Back to My Nets

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Peter

I have always felt a strong bond with the biblical character of Peter, one of Jesus followers in the New Testament.  The first time we meet Peter is in Matthew chapter 4.  Peter is a fisherman, the family business.  Like all Hebrew boys, he had done his time in religious school as a small child.  During that time, he learned large sections of the Torah (the Old Testament).

Maybe he stopped after he memorized the first five books, like most Jewish children.  Maybe he promoted and memorized all of the rest.  We don’t know.  But we do know that by the time he met Jesus he had stopped that schooling, meaning that he wasn’t judged good enough to continue.  He would never be found worth carrying the yoke, or teachings, of a rabbi, and no rabbi would assume that Peter would ever be good enough to follow him and learn to do the things the rabbi did.  He just wasn’t good enough.

We don’t know what Peter’s thoughts about all of this were.  Certainly somewhere in the back of his mind he had imagined that he could someday be a famous rabbi, commanding the attention of everyone and gathering followers who had traveled for days in order to hear him speak.  The rabbis of that day were like baseball or movie stars today.  I imagine young Hebrew boys in their backyards, instead of batting at some makeshift ball, playing Sanhedrin with the neighbor kids and making supreme religious judgments as their parents looked on, smiling at their words and at their own beautiful dreams for their children.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, becoming an apprentice fisherman under his dad had to have been a disappointment.  I bet that his parents had put a smiling face on it.  They had all really known that this is how things would end up, but still they had hoped.  Going into the family business isn’t usually the dream of small boys, especially when it is something as inglorious as fishing.  Peter settled into the life that everyone assumed he would always live.

But then, some random Thursday, a rabbi who was achieving sudden stardom amid reports of miracles approaches.  Peter hadn’t seen him on TV, but the rumor mill preceded Jesus travel.  This rabbi looks at Peter and says, “Follow me.”  Peter’s response isn’t surprising in this light.  Someone great was looking at Peter and saying, ‘you are worthy. I believe in you.’  Maybe Peter could achieve what everyone always knew he couldn’t.

Failing

Peter dealt repeatedly in the New Testament with failure.  He was always getting into some kind of trouble.  I am often amused by the fact that in every story of the New Testament where Peter, a fisherman,  and a boat are mentioned, he is failing at his nautical task.  Whether he is simply using a boat as transportation or he is fishing, he is failing at the job.  Even in the later New Testament, Peter is getting into trouble with Paul for taking some controversial stands.

Peter also has some great triumphs, and ultimately Peter stands as one on the list of the most influential men in history.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Peter gives the very first evangelistic sermon.  Peter is one of the most celebrated martyrs.  Peter wrote several books in the New Testament, and Catholics hold Peter up as the first Pope.

But all indications are that Peter constantly battled with feelings of failure.  When Jesus walks on the water, and Peter jumps out to the boat to meet Jesus, he sinks.  I had always assumed that Peter doubted Jesus-that he looked away from Jesus and doubted His power over the waves.  But this just doesn’t make sense.  He saw that Jesus was doing it.  Jesus wasn’t sinking.  Peter was.  He cries out, “Jesus save me!”

Jesus rescues him and replies, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Peter doubted himself.  He doubted that he could ever actually do what Jesus did.  He had been rejected by the rabbis, deemed unworthy.  Maybe Jesus just hadn’t figured out that Pete was a loser, yet.

Of course the greatest failure from our perspective is Peter’s promise to follow Jesus to the death, followed hours later by multiple denials of even knowing Him.  When things got hard, Peter retreated into the failure that he always knew he really was inside.  He went back to fishing, after falling short in his one big chance for greatness.

Greatness

For me, the most powerful moment of Jesus resurrected appearances comes when Jesus is standing on the shore and the disciples are out fishing together, and again not succeeding at the task.  The men were facing their failure together, and Peter was most likely keeping a secret of his treason, which to him must have seemed ultimately greater than all the others’.

Standing on the shore and calling out to them, was Jesus.  Peter wasted no time and dove in to swim to Jesus on the shore.  He left his nets again.  Jesus asks him three times if he loves him, and then indicates that someday Peter will face persecution for his relationship with Jesus.  This moment changed him.

I identify with Peter for his boldness, for his desire to jump in without a net, to walk on water, and to repeatedly fail at almost everything he did.  I deal with failure and repeated feelings of never measuring up.  In my mind festers a million promises I’ve made and not kept, a thousand times I set out to do something only to quit when it got too hard, or once I got distracted by something new.

I remember my childhood, and Monday, dreaming dreams of what my life could become, only to sink into the harsh reality of just not being good enough.  Never the smartest, nor the fastest, nor the prettiest, just normal enough in all of the normal ways, and abnormal enough to be not quite normal.  This isn’t a pity-party.  It just is.  These feelings aren’t paralyzing.  They just are what I am, and probably what most people out there are too.

But my God is not a good of the pretty people, the fastest, or the smartest.  My God is a God of fishermen and nobodies and not quite good-enoughs.  I serve a savior who said, ‘You aren’t good enough, and you never will be, and that is why I am here.’

I follow Jesus in the footsteps of Peter, not the first Pope (whatever that means), but the guy who failed and went back to failing as a fisherman—the Peter who desperately wanted to follow his rabbi out onto the water and sank.  I try and I fail.  I lie and I lose, and every day I find Jesus on the beach of my failure saying, “Do you love me?”  I fall into His arms and I cry.  He looks me in the eye, and in His gaze I hear, “You are not a failure—because in your weakness I am strong.  I love you and I put destiny inside of you.  Feed my sheep.”

And that is always enough.

Indoctrination – part 2

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This is part 2 in a 2 part series.  If you missed it, you can read part 1 here

What frustrates me about the indoctrinational aspect of Sunday morning worship is that so much of it is often so half-hearted.  This seems most clear to me whenever I’ve sung the song, I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.  I have to note that I have no theological, or artistic problem with the song.  I enjoy the work of Delirious? very much.  My problem is with the way we sing it (and yes, I realize that fortunately the era of singing this one to death is long past).

I could sing of Your love forever, (Repeat endlessly, or 4 times, whichever seems longer)

Oh, I feel like dancing – it’s foolishness I know;
but, when the world has seen the light,

they will dance with joy, like we’re dancing now.

Every time I’ve sung this song, I have had two main thoughts.  The first is about whether anyone in the room is thinking, “I really wish that this worship service would never ever end.  I am just going to quit my job and everything I do so that I can just do this from now on.”  The second thought involves me noticing that everyone is just standing there singing until it reaches the line about dancing, and then they step side to side for a couple measures, so that they aren’t actively lying to God.  If they didn’t do this, someone might stop them after church and say, “Why are you hurting God’s heart by not doing the Worship Two-Step?”

Now contrast that with the scene in Isaiah, chapter 6 where Isaiah is brought into God’s throne room.  I love the first verse, which just nonchalantly says “I saw the LORD, seated on His throne…” right after a detailed description of the timeframe.  It is like slipping you winning the lottery into a diary entry on what happened during your day.  Reading it that way, I imagine Isaiah on an anonymous Thursday afternoon when, BAM, he’s in front of God, and everything goes into overload.

As Isaiah describes the scene in this throne room, he is wrecked.  He’s lying face down on the ground screaming at God that he isn’t worthy to be here.  All he can think about is how his personal dirtiness is so vile in the presence of god.  I don’t sense Isaiah thinking much about this, just falling and screaming.  God picks him up, dusts him off, cleanses him, and starts talking to him as a son.

Bear in mind that Isaiah didn’t come to this little party as a heathen.  He was already a prophet of God.  He was one of the good guys.  But Isaiah suddenly had a new realization of who God actually is, in a deeper way than he ever had, and he could no longer even stand up.

I bet Isaiah would have quite a chuckle as he watched us sing many of our worship songs.  I guess that most of the characters in the Bible would.  David danced around the city semi-naked-ecstatic.  Paul worshipped as he sat chained between soldiers in prison. So did Daniel as lions licked their lips and imaged him as a roast, Wile-E-Coyote-style.  They did all this without even having video projection.

I bet many churches throughout history have worried that they are secretly the church of Laodicea.  I worry sometimes too.  I don’t think we are, but I bet that the church of Laodicea thought they were quite awesome at their worship too.  Jesus was out front banging at the door for them to invite him to the party, but they couldn’t hear him over the sub-woofer.

I hope God doesn’t hear our worship and get really upset at how polished and hollow and arrogant it is.  Sometimes I approach worship so arrogant and distracted.  I hope I never have an Isaiah experience that leaves me wrecked, but I bet Isaiah would have counted it as the best moment of his life.  Maybe in that light, my worship is pretty hollow. -Ryan

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Indoctrination – part 1

Indoctrination header

This is part 1 in a two part series.

It must be strange for someone who isn’t a Christian to go to a Protestant church service.  There is row after row of nicely dressed, well mannered people, standing and staring at projection screens.  We seem to be singing the words written there mindlessly.  “I could sing of your love forever…”

We even make motions the songs tell us to.  “Oh, I feel like dancing,” they sing, and do some half-hearted side-to-side-step.  It all must seem to the uninitiated like some Orwellian indoctrination, and I’m not sure in some sense that it isn’t.

We teach our children Bible songs that are easy for them to remember and sing along to.  “Jesus loves me, this I know…”  We hope that they get these songs into their head and they echo around in there for the rest of their lives, like some Christian It’s a Small World After All.  This indoctrination works quite well, in fact.

I learned this when I was a boy, with a paper route.  This was back in the days when people would actually buy news that was over a couple of hours old, and printed on actual paper.  At the age of 8, I would wake up before dawn, fold and band the newspapers, and then deliver them on my bike to a nearby neighborhood.  I enjoyed this job, and it built a great work ethic, although I was really bad at the part where I actually had to collect money.

Some mornings when it was cold and dark, I would ride my bike alone and see shadows coming to life.  Every corner hid an escaped murderer, and every bush housed a probable pack of marauding wolves.  I remember feeling quite scared.  In those times, I would start to sing songs to myself and God.  Some were simple Bible songs I learned from Christian records my Mom would play on the stereo, and some were songs we sang together in church.  I knew at those moments that God was with me, and that I was under His protection.

An atheist would say that we are deluding ourselves and our children with brain-washing propaganda, but I don’t see it that way at all.  Sometimes intellectual indoctrination is true and necessary.  We know this is true in other areas of life, often regarding safety and emergencies.

My wife is prone to fires.  These don’t usually occur because she is intentionally starting them, but they do just tend to happen around her.  She is very wise and measured in her approach to everything, but when emergencies happen she tends to throw composure out the window in favor of a Chicken Little approach.  I am the opposite of her on this.  I realized recently that I had to pound into her head the mantra of Stop—Drop—and Roll, in case one of her spontaneous combustions were to happen.

I think that she doesn’t do well in emergencies because she is so thoughtful.  She likes to deeply analyze the details of a situation in her mind until she has looked at it from every angle.  But when there is no time to analyze, she goes all spinning-pinwheel.

I wanted to burn the Stop-Drop-and Roll into her RAM so that in a moment when she couldn’t analyze, she would instinctively know what to do.  When her mind says “FIRE!” she wouldn’t think, the meme would kick in, and she’d act.  It might save her life.

The point in all of this is that there are many things that need to be stored in our heads as automatic default routines because we can’t completely rely on our ability to analyze a situation.  Our minds are full of system errors, faults, and competing memes.  We also don’t always have the time for a thorough debate on things.  Sometimes we just have to operate on something that we know is a basic truth, a fact that our mind must assume is a given in the equation.  If we aren’t allowed this, we get into internal debates on what the meaning of the word “is” is.

Continued in part 2

Darkness and Butterflies

butterfly

“…All of a sudden, I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory.  And I realize just how beautiful You are, and how great Your affections are for me.  Oh how He loves.” –John Mark McMillan

The other day I got into a fight with a butterfly.  No, it isn’t as silly a sight as it sounds…well not quite.  I was doing some evening gardening and had the garage door open.  When I went in to get a rake I noticed a beautiful butterfly fluttering around, trapped inside the garage.

Normally I wouldn’t think too much of this, and have from time to time even pinned butterflies. I am not some overly-indulgent animal lover.  But this time I felt a little bit of sadness for the poor creature.  To her, she was trapped in some inescapable cave.  I took pity on her.  I decided it was female, not because of some butterfly expertise, but because I simply cannot imagine a male butterfly, though I know they must actually exist.  So with the creature properly personified, I was committed to action.

I grabbed the ladder with the intent of reaching up to the ceiling and gently cupping her in my hand, then releasing her outside.  But just at the instant my plan was about to work, she deftly avoided my grasp in the way that only bugs and small children can.  This set off a several minute period of me moving the ladder and repeating the procedure repeatedly with utter futility.  The butterfly did not appreciate any of my efforts.

As I was pondering the absurdity of the situation and how terrifying this must be to the butterfly, I watched the butterfly frantically moving from ceiling to wall to ceiling and narrowly escaping multiple spider webs.  Convinced that I was beaten in the summer butterfly campaign of 2010, I surrendered and retreated to my house in defeat.

In the morning, the butterfly was far from the front of my mind as I opened the door to get in my car, and was surprised to see the butterfly sweep out of the door into the open air.  She fluttered about low to the ground above my flower bed, and then climbed into the sky with the semi-inebriated flight style that butterflies seem to enjoy.  I smiled.  She was free.

So many times, I feel like that butterfly.  I sit in situations, toxic and painful, sometimes afraid to move, and bumping around my panic, avoiding traps both real and imagined.  I desperately want to find the light, to feel free and supported by fresh air and freedom.  I long for hands, caring and immense, to carry me to such a place.

I believe in those hands.  I believe that God frantically climbs ladders and reaches for me, but it is often difficult to tell those loving hands from giants bent on my destruction.  I know he loves me.  I pray for the doors to open so I can sweep into the sky with a clumsy sense of freedom. But right now, I just feel small.  And maybe if I quiet myself enough and don’t focus on the walls, I can just feel His hands envelop me.

Hold me and carry me.  I long for your immense gentleness to surround me and take me where you will.  I miss those hands, and I fear you will give up and let me bump around my prison in the dark.  You promise to strengthen your people and give them peace (Psalm 29).  Carry me.  Let me fly again in your light.  -Ryan

Ahmed and God

mall escalator

I met Ahmed at the mall.  I wasn’t looking to talk to him, but I was asking God that I be aware of anything He was doing around me.  This isn’t something I do regularly.  Its partly because I am often turned in to myself, only thinking and doing what relates to my little slice of the world. But, it is also due to the fact that God usually answers that prayer by showing me something He is doing.  He interjects me into someone else’s little world, and a lot of times in my selfishness I don’t want to deal with that.

But in this instance, I was asking for it.  I was leaning on Ahmed’s counter at his booth in the mall, watching the teenagers I was supervising.  Ahmed asked if he could help me.  I told him that I wasn’t looking for a watch, and then asked him some general questions, which he answered willingly.  We introduced each other and shook hands.

Active Christians are really weird this way.  We make a lot of eye contact, shake a lot of hands, and ask un-superficial questions.  It is pretty annoying to the uninitiated, but it is also how humans were meant to be.  I sometimes tell foreign exchange students how Americans often greet each other with “How’s it going.”  This isn’t really a question at all.  It is not meant to be answered, and the person asking it doesn’t want any answer other than, “Good, and you.”

But active Christians are always waiting around for a real answer.  People aren’t used to that, and it makes them uncomfortable, and if they get past that, they often find it a breath of fresh air.  It is how we are supposed to be.

But back to Ahmed…

After we shook hands, he must have known something was up, because he immediately asked me “What do you do?”

“I am a youth minister,” I said.

He looked at me and immediately (as if he was prepared) asked, “Do you ever feel the presence of God?”

I told him that I did, that sometimes it was very powerful and sometimes it was less so, but it was always there.  In fact, sometimes it was almost overwhelming.

“What’s that like?  Does it make you want to hurt people?”

“Umm..no.  It is pretty much the opposite of that,” I said.  And then I explained how I sometimes feel God’s love pouring over me like rain, letting me feel loved and making me want to love.  “Do you ever feel that?” I asked.

“No.”

I listened to him tell of his faith background and about his life.  I suggested we pray together, and he let me.  Although I couldn’t stay much longer after that, I promised I would see him again, and I have.  He told me he’d have more questions, and he has.  A couple days later I introduced him to my wife as we were cruising the mall food court to pick up free samples.  He told my wife we were “soul buddies,” whatever that means.

I don’t know that I’m going to end up with Ahmed on one knee in the middle of the mall accepting Jesus sacrifice for his life.  I don’t know that it will even make a massive difference in Ahmed’s life.  I do know that Ahmed has reminded me that God is always at work around me, and that I like most Christians am too often dissolved into myself.  Every little invasion by God into my life is disruptive to my reality, because that reality is wrapped up in myself.  But also, every interruption reminds me that my reality is all too small and weak.  I thank God for that.

*Ahmed’s name has been changed from his real name.

Small Miracles

Little Feet

One of my favorite quotes comes from G.K. Chesterton.  I won’t quote the whole thing verbatim here (although I can from memory).  But basically it says that God has the eternal appetite of youth, and makes every single sunset and daisy separately, but has never gotten tired of making them.  “For we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is far younger than we.”

The more I think about that, the more I see the beautiful truth in that.  The more every sunset becomes special, and the more even simple little acts become miracles.

I have always had a difficulty with people who find an angel around every corner.  When I slip and fall or cut myself shaving, the natural order of things is for the wound to heal.  It is no miracle.  The human body is meant to heal itself.  Even deep wounds usually fix themselves over time.  People who loudly proclaim miracles in everyday occurrences have always been a minor annoyance to me.  It has often felt that these people are grasping at straws, as if God healing a minor abrasion or stopping an itch is the proof of His existence that they need to keep on going.

Recently, a small boy reminded me of the foolishness of my position.  The boy had a particularly painful insect bite that was significantly bothering him.  He came to me and a group of others to pray for his bite.  He looked cute limping along as if the leg was going to need amputation.  I suspect that he had been approaching quite a few others for prayer as well.  We prayed for him.  I confess that although I was sincere in prayer, I wasn’t praying the “Oh God, help us,” type prayer.

The next day, the boy ran in to meet me and loudly told me that I had to “come see what God did for me!”  He had no pain.  The bite was there, but it was much smaller.

Do spider bites naturally shrink and grow less painful overnight?  Of course they do.  Was this a true miracle?  It was to the boy, and I don’t think that anything else matters.  I believe in a God who would heal a young boy of a vicious and non-life-threatening spider bite for no other reason than that He wants the boy to know He loves him.

The Message version of Ephesians 5 says, “Mostly what God does is love you.”  I find that passage annoying mostly because it isn’t what the actual text says.  But I’ve been thinking for quite some time over the possible truth of that statement.  I am still not sure.  What I am sure of though, is that God uses a lot of outrageous and extravagant gestures to show His creation that He deeply loves them.

I believe that God created stars millions of light years away.  There are galaxies that dwarf our own.  There are cosmic events that make our lives seem less than footnotes of universal history.  God also made the platypus and the frog, small, strange creatures, which in my opinion exist primarily for me to giggle at.  I can’t believe that complexity and the intricacy of it all is by chance any more than I can believe that my cell phone is the product of random chemicals.  It must all have a purpose.

According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, it all exists to glorify God and enjoy Him.  I concur (which I am sure validates it all).  I can’t picture God with the sternness and seriousness of the crotchety old man that we make Him out to be.  In art and fiction we’ve envisaged Him as gazing down on humanity with some serious need for Botox for the frown lines.  I picture God in some heavenly council somewhere, leaning off the edge of His great throne gazing on us with our small needs met, with a giant smile on His face and a glint in His eye.  The God I see in my head is more like some Norse king with laughter echoing through the great hall than He is diplomat.

The story of God and humanity is one of continuous extravagant love.  It is the story of God caring deeply that two people suddenly had lost intimacy with Him.  It is the story of God promising a childless old couple that they would have not just one, but millions of kids.  It is the story of God rescuing a slave nation in dramatic fashion.  It is the story of God becoming part of His creation and paying the fine that He had set.  It is the story of God creating sunsets and stars and galaxies and platypuses, and healing a little boy’s bug bite for no other reason than that He enjoys loving us.  And that brings Him glory.


The Most Holy Time

Coffee Shope Image

I admit it.  I’ve been in some kind of funk lately.  No actually, not lately, this has been going on for some time now.  The exact nature of this funk is difficult to describe, and especially so when I am trying to do so without offending the sensibilities of proper and sincere religious people.  I am one of those proper and sincere religious folk myself, which means that my internal dialogue has been offending me for quite a while.  So, if you are reading this, and happen to get offended, then we can commiserate together.  Just don’t shoot the messenger on this one.

The problem exists because I am naturally a part of two separate worlds.  One of these is the land that all of humanity lives in.  It cannot be escaped, save for moving to the jungles of Brazil or becoming some sort of religious hermit (but more on that one later).  It is dark at times, beautiful at others, yet always convulsing and turning somehow.  This world, like my barely functioning clothes drier, is making loud noises, fits-and-starts, and sometimes barely functioning in any measure of success.  Yet, it is where we are, and there is also great beauty in it.  From natural creations, to the Burj Dubai, and even a stranger picking up something you dropped on the street there is wonder.  God loves it, and like an abused spouse, so do I.

The other world I straddle is the world of the Church.  All kinds of people, from poufy-haired, multi-pinky-ringed televangelists to African children in Sunday school are a part of it.  There is amazing beauty in the Church.  The great array of what is good in the world is all a child of Christ’s bride.  It doesn’t matter what the likes of Christopher Hitchens says, God’s goodness is reflected in His Church.

I have often throughout my life taken refuge and comfort in the world of the Church because I know that the other world is victim of a fatal disease that rots its flesh, a cancer that grows and devours.  I expect it to be this way.  The problem that I have been increasingly having is that the world of the Church I have allowed to nurture me is seemingly growing increasingly very ill herself.

Yes, I am aware that the Church being an institution full of humans, is subject to all the frailties of man.  But those have always been beautiful scars in my eyes, reminders of the grace and power of God.  Maybe it is just me, but those scars are looking less and less romantic.

Now, I am in no danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, and leaving the Church entirely.  I know that there is no chance that I can tread water on my own long enough to point out all the holes in the ship for everyone else to plug.  Further, God gave us the institution of the Church for a reason, and His wisdom infinitely trumps mine.

This difficulty in the Church world was highlighted to me a few weeks ago as I looked back on the events of that particular week:

I started the week with my day off (Monday), working on different chores and things I had to do to keep my life going, pretty bland, but it is life.

Tuesday was spent planning at another staff meeting.  We talked about events and programs that were coming up.  Staff meetings are not part of the fun of ministry in any way, really.  But they are a necessary evil (if I can use that word so flippantly).  Nothing would get accomplished  if proper planning was not done.  I spent a lot of time in staff meeting this week wondering what lasting value much of what we were discussing would achieve.  Maybe that is the wrong thought to have, but it was my thought nonetheless.

Later Tuesday night, we had High School group.  As we lead worship, played games, and taught, I kept wondering if any student would remember anything I said past 9:00 PM, when they left the building.  I was later corrected (gently) by one of my students, who told me that Tuesday night had a big effect on him, and there were probably others.  But I guess my real issue is with the general effectiveness.  I will not belittle the powerful impact God may be having on one person in the group, or even pockets of them.  I have also learned that times when I think no impact is being made can be the most impactful.  But after doing this for many years, I know the look in the students’ eyes that say “If we could have left after game time, I would have.”

Wednesday was similar to Tuesday in that I did office work to further the ministry, and Wednesday night was Junior High.  In the case of Junior Highers, small victories matter.  I had to rejoice that no one was injured and no one was sent home early.  Also, one of the students gave a testimony of how God had a powerful impact on him over the last two months.

Thursday, I spent a big portion of the day at the Barnes and Noble coffee shop writing, reading, and hanging out.

Friday, I did general chores, and ended the day at a church gathering at someone’s home.  It was fun.  Like all church gatherings, it has to be concluded with an extended time of teaching about something.  Let me break down the fourth-wall and ask the reader a question here: How many sermons in your life can you remember, and had a lasting effect on your life?  Well, this Friday night teaching was for me in the pile with the majority of teachings I’ve heard.

Saturday, Peichi and I had fun and hung out with some friends at our house that we know from the foreign exchange community.  I ended up in a very deep conversation with one of the ladies at our house.  She talked about how she felt alone and kind of floating in her life.  She wanted to be a part of doing something that made a difference in the world.  I asked her if she was willing to help do some work at the church for us.  She said she would, and she has.  In the back of my head I have been hoping that she continues in her quest for meaning, and hoping her involvement in helping at the church isn’t leading her in the wrong direction.

Sunday was a church service.  It was similar to most church services.  I like our church.  I think God does work in people’s hearts there.  Although I can’t remember any of the Prophetic Words and I don’t know of anyone who got healed during prayer time, or anyone who made a decision for Christ, I am sure that God worked in people’s lives.  I am not self-important enough to believe that I am qualified to determine the effectiveness of these things.  There are weeks when I leave feeling just tired.  Then again, I’ve spent the last 14 years making church services happen.

That was my week.

When I looked back on it all, the powerful times where I really felt God doing stuff was not on Tuesday, of Wednesday, or even Sunday.  I know He did do stuff.  I’m not denying that.  But the times I really felt like God was using me to make a difference was on Thursday as I wrote in the coffee shop.  I had two long conversations with total strangers.  We talked about everything from geopolitics to budding technology.  We also talked about faith.

Mind you, I am not one of those people who is always walking up to strangers and acting like they’re my best friend.  I am more inclined to be deeply involved in internal dialogue when in line at the supermarket than to carry on a conversation there.  But these coffee shop conversations just naturally happened.  They felt easy and natural.  Even the parts when we were talking about God felt fun and light, as if the His Spirit were guiding us in them.  I wasn’t the guy sitting and waiting to accost someone with a canned salvation message.  I was the guy watching God unfold something in front of me.

It was beautiful.  For the first time for me in a long time that Thursday, the feverish outside world was crashing into the holy world of the Church, and I was right in the middle of it.  I left the coffee shop feeling energized and excited.  God had actually showed up.  He had done something in front of me that gave me the impression that there was some sort of lasting difference made.  It felt like getting in the shower after a long afternoon of gardening, with dirt under your fingernails and the smell of soil on your skin.

I can’t do the spiritual hermit thing.  I know that there is a great value in keeping oneself from being polluted by the world, but I can’t see that as being separable from looking out for widows and orphans and being a light to the world around me.   In fact, the more I approach those semi-cloistered places lately, the more I have an asthmatic choking feeling, like there isn’t enough air.  I’m not leaving the building.  I just need to keep the windows rolled down and the fresh air flowing.

Addendum: I know that this brings up some real issues, and I don’t write this as a sermon.  I often feel that people write the word “I” too much, and I am always scanning my writing trying to get rid of as many instances of that as I can (that sentences contained 4).  This piece is riddled with them, but that is because it is one of the most stream-of-consciousness things I’ve written in a while.  I saved it for a week, and edited, but I still have the sinking feeling that someone might read and want to misunderstand, argue, debate.  I don’t really have a desire to enter that fray.  This is really just an opened internal dialogue of sorts.  I am not trying to be self-defeating.  I think honesty in this regard honors the Lord.  If you have thoughts or feelings that will honor this dialogue, please feel free, though. -Ryan

Learning Faith -Part 3

This is part three in a 3 part series on how we educate the next generation in matters of faith.  Read part 1 here, and part 2 here.

Raising Parents

Parents mentoring their kids in matters of faith and life isn’t what seems to be happening as much these days.  Gone are the days of boys learning to mow the lawn alongside their fathers.  Now, they pay to have someone else do it.  Most girls aren’t learning how to cook with their mothers.  Dinner is now too often provided by KFC.  With all of our modern conveniences, we have forgotten to teach our children how to live and how to be adults.

The same things can be said for matters of faith.  As consumers, we have fallen prey to the idea that spiritual education is what happens at church.  Spiritual education does happen at church, of course.  But if that is the primary place that we plan for spiritual education, we are destined to fail at this task.  This kind of outsourcing will not work.  When spiritual matters are reserved for church, the lesson is that one may do whatever one wants and live however he chooses, as long as he puts on a smile on Sunday.

Parents are the primary teachers about faith, not necessarily how to exegete a Pauline epistle, but about how our faith affects our daily lives.

I don’t want to sound like I’m griping, and I don’t level any accusations on everyone.  But I think one of the largest complaints I have about the state of the family is that it seems to me that many parents have forgotten that one of the primary roles of parenting is to end up with your offspring as functioning adults.  The goal should be to produce adults that are even better than you were.  This is true in regard to career and intelligence, and it is also true about faith.

Case in point: In the last 10 years of ministry, I know of no teen (male or female) who has access to the Internet in their own room and does not have an addiction to pornography, or inappropriate sexual relationships online.  I know this, because the students come to me and tell me.  I have gone to their homes and moved their computers for them (upon their request).  I have prayed with them for freedom from these addictions.

Despite this, when parents tell me that their child wants a computer in their room (this happens often), I tell them my experience, yet 100% of the time the student ends up with a computer in their room within a month.  When I occasionally ask the parent why this happened, they shrug their shoulders as if to say, “Oh well.”

No, not “Oh well.”  Children don’t need a buddy.  Teens don’t need a hip mom or dad.  They need a parent.  The teens that tell me how cool their lenient parents are, are the same teens that come to me crying to say that they feel constant chaos.  Kids need parents.  The message that parents send to teens when they don’t take leadership on these issues is that there is no moral standard.

I have no doubt in my mind that parents who are not teaching their kids important skills for their future adulthood are not teaching these kids the stories, principles, and reasons for their faith.  I cannot believe that the Church will fail and disappear.  But I do believe unless this is changed quickly, the state of the Church in the West will read like a passage in Second Kings.  This is an emergency.

Learning Faith -Part 2

This is part two in a 3 part series on how we educate the next generation in matters of faith.  Read part one here, and stay tuned for part three.

Shoveling Dirt, and other spiritual lessons

So, we have seen how the Bible is pretty clear about the importance of passing on faith memes, in order to cement and pass on our rich Christian faith and heritage.  We have seen how in the past Israel’s neglect of this duty led to apostasy, syncretism, and moral decline.  The next obvious question is, “So how are we doing now? Are we passing on these memes?”

I contend that we aren’t.

OK, that seems a bit harsh.  Yes, there are Christian children and teens who are growing up with a deep faith.  There are young people learning how to lead worship services, run ministries, and do evangelism.  But there are also ridiculously high numbers of men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 who are leaving the church, never to return.  The percentage of Americans who are claiming an allegiance to Christian faith is declining, and the socio-political influence of Christianity on Western culture is undoubtedly in retreat.

A large reason for this according to the book Essential Church, is that many Americans (This book deals with American church statistics, although I would contend that this holds true in other Western countries) see the Church as an institution that is not essential to their lives.  They see the ceremony and programs, and can’t find a vibrant and valuable relationship with God happening.

More anecdotally, in 14 years of youth ministry I have noticed a growing loss of biblical literacy within the next generations of the Church.  There is also a lack of practiced disciplines of faith in these generations.  Many teens know each and every part of the church service, but don’t have any understanding of fundamental elements of Christianity.  This is not something I have noticed as tied to a particular church or denomination.  It is much more of a cross-section than that.

To take a small detour:

After I take a shower at night, I use a squeegee to wipe down the walls.  This helps keep my shower from getting mold and mildew.  But that isn’t really the reason I do it.  I use the squeegee because my grandfather did the same thing.  He had a squeegee in his shower and I heard him use it after he finished with his showers.

Every time I sweep the grass clippings off of my sidewalk I hear his instructions in my head.  When I sort laundry I hear my Mom’s voice, and when I spell Renaissance, I hear my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Maddox.  I am who I am because of those people’s example in my life, and not just in instructional ways.

I read my Bible because I know that God grows me through that communication channel, and He makes me more like Him.  But every time I open my Bible I remember my Grandad with his Bible open on his desk, and all of the highlights and notes he had put in it.  In case I ever forget, I have his Bible on my shelf.  It is one of the few things of his that I have.  In it is a picture of generations of my family together at a family reunion.  My Mom was pregnant with me, her only child.

My grandfather obviously had a mental connection to reading his Bible with the faith strain running through the generations of our family, and that connection has passed on to me.  It is a meme.  It is good.  It is the plan of God.

These things came to my mind recently as I was moving a large amount of dirt in a pile with one of the students in my High School group.  He is a good kid—a little squirrely—but a good kid.  He has a good dad.  But as we shoveled dirt, he needed me to explain how a shovel is used.  I didn’t mind explaining.  He responded by saying that he didn’t know, because he never did these things with his father.  I told him that his dad was a busy man with too much on his shoulders, and that is true.

The point of this is that things even as rudimentary as shoveling dirt have to taught, and that requires things like mentoring.  Boys and girls learn how to be men and women by watching their parents, teachers, and mentors, and by doing things alongside them.  How much more is it important to instill things of faith to your children?

Learning Faith -Part 1

This is part one in a 3 part series on how we educate the next generation in matters of faith.

Faith as Meme

I am currently reading a book about memes.  Everyone I mention this to asks me the same immediate question.  “What in the heck is a meme?”   Then I begin the inordinately long process of explaining what this is.

Basically, a meme is a unit of cultural understanding that is passed on through a culture by repetition.  The easiest way to understand a meme is to think of it as the same as DNA, except for culture.  It is passed on from one person to another.  Old-Wives-Tales are memes, and so are the words to traditional songs.  Auld Land Syne is a perfect example of this.  It goes deeper than that, though.  You wear dark colors at funerals and you wear lighter colors at weddings.  A woman going to a wedding wearing all black would be offensive.  Famous ad slogans are also memes.  If I said, “The best part of waking up…” You would most likely immediately think, “…is Folgers in your cup.”  That is a meme!

The reason that I bring this up is not because I have a particular interest in information science, although I do.  Reading and thinking about this has brought up other ideas in my head, ideas about culture, ideas about faith—both my individual faith and the faith of the Church.  It might seem at first heretical to say that the message of Jesus, the stories in the Bible, and both the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of Christianity are all memes, but I believe that they are.  I believe that God intended them to be.

When that thought first occurred in my head, my immediate reaction was, “Whoa, Ryan—hold the phone.  Lightening may soon strike.”  But no lightening struck, and as I thought about it, all of it seemed to fit.  It is scary at first to think of Christianity as anything other than an immediately apparent truth that is written somewhere in the sky, accessible to anyone who bothers to simply look up.  And I am not saying that the truth of Christ is something that is just a cultural way of thinking and doing.  It is the Truth.  It can be found by anyone.  So I am not demeaning the things of God in any way.  All this just means that Natural Theology can only get us to understand that there must be a creator-God, but it can’t tell us anything more, really.  To really get to know God, we need to acquire these bits of faith memes.

But this is not something that someone simply looks into the air to find.  God didn’t intend it to be this way at all.  Yes, it is true that Romans chapter 1:18-20 says,

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

This passage makes Christians in the West quite happy.  Although we don’t think this consciously, we understand it to mean that the job of communicating the basics of God, sin, and redemption have already been done automatically and genetically by God.  And certainly that is true, to a point.  It does mean that everyone has no excuse for rejecting God.  But it does not in any way get Christians off the hook for communicating this news, for no one can look up at the stars and deduce that a loving God must have become man and died on a cross during Roman times for our forgiveness.  This must be taught to them.

The Bible makes this perfectly clear.  In God’s economy, we are one hundred percent accountable for transmitting the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of our faith memetically (this is not mimetically, although that word would be appropriate as well).  This is to happen in two distinct ways.

The first of these is the more obvious.  We are to affect the world around us by spreading the good news of Jesus through the world.  There are myriad verses that address this point, and it forms the basis of much of New Testament Christianity.

The second way that Christians are to spread the ortho-’s of our faith is through our own people, particularly the next generation as we raise our children.  This point is spread throughout the whole Bible, but the Old Testament covers this repeatedly.  It is clear in the Old Testament that it was very important to Yahweh that the next generation hear all about what He has done and how He related throughout history with His people.  Look at what God had them do when they finally entered into the land that He had promised to give them in Joshua, chapter 4.

So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”

We see this also in Exodus, chapter 12, God tells His people to commemorate their freedom from slavery in Egypt through God’s miraculous hand with a special celebration and ceremony.  This was to be done for generations to come as a reminder, so that the people would never forget.

In fact, most of Israel’s holy days were commemorations of what God had done.  This was not for means of celebrating the past.  It was for the express purpose of reminding those in the present of God’s faithfulness, and their shared history with God.  They were also use this to speak into the future generations to ensure that the faith of Israel would not be lost.

One of the most striking glimpses of this in action can be seen in the 22nd and 23rd chapters of 2 Kings.  After numerous kings that did not honor God, Israel had become quite a mess.  Instead of following Yahweh, the people had mixed a bunch of religions all together.  It was anything-goes spirituality.  After generations of doing this, people had no spiritual compass whatsoever.  Their worship of these gods included burning their children to death in fires, having sex with prostitutes in temples, taking hallucinatory drugs for spiritual purposes, and a whole host of other nasty and amoral practices.

But more than that, they had completely forgotten much of their history (especially the aspects dealing with God) in many cases, and corrupted it with complete myth in many others.

God was angry.

But Josiah, who really wanted to do what was right, discovered the Law and was powerfully rocked to learn that God’s word had been completely forsaken.  It wasn’t like Josiah had known what God wanted all along, and was just the first in a while to actually follow it.  Josiah finding God’s word reads like a scene straight out of Indiana Jones.  Suddenly this revelation of God is found that people didn’t even have any clue about.  Josiah reads this and tears his robes, weeping at finding out all this new stuff about who God really is, their history with Him, and what He expects from them.

Following that is a full list of draconian measures that Josiah went to in order to fix things.  One set of verses gives a window on how this fall from morality and spiritual faithfulness could have happened.

Then the king commanded all the people saying, “Celebrate the Passover to the LORD your God as it is written in this book of the covenant.”  Surely such a Passover had not been celebrated from the days of the judges who judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel and of the kings of Judah.  But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah, this Passover was observed to the LORD in Jerusalem.

God’s command to remember and teach about what He had miraculously done for His people, as mentioned in Exodus 12, had been completely neglected for hundreds of years!  The people now had no concept of it at all.  Their history with God had been completely forsaken, and now forgotten.

The importance of passing on history, faith, and cultural values is not something that is contained only in the Old Testament.  Jesus tells His followers in the New Testament to commemorate His death through Communion.  As the early Church interpreted this, it was not to be done as a ceremony once in a while at a service, but the kind of thing that was followed as people ate together.  Communion was to be celebrated at the dinner table with the family.

The Epistles in the latter New Testament talk about this idea as well.  Both Titus and First Peter talk about younger men and women learning from older men and women.  The early church clearly invested in the ideas of mentoring younger Christians in the faith, and educating those who were spiritually younger using creedal statements and liturgical prayers, as well as hymns.