We Can Do Better…

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Sherry and I have a friend and, as it turns out, the church she attends is looking for a pastor. They were talking some time ago and our friend said to Sherry, “I just hope we get a pastor who believes in a big Jesus. I believe in a big Jesus and people need that. I’m tired of people making Jesus small.”

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As you can tell, her remark has stayed with me. For one thing it has made me think through the ways in which people attempt to make Jesus small, and ways I have done that as well.

Of course, there are those outside of the church – outside of the Christian community who exert great effort in an attempt to make God and Jesus small. But the trouble for me is when it happens with those who, like me, profess to believe in Jesus.

Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, in recent years has done significant research focused on religion within teenage and young adults in the United States. While his research looked at religion from a broad perspective he and his colleagues provided insight on the American Church. He has discovered that something he calls Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism –is actually “supplanting Christianity as the dominant religion in American churches.” The research, while focused on teenagers and young adults, points out that these teenagers and young adults were influenced by the faith practices of their parents and their churches.

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Soul SearchingMoralistic, Therapeutic Deism, according to Smith, suggests the Christian life is “focused on living a good and happy life…being a good, moral person…being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, and responsible; working on self-improvement; taking care of one’s health; and doing one’s best to be successful.” That is in contrast to what to it being “a life of repentance, built upon prayer, worship, seeking the Lord’s will,” and being more concerned with God’s interests in the world than our own.” In essence being a Christian has come to mean “feeling good, happy, secure, at peace…about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.”

In fact, Smith’s research suggest that within American churches teenagers and young adults (20’s and 30’s) suggest a believe “that God created the world…” but do not think or live as if He is “particularly personally involved in our affairs—especially affairs in which we would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance.”

If Smith is correct, and I am inclined to agree with him based on my experience, then it is little wonder that people outside of the church see little reason to believe that Jesus is little more than a guru. The trouble is what is being passed off as Christianity isn’t Christian – because it doesn’t have the greatness of Jesus at its core – if it did then it would impact more than just the individual but their families, work-places, communities, relationships, well – everything.

A fundamental claim of the Bible – a foundational aspect of the Gospel – is the Greatness of Jesus. One such place that makes that clear is a book in the New Testament, The Gospel of John. This text makes a striking claim: Jesus is God.

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It says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” Later on in that same chapter, John 1:14 & 17 it becomes clear that John is writing about Jesus. He writes, “And the Word became flesh (physically, literally) and dwelt among us… For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

In a few simple, somewhat poetic lines in John 1 we are confronted with a claim to greatness that it is difficult for us to wrap our heads around. John is stating boldly that Jesus is God and that Jesus was not only eternal, but present at creation, and not only that, but also all things were made through him.

Paul's Journey MapIn another part of the Bible, a letter written by a man named Paul to his friends in Colossae, we read that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:15-17).

Leon Morris, a theologian, said, “We often behave as though we can do as we like with God (with Jesus)…We say wonderful things about him. We say that he is great and wonderful and mighty. But then we act as though he were subject to our control. We even determine how he is to be approached and, of course, arrange things so that he is not going to be hard to get along with.”

And yet – that is exactly what a lot of church folk do – including me. I’d wager that a lot of Christian folks live as if Jesus is quite small. After all, if I can control and manage God how great could he actually be, surely not great enough to really have any impact on my life or neighborhood. I think some professing Christians – church folk – attempt to make Jesus small when we:

  • get sucked into Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. That’s not the Christian life because it has nothing to do with the Biblical Jesus.
  • try to keep Jesus as a small part of our lives. If we profess that we believe in Jesus – that He is indeed God – then it would stand to reason that what He has said about the way we are to live should consume us.
  • fear the darkness. When we cower from broken places and broken people – or when we believe that our besetting sins can’t be overcome. John tells us that Jesus  – the Light of Christ – still SHINES – and the darkness can’t overcome (John 1:5).

The truth is, Jesus is great and awesome. He is intended to consume the life of the Christian. In fact, it is his love (for us, for humanity, for God, for God’s interests) that is to compel (2 Corinthians 5:14) every facet of the Christian life. No we can’t live this out perfectly – but that is part of Jesus’ greatness as well. He is able to work through broken busted people – like me – to bring about good in the world.

There are some folks who really get this (and I wish I did a little bit more). For one thing history is filled with the people who have been impacted by the greatness of Jesus and the compulsion to live and love as He commands. More than just churches have been constructed by those men and women. Hospitals, orphanages, clinics, schools / universities, shelters, have been constructed and ran because men and women have been consumed by the greatness of Christ. Marriages and families have been restored. The hungry have been feed, the homeless sheltered and clothed  – and not just for the tax break.

I think of women like Mother Teresa and her work among the poor and dying. I think of things like the International Justice Mission and their work to help free those who have been oppressed. In fact their website puts things into perspective. It says:

IJM-Logo-Black-Background-350x350“In the tradition of heroic Christian leaders like abolitionist William Wilberforce and transformational leaders like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr., IJM’s staff stand against violent oppression in response to the Bible’s call to justice (Isaiah 1:17): Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

IJM seeks to restore to victims of oppression the things that God intends for them: their lives, their liberty, their dignity, the fruits of their labor. By defending and protecting individual human rights, IJM seeks to engender hope and transformation for those it serves and restore a witness of courage in places of oppressive violence. IJM helps victims of oppression regardless of their religion, ethnicity, or gender.”

There are more examples. There are Christians living in every community who recognize the greatness of Jesus. Usually they live it out in small ways, as best they can. But, like my friend said, there are a lot of people who profess faith in Jesus who attempt to make him small. But the Bible claims clearly – and firmly that Jesus is Great. What a difference it would make if more of His people lived in light of that reality.
Resources:
There really are folks who understand that Jesus is great – and as a result they are doing great work. We can do better – there needs to be more and more of this – but here are a few:
Check out my friends blog – http://praytoendtrafficking.wordpress.com/
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“Taylor Swift as Countercultural Icon” & Shaping the Moral Life

Taylor Swift as Counterculture Icon for Teen Girls: by Amity Shlaes

I don’t have daughters – not planning on having any either. My three sons, however, have asked at different times for a sister. Having three sisters, I don’t blame them for asking; sisters are awesome – at least mine are.

But while I wouldn’t mind adding a daughter to our mix – that’s probably not in the cards for us anyway – I am very much aware of the challenges of raising daughters today. I’m not saying that any one generation has had an easier time parenting than another. However, I do believe how the moral lives, imaginations and characters of young men and women are formed this age has its own unique challenges. Part of the uniqueness comes from the prolific and powerful force of celebrity, media, and popular culture in general. We do not like to admit it but these things carry weight – they do bear an influence on children, families, and communities.

Celebrity, media, and popular culture impact the way that Sherry and I parent our sons and we, like most parents, are very intentional about what we allow our sons to be exposed to. The simple fact that we have to be vigilant when it comes to music, sports, magazines, books, billboards, not to mention the web, TV, Netflix, radio, iPods, video games and movies, speaks to the reality that parents face. Most parents that I know are concerned, wanting to make sure that their kids don’t hear or see things that they shouldn’t. But it is not easy. Foul language, overt sexuality and nudity, and adult themes are so prevalent it is better to prepare kids than try to hide them from it.

It is difficult not to stand back with a certain degree of trepidation as I think what it must be like for moms and dads to lovingly try to shape a young women’s moral life, imagination and character for the good. That seems all the more daunting when she is being bombarded by so many other messages of what is good and normal for a young woman. It becomes an even greater challenge if parents are the least concerned about her spiritually.

As a pastor to families I think about the challenge of parenting a great deal. It becomes all the more challenging given the constant messages that bombard young women (men too) about what is beautiful – but even more than that – what is the norm when it comes to intimacy. Recently I’ve been surprised at what is considered “normal” or simply “common practice,” or “what’s expected.”

Last night I was watching TV with Sherry and a commercial came on. I’m not sure what was being advertised. It showed a couple out rock climbing together in some remote place – giving the full impression they were off on a romantic excursion. The voice over said something like, “My boyfriend and I were going on vacation and…” I’m not sure what she said after that because I was stuck on that one line. It just struck me how that lined just flowed. It wasn’t all that long ago (I’m not that old) when that was not the norm. Guys and their girlfriends may have snuck off on vacation together but they did just that, snuck off. I know this has been the norm on sit-coms for a long time but this was the first commercial I’ve ever seen that acknowledges boyfriend/girlfriends going on vacation together. Suddenly – this is the norm. This is what is expected. This is an option now. But then there is more.

Research from The National Marriage Project at UVA points out “that over half of all first marriages in the U.S. are preceded by the couple living together.” The research also points out that 75-80% of high school seniors said having a good marriage and family life is ‘extremely important’ to them. However, close to half of the same group did not think they would stay married to the same person for life.” At some point this became the “norm” for relationships. In other words, parents raising girls should not just be talking about the fairy tale wedding, the grand proposal but now their girls can dream about the day she gets to ask her boyfriend to move in with her.

I’m not sure when this became the norm but it is. Our culture doesn’t seem to have a moral center – perhaps it never really did (although I think it did); it is seemingly lost in some weirdness that is difficult to name. That weirdness finds its way into the hearts and minds of students impacting the way they think of things as the “norm.” That  impacts everything from what they eat, wear, go to school, when and how much they drink, what sort of drugs they will do, and with whom they will have sex. In other words, it is less of a question and more of an expectation that they will take part in these things. It is part of their social life. This makes parenting – shaping the moral lives, imaginations, and characters of our kids that much more of a challenge.

Tonight, I was listening to NPR on my way home from work. The interview was about getting tested for HIV. A startling stat they mentioned was that “one of every four new cases of HIV involves a teenager.” The blame for this, according to those being interviewed was, that “sex education programs” because they put “an emphasis on chastity rather than condoms.” In fact one man said to, “expect young people to wait until they’re 25 or 30 is really unrealistic, and nobody is waiting.  I mean you maybe have 5-10% who are waiting, but the vast majority are not.” He went on to claim that he is, “running into kids 11 and 12 that are admitting they’re having sex. In my surveys, that’s about 10-15%  of the teen population, so it’s low, but the fact that it’s amazing they’re starting this young, and over a period of the teen years, let’s say from 12, 13-19,  they are falling in and out of love with different boyfriends and girlfriends in high school, so they might have as many as four different partners by the time they reach 18 or 19.  When they go to college and then in college and are hooking up, you know, one night stands, and alcohol and drugs fuel a lot of these bad decisions, and what you’re finding is that a lot of these young people are now having multiple partners.”

Notice the norm – the expectation. Kids are going to do drugs and drink and have sex. We should expect it. That is just part of our social fabric. So lets give them condoms so at least they will not get HIV.

I have to say I was a little shocked by what I heard – not the stats, not that kids are having sex. I was surprised by the resignation of all moral values. Rather than asking larger questions like how to shape the moral lives, imaginations and characters of young men and women the answer, which seems to be nation-wide is, “well, this is normal. It’s what kids do. Give ’em a condom and teach them how to have the conversation about putting it on with their partner.” And in the same sentence we discover we are talking about middle school kids.

This is a tricky time for parents. Lots of people say things without thinking about the norms of our culture – and those things are impacting the lives of kids and their families. It is difficult for kids and parents to push back against what is considered “normal.” But an article came through my email today that I found refreshing and hopeful.

Up until today I didn’t know a lot about Taylor Swift; I’ve heard some of her music and I think she has a great voice but I wouldn’t have said I was a fan. But now – I’m a huge fan.

First because she seems to get it – what she says matters – and that includes lyrics. She is impacting a generation of young girls. She seems to know that. She seems to understand the seriousness of the role she is playing. Her voice and words are being carried into the hearts and minds of young girls perhaps in ways that the voice of parents are not being heard.

The good thing, according to the article (Taylor Swift as Counterculture Icon for Teen Girls by Amity Shlaes), Taylor is not dissing on mom and dad and she is not anti-family. That is deliberate on her part. That is going to shape the moral life, imagination, and character of these young women – and potentially for the good.

Second, I’m a fan because she seems to be saying the right things about moms and dads – about family. That doesn’t happen very often and she is saying it to girls directly – but we all know where the girls go – the guys go (if they are smart). It is truly countercultural because another part of the norm is that teenagers – perhaps especially girls – are not supposed to have a good relationship with their parents.

Years ago, back in the dark ages of the early 90’s, I began working with high school students – first as a coach and then as a minister. One thing became clear right away – parents were not involved directly. They cared for their student. They loved them and wanted them to be involved but they parents knew their place – and knew to keep a distance.

Somehow it was the standard stance, parents had been formed by some unwritten law that they were not be all that involved with their teenager. It seemed like parents were helpless and fearful – not knowing how to approach their own child. It was like watching an odd sort of dance or ballet where parents tried to learn the steps from the hormone rattled, adolescent kids.

What is more, kids felt the same way. It was part of some rite of passage that a student was to tell their parents off and to get a little wild, or resentful toward overly strict parents. That was the cultural script – the norm. Kids needed their space. I thought it was sort of odd. My own teenage years were really messed up after my dads death (I was a freshman) so I was having trouble relating. At the same time I thought it was strange that parents suddenly disappeared from their kids lives to some extent. It wasn’t that parents were not around – they were everywhere but sort of nowhere at the same time. They had been told to stay away – sometimes by their kids and sometimes by a cultural cue.

I remember asking about this one day. I was sort of wondering out loud to an “expert.” I suggested that parents should not be less involved but involved in different ways – especially in places like church and school. Teen years are not easy – so why would we pull the most mature people back from them at that time. His answer was kids need to “individuate from their parents, to become independent and form the important peer-to-peer relationships.”

But I don’t think we actually ever individuate as human beings. I mean our personalities form – but even still there is some part of our parents and family tied into the way we live and see the world. And – most parents want their children to have a sense of independence in that they are able to act as human beings, be productive, use their gifts and abilities. But even then I don’t think independence is the right word. Because, no one is really independent of another and I’m confident it is a bad idea for parents and kids to become independent of one another relationally. That never turns out well.

And yet, part of the culture script is that parents are not supposed to be engaged and involved in the lives of their teenage son or daughter. But that can’t be the way things are supposed to be – in fact I’m sure of it. We are supposed to be in one another lives. That should be the cultural norm – and we ought to want the good of others.

In Genesis 1-3 we read that God created all things – including Adam and Eve. He first made Adam but it did not take God long to make Eve. The Bible says it was “because it was not good for man to live alone.” From that I take it that God intended for human beings to live in community – in a right relationship with each other, with ourselves, with creation and, most importantly, with God.

That’s why things get weird when we try to pull apart – dissecting instead of integrating. Peter Block wrote, The need to create a structure of belonging grows out of the isolated nature of our lives, our institutions, and our communities. The absence of belonging is so widespread that we might say we are living in an age of isolation, imitating the lament from early in the last century, when life was referred to as the age of anxiety…Our isolation occurs because western culture, our individualistic narrative, the inward attention of our institutions and our professions, and the messages from our media fragment us. We are broken into pieces.

What I observed over the last twenty plus years is that kids don’t seem to actually individuate nor become independent. It may not be for lack of trying – and having met some of their parents I don’t blame them. But they usually end up looking for community – a place or group to belong. And they listen to what others are endorsing as what is normal for them to think, feel, wear, eat, drink, etc. So – just as the cultural norm is saying that parents ought to take a back seat and kids should want them to – there are other voices that are piping in through their ear buds and iPods – doing the job that their parents are actually supposed to be doing.

The good thing is that one of those voices, at least right now, is Taylor Swift. She is certainly pointed young women in the right direction – toward their parents and family – and that is good. The hope is that parents are plugged up to something that is giving them the same message and they are moving toward their kids. It is indeed a two way street and it is important that rather than individuating and becoming independent kids and parents learn more about building family – for a lifetime. It is equally important for parents to help give shape to the moral lives, imaginations and characters of their children – they can’t do that if the cultural norm is saying to disengage.

More to come…