Monday, November 17, 2014

The 5 Most Powerful Words in the English Language

My kids are learning at an incredible pace right now. There is no end to the questions they ask each day. They are curious. They want to learn. And they believe I know the answer to everything.

It gets old sometimes. But I'm trying to appreciate it because in the next 10-15 years, things will change. They won't be seeking me out to answer their questions. They'll want me nearby to hear all of the answers they have to offer.

Something happens between the curiosity of childhood and the naive arrogance of the late teenage years.

At least it did for me.

I knew everything from ages 16-24.

And that was a problem. Because if you think you know everything, your brain no longer retains the ability to learn new things. Your brain is shut off from answers because you are determined to share the answers you have that no one else seems to have.

This reality has become so much more challenging with the advent of Google. Today, the answer to every conceivable question is available with the mere entry of a question into your internet search engine.

But all of this "knowledge" is dangerous. Because when you know everything, you lose the ability to know anything new. Your brain is no longer a sponge. Instead, it is a funnel ready to dispense wisdom into any waiting receptacle.

And this era of "knowledge" is downright deadly when it comes to our faith in God.

Most people would say the opposite of faith is doubt. 
But the opposite of faith is not doubt.
The opposite of faith is certainty.

The Hebrews writer says it this way:
"Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." 
-Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)

Some read that and would say, "See Collin, faith is assurance about what we do not see." Certainty is a part of faith.

But my response is: "How in the world can you be sure about what you can't see?" You cannot be sure about what you cannot see. Christianity cannot be proven with empirical data. Every person listed in Hebrews 11 lived by faith when they died. That means they died hoping for something they never completely experienced on earth.

I believe faith and doubt can go together. In fact, they must go together. If you don't have moments of doubt, you're not living in the real world.

There are many reasons to doubt.
I just happen to believe there are more reasons to believe in God.
And my doubts are proof that my beliefs are grounded in a world yet to be perfected.

So much of our discourse is merely two certain parties unwilling to consider another alternative. This certainty seems to especially plague religious and political conversations.

Ian Cron says it well,
"The five most powerful words in the English language are: ...but I might be wrong."

And why are those words so important?

Because the only way you can possibly learn more is to doubt that you know everything. The only way to be open to new insights is to be open to the fact that the people you encounter might just know more than you do.

My children don't struggle to believe they might be wrong. I'm the one who struggles to believe I might be wrong.

Perhaps that's why Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." -Matthew 18:3 (NIV)

May you be filled with the right questions rather than the right answers.
May you be filled with just enough doubt to have faith.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Danger of Seminary, Ethics Class & Church

When you say you know something, what do you really mean?
When you say you believe something, what do you really mean?

Educational institutions are dangerous places.

And I don't make that statement assuming the same fears of my fundamentalist religious tradition's suspicion of higher education.

My warning about educational institutions has to do with my experience of accumulating knowledge.

I learned a lot during my years at Abilene Christian University. I'm proud of the two degrees I earned from such a wonderful institution. I would encourage others to consider attending ACU if given the opportunity.

But attending seminary isn't without its spiritual dangers.

Here's the danger...

I left seminary with head knowledge that far outweighed my spiritual maturity.

Because it's one thing to know about God and it's another thing to know God.
It's possible to ace tests on Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology without looking more like Jesus.

I spent 6 years studying brilliant ideas dreamed up by brilliant people.

And here's the danger...

It took N. T. Wright decades to perfect his brilliant ideas for publication. But a college freshman can read his work and naively assume that memorizing one of Wright's quotes is the equivalent of spending decades doing the hard work that produces the quote to begin with.

Just because I read Mere Christianity doesn't mean I'm as discipled as C. S. Lewis.

There's a difference between knowledge and wisdom. But try telling a seminary student that.

I left seminary ready to take on the world. At the age of 24-year old, I became the Preaching Minister called to share God's Word with a group of 700 believers, many of whom looked more like Jesus than I ever will.

No one could have convinced me at the time, but I didn't have enough lived experience to be wise. I hadn't suffered enough to be wise. My skin wasn't tough enough to take criticism.

I had two degrees, but I had no idea my third degree would be hard-earned through my first six years of ministry in the trenches.

It's dangerous to think you think something.

Which is a natural transition to the topic of the danger of Ethics classes.

One of my mentors, Randy Harris, is a professor in Abilene Christian University's Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry. But he also teaches an Ethics class at the university.

According to Randy, there is a growing amount of evidence that shows Ethics classes have very little impact on a student's ethical behavior. Which should be a bit disconcerting to Ethics professors.

Ethics classes don't form a person's beliefs from the ground up.
Instead, ethics classes help people argue their original positions better.

In other words, students enter an Ethics class with a point-of-view that they're not sure how to defend. And after an Ethics class, most don't change their point-of-view. The most common outcome is that students are now armed with arguments to defend the positions they already held.

And if we're not careful, our churches can easily become the equivalent of an Ethics class.

I'm in my 7th year of full-time preaching in a local church. I'm not a veteran, but this isn't my first rodeo.

And I believe the Holy Spirit can change hearts in the context of a sermon. I've seen it happen. I am not a doomsday prophet pronouncing the death of the sermon. Something happens when the Word of God is preached in a way that connects with people's lives in real ways.

But I have overcome one radically naive belief of many young preachers. My scorecard for preaching used to be solely based on the feedback I received from people after the sermon. If I heard great feedback, it must have been a good sermon. If I heard bad feedback, I assumed it was a bad sermon.


What I'm beginning to realize is that sermon feedback often tells me more about the listener than me, as the preacher.

What do I mean?

On the one hand, when people like my sermons, it is often because I've said something that struck a chord with a belief the listener already has. In some way, I have confirmed their existing beliefs. And sometimes, they already have in mind how they can take something I said out of context to win an argument that had nothing to do with my point in the sermon.

In other words, good preachers are like good Ethics professors. We are at our "best" when we confirm and support the preexisting biases of our listeners.

On the other hand, when people hate my preaching, it is often because I've said something that challenges or contradicts a cherished belief that a listener already has. Sermon criticism often arises when you challenge the existing worldview of the congregation.

A word to preachers: Don't take too much credit for good or bad sermons that you preach. Often, you are a giant projection screen that people project their "junk" onto. 

And if we're not careful, preachers can become addicted to the positive feedback and massage their messages to defend the status quo.

The danger is when a church decides to build an echo chamber and rally the base much like the strategy of cable news networks on either end of the ideological spectrum.

And the danger is all around.

But there are moments when young preachers acknowledge their lack of depth.
There are moments when people truly change.
There are moments when churches choose to seek truth over the party line.

And in those moments, the kingdom breaks through.
Those are moments where true wisdom wins.
Those are moments the danger is overcome.

And those moments are all worth it.

Friday, November 07, 2014

How Do You Know What You Know?

Well, it's been more than 4 months since we moved to Texas and 3 months since I last wrote a blog post. The transition has gone well, but the transition has also consumed my writing time.

During my blog hiatus, I've been doing some thinking...about thinking.

And here's my question...

How do you know what you know?

This question might sound inane, irrelevant, or unimportant. But I believe this question is the reason for my writing hiatus. It's the reason you spend so much time trying to perfect the 144 characters in your Tweets.

Over the past 3 months, I've wanted to blog several different times. But each time I sat down to write, I was paralyzed and couldn't write. Perhaps it was my entrance into my 30s.

I have to admit I am increasingly tired of internet drama. I'm tired of creating it. I'm tired of contributing to it. I'm tired of reading it. That doesn't mean I won't be interested in creating internet drama in the days to come. It just means the last 3 months of silence have been the outcome my maturity or my controversy fatigue.

And I think it all boils down to this...I'm not sure how I know what I know.

Do you know how you know what you know?

My guess is you haven't given much thought to it. Am I right?

Over the next few posts, I want to take you on a journey to discover some reasons why you might believe what you believe.

You can call it a conversation about epistemology.
You can call it a practice in questioning yourself.
You can call it looking into your own brain.

But whatever you call it, it's the reason I stopped blogging.

And I'm back...I think.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Train Up A Child: Greg Pirtle

Greg Pirtle is one of the Student Ministers at the Greenville Oaks Church of Christ. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Abilene Christian University. Greg has served youth and families for nearly 15 years. And he is one of the staff members I get to work with beginning next week.

Time at the Table

I will never forget the words I heard from a friend years ago. I was 17 and it seemed to be another typical phone conversation that high school guys have – sports, school, girls – talking about things that seem so important at the time, but aren’t life changing. At some point though, I don’t remember how or why, the discussion took a turn and he said something that has remained with me for over 20 years now. 

“You don’t know how lucky you are, Greg.” “What do you mean?” I asked. His reply…

“You get to sit and eat dinner with your family.”

That’s it. That’s the life-changing sentence I recall, from one high school guy to another. Eating together was a regular practice in my home growing up, but I never considered the importance of it until that moment. And I never questioned it again.

I understand that when my friend was young, his family went through some difficult times, but he lived with godly, loving grandparents who took him to church and provided for him. It may have been a longing for his birthparents or wanting more attention from his grandparents, but of all the things he desired, it was to sit down at the table and eat dinner with his family.

It’s the secret ingredient that no one talks about, yet many statistics include. There are numerous studies showing that sharing meals as a family has a positive correlation in the values and habits of children and adolescents. No real explanations exist for why this is the case, but the evidence is pretty solid.

That alone should be enough to make eating together a priority, but I think there is something deeper. I believe there is a reason we often see Jesus eating with others and why the table is symbolic in our faith.

The table is the one place where everyone is equal. It’s the place where everyone shares a need to be fed. It’s the place where everyone serves and is served. It’s the place where we are reminded that God is the one who provides. It’s the place where we reconnect with God and the people we love.

To show up at the table means you’re committed to being a part of the family. The value and affirmation of each individual is highlighted in the conversation and experience. The bond of the collective group is strengthened and confirmed. 

Every meal is different. There are days where everyone is talking, sharing, laughing and enjoying the time together, and days where it seems way too loud and chaotic to be productive. Occasionally, the presence of a guest blesses our table and it gives us a chance to offer hospitality and enjoy time with friends. Some days no one wants to talk or some of us, maybe none of us really want to be there. Other days, one of us can’t be there, but those present still remember that person and anxiously await their return. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. Then, there are those days where someone becomes vulnerable and shares their heart – their joy, pain, disappointment, or hope – and we celebrate, cry, listen, encourage or do whatever seems natural to do in that moment.

The Internet is filled with ideas for making family dinner easy and fun, but our family has a few things we try to do. We always pray. We always share something about our day. We always eat. We always clean up together. That’s about it. Occasionally we’ll do different things like come up with fun questions to ask each other or eat out in the back yard (you can tell our family likes to live on the wild side), but it’s simple and it works for us. Regardless of what we do, just being together feels…sacred. 

I understand this practice is easier to begin when children are younger. I also understand that people are extremely busy and finding time to be together as a family in any location can be difficult. But let me encourage you to remember the words of my friend and his longing to sit at the table and share a meal with his family…and may your time at the table be full.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Train Up A Child: Hillary Hoover

Hillary Hoover is one of the Student Ministers at the Greenville Oaks Church of Christ. She attended Abilene Christian University and has served teens for several years. Hillary is one of the wonderful staff members that I will get to serve beside very soon. 

4 Things I’ve Learned From Observing Parents

If you don't want insight into parenting from someone who isn't a parent then consider this a fair warning. I do have a cat that I’ve kept alive for 4 years. I also have a lot of kids in my life, including four awesome younger siblings, a niece, and two nephews who I let slide down my stairs in a cardboard box yesterday, and regularly talk me into getting them ice cream. I can't give perspective from one parent to another. What I can give you is the perspective of someone who spends time with teenagers and hears sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle clues about their relationship with you. I can give you the perspective of someone who has observed a lot of parents.

In order to learn from them, I pay special attention to the parents who have good relationships with their teen. I would describe a good relationship between parent and teenager as mutual respect, positive regard for one another, and a healthy process for handling conflict. I’m sure good relationships include a multitude of other factors, and I’m aware that what I witness and interpret as a good relationship might look differently at church settings than in the home. What I’m sharing here are things I’ve seen consistently in a handful of families over time.  

Here is what I’ve observed, and some potential, hopefully practical, next steps to consider:

1. They don’t do it alone. 
They ask for help, prayer, wisdom and insight. They give and receive support from others. 

You are playing a divinely-appointed role. No one can be your child’s parent the way you can; you are irreplaceable. But, you’re not super-parent. I don’t mean that in a “you’re bad at this” kind of way. What I mean is that you probably don’t have all the answers, and you’ll probably never be able to execute flawless parenting. The hope that you ever could is rooted in a lie. The truth is that you were meant to do this in community.

As a parent, what is it you need? Do you need to be taught skills to control your anger? Do you need prayer for God to give you strength? Do you just need to talk to someone who understands? Your needs are valid, but those around you can’t read your thoughts or see into your family life to know what you need. It is your responsibility to ask for help. 

Who can help meet this need? Is it another parent? Possibly someone who could benefit from a friend on their parenting journey? Is it a youth minister or another adult who interacts with your teen regularly? Is it a caring grandparent, young-at-heart type? Is it a counselor? Maybe it’s some combination of these. 

Recognize your need, and persevere in searching for people who will walk alongside you. 

2. They show themselves grace. 
A lot of parents are really hard on themselves, but that rarely leads to productive change. Every parent has missteps, and your teen might point those out. But, if your value and security are in Jesus, then your shortcomings as a parent are opportunities for growth. Failure isn't doom, failure is learning. So give yourself grace, learn from it, and move forward.

Don’t loosen up on yourself and use grace as an excuse to keep dropping the ball in an area of your parenting that you know needs work. But, don’t be bullied by guilt into taking hard steps forward.  Ask God and a few trusted others to help you take the next step. He will see you through making that decision, setting that boundary, or having that difficult conversation. Speaking of difficult conversations…

3. They have the difficult conversations. 
As a teenager, the conversations I tried to strategically avoid, and resisted with heavy sighs, eye rolling, and sassiness were, in hindsight, some of the most meaningful and helpful long-term. It’s easy to talk about what’s for dinner, but it’s hard to talk about pornography. It’s easy to talk about college plans, but it’s hard to talk about doubting God. 

If you aren’t giving your teenager guidance and coaching, I guarantee they are getting it somewhere else. Somewhere else may be google, it may be friends (the blind leading the blind), or best case scenario it may be their small group leader at church. You can play those odds, or you can take intentional steps to prepare for the subject matter, and then trust that God will use that difficult conversation to shape your teenager to become more Christ-like. 

Spend time in prayer asking God to prepare you with wisdom for the conversation. Do your part to gain wisdom by reading up on the subject matter, and ask someone who is a few steps ahead of you for insight. 

4. They seek to listen, understand, and know their kids. 
They know things about them, like who their best friends are and what they’ve been watching on Netflix. But, they also seek to really know them. Like, what drives them, what makes them belly laugh, their spiritual health, and what kind of character they have. Your teen probably won’t know how to answer if you ask them how they’re growing spiritually, but if you’re looking and listening, they will show you.   

Grow in awareness; provide opportunities for your teen to share their thoughts, ask clarifying questions if there’s something you want to know more about (i.e. “What do you mean when you say that?”), and listen well when your teen talks.

What would you add to the list?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Train Up A Child: Marti O'Rear

Marti O'Rear is the Children's Minister at the Greenville Oaks Church of Christ. Marti graduated from Pepperdine University and has been a significant leader in the field of Children's Ministry for several years. I first learned about Marti's ministry to children and families when I attended the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, TX. I can't wait to partner with Marti as we seek to lead families and children to follow Jesus at Greenville Oaks.

I remember when I was a young parent and people would say, "Back in my day, it was just easier to raise my kids." Now that my daughters are grown and I am observing the lives of so many young parents, I think I can honestly say, "Back in my day, it was a whole lot easier to raise my kids." 

Please understand I am not assuming we did it better, but I believe we were not faced with as many challenges that families face today and I commend the families who are keeping a balance in their lives on behalf of their children and their family structure.

Obviously over the years since my children have grown, technology has expanded in a way that can be completely wonderful and tremendously challenging at the same time. Parents are having to make decisions as to when to introduce electronics or digital devices to be used for entertainment, communication, and education. They are having to monitor what and how it is used. The greater difficulty of it is that as adults, we also are having to learn to monitor ourselves for it indeed can get in the way of time and quality conversation taking place with our spouses and our children. It is not an easy task because we are faced daily if not hourly with the challenges of it in our work and in our homes. But from what I observe about many of our parents through actions and conversation, they are tackling the challenges. They are not allowing this to invade their desire to raise and help their children to know who God is in their lives. 

Recently in our children’s Bible classes, we talked about young king Josiah and the impact he had through reminding his people of following God one more time. He rid the country of the idols and when they discovered the Book of Law as they were attempting to rebuild the temple, he made sure it was read to the people to draw them back to God’s ways. I love what is said about Josiah: “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.” 

May we continue to guide our children in God’s plan for them. For indeed, He does have a plan for each of them. May we not allow the challenges of life to cause us to veer to the left or to the right, but walk the path that keeps our family close to God.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

I. Had. No. Idea.

10 years ago I married Holly Nicole Packer. 

I had no idea what I was doing.
I had no idea what love was.
I had no idea how loyal she would be.
I had no idea how much grace and forgiveness she would have to offer me.
I had no idea how how patient she would be.
I had no idea that she would be the reason I would stay in ministry in difficult times.
I had no idea that she would be the perfect personality to balance mine.
I had no idea what a wonderful mother she would be to our kids.

I. Had. No. Idea.

I just thought she was beautiful.

I was a 20-year old who made impulsive decisions like...a 20-year old. Like many 20-year olds in love, I'm sure people could have made good arguments against our decision to get married. But like many 20-year olds, those arguments would have only driven Holly and me to marry each other anyway just to prove them wrong.

I married her because I believed she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

And God protected us, despite our immature reasons for choosing to commit our lives to one another.

We couldn't see it at the time, but beauty will not last forever. At least, not the beauty I looked for 10 years ago.

But Holly's outward beauty (all my eyes could see at the time) paled in comparison to her inner beauty.

I. Had. No. Idea.

But perhaps that is how God keeps marriage interesting. With every passing decade, another level of beauty is unveiled. I can't wait to see what our second decade of marriage will reveal. I know there is so much more I have to appreciate that I haven't discovered yet.

Happy Anniversary Holly! I'm so grateful for your committed love that you show me on an daily basis. You have shown me the grace of God more concretely than anyone else ever has. You are a blessing to me.

You have given me three of the greatest gifts I have ever received: Maddox, Addison & Brooklyn.

May God bless the next 10 years!

And over the next decade, I can't wait to discover the things about you that will make me say again...

I. Had. No. Idea.