Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What Your Thanksgiving Dinner Has to do with Ferguson

Over the past couple of nights I have been glued to the television watching the events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri. 

I have been paralyzed by the events that have unfolded. 

I hurt for the family of Michael Brown.
I know Officer Wilson's life will never be the same again. 
I sympathize with the business owners who must rebuild their destroyed businesses in Ferguson.
I mourn for the African-American community that feels let down by a system of law in a country that has repeatedly treated them as less than human for so many decades of our shared history.

But I am most upset at the ensuing conversations on social media from people I am close to. 

I don't have answers to the questions. I am paralyzed to write constructive thoughts. I want to learn to speak constructive words rather than destructive emotional words that cause damage.

So, what can we do? What can I do? What can you do?

Here's my best suggestion of a 1st step...

On Thanksgiving, many of us will find ourselves around tables with family and friends. Those tables will include conversations about current events. Ferguson will be a topic of conversation at many of our tables.

When someone at your Thanksgiving table makes a racist comment feeling as if they are safe in your presence to share what often goes unshared in diverse company, speak up and challenge the comment.

The comments will happen at more tables than not. It happens all too often. And too often I have been silent. And I have been wrong.

Because let's be honest. Some of the most ungodly things Christians say happen around tables where people feel safe to say the most ungodly things without fear of being challenged.

Challenge lovingly. Challenge in a way that doesn't shut down dialogue. Challenge in a way that forces your loved one to understand that you refuse to be an accomplice to racism. 

Don't excuse it. Don't condone it through your silence. 

That's it. 

It won't change the world. But it's a 1st step worth considering.

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.