our careers have sweet spots where we are needed, appreciated, and duly compensated. Marriages go through stretches where everything seems to be in synch. But those seasons never last forever. Eventually, the weather of life turns colder. Parenting begins to seem like more of an impossible chore than a joy-filled gift. Our jobs become nothing more than the way we pay the bills while we daydream about what life would have been if we had chosen a different career path. Marriages hit rough patches where everything ignites an argument and no disagreement ever seems to get resolved. It gets cold out there and when you’re out there trying to make your way through it, that wind can chill you to your core.
So, you are at church. Maybe it is cold outside. Maybe it’s a bit warmer. (What am I, a wizard? How would I know?) Whatever the weather is outside, seasonal or unseasonal, you are worshiping alongside other folks who are experiencing a much wider array of weather during the seasons of their lives (which admittedly sounds like a bad soap opera). If you are in a warm season, someone around you is in a cold season. And although you have both come to church to ostensibly share the same experience, you have come for different reasons. When life is good, we come to church to praise God. We come to say, “Thanks!” We come to share our joy with others and be warmed in the heart by the joy in the hearts of others. But when life is difficult (and if we are honest, it often is), we come to church for a break. We come in seeking the warmth of home. We know that we are going to have to walk out those doors in a few hours’ time and that when we do the cold will once again hit is in the face. But while we are there, we are at least hoping that the presence of fellow strugglers and the prayers of a few saints will provide us just enough warmth to relax—even if just for a moment. And we know we need that moment to relax. It is only then that we can take a step back and begin to see the cold for what it is: a passing season. It is only during our respite from the cold that we can honestly pour our hearts out before the God we stubbornly insist on believing still loves us. Our previous experience tells us that while some of these cold seasons are longer than others, the warmth of Christ’s church gives us a measure of the strength we need to endure.
If it’s a warm time for you, don’t be discouraged to discover others who are suffering through a cold spell around you. Take heart, for part of why they have come today is to share in your warmth. If it’s a cold time for you, don’t be exasperated by the praise and expressions of gratitude of those nearby, for they are a reminder of what it will be like once the seasons change in your life again.