Fragile Faith and a House of Cards

I’ve been thinking about worldviews and Christianity, in particular. In all honesty, the topic fascinates me to no end, despite me being on the receiving end of a profound couple of worldview challenges over the course of my life. There is almost nothing more disorienting than realizing that your worldview is too small, or, worse still, wrong.

I had my own disorienting “valley of the shadow of death” moment back in college. Cliche, I know. “Next, you’ll be telling us the sky is blue and water’s wet.” I mean, sure, it is, but sometimes cliches are there for a reason. Anyway, being a Bible major, meant I was wrestling with theology daily – from all different traditions of Christian history. I found myself at one point staring at a metaphorical pile of cards where what I thought was my faith had been. It had, in my mind, been an unassailable fortress of belief and right doctrine. Everything had a place and answer… and then my professors walked through and plucked out or shifted the cards one by one. My reading began to shift the table under the house of cards, and new forms of worship opened up as I traveled with our choir to different churches and had devotions with an Anglican friend out of the Book of Common Prayer.

This to say I still cling to orthodoxy (“right doctrine”) and orthopraxy (“right doing”), but the object of my trust has shifted. To say that I trust God now would sound, to most of us, a little odd. But, looking back, I think that was my problem. I trusted the system I had, rather than trusting the One that system described. When my system was challenged, and my house of cards fell, what was left was a person, a God who was smiling at me like a father whose child has just realized playing cards don’t make a sturdy house. And so I began wrestling – which has a long Biblical tradition in Jacob, whose name was even changed to “God struggles with” or “struggles with God.” That wrestling took me through church history, through modern theological thoughts, back to the church fathers, and through recent discoveries and scholarship on 1st Century Jewish life.

I’ve heard of so many Christians that have a trust in God based on a list of “provable facts” and some basic apologetic work who found themselves in a dark place when confronted by a worldview or counterpoint that challenges these basic beliefs. Many overcome this by realizing that our trust is in God, not in rhetoric or some tightly-constructed system of thinking. Some, though, if challenged on one belief, begin to question other beliefs and can drift into agnosticism as their house of cards collapses around them.

It’s okay to doubt, to question, to dialogue with God and others. The Bible isn’t particularly concerned about doubt – see Abraham, Job, David, etc. What the Bible seems to care about more is who is being doubted. Notice that the names listed above are still heroes celebrated for their faith, despite their moments of doubt. These people and many in the Bible like them are examples that God can take doubt, He can handle questions. God works with insecurity. One of the biggest complaints from naturalists of religion is that we believe regardless of facts. I take issue with this, a little. We believe because we trust, the other way around can lead to shaky ground.

Is your trust in a system of theology, or in the One that system describes? It can be hard to confront when we realize our theology is getting in the way of our trusting God. I may not subscribe to someone else’s theological blueprint, but I can celebrate those commonalities that we can affirm together as we worship, praise, and serve as one Body.

If you had to really think about it, where is your faith (read trust) centered: on a system of belief, or on the One that system describes? What do you model to your children? How are you introducing your children to God, and not just a system of belief?

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The Nashville Statement, Injured By Lateness

Being raised in a small business family meant I heard the pithy idioms of business such as, “What are the three most important things for any business? Location, location, location.” The point being that where a business is located can make or break it – considering things like entrances, ease of vehicle traffic, easily visible, etc. To this day I will pass by businesses and even some churches and think – “does anyone even know this is here?” Or “I’d love to stop there, but I’d never be able to get back out onto the road!”

On top of those business concerns, timing is everything. When to launch an advertising campaign – or for real estate people, when to purchase property and when to sell. Buy too early, and you’re stuck paying property taxes for years before any profits are made, and buy too late and your profit margin is cut precipitously.

I say all of this to make a broader point about timing and making broad statements like the now “infamous” (in secular, and some Christian circles) “Nashville Statement.” If you haven’t read the Statement, and would like to before I spoil the ending, click here.

Personally, theologically, I agree with the statement. See this post. And also this one. I think the language could probably use some tweaking to be less… I don’t know… legal-sounding? This document is trying to come off like some new Declaration of Independence, and might have seen more widespread acceptance even five years ago.

Here’s why the timing was off on this one. Many LGBT+ individuals and those who support them are feeling pressure from the current government. They feel attacked by recent Presidential statements and orders, such as the military transgender ban, and suddenly the Evangelical branch of the church decides to release this statement that they have seen as attacking them and their way of life. I realize that it takes time to write what some may feel needs to be an ironclad statement covering every single base, but the timing feels almost as if the church is backing up the government’s efforts to push against this group. And if these groups that feel attacked already distrust the church, they will certainly not love it more now.

I realize that there are some who will come back at me with verses that talk about the world hating Jesus and the Church. I understand that there are some verses that talk about people hearing what they want to and disregarding truth and orthodoxy. I am aware of the verses that talk about contention between the Church and the world. I understand the concept of “tough love.”

I am also aware of the the commissioning from Jesus to be “fishers of men.” And a good fisherman knows you don’t fish without bait. Right now it seems like we’re trying to catch fish with dynamite – which most certainly kills the fish in the process.

I am not saying to toss out orthodoxy. I am not saying to disregard Scripture for the sake of comfort. I am not advocating that the Statement itself is wrong – just the timing. Do we, as the Church, want to be seen as colluding with the government? (I don’t think the Church is, particularly, but it may seem that way for those outside the Church.) Christians need to be very careful feeling safe under any government. Christians need to be especially careful of feeling in control of any government, which is the moment Christians tend to become targets of manipulation.

To sum up – I don’t disagree with the affirmations in the Statement, but I disagree with the timing and feel it has been put out during a time when Evangelical Christians feel safer to say things boldly, instead of during a historical moment when it would have been more costly, say, during the previous presidency. In other words, this Statement was a little late, and may have come across as tone-deaf and lacking tact.

How do you live out your affirmations in a way that is bold, grace-filled, and backed by Scripture? When have you had a situation that waited too long before being addressed and became more difficult to discuss? How did it turn out? What conversations about faith or life have you been putting off with your kids?

Halfway There, Livin on a Prayer

I’ve been trying out some different ways of praying – both for myself and with my kids. For myself, I’ve added in some disciplines like fasting, kneeling, silence, written prayer, and reading Scripture out loud. It seems like a long, holy list, but it’s not really. With my kids, though, we’ve been trying silence, drawing prayer, writing prayer, journaling, receiving blessings, giving blessings, kneeling, bowing, standing, creating praise banners, writing God Valentines, laying decorated crowns at the foot of the cross, and many others.

All of this came from a short 1hr session I sat through at Savannah Christian Church, now called Compassion Christian Church. The children’s ministers started off by saying, “Try this before you knock it. It sounds crazy, but it works.” They then proceeded to explain how kids could engage in deep, thoughtful prayer in a way I had never considered. Suddenly, I wondered how much I was shortchanging my own kids. So, I tried it out. And, turns out, those children’s ministers aren’t crazy. I watched as elementary aged kids from Kindergarten-4th grade sat in silence and meditated on a short Scripture verse. I experienced the pin-drop quiet of a group of 10 4th-6th graders led themselves through 5 prayer stations based on Gideon’s and Mary’s experience of being approached by God with a mission. Kids get it. Kids want to engage with God on a deeper level than we often give them credit for.

So why bring up prayer? Because we take it for granted. Consider what it would be like to have a direct cell phone line to the President of the United States, or the President of the European Union. What kind of responsibility would you feel holding that kind of powerful connection? We have a direct line to the maker of the universe and sometimes we treat it like washing dishes – a chore that needs to get done.

There is wonder in prayer and worship. There is awe in sitting in the silence and letting the beauty and magnificence of the great and mighty God wash over us as we realize our own smallness in comparison to His love, wisdom, and power. What joy there is in contemplating our own forgiveness and belovedness in our Father’s eyes, that He would go through so much effort to seek after us. Imagine for a moment being in the place of the blind beggar, crying out to Jesus and receiving exactly what you need, and discovering something even greater! Put yourself in the shoes of Mary who, beholding Jesus in his resurrected beauty, cannot help but stand in helpless, awestruck joy upon their first meeting!

In prayer we find ourselves in these places and more! We find ourselves faced with a task bigger than we can imagine like Moses facing a burning bush. We discover something worth dragging others to, like Philip and Nathaniel.

We are a people held in an overwhelming tide of love and mercy which can only be reciprocated in tiny, small gestures. But the God on high receives these gestures with the smile of a parent placing a preschooler’s artwork on their fridge. We wan’t buy love like that, or earn it. No. This kind of love is eternal, giving, sharing, inviting, freely given.

This is what prayer does. Kids want to give themselves to the God they see in Jesus. They want a deeper connection. And, as Jesus often pointed out, a child-like faith is something we should all strive for. I watch children give their all to Jesus each Sunday morning. And, you can see them give their all by giving them a chance to experience something out of the ordinary.

One resource that might help with this – and I give this with some hesitation as I have not finished the book yet – is Imaginative Prayer. It contains a year-long prayer journey that uses your child’s imagination to engage with Scripture and its teachings. This resource is probably best for children 3rd-6th grade.

How does prayer look in your home? How are you engaging your children to experience Jesus in deeper, richer ways?

Scattered, Smothered, and Covered

The title here could mean two things: one, being lost and drowning, or maybe you’re just hungry and found yourself at a Waffle House. The past few weeks have been rough mentally for me. I feel like physically I could have spent the time doing manual labor and still feel fine. There is just something about mental and emotional exhaustion that begins to suck the life out of… well, life. Actually, maybe there’s one more meaning to the title today…

I was struck this morning by a book I’m reading: The Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren. I try not to judge books by the cover, but the cover drew me in. The title is superimposed on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich laying open on a green background. I think I brought up the idea a few years ago of this very sandwich being, in a way, a form of the Lord’s Supper (bread and fruit of the vine – grapes.) I was intrigued as to whether or not someone else had come to that same conclusion.  I haven’t gotten to that chapter yet, but a different idea hit home.

When Jesus was baptized, before he had done anything of note or miraculous, God called out from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Before Jesus did anything, God proclaimed love for him. God loved Jesus for who he is. Can you see where I’m going yet?

We love people based on who they are, not what they do. I was thinking this morning about what drew me to my wife. I came up with her spirit is what drew me in. It’s a hard thing to describe precisely who someone is. Her likes, dislikes, personality, whims, goals, and every other trait make up who she is. And that her-ness drew from me love, respect, joy, and commitment. I love her for who she is before anything she does.

God is the same way. He loves us from the word “Go.” I imagine this is much like being a parent. It’s now less than a month (give or take) before I get to meet my daughter. I already love her. I love her for existing, even if I have only seen glimpses of her and her personality. Suddenly, Little Bit has the love of so many people and she’s only just begun existing at all. Our own baptism, ,regardless of when it happened, is a moment when God’s grace is spoken over us before we have really done anything.

I don’t know about you, but I enjoy being liked. I relish the feeling that people see that I’m doing a good job. But what’s more important is that I have people that like and love me regardless of the job I do. I don’t have to work myself to death to bring them happiness or joy. I just have to be me. It may be one of the most comforting thoughts to think about God’s grace and how His love doesn’t depend on my actions. Even reading Hosea’s pronouncement of coming punishment to Israel, there is a sense of hurt, of love, of a longing for God’s people to simply come back to Him.

So, I guess even when I’m scattered, I’m still smothered and covered in God’s love and grace. Sure, it may be cheesy, but sometimes love is too. And I think love tastes a little like Velveeta, but your mom may have used something different in your grilled cheeses growing up.

How do your children know you love them for who they are? What moments to you use to reinforce that idea? How do you tie in your love as being similar to God’s?

Torches At Night, In The South

This past Friday and Saturday, America had a distressing moment of deja vu. Torches were lit by white men dissatisfied by the results of the Civil War. For anyone who knows their history… there is no doubt what message was being sent. As if the past one hundred fifty years decided all at once to remind us of all of their darkness and pain, many of us watched in horror as Swastikas flew beside Confederate flags in protest of a statue being moved… not destroyed… moved.

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I have heard more than once from commentators and conversations the question, “What year is it?” Some WWII veterans that we have left and children of WWII veterans are wondering, like Captain America in Winter Soldier, whether the war they fought and the sacrifices they made had any lasting impact. Those that lived through the tumultuous 60s are wondering if their marching and activity left any lasting impact and whether or not they’ll need to head out again in defense of those without power.

I… Honestly I am just heartbroken and dismayed to the point of near-despair over this one. I look at the faces in the pictures and I see young men my age or even younger. I see young men who have had their college paid for by loving families with enough means. I see young men who have had nice clothes purchased for them by others. I see young men who, in many respects, have had everything handed to them, whether they realize it or not… And in these ways, I see myself… I realize that I have not had to work as hard as others to get to where I am today. I am grateful. Truly.

But what also breaks my heart is the phrase, “both sides.” In this instance… there aren’t two sides. At some point this may have been about free speech, but part of free speech is also facing the dialogue and realizing the wrongness of toxic ideas that will only poison society. White nationlism/supremacy is and has been a dangerous idea. At the same time it claims a position of power and powerlessness. It willfully ignores the privileges it has while denouncing the ability of the other to reach for those same privileges.

Is this about Confederate history? Not anymore. When actual Nazi flags are being flown in front of General Lee, General Lee no longer stands for honor, states’ rights, and a bygone era. He now stands for a philosophy so ugly and damaging that the world went to war with it. A symbol’s meaning is not static. Symbols are dynamic, meaning that they change and shift over time depending on the culture surrounding them. Just as the swastika was originally an Asian symbol of peace, enlightenment, and the sun, many cultures in the West today see it as a symbol of genocide, hatred, and domination.

Part of what I saw at this rally was a collection of embittered young men who have lost all direction to their lives. They were sold a bill of goods that society couldn’t follow through on. They were told that they could get a degree, start a career, purchase a house, and stay in their career until they retired at 55… no, wait, 65… no, wait, 75. But today’s world isn’t working that way. Most people in my generation will change careers at least once, maybe two or three times. The economy is shifting due to technological advances that have very little to do with immigration. Suddenly, the bill of goods falls through an hundreds of disaffected, drifting men descend on a town in Virginia to feel like they are part of something bigger. (

I’m not making excuses for this behavior, though. Turning to racism to justify one’s own insecurities is inexcusable. Turning to violence to squelch dissent is also inexcusable. Despite cries of “this isn’t racism,” I have to disagree and say that, yes, it is in fact about racism.

I’ve also heard the phrase “this isn’t America.” I’m sorry to burst that bubble, but this is America. This is the dark America that has been festering underneath the surface since our inception. I will agree that this isn’t our ideal of America. No, America ideally is a place of equality in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Instead, we are a people, sorely divided, broken, sinful, and selfishly clinging to our own view of the world in order to feel at ease with the world around us.

This also goes back to my post about gender. Consider that most men are taught to feel only one emotion: anger. Any other emotions besides victorious joy and shame are implied to be “incompatible” with manhood. So when faced with the sadness, frustration, and confusion of a rapidly changing world that promises nothing, these men fall back on their one emotion, anger, and channel it into a cause.

It’s taken me a while to formulate this post, and even now I still feel like it’s a jumbled mess of thoughts tossed out in frustration

Your children will probably hear about all of this one way or another. Have you thought about how you will talk about it? We can all agree, I hope, that we should name and shame white supremacy, white nationalism, Nazism, and racism in general. After that conversation, maybe put to rest their fear and comfort them that they are safe. Maybe discuss your views on how protesting works. Discuss your views on how to love your neighbor and what that looks like. Maybe plan a service project where you go out and help others.

And for future conversations down the road: Have you figured out your own viewpoint on the Civil War and its main players? How will you discuss racism with your children? How are you preparing them for entering the adult world, and what promises are you repeating?

These are not easy conversations, because often times it requires us to remove the plank in our own eye before addressing another issue. It requires us to do some self-reflection and really sort out how we view others and what we expect out of life. It also requires us to run to God, to pray, and then pray some more.

 

Everything is Terrible and My Life Is A Mess!

I’ve been dealing with stress on a large scale lately. Nothing life-threatening, but there are days I stare at my computer screen or to-do list and wonder who’s going to do all of this. The frustrating thought that occurs after these staring sessions is that, yes, I have to get them done.

I’ve gotten some encouragement lately, though, from some unlikely sources. See, Abraham was homeless. Moses changed careers 2 times. Ruth had to date again after her first marriage. Job lost everything. Jesus only lived until age 33, well, the first time, anyway.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, “That’s not encouraging. Those are all terrible things to have to deal with!” You’d be right. They are pretty terrible. Then again, consider the hope that acknowledging God brings. All of those people found themselves smack dab in the middle of God’s grace and mercy. Each found God’s faithfulness in the midst of their darkest moments.

No matter what we face, God’s faithfulness doesn’t run out. Even the Israelites, who were told flat out that they would run after idols and selfishness and turn their backs on God were promised that after their hearts broke, they could turn back to God and He would restore them into something even greater than before – a people who would have God’s law written on their hearts.

So when you’ve done the millionth load of laundry, or when you’re facing down an Everest-sized to-do list, or you’ve come face to face with one more person demanding your attention and patience, remember that God’s faithfulness doesn’t run out. Remember that stress will pass – if we hand it over to God. Cast your cares on Him, for He cares for you. Don’t be anxious about anything, pray about everything. The King is on His throne, and is ready to grant peace.

Take a moment today to pray over the small things. Pray with your family. Ask for peace. Ask for grace and patience. Model to your kids what it looks like to seek after God, even when you don’t feel like you have time.

Gender: Another Straight, White, Male Perspective

If you haven’t noticed yet, these posts usually end up dealing with something that comes up in my daily conversations. When I begin hearing about issues from friends and relatives and not just online sources and media, I realize that maybe throwing my hat in the ring could help someone navigate an issue, or at least help someone think through something. And today I am going to lay down on the metaphorical hand grenade that is gender.

I have a little girl on the way. I cannot tell you how excited I am to raise a little girl. I already know she will be the light of my life and that even though we haven’t touched directly, she’s already wrapping my heart around her finger. I have gotten the question posed to me several times, “Aren’t you worried about raising a little girl?” Honestly, no. I have seen so many amazing women role models in my life that are in my family or go to my church that raising a girl seems like a natural thing.

Recently I have come across a slightly worrying trend in parenting that involves letting a child pick their own gender. For one, the effort involved in raising a gender-neutral child seems enormous to me, if for no other reason that making a decision of language that might feel unnatural to most. From an educational perspective, I question whether it is helpful to allow a child to grow without that helpful structure. Consider that the human brain isn’t fully formed until a persons 20s, and the idea of letting children decide something as monumental as gender seems less than ideal. Even if we all end up some day with the position that gender is a societal construct, gender, and other societal constructs, do help to create order and smooth interactions between persons and groups. Dismissing something because it is a construct is akin to dismissing city planning or architectural plans as inconsequential. Sure, we can build a city without those things, but it won’t be nearly as organized or substantial.

I think one of the biggest issues facing society today in gender issues is the falling out over what masculinity is. (Yes, of course the straight, white male would say masculinity’s the problem.) Basically, masculinity fashioned itself as the anti-femininity for so long that once women began to step out and fill those roles, men found themselves trying to develop a philosophy on a negative. Instead of hearkening back to the positives of ancient masculinity – courage, curiosity, grit, loyalty, etc – society fell back to the negatives of primal man – aggression, anger, greed, hunger for power, hard-headedness – and in return we got the rise of machismo culture and what some call “toxic masculinity.” Considering that the male role models in my own life have none of these traits, it does beg the question, how do we then define masculinity?

For me, it comes down to the argument between traits and roles. I will argue for one and against the other. Roles are expectations set on a person either by themselves or society. Both genders have these roles, and when a man or woman is incapable of filling that role, he or she finds a gap, a hole, a chasm filled with disappointment and disillusionment. Suddenly, a stay-at-home dad who works his tail off taking care of a home and kids, hardly getting time to himself gets unfairly labeled as a failure and lazy because he isn’t out making money. Or maybe a woman who isn’t a mother and wishes to focus on her career is unfairly characterized as cold, calculating, uncaring because of her desire to put off or forego motherhood. These, and many other roles, often come with unfair expectations, and I am completely ok with some of these roles getting the “gender neutral” treatment so that it won’t matter which gender fills them, as long as the family continues to function.

Traits, on the other hand, I will argue for all day. There are, in my view, masculine and feminine traits. And, in agreement with Eastern thought, I see each person as having some traits from both columns. Personally, I understand how I come off to others even in my own field. I am a Children’s Minister who dresses well, enjoys cooking and writing, is not exceedingly athletic, and who is compassionate, thoughtful, and polite. I have been asked by fellow children’s ministers, after some strange looks, whether or not I was using children’s ministry as a pathway to being a lead pastor. I would often smile, say, “No, I really enjoy building the next generation,” and watch their minds try to wrap around that thought. I can be a man, with all the virtues of manhood, and yet still have feminine traits that allow me to care for my family and my kids at church. Consider that God, who is most clearly shown in Jesus, exhibited both masculine and feminine traits. He was remarkably firm, showed tough love, and suffered through immense pain with a perseverance and toughness that many of the strongest men might shrink from confronting. He was also kind, compassionate, and unwilling to harm those who were vulnerable. He sat children on his knee, he allowed women to care for his needs like shelter and food, and taught indiscriminately using words that still speak to us today. Instead of throwing out gender entirely, let’s instead do the hard work of developing a concept of manhood and womanhood based on traits rather than roles, allowing men and women to inhabit their God-given character traits without judgment.

From here on out, I will be assuming a Christian perspective, that I hope is at least fair and well-considered. How often do we hear people and not listen? I am beginning to realize that as often as I hear people, I am not really listening. Sure, I can probably tell you exactly what you said, and how it applies to the conversation. I might even understand some of the inside jokes or allusions you put in your sentences. Yet, when I hear a complaint or a criticism, I may not listen for the underlying issue. I am beginning to listen for the underlying questions and concerns involved in this gender discussion. The questions underlying everything else is, “Who am I?” It’s one of the most basic human questions along with: “Why am I here?” and “How, then, shall I live?” The question is one of identity. As our Western way of thinking has become more and more individualistic, we have begun to lose the sense that society is a good. Instead, the instinct is to go against society, to hole up within ourselves and find a small segment of society that allows us to feel comfortable and safe. This further fragmenting of society creates smaller and smaller cells which see one another as, at best, loose associates or, at worst, enemies. Our political discussion nowadays seems a great example of how neither side can have a discussion because both sides feel threatened by the other. Relative truth creates a scenario where discussion breaks down because neither side can even agree on facts. The individual is supreme, and society is an evil to be avoided for all of its rules and expectations. So what happens when, instead of interacting with society, we demonize it? We create generations of individuals who value themselves over family, over groups, over society – and without those support structures, identity is… difficult to construct. Another idea that I ran into from Eastern media is that an individual has no sense of self unless confronted with an “other.” In other words, we define ourselves against someone or something else. Our identity builds itself off of accepting or rejecting what we see in the world around us, and society, at its best, is the historical accumulation of “best practices” in identity and group construction.

So at the end of the day the problem will not be solved with any magic bullet solution, but rather hard work, compassion, curiosity, love, and patience. We must learn to live with a more complex manhood and womanhood that has a place for traits, but that still celebrates the differences between the genders. The godly life is lived in tension. We live in a tension between male and female, between the individual and society. When we attempt to erase complexity, a dangerous simplicity arises. That tension comes from accepting who we are, who God made us to be, and then collaborating with those that are different from us. The greatest picture of God we have is when men and women are working together. God created each of us to inhabit a piece of the picture of God, and we can only share the full picture in a collection of others who have different traits, ideas, and talents.

I know I don’t often land on solutions, because I think simple solutions to complex problems often turn out to be disingenuous and lack long-term effectiveness. If we are going to continue to live and work as the church, we must begin the process of giving up ourselves and submitting to our King, Jesus. We must die to self, set aside our own desires and pride and find our identity first in Christ.

How have you handled gender in your own home? How do conversations about how God made each of us tend to go in your house? What can you do today to better show God’s love through the traits, talents, and relationships you have?