Connecting the Pieces of the Puzzle: A Cool Moment in Sunday School

So I just have to brag on my students for a moment. We’ve been going through the Old Testament in Sunday School since the beginning of September. The whole point being that they become more familiar with God’s story in the Bible and how it all connects. As children they heard different narratives from scripture in a random fashion that kept them totally disconnected from being the complete narrative that they are.

Yesterday we covered Genesis 29-31 where Jacob has given away 14 years of his life in service to Laban to have Rachel as his wife, even after being deceived into marrying the markedly less attractive sister Leah after the first seven years of work. I spent much time explaining to them the complicated web of relationships and personal brokenness (Jacob’s obsession with Rachel, Laban’s obsession with his wealth, Leah’s obsession with being loved, and Rachel’s obsession with herself), all coming to a climax in Leah and Rachel’s baby race, where even the servant of each wife is brought into the middle of quite literally. Of course the sisters spirited competition to give Jacob sons results in him having twelve sons the last of which and put an end to it all, because it was the first and only born from Rachel.

As I am saying all of that and saying, “And the twelve sons are the ones that eventually became…”, and before I could get the words out of my mouth the collective light bulb of many of the students about nearly exploded. In the blink of an eye they started to piece together little bits of those disconnected stories they had heard all their lives and things they had always just accepted or knew about started to make sense! Without me telling them they (1) realized that these were the twelve sons (of course Benjamin would be born much later) for whom the twelve tribes of Israel are named (2) that the last son and only one born from Rachel to that point was Joseph (3) and that is why Joseph was the favorite of his father Jacob and therefore why his brothers hated him so much. The same favoritism that Jacob showed Rachel was given to Joseph and indifference same indifference shown towards Leah and the servant girls he likely showed towards his other sons.

It made my day that 35 minutes into a lesson with it’s fair share of random tangents and technical difficulties they were tracking in a manner that clearly indicated that they were thinking, comprehending and concluding on their own.  It was really cool to see how impressed they were with themselves for putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Not in an arrogant way but in a way that says “This makes so much more sense. These seemingly random stories that I grew up with aren’t so random now that I have more information”. Not that it never happens, but it was just really cool to see it happen in such a vivid way.

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?

Don’t Be Scared II: Parent’s Edition

A few weeks ago I gave an encouragement to my students to not be paralyzed by fear. “Fear not” is the most frequently given command in scripture. No surprise when you talk to people today and find out how much fear influences their decision and perspective of life.

This week I want to give the parents an encouragement in the same vein. Christian parents desire to play a significant role in the spiritual formation of their children. However, many are often hindered from fully asserting their influence, their authority, and exercising their responsibility as stewards of their children largely due to fear. So what is it that parents fear when it comes to the spiritual formation of their children? What fear prevents parents from using their authority to be intentional in steering their children towards life in Christ?

1. Want your kids to like you. If you primarily operate out of a desire to be liked by your kids you will inevitably make choices and compromises that doesn’t prepare and equip them for life lived in Christ. Parenting is a role of stewardship. A steward is temporarily given the authority to manage the property or affairs for someone else. When it comes to the stewarding of children they are the property of the God who created them, and his affairs is to be honored and glorified as King over all creation. Throughout scripture’s narrative we see God accomplishing his affairs by revealing himself in creation, to his creatures, and by making and fulfilling his promises. In a day and age where so many are “claiming the promises of God” as a way to declare and demand that God give them the life they want, I feel it is important to clarify what God’s promises in scripture are; God’s promises always point us toward his kingship, kingdom, and the glory of his name.

2. Fear of our kids being unhappy. As parents if we are primarily concerned with being liked by our children then we will ultimately make ourselves, and God, out to be about their happiness. Which if you look at the trends of parenting over the past few generations it makes sense. Up until the 1960s in America parents were concerned with their kids conforming to social mores. Parents would preach conformity even if it alienated their kids, because they feared their kids being outcasts or rebels. In the 1970s a shift happened that leds us to today where parents want their kids to be happy and achieve their dreams. Thus parents today preach self-actualization and individuality even if it means, in the case of Christian parenting, not doing things that fosters a relationship with God.

3. Fear of pushing your kids away from God. The natural response to point two above is, “But I don’t want to push my kids away from God.” If we truly understand that everyone is born into sin, apart from God, then no one starts from a position of being with God. We are born with a predisposition of not honoring God as God, because we are separated from him. Therefore to not point them towards God because they may think we are being pushy and respond negatively toward God and us, only leaves them right where they are in the first place. Not to say that parents can’t be pushy about faith in Christ. I would argue that pushy Christian parents really aren’t pushing God at all. More often than not pushy parents are pushing spiritual disciplines, moral obedience to God, and allegiance to a doctrinal position. None of which is the same as pushing or pointing them towards relationship with God and Jesus. Your kids don’t know you primarily through the chores they do, the things you provide (food and shelter), and core values you promote. They know you because they spend time with you enjoying your presence. Point them towards God’s presence, and trust that God will show them who he is.

4. Fear of being a hypocrite? Many of us have sordid prodigal pasts, filled with wild days and nights that cause us to pause in a moment of self-abhorrence. I’ve heard many parents say that they would rather me talk to their kids about sex or other things because they “made a lot of mistakes in those areas as a teen”. Their fear is that if their child knew their teenage or young adult exploits it would instantly disqualify them from speaking into those realms of life. If that is the case then we should go through the Old Testament Thomas Jefferson style and eliminate/cross out everything written by King Solomon. King Solomon’s wisdom and perspective on life is shaped by a lifetime that was filled with righteous living for God’s glory, and extreme extravagant waywardness. Solomon’s wisdom is powerful, because he never celebrates his times of departure from God’s ways. Without going into vivid explicit detail Solomon is transparent enough to give us an authoritative warning to not walk down the wide way that leads to destruction.

Some fear that if they share their shameful exploits it will give their kids license to do the same. If that were to happen then they will be held to account for that by God not you. Not to mention when they are exhausted and empty from their days of wild living they know they can talk to you because you’ve been there. Don’t become a hypocrite because you fear being a hypocrite; be responsibly transparent with your children.You will be able to testify to God’s grace and goodness and the emptiness of pursuing pleasure and fulfillment apart from God.

Conclude—The story of Samuel in the Old Testament is a very interesting one particularly, I think, for parents looking for some wisdom or guidance in how to raise godly children. Samuel is one of three boys raised by Eli, the high priest of Israel at that time. All three of the boys grew up learning to minister to the Lord at the Tent of Meeting. In other words, Samuel, Hophni and Phinehas, were given more access to and rearing in the ways of the Lord than any child in all of Israel. Yet we are told very early on that Hophni and Phineas were “worthless men”, scoundrels who used their access to do evil to the people and sin against God.

So what was the least common denominator between Samuel and the other two? When God called Samuel he answered. God calls to all people, and he calls to your children as well. Do all that you can to raise your children to be people whose lives are shaped by God in Christ without fear. And when you pray for them don’t just simply pray that they would become Christians and be good people. Pray that they would hear God calling out to them and answer him. Fear not and trust that God is pursuing them for he desires to dwell with them.

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Dark Night… Evil Rises Again Will it End?

With yet another tragic, senseless, act of evil, the Dark Knight massacre has us reeling again. Once again we are grappling for some sense of understanding how and why things like this happen. We wonder what the appropriate answer or response should be. Not surprisingly the 2nd Amendment debate will spike for a time as the national wound of this lays bare (the irony being that conservatives are capitalizing on building fear on a privilege not an inalienable right, and liberals will never change that privilege because they would lose one of their rallying cries).  We are amazed that someone with “obvious intellectual capacity” is capable of such deranged evil, as if only intellectual limited people are capable of such evil because they are “stupid” and uneducated. As if education is the antidote to evil. At the end of the day there is twelve graves being dug, each one representing a collection of family and friends for whom none of this discussion helps, because evil has struck a fatal blow. There are at least 38 other people for whom just going to the movie theatre again may never happen. Not because it’s likely to be repeated, but because the replay of that dark night on July 20th, 2012 is all to painful and accessible for them.

It’s not the movies. Any good story has conflict in it Good stories involve problems that need a resolution. The great stories, and therefore great movies, go beyond the basic good versus evil plot, but deal with more systemic evil. Evil that is systemic is so huge, so all encompassing, that no simple resolution is going to put an end to evil. Blowing up the Death Star only solved that problem, but it didn’t end evil all together. Casting the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom solved that problem, but it didn’t end evil for good. Defeating Lord Voldemort and learning to be cordial with Draco Malfoy solved that problem, but it didn’t end evil.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, especially the latest and last installment, takes an honest look at systemic evil. Its subtle brilliance is in the way it juxtaposes proposed answers to the problem of evil. Dark Knight Rises demonstrates that even those with good intentions can and do get sucked into the vortex, and the evil that lies dormant inside them stirs, and often is unleashed. All they need is a little push. The complete body of work of Nolan’s Batman movies show us how just when you solve one problem more, and often greater, problems arise. The new problems are often greater in scope and magnitude than the one just resolved, but it’s the same evil. Too often those who seek to solve the problems of evil become an instrument of evil or provide temporary solutions that are themselves riddled with problems. Problems are only symptoms of something much darker, the presence of evil. Peace is only evil catching its breath, unless of course evil dies once and for all. Humanity with all our achievements, politics, progress, enlightenment, technology, philosophy, organized religion, and compassion must face the facts that we are only capable of treating symptoms. We will never have the means to end evil once and for all.

The Christian Story is ultimately a story of evil meeting its end never to rise again. It claims that God has the means to end evil once and for all, has been and is in the process of ending it, and will eventually once and for all end evil. Pastors and preachers often don’t highlight this enough as they make the Christian Story more about personal relationship, personal salvation, personal happiness, and personal help (self-help/behavioral modification).  Jesus on the other hand tells his disciples to “take up your cross daily and follow me” (Matthew 16.24-26)? One way or another humanity is destined for death, because ever since the fall evil resides in the heart of man (Romans 3.10-18), and evil must be dealt with. Though we may never, we are all capable of what this young man in Aurora, CO did, and deserve the exact same judgment from God as he (Romans 3.23). Because the only true way to end evil forever is to kill evil forever, every last drop. The Christian Story calls us to a point of decision, which has been communicated shorthand many ways. We can either die daily now, put on the new-self daily now, or we can die daily later. One kind of death leads to life, the other kind of death has no end. God has made a way for all to receive life by dying the first death, and desires that none experience the second kind.

Praying a prayer doesn’t end evil, avoiding bad behavior doesn’t end evil, adherence to a moral standard doesn’t evil, service projects, mission trips, church attendance, evangelism doesn’t end evil. All those things are good but they don’t end evil, only death does. But death is not end of the story, not for all. Those who choose to die with Christ now will rise again and enter a world where God’s reign is complete and evil can’t touch it (Revelation 21.1-8, 26-27)