Be an answer to prayer

I’m a “Pentecostal.”  That means I believe that the miraculous, supernatural power that Jesus promised his first disciples to heal the sick, raise the dead, and otherwise do his work here on earth is still available for his followers today.  Pentecostals believe that if we are truly following Jesus and devoted to being like him, we will be filled with the Holy Spirit, empowering us to do things that we can’t do on our own.

Unfortunately, we sometimes rely so much on the element of the supernatural that we sit around waiting for the miracle, and in so doing miss the opportunity to BE the answer to prayer ourselves.  We’ve become enthralled with manifestations of power, and end up missing an opportunity to manifest love.

Jesus’ first followers did amazing things through the power of the Holy Spirit, including healing many people of various diseases and infirmities, as well as raising people from the dead on multiple occasions.  However, they also saw prayers answered as they lived life together in Christian community.  God’s plan has always been that the world would come to know HIM through his followers loving one another–see “Greatest Commandment(s).”

Recently we had a friend who had a material need, and asked for Christian friends to pray with her for fulfillment of that need.  In similar situations, most Christians pray, and then sit around hoping for a mysterious envelope to arrive in the mail or the material good to fall from the sky (Amazon drone malfunction?).  But this time, we didn’t do that.  Instead, the friends realized that THEY could be an answer to prayer–and they took it upon themselves to team together to meet the need.  THEY became the answer to prayer.  Not to get all self-righteous, because it’s not that they were special.  Instead, they realized that God uses his church, his people, to meet the needs of others.

Just today I got to witness another miracle-but not one where God wrinkled the fabric of the natural world.  Instead, I watched God’s incredible timing bring a man with a talent together to help a lady with a desperate need.  He even said it was “no big deal at all.”  But he solved her unsolvable problem.  That’s a pretty big deal in my book!  It was a miracle because God orchestrated the timing, and because he was generous with what he had.

How many prayers go unfulfilled because, rather than using a supernatural event, God appointed one or more of his people to meet the need, yet they didn’t respond?  I don’t recall where I first heard the principle, but credit it to a former missionary I know:

If someone you know has a need, and you have the means to fulfill it, God most likely put that means in your hand to meet that need!

But we want to hold on to what we have, because we might need it, and instead expect the cosmic air force to fulfill the needs of others with emergency resupply drops.  We essentially pray and say “I’m believing that God will magically meet your need; but don’t ask me to act in faith that he’ll meet MY need if I meet yours out of my provision.”

Be somebody’s miracle.  It’s really not that hard.

Reflections on “How to Raise a Pagan Kid in a Christian Home”

I just read “How to Raise a Pagan Kid in a Christian Home”, and thought I’d share it, as well as add some thoughts of my own.  The article brings up some good points, and some that I’m guilty of in my own parenting.

I spent too much of my life telling my kids that my job was to ensure they “grew up to be productive members of our society.”  I was wrong, and my only defense is ignorance.  For most of my kids’ formative years, that was my understanding of life.  As the author linked above states, “The only problem with this goal is that it runs in stark contrast to what the Bible teaches.”  I didn’t realize that until about nine years ago.  See, God’s goal is not to teach morality or ethics, so that we can be strong, upright citizens.  I didn’t know that; in fact, I spent most of my life thinking that was the goal, and our reward for attaining the goal was a ticket to heaven.

The author quotes Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer, who said:

“We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true.”

That first sentence describes me, and everything I taught my kids (except I was pretty light on the third part–mine would probably read more accurately if you substituted “Sunday school stories and Veggie Tales” for “gospel”).  But I’m afraid that the author of the blog goes too light on what he proposes as the antidote.  He says:

“or do you teach your kids that they will never be good without Christ’s offer of grace? There is a huge difference. One leads to moralism; the other leads to brokenness. One leads to self-righteousness; the other leads to a life that realizes that Christ is everything and that nothing else matters.”

While I don’t disagree with his point, I think that his description of “Christ’s offer of grace” still points to a message of “personal salvation,” one that tells you that if you accept Christ as your personal savior, your sins are forgiven, and you get to go to heaven.

Jesus didn’t die so we could get a ticket to heaven.  Jesus didn’t preach personal salvation.  He preached the Kingdom of Heaven.  That’s not a ticket for your afterlife, that’s a new life, starting right now.

I believe that so much of the hopelessness we see in our world, particularly in kids raised in the church, is that we are told, “pray a prayer, get ‘saved,’ then after you die, God will make everything better.”  That’s not what the BIBLE says!  If you read the whole book, it’s not just a collection of morality tales, but a comprehensive story, a metanarrative of how the Creator God has planned since the beginning to make things right in his Creation, and how each one of us, under his Lordship, can participate in that story.

I made a mess of things when I tried to do it on my own, and when I tried to use God, the church, and Veggie Tales to make my kids “productive members of society.”  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got amazing, God-loving children, who have grown up to become productive members of society, and of whom I’m very proud.  However, I way too late in life discovered that “the Protestant work ethic and the American dream” weren’t enough.

What makes my life exhilarating, and fully worth living is the fact that God wants me to be a part of his Kingdom, that he made a way for me to not only be a member, but to be an active participant in the Greatest Story, the one where he brings his fallen Creation back to relationship with him.  That purpose was what I was looking for all my life, and only recently discovered.  My hope is that my kids have that same purpose, and that other parents out there can raise their kids with The Story, rather than just the “ethics and reward” lessons I taught.

“Squirrel!”

So it seems in my random musings that I have at least two threads of thought started, both of which I promised to continue to develop in coming posts.  That said, I’m not thinking linear at all lately in any aspect of my life, so why should this place be any different.  My wife has picked up the analogy of traffic lights to describe her current state of being…  In that vein, my life, my thoughts, my world seems to be analogous to a traffic circle–I’m in it, I’m going around, but there’s no signs to mark the streets that branch off the circle, and I’m not sure what my destination is anyway.  (If I still haven’t convinced you, just look at the total disconnect from the previous posts, to the title of this post, to the totally unrelated analogy above).

My post today is nothing more than grabbing a quote from a book I’m reading:  Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  I’m only vaguely familiar with Bonhoeffer’s work, and have been wanting to read this biography for a couple of years now.  For those of you who, like me, don’t know much about him, here’s the short version:  Born around the turn of the 20th century to an elite German family; afforded the most privileged upbringing and education, this genius chose to pursue theology, wound up as an amazing scholar who also turned out to be a great pastor (an uncommon pairing), who lost his life as a result of his participation in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler.

I’m still early in the book; the excerpt below is from a lecture he delivered in his early 20s, to a high-school aged crowd on a Tuesday night (says something of his pastoral abilities to be able to get high-schoolers to church on a weeknight).

“One admires Christ according to aesthetic categories as an aesthetic genius, calls him the greatest ethicist; one admires his going to his death as a heroic sacrifice for his ideas. Only one thing one doesn’t do: one doesn’t take him seriously. That is, one doesn’t bring the center of his or her own life into contact with the claim of Christ to speak the revelation of God and to be that revelation. One maintains a distance between himself or herself and the word of Christ, and allows no serious encounter to take place. I can doubtless live with or without Jesus as a religious genius, as an ethicist, as a gentleman — just as, after all, I can also live without Plato and Kant…. Should, however, there be something in Christ that claims my life entirely with the full seriousness that here God himself speaks and if the word of God once became present only in Christ, then Christ has not only relative but absolute, urgent significance for me…. Understanding Christ means taking Christ seriously. Understanding this claim means taking seriously his absolute claim on our commitment. And it is now of importance for us to clarify the seriousness of this matter and to extricate Christ from the secularization process in which he has been incorporated since the Enlightenment.”

80 years ago Bonhoeffer spoke to something that has become even more significant today.  Too often I compartmentalize Christ.  I fail to acknowledge through my priorities, my thoughts, and my actions his “absolute claim” on me.  I was somewhat shocked to see him calling out the failing of the “Enlightenment” almost a century ago.  And this isn’t some uneducated religious rube; by the time of this particular writing, he’d already earned his doctorate (at 22), studying under some of the preeminent liberal theologians of the modern era.

I am more certain than ever that my first response inside the pearly gates will be “Forgive me for underestimating you so completely.”

“You Can’t Have Faith Without Doubt”–the back-story

“You can’t have faith without doubt.”

That statement ought to get you thinking.  I know it did me.  I first heard it from our senior pastor, when our little church was embarking on an incredibly optimistic faith journey a few years back.  I grew up with the impression that doubt was a bad thing; a sign of weakness, of a failure of faith.  How could I not think that, when the church had branded one of Jesus’s closest companions as “doubting Thomas”–a branding so successful that the term is used in popular culture even by those who probably couldn’t tell you who Thomas was, or what heinous act he committed to be viewed with such disdain.  So, when this wise older scholar made the statement, I had to take some time to consider the thought.

First, Thomas got a bad rap.  If you’re not familiar with it, Thomas’s story is told in John 20:19-29.  Unfortunately for most Christians, we’ve read and heard the story so many times that we don’t really read it anymore, we skim it, and jump straight to the anticipated ending, along with all the afore-learned stereotypes.  In studying up on doubt, I took time to really savor this story, reading it as if for the first time, trying to witness it as if I’d never heard it before.

I’m going to refrain from delving too deep into the political and cultural climate of the story; suffice it to say that a full understanding of the climate makes the story much more powerful.  The over-simplified version is this:  Jesus’s closest followers were gathered together on Sunday evening.  Jesus had been crucified three days earlier.  They were afraid for their lives, and had every reason to be.  There were a few in their group who were claiming that they’d seen Jesus alive earlier that day–but people just don’t come back to life after they die.  But then again, some of this very same group had witnessed Lazarus come back to life (at Jesus’s command, no less!) after he’d been dead for four days.

A worthwhile detour with respect to the character of Thomas:  In the story of Lazarus’s resurrection, Jesus declares that he’s going back to Judea to Lazarus’s family.  He’d left Judea earlier to escape the religious leaders who were out to kill him. His disciples (names aren’t given, but the plural is used, so one would assume this was a group consensus) try to dissuade him because people will try to kill him.  When Jesus makes it clear that his purpose is in Judea, Thomas is recorded as saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  Essentially, Thomas tells the group that he’s committed enough to Jesus that if Jesus is going to do something that will likely get him killed, so be it, Thomas will be right there with him.  Hardly the words one would expect from the weak-minded stereotypical Thomas many of us were taught.

Back to Easter Sunday–that evening, the disciples were hiding together in a locked room.  These are not courageous men of faith; they’re not expecting a resurrected Jesus (realistically, you only can understand his teachings about his resurrection in the Gospels once you know that he rose from the grave.  The disciples didn’t get it until after it had happened, and only fully comprehended it after years of living in the fullness of the Holy Spirit).  If anything, they’re expecting a knock on the door, or a crash at the door, from the Temple guards or the Roman centurions, taking them all to their own cross.  Suddenly, in their midst (without anyone opening the door), Jesus appears and greets them.

Verse 20 has to be one of the most ignored verses in Scripture.  “After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”  I’m reading a little into the text based solely on the sequencing of the phrasing, but I’m guessing that if they were convinced he was the Lord as soon as he appeared, there would have been little need for him to show his scars.  I read this passage to indicate that he showed him his hands and side, then the disciples were overjoyed, because they then saw the Lord.   Even if my interpretation is inaccurate, the wording clearly indicates that Jesus showed his scars.

In verse 24, Thomas shows up (there has been much speculation throughout history has to why Thomas wasn’t there–most of it seems to be influenced by the underserved slam on his character.  Scripture indicates that the disciples came together that evening, meaning they hadn’t been together all day long.  Bottom line is we can’t read what isn’t there, and it’s inaccurate to judge Thomas negatively based on assumptions).  Jesus has departed prior to Thomas’s arrival, and Thomas walks into what must have been an incomprehensible scene:  His closest companions–all of them–are excitedly talking over one another insisting that Jesus, who had been crucified on Friday, had just been in their midst, very much alive, on Sunday night.  Here’s where Thomas’s story heads downhill in the minds of most:  His response to this excited gaggle’s claim “We have seen the Lord!”:  “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

Oh, “Doubting Thomas.”  Your friends have told you that the impossible has just happened.  Why don’t you believe them at their word?  Why do you insist on seeing the evidence…  that they saw?  Wait… read that again.  Jesus showed up, and displayed his scars, and the disciples recognized him and were overjoyed.  Thomas walks into this scene of overjoyed-ness (I can only imagine the pandemonium).  Could it be that the author of the Gospel left out some of the dialogue between the group’s claim, and Thomas’s response?  Could someone in the group (whom I imagine were all talking at once, sharing their radically excited, overjoyed news with their recently arrived friend) have said, “He showed us his hands and his side!” prior to Thomas’s recorded response?  While that is sheer speculation on my part, the record is very clear:  Thomas simply asked for the same evidence that the clamoring disciples had already seen for themselves.  And for that, we’ve impugned his character forever.

Thomas wasn’t some sort of faithless, spineless loser.  He was bold, and he was honest.  Sure, the witnesses were his friends, but their claim was incomprehensible and unprecedented (there are differences between Jesus’s resurrection and Lazarus’s–namely, Jesus commanded Lazarus’s resurrection–he couldn’t very well command his own, since he was the one that was dead!).  Nonetheless, that wasn’t enough for Thomas to “believe.”  As I discussed in my post “Contemplating Doubt,” the word translated as “believe” has a lot more depth to it than just agreement that a fact is true.  It means committing and acting on the basis of that truth, to the point that if in fact it’s not true, you are going to suffer significant consequences.  We’ve already seen that Thomas isn’t afraid to stake his very life on something that he truly believes.  Here, he just says, in essence, “I’m not convinced enough to be fully committed.”

Folks, that’s not a sin.  That’s wisdom.  A friend recently called it “intellectual integrity.”  That means that Thomas wasn’t putting on some sort of bogus religious mask to hide what he truly thought and felt, trying to appear all “churchy.”  Thomas didn’t say he refused to believe.  He didn’t say he believed the story was not true.  He just said what was truly on his mind–he wasn’t there yet.

We’ve all been in situations of doubt, and will be there again.  Doubt is real, it’s important, and it’s often mishandled by people who mean to help.  Instead of condemning doubt, either in the church, or in society at large, we need to be open about it.  This is contrary to what many of us have experienced in church, and it’s contrary to what is rewarded in our American culture.  But if “you can’t have faith without doubt,” and faith is a good thing, then isn’t doubt a good thing, a necessary thing?

Another perspective on doubt

I’ve got a half-written draft sitting in the ether, as a follow-up on my last article on doubt.  I’ll get to it, hopefully soon.  In the meantime, check this out. 

The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart

I don’t necessarily ascribe to all of Rachel’s perspective, but if nothing else this article gives great insight into how doubt has been mis-handled, and how we ought to take the time to listen.  I read her precisely because I don’t always agree with her, but because we all need to have fresh perspectives of others.

Contemplating Doubt

Last Sunday I was privileged to get to teach.  I love teaching, and have been given a gift to be able to teach well… or so I’ve been told.  My biggest challenge right now is that I don’t have a regular teaching venue, so when I am given the opportunity to teach, it’s generally one session.  But when I start preparing, I often end up with a 7 part series.  I love to study (stuff I’m interested in) and my brain can find itself off on incredible journeys in the midst of those studies, yielding lots to say about lots of stuff.  There’s probably more than a little wisdom in only giving me limited engagements.  This blog serves as an outlet for some of that pent-up teaching desire.  The good news is that you’re not stuck here, and you won’t be obvious if you get up and leave…  In fact, the stat tracker on this site doesn’t have any way of knowing if you read the whole thing, or if you’ve already surfed back out.  You already count as one of my dozen or so readers!

Last week’s topic was “Doubt.”  I’m not sure how I arrived at this topic; I started thinking about what I was going to teach, and one interesting thought led to another, which led to another, and pretty soon I had taken an interesting journey through many amazing places, winding up on this amazing topic, with no idea how I got there, and not completely sure how I was going to get back.  If you’ve ever been on a snowmachining adventure I’ve led, you can completely understand.

Two things made “doubt” a compelling topic:

1)  I’ve been reading a really interesting book called You Lost Me.  The book recounts results from a landmark study by the Barna Group, which looked at 16-29 year olds (the “Mosaic” generation) through the lens of faith.  Subtitled “Why Young Christians are Leaving Church… and Rethinking Faith,” the book provides tremendous insight into an intriguing and underappreciated generation.  (As an aside, if anyone is interested in reading it, I bought it through my Kindle app, and I can “loan” it to “anyone I choose” according to the Amazon website–if you’re interested in reading it let me know, and together we can discover how loaning e-books works.)  It turns out doubt hasn’t been handled well in church, and is a major factor in the tremendous decline of Christian faith in Mosaics.

2)  My wife sent me this well-written editorial shortly after the Sandy Hook shootings:  “Why, God?”  In it, the author reprints a letter written by a Catholic priest in response to the title question.  The priest’s bold, insightful answer:  “I don’t know.”  BRAVO!

Over the years, Christianity has often held up doubt as the opposite of faith.  I can see how this occurred, but it’s not accurate.  In fact, doubt, or the potential for doubt, is a necessary ingredient for faith.  Faith, or pisteuo in Greek, is also often translated in the Bible as “believe,” which is unfortunate, because “believe” doesn’t capture the full meaning of pisteuo.  We use the word “believe” to mean “mental assent”–I agree that something is correct or true–I believe it.  I can even believe someone by giving my mental assent to what they’re saying.  But pisteuo has a much deeper meaning than mere “mental assent.”  For someone to have faith, they must not only give mental assent, but they must act on that belief as if it were true, and must have some element of risk associated with that belief.  I can believe (mental assent) I can fly by flapping my arms, I can even act on it by standing on the ground flapping furiously, but I don’t have faith in that belief until I jump off the roof and try to fly.  Silly analogy, but hopefully it helps clarify the distinction.

Doubt, in the Greek, is apisteuo, or “not-faith”.  This is an inadequate translation though, because it is certainly not the opposite of faith.  I characterize doubt as a condition where the three elements of mental assent, trust, and risk are not fully developed.  For instance, you might doubt the assertion, meaning you are not ready to assent to its veracity.  Or, you might think something is true, but you’re not so confident in your belief that  you’re willing to act on it, or to take a risk based on that belief.  This is doubt.  It’s not wrong, it’s not weak, it’s just not fully bought in. Doubt is a difficulty reconciling seemingly contradictory concepts.

Doubt isn’t a defect.  It’s normal.  In fact, it’s a necessary ingredient.  One of the most profound statements I have heard in years comes from my senior pastor, who said “you can’t have faith without doubt.”  Doubt is not the problem in our world today.  The problem with doubt is we often mishandle it….

The Falseness of Dichotomies

I took a break from this blog for a while.  Seemed like everyone needed a cooling off period after the election.  I had a lot to say, but am trying to practice a very unnatural behavior for me–listening more, and telling less.  So I’ve been working a lot in the past month or so on listening (or more accurately, observing–engaging all of my perceptions to try to better understand).  One of the most significant observations I’ve made involves dichotomies.  I’ve been considering writing about this topic for weeks, but hadn’t fully formed the idea, so I kept observing, with the intent of developing a complete understanding of the idea, and the key learnings from the idea, which I would then inscribe in the electrons so that all could share in this well-packaged lesson.  Unfortunately, the writing style and underlying thought patterns of my 9th grade English teacher (thesis statement, three main points, each with three to four neatly packaged sub-points, all proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the thesis is true and fully described) just can’t seem to encapsulate the many branches, inconsistencies, dependencies, and variation of the idea rolling around in my head.  So, I’m giving up on neat packaging, and instead I’m going to embark on a thought-journey.  This will transpire across multiple posts–don’t know how many, how frequently, or, unfortunately the exact course it’s going to take.

Lest you think you’ve stumbled onto the digital footprints of a meandering fool, wandering aimlessly with no purpose or destination, I do have an objective for this journey.  I intend, when I’m done, to be better at  loving mankind (and thereby loving God).  I am going to continue to follow the compass that God gave me when I started this blog–the two quotes at the top of the page:  “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness” and “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Before I digress even further off course, let’s get to the topic at hand:  Dichotomy.  Dictionary.com defines the word as:

  1. division into two parts, kinds, etc.; subdivision into halves or pairs, or
  2. division into two mutually exclusive, opposed, or contradictory groups: a dichotomy between thought and action.

That same website goes further to cite the entry from Britannica.com (who knew Britannica still existed?):

(from Greek dicha, “apart,” and tomos, “cutting”), a form of logical division consisting of the separation of a class into two subclasses, one of which has and the other has not a certain quality or attribute…. On the principle of contradiction this division is both exhaustive and exclusive; there can be no overlapping, and no members of the original genus or the lower groups are omitted. This method of classification, though formally accurate, has slight value in the exact sciences, partly because at every step one of the two groups is merely negatively characterized and is usually an artificial, motley class.

So where am I going with all this?  There is a strong tendency in human thought, particularly Western human thought (as opposed to Eastern thought–a dichotomy in and of itself, pointed out here as an example) to classify and characterize everything in an attempt to better understand it. (If you want to dig deeper, do some research into the closely related concept of binary opposition.  If you want to go really deep, I highly recommend the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman).  If you don’t want to do a lot of research, I’ll summarize (and somewhat overgeneralize) to say that we tend to be very efficient in processing the infinite amount of information we are constantly exposed to.  Our nature is to quickly analyze a thought, event, or person, and quickly classify them into a category, or series of categories.  Generally, these categories are mutually exclusive, which further enables us to place value judgments on the thought, event, or person.  In many situations, this is a useful process–back to the very basic friend/foe survival instincts.

What’s the problem?  While useful at the basic level of information processing, it can become dangerous when it precludes higher levels of thinking.  All of us witnessed examples of this (most likely externally and internally) during the recent US election cycle.  Red/blue, liberal/conservative, right/wrong…  the extreme occurred when red/blue became viewed as black/white; as polar opposites, rather than variations in a spectrum.

To avoid turning this into a political thread, let’s look at another potentially divisive issue in current events.  The news has been filled in recent weeks with brutal, unexplainable death.  Whether it’s the Samantha Koenig abduction/killing here in Alaska, the Jessica Ridgeway abduction and murder in Colorado, the Jovan Belcher murder/suicide in Kansas City, or this week’s brutal killing of innocent children in Connecticut, our universal reaction is to classify the perpetrator as evil, and to look for an easy explanation which will allow us to place the event and the perpetrator in a neat category so we can process the situation and move on.  Guns? Violent video games?  Poor parenting?  See, if we can place the cause in a nice, neat category, we can then either eliminate it, avoid it, or at least judge it.

I’m probably the most judgmental person I know.  I classify people all day long, starting with the commute to work each morning.  When I am not vigilant about my overwhelming tendency to make binary decisions, I can quickly categorize everyone I encounter throughout the day as incompetent, self-serving idiots, who are terrible drivers.  But, when I get to know those people, I find out that they’re not so easily characterized.

I’m going to close today’s post with an example from the headlines.  Jovan Belcher was a football player for my favorite sports team in the entire world, the Kansas City Chiefs.  Most of you had never heard of him until two weeks ago, when he made national news by shooting and killing his girlfriend and mother of his 3 month old daughter, then driving to the Chiefs practice facility, and in front of team leadership, pointing his gun at his own head and taking his life.  Many were quick to categorize Belcher:  murderer.  Evil.  Monster.  Some went so far as to pronounce that his suicide was a good thing.

I didn’t know Jovan, but I knew of him.  He had a great story.  Undrafted, worked his way up to starter.  Set the example on the field and at practice for his dedication and work ethic, his passion.  None of that excuses what he did.  But if you read much more than the headlines following that tragic event two weeks ago, you found that his teammates, many of whom were close not only to Jovan, but also to his girlfriend, were torn.  They couldn’t classify him as an evil monster.  They knew him.  They went so far as to say that they had no indication that he was capable of such brutality.  When it became personal, it wasn’t easy to categorize the man.

I’m going to stop here for today, with a request:  be aware this coming week to the dichotomies you use to make judgments and decisions.  How many of them are legitimate?  How many are oversimplifications?