When Your Kids Ask Tough Questions About God

question-mark-213671_1280While our family ate dinner one evening, a conversation, the kids started talking about the Lego Ninjago television show, which is one of their current favorites. Then, things took an unexpected turn. We started talking about the heroes and villains of Lego Ninjago, which led to a conversation about stories of good versus evil, and how so many of those stories mirror the story of Scripture. Before we knew it, our 9-year-old daughter was asking us some fairly intense theological questions:

“The Bible says God doesn’t do bad things, but if He’s in charge of everything, doesn’t He make bad things happen? Couldn’t He have stopped Adam and Eve from ruining the whole world?” 

All of a sudden, that Taco Cabana turned into the Central Texas Seminary for Little People, and the professors (my wife Shannon and I) felt poorly qualified! Maybe you’ve been in a similar situation. Some children seem to accept everything with simple (“child-like”) faith, while others constantly ask hard questions.

What are we parents to do when our kids start asking extremely difficult questions about the Bible, ones that even grown-ups have a hard time answering well? There are no easy formulas, and every child is different, but here are a few general thoughts that might be helpful to you:

1. Don’t panic. Take a deep breath or two. It’s going to be alright. Your kid isn’t trying to overthrow your authority or call you a liar. He or she is simply asking questions. Anybody who thinks carefully about what they believe is eventually going to ask these questions. So this is good news for you: Your child wants to ask you these questions, because he or she thinks you can help. It’s an opportunity, not a problem.

2. Take their questions seriously. Don’t assume that your child lacks the mental or spiritual ability to talk about the deep things of God. Don’t dismiss their questions as impertinent, silly, or irritating. Avoid saying things like, “You ask too many questions,” or, “You’re too young to talk about Calvinism.” If it’s not a good time to talk, tell your child that their question is going to require some focus and time to answer well, and schedule a future “appointment” to discuss it (sometime soon). Affirm the question, and their desire to learn more about God. For example: “Wow, that’s an important question. I wonder about that sometimes, too. I’m glad you ask questions like this. Let’s talk about it for a few minutes.”

3. Don’t just give them answers; teach them to think for themselves. One good way to accomplish this is to ask them questions in response to their questions. For example, “Why do you think that God told Adam and Eve not to eat from that tree?” “What does the Bible tell us God is like: does He make rules for no reason, or does He have good reasons for what He does?” Wait for them to think about their answers, and don’t be afraid to let your children do a little bit of the work. As a parent, your goal is ultimately to help them to develop their own faith. When they’re very young, you may have to do more of the talking. But as they grow older, give them opportunities to answer their own questions while you guide them. Ideally, they’ll grow up to be dependent upon God, but independent of you.

4. When you do provide answers, get them from the Bible. Resist the temptation to speculate, or to fill in gaps that the Bible leaves open. Tell them what God’s Word says about death and resurrection, or about God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Direct them to important passages and have them read those passages aloud. Make it clear that your ultimate source of information about God is the Word of God.

5. If you don’t know the answer, admit it. Then search for the answers together. The quickest way to ruin your credibility is to pretend you have answers when you don’t. Admit your ignorance, but don’t stop there. Say something like, “Wow, I don’t really have a good answer to that one. Why don’t we try to find the answer together?” Then, make an appointment to talk to your pastor, or find an age-appropriate book on the topic, or just open the Bible and look at it together. Show your children what it looks like to study the Scripture in order to learn about God.

6. Don’t be afraid of the mysteries. There are some questions that we simply cannot answer, no matter how much research we do. Some of God’s mysteries are simply beyond our reach; we won’t be able to understand. Once you’ve really done your best to help your child understand, it’s alright to say, “That’s about as much as we can know right now. One day, God might tell us more, but because He’s so much greater than we are, we can’t understand everything. Sometimes, we just have to trust Him.” I want to be clear, though: Don’t start with the presupposition that everything is a mystery beyond our grasp. The Bible tells us a lot, even though it doesn’t tell us everything. Make an effort to find good answers, and to help your child find good answers. Then, when you’ve reached the end of what you can know, let them know that it’s alright if we don’t know everything. Mysteries are a part of what makes following God adventurous and exciting.

Ultimately, the way you approach your kids’ tough questions is every bit as important as the answers you provide. You have a powerful opportunity to shape the way they think about God, and to provide them with the tools to tackle tough questions, even when you’re not around to answer them.

Question: What other ideas do you have for talking to kids about hard questions? Have you found anything to be particularly helpful? 

United Airlines, Human Dignity, and the Good News

1280px-United_Airlines_Boeing_767-322EREarlier this week, the world reacted with outrage to a viral video of a United Airlines passenger, David Dao, being forcibly removed from his flight, after paying for a ticket and boarding the plane. For many of us, the video confirmed all of our worst suspicions about United. For me, it brought back a scary memory from several years ago, when a United flight attendant charged at me, and threatened my wife and me with forcible removal from the plane. I had inadvertently angered her during the boarding process, by asking her to help me find a place in the overhead compartment for my carry-on bag. So, yes, I’ll admit that my first reaction upon reading this week’s news was, “United has had this coming for a long time.”

Then, predictably, the backlash to the backlash began. People pointed out that the airline has the right to ask you to leave their plane, and if you refuse, they have the right to remove you, or to “re-accommodate” you, in the words of United CEO Oscar Munoz. Airlines are allowed to use force if you resist their authority – in other words, if you refuse to take their money and leave the plane, they have a contractual right to violently re-accommodate you. Yes, in fact, they can legally drag your bloody carcass away if you get too far out line, or if they run out of room. You agreed to all of this, by the way, when you bought your ticket; it’s right there in the fine print you didn’t read. Their plane, their rules. So, my second reaction was, “Yeah, the guy should’ve just obeyed if he wanted to stay injury-free.” (Of course, one could argue that this is similar to saying that you should always obey Vito Corleone’s instructions if you’d rather not find a horse’s head on your pillow, but that’s a whole other discussion).

Most of the online discussion, though, has only danced around the question of why we found all of this so outrageous, without actually answering the question. Let’s be honest: Even people who are defending the airline seem to acknowledge that “mistakes were made,” even if they can’t pinpoint what they are. Everybody recognizes that dragging a bleeding customer through coach is not the best possible conflict resolution strategy. It isn’t exactly “win-win.” Nonetheless, it wasn’t illegal, either.

What is really bothering us about this incident, then? If United was within their rights, then why are we concerned? Well, I think there is a distinctly theological answer to those questions, one that won’t surprise you if you’ve read some of my other posts. 

Major airlines generally have two primary goals that define their effectiveness (and profitability): efficiency and safety. 

The goal of efficiency is, of course, driven by profit. A more efficient airline is a more profitable one, so the goal is to seat the maximum number of passengers possible, at the most optimum price, and move them through the whole process as quickly as possible. Efficiency determines how many seats they cram onto the plane, the price of tickets, the boarding procedures, staff salaries, and many other decisions. For the consumer, of course, efficiency results primarily in timeliness. Everybody wants to get to their destination on time.

However, efficiency has to be balanced by safety, right? You can’t put too many people on the airplane. You cannot allow people to board who might be a threat to the other passengers, nor let people bring dangerous items onto the plane, nor permit people to wander freely through the cabin while the plane is taking off. For the consumer, safety is paramount. Most of us believe that safety is more important than efficiency, right? We want to make sure we arrive in one piece, even more than we want to arrive on time. So if it takes awhile to remove a violent passenger, we’re all for that.

Now, in order to ensure efficiency and safety, airlines make a lot of rules, and they empower their staff to enforce those rules. Again, there are reasons why you can’t bring knives and guns onto airplanes. There are reasons why you have to stay put while the seatbelt light is on. There are even good reasons why, when asked to leave a plane, you have to leave. The crew is responsible for everybody’s safety, and they want everybody to get to their destinations on time. So they make rules to make sure those good things happen.

However, efficiency and safety are good goals, and necessary goals, but they are insufficient by themselves. The problem is that humans also want the airline to have a third major goal: Dignity. We want to be treated with dignity. What we saw on the video of United 3411 was a clash between the human goal to be treated with dignity, and the corporate goals of efficiency and safety. The corporate goal of efficiency sometimes means that our individual dignity is forgotten – we only have value in the aggregate. In other words, one person doesn’t really matter, as long as there are hundreds of other people on the plane who have paid their fares. In addition, the goal of safety often means that fear colors many corporate decisions; airlines treat people roughly, because they feel that anybody could be a threat. Any sass, any talking back, any minor violation of the rules, and you’re treated with deep suspicion, or outright hostility.

So people were angry at Mr. Dao’s treatment, even though the fine print on his ticket says that the airline has the right to treat him that way. Yes, we say, he shouldn’t have disobeyed orders, but didn’t the airline put him in this situation to begin with? Something seems cruel about taking a man’s money, letting him get on an airplane, only to drag him away after he refused to take your financial incentive to leave. While the corporation is allowed to do this, most people wonder if they should be allowed to do it. United has the legal and contractual right to strip us of our dignity, but that doesn’t mean people think that’s acceptable.

As I’ve said before, only human beings have this need to be treated with honor and dignity. If the plane was filled with sheep and cattle, it still wouldn’t be appropriate to drag them along the floor or beat them with sticks, of course; but nobody would really object if you put a cow on a plane and then had to remove him due to space concerns. Nobody would really mind, in fact, if you put a leash on the cow and physically pulled the animal from the aircraft, as long as you didn’t hurt it. Human beings won’t stand for that type of treatment, though. It’s beneath our dignity.

Most of us, especially since 9/11, have found ourselves feeling like we are little better than cows and sheep when we travel by air. Most of us have not been beaten up or dragged around, but we have been yelled at, rushed (and then told we’d have to wait anyway), shoved, stuck on the tarmac, told we were not allowed to relieve our bladders for hours at a time, and even verbally threatened. Passengers are not treated as individuals with dignity; we are treated as groups of potentially inefficient and dangerous revenue sources. So the video we saw this week made us think, “Sure, that exact thing hasn’t happened to me, but it could, and I have been treated as less than human at times, as well.”

This need to be treated with dignity stems from our awareness, however hidden and unrealized, that we are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). God made us for glory and honor (Psalm 8:5-8). We believe we have an inherent worth and dignity, and that others ought to respect that. That belief comes from God Himself. The video we saw outraged us, because it was outrageous: People should not be treated like cows and sheep. The outrage began before the video was rolling, with a series of minor indignities, that culminated in a major one. That, I think, is why we felt the way we did; the video reflected a broader pattern that we have already observed. When people are consistently treated as less than human, there will eventually be a tipping point, even if the facts connected to that tipping point raise questions. Our society will insist that God’s image is honored, even if we don’t recognize what we’re insisting upon.

The bad news here is that large corporate airlines will, most likely, continue to operate by the principles of profit: efficiency and safety at all costs. I would not expect anything more than small changes in the way United does business, and maybe temporary ones at that.

The good news, though, is that God does not see us like corporations do. God doesn’t see us as masses to be managed; he sees us as children, whom He loves. God doesn’t see us as threats to be neutralized; He sees us as sinners who need to redeemed. As a result, He acts toward us with compassion, grace, and dignity, at all times. And we are not paying customers in God’s kingdom, either; we are recipients of His grace, provided through Christ’s death and resurrection. We’re all free riders, but He crowns us with glory and honor anyway.

Good news, indeed.

We Are All Wrong: On Jesus and Political Disagreements

15845969_mThe 2016 election is over. Regardless of how you voted, or how you felt about the candidates, I think we all agree that it was an unusually ugly year in the world of politics. Two deeply unpopular presidential candidates managed to wreak havoc on friendships, and even on families.

Perhaps more troubling to me was the discord that this election created among Christians. Between May and November, I lost count of the Facebook posts I saw that questioned the salvation – or at least the spiritual maturity – of Christians who planned to vote differently. The most startling manifestations of this division actually came from some prominent evangelical pastors, one of whom called those who disagreed with his political position “fools,” “hypocrites,” and “namby-pamby, pantywaisted, weak-kneed Christians.” I found myself wondering if he’d ever actually read Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:22.

I bring all of this up not merely to revisit the pain of the past year, but instead to ask, “Where do we go from here?” Is there a better way for American Christians to think about the relationship between politics and faith? Is it even possible to disagree without resorting to the type of vicious tribalism that elevates our political identities above our Christian identification?

I think there is a better way forward, and - as usual – we can find the way forward in the Scripture. We don’t need to look any further than the relationships between Jesus and His early disciples. 

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all contain lists of Christ’s original twelve disciples. Most of the time we skim over the lists, or we focus on the names we know the best – Peter, James, John, and the betrayer, Judas Iscariot. But Luke 6:12 tells us that Jesus prayed all night long before choosing the twelve disciples, so He must have chosen each one quite intentionally. In other words, none of them were there by accident.

Yet at first glance, this group looks like it was assembled by a crazy person.

First, let’s consider Matthew the tax collector. Matthew was basically a Roman government employee, who had paid for the privilege of assessing and collecting taxes on purchased goods. Most tax collectors dishonestly inflated their commissions by over-assessing the value of goods, or by taxing for the same item over and over again. Most Jews hated tax collectors, as you probably know. Tax-collecting Jews like Matthew were considered traitors, on the same moral level as brothel owners and thieves.

Second, you have “Simon the Zealot” in the mix. There’s some debate whether Simon belonged to the formal political party called “the Zealots” or whether he was just a rabid Jewish nationalist. Either way, it’s quite likely that Simon hated the Roman government. It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that he might have been in favor of violent revolution. Matthew the Tax Collector’s very presence would have been a personal affront to a guy like Simon the Zealot (and vice versa).

Third, you have fishermen, like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, who were working-class individuals trying to make a living. They would have been less than sympathetic to tax collectors like Matthew, while probably having little time or patience for the political pot-stirring of a zealot like Simon.

Finally, you have the scheming Judas, the doubting Thomas, along with some others we know little about.

Jesus puts them all together in one big happy family (ha!) and says, “Follow me.” It doesn’t really seem like a great plan, if we’re honest. Imagine putting your most left-leaning relative, the one who voted enthusiastically for Bernie Sanders, on a committee with the most rabidly conservative Trump supporter in your family. Then toss in your cousin who works in an auto shop and has no interest in politics, along with your rich uncle who’s only interested in politics for how it will affect his portfolio. What would you expect such a group to accomplish? The answer, of course, is nothing. For that matter, it’s questionable whether they’d all be alive after a week together in close proximity.

So why does Jesus do it? What’s He trying to prove? 

He’s trying to demonstrate, at least in part, that their political allegiances have to give way to Christ-allegiance. Matthew liked the Romans being in charge, Simon wanted the Jews to be in charge, and Peter just wanted Peter to be in charge.

Jesus tells them that He will be in charge. Jesus makes a powerful point by putting all of these men together in one group and saying, “Follow me.”

The point is this: Your ways are all wrong, and My way is right. 

Yes, some ways are more wrong than others, but that’s not really the point. Jesus isn’t grading their alternate paths on a bell curve. Instead, Jesus spends the next few years offending the sensibilities of all of these men. One minute He would side with one group’s interpretation of Scripture, only to side with a different group the next time. The Jewish nationalists are frustrated that He won’t support their violent rebellion against Rome, the religious leaders are angry that He won’t submit to their interpretations of Scripture, and those who support Caesar suspect that Jesus is being subversive (although they can’t quite figure out what He’s up to). Jesus simply refused to fit into any of their systems.

In the final analysis, Jesus makes sure His disciples understand that His way is the only way. He won’t share their allegiance with some other leader or a political party. And what’s remarkable is that His early followers got the message loud and clear. Their close association with Jesus made their political affiliations seem virtually meaningless. All of them (except Judas the traitor) spent the rest of their lives proclaiming the King and His kingdom. Their political perspectives are so insignificant that they aren’t really mentioned again after Jesus assembles them together.

Think about that for a moment: The types of things we just spent a year arguing about vociferously – how the government should operate, who should be in charge, how we should be taxed – play virtually no role in the life of the early church. Over time, the first disciples joined with others from even more disparate groups, like the Pharisees and even Gentiles. But they all proclaimed and followed Jesus.

Jesus’ message was simple but powerful: I am the way, the truth and the life. My way is the only way.

All their political and spiritual allegiances had to give way to Christ-allegiance. I’m sure Simon still had opinions about how evil the Romans were (and he wasn’t completely wrong), and Matthew may have privately thought they weren’t all that bad (and he wasn’t totally wrong, even if he was a bit more wrong than Simon). But those views never split the disciples into factions. That’s quite remarkable, if you ask me.

What does this mean for us, as American Christians in 2016? It doesn’t mean that the issues are unimportant, or that every perspective is equally valid. But the relationship between Jesus and the disciples does mean that every single political and spiritual perspective must give way to Jesus’ perspective.

Our primary loyalty is not to our political tribe. All of our tribes are wrong in various ways. They may not be equally wrong, but again, Jesus isn’t grading our alternate allegiances on a bell curve. We are all wrong in various ways. Jesus won’t fit Himself into our systems, because His Way is the only one that’s right. We line up behind Jesus and let the chips fall where they may.

That means that we must never, never, never insist that somebody has to join our political tribe in order to be a disciple of Jesus. And we do not call other Christians “fools” and “hypocrites” for failing to check our political boxes. We might call them wrong, but only if we’re willing to admit the ways in which we are wrong, as well. Wrong in different ways, maybe even in fewer ways, but wrong nonetheless.

Here’s a basic principle: If you are convinced that your political tribe is always right, while other the opposing tribe is always wrong, you are quite likely a disciple of your tribe more than you are a disciple of Jesus. If you are willing to destroy relationships within the body of Christ or within your family because of somebody’s political affiliation, you are quite likely a disciple of your tribe more than you are a disciple of Jesus. 

Again, I want to be clear: I’m not saying that all political differences are totally meaningless, especially where those political differences affect clear moral issues (like life, justice, or sexuality). I am saying that even in our disagreements, we seek to line up behind Jesus rather than behind our tribal leaders. If another tribe is wrong, they’re only wrong to the extent that they deviate from the way of Jesus, and not to the extent that they deviate from the beliefs of my tribe.

The beauty of the early church was that such disparate men and women came together under the banner of Jesus, willing to set aside their tribal allegiances to follow Him. They adjusted the way they saw the world to fit the way Jesus saw it, even when it was hard to do. Even when it hurt their pride or hurt their tribe’s standing in the world.

The question for today’s American evangelical church is whether we have the faith and moral courage to do the same. 

(Image copyright: lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo)

The True Moral Fallacy of #justiceforHarambe

western_lowland_gorilla3 (1)The death of Harambe the gorilla has taken the Internet by storm. If you somehow missed the story, you can find a summary of it here.

It should come as no surprise that animal activists are outraged by Harambe’s death. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed a petition calling for “justice for Harambe,” insisting that the boy’s parents should be held accountable.

The “justice for Harambe” movement is predicated on the concept that all life – human and animal – is of equivalent value.

Most of us, of course, don’t agree. We object to the concept of human/animal equality in a sort of visceral way, without being able to clearly articulate why it’s wrong. “Of course people are worth more than animals,” we say. “It’s just obvious.” Or this: “If it were your child in that enclosure, you’d certainly feel that his life was worth more than the gorilla’s life.”

Many Christians take their reasoning one step further, correctly noting that humans are made in the image of God, while gorillas are not. But few of us can articulate what it means to be made in the “image of God.” As a result, we struggle to explain specifically what is wrong with the “animals are equal to people” arguments making the rounds at the moment.

Upon close inspection, though, the argument that Harambe deserves justice collapses in on itself. In other words, if humans and animals are truly of equal value, then nobody would be insisting on justice for Harambe at all! 

What do I mean by that?

Let’s imagine for a moment that Harambe had, in fact, killed the child. Animal activists, of course, would be insisting that the gorilla was justified. After all, the boy invaded his home! When their environments are invaded, gorillas feel threatened and they rip people to bits. That’s just what they do. There would be no “justice for the boy” movement. Nobody would ask Harambe to go to jail, or pay a fine, or make restitution in any way. After all, he’s a gorilla. The boy and his parents should’ve known better.

But wait a second. Isn’t this a double standard? Why are humans held accountable for killing gorillas, but gorillas are not held accountable for killing humans?

Here’s why: Because we all recognize that humans and gorillas are not, in fact, morally equivalent. We don’t hold gorillas morally accountable for their actions. If they pose a threat to a human being, we restrain them or even kill them, but that’s not a punitive measure. It is a practical measure. The zoo employees who shot Harambe were not trying to punish him or to set an example for all the other gorillas. They were just trying to protect a child’s life.

This is why the concept of “justice for Harambe” contains a deep moral and logical fallacy. The entire movement is built on the premise that people are morally superior to gorillas. Those asking for justice for Harambe recognize that people should be held accountable for moral decisions, but gorillas should not. Gorillas do not have the ability to think morally, even if they have the ability to think rationally.

Let’s imagine another scenario for a moment: Think of the biggest, strongest man you can imagine. Maybe The Rock or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now imagine that the man’s home is invaded by an unarmed 4-year-old child. Would that man be justified in ripping the child to pieces with his bare hands? No? But why not? After all, the child has invaded his home! The man is big and strong and angry and startled – shouldn’t he be able to kill the intruder? Of course not. He would go to jail for that crime. He might even face execution.

We hold the man accountable because we understand that he has the capacity to act morally. He is not driven solely by instinct. He must not allow his size and strength to dictate his actions. We expect more of the man than we do of the gorilla. That is because there is more to the man than there is to the gorilla.

Here’s where we come back to the concept of the image of God. To be made in the image of God is – at least in part – to be capable of reflecting God’s moral character. Because we are made in the image of God, we are called to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:14-16). Humans are superior to animals because we are made in God’s image, and God’s image includes the capacity to make moral choices.

Because Adam and Eve were made in God’s image, He punished them when they disobeyed Him in the Garden of Eden. They didn’t disobey God because they were stupid; they disobeyed Him because they were rebellious and evil. We might call a gorilla dangerous and stupid, or gentle and playful or any number of other things, but we never call it evil. We do not attribute good and evil to animals, because we recognize that they are not morally responsible. Even animal activists recognize that, although they do so unconsciously.

Hence the irony of insisting on justice for Harambe, when we would not ask the same if the gorilla had committed the same offense. People can be evil. We all agree on that. Gorillas, on the other hand, can only act according to the nature of gorillas. They act on instinct. And if that is true, then people are superior. Their lives are more valuable than those of gorillas.

It’s not that gorillas have no value at all. It’s just that their value is less than that of a human being. From a Christian perspective, we recognize that being made in the image of God confers upon us a great deal of value, but also a great deal of responsibility.

While the death of a beautiful gorilla is sad, the waste of a human life is even sadder. While the life of a gorilla might bring us joy for a few years, the life of a human being can last forever.

While we strive to be kind to all of God’s creatures, let’s never forget the eternal nature and immeasurable value of humanity, created in God’s image and redeemed by God’s son.

 

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Election Season is a Big, Ugly Selfie

1429012887-monalisaducklipsMy seventh grade school picture was horrifying. My hair was a wavy rat’s nest, my braces cast a blinding glare, and my face was oily and reflective.

The photo was so terrible, in fact, that I insisted on a retake. I told the photographer, “I want a new picture.” He looked at the original picture, then he looked at me, and then back at the photo. “What’s wrong with the first one? That’s what you look like,” he replied, in a stunning display of poor diplomacy. “It doesn’t look like me at all,” I said.

At that point, the photographer winked at his assistant and replied, “Sure, son. We’ll take a new picture.” So he did.

Guess what? The new picture looked exactly like the first one. It turns out that I really looked like that. The problem wasn’t the camera, and it wasn’t the incompetent photographer. The problem was that I looked like a seventh-grader. There was no magical camera angle or lighting combination that could fix my problem.

That photo was an accurate, although unpleasant, reflection of reality. It was simply what I looked like.

Many of us find this year’s presidential race to be as horrifying as that photo. “How are these our choices?” we lament. “Where did these candidates come from? Can we ask for a redo?” We watch in dismay as the political rhetoric of our nation degenerates into name-calling, threats of violence, overt racism, greed, and fear-mongering. Candidates who once seemed extreme now seem downright statesmanlike. How did this happen?

Here’s the bad news: Election season is a giant national selfie. It is an aggregate picture of our nation’s values. This year’s election season has been a particularly ugly selfie. It’s the sort of selfie you never wanted to post on Instagram, but you accidentally shared it anyway. And now it’s everywhere, and all your friends know about it, and you cannot escape it. “Do I really look like that!?” you ask. Yes. You really look like that.

Before we rail against “those people” who support whichever candidate most horrifies us, we should take a long look in the mirror.

Whenever I find myself lamenting that the debates this year are more like a terrible reality television show, I have to remember that I used to watch Celebrity Apprentice, and I found it pretty entertaining. In small measure, I created the values that created this election cycle. I actually helped arrange our national hairdo for this terrible selfie.

Whenever I’m dismayed by this year’s politics of greed and covetousness, I have to remind myself how often I’ve coveted my neighbor’s house or car or vacation destination.

Whenever I start to despise the xenophobia that has become a defining factor in this year’s election cycle, I need to remember the times I’ve turned away from people who aren’t like me, people in need, simply because they made me nervous.

Whenever it bothers me that Christian voters support a wide variety of non-Christian policies – on both sides of the aisle – I have to ask how faithfully I’ve been involved in the task of discipleship. Am I teaching and modeling the values of God’s Word for the next generation? If not, is it any surprise that most evangelicals hold heretical theological beliefs and support unbiblical political positions?

The values of our candidates reflect the values of the nation’s electorate, and that includes Christian voters as well. We know Jesus, but we aren’t immune from cultural assimilation.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of this ugly election selfie is that it highlights how poorly we love our own neighbors. The most common remark I’ve seen on social media during this election cycle goes something like this: “Who are these people who support X candidate? I don’t know anybody who supports that guy, yet millions of people are voting for him!”

That statement is a testimony to our failure to know and love those around us.

How have we so efficiently isolated ourselves from anybody who disagrees with us that we can’t even fathom that such people exist? In our minds, people who hold opposing political views are barely rational. They exist on the level of animals who cannot possibly be reasonable human beings. In a supreme act of dehumanization, we literally question their existence. After all, nobody could be so subhuman as to support that person. They must not be real.

And we wonder why this election is so divisive. We wonder why we can no longer have reasonable discussions about politics. Why do political rallies turn into fistfights? Why are people incapable of listening to opposing viewpoints without throwing punches or disengaging altogether?

It’s because we have failed at the most basic of Christian responsibilities. We have failed to love God, and we have failed to love our neighbors. As a result, we find ourselves with leaders who reflect those same failings. 

What’s worse, we don’t even recognize ourselves when we look at the picture. “That doesn’t look like me,” we protest. “Take a different photo.” Ah, but it does look like us. We just don’t like the way we look.

Election season this year is a living embodiment of the worst impulses and sins of our nation. We see the values of our country displayed in bright and living color, and we cringe. On some level we know that’s our own image staring back at us, and we really hate seeing it.

So what can we do?

I suppose we can slowly work on the problems that made this selfie so ugly in the first place. We can pray. We can try to learn and model the values of God’s Word. We can listen to people. We can love our neighbors and try to understand them. We can get out of our homes and off of our phones and actually talk to people about why they disagree with us. We can share the good news of the gospel with a desperate and lost world. We can invest in the next generation, teaching them how to know and reflect Jesus Christ.

And, of course, we can pray. We can pray for wisdom and we can pray for spiritual transformation. We can pray for leaders who reflect the best aspects of our cultural values, rather than the worst.

Who knows? Maybe the next national selfie will look at least marginally better.

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The Words A Father Needs to Hear

best-friends-1241017“You’re a good dad,” she told me. “Like, a really good dad.”

It was the end of a long day, just like every day in the life of a busy family with three elementary school kids. We had finally completed the hour-long process of making sure the kids had all taken baths, prepared their backpacks for school, completed their chores, and brushed their teeth. Like most nights, I had a couple of rough moments, in which the going-to-bed chaos exposed a few of my more unpleasant personality traits. I was tired, and so were they.

Miraculously, though, I had time to read to each of the kids before bedtime. Halfway through the funny story I was reading to my 8-year-old daughter, she and my son both began to giggle. Then I started to giggle, and our reading time spiraled a little bit out of control. We were laughing so hard that we ran out of time to finish the story.

I tucked them into bed and walked into the living room, grateful for some time to rest. That was when my wife said those words:

“You’re a good dad. Like, a really good dad.”

I’m not sharing her words because I think I’m an amazing father. I’m sharing her words because I needed to hear them, and I suspect there’s a dad in your life who needs to hear them as well. It may be your own father, or your husband, or just a friend of yours. Like me, he needs those words, because most of us harbor a quiet fear that we’re not really good dads.

We hear all the time how important it is for children to have “good fathers,” but rarely do we hear what it means to be a good father. We see the articles and the statistics implying that the very future of Western civilization hinges on our ability to be good fathers, and we silently think, “If that is true, then the world is doomed.”

What does it even mean to be a good father? We know how to measure success on the baseball field and in the boardroom, where the rules are fairly well-defined.

But fatherhood? Where do you begin? Just for starters, how do you figure out when and how to discipline your children? How do you know if your kids are old enough to talk about sex, drugs, or popularity? How can you be certain you’re spending enough time with them? Or if you’re smothering them? Are there things they need to know that you aren’t teaching them?  How much of what they do reflects on your parenting, and how much of it reflects their own personal choices? Will they copy your bad habits, your bad attitudes, your bad choices? What about your good ones?

There are thousands of books about fatherhood, written by studied experts with doctorates and their own research teams, but they’ve barely scratched the surface.

Imagine trying to construct a scale model of the Eiffel Tower from a block of pine, in the dark, with only your bare hands and a butter knife. That’s what fatherhood feels like most days. It’s hard to define success, and you often feel ill-equipped for the few parts of it that you do understand.

So you can imagine why an encouraging word at the right moment means so much. You can imagine why those simple words, “You’re a good dad,” made a deep impact on my heart.

And I wonder if the fathers in your life hear words of encouragement often enough? We all know, of course, that only one Father is perfect. Your husband, your father, your friends – they are all flawed.

But if those men in your life are trying to be good fathers, tell them you notice. Remind them that being a good father consists of being faithful in the middle of thousands of little moments, mostly witnessed by only a few little people.

Moments like helping your daughter with her math homework and resisting the urge to yell. Like explaining to your son why, if he really must pee when he’s playing outside, the backyard is preferable to the front yard. Like laughing at a bedtime story when you have a thousand other worries and you just want to sit down for awhile.

Tell the fathers in your life that those moments matter, and you’re really glad they’re showing up for them.

Your words of encouragement may seem small, but I guarantee they’ll make a difference. 

There are no perfect fathers, but I’ll bet you know one or two good ones, men who are trying their best to know and reflect their heavenly Father as they raise children. Take a moment today or tomorrow, look one of them in the eye, and say, “You’re a good dad. Keep it up. Do not grow weary in doing good.”

I guarantee he will hear you, because those are words he needs to hear.

Three Reasons Jesus is Better Than Santa

santa-claus-1443403This is a guest post by Brian Fisher, senior pastor of Grace Bible Church.

I like Santa. That is, I enjoy the idea of a guy from the North Pole riding a sleigh pulled through the air by reindeer, dropping off presents around the world in a single evening. That’s kind of fun to think about. But the reality is that Jesus is far, far greater, and it would be tragic if we were to lose sight of Jesus in all of the wrapping paper on Christmas morning. So here are three reasons that Jesus is better than Santa.

1. Santa drops into your house, through the chimney, only once a year. He comes at night so that you never actually get the chance to lay eyes on him or speak with him. He eats your cookies, and drinks your milk, and most years leaves you with stuff that you don’t really want. On the other hand, Jesus comes into your life, and He never leaves. He is always present, eager to be with you, when you are happy, or sad, or holy, or even sinful. What a friend we have in Jesus!

2. All the stuff that Santa drops off only lasts for a short period of time. The fruitcake rots (in 10-15 years); the clothes go out of style, shrink, fade and grow threadbare; and worst of all, the toys break. All that Jesus gives is eternal. He gives the only gift we really want or need, and it is a gift that just keeps giving, and giving, and giving – the gift of eternal life!

3. All of the stuff that Santa drops off is given based on a condition – “he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” How do you know, from year to year, if you have been good enough? Only the coal in your stocking at the end of the year reveals the truth that you just didn’t measure up. But the permanent presence and gift of eternal life given by Jesus is free – absolutely free. You’ve never measured up to deserve such generosity, but Jesus loves to give to the undeserving. That’s just who He is. He certainly is far, far greater than the bearded man in red velvet suit!

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The Word of God is a Dangerous Thing

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ReDiscovered Word

(Hebrews 4:12)

The Word of God is a dangerous thing. 

You and I open it up, hoping to understand God, or maybe to find a little bit of inspiration to make it through another day.

When we open those pages, though, something else happens.

God’s Word opens us instead.

Living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, the Scripture cuts us to the core. The cuts are deep and painful, but redemptive at the same time.

Read it often enough, and we discover something unsettling: we cannot predict or control what God will say to us. And the changes He makes will be deep and painful. But they will also be right.

Our values will be turned upside down. Our self-righteousness will be shattered. Our plans for the future will change.

When we approach God’s Word with open ears and submissive hearts, we will be changed. 

Perhaps that is why so many keep His Word at arm’s length. It’s safer when it’s consumed in small doses at manageable times. It’s less frightening when we simply use it to satisfy our curiosity, or to justify our preconceptions. If we don’t get too close, it won’t open us up.

And that’s a safer approach. But it’s not a better approach.

It’s tragic, in fact, to have access to the very Word of God and yet to never allow it to do its work. Because when we let it transform us, we find something deeply satisfying: His way is better than ours.

Our old values need to be discarded. Our self-righteousness needs to be shattered. Our plans need to change.

His ways are infinitely better, but we resist them anyway. Still, his Word waits for us. Living and active, perfectly good, and powerful enough to change us.

If only we will let it. The process is painful, but the outcome is always good.

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5 Recent Christian Albums Worth Hearing

Writing a blog post about one’s favorite recent Christian albums feels a little bit like writing about the best brands of VCRs for 2015. I’m aware that most people nowadays simply stream their music from Pandora, Amazon, Spotify, or some other service. It is increasingly rare to purchase an album from your favorite artist – or some newly discovered one – and savor it fully.

However, I was one of those kids who used to buy new cassettes, and later CDs, and play them on repeat until I got bored of them or had to replace them. I would grab the liner notes (another sad casualty of our digital age) and eagerly read them while I listened to the songs.

Like many people, my enthusiasm for discovering new music took a hiatus while my children were small, mostly because there was precious little time or quiet space to actually listen to music. I’ve always been a fan of artists whose lyrics are more contemplative and thought-provoking – Rich Mullins is my all-time favorite artist – so identifying music I love requires more concentration and space than I had when there were babies and toddlers at home.

This year, though, I have found or rediscovered a number of artists whose recent albums have deeply impacted me. Here are five new-ish Christian albums that I recommend: 

Burning_EdgeAndrew Peterson, The Burning Edge of Dawn

This is hands-down my favorite album of 2015. From the first song to the last, Peterson weaves a story of loss and redemption, pain and healing, and death and resurrection. I’ve listened to it on repeat for several weeks now, and continue to find it deeply moving. Songs like “We Will Survive,” “The Rain Keeps Falling,” and “My One Safe Place” speak poignantly of the joy and sorrow that often permeate one’s middle years of life. Like an Old Testament prophet, Peterson always manages to shine a beacon of hope through the middle of life’s darkness. The title song, “The Dark Before the Dawn,” fits perfectly with “The Sower’s Song,” which concludes the record. Both speak of the power of God to bring life from death, and both are beautiful descriptions of Christ’s return and coming kingdom. This album is highly recommended.

Garrels_homeJosh Garrels, Home

I’ll admit that, for me at least, Garrels was an acquired taste. His vocal stylings sometimes make his lyrics difficult to understand unless you listen very carefully. But it’s worth the work. Garrels uses imagery throughout this album that is tied closely to the story of the prodigal son, one of my favorite biblical parables about grace. Even the title of the album reflects the theme. My favorite track is “At the Table,” a heart-breaking tune about the return of the prodigal: “Come on home, home to Me, and I will hold you in My arms, and joyful be; There will always, always be a place for you at My table, return to Me.”

needtobreatheNeedtoBreathe, Rivers in the Wasteland

If you listen to Christian radio, you’ve heard NeedtoBreathe. Their upbeat style of Southern rock is fun to listen to, even when you can’t understand what they’re singing about. That said, it’s worth taking the time to hear the lyrics, as well, because they are thought-provoking and well-crafted. These songs are about finding purpose and real community in a world that sometimes feels meaningless and isolated. Not to mention that “Brother,” probably the biggest radio hit on the album, is my kids’ favorite tune right now. If you want to get your family dancing in the kitchen, give this one a try.

unfettered_ross_kingRoss King, Unfettered

In the spirit of full disclosure, I know Ross, since he has led worship at my church periodically for the past couple of decades. He’s a rare songwriter, one who seems able to move with skill between writing worship albums and singer-songwriter projects like this one. His most recent album is his best to date. My favorite song is “What Kind of Person,” in which he identifies with the sins of various biblical characters and then ponders why Jesus died and rose again “to save the kind of person that I have always been.” Ross centers on the person and character of Jesus, along with the hope that knowing Him brings in the midst of loss and trial.

sara_grovesSara Groves, Floodplain

Like Josh Garrels, Groves has been an acquired taste for me, and I don’t think I really “got it” until this brand new release. Her themes revolve around the concept that sometimes the line between pain and hope is fairly thin. “Some hearts are built on the floodplain,” she says, meaning that some people see the waters of doubt and fear rise regularly, but that they can also see the Lord plant hope and character and love in the midst of those struggles. I admit that I’ve only listened to this one through twice so far, but it’s already a new favorite. Perhaps the most poignant track is “My Dream,” in which she relates her grandfather’s story of falling asleep each night for years to the image of Jesus standing in his driveway, welcoming him home, not angry but running to greet him in the midst of his doubt and fear. Be prepared to cry if you buy this one.

There you are! Five albums I hope you’ll enjoy. Happy listening! Also, are there others you’d recommend? Feel free to include them in the comments below. 

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The Biblical Command We Ignore

Philippians_BibleConsider this question for a moment:

What biblical command is so difficult that we don’t merely disobey it, but we also routinely ignore it? 

It’s probably not what you think.

After all, we Christians try to steer clear of sins like sexual lust, gluttony, and drunkenness. When we fail in those areas, we usually acknowledge our sins and ask God for the strength to do better.

Most of us try to avoid dishonesty, gossip, and outbursts of anger. We understand how damaging those sins can be, so we try to avoid them also.

But there’s one biblical command that is so tough that we regularly ignore it, and we sometimes even question whether it’s possible to obey at all. Yet every time we disobey it, we’re committing a sin just as real and damaging as the ones I’ve listed above.

What’s the command I’m talking about?

Rejoice. 

Take a moment to read the verses below:

“Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, oh righteous! And shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” – Psalm 32:11

“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” – Psalm 118:24

“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say, ‘Rejoice!’” – Philippians 4:4

“Rejoice always.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:16

Those are just a sampling of the many, many verses in the Bible that call us to rejoice. Not just to rejoice sometimes, but to rejoice always.

It’s a direct command from Scripture. It sounds like a fun command, actually. Maybe that’s why we tend to view it as a suggestion rather than as a command. After all, who doesn’t want to rejoice? Nobody would choose to lack joy, right? And if we don’t feel like rejoicing, it must mean we have some good reason to be grumpy or whiny, right?

Actually, wrong. The command specifically tells us to rejoice always. Even when we think we don’t have a good reason to rejoice.

“But how?” you ask. “How can I rejoice when I have so many good reasons not to?”

That’s a real quandary. There’s no way to side-step the reality that life can be quite hard. Our relationships don’t meet our expectations, our bodies don’t work like we want them to, our jobs disappoint us, and so on.

Joy seems like a luxury reserved for those who have easy lives. Something for people who don’t have real problems to worry about, people whose lives are all sunshine and roses.

It would be easy to convince ourselves of that, if only it wasn’t the apostle Paul who told us to rejoice. Paul, the guy who was beaten, shipwrecked, ostracized, starved half to death, and imprisoned for sharing the gospel.

How did he do it? How could he possibly rejoice in the midst of all of that? And how can we, even in the midst of all of our problems?

The secret is found in the little phrase that Paul attached to the word “rejoice” in Philippians 3:1 and 4:4.

“Rejoice in the Lord,” Paul wrote. 

Rejoice that God is good. Rejoice because Jesus is alive. Rejoice in the truth that He loves you. Rejoice that you know Him. Rejoice in the fact that He’s coming again to undo sin and death forever.

Even in the middle of your worst day, you can rejoice. There is always, always, always, a reason to rejoice. That’s why Paul says to rejoice always.

Joy is not the same as pretending your problems don’t exist. “Rejoice” is not code for, “Suck it up and paste a smile on that face.” Biblical joy acknowledges the pain of living in a fallen world, but then looks beyond that pain to the hope found in Jesus.

For too many of us, we read the command to rejoice and simply ignore it or disobey it because we find it unrealistic. Maybe we even find it offensive.

“I’m just complaining about my kids because parenting is hard. Don’t tell me I need to rejoice.”

“My job is terrible. My spouse is a jerk. My air conditioner is broken. My cat hates me. How dare you tell me to rejoice?”

But we miss the point when we respond that way. Paul tells us to rejoice precisely because our lives are hard. He tells us to rejoice as a way of reminding us that nothing is more powerful that God. When we rejoice in the Lord, we learn to trust Him. We deepen our faith in His promises and our appreciation for His character. And we encourage others to do the same.

Yes, it’s hard to do. Yes, we don’t always feel like it.

And yes, that’s why we really need to obey anyway. The God who raised Jesus from the dead can gives us the power to do the impossible.

Rejoice. In the Lord. Always.

Shall I say it again?

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