Scripture Is Not Just for Others; It’s for Us Too

Do you ever consider how often we use Scripture to prove ourselves right? To back up actions that other people view as unloving?

Yet how often do we use Scripture to gauge the state of our own hearts and souls?

There are so many commands and instructions in the Bible, and we Christians often use these to argue with other people about why they are wrong. We may not frame it that way. We may not ever admit that we’re judging someone as wrong and trying to prove ourselves right. We frame it with all kinds of fancy terms like discipling, and imparting truth, and doing God’s will, and sharing the gospel, and—my personal favorite—correcting in love.

But, if Scripture is for rebuking and correcting, how often do we use it to rebuke and correct ourselves? Jesus commands in various places to watch out for false prophets. He often uses wolf/sheep metaphors to get his point across.

When reading these passages, do you ever internalize the command, and wonder if you have sometimes acted as a false prophet, a wolf leading sheep astray? In Matthew 7, Jesus says you will know false prophets by their actions. Do you ever ponder your own actions, and wonder if you’ve done anything that might mislead someone about the truth of the kingdom of heaven? Have you ever lost your temper? Have you ever been dishonest—even a little bit? Have you ever said something hurtful that you wished you hadn’t? Have you ever alienated a non-Christian with divisive or judgmental words, or shut someone out of the kingdom of heaven based on a flawed idea of what the kingdom is?

Suffering: When Others Hurt [Part 2 of 2]

Remember a couple of weeks ago, when we talked about how we tend to explain away past hurts and difficult times in our lives? It’s perfectly natural to internalize and trivialize our own hurts. After all, it’s been drilled into us that we have so much to be thankful for, that to focus on hardship is to be ungrateful for all of God’s other blessings, such as food, clothing, shelter, employment, financial security, etc. We learn to tell ourselves that we can’t afford to indulge our own heartache and suffering because there are “real” people with “real” problems in other parts of the world, dealing with issues such as starvation, extreme poverty, diseased water, human trafficking, child soldiers, etc.

But to explain away hurt to such an extent renders our own sorrowful experiences powerless to transform us. Brushing it off or trivializing suffering often takes us further from the heart of the hurt. It allows us to distance ourselves from our former pain, to put a barrier between us and it, so it can never touch us again. And if we can never touch it again, never again access that helpless, why me? why now? feeling, never open old wounds and stir some salt around in them… Then how can we ever possibly hope to be present with anyone else during their difficult times?

Our own suffering makes a world that is not really about us, completely about us. But suffering is not individual. Suffering is corporate. We need one another.

Suffering: When We Hurt [Part 1 of 2]

Ever notice how good we get at coming up with answers and explanations for the hard times in our lives?

After we have come through a particularly difficult time ourselves, it becomes very easy—the further and further away we get from that difficult time—to look back on it and assign various platitudes and reasoning for why it was so awful. Hindsight is 20/20, after all.

God needed to teach me a lesson.
There is a season for everything, and that was my mourning season.
That happened to me so I could use it to minister to others.

But when we’re in the midst of a struggle, of a difficult situation, the last thing we want—even though it might be the first thing we ask for—is an explanation. Because no explanation is good enough. No explanation will satisfy our questions, nor will it ease the pain. If God is truly omnipotent, after all, then God could manage to arrange a lesson-learning situation that doesn’t involve tragedy and grief. God does not cause situations of suffering and sorrow so good things can be brought out of them. The broken world we live in causes hurt—not God—and perhaps God, in God’s gracious omnipotence, helps us use our faith to learn something or turn our experiences into opportunities to serve.

It’s Not Really about Swearing

Teenagers tend to feel disconnected from the Ten Commandments. And why shouldn’t they? They were written for a wholly different people—an adult people, no less—in a wholly different context. We do our best as youth ministers to help bring contextual relevance to some of the more obscure commands, and to help our teens understand the spirit of the law behind each one.

For instance, we know they aren’t melting down their purity rings in their backyards and making literal idols to worship, so instead we talk to them about how their smartphones and laptops and other gadgets can become idols, along with their pursuits of popularity or perfect grades. But even our best attempts to cast the Ten Commandments in culturally relevant light can fall short, especially when the language in which we learn and memorize them remains archaic. What, for instance, does it mean when God says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”?

Many, many, many elementary Sunday school teachers and youth ministers say, “Easy. Don’t say the G-D word or J-C when you’re angry. Instead, say pure words like dadgum, gosh-darnit, or geez. Next?”

Of course, none of you have ever made that mistake. Nuh-uh. We know that the youth ministers and leaders and volunteers and parents who read this blog never take the easy way out when discussing matters of faith with their students. This post isn’t for you. It’s for that youth leader of that other church down the street. (Print this off and slide it under his or her door.)

So what does it mean to take the Lord’s name in vain, if it’s not—and we’re pretty sure it’s not—merely avoiding using the name of Christ as an expletive when we stub a toe, or asking God to condemn that huge pothole in the road that just reminded us how bad the shocks are in our car?

Let’s think about the context of the people for whom the commandment was originally written. Yes, the new covenant and Jesus’s sacrifice and his blood ensure that all that exclusive, for-God’s-people-only stuff can now be applied to anyone. But when the Ten Commandments were given to Moses on the mountain, they were specifically for God’s people, who—at that time—were only the Israelites. God repeats over and over throughout the first several books of the Old Testament that the Israelites are to be a holy nation and a priestly kingdom; that they are to be his representatives; that they are his, and that the world will know it by the way they live.

So, armed with that information, the phrase taking the Lord’s name in vain begins to feel a little different. Doesn’t it start to feel like a situation where behavior should be considered? If the Israelites are supposed to be God’s people, then the world is going to watch them. And if you bestowed your seal upon someone else and vouched for that person and said that anything that person said or did was a direct representation of who you are… Well, you’d want that person to be well behaved and articulate and honest, wouldn’t you? You’d want to be represented as educated, kind, courteous, thoughtful, insightful. And anything that person did that misrepresented you… Well, wouldn’t you take offense to that? Wouldn’t you be indignant, and perhaps even hurt?

Jesus Came to Seek and Save…the Choir?

There are some idiomatic expressions we simply need to strike from the collective Christianese lexicon.

One such expression is preaching to the choir.

Have you ever thought about the message that is communicated with the expression preaching to the choir? The phrase is usually used in a context that means whoever you’re talking to already understands your argument, so there’s no need for you to continue it. Example: One stay-at-home mother says to another stay-at-home mother: “I just hate that people think we are lazy, or don’t do anything all day long.”  Odds are, the second mother already feels the same way, so she might respond that the first mother is preaching to the choir, communicating in essence: We believe the same way; no need to spell it out to each other.

That’s an innocuous enough context, but the expression itself has Christian roots. The implication is that the gospel needs to be preached out there, out in the street, where the sinners are, out in the world, where all those—gasp—secular people are. The members of the choir know the gospel. They even preach it themselves. It’s old news. Nothing to see or learn here. They’ve got it down pat. Stop preaching to the choir. The choir gets it.

But does the choir get it? I can’t remember the last time I was in a church service containing a choir-ful of perfect parish members. I think that’s because the last time was never. Choir members are sinners. Choir members have forgotten the message of the gospel. Choir members live in the secular world. Or, possibly worse, some choir members live immersed in Christian-only bubbles, where certain sins get disguised so well by an appearance of Christian behavior that they aren’t even recognized any longer as sin. Choir members have lied. Choir members have deceived. Choir members have gossiped, have coveted, have envied, have boasted, have adulterated, have—in short—sinned.

Choir members need the gospel just as badly as the secular world needs it. Let’s stop using this phrase to communicate implicit untruths about the church and Christianity.

I Had the Time of My Life

When I was a teenager navigating life and youth group, I had multiple volunteer youth workers tell me one of two things: Either I was currently living the best time of my life (so I needed to enjoy it), or I would very soon be living the best time of my life (once I got to college).

Either way, both messages were clear: Enjoy the present; enjoy your youth; the future is bleak.

I struggled with these messages because life as a teenager was already bleak. In retrospect, of course, it wasn’t. I had a home, loving parents, a roof over my head, and a meal at virtually any time of day I wanted. I lacked nothing, essentially.

But hindsight is 20/20, and I was a teenager. I had teenage crises. Conflicts with friends were disasters. Breakups were apocalyptic. Acne was life-stopping. Fashion, trends, and fitting in were all important. Life was hectic, hormones raged, emotions were fragile. And that’s from a white, middle-class perspective.

I never dealt with poverty; with divorce; with addiction; with teen pregnancy; with bullying (cyber or otherwise); with death or separation from family members; with hunger; with learning disabilities; with psychological disorders; with racial biases; with sexual orientation questions; or with the numerous other actually tragic circumstances that some teenagers unfortunately encounter.

As an adult pushing toward my thirties, I realize now that those volunteer youth workers had no idea what they were talking about. They were still kids themselves, who hadn’t turned thirty yet, who had just emerged from the last vestiges of adolescent co-dependence into adulthood, and who had become disillusioned by the real world of bill-paying and working and providing for themselves. But I didn’t know that as a teenager, so their statements carried supreme wisdom accompanied by ultimate doom and hopelessness.

Many youth workers are young, fresh out of college, and still figuring out the nuances of adult life. Among ourselves, we know that. But our teens do not. They see us as authority figures on life and faith. They have no idea what personal and professional disappointments or failures or setbacks we’ve faced. Let’s not project our own shortcomings and insecurities onto our teenagers. No matter what has been true for us, shouldn’t we always—if for no other reason than because of the faith we profess and teach—communicate a message of hope to the teenagers we lead?

MLB’s Mike Matheny: Servant Leadership

The church is a common context in which to hear the term servant leadership. Pastors are told all the time how important it is to their ministries to be servants first, to lead by serving, and to remain humble in their leadership positions. We hear this so often in the church we’re probably numb to the idea.

Somewhere you might not expect to hear the concept of servant leadership discussed is Major League Baseball. Most of what we hear out of that world revolves around selfishness and greed. Winning and money are the two all-important end goals for most of the people who make their living in Major League Baseball.

But Mike Matheny, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, has adopted a servant-leadership model in his clubhouse rule. Check out this article about him. It’s an interesting perspective you don’t often see coming out of the world of professional sports.

Did you read it? So what do you think? If Major League Baseball can do it, surely the church can view it in a new light to keep an old concept from getting tired. Right?


It’s 9/11. So What?

The Challenger explosion. John F. Kennedy’s death. Pearl Harbor. As far back into time as we can reach, we can find nation-rocking events. Events about which people can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

And, if you’ve paid attention to today’s date, then you know where I’m leading you. The most recent [tragic] event that fits into this “know exactly where you were when it happened” category for U.S. Americans is the day the World Trade Center was attacked. September 11, 2001.

Where were you? What were you doing?

I was a senior in high school. I was in my first-period class, which happened to be American Government. My teacher had the news on when we walked into class. The first plane had already struck. The bell rang at 8:00 a.m. (CDT), and by that time all eyes in our class of 20-some students were glued to the TV. And so it was that a collective gasp went up at 8:03, when we all witnessed the second crash live.

2001. That was twelve years ago. Your youngest students may not have even been born yet. Your oldest students may not have started Kindergarten. So what do we do with that?

Depending on how long you’ve been in youth ministry, the Challenger explosion and JFK’s death might not hold a personal significance for you, and I’m betting Pearl Harbor really doesn’t, unless you’re a true youth ministry veteran. But that doesn’t mean you haven’t been taught about them. It doesn’t mean you haven’t learned to understand the important places those events occupy in history.

But who taught you that significance? And when did you really begin to grasp it? My guess would be, not during your teenage years. Teenagers are, by nature, self-centered. It’s part of the growing-up process.

So how do you handle 9/11 discussions with your teenagers? How do you help them understand the significance of events that happened before there were smartphones? Before Twitter? Before the existence of everything that their worlds revolve around, namely themselves?