Fear Not

Fear not

In a culture where fear is ever-present and all-pervasive, we turn to almost anything to find comfort and to find help. There are a million things to be afraid of thanks to the internet and COVID; that number has tripled. 

One of the most repeated phrases in scripture is “fear not” “Do not be afraid.” It’s almost as if the God who created us knows us and knows that much of what we do is driven by the blasphemy of pessimism. This idea is that things are worse than we imagine that things will not end well and that the worst possible thing that can happen will happen. We are plagued by these doubts all the time. Daily we read of people who are being oppressed and killed around the world we know people around us who are struggling with addictions and sorrows. People we love dying of covid, cancer, and suicide takes a toll on our soul. 

The answer that we are given to combat this fear is false optimism. We are told to think happy thoughts, to avoid people with negative energy. In the church, it isn’t much better. Many famous churchmen say that positive confession changes things that our words create in the same way God created the world with his word. We are given the same false optimism the world offers only in attractive wrapping paper called faith. 

The problem with the false optimism the world offers us is that it avoids the difficulty through distraction. The problem with the false optimism the church offers as Chesterton says is that it tries “to prove that we fit in to the world.” We have an idea of how the world should be and to avoid the blasphemy of pessimism we settle for a cheap false optimism. We see the broken world needing mending a world and a life that if not cared for can be lost. We fail to see and understand that this world and this life were never ours they were never our possessions. They are signposts of another world. 

Gerard Manley Hopkins says it this way. 

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Our world is filled with the grandeur of God, charged with his glory. It isn’t great because He created it but because it continues to carry the beauty and glory of who he is from beginning to end. Its job is to point us to what can really help us in the middle of pandemics and pain. We are not citizens of this world. We were made for another world. This world despite the evil that men have done that despite the world bearing the smell of man and his sinful self-inflicted pain. 

Hopkins finishes his poem this way:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Hopkins says despite our best attempts to destroy the world we live in God’s creation is “never spent.” We have hope in two things. The first is that the God who created this world broods over it saturates it with his grace. God is watching over our world he is not distant he is close he is “bent over” not standing afar off and he ordains all things according to the counsel of his will. You are not your own and you are not alone.

Chesterton in Orthodoxy helps us from 100 years ago telling us that we were made for another world. 

 “The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring.”

The second is this world is not our home and our lives are not our own. When I heard I was in the wrong place my soul sang for joy. So powerful. If you have put your faith in Christ you are in the wrong place. So much of the fear we experience comes from a fear of losing was is temporal and failing to see that our lives are eternal. The revelation that this world is not our home and our lives are not our own should produce in us contentment in this life and at the same time discontented homesickness for the next. 

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. 

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.

We Are Going to Have to Start Over

Over the past few months, we have learned that there really is only one thing that remains constant…that is that nothing is constant. COVID has come in and seems to change everything we have held dear for years overnight. Just when we adjust there are new challenge and changes we face daily. COVID has come and has done damage to the health of our country but also it has shaken the foundations of our confidence and the normality of our daily lives.

In times of prolonged uncertainty novel is not the answer. People don’t want a new normal they don’t want digital everything they want the comfort of old truth. Coming out of quarantine I knew that we were going to have a slow path back but I don’t think I was fully prepared for what the reality presently is…I think we are going to have to start over.

I say this because about 10% of our kids have come back and only 10% of our volunteers have returned. There are lots of reasons for this. Many in isolation have reevaluated priories and have moved to be closer to family, some are still scarred by the daily barrage of media, still, others are waiting for a cure. These are uncertain times. These are times filled with difficulty for every leader because no matter what decision you make someone will not be pleased.

We in our churches have been dealing with things as they have arisen on the fly. I have seen much creativity from the church in creating Zoom small groups for Youth and doing kids shows on YouTube. Those are great adaptations but the longer everything lingers the more I am convinced that I think the reality is that we are going to need to start over. I have often thought about what would I do differently in kids and youth ministry if I had to start over from scratch knowing what I know now after 23 years leading in the same church.

Here are a few things we are going to need to change.

  1. Discipleship needs more thought and investment than environments. There has been much focus on excellence in kids and youth environments and not enough on how do we create lifelong followers of Christ. What things do we need to teach and how can we teach them to kids in a way that creates lifelong faith in Christ? These need to consume our thoughts and drive our budgets.
  2. We need to rely more on training live teachers and less on video elements. Video doesn’t have the same impact in a zoom or online setting that a loving teacher teaching kids live over zoom or making phone calls to kids can make. Video is wrong but people are better.
  3. Small group leaders are going to have to know kids better. When difficulty hits small group leaders that know their kids are better equipped to reach out to those families. We are going to need to create opportunities for small group leaders to connect more intentionally with parents and look at their small group as a little church and not as child care during the service. We need a better structure for coaching small group leaders to spiritually direct kids rather than to simply disseminate religious information to children.
  4. We are going to have to run more of what we do like a small church rather than a megachurch. Our bigger campuses have a return rate of 10% but at our smaller campus kids are coming back at rates like 80%. It seems like for the foreseeable future people are more comfortable in smaller settings. Over the last 30 years, the people who we have looked to for direction are the kids and youth ministry experts from the largest churches in America. I know many of these people and they are amazing leaders but our solution going forward does not seem to be bigger and better but intimate and intentional.
  5. Our preaching needs to be more Biblically driven and less topically driven. The reason for this is our kids need to know what God reveals to us in his word more than cute stories and applications that are fun but not formational. Kids need fathers in the faith to proclaim Biblical truth far more than they need cool older brothers to hang with them. I am not saying our approach should be informational at the expense of being relational. What I am saying is that our approach needs to Biblical if it is to be transformational.

I know starting over sounds overwhelming because it is overwhelming. I also think that this is a great opportunity for us to re-evaluate our approach to ministry, our motivation in ministry, and ultimately what the fruit of our ministry should look at.

If we walk away from COVID unchanged by its far reaching effects in every area of life we have missed an opportunity to start over to reset and and to reevaluate what matters most.

Pastors, we can’t go back to a new normal. We shouldn’t try to keep things the same. We need to take this moment to learn how to make our churches smaller and make our ministry more personal.

How would you start over if you had too? Because I think we are going to have to do exactly that.

Is it True?

We live in a world that is hyper-political and completely tribal. As I type this, there is now a mask-wearing tribe and “non-maskers.” We have successfully politicized public health and a worldwide pandemic. We also live a world that values experience over and above objective truth. Truth is relative, and experience is authoritative.

We have a generation that is ruled by their emotional response to any given situation, yet they have failed to stop and ask, “Is this true?” Truth is not relative; there is objective truth. As Christians, we believe that objective truth is the Word of God. We have to teach our kids to check their ideas, information, and presuppositions against what the Bible tells us the truth is. We do this by pointing them back to scripture over and over again. We do this by personally showing them how we filter our political, moral, and spiritual decisions based on what the Bible says over what someone tells us we should say or do as an “Evangelical Chrisitan.”

Clarifying for our kids what is true will help them properly filter information that they are given or come across on their own. If they are not clear on what is true, they will believe a lie. If they don’t have an external filter for the truth, they will believe things about God and themselves that aren’t true.

The next thing we have to do is confront your child’s emotions with truth. Often times our kids will be upset because another kid or a sibling said something that was hurtful. The first question I ask is “Is it true?” They usually say no. I then say then don’t worry about it. With the emotional tripwires exposed we then discuss why they said what they said and how we can be a better friend or sibling as a result.

Our kids are growing up in a world where “lived experience” is how “truth” is established. The problem with our experiences is that divorced from objective external truth they become tyrannical and subjective. Our experience is meant to reveal our sinful hearts and our need for a savior not to justify our own sinful responses to those who have hurt us.

Our experiences are meaningful and diverse but they are not authoritative. It is only when those experiences are filtered through truth outside of us that they are properly understood.

Lastly, as we are holding fast to the truth as seen in the Word of God but do so with humility. We have to listen to others before we speak. Raw truth devoid of charity is rarely transformative. We need to model to our kids how to interact with and pray for those with whom we disagree. We live in a world that will cancel you for the slightest infractions of social norms. We as Christians must forgive and model forgiveness not because of our experience alone. We have experienced forgiveness but because the objective Word of God demands it. If you do not forgive you will not be forgiven.

KB recently on his Instastory said it better than I can.

This is the church.
We will rebuke you when you are wrong.
We will forgive you when you repent.
But we will not cancel you when you are down…for Christ did not cancel us.

Cancel culture is not kingdom culture. We don’t just applaud the righteous we restore the fallen.

KB

Why is what KB saying true? Because of the lived experience of all truth in the son of God made a way for us to be reconciled to God and restored to each other. That is the truth our kids need every day. We can be restored to one another because we have been reconciled by God. May we live our lives in light of that truth for our Good and God’s glory.