Faith and Doubt

In conversations with students, I've been faced with the relationship between faith and doubt.  Somehow, somewhere, students seem to believe that faith and doubt cannot coexist; that the existence of doubt is the negation of faith.  Where do they get this notion?

This has caused me to wonder just how many young people, or anyone for that matter, have left faith because they were discouraged by doubt.  How many have we lost who believe faith and doubt were at odds?  Isn't it more true to suggest that doubt drives us to deeper faith; that is, when we are able to truly wrestle with and deal honestly with our doubts, we are able to arrive at a deeper, more robust faith?

In Rob Bell's most recent book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, this quote grabbed my attention:
"For many people in our world, the opposite of faith is doubt. The goal, then, within this understanding, is to eliminate doubt. But faith and doubt aren’t opposites. Doubt is often a sign that your faith has a pulse, that it’s alive and well and exploring and searching. Faith and doubt aren’t opposites; they are, it turns out, excellent dance partners."

Doubt is a sign your faith has a pulse.
Doubt and Faith are excellent dance partners.

I find myself agreeing with these notions.  I think this will be helpful for students with whom I work.  I am reminded of the man who said to Jesus, "I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief."  Unbelief, doubt, uncertainty - this is where Jesus steps in and moves us, shapes us, changes our hearts and beliefs, our attitudes and understandings.

So why are we so uncomfortable with doubt?  Why does it seem so scary?


Make It Salty

After reading the Kierkegaard parables I shared in my last post and reading/listening to Peter Rollins over the last month or so, I've been thinking a lot about the role of story in our preaching/teaching.  Rollins uses parables A LOT, and they're effective.  It's crazy how I remember these stories he tells.

Rollins says, "Instead of religious discourse being a type of drink designed to satisfy our thirst for answers, Jesus made his teaching salty, evoking thirst."  He explains this further in a video from 2011:

The Power of Parable from Peter Rollins on Vimeo.

I wonder whether our Christian teaching/preaching, even our conversations with others, focus too much on giving answers or providing solutions to biblical/theological issues.

We use a lot of words in Christianity.  We have a language that we use, and many of us who grew up in church or who have been around church are quite comfortable with this language - whether we realize it or not.  But, how do we use these words, this language, in order to communicate with others - even fellow believers?  Do we give out answers?  Do we give easy to stomach definitions, black and white, that no one should dare have to think or wrestle with faith, doubt, the Bible?  Do we give self-help?  Do we peddle feel-goodism?

Rollins says,
"It is all too common for Christians to attempt to do justice to the scriptural narrative by listening to it, learning from it, and attempting to extract a way of viewing the world from it. But the narrative itself is asking us to approach it in a much more radical way. It is inviting us to wrestle with it, disagree with it, contend with it, and contest it—not as an end in itself, but as a means of approaching its life-transforming truth, a truth that dwells within and yet beyond the words." 
I like this idea of using parable, stories, that our words would be salty; thus, evoking thirst in our hearers.  I'd love to have some salty conversations where I walked away thirsty, literally seeking out the water, Jesus himself.  I'd love it if my preaching/teaching left people with questions, not of me, but of the text, of Jesus himself.  I'd love it if they walked away looking for water, searching for life-giving water.

Let's wrestle through this together.  Let's sharpen one another as we seek answers and contend with, contest, disagree with one another, SO THAT we can be transformed by Jesus.

May your words be salty.  May your words invoke thirst.


A Pentecost Message

Jesus taught using parables, one author says, “So that instead of religious discourse being a type of drink designed to satisfy our thirst for answers, his teachings would be salty, evoking thirst.”

This Pentecost Sunday, as we celebrate God’s gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church, I want to share with you two parables attributed to Danish philosopher Soren Kierkagaard, that these teachings might evoke thirst for the Holy Spirit.
“There was a rich man.  At an outrageous price he bought a team of entirely flawless, splendid horses, which he had wanted for his own pleasure and for the pleasure of driving  himself.  About a year or two passed by.  If anyone who had known the horses earlier now saw him driving them, he would not be able to recognize them: their eyes had become dull and drowsy; their gait lacked style and precision; they had no staying power, no endurance; he could drive them scarcely four miles without having to stop on the way, and sometimes they came to a standstill just when he was driving his best; moreover, they had acquired all sorts of quirks and bad habits, and although they of course had plenty of feed they grew thinner day by day.
 Then he called the royal coachman.  He drove them for a month.  In the whole countryside there was not a team of horses that carried their heads so proudly, whose eyes were so fiery, who gait was so beautiful; there was no team of horses that could hold out running as they did, even thirty miles in a stretch without stopping.  How did this happen?  It is easy to see:  the owner, who without being a coachman meddled with being a coachman, drove the horses according to the horses’ understanding of what it is to drive; the royal coachman drove them according to the coachman’s understanding of what it is to drive.”
So ends the parable.  Kierkegaard follows this parable saying, “So also with us human beings.  When I think of myself and the countless people I have come to know, I have often said to myself sadly:  here are capacities and talents and qualifications enough, but the coachman is lacking.” 

Today, 2000 years removed from the day of Pentecost, we are in dire need of submission to the divine coachman, the Holy Spirit; the same Spirit that drove the Apostles to preach, heal, and serve in the face of great uncertainty and even physical harm.  We, like the Apostles, must first die to self, and die to the notion that we can drive these bodies of ours through the perils of life, on our own, without aid, without God.  We must die to self, that we might allow the Spirit of life, the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit of God to be our guide, our driver, our coachman.

In John 14, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to those who would keep his commands and remain in him.  In this chapter, Jesus makes two statements I find quite interesting.  First, he says, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”  Even greater things.  Whoever believes in me will do not only the things Jesus has been doing, but more.  The second thing I find fascinating is when Jesus says that it is actually better that he leaves.  It is better for us that Jesus go to the Father.  He says, “If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.”  This is most certainly interesting.  It seems reasonable that life would be much better if Jesus were to stay, but Jesus seems to say that it is better that he leaves, for the presence of the Holy Spirit will allow us to do GREATER things that even Jesus did.

To further evoke thirst, allow me to share the second parable.
There was a certain town where all the residents are ducks.  Every Sunday the ducks waddle out of their houses and waddle down Main Street to their church. They waddle into the sanctuary and squat in their proper pews. The duck choir waddles in and takes its place, and then the duck minister comes forward and opens the duck Bible.He reads to them: "Ducks! God has given you wings! With wings you can fly! With wings you can mount up and soar like eagles. No walls can confine you! No fences can hold you! You have wings. God has given you wings, and you can fly like birds!"All the ducks shout, "Amen!"And then they all waddle home.


Parable On Heaven - At Last

I can't seem to shake the power of this parable Peter Rollins shares in his book, Fidelity of Betrayal.  He shares it in the video I've posted below.  I found this parable, originally told by Philip Harrison, to be challenging and encouraging in that it surprised me, caught me off guard, and messed with my preconceived notions of the allure of heaven.  The promise of heaven is unbelievable, indescribable, even considering the amazing revelation given to St. John.  I'm interested in reactions to this parable.  I'm wrestling with what it means for us, particularly for people like me who live comfortably as Christians in this world that is not our home.

You can also read the parable from Rollins' book if a 3 minute video seems to long for you!

The other day I had a dream. I dreamed I arrived at the gates of heaven, heavy-shut, pure oak, bevelled and crafted, glinting sharp in the sunlight. St. Peter stood to greet me; the big man wore brown, smile set deep against his ruddy cheeks.

“You’re here,” he said.

“I am,” I said.

“Great to see you—been expecting you,” he smiled. “Come on in.”

He pushed gently against the huge door; it swung silently, creakless. I took a couple of steps forward until, at the threshold, one more step up and in, I realized I wasn’t alone. My friends had joined me, but they hovered behind, silently, looking on. None spoke. I realized only I could speak. I looked at them; some were Christians, some Hindus, some Buddhists, some muslims, some Jews, some atheists. Some God knows what. I stopped, paused. A hesitant St. Peter looked at me, patiently, expectantly.

“What about these guys?” I asked him. “My friends. Can they come?”

“Well, Phil,” he replied, soft in the still air, “you know the rules. I’m sorry, but that’s the way things are. Only the right ones.”

I looked at him. He seemed genuinely pained by his answer. I stood, considering. What should I do? I thought about my reference points, and thought about Jesus, the bastard, the outsider, the unacceptable, the drunkard, the fool, the heretic, the criminal, and I knew exactly where I belonged.

“I’ll just stay here then too,” I said, taking my one foot out of heaven. And I’ll tell you, I’d swear I saw something like a grin break across St. Peter’s face, and a voice from inside whispered, “At last.”


Come to _____________ ?

This video from Len Sweet created by "The Work of the People" was speaking my language today.  I'm going to leave this short as I'm still processing these thoughts.  Maybe you can enter into the current monologue I have going in my brain.  Watch the video first, then think about this phrase that's been stuck in my head today:
Our benchmark for Christian faith isn't the Bible, it's Jesus.
I'm not sure I have much more to say.  This thought - this phrase - was stuck in my head as I drove to a youth pastor meeting today.  Is it a true statement?  Is it intelligible?  I'm not sure what to make of it, but there it is!

Like I said, check out the video.  Reflect.  Comment.


Evangelism - A Moving Target

"In a world where people believe they are not hungry, we must not offer food but rather an aroma that helps them desire the food that we cannot provide."
Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God
I'm finding myself newly engaged in thoughts and conversations on evangelism.  Several blogs I read - (http://www.averageyouthministry.com) and (http://careynieuwhof.com) - have been talking about sharing the Gospel given our place in this post-Christian reality.  It's all caused me to admit that evangelism, or sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, really is a moving target.  That is, our strategies and approaches must adapt as we seek to share The Good News that is unchangeable with a constantly changing culture.

Nieuwhof had an excellent post the other day where he described the "15 Characteristics of Today's Unchurched Person."  In his list, one grabbed my attention:  #6 - You can't call them back to something they never knew.  I've thought about the concept of revival, even prayed that it might happen in our country, our county, our community.  I'm not giving up hope for revival, but I realize the truth in the fact that there might not be much to "revive" these days.  How do you offer the Bread of Life to people who don't believe they need it?  How can we invite people to receive the Good News when it doesn't seem so good to them?  Instead, we must, as Peter Rollins suggests, "Offer the aroma that helps them desire the food."

It's not our job to offer the food, but to be an aroma that helps them desire the food that, in the end, we cannot provide.  God alone provides the food - is the food.  Let us be the aroma that draws them to the food.
2 Corinthians 2:14-15
But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.


"continuous partial attention"

In his book, Cracking Your Church's Culture Code, author Samuel Chand quotes Linda Stone, a former Apple and Microsoft employee, who says,
To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention—CONTINUOUSLY.  Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter. We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention.
There's a lot going on in that quote.  What stands out to you?  I've noticed a lot of this recently in my personal life and my work with students.  Turns out FOMO, the Fear of Missing Out, has truly enslaved us.  It has caused us to waste the precious, yet oft neglected resources of attention, time, and brain waves.  We find ourselves asking, "What if?  What if I'm not 100% in the know about March Madness, the 2013 roster of the Chicago Cubs, and the progress of spring football in Nebraska?"  Maybe those are the things that drive me to Facebook, ESPN.com, and Twitter.  Maybe it's just me.  Maybe I'm the only one willing to admit I suffer from "continuous partial attention disorder."

I'm currently coaching high school baseball, and our team is struggling.  We are competing; the games are close, but we're just not quite winning.  Winning the game sort of matters in sports.  Now you know.  Sports are supposed to be fun, and winning, let me tell you, is really fun.  Winning beats losing every time.  All that was for free, back to the good stuff.  Our team is struggling.  We've noticed that in the midst of these struggles there aren't a lot of guys eager to put in extra work to improve.  I know some of them could read this, so they need to know that I know that some of them are working hard and putting in extra effort.  However, some of them have other things on their minds.  Some can't seem to escape the lure of March Madness.  Some are thinking about the video game they'll rush home to play, or the homework they've put off for literally a year.  Those are the "finally getting around to my Junior goals essay because now I'm a Senior and I need it to graduate" guys.  

The question is, What really matters?  You see, the athletes I coach are prone to say that sports really matter to them; they hope to make all conference, earn all-state recognition, a college scholarship, or to play professionally.  Yet, they rarely count the cost and put in the work necessary to achieve these goals.  Their sports careers are an exercise in "continual partial attention."  Sports are important, yes, but there are a lot of other things competing for their attention.  I mean, what if I don't know who Taylor Swift is currently dating?  That could mean the end of all things for a high schooler, right?

I wonder, how many of us could say the same about our faith?  We really want to want to love and follow Jesus, but there are so many other things competing for our attention.  So, we give Jesus our continuous partial attention.  We give Jesus a little slice of our attention, and we have good intentions to give him more.  Yet, when it really comes down to it, there are other "opportunities, activities, and contacts" that we also need to keep an eye on.  This continuous partial attention impacts our discipleship, our relationships, and our ability to focus on what really matters.

Examine your life.  Think about your day.  How often are you 100% present to the person or task at hand?  How often are you able to give your full attention to Christ?  As I type this, I have an episode of the Office playing on the Wii and my iPhone is blowing up with texts.  This blog post has been an example to me of my participation in a lifestyle of continuous partial attention.  What about you?!


The Church?

What is the "Church"?  How do we define the Church?  

If you've been around Evangelicalism as long as I have you know the answer:
The Church is the people.
While I understand this statement and the sentiment behind it, I heard something the other day that gave me pause to think.  We usually say "Church is people" in contrast to an understanding that Church might be a building, a denomination, a mission, or a religion.

I'm at the dentist last week, and my hygienist starts talking to me about my work as a youth pastor.  We talk (as well as I could talk in between scraping, polishing, you know the drill!) about her participation and frustration with church over the years.  We talk about the need for positive influences in the lives of youth and the importance of spirituality.  In the course of the conversation, as she alludes to past hurts done by church people she says, 
"I always have to remember the Church isn't the people; it's bigger than that."
Did you catch that?  It caught me off guard.  It actually made sense.  It makes sense.  The Church can't just be the people.  If the Church is "the people," then we've got a mess on our hands, and so long as people continue to be part of the Church, the mess isn't going away!  I think, and I'm still trying to think this all through - constantly working on ecclesiology - that the Church has to be bigger than the people. To be certain, the Church includes the people, but it's got to be bigger.  Right?


Are We Paying Attention?

What follows is an article I wrote for our church newsletter.  The video embedded fits really well.  I believe you'll see the connection after reading the article.  The question is, "Are we paying attention?"

Mark Labberton, Associate Professor of Preaching at Fuller Seminary, asked, “Are you paying attention?”  His message got my attention!  Labberton suggested that the Bible tells a story where:
1)   God pays attention to people, whom he created
2)   God then calls people to pay attention to Him
3)   Finally, God sends people to pay attention to others
In the final January Sunday school class on Evangelism, I shared from Luke 7:36-50.  Jesus is eating at the house of Simon, a Pharisee, when a woman enters who is, we are told, a notorious sinner.  This woman has the audacity to cry on Jesus’ feet, wipe the tears away with her hair, and finally to pour perfume on his feet.  This was too much for Simon.  “If Jesus were a prophet,” Simon thinks, “He would know who is touching him – that she is a sinner.”

After telling a parable about debts being forgiven, Jesus asks Simon, “Do you see this woman?”  It seems like a silly question.  Of course, physically speaking, he has the ability to see the woman.  She is impossible to miss.  Is it possible, then, that Jesus is asking, “Are you paying attention?” 

In our world, we too encounter people everyday at work, school, the grocery store, and even in our own family that we have trouble seeing.  Are we paying attention? 

On my way to Midwinter I read a book by Carl Medearis entitled, Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism.  In the book, Medearis says that sharing faith isn’t about doctrine, dogma, or apologizing for church history; it’s about pointing people to Jesus.  He writes, “Relax. Enjoy your friends. Enjoy their company along with the company of Jesus. Point Him out, freely, without fear or intimidation. You’re not responsible to sell Him to them. You’re simply saying what you’ve seen. You’re not the judge. You’re the witness.”

There is great freedom in this approach.  We are invited to share our stories with others in a way that takes them seriously, takes Jesus seriously, and that shows the world that we are paying attention.  What an enormous privilege! 

In my Midwinter travels, I had an opportunity to do just as Medearis described.  I was waiting for the bus at LAX.  A young woman stood beside me, also waiting.  The bus seemed to be late, so I asked, “Is there any chance you are also waiting for the bus to Santa Barbara?”  She was.  She introduced herself.  She was in Southern California on a business trip from China.  I asked about her work.  She asked what I do for work.  I explained that I am a Pastor in a church.  The bus came.  We got on and she sat in the row across from me.

 About 30 minutes into the ride I heard my name, “Chad,” she said, “Would you mind telling me more about your work?  I am very fascinated by this.”

I realized I had been presented an opportunity to be a witness; to tell what I have seen; it was also my opportunity to pay attention.  As I told her about my role in pointing students to faith in Christ, she asked, “So you are like a life coach?  This is a good thing!”  I was able to use her understanding of life coaching, and my own experience, to say, “Yes, but, in my work I am always pointing kids to Jesus.  I am always asking, “How are your dreams, goals, and hopes for the future influenced by your faith in Jesus Christ?” 

I found that because I was thinking about paying attention, was aware of the presence of another, and was intentional about pointing to Jesus, I was more relaxed and confident that Jesus would do the work of making himself known to this young woman.

I wonder if we paid attention and knew that we aren’t called to be the judge, or the sales rep, but are called to be the witness, how many of us would have more conversations like this?  How have you been paying attention to God?  How have you noticed God paying attention to you?  And, how are you doing at paying attention to others?  Are you willing to share what you’ve seen; to point people to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, who pays attention to humanity?  May it be so with us!

Now check out this little video that shows just how hard it is to truly pay attention.  How'd you do?


Lent - Wondrous Encounters

Reading through Richard Rohr's, Wondrous Encounters, during Lent again this year.  As my wife and I have been reflecting on these short devotionals, I'm always left saying something like, "Wow, that's deep."  Usually, something as simple as the 'starter prayer' he uses at the end grabs me.  I blogged about one of these last year where Rohr invites us to pray, "God give me the desire to desire what you want me to desire."  Yeah, that's the kind of stuff I'm talking about.

Another of these starter prayers caught my attention the other day; it reads,
“God, what is it that you want me to let go of this Lent? Is it other than what I think?”
I have decided to "let go" or "give up" something this Lent.  I'll confess, I haven't always been disciplined about this.  I sort of grew up thinking Lent and all of the giving up of stuff was a Catholic thing.  Seriously.  I remember seeing folks with ashes on their heads and thinking, "Must be Catholic."  It never crossed my mind that this season was an opportunity for all Christians to focus on Jesus' journey to the cross and consider the cross we are to carry as we follow Jesus.

Anyway, I mentioned I've decided to give something up this Lent.  It's something that I thought would be tough to let go of, but I'm finding maybe it's just slightly annoying and not a major sacrifice.  I've given up COFFEE.  I wouldn't say I drink a ton of coffee everyday, but enough to feel the difference when I'm much less caffeinated.  And if I'm being honest, which I like to be, I'm a little more than cynical about the notion that somehow me giving up coffee - this sacrifice I'll make - is on par with Jesus' agonizing, torturous death on the cross.

Back to Rohr's prayer, “God, what is it that you want me to let go of this Lent? Is it other than what I think?”

Here's what I feel happening - why this starter prayer hooked me.  I'm seeing that I like the "idea" of drinking coffee more than I like the coffee itself.  I like the experience and the way it makes me feel.  I like the "idea" of going to Starbucks, knowing that the baristas know my drink before I order, and many even know me by name.  I like the "idea" of grabbing coffee with a student, a volunteer, a friend.  It feels somehow more intimate and genuine than grabbing a soda ever did.  Coffee, I guess I could say, has become some strange identity forming thing for me.  It's not just about the coffee and the impact of the caffeine in said coffee; it's about something bigger!

I've been hoodwinked!  I've been snagged by the idea that grabbing a cup of coffee with a specific label makes me sophisticated, smart, an aficionado of finely brewed caffeinated beverages.  I'm a coffee snob.  I complain when all they have on tap is Pike roast.  Yuck!  The allure of Starbucks.  Driving to church without going to Starbucks.  These are the "ideas" I have to let go of.  I am battling the possibility that I have fallen prey to really good marketing; after all, I am the proud owner of a Starbucks "Gold Card" since 2010!  Can I let go of my image as a coffee snob?  Can I let go of the ideas I have surrounding coffee, and the potentially negative identity forming habits I've developed?  I guess we'll see.  It's day 6 of Lent.  I've a long way to go.  I continue to pray the prayer, "God, what is it that you want me to let go of this Lent?  Is it other than what I think?"  Show me, Lord Jesus, and lead me to the cross.

What about you?  What is it that God is asking you to let go of this Lent, as you journey to the cross?  Is it other that what you think?

(BTW - there are several "Infographs" on the interwebs depicting the "Starbucks Experience."  I'm not making this stuff up, and I'm not crazy!  Yeah!)


Life After Confirmation

Our church has a vibrant, 2-year Confirmation program for 7th and 8th grade students where they study the Old and New Testaments as well as a smattering of church history and basic theology.  It’s become a BIG part of our youth program and an extremely positive experience for the students.  So much so that students have actually cited Confirmation as one of the highlights of their faith journey.  I’m not making this up.

A few weeks ago I was having a great chat with a parent of a 9th grade student about the strength of the Confirmation program, but lack of any follow up course of study.  It got me thinking quite a bit because...he was right!  We are doing a great job bringing up kids in the church, teaching them the Bible, and then right when they get to the age where the faith needs to sink in at a deeper level or their faith may be sunk, we sort of leave them to fend for themselves.

So…With the success of the program, and following this conversation, it’s left me asking the question, “What’s after Confirmation?”  For two years students are showing up every Wednesday night, skipping sports and other commitments, to be a part of a class that studies the Bible.  Yes, our families are actually choosing faith development over sports and other extracurricular activities for their children.  But then, just months after graduating the program, many disappear as they enter high school, never to be seen in Sunday school or youth programs again.  What changes in the lives of these students who are so fired up for God in the spring of 8th grade as they enter high school a few months later?  Or, what is it we’re not offering, or calling them to participate in, that could continue the journey begun in Confirmation?  Is it possible that we lose some students because there is an empty answer to the question, “So I’ve graduated Confirmation, what’s next?”  I think the same can be said in the studies surrounding the large number of our students who leave the church after high school.  “So I’ve graduated from high school, what’s next?”  We need answers to these questions.  Answers that are varied, creative, and that tell the truth of the struggles of owning one’s faith during and beyond adolescence.

What comes after Confirmation?  Is there anyone out there who has implemented a program or post-Confirmation study for their youth?  I’m part of a denomination that elevates Scripture to a high level, and rightly so, but I’m afraid we haven’t done a good enough job in helping our students to have a continued appreciation and ongoing desire to study God’s Word.

So, what’s after Confirmation?  Dream dreams with me.  Think big.  Discipleship?  Mentoring?  Bible study?  Confirmation 2.0?