How to Pass on the Faith, Part 3 of 3: Brainwashing and Final Concerns

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Religions survive mainly because they brainwash the young. -A.C. Grayling

There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true. The other is to refuse to accept what is true. -Soren Keierkegaard

I knew when I decided to write about catechesis that it wasn’t a sexy topic that would get a lot of likes and shares. It has, however, provoked some interesting questions.

Here are six final concerns I’d like to address:

  1. Brainwashing—I got a text from a dear friend last week who asked, “Isn’t catechizing children a form of brainwashing?”

What a great question.

In answering it, let’s first define terms.  Brainwashing is:

  • a method for systematically changing attitudes or altering beliefs, originated in totalitarian countries, especially through the use of torture, drugs, or psychological-stress techniques.
  • any method of controlled systematic indoctrination, especially one based on repetition or confusion: brainwashing by TV commercials.[1]

My friend’s question applies mostly to the second bulleted definition. So, we then ask, “Is catechizing a method of ‘controlled systematic indoctrination’ based on ‘repetition’?  The answer is, yes.  But then, by this definition, so would teaching kids to say or sing their “ABC’s,” consuming hours of Disney, or memorizing multiplication tables.

Which brings us to a second related question: “Is using a catechism to pass on the essentials of the Christian faith a good and helpful form of “controlled systematic indoctrination,” akin to memorizing multiplication tables or even a verse like John 3:16?

How you answer this question will largely be determined by whether you think a particular catechism teaches truth and helps kids think better. If you believe it does, you’ll likely use it. If you’re Bill Maher or A.C.Graying, you’ll likely have a different take.

  1. What do we need a another catechism for?—This concern relates specifically to promoting the use of something like the New City Catechism. The underlying thought is that we already have a lot of great resources like the Heidelberg or Shorter Catechism. In fact, some of the language in these time-honored standards is more beautiful and connects us with our roots. My response is that, although this is true, the church has always needed to create new catechisms. This is what Luther did and it’s what we need to do as well. The world has changed a lot in the last 500 years. Many of the Protestant and Reformed creeds of that time were reactionary toward Roman Catholicism. That’s the water they swam in. For us, it’s secularism. Certainly, any new catechism should be informed by historic creeds and catechisms. This is one of the strengths of the New City Catechism. It’s informed by six of the classics, especially Heidelberg and has a really cool free app. (Check it out—it has some great features!).
  2. “Memorization makes me sweaty”—My friend’s wife had a young grade-schooler who had a hard time helping out or doing his work. When asked why, in his characteristic whiney lisp, he’d say, “I can’t, Mrs Irwin, it makes me sweaty.” Yes, he was serious and that’s what made his response so hilarious. It’s a classic line that’s been a joke around our house for years. I often tell my daughter when she asks me to move her car or do the dishes that I can’t because it makes me sweaty. 🙂 This certainly applies to memorizing something like a catechism or learning Spanish. If we find memorization valuable, however, we’ll push through the sweatiness and do hard things.
  3. Heart-over-brand—Some push back on catechesis because their goal is to pass on a heart for God, not indoctrinate their kids with a particular brand of Christianity (i.e. Catholic, Reformed, non-reformed, etc.). Given that our journeys are all different (i.e. we may have had a bad experience with a certain church or denomination), I sympathize with this view. If this is your position, my only advice is to make sure you’re intentional about whatever you do in passing on your faith (Deut. 6:6-9). For example, if you’re not comfortable with formal catechesis, follow the example of Job who regularly prayed for his kid’s hearts (Job 1:5) or Jesus who successfully resisted the temptations of the devil through skilled use of memorized Scripture. And this leads us to our next concern…
  4. I still like Scripture better—The idea here is “Why not just memorize Scripture?  What can compare with God’s word?” I’ve already touched on this here, but was reminded of it again recently at the Ash Wednesday service I attended with my son. The message was from Matt. 4.1-11 and was on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness for 40 days. How did Jesus defeat Satan in this passage? Again, it was through his clearly internalized use of memorized Scripture. How can you argue with the example of Jesus?  I don’t think we can. Check out the Navigators to see some of their excellent resources for Scripture memorization.
  5. What’s realistic?—This last concern is actually my own. Besides scripture, we still need something like the New City Catechism—a framework of healthy, orthodox spirituality to pass on the faith. Given that it’s much easier for children to memorize than adults, churches—and especially parents—should seize this window of opportunity. The church can, then, support parents in their responsibility of raising their children by giving them instruction (including how to use the app) and the gift of a catechism at their infant’s baptism or dedication. Church leadership should make equipping parents to catechize a priority.

The church needs to serve all, however. Many will not use a catechism or commit to catechesis. That’s why I’m an advocate of, in addition to formal catechesis by parents or teachers, using a simpler framework like the Apostle’s Creed to pass on the essentials of the faith to all attendees. This short and sweet list of the basics can easily be recited by the congregation regularly on Sundays. What’s more, it gives us a connectedness with the church universal since it’s a statement shared by all three branches of Christianity.

Although there are many great resources out there, here are three good devotionals based on classic catechisms (the first two I used with my kids):

  • Leading Little Ones to God by Marian Schoolland (ages 4-10)
  • Training Hearts, Teaching Minds: Family Devotions Based on the Shorter Catechism by Star Meade (11- adult)
  • Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds: Family Devotions Based on the Heidelberg Catechism (11-adult)

 

[1] Dictionary.com

How to Love and Desire Your Spouse

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***This piece is dedicated to my daughter Emily and her fiancé, Josh Ginchereau, in view of their upcoming wedding on May 25, 2018.

To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16, NIV)

Given that marriage is the foundational institution of the human race, most pastoral marriage counseling will give some discussion to early biblical texts like the above. The bolded sentence, however, is notoriously difficult to interpret. That’s because, besides being thousands of years removed from our world, this particular term used for “desire” is only used two other times in the OT. Here they are:

  • “The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door: its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen. 4:6-7, ESV)
  • “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.” (Song of Solomon 7:10, ESV)

Before we discuss what “desire” means in Gen. 3:16b, let’s drop an important interpretive anchor: As part of the creational order, man was given authority over woman in that man was made first, woman was made from man to be his helper, and is twice named by man (2:23, 3:20). It’s critical to see that all this was before the fall and curse of sin associated with 3.16b above. What this means for our purposes is this: Loving, responsible male leadership—a good thing—should be distinguished from  disrespectful, exploitative male dominance—the historic fruit of man’s sinful desire to “rule over” women.

With this control point in place, here are two possible meanings for the woman’s “desire”—her basic instinct or urge—in Gen. 3:16b:

  1. Desire to be independent and dominate. The “interpretation of an ambiguous passage [3:16b] is validated by the same pairing [“desire” and “rule over”] in the unambiguous context of 4:7.”[1] In other words, a wife desires to dominate her husband in 3:16b in the same way sin desires to dominate Cain in 4:7. Here’s a popular expression of this view:

“These words from the Lord indicate that there will be an ongoing struggle between the woman and the man for leadership in the marriage relationship. The leadership role of the husband and the complementary relationship between husband and wife that were ordained by God before the fall have now been deeply damaged and distorted by sin. This especially takes the form of inordinate desire (on the part of the wife) and domineering rule (on the part of the husband).” (ESV Study Bible, 56)

  1. Desire for sex and children. “In 3:16, …since the context has already addressed the issue of reproduction, that can easily be identified as a basic instinct of women… The text sees that desire ‘for [her] husband’ because such a desire cannot be fulfilled without his cooperation… her need will put him in a position to dominate.”[2] OT Professor John Walton sees sin’s desire or basic instinct in 4:7 as more generally to deprave, rather than specifically to dominate. He also feels that letting 4:7 be the primary interpreter of 3:16b ignores a third of the data (i.e. Song of Solomon 7:10 above where desire in that context is clearly about sex). Gen. 30:1 also gives further evidence of sexual desire connected with “motherly impulse”:

“When Rachel saw that she wasn’t having any children for Jacob, she became jealous of her sister. She pleaded with Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I’ll die!’” (NLT)

Exegetically, based on my experience, and talking to other women, I think # 2 makes the most sense. Whichever option you choose, however, here are three ways to love and desire your spouse God’s way:

  1. Thank God for your sexuality and look to him to protect it. Victorian white-washed discussions and prudish repression of sexual desire have no place in Christian faith and practice. There’s no need to deny the existence of “the animal instinct” the late Delores O’Riordan from the Cranberries sang about. What is needed, however, is to again firmly re-link sex with marriage and children—something Gen. 3:16 reminds us to do. Untold abuse, violence, disease, and life-long wounds continue to come as a result of separating the real, powerful, and very human desire for sex from loving marriage and children. Healthy marriage between a man and a woman is God’s plan to protect both the beauty and potential of sex and children.
  2. Distance yourself from dishonorable views that celebrate the dominance of men or the subjugation of women (Eph. 5:21). As Bruce K. Walke points out, “Male leadership, not male dominance, [should be] …assumed in the ideal, pre-Fall situation (2:18-25)… [Further,] the restoration of a love relationship is found in a new life in Christ.”[3] Here’s a passage that describes well this new life:

But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25-28, NLT)

  1. Let your marriage mirror the beauty in the story of how Eve was created. Genesis tells us that God created woman out of one of Adam’s ribs (2:21). This image captures perfectly the intimacy and harmony of marriage as God intended it. In the famous words of Matthew Henry, the woman is “not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.”[4]

 

 

[1] Bruce K. Walke, Genesis, A Commentary (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2001), 94.

[2] John H. Walton, NIV Application Commentary: Genesis, (Grand Rapids: Word, 2001), 228.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew Henry, A Commentary on the Holy Bible (London: Marshall Brother, n.d.), 1:12.

How to Pass on the Faith, Part 2 of 3: The Case for Catechesis

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The Church of God will never be preserved without catechesis.[1]– John Calvin

Especially in our day, and whether you’re a fan of Calvin or not, it’s hard to dispute the need for a solid teaching framework in passing on the Christian faith. As theologian Al Mohler observed, “we live in a culture where many are not only lost [Isa. 53:6], they’ve lost even the memory of what it is that they’ve lost.” A case in point is the picture above.  In one sense, it perfectly summarizes the case for Christian catechesis: Catechize because now is not forever.  In other words, there’s more to this life. Eternal realities matter and we need to learn and teach God’s perspective. The “then and there” should inform the “here and now.”

The truth is, however, that the picture above has nothing to do with Christian catechesis. Rather, it’s a great visual from an aspiring alternative rock band (Nickelback-esque) that liked an old word and put their own spin on it. Their site says:

“Catechize is defined as ‘to question systematically or searchingly.’ Everyone out there has many questions about life, we just ask ours through music.”

For this band, the fact that catechize once meant primarily to teach and give answers through the use of questions is totally lost. Their re-imagining the term works because few have any memory of the original meaning.

It also works because these days questions are welcome in a way that answers aren’t. Yet, passing on the Christian faith means passing on a solid framework of revealed answers to important questions. It’s a mission that’s counter-cultural and it’s not easy. We all know, however, that growth in any important area requires discipline and intention: weight loss, fitness, playing a sport, writing well, etc. Even basic math or learning English requires memorizing a base structure like multiplication tables or ABC’s.  It’s the same with catechisms—collections of questions and answers designed for memorization and recitation to teach others the core doctrines of the faith.

Catechisms have different purposes:

  1. Instructional– To explain the gospel and the key building blocks on what it’s based (doctrine of God, human nature, sin, etc.).
  2. Apologetic—A catechism is more than a summary of what the Bible teaches; it stands out against the errors of the times. In our case, secularism is the water we swim in and includes beliefs like:[2]
    • I’ve got to be true to myself and certainly not some tradition or scripture unless I like what it says.
    • My beliefs should make me happy and if yours make you happy, then that’s good for you. It’s not right, however, for you to impose your answers or truth on me or anyone else.
  3. Pastoral—forming the character of Christ in the body of Christ (both as individuals and in community).
  4. Confessional—for example, we use catechisms to test our ministers related to licensing and ordination.

Tim Keller in his introduction to the New City Catechism Devotional gives four reasons why we still need catechisms:[3]

  1. Classic catechisms “take students through the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer—a perfect balance of biblical theology, practical ethics, and spiritual experience.”
  2. “The catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts deeper into the heart and naturally holds students more accountable to master the material than do discipleship courses.”
  3. “The practice of question-answer recitations brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning.”
  4. Catechetical instruction helps us be less individualistic and more communal. It reminds us that Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father,” rather than “My Father.”

Besides the above, catechizing gives a framework so that Christian words and phrases are understood in a Christian way. Or to use carpentry imagery, think of it as “a mental foundation on which… spiritual life will be built.”[4]

What happens when we don’t have a framework of healthy, orthodox spirituality? In construction, when you don’t have a robust framework that’s to code, it affects everything: insulation, drywall, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc… Without a strong framework, we settle for chicken-houses, shanti’s, and cardboard boxes.  When you’re homeless spiritually, there’s no choice but to settle for hacks and “abandominiums.” Abandominium—that’s a word my friend who works with ex-offenders in Camden taught me.  It’s basically an old condominium that’s now abandoned.  Many of the residents of his halfway house jokingly say, “I got me an abandominium.”

One emotionally unhealthy gentleman I knew—I’ll call him Jack—had a brilliant mind. With no strong catechetical framework, however, he was susceptible to anyone who played on his emotions or claimed supernatural experience (e.g. “God spoke to me…” or “God told me in a dream…”). Without a strong understanding of historic Christianity, Jack gravitated to teachers who tended to yell loud, have little training, and always interpret the Bible literally.

Today, he’s tormented by false or inadequate concepts of things like hell, the unpardonable sin, suffering, and the silence of God.  Fear and shame are his masters, not Christ. He loves his spiritual abandominium and it’s difficult to get him to consider living anywhere else. In some ways, it would be better if he knew nothing about the Bible and Christianity. I’ve often wished there was some way to bull-doze his shack-like thinking so he could get a fresh start with a proper foundation and framework. Yet, we all know—even from experience with ourselves: it’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks.

That’s why catechesis is largely preventative work.  We catechize children so they don’t go through life vulnerable to “every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14) like Jack. Yet, even as adults with bad habits and various forms of “stinkin thinkin,” there’s hope: we can unlearn things and scripture memory and catechesis help. As noted above, memorization drives messages deeper in to the heart. It also drives out lies, replacing them with truth.

This year I’m teaching an adult Sunday School class on How to Better Understand and Pass on Your Faith. It’s designed to reintroduce attendees to the benefits of catechesis and in the process to help them 1) better understand and internalize their own faith and 2) pass it on in effective and healthy ways to the next generation. We will be using the New City Catechism, a modern-day resource aimed at reintroducing the essentials of faith.

If you’d like to join us, consider downloading the free app “New City Catechism” and/or getting this excellent and inexpensive package. For more related to the importance of teaching on children early, watch this fun and fascinating 7.5 min. video.

 

 

[1] Quoted in Westerhoff and Edwards, A Faithful Church, 127.

[2] https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/5120/catechesis-for-a-secular-age/

[3] The New City Catechism Devotional (Wheaton, IL: Crossways, 2017), 8.

[4] The New City Catechism: 52 Questions for Our Hearts and Minds (Wheaton, IL: Crossways, 2017), 8.

How to Pass on the Faith, Part 1 of 3: The Problems with Catechesis

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One who is catechized must share all good things with the one who catechizes. Galatians 6:6 (a literal rendering)

Catechesis—teaching using questions and answers—is a strange religious idea and many have no clue what it means.

My friend, Jay, recalled his first experience with the word: He went to play ball with his neighborhood buddy but found, unfortunately, his buddy wasn’t immediately available.  Why? He had to go to something called “catechism” first.  And so Jay followed his buddy to the Catholic church and waited for him on the steps.  Then, after “catechism” was finally out of the way, they got to play ball.

Like my friend as a young boy, many view catechesis as a foreign and unwelcome experience—a boring interruption in an otherwise fun day. Others see the practice as antiquated, irrelevant, or even potentially brain-washing. Even people of faith point out that you can’t make kids Christian by dumping information into their heads.

Despite the unfamiliarity and bad press, catechesis is a biblical practice reflected in the verse above and is related to one of the marks of the earliest Christians: devotion to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). Catechesis comes from the Greek katechein and means to teach orally or to instruct by word of mouth. It is broadly defined as “the church’s ministry of grounding and growing God’s people in the Gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty, delight.”[1] Catechisms are collections of questions and answers designed for memorization and recitation. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have used catechisms in this way to teach others the core doctrines of the faith—especially as contained in the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Whether one is a fan of formal catechesis or not, passing on the faith to the next generation is important to all Christian parents. The question is how do we pass it on?

It may only take “a spark to get a fire going” but you don’t start the fire of faith by memorizing facts. As Jamie Smith has emphasized in his writings like Desiring the Kingdom, true change happens at the level of desire not knowledge. Not disagreeing with Smith, however, many arguing for the importance of catechesis point out that “you are laying the kindling and logs in the fireplace, so that when the Holy Spirit ignites your child’s heart, there will be a steady, mature blaze.”[2]

Those who argue for the ongoing use of catechisms face many cultural obstacles as well. Here are just three that the authors of Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way point out:

  • “Catechesis assumes the existence of authoritative truth that needs to be taught.” Our culture, however, roots truth, not in a sovereign God, but in the autonomous self. And so, my truth may not be your truth.
  • “Personal guesses and fantasies about God replace dogma as our authority…”
  • “Today’s agenda is learning Bible stories rather than being grounded in truths about the Triune God.”[3]

The older I get, the more I’m a fan of creeds and catechisms. Still, I’m with those that want—on the whole—to pass faith on informally, rather than formally. Those who have parented or worked with youth know well that significant things often happen at insignificant moments. Further, if you associate something like a catechism with a rigid, curmudgeonly parent or teacher, that’s going to affect how you view catechesis itself. Many studies show the importance of emotional health and parental attachment in raising healthy children. In fact, one study showed that “having an emotionally close relationship with fathers may provide a broad, secure foundation that is more important that specific interactions around religious topics.”[4] These studies speak to the priority of warm, accepting, safe, and enjoyable relationships in passing on faith.

Another problem I’ve personally observed, especially in reformed circles, is the tendency to elevate head knowledge—including catechesis—over topics like relationships, healthy marriage, vocation, emotional health, or a heart for God. That’s why for some “attention to doctrine is sometimes actually avoided, lest it induce contention and cold-heartedness and thereby diminish devotional ardor.”[5] But “rote memorization of catechisms without a lively, interactive relationship of didactic exchange between catechist and catechumens was not… the Reformers’ intent…”[6] Their aim was to change the heart through habit and ritual in repetition, and this is done by “lively, interactive” exchange in the context of loving relationships. Otherwise, familiarity breeds contempt and what is memorized will be just like a train that runs continually by that no one hears anymore.

Finally, there are some who feel that if you’re going to take the time to memorize something, why not just memorize Scripture?  What can compare with God’s word?  I sympathize with this view. Psalm 119:11 says “I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (ESV) I grew up from the fourth grade on in a Christian school environment.  We were required to learn three verses a week and one chapter per month.  Honestly, it wasn’t too hard because we repeated the three verses out loud several times a day and we did the same once a day as a group with the chapter of Scripture (e.g. Psalm 1, 23, the Beatitudes, etc.). All the memorization was in the King James Version (KJV) and, I suspect, informed by the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Over the course of my life, I’m amazed at how many times scripture stored in my heart has benefited me, and how much I still recall.

God promises that his word will not return void (Isa. 55:11) but that doesn’t replace the need for a formal framework to pass on the essentials of historic Christianity. It is to this topic—the Case for Catechesis—that we turn, next week.

In preparation, consider learning more about one of the following that you know the least about: The Apostles Creed, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Westminster Shorter Catechism, or the New City Catechism.

 

 

[1] J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old –Fashioned Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 182.

[2] The New City Catechism: 52 Questions for Our Hearts and Minds (Wheaton, IL: Crossways, 2017), 8.

[3] Op. Cit.,15.

[4] Greg Priebbenow, “Dad Matters! . . . The Spiritual Influence of Fathers,” Formingfaith, accessed November 14, 2016, https://formingfaith.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/dad-matters-the-spiritual-influence-of-fathers/. Used by permission.

[5] J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old –Fashioned Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 17.

[6] Ibid., 65.

Reflections on the March for Life

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A person is a person no matter how small. – Dr. Seuss

Last week marked my one year anniversary with Care Net and my second year participating in the March for Life. It was the 45th march protesting and marking the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the now infamous Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion through all nine months of pregnancy.

There were over one hundred thousand[1] folks there for this peaceful demonstration, although it got almost no coverage from the mainstream media. CNN, for example, largely ignored the march but prominently featured the women’s march (I guess unborn women don’t count?) that evening and the next day, live-streaming events in two locations. Why such bias? One of the biggest reasons is because “It is taken today as a truism that in order to be a feminist you must be ‘pro-choice’. The right to abortion is often deemed to be the most fundamental right of women, without which all others are said to be meaningless.”[2]

As I’ve written previously, I’m certainly an advocate for the equality of women. I’m confident, however, that a civilized society can find a way to protect one life in a way that doesn’t rely on destroying the life of another—especially a pre-born, defenseless child.

Our art often mirrors our values: In visually stunning 2017 sci-fi action movie Blade Runner 2049, the second installment in the Blade Runner franchise, there is a particularly harrowing scene [Spoiler alert, although not a plot spoiler!]. The main antagonist, Niander Wallace played by Jared Leto, is a “replicant” manufacturer—a god-like character who is trying to create “replicants” that can reproduce.  In the Blade Runner films a replicant is a bioengineered android.

Again, in this chilling scene, a newborn replicant drops out of a womb bag as a fully formed adult female.  Covered with amniotic fluid, she is extremely feeble and can barely stand. Using some kind of floating scanners, Niander examines her closely and finds her infertile.  He then takes a scalpel, slices her womb, and kills her because she is deficient—not what not he wants. The scene is meant to horrify and introduce us to one of the story’s main villains. Niander’s savage taking of the “newborn’s” life makes us fear him.  Part of what makes the scene work is that we connect the violence done to the “newborn” with a fully formed—otherwise perfect—adult female.

Somehow, today in America, we’re not similarly horrified by the violence done to a pre-born child. They’re among societies’ “invisibles”. Their embryonic form hides the monstrosity of our own disregard for life. For many, It’s not a real child.  It’s just a “fetus” or a “product of conception.” Ultrasound technology continues to help change these perceptions, but we still have a long way to go. Here are some fresh stats:[3]

  • 60% of the women having abortions are in their 20’s.
  • 40% have no religious affiliation.
  • 86% of those who have abortions are unmarried.

There are, however, some positive trends on the horizon: The faces of those who march are getting younger. Also, here are three encouraging things I learned at the Evangelicals for Life conference last week (held for three days coinciding with the march):

  • Millennials have a heart for societies’ “invisibles” and find abortion—especially late term abortion—more and more unacceptable.
  • For every abortion clinic, there are four pregnancy centers offering compassion, hope, and help to the pre-born, as well as moms and dads facing pregnancy decisions.
  • The abortion rate has decreased 50% since 1980.

All this begs the question: how does the Church best continue to care about and work to change things?  Here are three ways that also address the stats in bold above:

  1. De-link pro-life efforts from politics. Otherwise, we will not gain a hearing. Our twenty-somethings are not impressed with the weird tribal games of our current two-party political system. Once we do this, we can…
  2. Reframe the conversation around compassion for societies’ invisibles (refuges, the pre-born, victims of sex trafficking, those with down syndrome, etc.). In other words, the church needs to become known for how it loves rather than how it votes. As Pastor Rick Warren has said, “You can’t preach the gospel to those who aren’t listening [i.e. “no religious affiliation”]. How do you get people to listen? Love gets their attention.”[4] As Jesus said, they will know we are Christians by our unity (Jn. 17:21) not by which president roots for our cause.
  3. Focus and work on our own issues and sins, rather than everyone else’s. Instead of being known first in our communities for what we’re against, we need to become known for what we’re for. For example, evangelical churches decry co-habiting and gay marriage, all the while we have a divorce rate similar to our culture. Here’s an idea: Let’s tend to our own business—our own sexual impurity and weak marriages. Let’s repent of our own sins. Let’s work together so Christian marriage is once again viewed as a beautiful and compelling concept.

Finally, take heart! As Christians, we shouldn’t be marching primarily for political solutions. Our mind’s eye can’t be fixed on Washington’s power plays. Being enamored by and fighting for political power has and will continue to lead us seriously astray. Our misdirected focus causes us to devalue gentleness, respect, grace, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit—including how his power most often shines in weakness. As believers in Jesus, we march to the beat of a different drum and we serve a different King who promised, “…I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18-ESV)

And as Dr. Tony Evan’s recently said, “God’s not going to skip the church house to fix the white house.”[5]

 

[1] Number given by March for Life in their follow-up email.

[2] http://www.theliberal.co.uk/issue_9/politics/fof_hoskings_9.html

[3] Cited by Pastor Todd Wagner of Watermark Church at the Council for Life Pastor’s Breakfast in Dallas, TX on 1.9.18.

[4] From The Purpose-Driven Church.

[5] I heard him say this at the Council for Life Pastor’s Breakfast in Dallas, TX on 1.9.18.

Making the Leap to a Better Place

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I went for a walk in the woods.  Journeying home, I took an alternate route and came to a place where I had to cross a stream. Too wide to jump, I found a spot where others had made a bridge. There were broken branches, pieces of full trees, all now mostly rotted. I put my foot lightly on one log but it quickly submerged. I tested others but they also were too bouncy and unstable to support my weight.

I stood there for a while, contemplating what combination of careful steps and quick jumps might result in a dry crossing. I had a sick feeling that, regardless of whatever I tried, I was going to lose my balance and get wet.  Still, I had no interest in staying in a place of indecision and angst. I needed to pursue home and get to the other side.  And so, I got up the courage to go for it and cross. Sure enough, as I took my first step, I lost my balance and plunged one leg into the stream, soaking shoes, socks, and pants.  I then quickly regrouped, figuring the worst was done, and went across this time successfully, albeit, a little cold and soggy.

This experience is a great metaphor for certain decisions in life.  We need the courage to change our situation, find a better place, and pursue home—that place of authenticity, integrity, joy, and God’s approval. Maybe we’ve lost hope that there is a better place. Or, maybe we’ve experienced more than our share of rejection or failures. And, because of this, we’ve lost all confidence to try new things. We’ve buried our best selves and, at least when it comes to changing our circumstances, we’re full of excuses: it might be unpleasant, we’ll disappoint or discourage others, we might fail. We don’t want our decisions to hurt dear friends potentially left behind or bring any possible harm to those we’re responsible for. And so, we do nothing and settle for a caged existence of fear, anger, and resignation.

Again, we need to take a step, get on, and do something. But instead we stay comfortably numb and distract ourselves from the complication and work of making a change. Yet, trying to simplify our lives is rarely a passive or guilt-free process: You can’t please everyone, nor can you get to a better place without doing something and disappointing someone.

Fear of anything but God (Prov. 1:7) is a poor master.

Of course, impulse is also a bad master and the wise will wait on God’s timing. The late Anglican pastor and theologian, John Stott said this:

“It is a mistake to be in a hurry or to grow impatient with God.  It took him about 2,000 years to fulfill his promise to Abraham in the birth of Christ.  It took him eighty years to prepare Moses for his life’s work.  It takes him about twenty-five years to make a mature human being.  So then, if we have to make a decision by a certain deadline, we must make it.  But if not, and the way forward is still uncertain, it is wiser to wait.  I think God says to us what he said to Joseph and Mary when sending them into Egypt with the child Jesus: ‘Stay there until I tell you’ (Matt. 2:13).  In my experience, more mistakes are made by precipitate action than by procrastination.”[1]

Stott’s counsel is an essential caution and has served me well over the last twenty years. If you’re in a place, however, where you’ve lived in frustration and stagnation for a long time—regularly fighting bitterness and despair—it may be time for action. This is especially the case when we find ourselves bound by a voluntary association (job, church, etc.) that doesn’t represent who we really are. Some contexts are not a fit, nor are they conducive to growth. They stifle creativity, freedom, and movement, or they provide no margin for the same. Some churches and related associations, for example, are cages of control where me and mine are in and you and yours are out. In a desire to “guard the truth”—and often, honestly, to keep the power—litmus tests and straitjacket rules are put in place to make sure members stay in rank.

Straightjackets were designed to control people that can’t be trusted to think for themselves. But for healthy people, straightjackets are not only uncomfortable, they keep us from living.

I gave up mine because I couldn’t move my arms. When you can’t move your arms, you can’t discover what’s in your hands or do what’s in them with all your might (Eccl. 9:10).

Leaving and making the leap to a better place involves saying no to fear and risk. It means you must take a step to live what you truly believe. Yes, we all need accountability (Hebrews 13:17), but we also need freedom to think and love God with our minds. Moreover, we need freedom to pursue God’s voice and God’s purposes with integrity and reckless abandon.

Are there steps you need to take to pursue home; specifically, that place where you best fit, belong, and can serve God and others wholeheartedly and with integrity? Is it time to stop contemplating and commit to action? If your heart has been stirred and unsettled for quite some time, I encourage you to leave fear aside and take your first step. Be assured, leaving one shore to get to the next won’t kill or hurt you. Yes, it may be a little unpleasant and require a change of clothes, but that’s the price of getting home.  And, honestly, the gift is worth the demand. Growth, integrity, and a place where you’re able and encouraged to be all God intended you to be are worth the pursuit.

[1] Authentic Christianity, edited by Timothy Dudley-Smith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 249.

Why the Sea Restores Us

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The ocean, like no other place on the planet, is God’s gift to teach us how to make peace with the two realities we struggle most with: constancy and change. Let me explain.

Two months ago, Pam and I enjoyed the gift of a week of vacation with some friends who have a condo in Bonaire (an island off the coast of Venezuela, that is part of the Netherlands Antilles).

I gaze off their terrace at the Caribbean, listening to the waves crash steadily onto the shore. The sea is a silky, constantly moving aqua blue with light patches of dark that seem to drift in and out of visibility with the breeze.

The sound is constant and the rhythm healing.

Why is the sea so restorative? Certainly, there are many reasons—beauty, an immensity that speaks to the eternity in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11b). But it’s the visual and sound of every breaking wave that quiets our soul. Why is this? Again, because they’re connected to the two things we struggle with most as humans: change and constancy. Or to put it more starkly, at one extreme there is devastating change, and at the other the slow death of constancy.

Either our worlds get shattered (change) or we’re bored out of our minds (constancy).

Our inability to cope with either change or constancy, or to find peaceful co-existence between the two, often leads or contributes to addictions. One of the reasons we drink, shop, eat, and [insert drug of choice] too much—that is, in a way that dishonors God and others—is either to anesthetize our boredom or fight acceptance of new realities. Think of Sherlock Holmes’ use of morphine when he didn’t have a case. Or Dr. Jekyl’s toleration of Mr. Hyde, who made him feel once again young and energetic.

Addictions are false pursuits of exhilaration when only God should be our first love and master (Matt. 22:37). Sexual addictions are particularly powerful and deceptive because they can make us feel alive, even connected to the transcendent and spiritual. Sex with another outside of marriage and/or mixed with pornography are illicit escapes that result from our disordered desires. But addictions are only symptoms; yes, they stem from of idolatry and unbelief, but they also reveal our lack of peace with constancy and change.

How can the sea and ocean help us with our internal war?

Constancy. The waves are always breaking, sometimes crashing, on the shore. The sound is hypnotic. We go into a peaceful trance. Many of us, even those that don’t like to bake in the sun, choose a beach getaway just so we can stare at ocean or close our eyes and listen to its cadence.  Busyness does violence to the inner recesses of our heart. In fact, the Chinese character for busyness means “soul-killing”.  Thankfully, the ocean—God’s gift—can heal our soul in very real ways.

Most of us must go to work every day. We must pay our rent or mortgage. We must get rest. The dishes must get done. Our families must get fed. Exciting things don’t happen all the time. Discipline, routine, and perseverance help us deal with the same-old-same-old but, at times, we despise this.

Change. We see it vividly in the sand: footprints vanish and sand castles disintegrate. But it’s also true with anything the sea touches. Boardwalks must be replaced. Lighthouses moved.

Fishing piers become unsafe and unsustainable. Nothing lasts. Again, we hate this truth about life, but we know it all too well. Like it or not, we must all move our chairs with the change of tides.

We must grow up. We must get a job. We must change jobs. We must deal with a new boss. We must adjust our diet. Private quiet spots get public and crowded. And, whether we do it gracefully or not, we must age. I remember my grandmother saying to me, with deep weariness, while we were waiting—yet again—for the ambulance to pick up my grandfather, “Greg, don’t get old.”

Yes, constancy and change are the primary threads in the fabric of our existence, but there is a gift from the sea for all who will listen. “The Preacher” in Ecclesiastes teaches that constancy and change are part of the rhythm of life (1:5-9; 3:1-8). And the sea and ocean teach us that there is a place of stillness where all things come together. When it comes to “life under the sun,” there is no place on this planet to better see, hear, and feel that rhythm.

For all, the sea and the ocean “pour forth speech” (Psa. 19:2) and offer great lessons about serenity.

For the Christian, those lessons are gifts from a loving and Great Artist who gives hope beyond the circle of life. The Christian is anchored for eternity to the “Rock of Ages.” God gives a gift beyond the sea when it is “no more” (Rev. 21:1), which the first question in the Heidelberg Catechism expresses beautifully:

“What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all of the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore by His Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto him.”[1]

 

 

[1] Heidelberg Catechism, Modern English Version, 450th Anniversary Edition (Reformed Church in the United States, 2013), 19.

Saying Yes to Diving in the Caribbean

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You’re never too old to set a new goal or dream a new dream. –C.S. Lewis

It’s not often you get an invitation to stay at a friend’s sea-front home on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, combined with an offer to take you scuba-diving every day. Bonaire is one of the most beautiful and easiest places in the world to dive. There are no sharks and lots of shore access points where you can gear-up and walk right in.

All my wife, Pam, and I had to do to accept this kindness was to buy our plane tickets and get certified to dive.

Saying yes to Bonaire had a financial cost. Besides the plane tickets, there was the initial investment: diving certification classes and various equipment to purchase or rent. God has always provided faithfully for all our needs—sometimes miraculously—but there’s never been much margin. Then there was the sacrifice of time. The only classes available involved six all-day Sundays in a row and reading in between. Some of our Christian friends frowned on the Sunday commitment: “Church should be important.” After all, scripture says, “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” (Heb. 10:26, NLT)

Others viewed it as an incredible opportunity and encouraged us to seize the day. They saw life as bigger than a church’s program. They also viewed Heb. 10:26 as referring to an important overall lifestyle habit that six weeks of diving classes wasn’t going to break. They spoke life and supported expanding our worlds.

I’m grateful for those later voices. They said carpe diem when others offered a cage. They refreshed when others repressed. They encouraged delight when others saw only duty.

So, what did we do? Viewing our friend’s invitation as a once in a life-time opportunity and in celebration of my fiftieth birthday, we decided to go for it and become certified divers. It wasn’t an easy accomplishment, especially for me because I did most of the class blind as a bat. My glasses, which of course I couldn’t wear underwater, are super thick. What’s more, for 90% of the class I didn’t have prescription lenses in my mask. I thought Pam would be the one to have trouble getting certified, but it was me! The truth is, we were all surprised I even passed, the instructor included. By the way, if you decide to become a certified diver and can’t see very well, I recommend getting customized lenses in your mask before you start the class. Just sayin’.

But here are the bigger questions: Was the choice to say yes to Bonaire worth it? Was the dream worth all the hard work, money, and time? Absolutely.

Scuba-diving on the coral reef is like gliding weightless through an amazing world teaming with colorful fish, plants, and animal life (believe it or not, coral is an animal!). In fact, despite Disney’s Finding Nemo being child’s animated fiction, it really captures well the energy and brilliant-colored happenings under the sea.  Snorkeling also gives a view into this multi-colored, busy wonderland. Diving is unique, however, in that it’s much more immersive and offers an experience like flying in a kaleidoscopic three-dimensional reality. It really was and is and incredible experience. We just returned from our second trip. Pam completed her twenty-second dive and I my twenty-first.

By the way, I have to wear my prescription goggles beginning when we gear-up at the truck just so I can walk safely down to the water. Yes, I’m sure to fellow travelers I look less like a fashionista despite my James Bond wet suit. But at least that makes me less of a liability to Pam, our friends, and myself. 🙂

Given our experience, I do hope you’re inspired and get an opportunity to at least try snorkeling. More importantly, I hope:

  • You don’t let challenges or fear of what others think keep you from celebration, delight, and experiences that will grow, stretch, and expand your horizons.
  • That if you get a diving in the Carribean-like opportunity, you will do your best to say yes and make it happen.
  • You’re committed to your local church, but always in a way that encourages and empowers others (including yourself) to seize the day.

 

Seize the Day!

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Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. (Eccl. 9:7, ESV)

As mentioned previously, the verse above has become a favorite, along with its context (9:7-10a), and the whole book of Ecclesiastes. That’s not because I’m a good follower of “the Preacher’s” advice, but I aspire to be.

The word in bold above, “go,” is closely related to the Latin phrase carpe diem or seize the day. “The Preacher” could have started out saying “eat your bread with joy…” but adds “go” as if to say, “Seize the day! Do it now! This is the day that the Lord has made—rejoice and be glad!”

Carpe diem or seize the day means to “enjoy the present as opposed to placing all hope in the future.”[1]

At first glance the concept of carpe diem and this definition seem to run counter to Paul when he says, “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.” (Col. 3:2, KJV) In fact, for most of my young adulthood, I leaned on Paul’s words and ignored the puzzling message of Ecclesiastes. For me, life was something to be rigidly segmented into two categories: sacred (things above) and secular (things on earth). Further, I judged others who carried their faith with less intensity than I did. I certainly didn’t enjoy wine; in fact, most of the time, I didn’t enjoy anything. I loved God and followed him outwardly like a good Pharisee but internally I lived a caged existence of fear, anger, and resignation.

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes 9:7 remained buried behind the word “meaningless” and I didn’t really understand Paul either.

So, what do Paul’s words mean in light of Eccl. 9:7?

One of the principles of proper biblical interpretation is scripture interprets scripture. In other words, God gave us the sixty-six books (more if you’re Orthodox or Roman Catholic) and they’re all His holy word. Scripture interprets scripture means that Paul must inform “the Preacher” of Ecclesiastes, and vice versa.

Paul’s words in Col. 3:2 have to do with where our ultimate affections lie and warn us against idolatry. They tell us that, as we live out Eccl. 9:7 (and, yes, we should!), we need to receive all as a gift from our creator. We should never make food, drink, marriage, or anything a god.

“The Preacher’s” words in Eccl. 9:7 reminds us that God put us here on planet earth and it’s wrong to cheapen the existence He placed us in. They remind us that God’s purposes are alive here and now and permeate “things on the earth”—especially food, drink, community, marriage, and work. They also tell us that God takes pleasure in our joy: “for God has already approved of what you do.”

David Gibson, in his new commentary, adds these excellent observations:

“It’s vital to see that the eating, drinking, and loving in these verses do not form an exhaustive list of God’s gifts. Rather, it’s a representative list of what it means to love life and live it to the full. These things are a way of saying: when God made the world, he made it good, and no amount of being a Christian, being spiritual, ever changes the fact that God put you in a physical world with hands and food and drink and culture and relationships and beauty. Sin fractures everything, distorts everything. It means we cannot understand everything. But sin does not uncreate everything. So, if we tap into the Preacher’s worldview and train or thought, I think an expanded list would look something like this:

Ride a bike, see the Grand Canyon, go to a theater, learn to make music, visit the sick, care for the dying, cook a meal, feed the hungry, watch a film, read a book, laugh with some friends until it makes you cry, play football, run a marathon, snorkel in the ocean, listen to Mozart, ring your parents, write a letter, play with your kids, spend your money, learn a language, plant a church, start a school, speak about Christ, travel to somewhere you’ve never been, adopt a child, give away your fortune and then some, shape someone’s life by laying down your own.”[2]

So, what about you? Is it time to make your expanded list? Consider writing down and personalizing your own. More importantly, is it time to live out your list?

Go!  Seize the day! Do it now! Make the most of this new year and receive it as a gift!

 

[1] Dictionary.com

[2] David Gibson, Living Life Backward (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 114.

How the Holy Family Gives Laser Focus to Ministry

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In my current vocational role at Care Net, the Christmas story is especially significant, as it deals with the most famous “unplanned” pregnancy in history.

Earlier this year, my wife and I went to Orlando to celebrate my mom’s birthday. While there, she gave me a figurine of the Holy Family. It was originally my grandparents’, and my mom thought I would appreciate it given my life’s work to strengthen fathers and families.

holy family_mary and joseph_nativity_christmas.jpg

The representation of Joseph as a significant presence and guide in the family is uncommon. He and Mary are united in love and marriage and their child is safe.

Now a cherished fixture in my office, this visual is a daily reminder of eternal priorities and perspective. It gives laser focus to my efforts to equip churches and pregnancy centers in offering compassion, hope, help, and discipleship to men and women facing unplanned pregnancies.

Here’s how:

1. The Holy Family is an “icon” that invites unity from all three branches of Christianity. I’ve written more about this here, but all churches—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant—use and love the nativity story. It’s a celebration of the incarnation and birth of Christ. Further, the Christmas traditions of most Christian families include setting up a manger scene. Children grow up playing with and being fascinated by it. Baby Jesus gets carried around and many of us have even seen baby Jesus’, cows, donkeys, etc. with broken arms or legs because they’ve been played with so much!

Children adore the story and, for many, it’s their first introductory glimpse into the gospel described in John 1:14: “The Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.” (NLT) Again, whatever our Christian expression, the crèche has played and continues to play a significant role in our spiritual formation. As we mature in our faith and through the lens of the cross, we come to identify with lyrics like these from Julie Miller’s, Manger Throne: “That dirty manger was my heart, too. I’ll make it a royal throne for you.”

2. The Holy Family is an image that presents and preserves the ideal of the nuclear family. The nuclear family is a mom, dad, and their child(ren) living in the same home. It’s an idea—even for some Christians—that’s considered passé or something that never existed until the 1800’s. Consider this attempt from The New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology to give clarity on whether or not the nuclear family is rooted in Scripture:

“Parenting itself was clearly shared within the extended family or household, possibly with servants.There is no description of the nuclear family, considered so desirable recently in the West. Perhaps Christians adopted the model as it seemed a practical outworking of the NT teaching on sexual continence within marriage, as well as honoring the teaching codes of conduct and respect between parents and children (1 Cor 7 and Eph 6:1–4). The criticism of muddled families often springs from that teaching…

The family of Jesus himself is the only clear NT model [of the nuclear family]: the son of Joseph and Mary, he is known to have brothers and sisters (Matt 13:55–56). The only extended family member referred to is Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin (Luke 1:36), and she was not local. Christians, therefore, may well also have tended to adopt this pattern as supporting the idea that the nuclear family is the norm in present times. They have generally paid less attention to the extended family, though worldwide there are, of course, cultural variations.”

Despite intentions, the authors above leave the waters muddy regarding whether the nuclear family is biblically supported and should be championed and protected, or not. Notice the contradictory statements I placed in bold above:

  • “there is no description of the nuclear family”
  • “the family of Jesus himself is the only clear NT model”

It’s an all-too-common example of the unwarranted hesitancy—again, even in the Christian community—to acknowledge the nuclear family’s existence and extol its virtues.

Yes, the extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.) is also important in raising children and should be valued and affirmed. This is no reason, however, to dismantle the nuclear family or denigrate the model in which Jesus himself was born into and raised. Indeed, you can’t have an extended family without a nucleus. Moreover, many individuals and social workers today have no choice but to focus on extended kin because the nuclear family is weak, fragmented, or non-existent.

3. The Holy Family is a picture that focuses us on gospel potential. Helen Keller famously said, “The saddest thing in the world is a person who can see but has no vision.” When a client comes into a pregnancy center considering abortion, or a pregnant mom comes to us for help, what should we see? Certainly, we should see the vulnerable life of an unborn infant. Life-affirming work, however, isn’t just about saving a baby; it’s about raising a child. If this is true, we should see dads as potential Josephs who have unique and irreplaceable roles.

And if we are in synch with Jesus’ vision for the world, we’ll recognize idols of the heart, too: convenience, a woman’s body elevated over the that of a baby, adult plans and potential held as more important than a child’s, etc.

We’ll also see and share hope—the message of the cross and the forgiveness of sins. Bottom line, we’ll have an eternal vision for all as those that need to become disciples of Jesus Christ. The pregnant mom, her baby, and the boyfriend/father—are all potential “holy families.”

Friend, God has blessed us more than we know with the biblical story of Christmas. It’s a primary way to pass on the Christian faith. As a mom, dad, ministry worker, family member, or friend, you are a storyteller of a nativity narrative. What’s more, in dependence on God, you can become an intentional conduit to see that story played out in the lives of all those who receive him (John 1:12).

May the joy and peace of Christ be with you in fullest measure this season. Merry Christmas!