Take Responsibility for Your Own Thoughts

The thoughts that enter a person’s consciousness over a period of months, years, and decades will have a determinative effect on the character of that person and the quality of life he or she experiences. In other words, what a person thinks about will largely determine the kind of person he or she becomes.

If this is true (and, as far as I know, no one denies it), what a person thinks about is one of the most important things about him or her. The choice to allow a train of thought to travel through one’s mind or to set a train of thought in motion is made countless times each day and is, therefore, common. Yet, precisely because that choice is made countless times a day, it determines one’s identity and is, therefore, critical.

It is vital for health and wellbeing that a person take control of, and responsibility for, his or her own thoughts. Yet many people do not know this is even possible. They are under the impression that thoughts originate outside themselves and, as such, are uncontrollable. They go wherever the most recent impulse takes them: into a success or revenge fantasy, or a replay of yesterday’s argument at work, or last night’s Survivor episode. They don’t realize they are responsible for their thoughts and in control of them. That’s one thought that never enters their minds.

The moment one accepts responsibility for his or her thoughts is one of the most important moments in a person’s life. It makes positive change possible. It resets the future. It sets the stage for personal and spiritual growth.

Many people allow thoughts to run unsupervised through their minds. Those thoughts link together into a train of thought – often a runaway train – and they feel helpless to stop it. But people can, and must, take control of the trains of thought that pass through their minds. They have the power to refuse them admittance, direct them when they are admitted, and stop them when they are going in the wrong direction.

A different analogy might be helpful. Imagine that thoughts travel along something like riverways or canals. The riverways – or neural pathways – are already in place by the time a person is mature enough to exercise control over them. Yet it is possible to redirect riverbeds or dig new canals – neural pathways – upon which one’s thoughts can travel. It is possible, but it takes significant effort.

One of the great engineering feats in U. S. history was the redirection of the Chicago River. In the early part of the twentieth century, it flowed into Lake Michigan, which provided Chicago with drinking water. Because the river was contaminated with human and industrial waste, drinking water was polluted, and tens of thousands of people died from typhoid, cholera, and dysentery.

The flow of the river was reversed by digging a system of canals, channeled through large sewage treatment plants, then into the Des Plaines River, the Mississippi, and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.

Something similar happens with us. Significant amounts of toxic thoughts are being dumped into our minds on a regular basis. We must prevent such thoughts from entering our stream of consciousness and polluting our minds. This means governing what we watch, read, and hear. TV, movies, books, and Facebook pages that continually dump toxic ideas must be shut off.

Even if we do this, some toxic thinking will remain, and more will enter our minds unbidden. So, we must take control of the thoughts we already have and redirect them. One way of doing this – a sewage treatment plant of sorts – is to routinely confess to God (and, as appropriate, to another person) toxic thoughts of pride, vengeance, fear, and sexual immorality.

Carving new riverbeds through which our thoughts can flow takes almost constant vigilance at first. It requires the painful work of confession. It depends on finding sources of clean and healthy thoughts: books, movies, websites, and people who introduce true and refreshing ideas to the mind. But as this hard work is done, the control of ones thoughts becomes more manageable and life becomes healthier and more enjoyable.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/18/2018

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A Lesson We Must Learn: Words Matter

Words matter. They have power. The world operates by words. Yet, experts tell us that when someone speaks, we do not exactly hear words; we think them. The process is a complicated one.

Speech, like every other sound we hear, causes the air to move in wavelike patterns, which we call “soundwaves.” These waves of air are funneled through the outer ear and ear canal to the middle ear, vibrating a small drum of tissue that is about 8 millimeters by 10 millimeters in size. Its vibrations set in motion a chain reaction through three tiny bones, which in turn causes fluid in the spiral-shaped cochlea to move. Hair cells in the cochlea transmit neural signals along the auditory nerve to the brain, where the signals are interpreted as words. And words matter. They have power.

Years ago, my family was sitting in the car, waiting to cross the border into Canada. When we reached the border services officer, I was stroking my upper lip with my thumb and index finger. I had just shaved off my beard and it was the first time I had been mustache-less since 1975, and it felt odd. The officer thought I was fidgety and probably hiding something, so he told me to pull over and open the trunk. We were then ordered to wait inside the border office until our car had been inspected.

I stopped at the counter to inform the officer there, then the five of us sat on metal-framed chairs against a wall and watched the people coming and going. Forty-five minutes later, we were still sitting there, and I wondered if we’d been forgotten. I approached the counter again and said to the officer: “Excuse me, but we’ve been waiting for about forty-five minutes.”

She looked up and said apologetically, “I’m sorry, but we’re having to do a lot of strip searches today, so we’re running behind.”

The soundwaves that vibrated my eardrum sent those tiny bones in my middle ear to work. The fluid in the cochlea washed over the hair cells and sent signals down the auditory nerve. In less than a second my brain pieced together the meaning of what I had heard, and the power of those words couldn’t have been more obvious. They sent me back to the waiting chairs, where I sat down, shut my mouth, and meekly waited my turn.

Words matter. They are powerful. That’s why the Apostle Paul ordered Jesus-followers to “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth…” Words can save a life or destroy it. As the ancient proverb puts it, “The tongue has the power of life and death.”

This is not something that we sufficiently appreciate. Hitler devastated Europe and killed six million Jews and nearly as many non-Jews. His weapon? Words. Armies marched, bombs fell, and people died at his word.

The tongue also has the power of life. I entered pastoral ministry through something of a side door. I never wanted to be a pastor, but two years of church ministry was a denominational requirement for the overseas service for which my wife and I had trained. During those first two years, I didn’t feel that my sermons were helping anyone. I doubted they were any good.

Some college friends visited one Christmas. In my hearing, one of them told another that he thought I was among the best preachers he knew. The soundwaves did their work in my middle and inner ear, signals were transmitted along the auditory nerve to my brain, and the power of his words brought life. Nearly forty years later, I still remember them. Had I not heard those words, I might not be in the pulpit today.

Words have power, and God’s words are all-powerful. The biblical writer declares, “By God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed.” Ours is a world of words, brought into being by words and operated by words. When Jesus, quoting Moses, said that “People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” he was not spiritualizing. He was stating facts.

It is a lesson we must learn. Words matter – God’s and ours.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/11/18

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Mea Culpa

A reader from Ohio called the office this week, wanting to talk about the Saturday, July 28th column in the Canton Repository, which was also posted to this blog. She had to hunt down my phone number, so it is clear she was motivated.

I wasn’t in the office, so she left a voicemail. She was gracious and articulate, which I appreciate. She was also critical, which I appreciate even more.

She brought up what I had written in the second paragraph, which I share here: “When he spoke of Darwinian Evolution, it was as if he were intoning the name of a god, like an ancient Jew invoking El Shaddai or a Sikh exalting Akal Purakh. And his faith gave him hope.”

The caller was Jewish, she said, and she found the reference to a “god” (lower case “g”) like El Shaddai or Akal Purakh offensive. She read the passage as if I were disparaging El Shaddai (a frequent title for God in the Old Testament) and Akal Purakh. She acknowledged (hopefully, I think) the possibility that the words did not come out as I intended.

I was appalled. I went back and reread the passage, and saw that it could be taken that way. It was certainly not what I meant. In context, I was writing about a scientist’s genuine faith in Darwinian evolutionary theory and the hope that it brought him. The comparison between a Jew or a Sikh was meant to emphasize the sincerity of the man’s faith, not disparage it, still less to disparage the Object of faith for Jews or Sikhs.

Like the ancient Jew I referenced in the column, I believe in and serve El Shaddai. My life’s ambition is to hallow his name, not dishonor it. So, thanks to the caller for helping me right a wrong and write a retraction/explanation. If you happen to read this, know that I am grateful you read the column, and appreciate the  fortitude it took to call someone you don’t know for the sake of the Name you honor.

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Lost on Us: Another Thing We Should Be Learning from #Me Too

A powerful deity has been added to the pantheon of gods. It is as if a star has appeared in the heavens to guide its worshipers through the maze of modern-day life. Though relatively new to the world stage, this deity now commands enormous respect, especially in the western hemisphere, and particularly in the United States. It is worshipped by untold millions: the great god Career.

People will go to almost any length for the sake of Career. They will leave friends and family, forsake their church, forego leisure and play. In the name of Career, they will sacrifice their marriage, interests, and even morals. They will do whatever it takes to experience the blessing of Career.

A generation ago, at least in some circles, Education ruled supreme. Since then there has been a shakeup in the heavenly pantheon. Education, once sought as an end in itself, now exists for the sake of Career. Today, its acolytes, professional educators, must frame the rituals and sacrifices of education as service to Career. Education has become a satellite deity that is only important if it revolves around Career.

Children, particularly children from affluent families, are often educated for the sole purpose of dedicating their lives to Career. Parents take advantage of school choice laws to send their kids to the best schools in their district or they go out of district to expensive private schools. They do this in the hope that their children will be accepted into top-tier colleges where they will learn to be Career-driven, Career-minded, and Career-wise.

When my children were young, I coached Little League baseball for a couple of summers, including T-Ball. The T-ballers would swing and miss repeatedly, or swing and hit the tee, knocking the ball to the ground. Some parents would shout at them from the stands: “Keep your eye on the ball! Swing harder! Run faster!” For these parents, even T-Ball was an initiation rite for five-year-old into the good graces of Career. So, of course, failure was unacceptable.

That is because they believed Career has power to bestow happiness, fulfillment, and material goods on their children. But children who miss out on its blessing because of laziness, deficiency in intellect or appearance, or societal injustice are destined to eke out a meaningless existence in humble circumstances.

As faith in the power of Career has spread, priests and prophets have emerged to serve the deity. These priests go by various titles: career coach, certified career counselor, success guru, and career blogger, among others. Career also has major and minor prophets, whose writings impart vision, provide inspiration, and instruct neophytes in the ways of their god.

The idolization of Career is dangerous on many fronts. People who are willing to pay any price to secure the blessing of Career will always be at the mercy of people who have the power to bestow it. This is one of the principal truths the #Me Too movement can teach us, but few realize it and even fewer dare to speak it, perhaps from fear of committing Career heresy and offending Career worshipers everywhere.

In an explosive expose in The New Yorker, six women told Ronan Farrow that sexual harassment from CBS chairman Les Moonves had damaged their careers. One, a former child star hoping to make a comeback, said: “I’d been taught that powerful people can hurt you, they can ruin you, they can ruin your career … I thought, ‘Wow, is this the way the world works and I just don’t get it?’”

Farrow’s story portrays Moonves as a bad man, but it also reminds us that “Career First” is a bad policy. The women in Farrow’s piece acquitted themselves well, but think of the women who didn’t, who placed Career above integrity. To do so virtually guarantees dissatisfaction, either now because of failure or later because of success. It takes some people a lifetime to realize it, but what each person has in the end is not a Career but a self, which has been formed by the choices it has made. Career can be changed or abandoned, the self cannot. We are stuck with it.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/4/2018

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Can Hope Be Found in Present-Day America?

I was once on a college campus for a conference that featured a prominent biologist as a keynote speaker. During his talk, he defended Darwinian evolutionary theory from attacks by other academics. Whether his defense was successful or not was a matter of opinion, but what struck me was the vibrancy of his faith. It was not faith in God, but it was faith nonetheless.

When he spoke of Darwinian Evolution, it was as if he were intoning the name of a god, like an ancient Jew invoking El Shaddai or a Sikh exalting Akal Purakh. And his faith gave him hope. He freely admitted that there are current mysteries in biology which our best scientists (the priests of the new order) have not been able to penetrate, but he was certain that everything will be uncovered and laid bare before the advance of Darwinian Evolution. The apocalypse, the unveiling, is coming. Until it arrives, he would live in hope.

This inspiring vision strikes me as thoroughly religious. It offers something usually found in religion but missing in the secular order, the current one, at any rate: hope. Humans can only thrive when they have hope, and the great movements throughout history, whether religious, political, or scientific, have been full of hope.

Former President Obama recognized the deep human need for hope. In his 2008 campaign, he intentionally used the words “hope” and “hopeful” again and again. Across the bottom of his campaign posters, from one side to the other, was a single word, all in caps: “Hope.” Ten years later, the terminology of hope has been virtually expunged from our national discourse.

In the last general election, both major party candidates could have placed the word “Fear” from one side of their campaign posters to the other. Or perhaps “Anger.” Many current candidates for national, state, and local offices are following their example. Fear and anger are, like hope, highly motivational, but fear and anger burn people out. Only hope builds them up. We are in serious need of some hope.

I think a genuinely hopeful mid-term candidate, as opposed to one who uses the language of hope to manipulate others, could be successful. Such a candidate would have an answer to the question, “What kind of country do we want to be?” and it would be an answer infused with hope. And voters, suffocating from a lack of hope, would respond.

But where does genuine hope come from? The lecturer in biology was, I believe, genuinely hopeful that a glorious Revelation of Darwinian Evolution would vindicate him in the end. Deprived of such hope, he could not have gone on. And isn’t that just what has happened to the Communist movement worldwide? In the 1980s, Communists around the world, deprived of hope by the continued failure of nation states to achieve Marx’s vision, gave up hope.

Hope needs faith to survive. The biologist was brimming with faith, a true believer in Darwinian Theory’s ability to explain the presence of life in its diverse forms on the earth. And that faith inspired his hope for the future.

Similarly, Christian hope thrives in an atmosphere of faith. The Christian trusts God’s desire and ability to bring salvation to herself and to the world, and her faith inspires in her a genuine hopefulness for the future. She has already seen that future – incompletely, of course – but truly. It has begun to manifest itself in her life. Because she already sees the promised future of world-wide wholeness and harmony, of joy and justice taking shape in her own life, she is filled with hope that it will happen in the world.

Genuine hope is a distinguishing characteristic of the Christian faith and has been from the beginning. Christianity does more than paint a rosy picture of the future. Christians believe the future reaches back and changes the present. The peace and joy and love which will characterize the age to come are already occurring in their own lives as they trust in God.

Hope is not absent from present-day America, though one needs to know where to look. It thrives among people whose lives are being transformed by faith. That’s where hope lives.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/24/2018

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Needed: People to Live (not just Speak) the Truth

According to recent data, the percentage of atheists among thirteen to eighteen-year-olds is approximately double that of any other age group in the U.S. Experts suggest that this age group, known as Generation Z, might be the first to leave the Church and not come back. The Church is wondering what she can do about it.

Those who study the phenomenon have suggested a variety of steps local churches might want to take: encouraging a deeper and more vital engagement with Scripture; providing twenty-something ministry programming; and connecting young people with mentors. These steps are good, but they are rather like launching a lifeboat on a flooded river: some people may get into the boat, but the river’s current will not change direction. Still, we must reach those we can.

Mentoring people in their teens and twenties could be very helpful, but it is not enough to model the same old life young people already know, only with religious flavoring. They need mentors that demonstrate the possibility of an alternative, radically-Christian, genuinely loving way of life, devoid of malice and greed.

When I was new to the church, I was privileged to have those kinds of people in my life. One was William Mack, a nonagenarian who had pastored small churches in Western Pennsylvania when he was much younger. I was just getting out of the starting blocks and he was crossing the finish line, but I learned something from him: what a life looks like when God is the biggest thing in it.

Then there was Burton Quick, another elderly, widowed man who demonstrated the reality of a God-centered life. From William Mack and Burton Quick I learned that living large has nothing to do with income, luxury cars, or lake homes. A larger life requires a greater God, and I was beginning to see that the God of these men was more important than I had previously imagined.

I was in my twenties and pastoring a church when I first met Kenneth West. He was a big man and strongly framed, but what impressed me most was his humility. He was the most unpretentious person I’d ever known. He was obviously intelligent, but he didn’t show off his knowledge. He enjoyed meaningful conversation, but never used it to attract attention to himself. There was an unusual sense of peace about him. One had the impression that he would maintain his equanimity in a hurricane.

It was Dallas Willard’s sharp intellect that first attracted me to him, but it was the overall tenor of his life that brought me back to him again and again. Willard, more than anyone I know, understood how that tenor of life develops. He had learned how to consciously cooperate with God in the process of spiritual formation, and he demonstrated the result: a rich understanding of how life works, coupled with a gentleness of spirit rarely seen, even in the church.

These good men, Mack, Quick, West, and Willard, along with others, have been an enormous help to me. The help they rendered was not simply by the words they spoke or wrote, but by the lives they lived. They demonstrated what the good life really looks like, a life without greed or condemnation, rich in love and joy and peace. None of them knew how much they helped me – even I didn’t know at the time – but my life has been better because of them.

I do not think it a coincidence that all these people were relatively older when I came across them. The kind of life they lived took time to develop. They came into it through trials and errors, along with rugged perseverance, supported by grace. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, the people the church most needs today are not those who can do something, but those who have become someone—someone who shines with the love of God.

This is the need of the hour: church people who can prove such a life – rich in love and devoid of condemnation – is possible. People are dying to see this kind of life. Will Generation Z see it before the cultural currents of futility and apathy sweep them away?

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/21/2018

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Give Your Kids a Clear Alternative

Your teen daughter’s favorite show is “Pretty Little Liars.” Week by week she learns the singular lesson that her value depends on being beautiful, rich, and sexy. Her younger brother hardly watches TV anymore, and you are relieved: their fights have decreased significantly. But there is a price to pay: he’s in his room all afternoon and evening playing “Monster Hunter: World.” Though his sister and he are not fighting they are also not talking, and he only talks to you when you ask him a direct question.

It is beginning to dawn on you that your children are immersed in a value system you despise. They are learning that self-fulfillment is the most important – perhaps the only important – thing in the world. The idea that the goal of life is to feel good, or at least avoid pain, and that money is the way to that goal, is constantly reinforced. Sex, as demonstrated again and again in the media they consume, is represented as an exciting and pleasurable, but fundamentally meaningless.

They are learning that rules are made to be broken, which is the recurring theme of the TV shows your daughter binge-watches with her friends. In those same shows, parents are almost always ridiculous and stupid, and religious people are hypocritical and mean. When God is talked about, which is not often, he is portrayed in such a distorted manner that he is unrecognizable: a straw God.

Some parents, when they discover this, try to restrict their children’s media consumption, but by then it is too late. And, while limiting exposure to social and other media is a wise thing to do for children, teens, or adults, it is not the answer. What parents need to do is offer their children an alternative to the culture of self-absorption.

Urging children to lose themselves in work or sports is not an alternative. It is the same addictive lifestyle with a different drug of choice. What children need to see is a radically different value system, where life itself is good and people are objects of love. This is certainly not what they see presented in the media.

Nowadays the media, including media targeted at teens, glorifies darkness. Darkness is considered more “grown up,” more important, than light. The class of critics that lives in a symbiotic (or perhaps parasitic) relationship to the media are constantly extolling it. It is up to parents to help their children see the joy and beauty – and especially the meaningfulness – of light.

Parents must also demonstrate to their children that doubt is not automatically superior to belief. Contemporary culture regards doubters as more intelligent than believers, and this is particularly true in the academy. As Dallas Willard once quipped, “You can almost be as stupid as a cabbage as long as you doubt.” Intellectuals of an earlier generation would have been astonished by such an idea. Doubt may be a shortcut to academic acceptance today, but it was not, and will not, always be so.

Immersed in a culture where dark is light and light is dark, doubt is wise and belief is foolish (or worse, unsophisticated), many young people – the numbers are alarming – are leaving the church and the faith. There are various reasons for this but an important one is that they do not see any connection between the faith their parents espouse and the good life, as they have had it portrayed by the culture around them. Unless they are presented with an attractive and workable alternative, the faith cannot help but seem to them irrelevant or even illusory.

The people best positioned to present that alternative are their parents, but parents need to see it demonstrated themselves. This is where the church comes in. One of the most important things it can offer, more important even than sermons and Sunday School lessons, is the example of the extraordinary man or woman who lives the compelling life of love through faith-filled interaction with God. They shine with a light that makes the self-absorbed life appear petty and drab. In their presence, the life described in the Bible is no longer an abstraction, but a three-dimensional, attractive, real-life possibility.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/14/2018

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When Ideas Collapse, People Get Hurt

Drive into a city, Chicago, for example, and the first thing you will see is the skyline. From miles away you can see the Willis Tower, the Trump Hotel and Tower, and the Aon Center. But you cannot see the skyscrapers’ foundations. Even if you stand next to one, its foundation will largely be invisible because most of it is underground – in some cases, descending one hundred feet. Should the foundation be compromised, the skyscraper could topple.

Ideas are, in a sense, like buildings: they are constructed on a foundation and without it they will collapse. This has certainly happened. In the 1980s, for example, the idea of cold fusion – creating nuclear reactions at relatively low temperatures – captured the attention of scientists. It held the promise of cheap and universal energy. But the idea was based on an unrepeatable experiment. It lacked a foundation.

Go further back. Aristotle taught that life was spontaneously generated from inanimate matter. He based the hypothesis on the foundational ideas of earlier philosophers. But the foundation was not well-laid, and the idea eventually toppled.

Like a city skyline, there is such a thing as a cultural skyline. It is not constructed from concrete and steel but from ideas. Some of these ideas can be very prominent but the foundation on which they are built is largely hidden. If it is well-built, the idea may be around for a long time. If not, it may come toppling down like Aristotle’s spontaneous generation.

One of the ideas that stands out in society currently is that gender is, or at least can be, fluid. The idea is that a person can identify as a man or woman (or something else) at different times in his, her, or their lives. This idea has achieved prominence, particularly on college campuses, with their focus on protecting the rights of sexual minorities.

Gender fluidity is an idea, and, like all ideas, it is built on supporting ideas and based on a foundation. As regards gender fluidity, except in the case of intersex (formerly known as hermaphroditic) people, identity is not based on genetics (XX or XY chromosomes) but on feelings and desires.

The idea that we are what we feel has been around far longer than the idea of gender fluidity and is foundational to it. But do our feelings really define us? Do they make us who we are? The idea is certainly widespread, but is it true? Is it safe? Or has it led us into confusion, addiction, and other troubles? Will future generations think of this idea the way we now think of cold fusion and spontaneous generation?

Another prominent idea in the intellectual skyline of our society is that each person has a right to pursue his or her own happiness. This idea has been ensconced in our national consciousness by the Declaration of Independence. But Thomas Jefferson did not create the phrase or the idea. He took it (in all likelihood) from one of his favorite philosophers, John Locke. Locke, in turn, almost certainly borrowed the idea from Greek and Roman ethical philosophy, particularly from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

Were Jefferson, Locke, or Aristotle to see the excesses and injustices that have been done under the banner of the right to the pursuit of happiness, they would be horrified. Locke realized that “the pursuit of true and solid happiness” would sometimes require us “to suspend the satisfaction of our desires,” an idea that is not only foreign but is antithetical to present-day thinking. Aristotle linked happiness to living well and doing well. Jefferson himself wrote that while “happiness [is] the aim of life,” “virtue is the foundation of happiness.”

The right to the pursuit of happiness, at least as the idea is usually presented in contemporary America, is not a higher story idea built on the same foundation on which Jefferson labored. People who claim it as justification for their behavior – “I have a right to be happy, don’t I?” – may think they are standing on a Jeffersonian foundation, but they are badly mistaken.

Ideas matter. The provenance of ideas matter. Poorly-founded ideas eventually collapse and, when they do, people get hurt.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/7/2018

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Why I Keep an Empty Coke Can on My Shelf

When I was young, my parents or other adults occasionally quoted to me the old saw, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” I haven’t heard that for a long time. It’s as if the maxim has dropped out of contemporary parlance. Apparently, a metaphor about a book and its cover no longer strikes home in our digital world.

Nevertheless, the adage stands: you still can’t judge a book by its cover. A torn and tattered cover may contain a priceless book while an attractive cover may surround 300 pages of rubbish. Or vice-versa. When I visit a used bookstore, I largely ignore splashy, contemporary covers. Perhaps I have missed some great, even life-changing, books because I was judging them by their covers.

However, no one was ever speaking about books when they shared that bit of wisdom with me. They were always thinking of people. The point is always: You can’t judge a person by the way he or she looks.

Isn’t that the truth? Sometimes it’s the people who appear to have it all together that are falling apart, the people who seem full of confidence that are sad and empty. The psychologist Madeline Levine has identified a new variety of unhappy teenagers. In the past, they were often socially inept kids who got poor grades and struggled to fit in. Now the unhappy teen is increasingly likely to be smart, successful, and privileged—yet lost and profoundly empty.

For Dr. Levine, one client epitomizes this new type of adolescent unhappiness. She was her last appointment on a Friday afternoon, a 15-year-old girl Levine described as “bright, personable, [and] highly pressured by her adoring, but frequently preoccupied … parents.”

She wore a long-sleeve t-shirt pulled halfway over her hand, with an opening cut in the cuff for her thumb. Since girls sometimes wear these kinds of shirts to hide self-mutilating behaviors, the therapist asked her to pull back her sleeve. When she did, Dr. Levine was startled to find the girl had used a razor to carve the word “EMPTY” onto her forearm.

Levine says that the most common thing she hears from kids these days is, “I’m fake.” On the surface, their lives look good. They are successful students with many friends. They leave school in new cars that take them to beautiful homes with manicured lawns. “But,” Dr. Levine says, “when you get to what’s going on beneath these kids’ T-shirts, there’s not much happening inside.” They are empty.

Emptiness is a disorder that affects adults as well as teens, religious as well as irreligious people. As a pastor, I have met many religious people, including clergy, who look good on the outside but are empty on the inside. They dress right, use the most up-to-date phrases and buzzwords and, frankly, are an impressive sight. But they are, in the prophet Jeremiah’s memorable metaphor, “broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” They are empty.

That may not always have been the case. They may once have been full of life and enthusiasm but, as a friend of mine says, “People leak.” The outside still looks good, but the inside is empty,

On a bookshelf in my study I keep an empty Coke can. It’s not empty because someone drank it. It is sealed, the pull-top still in place, the familiar white Coca-Cola logo emblazoned on the shiny red can. It came in a case of Coke in which every other can was full, but this one was empty.

I keep it as a reminder that I can look fine on the outside – proper, pious, kind – and yet be empty on the inside, a disappointment to those who are thirsting for something real. People are thirsting, but they will never quench their thirst on the way a thing looks.

Jesus pictured (and lived) a different kind of life, one that is rich and full, and enlivens others. He spoke of the availability of a life in which “rivers of living water” flow from within a person to refresh those around him. This life, as he made clear, is given to those who trust and obey him, but constantly eludes those who rely on appearances.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/16/2018

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It’s Time to Get Out of Line

By Martin Lewison from The Hague, Zuid-Holland, The Netherlands – Cedar Point and Oberlin’s CommencementUploaded by Themeparkgc, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26787830

The church I attended as a teen had a gold-colored carpet, cream-colored walls, and a dark-stained wood trim. In the front was a baptistry, inset and framed by walls on either side. All along the front of the sanctuary, even over the baptistry, were decorative dark wood strips, attached to the wall and descending from the ceiling, approximately a foot apart and eighteen inches long.

At one time, I knew just how many of those decorative strips there were. I had counted every one of them. Our pastor in those days was an older man in his final pastorate, and he was not what you would call a dynamic speaker. To keep myself from falling asleep, I would count the strips. Some sermons required as many as three recounts.

The possibility that our pastor’s sermons were especially boring didn’t occur to me until years later. I assumed all pastors were boring. I knew Christianity had developed out of the most important and exciting events in the history of the world but, paradoxically, I believed the Church was uninteresting by its very nature.

Verses like Revelation 3:12 didn’t help: “Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God.” The image of a pillar – silent, impassive, and stuck forever in an endless worship service – seemed at once to be apt and unappetizing. But then I hadn’t converted because I thought Christianity would be fun and adventurous. I converted because I thought it was true.

So it came as something of a surprise to find that following Jesus is a massively big adventure. Long prayers and dry sermons are not only not integral to Christian faith, they are antithetical to it. I had absorbed the idea that Christianity was boring from people who were bored. And how could they not be bored? In their minds, the main reason – and for some of them, the only reason – to become a Christian was to go to heaven when one died. Enduring long prayers and dry sermons was the price one paid to reserve decent housing in eternity.

I labored long under the misconception that Christianity was only about getting into heaven. I now think of that as amusement park theology. The anticipated ride – heaven – will be worth the wait, yet the wait will be long and boring. During the long wait, one should not be rude (that’s morals); one should talk to others in the line (encouragement); and outside the line (evangelism); but whatever else one does, one must not step out of line (apostasy).

In one version, stepping out of line means one can never return, while another version insists it is always possible to get back into line. A variant on the first of these claims that stepping out of line proves one was never really in line to begin with. Thousands of pages of detailed arguments have been written in support of these views. They possess value, but only if they are recontextualized in a biblical, not an amusement park, theology. It’s time to get out of line.

Amusement park theology did not originate with Jesus. His chosen image of the Christian life, which he presented repeatedly, was not of people standing around doing nothing while they wait for their shuttle to heaven, but of people following him in this world. The Christian life, as Jesus presented it, is a “follow me” life. It is active, not static; adventurous, not boring.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/9/2018

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