Miley Cyrus Isn’t Real

I know I’m extremely late to the Miley Cyrus blogger party, so you might not care anymore. But my blog was down last week, and I felt I had to write this post. In the midst of all the concern and anger about Miley’s infamous performance last week, I think we’ve failed to notice one key concept:

Miley Cyrus is no more real than Hannah Montana. Yes, there is a real person named Miley Cyrus. But you and I know virtually nothing about that Miley Cyrus. What we know and see is a facade, a carefully constructed public persona. That may seem obvious to you, but bear with me: this has some serious theological and spiritual ramifications. 

Hannah Montana was always built on the idea of a double life. By day, she was just Miley, a normal kid with normal friends. By night, a major pop star with legions of fans. The whole concept of Hannah Montana was that one’s public persona can be radically different from the private reality. 

What most of us missed was that Miley Cyrus herself was simply an image. Even the off-screen moments we saw were designed to fit the image that Disney and Miley wanted us to see. None of us had any idea what Miley was like in private. We still don’t, for that matter. The Miley that the world saw a week ago, “twerking” and gyrating, might bear absolutely no resemblance to the Miley known by her parents and closest friends. For all we know, she’s shy and demure and even chaste in private. From the perspective of the entertainment industry, none of that matters as much as what she presents to the world.

In other words, the “new” Miley is no more real than the “old” Miley. The public Miley is as real as the perfect family portrait you took last Christmas. Everything is planned, posed, and carefully executed. The old Miley was designed to appeal to the longing that we parents have for our kids to have positive and sweet role models. The new Miley is designed to appeal to a whole different crowd. She’s designed to appeal to the millions of young women who find themselves wanting to break free of their parents’ values and morals. The shock and outrage that we parents felt last week was the whole point of the performance, in other words. Parents, Miley wasn’t doing her act for the likes of you and me.

All of this leads me to my main point: We live in a world obsessed with one’s public image, often to the neglect of one’s private integrity. As long as Miley’s public image was wholesome, we were fine with her, even though not one of us knew what she was truly like off-stage. Once that public image became offensive, we turned on her in a major way. What’s ironic is that the Hannah Montana image itself suggested that it was all an illusion. It celebrated the type of prevarication that ultimately creates a huge disconnect between one’s character and image. To top it off, Miley and Disney actually told us that from the beginning. They were tongue-in-cheek and subtle about it, but they told us nonetheless. So the deeper problem is really that we want the image to be well-scrubbed, even if we have no idea about the reality behind the image.

This isn’t just about Miley, by the way. We do the same thing with our kids, and even with ourselves.  We emphasize “clean” language, inoffensive Facebook and Twitter profiles, outward obedience, and dirt-free ears. None of those things are evil — in fact all of them are good and even necessary — but we often focus on those public displays of righteousness to the exclusion of inner holiness. The result is a shiny peel with a rotten core. Or, as Jesus put it, we clean the outside of the cup while leaving the inside virtually untouched (Matthew 23:25). As long as the public persona seems clean, we assume everything is fine. We rarely care to look deeper until the pretty facade falls apart in such a cataclysmic way that we have no choice.

Jesus consistently directed us to look beyond the outer appearance to the heart. That’s the basic message of the Sermon on the Mount. Our outward conformity to certain standards will never pave our way to the righteousness of God. We need the inner transformation that comes only through the Spirit of God. That transformation comes to those who recognize their failure and trust in the One who can provide true goodness, a goodness that penetrates to the very core.

The Miley Cyrus debacle reminds us of the danger of putting too much stock in one’s outward image. We need to remind our kids and ourselves that celebrities craft their public personas for a particular purpose — to get us to watch and to buy merchandise. The objectives of the entertainment industry are at odds with the purposes of Jesus Christ. It goes deeper than Hollywood, though. The problems we face are ultimately found at the center of our sinful hearts, and they find their solution only in the cleansing work that God’s Spirit can provide from the inside out. 

The Miley Cyrus we saw last week wasn’t real. But Miley Cyrus is a real person, and like every person — you and me included — she needs the kind of transformation that can’t be found in the office of an image consultant or publicist. And just like Miley, we need the same eternal and lasting change, granted to us by the One who created us and promises life that is new and real.

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Do You Enjoy Getting Offended?

You’re going to have an opportunity to get offended today.

Somebody will do or say something that seems incredibly stupid or hurtful to you. Your spouse will accidentally — or purposefully — imply that you’re lazy, fat, mean, unintelligent, or a bad parent. Your Facebook friends will have a party and forget to invite you (or they’ll decide you’re not wanted). Some jerk will interrupt your amazing story, or insult your beautiful family, or say something so insensitive and clueless that it blows your mind.

I think we like to get offended at people. My evidence? Just look at Facebook on any given day. People write entire blog posts — and sometimes create entire online personas –that revolve around being hurt, angry, or mistreated. If somebody looks at us wrong or just doesn’t understand our needs or thinks our family is weird or tells us our dog is too smelly, we launch a crusade. Death to the insensitive, the insulters, the unworthy social pariahs who don’t have the sense to constantly consider my feelings.

“But why,” you ask, “would anybody want to feel offended?” Because it makes us feel superior. If I can convince myself that the problem with the world around me is that everybody else is just mean and insensitive, then I feel a whole lot better about myself, at least temporarily. It’s also much easier than the difficult work of reconciliation and understanding. Even among other Christians, we make a habit of assuming the worst about others. It allows us to dismiss them without having to engage them as real people.

Several years ago, there was a group of college students who would leave en masse during my evening sermons. Every single week, a group of them would stand up and walk out, some fifteen minutes before the end of the service. It didn’t take long for me to construct a narrative about these young men and women. They were rude and stupid. Their parents were probably felons and they were likely on the verge failing at life. They deliberately made a scene because they hated church and Jesus and me, and didn’t have the good sense or kindness to sit at the back of the room.

I never actually talked to them about the issue. That was too much trouble. Easier to dismiss them as horrible.

But the truth is that we can’t always be certain of our own judgments. My own prejudices and weaknesses play a huge role in how I perceive other people. Even something as simple as a lack of sleep or a bad mood can significantly affect my perceptions of others. Not to mention that I don’t know everything that’s going on with another person at any given moment.

Let’s try something different today: Choose not to take offense. Believe the best. Particularly with our fellow Christians, let’s try not to jump to the worst conclusions all the time. Don’t forward that angry blog post about how older Christians are clueless or younger ones are lazy. Don’t write that Facebook status about all those stupid people who just don’t “get you.” Believe the best. Colossians 3:12-13 tells us to “bear with one another.” I love that phrase, because it assumes that people will upset us sometimes. But we’re called to bear with them, to forgive them, and not to allow those complaints to disrupt our unity. Be kind and humble, and assume that you might be just as wrong as others.

Today, when that moment of offense arrives, let’s just pause and say, “I’m called to bear with these people. I choose to believe the best and avoid getting offended. So help me God.” We might just find that we like peace even more than we like conflict and drama. After all, peace reflects the Savior who died to provide it for us.

What situations cause you to take offense most easily? How can you believe the best in those moments? 

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You’re Not Alone and It Isn’t Worthless

Sexual purity isn’t a popular idea. The world at large views sexual morality as something strange, even sinister — what kind of person voluntarily denies his sexual urges? Even in church circles, the concept of chastity has fallen on hard times. Sometimes the way we talk about sexuality in the church makes people feel guilty, or less significant, or even permanently damaged.

I understand and am sympathetic to people who are concerned for those who fail, for those who wonder if they can ever restore their relationship to God and the church. 

This post is for a different group of students, though. There are some of you, students and young adults, who are valiantly striving for chastity. Nearly everybody around you says it’s a waste of time, it doesn’t really matter, and you shouldn’t worry about it too much. Some of those voices are even coming from your fellow Christians. Self-control is hard enough. It’s even harder when you feel like it’s not only hopeless, but worthless.

I know you’re out there, and I know you feel lonely. I know because I’ve talked with some of you and you’ve asked me why you should keep trying when it seems like everybody else is giving up. I know because I’ve been that kid trying to do what’s right. Now I’m that grown-up married guy trying to do what’s right. And it’s still tough sometimes.

So I have two simple messages for you today: First, it’s not worthless. Second, you’re not alone. 

It’s not worthless, because nothing the Bible commands us to do is a waste of time. Let me be crystal clear: If you think you’re earning “God points” for your sexual self-control, you’re wrong. But I don’t think most of you believe that. You correctly recognize that sexual purity is good and worthwhile because self-control and self-denial are reflective of Jesus. They are also evidence of the Spirit’s work in your heart. You know that treating your body and the bodies of others with respect reflects the fact that you’re made in God’s image. Obedience to God’s commands allows Christians to know Him closely and to represent Him faithfully. So no, it’s not worthless and it’s not a waste of time.

And you’re not alone by any means. Despite the depressing statistics about your peers, there are many of them striving for righteousness. Like you, they’re trying to listen to God’s Word and God’s Spirit. Some of them have failed previously and repeatedly, but they keep asking God to teach them obedience. Many (most of them) of them feel as lonely as you do. So today you might need to hear this: You’re not alone. In the company of your fellow saints, find encouragement and strength to keep pressing on.

Don’t let anybody tell you that obedience is a waste of time. Don’t buy the lie that you’re all alone. God’s commands are never a waste of time. And you are never alone as long as God and His church are standing with you. Press on for God’s sake, through God’s power.

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Grace is for Rule Breakers

(This is a guest post by my friend Timothy Ateek, the director of Vertical Ministries in Waco.)

Are you a rule follower or a rule breaker? If you’re not sure, just think back to your high school years. If you’re a rule breaker, you were probably a nightmare for your parents and teachers. You threw crazy parties when your parents were out of town, abused drugs or alcohol, and snuck into R-rated movies.

If you’re a rule follower, you probably spoiled the fun for all your rule-breaking friends! While they were wondering how to get away with stuff, you were worried about them — what if they got caught? You certainly didn’t join in their debauchery, since it was against the rules. Teachers loved you, your parents bragged about you at dinner parties, and the police didn’t even know you existed!

Would it surprise you to know that rule followers sometimes have a hard time understanding and accepting grace? Once rule breakers believe in God, they tend to see their need for grace. After all, the rule breakers know how much they need forgiveness.

On the other hand, rule followers often view their lives through a filter. If you’ve ever used Instagram, you know what I mean. You take pictures and run them through a filter, and they suddenly look like beautiful art! Rule followers often look at their lives through a similar type of filter, convincing themselves that they’re better than they actually are. Rule followers sometimes think they don’t need grace.

The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) is directed to a group of rule followers, also known as the Pharisees. The younger son in the story is a classic rule breaker — he asks for an early inheritance, rejects his father, and runs into the world to break a bunch of rules. The world welcomes him at first, but then it leaves him broken. He finds himself living among pigs, and he reaches a moment of clarity — true life is back home with his father. He’s on his way home when his father sees him, runs to him, and embraces him. The father brings his son into the house, gives him a robe and throws a party.

All the rule breakers say, “Amen. You can’t earn God’s favor, because He gives it freely.” But the story doesn’t end there. Jesus writes another son, a rule following older son, into the story. The older son has been holding down the fort, doing everything right, while his crazy younger brother has squandered the inheritance. He’s angry that the father would so easily accept the younger brother back into the fold.

Jesus’ parable ends with the younger son inside, enjoying the celebration, and the older son standing outside, refusing to go in. The rule breaking son is swimming in the father’s favor, while the rule following son is completely missing out on it. It seems that sometimes following all the rules can keep us from experiencing the Father’s favor. Why?

First, because it’s possible to follow the Father’s rules without being connected to the Father Himself. We have a tendency to look at how great we are at following the rules, instead of at how great God is for letting us know Him. “I’ve never gotten drunk. I haven’t missed a quiet time in 3 months. I don’t lie. I don’t cuss.” It’s hard to need God’s grace when all you can see is how great you are for following the rules.

Second, rule followers tend to slip into a mentality that says, “If I perform, God will provide.” It’s like God is a cosmic vending machine. If you get the right combination, if you follow rule A and rule 4, then He will drop everything you want into your lap. You think you don’t need God to give you his love as a free gift. You think that you can manipulate Him into giving it to you as a payment for following the rules. “I went to church, I gave to charity, I served the community. I’ve performed, now You provide.” But God doesn’t work that way.

The truth is that you can be a rule follower on the outside, but a rule breaker on the inside. Your pride, bitterness, and resentment make you a rule breaker. Every single one of us is a rule breaker. The life of a rule follower is not good enough for God, because even rule followers have rule-breaking hearts.

Sometimes my 3-year-old son Noah comes home from pre-school with “artwork.” Sometimes the artwork is just a piece of paper with something like a purple line on it. I’m going to sound like a bad parent here, but there’s nothing particularly praiseworthy about it. On the other hand, he sometimes comes home with some impressive stuff — paper covered with carefully arranged cotton balls and glitter, and his name written in amazing handwriting. Of course Noah didn’t create it — the teacher did! But we celebrate anyway, since he is so proud of his “work.”

Here’s what you need to know: If you’re a rule follower, all of your best days put together are no more than a piece of paper with a purple line. The only way to experience God’s favor is through the beautiful work that somebody else has done on your behalf. Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again to pay the penalty for your rule breaking heart. Jesus leaves the older son standing outside because He wants to be clear: the celebration is only for those who know that the Father’s favor can’t be earned. It can only be received as a free gift. Whether you’re a rule breaker or a rule follower, ask yourself this: Have you received it?

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How to Be Brave When You Want to Be Safe

One summer during college I lived in a house infested with mice. I spent most of my nights in fear, afraid to walk around in the dark, worrying that a rodent would scurry across my feet. I would lie awake in bed, terrified that a mouse would start chewing on my hair. I hate mice. They scare me. You may laugh at me, but your fears might seem just as silly to me as mine do to you.

Every one of us is afraid of something. And every one of us wants to be brave.

We worry about getting sick, being lonely, going broke, or being insignificant. On a smaller scale, we worry about mice, snakes, and cockroaches. We fret about losing our jobs and losing our minds.

After a decade of ministry to college students, I’m convinced that the course of a person’s life is often determined by what he or she fears. We set patterns of fear while we’re young, and struggle for our entire lives to overcome them.

If your greatest fear is loneliness, you”ll cling to any relationship —  no matter how unhealthy or sinful — just to avoid being alone. If your greatest fear is running out of money, you’ll sell your very soul for just a little bit more.

Over and over again, we trade away the possibility of true significance for the promise of safety. Jesus promises us rivers of living water, a life more abundant and significant than anything we’ve experienced (John 7:38; 10:10). Instead, we open our hearts to thieves and robbers. Time and time again, we let our fears drown out the voice of God’s Spirit. We settle for safe, believing that joy is found in avoiding danger and remaining secure.

God never promised that our fears won’t come true. But He did promise a life greater than anything we can lose. It’s greater because it’s His life, the very presence of God’s Spirit in us (Romans 8:9-11). It’s greater because God promises reward and security and significance that will never fade away (Mt 6:19-20).

So how can we be brave when all we want to be is safe? Take refuge in God (Psalm 91). Recognize that bravery is not the absence of fear, but the presence of faith. Safety isn’t found in avoiding trouble. It’s found in the power and presence of God Himself. If we trust Him, we already are safe. And knowing we are safe makes us brave!

Every morning, and frequently through the day, let’s remind ourselves that Jesus overcame death, loneliness, sin, and the devil. All of those things we fear have no lasting hold on us because of Jesus Christ. Not even the specter of death can change the fact that He arose from the grave.

We can’t stop our fears from assaulting us, but we can tell them where to go. We can send each one to Jesus and watch Him kill it. We can let Him remind us, through the Spirit that lives within us, that there’s nothing left to fear. Not singleness, not poverty, not sickness, and not even death. All will be overcome. Our fears can cause us pain, but they can’t win the final battle.

Let’s not allow fear to drive us anywhere anymore, except to the shelter and protection of the God who has overcome every fear through the One who died to kill death itself.

What do you fear? How do you remind yourself of the power and strength of God to defeat all that you fear? 

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Why I Haven’t Left the Church

I love church.

That feels like a lonely confession these days. Every time I turn around there’s another article or blog post about the failings of the institutional church. Most of the criticism comes from within the fold, from Christians who are disillusioned with the problems they see in the modern evangelical church.

It feels weird to say that I’ve never seriously considered dropping out of church. That’s not just because I’m a pastor. Quite the contrary, I became a pastor in the first place because my life has been so positively and deeply impacted by the local church.

And yet I know that there are many people who feel differently. For a variety of reasons, people sometimes get hurt in church. I don’t mean physically (although that occasionally happens too), but emotionally and spiritually. I’m not naive. I’ve been hurt myself, by cynics, legalists, gossips, and angry Christians looking for a place to lash out.

Not only that, but I’ve had a few people tell me that I was the cause of their distress and anger. I’d be willing to wager that nearly every pastor has been told that he is the reason somebody is quitting church forever. Those moments are painful reminders that church can be a hard place. At church we come into close contact with other sinners, and those interactions are bound to cause both joy and pain.

Nevertheless, I’ve really never wanted to quit church. (I’ve had a few bad moments on Monday morning, but I try not to make key decisions right then).

I’ve really been thinking lately about why I still believe in the church, when so many of my peers resonate with the concept of giving up on it.

First, I don’t think I can quit the Church, because I’m part of it! I suppose I could stop going on Sunday. I could find a new job and just stop interacting with my fellow Christians. But I would still be a part of the Church. When I see people trash “the church,” I always want to say, “We are the Church!” If I leave, if I stop gathering with other Christians, then things really will never change. It’s too easy to stand outside the walls and lob grenades. If my church isn’t yet what I want it to be, then I want to work like crazy to communicate my concerns and to help my church grow. The church isn’t “out there” somewhere. It’s all of us, those who follow Jesus together.

Second, I stay in church because it’s the only organization (or organism, if you prefer) that Jesus started and promised to support. I feel sort of like Peter, when Jesus asked the disciples if they were going to leave Him. “Where else would we go?” Peter responded. “You have the words of eternal life.” I think Peter knew that walking away would be the easier course of action, at least at that moment. After all, Jesus kept talking about things like eating His flesh and drinking His blood. He offended so many people and made life very uncomfortable for His disciples. But Peter knew that there was no other place he could go to find eternal life. That’s how I feel about church.

I know that every church, including mine, has its problems. Churches are deeply flawed because they’re full of people like me. It’s not just the pastors and leaders who are flawed. It’s all of us. Yet church is also where we gather to worship our Savior. Church is where the Spirit moves and speaks. We don’t always listen too well, but He keeps coming back anyway (sometimes I wonder if He ever thinks it would be simpler just to leave). Church is where the broken have a chance to find true healing, and where the dead have a chance to find real life. It’s not perfect, but there’s no replacement for it.

If you’re a Christian who is disillusioned with church, please don’t give up. Help us grow. Help us be the church the world needs. Without you, without your gifts, I don’t think we’ll be as good as we can be. Instead of standing outside to throw rocks, come inside and talk. I think we’re better together than we are apart. And I’m confident through God’s power we can make our church a place of love, holiness, and worship.

Have you ever wanted to quit church? If you stayed, why? 

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Why Sunday School isn’t the Problem

I grew up in church, going to Sunday school pretty much every week. Like any activity, some of it was useful and encouraging, and some of it was not. We did motions to songs that I didn’t really understand at the time, like “Father Abraham” or “Deep and Wide.” We made crafts and listened to Bible stories, some of which didn’t contain the theological nuances of God’s grace and the reality of human sin.

Some of the kids in my Sunday school classes rejected God later in life. Others are still walking with Him closely. On the whole, Sunday school was a mixed bag. Just like almost everything in life.

Over the past week or so, many of my social media friends have posted an article that traces the spiritual destruction of our kids to Sunday school. Many elements of the article resonated with me — after all, if we teach kids to emulate the “heroes of the faith” without explaining to them that God sent Jesus to save sinners, then we’re missing the boat in a bad way. As one of my friends said, kids can’t reject a Gospel they’ve never heard before.

Sunday school isn’t the problem, though. It’s easy to blame “church,” because “church” isn’t a person who will take offense at being blamed. I see that trend over and over again in the articles and blog posts popping up on Facebook lately. But kids spend 1 hour in Sunday school. They spend the rest of their week with parents, friends, and school teachers.

“So are parents the problem? Are their friends the problem? Is it the secular school system? What about movies, television, and the internet?” 

To all of the above, the answer is yes and no. The spiritual development of a child, or of any person, is a complicated issue.

It’s hard to explain it when seemingly “good” kids abandon the faith as teenagers or young adults. Our temptation is to find a scapegoat, somebody we can blame. It’s true that in some cases, parents who are inconsistent or who don’t model the faith well can create a host of spiritual problems. In a few cases, a very bad Sunday school teacher can traumatize a child for life. Violent video games, heretical Disney films, and internet pornography can all contribute to a child’s spiritual destruction. So can bad friends.

Sometimes, though, people just choose to reject the faith for no apparent reason. What if it’s not always somebody else’s fault, but the result of sin, combined with the fact that God has given each of us a measure of delegated responsibility for our own lives? What if there isn’t a pat answer, a “one thing” we can fix that will make it alright?

The idea that spiritual growth is mysterious and complex is frightening and liberating at the same time. The recognition that we can’t control our kids drives us to pray for them, to beg God to save them and lead them toward adulthood as faithful men and women. We tell them about Jesus, not because saying the right words will make it all work out okay, but because there isn’t any other way for them to survive spiritually. Understanding that the right curriculum won’t save my kids will hopefully make us realize how dependent we really are on God’s grace.

I do think the article is right in one very critical respect: the grace of God in Jesus will save our kids, not a list of moral requirements. One or two of my friends who posted the article told me that it was that message they wanted to reinforce. I agree wholeheartedly. It’s not just Sunday school teachers and those who write the lessons who are called to remember that. It’s all of us.

So does Sunday school provide anything of value at all? I think it does. We need teachers who live and model God’s grace, who teach kids that Jesus died for them and loves them, and who show our kids living examples of what walking in grace looks like. We can even glean lessons from the “heroes of the faith,” as long as we also communicate how dependent they were upon God.

(I would also add that children are concrete thinkers. Abstract concepts are tough for them. Sometimes we use examples and illustrations because it’s easier for them to look at the lives of others and understand how God used them. Sometimes we don’t give them all of the terrible stories of sexual sin and violent patriarchs because very young children aren’t quite ready for those. Where we often fail, though, is that as they grow older we don’t help them transition to the deeper concepts of the faith. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong to keep it simple and concrete when they’re small.)

So Sunday school isn’t destroying our kids. Sin has already destroyed them. Sin has destroyed all of us, and the solution isn’t adjusting our curriculum. The solution lies in asking God for His grace and kindness, and in working together to help our kids accept that grace when it shows up.

I’m sure you have opinions about this, and I’d love to hear them. What, if anything, can we do to help our kids avoid spiritual disaster as they grow older? 

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