Mary & I recently went to the movies and saw “Tolkien,” the biopic about the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. We liked it. It’s about J.R.R. Tolkien’s early life—from boyhood to when he began teaching at Oxford University. There’s nothing about him leading C.S. Lewis to faith, or about his association with the Inklings (there’s not a lot about his faith in Christ at all, actually). There’s quite a bit about the events that shaped him and became themes in his novels. If you read Tolkien, you realize that the fight against evil is a dominant motif. The problem of evil is one that we Christians must address at times with those who have a different view of the world. Here’s an attempt to give you some talking points for that discussion.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations. (Psalm 100:5)
As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them. (Ecclesiastes 9:12)
The Biblical view of this world is one of spoiled goodness. Evil is the warping of the good. God did not create evil, but He did create both invisible and visible beings with power over a physical world who have the ability to choose His good or to reject it. Thus, good is primary and evil requires good to exist. We know God does not override the will of angels nor humans in their choices (to do so would take away their free will) but the Bible states that God can make good come from evil choices— for He is both merciful and full of grace. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
A truly good God would only create the best of all possible worlds. The problem is that this world is obviously not the best possible world—but it is on the way to the best possible world. God will create a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more pain or death; but in the meantime, He is about making goodness appear in the bleakest of situations. Consider heroism, which is the kind of good that can only grow in the face of evil. Consider patience, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, sacrifice—all of which require an evil against which to react. The Book of James acknowledges this when James writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:1-4)
The Bible reveals that God only permits as much evil as is necessary (in a universe with beings who have free will) to provide for the potential of their increased goodness. As evil as these times are, God recognizes our ability to choose but allows only what He must to accomplish His ends. It was even so with Jesus—as the writer of Hebrews says, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” (Hebrews 5:8)
If your church is turning gray (and especially if it has been that way for several years) there are things you can do to make sure you have younger Christians to whom you can pass on the faith and the church. Having pastored a congregation that is 20-30 years younger for the past two decades, here’s a bit of what I’ve learned.
Pray—This is crucial, because if God doesn’t do something, all these steps are meaningless. It’s not perfunctory prayer. Survival as a church is at stake.
Spend Time With Young People—This is a call to the older members of the congregation. It includes your own adult kids and your kids’ friends. It’s the young neighbors on your street. Befriend them. Invite them over. Go into their worlds. Be the only “old friends” they have, if necessary. This takes courage.
Look for Key People—Whom is the Holy Spirit pointing out to you? Who, among the young people you meet, introduces you to their inner circle? Who’s the “pied piper” of the group? Luke 10:5-6 talks about the person who opens up the possibility of sharing the Gospel in a certain locale. Key people open the culture of the younger generation to us.
Let Them Work Alongside You—This means training young people to do the things in and around the church community that you do.
Give Them Authority & Responsibility—This is somewhat scary. The Boomer Generation has a death-grip on the leadership of the church and must begin to let go. This means allowing them to make mistakes—and then cleaning up the mess without grumbling.
Sacrifice—You will take some “hits” during this process. Young people will distrust you, say hurtful things, and make stupid moves. You can handle it without blowing up or quitting the process. As an added benefit, you’ll learn to be a bit more like Jesus during this part of the procedure. 😉
Go Away Sometimes—Give up control totally for a while and let them run things without you there. It’s like taking the training wheels off of a bicycle. They won’t fully learn if you don’t vacate the premises.
Pass the Torch, the Baton, the Pulpit—Just do it. Have a party to celebrate the transition.
They Will Need You Again—Your ministry in the church is far from done! Young people need old people—always have, always will. It’s like going from being a parent to a grandparent. Enjoy them without having to change their spiritual diapers. The new, young leaders will do that job.
I was attending the National Pastors Conference in 2009. Shane Claiborne was one of the speakers. This all happened.
Shane Claiborne pulled me up onto the stage, sawed me in half and then laughed as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He must like what he’s doing.
He started off with a simple magic trick. He slightly burned and then tore up a real $100 bill with the help of an assistant from the crowd of pastors. Of course, after he “restored” the $100, he just gave it (for real) to the assistant. I knew he would. He’s Shane Claiborne, after all.
He then proceeded to do a presto-chango from magician to become St. Francis of Assisi. By the middle of the talk he had morphed again into Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Of course, it’s all in what he says. He starts quoting Jesus, “Let him who has two give to him who has none.” As Shane talks about his life, the real magic happens. He turns into Jesus right before our eyes (at least, momentarily). And a small percentage don’t like it. They start to leave. You begin to realize how difficult it must have been to be around Jesus because it’s so convicting.
It’s the impact of a life poured out, gone to the extreme. It makes you question if you could go to that extreme yourself. And THERE is where it gets really scary; because you know you have the ability to go there, but not the desire.
And then, to prove his point, Shane brings out a bag full of $1 bills, which total all of the money he is being paid by the National Pastors Conference to speak here. He starts tossing wads of the greenbacks into the no-man’s land between the stage and the first row of seats, just like I knew he would. He challenges each person in attendance to come forward, reach down and take one as a reminder to do what Jesus said to do with our money and our stuff. It’s what Mother Teresa did. It’s what St. Francis did. It’s what Shane is doing right now.
I decide that I can’t go up for a couple reasons. One: this is way too convicting. Two: I have already been given one thousand $1 bills by Shane Claiborne. About a year-and-a-half after we started Scum of the Earth Church, we received a $1000 check from something called “The Simple Way.” I may have found that out much later, as I do not remember if there was a name on the check. Even so, I had no idea what the Simple Way was. There were no strings attached to the gift. It came at a very good time. We needed it.
Sitting here with all these pastors, I feel Jesus pulling me toward Himself like we are in some kind of tug-o-war. I’m destined to lose, and I know it. So, I am one of the last people to go up and grab a $1 bill from the floor. There were still plenty left. As I stand there looking down at them, it is obvious that they have all been defaced. Each one has the word, “love.” written on it with magic-marker.
This was written for a holiday variety show where I was on stage as the “visiting Protestant minister.” I appeared along with a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest. No joke.
“I am a Protestant pastor, but I grew up in the Greek Orthodox church. It was a great spiritual foundation. You need to know that Greek Orthodoxy is kind of like Catholicism before they modernized under the Vatican II Council. By the way, my family is very Greek. All four grandparents were immigrants and they spoke Greek at home. I went to Greek school (with all the other kids from church) every Tuesday and Thursday after American school was over.
My mom died the summer when I was twelve years old. That first Christmas without her was weird. We sat around the Christmas dinner table like there was an empty seat … or like we were a holiday jig-saw puzzle with a piece missing.
Then, a few years later, my dad married an American woman. I say that because, as far as the Greeks were concerned, it was a mixed marriage. But Christmases became a lot better.
My new mom wasn’t just American—she was blue-eyed, blonde, and Protestant—and we started going to a Presbyterian Church every other week. I didn’t mind it. Not only could I easily read the prayers along with everyone else during the service, the service itself was a lot shorter. We were out-of-there in under an hour. Truthfully, I had never heard a church service performed in English before that. And perhaps what impressed my adolescent boy’s mind the most was that the girls at a Protestant Church didn’t all look like my sister. (Um, just so you know, my sister is beautiful … but … well, um … you know what I mean.)
Christmastime was different at the Greek Orthodox Church. The priest and the cantor would sing something in Greek, sounding more like Middle-Eastern street performers than like Bing Crosby and Perry Como. If the Byzantine choir sang anything, it was always in a minor key. Anything Christmas-y happened during Sunday School in the separate building next door to the church. Truly, it’s not even officially Christmas until around the 7th of January in Orthodoxy.
I will never forget our first Christmas at the Protestant Church. We didn’t have to get as dressed up as we did when we went to the Orthodox Church We went on the night before Christmas. The stars were out in that cold, clear, black sky. The church windows glowed as we approached. And the Americans had decorated their building—oh, how it was decorated—with holly wreaths and mistletoe, with green garlands and gold bows, with red candles and twinkling white lights. A handbell choir rang out, Away in the Manger. The pastor spoke about the significance of Jesus’ birth in language even I could understand. We got to sing Christmas carols inside the church—songs like, O Come All Ye Faithful, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Silent Night.
There was even a tall Christmas tree in the front of the sanctuary, all lit-up with colored lights and ornaments, over a Nativity set. In my teenage imagination we were like the shepherds, all around, who had come to see the Christ-child. I could almost hear the lamb and cattle sounds. And I nearly caught a glimpse of angels making their rounds.”
Luke 7:20,22-23 When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’” … So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”
Luke 7:31-35 “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’ For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”
Jesus loves everyone, but He did not buddy up to “religious” people—at least those who thought they knew how God behaves, what He likes, and what He hates. They struggled with the people Jesus hung around. The question we must ask ourselves is: What Kind of People Does Jesus Befriend? From the several verses above, we can surmise the following:
- Totally committed people who struggle with doubts sometimes (like John the Baptist).
- Totally sinful people who struggle with their reputation. (Like the “sinners” mentioned above).
If you find yourself in either one of these groups, Jesus wants to spend time with you. He will be with you in your solitude and doubts (the believer that you are); or He will celebrate life with you (the immoral person that you are). Anyone who tells you otherwise will be whining along with the ultra-religious people mentioned above, “Hey Jesus, we thought we knew the kind of people you liked—men and women who keep the rules and never question—but you wouldn’t cooperate with us!”
If Jesus didn’t befriend the “religious,” but still loved them, how did He show it? —By refusing to play their games and by challenging them about Himself.
Not a fun topic, especially with the kind of folks who make up Scum of the Earth Church—a group of amazing, passionate young people who have seen part of their subculture’s mission as reprimanding corrupt institutions, being skeptical of corporations, and questioning governmental leaders.
It’s a prophetic calling, really.
And yet, in the Bible, there are commands to respect that which God has placed over us—even if there are bad people in those positions. It doesn’t make sense when one remembers that Christianity has been seen, historically, as a subversive movement by many of those in power.
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. (1Peter 2:13-15)
How often have we viewed civil authorities as the enemy? In many movies, television shows, and books we paint police and politicians as evil (or at least incompetent) people who should be disobeyed. We can’t stand the injustice they perpetrate. When they are defied, it is to the delight of the reader and the cinema audience.
The Apostle Peter—the guy who wrote the Bible passage above—once cut off the ear of a government official who was coming to arrest Jesus (and do you honestly think he was just aiming for the man’s ear?) Later on in his life, Peter still had plenty of reasons to mistrust those who ruled the Roman Empire. Christianity was outlawed. He was flogged, beaten, imprisoned, and finally crucified upside down by the “authorities” he writes about—all for speaking the truth about Jesus, the Savior of that world.
That Peter would obey civil authority at all is amazing. That he would encourage other Christians to do so is mind-boggling. He becomes more concerned about the reputation of Christ than about his own sense of justice. He submits himself to the laws of the land—as long as they don’t break the higher laws of God. When he refused to defer to the empire’s demands to stop talking about Jesus and discipling churches, they killed him.
We, in the Western world, enjoy more freedoms than any people at any time in history. So, let us obey the laws we have to the glory of Jesus; that is, until the time when our obedience to the nation becomes disobedience to God.
Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my sighing. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray. In the morning, O LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation. (Psalm 5:1-3)
These are the opening lines to a prayer written by David, the king of Israel, about three thousand years ago. This much is obvious:
1) He wants God to hear him because he is in trouble.
2) He knows God is the boss of everything.
3) He understands that prayer gets God’s attention.
4) He starts talking to God about it as soon as he wakes up.
5) He expects God to do something, but he doesn’t know what or when.
Does that process sound familiar? These lines give us hope that our prayer lives are not as shallow as we’ve feared. It’s okay to keep asking for help. God has given us an example in the Bible—actually many examples—of people who love Him asking for help out of the hard times in which they find themselves (even if they themselves are the cause).
Have faith (Mark 11:22).
- O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (This person knows God and is still having difficult times! Sound familiar?)
- My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word. (Hmmm … the words of God are like water for the thirsty soul. Maybe I’m not too tired to read the Bible after all.)
- The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught. (Not only are God’s words nourishment to our souls, but He will use us to nourish others with His words as well.)
- “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Who does Jesus think He is, the Word of God or something?)
- Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Looks like Jesus is the Word made flesh, and we are to think hard about how He found nourishment from God’s words when His life became very difficult.)
- Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (There is a reward for doing the right thing—like feeding on God’s word—as if it weren’t enough of a reward in itself!)
(Psa. 63:1 / Psa. 119:28 / Isaiah 50:4 / Matt. 11:28 / Heb. 12:3 / Gal. 6:9)
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” —Jim Elliot’s journal entry for October 28, 1949 based upon the words of Jesus in Luke 9:24, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
What we hold onto is so futile, so temporary, so poor in comparison to what God offers, that one wonders why it is so difficult to give up. The answer is simple—it’s everything we have. Jim Elliot, the 28-year-old missionary who was murdered along with four other young missionaries by warriors from the Huaorani tribe in Ecuador, gave up his earthly life. What he gained in eternity will never be taken away. Most of us are not called to sacrifice our lives for the Gospel. Instead, Christ has asked us to die on the “installment plan,” a little bit at a time. It looks something like this:
•Give up our plans for God’s plans.
•Give up hoarding money to gain infinite spiritual wealth.
•Give up our frustrations to gain God’s peace.
•Give up our preferences for God’s truth.
•Give up our un-forgiveness to gain God’s forgiveness.
•Give up our control of others to gain God’s control of us.
•Give up our addictions to gain freedom in body and soul.
•And finally, give up our mortal lives to gain immortal life in Christ.
This is the cost of discipleship. This is the metaphor of baptism. This is what it means to be a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). According to Jesus, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)
By fantastic mercy,