The Message of Christianity as Simply as I Know How to Explain It

God created all things and called the world that he created “very good.” Man and woman, happy and in perfect relationship with the creation and the Creator. Tempted by the desire to be like God, man and woman rebelled against God and sin entered the world. Every evil, every ounce of suffering, every war and death and disease and disaster originates from a good creation that is broken by sin. 

In response, God chooses the nation of Israel to use for his purposes to begin to restore the world. He taught Israel how to live as his chosen people, set them free from captivity, provided for their needs and gave them the law (10 Commandments, and a few others). But the law that was a gift was also a curse. The law exposes how truly broken we are. This was God’s plan all along, to teach us that we cannot be good enough to fix the world, to be genuinely happy again, or to restore a perfect relationship with God. The prophets, priests, and kings of Ancient Israel teach us that in the pages of the Old Testament.

Enter Jesus. He was an Israelite, the next step in God’s plan through Israel to remake the creation. He was born, lived, and died as a human being. But he was also God, the Son of God, the incarnation of God, the fullness of God in a human being. He was tempted like us, laughed like us, hurt like us, cried like us, bled like us, but without sin, without fault. So when he was executed he didn’t deserve it. He sacrificed himself for us, and in some mysterious way that I cannot fully understand, he took upon himself the sin and pain and misery of the world in order to fix it. There was a debt I owed that he paid. I was captive to an old life and he set me free. I deserved a punishment that he took in my place. The God of the universe is so just that he could not ignore sin, and so filled with love that he could not let it destroy us. So God sent Jesus to fix the problem. And Jesus did, and is continuing to do so, and will one day complete that task for good at the end of time, at the end of the world as we know it. In the words of Andrew Peterson, the world was good, the world is fallen, the world will be redeemed.

What does this mean for us? We cannot fix ourselves. We cannot manage our own spiritual lives. We cannot restore ourselves or the world to the good condition in which God created it. We need Jesus. And the good news is this, literally the Gospel is this, that Jesus invites us to follow him, to believe in him, to trust him with our lives. And if we do so, he saves us from all that is wrong with us and from all that is wrong with the world. He restores us to a right relationship with God and with other people, gives us companionship, meaning and purpose in the Church, and begins the process of fixing everything. We do nothing to earn what God gives – this is grace, all of God offered to us in Christ. We acknowledge our sin and accept God’s gift, with the faith that God is who the Bible says he is, and that Jesus did what the Bible says he did for us. We enter a new relationship with him. All things become new.

– Presented at Freshmen Retreat, Samford University, August 29, 2014 and Shades Mountain Baptist UMin, August 31, 2014

Bible Biblical Interpretation Theology

The F Word in Campus Ministry

Fun. Campus Ministry ought to be fun. Maybe not every moment of every day, but often, perhaps more often than not, especially this time of year. Sure, we are doing work that has eternal significance and that is sobering. Yes, we are dealing with students, and often families, suffering crisis and tragedy and that is humbling. Souls are at stake, absolutely, and that is motivating. But I am increasingly convinced that our work should be enjoyable through the ups and downs. The tasks and people that comprise our job should never destroy our joy.

Every job has some stuff you’d rather not do, some people you’d rather not deal with, some situations you’d rather not face. I call all of that stuff the “crud factor” of a job. Generally speaking, your job’s crud factor should be proportionally low on average, or at least it should feel low to you. If the crud factor in your work feels like it is increasing with no end in sight, you are not in a sustainable working environment. Nobody can continue to minister effectively in that context. Sometimes the crud factor can get so high that a ministry context becomes toxic for you and those around you, and a change is needed. If you don’t make the change to a new job, chances are somebody will make it for you. If you find that the crud factor of most every job you have ever had is too high for you, the problem is probably you and not your boss. Maybe you’ve developed work habits that increase your stress, like procrastination or crud avoidance behaviors. Maybe you are over-functioning to compensate for the weakness of someone on your team. Maybe you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, as if the salvation of the world (or your campus) is entirely up to you. Maybe you aren’t resting, exercising, sleeping, eating well, or practicing the spiritual disciplines with consistency. The point is that if there isn’t a critical mass of fun in your job, then you probably aren’t experiencing the joy that is essential for you to function effectively in ministry long-term.

Years ago a colleague told me that most young ministers have a “messiah complex,” a sense that they can solve every problem, please every person, and meet every challenge without fault or failure. He was talking about someone else, but he was speaking to me more than he realized. I’ve been there. I’m tempted to go there every semester. And I know that the closer I get to the messiah complex, the less joy and fun I find in my work, and the less effective I become as a campus minister. I’m in this for the long-haul and I am learning that it’s a marathon not a sprint. Pace is important. And fun helps you keep the pace, particularly as you get older, as the higher education becomes increasingly complex, as money becomes more difficult to find, as salaries stagnate, as state conventions falter, as the crud factor rises.

As I write this, it’s the beginning of the fall. Things are new. Football is around the corner. Cooler temperatures are coming. New students are on campus.  And if you aren’t having fun as a campus minister, it’s time to consider a new job!

Campus Ministry

Myths Christians Believe (finale)

Completing my multi-part (and too long) series on the subject of Myths Christians Believe, here’s the latest installment.

  • For Part 1 (myths 1 and 2), go here.
  • For Part 2 (myths 3 and 4), go here.
  • For Part 3 (myths 5 and 6), go here.
  • For Part 4 (myths 7 and 8), go here.

Myth 9: A Christian place is an easy place to be a Christian.

The first Christian school I attended was seminary, and in my first week of classes I observed a fellow student cheating on a Hebrew quiz. Cheating in seminary. Let that sink in. The experience struck me as totally ridiculous, but also taught me that seminarians are people, and just like people everywhere, some are dishonest. Many seminarians played the religious game. They discussed theological topics, engaged in religious activities, but they were in it for the money. The seminary degree was their ticket to a job that would pay the bills, or in some extreme cases, help make them rich and famous mega-church pastors. Seminary shattered my idealistic notions of Christian education. I needed my idealism shattered, but I sometimes found it difficult to maintain a genuine faith and not become cynical.

Now that I work and teach on a campus with a Christian identity and mission, I see some students playing that same religious game, and other students becoming cynical. Some students are shocked that their roommates use profanity or alcohol. Some are appalled by the obscenity they see from their classmates on social media. Others are generally irritated by all the Christian bragging they hear, the Bible studies, mission trips, small groups, etc. that people use to build their résumé. I sometimes talk to students (usually upperclassmen) who are so tired of the Christian culture that they find it all difficult to stomach.  Some ask, “Shouldn’t a Christian place be different, better, or more genuinely Christian?”

Some of the diversity stems from the fact that the school where I work doesn’t hand pick its student population so that every student fits a particular mold, religious persuasion, or ideological perspective. Some of the frustration comes from the unrealistic expectations of people who expect a Christian school (or church or organization or family or whatever) to be a utopia. It turns out that Christian schools are full of people, and people are sinful, and sinful people do sinful things. Perhaps we need a more realistic understanding of what a Christian school is.

Strictly speaking, an organization or institution cannot be “Christian,” only a person can.  A building is not Christian because it is adorned with a cross or stained glass any more than putting a Jesus fish on the bumper of my Toyota makes it a Christian truck.  A school isn’t Christian because it has a chapel on campus, a Bible verse on the front gate, or because it requires students to take a religion class or two.  In fact, it might be more accurate to talk about “schools with a Christian mission” rather than “Christian schools.” Maybe this is linguistic hair-splitting, but when you think of a school or a church or an organization in this way, maybe it eliminates the pressure to be perfect. People can be genuine about their hurts, struggles, and shortcomings. Somehow this type of vulnerability seems to lessen the cynicism. At the end of the day, even the most faithful believers are, all at once, both saints and sinners.

Myth 10: If I live well my life should go well.

The corollary to this myth is that if my life goes badly, I must have done something wrong. While few people will actually admit to this belief, they nonetheless become angry with God when life doesn’t go well. The view that a life of ease is a reward and that trauma is punishment gives rise to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The very question expresses the false belief that good people shouldn’t suffer.

In truth, there are many explanations for the existence of evil and suffering (I’ve written about that subject here) and retribution is one of them. But it is one thing to say that bad behavior is usually punished, and quite another to say that my current suffering must be punishment. If I eat bad oysters I’ll probably get an intestinal illness. But an intestinal illness may have nothing to do with oysters. We all get sick. The reality is that life is difficult and painful for everyone. Your own sense of personal virtue does not mean that God owes you a good life.

When you think about it, blaming God for pain is illogical. If God is powerful enough to be blameworthy, then he is powerful enough to have reasons for my pain that are beyond my ability to understand. Ironically, to blame God is simultaneously to credit God with the ability to be blameless. Here I am not trying to trivialize evil by suggesting that God causes all suffering as a means to a greater good. I am saying that whether God causes or allows my pain is simply beyond me. I cannot always know. I know that ultimately God redeems all pain and injustice in Christ and by Christ’s own suffering and death, but I do not claim to understand fully how that happens or when it will happen fully. I simply know that my responsibility is humble service, not to earn God’s grace but because God has given me grace beyond what I deserve. Grace persists, even in the absence of intellectual understanding.

If you are hurting, it may not be your fault. If you are doing well, it may not be to your credit. “The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

Theology

Myths Christians Believe (Part 4)

Continuing in my multi-part series on the subject of Myths Christians Believe, here’s the latest installment.

  • For Part 1 (myths 1 and 2), go here.
  • For Part 2 (myths 3 and 4), go here.
  • For Part 3 (myths 5 and 6), go here.

Myth 7: I can be spiritual without being religious.

This statement is alternately expressed in these ways: “I consider myself a spiritual person, but not a religious person.” Or “I am spiritual but I want nothing to do with organized religion.” The problem with this line of thinking is that the moment you express your spirituality in any way, you are engaged in religious behavior. And what is the alternative to organized religion? Disorganized religion?

Let’s define a couple of terms. Spirituality is a process of engagement with particular beliefs and ideals for the purpose of personal transformation. Religion is the set of beliefs, practices, cultural systems, and worldviews by which one defines his or her reality. You may disagree with a specific facet of one or both of these definitions, but however you define either term you’re going to find obvious overlap. If spirituality is expressed in any way, if it results in any behavior whatsoever, and if that behavior is shared by anyone, then you’ve entered the realm of religion. And if those behaviors are repeated in any way, by anyone, then you’ve created the beginnings of a tradition; you’ve entered the realm of organized religion.

So maybe you don’t like the organized religion that you see around you. I don’t blame you. I think there are many different ways to do church. But to throw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting all organized religion is neither practical nor really even possible if you are at all spiritual. A purely individualistic spirituality that engages no one and practices nothing and has no interest in personal transformation is probably not spirituality worth claiming in the first place.

Myth 8: I love Jesus but I hate the Church.

I want to respect the fact that many who read this have been hurt by a church, some in profound and lasting ways. In fact, everyone who gets involved in a church will get hurt by someone in that church sooner or later. The more deeply you get involved, the greater the potential hurt. A close friend can probably hurt you more severely than an acquaintance. The only sure way to avoid being hurt by a church is to abandon it altogether. But can you still love Jesus and hate the Church that Jesus loves?

Speaking to Peter, Jesus said, “… on this rock I will build my church.” Regardless of how you interpret “rock” (as referring to Jesus himself or to Peter), you cannot miss the personal pronoun “my.” The church is Jesus’s church. The Apostle Paul certainly did not miss this fact when he wrote, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”  And of course, the Bible ends in Revelation with imagery of a wedding between the returning Christ, and his bride, the Church (Revelation 21-22). Cyprian of Carthage famously wrote, “You cannot have God for your father unless you have the church for your mother” (The Unity of the Catholic Church). Augustine is credited with saying, “Though the church may be a whore, she is still your mother,” although this may be a misattribution. Similarly, John Calvin wrote, “for those to whom he is Father the church may also be mother” (Institutes 4.1.1). 

So can you love me but hate the wife whom I love? I’m inclined to think not. Can you love Jesus but abandon the Church he loves? Jesus seems inclined to think not. So if Jesus is a person worth loving or following or admiring or emulating, then perhaps we should take another look at the institution he founded, perverted though it is, and see if there aren’t creative ways to engage the life of the Church in healthy and transformative ways.

Uncategorized

What I Put In My Syllabus for Freshmen

The following statement appears at the end of my syllabus for the course I teach freshmen at Samford University:

“You are here at Samford to be a student.  You are paying good money to be here, or someone else is, even if you are on scholarship.  Make the most of the opportunities this class provides.  I will probably not be the greatest professor you have. I will probably not be the worst either.  I will do my absolute best to teach, but what you learn is largely up to you.  You should not cheer when your classes are cancelled due to bad weather or illness.  Skipping class is wasting money, like not eating what you’ve ordered at a nice restaurant.  You’ve paid for these classes – you should get your money’s worth.  You should never whine or moan or complain about assignments, however long or boring or complicated they may seem.  Refuse to be wimpy students!  Learn everything that you can during this time in your life when your primary responsibility is to learn.  You may never have an opportunity like this again. YOLO.  Carpe Diem.”

College

Myths Christians Believe (Part 3)

Continuing in my multi-part series on the subject of Myths Christians Believe, here’s the latest installment.

  • For Part 1 (myths 1 and 2), go here.
  • For Part 2 (myths 3 and 4), go here.

Myth 5: Busyness is next to godliness.

Most parents I know fill their kids’ lives with activity. Sports or dance or music lessons or intellectual pursuits seem to fill up kids’ schedules these days.  And why are we even talking about grade school kids having a schedule?  Maybe because parents want to nurture the next Tiger Woods, child prodigies who will excel beyond their peers and become famous. Many teens I know follow the same pattern, trying desperately to build a resumé fit for the Ivy League. Most college students I work with fill their lives from dawn to dusk, often with really good things like Bible studies, intramural sports, church and/or campus ministry activities, leadership in a student organization, Greek activities, athletic team practices, and even some studying on occasion. Maybe the semi-idle wandering of many 20-somethings is related to basic burnout.  They’ve been going non-stop without a thought for two decades and they want off the roller coaster for a while. And do I even need to continue the conversation by pointing out the exhausting schedules that we parents and working professionals tend to keep?

“Beware of the barrenness of a busy life,” warned Socrates. It is possible to fill your life with so many good things that your life is no longer good. James Bryan Smith, professor of Theology at Friends University, lectured at Samford University a few years back and quoted Dallas Willard as saying, “If you want to get serious about spiritual growth, you must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” Years later I remember this single quote. Citing the example of Jesus, Smith pointed out that the New Testament Gospels tell us dozens of times that Jesus withdrew to a quiet or solitary place for rest, prayer, and solitude. And for Christians fond of using the Old Testament law to make their arguments for tithing or standards of sexual behavior, what about Sabbath observance? As I recall, that commandment doesn’t derive from an obscure purity code in Leviticus, it’s one of the Big 10. And maybe of all of the Ten Commandments, Sabbath is the one observance that Christians and their leaders ignore most.

Myth 6: If things look great externally, they must be great internally.

The socially acceptable answer to the question, “How are you doing?” is almost always “Fine.” We keep up appearances. We dress well, put on a smile and an air of confidence, and go about our business as if we are fine, hoping to fake it till we make it. Secretly, we’re all hurting, struggling, and suffering to one degree or another. To whom can we admit it? Who wants to know? Who really cares? 

For the past several years, my office has conducted a Spiritual Life Inventory for students on our campus. We ask questions about spiritual practices, attitudes, beliefs, values, and issues of personal concern. What the data shows, in a nutshell, is that students on our campus are more spiritually involved (in many respects far more than national averages) yet just as deeply distressed as students everywhere. Issues of anxiety and depression, sexual behavior, alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, body image distortions, addictions, dysfunctional family relationships, financial stress, academic struggle, etc. plague Christian students just like others. And yet, if you took a campus tour, walked across the beautifully manicured lawn, enjoyed the immaculately kept landscape, attended a campus event, or looked out at the students enjoying lunch in the caf or food court, you might never know. You’d never know the hurt students bury inside and carry around in disguise.

Jesus once called a group of religious leaders “whitewashed tombs,” beautiful on the outside but full of death on the inside (Matthew 23:27). Religious people can be some of the most difficult people around whom to be vulnerable. Surely this is backwards. Religious belief and practice, especially that centered on Jesus, should bring us to the reality of our own brokenness so that we display a humility that makes us more approachable, not less. More forgiving and less condemning. More accepting and less judgmental. More transparent and less superficial. More honest and congruent, so that what’s on the inside matches what’s on the outside, and vice-versa.

Uncategorized

Myths Christians Believe (Part 2)

Continuing in my multi-part series on the subject, here’s the latest installment. For Part 1 (myths 1 and 2) and the appropriate footnotes and credits, go here.

Myth 3: It is wrong to doubt.

In support of this myth, I have heard some quote James 1:5-7: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

This passage does not constitute a blanket condemnation of doubt. In this context, James is speaking to the instability of one who has confidence enough to ask God for wisdom (believing that God is able), but simultaneously doubts that God will give it. This double-mindedness is not a fault of the intellect, but rather a fault of the will, an unwillingness to hold fast to what the intellect has already accepted in the face of changing circumstances. I know that airline travel is relatively safe. I have good evidence to support this belief. So if I get nervous when I fly, I am double-minded in the way James condemns. If, however, I have doubts about the safety of a particular mode of travel based on evidence, that doubt is not only justified, it is wise.

Nowhere does the Bible condemn honest, intellectually curious doubt. The Old Testament book of Job expresses that kind of doubt. Thomas expressed that kind of doubt about the resurrection. Jesus expresses that kind of doubt when he prayed before his execution, “Father, if it is possible, remove this cup from me.” If Jesus had doubts about the necessity of his primary mission, then surely our intellectual doubts are equally legitimate, and sometimes necessary. Of course, Jesus also added, “Nevertheless, not my will but Yours be done,” proving that sometimes faith and doubt necessarily coexist. As the theologian Paul Tillich argues, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt is an unavoidable element of faith (Dynamics of Faith, Chapter 1, section 5).

There is no shame or guilt in honest intellectual doubt. There is, however, guilt associated with the kind of laziness that holds fast to a belief with no evidence to support it. Faith is NOT belief in the absence of evidence. Faith is the conviction to hold on to a belief that logic has convinced you is true, even when it is uncomfortable or inconvenient to do so.

Myth 4: The more exotic the more spiritual.

I work at a Christian college where, in a few days, students will return to campus and begin to compare their summers. Among those who served the poor in India or started a non-profit in Africa, there will inevitably a student or two who shamefully admits that his/her job was to babysit for a family in Atlanta or to work at McDonalds, as if somehow these job choices represent lesser ways to live out the Christian life. I read books advocating for believers to live a radical life. I hear sermons advocating international adoption, life in the inner city, and international missions among unreached people groups, worthy and needed objectives all of them. Yet I fear that these constant refrains run the risk of marginalizing those who live in the suburbs, own a small business, and work hard every day to raise their kids. Normal people can be people of faith too, yes? In fact, if I’m called to campus ministry among the world’s educated elite, and I choose instead to dig wells in the African dessert, haven’t I forsaken my gifts and my calling in a way that dishonors God?

We sometimes forget that Paul, the radical apostle and missionary of the New Testament, also suggested to believers in Thessalonica that they “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4.11).  It took skilled workers, craftsmen, and artists to design the ancient Jewish tabernacle and its accompanying furnishings, yet of these very normal, hard-working people, the book of Exodus (chapter 31) says, “I have filled [them] with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship….” God ordained these workers to the very ordinary task of building things. This was their purpose and calling, and to denigrate the ordinary, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is to denigrate the wisdom of God. Obedience, whether in the exotic or the ordinary, is the appropriate faith response to God.

Biblical Interpretation Campus Ministry Theology