Music & Me: Vanishing Point Vol. 1

Vanishing Point Vol 1 Cover.jpgSince I picked up my first Sigma guitar in downtown Richmond, VA at the age of 16, I started writing songs. It was my way of journaling my relationship with God – talking about frustrations and doubts … rejoicing in spiritual breakthroughs. From the James Madison University Baptist Student Union (BSU) … to worship leading in New England and rural Virginia … to Seminary life in Fort Worth, TX, song writing has been my favorite way of communicating with God.

Then I became a senior pastor. And I put my guitar away. Stopped writing music. For some reason, I felt like I finally needed to grow up and grow out of writing music. After all, God was calling me to do more important stuff – like preaching, visitation and Wednesday night prayer meetings.

In reality, music felt like a missing phantom limb.

Then came an unexpected heart attack … A brush with mortality … A change in ministry accompanied by a change in scenery. And that’s when I started writing songs again. From June 2016 to October 2016, I wrote 21 songs.

My new album of songs, Vanishing Point, is my last will and testament. Let me be clear: I don’t really plan on dying anytime soon … My cardiologist gave me a clean bill of health two months ago. But our life could end in the blink of an eye … And who can plan on death really?!?

So Vanishing Point is what I want to say in the face of death. It’s a declaration of the hope that I have in Christ. It’s my last words to my family. It’s the songs I want played at my funeral. Honestly, it’s 18 happy little songs about the prospect of death and eternal life.

Since 18 songs is a lot to digest, I’m releasing Vanishing Point in two volumes. And since streaming music services pay essentially nothing to artists (i.e. I’m currently earning a vast fortune at $.0001 / play for my older music on Spotify), I’m releasing them both for FREE on Noisetrade. You can download the album for FREE here: VANISHING POINT VOLUME 1

So here’s some insight into the 1st nine songs composing Volume 1 of Vanishing Point:

  1. And The Black Rider Won’t Catch Me Now“: In the graphic novel East of West, death is portrayed as a haggard gunslinger that crisscrosses the country chasing down his quarry. It’s a powerful image of death hunting us down. So here’s my opening shot of the album: Death can chase me … But he’ll never REALLY catch me. All because of the work of Christ.
  2. Let’s Destroy Thomas“: Back in 2000, I wrote a song proclaiming the virtues of doubt called “Thomas.” That song was theological garbage. So “Let’s Destroy Thomas” is a way to reinterpret and correct my own wrongheaded song. Ultimately, I don’t want to race to the finish line with increasing doubts and unfinished business. While the Biblical Thomas’ doubts are identifiable, they are also not a virtue to be emulated. I want God to cast out my doubts and strengthen my faith. Instead of Thomas, I think we do well to emulate the father of the sick child in Mark 9:21: “I believe; help my unbelief.”
  3. Vanishing Point“: A few years ago, a good friend and fellow pastor from High School died. By chance (or God’s providence, really), I bumped into him again in adulthood in a fast food joint in rural Virginia. A few months after that meeting, a terminal illness quickly took his life. While I wasn’t there at the end, my friends told me that he rejoiced and sang from his hospital bed at the prospect of heaven. He told everyone within earshot Philippians 1:21: “For to me, to live is Christ, to die is gain.” I wish that I could say that I’ve always had attitude … I’ve wasted so much time making marks for my own glory. Building monuments and making names for ourselves during our short journey on Earth are pointless. Christ is all. To quote  missionary Count Zinzendorf: “Preach the Gospel, die and be forgotten.” May our glory vanish away and may His glory be clearly seen.
  4. Black Hearse“: Death is a grotesque financial racket. The average cost of a funeral in the US is now between $7,000-$10,000. During the course of preaching a funeral in central Indiana, I hitched a ride to the cemetery in the local funeral director’s new hearse. Before we arrived, the local funeral director flatly threw out the astronomically absurd amount of money that a new hearse costs. My jaw hit the floor. I kept thinking: “How many people have to die to pay for this car?” It’s a good thing that death won’t last forever. I’m so looking forward to taking my “How To Direct A Funeral” book and starting a bonfire.
  5. Drowning With Land In Sight“: Matthew 7:21-23 are the scariest verses of the Bible. Those verses keep me awake at night. The prospect of serving God but not knowing God is frightening. It’s like a pilot seeing the landing strip but crashing. Or drowning with land in sight. God help us.
  6. When I’m Gone“: C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce is an amazing book musing on the nature of Heaven.  When I’m gone from this life, I desperately want to leave the old grey town behind and catch the bus to eternal life. So read the book … The song will make much more sense.
  7. Homecoming Day“: I think there’s one thing we get consistently right about Heaven: It’s a celebration. Luke 15 reflects that message. The Father rejoices as we come home and dine at His table. So let’s gather round and crank up the praise … It’s homecoming day.
  8. Closer To Closure“: Time is a funny thing. One moment, we’re in line at the DMV and the clock is dragging along. Another moment, we’re watching the kids that swung outside on the swings graduate from High School. One moment, we’re retreading the same old selfish sins. Another moment, we don’t recognize the holier person God is turning us into. Through it all, those that believe are inching closer and closer to our final resting place. Every day that passes is one step closer to home.
  9. “Restless / Endless”: Constantly dreaming of eternal shores where pain is no more.

Again, you can download Volume 1 of Vanishing Point for FREE here: VANISHING POINT VOLUME 1.

Volume 2 coming shortly.

You Are Not The Gardener (On Parenting & John 15)

I am a terrible gardener … A complete brown thumb.

One spring in Virginia, I tried my hand at planting a garden. After all, how hard could it be?!? I mean, they practically give away the seeds at the end-caps of the local hardware store, beckoning amateur gardeners to get their hands dirty. Well … It was mind-numbingly horrific on so many levels. We couldn’t keep the weeds from choking out from most of the plants. The squirrels had a daily feast underneath of our noses. Only afterward did we find out vital information about tilling the garden and proper planting techniques. The only thing that we managed to grow that spring was jalapeño peppers … And a local beaver devoured all of them. Totally not kidding … Who knew that beavers were into spicy food? I watched from my back porch every day as that beaver tauntingly feasted on my future salsa.

I was thinking about being a terrible gardener while studying Jesus’ parable of the vine and the branches in John 15 for some parenting material that I’m putting together for my local church. The main thrust of John 15 is about abiding in Christ … Believers must stay connected to the power and the nourishment that comes from Christ to produce anything worthwhile in this life. Any spiritual fruit – love, joy, pace, patience and the like – ultimately stems from a relationship with Christ. Growth comes from God. His people are wholly dependent upon Him.

As parents, it helps to know our role in Jesus’ parable. God is the gardener, pruning the plant to produce whatever shape and fruit He desires. Christ is the true vine, who is the source of all power and growth in our lives. As Christian parents, we are branches. We are works in progress. Like stubborn rose bushes, we are being pruned back by the gardener of sin and other dead weights to produce spiritually vibrant blooms and fruit.

If our kids are followers of Christ, they are branches too. Rebellious, poorly misshapen, rough around the edges and often quite annoying, but branches nonetheless. As mature Christians, parents might be more visually appealing, well-worked branches … But both parent and child are branches in the hands of a loving gardener.

So here’s the important reminder: Parents, you are not the gardener.

Our job as parents is to introduce our kids to the gardener – not to attempt to usurp the gardener’s job. Our sinful natures and inflated egos desperately desire to be the agents of change in our kids lives where Scripture tells us we cannot. Only in Christ are we new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). Only in Christ are our sins erased (Titus 3:4-7). As much as we trust in the most-shared, most-“liked” parenting articles on social media, we must understand that timeouts, spankings, schooling decisions, breast feeding choices or whatever else fad is trending on twitter doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans in the scope of eternity. And that’s Biblical, baby (see the aforementioned 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Titus 3:4-7 again). Apart from God, our kids are spiritually blind (2 Corinthians 4:4; Hebrews 3:12-13) and spiritually foolish (1 Corinthians 2:6-16) and will continue to act that way until God breaks through.

On one level, it’s tremendously freeing to have the weight of responsibility for change in our kids lifted off our shoulders. Many of you reading this article – particularly ones with hard headed teens who steal gas money out of your wallet and routinely break curfews – have pulled your last hair out with various scattershot attempts at changing your kids awful behavior. You’ve asked everyone from your pastor to your hairdresser for advice on how to make your kids better. You may have gotten to the point of hiring a professional counselor. You might not even like the teenage alien strangers living in your house who are vague facsimiles of once-pliable children anymore. Above all, you feel like you’ve failed with shaping your kids. Well, it’s really not surprising … We are terrible gardeners, who lack the ability and skill to water and prune our kids. Broken people are pretty crummy at modifying the behavior of other broken people. We need divine intervention … For reals, y’all.

So it’s so oddly illogical that Christians spout out “only God changes people” when dealing with their rude, annoying co-worker but feel so unbearably guilty about producing their rude, annoying children. Stop with the guilt non-sense. God is in the gardening business and you are just a lowly branch. The real sin is believing that you can accomplish what only God can.

On another level, our control freak natures scream out in the anguish of our inability to change others. We want to show off our well-polished kids with straight A report cards, baseball participation trophies and starring roles in the school play, because we feel that our kids demonstrate what awesome gardeners we are. And we hide our kids under a virtual mattress when they experiment with oral sex and wreck the family station wagon, because it shows we’re bad gardeners. We want to compare our lame attempts at gardening – from “honor roll student” bumper stickers to prideful Facebook posts – with other parents. We want our friends and enemies alike to pour accolades on us and bask in the glow of hearing: “Your kids turned out so well!” The best spiritual thing we can do is repent of our control issues and move on. Let’s let our inability to change our kids drive us to our knees to pray to the one who has the power to change our kids. And if God changes our kids, give Him the credit and stop giving ourselves pats on the back.

Most importantly, our focus must remain on Christ. The big question is: Are you really taking advantage of every opportunity to introduce your kids to the true gardener? If we’re just introducing our kids to Christ for one hour on Sunday, it just won’t cut it. If we’re handing off our kids to the “specialists” (like student, kids and family ministers) to introduce them to Christ, that won’t cut it either. We might not be the gardener but we can introduce our kids to the gardener regularly. We can’t neglect our kids of the privilege of knowing the life altering presence of Christ.

Thank God that we serve a God who knows our kids and their needs far better than we do.

And thank God that He is willing to lovingly prune our kids to beautifully bloom.

Let’s step aside and let the better gardener do His work.

The Seductive Sin of Busyness

tropical-beach-hammock-wallpaper-1Tuesday was a unusually busy night.

I started off the evening by dropping by a visitation for a church member’s family on the west side of town. Then I sped back to the east side to buy pizza for a fundraiser for an extraordinarily ill child in our church family. Meanwhile, my wife and daughter are doing whatever they do at Zumba. Once we huddle back together, our family scarfs down said pizza and my wife and I take an extended walk around the neighborhood. Once I get back home, I am bombarded by a slew of texts and calls from church members, including sorting out one pressing summer camp issue on the computer. Then collapse into bed.

For many church families, excessively and exhaustingly busy is a normal way of life. A few months ago, I surveyed families in my congregation to see what family ministry issues that they’d like me to teach about. Unsurprisingly, virtually every family listed that they had a problem with busyness. From hearing stories from families spending entire weekends on the road at ballfields, karate studios and distant hotel rooms, I wasn’t shocked.

I’m a recovering workaholic. And recovering is the operative word … I’m working on it. I had a “small” heart attack back in early 2015, which forced me to do some serious reevaluation of my life. One key thing that I quickly realized through the help of doctors and counselors: I was working 80+ hours per week. Like many small town pastors, I was performing ridiculously menial tasks outside of my job description ranging from janitorial tasks to property maintenance. When I resigned myself to a rigid 40 hour work week after my heart attack, a couple church leaders of my church soon confronted me and accused me of getting lazy.

While many church-going Americans recognize “sloth” as one of the seven deadly sins, we glorify busyness as a virtue. We believe in a capitalist God that rewards hard work ethic and throws lightning bolts at the welfare queens, addicts and man-childs playing X-Box in their parents’ basement. God helps those who help themselves and all that (which I believe is a Bible verse found in 2 Hesitations 3:16). Somewhere along the way, we’ve been seduced into falsely believing that God blesses our frenetic scrambles in our mini-vans back and forth from parent-teacher meetings to soccer practice to parcheesi club to dinner parties to pizza fundraisers to underwater ninja warrior twerking club to blindfolded waterboarding sessions. Now why would He bless a lifestyle that intentionally sacrifices devotion to God and quality time with family for the glorification of what should not be glorified?!?

Here’s the big idea: Busyness can be seductively sinful.

The touchstone of why busyness can be sinful is found in the well-versed account of two sisters (Mary and Martha) in Luke 10:38-42. I think we often lack proper perspective while reading this story. Suppose Jesus randomly showed up at your house today … And your house is nowhere near Martha Stewart magazine ready: Dirty dishes are in the sink … Your kids’ dirty socks are stuck in the couch corners … Dust bunnies are rolling like tumbleweed across the floor … Nothing but frozen pizza is available for dinner. You’d probably be moving faster than a jackrabbit on drugs to get your home in order for THE most important dinner guest of all time.

So there’s Martha: The “responsible” one. She’s flittering about the house assembling fine dining for the Messiah and his entourage. I imagine her with sweat pouring off her brow as she’s running to and fro filling her numerous guests’ glasses and barking commands to other ladies franticly throwing the kids’ unsightly toys in the closet. Also in the midst of the chaos of the dinner party, Martha’s sister, Mary, hasn’t lost her chill. She’s soaking in teaching at the feet of Rabbi Jesus and – unlike Martha – is totally not freaking out … Which makes Martha freak out even more. In a fit of frustration, Martha asks Jesus to tell her lazy bum sister to get her rear into gear: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me” (v. 40). Ironically, Jesus winds up chiding the “responsible” sister instead: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (v. 41-42).

Martha commits a sin of idolatry. She believes that cleaning house, cooking dinner, pouring wine, unclogging toilets and generally running around like a headless chicken are genuinely important under these circumstances. There’s nothing wrong with a little Southern Judean hospitality … Unless that hospitality leads to completely missing the majesty of the Savior. Martha’s priorities are out-of-whack: Run around like a whirling dervish serving tables for a few hours to spend a few exhausted moments with Jesus afterward. Mindless activity for Christ has become more important than the person of Christ. Senseless work is trumping genuine worship. Sound familiar?!?

Christian, we’ve got to start calling a spade a spade. When we value something more than Christ, that’s idolatry. The end. It’s a seductive whisper that robs us of time to devote to Christ and cruelly steals our joy in our First Love. On the day of our funeral, only one genuinely life-giving thing is really important: Christ.

And if we truly believed that “one thing” was important, then our lives would reflect that belief. Instead, our harried lives revealed compromised hearts. We whittle away a few hours for water polo team, piano lessons and the season finale of CSI: Albuquerque and wind up losing our soul in the process. The sum total of our small compromises leads to the type of exhaustion where someone has to scoop you off the couch with a spatula. Worst of all, that soul-crippling exhaustion leads us no closer to Christ. Our joy dissipates into the malaise of depression.

So how to get less busy and more devoted to Christ? Here are few humble suggestions:

  1. Schedule Christ First: A few years back, our family pulled our daughter out of a soccer league because the practices fell during a weekly church activity. It wasn’t a hard decision because my spouse and I agree that Christ is first on our calendars. If you say Christ is first in your family’s life, then put your planning calendar where your mouth is. It’s been well-said by pastors that our checkbook reflects our hearts, but our calendar also reflects our hearts. If we truly love Christ, time with the Lord shouldn’t be the first thing reshuffled or obliterated from your schedule. Our schedules should revolve around Christ and not vice versa.
  2. Stop Comparing Yourself To Others: Often, we’re busy simply because that’s what everyone else around us is doing. Our neighbor’s kids are involved in 3 different after school activities, so it must be “normal” for our kids, right? NO! The whisper of guilt or envy of not being like “normal” families is not the voice of God. The only thing truly not “normal” is your family drifting further away from God. Take some time to pray and determine what is right and reasonable for your family’s schedule. Don’t fall into the sin of comparison.
  3. Humble Yourself: Pride is the enemy of our schedule. Unwittingly, we often say “yes” to the next bake sale or Girl Scout meeting because we secretly don’t want others to hate us. We desire approval, an attaboy or a pat on the back … We want to be part of the team and not left out on the sidelines … And we wind up feeling puffed up and important in the end. Or we attract the attention of pity to ourselves by playing a victim on social media (*insert intentionally vague Facebook post trolling for attention here*). Philippians 2:3 cautions: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” Don’t be controlled by others’ opinions … Break free and do what Christ calls in your daily life. Repeatedly ask yourself: “Who am I really doing this activity for?”
  4. Say “No” To Your Family: Often, we simply do things because we’re afraid to say “no” to our kids and spouses. In a fit of temporary insanity, we believe that simply giving in to our kids whining and signing up for our kids’ umpteenth school pizza fundraiser is the “easy” choice. I wish I had a nickel for every time a bleary-eyed, disheveled mom moaned: “I really didn’t want to do this but my kids begged me.” Why do we believe that forfeiting hours of time, energy and sleep to placate our kids is the best choice for our family?!? Worst of all, we often bend our schedules around our kid’s whims instead of God’s Word. So learn to say “NO” firmly, boldly and clearly … And don’t give to whatever carpet wetting, floor pounding tantrum ensues. Your kids will eventually understand what that word means. And you won’t ruin our kids for all eternity by denying them the opportunity to play in four soccer leagues a year … I promise.
  5. Say “No” To Your Church: When Paul talks about spiritual gifts in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12-14, believers are repeatedly taught that God blesses each believer with different giftedness. In the spiritual body of the church, one person serves the function of a foot while another is a hand. And one believer cannot fulfill another believer’s function. How does spiritual giftedness relate busyness? Well, the next time that your frantic Sunday School director corners you on Sunday morning to volunteer for a job that you are completely ungifted to fulfill, consider saying “no.” That last statement will make a LOT of ministers nervous, but I firmly believe that most church volunteers burn out by acquiescing to serve where they’re not gifted or passionate. So serve where you’re gifted and passionate. And don’t serve for the sake of serving … You might be a “hand” taking up the service opportunity of a “foot” in your church.
  6. Turn Off Your Technology: Honestly, is there any bigger time killer than the smart phone? I mean … Isn’t it really awesome to have your boss, your kids and your annoying friend be able to call, text or email (or all three) at all hours of the evening? With our technology, we’re never alone even when we’re alone. Someone is always poking us, hostilely demanding our immediate and divided attention. And even when we’re using our phones for leisure, we look from our screens after watching 3 hours of cat videos and wonder how the clock mysteriously wound up to 1AM. Want to reclaim serious time: Find the off button and use it.
  7. Rest (and Don’t Feel Guilty About It): Here’s my personal killer: I feel guilty about relaxing, resting or being “unproductive.” I feel like God wants me to do something more radical and missional than sit on a couch, so I resist anything associated with slacking off – like taking vacations. It’s an unhealthy grasp of grace in my life, inwardly believing that God will be more pleased with me if I work a bit harder. But here’s the thing: God designed man for rest (Mark 2:27; Matthew 11:28-30; Hebrews 4:9-11). While New Testament Christians no longer need to be legalistic about Sabbath rest, perhaps we shouldn’t minimize it either. God doesn’t desire sleepless and joyless zombies lumbering daily to earn brownie points with the Father. As children of grace who cannot earn salvation, I need to trust that I can rest and sleep, because more effort on my part will not earn more love of the Father.

If you’d like to study more about busyness and God’s plan for rest for your life, I’d highly recommend Kevin DeYoung’s immensely helpful book, Crazy Busy.

Now stop reading this post and go relax.

Public Schooling To The Glory of God

apple-report-cardIt’s the end of the school year. Standardized testing has been shipped off for scoring. Final report cards are disseminated and slyly hidden from parental eyes. Kids are acting like they’re howling at the full moon. Teachers are frazzled and need a 2-month vacation to Aruba. Parents are tired of hauling their kids around to year-end recitals, art shows, field days, formal dances, pizza fundraisers and lacrosse competitions. Some parents are ever shedding a tear for the end of a season of life due to graduation. Other parents already can’t wait for the kids to go back to school in August.

So in the spirit of final report cards, I want to ask my public school families a year-end question: How are you public schooling to the glory of God?

Or here’s another question: Are you wasting the opportunities that God has given you in the public school setting?

Here’s what I mean by those questions …

One thing that I admire about homeschool families is their sense of intentionality. If you ask any given homeschool family why they homeschool, I am certain they will give you a clear, concise, communicable and completely Biblical answer. To the contrary, many public school families will flounder with the question: “Why do you send your kids to public school?” You will probably get flustered stuttering as an answer. As a public school parent, I’m pretty sure that many public school families don’t fully consider why they’re public schooling or the opportunities that God has given them in the public school setting.

I’ve already blogged about the reasons why our family participates in the public school system, so I’m not going to argue or rehash that issue in this blog. But I do have a humble suggestion for public schooling families out there … If you’re going to send your kids to public school, consider your decision with the spirit of 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Specifically, consider how your family is going to glorify God through your decision for public schooling. God is giving your family unique opportunities by participating in public school, so don’t waste those “open doors” that God has given to you.

Here’s a 10 question “report card” for the public school family … Evaluate the following questions for your family over the past school year:

  1. How well are you representing Christ in your public school? (1 Corinthians 11:1; 2 Corinthians 5:20) Always remember that you are Christ’s ambassador, meaning a representative of the kingdom of God, in your public school setting. How you think, dress, speak and act casts a reflection of Christ’s lordship in your life. When we cuss, complain, curse or gossip, our lips betray Christ’s lordship (James 3:10). When we act selfishly and pridefully, we fail to humbly place Christ first in our lives (Philippians 2:3). You are first and foremost a missionary representing Christ wherever you go.
  2. Has your family been praying to eliminate lostness in your public school? (John 15: 1 Timothy 2:3-4; 2 Peter 3:9) When Christ looked over a lost crowd in Matthew 9:36, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Believers must always respond to lostness with compassion instead of callousness. We must pray that God would use us to reach lost people God loves and values in our school system.
  3. Have you verbally shared the full Gospel story with faculty, families or students? (Matthew 5:16; Romans 1:16-17) When you’re stuck waiting around with other parents in a stinky gym for basketball practice to end, it’s time to put down the cell phone and make a meaningful conversation with other families. Talk about what God is doing in your life … Talking about your testimony … Talk about what God is teaching you about your kids. But – ultimately – remember to talk about the Gospel story, because it’s the power of God for salvation.
  4. Have you invited faculty, families or students to your local church? Honest relationships that you have built in the school system can be leveraged to invite others to church. I am proud that many of the public school families in our church’s new AWANA program are inviting families to our local church. As a result, kids are hearing the Gospel and coming to know Christ. So praise God for those relationships.
  5. How have you served the faculty and students of your school with Christ-like love? (Matthew 23:11; Mark 10:44-45; John 13:12-14; Galatians 5:13-14) Our mentality in the public school should always be that Christ has sent us here to serve others instead of simply receiving a governmental service. As an example, our family and local church recently provided breakfast and gifts to local teachers for teacher appreciation week. Our church is also attempting to build a partnership with our local school by providing needed items, such as school uniforms or teaching supplies to the school. Our hope is to serve faculty and students so we can ultimately have a platform to share Christ.
  6. How are you intentionally teaching your kids about God? Regardless of your educational preference, parents still have the Biblical responsibility of teaching their kids about God in the home (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). And this responsibility should never be abdicated to schools, churches, kids ministries or youth programs. Your family should have some intentional strategy, whether family devotionals or otherwise, regarding how to disciple your kids. Blogger Tim Challies urges in blog on public schooling: “Inviting the public school system to educate our children has not meant that we abdicate or outsource all responsibility or ultimately responsibility for the kids’ education. We remain involved in what they do, what they learn, the kids they befriend, and all the rest. Wherever or however children are receiving their education, they need their parents to be involved. Their parents have by far the loudest voice into their lives and, by looking to the Bible together, we can explore, explain and interpret anything that comes their way. We are all homeschoolers!
  7. Have you counseled family problems with Biblical advice? (2 Timothy 3:16-17) When your kids come to you with problems, there is a tremendous opportunity to counsel our kids with sound Biblical advice. Recently, our daughter came home upset that some “mean girls” were calling her names at school. Instead of telling her to punch the kids’ daylights out, we asked her how Christ would respond and were able to practically teach about “turning the other cheek” and “loving our enemies.” Never miss an opportunity to point your kids to Scripture in difficult situations.
  8. Have you had “the talk” with your kids? As a long-time student minister, I’ve found that nothing causes greater disruption to Christian families than when your kids start making goggly eyes at the opposite gender. Make sure that you’re clear about the Bible’s and your family’s expectations about dating, relationships and – yes – even sex. Share about your relationship successes and failures. Don’t be too scared to have these relationship conversations with your kids very early on.
  9. Are extra-curricular activities and sports destroying your family’s spiritual health? It’s easy to allow the “bonus” commitments of school to choke out your spiritual life. I’ve talked with many families that start off skipping one or two Sundays for other weekend commitments … And ultimately wind up spiritually adrift. When our family’s obsession revolves around a school gymnasium instead of Christ, red flags need to be raised up. Don’t give Christ lip-service: If Christ truly is first in your family, then don’t put anything – and I mean anything else – before Him. Your kids won’t grow in Christ with a half-hearted commitment to Christ. Carve out immovable commitments to God on Sundays and other important church activities. Limit the number and time commitment of extra-curricular activities in which your kids can participate. Be bold enough to tell coaches that your family isn’t available on Sundays. And always remember to represent Christ’s kingdom more than a school team.
  10. Are you running the race with endurance? (Hebrews 12:1) Let’s face it: A school year can be exhausting for everyone involved. Sometimes you just want to drop off your kids in Timbuktu and never look back. Without endurance that comes from Christ, we cannot run the race of the Christian life. Endurance is found in casting your cares and burden on the Lord. Endurance is found in encouragement from your local church gathering and small group. Endurance is found in the Word of God. Endurance is found in prayer. When you’re ready to throw in the towel and quit the race, remember that you can’t do it on your own … Turn to Christ and other believers for help.

If you feel like your family hasn’t made any headway on these questions over the past year, remember that – by God’s grace – there’s another school year coming up soon.

So enjoy summer vacation, everyone!

Why Youth Ministry Needs Old People

Hipster couple talking and drinking coffee to go at university campus

Virtually every week, I’ll talk with potential volunteers for student ministry who will inform me with knocking knees and a frightened quiver in their voice: “I’m too old to work with students.”

And I just want to beat my head against the wall.

As an “old person” working in student ministry, it’s an issue with which I admittedly take personal umbrage. I was late bloomer in the field of student ministry … I entered Seminary at the ripe old age of 31. In case you don’t know, that’s the equivalent of Methuselah by student ministry standards. I didn’t have Rob Bell glasses and a hipster beard. I’ve never shopped at Urban Outfitters or Abercrombie. It’s hard to have a faux hawk with male pattern baldness. I didn’t even own a white belt for crying out loud. But God did give me giftedness and passion to work with students.

After completing my Mdiv degree as a rather ancient 34 year-old, I endured several months of church search committees lobbing thinly veiled insults about my “old age” for student ministry: “How do you plan on relating to kids soooooooooo much younger than you? … How do you stay current on what’s going on in youth culture? … Are you familiar with how to use the Internet? … What type of TV shows do you think our kids watch? … Have you considered becoming a senior pastor instead? … How are you going to ‘wow’ kids to Jesus?” And – no – I’m not making any of these questions up. When I interviewed with a major student camp program, the headhunters literally laughed me out of the room, branding me as older than Moses riding a dinosaur and unable to “relate” to kids.

Now I’m 41 … And I’m working with students. And I still don’t own a white belt.

So let’s ask the question: Should age or “relatability” be a disqualifying factor in working with youth? More importantly: What does Scripture say about the matter?

If you’re looking for a coherent model of student ministry in Scripture, one of the (very) few places that speaks of young persons and Christian education is Titus 2:1-8:

1 But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. 2 Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. 3 Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, 4 and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. 6 Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. 7 Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, 8 and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.

What separates Titus 2 from other passages that speak about discipling young persons (i.e. Deuteronomy 6 or Ephesians 6:1-5) is the emphasis on the role of the church body pouring into the life of young people in its midst. And let’s get the exegesis right: This passage is about age (“older” and “younger”), and assumes that spiritual maturity generally comes with age (with emphasis on the word “generally”). So older men are to teach sound doctrine to younger men … Older women are to similarly disciple younger women. God has designed discipleship in the church to be intentionally cross-generational, which is the exact opposite of what exists in most churches.

Since the 1940s, our churches have largely mimicked successful para-church groups (Youth For Christ; Young Life; Inter Varsity), segregating kids into compartmentalized ministries tailored to their own interests led by specialized, expert ministers. In most larger churches (and even many smaller churches), the commonplace is that our youngest children spiritually germinate in a kids department with a separate kids worship service … And then eventually graduate to a youth department with a separate youth worship service … And then perfunctorily drop out of church upon graduation because they can’t figure out the whole “adulting in church” thing.

So somewhere along the way, we gleefully handed our kids and student ministries over to the “specialists.” The adults could finally attend a quiet and uninterrupted worship service while the kids of all age groups are being babysat by pastors in training. And adults no longer needed to get their hands dirty in the messy work of student discipleship. We humored ourselves in believing that kids would be magnetically transfixed to Christ by “relatable” young leaders with trendy gauges in their ears and handlebar mustaches. We pushed the “easy button.” We chose comfort of the recliner over the hard work of the plow. And created a bizarre hypocrisy in the church where we see quite elderly grandmothers accepted in the nursery changing dirty diapers but banned from the youth room discipling students.

Frankly, “relatability” is highly overrated in student ministry, and – more importantly – spoken nowhere in Scripture. You certainly don’t find it in Titus 2: “Let the older women use Snapchat and understand the terms ‘bae’ and ‘on fleek’ … Let the older men get Jesus tats, hipster beards and skinny jeans …” By nature, fads will ebb and flow over time, and have nothing to do with anyone’s calling to ministry. Any church that judges suitability of leaders for student ministry on whether they own TOMS instead of their walk with Christ is walking into a bear trap. Are we really willing to disqualify our strongest believers from student discipleship because they don’t know the Kardashians? I’m not saying that student ministry leaders should be frozen in time on the set of Happy Days … But I am saying that attempting to “relate” kids to Christ is a fools errand. On a transcendent level, the legit story of Gospel already relates to all peoples, all cultures and all life stages.

Please don’t translate this blog post into bashing young student ministers. I’m not. We shouldn’t look down upon young leaders setting a great example in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity (Yes … I’ve read 1 Timothy 4:12 … Simmer down, Millennials). But I am saying that our churches cannot venerate youth or relatability in student ministry to the point of tossing out spiritual maturity into the garbage bin. We shouldn’t look down on the “old folks” in church either.

So to all the “old” people out there: Student ministry desperately needs you. Don’t let anyone – and I mean anyone – tell you that you’re “too old” to speak into the lives of kids.

We need your mom jeans, your hot flashes, your crock-pot casseroles and your inexplicable Starbucks obsessions.

We need your combovers, your NPR radio and your out-of-fashion dad shorts.

We need your awkward inability to figure out what an Instagram is and your frustration in figuring out how to text emojis.

We need to hear how Christ has walked with you through the valley of the shadow: Your cancer diagnosis … The death of your spouse … Your son’s addiction … Your marital problems.

We need every hand-written note, highlight and underline in your worn-out Bibles.

We need your unbridled joy and passion for potluck dinners, prayer meetings and the unmistakeable taste of overly-percolated church coffee.

We need the spiritual maturity and discipline that comes from a lifetime of following Christ.

More than anything, we desperately need you to speak the Gospel with beauty, clarity and conviction into the lives of our young people.

So let’s get to work.

When Our Kids Don’t Love God

A boy writes lines on the blackboard“Where did we go wrong?”

My friend asks me this question as we sit across a untouched bowl of chips and salsa at a local Mexican hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The hollow look of crushing disappointment is covering his face. Tears are welling up in his eyes. His family has done everything over the past 18 years to try to “train up their child” right: Home schooling … regular church attendance … family devotional time … restrictions on “secular media” … And – most importantly – no dating. And the end result is now a cascading, slow-motion disaster: Their child has engaged in a party-hopping and booze-fueling auto accident that has resulted in the loss of a decent and well-paying job. In the process, they have recently discovered that the same child is engaged in an overt sexual relationship with a significantly older (and jobless) loser. More than rage or anger, there is a resounding expression of parental guilt and depression: “Where did we go wrong?”

Throughout the course of my ministry, I have had this same deja vu conversation over and over with a variety of sincerely believing parents. After diligently raising their kids to Christian standards, their kids have precipitously fallen away from Christianity and made decisions that will wreck their lives for years to come: Kids who become so heavily addicted that they steal and pawn their parents possessions, wet the bed at night and go on the run across state lines from law enforcement … Kids who shack up with random guys they hardly know and come home with new grandchildren that need financial and emotional support … Kids who refuse to stop playing Call of Duty on Xbox all day to move out on their own … Kids who cut themselves on their inner thighs with razors and secretly contemplate suicide. And in every awful, soul-crushing horror story, there is a defeated parent who looks fondly back on baby pictures of a child they no longer recognize. There is a parent who waits longly by a cell phone, unsure whether a prodigal child or a police officer will come to the front door that night. And there is the overwhelming feeling of disappointment and blame that holds parents hostage by keeping them awake at night.

We feel like we’ve let God down.

Often, we bear the brunt of the responsibility for the failures of our children, because we take God’s call to spiritual discipleship seriously. For most Christian parents, our innermost desire is to please God by diligently teaching our kids about the ways of the Lord (Deuteronomy 6:7). We try to bring our kids up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Under kicking and screaming protest, we drag our kids out of bed early for Sunday worship. We send our kids to VBS, church camp, D-Nows and lock-ins. We watch cheesy VeggieTales instead of Game of Thrones. We kiss dating goodbye, attend daddy-daughter dances and buy purity rings. We serve alongside our kids at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. And – ultimately – we desire for our kids to experience the same joy, hope and peace in Christ that we have found. Regardless of our methodology, that desire for our kids to have a relationship with Christ is healthy and good.

Here’s the problem: Unwittingly, most Christian parents also tend to engage in a unhealthy and false philosophy of parental determinism: Every victory and failure of our kids lives stems from our parenting decision-making. Our over-protective generation of helicopter moms overwhelmingly camp out on the side of “nurture” instead of “nature.” We believe that the smallest minutia of parental decision making – ranging from daycare choice to organic food to carseat safety – will have a drastic sea change of impact on our kids lives. When it comes to church, we are so deterministic that we genuinely believe whether we cut the crust off a PB&J sandwich will impact the eternal destiny of our child’s soul.

And our churches tend to unfairly reinforce this philosophy. Our pastors often teach that Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”) is an unbreakable law instead of a piece of Godly wisdom. Even worse, our churches sometimes teach that the converse is true: When any teenager who becomes a raging agnostic who sleeps around, bad parenting surely must be at fault. Tell me that you haven’t heard parlor room gossip roll off the lips of genteel church ladies when a wayward teen enters the church sanctuary: “I can’t believe that Jack and Diane would allow that non-sense to happen under their roof! What are they thinking?” In church circles, the shame and guilt of a “bad kid” can hang around your neck like a scarlet letter.

Parenting is not a mathematical equation. Or a Food Network recipe: Take one child … Add Godly teaching … Add regular church attendance … Throw in loving home conditions … Pick the right schooling … And – presto! – you’ve got the certainty of a wonderful child that you’ll brag about to all your friends. Heck, you might even get a “proud of my kid” bumper sticker. Children usually don’t work out according to whatever dreams or plans we’ve got.

Here’s why: Your kid is a sinner. Your kids are not exempt from the “all have sinned” part of Romans 3:23. Every child comes from the lineage of Adam. Your kids are guaranteed to make horrible decisions that make you want to start heavy drinking as a hobby. And keeping your kid in a protective bubble their entire lives will never change that theological truth. Even after your kids come into a relationship with Christ, the influence of the flesh continues in the lives of our kids (Romans 8:1-11; Galatians 5:16-26). They will face a daily choice to walk in the Spirit or succumb to the flesh.

Proverbs 22:6 rarely plays out as a promise in the life of any Biblical figure. Even for the first parents recorded, there’s a Cain for every Abel or Seth. There’s a Ham for every Shem. There’s a Esau for every Jacob. Jacob had a litter of kids that killed newly circumcised men and sold their brother into slavery. Samson’s parents devoted him to be a Nazarite from birth, but Samson loved to chase Philistine skirts. David’s love child, Solomon, started out on track but was wooed away by a veritable army of ungodly women. Go through the royal lineage of 1 & 2 Kings: Bad kings producing good offspring … Good kings producing bad offspring.

Here’s the good news for parents: God does not love you less when your kids spectacularly fail. God’s grace is not dependent on our parenting prowess. Parents would do well to meditate on Romans 8:31-35 early and often:

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

The answer to Paul’s rhetorical question in verse 35 is – of course – nothing. Yes, the truth is that nothing can separate us from Christ’s love. And nothing includes bad parenting, sleepless nights, unbearable guilt, regret, lost children, mistakes made or moments where we wish we could hit rewind. Even if our kids wind up mirroring our worst nightmares, God still loves us with a furious love that sent His only Son to the cross to bear our sins. Believing that God loves us less for the way our kids turn out is an utter falsehood and likely the evil whisperings of spiritual warfare in our ears. When our kids fail, God isn’t waggling His finger in disappointment at us with colossal scowl furrowing his brow.

When our kids don’t love God, we would do well to remember that God still loves us.

So maybe … Just maybe, we should relax a little bit more when it comes to Christian parenting. Training up our kids in the ways of Christ may be a serious task, but the pressure doesn’t lay squarely on our shoulders. If we truly believe only Christ can change lives, we should accept that our impact is rather insignificant compared to the Holy Spirit. The future of our kids is largely out of our inept hands but is squarely in the divine hands of our perfect Creator.

And thank God for that.

10 Launching Points for Family Discipleship

launchAs I stated in my previous posts on family discipleship (here and here), the number one question that I get from families as a Family Minister is some iteration of this inquiry: “What are some resources that I can use to disciple my kids?” So today’s blog post is going to be extraordinarily practical instead of my usual esoteric ramblings.

Right off the bat, let me state the obvious: The primary resource for the believer is the Bible. It’s the 2 Timothy 3:16-17 principle: God’s Word is God’s tool for teaching, exposing sin, correcting and training us to become more Christlike. We cannot grow to become more like Christ without the application of the Word of God to our lives and the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And God’s Word is sufficient for our every need. For most believers reading this blog, we’re having a collective “no duh” moment up in here.

However, many parents are legitimately trying to work through how to use the Bible with their kids. While we might understand that our goal is to produce life-long followers of Jesus Christ, we’re not so sure about how to use the Bible to get from A to B. To make matters more confusing, many of us (including me) grew up in a “quiet time culture,” where our youth leaders taught us that the proper methodology for reading Scripture is alone and by yourself. If we get our “quiet time” right, we hike to a still place in the woods, read Psalm 42:1 or Psalm 46:10, journal how God spoke to us and wait for the deer and squirrels to dance together like a Cinderella movie. When we have runny-nosed, stinky-diapered kids pulling at our hems for attention, it’s hard to imagine just handing them a KJV Bible, telling them to go to their rooms and spend time quietly with God. Obviously, that’s a recipe for some sort of disaster. So what to do?!? Above all things, we want our kids to fall in love with Christ and the Word like we have … And we don’t want to “mess things up.”

Fortunately in our internet culture, there’s more resources than ever to help you as a parent to disciple your kids. Actually, the amount of resources is almost overwhelming. So where to begin? And what’s effective and is going to “work”?

Before I get into some suggestions, I tell my parents in my church that not every family is the same. God has made children bafflingly different in terms of their personal interests to their methods of learning to their attention spans. In addition, our family schedules are vastly different. My frenetic pastoral schedule doesn’t often lend itself to dinner table conversations, and that’s perfectly OK. One cookie-cutter, straight-out-the-box family discipleship plan isn’t going to work for every family scenario. So try something that might work for your family and see whether it works. If it turns out to be a colossal failure or just doesn’t seem to stick, no biggie … Just dust yourself off and try something else. Just stumble towards something that works for your family digging into the Word.

So without further ado, here’s 10 potential “launching points” for family discipleship:

#1. Make The Time:

As frazzled and stressed-out parents, we make time for black Friday sales, ball practices and games, NFL football, Scentsy parties, checking social media, watching Netflix, playing Flappy Bird, swearing about our kids’ homework and an untold number of time wasters. Why don’t we make the time for family discipleship? If we don’t make the time, we are demonstrating our heart and our treasure does not lie with God (Matthew 6:21). Whether its before the school bus, at the dinner table time or right before bedtime, carve out some sacrosanct time that works for your family to interact with one another, pray for one another and dig into God’s Word. And when you do get together, create a “tech-free zone” where everyone has to ditch their cell phones (parents too!) and interact with real, live people.

#2. Partner With Your Local Church:

Virtually every kids and youth ministry curriculum worth its salt already has a built-in family ministry component. Often, churches can do a bad job of sharing that nugget of information. At the end of the lesson, some curriculums include a “take home sheet,” where kids are given a handout at the end of the class of ideas how to continue the lesson at home. Unfortunately, these “take home sheets” are notorious for being left on the sanctuary seats at the end of Sunday worship for the janitor to pick up on Monday. So a quick PSA: Don’t leave “take home” sheets for the janitor … They’re an easy way to extend the lesson into the home. For many tech-savvy curriculums, apps for your smart phone have been designed to go along with the lesson. As an associate pastor in an SBC church, I know that Lifeway produces apps that go along with their kids and youth material that allow parents to extend Sunday School lessons into the home during the week (i.e. The Gospel Project app & Explore The Bible app). If you don’t know how parents can better connect with what their kids are learning on Sundays or mid-week, take the initiative and ask your church staff or volunteers.

#3. Bible Reading Plans:

I am not a huge fan of Bible reading plans, because I’ve seen many overambitious reading plans do more harm than good. Most people that I know who start their New Years Resolutions of reading through the Bible in a year are discouraged and done by half-way through Leviticus. In addition, Bible reading plans can inadvertently emphasize quantity of pages read over quality time with God. But for some (weird) type A people (you know who you are), Bible reading plans work, because they provide structure.

#4. Devotional Books:

Devotional materials are a tricky thing, because they have the propensity to go far afield of Scripture. Most devotionals recount an author’s personal experience and then insert one random Bible verse tacked on at the end to prooftext. For that reason, most kids and youth devotionals are incorrigible … They tend to kick the difficult parts of Scripture under the rug, and paint the Flood as a really fun sleepover replete with stuffed animals … They tend focus on good moral behavior instead of Gospel. For the most part, I’d steer clear of kids and youth devotionals. It takes some theological discernment to sift the good from the bad. Nonetheless, I confess that Oswald Chambers is my homeboy, and my go-to guy when I’m in a “quiet time” rut. And there are a couple decent devotional books out there:

#5. Bible Storybooks:

Right off the bat, let me say that Bible storybooks are not Bibles, and should never be used as a substitute for the Bible. What’s the difference you ask? Bibles must contain the entirety of the inspired words of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Bible storybooks use words and pictures to tell the story of Bible to a younger audience. So one of my pet peeves is when publishers pass off storybooks as Bibles. That being said, storybooks are often a good resource for younger children to learn the basic storyline of the Bible. And there’s some fabulous, Christ-centered ones out there:

#6. D6 Family:

D6 Family (short for Deuteronomy 6 Family) is a family discipleship “movement” affiliated with Randall House publishing. The goal of D6 Family is simply to offer resources that allow churches and families to fulfill God’s design in Deuteronomy 6 as the “first small group.” D6 Family does offer a couple free resources for family discipleship:

  • Splink: Splink is a free weekly email from D6 Family that provides a family devotional and opportunities for you to engage one another in conversation. Go to the D6 Family website here to get on the Splink email list.
  • D6 App: D6 Family also offers a free D6 Family app that includes a daily devotion, Splink and resources for family conversation.

#7. Homefront Magazine:

Homefront Magazine is a monthly magazine that offers ideas for fun ways to incorporate discipleship into the home. The online version and archive are free. This resource is definitely for families that like creative and crafty things to do. If you’re a fan of the whole Martha Stewart lite vibe, this resource is probably for you.

#8. Heart Connex:

Youth ministry guru Richard Ross offers a series of free devotionals online for parents and students here.

#9. Seeds Family Worship:

I confess that I have a problem with memorizing Bible verses. One of the methods that helps me learn Bible verses in music. Seeds Family Worship has basically cornered the market in producing worship songs based entirely on Scripture for the explicit purpose of Bible memorization. The songs are catchy and high quality. The Seeds website also offers free Scripture memory cards that go along with each worship song.

#10. Serve Together:

Look for some opportunities in your community to serve in the name of Christ alongside your kids. A couple summers ago, my wife and I served alongside our daughter at a church in the Atlanta area. We dare to chaperone kids and youth camps where our daughter attends. A couple days ago, we took our daughter to the local rescue mission in our community to help prep Thanksgiving meals for the disadvantaged. Service opportunities are all around you, so don’t just wait for your church to organize something. Take the initiative for your family, and let your kids see you living out the Christian life.

On Family Discipleship: A Glorious Waste

Go-Green-Lunch-BoxMy daughter’s lunchbox is a never-ending source of waste.

It’s a strange phenomenon: Our ten-year daughter likes to pack her own lunchbox every morning for school. She does a good job. She always packs healthy stuff to eat ranging from apples to fish … But never a peanut butter sandwich, because that’ll get you stuck at the anti-allergy “peanut butter quarantine” table in the lunch room.

Even though she personally chooses her lunch every morning, some form of uneaten food always falls out of her lunchbox when we’re cleaning it out at day’s end: Tubes of yogurt … Half of a sandwich … Even dessert items. And – obviously – that food is not going to get eaten hours later. It’s waste. It’s going to get thrown out. And immediately I chide her about wasting food. After all, that food cost good, hard-earned money, right?!? When confronted on the food waste, she usually tells some tale of not having enough time to eat during lunchtime. In contrast, my elementary school age self would pride himself on eating a piece of square lunchroom sheet pizza in less than a minute. Expediency in lunch can be achieved … But I digress.

Like my daughter, I believe we’re ingrained with messages about wastefulness from an early age:

  • Haste makes waste.
  • Don’t waste your money on that Snuggie.
  • You’re wasting your time trying to please anyone but yourself.
  • Don’t waste your time on that trashy girl … I saw her at a Chili’s with Bob last week.
  • Recycle those cans, papers and milk jugs and live a sustainable life. Watch the carbon footprint.

The funny thing about waste is that the concept is wholly subjective. I have been over to many homes where a mom gets absolutely hysterical about soda cans not being recycled. In my home, I have no twinge of guilt whatsoever about tossing used cans into the “regular” trash. Similarly, many tech-averse parents consider the hours their kids spend on Instagram, Halo 23 and YouTube channels as a complete waste of time. Their tech-savvy kids’ lives revolve around the interaction on these mediums. Wonderful household arguments ensue. Waste is subjective.

Unfortunately, you and I are often averse to things that are good, Godly and healthy for us because our culture and our guilty conscience considers them wasteful. I feel guilty about taking time off and “not doing anything.” I feel terrible about sleeping in. I often feel like basic exercise – like walking – is wasteful. Not working earlier in the morning and later in the evening than everyone else seems selfish. Practicing my guitar chords seems so unproductive. Taking extra time to talk with God and slowly work on a cup of coffee seems so extravagant. And here’s a weird one for a pastor to admit: Sometimes I feel guilty about reading my Bible for personal devotion time. I should be out visiting random sick people at the hospital, bringing pound cakes to widows or furiously working on a sermon, right? That would certainly be a better use of time.

In a recent video, musician Sara Groves talks about this struggle against the concept of waste in terms of her artistry. I can relate to her struggle with feeling “lazy” when taking time to craft music and art:

Here lies the crucial personal fight regarding discipleship in our frenetic, frazzled culture: Convincing ourselves that discipleship is critical to life and not wasteful. We often consider spending time with God as “one more thing to do.” And often that chore gets quickly shuffled down the list of chores when one kid is barfing, another kid is getting ready for soccer practice, the dog needs to go out, the dryer full of clothes is buzzing and dinner needs to get on the table in exactly 2 minutes. Discipleship gets de-prioritized because it seems extravagant. It seems like a wasteful thing. We feel guilty about spending time alone with God.

What a perfectly pitiful attitude.

In John 12:1-11, Mary, the sister of the resurrected Lazarus, pours a pint of the expensive perfume (called nard) on Jesus’ feet. According to Luke, the pint of nard is worth a year’s wages. Judas is stunned that something so expensive is wasted. After all, the perfume could have been sold and the proceeds could have been used to feed a great number of the poor. Or – more likely – the proceeds could have gone into Judas’ pocket. Either way, the nard could have been used for a less wasteful purpose. Jesus chides Judas’ commentary: “Leave her alone … It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:7-8). In other words, the woman’s act of extravagant worship of the Christ is not a waste.

I could (and probably will) write all sorts of “how-to” articles on family discipleship. But until we view the pursuit of Christ as the most essential thing to our life, we are hopelessly doomed. We cannot become little Judases hoarding our personal trash heaps and pig-pies while ignoring the treasure that is Christ. The pursuit of Christ cannot be just another thing to be added to our life. The pursuit of Christ must be centerpiece of our life … Everything else must be brushed aside for the pursuit. We must recover the importance of dying to self and surrendering to Christ. Possibly the greatest gift that we can give to our kids is visibly and verbally demonstrating that devotion to Christ is more important than fundraisers, ball games, music rehearsals and after school programs.

Ultimately, our attitude must match Psalm 42:1-4:

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”
These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.

The imagery of Psalm 42 is of a man endlessly weeping because He cannot worship God. Think about that: When is the last time you physically wept because you skipped reading your Bible or slept in on Sunday?!? Honestly, I think we treat Jesus as an add-on that we could easily do without. Instead, we must pant after Christ because we won’t live without Him in our lives. He is more essential than water … Without Christ, we die. If we convey that following Jesus is just an extravagance, we’re missing the most important lesson that we can give our children. Discipleship starts here: Christ is everything.

If the world considers following Jesus to be a waste, then I want to waste my life on Jesus.

Let my life be a glorious waste on you, Jesus.

Why Family Discipleship Seems So Weird

jellosalad“Dad … What’s that man in pink doing?”

My daughter asked me this unusual question as we were stopped at a train crossing in downtown Evansville, Indiana while returning a U-Haul van. I noted a hint of concern in her voice. The graffiti covered train blocking the crossing was ploddingly moving at a snail’s pace, so I’d put the vehicle in park with my head inattentively down in my phone. I looked up to witness the bizarre spectacle she was viewing.

Standing precariously close to the train crossing bar and the oncoming train, a clearly agitated young man dressed head to toe in pink was jumping up and down in delight. Every few seconds, he’d pull a pair of black panty hose over his face. Then, he’d take an “aim and flame” lighter, pull the trigger and try to press it against the metal hull of the passing train. He was feebly (and implausibly) trying to light the train on fire. Every once in a while, he’d pull the stocking off his face, howl in delight and attempt to generate applause from the other car drivers nervously waiting at the intersection. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait much longer until the train passed and the mysterious man in pink walked off into the sunset.

I thought to myself: “That was weird.”

Weird.

Like Jello salad. Or deep fried butter. Or Cincinnati chili. Or Oakland Raiders fans.

In our church circles, there’s one other thing that people routinely consider weird: Reading the Bible with their spouse, kids or family.

Now that’s considered weirder than a platypus.

Since taking a new ministerial position as a Family Minister, the number one question that I get from families is some iteration of this inquiry: “What are some resources that I can use to disciple my kids?”

I understand the heart of the question: Those who know Christ’s love and forgiveness deeply desire for their kids to know Christ’s love and forgiveness. Just as the woman at the well ran home to tell everyone about Christ, we too want to run home to wrap our families in the arms of Jesus (John 4:28-29). From that perspective, the heart of the question is good.

On the other hand, there’s something deeply troubling about that question: Many families have lost touch with how to use the Bible to disciple their kids. In terms of resources for discipleship, the starting point should be the Bible if we’re doing it right. We believe that the Bible is God-breathed and has been gifted to us for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). But when it comes to actually using Scripture in our homes, many parents feel like small children awkwardly using chopsticks in a fancy sushi restaurant.

Why does using the Bible in our homes seem to weird to us? Here’s a couple reasons:

  1. Most parents don’t read their Bibles. As George Guthrie passionately lays out in Read The Bible For Life, a recent study by Lifeway Research found that 84% of all Protestant churchgoers do not read the Bible daily. Another 68% don’t even read the Bible weekly. Even worse, only 37% of these same churchgoers state that the Bible has made a significant difference in how they live their lives. Here’s the big question: If Christians are “people of the Book” who expect God to speak and transform through his inspired Word, then why are we so out of touch with the Bible? It’s a question that is bigger than this blog (I’d suggest reading Guthrie’s book), but let’s discuss the net result: Our kids won’t engage with the Bible if we don’t. When we bark orders for our kids to read their Bibles, to attend youth group events or to simply have less eye-rolling annoyance about waking up for church on Sunday, many of our kids look squarely back at us to rightfully call us hypocrites. We don’t walk the walk. And our kids aren’t dummies. If we aren’t actively seeking to imitate Christ and to know God’s Word, our kids probably won’t either.
  2. Most families leave discipleship to the “professionals.” Over the past 50 years, the discipleship strategy of most families has the “curbside drop off” model: Hand off your kids to the professional church staff for discipleship. Many parents feel that Seminary-trained, ministry-called, professional children’s or student ministers are more qualified to introduce their kids to Christ. After all, the “professionals” don’t have all of the rough edges, hang ups and skeletons hiding in closets, right? To other parents, the professionalization of our churches is driven by the same consumer-minded convenience of taking our clothes to the dry cleaners: Drop ‘em off dirty … Pick ‘em up clean! It’s an easy out. Other times, the “curbside drop off” model of ministry is driven by the colossal fear of not wanting to mess up our kids. Here’s the problem: The issue of parenting is mentioned very little in the Bible, but it’s always discussed in the context of discipleship. The Biblical responsibility for discipling kids largely rests on the parents and not trained professionals (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). In the end, a student minister probably can’t fix in one hour per week what is broken for the majority of the week.
  3. Most families are over-extended. From the first morning light when we yell at our kids to get out of bed to the evening time when Jimmy Fallon signs off, we’re completely on the go, go, go. We’re over scheduled and stressed out. We’re rushing back and forth to school … PTA … Soccer practice … Baseball practice … Grocery store … Forgotten lunches … Doctor appointments … Homework … Folding laundry … Fixing pre-packaged dinners. And our obsession with smart phones just makes life busier – not simpler. When we finally sit down, we’re so exhausted that we need toothpicks and Starbucks lattes to hold our eyelids open. Many parents fall into the trap of believing that our kids need to be scheduled to the max for our kids to be successful or “normal” like the other families. Cramming activities in feels like good parenting. So we end up stuck in a stank gym in Timbuktu eating stale concession popcorn and half-heartedly cheering on a mixed martial arts competition for 3 year old girls in the name of our child’s social advancement … All the while wishing we were simply resting at home with a warm blanket and a bowl of hot soup. In the middle of our booked up calendars, who gets bumped to make way for the next peewee flag football game? God does. There’s a Biblical word for this phenomenon: Idolatry. When an activity consumes our devotion to God, it’s time to start calling a spade a spade.

Weirdness largely has to do with familiarity. In my new hometown of Evansville, Indiana, one of the most inexplicably beloved dishes is the pig brain sandwich. (No lie … A dude almost picked a fight with me at the Evansville Fall Festival for accidentally jumping in line at the brain sandwich concession booth.) Now most folks that I know would find the concept of a pig brain sandwich weird, since you won’t find brain in the meat section of your local Kroger or on the $5 footlong menu at Subway. However, many older farmers, who are used to digesting all parts of the animal, find that delicacy a completely normal. I recently met a nurse practitioner, who grew up on a farm and ate pig brain and eggs every morning for breakfast. Pig brain is only weird if you’re not accustomed to eating it.

So too, reading our Bibles with our families is only weird if you’re not accustomed to doing it. Once the Bible becomes a regular part of our daily family lives, these times become an old family friend that is dearly missed when its not around.

In my next blog post, I’ll talk about some simple strategies that families can use to make the Bible a daily part of their family routines.

On Fools and Social Media: Click On This Blog and You Might Win $1 Million

dont-believe-everything-you-see-on-the-internetIn the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision on homosexuality, my social media sites have been plastered by a litany of blogs expounding on this timely topic. Some pro … some con … All opinionated. Last week, one headline in particular circulating on Facebook caught my eye: “Gay Man Files $70M Suit Against Bible Publishers Over ‘Homosexual’ Verses.” I was intrigued. I fell for the clickbait. The story was about an ex-con, Bradley Fowler of Canton, MI, who filed suit against Zondervan and Thomas Nelson Publishing for publishing Bibles containing verses and commentaries condemning homosexuality. The lawsuit claimed that Mr. Fowler suffered from emotional distress resulting from the position of these Bibles on homosexuality. To boot, Mr. Fowler was also going to represent himself in court.

After reading the story, I immediately thought: “Is this story for real?!?” A basic search of the Internet revealed the story’s veracity. It’s a true story.

But here’s the rub: Mr. Fowler filed lawsuit back in 2008 … Seven years before this year’s Supreme Court decision. A dubious news website called Truth Uncensored re-published the original article about Mr. Fowler’s lawsuit this week, but quickly printed a retraction that the story was originally from 2008. However, the meager retraction didn’t stop other websites from running with the story as well. Why allow the truth to stop a good story, right?!? (Check out snopes.com for more info on this story.)

So why is this story resurfacing now? The story is spreading like wildfire because it preys upon Christians’ fears regarding systematic government persecution following the Supreme Court ruling. As a result, many believers are virally spreading the article to play gotcha: “Aha! This is what happens to Christians now that gay marriage is legal in the Unites States! The black helicopters are coming for you!” It’s fear mongering disguised as news. I mean … On the Tea Party News Network, the article is actually accompanied by a picture of random, half naked (presumably) gay men holding hands! It’s encouraging believers to crouch in fear of a culture quickly shifting away from “Christian values.”

It’s also blatant gullibility.

Or as the Bible calls it: “Foolishness.”

The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about foolishness. Proverbs is not a Dear Abby column of helpful advice to take or leave like a Gump-esque boxful of chocolates. In The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, Derek Kidner likens Proverbs to a colossal pebble beach, where the individual grains of wisdom collectively form the signposts from God towards blessing and life. In Proverbs, wisdom is personified in Proverbs as a noble woman standing at the crossroads, calling all travelers in this life to the haven of wisdom (Proverbs 8). And all believers – who receive wisdom by the Spirit – should heed proverbial wisdom and forsake worldly foolishness (1 Corinthians 2:8-16).

The Hebrew term for “fool” (כְּסִיל) used in Proverbs plainly means stupid or ignorant. One of the primary themes of Proverbs is that Godly people are urged to pursue Godly wisdom and to forsake worldly foolishness. Many of these Proverbs about fools and foolishness read as if directly written to the social media generation:

  • The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.” – Proverbs 14:15
  • A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” – Proverbs 18:2
  • Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.” – Proverbs 28:26
  • Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” – Proverbs 13:20

According to Proverbs, foolishness is not Godliness. Believing everything you read is not a sign of spiritual maturity. Spreading gossip about untruth is contemptible. Being a blowhard that recklessly spouts hurtful opinions without seeking to understand others is not laudable behavior. Being quick to speak, slow to listen and quick to anger is flat-out sinful (James 1:19). Trolling, insulting, bullying and gossiping reflects worldliness – not Godliness. Our nimble fingers can spark a conflagration just as well as our tongues (James 3:5). And – worst of all – our lack of wisdom simply demonstrates that we don’t fear the God that created wisdom itself (Proverbs 1:17, 9:10; Psalm 111:10).

I’m not saying that we should become social media Luddites, who act like we live in the pre-technology 1700s. But I am saying that our spiritual maturity should help us recognize that social media is a factory that encourages and rewards our foolishness:

i-saw-it-g7yhz3I once chided a former church member for re-posting a Facebook meme that roving gangs are staging crime scenes with bloody carseats with fake injured babies on the side of the highway in order to lure unsuspecting concerned motorists into traps. The notice supposedly was issued by the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC). Common sense would tell us that TDOC has nothing to do with either gangs or highway patrols. The TDOC patently denied issuing any sort of notice about bloody carseats death traps. I shared information on the hoax on snopes.com. Not only did I NOT dissuade this former church member from spreading this false rumor, more and more people chimed in to defend the post as the honest-to-God truth!

Even worse, many professing believers affirm theologically ignorant statements on social media:

  • Jesus says, ‘If you really love me, share this picture”: Does it affirm in Scripture that we will be known as Christ followers by our social media shares? Certainly, social media shares are the highest level of works for Christ, right?
  • Click ‘like’ for Heaven … Ignore for Hell”: So your eternal destination is based on your personal preferences on social media?!?
  • Share this picture and special blessing from God will come your way”: Yup … Keep waiting on that one.
  • Repost this message if you love God”: So you’re insinuating that I don’t love God if I don’t repost this message? Hmmmmm.

hoaxes3When we affirm such statements, we are affirming a different Gospel than Scripture: A God who craves our attention instead of His glory … A faith watered down into personal preference … A salvation based on “shares” an “likes” alone instead of faith alone … A Christ that panders for our peanuts like a circus monkey.

Social media shouldn’t make believers lose their sound judgment and – more importantly – their sound doctrine. Paul warns his protege Timothy: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Not only have we wandered off into the forest of myth, we’ve been kidnapped by Bigfoot to boot. Gullibility is one thing … Using social media to promote false doctrine is wholly another thing: Unconscionable.

One of my favorite Bible verses is 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” I think we fall into the trap of thinking that our behavior on social media doesn’t matter. It’s a hobby disconnected from real life. It’s a lark. It’s an alternate reality. Or it doesn’t matter. But social media still falls into the “whatever you do” of 1 Corinthians 10:31. And if social media can be used to glorify Christ, what we do on social media really matters.

So let’s stop our foolishness.

Let’s stop spreading false doctrine.

And let’s glorify God in whatever medium He has given.

Whatever you do … Do it to the glory of God.

And if you read the title of this blog and expected to win $1 million, you really are foolish.