Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Apologetics for a New Generation

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!


Today's Wild Card author is:


and the book:


Apologetics for a New Generation

Harvest House Publishers (March 1, 2009)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:



Sean McDowellis a popular speaker at schools, churches, and conferences nationwide. He is the author of Ethix: Being Bold in a Whatever World and the co–author of Understanding Intelligent Design and Evidence for the Resurrection.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $13.99
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Harvest House Publishers (March 1, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0736925201
ISBN-13: 978-0736925204

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


Introduction:

Apologetics for a New Generation

by Sean McDowell

The voice on the other end of the phone was familiar, but the question took me by complete surprise. “You teach your students to defend their faith, right?” asked John, a close friend of mine. “Tell me, how do you know Christianity is true?” John and I have had a special relationship for more than a decade, but this was the first time he had shown any real interest in spiritual matters. And he not only wanted to talk about God, he wanted an apologetic for the faith—he wanted proof, reason, and evidence before he would consider believing. John later told me his interest in God was piqued when his younger brother was diagnosed with a brain tumor at 16 years old. His younger brother has since had surgery and experienced complete recovery. In John’s own words, this experience “woke him up to his own mortality.”

A few weeks after our phone conversation, John was heading back to school in northern California, so we decided to meet for a chat over coffee. As we sat down at the Starbucks across from the historic San Juan Capistrano Mission, John jumped right in. “I’m scientific minded, so I need some evidence for the existence of God and the accuracy of the Bible. What can you show me?” For the next hour and a half we discussed some of the standard arguments for the existence of God, the historical evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the basis for the reliability of the Bible. I did my best to answer his questions, trying to show that Christianity is rationally compelling and provides the most satisfying solution to the deepest longings of the heart. John didn’t become a Christian at this point, but he confessed that he was very close and just needed more time to weigh the cost of his decision.

When I reflected on this discussion, comments I have heard over the past decade by young leaders came rushing to my mind:

“We live in a postmodern era, so apologetics is not important anymore.”

“Young people no longer care about reasons for the existence of the Christian God. What matters is telling your narrative and being authentic.”

“New generations today no longer need ‘evidence that demands a verdict’ or a ‘case for Christ.’”

“Conversion is about the heart, not the intellect.”

Of course, these statements are oversimplifications. Still, we must ask, is scientific proof an important part of faith? Do we live in an era in which people still have questions that demand a truth-related response? Is John the exception, the norm, or somewhere in between? If we are going to be effective in reaching a new generation of young people, few questions, it would seem, are more pressing and important than these.

Postmodernism

In the early 1990s, interest in postmodernism exploded in the church. Bestselling books and popular conferences featured seminars about doing ministry in a postmodern world. People disagreed about exactly what is meant by “postmodernism”—and they still do!—but many agreed that the world was leaving the modern era behind and wading into the unknown waters of the postmodern matrix.

According to many, postmodernism marks the most important cultural shift of the past 500 years, upending our theology, philosophy, epistemology (how we know things), and church practice. Some compare postmodernism to an earthquake that has overturned all the foundations of Western culture. Thus, to be relevant in ministry today, we must shed our modern tendencies and embrace the postmodern shift. According to many postmoderns, this shift includes replacing a propositional approach to the gospel with a primarily relational methodology.

To be honest, for the past 15 years I have wrestled profoundly with this so-called postmodern shift, reading books about postmodernism, attending conferences, and engaging in endless conversations with both Christians and non-Christians about the state of culture today. As much as the next guy, I want my life and ministry to be biblically grounded and culturally relevant. If the world is really undergoing a profound shift, I want to embrace it!

The world is certainly changing fast. Advancements in technology, transportation, and communication are taking place at an unprecedented rate. But what does this really mean for ministry today? Certainly, as postmoderns like to emphasize, story, image, and community are critical components. But does it follow that we downplay reason, evidence, and apologetics? Absolutely not! In fact, as the contributors to this book all agree, apologetics is more important than ever before.

Postmodern ideas do influence the worldview of youth today, but their thinking is most deeply influenced by our predominantly modern, secular culture. This can be seen most clearly by comparing the way they think about religion and ethics with the way they think about science. Youth are significantly relativistic when it comes to ethics, values, and religion, but they are not relativistic about science, mathematics, and technology. This is because they have grown up in a secular culture that deems science as the superior means of attaining knowledge about the world. In Kingdom Triangle, philosopher J.P. Moreland writes, “Scientific knowledge is taken to be so vastly superior that its claims always trump the claims made by other disciplines.” Religion and morals, on the other hand, are considered matters of personal preference and taste over which the individual is autonomous. This is why, if you’ve had a discussion with a younger person, you’ve probably heard her say, “That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me,” “Who are you to judge?” or “If that’s what they choose, whatever.” This is not because of their postmodern sentiments, but because their thinking has been profoundly shaped by their modernist and secular culture.

Popular writers such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins have written bestselling books attacking the scientific, historic, and philosophical credibility of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Their writings have wreaked havoc on many unprepared Christians. This has taken place while many inside the church have neglected the need to be able to defend the faith intellectually. Christians today are regularly being challenged to set forth the reasons for their hope. And with the ubiquity of the Internet, difficult questions seem to be arising now more than ever before. As professor David Berlinski writes in The Devil’s Delusion: “The question that all religious believers now face: Show me the evidence.”

I am convinced that C.S. Lewis was right: The question is not really if we will defend the Christian faith, but if we will defend it well. Whether we like it or not, we are all apologists of a sort.

The Apologetics Renaissance

During research for The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel was told by a well-known and respected theologian that no one would read his book. Lee was informed, “People don’t care about historical evidence for Jesus anymore. They’re more persuaded by experience and community than facts and reason.” Disappointed and frustrated, Lee returned home and told his wife that his efforts were seemingly in vain. Yet according to Lee, the largest group of readers who became Christians through his book has been 16- to 24-year-olds!

Philosopher William Lane Craig’s 2008 cover story for Christianity Today, “God Is Not Dead Yet: How Current Philosophers Argue for His Existence,” is a sign of things to come. Craig ties the awakening of apologetics to the renaissance in Christian philosophy that has taken place over the past 40 years. Science is more open to the existence of a Designer than at any time in recent memory (thanks to the intelligent design movement), and biblical criticism has embarked on a renewed quest for the historical Jesus consonant with the portrait of Jesus found in the Gospels.

The apologetics awakening can also be seen in the number of apologetics conferences that have sprouted up in churches all over the country. Tens of thousands of people are trained at apologetics events through efforts of various church denominations and organizations, such as Biola University, Southern Evangelical Seminary, Focus on the Family, and more. Resources on apologetics have also exploded in the past few years. This is good news because America and the church continue to become more and more secular. Those who describe themselves as “religious nonaffiliated” have increased from 5 to 7 percent in the 1970s to 17 percent in 2006.

Why Apologetics Matters

To say that apologetics is critical for ministry today is not to say that we just continue business as usual. That would be foolish. Our world is changing, and it is changing rapidly. More change has happened since 1900 than in all prior recorded history. And more change will occur in the next 20 years than the entire last century. But God does not change (Malachi 3), and neither does human nature. We are thoughtful and rational beings who respond to evidence. People have questions, and we are responsible to provide helpful answers. Of course, we certainly don’t have all the answers, and when we do provide solid answers, many choose not to follow the evidence for personal or moral reasons. But that hardly changes the fact that we are rational, personal beings who bear the image of God.

People often confuse apologetics with apologizing for the faith, but the Greek word apologia refers to a legal defense. Thus, apologetics involves giving a defense for the Christian faith. First Peter 3:15 says, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense [apologia] to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and respect.” Jude encouraged his hearers to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). The biblical evidence is clear: All Christians are to be trained in apologetics, which is an integral part of discipleship. This involves learning how to respond to common objections raised against the Christian faith and also how to positively commend the gospel to a particular audience.

We have certainly made mistakes in the way we have defended our beliefs in the past (as chapters in this book will illustrate), but this hardly means we should abandon apologetics altogether. Rather, we ought to learn from the past and adjust accordingly. Beyond the biblical mandate, apologetics is vitally important today for two reasons.

Strengthening Believers

Apologetics training can offer significant benefits in the personal life of Christians. For one thing, knowing why you believe what you believe and experiencing it in your life and relationships will give you renewed confidence in sharing your faith. I have the privilege of speaking to thousands of young people every year. Inevitably, whenever I speak on topics such as moral relativism, the case for intelligent design, or evidences for the resurrection, I get e-mails and comments on my Facebook page from students who were strengthened in their faith. One recently wrote, “I was at the [youth event] this past weekend and absolutely loved it! All the information was so helpful, but I connected the most with yours. All the scientific proof of Christianity and a Creator just absolutely amazes me!”

Training in apologetics also provides an anchor during trials and difficulties. Emotions only take us so far, and then we need something more solid. Presently, most teens who enter adulthood claiming to be Christians will walk away from the church and put their emotional commitment to Christ on the shelf within ten years. A young person may walk away from God for many reasons, but one significant reason is intellectual doubt. According to the National Study of Youth and Religion, the most common answer nonreligious teens offered for why they left their faith was intellectual skepticism. This is why David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, writes in his book unChristian, “We are learning that one of the primary reasons that ministry to teenagers fails to produce a lasting faith is because they are not being taught to think.”

The church is failing young people today. From the moment Christian students first arrive on campus, their faith is assaulted on all sides by fellow students and teachers alike. According to a ground-breaking 2006 study by professors from Harvard and George Mason universities, the percentage of agnostics and atheists teaching at American colleges is three times greater than in the general population. More than 50 percent of college professors believe the Bible is “an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts.” Students are routinely taught that Darwinian evolution is the substitute creator, that the Bible is unreliable, that Jesus was like any other religious figure, and that any Christian who thinks differently is at best old-fashioned and at worst intolerant, bigoted, and hateful. These ideas are perpetrated in the classroom through reason, logic, and evidence. The church must teach students to counter these trends.

This was exactly the experience of Alison Thomas, a recent seminary grad who is now a speaker for Ravi Zacharias Ministries (and the author of the chapter “Apologetics and Race”). As a college freshman, her faith was immediately attacked from every direction. Combine the intellectual challenges with the lack of nutrition, sleep, and Christian mentors, and according to Alison, it was a recipe for disaster: “I almost abandoned my faith in college because I was not sure if the difficult questions people asked me about Christianity had satisfying answers.” Alison is absolutely convinced that had she been prepared for the attack on her faith, she could have been spared much doubt, sin, and heartache. Her story could be multiplied thousands of times, but unfortunately, too often with different results.

Reaching the Lost

The apostles of Christ ministered in a pluralistic culture. They regularly reasoned with both Jews and pagans, trying to persuade them of the truth of Christianity. They appealed to fulfilled prophecy, Jesus’ miracles, evidence for creation, and proofs for the resurrection. Acts 17:2-3 says, “And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.’ ” Some were persuaded as a result of Paul’s efforts.

According to pastor Tim Keller, this is similar to the method we should adopt today. Keller is the avant-garde pastor of Redeemed Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and the author of The Reason for God, an apologetics book which has soared atop the New York Times bestselling nonfiction list. In an interview for Christianity Today, Keller responded to the claim that rationality is unimportant for evangelism: “Christians are saying that the rational isn’t part of evangelism. The fact is, people are rational. They do have questions. You have to answer those questions. Don’t get the impression that I think that the rational aspect takes you all the way there. But there’s too much emphasis on just the personal now.” Tim is right: Evangelism today must be both relational and rational.

Greg Stier agrees: “Any claims concerning the death of apologetics have been greatly exaggerated…Those who believe apologetics aren’t important for evangelizing postmoderns have misdiagnosed this generation as purely relational; these young people are rational, too.” According to Greg, this generation of young people is more open to spiritual truth than any generation in recent history. (See my brief interview with him on page 124.)

Does this mean young people are walking around with deep spiritual questions at the forefront of their minds? Not necessarily. But it does mean that many young people are open to spiritual truth when motivated in the right way. The problem is not with apologetics but with our failure to motivate people. Much ministry today is focused on meeting a felt need, but the real difficulty is to take a genuine need and make it felt. If done in the context of a relationship, apologetics can be one effective means of accomplishing this. For thoughts on how to motivate young people in this regard see the chapter “Making Apologetics Come Alive in Youth Ministry” by Alex McFarland.

In my experience, people who criticize apologetics have often had one or two unsuccessful attempts and written off the entire enterprise. Rather, we need to put apologetics into perspective. Considering that a minority of people who hear the gospel choose to become followers of Christ in the first place, we shouldn’t be surprised that many people are unmoved by reason and evidence. It’s unrealistic to expect most people to respond positively to apologetics, just as it is unrealistic to expect most people to respond to a presentation of the gospel. The road is narrow in both cases (Matthew 7:14).

If only a few people will respond, why bother? For one thing, those who respond to apologetics often become people of significant influence who are deeply committed to the faith. This has certainly been the case in the life of my father, Josh McDowell. He became a believer as a pre-law student while trying to refute the evidence for Christ. I’m deeply humbled by the number of doctors, professors, politicians, lawyers, and other influential professionals who have come to Christ through his speaking and writing. He has spoken to more young people than anyone in history, and his books have been printed in millions of copies and translated all over the world. Honestly, I can hardly speak anywhere without someone from the audience sharing how instrumental he was in his or her coming to Christ. I’m proud to be his son.


Apologetics for a New Generation

Apologetics is advancing like never before, and a few characteristics mark effective apologetics for a new generation.

The New Apologetics Is Missional

There is a lot of talk right now about being missional, that is, getting out of our safe Christian enclaves and reaching people on their turf. This mind-set must characterize apologetics for a new generation. Each spring Brett Kunkle and I take a group of high school students to the University of California at Berkeley to interact with leading atheists from northern California. We invite various speakers to challenge our students and then to participate in a lively period of questions and answers. The guests always comment that our students treat them kindly, ask good questions, and are different from stereotypical Christians. This is because, in our preparatory training, we emphasize the importance of defending our beliefs with gentleness and respect, as Peter admonishes (1 Peter 3:15).

In Western culture today, Christians are often criticized for being exclusive, closed-minded, and intolerant. Missional apologetics is one way to help shatter this myth firsthand. Interestingly, one of the atheistic presenters from Berkeley spent 45 minutes arguing that the skeptical way of life is the most open-minded and the least dogmatic. I kindly pointed out that it was us—Christians!—who were willing to come up to their turf and give them a platform to present their ideas.

This is not the only perception of Christians that can be softened by missional apologetics. In his book unChristian, David Kinnaman paints a sobering view of how Christians are viewed by those outside the faith. For example, nearly half of young non-Christians have a negative view of evangelicals. Six common perceptions characterize how young outsiders view Christians: hypocritical, too focused on getting converts, anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental. To help overcome these perceptions, says Kinnaman, Christians must build meaningful, genuine relationships with non-Christians and live out their faith consistently. It is in the context of a loving relationship, says Dan Kimball in his chapter, “A New Kind of Apologist,” that we most effectively reach the lost today.

The New Apologetics Influences How We Live

Though I do not agree with his philosophy of pragmatism, one insight of William James has practical importance for apologetics training today. James said that when considering any idea, we should always ask, what difference does it make? If it makes no existential difference to the way we live whether it is true or false, then according to James, we should not bother with it. When training in apologetics, we must regularly ask, so what? How does belief in the historical resurrection of Jesus affect my relationship to myself, to others, and to God? How does belief in creation influence my view of the environment? How does the Incarnation affect my self-image?

Much of the criticism today is not with apologetics per se but with our failure to connect apologetics to the way we live. Some of this criticism is deserved. If we don’t apply the truth to our relationship with God and others, what’s the point? Brian McLaren, a leading voice in the Emergent church, is right: Having right answers that don’t lead us to better love God and our neighbors are more or less worthless.

A remarkable number of outspoken critics of Christianity have backgrounds of personal disappointment with Christians and the church. Pastor Tim Keller explains how our personal experience influences our evaluation of the evidence for Christianity:

We all bring to issues intellectual predispositions based on our experiences. If you have known many wise, loving, kind, and insightful Christians over the years, and if you have seen churches that are devout in belief yet civic-minded and generous, you will find the intellectual case for Christianity more plausible. If, on the other hand, the preponderance of your experience is with nominal Christians (who bear the name but don’t practice) or with self-righteous fanatics, then the arguments for Christianity will have to be extremely strong for you to concede that they have any cogency at all.

The great philosopher Frederick Nietzsche once commented that Christians have no joy. No wonder he found the evidence for God unconvincing. The sad part about his observation is that Christians, of all people, have the best reason to be joyful. If Christ has not risen, says Paul, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). But if Christ has risen—and the evidence for this is compelling—then even though we go through pain and difficulty in this life, we will share eternity with Him. Christians joyfully living out their faith in the power of the Holy Spirit provide one of the most powerful apologetics at our disposal.

The New Apologetics Is Humble

I failed miserably to act humbly a few years ago when getting my hair cut in Breckenridge, Colorado. The hairdresser noticed I was carrying a copy of The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Leslie Newbigin. So she asked, “Are you a Christian? If so, how can you explain all the evil in the world?” I proceeded to give her a ten-minute lecture about the origin of evil, the nature of free will, and the Christian solution. My reasons were solid, but I lacked humility and sensitivity in my demeanor. I had a slick answer to her every question, but I missed the fact that her needs went beyond the intellect to her heart. Eventually she started crying—not because she became a Christian but because she was so offended by my callousness. To be honest, it was a bit unsettling having a hairdresser, who held sharp scissors in her hand, crying and lecturing me while cutting my hair. But the point was well taken.

In retrospect, I should have first asked her some questions to try and understand why evil was such a pressing issue in her life. What pain had she experienced that caused her to question the goodness of God? Sometimes questions are primarily intellectual, but more often than not they stem from a deeper longing of the heart.

From the beginning, Christian apologists have exemplified the importance of humility in presenting our defense of the faith. There is a reason why 1 Peter 3:15 begins with “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts” and ends with “gentleness and respect.” Before presenting a case for the Christian faith, one must first submit to the lordship of Christ. The heart of the apologist is the basis of all apologetic training. People still don’t care how much you know if they don’t know you care. The only way we can truly demonstrate the love of Christ to people is by first having our hearts humbled by God. When our hearts are not right, we can do more harm than good.

As you will see throughout this book, these are not the only factors characterizing the emerging apologetics awakening. The rest of the chapters in this book will spur you to think creatively about how apologetics fits into the many critical components of effective ministry today. Authors will tackle issues such as race, gender, media, homosexuality, Jesus, brain research, culture, youth, spiritual formation, and more—all with an eye on how we can effectively minister to new generations today.

Conclusion

In the fall of 2007, Christianity Today International and Zondervan partnered to conduct attitudinal and behavioral research of American Christians. Leadership Journal discussed the findings with leading pastors and religious experts to ascertain implications for ministry today. Three critical issues emerged:

The local church is no longer considered the only outlet for spiritual growth.
Churches must develop relational and community-oriented outreach.
Lay people have to be better equipped to be God’s ambassadors [apologists].
The third point on this list took me by surprise, not because I disagree with it, but because it’s refreshing to hear leaders emphasize the renewed need for apologetics. In the article, Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland church in Longwood, Florida, said, “We need to preach with apologetics in mind, with a rational explanation and defense of the Christian faith in mind.” One of the best ways to counter biblical illiteracy, claims Hunter, is to equip active Christians as teachers, ambassadors, and apologists. Yes! Ministry today certainly includes much more than presenting a case for our hope, but this is one critical piece we must not neglect. The time has never been greater for a renewed focus on apologetics.

You may be wondering what happened to John, my friend I mentioned at the beginning of the chapter. He has not become a Christian yet, but he is still inching along. We continue to have good discussions about God and the meaning of life. I trust and pray that someday he will choose to follow Jesus. Had my youth pastor, parents, and teachers not trained me in apologetics, I couldn’t have helped him at all. You and I can’t be ambassadors without having answers to tough questions. So I’ve assembled this team of (mostly) young apologists to help you develop a biblical and culturally relevant approach for reaching this new generation. Let’s go!


Chapter One:

A Different Kind of Apologist

by Dan Kimball

Apologetics is desperately needed more than ever in our emerging culture. But I believe that a different kind of apologist may be needed.

I realize that some may disagree with me. I hear fairly often from some church leaders that emerging generations are not interested in apologetics: “In our postmodern world there isn’t interest in rational explanations regarding spiritual issues.” “We don’t need logically presented defenses or offenses of the faith.” These kinds of statements always confuse me. The reason is simple: In my dialogue and relationships with non-Christian and Christian young people for more than 18 years, I am not finding less interest in apologetics, but actually more interest. The more we are living in an increasingly post-Christian and pluralistic culture, the more we need apologetics because people are asking more and more questions. We desperately need to be ready to answer the tough questions of today’s emerging generations.

This increased interest and need for apologetics in our emerging culture fits very nicely with one of the classical and well-known Bible passages on apologetics:

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15-16 niv).

Over the past couple of years I have heard apologists emphasize “gentleness and respect,” which is an absolutely wonderful shift. Some Christians who are drawn to apologetics can have temperaments which may not always come out with gentleness and respect as they engage non-Christians. But this passage includes something else that, oddly, we don’t hear much about. Yet it is critical for our discussion of apologetics for new generations.

People Can’t Ask If They Don’t Know Us

The passage in 1 Peter 3 says “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Let me ask you, have you ever been standing on the street or in line at the supermarket and had a stranger walk up to you and say, “Excuse me. Can you tell me the reason for the hope that you have?”

That doesn’t happen, because strangers do not generally walk up to people they don’t know and ask questions like this. Strangers also don’t know the other person, so they wouldn’t be able to know if someone has hope or not. So how does someone know and trust Christians well enough to see the hope that they have and trust and respect them enough to ask them about it?

This is the biggest missing component in many of our approaches to apologetics today. It is one of the biggest shifts we are seeing with emerging generations. Apologetics is still needed today, but the apologist isn’t necessarily trusted in our culture today. In the 1960s and 1970s, many younger people left the church because they (rightly) felt the church was often irrelevant. The critical questions that younger generations had at that time were not being answered. The music and various approaches to preaching and worship were becoming outdated and not speaking to new generations at that time. So when churches revamped their approaches to worship and preaching and developed clear answers for some of the questions people had, many people (even if they weren’t Christian) became interested.

The culture still had a general respect for Christianity. So it was easier to communicate and also have a voice that folks would listen to. For those who grew up in a church but walked away, answers to their critical questions were extremely valuable. But today, Christians and the church aren’t trusted like they were. Before, we were hoping to see people return to the church. Today, many have never been part of a church in the first place.

Times have changed. But the Spirit of God is still alive and active. People will always be created with questions about life, meaning, purpose, and God. Apologetics are still important today for new generations, but our approach must change.

Hanging Out with the Wrong People

In my early days as a Christian, I constantly read books on apologetics so I could share with my non-Christian friends about my newfound hope. My friends were concerned that I was following a religion and reading a book (the Bible) that they felt was written by primitive, ancient, and uneducated people. So this challenge kept me studying to respond to their concerns. The more I read and studied, the more my confidence in Christianity grew.

I eventually joined a large, wonderful church and made some friendships with others who also liked apologetics. We spent hours talking about theology, reasons why we could trust the Bible, and ways to respond to common objections such as the problem of evil. I bought almost every apologetics book available and attended many apologetics conferences. I loved having Christian friends whom I could talk to about apologetics, but something slowly dawned on me: I wasn’t really talking to any non-Christians anymore about apologetics. I realized that I was hanging out all the time with Christians who loved discussing apologetics and the tough questions about the faith. But I wasn’t spending time with the non-Christians who were asking these tough questions.

As I began exploring this further, I discovered that many people who like apologetics primarily socialize with other like-minded people. Certain temperaments and personalities cause some Christians to become more interested in apologetics than others, and they connect with each other. Having community with other Christians who share common interests such as apologetics is a wonderful thing. But I realized that my Christian friends and I weren’t using apologetics to engage non-Christians. We were only talking with each other.

I discuss this in They Like Jesus but Not the Church, where I included this diagram, which lays out a typical pattern: The longer we are Christians, the less we socialize with non-Christians. We may work with non-Christians or have neighbors who are non-Christians. But the types of conversations we have and the trust that we build changes dramatically when we actually befriend and socialize with those outside the faith.

The danger is that we don’t do this on purpose. It happens unintentionally. But because we have limited time and we enjoy hanging out with others who think like us, we can remove ourselves from the very ones we are sent by Jesus to be salt and light to (Matthew 5). As the Spirit molds us to be more like Jesus, the majority of people who benefit from our growth are already Christians. We are salt and light to each other, not to the world. The more skilled in apologetics we get, the fewer people we know who actually need it.

You may resist hearing this, and I hope I am wrong about you. But let me ask you a question or three:

Think about discussions you have had about apologetics with people in the past six months. How many have been with Christians, and how many have been with those who aren’t Christians yet?
Let me make this more direct and personal:

Who are your non-Christian friends?
When was the last time you went out to a movie or dinner or simply hung out with a non-Christian? If people are to trust us in order to ask us for the hope we have, we must spend time with them and build relationships. The typical answers I get from Christians quite honestly scare me. Again, I hope I am wrong about you. Do you intentionally place yourself in situations or groups where you will be likely to meet new people? For me, music often provides an open door. So whether I’m with the manager of a coffee house I frequent or the members of local bands, I try to have the mind-set of a missionary and meet new people. This sounds so elementary and I almost feel silly having to type this out. But this leads to a deeper question:

Who are you praying for regularly that is not a Christian?
Our prayers represent our hearts. What we pray for shows us what we are thinking about and valuing. When the unsaved become more than faces in the crowd, when they include people we know and care for, we can’t help but pray for them. And we must remember: We can be prepared with apologetic arguments, but the Spirit does the persuading. Are you regularly praying for some non-Christian friends?

Again, I feel almost embarrassed asking this. But when I started realizing that I had fallen into this trap, I wondered if I was alone. As I began asking other Christians about this, many seemed to be like me. I even asked an author of apologetics books to tell me about his recent conversations with non-Christians that included apologetics. But he couldn’t remember any recent examples. He was talking only to Christians! This isn’t bad, but it raises an important question: How do we know the questions emerging generations outside the church are asking if we are only talking with Christians?

I recently talked with a person who teaches apologetics to young people. As we talked, he shared how interested youth are in apologetics (and I fully agree). I asked about the types of questions he is hearing, and I was surprised that his experience seemed quite different from mine. I was working with non-Christian youth at that time, but he was speaking primarily with Christian youth at Christian schools and youth groups. Nothing is wrong with teaching Christian youth how to have confidence in their faith through apologetics. This is an important task we need to be doing today in our churches. But if we are focusing our energy and time listening mainly to Christians, how do we know what the questions non-Christian youth or young adults have? This brings me to my next point.

Providing Answers Before Listening to Questions

The effective apologist to emerging generations will be a good listener. Most of us have been good talkers. We Christians often do the talking and expect others to listen. But in our emerging culture, effective communication involves dialogue. Being quiet and asking questions may not be easy for some folks, but those are critical skills we need to develop in order to reach new generations.

A 20-year-old Hindu became friends with someone in our church. Eventually she began coming to our worship gatherings. I got to meet with her at a coffee house, and because I was sincerely curious, I politely asked her some questions. How did she become a Hindu? What is Hinduism to her? What does she find most beneficial in her life about it? She eagerly told me stories that helped me understand her journey and her specific beliefs. As much as I wanted to, I didn’t interrupt her or jump in to correct her when I felt she was saying things that may have been inconsistent. I didn’t interrupt and tell her that there cannot be hundreds of gods, that there is only one true God. I simply asked questions and listened carefully.

Eventually, she asked me about the differences between Christianity and Hinduism. I gently and respectfully tried to compare her story and what she said with the story of Jesus and the narrative of the Bible. But I didn’t try to discredit her beliefs or show why what I believed was true. She asked me about the origins of Christianity, and I was able to draw a timeline on a napkin that included creation, the Garden of Eden, and the fall. I explained that people eventually began worshipping other gods or goddesses, not the original one God. I then walked her through a basic world religions timeline I had memorized and explained where Hinduism fit in that timeline. It truly was a dialogue, as I would stop and see if she had any input or comments.

I didn’t show her why I felt Hinduism was wrong; rather, I let our discussion speak for itself. The differences between Christianity and Hinduism became obvious. A few weeks later, she told me in a worship gathering that she had left Hinduism and chosen to follow Jesus. My talk with her was not the turning point. She had many conversations with other Christian friends in our church. They knew her beliefs, loved her, invited her into community, and lived out the hope they have. She could see it and experience it, and eventually she wanted to know the reason for the hope in her friends. I definitely needed to be ready with apologetics when I met with her. But the reason she even met with me was that we built trust first. Trust was built with some of her Christian friends. Trust was built during conversations I had with her when she came to our worship gatherings. Eventually, this trust led to her being open to dialogue specifically about her Hindu faith and to ask questions. First she was valued as a person and listened to, and then came the questions about the hope we have. Let me ask you a few questions about this:

On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate yourself as a listener in conversations about faith?
What are some of the questions you have been asked as a result of building trust and listening? Would anyone have asked those questions if you didn’t build trust and listen first?
Stockpiling Ammunition or Building Trust

I recently heard of someone who was taking church groups on the street to walk up to total strangers and strike up conversations and then use apologetics with them. I respect the passion to reach lost people, but I was saddened by the methodology. The leader chose this area because it was highly populated with homosexuals. From my perspective, this is almost the opposite of the methodology that is effective with new generations. We may have our apologetics gun loaded, but we haven’t built trust. We haven’t gained a voice in their lives, so they don’t trust us enough to listen to us. Walking up to total strangers and asking them questions about very personal things immediately puts them on the defense. The discussion begins in a semi-confrontational way. This reinforces some of the stereotypes of Christians we need to break. Non-Christians are often open to discussing personal beliefs about religion and worldviews, but this normally occurs in the context of trust and friendship.

I recently met a guy in his twenties who was working at a coffee house. I did my usual thing: I selected one place to frequent and eventually got to know those who work there. We eventually started talking about all kinds of things, mainly music at first. Eventually I told him I was a pastor at a church and began asking his opinion on things. I asked about his impressions of church and Christianity. I shared that I knew about Christians’ bad reputation and that I wanted to know how he felt about that. This wasn’t the first thing we talked about, and we had begun to build a friendship, so he was happy to talk to me about this. One of his main issues was that the Christians he met knew nothing about other religions, but they would tell him he should be a Christian. His concern was that Christians were naive about anything but what they believed, and he didn’t respect that.

As I listened, I didn’t try to butt in and comment when he would say something I disagreed with. Instead, I listened, asked clarifying questions, took notes, and thanked him for each opinion. I asked him what he believed and why he believed what he did. And then the inevitable happened—he asked me what I believed.

Knowing his beliefs, I was able to construct an apologetic that catered to his story and specific points of connection. As with so many people, the issue of pluralism and world religions was a major point of tension that he felt Christians are blind about. Eventually our conversation moved to the resurrection of Jesus, which he saw as a myth. I used the classical Josh McDowell resurrection apologetics, explaining various theories of the stolen body and why they fell apart upon scrutiny. I shared about the guards at the tomb and how they would defend the sealed tomb. I was ready (thanks to Josh McDowell), and my friend was absolutely fascinated by that. I could tell he had never heard this before, and as we ended our time together, he thanked me. I didn’t press him for a response.

The following week I went back to the coffee house, and he told me that he now believed in the resurrection. He had been totally unaware that there are actually good reasons to believe it is true. Over the weekend he got a copy of the Bible to read the resurrection story and had no idea it was repeated in each of the Gospels. This is why I am convinced that regardless of how postmodern emerging generations may be, they receive apologetic arguments when trust is built. Of course, it is the Holy Spirit who does the work in someone’s heart—not clever arguments. But God still uses apologetics in our emerging culture.

Consider these questions:

When you are studying apologetics, does your heart break in compassion for the people you are preparing to talk to? Or are you stockpiling ammunition to show people they are wrong?
When you have used apologetics with those who aren’t Christians yet, do you find your tone being humble, broken, and compassionate, or is your tone argumentative and perhaps even arrogant (although you would not like to admit that)?
Critical Apologetics Issues

I know that most apologists are not arrogant, ammunition firing, non-listening people who don’t have any non-Christian friends and only talk to other Christians. But at the same time, a little hyperbole may raise up some ugly truth we perhaps need to admit. As I shared, I know I have been guilty of these very things. We must all examine ourselves and be brutally honest about it. Too much is at stake not to.

As statistics are showing, we are not doing a very good job of reaching new generations. Our reputation is suffering. But at the same time, I have so much optimism and hope. Apologetics is a critical factor in the evangelism of new generations. That is why I was thrilled to be part of this book.

If you are a leader in a church, I hope you are creating a natural culture in your church of teaching apologetics and training people how to respond to others when asked for the hope that they have. But again, how we train them to respond is just as important as the answers themselves. The attitudes and tone of voice we use as we teach reveal what we truly feel about those who aren’t Christians and their beliefs. Our hearts should be broken thinking of people who have developed false worldviews or religious beliefs and don’t know Jesus yet. How we teach people in our church to be “listeners” and build friendships is critical. Here are some of the key things we must be ready to answer today:

The inspiration and trustworthiness of the Bible. Everything comes back to why we trust the Bible and what it says about human sexuality, world religions…everything. Why the Bible is more credible than other world religious writings is critical.
Who is Jesus? Emerging generations are open to talking about Jesus but for the most part, they have an impression that He is more like Gandhi than a divine Savior. This gives us a wonderful opportunity to share why Jesus is unique and to provide an apologetic for His resurrection.
Human sexuality. We need to be well-versed in why we believe what we do about the covenant of marriage between a man and woman, about human sexuality, and about sexual ethics in general.
World religions. We must have an adequate understanding of the development and teachings of world religions. I don’t meet many younger people who are hard-core Buddhists, but many are empathetic to Buddhist teachings. Many pick and choose from different faiths. They are often surprised to see that many religions are mutually exclusive.
The Most Important Apologetic

As I close this chapter, I want to remind us that the ultimate apologetic is really Jesus in us. Are our lives demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5), such as gentleness, kindness, patience, and love? Are we being salt and light with our attitudes and actions toward people? Are our conversations filled with grace and seasoned with salt (Colossians 4:6)? Do our lives show that we are paying attention to the things Jesus would, including the marginalized, the oppressed, and the poor? People watch and listen. If they trust the messenger, perhaps they will be more open to listen.

We can have all the answers ready to give people who ask, but are they asking us? If not, perhaps we have not yet built the trust and relationship and respect that lead them to ask us for the hope we have. Maybe that’s where we need to start—with our hearts and lives. If we will, I can almost guarantee that others will ask us for the hope we have.

May God use us together on the mission of Jesus as we are wise as serpents but as innocent as doves. May God use our minds and hearts to bring the reason for the hope we have to others. And may God put others in our lives who will ask for the hope as they watch us live it out.


Dan Kimball is the author of several books, including They Like Jesus but Not the Church, and a member of the staff of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Power Moms- Review and GIVEAWAY!! CLOSED

This giveaway is now CLOSED! Congratulations to NotNessie and The Giveaway Diva for winning this great prize.

Product Description (from Amazon.com)

Wendy Walker,author of Four Wives and The Queen of Suburbia, has become the go-to media expert on women leaving the workforce to raise their families and run their homes. This book contains 101 great stories from mothers who have made the choice to stay home, or work from home,while raising their families These multi-tasking, high-performing women have become today's Power Moms. Every stay-at-home and work-from-home mom will view this book as having been written just for her. Perfect for book groups, it will contain a reader guide.

MY REVIEW

This is the perfect book for a mom like me! The stories are short and sweet and easy to read in a hurry... which is vital when you have 3 young kids running around. I could pick it up whenever I had a minute, read a quick story and put it down again to do a load of laundry, change a diaper, play hide-and-seek... and then come back and start right where I left off! As I read I cried, I laughed out loud, and I was generally amazed at just how similar we all are! I am a story fanatic and Chicken Soup for the Soul- Power Moms is packed full of wonderful real-life stories.

I have found that knowing I am not alone in my struggles and joys as a mom is VITAL to my sanity- this book shows that clearly. All of us moms struggle, we all have joy, and we are all a part of a greater community of women just doing our best to be the best moms we can be! Reading the stories of so many moms- some famous, some not-so-famous, reminds us we are not alone. I really appreciated that this book is relevant to both stay-at-home moms and work-at-home moms. Chicken Soup for the Soul- Power Moms would make a wonderful gift to the young moms in your life!

Here is the book trailer:


WOULD YOU LIKE TO WIN A COPY OF CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL POWER MOMS? I have TWO copies to give away today.

1. Leave me a comment here telling me one of your mommy moments or a mommy moment you witnessed in someone else! That's it :) And you know what? You can totally do this as often as you like, just put each moment in a separate comment. :)

Want even more entries? Leave a SEPARATE comment for each step you complete please...

2. Add my button to your site and leave me the link.

3. Blog about this giveaway and leave me the link to the post.

4. Twitter this giveaway.

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6. Subscribe to this blog.

7. Follow this blog.


I will choose a winner on April 10 th and you will have 48 hours to claim your prize or I will choose a new winner. Please leave me a way to contact you if you win! This giveaway is open to readers in Canada and the USA.

Don't forget to enter my other great giveaways too...

ABC Conference

Association of Biblical Counselors Invites You on a Quest for More

2009 conference features first-ever meeting of the minds

abclogo_color_updatedWe live in a broken world. The evidence is everywhere—broken marriages, broken families, broken hearts, broken people. In response, more and more people in the Christian community are exploring biblical counseling. Yet this growing interest brings new questions and fresh discussions about what biblical counseling really looks like. The landscape of biblical counseling is changing, thanks in part to the work of organizations like the Association of Biblical Counselors (ABC). For anyone interested in these exciting new developments, ABC is pleased to announce the 2009 conference to be held May 14-16 in Fort Worth, Texas. The theme of this year’s event is “A Quest for More,” based on the book by keynote speaker Paul Tripp, one of the most dynamic speakers in biblical counseling today.

“I am overwhelmed with excitement over this year’s conference for several reasons,” says ABC President Jeremy Lelek. “On opening night, we are going to have four of the top scholars from various counseling ‘camps,’ including the American Association of Christian Counselors, Christian Counseling Educational Foundation, and the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors, who will discuss emerging trends in biblical counseling as well as distinctions between the various schools of thought. This is a truly groundbreaking event!” Residents of Dallas/Ft. Worth who are not attending the conference may purchase tickets to this exciting Thursday night-only event. The weekend will also include a tribute to special guest Elisabeth Elliot for her pioneering work in South America and across the world.

Lelek emphasizes that this event is not just for licensed counselors. These sessions are for counselors, pastors, and laity. Hurting people and those struggling to overcome certain issues in their lives are encouraged to attend. The conference features over twenty-five elective sessions with topics ranging from marriage and sexual addiction to spiritual warfare and crisis intervention. A sampling of titles includes:

· Living a Pure Life in a Sexualized Culture: Overcoming Lust, Understanding Your Enemy, and Living a Life of Repentance

· Soul Care: Starting a Biblical Counseling Ministry in Your Local Church

· Learning to Think Like a Christian

· The God Empowered Wife (for women only)

· Biblical Counseling with Adult Victims of Childhood Trauma

· When Suffering People Need to Know “Why?”

In addition, conference attendees will encounter opportunities to discover reliable referral services, network with like-minded believers, receive nationally approved Continuing Education Units, and be encouraged in their own lives and counseling ministries.

For more information about the conference and the many training opportunities offered through ABC, visit www.christiancounseling.com.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Illusions by Wanda B. Campbell

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!


Today's Wild Card author is:


and the book:


Illusions

Urban Books (February 1, 2009)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Wanda B. Campbell is an extraordinary and talented writer who brings creativity, a new sense of hope, and restoration through the healing power of God to the Kingdom, by way of Christian fiction. She uses real life everyday issues to exhort, motivate, and give comfort.


An avid reader since childhood, Wanda recently responded to the voice in her head by penning and self-publishing her debut novel, First Sunday in October, (January 2007). A romantic at heart, Wanda uses relationships to demonstrate how the power of forgiveness and reconciliation can restore us back to God and one another.


Wanda currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband of nineteen years and two sons. She also has the unique position of being the oldest of five siblings and also the youngest of twelve. Her hobbies include writing and reading of course, traveling, and collecting magnets from around the world. Wanda is the self-proclaimed biggest Oakland A’s fan.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.95
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Urban Books (February 1, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1601629435
ISBN-13: 978-1601629432

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


Prologue

Bryce, having been married for a little over three years, stared appreciatively at the bare woman before him. By all accounts, she was everything he physically desired in a woman; ample and curvaceous from top to bottom. Her honey colored legs seemed to go on forever. He could look at her perpetually and never get tired of the view she provided. Bryce had an arsenal of beautiful women at his disposal, but she was his favorite. He could drink the sweetness of her lips through eternity and still thirst for more.

Bryce often wondered how he ended up with such a beautiful and voluptuous woman, considering he was just an average looking man, and short at that. Bryce was only 5’9’’ tall. He didn’t house the physique of a body builder, but he did wear his 200 pounds well. Thanks to his love for Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, Bryce didn’t have a six pack, but a slightly budding pot belly. None of that mattered to the woman before him, though. To her, he was perfect. He was strong and secure. He was her king. Bryce was by far the best lover she’d ever had, and each time that they came together was always better than the time before.

Bryce blocked everything from his mind except her. He moaned deeply as his mind focused on the soft kisses she planted all over him and as her hands massaged him in places only known to her. He leaned back, allowing her full access to all parts of him. Bryce was hers and she could do whatever she wanted to do with him. The semi-sweet chocolate brother was all hers and she knew it. Bryce was so engrossed in his woman, he lost track of time. The knock on his office door brought him back to reality.


“Are you ready, Sir?” the voice on the other side of the door asked.

“I’ll be right out,” Bryce responded after steadying his breath.

He quickly closed the magazine and discreetly tucked it away in its hiding place between the wall and the tank of the toilet. After fastening his pants and belt, he washed his hands without looking in the mirror. He could never look himself in the face after an encounter with the woman he nicknamed, Daija.

Back at his desk, Bryce hurriedly put on his suit jacket and tucked his Bible and notebook under his arm then headed for the sanctuary. It was time for Pastor Bryce Hightower to preach the Word of God.





Chapter 1

Out of habit, Pastor Hightower greeted the elders and ministers seated on the platform with his customary handshake and brotherly hug. He continued the ritual by kneeling before his reserved leather chair and praying. The elders and ministers extended opened hands in Pastor Hightower’s direction, symbolic of touching and agreeing for the Lord to anoint their pastor to preach a powerful Sunday sermon. Pastor Hightower was too busy repenting for the defiled behavior he’d just participated in to be concerned about his sermon.

Being certain his cries for forgiveness reached heaven, Pastor Hightower rose to his full height, raised his hands with closed eyes and joined the congregation singing Total Praise along with the Praise & Worship ministry. Once seated, Pastor Hightower’s gaze drifted to the end seat on the front row. The overgrown smile that covered his face gave the appearance of being manufactured, but was genuine. That’s just the way Pastor Hightower smiled. Every facial muscle appeared strained whenever he displayed his perfectly straight white teeth. Pastor Hightower added a wave with the smile he afforded his wife. When Denise smiled back, the pastor mouthed the words, “I love you,” causing Denise to blush and cover her face. Satisfied that he still carried the ability to make his wife excited, Pastor Hightower directed his attention to his sermon. He grunted at scripture text then quickly closed his black leather organizer.

“How can I stand before these people and talk about Samson’s lust and weakness with Delilah?” Bryce’s heart asked the question, but his distorted mind blocked an honest answer from coming forth.

Pastor Hightower squeezed his eyes close in an attempt to shut out his conscience like he always did before mounting the podium and preaching another message he was incapable of living. Today, his evasion tactic worked too well. In no time, Pastor Hightower’s reality merged with fantasy, and in place of Samson, it was Pastor Hightower with the beautiful Delilah in the Valley of Sorek. It was his head lying in Delilah’s lap enjoying the feel of her soft expert fingers as they explored, sending a soft moan from his lips.

“Honey, are you alright?”

Pastor Hightower’s head jerked forward at the sound of his wife’s voice. His imagination had drawn him so deep into the illusion that he hadn’t heard Minister Jackson call him to the podium. He hadn’t noticed the entire congregation standing, waiting to hear the words the Lord had given him. When he didn’t respond after the third call, Denise rushed to his side and was now shaking him.

“Are you alright?” Denise questioned again.

Bryce mentally and frantically searched for an answer. He couldn’t tell his wife that the images he’d just experienced left him feeling better than alright. He also couldn’t lie in the sanctuary.

“Just mediating,” Pastor Hightower finally answered, then moved his head from side to side to demonstrate how “deep” he was.

Denise’s doubts dissipated once her husband rose to his feet and began speaking in tongues then started dancing the length of the platform.

Once he settled down, Pastor Hightower said, “Let’s pray,” and opened his Bible to the story of Daniel and the three Hebrew boys.


“Son, you know you preached today!” Lucinda stepped into Pastor Hightower’s office without knocking or being invited.

Bryce didn’t address the mother’s forwardness. Lucinda had been doing that since the day her daughter married Pastor Hightower. In Lucinda’s eyes, being the pastor’s mother-in-law had its privileges, and having free range of the church was one.

“Thank you, mother. I could feel you out there interceding for me.”

“That’s why you made me president over the Intercessory Prayer Ministry. You know I can get a prayer through. I can dismantle any attack of the devil once I start praying in the Spirit.”

Bryce studied his mother-in-law’s round face, searching her eyes for any indication that she was aware of how the devil not only attacked him, but triumphed over his will.

“Keep praying for me, Mother.” Bryce placed his Bible into his briefcase the same time Denise knocked and waited for permission to enter.

“Hello, First Lady.” Bryce leaned in to kiss Denise, but she didn’t reciprocate.

In the midst of the congregation was one thing, but behind closed doors, perpetrating wasn’t necessary. Before Bryce’s flirtation from the pulpit, he hadn’t spoken three words to her in as many days.

“Hello, Bryce,” Denise responded emotionless, almost cold.

“How dare you speak to your husband like that?” Lucinda scolded. “He’s a man of God. He deserves respect.”

“So do I, Mother!” Denise shot back. She glared at her husband. “And not just from the pulpit.” Denise continued holding his gaze.

Holding on to her anger was useless. Bryce knew with every squeeze Denise’s anger was evaporating. By the time his lips reached her neck, she couldn’t remember why she was mad in the first place.

“Stop.” She playfully hit him then returned his kiss.

“You know you like that.”

Her mother cleared her throat. “It’s time for y’all to go home.” Before exiting, Lucinda addressed her daughter. “Let this be the last time I see or hear you disrespect my pastor. I don’t care if he is your husband.”

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think she endured twenty-six hours of labor with you and not me.” Denise smirked.

Bryce didn’t respond to the statement, but asked Denise what she’d cooked for dinner.

“Me,” she answered flirtatiously and waited for his usual hungry response.

Bryce did respond, but neither fire nor desire radiated from him. His actions more closely resembled that of a convicted man being led off to prison, than that of a man needing to be alone with his wife. Bryce’s shoulders slumped and he inhaled deeply. With his third labored breath, he still hadn’t conjured up a tactful way to tell Denise he wasn’t interested in sex, at least not today and not with her.

Bryce held the office door open for his wife. “Let’s get something to eat first and then see what happens.”

Nothing happened. After dinner Bryce hibernated in his study until bedtime.

˜˜

Denise studied her husband’s stiff torso and wondered what had happened to her once stress-free life. When she married Pastor Bryce Hightower three years ago, everything was perfect. She was both honored and delighted to be the wife of an influential man of God. In the pulpit, Bryce preached powerful life-changing messages. It was one of those “hot” messages that burned Denise’s soul and steered her down the aisle to her heavenly Father that hot Sunday afternoon in August. Having grown up in the church, the daughter of a deacon, Denise was familiar with God, but had resisted making Him her personal Savior. That is, until she heard Pastor Hightower’s preaching. Bryce’s teaching gift afforded him the ability to philosophically preach the Word of God on a scholarly level, but what mesmerized Denise was listening to him break the same Word down to the understanding of a two-year-old.

That second Sunday in August was Denise’s first time in six years attending services at the church in which she’d grown up. She’d left the Bay Area to attend college. After graduating Fresno State, Denise decided to give California’s central valley a chance at residency. Unfortunately for Denise, the valley’s thermostat reached an all-time high at the same time California was forced to rely on rolling blackouts as a way to conserve energy. When Denise’s air conditioner broke down, she packed her belongings into her Honda and headed for cooler climate.

After confessing before God and the congregation of Word of Life that Jesus was the Son of God, died and resurrected to save her from sin, Denise rejoined the church to the delight of her mother and the newly appointed pastor. Denise didn’t have to wait long before discovering Pastor Hightower was interested in more than the well-being of her soul. Along with the standard new member’s welcome letter that she received, Pastor Hightower included a handwritten note with a dinner invitation. A brief consultation with her mother was all the confirmation Denise needed to accept. The lavish wedding eight months later was still a conversation piece three years later.

At home, Bryce couldn’t keep his hands off Denise. As a twenty-six-year-old virgin bride, that made her feel special, because she was apprehensive of her ability to meet her husband’s needs. Bryce had more experience and his choice of available women in his church, but he loved every inch of her voluptuous size sixteen. In the beginning, Denise thought his sexual appetite was a bit excessive, but what did she have for comparison? He certainly gave her unlimited pleasure. The least she could do was to return the favor and give her husband all the loving he wanted, which is what she did. The problem was, lately Bryce didn’t want any loving from her.

Admiring his sleeping body, Denise couldn’t figure out what had changed. As if someone had blown out a candle, the fire in their bedroom was instantly gone. Bryce barely touched her anymore, and when he did, it wasn’t the same. Denise didn’t feel that her husband cherished making love to her anymore, but felt more like he was simply obliging her. Bryce used to be slow and caring with her, making sure she was completely satisfied. Now, he seemed so engrossed in his own world, Bryce hadn’t even noticed Denise counting sheep during their last encounter.

Denise turned over on her side and gave her body a thorough examination. She was the same size she was the day she married Bryce. She kept her hands manicured and her feet always looked like they’d been freshly dipped in hot wax. Denise had a standing appointment with Kadijah at the Hair Haven salon every week, insuring she was always presentable. She also made sure she dressed in clothes that accented her fuller figure and kept her makeup flawless. So why had Bryce lost interest?

Denise’s job as Budget Director at the local medical conglomerate didn’t prevent her from cleaning the house and cooking balanced meals every night. In the bedroom, she used powders and potpourri to scent their bed and candles to freshen the air on a regular basis. Denise never wore flannel pajamas or hair rollers to bed, instead, opting for sexy lingerie and sometimes nothing at all, depending on Bryce’s mood. That’s what she’d done tonight. She climbed into bed wearing nothing but a smile, hoping to get Bryce’s attention. It worked. She held his attention the entire five seconds it took for him to say goodnight, and then turn his back to her.

At church and public appearances, things were the same as they always had been. Not a Sunday went by that Pastor Hightower didn’t acknowledge his beautiful and devoted wife. “She’s the beat of my heart,” is what he’d say, or “the wind in my sail.” Denise was trained by the older mothers in the church so the young wife knew all the “insert smile here,” moments. Denise could put on the manufactured smile and nod in agreement faster than she could write her name. Every time Bryce preached, the devoted supporter provided him with his personal “Amen” corner. Tonight though, Denise was tired of the fa├žade. If she couldn’t sleep, then neither would the perpetrating Pastor Bryce Hightower.

“Bryce, wake up.” She shook him until he groaned. “We need to talk.”

“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?” he grumbled.

“No it can’t,” Denise determined. “I’ve held this in long enough.”

Bryce sighed heavily, more out of irritation than fatigue. He turned over and sleepily looked at his wife. “What is it?”

His tone and demeanor told her this late night pillow talk would be fruitless. She pressed on anyway.

“Honey, what’s happening to us?”

“You’re pushing for a conversation that I don’t want to have. Aside from that, we’re fine.”

Denise’s heart sank because she knew Bryce really didn’t see anything wrong with their life. And why should he? He got every thing, including all the support and love from her that he needed.

“Bryce, we’re not fine. You haven’t touched me in over a month.” Denise pulled the sheet tightly around her. She hadn’t felt the need to conceal her body since their wedding night.

“Is that what’s this is about?” Bryce propped his body, using his elbow as support. “You woke me up because you want sex?”

Denise fought back the urge to cry. The expression on the face of her beloved husband was distorted and filled with distain. “It’s not just the lack of sex, Bryce. You hardly ever touch me at all anymore, and when we do have sex, it’s quick and routine. The only conversations we have are casual. You don’t even comment on how I look anymore.” Denise was able to say all that without losing her voice, but a tear had managed to escape and burned a trail down her cheek. Bryce noticed the tear and softened a little.

“Baby, come here.” He pulled her close to him and held her. She felt good to him and Bryce had to admit he missed her warm body against his. “I’m sorry.”

Denise tried to accept the comfort he offered her, but couldn’t just yet. It didn’t feel genuine. She held her head so she could gaze directly in his eyes. “Bryce, are you having an affair?”

The direct question seemed to have caught him off guard, causing Bryce to hesitate before answering. “No, I’m not having an affair. I’ve just been preoccupied with other things. Being a young pastor is a hard job.”

“Why can’t you share what’s on your mind with me? I’m your wife; I’m designed to help you.”

“I know.” Bryce kissed her forehead. “But some things I have to handle on my own.”

Denise placed her head against his chest. She didn’t say anything, just lay there listening to his heartbeat, wondering when it became out of sync with hers.

Bryce didn’t say anything either. He was fighting a war with his conscience and his spirit. He didn’t actually lie to Denise, or did he? He didn’t view his time with Daija as an affair. How could he have an affair with his imagination? True, the things he did with her, he should have been doing with his wife. The time he spent with his imaginary friend, could have been spent with his real-life wife. But when he finished with Daija, he was fulfilled and too tired to be with Denise. Bryce enjoyed being with Denise, but couldn’t let go of his fantasy. With Daija, Bryce was uninhibited and free, never having to worry about his desires being considered nasty or berated. That’s what it was. Daija allowed him to be free. What was so wrong with that? Everyone is entitled to a little fantasy. As long as he’s not having sex with anyone else, what was the harm?

If it’s right, why can’t you tell her?

As always, Bryce heard the still small voice loud and clear, but instead of responding, he closed his eyes in an attempt to prevent the truth from spilling from his lips. He wasn’t ready to face the truth. He didn’t really know what the truth was anymore. He believed he could stop his extra-curricular activity any time he wanted. Bryce just didn’t want to, but for Denise’s sake, he was going to try.

“I promise I’ll work on giving you more attention.” Then after a prolonged silence Bryce added, “I love you.”

Denise didn’t respond. The words, meant to be enduring, sounded void and hollow, but they were better than nothing. Bryce tightened his hold on her and she relaxed in his arms and fell asleep.

˜˜

Bryce mounted the podium and quickly scanned the audience. Something was not right. He closed his eyes tightly then reopened them just to make sure he was seeing correctly. He was. “Oh God,” he gasped, surveying the congregation. He stepped toward the edge of the platform, hoping to see Denise, but she wasn’t there. His eyes frantically searched for his mother-in-law. She wasn’t there either. The elders and deacons weren’t there to offer him the much needed prayer and support. Bryce slowly walked back to the podium, bowed his head and wept.

“Bryce.”

At the sound of her voice, Bryce’s cries stopped and he jerked around to find Daija occupying his leather chair, beckoning him with her index finger.

“No!” Bryce screamed, but the congregation, filled with the faces of the many women with whom he’d found pleasure, cheered him on.

“Daija, you can’t be here! Not in the church!” Bryce’s attempt to sound authoritative amused Daija and the rest of the congregation.

Daija stood on Bryce’s chair, and after throwing her long black hair over her shoulder, motioned to the congregation. “Why not, Bryce; you brought us here.” Daija smiled and struck one of Bryce’s favorite poses.

“Pastor Hightower, why don’t you save us?” someone in the audience mocked.

Bryce fell to his knees and sobbed uncontrollably, “God help me!”


Bryce bolted from his bed dripping with perspiration and shaking. The dream, like the one two nights ago, frightened Bryce with the implications, however true they were. Bryce was polluting the house of God and his addiction rendered him defenseless to stop the infection from spreading. This morning, Pastor Hightower had a reality check as images captivated his mind and lured him into lust as he sat in the pulpit, the holy place, waiting to present the Word of God. Never before had he been overtaken in the House of God. His prayers were rendered useless. In the past, he’d do his business, ask God to forgive him, then mechanically fulfill his pastoral duties. That didn’t happen today and now his demons haunted his dreams.

After stumbling into the master bath and splashing water unto his face, Bryce studied his mirrored reflection. Except for the extra inch around the middle and short haircut, Bryce looked the same as he did seventeen years ago, at age 17, when he was forced to face life alone following the unexpected and tragic death of his parents. It was while sorting through his father’s belongings that pornography was officially introduced to him.

He’d known about the “business” his father kept in the bottom nightstand drawer most of his teenage life, but assumed the magazines were nothing more than women in string bikinis. He soon found out differently and discovered porn was “therapeutic” in helping him deal with the loss of his parents. In some distorted way, when Bryce carried out his secret acts, he felt close to his father.

It didn’t start out as a daily ritual; maybe once a month to help relax him on days he felt overwhelmed. When that wasn’t enough, he added masturbation. Eventually, the old magazines weren’t enough to satisfy Bryce; he began purchasing his own collection.

At age twenty-one, he gave his virginity to a woman without knowing her real name. For the right price, she was willing to do the things he requested without complaining.

After joining the church at age twenty-five, Bryce felt convicted about his habit. He began to feel dirty after every encounter. For` a while, he stopped masturbating and purchasing magazines, but one session with his pastor changed his mind. Following Bryce’s confession, the late Reverend Daniels brushed off the habit as if it were no more than a piece of lint.

“Son, ain’t nothing wrong with looking at a beautiful woman,” Reverend Daniels had said, “just as long as you don’t touch. When you get a wife to enjoy, the need for those pictures will go away.” Reverend Daniels gave him a look whose meaning could only be interpreted between men.

Bryce soon learned that the church that he attended had its own version of the “good ole boys’ club.” It was a common thing for preachers and elders not only to lust with the eyes, but to also sleep with the sisters in the church. The indiscretions were usually swept under the rug unless the sister in question became pregnant or if her husband discovered the affair. Then the woman would be shunned from the church, but not without being labeled a “loose Jezebel” or a home wrecker. The preacher, however, would continue preaching, and in some cases, be elevated to a higher office in the church.

Bryce didn’t buy into the double standard and tolerated behavior set forth by his spiritual fathers. Eventually, Bryce lost respect and moved his membership after enrolling in Seminary. There, Bryce was too busy focusing on the Word of God and praying constantly for his imagination to run wild. The more he read the Bible and the more he prayed, the less desire he had for self gratification. The day Bryce graduated Seminary, he vowed to parallel his life with the standards set forth in the Bible. Bryce was determined to be a true man of God. “If I can’t live this Gospel, I won’t preach this Gospel,” was his slogan. He recited those eleven words faithfully before every sermon. The more he preached, the purer the pictures in his mind. The more he fasted, the less he fantasized, until eventually, the imagery stopped. That’s when he met Denise.

From the day he saw her standing before him at the altar, giving her life to God, Bryce loved her. Actually, he’d noticed her before mounting the podium. She carried her curves well with her five-foot seven-inch height. Bryce loved the fullness of her body, but even more so, the sweetness of her spirit. He still loved her, but he’d allowed

himself to become comfortable in his walk with God. Now, he was paying the price in his bedroom, in the pulpit, and in his dreams.

“Are you sick?” Bryce was too engrossed in his thoughts to notice Denise standing in the doorway.

He turned and stared at his wife hard and long as she leaned against the door frame. She’d put on a robe and her hair hung wildly at the nape of her neck. Her face, void of make-up, allowed Bryce to see the genuine love she held for him. A love that said, “Whatever it is, I’m here for you.”

When he didn’t answer, Denise asked the question again. Bryce slowly made the three steps that placed them an inch apart. He wanted to tell her that he was, in fact, very sick. That he had broken fellowship with God and that the line between reality and fantasy was so blurred, he couldn’t tell the difference anymore. He wanted to tell her the reason for his inattentiveness and reassure her of his love for her. Bryce didn’t say any of what made his heart ache to have released. He simply kissed her forehead and went back to bed.

Monday, March 23, 2009

10 Things I Hate About Christianity by Jason T. Berggren

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!


Today's Wild Card author is:


and the book:


10 Things I Hate About Christianity: Working through the Frustrations of Faith

X-Media (March 1, 2009)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Jason T. Berggren grew up in Ft. Lauderdale, FL and was a part of the band Strongarm. After leaving the band, he earned an AA in Mass Communications and a BA in Theology. In 2000, he helped to start the Calvary Fellowship church in Miami, FL, fulfilling the role of Assistant Pastor overseeing several areas of service. In 2005, he decided to explore a different ministry calling, returning to his childhood ambition of being a writer. His new book, 10 Things I Hate About Christianity: Working through the Frustrations of Faith conveys his conviction that “positive momentum begins with negative tension” and will be available soon. Berggren felt compelled to write the book after realizing that all of his spiritual difficulties and challenges originated from the same ten issues. While his fledgling writing career begins to take flight, Berggren also runs handyman business to provide for his family. Berggren and his wife have been married since 1999. The Berggrens have three boys and attend Northpoint Community Church in Alpharetta, GA, where they lead a small group.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 244 pages
Publisher: X-Media (March 1, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0981944302
ISBN-13: 978-0981944302

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:





Why Hate?



I’m wrong. I usually am.

I’m not saying that to sound self-deprecating, or to appear whimsical and charming in order to endear myself to you (though if it happens, I’m fine with that). I’m saying that because it’s true. I know hate is wrong. I just don’t know any other way to describe what I feel. It’s to-the-point, direct, and yes, maybe even a little reckless and rude. But it’s what I mean.

When I was growing up, my father — who’s more civilized than I am — would strongly admonish me for using hate to describe my feelings about something or someone. He wanted me to understand how potent this word is. He was uncomfortable with its implied violence. He wanted me to use it cautiously.

I understand. But there are realities I must face.

Like Coca-Cola. I’ve loved Coke since I was a child. I would do fine never letting another beverage touch my lips for the rest of my life, not even water. I love the taste of the ice-cold liquid as it passes through my lips and cascades down my throat. I often say I’m a Coke addict as a joke, since it has such power over me. But the reality is that Coke isn’t good for me in such large doses, and it causes me to gain weight. So I hate the fact that I love Coke. It’s a tension I have to learn to manage.

Unfortunately, this wrestling exists abundantly in the deeper, more important issues of my life as well.

My life is filled with personal conflict. This conflict has the power to crush my hopes and blur my dreams until they’re merely memories of childhood fantasies, never again to be imagined, for fear of bringing even more tension, more confusion, more hate. Especially when the conflict is coupled with failure.

I used to dream of being a musician. When I was twelve, I worked through spring break and used my earnings to buy a cheap amp and guitar. I spent years teaching myself how to play. I would listen to tapes of my favorite bands, trying to copy the music and sing along. Eventually I began writing my own songs and even went on to be in a few bands.

After investing time and money and delaying college, in my early twenties I finally realized I wasn’t very good, and I quit. It was a heartbreaking reality to face. The experience still follows me. It’s as if I’ll never let myself pursue any type of dream again. Dreams aren’t worth the disappointment and heartache when they don’t come true, and it’s almost certain they won’t. Is failure the end? Or is failure one of many steps to succeeding? The risk doesn’t seem worth it. But unlived dreams can also cast an unbearable shadow of “what if.” There’s no way to avoid this conflict in my life.

When we’re alone and being honest, most of us would probably admit there’s a deep personal war going on inside us. The smaller battles in this war break out in strange ways. They might drive us to eat a little too much dessert, spend a little too much on yet another pair of shoes, or have another drink. When left unchecked, conflict leads to confusion, regret, and guilt. And it grows. It may cause us to do things like insist on the last word in an argument and cause damage to a relationship we care about.

The truth remains: Life is a constant battle. If we’re to experience any peace, joy, or love as we learn to do life and relationships more productively and successfully, our only option is to learn to fight our own inner demons. Because if we give up, we’ll turn into a mess (or more of a mess, in my case).

I hate all this tension, and I hate having to face it. It’s a dilemma wrapped in a crisis stuck between a rock and a hard place.

But I’ve learned that bigger conflict, the deep inner conflict, can be a positive force. It can bring us past the endless cycle of reaction and regret, and lead to a breakthrough and the opportunity for much-needed personal growth and renewal. We can train our minds to use our hate, and when we begin to sense it, we can create forward momentum: We sense the tension, wrestle the issue, win the battle, learn a lesson, grow as an individual, and move ahead. This can bring a new day with a new perspective and new opportunities.

* * *

There’s nothing like watching the strength of the human spirit reaching forward in times of turmoil. This is why I put pen to paper. I’m just trying to chart a course through the murky waters of frustration and hate. I think I’m discovering a path through this fog, and I want to share it with you.

In this process, my faith has been key — which may surprise you, given this book’s title. I am in fact a Christian, though I hesitate using the term because of the baggage that comes with it. Maybe it’s better to say I’m trying to follow Jesus as closely as I can, like one of his twelve disciples. It’s not easy. This may be why I like the disciples Thomas and Peter the most. Like them, I have a lot of doubts and open my big mouth way too much.

This book is basically a log of my journey with faith, sometimes faltering, sometimes firm. It’s a record of release and renewal, as I try to work toward contentment and wholeness.

So I’m inviting you to hate with me — not the unguarded, irresponsible, and negative emotion my father often warned me about, but the inner sense of overwhelming dissatisfaction that can launch a progression toward personal growth. Identifying my feeling of hate has given me an awareness to move forward. It has ignited a drive toward newness, unseen potential, and the fulfillment that lies ahead. It has also caused me to seek resolutions to bigger questions in my life: Why are we all here? What’s it all about? Is there more to it than this?

It’s these bigger questions that led me to a faith in Jesus. It was different from what I expected, which I’ll get into. But it was what I was looking for through my wrestling. I’ve found it to be the only way to achieve sanity in my own existence.

Unfortunately, believing in him didn’t fix everything. While I deeply admire, respect, and love Jesus, my faith in him has actually added to my inner struggles. And this is a real dilemma.

Faith can be a challenge, and extremely inconvenient at times. Over and over I’ve had to face certain aspects of my faith that don’t seem to line up. I’ve been quite confused by what it means to seek God’s purpose for my life and to follow the teachings of Jesus. And while working through these questions, I came to a helpful life-lesson that has become self-evident: Wrong expectations lead to absolute frustration. When we don’t have all the facts, we usually end up disillusioned and angry. Like when a couple thinks that having kids will make their relationship better. Then comes the rude awakening: More people equals more problems.

I’m constantly bumping up against this principle about wrong expectations because it pretty much applies everywhere. It has been especially true when it comes to my faith. If you remember only one thing from this book, make it that. It will help you in every arena of life — career, relationships, marriage, sex, having kids, faith, etc. I wish someone had told me about it a long time ago, so I’m telling you now.

Everyone has a story. This is mine — what I’ve actually hated about my faith at times, and how I’m working through it all. Maybe it can help you work out some of the issues in your own story.






#1

Faith



Like many kids in America, I grew up playing baseball. At age seven, I skipped T-ball and went right to Pony League. It was extremely intimidating at first. This was real baseball, complete with the threat of being decapitated by a stray pitch. Kids were reckless. Everyone was trying to throw the ball as fast as possible, because speed equaled great pitching. Control was secondary.

After Pony League came Little League. Now pitching was something to really be afraid of. Kids were bigger, so speed increased dramatically. Unfortunately, the accuracy still wasn’t there. Plus, the formula was still the same: Speed equaled great pitching.

But for a nine-year-old, the real challenge in moving up to Little League was striving to hit a homer, as every young boy wants to do.

The homerun. It’s what dreams are made of. When boys are staring into the clouds outside their classrooms, they’re probably thinking about hitting a homerun. When a mom has to scream for her son’s attention, more than likely he’s daydreaming about knocking one over the fence. When young kids have sleepovers and stay up way past bedtime, they’re probably predicting how many long balls they’ll hit next season.

I had homerun dreams. I obsessed over them. And I was thrilled when I met our new neighbor, Bill. He was an old-timer and told me about the glory of his Little League years. You know, “back in the day.” I hung on his every word, because he said he could hit homeruns at will. He even claimed to have hit homeruns in every game. I fantasized about being him and living those moments. It seemed so unfair that he was so good.

But that was all about to change.

One day Bill told me his secret. I never felt so lucky in all my life, because his method wasn’t magical at all. The next time I stepped up to the plate, I knew things would be different. This kid was going to give Hank Aaron a run for his money. As Bill explained it, all I had to do was keep my eye on the ball. Simply watch it leave the pitcher’s hand all the way until it hit the bat, and BAM! A homerun. “Don’t try to kill it,” he added. “Just make contact.” After that, I never took another swing without my eyes locked on the ball. But I never hit a home run. Never.

I began to resent my neighbor. His advice didn’t yield a mantle full of homerun balls, the admiration of teammates, fear from opponents, or attention from girls. All I wanted was to feel the thrill of hearing the crack of the bat as the ball sailed away from me, and the victory lap around the diamond, and the applause of the crowd, and the home-movie immortalizing the moment. I wanted what so many other kids seemed to get. But it just never happened for me. I couldn’t accept that I wasn’t good enough or that I was doing something wrong. It was his fault. I felt as if Bill lied, and all his stories were probably lies too.

As my temper took hold, I did what we kids did to other neighbors we didn’t like. I lit a flaming bag of dog poop on his welcome mat and rang the doorbell so he would be forced to answer the door and stamp it out. Hot dog poo everywhere! Not really. He was too close to home. But it was hard to resist the urge to take vengeance on him. I wanted a guarantee. I wanted to know how to control the outcome, but I couldn’t. I’d been given a false sense of hope, and the results, or lack thereof, crushed me. After that season, I never played baseball again.

Not much has changed since Little League. I’m pretty good at most things I put my mind to, but not really amazing at anything. I’m also not very lucky. I’ve never been in the right place at the right time. I can’t help you get a crazy deal on a set of tires, and I’ve never won an all-expenses-paid cruise to Cozumel. I find myself just having to work hard at every little thing in life.

And a familiar feeling much like my failed homerun dreams eventually brought my faith in Jesus to a breaking point. I was reaching for purpose and meaning, but I found new questions and new problems. I started feeling as if I wasn’t good enough for this “team,” or maybe I was doing something wrong, and I wanted to quit. I often wondered if there was a way to find an angel with a sense of humor so he could help me place a flaming bag of poop in front of heaven’s pearly gates for St. Peter to answer and stamp out. I suppose I have passive aggressive tendencies in my spirituality too.

Something wasn’t quite right with my faith; it wasn’t working out that great for me. I started to wonder: What’s the point to having faith if it isn’t even helping or working?

The Small Print

There’s always fine print, isn’t there? A friend offering a free lunch comes with a catch like, “By the way, do you mind feeding my pet iguana his live bugs this weekend while I’m away? And while you’re there feeding Leonard, could you pick up my mail too?” Don’t you hate that?

I thought faith would dispel all the unknown variables and problems in my life. It seemed reasonable to think that if I took Jesus seriously, God would answer all my questions and take away all my problems. I thought it was a good deal. But it seemed to take a wrong turn, because he didn’t come through. Didn’t he understand I didn’t want to live with so much confusion anymore? It made me so mad at him, and I wanted to take back the commitment I made. To be fair, I don’t think it’s totally his fault, but I still get mad over it.

One thing I hate about my faith is the fantasy element. There’s Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, God and Jesus. We teach kids they’re all real, but they’re not all real. Eventually our kids will be okay with Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy being cute little white lies, while accepting Jesus and God as completely legit — right? Now I know the intentions are good and fun, but I wonder if it’s unfair. Could this also set us up for almost certain disillusionment as we all inevitably question the existence of God and consequently the meaning of our own existence? I’ve had many a conversation with people trying to figure out how to work through this, and it’s not easy. Many times they hit a wall, and I totally understand.

In any other context, believing this “lie” would be clinical. For instance, imagine you and I run into each other somewhere and I ask if you would like to meet my friend Jane. You respond, “Sure!” With hand extended, you reach around me to find no one. But I insist. I’m adamant about her being right here with us. I even tell you how much Jane loves you and wants to help you in your life. Undoubtedly you would give me a casual smile as you contemplated making a secret phone call. The whole episode could end with me being escorted off the scene in a white jacket with lots of extra straps and shiny belt buckles, and remarking how much better this thing would look in black leather. You would call me crazy, and you would be right.

Do I expect people to think it’s any less delusional because my friend’s name is Jesus? I admit it. The whole having a relationship with someone who isn’t physically there, and talking to him on a regular basis (praying) is weird, to say the least, and eccentric at best. If only God and Jesus would appear every so often around town to buy sneakers at the mall to prove to everyone they’re real, it would make all this a little easier. But they don’t, and it makes me mad. I’ll be expecting my jacket anytime now.

Once I can get past the fantasy element, I have to deal with feeling stupid. I hate feeling stupid. Who doesn’t? It seems like I always have to face the fact that having faith isn’t really an intellectual exercise. There really are no facts and figures to prove (or disprove) the existence of God or what I believe, and that makes me feel dumb.

If I were talking to someone who considered himself somewhat intellectual and fairly intelligent and rational (as most people do), and he was explaining to me how he came to a certain large-scale life-altering decision, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear him say it involved reading some academic research, pondering certain intellectual principles, and weighing lots of empirical evidence. Maybe he would even pull out some graphs and pie-charts. And his decision would make total sense to me. But when I describe my own life-altering decision, it’s a little different.

I always end up in pretty much the same place. “Yes, I believe in Jesus. I can’t really explain it. It’s basically a decision I made based on a feeling. And I trust in the sincerity of that feeling.” Unavoidably, there’s a sense of embarrassment. And I hate that. It makes me feel so stupid. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I believe or who I believe in. I know it to be true. It’s just an awkward situation by default. Not to mention the many people who already think having faith is simply superstitious, primitive, and irrational.

I know I would sound more introspective, informed, and perceptive by pointing out flaws or being more skeptical and not believing. But I can’t, because I do believe. There are, in fact, volumes of reference-type materials that try to deal with faith in the academic arena and do a fine job of intellectualizing a faith decision. In the end, however, all these scholars and philosophers arrive at much the same place as me: Faith is essentially a decision based on a feeling. There’s just no way around it. But I hate having to push through that every single time I talk about what I believe.

Another thing I especially hate is the seemingly broken promise. As I’ve indicated, I like guarantees and predictability. I want to be able to forecast and control the outcomes in my life. Faith was supposed to bring clarity in my confusion, answering all my questions and helping me make total sense of life. This would give me the ability and confidence to make the best decisions in all situations, thereby ensuring that only good and beneficial things happen in my life — total peace all the time. Sometimes it gave me peace, but mostly it didn’t, and I felt like God was letting me down.

My confusion multiplied with the number of forks in the road. Should I buy a car or lease it? What should I major in? When should I get married? When should we have kids? Can I even afford a kid? Is this the right house to buy? We all have our own lists of unpredictable situations, and mine gets longer the older I get, as life grows more complicated. I find living with so many unknowns to be quite unsettling.

The fact is, I knew absolutely nothing about faith. In an effort to fire me up in my commitment and keep me devoted to Jesus, some Christians early on seemed to inadvertently “sell me” on this cure-all idea of faith, like some kind of acne medicine that could clear everything up and help me get a really hot girlfriend. Christian television and radio reinforced it, telling me things like “name it and claim it!” With enough faith, I’d be able to create and control the outcomes in my life and get whatever I wanted. Like Luke Skywalker using “the force,” I could move objects around in my life and make people do what I want with my Jedi mind-tricks. And if my faith wasn’t doing those things for me, I just didn’t have enough of it.

I liked the idea, but it didn’t work. This obviously meant something wasn’t right, and I felt like it was me. I was doing something wrong; I wasn’t good enough.

Where were the guarantees? Where was the security? The good deal turned raw, and I wanted my money back.

All these issues brought a dose of reality I wasn’t prepared for. I mean, who wants to trust his whole life to someone nobody can see? Who wants to tell others about this very nebulous personal decision? And who wants to keep up the commitment when things don’t exactly work out like we think they should, making it all look pointless?

That’s the fine print no one ever told me about. It’s been twenty years, and sometimes I still feel like I’m about to come apart. These things still go with the territory.

Sometimes I still get mad. But as I made myself push through these issues and work them out, I began to discover the true value of my faith. I would have robbed myself had I shut down over these issues and let my hate and frustration defeat my faith and newfound purpose.

I have to be upfront. I owe a lot of this to an old friend of mine who caused me to think through this stuff. It’s an old conversation, but it formed the very basis of why I still have an enduring faith today. This is why I have to share the highlights of that conversation. It illustrates the process of my faith.

The Other Jason

It’s always strange when you meet someone with the same name as you. It’s even weirder when you’re alike. I met Jason in my high school years, and he became a good friend. He didn’t go to my school, but one of his best friends was in most of my classes, so we hung out periodically in mutual social settings. Eventually I caught up with Jason at community college, and that’s when we started becoming better friends.

We had a similar schedule on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We would hang out in the cafeteria between classes, usually grabbing breakfast or lunch if it looked edible enough. He always wanted to play chess, but I despised the game. It took too much thought. I’m more of a checkers kind of guy. I was at community college, after all. So we talked instead. We were young guys, so we talked movies, music, and girls. Eventually we started talking about spiritual stuff because we were both curious.

I wasn’t as smart as him, but I communicated the best I could. I started telling him things I’d been wondering about and how I’d come to believe in the life and teachings of Jesus. This subject became our ongoing dialogue, as he challenged premise after premise that I presented. Inside, I hated his apprehensions, but I began to appreciate them as he stated his questions with respect. He seemed to be tracking with me and gauging his spiritual search along the way. Our dialogue went on for nearly a year.

He first challenged me to explain why I would believe in someone or something I couldn’t see. I acknowledged it was a strange practice. I thought it through a little more, and the next time I saw him, I told him I just couldn’t ignore something going on within me (and it had nothing to do with the cafeteria food). I started to sense a void deep inside. In no particular order, I was overwhelmed by the randomness and despair in life, I was struggling with a sense of purpose for my future, and I was more and more convinced there was a spiritual element to our existence. That was the framework for my void.

Just acknowledging these realities brought an initial sense of relief, though it soon yielded a greater sense of responsibility.

I told Jason I was noticing and thinking about things I never had before, and I couldn’t stop. Clearly there was more to us than flesh, blood, and bones. I mentioned how some of our classes might actually be backing this up. In Chemistry, my professor tried to rationalize the mystery of why an atom remains intact and the universe doesn’t fly apart. She taught us about “cosmic glue,” “dark matter,” and “X.” To me, this fit what I was discovering spiritually. But to explain the unknown, there had to be more than overly generous, sweeping, generic catch-all descriptions. I told Jason I thought there was a spiritual element to life that these deficient descriptions were touching on. Specifically, hidden deep down inside him, somewhere between his heart, soul, and mind, I was convinced there was a spiritual being, something all the science in the world could never explain. It’s in all of us, it explains who we really are, and it has little to do with blood or guts or cosmic glue.

Besides, there’s so much about our existence that can’t be explained or classified. So believing in something I couldn’t see wasn’t a big issue to me, since we all do it to some degree. It was more a matter of what to do with that knowledge. Would I ignore it? Or try to make sense of it? Was there a reason for, and behind, all this mystery?

Jason could see how I got to that point. It made some sense to him, as he was having similar thoughts. But he still wasn’t sure if he was willing to have faith in something he couldn’t see or prove.

I said I understood. I also reinforced the idea that we all believe in someone or something. Every individual relies on a set of beliefs or core values, not necessarily religious in nature, that may guide them at unsure times. Perhaps people seek the advice of good friends, or ask their parents or grandparents, or take a class, or read a book. The resulting beliefs and values they develop aren’t visible, but people trust in them. So, I argued, everyone looks at the situation they’re facing, considers what they believe, and then leaps. This functions much like faith. For the most part, we’re all trusting in things we can’t see — a type of faith, to some degree. I was simply bringing it to the next level and choosing to be influenced and mentored by Jesus.

He saw my point. We finished our waffles and went off to our classes.

The next time I saw Jason, he asked why I would trust in God even when things aren’t exactly going great. He’d often observed bad things happening to people of faith, and it made him wonder: What’s the point? There had to be some immediate benefit to faith, if it’s worth anything at all. Or maybe God wasn’t as involved in our lives as people like to think: Either he didn’t care all that much, or wasn’t really that powerful.

“Fair question,” I admitted. Here was his own version of the “broken promise” and “guarantee” thing that had angered me.

I came back the next time, ordered my pizza and tater-tots, filled my cup with Coke, and told him my additional thoughts on the subject. I had to believe that regardless of how things were going, there still had to be a rhyme or reason greater than myself.

Part of this was just out of necessity. I talked about my growing sense of needing certain absolutes with regard to truth. There was a part of me that didn’t want be the sole authority in my life anymore, the sole decider of what was right and wrong. With just me, I could remodel my right and wrong at any time simply to make them more convenient, and that was too chaotic and dangerous. It made everything too relative and fluid. It meant that ultimately I couldn’t find the meaning in life I desperately wanted out of all these spiritual musings.

I told Jason I was convinced there had to be a measure that was true, regardless of outcomes. Bad stuff happening or things not working out right did not mean there’s no God. That stuff was another issue altogether (which I’d have to deal with later).

Jason remarked that perhaps my relationship to God was based less on what I was getting out of the situation, and more on who was going with me through life as I experienced it.

“Exactly!” I answered.

He said he’d never thought of it like that before — like a relationship. He compared it to hopefully being married and having kids in the future. His wife wouldn’t fix all his problems and make life perfect, but sharing his life with someone he loved deeply, and who loved him, would definitely make life better.

There was more I needed to say. I admitted I still sensed frustration, since I wanted life to be a lot easier and safer and without so many variables, so much unpredictability. But I had to be fair to God. Faith had, in fact, brought me more clarity and confidence — just not to the level I wanted or expected. Yet without a doubt, I was better off now than when I functioned without faith.

I ended with this: My faith actually gives me the ability to navigate life in the midst of the unknown.

He said that was kind of similar to what he was saying, and I agreed. The bottom line was, things may not be perfect or perfectly easy, but my life was better with faith.

We cleaned our trays and went on with our days.

Jason later admitted he often viewed faith as a crutch. I’d heard this many times and found it insulting, but I didn’t know how to respond. Was there no way faith could find a home in the heart of the truly strong-minded, independent, freethinking person?

I came back the next Thursday and confessed I agreed with Jason. I even took it one step further. For me, faith was more like a wheelchair or one of those motorized things old people drive around in the grocery store. I was beginning to gain a little life-experience, and to realize that when I’m down-and-out, beaten up emotionally, or at my wits’ end, faith is the only reason I can press on.

I also submitted the idea that those who live by their sincere faith are in fact quite strong and resolute, maybe even the strongest of individuals. Faith can propel a person forward against all odds and carry them through the storm of failure and discouragement. They may act against practical thinking and pragmatic theories, but they don’t care. They have a drive in them that’s absolutely amazing, like Rocky Balboa in the boxing ring. And no matter what they’re facing, they see each situation as an opportunity.

I said I that in the hearts of the willing, faith can lead to achievements of mythic proportions. Because of my own faith, I knew I was learning to pick myself up, dust myself off, and keep going in tough times. “Yes,” I told him, “I lean on my faith, because I’m weaker on my own.”

The next time I saw Jason, he asked me something I didn’t want to answer, and it was pretty big. This was really the last major theme we discussed. (Everything afterward was mostly a rehash of ideas we’d already covered.) Jason asked why I found the Christian faith and philosophy more interesting than any other. Why did I think it was true?

That was a hard one. Not that I didn’t know, but I knew my answer would be kind of polarizing.

Next time, I told him I wasn’t interested in religion, specifically. What was compelling to me was the spirituality Jesus spoke of, and the context for it he created. What Jesus said was relational, making it different from the systems our World Religions class revealed, which were legalistic (working our way into heaven) or fatalistic (you’re doomed no matter what you do in life). I understood that Jesus wanted to spend eternity with me, and even go with me through this life, just because he loves me. There’s nothing I have to do to earn his love, and I can do nothing to drive it away. All I had to do was sincerely believe.

This gave me a sense of value. My parents had separated when I was young, and growing up I never felt particularly valuable or valued; I pretty much felt like an inconvenience, like something disposable. That always loomed over me. But what Jesus said finally washed all that away. He gave me a blank page, a new beginning, a reason to set some goals and even dream a little, because my life mattered. My future did too.

It also challenged me about growing, being continually willing to stretch myself. I already didn’t like some things I was turning into. I was developing some addictive habits, had a tendency to get angry, and was typically negative and pessimistic. Reading the words of Jesus, I decided he wanted me to never be too impressed with myself. He challenged me somehow to question the status quo, reach beyond my limitations, and test my potential.

Just think, I told Jason, about those first twelve followers of Jesus. They were a rag-tag team of misfits. Many were rough and working class. Some were even hated for their professions. They were just average people, not particularly gifted or successful. No fame, power, position, or influence to speak of.

At first, this discouraged Jason’s view of the Christian faith, as if those men weren’t qualified to represent God. He even wondered why Jesus would pick them.

But look at the flip side, I told him. God didn’t want perfect people, just willing people. And when Jesus said, “Follow me,” they did. And because of those devoted misfits, we’re still talking about Jesus two thousand years later. He continues to be the most influential person in history because of that handful of failures and undesirables who found value and purpose and were willing to challenge the possibilities, even the threat of death, in those early days of the Christian faith. And that’s what Jesus wanted me to do — to keep going, to keep growing, to keep reaching forward.

I also mentioned how Jesus inspired me. Sometimes life just plain sucks; we can’t control it, and there’s no way to change our surroundings. The only thing that helps is a little comfort as we wade through all the garbage. Jesus gave me that comfort in the form of hope. He said his spirit would be inside my heart during those times to comfort me. There was something to look forward to, the promise of a better day. This helped me endure whatever situation I might be facing. To me, that’s really what hope is.

I’d become convinced that a life without hope is no life at all. Life had proven to be filled with so many personal failures and overall difficulties. Life was hard way more than it was easy. And when people lose hope (which is easy to do) — nothing to live for or look forward to — it seems like something dies inside.

I ended by saying I think we all want something more in our lives than to just exist. My faith gave me this — a sense of value, a reason to dream, a reason to grow and become a better person, and hope to inspire me.

The Deciding Factor

It was amazing. The next time I saw Jason, he said something I never expected. After our months and months of talking, he said he was totally convinced that what I’d discovered was true. I couldn’t believe it! But he also said he wasn’t ready to make the change and decide just yet. He had to think it through a little more to be fully convinced. I didn’t really understand that, but I gave him some space.

That’s where we pretty much left things. From then on, I decided to let him initiate any spiritual-type conversations.

It became awkward when I saw him. It was as if he was avoiding talking to me on a deeper level. We mainly talked about what was going on with him, and it wasn’t pretty. To get through it, I thought he needed faith more than anything. I wanted him to experience some of the peace, contentment, purpose, and clarity I’d begun to have. But I didn’t press it. I wanted to, but he was becoming distant, so I wanted to give him some room. I knew he had to make the connection himself. We’d spent a year building our friendship, and I didn’t want to ruin it by being overly enthusiastic and appear like I had some agenda (though in a way I did, but for a good reason).

Jason always had a hard time at home. His dad was never around. As a result, his mom looked to him for everything. She turned her relationship with him into some warped kind of husband-friend-son combination. He had to do everything around the house, help with the bills, and listen to all her woes and somehow fix them. It had been like this for a long time, and it got to be too much. He had to get out.

That’s about the time our conversations became shallow. He moved in with a friend who had an apartment with his girlfriend. Jason slept on their couch, but I think it was an improvement.

Things were better for a while, but then got worse. Jason’s mom wouldn’t leave him alone. She called him and showed up at his job. She told him how much he let her down and what a jerk and failure he was, and how worthless he was to leave her just like his dad did.

Jason finally decided to make another change.

I hadn’t seen him at school for a couple weeks. This wasn’t completely unusual, since we both had jobs, papers, and projects to balance. Plus, since Jason wasn’t living at home, it was hard to phone him. (Not everyone had cell phones back then; they were the size of a brick and really expensive.) Finally I asked another friend if he’d seen him. He hadn’t, but he knew where he was. He told me the story someone else told him.

One day Jason quit his job, withdrew from school, closed his bank account, and left a note to explain everything for his roommates and the rest of us. When the roommates came back late that night, they found the note on the coffee table. It was right in front of Jason’s couch, where his dead body was lying. He’d purchased a gun with his last dollars and killed himself.

I was devastated.

Then, there we were again, like back in high school, in a mutual social function. Except that this one was a funeral. Jason’s mom even read his suicide letter aloud. She was emotional and weeping and seemed strangely ambivalent to the parts in it related to her. It was uncomfortable, and I just wanted to leave. It was one of the saddest moments I’ve ever been part of. It was so empty and hopeless, and I felt partly responsible in some way. If only Jason and I could have had one more talk.

I know it’s a heavy story. Jason had a big affect on me, and his story is part of my story. He challenged what I believed and caused me to really examine it. And he also helped me learn one last lesson in his final act: Everyone has made a decision about God. Even the atheist or agnostic decides something. Even no decision is a decision.

I just wish my friend had made the decision I wanted him to make.

When Jason and I had talked, I never wanted to be overly enthusiastic and press too hard and turn him off. I always wondered, how far is too far? When do conversations on faith become pushy and self-defeating rather than healthy and productive discourse on important spiritual issues with eternal consequences? It’s a balance I still struggle with today when talking to friends, family, or people I meet or work with. Most of the time I choose to opt out of those conversations so I can seem more normal. That bothers me, because no one’s guaranteed another day. You never know about tomorrow.

As I’ve come to understand my faith’s value, it has become clear that faith is the reason good times are better, while it makes hard times livable. I think that’s essentially the promise God does make to humanity as we have faith in him — that he’s still with us regardless of how we feel. It’s a compelling promise, and I still trust in it.

Don’t get me wrong, I still doubt from time to time. But I think it’s normal to doubt. In fact, I don’t even view it as the opposite of faith. Some think it is, but that’s unfair. In the same way that caution isn’t always the opposite of risk, or fear isn’t the opposite of courage, doubt is not the opposite of faith. They can both be present at the same time. There’s always a measure of caution balancing a risky decision. There’s also a sense of fear to sober us as we advance in a courageous endeavor. And there’s always a sense of doubt that tests and purifies my faith as I step forward with it. I just believe what Jesus said is true.

To me, faith is the unknown revealed and explained. Having faith may seem irrational to you — and I assure you, it is. With faith it’s strangely possible to acknowledge the unexplained, face it, embrace it, and move forward. It’s not mindless devotion to antiquated ideas or benevolent ideals, but a calculated conclusion in the light of present reality: There’s more unknown than known. It’s a coming to terms with the mystery of life. It’s the strength to keep a conviction when surrounded by questions. It’s discovering twenty variables and one truth, then holding to that truth regardless of the present ambiguities. It can go against better judgment and modern thought, while being the wiser approach.

My faith is still a mystery in many ways, which drives me insanely crazy, but I also know it’s the one thing that’s true.

Maybe that’s my homerun.
 
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