...are the ones that make the biggest difference


The argument from harm

I was perusing an interesting exchange over on Pontifications regarding the Windsor Report - the recently released document from the Anglican Church regarding the ordination of gays and related issues (I'm honestly not familiar with its contents). Pontificator blasts the report for being an "equivocation" and not calling the American & Canadian churches to repentance for their actions which have jeapordized the worldwide communion of Anglican churches.

The very first comment comes from a gay Christian, who takes issue with Pontificator's comments about the need for repentance, citing the belief that the ordination of Gene Robinson was correct and therefore not something to be repented of. Multiple responses ensue, conversation goes off course and the gay Chrisitian (who goes by the handle 1,000 times) says that a lesbian was murdered, for her sexual orientation, in Sierra Leone and this murder was not condemned by the local Anglican bishop or any other members of the church. The argument, of course, being that the moral failure of the church in other areas prevents it from speaking authoritatively morally in other areas and that it has discriminated against gays in the past. Another poster pointed out the loophole in 1,000's logic, asking if the murderers, who clearly thought their actions were correct, needed to repent since they had done nothing wrong in their perception. 1,000 accused other posters of being incapable of making the necessary distinction, stating "loving gay relationships" cause no harm, whereas murder obviously does so. I responded, at this point, that there is no need to demonstrate that gay relationships cause no harm, since the point is not whether or not they are harmful, but whether or not they violate biblical norms - whether or not they are, in fact, sinful. 1,000's response was that this made God's law "simply irrational."

My question is, of course, does there have to be rational reason for calling a behavior or action sinful? Do we have to be able to identify specific examples or consequences of harm - to ourselves or to others - for something to be a sin? I'll let others take a shot before I offer my opinion.


When Statistics Become Real

For the last 2 weeks (and probably for the next 2 weeks), I've been talking about sex & romantic relationships with the kids in my youth group. The first Sunday we focused more on dating and the reality that these relationships, particularly for junior highers, will not last and will only cause a lot of pain if we put too much into them and expect more from them than they can deliver. It was a very good discussion with the junior highers and a fairly good talk with the high-schoolers. This Sunday we talked more specifically about sex. I have found that many of the Christian resources that deal with teen sex seem to mostly focus on scare tactics about pregnancy & disease and spend very little time dealing with positive reasons to wait for marriage. I wanted to avoid the scare tactics, but still wanted to present some of the statistics because they are striking and I thought they would help get the discussion moving. I also wanted to give them a chance to talk about what their peers say, think & do so we could talk specifically about that.

I must admit, even faced with the statistical evidence that over a quarter of freshmen girls & boys are already sexually active as well as over half of their senior counterparts, I was unprepared to hear the news that there were several girls at the junior high level that were pregnant. I was unprepared to hear that junior high girls are performing lesbian kissing shows for their male peers. I was unprepared to hear that oral sex was pretty common. And I was unprepared for the ordinary way in which junior highers discuss the sexual activity of their peers and the level of focus that sex & relationships seems to occupy in their social system. I mean, I knew this stuff went on, I knew it was happening across the US - it just catches you off guard when you realize that some of the kids sitting right in front of you may already be sexually active at the age of 12 or 13. And if they're not, some of the kids they've invited to our activities might be. I think I could almost make a show like "When Animals Attack!" - "When Statistics Become Real!" It could be a hidden camera show, catching the reaction of adults, especially parents, when they realize that their 11 year old son or daughter may have already had multiple sex partners (a real statistic, by the way), or that their little girl got pregnant and is looking for an abortion doctor at the age of 14 (almost 2/3 of teen pregnancies end in abortion).

Unsurprisingly, the situation described by the high school group was significantly worse. Most seemed to think that the numbers (52% of senior girls and 59% of senior guys being sexually active) were actually too low. When asked how long a couple had to be in a relationship before it was expected they would have sex, the most common answer was that, in fact, they did not even need to be in an exclusive relationship for sex to be the norm. One girl, who attends a magnet high school attached to the local university that students have to apply to get into, said that oral sex was more common than intercourse, but again, it was treated very casually. All said that condoms were not much of a priority and that the most feared consequence of having sex was having your parents find out - not disease, not pregnancy, not emotional pain, but being grounded. Even then, however, some parents apparently support their kids behavior by putting the girls on the pill. Some have even allowed their kids to have sex in their home.

Aside from the media's portrayal of teens and peer pressure, none of these kids (in either the junior or senior high) could think of any particular reason why sex was such a big deal or why many were so eager to particpate in it. None could identifly any emotional or spiritual problems that would lead kids to do this, though they did allow that the most promiscuous girls probably had self-esteem problems. I realized as we were talking about this, and as I was talking about Ephesians 5:31-32 - focusing on the mystery of the correlation between marriage and Christ's relationship with the Church, that in all reality, this is an issue that is well out of my hands. I did the best I could to describe the depth of love & commitment demonstrated by Christ, and how that is supposed to characterize marriage. I tried my hardest to explain why sex is meant to be confined to the marriage bed for this reason, because it has a greater spritual reality than what we see or think about. But its out of my hands, particularly for the high school kids. I have one hour a week with these kids, maybe 2 if they come to an activity - how am I, in that time, supposed to counteract hours upon hours spent in the distorted social system of their peers, or watching misguided media, or the time spent with parents who will not listen to their kids or take the time to instill the right values? I know I can have an influence, and I'm sure that I'm reaching some of these kids, but I feel that in a lot of ways parents have abdicated any responsibility for their kids and would rather live with their heads in the sand than face the truth of the world their kids inhabit. And what do I do about that?


Loudest voices?

Not much time this week - been busy trying to re-finish the floors in our new home, and to say the least, it has not been going at all well. We'll be lucky to get a couple of rooms done before we have to move in, and then we'll have to work on the last room once we're in, and even that scenario may be pushing the envelope considerably.

I was poking around on an "emergent" blog today and found a comment that struck me as rather, well, peculiar.

I think back to those who were considered heretics in the 2nd century. Funny, how the largest, loudest, and most powerful voice usually gets to define orthodoxy. ( 21st century translation: Think white dudes with pot-belies, surfer shirts, and goatess with degrees from "bible" colleges. sorry if I singled out a reader. I know this is a generalization.)

Yeah, its a generalization. A generalization that flirts with all manner of apostasy, but I'm consistently struck by the unwillingness of people, particularly in the liberal or emerging churches, to assign any actual activity to God. Attempting to pin down what was true about God, the nature of Christ and the Church, etc, is apparently an entirely human work wherein the most obnoxious jerks "win." While I applaud their movement towards a more whole faith, one that is not as cut & dried as modern evangelicalism can tend to be, I cannot help but be alarmed at this lack of spiritual imagination. Does God do anything anymore?



A site is sponsoring a $100,000 contest to encourage young people to get out and vote this November. You can win $100,000 in the drawing, and I could win $100,000 for referring you, so by all means, sign us up! Visit VoteOrNot.org to sign up.

Personally, I'm still undecided. I have a STRONG antipathy towards President Bush, but I just can't shake the abortion problem. I don't hold out much hope that Bush can get Roe vs Wade overturned, unless he has a strong majority in Congress. Only then could he overcome a Democratic filibuster of any potential Supreme Court nominee that might go the other way on the abortion issue. And, of course, there is the related stem-cell issue - another strike against a Kerry vote. My decision is further hampered by the fact that I missed the Illinois registration deadline. Being a strong Democrat state, I was going to cast a third party vote in an effort to break the stranglehold of the 2 party system, which I think works against a fair and open political process. But now, I'm forced to vote on an Arizona early ballot and Arizona is a freakin' swing state, which means my vote may actually count! Darn the luck.

Hurt: Inside the World of Todays's Teenagers

I found this book while at Borders about a week ago, looking for books in preparation for my upcoming sex & relationships talks with the kids. I thumbed through it and it looked pretty good. Its written from a secular point of view, but by a Christian, and he includes an appendix for youth ministers. In all honesty, at the time I bought it, I had only skimmed through the chapter on sex and not much else. The author, Chap Clark, wanted to go beyond the standard sociological studies that relied on self-reporting and other limited ethnographic forms, to really get inside the heads & lives of young people. So he became a high-school teacher and started interacting with his students, trying to find the truth behind the numbers.

After I started reading it, I have to say the first thing that jumped out at me is this; if true, I despair for our future. Clark argues that defining issue of adolescence (which has stretched from approximately 5 years to more than 10 in our culture) is abandonment.

It is the cumulative effect that children experience as they grow up in today's social structure. Sports, music, dance, drama, Scouts, and even faith-related programs are all guilty of ignoring the developmental needs of each individual young person in favor of the organization's goals. Add to this the increasing amount of homework being assigned to students at younger and younger ages. The systemic pressure on American children is immense. Too many of us actually enjoy the athletic, cultural, or artistic baby-sitting service provided by those paid by the organizations (or who volunteer). Even with the best of intentions, they way we raise, train, and even parent our children today exhibits attitudes and behaviors that are simply subtle forms of parental abandonment. (pg 47)

Another perhaps more subtle yet far more insidious form of abandonment has occurred that has a devastating effect on the adolescent psyche and landscape. Adolescents have suffered the loss of safe relationships and intimate settings that served as the primary nurturing community for those traveling the path from child to adult. The most obvious example of this is in the family. The postmodern family is often so concerned about the needs, struggles, and issues of parents that the emotional and developmental needs of the children largely go unmet. Add to this the rarity of extended family available to the vast majority of adolescents, the deemphasizing of the importance of marriage, and the lack of healthy relationships with adults as friends and mentors, and it is easy to see why today's adolescent faces an internal crisis of unprecedented scope.

As a youth pastor - a person entrusted by God and these parents to do my best to shepherd these kids - I am forced to ask myself hard questions. Am I sacrificing or ignoring the needs of my kids in favor of personal or organizational goals? Am I putting too much or the wrong kind of pressure on them? How can I make my ministry a safe place for them? A place where they can have a healthy relationship with me and other adults, where there sense of loss & loneliness is relieved? Right now, the answer to all of these questions is "I don't know." I suspect I have been putting my goals ahead of their needs in some respects, but the Lord is going to have to show me where. And honestly, I have no idea how to make this place safe, but I want to find out. This all probably seems a little scattered, but these ideas are still roiling in my head and I need time to sort them out, to pray.


Leadership & Lead Paint - Its LEAD-ership

We got into the house over the weekend and ripped out the old, dirty carpeting in the downstairs to expose some pretty nice wide-plank pine that we're probably going to refinish. We also ripped off some ugly wood paneling in the dining room to expose old plaster & lathe walls that are in better shape than you could reasonably hope for. Only one small plaster patch will be needed - the rest was workable with spackle and elastometric joint compound (ahh, the wonders of science). Unfortunately, we discovered that some paint on the trim in the dining room is lead based. Its stable though, so not much of a worry. The real problem is that the paint that is on the wood flooring is also lead based, which means we're going to have to strip the heck out of it before we can sand it for the refinishing. Fortunately, we found a stripper that works pretty well, so I'm thinking this won't be too bad a job. My brother & dad are coming in from Iowa to help with the sanding, and I should be able to work up some kids to come over and help with the paint stripping (again, its stable so it poses little risk). So there's the lead, now for the leadership.

We have our routine staff meeting today, and the senior pastor pulls out packets for each of us taken from a book on leadership and announces we will be spending 15 minutes every staff meeting going through this book. "Lesson One: What is a leader?" Part of lessone one is filing out an acrostic with the word leader - what do you think of one when you hear the word leader? L is for...., E is for...., etc. But there are right & wrong answers! These apparently make up section titles for upcoming lessons, which seems to belie that whole "what do YOU think" thing. After that, we go through a series of leadership myths. #1 Leaders are made not born. #2 Leadership is a rare skill. There were a total of 5 - I'll not bore you with the rest.

So, you want to know what I think when I hear the word leader? I think "unrealistic" and "unusual." I think "overdone" and "over-emphasized." I think if I hear "leaders lead" one more time I'll have to stand up on the table and start barking like a dog whilst doing the chicken dance. Why, you ask? Because, in my mind, this is one of the most overdrawn, overdone, intellectually bankrupt things that has ever cropped up in the church. Not everyone can be a leader! Not everyone has what it takes to be in charge! So why do we act as if this is not the case? My church favors the definition that says "leadership is influence," with a little "leaders do what others won't" mixed in. Guess what? A whole lot of people won't do what the janitor does - does that make him a leader or a guy with a crummy job? And leadership as influence so reduces and dilutes our idea of true leadership that it isn't any wonder we are facing a leadership crisis (not sure if this is only perceived or not). If me, you and 95% of the congregation can all be considered "leaders" then who exactly are we leading? And why on earth do we need so much leadership training?

I think the reality is that "leadership" has become the latest cure for what ails us, and honestly, it is difficult to argue against it. Its like pointing out the problems with democracy - the highly committed don't want to hear it and can only consider a doubter to be morally and genetically suspect. But producing ever more leaders isn't going to fix anything - its only going to muddy the waters even more. What we need is better, clearer leadership that inspires and motivates people, not more "influencers" running around cleaning toilets.



--We're closing on our house on Friday. They moved the closing date up on us, so the last 2 days have been a mad scramble to get all the insurance taken care of. Even though I was a claims adjuster for a major auto & home insurance agency for a little over a year, I still have no idea why rates vary so much from company to company. One company came back at $735, most right around $500 and the one we went with was at $403 (with the auto policy, which ended up being over $300 less than what we were paying before). I do wonder what the differences in these various businesses are that they can operate on such different income streams and yet still turn a profit. And for the one that came in at $735 - hello? Ever hear of competitive rates?!

--I taught on the Trinity in the youth group last Sunday, which was interesting. I knew it was going to be a dry conversation/lecture, so I made up a game involving bean bags and blindfolds that actually worked out pretty well. Still, I don't know how to take it. The concepts were nothing that the kids had ever really been exposed to before, and very few could even tell me who was in the Trinity, much less what the Trinity was. There wasn't much discussion because the kids didn't seem to know enough to ask any questions or weren't thinking deep enough to generate any. I tried to explain why understanding the doctrine of the Trinity is important, but honestly, I had a hard time putting that into clear arguments for myself. Most arguments seem to tend towards the idea that bad thinking about God will lead to bad activity, which is probably true at some level. But does it really matter to the person in the pew? For the person working a 9 to 5 and trying to put food on the table for his kids - will misunderstanding the doctrine of the Trinity really have a negative impact on his life?

--War, what is it good for? For obvious reasons, war has been popping up on blog conversations all over the place and I'm currently engaged in a minor debate with someone at Radical Congruency over Just War Doctrine. He is both pro-war and anti-JWD, which is something I have never encountered in someone before. Most of the hawkish Christians I've met are very ardent supporters of JWD. His main beef (it appears) is that JWD does not legitimize the use of force to protect innocents in another country. I think he is correct - based solely on humanitarian motives, the war in Iraq was probably not just per the JWD. That is, I think, only one of several problems with JWD, not the least of which is that it doesn't seem to work. I've asked various people at different times to present to me an example from history wherein a sovereign considered war, but ultimately rejected it because it did not meet JWD standards. I'm not wholly a utilitarian and I don't think the efficacy alone of an idea is the standard by which it should be accepted or rejected, but for a doctrine that is meant to have a real impact on real decisions in the real world, it has to factor in somewhere. Can anyone provide me such an example?

--In 2 weeks, I will begin a 3 week series on sex & relationships for the youth group. We have a couple sets of parents who are, perhaps, a bit over-protective and have apparently sat in on this kind of thing before. I'm not sure if they are expecting me to do condom demonstrations or what, but that won't fly with me. An unknown adult will only kill the conversation and discourage honesty from the kids. Prayers for my preparation and for understanding parents are much appreciated.


Are we addicted?

Frank Herbert, quite possibly the best sci-fi writer of all time, usually repeats certain themes or ideas in his books. One of the reasons his works are so enduring is because of the depth with which he writes - his stories aren't just about characters; they explore ideas, the way societies & culture work, and he does it with an uncanny nack for seeing beyond the surface. I recently re-read The White Plague, which is about a scientist who basically goes insane with rage after his wife & children are killed by an IRA bomb. He creates a super virus that kills only women and unleashes it on Ireland, England and Libya - the former 2 because of their ongoing conflict and the latter because of its role in training the bomber. I think its out of print now, but its a very interesting read. I have read the Dune books several times and highly recommend them above all others since they are a bit less esoteric than some of his other works.

But one of the ideas he consistently brings up is adrenaline addiction. He normally associates AA with people in the military or in other positions of power who thrive off of the adrenaline boost their very authority gives them. He theorizes that a great deal of human conflict is due to people in power trying to get their adrenaline fix by excercising their authority. I'll leave a decision on the accuracy of this assessment up to the reader, but I think there is some degree of truth to this in society at large, the "extreme sports" phenomenon as case in point. Then I read this from Pontifications:

Most importantly, evangelicalism thrives on mission and the creation of new congregations. It has long been noted that Protestantism breeds division and sectarianism. What perhaps has been overlooked in all of this is the evangelical thrill of starting new congregations. There’s nothing quite like experiencing the new life of a new church... As one evangelical bishop recently told me, “It’s easier to give birth than to raise the dead.” The problem, though, is that first-generation churches eventually become humdrum, culturally-accomodated third-generation churches–and we end up right back where we are now. Ultimately, evangelicalism lives by the revolution that initially created it and which it must ever seek to replicate.

What struck me immediately is the similarity with Herbert's adrenaline addiction - a (unconscious) drive to continually re-create the situation that brought about euphoria, regardless of whether or not it is the wise or even God-centered course of action. The reason that this seems abundantly clear to me is because my church is in the process of planting a church. I won't go into detail again, but suffice it to say, I'm not sure that a church plant - especially one intended to be nearly identical to what we're already doing - is the right thing to do since we aren't really growing that much. In fact, our growth is barely a trickle, a clear indication to me (and the church planter) that what we're doing isn't working as we intend it to, so why should we copy it? What exactly are we hoping to achieve? And this is my epiphany - we're hoping to replicate the excitement of a new, growing congregation instead of doing the hard work of revitalizing a numerically stagnant church. We're taking the somewhat easy way out instead of making the hard decisions about what we need to change. And I dare say there is more than a fair amount of insecurity motivating this decision. Another church in our denomination only 30 miles away in the next town over is only a few years older but is about 5 times our size and growing in leaps & bounds.

In a way, its a bit like dating. We try a relationship on and see how it works out. If it doesn't fit, we move on to the next one. Sometimes we get jealous because our friends have found someone and we're still playing the field. But eventually, you have to decide on one (even if the decision is not to get into a relationship) and settle down. You have to get hitched and start the life-long process of dying to self, relinquishing control and putting the other person & the relationship ahead of self-centered motivations. And that's not an easy process and its frequently quite painful, but its the only way to real depth & love. We can't view church plants as the only or the best way to reach people with the Gospel, and we definitely can't plant churches merely for the sake of planting them. In a way, we have to marry ourselves to our churches and stop looking for the next relationship that might come along. We have to go in for the long haul and start listening for God's voice in where we're at, and obeying him even when the place he's taking us is not the place we had initially envisioned.