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.

My Platonic Love For God: A Confession

“There’s nothing you can do that will cause God to love you more, and there’s nothing you can do that will cause God to love you less.” I love that statement. It resonates with me as someone who still struggles to truly allow God to transform into a new creation more and more in the likeness of Christ. It’s a reminder that God’s love for humanity, corporately and individually, is greater than we can comprehend, unconditional and as unchanging as he is. However, I’ve come to a realization that my fixation on the truth of that statement has led to a blind spot in my faith that needs to be reconciled. I share this because I would wager I am not the only one.

The reality of God’s unchanging and beyond comprehending love is not simply a truth to rest in with a sigh of relief and not live a life shaped by guilt and fear of God’s wrath. It is a statement that leads to a therefore statement. It’s a statement that leads to a “so what?” God’s unconditional and unfathomable love therefore should lead to an unchanging and deep love for God. My love for God needs to grow to the point of likewise being without condition, and so deep that it oozes out every part of my life because it can’t be contained. I’m not talking necessarily about the passionate love that I often try to stoke and produce through a worship experience. I’m talking about the kind of uncontained love that knows and does naturally the things that the object of love desires. I’m talking about the kind of love that declares it to the world and more importantly whispers it to the one they love when alone together.

Personally that is the kind of love that I find myself lacking. Too often I’m busy obsessing over God’s love for myself, or growing complacent in my assurance of his love for me. As great as God’s love for me is it doesn’t make me the center of the universe. Which all adds up to my love for him becoming increasingly passive over time until it eventually becomes platonic. It’s not a good place to be. As much as I love the aforementioned phrase I need to allow it to do what it is meant to do in my heart and life. God’s great and glorious love is a revelation that he is center of the universe and to be loved back.

Scripture for Reflection

  • Deuteronomy 6.1-9
  • Psalm 33 & 34
  • John 15.9-10
  • Colossians 3.12-17
  • 1st John 3.5-6, 23-24 & 4.17-18
  • Revelation 2.5-6

Don’t Let Your Struggles Define You

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A friend of mine recently said to me, “I know life isn’t fair and struggle is indiscriminate. but it just seems to be picking on you and your wife.” I’d be lying if I didn’t say it would be nice to get an extended Sabbath from difficulty in life. In the nearly six years of being married, we have navigated unexplained infertility, the exhausting adoption process, and now breast cancer. Even during the period when things seemed to settle after Isla, our daughter, came into our lives two years ago, was highlighted by waiting for the legal process to be completed making us her legal parents, and the unusually difficult process of getting Isla’s birth certificate and social security number. It’s been quite a ride for about five years.

More than ever before, as Emma undergoes chemotherapy to hopefully decrease the likelihood of a recurrence, I am convinced that you can not allow for your circumstances in life to define you. I’ll never forget the conversation Emma and I had years ago when we made the conscious decision to not let infertility nor being a couple that had to adopt in order to grow their family beyond two people to define us. It was something that we were going to experience and would be chapter in our lives. It was not going to be the plotline by which every other moment, relationship, experience would be filtered through and then analyzed. It would not shape our choices and relationships. That resolve has carried over into navigating cancer as she has determined from the start to not allow her diagnosis define her, for which I am so proud of her. Her focus and determination has been to get to the other side of cancer and treatment.

Life is a struggle. There’s no way around it. Even the people who experience monumental success in life, especially if defined by their success, struggle to keep and maintain it. My advice to anyone who will listen is to not let your struggles define you. Struggles in the end are temporary, and there’s always a new one waiting. Christ and God on the other hand are eternal and everlasting, and there is only one. Ironically enough the first true struggle in life I experienced was shaped by the common adolescent experience of trying to figure out who I was and where I belonged. It was a difficult struggle, possibly more difficult than any other I have faced or ever will face, because it was the only one I have navigated without my identity being firmly fixed to Christ. The rest, although more heartbreaking, unwelcomed, and many totally out of my control, by a mile, do not carry the same hopeless and lost feeling that I felt in those days when I wasn’t defined by my savior I was just “saved”.

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.

5 Prayer Paradigm Shifts for Shaping Your Child’s Prayer Life

“Read your Bible and pray,” are the two essential disciplines of the Christian life. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my observation has been that because those two activities are universally assumed every Christian does, they are too often the two things very little time is spent training and teaching people how to do. The result is that many people do them just to check it off the list, and others just stop doing them all together.

For as long as I have been a youth pastor I have made prayer a priority; both the practice of it and teaching students how to do it. I’ve had the privilege of hearing students pray and share what is weighing on their heart. Most students when I get them have been given one of two strategies for praying, or order of operations; P.R.A.Y. praise, repent, another, yourself, and A.C.T.S adoration, confession, thanks, and supplication. I was given the same formula for praying as a student and to be honest as an adult I struggled with it for a while because it was just too formulaic.

A few years ago, reading Richard Foster’s book Prayer, I read a statement that began altering the way I prayed. He simply said something to the effect that prayer is not meant to be a tool by which we shape or bend God to our will, but it is meant to be one of the primary ways God shapes and changes us. The flaw in the way that I exercised the acronym prayer style is that it became a boring routine of going before God’s throne and thanking God for making my life comfortable and happy, repenting of how I may have not earned or squandered away being entitled to a comfy happy life, asking for people I like (and maybe a few I didn’t) to have comfy happy lives (centered in Christ of course), and requesting the same for myself. Even when I dared to permit God to bring a little displeasure and discomfort into my life in my subconscious I was thinking that I would make out big in the long run.

I suspect I’m not the only one who has loathed their prayer life and felt that something was off. Listening to the prayers of students pretty much convinces me of that. My conclusion is that they need better prayers modeled before them. Here is five paradigm shifts for shaping your children’s prayer life. If any of these resonate with you then try making those shifts in your own prayer life. Most importantly don’t be afraid to model it before your kids by praying with them.

 

  1. Praise God for who he is v. Praise God for what he’s done:  I remember trying to make this shift, and discovering that I had been shifted into silence. I was at a loss for words. This is where scripture comes in handy. So many of the scripture writers, especially Old Testament prophets, lauded God continually for who he is. They covered every aspect of his character, not just his love, his power, and his majesty. They understood that the name of the Lord is to be praised. Too often we portray that the actions of the Lord is to be praised.
  2. Asking for signs of God’s kingdom coming and will being done v. Praying for God to simply fix your problems and problems of others: Many of us including myself have been taught that when Jesus returns he will take Christians up to heaven and destroy the earth. On the contrary Revelation 21 paints a picture of heaven coming down to earth, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. Isaiah prophesied that when God put everything back to rights heaven and earth would be like new (Isaiah 65.17-25).  All that to say that Jesus doesn’t come to destroy his creation he comes to “make all things new” (Revelation 21.5).
  3. Repent of your state of being v. Repenting of your state of doing: Not that we shouldn’t repent of very specific deeds that we know are disobedient acts against God, but if all we deal with is our behavior we’ve never really gotten to the root of the issue. Our behavior is only a symptom of what is going on in our heart (John 15.18-19).  Even our good deeds are often guided by false motives. We often do good things not simply from a grateful heart but from a heart seeking to (1) justify ourselves before God when Jesus only can do and has done that for us, or (2) we don’t trust God and want to be in control of our life so we behave to keep him at a safe distance.
  4. Acknowledge that every thing belongs to God v.  Asking for things: Psalm 24 is a good place to start where we are reminded that “The earth is the Lord’s and everything it”. It goes on to say what we will receive from God his presence (“blessing”), vindication and righteousness. It ends in a crescendo of praising and honoring the name of the Lord who is the “King of Glory”. If our happiness and joy in life was more anchored in those three things, which God gives graciously and generously, we would discover true happiness and joy that can’t be snuffed out completely by circumstances of life this side of God’s kingdom being ushered in (think paradigm #2 above). Instead we envy the kingdom of other people the glory of which is subject to death and decay.
  5. Acknowledge/recite truth regarding God, mankind, creation and nature v. Sharing what you think about stuff: My prayer life often resembled more of a journal. A running commentary of my day, my encounters, and my thoughts. Not that it is a bad practice because it exposed my heart, but it needed to be tempered alongside the truth regarding all those things. In this case I believe it is a “both and” as opposed to “either or”.

 

Are You Raising A Pharisee?: Modeling Justification

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Romans 5.1

I recently listened to a sermon by Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian where he talked about justification by faith. In his own brilliant way he explained in an easy to understand manner how justification by faith works. My huge takeaway was that most lifelong Christians really should begin to repent of the ways they try to justify themselves. In other words many of us start conducting our lives in a way that says, “even though Jesus through his perfect life, his death, and his resurrection has become my justification, I am going to eventually justify myself by being a good Christian. By reading my Bible, Christian service, giving, church attendance, local church involvement, moral obedience, evangelism, ministry involvement, etc, I will eventually earn my peace with God through my deeds and behavior.”

He used the illustration of a job resume. That when we apply for a job we are looking for more than a source of income. We are seeking the acceptance and approval of the person making the job hire. Our resume is more than just a listing of our previous job experiences and qualifications. It is the deeds that we use to justify ourselves even applying for the position in the first place. Being hired is more than just getting the job over and above the other applicants, it equates to being accepted and approved of.

This got me thinking a lot and one of my thoughts relates to how we parent in this respect. How are we modeling justification? Sure we may teach our children John 3.16 and that God’s love for us is unconditional and that there is nothing we can do to cause God to love us less or more, but how are we modeling justification? This is a crucial question for all of us to be in the habit of asking, especially if we tend to be people pleasers, or pursuers of the approval of others. If our drive to attend church, obey God’s moral conduct code, and practice spiritual disciplines is centered on pleasing God then you are modeling a faith in your deeds not in Christ. If your pursuit to please and gain the approval of others runs your life then others have become the god you seek to be justified before and have peace with.

Warning signs that you might be modeling a justification in something other than Christ can be seen in how much you value any of the following.

  • Success
  • Promotions
  • Image and Appearance
  • Where you are seen and who you are seen with
  • How clean your house or car is
  • How busy you are
  • Your social calendar
  • Fitting in
  • Finding others who are just like you
  • Having it all together
  • Being on time

Notice that any number of those things are in and of themselves good things or values neutral (not bad), however, if we demonstrate an inordinate amount of importance on those things with the displeasure and disapproval of others or God as the consequence to be feared then it has become your justification. I know in my own life the things I tend to confess are the very things that I secretly fear God will or should hold against me. Without or them or because of them I’m endangering my status of being accepted and approved of by God. Now having a daughter I’m curious and concerned about how I will model an understanding of justification before God through my lifestyle as opposed to what I say.

Justification by faith is modeled correctly when you are freed to simply be in the presence of God and of others without the constant worry and fear of keeping the peace with them. By faith we know that we can never lose the peace with God because of Jesus. By faith we know that while uncomfortable losing the peace with others isn’t the end of the world nor defines us because they are not God.

Death is Not Natural: Stuff Pastor Prado Said

At the first church I worked at one of the other pastors on Staff was a man by the name of Jorge Prado. A native of Brazil he was the pastor of the Spanish Speaking Congregation at our church. Jorge is one of those rare kind of people that has seen everything and so when he talks you listen, because he is likely to tell you a great story or drop a nugget of wisdom on you. After a funeral at the church for a longtime elderly member he dropped a boulder of wisdom on me that I’ll never forget. “My friend,” that is how Jorge would address you, “death is so difficult for us to deal with because death is not natural. It was never a part of what God intended.”

Consider the story of scripture; there is no death in Genesis 1-2. Death is not a part of God’s original design for the earth and creation. It is not part of the good that God wove into the human experience. Death doesn’t enter into the human experience until Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve sinned against God by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In other words as Jorge said, “People die everyday yet we can not handle it because it was never meant to happen, and therefore God never wired our hearts to be able to deal with death and dying.”

In the past four months I’ve had the opportunity to come alongside two students and one friend, all three of them girls, who had unexpectedly lost their father to death. The cause of death was different in each case, but it is fair to say in each case that no one saw death coming. All three dads were under sixty, all three daughters were between the ages of 15 and 25. With all three I had the opportunity to come alongside them within 12 hours or less of it happening; one the morning after, one two or so hours after he was pronounced dead, and one I was one of the people who delivered her the news of her father’s death. What do you say to someone who has just lost someone? What do you say to a girl who just lost her father? I remember what Jorge said.

I tell them, as I told my students last night, that there is no formula for grief. That is the “so what” to the why of death not being natural. Because death is not natural, and because we are not wired for death as being part of our human experience even though it is very much a part of our human reality, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief wouldn’t be grief if there were a step-by-step formulaic way of doing it. That kind of loss creates an inward lost-ness that there is no way to navigate, you must simply walk through it. Walking through death is not like walking across the street; there is no other side to get to. Well, that’s not completely true, but those of us who believe know that none of us know exactly when the other side will arrive (Revelation 21.1-4). So in the interim you must simply grieve.

Don’t let anyone make you feel as though you are not grieving properly. Grieve in the manner in which you are grieving. If you are in such shock that you can’t muster any response and stare into the abyss with silent numbness then be still. If you are filled with such pain and misery that it causes you to fall apart with tears until you have none left, then flood the room. If you are instead flooded with happy memories of good times that cause you to laugh with joy, then fill the halls with your laughter (or chuckle quietly to yourself if you don’t laugh loudly like me). If you are ravaged with questions that have no easy answers because you just need to vent, then find a safe audience (which by the way includes God). If you are angry, then give your anger a voice (just be cautious about giving it an activity). All of those feelings come at you during grief, and in no particular order.  They come in no natural expected order because death, though normal to the human experience is not natural.