...are the ones that make the biggest difference


I used to be...

Since moving here 5 months ago, my wife and I have met ZERO couples or individuals our age, and hence, have made ZERO friends. Having spent the first 9 or so months of our marriage alone in Alaska, we actually do quite well without a lot of outside friendships, but we do miss the relationships we had back in Arizona even though we saw those people relatively infrequently. We're coming to realize that even those infrequent contacts were very important to us and we're missing the presence of our friends in our lives. I guess we're feeling a little lonely, at least, I know I am to some extent.

I used to lead a college-aged Bible study, and did so for 2-3 years (there was a break while I was in Bosnia). I started out just attending, but was asked to take turns leading and was quickly propelled into the primary leader position. We started out with 7 or 8 people, and shot up to around 20 before I got deployed to Bosnia. After I got back, the study started averaging around 25 people and I think the biggest group we had was in the mid 30's. It was a pretty tight-knit group, despite the size, and it was the first time in my life I felt valued & respected by a group of my peers.

As is the way of things, the group changed - people moved away or moved on, relationships soured for various reasons, priorities shifted - the normal progress of life for college students learning more about who they are and where God wants them in the world. I, for one, got deployed (again) & got married, with marriage vastly changing me & my outside relationships. Lest I be mistaken, I love being married and I love my wife, there are just times when I miss that group of people and the time we shared.

I was reminded of this earlier today when I was poking around the blogosphere - a link to a link to a link - showing a relationship among various people that sounded quite similar to what I had in my group. As I read the posts, I realized more than ever that the old group is no longer possible because I, too have changed and changed drastically. But its a subtle change and difficult to put my finger on. I think I am less care-free than I used to be. Not that I have more to worry about, far from it, its just a better understanding of connection & mortality. I don't think heaven was real to me before, not down deep where it counts, and it is becoming real to me now. Life has a purpose and it does not leave much room for pointless pursuits. While I dearly loved those people and believe that they loved me, I know that my pride - at being the leader, at being looked up to - suffused those times. A fact for which I'm sure I will have to give account. The responsibility which I had is now becoming clear to me, and I can see how my weakness may have made the difference for someone - heaven or hell, faith or disbelief.

I'm struggling right now, to find my balance, to find the straight path. I don't have it all figured out like I used to. I guess that's the biggest difference. I used to be sure - of who I was and what I knew. Now, I'm only sure of what I don't.


...the solution of the fist...

"Reason has never been able to define evil and good, or even to separate evil from good, if only approximately; on the contrary, it has always confused them, shamefully and pitifully; and science has offered the solution of the fist. Half-science has been especially distinguished for that - the most terrible scourge of mankind, worse than plague, hunger, or war, unknown till our century. Half-science is a despot such as has never been seen before. A despot with its own priests and slaves, a despot before whom everything has bowed down with a love and superstition unthinkable till now, before whom even science itself trembles and whom it shamefully caters to."
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons (formerly published as The Possessed)

It is the presence of ideology & emotion that debilitates pure-science into the horror of half-science that Dostoyevsky describes. It becomes its own religion, demanding little and promising much; progress, development, happiness & meaning, but without providing the moral or spiritual framework upon which those things must necessarily hang. Progress without moral reflection results in monstrosity. And yet we frequently fail to recognize the disastrous effects of our "science." Each new development, each new invention will be the one that "changes our life" (to borrow a phrase one hears repeatedly on info-mercials), but they always introduce other problems, other concerns. I'm no anti-technology Luddite - I for one am quite happy about modern medicine, information systems and the printing press, to name but a few. I think the problem is that our ability to advance scientifically & materially has far outstripped our ability to advance morally & spiritually.


We're making a better door than a window

Another interesting tid-bit from salon.com. Alan Moore is a British comic-book author who has apparently written a few very relevant and, as can be gleaned from the positively gushing interviewer, prognosticative graphic novels. One such novel depicts a massive terrorist attack on New York City that kills half the population but somehow averts a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and China. (I'll point out the obvious; 9/11 was not the first terrorist attack on NYC and, of all the cities in the world, NYC is probably pretty high up there on any terrorist's list of high value targets for various symbolic and economic reasons. Also, I'm not sure how 9/11 prevented global-nuclear war, but I'm sure subsequent investigations will reveal the parallel.) Another is about fascism and a surveillance society; the other a period piece about Jack the Ripper, which was made into the movie of the same name "From Hell." The primary reason I read the article is because of my brother. For a very long time, my brother and I would go to "the comic book store." These trips were frequently on Sunday morning and represented some of the only times my brother and I would co-exist peacefully prior to his going off to college after my freshmen year of high school. For this reason, I have a special affinity for comic books and comic book stores, though I probably haven't purchased more than 1 or 2 comics in the last 5 years. The article has to do with a comic book writer, ergo, I read it.

Having never heard of Alan Moore and having never read any of his work - I did see "From Hell" and was unimpressed, though I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt since I would be surprised if such a work translated easily to the screen - I really have no idea why his opinion is important or why I should think his graphic novels are as relevant as the interviewer seems bent on proving to the reader. However, understanding approaches with this:

"Because they [the religious right] are standing in the way of history, trying to turn everything, politically and spiritually, back to a medieval vision of the world."

And then clarity explodes onto the scene:

"We don't have this terrible problem with the religious right that you have over there, and I truly have every sympathy for you. If there's anything that makes America a laughingstock, it's those people. America is a huge, surging, relentlessly modern country that will nevertheless send Oral Roberts millions when he tells them that if they don't, the Lord will send him home. They'll actually give credence to people who -- in any other country of the world except perhaps some of the equally addled fundamentalist Muslim countries -- would be laughed at. At the same time, since it's a crusading religion, it's difficult for them to accept that some might possibly reject their frankly retarded values. It's certainly dangerous that you've got a president who's playing pope to all these frightening, God-struck rednecks, which is probably a bit sweeping. But what the hell, I'm in the mood for it."

Well, as long as you're in the mood for it! Laying aside the mischaracterizations, which are rife, what strikes me is this perception that somehow Christians are behind the times, that the world is moving on without us and we are ignorant of its progress (I particularly like the "retarded values" line - does that mean their growth has been inhibited or they're 'soft in the head'?). I'm sure any marginally intelligent individual could disprove more than a fair amount of Mr. Moore's examples with only minimal research, so I'm not going to waste time with that. Instead, I'll ask the question that isn't easily asked; what if he is right? What if the world is moving on and moving past Christianity? Is our faith becoming inreasingly irrelevant to the world? Christianity in any true sense of the word has gone the way of the Dodo in Europe, what is to stop that from happening America? While I support the FMA, I don't think for one second that it or other measures taken by conservatives will somehow turn the tide of the cultural drift we've been experiencing. They may slow it some, but it seems almost completely inevitable in many respects. What will the world look like if America becomes like Europe?


Hitting home

I was reading through the first volume of Jaroslav Pelikan's history of the church, when I was struck by this quote, where Pelikan quotes Engelhardt (no idea who he is):

"'It is equally certain that Justin [Martyr]'s own faith was nourished more by that which the congregation confessed and taught concerning Christ its Lord than by that which he himself interpreted in a theoretical way'...his martyrdom speaks louder, even doctrinally, than does his apologetics." page 143

What caught my attention immediately, though I saw later I had probably misinterpreted the passage, was the parallel to my own life, or perhaps more appropos, the perpendicularity to my own life. For a very long time I have lived with an unsatisfying church life. The church I came from was pretty similar to the church I attend now, but I was active in the youth ministry there too and had a lot of friends, so what I got out of church (typical Protestant mind-set, of course) stemmed more from the relationship I had with a select group than it did with the church itself or the congregation as a whole. But even in the context of my friendships & leadership roles, something was missing, which I always attempted to fill with my own pursuits. Given that I'm relatively intelligent and love to read, those pursuits normally consisted of reading & pondering. In short, they were intellectual pursuits. I was trying to feed my soul through my head. Read enough, learn enough and I will grow spiritually. Now, this is certainly true and it is equally true that a great many Christians in the world today would be quite better off spiritually if they would pick up a good Christian book and force themselves through a few pages.

One thing I've learned since starting this job is the large degree to which kids today are able to compartmentalize things. School, church, family, friends - all go into separate bins in their heads and there is little to no overlap in a lot of cases. What they learn in church doesn't necessarily apply to what happens at home or with their friends. I've come to see that I suffer from this same affliction, though to a lesser extent. I had set church aside as relatively unimportant, given my lack of engagement with it. It had its own compartment and didn't affect the other areas of my life (or so I thought). I'm coming to see how horrible this idea actually is and how antithetical it is to authentically following Christ! We are whole people, and every area of our life affects the whole of it, though we may not recognize that. A merely, or primarily, intellectual faith is unbalanced and unhealthy. So too, an emotional faith. What I never thought about before, though, was how hazardous a churchless faith can be.

So back to St Justin. He produced some of the earliest Christian apologetical material and probably set the stage for the legitimate interaction of faith & philosophy. There is no doubt that he was an intellectual heavyweight, with a keen mind for defending the faith. But that was secondary for him! That was the product of his faith, which he lived out within the life & worship of the church. It was the church, and the unity of faith & purpose that he found there, that drove St Justin. I have tried to live my faith in my own head, largely free of connection and rootedness within a church body - just the opposite of Justin. It is the difference I see between myself and St Justin, and the failure on my part which that difference implies, that caught my attention. The concept of faith flowing from and being strengthened by the church, as opposed to being the result of my own individual effort, is a difficult one to accept. And now, trying to allow the church compartment to overflow and penetrate into the rest of myself is going to be a task of monumental proportions, made all the harder by the doubts & frustrations I have over my present position.


Glad my birthday is coming

My birthday is right around the corner, and lo, look what comes across the table during the staff meeting yesterday! The Christian Books Direct catalog with this little piece of heaven right on the front page. I've seen these before and wished I had the $1100 to buy them, but for only $200, my whole family can chip in and get them for my birthday. Just think, I'll be the first kid on my block with all 38 volumes! Maybe for Christmas I'll be able to finagle a few volumes of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture...


As promised

I led 2 discussions on worship this Sunday - one with the junior highers and one with the senior highers. Due largely to the absence of a couple of the more difficult kids, the senior high group went much better than I had anticipated and both groups had excellent conversations. But I realized something as I looked back on it; these discussions were only possible in the context of theological relativism. The questions mainly focused on the kids and their perceptions & preferences, but I realized that as they came away from the discussion they were probably relatively unaffected by its content since the very nature of the questions asked and answers given affirmed that their individual preferences & tastes were perfectly fine and that everything was okey-dokey. Of course, their preferences & tastes are perfectly fine; it is the focus on the individual that is the problem. I cannot help but think that any kid in those groups came away thinking "yes, I need to worship more because it is an important part of being a Christian" but equally thought "I need to find what's right for me." To a certain extent I think that is correct; we do need to find practices & activities that we find personally enriching. But, and this is a very big but, we shouldn't focus on individual enrichment at the cost of corporate unity AND we shouldn't make worship solely about us and our emotions. In fact, I was deeply troubled by the number of kids who equated worship & emotion. Most said they thought it was hypocritical and wrong to worship if you didn't "feel it." I think I got the high schoolers to see that worship is an intentional act and really shouldn't be completely linked to or dependent on emotion, but I'm not sure how much they really understood it.

From the Protestant perspective there is truly no "right way" to worship - everything is a matter of taste & "getting fed." If a service doesn't feed you, it is entirely acceptable within most Protestant thinking to start shopping for a new church. You find a church that suits you and that's where you go. Theology, worship and all other areas of ministry are up for grabs. While I don't for one second think that I have all the answers, I feel and truly believe that this should not be so! The focus on the marketability of our churches has made God into a product to be sold, and just as you can get a new car in a variety of colors with or without the leater interior and in-dash CD changer, God has become subject to our preferences. Each church "sells" a different version of God - modern, contemporary, seeker-sensitive, post-modern, traditional, etc, and we are free to pick and choose which options we like. There is no submission or laying aside of the self; the entire process is completely self-focused! The question is rarely "is this true/right?" and is instead "does this work for me?" And that is the unfortunate, and I dare say sinful, mindset I found myself propagating on Sunday.

But so what? I mean, in all honesty, there is nothing at this particular church that should demand the lifelong commitment & submission of these kids. The fullness of the faith does not reside here, since it is actually purposefully designed in such a way as to prohibit the full expression of Christianity. We eschew Christian art, language & practice to such an extent we actually joke about how unchristian some of our practices are and pride ourselves on being on the "cutting edge." This is why the things I am experiencing here are pushing me towards Orthodoxy. We cut ourselves off from so much in the name of what? Progress? Purpose? I don't know. All I know is it doesn't make any sense.



We had another strategic planning meeting today, which left me both en- and dis-couraged. Encouraged because it seems like the vision I have for this youth ministry is pretty accepted, and discouraged because I am still having my doubts about my role in this church. The real problem is that there really isn't anything wrong with this church! The staff, though not overly close in my opinion, functions well together, we don't have a lot of office/church politics, money isn't really an issue because we have a faithful congregation and I'm not being hedged in by someone else's expectations, at least not in a negative way. But something still just doesn't feel right and I'm having a hard time committing to being here. I'm excited for the potential of this youth ministry and how I can perhaps develop something much more than what other churches are putting on. However, what I keep envisioning in my head is starting to look more and more like Orthodoxy with a sort of youth ministry flair.

Lord, give me patience and give it to me right now!



I spent the 4th of July weekend at my brother's place in Cedar Rapids, IA. He works as a bouncer at a fairly up-scale bar near the downtown area on some weekends, and he invited me down to bounce with him at a couple of concerts the bar was hosting for the festivities. I haven't been able to spend time alone with my brother for a couple of years now, so adding in a chance to make a couple hundred bucks on top of it, I decided to head on down. I wasn't real big on the idea of bouncing, but my brother said that the concerts usually drew a good crowd and there were normally very few problems.

I ended up working the door for pretty much all of Saturday night, just taking money for the cover charge, checking ID's and putting wrist-bands on people. Nothing too exciting, though it was clear that quite a few people had "warmed up" on more than a few beers before coming to the concert. About midnight we shut down at the door and moved outside since the concert was almost over and we needed to disperse the crowd after the band finished. My brother motioned me over to where he was and nearby was a heavily intoxicated young lady. My brother pointed her out and said she had vomited and then immediately started drinking again - a nice way to get alcohol poisoning. Now, if something hadn't happened later, I would have never given this girl a second thought since the crowd was well plied with alcohol. About 30 minutes later, we had reasonably gotten the crowd out and were starting to clean up when the manager wanted a couple of us to go stand outside the 1st and 2nd floor bathrooms because he didn't want anything untowards happening in them. Figuring standing watch outside a john was better than picking up several thousand empty beer cans, I happily volunteered for the job. Near the bathroom on the second floor is a separate dining room with double doors with frosted glass windows that the band was using as a dressing room (a piece of paper on the door said as much). I'm standing there, minding the facilities, when the door opens as a band member walks out, and there stands the drunk girl stark naked in the middle of a crowd of 10-15 guys. She's laughing, the guys are mostly sitting and there is absolutely no evidence of any violence or coercion. I take this all in during the scant 2 seconds the door was open and immediatley think "this isn't right." This girl is so impaired by alcohol that they likely wouldn't have to force her to do anything; the mere suggestion would probably be enough. Long story short, I go find my brother, who has already been told something is happening upstairs. We go up there, but he tells the band manager that it needs to stop and a couple of minutes later the girl comes out fully clothed, apparently no worse for wear. The thing that kept going through my head, besides how utterly sad & depressing the whole night really was, is "why is this girl doing this?" It can't just be that she is drunk, since there were many drunk girls there that night and none of them were dancing around naked before a leering crowd of guys. The only reason is that she somehow likes the attention, and for her to go that far, it must go far beyond "liking" it to needing it. And the guys up in that room - sitting around smirking while this girl debases herself for their momentary pleasure, what is wrong with them? I fear that people like this are in the majority in our society - those willing to humiliate and abuse themselves for the momentary pleasure of someone esle's approval, and those willing to revel in it - and what that means for our future as a country and a culture. What kind of citizens will they be? What kind of leaders will this generation produce? When the next great crisis grips us as a nation, who will answer the call? That girl? Those guys? Or the few hundred party-goers who were only looking to get drunk and find some "love"? I weep for our future and I fear for myself, that growing up in this time & place I may have been infected by the same malady.



My wife and I had a long talk last night, which is unfortunately, one of many we've had in a similar vein over the last few weeks. The basic format is the same; we aren't really happy here, we're not happy with the way this church is being run, we don't feel like we fit in, etc, etc. I think we are gradually coming to some kind of resolution - leaving this church (which entails me quitting my job as the youth pastor) - but that likely will not happen for some time. I have a strong sense of commitment, particularly when it comes to work, and I don't feel like I could quit before next summer. It wouldn't be fair to the staff, the church (considering the money they gave us to assist with moving costs and bringing us out for the interviews) or, more importantly to me, the kids. I don't want them to feel like we're abandoning them and they all really want to go on an international missions trip next summer. If I leave that won't happen and I don't want to disappoint them, especially knowing how powerful those experiences can be.

Right now, my wife and I are just extremely dissatisfied with what is happening here and feel, in some ways, like this church was mispresented to us in the hiring process. The staff is not at all close and I can go an entire week without speaking to my senior pastor outside of the staff meeting. There is very little comraderie and little to no outside interaction between staff members. They also made a big deal about their small groups, but I think its been close-to, or over, a year since they started the last one and the person in charge of the small groups ministry is the full-time area director for Campus Crusade who has little time to really devote to the ministry. I think my wife hit it on the head when she said the staff here act like their church is a lot bigger than it really is. Including kids, we're only around 400, but to hear the staff talk you'd think we were triple that size and a major player in our community. They hired me about 4 months ago, just hired a part-time children's director and are talking about adding another secretary as well as launching a building campaign in the fall. To us, this feels forced. They've been talking to a very well-known growth consultant and he has given them advice on how to grow and it seems like they're trying to plug stuff into the formula as opposed to seeking ways to facilitate more organic growth. The distinction I'm trying to make is difficult to clearly communicate, but the process they are following appears mechanical; add a youth pastor, get a bigger building, do X, Y and Z and you will increase attendance by 50%. Then, you add A, B and C, adjust the valves a bit and you'll get 200% growth. It doesn't feel Spirit-lead. Add this to the unsatisfying worship experience and the fact that we don't feel at all like we're a part of this community and we're feeling like there are some significant problems.

This has been kind of rambling, I know, but things are still swirling around in my head so its hard to make it come out clean.