Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Structured Path

For many years I have tried to do something (or as the case may be, refrain from doing something) for Lent. In the church tradition in which I grew up, it was common to “give up something for Lent.” For kids, that meant things like chocolate, swearing, hitting your brother, or in my case, hitting my brother with chocolate while swearing. I didn’t think much about the deeper meaning behind it all.

In my adult years I have developed a renewed appreciation for this annual rhythm of consecrating a specific period of time to God marked by simplification and sacrifice. In our non-liturgical tradition we don’t formally mark this period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, but individual Christians often undertake rituals and practices on their own.

Lent is technically forty-six days, but the six Sundays are not counted because they are seen as “mini-Easters.” The number forty is significant because Jesus retreated into the desert, fasted forty days, and was tempted by the devil in preparation for his public ministry. It has also been a traditional belief that Jesus lay forty hours in the tomb before being raised from the dead.

Within a few centuries the early church, especially in Jerusalem, guided prospective converts to Christianity through a strict period of instruction and discipline prior to their baptism on Easter Eve (thus, their first participation in the Lord’s Supper was on Easter). Sometimes Easter Sunday was preceded by forty hours of fasting. Since Jesus quoted scripture to Satan in the wilderness, memorizing scripture and focused scripture reading have also been important components of Lenten observance.

This season of Lent has been a special one for me because I was more ambitious than in previous years. I was reflecting on this recently as I listened to a group of Christians express their desire to read the Bible more, pray more regularly, and develop a closer walk with Christ. It occurred to me that what many Christians are looking for is a structured path. I yearn for that too, and will miss it when I finish the forty days of Lent. There is something empowering and, yes, liberating about having a curriculum, if you will, of disciplines and practices to follow. Can its overzealous use become a legalistic straitjacket? Of course, but any good thing can be abused.

I think, for instance, of the phenomenal success of the ministry of Bible Study Fellowship International. BSF sponsors a curriculum in which participants read prescribed scriptures and study notes daily, answer reflection questions, and then meet for a group lecture and discussion. It is very structured and the accountability is high.

In a perfect world, perhaps, all Christians would be motivated and self-disciplined enough to read, study the Bible, and draw closer to God on their own. But the reality is that we often need structured practices which provide a path for us, people with whom to walk the path, and liturgical traditions which give us a historical connection to those who walked with the path before us.

I sense a hunger among more and more Christians for rigorous practices which call us beyond the world’s superficiality into the great riches of life with God through Jesus Christ. I am eager to embrace this.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


This past Sunday afternoon, while Angela and Alex were at the Rodeo and Morgan was tied down with homework I slipped out to the cineplex to see a matinee showing of “Taken.” I figured that with only two movie times per day it was about to leave the theater. But I was surprised to see a robust crowd standing in line to buy tickets for it. I was even more surprised to see how many teenage-girls-in-pairs (this is a social category in itself) were there. This is, after all, a fairly violent “action” movie.

But of course it all made sense. The movie is about a 17-year old girl who is kidnapped while in Paris for the summer. Her father, played by Liam Neeson with steely intensity, missed much of his only child’s upbringing and lost his marriage while serving overseas in the CIA. Now he is retired and living near his daughter to make up for lost time. She is the primary focus of his life. She is the apple of his eye. She is his sweetheart. She is everything else to him that these vicious kidnappers should have realized before they snatched her God-help-‘em. And they are not even demanding a ransom, which her rich stepfather could easily have paid. They have more sordid plans in mind. This makes Neeson unhappy, v-e-r-y unhappy. As he tells them on the phone, “I have spent my career developing a very particular set of skills. I will hunt you down and I will find you.” When he said this I was so scared I shut off my Blackberry like the pre-movie announcement had told me to. But alas, the kidnappers don’t quite get who they’re dealing with, and Neeson must spend the rest of the movie putting these skills to ruthless use. [Rumors that the French government tried to surrender to Neeson during the film’s shooting are unfounded.]

John Eldredge declares in his book, Wild at Heart, that what every boy needs to hear from his father is, “You have what it takes,” and what every daughter needs to hear from her father is, “You are worth fighting for.” Every teenage girl in that theater saw a depiction on film of a father fighting, in this case literally, for his daughter’s life. Few or none of them will ever need their dad to go to the lengths Neeson’s character did to rescue his daughter, but they probably all fantasize about their dad rescuing them from distress in some way because he loves them so dearly. One of my daughter’s friends has seen this movie FIVE times.

As Dr. Meg Meeker notes in her outstanding book, Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: Ten Secrets Every Father Should Know, fathers more than anyone else set the course for a daughter’s life. “If you fully understood just how profoundly you can influence your daughter’s life, you would be terrified, overwhelmed, or both,” Meeker says.

Men like this movie because many fathers likewise fantasize about rescuing our families in some way, and of course because we envy Neeson’s, ahem, Jason-Bourne-like hand-to-hand skills, which he uses only for righteous purposes, of course.

So I was happy for these teenage girls as they left the theater smiling and talking excitedly about what they had seen. And I was a little worried for them as well. I hoped that they couldn’t wait to tell their dads about the movie. And I hoped they had dads whom they knew would fight for them.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

No Substitute

The Christian Chronicle has run a series of articles in recent months addressing the relative decline in the Churches of Christ in the last three decades. The series has been thoughtful and thought-provoking. This month the editorial in particular captured my attention, titled “Decline demands biblical preaching.” An excerpt:

“The profound power of effective biblical preaching on hearts and minds must not be overlooked (in reversing the decline). We speak not just of skillful public speaking and dynamic presentations, though these factors are not to be disparaged. We speak of sermons that are deeply rooted in the Word of God and are carefully unfolded to reveal the essence of God’s Word. We are talking about sermons that arise from hours of careful study and a deep understanding of God’s will. Plenty of visitor parking, strategically placed greeters and good signage are all part of getting people from the car to the pew, but it takes the Word of God to move people from doubt to faith, from outside the kingdom to inside the kingdom.”

As a preacher I accept this challenge and heartily affirm its importance. I am grateful that our elders have given me a job description which allows me to devote the hours of study and preparation necessary to dig deeply into God’s Word to bring weekly messages. If I am not doing that, I have no excuses.

The Chronicle essay coincided with a recent article in Slate by Andrew Santella (“The Church Search: Why American churchgoers like to shop around”), which suggested that people are looking for substance more than for style. To wit,

“When the Barna Group studied what believers look for in a new church, doctrine and belief ranked at the top of the list of the most important factors, while more mundane or aesthetic concerns (music, parking, comfortable seating) were less important.”

When I had a 3-month sabbatical while preaching in Los Angeles in 2002, my family and I visited eleven churches in thirteen weeks. This was our singular impression: The preaching was usually topical and often superficial. It was style over substance, sizzle over steak. There was usually wonderful music and/or singing, warm hospitality, great parking and greeter efforts, but little of God’s Word. It was like sitting down to a steak dinner and everything was great but the steak.

II Timothy 3:16 declares that “All scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone belonging to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” There is simply no substitute for the Scriptures for feeding our souls, sharpening our minds, filling our hearts, and strengthening our wills. As the great evangelical scholar John Stott puts it, “The Word of God grows people.” It is as simple as that.

Recently a woman shared with me that she had bought a new Bible and had committed to immerse herself regularly in God’s Word. We prayed about this and literally prayed over her Bible that God would bless this effort. What an adventure lies ahead for her! What growth she will experience! There is no substitute in the Christian life for regular feeding from God’s Word. How is your spiritual diet?