Friday, August 15, 2014

on suicide, gratitude and compassion

The past few weeks have brought headlines that ask us to grapple with our deepest hurts and fears. Among them was news of the death of Robin Williams.

Christians can be clumsy when it comes to deciphering mental health issues. A thousand voices rushed to weigh in on the selfishness of suicide. Some mused on how a death like Williams’ illustrated the emptiness of life apart from a relationship with God. Those who expressed sorrow over his death were scolded for their blind adoration of celebrity, and even called racist or provincial for grieving a headline less grievous than others that vied for our emotional capacity last week.

But I openly admit that it hit me hard.

Maybe that’s because my former pastor (the one whose message led my son to Christ) put a gun to his head.
Maybe that’s because I helped my dear friend clean out the apartment where his father answered hopelessness with finality.
Maybe it’s because depression and mental illness know my family.

The sentiment that best captured the way I felt about Williams’ death (and the response of others to it) was expressed by my cousin Amy on Facebook. She said simply:

“For those of you who judge suicide, feel grateful.”

Yes, grateful. Because if you are able to sit comfortably in judgment on it you cannot have sat next to its casket and recognized its face as that of someone you loved. Only someone able to hold suicide at arm’s length could write and post some of the things that were written this past week. We are so quick to process tragedy out loud and online. I wonder if a few decades from now we will have learned a more measured approach to broadcasting our thoughts.

Those who know suicide also feel grateful, though for different reasons. We feel grateful for the time we had and for the memories we hold. We feel grateful for the irreplaceable contributions those we have lost made to our lives and to the world. And we feel grateful for the solace of shared understanding among the community of those who know that suicide is not simple, that it invalidates neither the gift of a person’s life nor the love we felt for them.

We buried Amy’s brother, my cousin, in the frozen ground of February. He was not a coward. He was not selfish. He was brave and giving, brash, bright and beloved. He was a gift.

At the very least, anyone who has ever known the lightness of heart a Robin Williams monologue could infuse ought to find room to grieve his loss. If laughter is the best medicine, Robin Williams was an exceptional doctor. As with all the best medicines, we learned to our sorrow that the cost was dear. If you choose to judge him, please have the courage of your convictions never to laugh again at another of his brilliant contributions. We have all laughed at his expense, whether we knew it or not.

So forgive me if I mourn him. I cannot keep his story at arm’s length, and my guess is that many people you know cannot either. They have been fighting for their breath this week, avoiding the evening news, quietly coaching themselves to do the next thing and to cling to whatever healing they have found. So if you don’t know suicide as they do, be grateful. And let your gratitude prompt you to pray for the comfort of those who mourn. Those are words which we can never speak too hastily, and which we will never have cause to regret.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

you’ve read the book…now what?

Today is the official release date for Women of the Word, but thanks to the faithful efforts of my publisher it has been available for a little over a month. I’ve been gratified to read the reviews and emails from so many of you who read the book and recognized the importance of building Bible literacy, of loving God with your mind through faithful study of His Word. I love hearing your stories of writing the five P’s of sound study on sticky notes to keep in your Bibles, of how you’re reshaping the way you use your personal study time. It’s hard to change old habits. It’s hard to learn a new skill. I’m so glad to know you’re willing to take on the challenge on your own, but I also want to offer you help where I can.

I have the spiritual gift of pie-making. Okay, it’s not actually a spiritual gift, but I’m really good at it. When I was in high school, my stepmother told me that the secret to winning lifelong friends was to make them pie from scratch. She was not wrong.  After dangling this vision in front of me she proceeded to show me how to make it a reality, one pie crust at a time. Rather than load me up with recipe cards and send me off to figure it out, she stood next to me and showed me how to cut the flour into the pastry, how to add the chilled water, how to roll out the crust with an outward motion rather than a downward motion, how to neatly crimp the edges, how to make a creamy custard and a towering meringue. She didn’t just tell me her pie-making secrets, she showed me how to put them into practice.

In my book I have told you the recipe for how to make a pie. If you put into practice what I describe, you will learn to study the Bible better. But I don’t want to leave you holding a recipe card when I can offer to hold your hand through the learning process. I don’t want to just tell you what to do, I want to show you.

When I write a curriculum for a Bible study, that’s exactly what I do. I write it to help my study participants put into practice the tools I describe in Women of the Word.  And I teach with the intent of building on the foundation the curriculum lays. The weekly homework is virtually free of commentary and intends to train you over time to ask good questions of the text.

If you resonated with the message of the book and now want a way to put it into practice, consider gathering a group of women to go through a curriculum that will help you practice building Bible literacy. It doesn’t have to be one I wrote  - just make sure it asks you to pursue the process of comprehension-interpretation-application before it gives you commentary. If you do want to use something I’ve written, you can download the workbooks and audio for my previous studies right here on the blog.

And after years of being asked, “When are you going to video your studies?”  I’m thrilled to let you know that LifeWay has released a 9-week DVD-driven version of the Sermon on the Mount study. It’s hard to pick a personal favorite of the studies I’ve taught, but this one is pretty near the top for me. And it’s a good starting place if you’re new to the study method.

As you look for ways to help yourself or the women of your church grow in Bible literacy, I hope you’ll consider these resources as a next step after reading Women of the Word. Many blessings on your time in the Word, both alone and in community. May your days be filled with joyful study. And also pie.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

how stewarding wealth impacts studying the bible

American Christians certainly enjoy greater material wealth than much of the world, but we also enjoy less tangible forms of wealth as well. We aren’t always aware of just how wealthy we truly are. And because of this, we may not remember that to whom much is given, much is required: with great wealth comes great responsibility.

In the parable of the talents, three men are given an opportunity to show a return on investments of varying sizes. We are like these men, each given a measure of wealth with which we are to work to yield a return. I wonder if we recognize the responsibility associated with the wealth God grants. With regard to Bible study, I believe American Christians have been given three “talents” not all believers have been given. These three forms of wealth, if properly valued, would transform the way we think about the precious gift and joyful responsibility of studying the Bible.

We've Been Given a Wealth of Access

Having access to the Scriptures is a gift. It is certainly true that a person can have a vibrant faith without direct access to the Bible. The Gutenberg press was not invented until 1450, yet many faithful people lived before its time. Noah, Enoch and Abraham did not have a personal copy of God’s written Word available for a daily “quiet time”. Nor did Jesus, for that matter. Believers in parts of the world where the Bible is illegal still follow hard after God. But let’s apply the principle of “much given, much required” to those of us living in the United States today.

Statistics show that most of us have a Bible at arm’s length twenty four hours a day. According to, 56.4% of Americans own a smart phone or tablet, meaning they have the capability to access Scripture with the touch of a screen. That’s before we consider how many have access through a PC or a hard copy. And no one is going to arrest us for reading them.

American Christians are never far from a copy of the Bible. We have been given “much” access. How can we overlook the privilege of such wealth by leaving our Bibles unopened?

We've Been Given a Wealth of Education

Education is a second gift we American Christians enjoy. It is certainly true that an illiterate person can have a vibrant faith. Surely God meets us according to our educational opportunities. Where education is unavailable, we can trust that He graciously grants sufficient knowledge of Himself to those who cannot gain it through the written Word. American Christians, however, are the recipients of much opportunity to read and understand the Bible. While literacy rates around the world vary widely, The U.S boasts a literacy rate of greater than 96%.

Consider these findings by the U.S Census Bureau “In 2009, more than 4 out of 5 (85 percent) adults aged 25 and over reported having at least a high school diploma or its equivalent, while over 1 in 4 (28 percent) reported a bachelor’s degree or higher.”

American Christians are well-educated and are capable of reading the Bibles they have access to. We have been given “much” education. How can we overlook the privilege of such wealth by claiming Bible study is optional or too hard?

We've Been Given a Wealth of Time

Discretionary time is a third gift American Christians have been given. It is certainly true that a person who must give every waking moment to survival can have a vibrant faith, even without being able to give time to Bible study. Discretionary time is time free from obligation to work or meet basic needs. And despite our perception that there is never enough time in the day, we Americans actually enjoy more than our share.

Unlike our forebears and our contemporaries in third world countries, we enjoy the benefits of time-saving and labor-saving devices, not to mention the protection of labor laws. A recent study spanning five decades of research found that leisure time in the U.S. has increased by 7.9 hours per week on average for men and by 6.0 hours for women between 1965 and 2003. Increasingly freed from survival to self-actualization, we enjoy more discretionary time than generations before us could ever have imagined.

American Christians are well-provided with discretionary time to apply our educated minds to our accessible Bibles. We have been given “much” time. How can we overlook the privilege of such wealth by claiming we’re too busy to give time to Bible study?

Much Given, Much Required

Between the covers of the Bible we find a full revelation of what the prophets understood only in part, a declaration of the mystery into which angels long to look. In addition to having been given the riches of this great mystery, we American Christians have been given access, education and time to appropriate it for our good. Let it be said of us that these “talents” entrusted to us were not spent on lesser investments or left to languish. Let it be said that we understood the great responsibility of having been given much - that we used the gifts of access, education and time to plumb the depths of the mysteries of God as revealed in His Word, and that the transforming results paid a dividend to the ends of the earth.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

on daughters and dating: how to intimidate suitors

I have two teen-aged daughters, so it was with some interest that I read a recent post entitled “Application to Date My Daughter”. It was pretty funny, playing on the idea of the stereotypical shotgun-toting father and the mortified daughter as they negotiate the tricky terrain of a first date.  Then Christian bloggers grabbed the concept, and for the most part, these versions were funny, too. There were some common themes: slouchy-panted unemployed suitors, dads breathing out Chuck Norris-inspired threats. I didn’t lose my well-developed sense of humor until I made the tactical error of glancing at some of the comments. And then I was just flat-out sad.

Here is the comment that made me the saddest, posted by a well-meaning young Christian father:

“Bro, this is awesome. My daughter’s only 2, but I am printing this for my fridge. Thanks for your godly example.”

Oh dear.

Okay, joke’s over. Bro. Let’s talk strategy for a second. Is that all you’ve got? You need a better plan than these low-level intimidation techniques. After all, she’s your DAUGHTER, for Pete’s sake. So let’s talk frankly about what you need to do to guard her interests when it comes to dating. Instead of brandishing a shotgun or breaking out an application, you need to build a wall.

That’s right, you heard me – build a wall. Go all “Rapunzel”. Build it so high that only the strongest of suitors can scale it. But don’t wait until your baby girl is a teenager, Bro  – start now. Start yesterday. There’s no time to waste.

build a wall

In Song of Solomon 8:8-9 we hear a family’s hope that their young sister will grow into a woman of strength and dignity. Can you guess what metaphor they use to describe that kind of woman? A wall. Their sister assures them in verse 10 that she is indeed a wall, complete with towers. Her statement indicates an assurance that she is not only strong, but able to defend herself against any unworthy suitors. That’s what you want, Bro – you want a wall.

Here’s the problem with shotgun jokes and applications posted on the fridge: to anyone paying attention, they announce that you fully expect your daughter to have poor judgment. Be assured that your daughter is paying attention.  And don’t be shocked if she meets your expectation. You might want to worry less about terrorizing or retro-fitting prospective suitors and worry more about preparing your daughter to choose wisely. And that means building a wall.

Instead of intimidating all your daughter’s potential suitors, raise a daughter who intimidates them just fine on her own. Because, you know what’s intimidating? Strength and dignity. Deep faith. Self-assuredness. Wisdom. Kindness. Humility. Industriousness. Those are the bricks that build the wall that withstands the advances of old Slouchy-Pants, whether you ever show up with your Winchester locked and loaded or not. The unsuitable suitor finds nothing more terrifying than a woman who knows her worth to God and to her family.

too strong?

But here’s a hard reality: if you raise that daughter, she’ll likely intimidate her fair share of “nice Christian boys” as well. Because a decent number of those guys have some nutty ideas about what it means to be in charge. I’m amazed and saddened at how often I hear young single guys say of bright, gifted single women, “Wow, she’s so strong I don’t think I could lead her.” At which point, too many bright, gifted single women begin to consider ways to “tone themselves down” or “soften themselves a bit”.

Raise a strong daughter, even if – no, especially if it means potential suitors question whether they can “lead her”, whatever that means to them. You’ve just identified those suitors as ineligible, without so much as an application process. Leadership is not about the strong looking for weaker people to lead. It’s about the humble looking for those whose strengths offset their weaknesses and complement their strengths. Strong leaders surround themselves with strong people, not with weak ones. Rather than finding the strengths of others threatening, they celebrate them and leverage them. This is Management 101, but I fear young Christian men and well-intentioned Christian parents of daughters have gotten a little fuzzy on the concept.

put down your shotgun

I often think that if we scrutinized our parenting with the same intensity we plan to turn on our daughters’ prospective suitors, we’d stop speculating about shotguns and applications and start building that wall. So, my well-meaning father of a two-year-old, please don’t hit “print” on that application just yet. Instead of cross-examining the man your daughter brings home, cross-examine the man who brought your daughter home from the hospital. She does not need the belated braggadocio of your intentions to protect her from slouchy-pants fools when she’s a teen. She needs you to hitch up your own and invest in her character - now.

So put down your shotgun. Pick up your Indian Princess guide book, or your coach’s clipboard. Take a seat at a tea party. Teach how to change a flat and start the mower. Discuss politics and economics and theology. Compliment a new outfit or an A in math. Tell her you think she is absolutely beautiful. Kneel at a pink chenille bedside and pray your guts out. Raise a daughter with a fully loaded heart and mind so that a fully loaded shotgun isn’t necessary. She shouldn’t need you to scare off weak suitors. Let her strength and dignity do the job.  Resolve to settle for nothing less than the best protection for your daughter. Resolve to be the kind of man you want her to bring home. Resolve to build a wall.

“What shall we do for our sister in the day when she shall be spoken for? If she be a wall, we will build upon her a palace of silver…” Song of Solomon 8:8-9

Monday, May 26, 2014

that which i did not sow

This spring he put his foot down: “No more tomatoes.” Gardening in North Texas can batter your ego and empty your wallet. You learn what to plant by taking note of what withers in the summer sun. Tomatoes, for instance. Not many delights surpass that of a home-grown tomato still warm from the vine, lightly salted and peppered. But this year it was not to be. Tired of the futility, Jeff decided to leave vacant our raised bed next to the compost pile.

The compost pile: that glorious chicken-wire structure of rotting goodness. Patron saint of gardeners. Colossal eyesore. A steaming homage to our love of eggs, coffee, and the once-fresh produce we were too slow to eat, moldering three feet deep outside the guest room window. Welcome, guests.

For six summers Jeff patiently nursed my fledgling tomato plants, too kind to tell me that my eternal hope for a bumper crop (and my selective memory of the previous summer) was heading me once again toward disappointment. But August said everything he had not, in capital letters.

It’s been a hard spring for my family. The people I love the most have sustained deep hurt and loss. The kind you don’t blog about or tweet about or share on Facebook. “I’m tired of being sad,” I tell my stepmother. “Yes,” she says.  One unexpected phone call is hard. When the phone keeps ringing, well, it begins to feel like August. We are withering.

I didn’t look out the guest room window the entire month of May. I didn’t walk down the far side of the house. I didn’t want to gaze on that vacant rectangle of dirt, dotted with decaying eggshells, where my hope of tomatoes used to grow. “Come out here and see this,” he said.

Mint, engulfing half of the bed. Two enormous pumpkin vines in full bloom, scaling the fence, breezily and brazenly trespassing the neighbor’s yard. And ridiculously, a tomato plant. Forbidden. Unbidden. Sometimes compost has a gardening agenda of its own. Despite our resolve to raise the white flag of surrender, to the west of the guest room the Lord God has planted a garden.

We stand there gaping, two quitters thwarted in our quitting, the seeds of our disbelief sprouting into uncontrolled laughter. We are shaking with it. He reaches for an abandoned stake and places it resolutely around the tomato plant. “Maybe I can build an awning to get it through that August sun.”

This ruling and subduing, this fruitfulness and multiplication - it is a tough business, punctuated with the losses of many Augusts. Gardeners know better than most that we reap what we sow. But the gospel gives a better word: we reap what we had no hope of sowing, a miraculous harvest of grace, sprung from the rot, grown in the shade of a good Gardener ever at our right hand.

This is where I stake my hope.

"The LORD is your keeper; The LORD is your shade on your right hand." Psalm 121:5

Sunday, May 4, 2014

equip your kids to “say no” to porn

The first time porn was served at the cafeteria lunch table, my son was eleven years old. Does that seem young to you? Research suggests that one in three children ages 11-14 have viewed pornography on a mobile device. Add to that the very real possibility that a child will stumble across explicit content on YouTube or in a pop-up during innocent computer usage, and one thing becomes clear: parents must be proactive in talking about porn with their kids.

I’m not a fear-monger when it comes to parenting. In fact, I think fear is a terrible motivator for making parenting decisions. But if children are being exposed to porn at young ages, the loving thing to do as a parent is to equip them to know how to respond. The most frequent parenting question I’m asked is, “When should I talk to my child about sex?” My adamant answer is, “Much earlier than you might think.” If you’re concerned about your child being exposed to porn, you’ve got to talk about sex, and you must do so early.

Let me tell you what played out at the sixth grade lunch table that day. When the phone with the images was offered, my son responded, “I don’t look at porn.” The owner of the phone, perplexed, asked, “Then how will you know how to have sex?” My son responded that his parents had told him all about it. Jaws dropped. Not one other sixth grade boy at the table had had a conversation with his parents about sex, or, it would seem, about porn. But they were by no means lacking in instruction.

We may stall on the sex talk, but the world will not. If we delay introducing the topic because of personal discomfort, shame, or uncertainty about how to begin, our children will form their first ideas about human sexuality based on the reports of their peers, the images on their devices, or the pop-ups that introduce them to porn. They will also assume their parents are not willing or equipped to handle discussions about sex.

ask the right question

Too many parents are still asking the wrong question with regard to children and explicit content. We can no longer ask, “How should I prepare my child for if they see porn?” We must ask, “How should I prepare my child for when they see porn?” External controls are important, but they only shield your child from a handful of instances when porn can make an appearance. Mobile devices are everywhere, and your neighbor’s unsecured wi-fi is easy to find.

This means we must begin giving our children internal controls as early as possible. We must give them a way to flee danger as soon as it presents itself. Just as parents of my generation taught their kids a script for when they were offered drugs, we must teach our kids a script for when they are offered porn. And we must be ready to have frank, fearless conversations about what they may have already seen, conversations free of any hint of condemnation that maintain a safe environment for openness and ongoing dialogue about this and other difficult topics.

Your child may very well be exposed to porn before they are developmentally able to understand what they are looking at. They need your help to know how to respond. Give them red flags, a script and a plan.

red flags, a script and a plan

Though not developmentally ready for a full blown explanation of the nature and dangers of porn, young children can learn two red flags to help them avoid contact with it, two red flags that also guard against predators. Teach your child at a young age that “naked is private”, and that “don’t tell your mom and dad” means danger. Both of these red flags will help them recognize when they are being shown something you wouldn’t want them to see.

Train your child how to respond to an offer of porn by giving them scripted words to use, and a plan of action:

Parent: “If someone shows you a picture of something and asks you not to tell anyone, what should you do?”

Child:     “Tell them ‘no thanks’, and then come tell you.”

Parent: “If a picture of something strange comes up on the computer, what should you do?”

Child:     “Ex it out, and then come tell you.”

Rehearse this language, just as you would rehearse what words to use in other situations, like if a stranger offered them a ride home from school.

a culture of confession

Children need to know they can come tell a parent without fear of getting in trouble or setting off high drama, even if (especially if) they looked at what was offered. When we give them permission to come to us, we reinforce a culture of confession in our homes. We may not be able to shield our kids from pornographic images, but we can give them the internal tools they need to protect them from becoming entangled in secrecy, shame, and a warped view of sexuality.

Whether they are eight or twenty eight, we want our children to choose confession over concealment every time. Reward their courage in coming to you by reacting calmly, affirming that they have done the right thing, and then helping them process what has happened and what to do moving forward.

We must communicate clearly to our children that porn is telling a lie and that we will tell them the truth. As your child gets older, talk frankly about what porn is, about how it teaches a perverted view of sexuality, and about how it exploits both the viewer and those who are in the images. Talk about the consequences of having a wrong view of sex and sexuality, the dangers of lust, and the sin of objectifying another person made in the image of God.

start early

If you have preschool aged children, begin gathering resources now to help you naturally introduce the topic of sex in age-appropriate ways as opportunities present. (In other words, if you take your kids to the zoo in the spring, be ready to broach the subject if the animal kingdom introduces it.) Rather than think, “How long can I put off the sex talk?” ask, “How soon can I begin to equip my child to filter messages about sex and sexuality in age-appropriate ways?”

Be the first voice your child hears about sex and sexuality, and about fleeing porn exposure. Don’t let fear cause you to delay beginning this conversation. And don’t let fear cause you to have the conversation in a way that scares your child or casts sexuality in a negative light. Get educated about what resources are available to help you confidently and calmly discuss sex as a beautiful gift from God, to be enjoyed within the good boundaries He has set. Lovingly teach your kids red flags, a script and a plan. And trust your Heavenly Father that even this parenting hurdle is one He can help you surmount.


additional resources to check out

note: By listing these resources I am not giving them an unqualified endorsement. As with all parenting resources, the responsibility lies with you to read discerningly, take what you can use, and leave the rest. Happy digging!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

the assumption we cannot afford

We ended another year of women’s Bible study last Tuesday: eleven weeks in the epistles of John and eleven weeks in James. Fifty-four different churches were represented in our enrollment this year. A couple thousand more women podcast from around the country. At the conclusion I was deluged with cards and emails from participants expressing their gratitude, reflecting on what they had learned, and, almost uniformly, uttering a confession I have heard so often that it no longer surprises. I still waver between joy and discouragement as I read that confession on card after beautiful thank you card. I still vacillate between celebration and grief each time it turns up in my inbox. I still hesitate between thankfulness and frustration every time it is spoken to me over coffee. Their confession is this:

I’ve been in church for years, but no one has taught me to study my Bible until now.
I remember confessing the same thing myself almost twenty years ago. It is gratifying to know that our efforts at FMWBS to help women know the Bible are changing the way they understand their God and their faith. But it is terrifying to me that so many log years in the church and remain unlearned in the Scriptures. This is not their fault, and it is not acceptable.

Church leaders, I fear we have made a costly and erroneous assumption about those we lead. I fear that in our enthusiasm to teach about finances, gender roles, healthy relationships, purity, culture wars, and even theology we have neglected to build foundational understanding of the Scriptures among our people. We have assumed that the time they spend in personal interaction with their Bible is accumulating for them a basic firsthand knowledge of what it says, what it means and how it should change them. Or perhaps we have assumed that kind of knowledge isn’t really that important.

So we continue to tell people this is what you should believe about marriage and this is what you need to know about doctrine and this is what your idolatry looks like, but because we never train them in the Scriptures, they have no framework to attach these exhortations to beyond their church membership or their pastor’s personality or their group leader’s opinion. More importantly, they have no plumb line to measure these exhortations against. It never occurs to them to disagree with what they are being taught because they cannot distinguish between our interpretation of Scripture and Scripture itself, having little to no firsthand knowledge of what it says.

And they’ve been in church for years.

When we offer topical help – even if the topic is doctrine – without first offering Bible literacy, we attempt to furnish a house we have neglected to construct. As a friend and seminarian said to me this week, “There is a reason that seminaries offer hermeneutics before systematic theology.” He is right. But it would seem many who have enjoyed the rare privilege of seminary have forgotten to pass on this basic principle to the churches they now lead.

We must teach the Bible. Please hear me. We must teach the Bible, and we must do so in such a way that those sitting under our teaching learn to feed themselves rather than rely solely on us to feed them. We cannot assume that our people know the first thing about where to start or how to proceed. It is not sufficient to send them a link to a reading plan or a study method. It is our job to give them good tools and to model how to use them. There is a reason many love “Jesus Calling” more than they love the Gospel of John. If we equip them with the greater thing, they will lose their desire for the lesser thing.

I wish you could see how the women in our studies come alive like well-watered plants after a drought. I wish you could hear their excitement over finally, finally being given some tools to build Bible literacy.

"I can’t believe how much I’ve grown since I started studying. ..I had only done topical studies… I didn’t know you could study like this… I was so tired of navel-gazing... I’ve never been asked to love God with my mind… My husband teases me about how excited I am to tell him what we’re learning… I’ve never studied a book of the Bible from start to finish…"

They are so humble in admitting what they don’t know. We must be humble in admitting what we have left undone.

As I read their notes joy always trumps discouragement. Celebration overturns grief. Thankfulness overrides frustration. And because the need is great, I commit myself to wade through another stack of commentaries, to write another curriculum on another book of the Bible, to give another year to building the house of Bible literacy in which the furnishings of doctrine and other worthy topics can take their rightful places. We owe our people more than assertions of what is biblical and what is not. We owe them the Bible, and the tools necessary to soberly and reverently "take up and read". The task requires resolve, but the reward is great. Will you join me? 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

our children, our neighbors

If you asked me the single-most important insight that has shaped my parenting, it would be this: “Children are people.”

It seems self-evident. Clearly, they have arms and legs, ears, noses and mouths enough to qualify. But the idea of their personhood goes far beyond just possessing a human body. It goes to the core of their being and speaks to their worth. Children bear the image of God, just like adults. Well, not just like adults – it is true that they are developing physically, emotionally and spiritually at a different rate than adults, but their intrinsic worth and dignity does not increase or decrease depending on the rate or extent of their development. As Dr. Seuss has famously noted, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

If you asked me the single most misleading statement I have heard with regard to parenting, it would be this: “The Bible is relatively silent on the topic of parenting.”

On the surface, this statement appears to be true. When we think of “parenting passages” we typically think of those that explicitly mention parents, children, authority and instruction: Deuteronomy 6, the fifth command in Exodus 20, spare the rod and spoil the child, train up a child in the way he should go, children obey your parents in the Lord, and a smattering of other verses. We may even throw in the example of the Prodigal Son or the parenting woes of the patriarchs for good measure. But other than these, few passages mention the parent-child relationship specifically, leading many to conclude that, for the most part, the Bible must leave us to figure out this parenting thing on our own. An understandable conclusion.

Until we remember that children are people.

Because if children are people, then they are also our neighbors. This means that every scriptural imperative that speaks to loving our neighbor as we love ourselves suddenly comes to bear on how we parent. Every command to love preferentially at great cost, with great effort, and with godly wisdom becomes not just a command to love the people in my workplace or the people in my church or the people at my hair salon or the people on my street or the people in the homeless shelter. It becomes a command to love the people under my own roof, no matter how small. If children are people, then our own children are our very closest neighbors. No other neighbor lives closer or needs our self-sacrificing love more.

Suddenly, a great deal of the Bible is not silent at all on the topic of parenting.

Recognizing my children as my neighbors has impacted the way I discipline them, the way I speak to them, the way I speak about them to others. It has required me to acknowledge how quick I am to treat those closest to me in ways I would never treat a friend or a co-worker. It has helped make my children objects of my compassion instead of my contempt. I am better able to celebrate their successes without taking credit for them, and to grieve their failures without seeing them as glaring evidence that I’m a terrible parent. Recognizing my children as my neighbors has freed me up to enjoy them as people rather than to resent them as laundry-generating food-ingesting mess-making fit-throwing financial obligations.

Except for the days that it hasn’t. And on those days, I must be reminded again what Scripture teaches about loving my neighbor, confess that I haven’t loved my child that way, and begin again. And Scripture provides ample help. Here are just a few "unlikely" parenting verses that point me back to neighborliness on the days that don’t go as they should:

When I want to correct my kids with harshness:
Proverbs 15:1
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

When I want to lecture them:
James 1:19-20
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

When I want to make them make me look awesome:
Philippians 2:3-4
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

When I find meeting their needs to be an imposition:
Matthew 25:37-40
Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

When I want credit for how hard I’m working as the mom:
Matthew 6:3-4
But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

When I don’t want to extend forgiveness for their offenses:
Ephesians 4:31-32
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

When I’ve completely lost sight of the forest for the trees:
2 Timothy 2:24-26
And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

That last one is on a note card on my fridge. 

It is true that our children are God-given responsibilities we are to steward. But we will only steward them as we should by remembering that, first and foremost, our children are people we are to treasure. When we treasure our children as our neighbors, we remove from our discipline any hint of condemnation, shame or contempt. We alter our language to communicate love and value, even when we must speak words of correction. And we replace our prayers of “please fix my frustrating child” with prayers of “please help me to love the little neighbor You have placed in my home, even as You have loved me.”

Fred (“Mister”) Rogers understood well the value and dignity of children. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he spent his life preaching the beauty of neighborliness on public television to small people: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…Won’t you be my neighbor?” His message is a good one for parents as well. Children are people. Our own children are our closest and dearest neighbors. Mom and dad, use each “beautiful day in the neighborhood” to show preferential love to the neighbors who share your roof. And be encouraged: the Bible overflows with help for you.

What passages of Scripture have most benefited you as a parent? I’d love to know.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

has failure become a virtue?

“Christian, you cannot obey the Law. Your certain failure is a means to show forth the grace of God when you repent.”

“We don’t need more lists of how to be a better spouse/parent/Christian. We need more grace.”

“My life strategy for today: fail, repent, repeat.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? These sorts of statements comprise a growing body of commentary that finds the Law of the Bible to be a crushing burden, not just for the unbeliever, but for the believer as well. Enough with “checkbox Christianity”, these voices tell us. No more “how to‘s” on righteousness. In the righteousness department you are an epic fail, so toss out your checklists and your laws, and cast yourself on grace.

failure gets a makeover

In recent years church leaders have rightly spoken out against moralistic therapeutic deism, which is really just a fancy name for legalism – the idea that we earn God’s favor through external obedience to a moral code. Moralistic therapeutic deism, as in the days of Jesus, pervades our culture and even our churches. And it’s as harmful today as it was when Jesus spoke against it two thousand years ago.

As a response to this skewed view of Law, some have begun to articulate a skewed view of grace - one that discounts the necessity of obedience to the moral precepts of the Law. I call this view “celebratory failurism” – the idea that believers cannot obey the Law and will fail at every attempt. Furthermore, that our failure is ultimately cause to celebrate because it makes grace all the more beautiful.

These days, obedience has gotten a bad name. And failure has gotten a make-over. 

Interestingly, Jesus battled legalism in a different way than the celebratory failurist does. Rather than tossing out the Law or devaluing obedience to it, he called his followers to a deeper obedience than the behavior modification the Pharisees prized. He called for obedience in motive as well as in deed, the kind of godly obedience that is impossible for someone whose heart has not been transformed by the gospel. Rather than abolish the Law, Jesus deepened his followers’ understanding of what it required, and then went to the cross to ensure they could actually begin to obey it.

set free to obey

The gospel grants both freedom from the penalty of sin and freedom to begin to obey (Rom 6:16). And what are we to obey? The Law, that once gave death but now gives freedom. God's Word teaches us that behavior modification should absolutely follow salvation. It just occurs for a different reason than it does in the life of the unbeliever. Modified behavior reflects a changed heart. When Peter says we have spent enough time living as the pagans do, surely he means that it is time to stop disobeying and begin obeying. Paul tells us that grace teaches us to say no to ungodly passions, not merely to repent when we fail to say no. He goes on to say that we are redeemed, not from the Law, but from lawlessness (disregard for the Law). If, as John attests, all sin is lawlessness (disregard for the Law), ought we not to love the Law and meditate on it day and night, as those who desire deeply to cease sinning? When Jesus says “Go, and sin no more,” don’t we think he means it?

Any profession of faith that is not followed by evidence is an empty profession. And faithful profession without faithful obedience is spiritual schizophrenia. It is to affirm that God exists and then to turn and live as if he does not.

Celebratory failurism asserts that all our attempts to obey will fail, thereby making us the recipients of greater grace. But God does not exhort us to obey just to teach us that we cannot hope to obey. He exhorts us to obey to teach us that, by grace, we can obey, and therein lies hope. Through the gospel our God, whose law and whose character do not change, changes us into those who obey in both motive and deed. Believers no longer live under the Law, but the Law lies under us as a sure path for pursuing what is good, right and pleasing to the Lord. Contrary to the tenets of celebratory failurism, the Law is not the problem. The heart of the Law-follower is.

Obedience is only moralism if we believe it curries favor with God. The believer knows that it is impossible to curry favor with God because God needs nothing from us. He cannot be put in our debt. Knowing this frees us to obey out of joyful gratitude rather than servile grasping.

Imagine telling your child, “I know you’ll fail, but here are our house rules. Let me know when you break them so I can extend grace to you.” We recognize that raising a lawless child is not good for the child, for our family, or for society as a whole. We don’t train our children to obey us so they can gain our favor. They already have our favor. We, being evil, train and equip them to obey because it is good and right and safe. And how much more does our Heavenly Father love us?

moving beyond “fail and repent”

We must not trade moralistic therapeutic deism for celebratory failurism. Sanctification is about more than “You will fail, but there is grace for you.” Growing in holiness means that we fail less than we used to, because at long last we are learning to obey in both motive and deed, just as Christ obeyed. There is a difference between self-help and sanctification, and that difference is the motive of the heart.

Earnest Christians look to their church leaders and ask, “Teach me to walk in His ways.” We owe them an answer beyond, “Fail and repent.” We owe them, “This is the way, walk in it.” The way is often delineated by lists – a list of ten don’ts in Exodus 20, a list of eight do’s in Matthew 5, a list of works of the flesh and spiritual fruit in Galatians 5, and so on. These are lists that crush the unbeliever but give life to the believer. They make straight the paths of those who love them, and though the way they delineate is narrow, it is the way that leads to life.

The Law becomes a gracious means of conforming us to the image of the Savior. We love the Law because we love the God of the Law, who has engraved it on our very hearts. We do not start our days planning to fail, nor do we celebrate failure. Rather, we set our faces like flint and resolve by the power of the Spirit to obey.

I delight to do your will, O my God;
    your law is within my heart.”      Psalm 40:8

Monday, February 17, 2014

should i leave my church?

I blogged over at The Village Church blog this week about whether unity in the church should be preserved at all costs. I'm often asked what would constitute a good reason for leaving a church, so this post is an attempt to clarify how each of us might think through that question. I hope you find it helpful:

If you’ve ever experienced disunity in a church, you know how upsetting it can be. Not many of us enjoy conflict in general, so the thought of conflict within the body of believers is particularly uncomfortable. But conflict happens, just as it does in any committed relationship. Christians are exhorted to be known by their unity even in their diversity, but does that mean we never raise a concern? How can we know if an issue is worth fighting for? Is there ever a time to break unity for the sake of integrity?

Every member of the body of believers possesses a set of beliefs that can be divided into three categories: essentialsconvictions and preferences. Understanding how these relate to unity can help us know whether to speak up or to remain silent, whether to break fellowship or to stay put...

{Read the rest of the post here}