Monday, May 12, 2014

My blog has moved. . .

As part of the launch of our new CPYU website, my blog has been integrated into the site. You can link to my blog here!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Social Media Enslavement. . . What I'm Going To Do. . . and a Challenge. . .

As a regular part of our "No Parent Left Behind" seminar on youth culture, I pause and ask parents this question: "What concerns you most about today's youth culture?" It gives them a chance to talk in groups about the ways that youth culture has changed since they were going through adolescence themselves. I then ask someone from each group to verbalize a youth culture reality that causes concern.

Last night the conversation among a group of wonderful and engaged parents in Boulder, Colorado was weighted heavily towards the emerging world of social media. . . not at all surprising since the overwhelming majority of today's technology and social media wasn't even present just a few short years ago. It certainly wasn't a part of my growing up experience. The good news is that parents realize that social media and technology are not at all benign in their influence. This stuff matters because it shapes us in powerful ways. And because it matters, we need to make a matter of deep thought, discussion, and attention.

One young mom in last night's group raised her hand and asked this question: "So, is it ok that I don't put screens and smartphones in the hands of my young children?" I loved the question and I wish that more young parents would ask it. I believe she knew the answer already. But because she knew her best judgment would put both her and her kids at odds with the majority of their peers, she simply needed some affirmation.

These are the kinds of questions we always need to be asking. When media critic Marshall McCluhan stated that "first we shape our tools and then our tools shape us," he was sounding a warning that continues to fall on deaf. . . or maybe distracted. . . ears. This morning's Wall Street Journal  included an interesting piece on summer camps that require campers to unplug and take a kind of technology sabbath. That's good stuff. In recent weeks, I've seen a growing number of researchers and commentators suggesting that parents are spending too much time engaged with their screens and social media, all at the expense of focusing on what really matters. . . their kids. Not only are they ignoring their kids, but they're teaching their kids to grow up and do the same to their children.

On a personal level, I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately. I have a smart phone. I have a tablet. I have a computer. And there are times when I should be engaged with other people and other things that I'm far too engaged with my electronic screens. And while I might possibly be doing something valuable and beneficial, I'm also letting things that are usually more important slip. . . like engaging with other people and other things.

So. . . I've decided to lay out some rules. Initially, I thought they'd be great rules to pass on to parents, teachers, and teenagers themselves. Reality is, I can't pass them on unless I'm already gripping them tightly in my own hands. Here are the rules I'm going to enlist in my own life. I want to invite you to try them out as well. . . for a week maybe. . . and then let me know if you've seen any benefits.

1. Don't engage with your smartphone as long as you are present with and/or in conversation with real flesh and blood human beings. They deserve your full attention.

2. Don't bring your smartphone or screen of any kind to the table. Converse with others over the meal. . . using your eyes, your voice, your ears, and your full attention.

3. Don't sleep with your smartphone on or near your bed. Sleep. Rest. You need it. When you wake up, the world will still be there and you can tend to your business. And if by some chance the world is no longer there when you wake up. . . well, you won't need your phone anyway!

4. Make your family room a no-smartphone zone. When you come in the door to your house, put your phone down. Then, go to the room where your family gathers without that electronic distraction. Put that phone out of sight, and pretty soon it will be out of mind.

5. Don't engage with your phone while you're driving. You'll be doing your passengers and everyone else on the road a huge favor.

6. Take a social media Sabbath. God created us for a rhythm of work and rest. Take one day. . . Sunday maybe? . . and power down. No posts. No comments. No replies. Sure, you can carry your phone with you in order to stay in touch with and be available to family. But forget walk away from all that other smartphone stuff.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

New and Powerful from Beyonce. . . .

Music is a map and a mirror. It both instructs us on how to live our lives, and reflects back to us the choices we've made as a culture, along with evidence of how we have chosen to live our lives. Map and mirror. Directive and reflective. Who to be and who we are. Music has amazing power.

It's for that reason that I believe we need to be discriminating and discerning media consumers. We can't just assume a posture of mindless consumption. For the Christian, our calling is to assume a posture of mindful critique. That's the reason why I've oftentimes made strong statements - both positive and negative - about popular music. There's music that points us in the right direction. . . telling us who we should be and what we should believe. . . . encouraging us to flourish by realizing the fullness of our humanity. There's also music that points us in the opposite direction. . . telling us who we should be and what we should believe. . . but to our demise. . . by encouraging us to live lives that are not the way they are supposed to be. . . robbing us of the opportunity to flourish in our full humanity.

It's no secret that I've often-times lamented the musical message of Beyonce. Much of her music falls into that latter category. She's influential. . . highly influential. In fact, tomorrow, Time magazine will release the "2014 Time 100" issue on the most 100 influential people in our world. . . and Beyonce will be included . . . on the cover. No surprise.

But a very pleasant surprise that I discovered this morning is that in conjunction with the release of this week's edition of Time, Beyonce is releasing her latest video, "Pretty Hurts." I've watched it. . . and so should you. "Pretty Hurts" falls into the former category of music. It offers up some incredibly powerful commentary on our cultural obsession with beauty, the dangers of pageant culture, identity, body image, and so much more. Yes, there are some mixed messages when "Pretty Hurts" is viewed in the context of the entire Beyonce brand, but this video sends an unmistakable message. It will resonate with kids, particularly our girls. And it should be used as a prompt for discussions about what it means to find our identity as human beings made in the image of God and loved by the God who made us.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

NekNominate: Online Alcohol One-Ups-Manship

Earlier this year, Rhiannon Scully had too much to drink. Two of her friends encouraged her to guzzle a mixture of vodka and whiskey. They issued their dare to Rhiannon after seeing someone do the same on a viral Facebook video. When her mother found Rhiannon with her eyes rolling back in her head, she called an ambulance. Rhiannon was fortunate. After spending the night in the hospital and having her stomach pumped, she returned home. Rhiannon is nine-years-old.

Rhiannon Scully had indulged in a competitive social-media-fueled drinking game that’s sweeping through Australia, the United Kingdom, and now the United States. Known as NekNominate, this new and dangerous competition is especially popular among the under-30 crowd, including young adults, college students, teenagers, and even pre-teens.

Originated in Australia, NekNominate combines “Necking” (the Australian slang term for guzzling or chugging alcohol) with nominating others to do the same. How does it work?

First, an individual creates a pint-sized or larger drink that combines two or more types of alcohol (beer, whiskey, vodka, etc.). In addition to the alcohol, other substances are mixed into the drink. As the popularity of the game has spread, these other substances have become increasingly outlandish and dangerous, including things like dead mice, goldfish, urine, insects, motor oil, dog food, raw eggs, hot sauce, and hair. . . to name just a few. The more extreme, the better.

Second, the individual will choose an activity to engage in while chugging or “necking” the alcoholic concoction. The more extreme, dangerous, public, and outlandish the setting. . . the better. For example, NekNominators have chugged while surfing, riding a motorcycle, standing on a moving car, skateboarding, and jumping off a bridge. Others have gone to the front of the classroom and interrupted college lectures, stood naked in grocery store aisles, or set their clothing on fire. One of the most popular Neknominate videos shows a young man being lowered headfirst into a dirty toilet filled with beer. Still another shows a man biting off and eating the head of a live chicken after guzzling his brew. Seemingly, there are no limits and the envelope is continually stretched.

Finally, the entire episode is recorded on video and then posted online on social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, where the videos quickly go viral. To be sure that the Neknominate fad continues, the person looks into the camera and nominates at least two other people by name who have to do the same - or something more extreme – all within the next twenty-four hours. For those who don’t accept the nomination and take the dare, they can be sure to face online ridicule, harassment, and being socially ostracized. Not surprisingly, YouTube and Facebook are currently home to thousands of Neknominate videos and pages, with that number growing leaps and bounds as the Neknominate trend continues to spread.

As expected, government and health care officials are sounding an alarm regarding the Neknominate fad, as it encourages dangerous binge-drinking and other types of alcohol-fueled high-risk behaviors that can lead to serious injury and even death. In fact, officials in the U.K. have already attributed five recent deaths to Neknominate, including incidents of fatal alcohol poisoning and one where an Irish teenager chugged his drink before jumping off a bridge and drowning.

We believe that there are several factors contributing to the popularity of Neknominate.

First, our culture glorifies excessive consumption of alcohol. In fact, marketing has effectively created an environment where alcohol consumption is seen as necessary prerequisite to having a “good time.”

Second, drinking is seen as a “fun” activity and rite of passage. In addition, drinking has become an expected “marker” on the passage from childhood to adulthood. It's a sign of "growing up."

Third, our culture’s loss of a collective moral compass leads to a climate where anyone can do anything. . . because, after all. . . it’s just a matter of personal preference and choice. There is no right or wrong.

Fourth, our kids are at a developmental stage where peer pressure reaches its apex. Even those who have been taught and know right from wrong will sometimes compromise their morals as that is a far-less-risky proposition than going against the will of the peer group. Because the risk of harassment is high for those who don’t take the dare, Neknominate is a game fed by adolescent insecurity.

Fifth, teenagers tend to be risk-takers. Even in the presence of warnings and hard evidence of clear and present danger, there is always the sense that “I can totally get away with this” and “nothing bad will happen to me.”

Finally, the popularity of NekNominating is testimony to the viral power of social media. A game that originated in a college dorm in Australia went global almost overnight. And in a world where young people embrace social media as a perceived passport to developing an audience that will feed their celebrity and fame, kids will gravitate to filming and posting outlandish behaviors as an investment that they hope will yield huge dividends of social capital in the form of likes, views, and followers.

We expect that the Neknominate fad will continue to catch on and spread. We believe that because of age-compression (typically older pressures and behaviors embraced at younger and younger ages) and age-aspiration (kids want to be seen, treated, and feel like they are much older than they really are), we will be hearing more and more stories like those of young Rihannon Scully. This trend will grow in popularity among pre-teens who want to look and feel older than they are. We can also expect to see fall-out in terms of consequences including illness, injury, and even death. In addition, other knock-off games will develop and spread through the youth culture. Already we are hearing about variations of Neknominate known as “The 1-Pint Challenge” and “Icing.” And finally, it is reasonable to expect Neknominate videos to depict unimaginable extremes in terms of what people choose to ingest, and the risk-taking behaviors they engage in while doing their drinking.

CPYU offers the following suggestions to parents, educators, youth workers, and others who love and care for children and teens.

·         Warn kids about the moral, physical, and legal dangers of Neknominate. Because the trend is reaching kids at younger and younger ages, it is essential to speak even to pre-teens about this dangerous and deadly trend.
·         Clearly lay out behavioral expectations and parameters for your kids. Let them know what is and is not expected of them, along with the consequences for violating those parameters. Be sure to follow-up if they disobey your boundaries.
·         View, deconstruct, and talk about alcohol marketing wherever and whenever you encounter it with your kids. Point out and discuss the messages equating alcohol consumption with maturity, relational connections, and fun.
·         Come to a decision about how you will model responsible alcohol consumption, whether that be by choosing abstinence or moderation. Your children are watching and learning.
·         Limit and monitor your child’s exposure to social media. Do not put Internet-capable, unlimited-access, camera-equipped smartphones in the hands of elementary-aged and middle-school-aged children. Supervise and monitor the use of devices by older teenagers.
·         Warn your children of the dangers (moral, legal, and physical) of daring someone else to engage in behaviors that could result in injury or death.

No one knows how long the Neknominate fad will last. In the meantime be aware and equip your kids to beware of this dangerous trend.

Want a downloadable pdf copy of this trend alert to pass on? Click here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Columbine. . . 15 Years. . .

I'm not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing that the 15th Anniversary of Columbine went largely unnoticed as most of us sat with our families celebrating the Resurrection two days ago. Can you believe it's been 15 years?

Perhaps it's a good thing that the anniversary went unnoticed if the horrible Columbine tragedy was eclipsed by the hope and the promise made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. That's the only thing that can and should eclipse this type of anniversary. It's a foreshadowing of sorts. By the grace of God, a day is coming when all this brokenness will finally be undone. . . no more death. . . no more tears. . . no more suffering. 

However, it's not at all a good thing to skim over the anniversary if we do so because we forget or have been hardened to the horror of that day and how many lives were lost or changed. After all, this kind of stuff is so common nowadays that it can become like background noise. We need to know our need. Brokenness serves to remind us of that. Sunday was truly a day to remember both what we've done and what God is undoing.

Fifteen years ago this last Easter Sunday, the name "Columbine" went from representing a beautiful flower to representing unprecedented school violence. . . just like that. The 15 year anniversary reminds us of so much. . . including the brokenness in our world, the hurt that belongs to far too many kids, the hope of the Gospel, and the valuable role youth workers play in kids' lives. Youth workers were first responders 15 years ago in Littleton. Then, they were there to help the community start to heal. 

On Sunday, I was reminded of how thankful I am for the sacrifice Christ made on my behalf. And once again on Sunday, I was reminded of how grateful I am for youth workers everywhere and their role in bringing hope and healing. I want to encourage parents, pastors, and church members to be an encouragement to your youth workers. I want to encourage youth workers to bury themselves in the hope-filled Gospel and in turn, bury their Gospel-filled selves into the lives of kids. By the grace of God, it's making a huge difference.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Teen Brain. . . Figuring It Out. . .

I love this TED talk. . . really about the glory of God in terms of how we've been made. . . although she never says it directly. It's amazing to think about the complexity of the human body. . . every system. . . every organ. . . every cell. . . all working together in harmony and growing and maturing according to God's grand design.

This is a video worth watching. . . .

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hey Death. . . You Don't Win. . .

It's a week to think about death. . . . but that's not all. Thanks to the reality of Christ's sacrifice, the resurrection is ours as well! Death is not the end of the story! Charles Spurgeon captured the essence of the fallout from the Good News that we celebrate this week when he wrote, "When the time comes for you to die, you need not be afraid, because death cannot separate you from God's love." C.S. Lewis reminds us of the perspective we must embrace as followers of Christ: "Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind." That might be the greatest understatement Lewis ever penned.

I need the reminders of this week. You see, for many years I thought little about death. I never attended a funeral until I was an adult. In terms of my family members, I've only experienced the deaths of three grandparents who had lived very long lives. I've had several youth group kids die young over the years, but somehow the ease of my own life always allowed me to find solace in moving on and forgetting, more so than in grappling with the reality of death and the wonderful gift of the reality of the resurrection.

To be honest, I knew of the resurrection and I proclaimed it, but I don't think I was embracing it as I should. My own sense of youthful invulnerability eclipsed the reality of my own mortality. Then, God gave me the gifts of a speeding car through my office wall along with a trip over my bicycle handlebars to seriously consider the fact that yes. . . someday, I too was going to die.

In recent years I have worked hard to slow down during this week that we commemorate God's undoing of death and all the other things resulting from our sin and selfishness. I don't want to miss being amazed by the most amazing historical event ever. This year, the pondering is running deep for me. Tomorrow I will be attending the funeral for a 32-year-old we know who died suddenly last week. We hurt for his family. . . his wife, four-year-old son, dad, mom, and brother. We hurt for his unborn son who is due to arrive June. This is not the way things are supposed to be. This morning, I went back and read the text exchange that I was having with Pete's brother after Pete had died. Pete's brother wrote, "He is with the Lord. Praise God. The hope we look to in faith is now his reality." I'm sure that Pete's family members are enduring days filled with the ups and downs that come with grieving a great loss in the context of hope. But they have hope.

As I was texting back and forth last night with Pete's brother, this little note from a Facebook friend popped up:  Lowell's dad died suddenly on Saturday evening in a farm accident. He was out in the woods doing what he loved to do-- cutting and hauling in fire wood. It was a shock to all of us to hear the news of his death. Please pray for the family as they gather from around the globe. Pray especially for Lowell's mom. She is doing remarkably well--- full of faith and hope. 

Full of faith and hope. . . how do people get through their grief without the hope of the resurrection?

And then just a few minutes later I watched the report (embedded below) on the NBC news about the shooting at the Kansas Jewish Community Center. Again, I was pounded with the hope of the resurrection as Mindy Corcoran, just hours after losing both her father and her son in the shooting, gave testimony to the faith she has in Christ. . . not just through her words, but through her willingness and ability to stand and speak about the tragedy. Just watch. . . .

If the message of Easter has become an old, old story to you, think about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and the hope that exists for those who are in Christ. Ponder the very real and unexplainable hope that is transcending the very real grief that is visiting the families of Pete, Lowell, and Mindy Corcoran.

The Psalmist wrote these amazing, truth-filled words : "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints." (Psalm 116:15).

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sexuality, Cultural Change, and How We Read Scripture. . . .

Every now and then I have a day that's marked by thought-provoking and anything-but-coincidental convergence. You know. . . you hear something, see something, read something . . . and it all seems to come together to spark thoughts on things that matter. Yesterday was one of those days.

I ventured out on a walk while thinking about today's "Day of Silence" and what that means for our kids, our culture, and the church. I'm still processing thoughts that I blogged the other day. Specifically, I was thinking about the complex issues related to same-sex attraction and how our views on such are emerging, morphing, and changing in both the culture and the church. I was thinking about the temptation we all face to change with the times, which leads us to believe that somehow all cultural change is a mark of progression that should be celebrated and affirmed. This creates very real tensions for those of us who follow Christ.

I reminded myself of the principles of faithful and careful Biblical interpretation and exegesis that I've learned over the years, particularly during my time at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. We begin not by asking "What does this mean to me?", but "What did this mean at the time it was written?". Once we've done our interpretive exegetical work, then. . . and only then. . . can we work to make applications to our culture and our own personal lives.

While cultural change might tempt us to jettison those interpretive principles, we must always go back to our need to faithfully and responsibly interpret Scripture. . . with Scripture as our starting point for all matters of faith and life. While it's becoming more and more commonplace for Christians to view and interpret Scripture through the eyes of our culture, we need to be doing the opposite as we view, interpret, and respond to culture through the eyes of Scripture.

During my walk, I stumbled upon a podcast that I had never been aware of before, thanks to my handy TuneIn Radio app. "Issues, Etc." is a production of Lutheran Public Radio. I scrolled through some options and settled on an interview with Shane Rosenthal on "Me-Centered Bible Interpretation."  It's worth listening to. Having talked for years about how narcissism and the postmodern ethos have combined to create a way of interpreting the Bible that is more about eisogesis than exegesis, I was thrilled to hear Rosenthal's remarks. It wasn't difficult at all to connect that dots between reading the Scriptures incorrectly, and how we apply an incorrect understanding of Scripture in ways that support and encourage changing moral standards when, in fact, they should be challenged.

Then, my day continued with some reading on a flight to Wichita. I finally got around to reading a Rolling Stone magazine piece on changing sexual standards. "Tales From the Millennials' Sexual Revolution" serves as a reminder of just how much our moral standards have morphed in recent years. I found myself asking, "Will the church process and address these changing standards through the lens of Scripture? Or, will the church adjust Scripture to accommodate these changing sexual standards?"

Finally, I pulled John Stott's Balanced Christianity out of my bag and began reading. I find in Stott a balanced wisdom and maturity that is lacking in so many corners of the church today. His teaching and writing have served to shape me and keep me anchored, especially as it relates to the relationship between faith, Scripture, and culture. The fact that this book was first penned in 1975 might put some younger folks off.  After all, Stott was writing in a different time and culture. Could what he wrote then be even remotely relevant to us today? Without a doubt, yes.

I thought I would pass on some of the more provocative words from Stott's chapter on "Conservative and Radical." Stott defines "conservative" in this case as "people who are determined to conserve of preserve the past and are therefore resistant to change." "Radicals" are "people who are in rebellion against what is inherited from the past and therefore are agitating for change." Stott argues that every balanced Christian "should have a foot in both camps."

Some random, thought-provoking words from Stott. . . .

"Every Christian should be conservative because the whole church is called by God to conserve his revelation, to 'guard the deposit' . . . The church's task is not to keep inventing new gospels, new theologies, new moralities and new Christianities, but rather to be a faithful guardian of the on and only eternal Gospel. . . . The self-revelation of God is. . . . changeless in truth and authority."

"Jesus refused to be bound by human custom; his mind and conscience were bound by God's Word alone. Thus, Jesus was a unique combination of conservative and the radical, conservative toward Scripture and radical in his scrutiny (his biblical scrutiny) of everything else."

"Culture changes from age to age, and from place to place. Moreover, we Christians, who say we desire to live under the authority of God's Word, should subject our own contemporary culture to continuous biblical scrutiny. Far from resenting or resisting cultural change, we should be in the forefront of those who propose and work for its progressive modification in order to make it more truly expressive of the dignity of humanity and more pleasing to the God who created us."

"The greater danger (at least among evangelicals) is to mistake culture for Scripture, to be too conservative and traditionalist, to be blind to those things in church and society which displease God and should therefore displease us, to dig our heels and our toes deep into the status quo and to resist firmly that most uncomfortable of all experiences, change.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Youth Workers, Parents, and This Week's Day of Silence. . . .

A few years ago I was speaking on youth culture at a church in the Midwest that sits directly across the street from the local high school. I had challenged those in attendance to reach out to the large population of broken and confused kids who walked the halls of that school each and every day. Afterwards, a woman shared a concern and asked a question. She explained that she was part of a group of Christians who were working to get the school to ban the upcoming “Day of Silence.” “What can we do to stop it?” she asked.

If you’re in the dark regarding the “Day of Silence,” here’s an explanation: Founded in 1996 at the University of Virginia, the “Day of Silence” is billed by organizers as the largest student-led event towards creating safer schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. The national event has been growing in recent years, and is intended to bring attention to "anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools." Students in middle schools, high schools, and colleges take a vow of silence for the day in an effort to encourage schools and classmates "to address the problem of anti-LGBT behavior by illustrating the silencing effect of bullying and harassment on LGBT students and those perceived to be LGBT." 

Scheduled to be held this year on Friday, April 11, hundreds of thousands of students in middle schools, high schools, and colleges across America will participate. The event is officially sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). According to research from GLSEN, nearly nine out of ten LGBT students report verbal, sexual or physical harassment at school, and more than 30 percent report missing at least a day of school in the past month out of fear for their personal safety.

Students participating in the “Day of Silence” are encouraged to download and hand out “speaking cards” which say: “Please understand my reasons for not speaking today. I am participating in the Day of Silence, a national youth movement bringing attention to the silence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies in schools. My deliberate silence echoes that silence, which is caused by name-calling, bullying and harassment. I believe that ending the silence is the first step toward fighting these injustices. Think about the voices you are not hearing today.”

After pondering the woman’s question for a few moments, I offered a response that I think surprised her. My response was rooted in a couple of realities. First, but not foremost, there’s my own experience of harassing people during my high school years, something rooted in my own adolescent insecurities. You know – putting others down to feel better about myself. While I’m ashamed to admit it, my behavior included harassment of a small number of peers who were rumored to be homosexuals. Second, and foremost, is my understanding of who God is, who He’s made people to be, and who He’s called His followers to be. . . especially in response to those who - like you and me - are sinners desperately in need of God’s saving grace.

And so I told her this. . . First, I believe that God has established sexuality as a good and wonderful gift that is to be experienced and celebrated with great freedom within the bounds of His order and design. That design is clearly articulated in the Scriptures as being a good and wonderful gift of God to be experienced and indulged within the context of an exclusive, covenantal, monogamous, and committed marriage between one man and one woman. Because our world is fallen and broken, there will be sinful distortions of that plan that we are to avoid (even "flee from") including adultery, fornication, pornography, sexual abuse, sexual lust, and same-sex sexual activity. . . among other things. All are equally sinful distortions of God's good and perfect design for our sexuality. We are to teach these truths to our children without hesitation in a cultural climate that increasingly teaches and celebrates otherwise.

Second, banning the “Day of Silence” only deals with symptoms of deeper issues and really accomplishes nothing. Shouldn’t we be concerned about the hearts where those deeper issues live and from which the symptoms rise to the surface? And while we’re talking about hearts from which the issues come, what about the hearts from which hate and ignorance flow. . . . especially when those hearts belong to those who claim to follow Christ? What about hearts that find it so easy to rank and categorize sexual sin, even to the point of ignoring, diminishing, or justifying one's own sexual sin by focusing on the sexual sin of another?

Third, we can’t force anyone to follow Jesus. Only God’s Spirit is able to draw people to Himself. While we can’t strong-arm people into the Kingdom of God, we can and must choose to follow Jesus ourselves. Following Jesus means facing our Pharisaical tendencies/sins head-on, while loving sinners as Jesus has loved them (and us! . . . because we’re in that group too). Loving, caring for, and ministering to sinners is our calling, just as our calling is to hate and avoid sin. As I remember John White once saying, "As Christ is to me, so must I be to others."

Finally, I asked her this question: “Have you ever thought about acting on your concern by sitting down and spending some time getting to know and listening to the kids who are planning the ‘Day of Silence’ at your school?” She paused. . . as I guess most of us would. . . and said “no.” I then challenged her to find out the names of the kids, invite them out to Starbucks, and then sit with no other agenda than to listen, learn, build a relationship, love, and begin a conversation.

What would happen if we would stop working so hard to “protect” our kids by legislating morality, and start “providing spiritually” for our kids by modeling how to take the Gospel to those who are hungry for Heaven? I’m learning that while it might seem easier to wish and work away differences I might not like, Jesus is calling me to go as His ambassador to people He’s called me to love. Then, He’ll take care of the rest.

I highly recommend this helpful guide from Harvest USA on how to respond to the Day of Silence. You can access the guide here.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Kurt Cobain, CPYU, and Remembering. . .

Sleeping last night was a bit difficult. My mind was racing with thoughts about both the future and the past. The future is the immediate future. . . specifically the next twenty-four hours as old and new friends from near and far gather today to join us to celebrate God's faithfulness to us over the last quarter-decade. Tonight we're having our 25th Anniversary Celebration Banquet for CPYU. Really??? Twenty-five years??? So hard to believe. The past is those 25 years and all that has happened in that brief yet very full span of time. It's been amazing.

But in the months, weeks, and days leading up to today's celebration, I've been reminded of another more bitter anniversary being remembered this weekend. It's an anniversary of a broken life and too-early death that I've been thinking about and been reminded of almost every day for these last twenty years. Tomorrow, it will be 20 years since Nirvana's Kurt Cobain took his own life at the age of 27. Just like the launch of CPYU, it seems like yesterday. 

Over the course of the last two weeks I've been re-reading the Charles Cross biopic of Cobain, Heavier Than Heaven. It's been part of my commitment to what theologian John Stott calls "dual listening," a task Stott says is the responsibility of every Christian who wants to represent and serve Christ well in the world. Stott says we must listen to both Word and world. When we listen to both, we are better equipped to know how to bring the light of the Word to illuminate the darkness of a horribly broken world. Heavier Than Heaven has been a journey into some very dark darkness.

I've been reminded almost every day of Cobain's death because I made a decision years ago to walk past and look at his picture every time I'm in our office. It was one of many conscious efforts I've made to look at youthful brokenness to serve as a reminder of why it is that I do what I do. On our office wall hang three pictures of Cobain. The first is a picture of a smiling young first-grader. It's one of those school pictures we're all so familiar with. His eyes are bright and there's a smile on his face. This is the Kurt Cobain who was described as a happy-go-lucky kid who loved life. Then, when he was eight-years-old, his parents divorced. That's when the smile became scarce and eventually disappeared. 

Cobain's music was a reflection and expression of his broken life, and his yearning for healing and wholeness. It resonated with a generation that found in Cobain a mouthpiece for their own difficulties. One of the most significant conversations I've ever had with a kid took place when he introduced me to Cobain and the music of Nirvana back in 1991. When I asked him what it was that he liked about the music, he said, "This guy sings what I feel." The kid was in middle school at the time. 

After Cobain killed himself on April 5, 1994, both Spin and Rolling Stone ran covers and lead stories on Cobain's life, music, and death. Both issues arrived in my mailbox on the same day. When I pulled them out of the mailbox, I stood on the driveway staring at the covers. They were piercing. In a way, they spoke a loud and clear message to me: "This is why you do what you do." I brought them into the house and set them down on the table. Lisa and I looked at them both and she perceptively remarked, "Look at his eyes." I knew just what she meant. They are eyes that are hungry for heaven. 

Today, both of those covers hang framed on our office wall. Between them is the photo of the smiling young boy. They are hung in that order so that I'm reminded of the fact that something happened in the time between when those photos were taken. And that is why we do what we do.

This morning, my listening to the Word took me into the forty-second chapter of Isaiah. There, I read God's descriptor of His chosen servant who was yet to come into the world to release it from the choke-hold of sin: "I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness." 

While there is unmistakable permeating brokenness in the world, there is a hope that because that brokenness is being undone and will be finally and completely undone. And that. . . well. . . that's why we do what we do. 

All thanks and glory to God for sending His Son into the world. . . and for the last 25 years. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

World Vision. . . Responding To The Response. . .

I finally sat down to address my income tax prep procrastination last Tuesday evening. In the process of gathering, sorting, and adding up receipts I got to thinking about our charitable giving. Now I know that when it comes to giving, the left hand shouldn't know what the right hand is doing, but what transpired on Tuesday evening was significant enough to mention.

World Vision's Richard Stearns
While I was sorting and recording the numbers for 2013, I paused to think about our giving to World Vision. Of all the causes that we support, the one that has remained a constant recipient of our support is World Vision. In fact, I became a member of the World Vision family as soon as I graduated from college in 1978, when I sponsored a child for the first time. I loved their passion, their philosophy of ministry, and their Christ-centered approach. I also loved the story of World Vision's founder, Bob Pierce, who was prompted to start the organization after praying, "Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God." A "dangerous" prayer for sure. God answered that prayer as Pierce encountered the heart of God in his study of the Scriptures, and then encountered the brokenness of the world through his exposure to poverty, seeing that world and shaping his response to it through the lens of Scripture. More recently, I've read and recommended Richard Stearns' book, The Hole in the Gospel, a book that challenged me anew to recalibrate my life in the direction of Biblical justice.

Ironically, when I stepped away from my tax prep duties for the night (I can only take so much!), I sat down and checked my phone. That was when I opened an email that directed me to the Christianity Today story that broke that news about World Vision's Board of Directors and their decision to change their policy to allow the hiring of  homosexuals in same-sex marriages. I was stunned and deeply saddened. I felt that first and foremost, World Vision was compromising a strong stand on God's design for marriage.

Since then - and even immediately - I was asked by several people to offer my thoughts on the decision. With the exception of a couple of very brief thoughts posted on my Facebook page, I thought it wise to sit back and prayerfully ponder the decision without caving to the kind of knee-jerk response that a) I am prone to, b) my fellow Christians are prone to, c) doesn't typically add anything constructive to the discussion, and d) is warned against in Scripture (Proverbs 29:20).

So, I didn't say anything publicly. I also kept from fully reading any of the multitude of blog posts responding to the decision. I talked about it only with my wife and a few trusted close friends. Of course, two days later World Vision reversed their decision. . . a move that could have been motivated by a variety of factors. We may never know what happened behind the closed Board room doors at World Vision. But I can say that my initial reaction to that reversal was one of great joy.

Now, I am still processing the events of this last week but thought I would post a couple of initial and not-yet-complete thoughts. For those of you who would say that the main issue here is homosexuality or who believe my sadness over World Vision's decision to be rooted in some kind of homophobia on my part, I would respectfully disagree. Keep that in mind as I share just a few of my thoughts. . .

First, in many ways, this last week reminds us that the postmodern turn is for all intents and pragmatic purposes. . . complete. I began to seriously consider, study, and speak about the shift from a modern to a postmodern world about twenty years ago. At that time, philosophical postmodernism was by-and-large on its way out in academic circles. That ship was sailing. But a more "pragmatic postmodernism" that had been seeded by those philosophies was growing like a weed throughout popular culture. And, in the way that all cultural movements spread, postmodern thinking and living was by and large embraced unconsciously. It was simply being assimilated without thought or critique. What's resulted is a world where an older generation who has enough years behind them to see that something has changed, has enough perspective from which to at least say, "It's a different world." They may not be able to thoughtfully articulate what's happened, but they know that something big has happened. Younger folks who have been born onto the postmodern landscape and nursed by the basic assumptions of this new way of thinking about and living life know nothing else. This is just "the way it is" and "the way it's supposed to be." In fact, many of them write off, ignore, and even lament the "archaic" perspective of those who are older.

Very simply stated, there's been a rejection of any kind of objective, widely-held standard of truth. Replacing it has been an "every person for himself or herself" ethic that allows us to personally define what's right and wrong for me. . . and that can change from minute to minute based on how I feel at any given point in time. This way of thinking and living is prevalent in the church. As a result, we become the authority on everything. Our feelings and inclinations define "true north" on our moral compass. The big story of Scripture is rejected. . . but usually not in its entirety. We pick and choose bits and pieces to build our foundation, creating a Biblical system that is not fully Biblical. This reality makes things even more confusing.

Now I know that this brief explanation doesn't even come close to describing the complexity of what's been happening in our culture. But I do think it offers some insight into what's happened at World Vision. From where I sit, I think it's impossible to reconcile World Vision's policy on forbidding pre-marital and extra-marital sexual activity among its employees, with World Vision's "Tuesday" policy to allow same-sex sexual activity among employees in same-sex marriages. But if I am embracing a pragmatically postmodern approach to ethics, it makes full sense and could even be considered "the right thing to do."

Second, the World Vision "controversy" of this last week has exposed the root issue at hand. . . and it's not homosexuality. Rather, it's an issue of authority. I don't think we can even begin to have the kind of constructive, generous, and grace-filled conversations on any same-sex issue that we need to have until we can arrive at some common ground on Biblical authority. If you read the Scriptures while assuming the Scriptures are an apple, and I read the Scriptures assuming the Scriptures are an orange. . . well, you know what happens. . . and it's happening. It's also an issue of hermeneutics. . . the way that we approach the task of interpreting the Bible. Again, it would be an over-simplification to say that people either take an "interpret all of life through Scripture" or an "interpret Scripture through all of life" approach, but isn't it reasonable to say that we all fall somewhere on that spectrum? And, if that's the case, no wonder we can't agree on issues related to sexuality, or any other issue for that matter.

Third, the World Vision policy and its reversal remind us that we need to be thinking about, praying about, and talking about marriage. . . . and we need to do so from the vantage point of interpreting and defining marriage through Scripture, rather than interpreting Scripture through cultural trends on marriage. This requires us to return to God's intended design for marriage at the time when things were the way they were supposed to be. The Shalom that existed in the garden was a gift to humanity that allows us to experience the fullness of our humanity. That Shalom is what we're called to pursue here in the brokenness of our world. Doing things "my way" is what got us in trouble in the first place. Shouldn't World Vision be pursuing and promoting a view of love, sex, and marriage that reflects God's order and design? That divine order and design is certainly what's behind their long-held policy on pre-marital and extra-marital sex.

And finally, the events of this last week reminded me of how important it is for us to listen to people who have proven that they are worth listening to because they are wise, time-tested, humble, and trustworthy. I have not yet ventured into the blogosphere on the World Vision issue to track the fallout and responses because I knew I would wind up getting side-tracked. Several friends suggested that I read this or that response. Instead, I deliberately went to my book shelves to consult with some trusted "mentors" who I know have spent their lives dedicated to pursuing a deep knowledge of God along with an understanding of God's will and way on this and other issues. For example, I took some time to re-read parts of John Stott's The Radical Disciple, and Richard Lovelace's 1978 Homosexuality and the Church. Without the overt vitriol of so many of my angry brothers and sisters, and without the veiled-by-Christian-love and grace passive-aggressiveness of many brothers and sisters who want to enlarge the theological tent of evangelicalism, Stott and Lovelace offered me a grace-filled and Biblically-faithful perspective that calls the church to be pastoral rather than punitive when it comes to same-sex behavior. . . or any other equally grievous wandering from God's will and way.

This got me to thinking more deeply about who it is that we choose to listen to in today's world. In a pre-social media world where anyone can build a following, those who spoke publicly earned their place by developing their knowledge and expertise. They truly had something to say. Their expertise. . . built and developed over the course of a lifetime. . . that's what gave them the right to speak. Now, I fear that all we have to do to develop an audience is market ourselves through social media. We live in a world where all you have to do to make a name for yourself is, well, make a name for yourself. Those who are most gifted at building their presence in the world of social media, tend to be the most persuasive. We have to be more careful about who it is that we listen to and who it is that we follow.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Countdown to CPYU's 25th Celebration! . . . .

On Sunday afternoon, July 23, 1989, I sat at a table with five trusted friends who sensed, with me, that God was clearly calling us to embark on a new mission and ministry. Admittedly, we knew very little at all about what we were doing. What we did know was that our meeting was the first step into an adventure and journey of living under God’s guidance, grace, and direction. We had no idea where the journey would take us or how long the journey would last. Then, I blinked. And when I opened my eyes twenty-five years of working with The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding had passed. . . just like that! Along the way, that little group of six has grown to include a small army of people who are praying for us, supporting us, and working with CPYU!

This year, we celebrate our 25th Anniversary of CPYU. Again, so hard to believe. On Friday night, April 4, several hundred members of our CPYU family will gather here locally for an evening of celebration. We'd love to have you join us. You can get more information and register here

We remain committed to that original mission that we’ve been pursuing for the last quarter century. We continue to work to understand and expose the many voices in this world that convincingly call for our allegiance. And, we are committed to helping children, teens, and parents sift through this confusing babble to hear Jesus speak the truth that leads to our flourishing, both in this life and the next. Our goal is to, like Jesus, help people recognize the spirit of the times (“You have heard it said that. . .”), while communicating God’s Kingdom way of thinking, living, and believing (“But I tell you. . .”). The Apostle Paul reminds us that this transformation requires us to put “off” and abandon our misguided old selves, and to put “on” new selves that reflect God’s will and way for our lives (Ephesians 4). Our mission has not changed. Rather, it's been cemented. It’s our prayer that this cement would continue to dry and harden as we forge ahead in this journey and adventure for as long as God allows!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Social Networking and The Diminishment of Me. . . .

"Me, me, me." That's what got us into trouble in the first place. . . isn't it? Our first parents decided that it was better to glorify self than to glorify God. Consequently, everything came undone. And, we've been undoing it through self-promotion ever since. 

Last Sunday, I listened to a clear call to humility come from the pulpit of our church. I had also just read Mark Driscoll's letter of apology that was getting all kinds of attention online. The letter was, in many ways, a confession of pride, along with a resolve to seek a more humble way of living. Yesterday, this popped out at me as I read the day's entry in Scotty Smith's Everyday Prayers: "Here's my cry: continue to free me from doing anything for the approval of people, out of the fear of people, or to gain power over people. I work for you, Lord Jesus, not for mere men."  Powerful.

The reality is that we are living on a cultural landscape that breeds and feeds the life-sapping sin of hubris. It's not seen as a malignancy on our character. It's not even seen as benign. Rather, hubris is celebrated and encouraged. 

Having had my life transition from pre-social media days to a world dominated by living online, I know first-hand just how easy it is enlist social media to promote one's self. I see what's able to happen now in light of what never could have happened then. It's even worse for those who haven't lived long enough to gain the big picture. When they jump online to shape, build, and promote their brand it's simply a normal part of their day. . . like eating, drinking, and going to the bathroom. . . and what can be wrong with that?!? 

Over the course of the last five years, two of the cultural trends I've been tracking with great interest and intensity are our slide deeper and deeper into the abyss of Narcissism, and our unexamined dive into the world of social media. Combine the two with our deep brokenness and we wind up being mad scientists dabbling with joy over a dangerous mix. . . . and again, we aren't even aware that that's what's happening.

It's so easy to beat our chests online.

I think that the antidote to this pandemic that most of us don't even know exists is two-tiered. No, I don't mean to simplify the issues, but I think that this at least offers what could be a healthy start. At least it's been somewhat helpful to me. . . .

First, immerse yourself in the Word. . . the humble and other-centered incarnate Word Jesus. . . and God's written revelation of His self, will, and way in the Scriptures. Without that perspective taking root and growing in us, we'll never be able to see, recognize, and address those weedy sins that we so easily allow to root and grow in our lives. 

Second, exercise a little good and disciplined sense in your online social media comings and goings. Specifically, start by taking a long hard look at the history of your tweets, Instagram photos, Facebook posts, and profile pictures. What do they promote? Seriously. What kind of care have you taken as you choose your images and words? What kind of criteria made those images and words "post-worthy" for you? What are you doing in your photos?  

Self-examination is a good thing. Then, just before you hit "send," "post," or "reply," pause and ask yourself these questions. . . 
  • Does this matter?
  • Is this useful to others?
  • What is this photo advancing?
  • What do these words advance?
  • Does this promote and reflect Kingdom of God living?
  • Does this promote or reflect the advancement of myself, the world, the flesh, or the devil?
  • Does this glorify God?
  • Does this glorify me?
  • Come on. . . why am I doing this? . . . . really.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sexual Abuse Dynamics, Youth Ministry, And Discovering The Truth. . . .

A few weeks ago I was walking through the hallway at a youth ministry conference when I spotted a local church youth pastor who is a long-time friend in the distance. I greeted him with a hearty "Hey Mike! How are you doing?!?" With a deer-in-headlights expression that indicated Mike was there. . .  but not there. . .  he looked back at me and hestitatingly answered, "Uhhh . . . . I'm OK."

Knowing something somewhere in his life was amiss, I asked him what was up.

Mike proceeded to tell an all-too-common-these-days story that had unfolded over the course of the few days prior to our standing thee face-to-face. A young teenage girl in his youth group had pulled back the curtain and taken the very brave, courageous, and frightening step of telling a peer that she was being sexually abused by an adult. Mike's story intensified when he told me that the abuser was not only the father of the teenage girl, but one of Mike's long-time youth ministry volunteer leaders. If that's not bad enough, the abuse was perpetrated on another of the man's teenage daughters as well. The man admitted everything.

Once again, a bomb had been carefully constructed over a long, long period of time. A perpetrator groomed and violated victims. Now, the bomb had detonated publicly and the smoke and shrapnel was covering a wounded family, a wounded youth ministry, and a wounded church. . . . and that's just the beginning of the story and its' damage, we can be sure.

We're hearing and seeing this same ugly story work itself out in a variety of nuanced yet similar ways all over our culture, our churches, and our youth ministry world. It is epidemic. And, what was once kept silent (wrongly and regrettably) is now bursting out into the open, leaving all of us with the responsibility to understand sexual abuse and the common threads that are emerging in so many of the stories.

Last week, one of those dynamics took center stage when The Today Show's Matt Lauer sat down for an interview with the wife of convicted abuser, Jerry Sandusky. What struck me most about the interview was how we want to believe the best about those we know and love. We're all that way, aren't we? In fact, even in spite of convincing evidence, spouses, family members, and close friends of perpetrators refuse to believe that the person could have ever or did ever do such a thing. Dottie Sandusky certainly falls into that category. In fact, there are cases where even family and friends who witness a perpetrator's first-hand confession of guilt still refuse to accept the facts.

I was reminded of this again this morning when I read a compelling op-ed in our local paper on how perpetrators manipulate and groom not only their young victims, but their family members and friends as well. Written by Angela Trout, and advocacy coordinator at the Lancaster YWCA, the op-ed piece is titled, "Dottie Sandusky Was Also Groomed." It's powerful and worth five minutes of your time.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sunsets, Car Motors, and Yes. . . The Rectum. . .

Where are the places in life that you go to see the Glory of God? Over the years, I've been blessed to learn that the arena of God's Glory is far more extensive than I once thought, imagined, or knew. The fingerprint of God is literally everywhere.

Ironically, it was in the place where I thought God's Glory existed most clearly that I learned that I needed to look elsewhere. It was 1982 and I was attending my first chapel service as a new student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. After all, doesn't God live most clearly within the walls of our worship spaces? We stood to sing a hymn I had never sung before. . . and as some of the most enthusiastic singing I had ever heard echoed through the room, I realized that we were singing truths about things that existed beyond the confines of those walls and to the very ends of the earth. It was as if scales were falling from my eyes.

We were singing the hymn "Earth and All Stars." The lyrics point to the fact that it is not only what God has created, but what we create as we image Him that screams "Glory to God!" Consider these lyrics. . .

Earth and all stars, loud rushing planets,
sing to the Lord a new song!
O victory, loud shouting army,
sing to the Lord a new song!

He has done marvelous things.
I, too, will praise him with a new song!

Hail, wind, and rain, loud blowing snowstorms,
sing to the Lord a new song!
Flowers and trees, loud rustling leaves,
sing to the Lord a new song!

Trumpet and pipes, loud clashing cymbals,
sing to the Lord a new song!
Harp, lute, and lyre, loud humming cellos,
sing to the Lord a new song!

Engines and steel, loud pounding hammers,
sing to the Lord a new song!
Limestone and beams, loud building workers,
sing to the Lord a new song!

Classrooms and labs, loud boiling test tubes,
sing to the Lord a new song!
Athlete and band, loud cheering people,
sing to the Lord a new song!

Knowledge and truth, loud sounding wisdom,
sing to the Lord a new song!
Daughter and son, loud praying members,
sing to the Lord a new song! 

Since then, I've worked hard to be mindful of seeing God's Glory wherever it may exist. Of course, I see it in sunsets. . . particularly at the lake. I see it in a clump of trees that I've come to stare at and watch grow. When I make my annual pilgrimage to the local classic car show, I see God's Glory imaged in what those created in His image have done with raw materials that combine in amazing engines that sit under hoods and the beautiful lines on the cars themselves. I've seen His Glory when a wide receiver jumps higher than I could ever hope to jump then twists his body in unimaginable ways before making an amazing catch. The list goes on.

And then this weekend I added something else to my list. I was driving south on Interstate 95 and tuned in to NPR's Terry Gross and an interview with Mary Roach, the author of the book Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.  I happened to tune in to the latter part of the interview. . . right at the time they were talking about the rectum. . . . which, by the way, is something that most of us think we should never talk about. It was absolutely fascinating and I couldn't stop listening. Later, I went online and listened to the complete interview. . . which started with a discussion of saliva. . . another thing that we never really talk about. . . or at least think we shouldn't. The conversation offered a fascinating peek into the complexity with which we've been made. Not only are we complex, but it works.

All I could think to say when the interview was over was "Glory to God." He has done marvelous things!

Where do you see His Glory?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Hey Tyrone. . . For The Sake of Art. . . .

This last weekend it was once again my privilege to spend several hours pouring into the lives of youth workers at the Simply Youth Ministry Conference. As always, I did an eight-hour intensive on "Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture," where I lay out what I hope and trust is a biblically-faithful theology of faith and culture.

After finishing up on Sunday afternoon, I was approached by Tyrone, a 23-year-old junior at Nyack College who hails from New York City. Tyrone was mulling over what we had discussed in the class and wondered how he could apply his faith to what he sees as his calling. . . to work in the world of art, particularly in the arenas of film and fashion.

Tyrone and I sat together for awhile to talk about his hopes, his dreams, and his aspirations. . . along with the fact that God does indeed have something to say about Tyrone's endeavors. Tyrone is pursing things that matter and that matter deeply. He knows that the worlds of art, film, and fashion typically work themselves out in ways that remain faithful to our culture's most cherished values and stories. Sadly, those values and stories result in things not being the way they are supposed to be. Tyrone, in a very wonderful way, longs for something better.

I told Tyrone that when I got home I would pass on a list of books and resources that I know would serve him well as he endeavors to live out his faith in his unique calling. The good news is that there are many deeply committed Christians who have endeavored to embrace art, film, and fashion to the glory of God. So Tyrone (and anyone else willing to read a few good things), here's a little list to get you started. . .

Steve Turner has written a couple of books that are really, really helpful. His book, Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, will get you thinking about the fact that Jesus is the Lord of all of life. . . including art, film, and fashion! Turner believes that creativity is essential. . . it is what God wants. But God wants us to embrace a vision for excellence in the arts. Turner lays out a vision for the arts that will help you see there is lots of art being created by Christians that just flat-out bad, and lots of art being created by non-Christians that is off-the-charts good. Turner's latest book, Popcultured: Thinking Christianly About Style, Media, and Entertainment, is one that I'm recommending wherever I go. It's a book for both consumers and creators of art, film, and fashion.

Of course, like most people I know who have a good view of faith and culture, Turner was influenced by Francis Schaeffer. I love Schaeffer's little booklet, Art and the Bible. It is clear, concise, and convicting.

On the general subject of art, our friend Ned Bustard has published a helpful collection of essays, It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. These essays from folks with last names like Keller, Edgar, Peacock, and Fujimura explore what it means to make art from the unique perspective of a believer in Christ.

Tyrone, I would be remiss if I didn't mention another good book on how we image God through our creativity. Andy Crouch's Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling will serve you well as a foundation for understanding how you've been made, the creative gifts you've been given, and how to use those gifts to "make" to the glory of God.

Since you've expressed a special interest in film - and there are loads of good books on Christians and film that are out there right now - I want to tell you about two of my favorites. First is William Romanowski's Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture.  This book has served me well over the years. It's about so much more than just film. It's also a book that I've required students at all levels to read in just about every class I teach. For a book specifically on film, I recommend Brian Godawa's Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom and Discernment. It's been re-released recently in an updated and expanded version. Godowa is himself a film-maker. One of the most valuable aspects of this book is its treatment of violence, sex, and profanity in film. Read it and you'll see exactly what I mean.

Finally, I need to tell you about a ministry that does some amazing cultural analysis, much of it on contemporary film. My friend Denis Haack runs Ransom Fellowship, and his Critique  magazine is well-worth your time.

Thanks for inviting me into this journey with you Tyrone! It's going to be fun to see how almighty God helps you matter in a world of matters that really do matter.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Oscars, Youth Culture, and Film. . . .

With the Oscars airing earlier this week, I've been thinking quite a bit about film. . . its power, its role in our culture, and the way it has influenced my life. As a youth culture watcher, I’ve developed a special place in my heart for movies. French film director Jean-Luc Godard once said that "a film is the world in an hour and a half."

Like all cultural artifacts, films serve us as maps and mirrors. As maps, they direct our thinking and doing. As mirrors, they tells us what we value in terms of our thinking and doing. In his book Visions of Vocation, Steve Garber quotes William Barrett from Barrett's book, Irrational Man. Barrett writes, "Every age projects its own image of man into its art. . . . Whenever a civilization has live in terms of a certain image of man, we can see this image in its art."

Garber also reflects on the words of Donald Drew, a Christian who thought deeply about film.  Garber says of Drew, "Taking off from Descartes's 'I think, therefore I am,' Drew maintained that films are cinematic images of the human condition, windows into diverse understandings of what it is that makes us human. I play, therefore I am. I work, therefore I am. I copulate, therefore I am. With unusual insight he suggested that movies, like every art form, both reflect and promote certain visions fo the way life is and ought to be. They can never be neutral. Someone is always communicating something - and not always because its creator is intentionally making a statement, but more so because the dynamic of reflect and promote is implicit in the act of creation itself."

For those of us who need to keep developing our knowledge of the culture, world, and spirit of kids, movies offer a great window into that culture, world, and spirit. Over the years, there are five films that have come to sit at the top of my list in terms of films that give clear visions of contemporary images of youth. Here's what sits at the top of my list. . .

1. The Breakfast Club – It’s been almost 30 years since this John Hughes classic hit theaters and it still captures the hopes, dreams, angst, ups, downs, and dynamics of adolescence in captivating ways. I’ve watched it so many times that cuing it up is like walking through the door to visit a group of friends. No other film has done a better job deepening my sensitivity to kids who face difficult issues. Sure, it’s a film filled with stereotypes. My favorite scene? When Judd Nelson’s John Bender pours his heart out about his family. Wow. I always walk away from this one with a better sense of why I’m called to youth ministry.

2. Little Miss Sunshine – How can you not like a film starring a little Abigail Breslin?!? This one takes us deep into the brokenness of the human condition, while showing us that even in the midst of our brokenness, there can still be hope. I love the social commentary on our cultural obsession with body image, along with the snarky peek into the creepy world of child beauty pageants. Teenager Dwayne deserves our attention in this one. Pay special attention when Dwayne breaks his vow of silence and spills his heart. We all know kids who feel like this. Very moving!

3. Good Will Hunting – Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, this movie is at one level about growing up in Boston’s South End. It captures the “Southie” culture with great accuracy (yep, lots of profanity). But it’s also about Will Hunting’s discovery of his gifts and emotions. This film’s a favorite because it helped me begin to understand the horrible legacy left by abuse. Most gut-wrenching scene? When Robin Williams’ character Sean Maguire gets Damon’s Will Hunting locked in that freedom-giving embrace. Pass the Kleenex, please.

4. Thirteen – This film is especially powerful as it was co-written by Catherine Hardwicke and Nikki Reed. Hardwicke entered into Reed’s life as a mentor as the thirteen-year-old Reed struggled to navigate her transition into adolescence. The two wrote the film based on those real-life experiences. It’s not pretty. This film takes us into a world none of us ever want to see, but must see. All the pressures, social problems, and family issues of today’s teenage world are explored. Be forewarned. . . there is one scene of female nudity in this film. But for those who understand film, it’s not nudity of the gratuitous type. This film deepened my compassion for lost and hurting kids.

5. American Teen – Filmed in Warsaw, Indiana, this documentary follows several students through their last year of high school. Released in 2008, this modern-day real-life Breakfast Club offers a compelling peek into the social and family interactions of today’s teens. Sure, the kids knew the cameras were rolling, but there’s enough here to open your eyes to things like family pressure, academic pressure, sexting, the party culture, the role of sports in teen life, and more. Because I tend to root for the underdog, I loved getting to know self-proclaimed nerd Jake Tusing, and the free-spirited Hannah Bailey. This is a film worth watching with parents and your youth ministry team.

That's my list. What  films are on your list?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Most Interesting Man Alive? . . .

Yesterday I was asked my favorite question. . . twice. "What are you reading?" I love that question for the simple reason that it tells me that the asker is inquisitive, teachable, primed for growth, and serious about life. It's especially joy-inducing when it's asked by a youth worker, which was the case both times yesterday. That, to me, is a sign of hope in our youth ministry world.

I believe that reading can challenge and change us for the good like no other input method. Of course, you have to choose good books. Mortimer Adler once said, "In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you."

Right now, I'm reading one of those good books. It's a book that's doing more than just "getting through." It's piercing, in fact. The book is the newly released, Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, by my friend Steve Garber. Be forewarned: it's a slow read in the sense that you must take it slow if you are going to ponder and absorb the richness of each paragraph and page. Those of you who know Steve would expect nothing less.

Let me tell you something about Steve. If I had to name my "Dos Equis guy". . . you know, "the most interesting man alive" . . . Steve would certainly be a finalist. Perhaps you've heard me talk about meeting Steve when I was a Freshman at Geneva College back in 1974. I was more interested in enjoying life than in any kind of academic pursuit (and uniquely gifted to do so). Steve was an upperclassman who co-lead my Humanities (History of Western Civilization) discussion group, a class which wavered between headache and necessary evil for nearly all of us freshmen. I remember two things about Steve. . . he was incredibly passionate and invested in intellectual pursuits, and he was incredibly thoughtful. He knew that our Humanities class mattered. At the time, I didn't. Now, I do.

Steve had wandered around a bit in search of life's meaning and truth (a very 60's and 70's thing), and had wound up for a time at Francis Schaeffer's L'abri, an experience which if it appears on one's resume, makes me want to listen. Today, Steve is the principal of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, & Culture, which is focused on the meaning of vocation and the common good. He's a man who advises and mentors all kinds of interesting people who are movers and shakers in the worlds of politics, business, and entertainment. I would liken him to a sage. You would know many of their names. Steve helps them, and us, see that we are each responsible, for love's sake, for the way the world is and the way the world ought to be. "We are called," he writes, "to be common grace for the common good. . . . To learn to see - to see ourselves implicated in history, to see that we share a common vocations to care not only for our own flourishing, but for the flourishing of the world - is the vision that has brought this book into being." Steve is someone who reminds us that all work and play matters, and it matters how we do our work and play.

I'm about halfway through Visions of Vocation. I'm reading it as one who battles all the distracting messages flying at me from every direction that work to convince me about what really matters. All of us, including our kids, battle the same thing. This book is serving to quiet that multitude of screaming voices so that I might focus in on the One voice that helps me see and live the things that really matter. For that reason, I'm not waiting to say, "Get this book and read it. Learn it. Live it. Teach it to the next generation."

Friday, February 21, 2014

Steven Furtick, Elevation Church, and Some Words of Caution. . .

In recent days, I've been seeing a growing number of Facebook posts among my Christian friends that question some of the practices of Steven Furtick and his Elevation (mega) Church in North Carolina. Admittedly, I know very little about Furtick and his church. But what I've heard, seen, and been reading has pushed some buttons for me and sparked some thoughts.

What I've seen includes a news report on Furtick, Elevation Church, and the way that baptisms are conducted. . . or even manipulated. As someone from a confessional church background, I'm always concerned about the dumbing down of the sacraments and how quickly we fail to provide adequate education, physical context for their enactment (in the larger body of Christ), and follow-up. Watching the news report (see below) and reading the accompanying written news story (picking the energetic young people to be first to go on stage. . . oh my!) on Elevation Church and baptism certainly raises those issues for me.

But there are other issues and thoughts that the report sparked for me. Then, I saw the posts on the Elevation Church coloring book for the kids. . . and felt even more uneasy and troubled.

Again, I don't know the entire story here, but what I'm seeing and hearing should, I believe, cause us all to step back with concern and take a long, hard, careful look at what we believe, how we do things, and who we are as the church. You see, there is a tendency among us to go beyond communicating an offensive Gospel to the world, to actually being legitimately offensive to the world by portraying a tweaked or even false Gospel. We can cross the line from being "fools for Christ" to actually being fooled and foolish. So, here are some initial thoughts about all of us and how we do things in the church today. . .

  • We can easily cross over into relying on the spirit of the times, rather than on the Holy Spirit when it comes to our communication of the Gospel. The spirit of the times is one that celebrates and relies on marketing technique. When we co-opt that into the church, we tend to trust in our methods rather than on our God. When that happens, we effectively lead people to technique and experience, rather than to Christ. The enemy has got to be loving this.
  • Our theology can easily morph into commandeering God, rather than faithfully following the God who leads us. When Steven Furtick counts to three. . . and when Steven Furtick then issues the imperative, "Do it God" . . . we should cringe. Perhaps there are aspects of our own practical theology that should be cringe-worthy as well?
  • Charismatic leaders can become bigger than life. . . in their own eyes and in the eyes of their followers. They can become so big, in fact, that they eclipse God. Never forget, our culture celebrates and encourages Narcissism. But doesn't the Gospel call us to something different? And isn't that something different actually the kind of fruit by which we will know them?
  • We need accountability. We need it ourselves. We need it in our systems. We need it in our churches. . . desperately. I hear lots of people criticize church government and denominationalism. But when those systems are working well, there is an accountability that keeps us all honest and out of trouble. Recently someone asked me why CPYU is a board-governed non-profit with a board that has full authority over me. There's good reason. I am a broken human being. I need to be held accountable, as does our organization. Sadly, I think that in the church we are quickly moving away from models that embrace and facilitate accountability, to something that looks and functions more like a dictatorship than the Body of Christ.
  • When we're part of a system or institution that gets called out, our tendency is to first become defensive, to then fire back with accusations of judgementalism, to justify and legitimize that which is critiqued by pointing to its effectiveness at getting results (even though those results may be questionable), and to further cloister one's self and one's institution from helpful critique and accountability. It's a kind of "How dare you! We're doing this in the name of Christ!" mentality. What this means is that those of us within the systems might be so blind that we should welcome "seeing-eye" brothers and sisters whose care and concern could rescue us from danger and doom.
  • We need to realize that just because something is being done in the name of Christ, doesn't mean that that something is bringing honor and glory to Christ. Yesterday I started reading my friend Steve Garber's new book, Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good. In the book's Introduction, Steve reminds us of what novelist Walker Percy once famously wrote: "Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition." In today's world, bad books almost always sell the best. . . . making them seem like good books. Well, the same could be said, I fear, of bad churches. . . they always lie. . . and one of the things they lie about the most is the human condition. Is it possible that a bad church could be one that sells the best? A good church will preach a deep and abiding sense of human brokenness. A good church will answer that brokenness with the Gospel. . . . communicated through carefully evaluated methodologies that never muddy the message, send the wrong message, or become ends in and of themselves. 
  • There's not one of us who isn't immune from sliding away from doing and being our best, into doing and being something much less than our best. Some of the best conversations of my life have been the most uncomfortable. They've occurred when I've been in the midst of doing what I believe are good things that others I trust somehow correctly see as things that maybe I shouldn't be doing. They will lovingly call me out with words like "That's not you at your best, Walt" or "That doesn't put you and God in the best light" or "Have you thought about what you're really doing and communicating here?" None of us are immune. That's another reason for accountability.
It will be interesting to see how we offer and take constructive criticism. For the church to advance in faithfulness to God, we have to willingly seek out and do both. 

In my quest to understand where those who share my German heritage went wrong, I ran across a horrifying and eye-opening quote from Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels: "This is the secret of propaganda: Those who are to be persuaded by it should be completely immersed in the ideas of the propaganda, without even noticing that they are being immersed in it." Hmmmmm.

All the chatter about Steven Furtick and Elevation Church is worthy of our time and attention. But let's not stop at our critique of Furtick and Elevation. We need to step out of ourselves and look at ourselves under the same light. What kind of "propaganda" are we swimming in that we don't even notice. . . but should?