God’s Not Dead and the Myth of the Militant College Professor

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Let me qualify everything I’m about to say by first saying that I have not seen the movie God’s Not Dead yet. This is not a movie review nor is it meant to discourage anyone from going to see it. From talking to some friends who have seen it, I understand there are some redeeming things about the movie and the story it presents. Amongst them is the fact that the main character is willing to stand up for what he believes in and takes the time to research and find answers to difficult questions posed by the antagonistic philosophy professor. I find it interesting that Focus on the Family’s movie review website, Plugged In, had this to say as the negative elements of the movie “Pretty much everyone who’s not a Christian in this story is villainized for being mean, abusive, grouchy or narrow-minded. Several such sinners are condemned to either death or terminal illness, as if they’re being punished for their attitudes.” As much as that bothers me and could be topic in and of itself or a blog—the portrayal of non-Christians in Christian movies—that is not the issue I have with this movie.

Surely there are professors that are antagonistic towards Christianity and organized religion in general. Many of them have published works that provide their explanations of why they think faith in a deity is intellectual suicide. I don’t doubt that many of them don’t shy away from sharing their antagonistic attitude in class. That being said, they are still professional. In any philosophy class you are not tested and assessed the same way you are in a math or even a science class. The field of philosophy does not require that you subscribe to the worldview of your professor. It does however require you give a rational support and or explanation of the worldview you’ve chosen. Thus the premise presented in the movie of a professor demanding that students deny God or gods completely at the outset of the semester is extremely far-fetched. Still that is not what bothers me the most.

For a number of years we’ve been warned that philosophy and professors of the sciences pose a major threat to Christian college students. We’ve been told that these cunning men and women are the main ones responsible for the often quoted statistic of somewhere between sixty to seventy percent of young Christians leave the church by their second year of college, a third of which never return. Yet in all my years of doing youth ministry—as a student, volunteer, and a pastor—I’ve yet to know of anyone who walked away from following Jesus Christ because of what they learned in a college philosophy or science course. On the other hand, I know a multitude of persons who have walked away from Christianity, all of whom walked away for one of three reasons.

The first is that they went away to college and eventually the guilt and shame from having premarital sex and or getting involved in alcohol and drug abuse became too overwhelming and thus it was easier to abandon faith than deal with their junk. Many of them feared being left out of all the fun everyone else was having and wanted to belong with their peers. They had been handed a faith that was primarily about behavioral modification and proved to be shallow and without roots. Some quite simply can be described by John 3:19 in that they “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”

The second reason is that they encountered some sort of tragedy or crisis, often the divorce of their parents or death of a loved one, and became either disillusioned with by God’s seeming disregard for their troubles or angry with him. It became easier to walk away than wrestle with what the Bible says about the present age and the age to come, namely the paradoxical reign of Christ on earth (the paradox of Jesus reigning on earth while there is still evil and suffering in the world) while yearning for the overflowing reign of Christ on earth where pain and suffering will be no more, and death will be defeated. Often times they’ve been handed a faith that says you suffer because you’ve been bad and God is punishing you. Ironically enough, this is where some adopt the Anosticism which says, “if there is a God who created the earth he or she is now totally uninvolved in the affairs of the earth”.

My point in bringing this to the table is this… Let’s stop blaming liberal college professors for the failures of the church, youth ministries, and parents. Nancy Pearcey in her book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity summarizes the problem quite well, “it remains true that most churches are strong on teaching about conversion, but weak on teaching about how to live after conversion.” If anything college, or more to the point independence, is the testing ground of faith and the gospel message young people have been taught to believe. A gospel that primarily teaches you to modify your behavior is usually heavy on guilt and light on grace. A gospel that primarily teaches you that Jesus came to make your life better is light on hope for a world that is perishing and the cost of discipleship. A youth ministry primarily focused on having fun is going to yield young adults in search of more fun and entertainment. Sermons on how you’re blessed or claiming your blessing are light on telling the story of how God set out to bless the entire world and why it needed to be blessed in the first place. Parenting driven by fear of what could go wrong is light on talking about how the world went wrong and what God does about it in the past present and future.

We need to present our young people with a robust gospel that fosters disciples instead of converts and well-behaved kids. We need to own our failures instead of blaming them on people and institutions that weren’t around for the formational period of young adults lives. Otherwise, God’s Not Dead will be wholly accurate in their depiction of a young adult who has to go search for answers to tough questions in isolation, instead of in loving community, or abandon their faith all together.

Revelation That Calmed My Fears About Adopting: A Father’s Day Reflection

_DSC8298I never imagined that infertility would be something I would have to navigate. It’s safe to say that no one imagines walking through the painfully indiscriminate and out of our control ways the curse of sin can touch our lives. Whether it be infertility, cancer and other illnesses there is just some things that invade our lives with indescribable grief and massive amounts of pain.

As a man of faith in God and Christ I prayed about it for a time, but eventually became resigned to the fact that if I was ever going to be a father then it would be by a different route. So many become parents, in some cases so “easy”, that we all take it for granted how amazing conception is, and how difficult it can be. As much as it sucked to not be experiencing the blessing firsthand that God gave to mankind to “be fruitful and multiply”, that I may never have a child that is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone, or as my wife and I used to say, “have a child with my big nose and her high forehead”, I decided I wasn’t going to be mad at God for the ripple effect into my life of Adam and Eve rejecting God in Eden.

Any adoption agency that is worth their salt will make you go through the gauntlet in order to be put on their wait list for a child. Amongst the many prerequisites we had to go through with our adoption agency we had to read four books on adoption. Three of the four books we read were terrible. Honestly they really were depressing. The main thrust of those three books was that in adoption everybody is wounded. The child is wounded, the birth parents are wounded, the adoptive parents are wounded. Everyone involved is wounded and grieving. So there’s a good chance that adopting a child is going to bring its fair share of difficulty and misery into your life (to which I thought, “Isn’t that the case with having kids in general regardless of them entering a family biologically or via adoption?”). The fourth book however was profoundly different.

First of all let me say that Russell Moore’s Adopted For Life is a book that any Christian should read. Even if you are done having children cause you’ve already conceived and raised ten of them you should read that book. I was fortunate enough to be able to connect with him via Twitter to let him know how profound his book was for myself and my wife by simply including in the tweet a picture of the two of us holding Isla that first day we met her. I’ve never been prouder to make someone’s day, as his reply said, because that book made me aware of something that I had never noticed or been taught prior in all my years of being a Christian.

Those of you who know me well know that I don’t worry about much. I’ve trained myself to be concerned but not worry about things, and it times it can unnerve others around me. Honestly though, I had my concerns about how quickly I would become attached in the very depths of my heart to the child I would hopefully be made the father of. A child who was not mine. The other three books spent a lot of time preparing you for struggling with the fact that your adopted child in all likelihood will not have a lot in common with you (Like I said earlier, it’s not as though it never happens with biological children). They labored that point excessively. I wasn’t concerned as much about whether or not I’d be a good father. However, there was some concern as to whether or not I’d have that overwhelming depth of love that all parents have for their child from the moment their born since I would be receiving a child that wasn’t flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone. A child who I not only hadn’t procreated but I also wasn’t there for their birth.

Emma and I were headed up to Michigan for our friends Lauren and Andy’s wedding. Emma had been reading the books before me, and early on she told me I needed to read Adopted For Life first. At one point headed somewhere in the car she turned down the radio and read to me a portion of the book that had her absolutely floored. We don’t have the book anymore because we passed it on to someone else, so I can’t place an excerpt here, but I don’t need to because it was five simple words. Jesus was adopted by Joseph.

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In all my years of being a Christian it had never dawned on me or been taught that Jesus was adopted by Joseph. It’s as though it’s so obvious that we completely miss it. Or if we’re being honest we don’t realize it because we don’t see much mention of Joseph being on the scene in Jesus’ life past the age of twelve, the church has cloaked Joseph in a cloud of mystery and suspicion. However, how was Jesus often referred to in the gospel accounts by the people of his time? He was often referred to as the “son of a carpenter”, which is deeply profound if you know anything about first century Jewish society and culture. I knew enough about it to start filling in the blanks. Good Jewish fathers taught their son their trade. Good Jewish fathers taught their sons (and their daughters) the torah or God’s word. And what were the two things Jesus was well known for? Being the son of a carpenter, and even at the age of twelve, having a mastery of the sacred text (Luke 2.46-47). Surely having the fullness of the deity of God indwelling his flesh probably had something to do with it, but there is no reason to doubt that Joseph took the charge of Deuteronomy 4.9-10 & 6.20-25 to heart, because to him Jesus was his son (In other words, in a mysterious and dare I say weird way that boggles my mind Joseph is the one that simultaneously introduced Jesus to his heavenly father, and by doing so introduced Jesus to himself. Let that roll around in your brain for a second).

Although Joseph obediently stayed after previously considering to divorce Mary quietly due to his non-involvement in her pregnancy, I’m sure he was likely troubled by the thought of raising a child who people knew wasn’t his own just like I did. I can’t help but believe that God did the same thing in Joseph’s heart as he did in mine. From the first time I saw Isla and heard her cry she was undoubtedly mine. Instantly my heart was fixed and bonded to that girl to the very depth of my being, no less than any parent who went through 10 months of pregnancy. There was no need to worry or be concerned anymore. From that moment on I am her father.

I stepped out for a moment as I was writing this to tell Emma what I was doing (and get her blessing to share these things). She summed up my reflection best, and I’m not ashamed to say it makes my eyes well up with tears even as I type it. I’m a Joseph. The grief and dare I say wounding of unexplained infertility, which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy if I had one, set me on a path that eventually led to me being bestowed with the legacy of Joseph. Maybe that’s why there’s few things I treasure in my heart more than the first time while praying with Isla before putting her down to sleep for the night she said before I could, with that sweet voice and articulation of a toddler of not quite two just beginning to string sentences together, “Dear God, thank you for…” I get to be Joseph to Isla who is by no means Jesus, but we certainly won’t hold that against her. Because after all one day I’ll get to tell her that she was adopted just like Jesus was. Though she isn’t flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone, I have something far greater to give her than my big nose.

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Are You Blessed?: Recapturing What It Truly Means To Be Blessed

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Blessed had become a dirty word as far as I was concerned while my wife and I struggled with unexplained infertility. Hearing the things that people saw as evidence of God’s favor had put a bitter taste in my mouth. I wasn’t bitter things were apparently going their way and God possibly had a direct hand in making sure things worked out for them.  I was bitter about what it implied. If getting the job or the house or the car or the new pair of jeans at the right price meant that you had God’s favor, then what did it say about the unemployed, the homeless, the people that have to ride the bus, and those who get hand-me-down pants? Are they not favored? If they don’t have God’s favor then does that mean they’re cursed?

This came to a head for me one Sunday morning during baby dedications when it was repeated a few times that babies are a blessing. Not to say that children are not a blessing. Still when you’re sitting there childless and enduring months of infertility treatments, it’s like a punch to the gut. It’s easy to wonder if maybe, just maybe, God has cursed you. It’s easy to start wondering if there is something you did to really tick God off and he’s not going to bless you until you make amends. I’m sure I’m not the only Christian who has had dark moments like this when you look at what seems to be the overflow of the lives of others claiming God’s abundant blessing and wonder where you went wrong.

It’s not as if this kind of thinking doesn’t have a biblical precedent. Look no further than Leviticus 26, subtitled “Blessings for Obedience, and Punishment for Disobedience”, to see where it comes from.  In an ancient world dominated by pagan religious practices shaped by the pursuit of the gods’ favor, God did this to show his people and the nations that he was the one true God. So when the prophet Elijah predicts that it won’t rain for three years, except by his word, it wasn’t to simply punish the people. It was to demonstrate that God was real and Baal was not (1st Kings 17.1-7), which is exactly what happened three years later on Mount Carmel (1st Kings 18.20-41).

Of course if we understand Jesus’ ministry in light of these things we understand that the New Covenant, established by Jesus’ death and resurrection, does not include the if you do this, then I will do this equation. Because Christ was obedient unto death, we have God’s favor. Because Christ was punished for our disobedience, God is with us. And because Christ, our mediator has ascended to the right hand of God, those of us who are being sanctified always have God with us (Hebrews 10.12-17). In other words we are blessed in good times, bad times, ugly times and everything in between.

So when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven”, he’s saying God is with those who we assume according to Leviticus 26, he is not. When he says, “blessed are the hungry”, he is saying God is with those who we assume are cursed. In fact Jesus completely turns Leviticus 26 on its head, and he warns against assuming that just because things are going you’re way, [“Woe to you who are rich”, “Woe to you who are full now”, “Woe to you who laugh now”, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you”] that you’re blessed and experiencing God’s blessing.

I think this is important to know because there are still churches that preach Leviticus 26—at least the blessings part—so loudly people get the message without ever listening to a sermon. It is important to know because if life is really hard for you individually, it can be depressing to log on to Facebook and see what people are claiming as God’s blessing.. I think it is important because I know good Christian people who are growing angry with God, or walking away from him, because little if anything seems to be going their way. It is important because there is a growing movement of believe-ism claiming if you believe hard enough God will bless you so your life goes well and your dreams come true. Jesus is little more than a genie granting countless wishes and the Bible is the lamp. It is important because the truth of the matter is God’s blessing and favor is as simple as his presence. His presence and desire to be with us in good times, bad times, awful times, and everything in between… God is with us. When we understand that we don’t have to be the person in the poem Footprints who looks back and wonders why God abandoned them. When we understand that we may not even have to be carried at all because we know God is walking alongside of us always.

Life Isn’t Fair: Stuff My Mom Said

Over time my sisters and I figured out that it was pretty much pointless to complain about something being unfair to our mother. Rest assured her response was always the same, “Well, life isn’t fair.” We used to hate it when she said that but I’m glad she did, because she is right.

Scripture testifies to the unfairness of life we just so often miss it or are not taught it. This is why I believe so many Christians struggle to understand and live with difficult circumstances in our lives without experiencing a crisis of faith, doubt, or resentment towards God.

Mistakenly we often attribute difficulty in life to God and his will, instead of attributing difficulty in life to where scripture places the blame; the Fall. The Fall is the reason we experience pain, death, sickness, and loss. The Fall has turned a good world and good existence for all of creation into a not so good existence. From a Biblical perspective good isn’t simply pleasure and happiness, good is flourishing. As it pertains to creation flourishing as God intends is meant to be universal. The result of Adam and Eve eating from the tree so that they (so they were led to believe) could be on par with God cannot be overstated. Flourishing totally depends on all of creation being in proper relationship with God and one another. The curses given in Genesis 3 in a way is God allowing for parts, not all, of flourishing to depend on creation being in proper relationship with us, as though we are gods.

The first problem is that there is too many of us (Thus the importance of our Trinitarian theology emphasizing three in one. One only need look to Roman and Greek mythology to see the chaos that ensues from there being more than one God, each of whom has different desires and view of the world than the others). The second problem is that none of us are God nor possess his power to create something out of nothing, to bring life from death, to bring about and maintain complete order from complete chaos.

In other words, bad things aren’t simply brought into our lives by God so that he can teach us something or bring about some good that does little more than maintain a ying and yang balance to the world. Bad things simply happen! They happen because the world is fallen, broken, and things don’t go the way they ought to go. Our cries of life not being fair is little more than us crying out to anyone who will lend us ear that a piece of our life isn’t happening the way it ought, that instead of experiencing flourishing we are experiencing suffering.

Make no mistake, it is not God’s fault, it is our fault. Not in the sense that there was something very specific that we did that directly resulted in this bit of suffering. Rather it is in the sense that humanity was to blame, is to blame, and will be to blame for life not being fair until… Christ returns to put everything right, to judge and to rule, and to make everything new. Furthermore he is not obligated to step in and end our suffering, any part of it, before Christ returns. Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t, but he is not obligated to. Nor can we some how earn the right for God to end our momentary suffering. Yes, even physical death for the redeemed is only a momentary suffering. We can pray to God and ask, but he can always say no like he did to Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane/Mount of Olives (Matthew 26.39, and Like 22.39-46).

Speaking of Jesus praying that God remove the cup of his wrath for the sins of mankind, and not pour it out on him, to the point that he was in such agony that even the appearance and strengthening from an angel of God didn’t divert him from praying more earnestly to the point that he was sweating blood. Thank God and praise his name that he wasn’t concerned with being fair in that moment. Cause if God were about what is fair he would have surely answered Jesus’ request with a resounding yes, and we would all be doomed to suffer forever beyond any suffering we will experience her on earth.

God is not obligated to fix every situation, to heal every sickness, to make sure we flourish or prosper every moment of every day of our lives. His goodness doesn’t depend on him stepping in every time, or even some of the time, because Jesus already stepped in when it mattered most. God raised him from the dead and he ascended to heaven where he is able to be present to us amidst flourishing and suffering and all the in between, and present us before God unstained (Hebrews 8.4 and 9.24)

For me this has meant learning to live with suffering, with life not being fair. I understand that suffering is simply a part of life until Christ makes all things new (Revelation 21.4-5).  That suffering difficulty and trials are not an indictment declaring that I have become unjustified, because Christ is my justification. I cannot undo Christ’s justification for me to my detriment or to my benefit. I simply use my faith to embrace a life that says he is my justification (Romans 5.1). Suffering is simply a reminder that Genesis 3 is true and is real.

Someone will surely say, “What about Romans 5.3 that says, ‘suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope’?” To which I would say Paul never says that God brings about or produces suffering to produce all those things in us. For Paul suffering is just a part of life, but God in his sovereignty and great power is stronger than suffering, and can accomplish what he wills even in suffering. Even in life not being fair.

Do you struggle with life not being fair?