Friday, February 19, 2010

The Snow-cinnati Winter of 2010

It has been quite the winter here in the Cincinnati area.  I have always said that if we have to do Winter then lets get a couple of feet of snow and have some fun with it instead of a cold, drizzly gray Winter which causes everyone to just stay inside. Well apparently Mr. Freeze Miser heard me!  We have been buried in snow over the past couple of weeks.  Many snow days have ensued.  I decided to revive one of my favorite things to do with snow since my Erie, PA days.  We never have gotten enough snow in Southern Ohio to do this until now! So as I shoveled out the drive way it was time to make an igloo with all this stuff.  At first I approached it the way I have in the past.  Make a giant pile, let it settle and then dig out the insides.  But Ben gave me a great idea.  He casually said to me it would be cool if we could make bricks. That sat on my mind for a night.  Then as I went out to shovel again I noticed my garbage cans and recycle container sitting on the curb empty.  (Which, I refuse to bring these back up to the house because this is the responsibility of the kids when they get off of the bus on Mondays.  If they forget, I barge into the house and shut down all entertainment devices until the job is complete.) As I thought about what Ben said, the Recycle Container was calling out to me.  It was the perfect size to make nice big bricks of snow.  So I tried one and it worked perfectly!  So we made the base and keeps adding layers.  Eventually it got tall enough that I needed a ladder to get the final layers added to the top.  I could not curve the top to make it a perfect snow fort.  So I grabed a tarp from the garage and draped it over.  It quite literally turned into the best snow fort the Russ family has ever made!  It topped anything ever even in the arctic tundra of Erie, PA.  Plus this will be the igloo that Ben will remember growing up!   

Book Review: The Unlikely Disciple

This was one very funny book!  But I need to preface that one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much is because I spent 2 years of my life at "America's Holiest University".  So I really enjoyed reading about Kevin Roose's experience at Liberty University because I could seriously relate to many of the things he observed.  And it was fun to read about his adventures and know about many of the things he refers to in connection with the campus, the faculty and the town of Lynchburg.

The premise of this book started when a college student at Brown University came across an interesting idea for a semester of studying abroad.  Instead of going to a school overseas like most of his classmates, what about attending a conservative Christian college that pretty much represents the opposite of everything he was brought up to believe?  How about immersing himself into a culture that seems so foreign to him yet it is just within driving distance from his own University? This was the challenge that Kevin Roose took on as he admitted himself to Jerry Falwell's college not knowing quite what to expect.  

     I especially find it fascinating that Roose's path was much different from mine that eventually led me to Liberty University but both he and I had similar conclusions.  The path that led me to Liberty is a long story. So the short story is that I lived 3 years of my college life on the wild side and I eventually burned out.  After dropping out of the University of Toledo, I headed back home, and over the course of the Summer I cleaned up my life and reconnected with God, and believed He was calling me into youth ministry.  At that point, I decided to call Liberty and see if I could attend as a Biblical Studies major.  I also was escaping the toxic environment that I got involved in at other colleges.  I wanted to be at a college, even if it was just for 2 years, were I would not be overwhelmed with temptation and it could provide some structure for me to make better decisions for myself. 

So, getting back to Roose's observation:

1.  The Students at Liberty

 The first one that jumped out at me was his general assessment of the students at Liberty.  He knew he had some preconceived stereotypes in his mind of crazy right-wing wacko evangelicals.  But as he experienced campus life for himself, he realized that this concept was far from the truth.  He states that: 

Liberty students are the friendliest college students I've ever met. They're much friendlier than the students at my old school. . . I had this secular/liberal paranoia that when evangelical students were among themselves, they spent their time huddled in dark rooms, organizing anti-abortion protests and plotting theocratic takeovers. But that's not true at all. (p. 38)

In many ways this was also my experience.  I had a lot of fun at Liberty and I really enjoyed the friendships that I made when I was there.  Although a majority of the students were great people who were enjoyable to know, there were also the fringe crazies just as Roose experienced.  I met people who saw the devil around every corner.  I met one guy who was so militant about his faith that his pet name for me was "liberal".  I was always amused by this because in North East Ohio I always considered myself somewhat conservative in my views, beliefs and politics.  But when I traveled into the South and landed in the buckle of the Bible Belt, I guess I was considered liberal by some! So be it.  I realized these terms became relative depending on where you live anyhow.  I also met a guy who passionately argued how Jesus never drank any alcohol; girls who were willing to admit that they only came for their "M-R-S" Degree; and others who told me that they had to come to Liberty because their parents would only let them come there.  There was also a surprising amount of fear perpetuated about homosexuality and feminism.  I never quite understood why Falwell would target certain people groups and vilify them.  This seemed to go contrary to my beliefs that we are supposed to be loving people and reaching out to them, not castigating them as the enemy to Christianity.  I didn't get this at all and it bothered me whenever I ran into this type of fear-mongering and stereotyping, especially when it was being perpetrated from the pulpit at Thomas Road Baptist Church or in the weekly chapel sessions that we had to attend.  

2. The Falwell Mania

     Roose does notice the insane level in which Jerry Falwell is hailed as the chief.  He points out that "Simply in quantity, the Jerrymania seems, if not idolatrous, at least a little North Korean." (p. 48).  I was at the school when George Bush 41 was in office and the first Gulf War was going on.  So Falwell was still quite an icon of the Conservative movement riding on the high of the Reagan years.  When I first arrived at Liberty it was kind of exciting to see Falwell for the first time but after hearing him a couple of times I had to admit, I was not impressed with his preaching skills.  In fact, many times he sounded like he was making a political speech rather than a sermon.  And he loved to draw those lines of "us-versus-them".  I feared that this trend of building up a mini-religious-political empire around one larger-than-life personality was kind of not what Jesus had in mind when he launched the church.  Plus I got really tired of the canned speeches that he would repetitively give over and over again if you spent more than a few months on campus.  

3.  Positive Atmosphere of the Students

But once again, Roose goes back to his experience with the majority of the students remarking that: 

All in all, the Liberty students I've met are a lot more socially adjusted than I expected. They're not rabid, frothing fundamentalists who spend their days sewing Hillary Clinton voodoo dolls and penning angry missives to the ACLU. Maybe I'm getting a skewed sample, but the ones I've met have been funny, articulate, and decidedly non-crazy. . . . But one thing has become clear: these Liberty students have no ulterior motive. They simply can't contain their love for God. They're happy to be believers, and they're telling the world.(p. 63-64).  

For me, living on campus at Liberty for 2 years did a lot of good for me.  This was the one school were I was able to make friends who really inspired me to grow in my faith and excel in becoming strong in my moral convictions and religious beliefs.  

4.  Creation (Pseudo?) Science

I found it fascinating that Roose experienced many of the same things that I was involved in during my years at Liberty.  He attended a Creation Science class and came out of that experience with a lot of skepticism and questions about their distortion of science to affirm their presuppositions. I am skeptical of any type of science that starts with the presuppositions and then forces science to fit into their model of reality.  Creationists are guilty of this as well as some Darwinists.  Besides, the Bible was not written to be a scientific text. My whole view of Genesis 1 changed quite a bit in seminary when one of my professors showed how the language followed the rules of poetry and that there were many similar "creations" stories among other beliefs that had similarities and differences with the Biblical story.  Forcing a literal, scientific interpretation forced the text to say things that it was not meant to say.  

5.  Scary Evangelism

Roose also talks about Scaremare which is the big haunted house, where, at the end, the participants are preached at to accept Jesus as their Savior.  I actually had fun being a part of the haunted house.  It was a blast.  But I was a little bothered that we shoved a salvation talk onto people when they exited the house and asked them to respond by raising their hands and then celebrate at the end of the night because apparently X-number of people prayed to receive Christ.  First of all, the method seemed deceptive to me.  Secondly, how do we really know who put their faith in God, really? We tell them to say a prayer and they don't have to fear death and hell and then no follow up after that.  Oh, we say that follow-up is important but it never happened.  And is this really the salvation as seen in the Bible?  The method just seemed messed up to me.  I thought we would do more for the community in just making a fun haunted house and let them know who is sponsoring it and invite them to join our community.  

6. The Rules!

   I also loved to see that the rules at Liberty are continuing to change since I have been there.  During my time there, popular culture was shunned.  We were "supposed" to not listen to secular music, and my first year there we were "supposed" to not see movies.  What really bothered me was that there was no process for discernment that was taught to critique art and culture.  If it is a film, then it is from Hollywood, therefore it must be evil and you should not support the industry by seeing movies.  If it is music that is not Christian then it is supporting an industry that is corrupting our youth and we should not support it with our finances therefore listening to secular music is bad.  But with the creation of the internet, it seems that Liberty has eased up on the strictness of the rules and has established trying to teach discernment.  As the students are exposed to popular culture they are able to critique it appropriately along with the Christian sub-culture that many times tries hard to imitate the culture rather that offer quality art that redeems culture.  Roose makes a point by noticing that "There's a process of discernment, of partaking in the secular world cautiously while keeping one eye on your soul." (p. 83).  I think this is great that the students are being encouraged to think for themselves to discern and critique culture rather than label it all as evil and retreat into their own Christian sub-culture.  

7. Ethics Really? 

Roose also took the same "ethics" class I had to take.  This was a required class just like the Creation Science class.  This class bothered me because it was all about how to come across as a conservative evangelical.  It was more about politics and stereotyping than about real Christian ethics.  Roose observed that "Liberty's true social code . . . has everything to do with being a social and religious conservative and not a whole lot to do with acting in any traditionally virtuous way." (p. 91). It's sad when you consider the wealth of good material out there that wrestles with ethics.

8. Eschatology that needs to be Left Behind!

I found it fascinating that Roose was, in the length of just one semester at Liberty, not just exposed to end-times views (eschatology), but he could also name it as 'pretribulationary dispensational premillennialism'!  I was glad to see that Roose broke this down to explain just how recent this view really has been in the span of church history and how it has become a phenomenon as a result of Tim LaHaye and the "Left Behind" series.  I personally believe that this is a toxic view of Revelation that helps to absolve Christians of any responsibility to God's creation and humanity.  It is a view of the end times that gives way too much power to fear and evil.  It is a view that ultimately surrenders and gives up our power until Christ returns.  And I think that LaHaye also took advantage of the culture of fear that was being perpetuated throughout the evangelical church about Y2K while he smiled all the way to the bank.   He fleeced the church by taking advantage of their fear.  But enough about LaHaye.   Roose makes an excellent observation with the end times views taught at Liberty in that the . . .

. . . Problem is, a lot of Christians who believe the world is headed for imminent destruction don't use their eschatology to motivate altruism.  Some, in fact, use their belief in the coming apocalypse to justify negligence and destruction. Critics of pretrib theology point out that rapture obsession can make Christians overlook glaring social needs in the present, like genocide, disease, and abject poverty. (p. 101)

This right there is a profound statement.  Roose nails it.  I believe that this is really shady eschatology that ultimately absolves us of any responsibility to this world right now and takes a very defeatist attitude.  We are mandated to care for the creation.  We are empowered by the Spirit to do the exact things that Christ Himself was able to do.  Problem is, we don't want to believe that.  We just want to retreat into our own little Christian sub-cultures and wait for Jesus to return.  

9. Real Teaching or just Indoctrination?

     After spending a couple of weeks in class, Roose makes the astute observation that "For more than thirty years, Liberty's operating mode has been primarily dogmatic. Here, knowledge is passed down from professor to pupil, variations in worldview are systematically stripped away, and faith is explained and reinforced, never questioned." (p. 134)
This is where I struggled at times while at Liberty.  This is what made me squirm in my seat and at times even take on the professors.  When I believed that I was just being indoctrinated without the opportunity to mentally wrestle with the views for myself or offer an alternative position I got irritated fast.  Now don't get me wrong, I know that a part of education in just about every field involves some "indoctrination".  But at a certain point one must be encouraged to think for themselves and wrestle with different views.  Instead at Liberty, often we would be told that this is the view we believe and this is why all the other views are wrong. 

10.  Beach Evangelism

Roose did the same thing that I did with one of my Spring Breaks.  I signed up for a beach evangelism trip down to Florida.  I actually had a lot of fun on this trip.  But I think that a lot of the fun had to do with my previous experiences with people in that it came fairly natural for me to talk to other college students about philosophy and faith issues.  I did not come at them awkwardly but just as a fellow college student.  So I had a lot of great conversations.  I was not intent on forcing the conversation so that I would "win someone to Christ".  I just liked to get people talking in order to hopefully get them to think about issues of faith.  But Roose's experience has proved that either it has become more awkward for Liberty students to relate or maybe people are not as open to conversation.  I think that the style of "cold turkey" evangelism is the least effective, if not damaging, style of evangelism.  But at Liberty this type of free thinking would be discouraged.  Roose concludes that:

Cold turkey evangelism provides the shortest, most noncommittal conversion offer of any Western religion - which, I suspect, is part of the appeal. . . . After all, if we get ten converts during this week - an optimistic number - and our false conversion numbers are consistent with the average, this group has spent a week's worth of twelve-hour days, thousands of dollars, and suffered massive amounts of emotional trauma for what? One more Christian? Two? There must be an easier way. (p. 160)

I couldn't agree more.  In my years doing youth ministry I did start out with doing "cold turkey evangelism" style trips.  But over the years I began to see the more positive effect on teenagers when we took a trip that gave them the opportunity to be a blessing to others through a variety of means: construction, food shelters, homeless shelters, community centers, etc.  In these settings they can get close and personal by assisting and helping people and sharing God's love through meeting them where they are at in their need.  This by far has had a greater impact on my teens knowing that they are changing and transforming their world.  Those who are more vocal about their faith have much better success while they are in the middle of caring for someone. 

11.  Extreme Conservatism is the Only Right Way! 

As I spent time at Liberty I began to notice that the concept of a Christian and a Conservative overlapped so much that the two became indistinguishable.  If you were conservative, then you were welcomed with open arms.  If you claimed to be a Christian then all the better.  Politically conservative people were often defended as people who could do no wrong. The scandal involving Oliver North broke out during my time down there and you would have though the Nazi's were going after Jesus.  Roose notices quite quickly that . . .

In Liberty's eyes, the ultra-conservative interpretation of scripture carries the same inerrancy as scripture itself, and if you don't buy it all - if you're a liberal or moderate Christian - you're somehow less than faithful. That sort of prix fixe theology, where Christianity comes loaded with a slate of political views, is a big part of the reason I've been hesitant to accept Liberty's evangelicalism. (p. 171)  

This really is a sad indictment against Liberty.  I am reminded of a passage in the Bible where Jesus blasts the Pharisees in stating that . . .

"The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them."  (Matthew 23:2-4)

This is the danger when we add baggage to following Christ.  We strip the Holy Spirit of any power to lead someone to their own conclusions by forcing everyone to agree with all your views upfront.  The disturbing issue is trying to determine if this is doing more damage by repelling people from the possibility of knowing Jesus because of their views of modern day Christians.  Are we doing more damage than good? Are we really approaching people in the same way that Jesus did?  Keep in mind it was the religious conservatives that got so mad at Jesus that they paid for his betrayal and insisted on his execution. 

12.  The Christian Sub-Culture meets the Real World

Here is the issue.  Many students at Liberty grew up in a Christian bubble.  They have gone to Christian schools (or were home schooled), grew up in the church and were raised by Christian parents.  Christianity is all they know.  The world out there seems dark and dangerous.  The problem is that at some point they are going to have to face that world and critique it according to what they have been taught.  Roose wrestles with his observations in that . . .

. . . what happens when a Liberty student's instilled values clash with his personal experiences? What happens when the moral system we're taught in our classes - a system in which everything is clear-cut, black or white, good or evil - comes into contact with the messy, complicated world? (p. 212)

There are only two options in my opinion.  They revert into a Christian sub-culture where they are safe within the confines of a system in which everyone they interact with seems to agree with everything they agree with.  Or secondly, their entire theological system comes crashing down when they finally come to the conclusion that life and faith are a whole lot messier than the idealized, sanitized views taught at Liberty.  

13. The Dating Scene!

It was funny for me to read Roose's experiences with dating at Liberty.  If there was one thing I enjoyed the most it was the dating scene. It was so different than my previous experiences at college but in a hugely positive way.   Rosse explains that . . .

having preordained physical boundaries takes a huge amount of pressure and anxiety our of the process. . . When dinner dates aren't just preludes to hooking up, you end up truly listening to each other. The conversation is the centerpiece, and what emerges is deeper and more intimate than in you had been spending your time trying to Don Juan your way into her bed. (p. 228)

Never in my life have I ever dated more girls more often than my first year at Liberty.  I had so much fun just getting to know so many other great girls through conversation and time spent with each other.  The irony for me was that in my two years there I dated more than I ever have but I never had any pressure to get physical.  There were no ulterior motives.  And it was very freeing just to be myself and get to know the person I was taking out.

Wrapping this up, I do have to say that Roose has a lot of great stories about dorm life, having the last interview with Jerry Falwell before his death, his "liberal" family's worries about him,  and his genuine impression of the school, the people, and the Christian faith.  There was a lot of humor and very wise insights of an outsider looking into the evangelical world.  Probably the most important concluding statement that Roose made was when he came out with the truth of who he really was to the friends he made during his semester at Liberty.  As he talked with one of the guys he states that "I wanted to tell him that his warmth toward me, and the warmth of my other Liberty friends had been a better apologetic device than all the Way of the Master routines and History of Life classes combined." (p. 313)

Imagine that! What if Christian colleges taught how to genuinely love others in the way that Christ exemplified instead of coming up with the next "program" to evangelize the world.  A heart of genuine love goes a lot farther than a program.  In fact, I am shocked that Liberty is still doing the exact same programs (Beach evangelism, Scaremare) that were popular when I was there.  

This was a fun book to read.  In fact, I would highly recommend it to anyone who would be considering going to Liberty.  You need to know what you are in for!  The fact is that we are called in the Sermon on the Mount to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5).  Receiving a Christian education is a great thing but if you can have an impact as a follower of Christ at a regular university than go for it.  I needed to go to Liberty for two years of my life.  It was mostly a positive experience.  But I also knew I was a stranger in a strange land with the religious culture at Liberty.  My faith holds both political parties in need of critique.  My faith transcends politics and sees the good and evil inherent in both parties.  My faith does not see politics as the means to achieve its goals but a transformed heart that loves people and serves others.  My faith does not see people as the enemy but instead the systems in place that hold people in slavery to ideas that strip them of their humanity.  My faith gives plenty of room for the Holy Spirit to be the force for change in a persons life rather than a strict religious system that offers plenty of guilt and shame if you step out of line.  My hope is that Liberty will change over time for the better with the leadership of the Falwell sons.  I hope that someday it will become a campus known more for its compassion and critical thinking instead of a school of ideology and indoctrination.  

 I highly recommend this book for a lot of laughs and some deep insights to the Christian education culture. I appreciated Roose's  open minded approach to this book.  If his approach would have been to scathingly attack Christians then I would not have been drawn to his book.  But he took an honest look as an outsider and found a lot of good as well as raising some key questions that I think many students have struggled with over the years as they attend Liberty.  My hope is that the relationships Roose has made with the students and faculty of Liberty will continue to inspire him to wrestle with his faith and connect with Christ.  This does not mean turn into a conservative evangelical!  It simply means to be a follower of Christ.   

Monday, February 15, 2010

Book Review: The Hole in Our Gospel

If I were to give an award for the best book I have read in the past year I would have to say that this one would definitely be it.  Everyone needs to read this.  Richard Sterns does a masterful job in critiquing the big mistake of the evangelical church in the late 20th century and how it needs to fix the issue. "The Hole in our Gospel" looks at the need for the church to open its eyes to social justice issues.  This is a huge issue that has be lost over the decades as the importance of personal evangelism seemed to be the driving force in the church.  In fact, in the opening prologue Stearns expresses his concern as he became more aware of the pandemic of AIDS in Africa in stating that:

. . . what sickened me most was this question: where was the Church? Indeed, where were the followers of Jesus Christ in the midst of perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time? . . . How have we missed it so tragically, when even rock stars and Hollywood actors seem to understand? (p. 10-11).

But let me back up and point out that this book is not an indictment against the church.  If anything, Stearns himself exposes his own failings as a Christ follower as he details just how he became the president of WorldVision.  It was not an easy road.  In fact he was doing just fine in the world of business when he got the call to come and head up WorldVision.  That call started a long process of wrestling with God and trying hard to say no despite God's constant pursuit.  In many ways it seemed quite similar to Moses arguing against God at the burning bush.  Eventually Stearns takes on the task of leading WorldVision, but it was his fighting against God that was refreshing to read. It was awesome to see this very human side of a man who had everything he could want with success and now God was calling on him to make a huge career change in a company that is far different than what he was used to.  I am very thankful to see this human side to Stearns and the outcome of finally caving in to God's calling on him.  

Stearns believes that the whole Gospel is not being fully implemented. There is a hole in the gospel.  It is not just about evangelism.  In fact, it is so much more than that.  Stearns claims that: 

Proclaiming the whole gospel, then, means much more than evangelism in the hopes that people will hear and respond to the good news of salvation by faith in Christ. It also encompasses tangible compassion for the sick and the poor, as well as biblical justice, efforts to right the wrongs that are so prevalent in our world. God is concerned about the spiritual, physical, and social dimensions of our being. This whole gospel is truly good news for the poor, and it is the foundation for a social revolution that has the power to change the world. And if this was Jesus' mission, it is also the mission of all who claim to follow Him. It is my mission, it is your mission, and it is the mission of the Church.(p. 22)

     Stearns goes on to elaborate on the concept of the whole gospel by looking at the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.  He notices that the difference between the two groups is that:

Christ's criterion for determining the authenticity of someone's profession to follow Him is whether of not he or she tangibly cared for those in need. And now we are told that when we do care for them, we are actually caring for Christ Himself - His identity merged with the least and the last. There is no 'whole gospel' without compassion and justice shown to the poor. It's that simple. (p. 60)

So all throughout the first section of the book, Stearns argues very passionately and convincingly that the whole gospel must include transformation on many different levels if we are to follow the example of Christ.  We are not just waiting around to go to heaven.  We are here to redeem humanity and the world through the power of Christ right now! In the present! Moving forward!  

     The next section in Stearns book focuses on the whole in our world.  In these chapters he lays our the truth about poverty today, in America and internationally.  He also points out how we have the ability to help on multiple levels but we choose not to.  He summerizes the problem by referring to the parable of the Good Samaritan by pointing out that:

Here is the bottom line: if we are aware of the suffering of our distant neighbors - and we are - if we have access to these neighbors, either personally or through aid organizations and charities - and we do - and if we have the ability to make a difference through programs and technologies that work - which is also the case - then we should no more tum our backs on these neighbors of ours than the priest and the Levite should have walked by the bleeding man. (p 104).

On many, many levels we as a church are able to help but we choose not to.  We may get caught up in the drama of our own community but we miss out on the awesome power that is available to us through the Holy Spirit by not seeing the bigger picture of how we can be the hands and feet of Christ in a profound way. 

     One of the things that really challenged me in this section was that Stearns really goes after the myths of what many of us in the middle-to-upper class believe to be the issues related to why a person is in poverty.  He explains that 

Poverty in America is just as real as poverty in Africa, and it is just as damaging to the human spirit. At its root it has the same causes: a defacing of the human spirit and, effectively, a lack of real choices. . . almost all poverty is fundamentally the result of a lack of options. It is not that the poor are lazier, less intelligent, or unwilling to make efforts to change their condition. Rather, it is that they are trapped by circumstances beyond their power to change. (p. 118). 

It ultimately comes down to a lack of options.  They are trapped within a system that offers very little options to ever rise above the situation that they find themselves in.  This is the key issue.  And as a result of this, it is really easy for a person in a situation like this to lose hope.  

     Stearns continues educating the reader by explaining the issues related to contaminated water, tuberculosis, malaria, and AIDS/HIV.  These four issues have created a path of devastation and destruction on the poor.  And the fact is that these are issues that are preventable.  We can do something about it.  Poverty also has an impact on the lack of education, war, illiteracy, gender issues and on and on.  Once again, issues that we as Christians have the means to address.  The most disturbing of all is the amount of money we will spend for the military and defense as opposed to assistance for the poorest of the poor.  It made me wonder if the massive emphasis on military spending just perpetuates war whereas if we spent just half of that money on humanitarian efforts could that alone do more to eradicate war in the long run?

     Another major eye-opener for me was when Stearns went on explain the differences between the sins of omission versus commission.   He points out that:

God wants to see the authenticity of our faith put into action, not the emptiness of a faith without deeds. But if we look at the things that God condemns when He looks at the behavior of His followers, once again it seems that sins of omission grieve Him even more than sins of commission, yet it is these on which we tend to be fixated. (p. 185)

I never really saw that in Scripture but Stearns is absolutely right.  Authentic Christianity needs to focus more on doing the right things well as opposed to just making sure we don't sin.  The absence of sin is not my final goal in life.  My goal should be to do all the good I can with the resources God has given me.  As I pursue that calling in my life, ironically spending my time doing good things eliminates sin in my life.  

     Stearns then goes on to point out the whole in our church. He explains that the problem within the American church is that:

. . . we see our American lifestyles as normative, when in fact they are grossly distorted compared to the rest of the world. We don't believe that we are wealthy, so we don't see it as our responsibility to help the poor. We are deceieved. It is important to put the American Church in perspective. Simply stated, it is the wealthiest community of Christians in the history of Christendom. . . . It would take just a little over 1 percent of the income of American Christians to lift the poorest one billion people in the world our of extreme poverty. . . . American Chrisitians, who make up about 5 percent of the Church worldwide, control about half of global Christians wealth; a lack of money is not our problem. (p. 216)

Far from coming across as bashing the church, Stearns goes on to show that we have the talent, finances, resources and abilities to do so much good in this world.  The question is, do we believe that? Do we know that? Do we grasp the potential that we could do as the body of Christ if we followed Christ's example?

     In Stearns' concluding section he tries to attack the issue of how we can try to repair the hole.  He passionately emphasizes that:

Jesus seeks a new world order in which this whole gospel, hallmarked by compassion, justice, and proclamation of the good news, becomes a reality, first in our hearts and minds, and then in the wider world through our influence. This is not to be a far-off and distant kingdom to be experienced only in the afterlife. Christ's vision was of a redeemed world order populated by redeemed people - now. To accomplish this, we are to be salt and light in a dark and fallen world, the 'yeast' that leavens the whole loaf of bread (the whole of society). We are the ones God has called to be His Church. It's up to us. We are to be the change. (p. 243-244)

     Stearns goes on in the rest of the book to tell amazing stories of people who faithfully obeyed God and through their obedience they were able to see God do amazing things through them.  It is not about being the best at something more than it is about being faithful and obedient to God's leading and then trusting in Him to use you. 

     This was simply an amazing book.  My hope is that this book would rock the church to its foundation and cause it to do a serious assessment of where we have been and where we need to go to be the body of Christ in the way that would honor God. This book has me so excited about the church in the 21st century. Is it possible that we can boldly live into redeeming this world for Christ believing that He has given us the same power that he used to transform this world?

     If you read any book this year, especially in light of Haiti, you must read this book and internalize its message and raise up your church to see what we have been missing and how we need to get back on track with doing the work of God in the way that most demonstrates what Jesus did in His time here on earth.  

Go! Right now! Pick up the book and enjoy. Let it change your world!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Pinewood Derby 2010!

Seriously. Check out the pinewood derby car that my son Benjamin and I put together for our annual Pinewood Derby race with his Cub Scout troop.  Is this not the coolest car ever?!?!  I had very high hopes that even if we did not win for speed, we would at least get the most creative award!  

Well, the day of the race came.  I actually had a lot going on this particular Sunday.  My basketball team had a game and my Senior High youth group were going skiing all day.  But I was not going to allow any other event stop me from the Pinewood Death Race 2010. We would be triumphant one way or another. 

As Ben's troop gathered for the 22 heats that would determine the victor you could sense the tension and excitement in the air.  The first two times that Ben's car went down the tracks SpongeBob SquareCar got first place!  I began to get excited.  Is it possible that this could be my, I mean, Ben's year???  But then in his other matches he came in 3rd and 4th place several other times.  All in all, when the totals were added up, Ben landed in 5th place.  The same boy who wins EVERY year won AGAIN!  Stinkin' engineer for a dad.  Go figure.  

So that didn't matter much because I was like Ralphie in "A Christmas Story" waiting excitedly for the teacher to announce his essay as the best she has ever read, rapturously writing "A++++++++++++" on the chalk board.  I knew that the Cub Master would look with awe at the amazing creativity and shear artistry of SpongeBob SquareCar.  But no.  SBSC was looked over.  Some other car got the cool award.  I was shocked.  I was humiliated.  I felt like John Rambo being disrespected by Sheriff Teasel so he decided to take out his wrath on the whole town of Hope, Washington.  I sensed a conspiracy so deep that even Glenn Beck would somehow find a way to blame Obama for this.  And then of course Obama would blame Bush.  But alas, I had to run off to ski with my youth group and I did not get the chance to administer justice.  Cub leaders beware! I demand a recount! And at least a basic knowledge of who judges and what the criteria for judging was because quite frankly, my car . . . I mean, Ben's car was the coolest.  But since you must be looking for something else, here are my ideas for next year to make sure we catch your attention!

1.  The "Left Behind" Car.  If you notice that I'm not here and you still are, well it sucks for you because I just won BIG!

2.  The Zombieland Car: Blood and entrails always leave a lasting impression.

3.  The Soprano's Car: I win, you live.  I lose, you get wacked.

4.  The 007 Car: A rocket giving the car the boost it needs.

5.  The Kanye West Car: Doesn't matter if someone else wins, I will come up and take the mic and declare who I think should win, MY SON!

6.  The Avatar Car: Because nothing is cooler that being a 10 foot Smurf that can crush any human opposition.

7.  The Terminator Car: A cybernetic organism. Living tissue over a metal endoskeleton. 

8.  The Star Trek Car: Warp speed!

9.  The Suicide Bomber Car: There it blew up! Now all the cars lose as my car enjoys automobile paradise with 40 virgin cars!

10.  A Toyota: No brakes, fast speeds!

So there are my ideas for the pinewood derby cars in the years ahead.  If you have a suggestion I would love to hear it or know what your favorite idea is above.  Who knows, with my warped and twisted sense of humor, you just might see one of them next year. 

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Winter Retreat Recommendation for Youth Groups

I just wanted to give a shout out to the things that made our Junior High retreat awesome!  If you are looking for a place to have a great retreat that would be more of a non-traditional setting for a Winter Retreat then go to Great Wolf Lodge.  We have had a great experience there for 3 years now.  I often run into other youth ministry people who ask how much it cost to go there thinking it sounds like a high-end retreat.  We are able to do a one-night, two-day retreat there for only $50.00.  The rooms cost approximately $200.00 so you put 4 junior highers in a room and it is paid for and the adult goes free.  We tell the teens to bring money for food and the adult in their room is available to take them out to one of the many restaurants in the area during the time designated for meals.  This provides some fun as a small group, especially if it is Waffle House at around 12 midnight!

Also, we went with a video curriculum that was produced by BlueFishTV that ended up being excellent.  It was called "Choose".  They put out great stuff in a DVD format that is easy for the teens to watch.  The DVD offers stories from teens who are dealing with issues related to the topic that the lesson is focusing on.  The DVD lasts about 10 minutes and then you have the rest of the time to teach.  Their lessons are easy to understand and process with your audience. Marcus "Goodie" Goodloe is the teaching facilitator in the DVD.  He does an excellent job in processing the theme and lesson. 

Now this curriculum package is geared for 4 lessons if you would want to use it for a full weekend retreat.  I am finding that the older I get, a one-night deal works better for my group so that I don't have to cancel any of my regular programing for Sunday and it is adult friendly so that they are not giving up their entire weekend.  So check it out and see what you think!