The War on Joy.

I love C.S. Lewis. He isn’t perfect. He had a few ideas that were a bit much for protestant me. Overall he was a genius. What made him so brilliant is his ability to take the complex and translate it into words and ideas that others could understand and repeat. When you really understand something, you move beyond the jargon, take the idea apart, and remove the unnecessary, so the truly important can shine through with greater clarity.

I love the Narnian Novels by Lewis. They are brilliant. They have so many themes within his other books and are completely relevant for our world today, almost 70 years later. Lewis fought in World War I and wrote this book only a few years after the end of World War II. He was painfully aware of fighting in the middle of winter without the ability to celebrate Christmas. When Lewis penned one of his most famous lines, he summed up how the world’s enduring suffering faced during the second world war with one line. “It’s always winter, never Christmas.”

This past year has felt like it is always winter, never Christmas. It feels as though there has been a spell put on the world that has frozen hearts, frozen dreams, and is desiring to freeze our joy. There is a war we are facing in our world today, and it is a war on Joy. True Joy everlasting Joy.

 The Weather

One of the central themes of the life of C.S. Lewis was that of joy. His autobiography is entitled “Surprised by Joy” He had much to say about Joy. It was the hope of what was to come for him and the real enjoyment that comes from understanding we have been forgiven. The Pevensie kids understood this in the gifts they were given. “All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still “about to be.” -C.S. Lewis (Interestingly, his wife’s name was also Joy).

The contrast between the Witch and Aslan at this point is one of the central themes of the first Narnian book. A key scene occurs in Chapter 11 when the Witch and Edmund are traveling through the woods in pursuit of the beavers and the other children. They happen upon “a merry party” made up of a squirrel family, two satyrs, a fox, and a Dwarf, seated at a table and enjoying a delicious holiday meal. The Witch is incensed and demands to know, “What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence?” When she discovers that the meal was a gift from Father Christmas, she turns the entire party into stone. The benefit of the scene is that it demonstrates that the Witch’s evil is not fundamentally about winter and cold weather, but about a deep-seated hostility to life, joy, and celebration.

Joe Rigney

The witch wanted nothing more than to see winter forever. Like Rigney says, her desire wasn’t about cold and winter. It was a deep hatred of joy of celebration of the newness of life. This wasn’t just about cold weather. It represented her hatred of joy the forward-looking hope even in winter. Which is why she made it always winter and never Christmas. 

Why Our Kids Ministries Should be More Like Mr. Rogers and Less Like Disney.

One of the pressures that kids pastors face from parents, leaders, or themselves, and sometimes it’s all three, is to be like Disney. I have often looked at how Disney engages kids as inspiration in engaging the kids I lead. I have had people suggest kindly to me that we take a look at how Disney does things. I even went to Disney and have sent staff members to Disney for inspiration for ministry. The older I get and the longer I do kids ministry, the more I realize that Walt’s idea of child formation was wrong, and Mr. Rogers was right. (Editorial note I am not a Disney hater, I have taken the required pilgrimage to Orlando with my family.)

When you look at the aesthetics of the two kingdoms they both built, they reflect how each saw the world. Walt’s world was a perfect version of what our world should look like. His world is shiny songs playing everywhere. Every restaurant serves chicken strips and hotdogs. Never any dust, never chipped paint. Excellence and creativity abound. Fred’s world was simple, even plain. His puppets showed wear, and his set grew old along with Fred. Two worlds trying to reach the same kids. 

The two kingdoms they built were the result of two visions of the world. Walt created a world that was an escape from the real world. Fred lived in a neighborhood and showed kids how to navigate through the real world. 

Walt built a fantasy world. Fred lived in a neighborhood.

There is nothing wrong with fantasy. Kids need fairy stories. Tolkien and Lewis were both shaped by fairy stories. They have different takes as to the ontological value of stories. Tolkien believed that fairy stories were reflective of God in that they were an example of sub-creation. Lewis thought that you could smuggle truth in fairy stories and steal past the watchful dragons that would not give faith a hearing. In this debate, I side more with Lewis. Fairy tales are more valuable in helping us escape this world, not for the escape alone but to show us what is broken and how to fix our world. Fairy stores should not be only an escape but should contain truth that entertains our minds but be filled with truth that changes our hearts. 

Walt’s world, on the whole, is an escape from reality, sustained by entertainment. You enter the park, and you enter the world as it should be – no trash on the ground, no gum on the sidewalk, and no tears in any eye. It’s perfect. It plays to our right desire for a better world. It reminds us in miniature form that our world, the real world is a shadow, and our heart longs for a perfect world free of sin and pain. 

Fred’s world had fantasy elements in it. But Fred never lied. He said we are going to the land of makebelieve. His fiction was grounded in reality and founded in faith. Fred lived in a neighborhood like you and me. His set was old, his puppets were tired, but he connected with kids in a way few others have. Mr. Rogers had friends come by who struggled with difficult issues like divorce, physical disability, and even race. He didn’t create an alternate universe by which he could escape reality. He lived in a house and told kids when makebelieve was happening. He used fairy stories to smuggle truth.  

Walt Entertained Kids. Fred Empowered Kids.

Walt’s world is all about connecting kids to fun to entertain them. This is a trap I fell into early in my years of children’s ministry. For years I would ask kids if they had fun at the end of the service. I wanted the church to be an escape for kids from the difficulties of home and school. The problem with entertaining kids is you have to out create yourself every week. Kids go to Disney once to a few times a year max. They come to church once to a few times a month. Entertainment may bring them, but we don’t have the budget, creativity, and time to create programs for kids that rival or compete with Disney’s magic. 

Arrogance is Not Equal to Murder

I have nothing but love and respect for Dr. Piper. His books and preaching have challenged me for years and still do. I appreciate his willingness to address difficult issues of the day. One of the sad realities of our day is how we have lost the art of disagreement. I have seen on social media people blasting Piper and saying they won’t read his books because of his most recent article.

My disagreement with Piper in regards to his piece on the upcoming election is substantial but not final. We must not judge a person by what they tweet alone. We must not form opinions of them by a single blog post. My disagreement with Piper is based on what he wrote in this most recent blog post but it in no way changes how I feel about him. As a culture in general and within the church in particular, we need to learn how to respond when we disagree. Cancel culture is not Kingdom culture. 

Where we agree.

Dr. Piper and I agree that the national coarseness of our dialogue is sinful and deepening. The things that are said in political ads, political debate, and Twitter have consequences. As a culture, we have shifted from a post-modern you have your truth I have mine to fundamentalism that says I am right and you are wrong. I have seen families no longer speak to each other because of who they will vote for or what policies they defend. I have seen friendships end because of the perception of disagreement without even a conversation. Donald Trump has done much to hasten the coarseness of our political discourse and create fractions.

Secondly, I know that Dr. Piper believes in the sanctity of life and the created order that informs our biological gender and our social roles in light of that biological difference. Finally, Piper believes that man is made in the image of God. This is crucial because it is the framework the supports how we live and interact in a sin-filled world.  

Where we disagree 

Coarseness, fractions, and vulgarity are not only a Trump problem. They are a political problem. More broadly, they are a sin-filled human heart problem. 

Piper states,

“In fact, I think it is a drastic mistake to think that the deadly influences of a leader come only through his policies and not also through his person. “Flagrant boastfulness, vulgarity, and factiousness are not only self-incriminating; they are nation-corrupting.”

This statement seems to assume that one leader is virtuous, and one is corrupt, or one is less corrupt. In the first debate, Trump consistently interrupted, name called, and demeaned Biden. Biden likewise called the President a clown, scoffed, interrupted (less so), and disrespected the governing authority. Both have been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior. Given the fact that both leaders have exhibited behavior that is fractious, vulgar, and boastful, what is left is their policies. 

Policies matter. 

Our job as Christian voters is not to try to create a political kingdom in some theocratic sense. After all, our citizenship is in heaven. Our job here on earth is to demonstrate God’s kingdom and promote good and limit harm. There can be disagreement on policies. The idea by one political party that those who vote for the other candidate are no longer Christians is foolish. As Christians, the challenge for us is not to blindly follow one party to the point we conflate politics and faith. What politicians say they are going to do matters, and what the policies they actually enact matters more. 

My good friend Scott Klusendorf explains the importance of policies perfectly. 

“It’s July of 1860. You’re a Christian slave buried deep in the bowels of a ship destined for Savannah where, if you survive the journey, you’ll be auctioned to the highest bidder. The presidential election is coming up. What do you pray your fellow Christians will do on election day?

Option #1: Vote for the candidate and party that promotes slavery wholesale because slavery isn’t the only issue and the candidate and his party are good on other topics that matter.

Option #2: Vote for the candidate and party that will limit the evil of slavery even though the candidate himself is rude and arrogant.

Option #3: Refuse to support either candidate, especially the arrogant one, because the character of the candidate matters as much or more than his policies.”

Trump is not Herod. 

In his polemic against Trump Piper seems to equate Trump with Herod “They (sins of pride) destroy persons (Acts 12:20–23)” To be clear, I don’t believe Trump to be a Christian. He may be, but I have not seen evidence that is convincing to me. This being said, Trump is also no Herod. Trump has consistently called for prayer, protected unborn lives, has actively fought to protect those persecuted for their faith in other countries as well as protect the religious liberty of all faiths here in the US. Even if you think these things are contrived, no Herod would do these things. He may be arrogant, but he is not evil and depraved, as was Harrod. 

I actually think a closer example of Herod’s arrogance and evil in New York State’s Governor Cuomo. After the first abatement of the COVID-19 disease, Governor Cuomo said, “The number (covid cases) is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Fate did not do that. Destiny did not do that. A lot of pain and suffering did that.” When Cuomo says, “We” did this, it seems like political speech to say “I” did this. This is arrogance, the same man exulting God-hating arrogance that marked Herod’s life. Cuomo’s belief that babies can and should be allowed to be aborted after 24 weeks, what science has told us is the age of viability even if the mother’s life is not threatened, is also a very Herod move. If we want to start calling National political figures, Herod lets start with Cuomo. 

Arrogance is not worse than murder.

Towards the end of his, article Piper says the following. 

“I think it is baffling and presumptuous to assume that pro-abortion policies kill more people than a culture-saturating, pro-self pride.”

This seems to place arrogance not only on par with murder but above it. I could not disagree more with this statement from a philosophical or theology standpoint. 

Theologically 

Natural law and God’s law both explicitly prohibit the taking of innocent life. The same is not true for arrogance. In Exodus, God says in no uncertain terms, “Thou Shall not Kill” While this does mean more than physical death as Jesus explains in the sermon on the mount, it never means less than killing. There is no explicit prohibition on the same level as this for arrogance. Is arrogance a sin? Yes. Will the unrepentant, arrogant fractious man go to hell? (Galatians 5:19-21) Yes. Is arrogance one of the ten commandments? No, it isn’t. This is no small matter. The ten commandments are foundational to law by which any nation Christian or not being able to function.

The ten commandments were not alone in its condemnation of murder; most Ancient Near East codes of law condemned murder as well. After the fall, the first sin that is punished is fratricide, not excessive sinful boasting. The evangelical lie that our culture loves most is that all sins are the same. This is a lie of damning proportions. All sins are the same in that the smallest lie to a planned genocide both separate you from a Holy God. All sins are not the same in how they affect us and those around us. I would much rather you be an arrogant jerk in the most sinful way possible than that you kill me. Murder is worse than arrogance. 

Philosophically 

It seems in John Piper’s reasoning that pride leads to murder, and the case for that can be made, but here is where I would differ from Piper philosophically. I believe that pride, fractions, arrogance are all the byproduct of murder rather than its source. In Romans 1, we see that the actions of sin that Paul addresses are the evidence of God’s judgment more than its cause. He gave them over to their own sinful desires is not an act of divine capitulation but an act of divine judgment.

In Dante’s Inferno, it is violence that leads you deeper into rings of hell the include fractions, hypocrisy and deception, all of which issue from a hardened heart created by a culture of murder that is pervasive in America today. The prohibition against murder was for the preservation of God’s image in humanity and the protection of the heart and affections of humanity. God knew that when you murder, you destroy two lives. One life is ended; the other is hardened and numbed by an act that was never supposed to be. So we then protect ourselves from exposure through arrogance and pride. What has led to our national discourse’s coarsening is not pride but the pride resulting from the hardness of a collective culture that sees murder as a right to be protected and celebrated. 

Finally, I join my brother in Christ, Dr. Piper and say this we are exiles we are aliens and that both “abortion and arrogance can be forgiven because of Christ (Ephesians 1:7). ” And I invite you to become an exile — “to a kingdom that will never be shaken, not even when America is a footnote in the archives of the new creation.”

Billy Graham Had a Rule so Should You.

A couple of years ago Vice President Mike Pence mentioned that he follows the “Billy Graham Rule.” This created confusion outside the church and fresh debate inside the church as to how men and women should relate in the workplace.

If you are not familiar with the Billy Graham Rule it came from Reverend Graham’s observation that so many evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. Billy said “We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.”

For those of you who disagree with this rule let me say that I hear you in many ways it has gotten weird. I remember a couple of years back talking to a seventeen-year-old boy. He told me he is following the Billy Graham rule. I told him does he plan on getting married ever. He said yes. I then told him there is a good chance he will need to revisit that rule.

This has become a much-debated topic in evangelical circles. Many do not like this rule because it is seen as misogynistic and limiting of women in the workplace. The argument goes that if women are excluded from dinners and meetings they will be excluded in boardrooms. While I am not nieve enough to believe this never happens I don’t think it’s systemic in churches or organizations.

I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

What seems to be far more systemic in culture and churches is divorce. Does disobedience to the Graham rule mean you will have a divorce? Not at all, but in twenty-plus years of marriage counseling infidelity never starts in the hotel room. The two most prevalent causes of infidelity are extensive time with the same person of the opposite sex and alcohol. In saying that I am not saying spending time with the opposite sex is sinful nor is alcohol inherently sinful. Yet there is rarely a story of a spouse breaking their marriage vows that didn’t involve the excess of time and alcohol. We need guardrails. All of us.

For those who think this is a right-wing white evangelical issue. It’s not. Its wisdom. Here is a quote from an Atlantic interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates who is black and an atheist.

I’ve been with my spouse for almost 15 years. In those years, I’ve never been with anyone but the mother of my son. But that’s not because I am an especially good and true person. In fact, I am wholly in possession of an unimaginably filthy and mongrel mind. But I am also a dude who believes in guard-rails, as a buddy of mine once put it. I don’t believe in getting “in the moment” and then exercising will-power. I believe in avoiding “the moment.” I believe in being absolutely clear with myself about why I am having a second drink, and why I am not; why I am going to a party, and why I am not. I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel. I am not a “good man.” But I am prepared to be an honorable one.

I share Coates’ concern. I want to be honorable. The way we function in an honorable way is within boundaries we create with our spouse. We need to create boundaries that serve to protect our marriages from going over the cliff. Pastor and author Andy Stanley says it this way

We need personal guardrails so we don’t stray into areas of life that can harm us or the people we love. If there’s one area in which personal guardrails are most needed but also most resisted, it’s in our relationships.

I don’t think one blanket rule is the best way to create guardrails but its a good starting point.

How Do We Create Healthy Guardrails?

Understand what the Bible teaches about the total depravity of mankind. – The Bible if you have read it is full of stories that reinforce the theological understanding that everything has been marred by sin and tainted by the fall. Ta-Nehisi Coates said this about himself “I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel. I am not a “good man.”If you don’t see yourself as a sinner who needs a savior but rather as basically good you will overestimate your willpower your tolerance and your faithfulness. If Coats as an atheist can see this? Why can’t we?

Talk with your spouse about what guardrails need to be in place to honor God and each other in your marriage. Go with whoever has the most sensitive conscience on this topic.

If you need to make an exception to your per-determined guardrails communicate. My wife and I have a few guardrails we have set but when I am going to meet with a woman I always let her know before and discuss with her after.

Understand you are not Billy Graham. People who are powerful and famous have to be far more careful than someone who works from home. Fame, influence and travel all make guardrails so much more necessary. For most of you reading this those are not realities for you so even though you need guardrails you probably don’t need the same ones as Pence and Graham.

Our desire as Christians should be to primary to honor God in all we do, secondarily to love our spouse and kids well, and lastly to love our neighbor as ourselves. Setting clear guardrails helps us do all three.

Don’t Burn Bridges.

Remember when Facebook was for sharing photos of your children and videos of otters holding hands? Me neither. Social media has become a battlefield of conflicting ideas. A minefield of potentially explosive issues. It has gone from a digital scrapbook to a digital equivalent of a dual. Every post seems to be about the defense of a person or idea and with those who disagree hurling horribly generalized caricatures of who they think you are based on what party they think you are a part of.

As Christians, we have to guard against this. Some of the most scathing reprimands of scripture are towards those who can not control their tongues. In James 1 where we famously quote the passage that states “True religion is taking care of the widows and orphans.” This is a feel-good statement that is completely true and we love it. You know what it says in the verse right in front of it. James 1:26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle (control) his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

Every sin that we commit is first a sin of the heart and second a sin of our mouth before it is a sin of our actions. Therefore what we think about, what we desire affects what we say. How we speak and what we type is a pretty good indication of the state of our heart.

Here is the bad news. None of us do this. Why because the Bible tells us our heart is desperately wicked. Kierkegaard called this the crooked timber of the heart. Our words will not change until our hearts have been transformed.

A preacher I respect greatly said this: “[James] calls for us to have a tamed tongue. And if we do, it’s evidence that we’re a Christian. And if we do, it’s evidence that we’re walking in obedience. And as you look at your life, beloved, if you see those things coming out of your mouth that ought not to come, you need to confess it as sin and turn from it. And how you react to those times when bitter water comes out of the sweet fountain is the key to your spiritual strength, the key to your spiritual effect and power.”

Our speech will not change until our hearts are transformed here is the good news. That is what God does best. He takes our hearts of stone and gives us a new heart with new desires and new words. Will we still slip in our speech online and offline? Yes. Should we strive to grow in the grace that God provides and be more kind in what we say think and do? Yes. This is a work God does and we join with him growing in his likeness day by day.

Here are a few things I am trying to do better when engaging people online.

  1. Ask more questions and make fewer statements – Look to learn not only prove a point.
  2. Delete more comments than you publish – If you know me, you would say there is no way you do this I have read what you have published online. I delete A LOT of comments, and so should you.
  3. Clarify when you don’t understand don’t assume you understand – This is essential offline as well as online. Communication doesn’t happen when two people speak. It occurs when two people speak, and there is understanding.
  4. If you know the person in real life call or text them to have an honest conversation about something you don’t understand – Use online disagreement to build bridges, not burn them. Talking in person builds bridges torching someone’s wall burns bridges.
  5. Take regular breaks from social media – I regularly take breaks to keep from becoming an angry, anxious, annoying person. You need to take more breaks than you do.
  6. Try to verify if a story is true before you share it – This is becoming more and more difficult to do even some fact-checking sites have become politicized. Try to use original sources, give away credit, and use common sense. If a story sounds like something, your craziest friends often say it’s probably not true.
  7. Try and stay friends with people who think differently than you. The mute button may be your friend at times, so use it. – Try not to burn bridges. Sometimes you will have to mute people online so you can stay friends offline, and that’s ok. Offline friends are more important than online friends.
  8. Know when to walk away, know when to run – Sometimes comments get ugly fast. Don’t go there. Walk away.
  9. When you overstep, and you will apologize without expecting them to apologize in return – If you only follow one of these pointers, let it be this one. I had to use it this week. I had to text a friend and apologize for what I said it was too strong and didn’t convey what I wanted to say because it was not seasoned with grace.

We all need God’s help to control our speech so that our thoughts, words, and actions convey the grace that is ours in Christ. What you say and what you type will signal to a watching world a heart that has been transformed by grace. May this be more and more true of us every day.