CULTIVATING SPIRITUAL DEPTH

CULTIVATING SPIRITUAL DEPTH

In an interview one morning with Shankar Vedantam, Steve Innskeep of NPR’s Morning Edition, offered a fascinating peak behind the façade of American religiosity. Innskeep reported the findings of a study that surveyed our actual church attendance versus our professed church attendance. The bottom line: 79% of Americans report themselves as associated with an organized faith group. Nearly half, 45%, of all Americans report that they attend weekly religious services versus only 20% of Europeans. But the actual attendance is about equal: 20 % of Christian Europeans attend religious services each week versus 24% of Americans. Why the discrepancy? According to Vedantam, Americans want to see themselves, and want to be seen, as the kind of people that attend church. But when the clock strikes nine on Sunday morning we’d rather stay in our PJ’s watching Meet the Press than slip on our shoes and shuffle off to Sunday School.

It’s like when the dentist asks if you’ve been flossing. Everyone wants to be seen as someone who flosses. But our teeth tell a different tale. [1]

In the same way, Americans want very much to be spiritually deep people. We want the power that comes from a real, intimate, experience of the living God. But we either don’t know how or else we are confused and disillusioned by what we see in the professing Christians around us. The Church, it seems, looks little different from the world. And in some cases, it looks worse. Our spirituality, measured by positive transformation into healthy, happy, and honorable people, is one thousand miles wide and one inch deep.

Pastor and author John Ortberg summarized our angst well in an interview with Dallas Willard, “I went through this long era of intense dissatisfaction and confusion about spiritual life… It’s the cry of the heart,” he said, “God! I don’t know what to do. I know I need you. I know I want you. But I don’t know what to do. Then I picked up this book (referring to Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines) and opened to the preface and read, “authentic transformation really is possible if we are willing to do one thing and that is to rearrange our lives around the things that Jesus practiced in order to receive life and power from the Father.”

Church attendance isn’t always a good measure of spiritual depth. But that is only one of the spiritual disciplines, and one of the most passive. We can no more expect to experience the transforming power of life in the Spirit via one hour a week of sermonic spiritual dentistry, than we can expect to become professional baseball players by watching the World Series. We have to get in the game. If we want to experience the presence and power of God in our lives, we must put into practice the habits and attitudes that Jesus modeled, the Scripture encourages, and that serious believers have practiced for centuries. (See for example 2nd Peter 1:3-9; Colossians 3:1-4; etc.)

These habits, known as the spiritual disciplines, include: confession, devotion, Bible study, celebration, sabbath, serving, stewardship of time and energy, solitude, self-denial, secrecy, listening, and the many forms of prayer.

Perhaps that is what many of us are saying when we fib to the surveyors about our religious lives: We really want to know God. We just don’t know how.

Want to know more? Three sermons on listening to God from the series The Spiritual Disciplines, are on fccsobo.org. Click the “podcast” tab and then click “Topical Sermons.”

For further reading: The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard; The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg (John calls this “Dallas for Dummies.”); The Transforming Friendship, by James Houston; Restoring Your Spiritual Passion, by Gordon MacDonald; Finding God on the A Train, by Rick Hamlin; Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster. You may view the seven minute interview with Dallas Willard and John Ortberg, along with at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wj5UaLzIiDA.

 

[1] See NPR.org /  Religion / What We Say About Our Religion, And What We Do

Shankar Vedantam and Steve Inskeep

 

 

ONE COMMUNITY & THE BASKETBALL BRAWL

ONE COMMUNITY & THE BASKETBALL BRAWL

High School basketball season, 1974, a mild winter’s evening in DeKalb County, Georgia, part of Atlanta’s burgeoning suburbs. My buddies, Randy, Paul, and I left the game and crossed Columbia Drive at the light in front of the high school and began walking up Irish Street toward my house, half a mile away. It was dark, but not too dark to see a group of black kids on the corner, fifty yards ahead, their bicycles laying in the grass either side of the sidewalk.

Randy murmured, “Maybe we should go the other way.” Racial violence was everywhere then, but especially in our school where integration had reached about fifty percent. Scrawny eighth and ninth graders like us paused before entering the school restrooms, hand on the door, listening for who was inside before risking a beating.

“Nah,” I said, “It’ll be alright,” and kept walking, right between the bikes.

“Don’t you touch my bicycle white boy!” I began to reply when WHAP! Something, a belt maybe, hit me and it was on. Outnumbered and scared spitless, the three of us broke and ran in different directions. Three black kids chased me across the street and into someone’s front yard.

I call it the basketball brawl, but it was not much of a fight. I managed to dodge most of the blows and skedaddle to the back door and banged on it asking for help. The porch light flicked on, the door opened slowly, and a large African American man looked down at me and said, “Yes?”

I am a dead man! I thought. But he turned out to be a very nice fellow and let me use his phone to call my folks.

That happened a very long time ago yet, every time I walk down a street and see a group of black kids my gut still does a double clutch.

Fast-forward to Georgia State University in the 1980’s. Atlanta’s races had reached an uneasy peace, with the city’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson. Racial violence had declined, but the tensions and many of the attitudes remained. Still, Atlanta was harmony city compared to Memphis, Tennessee, where I went to seminary later in the decade. We could feel the tension and see the hatred in the stares the first week we were there when my wife and I drove into a predominantly black neighborhood looking for apartments. Memphis felt like it was twenty years behind Atlanta.

It’s cliché, but my best friend in seminary, Robert, was a black guy from Augusta, Georgia. We had auto-mechanics in common. He had made the unusual choice—enabled by minority to majority transfer rules of the day—of attending a predominantly white high school. His stories of discrimination and abuse by white law enforcement in Georgia shocked me, but not as much as the fact that his fellow African-Americans treated him like an Uncle Tom for attending our mostly white seminary. Race relations are complicated, I learned. In Memphis, and through my friend, I began to understand what MLK Jr. meant when he talked about the content of our character versus the color of our skin.

Why am I telling you all this? I attended an event titled One Community last week, at the Prizery, our local community arts center. One Community’s mission is: To provide relevant enrichment opportunities and experiences for our community to address racism and diversity issues. My fear, frankly, was that it would be a politically motivated white-bashing party for people full of resentments who wanted to buttress a sense of entitlement. I was pleasantly surprised, met some very nice people, and heard some stories of what it was like to grow up black in segregated schools here in south-side Virginia in the fifties and sixties; stories told with grace, humor, and without animosity. I sensed a longing in that evenly mixed gathering of about 100 people, for understanding and harmony, not hate. Notably, the organizers of the event had invited white people who grew up at the same time to share their stories, but none volunteered. I wish they had.

Why did I attend? As a son of the South I feel no responsibility whatever for the “sins of my fathers.”  Besides my own experiences, I’ve had relatives who were denied career paths because they were, “the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Reverse racism is a thing. But I am also heartily sick of the chaos groups like Antifa are creating in our culture and committed to doing what I can to unravel it. Further, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the most powerful antidote to racism that was ever given to mankind. We are called to be ministers of reconciliation, of men to God and of men to each other. We can’t do that by sitting at home and stewing in our own juices. I do not want to stand before God one day and answer, “I had an opportunity to move our community forward and missed it because I wasn’t willing to listen and build relationships.”

At lunch recently with a good friend who is also African American—but prefers to be called plain old Frank—I heard the counterpoint to my basketball brawl, stories of white violence toward blacks that outraged me. And I finally realized, those kids are just as scared of me as I was of them. Isn’t it time we stopped our guts from double clutching and sat down at the table to talk?

BEST PARENTING PARADIGMS John Rosemond’s Parenting by The Book

BEST PARENTING PARADIGMS John Rosemond’s Parenting by The Book

The accuracy of our assumptions determines the effectiveness of our actions. If we assume, for example, that the power line to the lamppost is eighteen inches under ground then we can dig a fifteen-inch hole to plant flowers around the post. But if the line is oh, say, twelve inches deep, and we maintain our assumption of eighteen then we can still plant flowers, we’ll just have to do without the light at night. Visit my house one evening and I’ll show you.

Nowhere is this truer or more obvious than in the outcomes America is experiencing in child-rearing. Since 1965, about the time we traded in our traditional child-rearing assumptions for the new and improved psychological paradigm, “every single indicator of positive well-being in America’s children has been in a state of precipitous decline … The per-capita rate of child and teen depression … has increased at least five fold since 1965. In just one fifteen-year period, from 1980 to 1995, the suicide rate for boys ages ten to fourteen almost doubled!”[1]

Those stats come from John Rosemond’s Parenting by The Book, published in 2007. I’d been reading Rosemond’s syndicated newspaper columns for years, amenning all the way, but I’d never read one of his books. The intro to Parenting by The Book reveals how Rosemond came to his convictions and explains one of the reasons I enjoy his work so much. It’s another case of science catching up with Scripture.

John was not a born-again believer in Jesus when he began his career. He called himself a cultural-Christian up until his early fifties. But his work as a family psychologist kept exposing him to hard facts about human nature that did not fit the post-modern parenting paradigm he’d absorbed in graduate school. The more he wrote, spoke, and counseled based on his findings, the more he found himself in agreement with Christians and at odds with his profession.

Remember those assumptions? Psychology assumes that people are fundamentally good, that we are not responsible for our problems—it’s our parents’ fault—and that we can only be “saved” through therapy. Biblical Christianity assumes that we are created in the image of God with a free will and fully responsible for our choices. But we are also fallen, corrupted by rebelling against him. Our only salvation is in accepting responsibility for our sins, asking for forgiveness, and believing in Jesus Christ who died for our sins. Before he was born again, Rosemond discovered the difference in those assumptions by studying their outcomes.

“I have major problems with the direction my once noble profession has taken since the late 1960’s,” he writes, “when the American Psychological Association was hijacked by secular progressives who were focused more on advancing humanist ideology than advancing the human condition … I am absolutely convinced that modern psychology has done more harm than good to the American family.” These ideas were coalescing in his mind when Rosemond read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, and submitted his life to Jesus.

“The raising of a child, once a fairly straightforward, commonsense affair, has become the single most stressful thing a woman will do in her lifetime,” he writes. “That’s not the way God planned it, but then, God’s way is not modern psychology’s way either.” Parenting by The Book not only dismantles postmodern parenting assumptions, it also lays out a clear path based on the biblical worldview for parents to follow. Every parent should read it.

[1] John Rosemond, Parenting by The Book, p. 66.

LAUNCHING THE LAST ONE: Five things I would say to myself as a young father

LAUNCHING THE LAST ONE: Five things I would say to myself as a young father

The last of my three daughters launched today, off to pursue her calling as a storyteller and begin her career as the digital video and media producer for a private university in a neighboring state. I couldn’t be happier for her or prouder. She worked hard and smart and with the grace of God achieved her goal. A biblical paraphrase comes to mind: This is my beloved daughter in whom I am well pleased. Followed by, WATCH OUT WORLD, HERE SHE COMES!

I am, of course, exceedingly proud of all three of my daughters, each of whom loves God and others, serves their respective churches, has happy, healthy relationships, and have become self-supporting adults who will contribute much to society. But watching the last one launch reminded me of how fast it all went by and how often I wondered how it all would turn out. No human life is without trial and tragedy. Our girls did not escape serious illness, hidden trauma, and acquaintance with sudden death as they grew up.

Knowing this, many people choose not to have children, but I’m so glad we did.  With 20-20 hindsight, here are five things I would say to myself as a young father.

First, don’t wait till you can afford it. I was earning less than $10 an hour when my second daughter was born. We had maternity insurance, but still, given our conviction that my wife should be at home with the kids till they entered school, (she home schooled them through third grade), times were tough. We used the envelope system of cash management and my wife was a champion shopper. God is faithful and provided just what we needed when we needed it. If you wait till you can afford it, you can become more attached to your standard of living than is necessary to raise healthy children.

Second, be present in their lives. The best parenting advice I ever got came from a very successful friend. “Don’t let your ministry consume all of your time,” he said. “I’ve worked too much and lost touch with my sons. I wouldn’t want to see that happen to you.” It was only too true. Sadly, one son took his own life as a high school senior. Some things only a dad can do and some things only a mom. They need both of you in their lives. This will require sacrifice of other things that may seem more important. Make the sacrifice.

Third, hold the reigns loosely. Keep the picture of the mature adult you are aiming for clearly in mind and guide them toward it, but don’t over control. Don’t let the daily details—the foolishness of youth, the ups and downs of adolescence—discourage or enrage you. Hold your temper and your tongue and keep the big picture in mind.

Fourth, be the storyteller in their lives. Read to them—the Bible and other good books—before they know what a book is and manage well what they watch and read as they mature. That includes, of course, worshiping with other believers each week, living out the story of the gospel in the body of Christ. The storytellers of a culture shape the values of a culture and of a family. Discuss what you read and the sermons you hear “as you go in and out, as you rise up and sit down,” in the car and at the table, everywhere life happens. Make sure they know how to analyze every story from the biblical worldview. Then they will know how to write their own.

Finally, let them fail and learn how to stand up again. “Success is never final,” the saying goes, “and failure is never fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” Life is no Disney World, and the sooner they learn how to suffer defeat and keep going, the better.

“Forgetting what lies behind and straining toward what lies ahead,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”[1] I’m so glad I became a dad, and look forward with great anticipation to see what God is going to do next in my daughters’ lives.

[1] Philippians 3:13-14.

 

SAFE-GUARDING THE CHURCH

SAFE-GUARDING THE CHURCH

The basement fellowship hall of one of the largest churches in the county was packed with the most ecumenical gathering of local church leaders I’ve ever seen. The recent spate of mass-shootings obviously had everybody thinking about safety and local law-enforcement agencies along with the Commonwealth’s Attorney were hosting a church safety seminar. The presenters were excellent and reminded me of some lessons learned the hard way that are worth sharing.

Twenty-five years ago, I operated a fleet garage in Atlanta, Georgia. The garage was part of a large, downtown ministry that had an electronic security system monitored by an on-site, twenty-four-hour security staff. One zone of the system had been malfunctioning and, when it alarmed one night, the security staff by-passed it and ignored it. Thieves made off with thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and a dump-truck.

Lesson: A security system that isn’t in place and operating all the time isn’t a security system. It is a false sense of security.

Forty years ago, our automotive tech class was taking a break outside the shop, standing around, shooting the breeze when up walks another student with a pine branch about the size of a baseball bat in his hand. He starts yelling at a guy not five feet from me about a girl they were both pursuing. Quick as a flash he swung that branch and I saw my friend’s head changed shape under the blow. Just as fast my friend was down, and the attacker was gone.

Lesson: From our point of view, violence is random and incredibly fast. We never know when it is coming our way. People assume that Jesus’ only response to violence was passivity. That is inaccurate as well as inadequate. Jesus resisted hypocritical teaching of religious leaders, as well as their usurious exploitation of worshipers in the temple, with aggressive action (John 2:15). When soldiers asked how to practice righteousness he did not tell them to lay down their arms and resign their commissions (Luke 3:14). Before his departure he recognized the need for armed defense against violent evil by urging his men to provide themselves with swords (Luke 22:36). Violent evil will be with us till Christ returns so we must be prepared.

Three months ago, we hosted a family discipleship seminar. Our presenter, Dr. Kevin Jones, traveled four hours to be with us. A couple dozen people gathered to hear his talk and not half-way through we had to evacuate the building for a tornado warning.

Last week, to the complete shock of the congregation, one of our young praise band members fainted—in the middle of a song—on stage, requiring immediate first-aid. A husband & wife team of nurses immediately took charge and took care of him, but it took a while for the rest of us to regain our equilibrium.

Lesson: We need a plan and a designated team to handle such emergencies.

Thankfully, a group of dedicated church-members have volunteered to serve as our church’s Safety Team. They have been developing plans and policies for various situations to keep all of us as safe as possible during worship services and other events.

When the team is ready, they will lead us through a few emergency preparedness drills. Should an emergency occur our job as church members will be to stay out of their way as they move toward the crisis and follow any directions they may have for us.

Does your church have a safety team?

DENNIS JERNIGAN’S JOURNEY Into and Out of Homosexuality

Editor’s Note:  California Governor Jerry Brown is expected to sign recent legislation outlawing attempts to help people escape unwanted same-sex-attraction.[1]The law would also forbid the sale of books like Jernigan’s autobiography. Given those facts, I thought it would be good to remind readers that nothing is impossible with God.

“How did this happen? What did we do wrong? Why didn’t we see it coming?” These and many other questions hound the parents of children who go off the rails in one way or another, none more so than the parents of children who “come out” as gay.

Dennis Jernigan’s parents did not learn of his immersion in the same-sex world until he had been delivered from it, but his autobiography, SING OVER ME (Innovo Publishing 2014), should be read by anyone who wants to understand how it happens and how same-sex attraction can be overcome.

Jernigan, whose songs and hymns are known and loved all across the evangelical landscape, has had over twenty years to heal and consider his life’s path, and tells his story in a way that is transparent and mature. Familiar patterns emerged as I read the chapters; patterns parents and loved ones should take note of, especially when raising artistically gifted and sensitive boys.

Former lesbian professor Rosaria Butterfield[2] says that all sexual sin, hetero or homosexual, is predatory and she’s right. Jernigan’s story bears that out. Some of the forces that channeled him into same-sex attraction include: Adult male predatory behavior that initiated confusion, curiosity, self-doubt, and a fixation on sexuality in a very young boy; bullying and being made to feel different from other boys; an untutored journey through puberty; homophobic hostility from other men that made it feel impossible for an adolescent to discuss his confusion with those who could’ve helped him; powerful identification with major female authority figures at critical periods in his life; more sexual predation and manipulation as a young man by trusted adult males who used him instead of helping him. The list is longer, but you get the point. It all leads to a confusion of identity that is sexually expressed.

According to Jernigan, many people feel trapped in the same-sex world and want to escape, but don’t know how. For Dennis, the path out of homosexuality wasn’t as complicated as the path in, but it was no less difficult. It too has a pattern, one that has nothing to do with man-centered schemes like “dating for the cure,” where people with same-sex attraction date the opposite sex in hopes it will effect an inward change. It won’t. In fact, the people who emerge victorious over this attraction find that the victory isn’t about sex; it’s about identity and love.

“It suddenly became apparent to me,” he writes, “that since childhood I had believed a vast number of lies about myself, lies planted in my mind concerning my sexual identity, my worth, my talents, my personality, my character, and everything about me … I could no longer trust anyone from my past to help me because I reasoned they were in the same predicament as I was. In that moment, I decided I would go to the Word of God, the manual, and to Father God Himself in intimate prayer and worship—not to discover who I was but rather to discover Who He was!”[3]

Jernigan replaced lies about himself with truth and walked in the light about his problems with his fellow believers. He found acceptance, understanding and a commitment to walk with him among a few close Christian friends, and notably, he discovered the power and freedom of Spirit-led worship.

Not surprisingly, some people have condemned Dennis for this forthright autobiography, accusing him of trying to reinvigorate a waning music career by “coming out” in this way. But as the legal threat for refusing to celebrate homosexuality grows it becomes increasingly important for others who struggle with same-sex attraction and identity to hear from people like Dennis, and gain hope. May his tribe increase.

[1] https://world.wng.org/2018/06/follow_the_assembly_line

[2] https://rosariabutterfield.com/

[3] SING OVER ME, p. 151

A RADIO FOR SPEAKING TO GOD

A RADIO FOR SPEAKING TO GOD

Maybe you remember one of my favorite scenes from the first Indiana Jones movie: Raiders of the Lost Ark. The villain, French archaeologist Beloche’, leans in to the drunk, grieving hero who believes he’s just lost his girlfriend, “Jones!” he insists, “the Ark is a radio for speaking to God!”

“You wanna talk to God?” the angry Jones slurs as he reaches for his pistol and begins to stand, “Let’s go see him together. I got nothing better to do!”

But before Beloche’s thugs can gun him down, friend Sala’s children rush in shouting, “Uncle Indy, come quick!” and haul him away to safety.

Everybody wants to communicate with God, but fewer and fewer seem to know how. That’s become apparent in many pastoral conversations I’ve had recently.

“How can I tell if this is what God wants us to do?”

“How can I have a more fulfilling spiritual life?”

“Why are there so many different kinds of churches and what distinguishes one from the other?”

These questions and others like them come up more and more often and, even though the questions are quite different, I find my answers keep circling back to the same theme: what the Bible is and what it does in our lives.

The Bible is the Word of God and therefore speaks with absolute authority on every theme it addresses. But don’t take my word for it.

Jesus, whom the Apostle John called “the Word,”–another way of saying God incarnate—also called the Old Testament, “the word of God.”[1] The Apostle Peter explained that the prophets “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Spirit.” He also designated Paul’s writings as equal in authority to “the rest of the Scriptures.”[2] And, most notably, Paul explained that all Scripture is “God breathed,” in other words, inspired by God and therefore completely authoritative.

Without the Bible we cannot know how to become a Christian, how to live as a Christian, or how to grow up into full spiritual maturity. Our response to the Bible is first to seek to understand it, then trust it, then obey it. When we do these things we are understanding, trusting, and obeying God.[3]

More than anything else, what distinguishes one church from another is how they think about Scripture. Is it the only authority for all matters? Or is it one among many? It doesn’t matter very much which label a church wears, what matters is its commitment to Scripture as the Word of God.

Those are the basics about the Bible, but something much more powerful, much more transformative and fulfilling awaits when we commit ourselves to reading, understanding, trusting and obeying it. It’s best captured in Hebrews 4:12:

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” [4]

This book is alive. The Spirit of God breathed it into the lives of its authors and breathes through its pages still, as they are read, studied, and preached, accomplishing several things in our souls that only it can do.

It awakens within us the knowledge of God’s holiness, our sin and separation from him, his love for us in Christ, and the salvation available only through him.[5] It reveals to us our true selves before the one true God who is full of holy love, speaking tender words of illumination, conviction, encouragement, and power for his children.[6] It gives us God’s wisdom for living healthy, joyful, meaningful lives.[7]

The list goes on and on, but I’m running out of space.

Want your questions answered? A spiritually fulfilling life? A radio for speaking to God? Read the Bible, trust it, learn how to properly interpret and apply it, and above all obey it. You will be speaking to God, and more importantly, he will be speaking to you.

[1] John 10:35

[2] 2 Peter 1:21 & 2 Peter 3:16.

[3] Wayne A. Grudem, Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know, p. 17

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Heb 4:12). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[5] Acts 2:22-41; Romans 10:17; 2 Timothy 3:14-15

[6] Hebrews 4:12; 2nd Peter 1:3-4;

[7] 1Cor. 2:6-13; James 3:1; Proverbs 2:1-15.