Posts Tagged ‘overflow’

(Warner Brothers)

(Warner Brothers)

We got a GPS this past Christmas. We call it Mildred. If we’re going somewhere and we need directions, we just type our destination and hit “Go.” And Mildred sets to work, bouncing signals off a satellite and back, calculating the perfect route (usually) and then – the best part – speaking that route to us, turn by turn.

My friend Lincoln and I took Mildred to Southern California a few weeks ago, where she performed like a champ, guiding us through the freeway system. A few times when we couldn’t get to the exit ramp because of heavy traffic, we’d miss a turn. And Mildred would simply gather herself, recalibrate and tell us the new directions. Once in a while, she would get confused momentarily – especially on cloverleafs, where one road was directly above another – but we could always count on her to figure things out.

Sometimes I wish my life had a GPS, where I could plug in a destination and receive turn-by-turn instructions from Mildred’s firm, confident computer voice. Instead, life usually seems like I’m stuck in a tunnel and Mildred can’t find the satellite. I’m left to take my best guess about the next turn. Sometimes that proves to be the right path. Sometimes I have to recalibrate.

That can be frustrating when all I want is clarity. But then I remember: No great adventure was ever a sure thing. What makes it an adventure is risk – risk of getting lost, risk of failure, risk of letting a lot of people down, even risk of death. The bad thing about a GPS is, it can turn a journey into a boring list of instructions. Sure, you don’t get lost. But in the process, the adventure gets lost with it.

I tend to wander, and I tend not to follow instructions (just ask my wife). I’ve been lost many times, without a map or GPS: In a forest preserve two miles from our house. On a remote national park trail as the sun was setting. In a ridiculously bad neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, where I could only think of Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold character. Even in Beirut, Lebanon, where we’d wandered much too close to a Hezbollah rally.

Each of those situations became a good story we still talk about – usually in the context of how dumb I was for not carrying a map or GPS. Point taken, if we’re talking about a hike or a drive.

But when we’re talking about life decisions, then I’m back to that adventure thing – how it requires an ever-growing trust in someone I can’t see. Brennan Manning writes in “Ruthless Trust” that he believes that trusting God is, in fact, what it means to love him.

“Why does our trust offer such immense pleasure to God?” Manning writes. “Because trust is the pre-eminent expression of love. Thus, it may mean more to Jesus when we say, ‘I trust you,’ than when we say, ‘I love you.’”

Those words help. I wrestle with doubts about my faith all the time. The bottom line, though, is that my wife and I have loved God enough to trust him, and to take a big risk, not knowing where the road leads. We’ve sold our nice home and I’ve left a comfortable career – certainties in life – in order to pursue something crazy, something great. We have no idea how this story will turn out.

I watched “Argo” last night, the Oscar-winning film about the rescue of six American diplomats from Iran in 1979. Ben Affleck’s character, CIA agent Tony Mendez, is laying out his crazy-sounding plan to the diplomats: They’ll pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi movie. The six are less than convinced. Mendez tells them it’s their best hope.

That’s why I’m here,” he says. “I’m gonna help you. I’m gonna be with you the whole way. This is what I do. I get people out and I’ve never left anyone behind. I’m asking you to trust me.”

Sometimes, a film that has nothing to do with God can bowl me over with a God moment. Right now, if our lives were a movie, we’d be at that critical point where the audience isn’t sure whether the heroes are going to make it.

And I can sense God saying to me the exact words Mendez used.

I’m gonna help you. I’m gonna be with you the whole way. This is what I do. … I’m asking you to trust me.

We want an airtight plan with guarantees. Or at least we think we do. God says, “Trust me.”

Do I love him enough to do that? I want to.

Manning writes:

The reality of naked trust is the life of a pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future. Why? Because God has signaled the movement and offered it his presence and his promise.”

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This is a big week at many churches, because it’s either fall kickoff or Fall Kickoff, depending on your point of view. Weeknight activities usually start, especially for kids – from preschool to AWANA to junior-high and senior-high youth groups.

A story last month in USA Today showed how religious activity for teens ages 13-17 has remained flat for almost a decade, after a sharp decline in the late 1990s. About 30 percent of American teens attended a church youth group in 2009; about half attended church. The story was pegged on a Barna Research Group study of teens and their religious activity, and all of that doesn’t sound so bad.. But the Barna website also reports these findings:

The study assessed nine different forms of teenage involvement; six of those religious activities are at their lowest levels since Barna Group began tracking such teen behaviors. These included small group attendance, prayer, Sunday school participation, donations to churches, reading sacred texts other than the Bible, and evangelism by Christian teens (explaining their belief in Jesus Christ with others who have different faith views). 

And Barna President David Kinnaman comments: 

 “While there is still much vibrancy to teen spirituality, it seems to be ‘thinning out.’ Teenagers view religious involvement partly as a way to maintain their all-important relationships. Yet perhaps technology such as social networking is reconfiguring teens’ needs for relationships and continual connectivity, diminishing the role of certain spiritual forms of engagement in their lives. Talking to God may be losing out to Facebook.”

Case in point: While youth-group participation has held steady for about a decade, the percentage of born-again Christian teens who say they have “shared their faith in Christ with others in the past year” has nosedived. Most notably: Among Protestants from “non-mainline” denominations, it went from 72 percent in 1997 to 53 percent in 2009.

Church youth groups always have been a microcosm of high school, with the same social pecking order and cliques. Social networks existed long before Facebook; plenty of kids dropped out of youth group rather than have to endure one more place where they felt like misfits. (People who aren’t aware of this are those who were/are among the popular kids.) Now, though, there’s additional concern that as fewer parents attend church, greater percentages of kids may lose interest … if they ever had it.

The USA Today piece explored that:

“Sweet 16 is not a sweet spot for churches. It’s the age teens typically drop out,” says Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, which found the turning point in a study of church dropouts. “A decade ago teens were coming to church youth group to play, coming for the entertainment, coming for the pizza. They’re not even coming for the pizza anymore. They say, ‘We don’t see the church as relevant, as meeting our needs or where we need to be today.’ “

There are bright spots. The article quoted Chris Palmer, youth pastor at Ironbridge Baptist Church in Chester, Va., where “youth group enrollment slid from 125 teens in 2008 to 35 last winter.

“He pulled participation back up to 70 this year by letting teens know “real church, centered on Jesus Christ, is hard work,” Palmer says. “This involves the Marine Corps of Christianity. Once we communicate that, we see kids say, ‘Hey, I want to be involved in something that’s a little radical and exciting.’”

Rainer agrees. He says teens today want Scripture, they “don’t want superficiality. We need to tell them that if you are part of church life, you are part of something bigger. The church needs you, too.”

All of which might point to quite a shift in youth ministry approach. In the past, the social aspect might have brought kids there, and then deeper spiritual activity might have taken root. Today, kids (and adults) have more shallow social networking than they know what to do with. The church needs to offer something of more substance. Right up front. Maybe even before the pizza.

Sometimes I really relate to Lieutenant Dan from “Forrest Gump.” In this scene, the Gary Sinise character reaches his breaking point with disappointment, heartache and failure. In the face of a hurricane, and in a one-way conversation, Dan has it out with God.

Sometimes, faith just bottoms out.

“So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call … ?”

That was written by that great backslider, Mother Teresa, as she struggled with her work in Calcutta. Some of her journals and letters wound up in a 2007 book. I stumbled upon that specific entry online a few weeks ago. Unknowingly, I’d just written something similar in my own journal, during a particularly bad week as a dad:

“God, I feel like I am hanging onto my faith by my fingernails. I am so tired of unanswered prayers, destroyed hopes and … just heaviness. How much more are you going to let pile up on us? Often it seems like you have just checked out on our family. How can I honestly tell people that Christ is the answer they’re looking for, when I’m left feeling empty so often … like my prayers never get past the ceiling? Some days I wonder if my faith is even real. Is this how life is always going to be now? Do you even care? Please renew my strength, hope and faith. I don’t know why we’re in this storm that never seems to end, but please help. Show yourself faithful and worthy of my trust. Please.”

Philip Yancey, one of my journalistic heroes, writes that in a time of disillusionment, he went a year where the only prayers he could muster came out of a book of prayers. I can identify with that. Sometimes, I’ve got absolutely nothing.

I think just about any Christ follower with a brain has had days/weeks/months/years like that. I don’t mind wrestling with doubt – in the end it solidifies my belief and helps me separate truth from assumption. Those wrestling matches aren’t fun, though. Sometimes, waves of doubt swamp my intellect. I just don’t have it in me to be a “God said, I believe it and that settles it” kind of Christian. Surely I can possess a faith that includes room for doubt, and challenge, and intellectual sharpening.

David had that kind of faith. As I read through the Psalms – not just the happy ones that got turned into worship choruses – I see some dark, dark moments. Doubt. Anger. Despair. It’s all there.

I think of a quote by the great sports writer Red Smith: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” That could just as easily be applied to real, heartfelt conversations with God.

Through the centuries, the Church has had a tough time being honest about doubt. It’s been treated as a sign of spiritual weakness, not to be openly discussed. As a result, far too many intelligent people walked away from the Church and never came back.

One of the really good things happening today among missional-minded churches (and others, too) is an openness to the fact that faith is a struggle sometimes. Some churches, including mine, have experimented with something we call Doubt Nights. Usually held in a bar or coffee house, they’re an opportunity for anyone to raise hard questions. “Did Adam and Eve really exist?” “How do I know the Bible is all true?” Or the even more honest, “Why does God seem so absent in my toughest times?”

I don’t have all those answers, and I don’t like hanging out with people who think they do. Because often, those are the people who have never endured any real trial. So we talk about those questions, offer guidance where we can, and acknowledge that even when the Bible finally makes sense, life most of the time does not.

God and I are on better terms again lately. Circumstances haven’t really changed, but writing that letter to him helped to distill my confusion and disappointment and, yes, anger. Hey, it’s not like he didn’t already know.

As Donald Miller wrote in “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years”: “When you stop expecting God to end all your troubles, you’d be surprised how much you like spending time with God.”

Praying in tongues

Posted: August 20, 2010 by Jim Killam in Idiot Friday
Tags: , , , , ,

They must teach this in seminaries, because almost every pastor I’ve ever known does it when finishing a public prayer. It’s the tongue-click before saying “Amen”:

“We ask these things in Jesus’ name (single tongue-click), Amen.”

If I’ve completely lost you, here’s how to click your tongue.

I notice things like this in church because I have the attention span of a gnat. But why do so many pastors do it? Is it a nervous tic? A speech enhancer? Some sort of secret signal to the mother ship? And why have I never heard a non-pastor do this?

Your assignment for this weekend is to listen in church for the tongue-click amen, then report back.

Hey, we call it Idiot Friday for a reason.

Over-Armor

Posted: August 18, 2010 by Jim Killam in church culture, fortress, movies
Tags: , , , , ,

In this scene from the 1967 film, “The Graduate,” Dustin Hoffman’s character dons the college graduation gift he got from his father – scuba gear – and escapes to the bottom of the family’s backyard swimming pool. His equipment was made for deep-sea exploration, yet he only uses it to hide in the shallowness of his suburban back yard, and in his own self-centeredness.

We Christians love to talk about putting on the full armor of God. But how often do we let ourselves or our families venture far enough from the Fortress that we truly need armor?

Much of my adult life as a Christian has been spent retreating with my fellow overchurched people. In a lot of churches, you can spend 2-3-4 nights a week involved in various church boards, commissions and small groups, be modestly proud of that and be thought of as a pillar of the church. During all of those activities, you might never come into contact with a single person who isn’t already a Christian. And you could be totally oblivious to that little problem.

At one church service I attended, a skit portrayed a basketball team in the locker room, getting a pre-game pep talk from the coach. The team gets fired up, and one player runs out onto the court. The rest stay in the locker room. The player keeps coming back with game updates. “Guys! We’re losing 40-2! I really need some help out there.” And the team endlessly plots strategy while the game goes on and their team gets steamrolled.

That skit had a good message: Get out of the holy huddle. The game’s already going on out there.

It's Gore-Tex.

And then the skit’s message was obliterated by what came next: the morning’s announcements. A men’s retreat, a women’s retreat, a church breakfast. The unintentional but all-too-clear message was: “Quick, back inside the Fortress before anyone does anything crazy.”

Prayerfully developing a plan of action – putting on the armor – isn’t the problem. We need it if we’re to impact our world rather than embody Leeroy Jenkins. But put on layer after layer of armor, without ever using it, and eventually it’s hard to move. It’s “Seinfeld” loser George Costanza, sweating in a Gore-Tex coat made for Arctic exploration.

It was my daughter, at age 11, when I made her wear a safety helmet while horseback riding in Yellowstone National Park. This was a long line of gentle horses, probably with names like Norman or Ferdinand. They moseyed along, nose to tail, moving at the approximate speed of a glacier. Middle-aged, potbellied suburbanites in flip-flops rode these same horses. And here was my daughter, who had ridden horses helmetless plenty of times on her grandparents’ farm, ready just in case the Kentucky Derby broke out. She still gives me static about that, and I deserve it.

When we realize we’re over-armored and barely moving, we feel suffocated. Overequipped, overprotected and underused. And when we wake up to that fact, it brings about a sense of holy discontent.

That’s something God can use.