Theology

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The prodigal son in three parts – the Father

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis past year I’ve been heavily impacted by two books on the parable of the prodigal son. The first is The Prodigal God by Thomas Keller, and the second is The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. Both books look at the heart of God as expressed through this parable, and both analyze each of the three main characters. As I’ve read their books, I’ve been struck by their skilled writing, and how their insights apply to ministry. That’s why I’m looking at what they draw from each character and applying it to the work of ministry. Part one of this series can be found here, and part two can be found here.

Mercy and forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer. If the wrongdoer has to do something to merit it, then it isn’t mercy, but forgiveness always comes at a cost to the one granting the forgiveness (Tim0thy Keller, The Prodigal God)

The Story

In the parable of the prodigal son, the Father points to the love and forgiveness of God. Not only does he forgive the son who demanded his inheritance and blew it, he also leaves his home to plead for his older son to put aside his anger and welcome the younger son home. He illustrates God’s unending love, in contrast to the many ways that we as people rebel against him.

The Takeaways

It’s easier to find similarities with the older and younger son than it is to find similarities with the Father. After all, the Father is the God figure in this parable! However, for me what we all can take away from the Father in this Parable is the nature of forgiveness.

If you work in children’s or youth ministry, you know that forgiveness is a common topic – as well it should be. In the list of skills we want to pass on to our kids, the ability to (a) accept God’s great forgiveness and (b) be willing to extend radical forgiveness to others is pretty far toward the top. That’s why I love this parable.

First off, it’s a reminder that so often we keep ourselves from experiencing God’s total forgiveness. On his way back, the younger son practiced and practiced his speech because he couldn’t imagine being seen as a son ever again. We all do the same things, we hold our past against ourselves even though God has promised to do away with it. If there’s one thing I want to teach my students, it to accept the fullness of God’s forgiveness.

Second, this story is a reminder of the cost of forgiveness given. As I teach kids to forgive, I want them to grasp the sacrifice that God’s forgiveness necessitated, so that they are better prepared to pay the price required to forgive others. For kids (and adults) forgiveness is an idea they agree with, but what gets in the way is the emotional cost of actually letting go of their grievances. What I love about this parable is it demonstrates how much God is willing to let go in order to forgive us, and it’s an inspiration for all of us to do the same.

window_the_forgiving_father

The prodigal son in three parts – the older son

window_the_forgiving_fatherThis past year I’ve been heavily impacted by two books on the parable of the prodigal son. The first is The Prodigal God by Thomas Keller, and the second is The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. Both books look at the heart of God as expressed through this parable, and both analyze each of the three main characters. As I’ve read their books, I’ve been struck by their skilled writing, and how their insights apply to ministry. That’s why I’m looking at what they draw from each character and applying it to the work of ministry. Part one of this series can be found here.

The Story

Who needed forgiveness in the parable of the prodigal son? The obvious answer is the younger son. After all he shamed his father, took his inheritance and blew it, and came home with nothing. The older son did nothing of the sort, and was understandably upset when his brother was welcomed back with open arms.

And yet, the older brother needed forgiveness as well. As his rejoinder indicates, he views himself as faultless – even though he displays the sins of arrogance and self-righteousness. He views himself as truly “different” than his brother, and as a result he is incapable of extending love to him or his father when his brother returns.

The Takeaways

When most of us apply this parable to our lives, we see ourselves reflected in the younger son (although not quite that bad!). Most of us know that we need forgiveness, that we’ve strayed and required repentance. And while that may be true, many of us – especially those of us raised in the church – have a great deal in common with the older son.

Look at the characteristics of the older son. He displayed pride and arrogance, but what stands out to me most is his estimation of himself. As he pointed out to his father, he had “never disobeyed”. Not only that, but because of his anger, he refused to enter into the house, forcing his father to leave the celebration and entreat him to come in.

For those of us raised in the church, or working with kids being raised in the church, the older son illuminates some of the pitfalls we seek to avoid. The biggest pitfall is that the the Christian life we live actually keeps us from a life of true repentance. When we are confident in our own righteousness, it’s nearly impossible to humble ourselves and seek grace. As Henri Nouwen writes: “The hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home”.

That’s why it’s so important for those of us in children’s or family ministry to highlight not only the need for initial repentance, but a life marked by it. As we strive to shape the next generation of the church, all we need to do is look back at the scars our reputation bears from things like the Moral Majority. When the church identifies itself as the bastion of good in a world filled with bad, we become like the older brother – unloving and unaware of our own faults. That’s not to say the church isn’t a bastion of good, or that the world isn’t filled with bad. The problem is when our “better-ness” becomes our identity, rather than our place as sinner saved by scandalous grace.

As we minister to kids, youth and families, let’s set an example of humility and repentance, so that we can rejoice when our brothers and sisters who were lost are found.

Train Tracks

The Prodigal Son in three parts – The younger son

Train TracksThis past year I’ve been heavily impacted by two books on the parable of the prodigal son. The first is The Prodigal God by Thomas Keller, and the second is The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. Both books look at the heart of God as expressed through this parable, and both analyze each of the three main characters. As I’ve read their books, I’ve been struck by their skilled writing, and how their insights apply to ministry. That’s why I’m looking at what they draw from each character and applying it to the work of ministry.

The Story

The younger son’s narrative is truly the easiest one to understand in this parable. He begins as a fool, cruelly demanding his inheritance early, blowing it on foolish living, and then returning to his father, fearful and broken. All he can hope for is to survive as a servant, but instead he is welcomed back as a son, to the surprise of all.

The Takeaway

Some takeaways are obvious. We all obviously parallel the younger son in that we have strayed away from the goodness of our Father, and have needed to beg for forgiveness that we do not deserve. This parable also reminds us of our natural foolishness, and how we screw up our lives when we live based upon the whims of our desires.

However, Nouwen pointed out something that I believe is important to share with others (especially kids) when teaching this story. He pointed out that, even as the son was returning home, he was unable to trust in the mercy of the father. Instead, he spent the time crafting an appeal for mercy. He couldn’t trust the grace of his father, so he spent his time and energy trying to figure out how to ask for  forgiveness.

How often do we do the same thing? We are struck by guilt, yet when we return to God we do so hesitantly. We come up with promises, appeals and justifications because we can’t fathom that our Father would simply welcome us back. What is sad is this hesitance doesn’t simply affect our journey back, it often stops it in its tracks. How often do people make mistakes, and then allow the weight of them to keep them from church, the Bible or other Christians? Our lack of faith in the scandalous grace of God often robs us of forgiveness, restoration and joy.

This obviously applies to adults, but it should be shared with kids and youth as well. Some of them may already have left home, but many (if not all) of them have times of feeling like the prodigal son in their future. That’s why the absolute grace of God is such good news, and that’s why the enemy lies about it. Only when our kids truly learn about the totality of God’s forgiveness will they be able to return to him without fear.

As we teach, and as we live out our faith we should remember the lesson of the younger son. When we find ourselves feeding the pigs of regret, shame and mistakes, we don’t need to fear our Father. We also don’t need to find the right words to assuage his anger. We simply need to go back home, where we will be welcome.

Tape

Anchored to the Gospel

TapeNot long ago the cover story on the Christian Century was an article entitled “Sticky Faith”. In it, Jen Bradbury looks back on some of her work in youth ministry, and tries to answer the question “What keeps kids connected to church?”. It’s a good read, and I highly recommend checking it out for yourself, but I wanted to share the crux of Bradbury’s conclusion. She writes:

One of the key findings from FYI’s College Transition Project is that when it comes to fostering sticky faith, nothing is more important than “students’ view of the gospel.” Ministries that foster sticky faith, the report says, are centered on Christ.

That description is broad enough, but I loved how Bradbury went on to differentiate a Christ centered ministry with many of the ones that are less effective. She pointed out that in a recent survey, 35% of church students gave a definition of Christianity that didn’t mention Jesus at all. She writes:

One possible explanation for this omission, according to the CTP, is that many youth groups offer teens a “Red Bull experience of the gospel”—it was “potent enough to help them make the right decision at a party in high school” but not “powerful enough to foster long-term faith.”

This temptation exists in children’s ministry too. It’s so easy to create a successful ministry based upon fun, craziness and games. If you go this route kids will show up, because your program will be a total blast! In fact, from almost any vantage point, your program will look like a smashing success, because there are lots of kids of want to be there.

However, if our ministries aren’t constantly and intentionally introducing kids to the power of the gospel, our students will struggle to integrate into the life of the church. They’ll be tempted to look at it through the lens of what they are getting out of it, and whether it fits  their preferences. Most painful of all, they may leave the church with good memories, but a watered-down idea of what the point of it all was. That’s not to say that fun, games and silliness are not important, but they shouldn’t be the thing that keeps your kids coming every week.

As ministers to youth, kids and families, we get a tremendous opportunity to influence followers of Jesus for their entire lifetime. We’re called to anchor everything we do in the message of the Gospel. That’s what creates sticky faith, and that’s what creates a generation ready to serve in our churches and communities for their entire lifetime.

If you haven’t read Bradbury’s entire article, you really should! It can be found here.

What about you? How do you keep the Gospel at the center of your ministry?

10 commandments

This is what happens when they let me preach

10 commandmentsThis past Sunday I got the opportunity to teach in our main service. We’ve been going through the 10 commandments and I took on the 1oth commandment.

What was really fun was that the reason I got to preach was because our senior pastor took Sunday to teach in our Grassroots parenting class. It was really neat to receive that kind of support from him for a project like Grassroots, and it’s fun to get the chance to teach in our main service too.

So you can check out the message by following the link below. If you do listen, let me know what you think or how I can improve!

The 10 Commandments: Week 8

Update: You can also watch the video of my sermon on Youtube

Stop

Stop the Snark!

The other day I was clicking around the Progressive Christian portal at Patheos when I came upon this post by Fred Clark. I confess, the Slacktivist isn’t always my favorite blog, but I enjoyed the simplicity of a section of Scripture, posted without comment. Even though I imagine Fred and I would take some different points out of it, I enjoyed reading it and honestly trying to imagine why he chose to post this section…

…and then I let my eyes wander to the comment section.

I know, usually nothing good is found in comment sections. I always figure that the comment sections should be at least mildly thought-provoking when they’re linked to thoughtful theology. But, more often than not, snark is the default setting.

Now, I admit, snark and satire have their place. It just seems to me that we in the blogosphere jump right to snark as soon as we encounter something that we (a) don’t agree with, (b) don’t understand or (c) wish we had thought of first. And that’s a shame.

StopIt’s a shame because snark almost never adds anything to the conversation. It doesn’t often provoke thought, it rarely shines light on a new perspective.

It’s a shame because snark tends to shut down the possibility for earnest conversation.

It’s a shame because snark tends to reduce the conversation to mockery. And nothing pushes people to silence and disengagement like mockery, even if it’s not aimed at them.

And, lest I be misunderstood, I’m not saying this is only found in the realms of progressive Christianity. It pains me to hear evangelicals (my own tribe!) resort to snark as a way to avoid honest, nerve-wracking engagement with other perspectives.

The sad truth is snark is usually a warm blanket. It keeps us warm in the knowledge of our superiority, it keeps us in an echo-chamber, and it separates us from views we find disconcerting. It may be a warm blanket, but it’s also a bad blanket. The cost outweighs the comfort.

So, as Christians, who are called to engage the world in love and kindness, let’s lessen the snark. It would be good for everyone.

Responsibility

Teaching Responsibility in the age of “Not My Problem”

I have often heard the Beatitudes described as Jesus’ description of how his followers should live counter-culturally. It’s a description of them that I’ve long loved, and in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, it has saddened me to see the immediate chorus of finger pointing from various, all intent on casting the blame elsewhere.

I strongly believe that, as ministers to children, we have the opportunity to train up with kids to take responsibility for the world around us. As Michelle Anthony writes in Spiritual Parenting, “What would our world look like if a new generation felt responsible for the world that they live in and gave generously, selflessly and with abandonment? I want my children to live in a world like that!”.

Sadly, the reality of our culture, and our sinful hearts, is well captured by Jack Johnson in his song Cookie Jar. Check it out:

Well it wasn’t me, says the boy with the gun
Sure, I pulled the trigger, but it needed to be done
Because life’s been killing me ever since it begun
You can’t blame me cause I’m too young

Well you can’t blame me
Sure, the killer was my son
But I didn’t teach him to pull the trigger of the gun
It’s the killing on the TV screen
You can’t blame me
It’s those images he’s seen

Well you can’t blame me, says the media man
Well I wasn’t the one who came up with the plan
And I just point my camera at what the people wanna see
Man, it’s a two-way mirror
And you can’t blame me

Well you can’t blame me, says the singer of the song
Or the maker of the movie, which he based his life on
It’s only entertainment and as anyone can see
It’s smoke machines and makeup
Man, you can’t fool me

It was you, it was me, it was every man
We’ve all got the blood on our hands
We only receive what we demand
And if we want hell, then hell’s what we we’ll have

The ripples of what we say, do, watch and partake in extend further than we imagine. It’s all too common to only accept responsibility for the consequences that can be directly traced to me. As people who get to speak truth in the next generation, let’s encourage them (and ourselves) to choose to see and take responsibility for our actions, no matter how far they go.

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What Ails the Liberal Church? (Part 2)

The following thoughts are those of an outsider. I’m pretty steeped in the evangelical culture and mindset, and I haven’t regularly attended a mainline church since I was five years old. That being said, I do really care about the mainline church. My granddad has worked in the United Methodist Church for more than 25 years, and I owe a lot to the wonderful people in that denomination. I’d love to see it thrive again. To read Part 1 of my thoughts on this topic, click here.

On Wednesday I wrote about two of the reasons that I believe many progressive churches are in decline, namely excessive bureaucracy and an atmosphere that is not sufficiently welcoming. Today, I’m diving into what I believe is the most foundational issue that hurts the liberal church.

Think about some of the rapidly growing churches you’ve witnessed. No matter their denomination or their theological leanings, I’d wager that something they had in common was a strong vision statement. You could walk in for the first time, and within a couple of visits you could state the church’s stated purpose and vision.

When I contrast that with many of the progressive churches that I’ve been in, I’ve observed the lack of a compelling “Why”.

One of the things that I love about liberal churches is the fact that they take Jesus’ instructions to care for the poor and the downtrodden seriously. What I believe hurts these churches is the fact that – outside of social justice – there isn’t a compelling reason why parishioners should sacrifice their time, energy and money to be a part of their body.

This isn’t intended to sleight social justice. It is crucially important, but we live in the Kickstarter age, with more charities, foundations and movements available than ever before. If it’s social justice you’re after, than it’s fair to wonder why you should give money to a church that will split your tithe into paying for a building, pastor’s salary, insurance, and the youth program’s budget. After all, your money could probably go further by donating directly to a foundation that you support. And in the age of increasing digital communication, offering a place where there’s a bunch of nice people to fellowship with doesn’t go as far as it used to.

The only way to combat giving fatigue and an increasingly busy lifestyle is to offer a compelling “Why” to your congregation. Evangelical churches have an advantage in the regard because of the importance placed upon the doctrine of our sin nature. Because we are separated from God by our sin, we are in need of salvation, and in need of a community to edify us. One of the great weaknesses that I’ve observed in liberal churches is the reticence to address the topic of our personal sin. This leaves those churches struggling to define a compelling “why”.

In an era when you can rally people and raise the support of like-minded people without leaving your couch, the church’s role as a rallying point is often diminished. While I pray that evangelical churches will continue to increase their focus upon social justice issues, if liberal churches are to thrive again I’d suggest they rediscover the powerful narrative of a holy God engaging with and offering salvation to lost individuals, and then calling them to a life of spiritual growth. Without a compelling “why”, many mainline churches will struggle to bring in new committed congregants, and continue to see a decline in numbers.