When Obedience Doesn’t Make Sense

When my family moved to Detroit, the summer between my first and second grade, Tommy was the first friend I made. He too was the son of a pastor—so we had that in common—but his mother hated the idea of punishment.

Cigarette butts

Tommy’s mother caught us smoking cigarette butts behind their church which was right next door to their house. (How could we have been so stupid?) She explained that the butts have other people’s germs. When that insight failed to motivate him, she offered a pack of gum for every day he didn’t smoke.

Instead of obedience, Tommy’s mom favored explanation, “Do you really want someone’s butt in your mouth?”, and bribery. (My own mother’s response was more pointed and painful.)

Reasoning and bribery didn’t stick. The pleasure of sex and drugs made more sense (and paid better) than his mother’s urgings and graft. By the time he was twenty, Tommy had been arrested for drugs that he sold to support his pregnant girlfriend.

[This article is about obedience not about parenting—though there are implications for parenting as well.]

Tommy’s father favored stricter discipline but his mom’s philosophy was, “I don’t want to crush his spirit.” She let him crush his own.

Why Do Our Kids Reject Christianity?

Why do so many people—people with incredible conversion stories—parent children who abandon Christianity?

Leaving Church r1

History overflows with great saints whose offspring lose faith:

  • Samuel was a mighty prophet of God. His sons were a mess.
  • David was a man after God’s own heart. His children were a disaster.
  • Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were founded on the gospel. Now they lead the opposition.

I’ve witnessed dozens of couples, churches, ministries, and prayer groups who began with a furious fire of love for God whose next generation couldn’t blow a smoke ring.

Our children lose that fire because of the simplest and silliest of reasons: we assume the gospel. The following downhill slide reveals the stealthy creep of the lost gospel:

  1. The gospel is Accepted —>
  2. The gospel is Assumed —>
  3. The gospel is Confused —>
  4. The gospel is Lost                         (Mack Stiles, Marks of the Messenger)

The author continues, “For any generation to lose the gospel is tragic. But the generation that assumes the gospel … is most responsible for the loss of the gospel.” That generation is us. We are most responsible.

What happened to us?     

Who is Your Hero?

Sometime God speaks through a careful choreography of life events: conversations, readings, observations, and even the occasional media clip. Suddenly, all the pieces snap together, and we sigh (internally so no one hears us), “Aha!”

Who is your hero

This morning, I had one of those moments of clarity. Over the past couple weeks:

  • I pondered with friends why some people and ministries are wildly successful while other people and ministries—equally gifted—struggle for survival;
  • I heard a quote by Oswald Chambers: “Is He going to help Himself to your life, or are you taken up with your own conception of what you are doing?
  • I read a passage using the Scripture Meditation Plan: “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18)

These three events were preceded by a video I watched that smelled … funny. And the odor lingered. The creator of the video is a famous Christian writer who has morphed his verbal skills into marketing skills, and he wanted to help churches sell themselves.

In his video, a pastor shared the key to his own wildly successful church. I forget the exact words but he essentially said:

“I realized that too many churches make the pastor the hero. I decided to make the congregation the hero, and my church’s attendance exploded.” (Name withheld)

It reminded me of a conversation early in The Lost World movie. Repentant Jurassic Park creator John Hammond cries: “Don’t worry. I’m not making the same mistakes again.”

To which Ian Malcom retorts: “No, you’re making all new ones.”

The Nonsense of S.M.A.R.T. Sense

Is modern business wisdom destroying Christian spirituality? Oswald Chambers once asked, “[Do we consider ourselves] so amazingly important that we really wonder what God Almighty does before we wake up in the morning?”

Smart Sense

Contemporary sages tell us to apply business models to our spiritual work. They admonish us to make S.M.A.R.T. goals: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-bound. They teach us that the closer we follow these instructions, the more effective our lives will be.

But natural insight doesn’t translate into spiritual wisdom. It’s not even a dialect.

The author Oswald Chambers was mostly unknown during his lifetime. Before he died (at the age of forty-three) only the tiniest circles of believers had even heard of him. And at the time of his death, he had only glimpsed a proof of the manuscript of his first book. If he leaned on S.M.A.R.T goals, how would he have evaluated his life on the day of his death?

But since his death, his words have influenced tens of millions, and his classic devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, is one of top selling books of all time. Instead of leaning into worldly wisdom, Paul encourages us:

“Judge nothing before its time; wait for the Lord. He will bring to light what is hidden and he will expose the motives of the heart.

At that time each will receive their praise from God” (1 Cor. 4:5 emphasis added).

The world tells us to measure our results. God says the only result that matters is found in a personal connection with him. In that connection, he takes the broken bread-crumbs of our lives and feeds thousands.

How many of our S.M.A.R.T. goals are measured to make ourselves the hero of our own little mini-series?

Navigating The Mountain of Biblical Authority

My daughter’s boyfriend, Matt, works in the High-Tech Performance Apparel industry. (I always thought the height of high-tech apparel was the Converse high-top.) He’s an avid sportsman and a NOLS leader trained in Alaskan sea kayaking, mountaineering, and glacier-navigation.

Carabiner

Matt recently described two kinds of people who buy performance gear and apparel. Some buy because they use it. These are the active outdoor sports enthusiasts who know that high-tech boots can make or break an Alaskan hike and that the right carabiner might save their life.

And then there are the tech-geeks who academically argue the advantages and demerits of chromoly vs. stainless steel alloys in their boot crampons.

You see them in Starbucks disputing metal fatigue, manufacturing processes, and moisture-wicking properties. The problem is: you see them sitting in Starbucks, not climbing their next mountain.

Alas! When it comes to biblical authority, too many Christians are like tech-geeks.

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

I’m in the middle of another bout with bronchitis (I think I’m losing), so I planned to skip my blog this week. But last Sunday, a TV advertisement for a Christian dating site changed my mind.

A walk on the beach r1

I’ve never used an online dating site (I found my wife before Al Gore invented the internet), but I know many believers who found like-minded spouses online. The concept makes sense.

Last Sunday I tuned out the clichéd advertisement for Christian dating, with its images of smiling couples holding hands while strolling on a beach at sunset. But then the ad ended with this tagline:

“Helping good people find good people.”

Let’s Rethink the Way We Think

Circumstances, commitments, and surprises (the unpleasant kind) overwhelmed me the past six weeks. I had too much to do and too little time to do it. Forces from competing goals pulled me in opposite directions.

rethink the way we think r2

Two weeks ago I arrived home from a retreat in Colorado, physically and emotionally drained. But I woke up the next morning in an adrenalin-induced frenzy, desperate to prepare five new sessions for a retreat that began in four short days.

The retreat topic was Hearing God. I’ve been waiting (impatiently) for years to offer a retreat on how to recognize God’s voice, but commitments (and bad surprises) had frustrated my attempts to plan it. I was woefully behind and anxious about the few remaining hours I had for preparation.

When I woke up that feverish morning, I sensed God say to me:

“If your retreat teachings are the greatest talks you’ve ever given, but no one hears my voice, the retreat will be a dismal failure. If you give the worst talks you’ve ever given, but people actually hear me speak, the retreat will be a roaring success.”

I sensed God invite me to take two days off from any retreat work—half of my limited, remaining prep time—and simply to give “my” retreat to him. The word seemed unwise, irresponsible, and a little crazy.