Thursday, February 26, 2015

What's the good news?

The word "gospel" means "good news". In Christianity, we believe in, study, proclaim, and celebrate the gospel. But although it is good news, that doesn't mean the opposite is true: just because something could be considered "good news" doesn't mean it is the gospel, or related to the gospel.

That's where I think we get stuck sometimes. We assume that if it's good news for us, it must be something God wants, too - maybe that it's part of even God's will, and God's priority, and God's purpose for our lives.

For instance, it might be good news - great news - to hear that your kid got straight A's, or that you're getting a raise or promotion at work, or that your car doesn't need major repairs after all. It might be good news that it won't rain on your wedding day, or that everyone will make it to the family reunion, or that there's enough butter left in the fridge so you don't have to make a trip to the store. But none of these have much of anything to do with the "good news" that is the Christian gospel.

Last week I wrote about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is one research team's attempt to boil down the religious views of the average American teenager into one coherent set of beliefs. MTD makes this very mistake, placing people and their desires and happiness at the center of the universe and using God as a supernatural help to attain human success and comfort.

So, what is this Christian "gospel"?

1. It is the good news about Jesus Christ (see Mark 1:1).

2. It is spiritual in nature; it deals with spiritual things and spiritual relationships. Paul said he became a "father" to the Corinthians "through the gospel" (1 Cor. 4:15).

3. It has the force of truth, and its essence is worth contending for (Galatians 2:5).

4. It brings people who are "out", "in"; it shows no favoritism; it is for everyone (Ephesians 3:6).

5. It's the answer to a mystery: how could God bring sinners into his adopted family? (Eph. 3:6, 6:19)

6. It is tied to a mission (Philippians 1:12).

7. Because it's a shared mission, the gospel promotes and requires unity (Philippians 1:27).

8. It is the message that through the death of Jesus, God has made a way for sinful, broken people to be reconciled to himself (Colossians 1:21-23).

9. It is the overcoming and defeat of death, and the attainment of immortality (2 Timothy 1:8-11).

10. Paul was imprisoned for it (Philemon 1:10-14).

The gospel is life-changing and life-giving. And, in many ways, it is unbelievable. Which is why we have to fight for it, and not let it be diminished by all of the other "good news" we look forward to hearing. Those things might be good news, but they're not the good news. In coming weeks I'll detail some messages that get offered as substitutes for the real good news.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The New American Religion

Ben Franklin wrote, "Half the truth is often a great lie." Indeed, you can learn a lot from half-truths, both from what is included and what is left out - as long as you're aware you're only getting half the truth!

Between 2001 and 2006, the National Study of Youth and Religion conducted the largest study ever of teenagers and their religious beliefs. One of its findings was that while 85 percent of American teens said they believed in God, less than a third were active in a congregation. Before you heave a sigh of relief ("At least most of them believe in God"), consider the content of those beliefs. What the survey revealed was dismal.

The average American teenager (at least in 2005) possessed a set of beliefs that were a watered-down mixture of self-help, deism, and works righteousness. The research team said it was as if they conceived of God as part-cosmic butler, part-therapist. Taking into account all of the teens they'd surveyed and distilling their beliefs down to a prominent core, some themes emerged:

  1. A God exists who created the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
They called this "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism", and you can judge for yourself whether it's still true of teenagers today, 10 years later. But, as the teenagers who were surveyed are now in their 20s, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is surely the new American religion.

The subject came up in our Wednesday night class on why the Millennial Generation is leaving churches. Some class members noted that it's a self-focused theology - life is about me, and God's job is to be there for me - and that perhaps not until kids grow up and out of a "me first" ethic can they move past a selfish belief in God. Fair point. The trouble is, there's just enough truth in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to make it believable.

For instance, #1 is certainly true. God's existence is a bedrock belief of the Christian faith. #2 is also true - but there are a number of caveats. Us being good and nice isn't all that God wants, nor is it the central teaching of "most world religions". And, what about sin? How does that affect our ability to carry out the whole good, nice, and fair thing?

Is #3 true? While there's a certain amount of truth to the idea that being a Christian will bring you joy and feelings of peace and contentment, it does not follow that any means I might use to make myself feel good or experience joy are legitimate or part of God's plan. Endless trips to Disneyland might make me feel good. A life spared from family tragedy would make me happy. Becoming rich or famous or successful might produce feelings of accomplishment and self-worth. But that doesn't mean God is necessarily behind any of those things.

#4 reflects an attitude we're all perhaps guilty of sometimes. "God - bail me out!" means we expect God to always be faithful, even when we've been unfaithful. And 2 Timothy 2 affirms that God cannot be unfaithful, or he would be denying his character. But it betrays an attitude that says, "My life should be good. I deserve it. I should be successful, happy, and healthy. If I'm not, God ought to fix it." No theology of suffering. No learning or being shaped by trials. No "take up your cross and follow me". #4 is the credo of consumerist Christianity.

And #5 reflects the pop-religion dogma that will. not. die: Karma. It's an incredibly slippery concept that seems charitable, but really, would you want to be judged by a "good enough" standard once you die? What if what you thought all your life was good enough, wasn't?

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is easy to believe. But it also easily fails. Lives are filled with hardship. God has a unique plan for solving the human predicament. But he's at the center of that plan, not you. MTD casts God as a piece within an individual's story, rather than seeing people as pieces fitting into God's story. It fits with a consumerist lifestyle that pursues personal comfort and pleasure above all things. But those are dreams uniquely fitted to our time and culture. Most of the world doesn't have the luxury of viewing God in this light. And if the self-centered gist of MTD is not universally true, to all people of all cultures, it's not true at all.

To think about: It's likely that none of the ideas of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are taught to kids overtly: "Believe this." Instead, kids absorb it from the messages they receive - from parents, friends, the culture, even the church. What are the sources that fuel these beliefs?

Monday, February 16, 2015

There are no winners and losers in church

My worst subject in school was probably PE. I was curious and liked to read, so the demands of a traditional classroom played to my strengths. But I could - and did - make all kinds of excuses why I didn't do well in PE: I was shorter than other kids, we weren't playing my favorite games (i.e., the ones I was sure I could win at), I always ended up on the weaker team, and that old childhood standby - "the other team cheated".

Truth is, I was a sore loser. And because of that, I came to dread and resent PE. But years later I came to understand the real reason I wasn't a star when it came to PE: I completely misunderstood the point of physical education itself. Turns out it's not to become a star athlete, nor to win, but to develop an appreciation for exercise and how to use your body.

To be fair, I don't think most kids understood the point of PE either, which is why it always threatened to devolve, particularly in Junior High, into a survival-of-the-fittest melee. But it wasn't for lack of trying. Our elementary PE teacher, Mr. Fritel, ran a tight ship and methodically planned games and exercises for us designed to develop hand-eye coordination, build muscle strength, gross motor skills, etc. - everything that a good physical education program should do. He taught us how to juggle, how to climb ropes, and how to jump. He started a jump rope show team that would practice before school and perform at basketball halftime shows. Some tricks were simple, and others impressive and complex, like jumping rope while belted to a pogo stick.

Still, all of this skill development, wonderful as it was, got eclipsed by competitiveness. As a result, I didn't want to play any sport that didn't come easy to me, because I might not win. Today, hyper-competitiveness also causes young athletes to drop out of sports they genuinely enjoy, just because they can't make "the cut". When a kid loves a sport, and then ends up turning away from that sport and from all sports in general, we have a problem.

Which brings us back to PE: its real purpose is not to delineate winners and losers, but to instill in kids a hopefully lifelong love of physical activity. Likewise, the real purpose of church for kids is to cultivate in them an excitement, a wonder, and a love for God. Simple as that. It's not to separate smart kids from non-smart kids, or to win attendance awards, or to be the fastest at finding Bible verses. If your church upbringing was filled with those things, let's be honest: some kids liked that stuff, but a lot of them hated it, too. And where are those adults now?

There are all kinds of reasons young adults walk away from churches. It isn't all the fault of unpleasant church experiences when they were kids. But some of it is, and some of it stems from our penchant for identifying "winners" and "losers" in church, when in fact, winning isn't the point at all. Competitiveness in church becomes a problem when it causes kids to think they aren't "good" at church, and when it whips kids into a frenzy that takes their eye far off the ball. No team or kid should get booed at church. But can we really blame kids for acting that way if we've cultivated a "just win, baby" ethic in church?

If kids grow up without exposure to physical activity, or if that activity is tainted by too much competitiveness (causing some to conclude, "I guess I'm just not good at this; it's not for me."), the habit of being active will not take root. In the same way, if church experiences aren't focused on enjoying God and the fellowship of other Christians (and discovering what there is about God that's actually enjoyable), those habits won't take root, either.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Very Best Bible for your kid

I get asked often about Bibles for kids, and I'm glad. It's an easy question - and a hard one.

Want to know the very best Bible for your kid?

It's the one they'll read.

Seriously - that's the goal. That's the cardinal rule of Bible buying. The Bible your kid is drawn to, devours, dog-ears, marks up, can't wait to read - that's the one they need to have.

Which one that will be is a harder question, and you'll only know by exposing kids to lots of different ones. I'll make some suggestions at the end of this post, but a trip to a Christian bookstore with your kid is time well-spent. Better to buy them the one they pick out than surprise them with one that ends up sitting on the shelf.

Keeping in mind cardinal rule #1, here are a couple of other guidelines:

1. Don't judge the book by its cover. I can't tell you how many flashy, cool-looking covers I've seen, for every kind of kid imaginable - rough & tumble, brainy, girly-girl, athletic, adventurous - yet you open them up and it's no different a Bible than you'd find in a typical adult church. Which doesn't make it a bad choice, but if your kid would be unlikely to read the adult Bible from church, will a cool cover make them more likely to read a similar Bible at home? It might, but consider that carefully. Bible publishers design "kid Bibles" this way because their job is to sell Bibles, and there's nothing wrong with that, but putting neat-o packaging around it and slapping the words "Kid's Bible" or "for Kids" doesn't transform it into something that will be easily understood nor readily consumed by kids. And remember, that's the goal. The goal isn't just that they have a Bible they'll proudly claim and carry around, but that they'll use that Bible. Readability plays a big role in that. Which lead us to...

2. Pay attention to translations. The NIV, which is the preferred translation in many evangelical churches, has a 7th-grade reading level. In other words, someone who has completed 7th grade should be able to read and understand it. The King James Version? 12th grade (but, the New King James, 7th). The English Standard Version is at a 10th grade reading level, while the New Living Translation registers at a 6th grade reading level. (See more here.)

Why they wouldn't make all Bibles as easy to read as possible comes down to translation philosophy: are you trying to reproduce the words from the Greek and Hebrew, even if the reading comes out difficult and stilted, or are you trying to reproduce the ideas, even if that means you employ sentence construction and phrases that are easily understood, but not "literally" a translation of the manuscript? (Here's what John 3:16 looks like when Greek words are translated directly to English, with no regard for what makes "good" English: "Thus for loved God the world that the son the only-begotten he gave (so) that all believing in him not might perish but might have life eternal.") Naturally, because of cardinal rule #1 - the best Bible is the one your kid will read - I'm in favor of the second approach when it comes to Bibles for kids, because if they're confused and find the reading too difficult, they won't read it, and then what have you gained?

The "easiest" translations to read are the New International Reader's Version (NIrV), the New Century Version (NCV), and Contemporary English Version (CEV), all at a 3rd grade reading level. To get any simpler than that, you have to resort to translations-of-translations (the NIrV is one), which take English translations and make them even simpler. Many of these were developed for non-native English speakers. Which leads us to...

3. Bibles vs. Bible story books.  Many kids' Bibles are in fact compilations of important Bible stories. Or more accurately - compilations of the accounts of important events that are recorded in the Bible. That's one weakness of Bible "storybooks", that they could give kids the impression that the Bible contains "stories" (that is, fiction). But that's easily overcome, by repeatedly emphasizing to kids that these are true stories involving people who really lived.

Another drawback is that while the stories are arranged chronologically, there's a jarring lack of continuity. Jesus might immediately follow after Daniel, despite the 600 years between them. But young kids have trouble conceptualizing vast amounts of time anyhow, and even an adult Bible omits hundreds of years - the Bible is not an comprehensive history of the human race.

Clearly, very young children will use storybook Bibles. But if you're anxious that your older child still hasn't "graduated" to a full, 66-book, chapter-and-verse Bible - don't be. Refer back to cardinal rule #1: the best Bible is the one your kid will read. The message of the Bible is what transforms us; not the particular words. When you read an English Bible, you're not getting the words, but an interpretation, communicating the meaning in the Greek and Hebrew.

And by the same token, don't stress out over Bible mechanics. Kids learn about the Bible's layout and how to navigate it as a byproduct of actually reading it. Find the one they love to read, and the rest will follow. Which leads us to...

4. Set a good example. This article stresses that a love of reading cannot be imposed on kids, but it may be contagious. Kids who read books tend to have parents who love to read. Likewise, if kids see us reading - and enjoying reading - the Bible, they might come to value it as well.

And I beg you: don't pay your kid to read the Bible. Let them develop it because it excites their imagination, satisfies their curiosity, and fills their soul. Rewards cheapen what the Bible is all about.

If you're a little lost when it comes to reading the Bible, we have a great class for you and your kid to take together once they've reached 4th grade. What's The Story? and What's This Book? are designed to promote Bible literacy and make you a good Bible reader. Look for their re-launch this spring once the new chapel opens.

A Couple of Recommendations
The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name 
The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name This awesome little innovation manages to weave Jesus into every selected Old Testament and New Testament story, so that while you may be learning about Noah, you're also learning about his connection to the savior who was to come. I haven't heard from any family yet that hasn't loved this Bible.

The Action Bible 
The Action Bible Kids have been fascinated with this one for a few years now. Full-color, impressive drawings, laid out comic book style, and again with a focus on the "big picture" story of the Bible and God's hand in sovereignly saving his people.

 The Picture Bible is what the name suggests. It's very similar to the Action Bible in that it selects several characters and relates events from the life of each one, but the illustrations aren't as striking.

The Picture Bible, Hardcover

 If you want a full-text, "regular" Bible, just take your kid online or to a Christian bookstore and have them choose the cover style that suits them. Unfortunately, the easier the reading level, the fewer the choices you'll have - most "kids' Bibles" tend to be NIV.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The "Hug" of God

"I used to feel God's presence all around me," the caller said to me, "But lately I haven't felt it as much." As pastors, we get all kinds of questions; this one happened to come from someone who looked us up randomly and called (no joke), but it's a variation on something we all experience from time to time: why do we go through times that we don't feel close to God?

It was revealed a few years ago that even Mother Theresa, a beacon of faithfulness and self-sacrifice, went through a long period of questioning and doubt at mid-life, a "dark night of the soul" that didn't lift. Because of her sense of call, she soldiered on, and ultimately this perseverance led to a deeper identification with the suffering of the poor whom she served.

God's presence is a fact. Sometimes it is accompanied by a feeling. Jesus said, "Surely I am with you always, even to the end of the ages" and "Never will I leave you, nor forsake you". Numerous passages in the Psalms talk about God's omnipresence, and the fact that he goes before us and surrounds us with his presence. God is everywhere!

But we don't always feel it. So we have to trust what's true, and resist letting feelings of loneliness or despair be the measure of the strength of God's presence.

Think about a hug. A hug is a tangible expression of love and care. It reassures us, giving meaning to whatever words of adoration or appreciation accompany it. But hugs can't last forever. You can't hug your child all day long; but that doesn't mean your love ceases the moment the embrace is broken, nor that the love is stronger during the hug, nor that it wears off the longer they're away from you.

So it is with feeling God's presence. It's a nice reassurance, but its absence doesn't indicate a weakness of God's resolve. Certainly there are things we can do on our part to dull our receptiveness, and it's also God's prerogative to reveal himself however to whomever he wishes. But as we can see from the example of Mother Theresa, there is not a direct correlation between one's longing for God and their acute awareness of his presence.

As much as worship services, camps, and retreats try to push us toward them, it turns out that an authentic spiritual life is not an unbroken chain of mountaintop experiences. There are valleys, deserts, and long stretches of lonely highway.

One of the most confusing things about the Christian experience to kids is understanding what grown-ups mean when they say God talks to them or that they felt his presence. We would do well to couch the language of experience in this important caveat: it is not feeling his presence or hearing his voice that makes him real. Rather, God is real and present; and sometimes he chooses to reinforce this by making his presence especially known.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Why School Flunks as a Model for Nurturing Faith in Kids

Why do most church programs for kids resemble school? The earliest Sunday school, in England, was not even intended to promote kids' spiritual growth so much as it was intended to civilize the working-class children who otherwise would be running the streets on Sundays, causing mischief. It was an instrument of social betterment, giving actual schooling (reading and writing) and a healthy dose of training in Christian virtues to illiterate kids who were otherwise destined for a life of manual labor.

But today's kids grow up in a vastly different world, one that recognizes that child labor is wrong, that everyone deserves an opportunity for education, and that celebrates upward mobility. Families clamor to get their kids into the right preschool, kids are reading at younger ages than ever, and attending college has long been the norm for American students.

Still, when it comes to nourishing kids' faith, we're stuck with an 18th-century model.

There are lots of reasons why the Sunday school caught on in America, but the driving purpose had more to do with taming the frontier, promoting national unity, and developing civic virtue than anything else. It's important to note that Sunday schools weren't run by churches. They were independent organizations (parachurch ministries, really) that often met in churches but were not led by pastors nor a substitute for attending a church worship service. It was fully expected that everyone who attended a Sunday school - adult or child - was also active and regular in Sunday church services. In other words, Sunday school was not intended to be a worship experience, nor the only thing that supported the development of kids' faith.

Today, although the trappings of "school" are largely absent from churches - tables and worksheets have been replaced by tech and games and dramas - the gist remains the same. One of the problems of doing church "like school" for kids is that information transfer is relatively static: teachers have it, students need it, and by diligent effort, they can get what they need. But that's not a picture of what goes on as we grow spiritually.

I can think of three reasons why putting all of our eggs in the "school" model is a bad deal for kids. One is that more knowledge does not = a better Christian. More specifically, knowing more things does not translate into greater or stronger faith. Kids themselves can be complete Christians. Do you believe that? Of course, we acknowledge that Jesus said "the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these (children)" and that "unless you have the faith of a child, you will never enter the kingdom of God". But do we truly take that to heart? Or do we harbor the same prejudice as the rest of the world, which imposes a "power & performance" metric on everything, concluding that because children are young and small and simple, that makes them "less than"?

The second is that kids don't come to us empty. They have varying degrees of experience with language about God, other churches, the Bible...and so it's a mistake to assume that "what they know" will be exactly equal to "what we told them" - or anywhere close. If kids are not just mouthing words back to us, but actually internalizing the knowledge of God that's confronting them, it will look very different from one kid to another, because our life experiences create different amounts of need and color our perspective.

The third is related to the second, in that kids' exposure, intake, and processing of the things of God doesn't stop when they walk out the door of the church. It's not sequential, the way I might learn to do algebraic equations or memorize foreign-language vocabulary. The processing takes shape as kids live their varied lives.

In light of that, what role does our teaching play? It's not that truth and facts about God don't matter at all, but the end goal is not knowledge; it's faith. Faith is a weird concoction that is centered in the soul. To develop it, it's not enough just to teach to the emotions. Certainly there's a big dose of motivation involved in faith, but I can't will myself to believe in nothing. On the other hand, an approach that teaches only to the brain doesn't work either. I can memorize lots of doctrine but utterly reject the idea that it's important enough to build my life around.

So how do I teach a soul? It's pretty difficult.

But take heart - God is already at work. As I alluded to in last week's post, in God, kids can have a living, breathing, 24/7 mentoring presence in their lives who is wiser and more available than you are. And when you consider that the ultimate goal is that kids would meet God - not just learn things about him - it makes sense that he's pretty central to the process, doesn't it?

So what if we thought a little bit differently about the task? What if we considered that even now, as you read this, God is in pursuit of your child? That he is working to make himself known, and extending an invitation for them to know him? Then it turns out that all the work we do isn't building upon nothing. Rather, we are coming alongside the work God is already doing, facilitating an introduction.

To do that, we have to be perceptive, because the channels God is using to reach each kid might vary from one to the next. And the way he wants to work in their lives surely varies. Where is God moving? What is he trying to do? Many times when I've taken counselors to summer or winter camps, I've advised them, "Don't get in the way of what the Holy Spirit is trying to do." If we find ourselves working at cross-purposes to, or even opposing, what God's trying to do, we'll find ourselves frustrated. Unnecessarily frustrated!

He is the lead teacher; we come alongside. We don't create anything; God is already alive. We need not package and deliver something grand and clever, or think that we must talk kids into loving good behavior. God's already got the plan, and it's far superior to any educational program we could plan, because it's the fullness of who he is. Bring kids to that; not to school.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Looking for a Good Mentor?

Does your kid need a mentor? Chances are they do. Especially as kids grow up, the presence of caring adults in their lives who share your vision and values becomes really important. The world is a big place, and you can't be everywhere at once. Fortunately, the church can help.

I'm asked from time to time if the church can provide mentoring. Frankly, I'd love to see it happen. I think it's a biblical ideal - if not a mandate. Logistically, it's really difficult. There are non-profit organizations that exist solely to match up boys and girls with older mentors. For them, it's time-consuming and labor-intensive, and even with the best of preparation, they can't guarantee a perfect fit.

Still, I understand and sympathize with the desire. Wouldn't it be nice to have someone walking alongside my child who could fill in the gaps, who could steer them in the right direction, who my kid could talk to about the things they don't feel they can talk to me about? I get it.

Having been on the non-parent side of things, I also understand mentoring's limitations. As it turns out, those who serve as mentors are ultimately limited just as parents are. It hurts to see kids who you've invested in turn and make poor decisions. Those missteps can cause you, as a mentor, to become better at what you do - more judicious in what you say and wiser in how you use your time with them. But they can also be healthy reality checks. Being too successful as a mentor can blind you to the reality of the human condition: namely, that we don't always make the best decisions for ourselves, and that freedom is essential for us to grow to maturity.

That's why as great as having flesh-and-blood mentors is, in the end the best thing we can do for kids is lead them into a mentoring-like relationship with God.

If you think about it, he is the perfect mentor. Wise? Check. Available at all times? Check. Able to speak truth to them amidst a swirl of contradictory advice from the world? Check. Able to let go and allow them to fail? Check. The thing is that God's mentorship of us is completely devoid of ego or the need to feel good by "giving back" or "making a difference". Those are benefits someone derives from serving in a mentoring capacity, but they can easily become the motivation. Instead, God's care for us - marked by his unfailing availability to us and presence in our lives - is driven entirely by his self-giving love. It will never get entangled in his need for self-affirmation; it will never become conditional on our acceptance of what he gives.

I don't know any mentor who has an unlimited supply of energy. I don't know any mentor who wouldn't get discouraged to see kids turn their back on the mentor's advice. I don't know any mentor who wouldn't be slightly annoyed to be ignored during good times, and then desperately called upon when they're needed to get someone out of a jam.

God is the one influence your kid will be able to carry with them always, who will appropriately give them freedom and space to grow yet also sustain them with grace. We do kids a disservice, then, when we only teach them about him but never lead them to encounter him. We sell kids short when we teach Christian values but don't lead them to discover the Christ who authored it all. We mislead kids when all we give them from the Bible is the Law, without shining a light on the character of the Lawgiver and his subsequent roles: Judge, Defense Attorney, Scapegoat, Savior.

If you're looking for a good mentor, teach your kids to really know God personally. As you do, allow them the freedom to discover him, recognizing that where there's freedom, there's often mistakes. Being a godly parent doesn't mean you'll have perfect kids. It means you imitate God in the way you balance mercy & consequences, grace & truth, all within an atmosphere of freedom.

Likewise, God makes no guarantees to you or I about the sequence or fruit of his work in your kid's life. When kids connect to God, he begins a work in them that results in transformation. Because it's accomplished through freedom and not coercion, it's a bumpy, winding road. But he will lead them there. Do we trust God to complete the work?

That trust entails letting go of our own expectations, and embracing radical trust that whatever God wills is what is good. It is relinquishing kids' development, not controlling it. It's letting the mentor - God - step to the fore, which seems backwards. In churches we are fond of saying that "parents are the primary disciplers of their kids" and everything else exists to support the parents' will. I think God has another plan, and it's for parents to subsume even their own influence to that of God. He is the discipler; everyone and everything else is a surrogate.

It would be audacious for any human mentor to suggest this: "I know you're the parent, but let me take over here." But that's exactly the exchange God proposes

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Coming in 2015

Here are some of the things we have planned for kids in 2015:
  • Our midweek program for parents and kids, The Harbor, returns January 28. Parents, if you have not checked out this program, we invite you to take a look. The program runs 6-7:30 on Wednesday nights for six weeks (we do not meet Ash Wednesday, February 18, so the program goes until March 11). 90-minute fun-filled program for kids, where they make friends, learn new skills, and discover more about God in our everyday lives. At the same time, parents can (but don't have to) drop in to one of the following classes: Boundaries with Kids, Essentials of Marriage: Higher Love, Single & Parenting (single moms), Mother-Daughter class (for girls 9+), and Will Our Kids Have Faith? - a groupthink on Millenials and the church. Most classes are free or come with a small materials fee. The kids program is always free. A meal for families is available starting at 5:15 (pre- registration required). Sign up for The Harbor here.
  • During Easter Week, our family-style Seder meal, "The Messiah in the Passover", returns! This is a wonderful, hands-on learning activity for the whole family, as we explore together the Jewish roots of the Christian faith and how the Messiah was the fulfillment of prophecy.
  • "What's The Story?", a six-week class for parents & kids 4th grade & up on understanding the Bible's Big Story, will be offered this spring once the chapel opens, and again in the fall. Stay tuned for more info! The follow-up class, "What's This Book?" on understanding the composition of the Bible and how to read it, will be offered this fall.
  • KidsGames 2015: "You Are A Difference Maker". Again this year, two weeks to choose from - June 22-26 and July 6-10.
  • 4th-6th Grade Summer Camp
Happy New Year and see you in 2015.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Finnish Carpenter

That accent.

You'll always remember that accent. Because it reminded you weren't dealing with just an ordinary American. It was rich, it was deep, and it ensured that I would always be called "Mahhk".

Jason Poznaks - June 27, 1971-December 15, 2014
The voice reminded you that he was a native Australian, and moreover, that he felt no urgency to blend, to lose his distinctiveness, to become an average American. He was comfortable standing out, comfortable going against the flow, comfortable speaking up when he thought something was goofy.

A man of the world, that Jason Poznaks guy. A man who came to the attention of our church through a chance encounter on a street in Egypt. Funny how those small connections lead to big things. That comfort with being outside his element, with trying new things, and with being who he was landed him eventually in children's ministry. Not by default, mind you, or because he drew the short straw. Jason could have been - and was - a senior pastor, a youth pastor, and probably the star of his own television show if that's where he'd channeled his talent; but he did children's ministry, by choice. Despite his ability to "wow" you up front, make no mistake: this was a man who understood people thoroughly and was capable of deep theological thinking.

He had a message: children are the church of today, and the key to the future. He served on global teams and very strongly believed that those of us who had resources - the American church, and those in other resource-rich countries - had an absolute obligation to share the ideas and materials we had with the developing world. He was keenly aware of the insufficiency of ministry to kids, and the lack of materials available to Sunday schools and midweek Bible clubs, in much of the world.

And yet, he concentrated his efforts and his considerable talent on the church wherever he happened to be. Which happened to be with us, at North Coast Calvary in Carlsbad, from 2007-on. As he did, Jason displayed a masterful command of balance: global priorities with local ones; work with play; large group leadership with personal touch; and of course, decorum with fun.

Here's the thing about Jason: he never begged for attention and never hogged the spotlight. And still, everyone knew who he was. And loved him. And had stories about personal encounters with him. He was easy to be around, and you wanted him around. He was the perfect target of practical jokes, because you could be sure he'd return them and one-up you - no hard feelings on either side.

He didn't like being called "Pastor". He wasn't into titles - most Aussies aren't. He preferred to be called "Jason". And yet - pastoring is what he did so well. It was the unseen part of his job. He excelled at it, as he did a lot of things. Meetings with his staff, meetings with parents, meetings with volunteers - Jason wasn't just available to talk about life and its challenges, he made it a point to bring it up. And always over coffee - that is, "cawfee" (spoken swiftly, attack on the first syllable). Behind the wit and the ability to win over large crowds, there was a thoughtful soul who noticed everything and knew everybody. He seemed to have an inexhaustible capacity for relationships.

When you are well-liked and in demand, it can go to your head. But at the end of the day, he never got intoxicated with his own importance. He had a family waiting at home - his wife Natty, and the boys, Ethan and Seth, whom he cared for intensely. Sometimes they couldn't wait to see him, and they'd make office visits to say hi to their dad, to play with him, to touch him and climb on him. I'm quite sure that "Dad" was his proudest title.

After Jason had been hired, as we were anticipating his arrival, our lead pastor made reference in a staff meeting to Jason being a "Finnish carpenter". I was confused, having only met him a few times. I knew he was Australian; had he also been born in Finland? Then I tried to understand it as a metaphor: was there something about Finnish guys who did woodworking that was applicable to ministry? I drew a blank. Finally it dawned on me that he was calling Jason a "finish carpenter" - as in, one who comes in to do the "finishing touches" on a job. Duh. And of course, that's what he turned out to be. A finish carpenter works precisely, sometimes imperceptibly, but nudges things forward, always with an eye for beauty and quality.

The problem is, Jason never got to finish. At least not in the way we would have wanted. Maybe that's why this seems so unfair. Right before KidsGames in 2012, he got the news that would change everything. There was work left to be done - but the "Finnish carpenter" wouldn't get a chance to do it.

It stinks, because no one will do it quite like he could.

That's why I found myself on Tuesday morning wanting to Google things like "Why does God let people die?" and "Where is Jason now?" even though I belong to a religion which answers those questions with certainty. I wanted there to be more of him, somewhere. I came up empty-handed.

Our church's website crashed - I mean, crashed - right before Thanksgiving, and suddenly we lost our ability to communicate about all sorts of events to our church body. But we also knew we needed it back up because with Jason nearing the end of his life, we needed a way to communicate "Jason's Story" and post updates on his condition. Then I started reading some of the tributes people had posted on his Facebook page, and it hit me that "Jason's story" is not the story of his illness, or the last months of his life. The full story will be told, and has been told, in bits and pieces by the people who were impacted by him, who no doubt all claim he was "their" Jason. Some of these people are on the other side of the world and didn't track closely with the story of his illness. That's ok - their remembrances are a healthy counterbalance to our more recent memories of his suffering and pain. Hard as it is, I'm going to remind myself of that when I'm tempted to dwell on the way he died. I think he'd much prefer we revel in the memories of how he lived.

If we're looking for lessons we can draw from Jason's life, I suppose all of the usual candidates apply: Cherish the time you have...Spend time with your family...Don't take yourself too seriously...Be kind to children. For me, it comes back to the work of the "Finnish carpenter". This fall, my wife and I decided to sand and refinish a kitchen table. Not fun work! Done well, a nice-looking piece of furniture looks as though no work has been done on it at all. You assume the tabletop has always been smooth and free of imperfections, that the legs have always been straight, that the finish has always been even. But only the wood, the worker, and his tools know the truth. They experience the dust, the mess, the ugliness that was, and the in-between stages where things are not quite ready. Everyone else only experiences the finished product.

Reading the tributes, I've come to understand that Jason played a role akin to finishing and refinishing in the lives of those who encountered him. In so doing, he exposed himself to some of the not-so-nice looking parts of people's lives; in so doing, he left his mark on hundreds of lives. That's what Jason did for me. By constant encouragement and reminders to have a life outside of ministry, he helped sand some of the rough edges smooth. Only Jason would be the first to demure, and to say that he was not, after all, the finisher, but only an instrument in the hands of God, who is working - sometimes imperceptibly - to finish us all.

Those hands used to direct him from afar; now they hold him.

Rest well, Finnish carpenter.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Spirit of Christmas

We hear a lot at this time of year about the "Christmas spirit". Charles Dickens pledged to "[H]onor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year." Some songs express the wish that the Christmas spirit would last all year.

What is this "Christmas spirit", and how can we harness it?

Sometimes when we talk about "spirit", we are talking about a feeling, an ambiance, an idea. Examples would be "school spirit" or "That's the spirit!" or "the spirit of the law vs. the letter of the law."

But you can also speak of "spirits" as living entities. The original Christmas story is full of this kind of spirit. Start in Luke chapter 1 and count the miracles. Between there and the birth of Jesus, I count eight:
  1. An angel appears to Zechariah and prophesies to him that his wife, who was too old to conceive a child, will give birth to a son.
  2. Elizabeth, Zechariah's wife, conceives.
  3. Zechariah is struck deaf and mute when he disbelieves.
  4. An angel appears to Mary.
  5. Mary, though a virgin, conceives a son by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  6. God communicates to Elizabeth and the baby inside her "leaps" when Mary shows up at her door with the news that she is pregnant.
  7. The Holy Spirit fills Zechariah and he prophesies after his son is born (and, God keeps his word that Zechariah regains his speech).
  8. God himself steps into space-time history.

Miracles are supernatural. At times the Bible is explicit, that the Holy Spirit does such-and-such. But other times it just indicates the miracle happened by God's hand. In any case, miracles are supernatural events authored by God; and since God Himself is a spirit, miracles are inherently spiritual.

There's a difference, then, between celebrating the "spirit" of the season and the "Spirit" that caused the season. The Christmas story, which begins in Luke 1 (not Luke 2) is a supernatural story. The (Holy) Spirit was at work then, and the Spirit is at work today.

If God the Holy Spirit wasn't needed for the first Christmas, then He isn't needed today. All we would need to do is combine the right elements - snowfall, trees & lights, winter-themed songs, Hallmark Channel movies - and take a few days off of work and school, and we'd have Christmas. On the other hand, if God's hand was essential for the first Christmas to happen (which is of course the case), then the true "Spirit of Christmas" is nothing less than Him - the Holy Spirit.