Fear for a Son

Lisa and I bore fruitless until late in life,
Wondering were we physically broken
Or spiritually barren?
A pastor, son, and grandson of pastors,
I felt I was losing faith.

In prayer one day, as luck would have it,
I heard the voice of God,
As clear as crystal and large as Imax,
“I am real,” he convicted,
“You don’t understand.”

When she announced her expectations
Most were fearful
I was speechless;
What further pain?

Nine months later, he was born.
We named him Jon, the greatest man,
I always thought, for though anointed,
He always pointed, to David,
His rival and best friend.

Spiritual but Not Religious

Fifteen years ago, I was dining alone in New York City when I overheard a Christian woman ask a friend for dating advice. She had met two men on eHarmony. One said he goes to church and the other said he was “spiritual but not religious.” I thought his line was clever.

Clever turns of phrase thrill me. I collect them the way my sister-in-law collects stamps: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog (Mark Twain), and, The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder (G. K. Chesterton). I pasted Spiritual but Not Religious into my scrapbook.

I had thought that eHarmony guy was ingenious, but I found he was just quoting a book title published in 2000, Spiritual but Not Religious. Since then, I’ve heard the phrase hundreds of times. It even has its own hashtag, #SBNR, or its sibling, “spiritual but not affiliated,” #SBNA.

Both acronyms express our modern-day frustration with “organized religion.” Too many believers have suffered from churches more interested filing pews than caring for the people in those pews, or from plans that focus on programs over pastoring.

I’m sympathetic with my “spiritual but not religious” friends, but I wonder (Chesterton would be proud) if we’re being duped by a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Mission Idolatry

Last summer I met with a pastor who serves a church near a large campus. As the university grew in prestige, it attracted thousands of international students, many of whom had little exposure to Christianity. So the church began to reach out to them with language classes, tutoring, and members who “adopt” students into their homes.

The church also changed their Sunday morning worship service. They threw out anything that doesn’t support outreach. Their Vision Statement reads: Each and every element of our Sunday worship service must revolve around the ultimate purpose of the Church: which is mission. Nothing in their worship service is sacred:

  • Worship songs
  • Prayers of Confession and Assurance
  • Sermon topics
  • Whether to use a Call to Worship, Apostles’ Creed, or a Benediction

I applaud their service (which is great), but their vision statement is wrong. Mission is part of our purpose, but the ultimate purpose of the Church is worship. And our passion for service is our biggest barrier to unadulterated worship.

Jonathan Edwards said, “It is true that by doing great things, something is worshipped, but it is not God.” When we turn our hearts from worship to deeds, we forge the idol of mission.

We Buried the Hatchet

Twenty-five years ago, my wife and I moved into a lovely farmhouse in the country. But in our hunt for that house, we made huge blunders in understanding (or misunderstanding) each other, and those communication errors stressed our marriage.

Within a few years, those growing tensions contributed to significant marriage difficulties. We saw a Christian counselor, and after an extended time of talking and praying, my wife and I began to find relational healing; we buried the hatchet.

Three years ago, we decided to sell that farmhouse. We followed conventional wisdom like painting, countertops, and staging. Last May, after many months of selling, we finally accepted an offer. We thought the hard work was over.

Until we began the hunt for our next house.

The day we signed that offer, we went golfing; partly to celebrate the long-awaited sale, and partly to plan the search for our next home. By the fifth hole, we had both said things—words we wish we could take back—that reopened all those “healed” wounds from twenty-five years ago.

Those fresh, old memories hurt deeply. They didn’t help our golf scores either. Garth Brooks once wrote a song about marriage. In the chorus he moans,

We bury the hatchet, but leave the handle sticking out.

Old-fashioned Pharisees with a Modern-day Makeover

You and I are just normal folk: we struggle to make lasting friendships. But we also know people who casually stroll into a room of strangers, and leave with a dozen new friends, three lunch dates, and a personal introduction to someone’s dear old grandmother. We wish we were more like them: delightful and enchanting.

Last summer I read a BBC article entitled, Tricks to Make Yourself Effortlessly Charming. It rightly pointed out that all human beings long for someone to show interest in them. To do so, the article suggested a set of techniques. First:

Imagine the other person is a character in [a movie] flick … You’ll find yourself observing and showing genuine interest in their mannerisms and personality.

If that doesn’t work, the article instructed us to “fake” interest, and it offered a suggestion:

Focus on the different colors in their irises. By maintaining that level of eye contact, it will give the impression of interest.

If all else fails, it suggested a trio of facial expressions:

The three major things to do are: … a quick up and down movement of the eyebrow that lasts about a sixth of a second, a slight head tilt, and a smile.

That is all we need to forge deep, lasting friendships: either pretend other people are someone they aren’t, or pretend we are someone we aren’t. It’s quite easy: just pretense and deceit.

Measuring Fruit

My father pastored five different churches between 1949 and 1994. His first four churches averaged 200 members, and his last church grew from 250 to 750 during his ten years of care.

A few years before dad retired from that last, rapidly growing church, I came home for Christmas. We went out for coffee, and he shared with me some reflections on church growth.

When he pastored his first four churches, he felt the “fruit” of his ministry was show in the parishioners’ growth in prayer, Scripture, fruit of the Spirit, and outreach. But when his last church doubled in size, he began to think of “fruit” in terms of Sunday-morning attendance.

He said he had never thought about numbers until he saw the membership increase. And when he saw numbers increase, he began to think of little else. He concluded,

Who would ever imagine that spiritual fruit could be measured by numbers, the same way GM measures a good year, by the sum of the pickup trucks produced?

Making Truth Real

When I was a freshman at university, I tried climbing up the side of my dormitory. (Don’t try it.) Halfway up, I slipped and fell several floors. On the journey down, I hit my head on a cement window sill, split open my forehead, and collected a concussion. I still have that scar.

My friends rushed me to the student health center. The doctor pried the laceration open with metal instruments, pulled out debris with tweezers, and began to stitch me up. When I cried, “Ouch!” he finally remembered to give me a local anesthetic.

A year later, I canoed a local river with friends. Once when we tipped, I stood up on the river bed and stepped on a piece of glass. Blood began to spurt out several inches with each heartbeat. A student nurse wrapped my foot and rushed me back to the student health center.

The same doctor was on duty. (What are the odds?) Before poking and prodding, he offered to numb the pain. Only then did he go ahead with the prying, prodding, and cleaning. He was surprisingly gentle, and kept asking me if “this” hurts. I still have that scar too.

Afterward, I mentioned that he had stitched up my head the year before, but—and how was I to say this?—on that first visit, he lacked this gentle touch.

He said he had recently sliced open his hand while cutting a bagel. The doctor on call had treated him like a medical student experimenting on a cadaver rather than a doctor caring for a living patient.

He concluded, “I always knew these procedures hurt, but I didn’t really know. That doctor’s insensitivity has changed the way I practice medicine.”

And then he showed me his scar.