Listen

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Here and at church, I have started a series on Christmas songs. Not Christmas carols or pop songs – not the ones we hear on the radio October through December—some of which grow increasingly sappy to me every year.

Not to mention the ones that are theologically troubling. (“So let’s give thanks to the Lord above ’cause Santa Claus comes tonight!” I think, I just, wait but . . . never mind.)

The Real Songs

I mean the songs of scripture. The ones sung by people right there, in real time, Ground Zero of Jesus’ birth. The ones that ushered him in. The songs that people couldn’t help belting out when they knew he was finally on the way.

We dealt with Mary first. Now, it’s time for her much older cousin-in-law.

Zechariah’s Story

Back story. Zechariah was a priest. The Bible says that he was chosen to go into the temple to light the incense and offer the prayers for the people. There’s a whole order here I didn’t know about. Three entire priests were necessary for this incense thing.

Seriously, the lack of efficiency is astounding. You’d think the Lord didn’t care at all about good, sensible time management.

One took away the ashes from the last time the fire was lit. One brought in the new smoking coals for the next offering. Finally, a third man came in to sprinkle the incense on the burning coals, and while the beautiful smell rose up to tickle his nose and calm his head, intercede in prayer for his people.

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Photo by Kirill Pershin on Unsplash

This was Zechariah’s job, and it was the most important and most sacred. I believe the fact that he was chosen for this job says something more than we realize.

Surely, in all those prayers he lifted up, one of them was a desire that the promised Messiah would come. Zechariah woulds never have let the opportunity pass him up, when given this chance to pray for the nation, to pray for its salvation through their shared hope.

Zechariah loved his people. That much will become clear.

Don’t Blink

Suddenly—Surprise! An angel shows up at the altar, right in front of where he stands praying. Angels terrify those who see them. Sweet, lovely, harp-strumming angels do not exist in Scripture. Universally, they scare the heck out of people, and almost always they must first utter the words, ”Don’t be afraid” before they can say anything else to cowering, trembling humans.

 Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.’ (Luke 1.17-19)

Zechariah had questions. He doubted Gabriel’s word. This was a very bad idea.

Then the angel said, ‘I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.’ (v. 19-20)

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Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

Zechariah ended up unable to speak as a result of his unbelief. Still, let’s not be too quick to judge him. The scripture also tells us, concerning him and his wife, “Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” So no one can say he’s struck mute out of disobedience. God must have had other reasons.

He spends over nine months speechless. Let that sink in. I am a pastor myself, and I know what it would be like to carry out my daily work without being able to speak. I know how difficult it would be to care for people without being able to talk to them of their troubles. How does Zechariah manage?

One day, his one and only son is finally born—but the enforced silence is still not over.

When the baby was eight days old, they all came for the circumcision ceremony. They wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth said, ‘No! His name is John!’ ‘What?’ they exclaimed. ‘There is no one in all your family by that name.’ So they used gestures to ask the baby’s father what he wanted to name him. He motioned for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s surprise he wrote, ‘His name is John.’

And he finds his voice.

What that voice says will be the subject of the next blog. Why it was silent for so long is my curiosity for this one. Why would God silence a man he himself calls good? Why is Zechariah punished for questioning an angel while Mary appears to have been blessed for the same behavior?

Here’s what I’m thinking. I don’t think it’s punishment. I think it, too, is a blessing.

Perhaps this was God allowing Zechariah some time to listen.

(Some assume from the verse about the people making gestures that he is also deaf, but this is unlikely. Probably, they simple raise their eyebrows or gaped open-mouthed, arms outstretched, signifying that he had better intervene immediately, speechless or not, because his wife is about to do something unheard of! In any case, ten months of observing the world, unable to speak or hear, would be no bad thing, either.)

Listen

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Can you imagine all that Zechariah learned during that ten months or so? What did he hear? What that he had never noticed before did he suddenly find fascinating? What people to whom he had never really paid attention did he finally truly hear? What did he learn from them?

Did he come to deeply appreciate the squealing laughter of children playing by the road, the passionate prayers of his friends, or the tender, quiet voice of his wife at night? Did he learn from the disenfranchised who rarely were able to catch the ear of a priest, but whose calls and cries he suddenly began to heed?

Did he open his eyes to people with whom he didn’t agree, since he had no choice but to listen and not immediately argue back?

Could an awful lot of us use that enforced silence?

He is a good man—that much has been established. Yet he has lessons to learn. For us, this is a hard but beautiful pill to swallow.

God doesn’t punish us for being bad people as much as sometimes, he pushes us to be better people than we would otherwise bother to be

Maybe, God doesn’t punish us for being bad people as much as sometimes, he pushes us to be better people than we would otherwise bother to be.

Zechariah has lessons to learn, even though by all counts be is plenty good enough already.

I do, too.

  • Sometimes it’s when we’re good already.
  • When we’re smart.
  • When we’ve followed a while and know the ways of Jesus.
  • When we’re pretty sure we’ve got this God thing down.

Sometimes it’s then that we trip up.We believe in ourselves more than in Him.

It’s then we find ourselves on a detour out somewhere, unable to speak or really listen, because we thought we could navigate it alone.

One thing we learn from Zechariah is that we must never believe so much in our own goodness, right intentions, best plans, or knowledge of truth that we aren’t teachable.

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What might we learn if we listen?

  • If we closed our mouths, cut off the quick reply.
  • Stopped thinking about what we were going to say.
  • Refused the defensive comeback.
  • Chose to hear what someone we don’t agree with feels.

What would we hear and learn?

I’m so fascinated by Zechariah’s silence that I’ve decided my word for 2020—Listen. I want to experience what this man had no choice but to do. I want to know the depths of other people’s hearts, and of God’s. I want to learn. If Zechariah at his age still had much to learn, certainly so do I.

Shaking Things Up

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When I went off to college, they (whoever they is) told us to expect an earthquake anytime. The New Madrid fault hadn’t gone in well over a hundred years. It was due. “They” had all of us midwesterners ready to build quake proof shelters all over campus, except being from Illinois, we had no idea what that even was. Tornadoes we know. Earthquakes, not so much.

Needless to say, we never experienced an earthquake. Missourians haven’t since that time, either. St. Louis remains safe from teetering into the abyss in the foreseeable future, though it remains an active fault.

On a family trip to San Francisco, we stood in an earthquake simulator, however, to see what it would be like. Dizzying, confusing, and yes, terrifying had it been real.

In doing some research on the Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, I discovered an interesting detail. The quake measured an (assumed) 7.9 on the Richter scale and the maximum Mercalli intensity of XI (Extreme). Shock waves traveled at a rate of 8300 miles per hour.  Over 80% of the city was destroyed by the earthquake and fire.The event displaced over 75% of the population and killed between 700-3000 people. It permanently removed San Francisco as the leading city of the west, replacing it with Los Angeles.

We assume the most destructive element of that quake was the fire or the falling buildings. Nope.

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Photo by Mike Castro Demaria on Unsplash

Most earthquake damage results from strong shaking. Damage caused by landslides, ground failure, or fire account for a small portion of the total. We remember the 1906 earthquake mainly for the fire damage, yet in most places, it was the shaking on already shaky ground that caused the trouble.

You know what area sustained the worst damage? The Bay Area where ground had been reclaimed from the water. Already soft and easily malleable because of its water and sand content, the ground beneath the bay dissolved during the shaking. Bedrock areas held fast. Unstable ground rocked the buildings above it with ferocity.

In other words, bedrock holds. Shifting ground, soft foundations, things humans created and didn’t use for their intended purpose—all these fall away in an intense shaking. What survived the earthquake? Steel buildings on solid ground.

And that is the message of Hebrews 12.

“You have not come to a physical mountain, to a place of flaming fire, darkness, gloom, and whirlwind, as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai. Moses himself was so frightened at the sight that he said, ‘I am terrified and trembling.’

No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness.

When God spoke from Mount Sinai his voice shook the earth, but now he makes another promise: ‘Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also.’ This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain. Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe.”

God tells the Hebrews—I’m going to shake things up. In fact, I’m going to shake all of creation until it’s shaken back into order. I’ll shake until all the unintended, soft shifting mess is taken away and only the solid, perfect rock remains.

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Image by _Alicja_ from Pixabay

I remember the giant braided rugs my mom used to have in our living room. Occasionally, we had to take the behemoths outside and give them a good shaking. It took two of us. Dirt had gotten in all the crevices of the braid, and it had to be shaken and beat until the seams released all the mess that shouldn’t have been there. It was a job.

Sometimes things need to be shaken into order. They’ve lost their function. Impurities have gotten in the cracks. They need a good clothesline moment with a broom and a strong arm.

In one of my favorite Rich Mullins songs he suggests that:

“The Lord takes by its corners this old world

And shakes us forward and shakes us free

To run wild with the hope.”

I love that image. One day, the entire world will be set right. Shaken free of its evil and freed with wild hope. I can’t wait for that day.

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But here’s the thing—sometimes He will do the same to you and me, here and now. What needs to be shaken free in our lives so we can run wild with hope?

God’s shaking in our lives signals his desire for us to be what we were meant to be, unencumbered by dust and dirt.

We don’t often perceive a good shaking up in as joyful freedom and hope. We see it through a lens of fear, assuming the worst of anything that upsets our comfortable status quo.

But the Hebrews writer sets us straight on that. S/he explains that we have come to Mount Zion—not Mount Sinai. We’ve come to a joyful gathering. We’ve come as God’s own heirs. We “have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people.”

We have come to hope. To no more fear. To the one who is love and casts out fear. To joy, to the community of his people, to Jesus’ himself speaking for you.

“At the centre of the contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Sion, in fact, is the contrast between a holiness which is terrifying and unapproachable and a holiness which is welcoming, cleansing and healing.” NT Wright

If we think of God’s shaking as scary, we’re thinking in the wrong covenant, living in the wrong testament. We need to reframe the shaking up as a restoration of what was lost. It’s more like panning for gold than tearing us apart.

Holiness on the new mountain no longer a terrifying thing. It’s a new way, a better way, a healing, restoring activity. We should welcome it, be excited about it, work toward it not as if we were afraid but as if we rejoice to belong in that city.

The lesson we learn from San Francisco is that shaking doesn’t harm things that are built on bedrock. It destroys only thing that are built where they shouldn’t have been. Only foundations that are unsound. It’s Jesus’ parable about the house on the rock all over again.

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The warning of Hebrews 12 and the warning of 1906 are the same—be mindful of your foundation. What are you building on? What is the bedrock of your faith? What will happen to that faith when the shaking starts?

Many people who have lost their faith in recent years have stated that it happened because a celebrity pastor, worship leader, or other person whom they trusted turned out to be unworthy of that trust. Their faith rested on a person, and that person wasn’t Jesus. When holiness shook it out, it crumbled.

Others build their foundation on God blessing them—giving them the abundant life He promised. When circumstances reverse and they don’t feel blessed, they no longer feel God, either.

Some build on doctrine, certain that if their answers are right, their faith is solid. Ditto “right behavior.” They go over their mental checklist daily, ensuring that they haven’t missed or compromised anything. Like Javert, their life becomes undone when someone suggests that grace and mercy matter more to a human soul.

Shaking terrifies those who live on foundations they have built themselves with unsteady hands and insufficient knowledge. It doesn’t faze those who know a master craftsman built their foundation, and it will hold.

Our foundation?

“You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness.”

That’s it. That’s enough. That will hold.

When God shakes up our world, he wants us to know that only unshakable things will remain. Our response, so difficult and against the human grain, is “so let us be thankful.”

The Kids’ Table

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Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Sounding out the Words

At four, my daughter begged me to teach her to read. Anticipating her enjoying all the books I had as a little girl, knowing her imagination already conjured scenarios far beyond the ordinary scope of preschool, I was delighted to do as she asked. Soon, I found a book that promised to make her a reader in 100 easy lessons.

She took the alphabet she already knew and began sounding out words, from lesson one. True to the book’s promise, Becca was reading by the time she completed it. She entered school the following year reading at a sixth grade level, which in hindsight might have been a mistake, considering how much it annoyed her teachers when she sat and read during their lessons.

Becca never had to go back and recite her abc’s before beginning the lessons. She already knew those. After the original lessons, she didn’t require review of each letter sound before she took off reading and learning the next ones. Once she had the foundational tools, she knew what to do with them.

At some point, she even began to be the teacher to her two little sisters.

The writer of Hebrews seems to want such a book.

“There is much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen. You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. 

You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.

So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. Surely we don’t need to start again with the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds and placing our faith in God. 

You don’t need further instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And so, God willing, we will move forward to further understanding.” (Hebrews 5.11-6.3)

How difficult would it be to read anything if you had to go back over your abc’s every time? How impossible would it be to move forward and read more difficult works if you had to sound out every letter every time?

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Photo by César Viteri on Unsplash

That’s exactly what the writer of Hebrews is trying to get her/his hearers to comprehend. How can you hope to grow in your faith if you have to be reminded all the time about the basics? If you spend your days relying on the pastor to feed you, how will you ever learn to feed yourself?

If you’re twenty years old and still reading One Fish Two Fish, how will you ever comprehend the glories of Les Miserables or Jane Austen?

The Kids’ Table

I remember what it was like to sit at the kids’ table every holiday when our extended family came to visit. I felt small, unnecessary to the gathering, set aside while the adults talked about important things. I longed to graduate (and as the youngest of seven, and almost the youngest of all the cousins, that didn’t happen for a long, long time).

Like my daughter, I longed for the world to be open to me that only older people seemed to know, understand, and enjoy. I wanted the JRR Tolkien of Thanksgiving conversation, and I had to settle for Twilight.

Who wants to eat rice cereal and formula when there is prime rib on the table?

According to this Scripture, I guess we do sometimes.

“You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. . . . So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again.”

That last line implies that the people reading this letter have, in fact, been instructed. They are not ignorant of the  basics of belonging to Christ, They simply have no interest in taking the initiative to go further. They are not babies, but they still love their pacifiers.

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They did get it. They just don’t want to take the energy to apply it.

They lack motivation to go deeper with God.

This problem has lasted through the millennia. One of the biggest issues of the American church, at least, is its emphasis on showmanship and “bigger is better.” As a result, the average churchgoer feels no need to feed himself—that’s what the pastor is for. The better the entertainment, the more inspirational the sermon, the more complacent we can become to making the effort to chew that steak rather than suck on a bottle of milk.

Sadly, according to Barna research, over half of churchgoers also say they do not experience God in their worship hour. Coincidence?

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Skye Jethani in his book Divine Commodity explains the dangers of this mentality:

“We create experiences that entertain, give us emotional highs, make us feel good, and then wonder why we can’t sustain faith in hard times over the long haul. This philosophy of spiritual formation through the consumption of external experiences creates worship junkies — Christians who leap from one mountaintop to another, one spiritual high to another, in search of a glory that does not fade.” 

(And beware, pastors, if we learned anything from Little Shop of Horrors, it’s that “feed me Seymour” can bite us back. Once we start down the road of giving people (or man-eating plants) what they want, they usually want more.)

“Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.”

Run

The writer hits on a key concept here to discipleship. Training. The person who has trained becomes mature in whatever he or she trains at. If you want to run a marathon, you don’t sit and watch videos of people running while eating cherry-frosted poptarts. You run.

You run every day, a little farther, a little faster each time. You run until you become a mature runner—knowing how to read the road, the weather, and your body to intuit what to do next.

If you want to be like Jesus, you don’t watch a preacher or a worship leader once a week and hope the high will last you through the week when those tough right and wrong choices come up at work, school, or home.

You learn yourself. You feed yourself the word of God. You keep in step with the Spirit. Every day. And every day, you go a little farther, until you know how to read the times, the Scripture, and your own soul well enough to intuit what to do next. You learn “the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.”

What is this wright and wrong we’re supposed to be becoming mature enough (whole, purposeful) to learn how to discern and create?

“The purposes of God in the gospel are focused on God’s longing to put the world to rights, and to put people to rights as part of that work. What the writer here longs for is that people should become proficient in understanding and using the entire message of God’s healing, restoring, saving justice. He wants them to know their way around the whole message of scripture and of the gospel, to be able to handle this message in relation to their own lives, their communities and the wider world, and to see how all the different parts of God’s revelation fit together, apply to different situations and have the power to transform lives and situations.” N.T. Wright

Like the readers of Hebrews, we also can be guilty of wanting only a watered down gospel, a small bit of God—a bite-sized salvation that we can consume quickly and neatly. We don’t necessarily want a gospel that demands we learn to discern justice, healing, shalom truth.

Is it possible much of our current discord in the Christian world stems from an unwillingness to push toward maturity? Could our desire to maintain our first understanding of God, no matter how immature, create the disharmony we see around us, as Christians tear into one another over complicated issues they are nevertheless certain they understand accurately?

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Photo by Jens Johnsson on Unsplash

We love our personal savior and personal relationship with Jesus. It’s warm and comfy. We don’t really want the gospel to encompass a whole lot more of the kingdom than we ever dreamed. We don’t want to have to rethink when presented with an idea or a person that seems to contradict what we have determined.

We like milk. Of course, warm milk has one property I use often at night. It puts you to sleep.

My daughter went on to read all the books she could find. Those little sisters she helped teach did the same. They competed on teams that read books and challenged one another to read more, learn more, become more because of what they read.

Like those teammates, “let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. . . God willing, we will move forward to further understanding.”

Architects, Builders, and DIY Mistakes

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We’re famous for our gingerbread creations. Not because they’re technically perfect (or even close). Because they’re epic. When we do gingerbread, we go big or go home. My personal favorites have been Minis Tirith and Wrigley Field. All of our family and friends know that if they have a gingerbread building question, we’re their people.

A while ago, I gave my congregation the task of building their own gingerbread creations. I offered them the materials—graham crackers, powdered sugar, eggs, candy. One thing I didn’t offer them—directions.

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Their houses teetered sideways. Their roofs sagged. The candy slid, and the walls just plain fell over. Ours stood tall. Ours stood because there were some things we knew they didn’t.

  • We knew the proportions of sugar to egg white to tartar.
  • We knew that if you don’t beat that icing for a full five minutes, it will not hold.
  • We knew that if you do, it will hold FOREVER.
  • We knew that using a cardboard box as a foundation is technically cheating, but it works.

“And so, dear brothers and sisters who belong to God and are partners with those called to heaven, think carefully about this Jesus whom we declare to be God’s messenger and High Priest. For he was faithful to God, who appointed him, just as Moses served faithfully when he was entrusted with God’s entire house.

But Jesus deserves far more glory than Moses, just as a person who builds a house deserves more praise than the house itself. For every house has a builder, but the one who built everything is God.

Moses was certainly faithful in God’s house as a servant. His work was an illustration of the truths God would reveal later. But Christ, as the Son, is in charge of God’s entire house. And we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ.” (Hebrews 3)

The writer of Hebrews urges—Think carefully! Literally, pay close attention! To what? To Jesus. Notice him. Keep your eyes on him. Watch how he builds a house.

It makes sense. If you wanted to learn how to play cello and you had YoYo Ma in front of you, you’d watch, not drift off into scrolling Instagram.

If you wanted to rehab your kitchen and Chip and Joanna Gaines offered to come on over, you’d follow closely, not flip through a magazine while they worked.

So here in Hebrews, we’re begged—.Watch Jesus. Pay attention! Why? Because he’s the builder of our house. And he’s made us a partner in the process. He’s the master craftsman, and we’re the apprentices.

He knows a few things about building a spiritual house that we do not.

The writer goes on to use the Israelites as an example of the wrong way to build a house.

In the wilderness journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, they were supposed to obey, believe, and build their own “house” based on the blueprints of being God’s people.

They built different kind of house, based not on God’s instructions but on—

  • their fears (we can’t conquer them!),
  • their ideas of power (relying on might and numbers rather than God),
  • their belief in compromise (we can use some of their god, some of ours),

Their house was a train wreck. It had bad pipes, termites, a backed up sewer, and flocked wallpaper ALL over.

To build a lasting faith house, we need to become an attentive apprentice to the master builder. There is no other way. He has the blueprints to our life that work, and we don’t even know how to pour a decent foundation. Hebrews’ author urges us:

Pay attention. Do as Jesus does. Speak as he speaks. Treat others as he treats others. Watch, listen, do. That’s what apprentices do. That’s how they become master craftspersons. They watch.

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Watching and learning is a long haul process. We don’t learn to play the cello with five minutes of practice every couple days. I won’t hone writing skills by putting down a few sentences every other day. A builder won’t succeed by nailing together a couple boards five times a week.

It’s long haul, focused, attention-paying work.

A gingerbread house built with two-minute frosting will fall. It takes mixing, blending, spinning that KitchAid longer than you imagine is necessary when you look in the bowl. But less than that ends up sliding down on the foundation.

Less than daily focused attention to Jesus, soaking in all he has to teach us, intentionally doing what we see, leads to the same thing in our lives. We can try shortcuts, giving him our attention every so often, seeking his example when we’re in trouble but not otherwise. If we do, our facade might even look good for a while.

But the icing will not hold.

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Eugene Peterson wrote: “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness. Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure.”

A sure foundation in Christ cannot be obtained on a tourist visa. We need to stay. Dig in. Focus. Seek daily the things we need to see, hear, do. Only then will we find what the writer of Hebrews offers. Then—“we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ.”

Faith for Exiles

They had me at the Tolkien quote on the front page.

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Faith for Exiles

I’m a long time fan of David Kinnaman’s work and a newbie to Mark Matlock’s, having read, and incorporated into my doctoral thesis, pretty much all of Kinnaman’s titles. (You Lost Me, unChristian, Good Faith, Churchless).

So I might have been the first person to fill out the application to be on the launch team for Faith for Exiles: Five Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon.

It did not disappoint.

The Exodus Is Real

While many of us in church leadership wring our hands over the exodus of young people from the church, documented so well in the books mentioned above, the authors offer here a portrait of the kind of young believer who stays—thus affording us a chance to change the equation, if we pay attention.

This is good news for both church leaders and parents. Parents of littles—don’t believe you have to wait for this information. Discipleship begins young, very young, and having a front-row seat to learn all you can now about how kids stay faithful matters. It matters very, very much.

I've yet to read the Scriptue that said children have to wait and watch until they'rte old enough to _handle_ using their spiritual gifts. Our children need to experience their faith in action. discovering they don't

Kinnaman and Matlock begin with the premise I’ve believed and talked about for a long time—we no longer live in the Promised Land. We are exiles in Babylon who must look to the prophets for our wisdom more than the Exodus. Our culture is not Christian, but God wants us to be Christians in our culture. Like Daniel and his famous furnace friends, we must develop the faith required to hold onto the essentials of what we know about God while caring deeply for the place in which we find ourselves. Our stance should take it’s wisdom from one of my most oft-quotes Jeremiah lines (and I quote Jeremiah a lot):

“This is what the Lord says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: ‘Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.’” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

Our young people deeply feel this truth—that the welfare of those around them—all those around them—will determine their welfare. Yet they struggle with the information overload, the plethora of options and “truths” ricocheted toward them like they’re living in a particle accelerator with no off switch. The older generation needs their understanding of and compassion for Babylon. They need our experience in how not to allow its noise to drown us and mold us into its design.

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Photo by Rohit Tandon on Unsplash

Digital Babylon, as the title explains, is not a concrete place but an interwoven haze of electronic environment that overhangs and fogs us all. The younger generation are both more aware of its potential and  more susceptible to its siren call.

“Through screens’ ubiquitous presence, Babylon’s pride, power, prestige, and pleasure colonize our hearts and minds. Pop culture is a reality filter. Websites, apps, movies, TV, video games, music, social media, YouTube channels, and so on increasingly provide the grid against which we test what is true and what is real. The media and the messages blur the boundary between truth and falsehood. What is real is up for grabs.”

The authors first make the case for the dangers ( as well as the potential) of digital Babylon, and they make it well. Those of us who did not come of age surrounded by electronics, available 24/7, conscious of our pubic image at all times, do not understand this, no matter how much we research it. We need to hear our young people on it, without making assumptions or declarations.

The focus of the book, however, is not on the problem but on the solution. How do we raise what they refer to as “resilient Christians”—young people who remain in church, retain their active faith, and recharge their world while in Babylon?

Five Practices

Five things stood out as they interviewed the ones who stay. Resilient Christians, those whose faith remains strong and active, have five characteristic practices:

Practice 1: To form a resilient identity, experience intimacy with Jesus. ​

Practice 2: In a complex and anxious age, develop the muscles of cultural discernment. ​

Practice 3: When isolation and mistrust are the norms, forge meaningful, intergenerational relationships. ​

​Practice 4: To ground and motivate an ambitious generation, train for vocational discipleship. ​

​Practice 5: Curb entitlement and self-centered tendencies by engaging in countercultural mission.

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Photo by anja. on Unsplash

The book outlines all of the five with illustrations, ideas, and examples of how these practices are given life in both young people and their churches. The churches, of course, are the target for this information. If church leaders do not look at the data and pay attention to what effective discipleship looks like, it won’t matter that we know the right answers. The church has to make the move to change the way we disciple our young people. Parents, it’s never too early to look at our church practices and help be the change. (That’s one reason I have two talks–“Unplugged” and “Families on Mission,” on my speaking page!)

Just One Practice

For example, practice one—experience intimacy with Jesus.

“It is easy to call oneself a Christian but much less common to find deep joy in Jesus. That conclusion is where our first practice begins. The first practice of resilient discipleship in digital Babylon is clearing religious clutter to experience intimacy with Jesus.”

We learn how to identify that clutter (things like idolizing our own image, for example) and how to focus, as a church, on helping young people find their center in Christ, not personal brand or knowledge about God. It’s this deep, personal experience with God that gives them the resilience to  know, despite culture’s barrage to the contrary, that their identity is secure in Christ and He knows exactly what it’s like to live in their shoes.

One of the errors the authors point out is that the church, rather than pursuing this deep relationship, has pursued the branding of Jesus themselves.

“The church has responded to the identity pressures of our culture by offering young people a Jesus ‘brand experience’ rather than facilitating a transformational experience to find their identity in the person and work of Jesus.”

Once the brand wears off, as they all do, there is no resilient faith left.

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Photo by James Baldwin on Unsplash

The Other Four

The other four practices are equally interesting and informative. I already used some of the material in the chapter on vocation to foster a lively discussion during my sermon on calling a couple weeks ago. The young people there definitely resonated with the realities Kinnaman and Matlock present, and they had much to say about their frustrations regarding jobs, careers, and calling in today’s world. The church can step in with so much wisdom in this area, if we try.

The chapter on intergenerational discipleship drives home the absolute need for older people to be involved. Another finding I’ve read is that the “magic number” of adults actively involved in a young person’s life is five. That means five older Christians to take an interest, have a conversation (where you listen!), take a young person out to coffee or for a walk, teach someone how to cook or sew or handle a bank account, text a caring message, can make all the difference in a person’s continued faith.

In conversations and writing with my own twenty-somethings and others, many of the truths in this books have come alive. 

These aren’t difficult practices. But they are deliberate and intentional, and they require a sacrifice of that elusive commodity–time. They do insist we changing our framework from entertaining and evangelizing to discipling and serving. I’ll close with this, one of the greatest truths of discipleship, yet one we forgo time and again when it comes to young people. Please, don’t let it go in your child’s life.

“In digital Babylon, faithful, resilient disciples are handcrafted one life at a time.”

What Are We Teaching Our Kids?

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

In early April, we started a discussion between me and my daughter on the church, the generational divide, and world peace.

Not really that last one. But it sounded good. In a good lead-in to Mother’s Day, we then talked about what we appreciate about one another’s generation. Now, the saga continues.

What Are We Teaching Our Kids???

Jill: Let’s talk about the idea that we don’t really have to worry about the next generation returning to church. You will, as every generation has done before you, come back after a requisite season of rebellion. 

I’m a little concerned about that laissez-faire attitude for a few reasons.

jesus doesnt want you to be good. Jesus wants uou to be his.

First of all, church is increasingly not a core value in our society, or in your generation. Being a good person and showing love are what it’s all about. Unfortunately, those values are divorced from a foundation in knowing God, largely because we Boomers in the church have taught that being good is the goal. We’ve told you that Jesus wants you to be good, when really Jesus wants you to be his.

Rules versus relationship.

According to that flawed theology, “praying the prayer” and leading a good life are the elements of being a Christian. Not surprisingly, younger generations have latched on to leading a good life and largely dispensed with the praying the prayer part. It sounds like magical thinking to you, and there is therefore no need for it in your efficient, ethics-based world.

Will you really, like the Terminator, will be back?

Emily: Did they have children’s ministries when you guys were kids? When did Sunday School in the modern sense become a thing? I mean the time when it just became a place that kids were sent because otherwise they would be bored or would cause a disruption or wouldn’t understand what was going on. 

That’s where your “do good” stems from. “Be good for mommy, and daddy, and Jesus, too.” True and simplistic as it might be, it lacks action. It lacks depth. It lacks roots.

So, yeah, you’re right. Without the roots leading us back to the church, we can go off and do more than we ever got to in Sunday School (or Children’s Ministry, if it’s a hip new church) and without the restraints of the church to tell us who or what to do good for. It leaves us in control over how we use our resources.

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Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

Jill: Well, I remember my parents sending me up the street to Sunday School. I vaguely recall something about a guy in a blue robe involving lots of flannel.

According to Christian History, the original philanthropic Sunday Schools always had an aspect of religious education, as they used the Bible for learning to read and write. They also imported moral behavior into the curriculum. When the government established mandatory public education in the 1870’s, churches moved to teaching solely Christian doctrine and behavior rather than general education.

Given that Rational Theory (i.e., human society is perfectable through the use of reason) still coursed through the church’s veins at the time, moral education would certainly have been the focus. Be good for mommy, daddy, and Jesus, indeed, has a long history.

Sally Lloyd-Jones, author of The Jesus Storybook Bible, laments the present disinterest in church among children she has interviewed:

“These are children in Sunday schools who know the Bible stories. These are children who probably also know all the right answers — and yet they have somehow missed the most important thing of all. They have missed what the Bible is all about. It is a picture of what happens to a child when we turn a story into a moral lesson. When we drill a Bible story down into a moral lesson, we make it all about us. . . . When we tie up the story in a nice neat little package, and answer all the questions, we leave no room for mystery. Or discovery. We leave no room for the child. No room for God.” –Sally Lloyd-Jones

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So she seems to be saying what you are. We need to start young to let children explore the Bible story — not simple or simplistic Bible stories, but the entirety of the Big Story. We need to let them ask questions, see how the smaller stories, and their story, fit into God’s big picture, and give them something to do about it now.

Emily: I mean, I wouldn’t recommend certain stories from the Bible told straight up to four year olds (Jezebel comes to mind). But when the Bible becomes a tool or vehicle with which to deliver a human-devised moral, it not only puts God in a box, it puts us into a box too. And that box can get kind of constricting as we grow, until finally we break out and, believing the box itself is religion, we walk away, refusing to ever be constrained again.

Jill: There’s this book by some lady where she says something like this.

“Research tells us that 75 percent of young people in our churches today will leave them when they leave home. Why? Because they increasingly believe that church is irrelevant to their daily lives and out of touch with the culture. In other words, they don’t see the point. And in ever-busier lives, everything we spend our time on has to have a point. 

What would happen if, instead, our churches taught kids from the time they could walk that they were ministers? That they were the hands and feet to make the church relevant? That the ends of the earth weren’t as far away or impossible to impact as they thought? I truly believe we could turn those statistics upside down.” –Jill Richardson, Don’t Forget to Pack the Kids

Emily: Blatant self-promotion.

Jill: Yeah. But I completely agree with you. Teaching kids to “do good” divorced from the grand story of why only creates people who know how to follow rules. Once they internalize those rules, who needs the church to continue doing good? You can cut loose from the strings now that you know the rules. Plus, you can create your own rules. Christian education has got to be about a connection to the story more than a moral to it.

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Photo by dimas aditya on Unsplash

Emily: But the box isn’t God. I think we worry that if we try to teach kids God as God is, that their heads are going to explode. Or maybe our heads will explode if we have to start thinking of God as God is.

Jill: So if we want future generations to stay in church, we need to start connecting them to the whole gospel, and the whole God. We need to teach them how being Christian isn’t about rules and being good but about the entire creation to redemption story of why we are trying to do good things and what our role is in the story.

Emily:

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Pokemon GO and the Salvation of Western Civilization

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As a prelude to what I hope will be a series on young people, and a follow up to last week’s discussion of Growing With–I’m retuning to a favorite of mine, originally run here on the Theology Mix blog.

I have to update–statements made in the first paragraph are now invalid. My daughter taught me to play a few weeks ago. And all my assumptions that I could get addicted were accurate.

Pokémon GO will save the world

Well, that could be an overstatement. Other things are doing their share.

Still, it’s a valid hope. I don’t personally play the game. It looks fun—and I do have an inherent passion for collecting things that is totally compatible with the idea of going around catching various creatures, indexing and organizing them like my junior high insect collection that took on epic proportions. My highest StrengthsFinder score is Input–ie, collector of things. Any things, really.

\So, really, best I don’t touch the thing. I know my limits, and with time an endangered commodity in my life right now, another way to spend it should not be on the table. I will stick with geocaching when I feel the need to hunt outdoors.

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Yes, this is actually mine. Yes, it’s fun.

However, I have trailed along as a cultural observer when others play. In the trailing, there is a tale to tell. Pokémon players are changing the lonely landscape for the better.

Fact: Millennials are the loneliest age group in America.

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https://www.themarshallproject.org/2016/07/12/who-loves-pokemon-go-the-police

This as determined by researchers from the University of Cologne and the University of Chicago. They have eclipsed the presumed leaders in that race, the elderly. Their buzzword of choice may be community, but the reality is, they are finding it less and less. Blame social media, economic issues, mobility, competition, overzealous parents and ovescheduled lives, and fear of commitment. Whatever we blame, the reality is, our culture finds friendship and relationship disposable, and no one suffers more for it than the generation that learned friendship online.

Enter Pokémon. What I witnessed when accompanying my two Millennial daughters was nothing less than a modern social miracle. Dozens of young people wandered around the lakeside park. Some in groups, some alone, everyone staring at their phones. Suddenly, a random “Charmander!” rang out from across the field. Once, twice, three times. Strangers were calling others to come share the mecca of fiery creatures they had found. Other people who passed us offered up clues—“Dratini right over there.” “Go to that willow tree—there are Bulbasaur all over the place!” Everyone in the park was helping one another play the game. Something made them act as a team. Some sense of “we’re together here” permeated the area.

They are not becoming fast friends. They’re not walking away together linking arms and singing kumbaya or planning to be in each others’ weddings. But they are helping one another toward a mutual goal, with no personal gain at all.

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In a particularly contentious and angry time in the US, a game on a cell phone is causing strangers to work together. This is nothing short of miraculous. We should all be standing and applauding.

Of course, we’re not. Instead, I read random rants about how young people are staring at their phones again/always and how this makes them self-centered. I see older people condescending to younger ones with broad assumptions like, “If they put this much effort into getting a job, they’d be out of their parents houses’.” Such assumptions bother me, since my children, and most players I know, are gainfully employed and/or full time students. But they bother me further, on a much deeper level, because they prove the speaker has never had a conversation with any young person. At least, not a mutually respectful one.

This matters in the church. If we care about the loneliness epidemic outside (and inside) our walls among the Millennial generation, we will care about ways to bring them together. We will want to understand how they form community and why it matters. Pokémon GO has a few things to teach us about our relationships with and continued learning from the next generation.

Pokémon GO reminds us that Millennials don’t think play and work are mutually exclusive.

Will our leadership accept that work and play often look a lot alike for Millennials, and sometimes they are doing their best innovating when they are having fun? Can we adjust our committees, classes, and teaching to reflect this?

Pokémon GO is a game. It’s also a community, a place to belong, and a network. It didn’t take players long to realize that a game can be used to meet people, learn about other cultures, find job opportunities, or shatter their Fitbit goals.

Cities report that police officers are joining the game to create relationships in their communities. People are using the social phenomenon to solve seemingly intractable problems—like racial tensions and law enforcement woes. While the lines are blurring between work and play, they are also completely blurred between fun and practical change. Will our churches follow suit, or will we retain our insistence on old methods of solving problems?

Pokémon GO reminds us that Millennials want to ask questions rather than be told where everything is and how it works.

Note Attention Road Sign Right Of Way Duplicate
Note Attention Road Sign Right Of Way Duplicate

Can our discipleship involve the kind of seeking that Millennials seem to prefer over the straight telling we have embraced for so long? Maybe we should ask more questions rather than give so many answers, so the search for being like Jesus can consume us like the search for Pikachu.

Pokémon GO reminds us that Millennials value relationships over formulas.

Can we encourage evangelism that’s more like playing games with a group of new friends than sealing a used car deal? Do all the right words mean less, ultimately, than being with another person? What would that look like in church programming?

Pokémon GO reminds us that Millennials want for a place to belong.

Will the church embrace that need and offer a balm for loneliness? Will we hold out the ultimate relationship rather than rules to live by? Will we invite them in regardless of their tribe or background or beliefs? Will we be the ones standing on the path calling, “What you’re looking for is over here! Come be with us. We understand the search. We’re with you in it. Let’s look together.”

It could save the world, you know.