We, Icarus

rubensfall-of-icarus-1637-grangerI assigned Ecclesiastes 1 to my Christian Learning Center class for homework. We’re discussing the four fundamental questions that every worldview must answer (Origin, Meaning, Morality, Destiny – thank you, Ravi Zacharias), and I thought Ecclesiastes would be a great place for us to begin on the Meaning question. They read it, and as we discussed it this morning, one of my students pointed out the last verse:

For with wisdom is much sorrow;
as knowledge increases, grief increases.

The student pointed out that when we’re young, we get to see the world through a limited lens, and thus we’re shielded from some of the great tragedy this is human existence. To wit, she pointed out that when her grandmother died, she didn’t know enough about death to really be sad; so when her family made a trip up to Canada for the funeral, she was super excited about getting to travel and see her cousins. That sounds crude, but from a kid’s perspective, it makes perfect sense: when you don’t know what you don’t know, not knowing it doesn’t bother you.

But once you know…it changes everything.

I think Solomon’s point with the statement wasn’t so much an appeal to ignorance (which would’ve been ironic) but an understanding of the burden of knowledge. The more you know, the more you realize that knowledge alone doesn’t solve anything; it’s what you do with that knowledge that really matters. Knowledge = Responsibility. But in our modern world, we can see that even those actions aren’t enough – we know what causes many of our societies gravest ills, and yet we still fall into them time and time again. Education helps to a degree, but education isn’t enough. Behavioral modification works to a degree, but as anyone who’s studied the recidivism rates amongst addicts and certain classes of criminals can tell you, changing behavior isn’t always enough. Brilliant minds have suggested countless improvements to the human species, but the one thing they’ve never been able to change is the depravity of the human heart. Knowledge, action, human effort never has and never will release us from the sin that saturates our souls.

We’re sort of doomed to being Icarus.

That is, we would be if not for something else, something beyond knowledge to which we can appeal. Or, more accurately, to Whom we can appeal. Solomon knew this. Being the wisest man in the world does proffer some benefit. At the end of Ecclesiastes, after taking his reader on a walk through the sheer insufficiency of human effort to satisfy the human soul, Solomon comes back to the One that gives this life its meaning, the One through whom we “all live and move and have our being.”

In the end, Solomon says:

When all has been heard, my son, be warned: there is no end to the making of many books, and much study wearies the body. When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is: fear God and keep His commands, because this is for all humanity. For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil.

We cannot save ourselves. Our brightest minds, our grandest notions, our best ideas are limited in their power to affect the change needed within the human heart. It’s why we see people running from one fad to the next, from one fix to the next – nothing we can do in and of ourselves will ever release us from our condition. And if anyone was in position to know the exhaustive nature of human gifts, it was Solomon. Having seen and thought and tasted it all, he came back to the truth of his childhood:

Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.

Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Only God gives this life meaning. Not money, not power, not sex, not success, not any of the numerous vanities that Solomon and our human race have tried and found wanting. Only in God, only in His Son, Jesus Christ, do we find the fulfillment of our hearts.

Why Youth Need Apologetics

apologetics2Questions. Everyone from the smartest minds in the largest universities to the simplest minds in the smallest towns have them. But there may be no other group as predisposed to asking them than teenagers. It’s actually a great paradox how an age group generally regarded as self-conscious and peer-pressured can suddenly become animated askers of even the most embarrassing questions—if the answers they are getting and person they are asking seem to connect.

Particularly questions about God. Because while you may or may not believe it, they’re talking and thinking about God stuff an awful lot.

Perhaps one of the most thorough testaments to that truth is Kenda Creasy Dean’s book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. It’s a couple of years old now, but it’s still full of insight into the youth of our nation, and in particular, the youth or our churches. Based on the most intensive study to date on the religious positions of American teenagers, Dean’s book highlights the simple truth about teens and belief: they’re not against it. In fact, most teenagers have nothing against religion at all, and seem to actively embrace it as something good for their life.

But, as Dean points out, it’s what they’re embracing that is so startling. She writes that religious kids embrace a something that could best be defined as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a faith that teaches God’s will for your life is to feel good about yourself and do good to others. Beyond that, God is not too concerned about who you are or what you do.

Here are the five basic tenets of MTD, as outlined by Dean:

  1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

This is bittersweet information. On the one hand, it shows that kids are not resistant to the idea of faith or religion. On the other, it shows that what they are being exposed to is a deviant mish-mash of concepts from Christianity, culture, psychology, and other religions. With so many contributing factors to their definitions of what is right/wrong/good/bad, it’s no wonder so many of them have questions.

Dean’s insight into the culture of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is particularly of interest to me: of the many questions the students at my church ask, I would guess that a full 80% are weighted towards issues that collide with MTD theology. Indeed, if God really wants us to be good and do good, then why does He allow evil? Why didn’t He just make us love him? Why doesn’t He just show Himself and get everyone to fall in line?

Or, in my particular case, if God is so good why did He allow your daughter to die?

These are questions that most Christians either can’t or won’t answer, and as I’ve interacted with people in my Sunday school class, my neighborhood, even my former seminary buddies, I’m starting to lean more towards can’t. Part of it has to do with the fact that these questions on evil and suffering, on death and dying, on the human condition and existence, are deeper than many people feel comfortable going. To meditate on those types of things would be depressing, if not outright hurtful.

It also has to do with the fact that many adults are afraid of admitting that what answers they do have aren’t satisfying to them, much less to anyone else. There’s a cycle of silent desperation within some of our churches, where the sins and insecurities of the fathers are being passed on to the sons. And that is actually the issue writ large: most Christian adults practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism themselves. The kids are, as Dean argues so convincingly in her book, just following the lead of their elders.

The answer to all of this seems easy enough: just get the adults trained and interested in the Christian answers to these questions and the kids will follow. The reality is that most adults seem resistant to changing their thinking habits, so getting them to consider a completely different (even if more historic) theology isn’t likely. Heck, if adults struggle to break destructive thought patterns for habits they know are deadly (smoking, drinking, drug use, gambling, sex) how in the world can we expect them to utterly revise the belief system that currently allows them to cope with said patterns?

I fully appreciate that there are adults who change their behaviors, beliefs, and ultimately their lives, on a regular basis. I’m not saying it can’t be done. What I am suggesting is that such changes are difficult. Are they worth pursuing? Without question. Will they necessarily bring about the kind of sea-change we’re looking for in the lives of students? Not so much.

Perhaps, then, the answer lies in taking apologetics and Christian training straight to the kids themselves. There are certainly several talented speakers and organizations out there that are aiming to meet this need—Alex McFarland, Sean McDowell, the folks at Stand To Reason—but the gap is so significant that more must be done. The question becomes: what?

Perhaps the question should become: who?

And if that is the question, then the answer is simple: you.

Apologetics is, at its heart, a discussion on why Christianity is true. It can be deep and philosophical; it can be academic and evidentiary; it can even be relational and experiential. But apologetics is always, at its core, a personal dialog between interested parties. Sometimes that communication is between the believer and God, sometimes between a believer and friends. Why not, as a believer, bring that conversation to the students at your church? Why not sit down and talk about who God is, why that matters and how it impacts a person’s life.

If we don’t have these conversations because we’re fearful—of giving wrong answers, of accidentally turning someone off to the Gospel, of being perceived as a religious fanatic—then perhaps we should re-examine our own faith. In all honesty a faith that can’t be discussed or even scrutinized, a faith that has all the virility and strength of a hot-house flower, isn’t much of a faith at all. It’s a weak philosophy.

My experience has taught me that I don’t have all of the answers—there are things in my theology and understanding of God that require more study, more prayer, more thought—but I do have something even more important: an integrity in answering questions that speaks as loudly to the students as my words do. Or, as one student said, “You don’t shout at us because we don’t think the way you do. You’re actually kind of respectful, and that means a lot. And it makes me curious about what you believe.”

I’m not a Norm Geisler or Ravi Zacharias or William Lane Craig or Lee Strobel, but that doesn’t matter to the kids I teach. They don’t necessarily want an authority figure teaching them; they just want someone real. It takes courage to stand in front of forty teenagers and say, “Let ‘er rip.” It’s as draining as running a marathon and feels like it takes twice as long. And sometimes, you can’t get the answers out the way you want; sometimes words fail or you don’t really understand what a kid is driving at with a particular question.

But for a generation that is rapidly dissolving into a lukewarm pseudo-faith, there is no more important mission than to stand with humility and conviction and discuss the faith that you have based your life upon. There will be bumps and bruises, like when a kid scowls at your response or a few completely ignore you, but they are worth it.

Because, as Jesus said in Scripture, the kids are worth it. Let’s not hold them back.

Dear Graduate: Here’s Your Chance to Make a Movie

Usually, I use this forum as a way of expressing myself. Today, though brief, this post is to help out other people.

I formerly worked for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries as a writer and project manager, and one of the major projects in development during my time there was the ASK Curriculum, an apologetics curriculum for students. We were mainly in the preliminary stages of the project, so I didn’t have that much to do with it, but (as you can well imagine) it was a project about which I was extremely passionate.

Well, fast forward a year and change, and RZIM is on the verge of finishing this curriculum up and bringing it to the masses. Only, in order to get it completed, they need some help.

Tomorrow, RZIM will be filming the final video for the ASK material, and they need extras from the Atlanta area. All of the details can be found here, but for clarity’s sake, I’ll let you know they are looking for people, ages 18-30, who can be at Georgia Tech’s Global Learning Center tomorrow morning at 9:00. Filming will go until around lunchtime, though some extras might need to stay as late as 2:00. The ministry will provide breakfast, a box lunch, and a $20 Starbucks gift card to those who register online and show up for the filming.

For more information, or to register as an extra simply click on this link.

I’ll be there. Will you?

The Kind of Man I Want to Be

You get the metaphor.

I went to a Pastors Appreciation luncheon today, put on by WNIV 970 & 1400 here in Atlanta (and sponsored by their ownership group, Salem Communications). It was a nice affair, with plenty of things that people in the ministry like: food, coffee, and stuff – all free. I came home with a rather substantial sack full of goodies and a lot to think about.

Namely, what kind of a man do I want to be? And more specifically, what kind of pastor?

I’ve always taken for granted that being a pastor was as natural as breathing, if for no other reason than because I don’t know how to be anything else. Even when I was working in a “non-pastoral” role with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (whut-whut!), I still found myself performing pastoral functions like leading chapel and just checking in on my coworkers to see how they were doing. I just couldn’t live life any other way.

So when I think about going forward as a pastor, part of it feels like it should just be easy – that I’ll innately know which path to choose or which words to say or what messages to preach. But the truth of the matter is that there are some hard choices I have to make in order to be the best pastor I can.

I realized this while reading an interview with Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback mega-church in Southern California. Warren was talking about advice that he would give to young preachers, and he said something that really resonated with me: make sure your people know that sermons are meant to inspire them to do something (what Warren and his church call “do-able faith”).

I wrote it down like this:

Teachers impart knowledge; preachers inspire action.

I like that, especially as I go back and re-read the Gospels and look at the life of Jesus. He was deep but He always required his audiences to do something in response to what he said – either change their beliefs, their actions, their view of themselves, or their view of Him. He never left His hearers neutral; they either moved closer to Him or they moved farther away. People couldn’t help but act when Jesus spoke.

Can’t exactly say that about me. In fact, you’d say the opposite, because I kind of go out of my way to leave people alone. I don’t like ruffling feathers, I don’t like confrontation, and I don’t believe in saying things that hack people off just get a response out of them.

Honestly, I believe that if I can just come alongside people and show them the kind of person Christ has inspired me to be, then I’m doing what I’m supposed to. I learned that from Jesus too.

But at the same time, there’s something to be said about a man who can make people think. Who can inspire them to act. Who can use his words to cultivate in the hearts of others something genuine and good and powerful that leads to change (or, if you want to go all King James, repentance).

I came away from today’s luncheon wanting to be that kind of man. I want to inspire people to do, to act, to think, to feel. I want people to walk away from an encounter with me and have an impression left on their life. That sounds kind of vain when put that way, but it’s not meant to be.

And now that I’m sitting here typing, I can think of a better way to put it: I want the things I say to be as inspiring as the things I write. Granted not everything I write is inspirational, but I’ve gotten enough feedback from you, the audience, to know that what I write resonates with you in some way (enough to keep you coming back). I want that kind of resonance in all areas of my life.

But I don’t want it the cheap or easy way. I’m tired of the people who decide that the bully pulpit is the best way to communicate to others. I don’t believe that I have to bash anyone over the head with my faith in Christ, nor do I feel compelled to hold a figurative sword over anyone’s head and demand a response. I know that I want to do as Jesus did – preach the Word, be a light in the darkness, sound the message of the Kingdom of God, let people know what they must do in order to be saved…and patiently wait for those things to sink into the hearts of people so that they become sincere. There is no such thing as quick and easy faith in God. It’s a journey, for many a struggle, and it takes time, compassion, patience, consistency and love to yield anything that lasts.

That’s the kind of man I want to be: someone who inspires others, by my words and actions, to journey towards something that is both demanding and simple, something that is far beyond what most people assume or believe. I want to be the person of whom others say, “That’s the real deal there, dude.”

I’ve got a long way to go.

But then again, don’t we all?

**Don’t forget, you can also read this post at the new Jason Muses website, located here.**

Guest Post: Pregnancy, Pain And Hope

Not too far from my house, inside the city limits of Loganville, there’s a street that looks rather rundown. A mixture of houses and mobile homes line the sides of this street, and when you drive down it with someone who’s never seen it, you can almost feel the uncertainty that suddenly takes over. It’s only when you reach the end of Pecan Street that you’ll hear that first timer exhale, inhale and say something along the lines of, “Wow. I can’t believe people actually live down there. That’s scary.”

Scary. Uncertain. Uncomfortable. These are the words we reserve for the places we can’t bring ourselves to visit, those places where “normal” people just don’t go, places that frighten us into the belief that, since we can’t really affect change there, our presence isn’t required. Places light the Red Light District in Amsterdam. Or the slums of India. Or the home of a reformed prostitute looking for a new life for her and her child.

Naomi Zacharias McNeil* has made it her life’s mission to not only go into those places, but to bring them light and hope. Through the ministry of Wellspring International, a not-for-profit ministry that responds to the needs of women and children at risk, Naomi and her partners have changed countless lives in places where change was either thought impossible or of little consequence. A quick reading of the projects on the Wellspring website tells you that not only is change possible, it’s dramatic in its impact.

Naomi has chronicled her experiences with Wellspring in her first book, The Scent of Water: Grace for Every Kind of Broken (available for sale on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and CBD.com). Naomi’s distinctive voice combined with her own personal struggles have created a book that is at turns a heartbreaking and revelatory look at the damaged world we live in. Following on the heels of Mother’s Day, I thought it fitting to ask Naomi (who’s pregnant with her first child!) to share her observations on life and motherhood, brokenness and grace.

If you enjoy Naomi’s post, please consider purchasing her book or visiting the Wellspring donation page. Her work is well worth supporting with more than just words and affirmation.

*(In case you’re wondering, yes – Naomi’s dad is Ravi Zacharias. But Dr. Zacharias will tell you what Naomi is doing around the world is an original and unique ministry born of Naomi’s vision and determination.)

Naomi Zacharias McNeil

My husband and I were sitting around their table in Oxford, England, eating a home-cooked dinner with a couple who have become good friends in a short amount of time. We were sharing stories from childhood, and while many brought laughter, only one story brought tears to my eyes. Perhaps it is because I am pregnant and teary eyes have become more familiar; perhaps it is because it was such a good story. Likely it is both, and the heightened sense of emotions from my version of normal served to help me appreciate a fullness to this story.

Our friend is of full-blooded Italian heritage, born and bred in New Jersey. He has the fabulous last name and tell-tale northeast shore accent to clearly attest to both. When he was about 6 years old, he was in a neighborhood field playing soccer with boys much older, bigger, and more self-assured than he was. He tried his best to play, but their taunting soon ran him off the field- perhaps Forrest Gump style- and all the way home. His mother greeted him at the door, and as her little boy approached her with tears streaming down his cheeks, she asked what happened. “Those boys say I’m not tough enough,” he said with such a sincere sadness, trembling lip and insecure defeat it must have ripped at the core of her heart.

Placing one hand slowly on her hip, she leaned down so her face was an arm’s length from her son’s.  With her other hand, she tapped her chin and said softly but defiantly, “Hit me.” His eyes widened in objection and he shook his head, absolutely no. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll be fine, I promise. Just take a swing right here,” she encouraged, she insisted. After multiple objections, her son somewhat uncertainly tried out his little right hook. She drew her hand up to rub the reddening mark on her face gently, and with a beaming smile the Italian mama said, “You’re plenty tough enough, I know you are.  Go back out there and get in that game.”  And off he ran. He finished that soccer game with boys who were still older and bigger, but that was all they had on him.

The point of the story is obviously not to encourage any kind of violence, and must be appreciated in its context, in its culture, and exactly for what it is – a mother’s belief in her son and her willingness to incur her own bruise in order to demonstrate to him a strength she knew he carried within himself.

I am pregnant with my first child, a son. There are many ways to experience the miraculous in life, and this is a present one for me.  I marvel at what the human body has been created to do- how my baby tells me when he’s hungry, how I can make countless choices each day to provide for him before I meet him, how in this 7th month it has been explained to me that the dramatic increase in my discomfort is because the little one has received the chemical release that tells him to turn his body to prepare to enter the world; how the fact that I trip multiple times a day and have adopted a waddle I was sure I would not is because my ligaments have responded to his signal to give up their resistance, and so feel a bit more like spaghetti. All of these things are fantastically wonder-filled to me.

I haven’t met him. But I worry I will have passed on my least favorite feature to his perfect little form; whether he will like me; if I be able to soothe him when he cries; if he will be ADD in school; what I will say when he gets his heart broken for the first time; what it will feel like when I reach up on tip-toe to hug his neck; what I will do when he comes home and says the older boys said he can’t play their game.

What I do know is that I deeply want him and love him from a place so far inside I can’t point to it; that I would give any part of my body or heart to ensure his safety and happiness; that my life seems so purposeful when I eat or sleep or laugh; that we’ve had countless of conversations just between us while his little fists or tiny feet thump against my ribs and I tap back; that I hope he has his father’s perfection of face and gentle heart.

I know that new fears have introduced themselves into my heart, that my very job now seems loaded in a new way. My involvement and awareness of global pains has now heightened as I’ve got a new kind of fight, a new investment dramatically out of proportion to his three-pound weight.

I look at the overwhelming presence of billboards, commercials, images and dialogue that serve to objectify women and insidiously worm their way into the heart of men; and one day, into the heart of my son before he is even old enough to have any clue what it is they seek to compromise in him.

I know that he is entering a world where over 12 million people are currently in forced labor and forced prostitution through trafficking; where pornography is multi-billion dollar industry, and that the ticker on news channels streams consistently of another natural disaster, another civil war, terrorism, political wars, poverty, hunger, discrimination. I know that few of these things can be “fixed,” and those that can be restored take years, patience, prayer, and an act of faith and persistence. I also know every single one of those things is  worthy of all that and everything more.

Since I began working with Wellspring International to respond to the needs of women and children at risk, I have to be honest in saying that life has an ever-present sadness. Oddly, what was present before wasn’t really an every-present happiness, but it was a naivete that allowed for easier living I suppose. Easier, and emptier. Yet this sadness is at times a weight that feels like it gets the best of me some days, but one that refuses to settle at the ocean floor of my being. Instead, it’s like the pendulum of a clock that keeps me working and serves to fuel the passion and calling God has given to me. It is a determination, the inability to forget and go back to simple.

And now with the miracle of a new life, a life that is part who I am in every sense, and part my husband and therein ever present reminder of my greatest gift in my life, I have a new immense responsibility and desire to protect this little human from the world itself- a world I am compelled to participate in. I want to protect him from it; I am somewhat defeated in already knowing I cannot fully do so.

As we considered his name, his baby décor, our parenting style, whether or not we agree with controversial Baby-wise methods, our mission statement for our child is to, with God’s help, raise him in a way that will break our hearts anew by opening his eyes to the world before him and teaching him the discipline, values, and strength he must find to face it.

Some days my heart will beat tears of joy as he experiences treasures of beauty from a life that takes in all the wonders- an airplane flying overhead leaving a trail of white puffy clouds behind, his fascination rather than impatience at bustling activity around him, his delightful first taste of freakishly blue ice cream, belly-shaking joy at a silly face I can make that will make him laugh over and over and over again. As he grows older, it will be in helping him to be a good friend, to learn what to defend and when to lay down his fists for the numerous fights and heartaches life will send his way from Kindergarten, Junior High, and forever onward. It will be to help him discover who he is- his talents, his uniqueness, to recognize his God-given purpose that will be different to mine in so many ways, his need to own his mistakes but overcome them. His ability to see into a person- to learn what it is that defines character; not to necessarily surround himself with those who have never fallen, but those who learned the discipline of standing back up. To instill in him his sobering yet compelling opportunity as a man in his private and public life to demonstrate a longed for and needed healing respect,  protection, appreciation, and honor to women that has been lost and minimized, corrupted and excused by culture in its accepted perversions and epic global personifications. I want to try to show him what it means to love; the honor and challenge of compromising, yet not compromising yourself or an other. I pray we will show him how to look at a world far outside his own borders and experience, to participate in the injustice he sees regardless of whether he is its victim.

I say this with the beginnings of pangs of understanding- may he live a life, not that is easy or free of pain, but that is intentional, purposeful, that is full and introduces him to peace, grace, and wholeness- the wholeness of a humanity he is part of and of the Creator that brought him into being for a purpose greater than himself.

I will have opportunity, both seen and unseen, to point to my jaw and help him find his strength.  Sometimes it will bruise the outside, always and to varying degrees will it bruise the inside. For I will ache at what he must see and what is my calling to try to guide him through.

I am reminded of this every day when I sit at my desk or board a plane to a new destination. Staying informed through the articles I read, exposing myself to the conversations with victims of injustice and seeking to understand a horror-filled story, trying to raise support for legitimate and urgent needs that keep me awake at night, continuing to recognize the real-life examples of a powerful grace that can heal wounds and empower wounded individuals to keep walking. It has crossed my mind to back off of it, to fill my mind with more pleasant things. Work has not been easy of late- my mind, my body, and my heart are somewhat tired inside. His presence tempts me to justify a reason to stop.  But it also tells me why I cannot.

Yesterday was my first Mother’s Day. My husband gave me pink tulips, my son woke me up with a few treasured thumps in my belly. And I am aware he is already teaching me. He gives me another reason not to give up. He furthers a conviction to try to participate in something that brings healing to the countless wounds found in life- because he remind me of life, of what makes it matter, of why I agreed to venture from the safety of my mind to publication and the scrutiny of reviews, and of a world in which I long to contribute something meaningful and good.

Because, in my ever so small capacity, I want to try to introduce that healing and remarkable all-sufficient grace I know can be found; that I have experienced and witnessed through stories with happy endings we long to hear and in those with different kinds of endings- but equally powerful stories that we need to hear.

Because I want to learn the meaning and living of the very things I want to teach my son.

And because I think that doing so is one of the universally -shared callings in all of our God-scripted stories.