Archive for the ‘disillusionment’ Category

Friends of ours were talking about their daughter. During lunch periods at her public high school, she’s befriended a girl who’s pregnant. Eventually, she invited the girl to youth group at church.

“Will I be judged?” the girl asked.

“Yes, by some,” our friends’ daughter responded. “But there will be a lot of others who won’t. They’ll be glad you’re there.”

That’s the most real, honest answer I’ve ever heard to that kind of a question. No one finds universal acceptance in any social situation – even at church, where we should. Kids who are told to expect total grace from a church youth group will be disappointed, and maybe disillusioned.  I’ve seen it happen too many times.

At the same time, the answer promises this girl that she will indeed find a measure of love, acceptance and yes, grace.

The girl is thinking about it. A lot of us who don’t even know her are praying for her. We’re praying that she’ll see Jesus.

I think maybe she already has.


And So This is Christmas?

Posted: December 18, 2012 by Jim Killam in books, disillusionment, doubt
"The Slaughter of the Innocents," Tintoretto, 1587

“The Slaughter of the Innocents,” Tintoretto, 1587

“When the heart-strings are suddenly cut, it is, I believe, a physical impossibility to feel faith or resignation. There is a revolt of the instinctive and animal system, and though we may submit to God, it is rather by constant painful effort than sweet attraction.”

– Harriet Beecher Stowe, writing to a friend who had experienced tragedy.

I haven’t watched one minute of TV news since last Friday. That’s certainly not because I don’t care about the people of Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve been reading newspaper accounts and praying for those families. But TV images are more than I want to deal with.

Almost five years ago, on Valentine’s Day 2008, a disturbed young man walked onto an auditorium stage at Northern Illinois University and started shooting. Before he took his own life, he’d shot 23 people, killing five. One of those killed was Dan Parmenter, a student of ours at the Northern Star, the daily student newspaper where I was the adviser.  Several other students who I knew well, either through the paper or the classroom, made it out of Cole Hall physically uninjured.

I accompanied a group of student journalists to the immediate aftermath, and took photos that would appear the next morning on front pages of newspapers all over the world. We all wish we could “un-see” what we saw that afternoon.

Where was God in all of that? Where was God last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Honestly, I have no idea. And I think anyone who thinks they have a lock on it has probably never experienced something like this up-close. Sure, I can find theological answers about how we live in a corrupt and evil world and how God has indeed made the ultimate costly provision to save us. I get that.

But what about those kids?

I’m still not sure where God was 20 years ago when my wife’s sister and her husband were killed by a drunk driver. I vividly remember a woman at the funeral telling our family, “God needed them in heaven more than we needed them here.” That’s idiotic theology and if anyone really believed that, they’d absolutely hate God.

Not that I’ve felt any great love for God in the immediate aftermath of tragedies. Just helplessness. We want to understand, to make sense of it all. This week, we want to blame guns, or mental illness, or video games, or our violent culture in general. And all of those things may play some part. We might make some strides with legislation and increased knowledge about what makes people do things like this. But there will be no satisfaction in trying to make sense of evil when awful things keep happening to innocent people.

So where does all of this leave us with God, a week before Christmas?

We don’t like to focus on this, naturally. But Christmas, from the beginning, has been tragically connected with the murder of innocent kids. King Herod, feeling threatened by the presence of the baby Jesus, ordered the slaughter of all boys age 2 and under in and around Bethlehem. (Matthew 2) Imagine what that must have been like for those families.

Faith doesn’t always come easily for me. I want it all to make sense, to be able to reason it through logically and come to an inarguable conclusion. Tragedies like last Friday’s throw all of that into a tailspin, and our response is to quickly look away rather than confront an ugly reality. Horrible, evil things happen. God for some reason allows them to happen, and the scales of justice never really seem back in balance.

I do know that God is present in pain – much more visibly than during the good times. I read the Psalms and see David crying out to God about the unfairness of it all. And I now that God knows, and cares, and loves, even when I can’t understand.

Brennan Manning wrote in “Ruthless Trust”: “Anyone God uses significantly is always deeply wounded. … We are, each and every one of us, insignificant people whom God has called and graced to use in a significant way. In his eyes, the high-profile ministries are no more significant than those that draw little or no attention and publicity. On the last day, Jesus will look us over not for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars.”

Incomplete as that answer seems to me, it’s all I’ve got. Rather than avert my eyes to pain in this world, I can lean into it … and at the same time, lean into the God who can be trusted, and ask him to use me in some small way. It’s a change in focus, and changes my question from a futile “Why?” to a hopeful “What?”

Faith in a Drought

Posted: October 9, 2012 by Jim Killam in disillusionment, doubt, fear, missions, nature

A stiff, cold wind blew in yesterday. It took our spectacular fall color and whipped most of it to the ground. That’s a harsh reminder of one season ending and a long, cold Illinois winter perhaps starting early.

The cold wind also bookends a terrible drought year, when it was tough for anything to grow and thrive, and when dirt and dust covered just about everything around here.

For my wife and me, the drought extended into most of life. It’s been an especially dry season of raising support for our upcoming missions work. With a couple of notable exceptions, possibilities that had looked promising simply dried up and blew away. I worked hard all summer and, like the farmers around here, I saw little payoff for all of that toil. Just a lot of indifference, outright rejection or simply being ignored. Plus, unlike the farmers, we didn’t have crop insurance. If God doesn’t come through, we are sunk.

Didn’t I just sacrifice a career? Didn’t we just sacrifice our home and comfort, to follow God’s clear calling on our lives? Aren’t we living in a shed? And the result so far is … frustration and disappointment? Really?

A drought becomes a vivid reminder that so much of life, and even our ability to sustain life, is beyond our control and incredibly fragile. A dry season turns us to God in a way that abundance does not. It’s human nature to tell God “please” a lot more than “thank you.” Our need for him, and the fallacy of self-reliance, becomes so much more obvious in a drought.

A drought favors plants with deep and healthy root systems. It favors good soil rather than shallow, rocky soil (Matthew 13:6, the Parable of the Sower – “But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.”) Things that we relied on, but were far more fragile than we realized, get stripped away. Only those things with the deepest roots survive – and even they sustain some damage.

So, what was stripped away for us in this year of spiritual drought? First, our nice home. Then our comfortable income. Both of those were voluntary steps of faith, and though we didn’t say it, I think we expected a reward. Instead, our modest savings dwindled. We lost comfort and convenience – the ability to simply take a shower, or cook a meal, without planning. We lost confidence in our abilities to restore that comfort and convenience. Pride in accomplishments evaporated. All of that admiration received when I quit my job to follow a calling? A distant memory now. Ultimately, we lost confidence that, in response to our steps of faith, God would act when and how we wanted him to act.

And now, 10 months into our spiritual drought, what remains? What has grown improbably?

Our faith looks different today. Tired of comfort and safety, we willingly (if not always enthusiastically) ceded those things. There is no more predictability to life, and that can be frustrating. That sense of adventure and excitement we were counting on does show up more, but it isn’t constant. It’s sometimes punctuated by serious doubt, as in “What did we just do?” And this after some previous dark seasons where hope seemed only a hollow promise.

We have learned, far more vividly than ever before, what it looks like to rely on God for absolutely everything – how, when comfort and convenience are stripped away, God becomes more visible.

But, while visible, God also can be frustratingly silent in a drought. Often, our cries for help seem to go no further than the ceiling. We found ourselves with the unspoken feeling that God owed us success in raising our support after we took such a big step of faith. And the “reward” was … days and weeks where no one – and I do mean no one – responded to my letters, phone calls and emails about the calling God has given me. (Do you know how discouraging it is for missionaries when people won’t even return a phone call or a personal email? Even a “no” is better than being ignored.) Meanwhile, bugs, vermin and bad smells remind us that we are indeed living in a farm shed. What once felt like an adventure is now a lot harder and less fun.

But we cling to God anyway, because we’ve received a calling and we have nowhere else to go. Like the Spanish explorer Cortez, we have burned the ships. There is no turning back, and there are no guarantees of safety ahead. I think of a line from Pete Sommer’s book, “Getting Sent”: “The road we are sent on is not smooth, but it goes Godward.”

And I start to realize … maybe this is what faith really looks like.

My kids grew up in a world missions-oriented church. For those with the financial means to go – and that was many in our affluent church – short-term missions trips helped build churches and other facilities around the world – particularly for a sister church in Eastern Europe.

It would be impossible to make a biblical argument argue against foreign missions. Jesus specifically called us to take the gospel to the whole world and make disciples. I think we have to be careful, though, about assuming that sending teens overseas is a sure way to seal their faith.

Sociologist Christian Smith has found that teens who take short-term missions trips are, statistically, no more likely than teens who don’t go to have a strong religious faith after age 18. It’s a proven non-factor (this from a Christianity Today webinar in 2009).

When one of my sons was 16, he went on a two-week missions trip to Scotland. The organization that planned the trip has an impeccable reputation; its leaders love God and care deeply about both the teens they’re traveling with and the people of the cities they visit. The trip represented a significant financial sacrifice for our family, plus months of fundraising from friends and relatives. But foreign missions were a huge part of our church’s culture, and were heavily emphasized in the youth group. We believed this could be a defining time in our son’s life.

“I really wanted to see the world,” my son told me recently. “So for that reason, I’m glad I went. But I felt like I had a quota. There was a certain number of people we were supposed to persuade to make a decision for Christ. While we were there, some people would raise serious questions that I couldn’t answer. And afterwards, a lot of that sank in.”

Five years after that trip, a significant number of people who went on that Scotland trip have either placed their faith on a shelf somewhere or have abandoned Christianity altogether. For my son, for now,  it’s the latter. I don’t place any blame on the organization or its leaders; just as many kids from that trip are solid in their faith today. But I do believe the research: The trip was a nonfactor in predicting what those kids did with their faith as they reached young adulthood.

The real factor, I think, was how real they saw their faith and their churches once they got home.

“High school was terrible,” my son says today of his youth-group experience. “Cliques formed and the leaders seemed OK with that. It was obvious they were separating kids into groups – by their looks, by their attitudes. The problem kids were separated from the others.

“Church is a lot more centered on what you shouldn’t do than about how to cope with life in modern times. Everybody was trying to be something they weren’t. I saw kids who supposedly were the model Christians, from the model families, and they were doing stuff you wouldn’t believe.”

He saw all of that more and more clearly, and he became disillusioned. It’s tough for anyone, let alone a teenager, not to equate a bad experience with church to a bad experience with God. So, when he didn’t like what he saw, he chucked it all.

Knowing what we know today, would we still send our kids on missions trips? I think so. Some offer amazing experiences serving the poor and needy, both in America and abroad. Christ can be far more visible in those situations than here in comfortable, middle-class America. But our expectations would be a lot different.

Proverbs 22:6 says “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”  Honestly, I’ve had a hard time with that verse the past few years. I do know that God is faithful – just not always in a way that’s to my immediate liking.

A church youth group can be the greatest thing in a teen’s spiritual development. For others, that same youth group can send them off the tracks. The same goes for missions trips. We parents wish there were bullet-proof guarantees on our kids’ spiritual lives. I’m here to tell you, there aren’t. At least not that I can see from this vantage point.

One spring day about 20 years ago, I went to Menard’s to buy paneling for a basement project. Then and now, I typically go for the cheapest product available if it looks good in the store. So I chose a wood-grain pattern in $6.99 sheets the approximate thickness of a business card. I loaded the 4-by-8-foot sheets onto one of those raised, flat carts, paid and wheeled everything outside.

I’d forgotten that this was a blustery April day. As soon as I reached the crosswalk between the store and the parking lot, a wind gust of about 40 mph whipped the top sheet of paneling off the cart and sent it sailing just over the heads of two elderly women on their way toward the store.

I don’t know if there are any documented cases of decapitation by cheap paneling, but this came horrifyingly close. The soundtrack still plays in my mind:


The paneling landed harmlessly in the parking lot. The ladies didn’t seem like they’d even noticed – they were both wearing those plastic rain bonnets sold at Walgreen’s for 79 cents; consequently they had no peripheral vision.

My basement project proceeded with scratched paneling and no court date.

And then, in a damp basement, within a couple of months the cheap paneling warped and got moldy. I ended up tearing it all out and throwing it away. The paneling that had looked so good under the protective store roof lasted only a couple of seconds when exposed to the outside world. And then, even surviving that shock, it quickly became useless and embarrassing when permanently placed in a hostile environment.

I thought of that brush with infamy the other day after talking with a college student. He grew up in a small town far from suburbia, went to the small church there and lived a sheltered life. When he arrived at a large state university, he quickly realized that a majority of people there saw life very differently than he did. Things weren’t as black and white as he’d been led to believe. Good people did some pretty bad things. People he’d been taught were bad were actually pretty nice. The people having the most fun didn’t seem to hold any faith at all.  Exposure to the bigger world made his faith seem irrelevant. The other small-town values he’d grown up with seemed irrelevant, too.

Two issues here. One, his faith wasn’t very deep. He’d been living his parents’ faith, which also wasn’t very deep – more cultural than spiritual. And two, he’d never tested it in the culture he’d eventually live in as an adult. So a big part of it blew away like a piece of cheap paneling in a windstorm. The remaining part was unsuitable for its new environment, so he soon discarded it as useless and irrelevant.

In the current issue of Relevant magazine, Barna Group president David Kinnaman observes:

“The ages of 18 to 29 are the crossroads – the time in life when people – if they are going to do it – are most likely to rethink their spirituality. Though people often become more spiritually minded as they get older, they don’t change very much in terms of spirituality. They tend to stay committed to faith perspectives that have served them for decades.”

Here’s what this looked like in the not-too-distant past: Most Americans, like my student, grew up with some Christian experience – anything from twice-a-year church attendance to devotedly following Christ. During their college and young adult years, many placed their faith on a shelf – or saw it shredded in a cultural hurricane they weren’t ready for. A fair amount eventually would pick up that faith again – often when they had young kids of their own.

Today, a huge proportion of American youth have no church experience – none. Their spiritually disillusioned parents never took them. Faith has absolutely no role in their lives and Christianity is no more than a punchline on a cartoon show. This has happened quickly – within one generation. Too many churches failed to recognize the scale of the problem until it had snowballed. Now it’s a crisis.

In a blog post titled, “This is Why We Plant Churches,” Scott Thomas of Mars Hill Church in Seattle cites Barna research in noting that, in the past 20 years, the number of Americans who don’t attend church has nearly doubled. At last check, only 18 percent of Americans are attending church on any given Sunday – and that’s projected to drop below 15 percent in the next decade. The largest unchurched population? Twenty-somethings.

I realize that church attendance and Christian faith don’t necessarily co-exist for everyone any more. But generally they still do. And that means Christianity has little to no role in the lives of a heavy majority of Americans today – especially those under 30.

So, while spiritual rethinking still likely happens between ages 18 and 29, it now occurs, for many, without any Christian context. The usual end result is wishy washy, inclusive theology (all roads lead to some concept of heaven) that has no basis in anything other than good feelings. That kind of world view, when truly tested, gets whipped into the street like a sheet of cheap paneling. And people are left looking for better answers.

Churches that focus heavily on reaching and discipling young adults – even at the expense of other ministries – are likely to become part of a new reformation that’s already begun. Those that fail to do this may find their doors closed. Very, very soon.

“We do not have time to waste our lives living out a Christian spin on the American Dream.”

— David Platt, “Radical”

God has indeed blessed us, as Americans. He certainly has blessed me. But maybe not in the ways we’ve been taught to think.

My friend Nate, a disillusioned but deep-thinking Christian, says the idea that God wants to provide us with material blessings is heresy. Here’s a quick excerpt from an interview I did with him a couple of years ago:

“While most of us reject the lure of the traditional prosperity gospel, the truth is we just find the crass materialism distasteful. But we DO believe that if we do certain things – like ‘accept’ Jesus, tithe, go to church, keep our noses clean) – then God is obligated to place a hedge of protection around us and ensure that we’re happy and satisfied with our lives. I don’t know where that promise is written, but it’s just the ‘magic words’ mentality of the prosperity gospel dressed up in more acceptable terms. Instead of getting health and wealth from Jesus, we get satisfaction, happiness and fulfillment. Where is there any decent teaching on suffering and its role in the Christian’s life? Nowhere. Because North Americans don’t have to suffer; we live in comfort and we’ve twisted the Good News to suit our desire to remain comfortable.”

Uh, yeah ...

I’ll disagree with Nate a little and say there’s some terrific teaching out there on suffering. See Philip Yancey, Brennan Manning, Henri Nouwen and C.S. Lewis, just to pluck from the top of the list. But I do agree that this kind of teaching doesn’t sell millions of books or get the author’s prosperous teeth and hair on the cover.

God’s blessings are not always material; in fact, the best ones are not. Either way, that’s not the ultimate point. As my pastor, Dan, said recently: The larger question is, what am I doing with the blessings God has already given ne? Am I keeping them for myself, or am I giving them away – using them for the benefit of others who need help?

Platt writes in “Radical”: “Why not begin operating under the idea that God has given us excess, not so we could have more, but so we could give more?”

What if I gave myself a salary cap? And anything above that, I gave away? What if I sold or gave away a lot of the luxuries surrounding me? What would it look like to take Jesus’ advice in Mark 10 to the rich young man: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

I know, I know, Jesus wasn’t necessarily saying all of his followers should give away everything they have, become missionaries and move to some Third World country. The real question is: Am I willing to do something like that? To forsake everything for the cause of the gospel?

It’s interesting: The more stuff I have, the more likely I am to say, “Jesus wasn’t talking to me there.”

But what if he was? Would I be able to hear him? And then, what would my answer be?

In his introduction to “Henri Nouwen: In My Own Words,” editor Robert Durback writes that divisions and separations within Christian communities are more painful than any other.

“In the secular and political realm we expect division and even deviousness. In religious communities that preach love, acceptance, equality, and forgiveness, we expect more. It’s the wounds we suffer from religious people and religious institutions that hurt the most. It is within this arena that our struggle toward spiritual maturity can be put to the severest of tests. Nowhere can “homelessness” be felt more deeply than when we feel estranged from the Christian community.”

Many people – young adults in particular — have understood life as a series of short-term, broken community experiences. When that’s the case, we quickly default to “protect” mode and pull away from a community before we get hurt again. If relationships within a church have been the problem, we can remain gun-shy for a long, long time.

Maybe there’s a fundamental flaw in how we in the evangelical world look at the church’s relation to our faith life. For many of us, they have been inseparable. The way we have experienced and lived our faith has had everything to do with the way we’ve interacted within our church community.

That is natural. But it can’t begin and end there. I’ve watched older Christians become bitter and downright mean because a church has adapted its services to appeal to younger people. Or, people have vowed never to return to a church – any church – after being deeply hurt by someone there. When we’ve bought in too heavily to churchy-ness, the state of our faith depends on our happiness with church. It’s where we go to find acceptance as people, acceptance of our opinions, and encouragement to continue building the Fortress.

We have equated something eternal with something temporary and imperfect. Our expectations were flawed, because our underlying relationship with God has been flawed. Churches will disappoint us. If we’re not careful, we end up either rejecting our faith outright because of a bad church experience or – more often – we reject the church and decide we’ll just go it alone with God. And we forsake community: the entity that God so often uses to draw people to himself.

Guess who wins then?