Admitting the Truth

Let’s talk about giving up dreams.

I was somewhere around five years old when I first said I wanted to be a preacher. I think I liked the idea of delivering sermons, of being an expert in holy stories and wise advice. But fundamentally, my experience of ministers is that they were kind men. I wanted more than anything to be kind someday—I knew very well the damage that unkind men could cause. Having set my sights on a pastoral vocation, I committed to that path with single-minded determination.

On a Wednesday night in 1983 I preached my first sermon. There were no boys older than I was, and I had no model for what was expected of me other than the adult men. They took turns preaching during the midweek service, so I figured I should, too. Our little church, the East Side Church of Christ, was about forty people at the time, of which my family—little brother, parents, grandparents, great-aunt and great-uncle, constituted about a fifth. Most of those forty, like us, were thrice-weekly attenders, showing up Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night for services that were effectively identical in form, varying only in the degree of formality. I figured even a sixth-grader could preach on a Wednesday, the service traditionally reserved for encouraging the faltering efforts of those new to the pulpit. I asked; the elders agreed. I chose “confessing sins” as my theme. That’s hilarious in retrospect, as I was eleven years old, and I don’t think I’d committed any actual sins yet. Armed with the NIV Bible I had received from my grandparents on my tenth birthday, plus an article entitled “I Have Sinned,” from the latest issue of Teenage Christian magazine, I delivered my homily. “Wonderful, wonderful!” said Sister Lois, my great champion, afterward. The men shook my hand. “Well done!” The older folks were in general agreement that I’d “make a fine preacher someday.”

We met in a small, plain building off a side road, effectively hidden from society. I remember when we added carpet down the central aisle, installed ceiling fans, built a lobby. In the lobby were bathrooms, a glorious improvement both because of their relative luxuriousness and, more important, their location at the entrance of the building. Previously, in my elementary years, if one felt the urge to pee during worship, a trip to the front of the building was required—the original toilets were located on either side of the pulpit. In spite of a general unspoken agreement to let such trips take place without comment, one couldn’t help but feel the eyes of the congregation with each step forward—or worse, the eyes of the song leader or preacher. Perhaps the founding members found poetry in placing base humanity in proximity to the divine, but the next generation held a successful funding drive to restore some privacy to the privies.

When I was sixteen our little church remained between preachers for a long stretch, a year or more. We couldn’t pay much, so even though the preaching job came with the free use of the three-bedroom parsonage beside the church building, our ministers usually didn’t stay for more than a couple of years. As the search for our next official preacher dragged on, I was promoted to the Sunday morning rotation, and preached monthly. I’d collected a few public speaking awards by then and felt reasonably confident behind the pulpit. From my vantage point now, thirty years hence, I can’t picture what those sermons must have been like, and I can’t remember any of my texts or topics. I do remember, though, the continued encouragement of the congregation. For the first time, it looked like our little church was going to produce a preacher, and the gray heads were delighted. I took their pleasure as confirmation that I was on the right track.

So: Off to college for a degree in biblical studies. That was followed by a lingering bout of atheism, during which I went to grad school for communication studies. Then my faith rebounded (long story there) and back to seminary for a Master of Divinity degree, and eventually a doctorate in ministry. I did my best to shore up my weak spots, build on my strengths, learn how to serve the church well.

In my early 30s I landed at a reasonably healthy church that was having trouble navigating some key transitions. They had dropped from just over 500 members to barely over 400 and wanted someone to help them get back on track. Figuring out what was broken in the system and designing new structures, it turns out, is something I’m pretty good at. Three years later we were over 500 again. I started getting calls, a few a month, from other churches who were dealing with declines and wanted to see if I’d come help them grow again, too. “Thank you, but no, I’m happy here,” I said again and again.

I did leave, eventually, to go to a church that–rare, for Churches of Christ–opened up public leadership positions to women. My theology was increasingly feminist and I had a daughter by then, so an egalitarian congregation was able to get my attention. We made a cross-country move for that church. It had an outstanding reputation, came highly recommended, and had the most dysfunctional leadership I’ve ever encountered. I don’t say that lightly. I’ve seen my fair share of dysfunctional leaders, and this eldership was out to set some new records. I had never before watched church leaders stand up and blatantly lie to a congregation. Not subtle “maybe they misunderstood” kind of lies, but “we literally just agreed to something and now they are standing up and saying the opposite.” Sometimes the lies involved me. My favorite was “due to the recession, our church budget is getting tighter, and Kirk has graciously agreed to a salary freeze.” We hadn’t even discussed that possibility. But there was no point discussing it after that announcement. It was clear that my salary was frozen. I could be gracious about it, as advertised, or call the elders out as liars in front of the church and enjoy being fired. Not a great choice. The list of impossible demands and conflicting expectations got longer and longer. My job performance suffered as I got more and more stressed just trying to survive as an honest person in a system that rewarded deception. Again and again I was offered the choice to live quietly with lies or speak up and take my bruises. I lasted there 25 months, a tenure that was both (1) frankly amazing, given how miserable I was and (2) incredibly stupid, given how miserable I was. I should have been sending my résumé out by month three.

As a sign of how dysfunctional things were, I don’t really know if I quit or was fired. I was on my way out, anyway, and everyone probably knew it, but then the elders announced that the next week was going to be my last week, and so it was. I had planned to stay until I had a job lined up. They wouldn’t allow me that.

By the time we crawled away from the flames of that disaster, I didn’t have the emotional reserves to try to serve another church right away. So, hey–remember all that grad work I did in communication when I was an atheist? That was our lifeline to something else. I started teaching community college speech classes, first as an adjunct, but then full-time, after just a year. Pretty amazing, really, because you might not think it, but even community college jobs are pretty hard to get these days, and my résumé didn’t exactly scream “I long to work in academia.” It screamed, quite loudly “I trained hard for the ministry and then something went wrong.” I suspect a lot of people reading my application assumed I had had an affair.

So, I started teaching. Community college teaching is bizarrely low-stress. It’s amazing. I don’t have to submit lesson plans. I don’t have to deal with parents. If I’m not being overtly terrible, my chair leaves me alone and lets me run my class as I see fit. I’m pretty good at it, and I like my students, although I can’t really shake a sort of pastoral sensibility that communicates “I’m here for you and we’ll get through this together.” To be honest, I communicate that more clearly to my students than I ever managed to do with churches. Students drop by my office and we talk about their life crises and college stresses, and sometimes I’m able to give some useful answers and sometimes all I can do is listen supportively, which I hope helps, too. Occasionally I get emails a year or two after a student has left my classes. One young woman, a military veteran who saw combat in Afghanistan, credited my public speaking class with helping her manage her PTSD and transition back into civilian life. One young man credited my interpersonal class with giving him the tools to save his marriage. As job satisfaction goes, one could do worse. And then there’s always “I thought I’d hate this class, but you made it interesting–thanks!” I get a few of those at the end of every semester. Those are nice, too. Not as nice as being a rich neurosurgeon who saves lives all the time–a career path I wish, in retrospect, I had taken up–but the notes are good.

After about four years of teaching, I felt sufficiently recovered from America’s Most Dysfunctional Church to start applying for ministry positions again. I had a doctorate, a record of helping churches grow, and five years earlier I was routinely fielding calls from interested congregations. How hard could it be to land a new ministry job?

Very hard, it turns out. It didn’t take long for everyone to forget about me. It also didn’t help that I was now way over on the far-left edge, theologically, for Churches of Christ. I did find some churches that really liked me—one in New England, and another in Salt Lake City. I could have uprooted my family and crossed the country for a church that looked like a good fit. But we’d done that once and it nearly killed us. I wasn’t keen on leaving Texas again. Maybe you could get me to a state that borders Texas. But Boston? Nope. I just don’t have it in me to do that again.

About three years ago I got as as close as you can get to a ministry job without actually landing it. I was on the job-offer runway with my landing gear down on a nice calm day, and then two engines blew up and a wing fell off. Nice-sized church, near a university. Had an absolute blast my interview weekend. The search committee recommended that the elders hire me. The church, overall, was clearly supportive. I was ready to move. But in the final interview the elders asked me a question on a particularly contentious point of theology. I knew they wouldn’t like my answer. It was one of those rare moments in life when you know that the next sixty seconds will determine the next six years. I could lie, and the job was mine. I could tell the truth, and it would go to the next candidate on their shortlist.

I don’t lie. I’m not sure that’s a moral strength; it’s more like a weird compulsion. I’m the exact psychological opposite of a pathological liar. I’m a pathological truth teller, even when it hurts me–even when it accomplishes nothing useful. I’m not proud of this fact. They asked me a direct question. I breathed out and glanced at Sandy. She knows how I am; she knew how this was about to play out.

I answered their question.

It took two weeks for them to call and say they’d gone with someone else. I’m not surprised—a lot of people were advocating for me, and it’s hard to go against the emphatic recommendation of the search committee. But they thought I was too liberal. By their standards, I guess they were right. Sandy burst into tears as I hung up the phone. It’s one thing to know what’s coming, it’s another to get the call.

They offered the job to the committee’s distant second-place choice. He had a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and hadn’t thought much deeper about theology than they had. I was perversely delighted when he turned them down, and they went another year without a preacher. They deserved to flounder for a while—not for realizing I wasn’t what they wanted, but for waiting until the final moments of a six-month process to spring a make-or-break question on me. They should have sent a checklist of their required opinions at the start.

There have been a few other near misses. I had an open door in another denomination, but as much as I loved them, ultimately, I wasn’t up to learning a new ecclesial language and acclimating to a new culture. I could have gone to a dying church with no children left, but I wouldn’t do that to my kids. And while I think I’m well-equipped to turn faltering churches around, I can’t raise the dead.

Four years out of ministry became five, then six, then more. It’s now been nine years, six months, and three days. The fact that I know that without having to think about it says something. I really only ever had one dream. But I’ve realized that the odds are getting smaller. My network was never big, and now I’ve been out of the loop a long time. I can’t get away to ministry conferences and networking events. I’m a has-been. I had a few good years. It looked like I had potential. I could have made a fine preacher. And then it was over. The math looks like this: as my years out of ministry grow longer and longer, the list of churches I would be willing to leave my low-stress college life for grows shorter and shorter, and so does the list of churches willing to offer me a job. The odds of a match shrink inexorably. It’s not impossible that it could happen, but it doesn’t seem likely.

And here are some more truths. I’m the only one in this little five-person family who has any interest in going anywhere else. My kids are quite happy with their friends, their schools, their church. They aren’t interested in giving any of that up. Sandy’s happy to stay, too. The only one with bouts of restlessness is me—restless to give up these nice notes, this low stress, to do the thing that I felt (feel?) designed to do; the thing that nearly killed us.

In some lights, what I’ve been doing the last five years—sending out résumés, calling churches—seems equal parts stupid and selfish, with no room left for “wise” or “loving.” A small town on the outskirts of Houston is, for me, about the ideal place to live. This community has everything I want. The little Bible Institute where I first trained for ministry at age 19—fifteen heartbreaks and two major faith crises in the past—has invited me to teach their communication-focused classes, one a semester. I cover preaching, Bible teaching, leading small groups. I get to pass on a little of what I learned to a diverse group of men and women who will, I hope, put those skills to use in churches longer than I did. I get to preach often enough, at our home congregation or elsewhere, that I haven’t completely forgotten how. I taught this year at the Christian summer camp I grew up in. Those ministry degrees aren’t completely wasted. And I know I wouldn’t be the father, the teacher, thepersonI am without all those years studying theology with wise mentors. Young Kirk had a lot to sort out, and it might have taken three degrees and a few thousand books to do it, but I think it got done. I think, most days, I am a kind man.

My department chair and I recently talked the powers that be into approving me to teach Intro to Philosophy. Adding philosophy to the mix has raised my job satisfaction enormously. I love my students, but public speaking is the worst thing to teach. It’s terrible. No intellectually stimulating content, and you have to listen to hundreds of poorly-prepared speeches from anxious pupils every semester. I’m good at teaching speech, but it bores me. Philosophy, though, is fun. I’m reading ancient texts with students and talking about how we should live. We’re tackling the big questions of life. What does it mean to be good? Is there a god? What are our ethical obligations? Three days into my summer course a student told me that he had illegally downloaded a PDF of the textbook, but after our first discussion of ethics he ordered the book and paid for it. That feels like something is happening. On paper, I’m not the most qualified person to teach this class, but I defy you to find someone who loves teaching it as much as I do.

If this is how things are going to be—philosophy with students during the week, practical ministry classes a few Saturdays a year, being a happy church volunteer on Sundays—I think I can maybe stop updating my ministry résumé.

Would I rather be on staff at a church? Yes, almost certainly. But that’s, like, 8% more satisfying. It would be an improvement, but I’m not going to ask my family to give up their connections here for an 8% bump. And the kind of church that would give me that bump isn’t interested in talking to me, anyway.

This is the dilemma of mid-life isn’t it? When do you admit something just isn’t going to happen again? What’s the dividing line between giving up and wising up? When should you learn to say “I had something once, and it was lovely, and I wish I been able to hold onto it longer, but life didn’t work out that way. And this–this life, this place, this moment—it’s good, too. This is the kind of life someone else desperately wishes they could have, the sort of life a man ought to appreciate, instead of clinging to a gossamer vision from his kindergarten year.”

There’s a line from Jessamyn West: You make what seems a simple choice: choose a man or a job or a neighborhood- and what you have chosen is not a man or a job or a neighborhood, but a life. I believed that I was on a ministry hiatus, a sort of extended sabbatical. I believed that I was actually a pastor, biding my time until the right church came along. My kids don’t know that, though.Theythink I am really a college teacher. They believe this is actually our life.

It has taken me almost a decade, but I understand now. They are right.



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The Last Jedi—A Case Study in Strengths that Become Weaknesses

Everything after this is a spoiler. You have been warned.

2015’s return to the Skywalker Saga, The Force Awakens, was released to generally glowing reviews. Although it was a fairly simple retread of the same beats we had seen before in the original 1977 Star Wars*, after the disappointing mess of Lucas gave us in the prequel films, it’s not surprising that there was a collective sigh of relief that J.J. Abrams could take the reins of the Star Wars franchise and give the world a new film in the old Lucas style. Whatever Abrams’ weaknesses as a director, he is a master at imitation, giving us the best non-Spielberg Spielberg film (Super 8) and the now the best non-Lucas Lucas film (The Force Awakens).

Having re-established the franchise on a firm footing and proven that Disney could give fans new releases with the same touches we loved in ’77, ’81, and ’83, the open question was where would Disney Wars go next? More of the same or a change of direction? “Burn it all down,” said Rian Johnson.

Abrams proved that Disney could give us the old magic we love; Johnson set out to prove that Disney could give us something new—something that we weren’t necessarily asking for. Say what you want about Episodes I-VII, they were not exercises in deep introspective cinema. There’s no gray in the Lucas palette. You have good guys and bad guys, light and dark, and you are either on one side or the other. It’s a simple fantasy story in space, with the rogues, clerics, princesses, and knights on one side and the highly mechanized forces of fascist empire on the other. Not much nuance there.

Johnson gives us a lot more gray—almost nothing but gray—as he sets out to step by step subvert every trope of the Star Wars universe. To whit:

1) The same daring, selfless missions that brought victory in Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, and even Rogue One are now at best Pyrrhic victories—the Deadnought bombing in the opening sequence—or foolish wastes of time—Finn and Rose’s attempt to shut off the tracker on a New Order ship. To really hammer the point home, we see Finn preparing to run his skimmer at full speed right down the maw of the First Order’s nifty laser battering ram, only to be forcibly knocked to safety by Rose. “We won’t win by destroying what we hate,” she says, “but by saving what we love.” The rebels have a new ethos. No more suicide missions—we’re going to try to save what we have left.

2) On a similar point, the tendency to disregard the orders or advice of your superiors that we saw previously when Jyn Erso ignored the Rebel council to retrieve the Death Star plans from Scarif, or when Luke left Dagobah to save his friends, is now taken to a foolish and devastating extreme in Poe Dameron’s mutiny against Admiral Holdo. This time, the old guard really does know best, and Poe’s insistence on going his own way endangered the rebels in general and Finn and Rose in particular.

3) There’s no one left who believes in the nobility and wisdom of the Jedi order. We thought that Luke retreated to the original Jedi temple to go deeper into the mystical ways of the Force and rebuild the order, but he doesn’t care about that at all. He’s never even bothered—in months and months alone!—to read the ancient Jedi texts. He’s cut himself off from the Force. And whereas Obi-Wan spoke reverently of the lightsaber—“An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age”—Luke tosses his away and dismissively calls it “a laser sword.” Even Yoda is ready to literally burn it all down, calling Luke’s bluff and destroying the sacred texts himself, saying there’s nothing in them that Rey doesn’t already have within her. Rey, we have already seen, doesn’t really understand what the Force is at all, and is begging for a teacher. This is a far different stance than Yoda took when Luke was in his early 20s and Yoda believed he was already too old to start gaining the wisdom and discipline it would take to become a true Jedi. Apparently Rey doesn’t need discipline and training. She’s ready just as she is. (And she’d better be, with the texts destroyed and the only person who can teach her dissolved away into serene nothingness.)

4) We’ve grown accustomed to people being marked out for a special destiny because of the circumstances of their birth, either to royalty (Amidala) or because of a miticlorian miracle conception (Anakin) or within a family which seems to have a genetic propensity to force sensitivity (Luke/Leia/Ben). The Force Awakens created a mystery about Rey’s parentage, around which fans have created myriad theories—She’s a Kenobi! A Palpatine! Yet another freaking Skywalker!—all of which were gloriously shot down with the revelation that her parents were poor junk traders who had no special gifts. They sold her off for some scraps and are now buried somewhere in the desert. She’s nobody in particular, from a nowhere planet–and we haven’t ever seen someone like her have such powerful control of the Force.

5) Finally, the extreme bifurcation between Light and Dark, Good Guys and Bad Guys we saw in previous movies is ended here as both Luke and Kylo Ren, in their own ways, want to break down the Jedi/Sith system. One of the chief strengths of The Last Jedi is how it used Kylo Ren, a petulant man-child in The Force Awakens, to begin to explore what it might look like to be strong in the Force but reject choosing a side. He has been conflicted, but now that he has struck down both Han and Snoke he seems ready to find his own path. Where that path will lead is unclear.

There are some fans who are deeply disappointed in Johnson’s insistent deconstruction of the usual Star Wars tropes, wanting more Abrams-style neo-Lucasism. They can hardly be faulted for wanting another trip to that particular well, and I can imagine being understandably upset at Johnson, the interloper who turned Star Wars into something darker and much more nuanced. If you came to The Last Jedi hoping for a few more chances to burst out into applause at the unlikely victory of our daring heroes—well, you probably hated this movie a lot.

That’s not my problem with The Last Jedi. The Star Wars universe was long overdue for this kind of deconstruction, and Johnson’s direction rescued the problematic Kylo Ren character and turned him into perhaps the most interesting person in the entire franchise. Breaking down the facile dichotomies are welcome turns as well. On paper, this seems like the necessary maturation of Star Wars, and I’m sure if I had been on the production staff I would have cheered Johnson every step of the way as he tore down the expectations that have been built over these last four decades. It’s a turn in the story that is both daring and essential. However, all this rampant subversionism came with a cost, which is that apparently Johnson doesn’t know how to do that and also make a movie that is interesting to watch and has consistently realistic characters.

There are three storylines overlapping in The Last Jedi: the Rey/Luke/Kylo Ren exploration of what the Force is and the nature of the Jedi/Sith orders, the Poe exploration of the limits of loveable rogue-ism, and the Finn/Rose exploration of yet-another-plan-to-infiltrate-an-enemy-ship-and-flip-a-switch-to-“off.” Of those, only the first really works. All things considered, if I can only have one of those three storylines work, that’s the one to pick—it’s at the center of the mythos and produces the most interesting questions and character arcs. On the strength of the Force arc, I’m giving a The Last Jedi a tentative thumbs up. But it’s really tentative because:

  • I can’t buy into mutinous Poe. Foolhardy, maybe. Addicted to high-stakes, high-adrenaline missions, sure. But mutinous—no. And if you are going to have a character commit mutiny, there need to be some consequences for that. He’s already been stripped of rank once. It’s time to throw Poe in the brig or kick him out of the rebel alliance altogether. There need to be more consequences for his actions than Holdo giving Leia a wry smile and saying “I love that rogue.” It’s good to subvert the repeated “million-to-one odds” missions. At some point, basic statistics are going to catch up to you, and C3PO’s going to be proven right. But this was a frustrating and unbelievable way to do it. It would be far better writing to have the bombing mission against the dreadnought go disastrously wrong. All the bombers get destroyed, the dreadnought is barely dented, and Poe loses one of his best friends. Leia dresses him down hard and busts him down another rank for insubordination before throwing him in the brig. There he gets plenty of time to himself to wrestle with the consequences of his hotheaded actions. Later in the movie, when the rebels are again in dire straits, Leia visits Poe in the brig and tells him it’s time to go on another risky mission to save the rebels. This time it’s Poe who refuses and insists on finding a smarter, lower-risk way. Introspection! Consequences! Stakes! Real character growth! Either way you go after that, something interesting is going to happen. Maybe Leia was right and we really need to roll the dice sometimes, but we have to be careful about when. Maybe Poe was right and it’s time to change tactics altogether. But Johnson gave us unrealistic character beats with no personal stakes or consequences—a dissatisfying move.
  • Everything about the Finn/Rose mission to Planet O’ Rich Gamblers bored me, and in a film generally dedicated to nuance, that was as un-nuanced as possible. Evil rich capitalist exploiters and child labor! Boo, hiss! That whole subpoint was an exercise in one futile action after another, all adding up to nothing. I could feel my heartrate slowing down everytime we cut back to Finn. There was nothing to make me care, and my extreme lack of caring wound up being retroactively justified when nothing they did made any difference anyway. Now, as a sort of avant garde approach to filmmaking—Wouldn’t it be interesting to have an entire third of the movie make no difference to anyone whatsoever?—I guess I can see the temptation, but Star Wars isn’t really the venue to explore the virtues of tedium. Nothing about the Finn line worked for me.

So, I’m giving the Force storyline a strong A, the Poe storyline a D, and I am expelling the Finn storyline from my class and putting it on academic probation.

Other assorted thoughts:

  • It is genuinely great to see more diversity in the Star Wars universe, and to have male and female heroes of various ethnicities to cheer for. Rose and her sister are welcome additions to the pantheon. And Laura Dern rocked it as Holdo—wonderful to see another middle-aged woman in a central role.
  • How much equipment does the First Order lug around with them? They just happen to have a laser door ram in case the rebels flee to someplace with a big reinforced door? Why not just blast it? They don’t care about casualties. What else are they carrying with them? Laser drill for underground lairs?
  • I’m not sure Rose’s philosophy is consistent. She thinks it’s wrong for Finn to sacrifice himself to try to save everyone, but then she hurts herself badly to try to save just Finn. She needs some Star Trek in her life. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
  • I really don’t get why Holdo doesn’t just explain to Poe what the plan is. She knows it looks futile from his perspective, and she knows what kind of nonsense he gets into when a situation seems hopeless. One quick “we’re not trying to escape this area; we’re trying to sneak to an abandoned base nearby” would have saved a lot of trouble and gotten Poe working with her instead of against her. Yes, that would have required a massive rewrite, but that rewrite needed to happen anyway.

* Look, it was Star Wars when I saw it, and I’m going to call it Star Wars here. You might know it as A New Hope. To each his own.

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Book Review: Almost Christian

Book Review: Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, by Kenda Creasy Dean. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Dean, a professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, wastes no time getting to the point of this bracing book. She opens chapter one by writing:

Let me save you some trouble. Here is the gist of what you are about to read: American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith— but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school.

One more thing: we’re responsible.

Dean is not speaking idly. Drawing on serious and careful research, she shows that American Christianity is currently in crisis, although it may not be the crisis we think we have. Faced with ever bolder and more vocal atheism, many churches assume that our problem is that teens are rejecting faith due to pernicious outside influence. The reality is this: teens are not rejecting faith; they never truly had it to begin with. And the cause is not a determined hostile world; it is a weak and listless church. The sad irony of this moment is that, on the surface, American churches are devoting more resources to young people than ever before: dedicated youth ministers, consistent Bible class programs, vibrant summer camps, and global mission trips. It certainly seems as though we are doing all we can—no previous generation of young Christians has been given this level of supposedly spiritually formative resources. Yet we are reaping a harvest of mediocre faith that often doesn’t last more than a few months after high school graduation. What is going wrong?

The primary problem is that even young people who regularly attend worship tend to think of church as a valuable extracurricular activity, like their school’s band or sport teams—and churches haven’t given them much reason to think differently. While teens are inwardly longing for a purpose to which they can devote their lives, many churches fail them by offering “a kind of ‘diner theology’: a bargain religion, cheap but satisfying, whose gods require little in the way of fidelity or sacrifice.” The ski trips and youth hangouts offer fun for while, but they aren’t acquainting teenagers with a holy God who calls them to lives of radical service. Worse, the things that churches do to try to build faith often harm the spiritual formation process by replacing traditional structures that were more effective at creating disciples. Faith is formed best in multigenerational communities where young and old serve, pray, and study together, yet most American teens have almost no opportunity to bond with faithful adults: their Bible classes, camps, and mission trips are often filled with nothing but young people and one youth minister, with perhaps a few adults sponsors present. They have almost no opportunity to see how mature Christians integrate their faith and their life, and so they struggle to see how Christianity speaks to their world. Lacking both clear theology and faithful examples, the religious framework of many young people consists of what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton call “Therapeutic Moral Deism,” which says, in essence, that God wants people to be nice; the goal of life is to be happy and feel good; nice people go to heaven when they die; and God isn’t involved in my life except to help when I have a problem

If you have spoken about faith with many teenagers in the last decade or two, these beliefs probably sound familiar. They have taken root among American youth and shoved aside the core principles of authentic Christianity: that God was incarnate in Jesus Christ, that his life modeled how we should live, that he died to cleanse our sins, that the work of the Spirit empowers us to continue in the divine work to which Jesus calls us. Rather than seeking daily to imitate the servant spirit of Christ through the Spirit’s power, teens are content to be “nice” and only call in God in a moment of crisis.

How does the church respond to this crisis? Dean calls for vigorous formative rituals: daily encounters with the divine through prayer and study, intergenerational work and reflection, a renewed sense of mission in the world, which makes demands of all church members, from oldest to youngest. Give teens a purpose and a calling and they will rise to the occasion. Show them through tangible behaviors what Christ has meant to us, and Christ will come to mean more to them.

Yet the most significant factor, by far, is not the sort of faith formation practices found in a teenager’s church, but those found in a teenager’s home. While there are always some young people who build a mature faith in spite of their parents’ indifference, and some who lose it in spite of their parents’ devotion, the number one predictor of enduring faith in a teenager is enduring faith in his or her parents. In her terms: “You get what you are.” The chief difference between an uncommitted teen and her parents is often that the lukewarm teen no longer feels the need to engage in the pretense of church attendance. “In the end, awakening faith does not depend on how hard we press young people to love God, but on how much we show them that we do.”

Almost Christian is one of the most important books I have encountered. At turns disheartening, pragmatic, and hopeful, it lays out clearly the spiritual crisis before us and, in its own prophetic way, call for revival—not among the teenagers whose fate so deeply concerns us, but within the parents and church leaders whose own shortcomings are being reflected in our youth. This book is a clarion call. May it not fall on deaf ears.

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“It Doesn’t Matter Who is President, Jesus is Lord”

The wording varies from writer to writer, but the sentiment is the same: “No matter who is in the Oval Office, God is still on the throne of heaven.” “Regardless of who is president, what matters is that Jesus is Lord.” Amen; true enough.

And yet…

We need to be clear what we mean when we say this. I am afraid that for many people, the claim that “Jesus is Lord” leads them to the conclusion that “nothing bad can happen.” But Jesus was Lord when Hitler led the Holocaust. Christ was reigning when Stalin initiated the Great Purge. The Son held all authority in heaven and on earth when America stole the labor of black families and the lands and lives of native families. “Jesus is Lord” doesn’t mean “everything is okay.” It doesn’t mean “God approves of what is happening here.”

For others, “God is still on his throne” seems to mean “Things may be bad, but we don’t need to respond. God will take care of it in his way.” But God’s way has always been to enter into the hearts and hands of his people. When God chose to liberate the Israelite slaves, he called on Moses to find his courage and his voice. When God chose to rebuke the foul deeds of evil kings, he raised up the prophets. When God chose to stand against the abuses of institutional religion and the idolatries of empire, he raised up apostles, elders, deacons….and martyrs.

God will change the world. God will stand against evil. He will do it through your courage, your deeds, your voice, your service, and–if needed–your death.

Jesus is Lord…therefore we must not passively assume that everything that happens is good. We must learn to see right and wrong through his eyes. Jesus is Lord….therefore we must not quietly wait for God to set the world right. He has called us to take up our crosses and follow him. Jesus is Lord…therefore we take our orders from him, not Jerusalem, Rome, or Washington. Because he is Lord we are compelled to act, to speak, to move, to love. To answer the call of Christ is to kindle within yourself a love so pure that you will willingly give your life in service to your neighbors. It is to find within yourself a courage so deep that you will defy the king. Our tribe will not bend our knees to the golden statue, no matter how loud the music plays, how hot the furnace is stoked.

Because Jesus is Lord.

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A Lament

One of the students at our college recently suffered a truly heart-breaking loss, and I’ve been thinking about her all week, grieving with her as I grade papers and prepare lectures.  My life goes on; hers will never be the same.  I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to receive horrible news on a Saturday night, and go to some upbeat, seeker-sensitive attractional church Sunday morning.  I started to write an essay, but that wasn’t quite right, so I tried again as a homily, which was closer, but still not there.  It eventually wound up as a poem.  I don’t write poetry–not for years now, anyway–and I have a deep conviction that almost all amateur poets are awful.  This is probably awful, too.  But it’s the closest I can come right now to painting the picture I see in my mind.

A Lament

I shouldn’t be here.  There is no place for me here.

The polished plaque is crisp brass,
with letters tall and even:
Sanctuary This Way
Around these words I see my reflected face:
unshaven, dark
I scrape down the hall, clad in
yesterday’s shirt, Friday’s pants.

Sunbeams stretch through stained glass,
making bold the jigsaw shapes of
wine and bread, sheep and shepherd
casting kaleidoscopes on a cool teal carpet.
I sit in the shadows, among the shades.

The drummer keeps a steady rhythm
Guitarists smile and strum.
And Jim, who I once knew in school,
Nearly laughs as he lifts his hands
“Let’s give the Lord a praise offering!”

I am stone.

Around me are the winners of the world,
The beautiful, the well-dressed
And they sing

God is so good
God is so good
God is so good
He’s so good to me.

They sing

You’re altogether worthy
Altogether lovely
Altogether wonderful to me

They clap and shout.
I clench my teeth.

The pastor is telling a football story.
A marriage story.
An old, old joke.
He recounts a scene from a sitcom,
The one about the pretty girl
“But not as pretty as my wife!”
And the lucky guys
“But not as lucky as we are!”

Laughter spills down the aisles.

I shut my eyes.

I wander inside myself
Meditating on horrible, hallowed images.
Twisted metal
Jagged wounds
The ventilator keeps a steady rhythm.

Amen, someone says.

The lucky ones clasp hands, slap backs.
In the lobby, there are coffee and donuts

I shouldn’t be here.  There is no place for me here.
Not today.

I don’t have a praise offering.
I don’t have a testimony.

What I have is mismatched socks
A little whiskey on my breath
And a broken son on a hospital bed
A headstrong, rebel boy who vexes me
And who is more dear to me than my soul
A bruised and battered boy

A boy who can not wake.

But where can I go where someone else knows
What it is like to lose a son?


Filed under Church Culture, Reflections

To Aidan, Who Is Three Years Old

Hey, kid–

I started this right after your birthday, but it took me more than a month to get it finished.  Sorry for the delay.  Life is busy with the three of you right now.  Plus, I never felt that this quite captured everything I want to say to you.  But it’s close, and sometimes close is the best we can do.  Whatever I say in here about what you mean to me, quadruple that and you’ll be starting to get the idea.



Dear Aidan,

We are back home in Laredo after a busy Spring Break trip to celebrate your third birthday.  We went up to Cleburne for a few days, where Uncle Kasey hosted your party, which was cowboy-themed.  You decided some weeks ago that you wanted a cowboy hat cake, a choice influenced partially by Woody from Toy Story, but largely by the cowboy-themed episodes of Dora the Explorer, which is still your favorite TV show.  So we made you a cowboy hat cake, and bought you a black hat of your own, and Uncle Kasey provided a big cowboy boot piñata filled with candy.  You might also see some pictures of a badly formed cowboy boot cake, which was a spontaneous creation built from the leftover pieces when we cut the hat shape out of the main cake.  It looks less like a boot than an out-of-fashion stocking, or some kind of orthopedic device, and we never brought it out of the kitchen.  It was worth a shot, but things don’t always work out.

The things you liked most about the party were your new hat, which you absolutely refused to take off, and the rock climbing wall on the playset in Kasey’s backyard.  You had never tried scaling it before, and after making it up a few times with some help, you mastered your technique and climbed it over and over, probably a dozen times all together.  It was the big accomplishment of your day, and really an impressive demonstration of skill and balance from a kid who just turned three. As far as presents go, you were appreciative of everything, but seemed most delighted with the Toy Story car Uncle Kasey and Tia Maria gave you, the toy drill from me and your mom, and the new Chuggington story for your V Reader from Grammy and Granddaddy.  (I hope you remember the V Reader when you are grown–it’s been your bedtime companion every night for a long, long time now.  Like Aletheia, you call it your Kindle, because you read stories on it, like I do with my Kindle.)

Rock Climbing on his Third Birthday
It is difficult on your birthday to avoid thinking about your rough start, your two weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and the weekly physical therapy sessions after your release to overcome your hypotonia.  No one who sees you today–the feisty, fearless, and remarkably nimble Climber of Barriers and Jumper from Furniture Although It Has Been Forbidden–no one would ever guess how fragile you were at the start.  I wish I had known back then, looking at you through the transparent shield of the oxygen tent, your pale skin illuminated by the red blinking lights of the sensors and alarms all around you, that just three years later my biggest worry for you would be that we will have to rush you to the emergency room to heal a broken bone if your play becomes a little too vigorous.

I know that someday you won’t be able to remember these years–strange thought that our three years together will be, at most, a vague impression in your adult mind!–so I want to record a few things about the three-year-old Aidan that the grown up version might like to know.   First, the simple things: in addition to being a very athletic child, you are a very quick learner.  Already you know all your colors, shapes, letters and letter sounds.  You can count to ten well and to twenty with a mistake or two along the way.  I’m pretty sure you have some sight words as well.  For the past several months, you have occasionally insisted on reading your own bedtime stories.  You are and always have been a healthy eater, and even though you have a horrible sweet tooth, you usually ask for nutritious snacks–especially apples.  You have eaten hundreds and hundreds of apples. Your favorite food is probably macaroni and hot dogs, although you also have shown great fondness for pizza, hamburgers, and spaghetti.  At the moment, your favorite movie is Puss N Boots, which you have easily watched twenty times in the last two weeks.  Your favorite books are the collections of Dora stories you inherited from your big sister. It’s hard to say what your favorite toy is, outside of the V Reader.  You love to play “restaurant” with Aletheia, using her kitchen and food toys as you take our food orders, ask for money, and then bring us what we asked for.  You like the little blue scooter you have, also a hand-me-down, and you like to color.  You are also very fond of the toy dinosaurs you have.  In fact, you just knocked on your bedroom door (it’s nighttime as I write this) to ask me to bring you your “T. Rex and ‘Ceratops.” I couldn’t find them, but you took the bad news pretty well.

Now, for the harder things to describe.

You are a natural optimist and encourager.  When someone else starts to get frustrated with a task, you chime in quickly and say “You can do it!” You especially do that for Aletheia–we must have heard “You can do it, sister!” dozens and dozens of times by now.  And you are very quick to smile and laugh.  Last night your mommy was reading you a story with a sad scene in it, and she asked you to make a sad face.  “I can’t do it, Mommy!” you said.  “I’m Aidan! I’m always happy!”  I find it fascinating that perpetual happiness is already a part of your self-image, and you’re pretty much right.  Aidan is always happy.

Maybe because of Aletheia’s interest in space, you are interested, too.  You often point to the wallpaper on my computer, the galaxy background that is the default setting for the current Macintoshes, and say “That’s the Milky Way!”  And there’s a bit of imaginative play that you and I and Aletheia do where we pretend to be going into space.  As it has developed, we start by choosing the colors of our space suits, and you will often come to me and say “Daddy! I’m going into space.  I have a yellow space suit.”  And then you’ll choose the colors for everyone else in the family, even Tessa.

Speaking of Tessa, you are very sweet to her, but I do wish you’d be a little more careful!  That baby has shed a lot of tears because you didn’t notice that she was in the way–but you are usually quick to try to make it up to her.  And I am glad that you never seemed to resent having a younger kid in the house, the way some children do, but have always been very welcoming to her.  You are unusually confident of your own place in the universe, though.  I don’t think something like an extra baby or two would ever throw you off kilter.  And maybe one advantage of being the only boy is a sense that your place in the family is unrivalled. 

I always wanted a sister and never got one, so I’m interested in seeing how you respond to being surrounded by girls in your family.  I always tell people that I think you’re lucky: you have a big sister to give you advice about girls, and a younger sister whose friends you can date.  At the very least, girls won’t be the weird, mysterious creatures that they always seemed like to me.  At worse, they’ll be weird and familiar, which should be of some benefit to you.

But beyond all that, I think what I wanted to say most–the thing I wanted to get down in words before these early childhood years become relegated to faulty, flickering memory–is how much I treasure the boisterous, intensely bonded relationship we have right now.  I wasn’t expecting that.  We especially enjoy rough play–tickle fights and pretend boxing and me swinging you upside down or throwing you through the air onto your bed.  It’s a different kind of play than I did with Aletheia at the same age, and is rewarding in a different kind of way.  You’ve brought a lot of energy into the family, which more than makes up for things like coating your bedroom door in black crayon last week.  Cleaning up some crayon graffiti is a small price to pay for the chance to share a home with a high-energy, endlessly optimistic, bold and daring encouragement machine. 

Your third year of life was a blast, kiddo.  Here’s looking forward to the rest of year four.

I love you.


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“Need is Not Belief”

A friend sent me this poem by Anne Sexton.  I’m adding it to my contemporary psalter for the doubting hearts. “Need is not belief.” Amen.


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Filed under Noted In Passing, Reflections, This Is Good