What Churches Are Doing Right

“Why does preaching always talk about the badness of humanity but not the goodness of humanity?”

It was an interesting question. My daughter, age 15, is an aspiring preacher, herself. She has noticed that the sermons that seem to have the greatest impact are the ones that talk about what we are doing wrong as Christians and as the church.

Our conversation went on to talk about the balance of convicting people (which will often come across as negative) with acknowledging the good that is being done (which will often come across as positive).

Her follow-up question was, “Why don’t we hear more of those acknowledgments?”

It is a necessary conversation to have. I hope wherever you live you can have this conversation with your family and with your church.

But it led me to think about this topic in a different context:

I have long stated that churches do a poor job helping addicts recover. I started this blog with the hopes of starting conversations, raising awareness, and providing insight into how “normal” people can help those of us who struggle with various forms of addiction.

But I have I forgot to mention the good parts? I have failed to point out that there are some good things going on in some Christian circles?

If I have, let me try to correct that.

Church offers a place of healing. One of the blessings of social media is to be connected with friends all over the country and even in some other parts of the world. That connection allows me to have a small glimpse into their places of worship. There a lot of churches out there who are intentional about being Spirit led. They are not focused primarily on tradition or primarily on show, but first and foremost on allowing God’s grace and mercy to flow through. Many pastors are learning about the pain their members are experiencing and speaking to that. If you have found one of these places, be grateful. If you are still looking, please do not give up. There are a lot of Godly houses of worship out there.

Church offers community. Many churches are learning how important it is to create community as opposed to padding numbers. Sunday school classes, small groups, activities, and service projects are becoming more and more popular. Which is great. One things most recovering addicts need is community. (Which is why the AA model has endured for 80+ years.) The community that is created does not need to necessarily address “Jesus and the 12 Steps” or some such topic. All community needs to do…is be community. This is also an area where home based churches are so powerful. People who have spent most of their lives in isolation are truly blessed by a community who knows them and loves them, warts and all.

Church provides guidance. And by guidance, I mean spiritual leadership. Mentoring. Examples of people living faithful lives even in the face of difficulties. It is much easier to get out of one’s self when there are others you can follow. Again, the guidance aspect of AA (sponsor-sponsee) is one of the reasons it has been around for so long. Churches are learning how important this is. This doesn’t have to be done formally (in fact, it goes hand in hand with community), but it just needs to happen. As people in recovery observe others, they learn that people can deal with the difficulties of life in healthy ways. I have been able to witness a lot of relationships between non-addicts and addicts that have yielded great results. Because both people just loved each other.

There is a lot that churches have to learn about dealing with addiction and recovery. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing anything right. So let me take this opportunity to thank the churches that have been instrumental in my recovery.

From Rochester, NY (Lawson Road Church of Christ and Hope Lutheran Church), to Pennington, NJ (Princeton Community Church), to Abilene, TX (Highland Church of Christ and Freedom Fellowship), I have been loved, nurtured, and carried to where I am today. My family has been shown extreme care and love as they dealt with all the consequences my addiction wrought upon our family. They have not gotten everything right. But neither have I. We are just a bunch of humans fumbling our way along this journey we call life.

And I have been able to witness a lot of the goodness of humanity along the way.

Baptizing Brandon

I baptized Brandon Sunday.

It was not something I was planning on. Brandon asked me about an hour before it was to occur. What an incredible honor to be asked to play a small role in a profound event in someone’s life.

Brandon is a new friend of mine. I met him a couple of months ago at Freedom Fellowship. He also started attending Highland Church and he attends the high school Bible class. So I get to see him quite a bit each week. Brandon is a good kid. He is kindhearted. He is friendly. He is inquisitive.

And he has Asperger’s Syndrome.

If you do not know Brandon, you may think he is awkward. You might even think he is rude. Because although he is friendly, he does not respond to social cues the way most people do. He may walk off in the middle of a conversation. He may change the subject of the conversation while you are in mid-sentence. He may blurt out answers to rhetorical questions while the speaker is teaching.

If you were to compare someone like me to someone like Brandon, it might appear that I have the capacity for much greater intellectuality than Brandon. It looks like I can process information quickly and abstractly. It seems I can understand nonverbal and verbal cues; I can read and retain facts and details well.

But Brandon has something that I desperately want: he loves God with all his heart. He is not distracted by all the things that pull my focus away.

Brandon is not overly concerned with what others think about him.

Brandon is always honest.

Brandon is not afraid to ask questions.

Brandon is not afraid to express joy and do things that make him happy.

Brandon is determined and will fight for what he wants; especially when it is something he deeply believes in.

I may know more about God than Brandon. But I do not know God as well as Brandon does.

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“God will take care of the babies and the fools.”

There may be a good intent behind this statement. But there a couple of problems with it: first, it is not in any way biblical. It is a made up statement to reassure humans who cannot completely wrap their minds around God’s great mercy and love. Second, it actually comes from a too narrow view of baptism—thinking it is only about erasure of sin. There is much more to baptism than that.

Is baptism about salvation? Yes.

Is baptism about claiming the identity of Jesus follower? Yes.

Is baptism the pledge of a clear conscience to God? Yes.

Is baptism a ritual that unites us to a great cloud of witnesses? Yes.

There are some people who know a lot about baptism when they go into the water. But none of that is a requirement for baptism. Every biblical example of baptism we have is of people being convicted and desiring a closer relationship with God. Did instruction follow? Sure.

But the point of the act of baptism was a person responding to the call of God on their life.

Some of the most beautiful baptisms I have witnessed are those where the person putting Christ on in baptism has an understanding of their relationship with Jesus that I doubt I will ever have.

There is also another issue with that statement: It is ridiculously arrogant. It assumes that because we are (what has been deemed) normal we are somehow better than those who are deemed abnormal. It ends up being a way we can serve as gatekeepers to God’s Kingdom. “Yeah, you may not be as good as I am, but God will have pity on you so come on in.” In other words, it leaves us in charge of determining who is or is not a “fool.”

And that is a dangerous position to put ourselves in.

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There are people who are different. And I don’t mean the surface differences of gender, ethnicity, and age.

There are people who have severe physical disabilities.

There are people who have severe mental health struggles.

There are people who are addicts.

There are people who cannot communicate the way most others in our society do.

And their faith is no less real or profound than anyone else’s. Their spirituality does not suffer because of those differences; at least, no more so than anyone else’s.

I guess what I am trying to say is this: instead of thinking that someone lacks the maturity and depth of your faith because they are more limited than you in some way, ask how they may know God more because of those perceived limitations.

Does God take care of babies and fools? Sure. (After all, he is taking care of you and me!) But God does not call them by those names.

God calls them sons and daughters.

Why I Tried To Quit Working With Middle Schoolers, But Failed Miserably

What would happen if we affirmed what our kids did right instead of criticizing everything they did wrong?

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I have just begun my third year leading a small group of middle school children during the Bible class hour on Sunday mornings.

One quick note: I often find it difficult to work with middle school children.

I struggle with patience.

I struggle with silence when a question is asked.

I struggle when I have to repeat myself with things like, “Please sit down.” “Please stop talking over one another.” “Please stop crawling on top of the furniture and trying to get on top of the refrigerator.”

In fact, I almost gave up on working with the middle schoolers this school year.

But something kept me coming back. This summer I did several things with the middle school group that were fun and enlightening. This past weekend, I got to spend time with 50 or so of the students at a retreat.

And something keeps amazing me in the greatest way: these kids love Jesus. Here is some proof:

  • No one was left alone this past weekend. Everyone was included.
  • The way these kids worship: singing, raising hands, listening to people read Scripture.
  • The heart they have for the outcast. I have heard these young men and women say things that some adults need to learn about loving those who are not a part of the “in crowd.”
  • I have watched them share communion together and wash one another’s feet as a sign of love and service.
  • They want to build relationships as they help people; they want to know who they are helping.

And it goes on and on. These kids are not perfect. There are still words spoken that should not be said. There are still jokes that are laughed at that would be better left untold. There are still moments when one person or a small group of people are excluded. Arguments break out. Crushes and “dating” at times threaten ongoing friendships. In other words, they are human. More specifically, they are humans going through an incredibly difficult time of biological and hormonal development.

I need to remind myself of this often, because too many times I get frustrated when they won’t quiet down soon enough. I watch the youth ministers and other adult volunteers and they seem to be much better at dealing with the chaos. They laugh and patiently wait as the noise dies down. (Meanwhile, I’m getting ready to yell and scream at the top of my lungs!)

They get something I don’t get: they see these young people as young people; complete with all the immaturity, silliness, and development that exists among them.

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Back to my original question: what would happen if we did more affirming and less criticizing?

My default is to point out what needs to be corrected. What if I could change that to pointing out what was done right? When I am frustrated with noise and chaos, what would happen if I started with, “You know, I love the ways you all worship. I love how you care for one another.”

What about making those statements even where there is no chaos? Why do I forget to affirm the greatness I see when everything is normal?

Here is what I am going to try and do, and I hope you will try with me:

  1. I am going to acknowledge the good I see as soon as I see it. These 11, 12, 13, and 14 year olds hear enough about what they are doing wrong. I am going to tell them what I see them doing right.
  2. When I see something that needs to be corrected, I am going to start with a statement of affirmation. They do so much right; let’s remind them of it, especially in the midst of a time for learning.
  3. I am going to let parents know they are raising good kids and they are not doing it alone. As parents, we need to remember we are not walking through this journey alone. We can all do this together.

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There is one more thing I need to remember when I work with middle school students:

It’s not about me.

One other thing I struggle with is my own sense of self perception. If the students are not listening to ME they are not respecting ME and missing out on all MY wisdom and life experience.

I don’t know exactly when I got so egotistical, but I really need to get over it. It is not my duty to mold all of these young men and women into spitting images of me (wow—that’s a scary thought). It is my job to walk with these young men and women as they grow more into the image of Jesus that God has called them to.

It is a privilege to walk through life with these middle school students and their parents. It is comforting to know that my own children are a part of this youth group with this leadership team and this group of volunteers. It is humbling to be a part of it all.

All it takes is to remember that these kids are sons and daughters of God. They need to be encouraged. They need to be taught. They need to be loved.

So let’s start catching them doing things right!

What I am Learning from Middle-Schoolers

This weekend, I am one of the chaperones on a mission trip to inner-city Houston with a bunch of middle school boys. It has been a very interesting experience, so far. As we have now completed our second day, we have visited people in a homeless park twice, gone shopping for people at that homeless park with money that has been raised all year long, picked up trash in the neighborhood around the church building, prayed with people in an apartment complex, and served lunch to people who have very little to eat.

We have been busy. But we have had time to play, too, taking some of the young children from the church with us to an Astros game and to an arcade/mini-golf/go-kart place.

We have more to come tomorrow and I am looking forward to it.

I have some learned some things about the 35 or so young men who are on this trip. Watching them load into and get out of the vans, observing them line up to go to lunch, seeing how they prepare to depart for their rooms while one of the leaders is giving them details on what to do confirms something for me:

These guys are self-centered, immature, and smell funny.

But they love God with a desire and passion I long to have.

Yes, these 12-15 year olds push to be first in line. Yes, these young men talk and laugh late into the night. Yes, they moan and groan when they cannot play longer because they have to line up to take showers. Yes, they do not always listen or do what they are told.

But here is what else they are doing: they are making friendships with people many of us never want to talk to. They handed out water to a large gathering of homeless people and starting talking to them. They asked if they could pray for them. They asked what they would like someone to bring them. They held hands and hugged these people who have been cast off by so many. One person used to play football in college, so the guys who talked to him bought him a football and brought it to him on our return trip to the homeless park. They played football with him and several others for 15 or 20 minutes. Have you ever seen people with nothing smile and laugh and look like they have no concerns in the world? Because I saw that yesterday. I watched today as these young people lined up to provide food and drink and then clean up after everybody (although, Big Rob put a few young whippersnappers to shame when it came to mopping the floor!).

These young men often act their age. And for those of us in our 30s, 40s, and 50s, that can be quite frustrating. But quite often, they act with wisdom, love, and kindness that far surpass their years.

I really hope I can be like them when I grow up.

When Jesus Enters…

On the day that Jesus rose from the dead, several women went to His grave to properly prepare His body for burial. They were not going to the tomb with anticipation that He might be alive again. They were probably hoping to say one last goodbye.
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Two men walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus; despondent and discouraged at all they had witnessed over the preceding days. Along the way they have an encounter with a man who asks them what has happened and He then proceeds to talk about the Law, the Prophets, and how Jesus was their fulfillment. Only they do not realize the man is Jesus until the moment that Jesus leaves.
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After hearing the report from the women that the angels said Jesus was alive again and after the two men ran from Emmaus to tell the disciples about their encounter, the disciples still gathered behind a closed door; afraid for their lives.
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When Thomas is told by the other apostles that they have seen Jesus, Thomas says he will not believe unless he sees the body himself. He will not believe until he places his fingers in the holes of Jesus’ hands or places his own hand into Jesus’ side.
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Loss. Uncertainty. Fear. Doubt.

These are the emotions that accompanied Jesus’ believers into that first Easter Sunday. These emotions were the ones experienced by those closest to Him; those who loved Him the most; those who followed Him the closest.

A far cry from the joy and celebration that exists on Easter Sundays now. And it makes sense. We should be more jubilant now. The grave has been defeated. He has risen. We stand on the testimony of believers for 2000 years who have celebrated this day. We can join with others and sing “He’s alive, He’s alive!”

But we must remember that all of those other emotions sometimes still creep into this day. Because life still happens. We still experience loss. We are still uncertain from time to time the path our life should take. We all have fear at one time or another due to a number of different factors. Many times we still doubt.

The resurrection does not promise us that all those things go away. The resurrection tells us that those things will not have the last word.

The resurrection does not insulate us from difficulties. The resurrection points us in hopeful expectation to the time when those difficulties will not exist.

Today, we celebrated the defeat of sin, death, and the grave. Yet all three still exist.

But they do not have the last word.

For when Jesus exited the tomb, He promised to be with us.

To be with us in the loss; in the uncertainty; in the fear; and in the doubt. To be with us in the joy and celebration. To be with us in the trials and the triumphs.
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I showed up at three separate worship assemblies today. I was not like Mary or Cleopas or Peter or Thomas. I was all set to shout and cheer and jump and clap and express as much joy as I could. However, a quick scan of the rooms I was in revealed to me that doubt and uncertainty and fear and doubt were still present.

Although the emotions were not my own, they were present among those I love. Yet still we worshipped a risen Lord. Still we proclaimed that death will not have the final word.

For when Jesus enters, everything changes.