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My work puts me in contact with young people on a weekly basis. In the last two days, I’ve spent hours with a variety of boys from 6-14 years of age.
One exchange really throws light on the problem Christians have in reaching people today. A bright–too bright for the teachers to handle–young fellow, about 12, is really into Percy Jackson and the Immortals. This series of books retells the ancient Greco-Roman myths. This fellow, I’ll call him Wyatt (not his name) literally inhales these books. He gave me a machine-gun delivery of story details, caught his breath, and peppered me with questions about Zeus, Hermes –“I don’t get who he is,” “Mercury.” “Oh, yeah”– Olympus, you name it.
When he found out I have published books, he asked what about. “My last book was about Jacob.” Blank look. “Jacob and Esau?” Shake of the head. “Jacob, in the Bible”
This was met with an open mouth and raised brows of recognition. “I don’t do the Bible, much.”
I let it pass, and we went on to other things. But the more I’ve thought of it, the more it troubles me. More of the Bible is narrative than anything else. Narrative. Stories. Our theology is largely formed based on those stories. Prophecy, especially Revelation, relies on a knowledge of those stories.
And we are losing the battle of narratives. Not because the biblical narratives are poor stories. Are you kidding? Hope, sacrifice, betrayal, murder, adultery, palace plots, heroic battles– some of the most compelling stories of all time are in the Bible. Cain and Able, Samson and Delilah, Jacob and Esau, David and Jonathan– as the author of Hebrews says, “the time would fail” to tell all of the great stories.
But we are not telling them. Not telling them in compelling ways. Reducing them to moral examples ends up as lecturing. No one really wants to be lectured.
Yes, these tales have moral and theological implications. But if we want to move people with the stories, we cannot drain all the blood and sweat out of the tales, and present them with the remains.
I believe if we hope to connect with anyone under 40, we’d better learn to tell compelling stories. Yes, the Bible stories. Yes, true to the original. But retold in today’s language, addressing today’s questions.
That’s what I hope to have done with Torn, Jacob’s Story, and hope to do with more Bible stories in the future. Right now, we’re losing the battle of stories. With some of the archetypal and most compelling stories at our disposal, and we’re simply not using them.
Wyatt knows all about Zeus. Who will write the story of Jesus that he wants to read?
I recently was asked a question about “economic justice.” Here’s an adaptation of my reply
The problem simply comes down to this: Justice in the human realm is relatively easy to define. Equality before the law, and what is known as procedural due process, having the law applied fairly and consistently. Even this has its problems, but they are not insurmountable.
The problem comes when humans want to establish absolute justice. We just aren’t capable of it. Sinful people in a sinful world lack the ability to reach perfection in any endeavor. When we add the word “social” or “economic” to justice, we find it nearly impossible to define in a way that it can be administered. Put another way, we find it impossible to identify. Two people work for an hour, doing the same work. But one is paid twice as much as the other. Is that justice? We have pretty good authority that it just might be. (Matt 20:1-16).
Absent that example, what if one worker can finish an hour’s work in half an hour, while it takes the other one twice as long? If the first worker does twice as much, is it just for him to receive twice as much?
I do remedial counseling with a 40+ year old retarded man. I counsel him while he’s at work. He gets paid his standard amount, probably about minimum wage. I get considerably more for the hour we spend together. Is that just?
Bill Gates has billions more than I do. Is that just? In economic terms he has improved the lives of tens of millions of people. Is it not just that he should receive a small portion in return for that improvement? And yes, his wealth, though prodigious for an individual, is dwarfed by the value his software brings to just our own economy. In 1970, most people didn’t know what “software” was. This year, software and computer-dependent jobs will contribute several trillion dollars to our economy. That doesn’t account for multiple years, or many other economies. One tenth of one percent (0.001) of a trillion dollars is $1billion.
Is economic justice receiving what one deserves? If so, how can that actually be determinde? It seems to me we would have to be God to determine that.
There are individuals, I’ll use pimps as an example, who not only don’t deserve the money they get, they owe enormous sums to everyone. But the only effective way to do that would be to enslave them, and use what they produce to provide restitution. And some of what they owe is not monetary, nor can money provide remedy.
But there are those who are homeless, or unemployed, etc., whom we wish to help. This is not “justice” but “grace.” I suspect what those who advocate “economic justice” really mean is something like “economic grace.”And even here we face difficulty.
For one alcoholic, a little help will be all that’s needed to give him/her hope, and encourage them to rehab. For another, seemingly in identical circumstances, that same help would be used to get by one more day. Would it be either gracious or just to give them the same help? I cannot see how it would be. But how could we know which is which, not being God, able to read hearts?
And yes, I know of just such a case. My wife’s brother received just enough aid to help him get by. When we offered him help, on condition that he not practice his destructive habits (while living with us), he declined. He died an early death of self-neglect and abuse enabled by welfare.
One economist has said, “scarcity is a tutor.” It seems that God agrees. Because one of the first actions He took after Adam sinned was to make food more difficult to produce, and thus more scarce.(Gen 3:18,19). Humans simply lack the wisdom to know when one has learned what the tutor has to teach, and when one needs more tutoring.
“Choose my instruction instead of silver,
knowledge rather than choice gold,
for wisdom is more precious than rubies,
and nothing you desire can compare with her. ”
Proverbs 8:10, 11.
Recently I heard it said that “When Christians speak of ‘A saving relationship with Jesus,’ they’re really just talking about a feel-good empty religion.” I can understand why someone would say that, and in some cases it might be true. But just because some use the phrase without serious content, does not mean that it is necessarily so.
In fact, scripture gives more than a little guidance in this. We are told that the “just shall live by faith.” The problem is that the word faith has become overused and diluted. Faith has many meanings. But here is the pertinent one:
I submit to you that the just live by trusting in God. And I am not alone in thinking so:
Faith is absolute trust in God–
trust that could never imagine
that He would forsake us.
Faith is trusting God–
believing that He loves us
and knows best
what is for our good.
This fits in with the larger Bible narrative. The Serpent tempted Eve to distrust God, to doubt that He had been truthful. That seed of lies, deceit, and doubt has poisoned all relationships since that time.
Anyone who thinks that “trust” is empty or easy has no knowledge or experience with real relationships. We all have difficulty with trust. I am certainly no exception.
People are imperfect. They let us down even when they wish to be loyal. Of course, God will not let us down. We can believe that we trust God completely, even though we don’t trust others. But John warns us that may not be true:
If someone says
“I [trust] God,
and [distrusts] his brother,
he is a liar,
for the one who does not trust his brother
whom he has seen
cannot [trust] God
whom he has not seen.
1 John 4:20
Apparently, if we’re going to learn to trust God, we’ll at least have to try to trust other human beings. Now, that’s a challenge.
I wrote some time ago of first principles. Well, trust fits into that category. Things which promote and encourage trust are positive, and things which discourage trust and encourage suspicion are negative. That sounds simple, and it is. But like all first principles, it has implications and consequences that may surprise us.
Trust is indeed the currency of all relationships. Even with God.
It seems every few years someone discovers that the Bible teaches whatever the latest philosophical fad is. In some ways this is inevitable.
I believe the Bible is the source of ultimate truth–not all truth, there’s not a lot of engineering in it, for example–but ultimate truth. And if that is true, then any philosophy or understanding or movement which reflects even a small particle of that ultimate truth will, in some ways, resemble it. We will always find fragments of the original truth in every echo. And the more complete the echo, the more it resembles the original.
So it’s easy to get caught up in these movements. They are often very laudable. But for Christians, that isn’t the question. The question isn’t “Is this a worthy thing to do,” because, frankly, we are very good at rationalizing that we ought to do whatever we really want to do. Instead, the Christian should ask, “Is this what God wants me to do?”
What am I talking about? In the early 19th century, retired sea captain Joseph Bates became deeply involved, and committed his considerable energies, into two worthy causes: Temperance, and Abolition.
It’s difficult to argue that these were not among the most worthy causes of any era. Drunkenness and attendant violence had become a terrible scourge in early America. And slavery– what remains to be said about its evils? Surely, worthy causes, and in line with Bible teachings.
But Bates found two new issues–issues which were neither so obvious nor so popular: the Second Coming (in the Millerite movement), and the seventh day Sabbath. The other causes were worthy, but he was called to be a pioneer in the SDA church. Bates championed the Sabbath in the early Adventist church. Without him, it is difficult to know where that truth might have come from. For Bates, Temperance and Abolition were distractions. Others would carry those causes to fruition. God was calling Bates to something more important.
Some might argue that nothing could be more important than ending slavery. It seems impossible to contest. But we are all slaves to sin. Which of us, if faced with the choice of slavery in this life, but certain salvation for eternity, or luxury in this life, and eternal death, would not choose slavery?
Once again, we the truth that “the good is often the enemy of the best.”
And then there’s the temptation to take the good too far. John Brown wanted to end slavery. He saw its great evil. But he believed he was justified in slaughtering those who disagreed with him(see the Pottawatomie Massacre). Today’s equivalent might be the abortion clinic bomber.
Every generation has its worthy causes. But we must be careful to keep perspective. An old saying warns, “The closer something resembles God, the greater the danger that it will become an idol.” Worthy causes often become just such an evil distraction.
A young friend of mine just sent me a message which included this: “I’ve been wondering why I’ve been wasting my time being unfulfilled in the Adventist church I’m in.” Not only do I hear this same sentiment from many young Christians of nearly every denomination–I spent many years of my life feeling exactly the same way.
It feels like there’s no point to it all. I used to ask myself why did I even care? In my case, not only did I not receive any positive reinforcement, I was repeatedly vilified. I was accused of virtually every possible sin-even once of borderline adultery. Oh, in that case, it was a clear instance of confusing me with a different teacher at summer camp.
Had the pastor–yes, it was my pastor who made the accusation–bothered to inquire, he would have discovered the truth. When the pastor made the accusation in front of several church members, my wife burst out laughing. She had been at camp with me, and even spotted the offending person’s behavior before I did.
Another pastor said my “existence” was a problem for the church. That was the first time I truly felt suicidal. I share this not to disparage the pastors involved, nor to stimulate sympathy. I just want those now feeling that sort of discouragement, those “sitting in darkness” that I have been there. Occasionally, I return there.
I have no magic answers. I will not offer texts that tell you to have patience. One saint said to me many years ago, “Never pray for patience. If you do, God will send you trials!”
All I can do is share my own experience.
My parents sent me to a boarding academy, with predictions that I would love it there. In fact, that’s what I anticipated. I arrived on campus expecting only the best. Instead, I experienced three years of nearly unremitting hell. Happily, I did meet the girl I later married there. But several faculty members attempted to break us up repeatedly.
Some thirty years later, I went to a class reunion (my wife’s experience is much different, and I went for her). Much to my surprise, someone whom I did not remember–he had been a freshman my junior (and last) year–told me how my treatment of him had been so radically different than the way other upper classmen treated him. I had been an encouragement to him.
I taught church school for more than a decade. Although I enjoyed the classroom, and my supervisors and students praised my teaching, not all parents and pastors agreed. Politics came into the scene, and often I had to move because of displeasing someone whose money or station gave them power.
I left one school in the midwest in the late 1970’s purged by one parent–whose children loved my classroom. There had been a young girl there “saved” from her insufficiently pious family–that’s how the pastor’s wife had phrased it. I did not agree, and did what little I could to help the girl reconcile. This brought me censure, and appeared not to help the girl.
Thirty years later I met this now grown woman in New York City, of all places. She came up to me and after identifying herself, she said, “You were the one who knew what they were doing to me, all those years ago.”
I sighed, and said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.”
She shook her head, “You were the only one who saw. In fact, it took me years to realize what they had taken from me. What I had lost.”
We talked for a while. I asked her how she recognized me at a distance, my hair now being gray. “I recognized your laugh,” she said.
I could go on. I have many more stories. But the point is not about how wonderful I was. Because at the very times I was encouraging or helping others–often unknowingly–I was personally going through great discouragement.
All this has taught me to view this text in perhaps an unorthodox way :
Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.
You probably have thought of this in reference to the world at large. But we all know that the Enemy works hardest in the church, because that’s where he can do the most damage. All churches are full of sinners, some of whom are “crooked and perverse.” And it’s doubly disturbing when we encounter them in the church. All I can say is, if God has put you in such a place, it must be because He needs your light in that part of His world.
It may be years before you realize who may have been guided to safety, kept from discouragement by your light in that dark place.
It may not be much, but it’s what I can offer.
I’m departing from the series on First Principles– well, sorta– because I want to talk about something that’s timely.
As I write this, it looks like a political tide of historic proportions is about to sweep the U.S. This is not a partisan post. I’m not going to comment on whether I’m in favor or opposed to either the current direction of policy, or the predicted wave of opposition to it.
Numerous commentators on both sides of the issue have pointed out that it’s not generally a good idea to tell voters that they are too stupid, or angry, or inattentive– whatever– to know what’s good for you. In my years, I’ve seen this from all sides of the political spectrum at different times. In politics, it’s self-defeating.
What concerns me is that I have often heard this same thing from evangelists, preachers, and other church officials. For example, “If they don’t respond to our evangelism, it’s because they are hardened in sin,” one might say.
“Yes, I know, it’s terrible how blinded people have become by the corruption in society,” another might reply.
I’ve actually heard serious people saying this things. Repeatedly. For many years.
Imagine a business saying “Our customers are just not bright enough to buy our product.” Or buying ad advertisement telling customers, “If you actually knew what you were doing, you would beg us to sell you our services.” A business that says that sort of thing would soon be out of business.
But churches and political parties often become so certain of how correct they are, that anyone who doesn’t come on board is stupid, foolish, or not paying attention.
Well, the Bible makes it pretty clear that people–including ourselves– are in fact stupid, foolish, and not paying attention. That simply gives us a better idea of what our task is. It is precisely sinful, corrupted, hardened, foolish, and inattentive people it is our duty to reach.
Put another way, both political parties and churches that bemoan the condition of their audience should instead recognize that it is their message, their marketing, their communication that is lacking.
Next time you hear someone talking about how difficult it is to reach the audience, be aware that they’re really saying: We don’t know how to do our job. Because a prerequisite to learning is admitting our ignorance.
We are so accustomed to certain things that we lose sight of how remarkable they are. For example, this short passage in Genesis 2.
“Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
God planted the garden. It’s His. Why does he put a tree of the knowledge of good and evil in that garden? If we believe the Bible, we believe God knows the end from the beginning. He knew that Adam and Eve would eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He knew the sin and suffering that would come from that, knew that the only remedy would be the sacrifice of his Son, that a member of the Godhead would have to become a part of humanity forever.
Knowing all that, God went ahead with the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Why? What can we conclude from that?
I conclude that liberty, the right to make choices, choices that matter, must be very, very important. C. S. Lewis says that God gave to humans “the dignity of causality.” That is, we can make choices that alter the course of history.
In fact, that’s exactly what Adam and Eve did. They made choices that plunged the world into sin, that introduced suffering and death. Real choices. Real consequences.
Having made that choice, all humankind became sinners. That is, we could not longer choose good. All our choices would be evil.
Christ died to restore our ability to choose good.
We can still choose evil. Indeed, every time we sin, we misuse the liberty Christ died to give us, for in him “we live, and move, and have our being.” Again, C.S. Lewis says that every sin is at base an act of sacrilege, because we take something sacred, the power of God that sustains us, and use it for profane ends.
And despite all that God and Christ have done, they still allow us to choose to be lost, to choose evil and death.
Then we have the millennium, where the books of Heaven are opened and we get to audit God’s actions. God allows us to decide whether He was just or not. It’s amazing.
What we see throughout the Bible is that God will not coerce our will, nor will he allow Satan to do so. We may surrender our will to the Evil One– and God will respect that choice.
So I conclude that liberty, freedom to choose and act, is one of the most important things in the universe. If it’s that important to God, if it would lead him to sacrifice His own Son to preserve it, it must be one of the most sacred things in the universe.
When the Declaration of Independence cited liberty as an inalienable right which comes from our Creator, they got it right. The Bible makes it clear that God granted us choice from the beginning, and continually seeks to preserve and respect that right.
I apologize for the long delay between posts. I’ve been unbelievably busy.
This blog is for believers. If you don’t believe in God, there are other posts I’ll write just for your consideration. My friends know I don’t insist people believe what I do, but welcome honest questions.
But this one is just for those who believe in God, specifically the God of the Bible. And I don’t intend to argue fine points here. Quite the opposite. I’m interested only in talking about broad truths. Not details about the six-day creation, or exactly the role of women. Though they are important, that’s not what I want to discuss.
My dear sister reminded me recently of something I shared with her some thirty years ago. She said it had spared her from many a strange doctrine. I know it has always served me well, so I share it here.
Many of the debates and issues which rage in the church through the years can seem quite confusing. Often both sides of the debate appear quite reasonable, or at least plausible. Sometimes neither one seems clear. Time and again I have found refuge in “First Principles.”
Jesus demonstrated this approach in the question regarding divorce. He was asked if men could divorce their wives, as Moses said. Note the subtle trap. “Do you agree with Moses? or are you heretical?” Rather than taking the bait, Jesus resorted to first principles. “In the beginning it was not so.”
If we believe in God, and that He communicated the important things to us through the Bible, then we cannot go wrong with first principles. Belief in first principles comes down to something this simple: When God created human beings and the earth they lived in, He knew what he was doing. Whenever we are confronted with a teaching that says to us, either implicitly or explicitly, “God didn’t know what He was doing,” then we know something is wrong with the teaching.
Let me give you another example. More than thirty years ago, a bunch of cassette tapes were circulating (for those under 25, think of them as podcasts) which declared that we should eliminate all oil and oily foods from our diet. Lots of conscientious and health-conscious people went about doing just that.
As a teacher and school principal at the time, a number of church members asked me my opinion. I said, “It can’t be right.” That surprised them. Some wanted to know my credentials as a dietitian or nutritionist– I had none. Many wanted to know how I could be so certain. For me it was a simple case. Fruits and nuts were part of the diet God gave man in Eden. Few things contain higher percentages of oil than nuts. So, “Did God know what He was doing when He gave us nuts to eat?” My answer had to be yes, God knew what He was doing, and that meant that the teaching about eliminating all oily foods couldn’t be true.
Another quick example. In grad school, Education students had to take a course titled “Comparative Education,” which explored the similarities and differences of education in various cultures. Since I was at Andrews University, my class was itself very international. One student was from Hong Kong, another from Egypt, a third from Thailand, yet another from the West Indies– and so on. One day during discussion, our Egyptian student, a young man, began to declare that the problem with education in the US and most of the West was “co-education.” Educating young men and young women in the same classes, he maintained, could only lead to immorality and corruption.
Since this was the late 1970’s (I know, I know, I’m really old), and the remnants of hippie culture dominated American campuses, it was hard to argue with the fellow. After his verbal volley, the teacher, instead of answering him, asked the class members to answer. As each of my fellow students answered, it became increasingly clear that the main arguments they had were cultural– in other words, “In my country, we do it this way.” The debate was hardening, not resolving. Finally, the teacher looked at me.
“All I know to do is to go back to the Beginning,” I said. “In Genesis it’s clear that Eden was the first school, Adam and Eve the first students, and God their teacher,” I continued. “That sounds like co-education to me. If that was God’s ideal design in the beginning, I don’t see how it can be ‘the problem’ today. We humans are sinful, and we have problems, so those problems show up in all our institutions. But unless we have clear direction otherwise, it seems to me that God’s first plan is still the best.”
I still believe this. If Eden was the perfect plan, then the closer we can approach to it, the better. I believe in all things, God knew what He was doing. And so many, many questions of today that seem perplexing to some, seem much simpler to me. I will mention one are that I will take up in the future, and that’s the environmental movement. First principles have a lot to tell us about that.
As always, I welcome comments and questions. I have offered this because it has literally spared me many an anxious moment, and helped me navigate some of the trickiest currents we encounter in life. I commend it to you.
I’ve been reluctant to take the next step, but to be true to my readers and my calling, I feel compelled to continue.
The Adventist Church, and virtually every other denomination or even independent congregation of which I am aware, is geared toward producing hollow III churches and leaders. That’s because evaluations are made on the basis of “success.” on numbers. Whether it ‘s the membership, attendance, or tithe, we assess and promote on the basis of success.
Numerous consequences follow. First of all, no institution is fond of “dark nights of the soul.’ Pastors and leaders who enter the dark night actually question success.This literally appears to be heretical to those above and below them in the organization. So institutional forces discourage and often punish the inward journey.
Necessarily, then, we end up with many in positions of leadership who are “hollow III’s,” individuals who have not found their personal identity and purpose.
These leaders will also discourage others from entering the dark night, and thus stunt the spiritual growth of any who listen. It also results in a church largely made up of those below level III, that is of those in the Romance and Discipleship stages.
In fact, in most congregations of which I have been a part, being in the Romance and Discipleship stages is the path to church office and leadership. As someone has said, people generally rise no higher than their leadership. This alone insures that most of our congregations will be stuck at levels I and II.
This explains why so many have such a negative view of Christians in the advanced world. The main examples they see are “successful” preachers. And so people ask, as the song did, “Would Jesus wear a Rolex on his television show?”
More likely they encounter Discipleship members, intent on learning, and often enforcing, all the “rules” as they understand them. This “gnat straining and camel swallowing” religion turns them off.
And those in the Romance phase seem simply delusional. If we want to have spiritually growing congregations, then we are going to have to change what we look at and what we measure. As Baptist Bob Logan warned us, “We need to change the role, the function, and the compensation of our pastors.”
Right now, we’re looking at the wrong things, and rewarding the wrong behaviors, from top to bottom. The problem is not only that we need to change, but that change will threaten Success, and perplex Disciple level believers. Indeed, if our model is correct, then leaders who attempt these changes will likely have made it to level V, the Outward Journey. And again, if our model is correct, as soon as the vast majority of Level II believers become aware of the leader’s true Level V status, they will kill him.
Having said this, is it therefore impossible to make such changes? No. We’ll explore how in future posts.