Identity Crisis

Many American Christians are in an identity crisis or what may be better described as a crisis of non-identity. We spend time and resources to learn how to “do” life and ministry more effectively but rarely do we explore the question “to whom do I belong?” Misplaced identity is evident in the question “what do you do?” when meeting someone new while the question “to whom do you belong?” would seem odd to ask.

My friend Yitzhak (Ed) is a Rabbi who was over 50 years old the first time he read the New Testament. He exclaimed “How Beautiful!” when he read the genealogy of Jesus in the book of Mathew.  (The same list of names we skip over to get to the “good stuff.”) Just as Jesus was identified as the son of Joseph, the son of Jacob, the son of Matthan, so Ed understands himself to be Yitzhak, the son of Eliyahu (Ed’s dad), the son of Yosef (Ed’s grandfather).

This past week I meet with Ed and two of his Jewish friends and as I asked about their backgrounds it was evident that from childhood they understood to whom they belonged because of the intentionality of their parents, grandparents, and the Jewish community. To belong means that the family/community cannot imagine itself without you and you cannot imagine yourself apart from that family/community.

 

 

 

How Faith is Formed

“What curriculum do you use?” is the questioned I am asked most about disciple-making. I want to tie this to the question “where did we do wrong?” asked by brokenhearted parents who raised their children in church but who now as adults want nothing to do with Christianity. I believe both of these questions reveal a misconception on how faith is cultivated in the life of a person.

Since God created us like him and therefore he has a understanding of how we work, I believe we should look closely at what the Lord instructed Israel on the spiritual formation of their children and at how Jesus taught his disciples. Looking not only at what was to be learned but the means by which it was to be taught.

The book of Exodus is the account of God delivering Israel from bondage to freedom. The story begins with the birth of Moses and then flows seamlessly through nine plagues until a hard stop at the plague of “The Death of the Firstborn” where the Lord breaks from the narrative to establish the commemoration of the Passover. This parenthesis in the storyline signals the importance of what is taking place and invites the reader to no longer be a spectator but to join in the redemptive story through the Passover practices (Exodus 12-13).

The instructions for the Passover are given to the parents to be celebrated as a family in their home as a means of conveying the redemptive story of God from one generation to the next. Everett Fox points out that “ . . . memory is clearly important here, with two passages stressing the continuity of commemoration through the following generations (Exodus 13: 8-10 and 14-16).”[1]

A couple of observations:

  • The redemptive nature of God is foundational to disciple-making.
  • Children were a key consideration for the Passover.

Exodus 12:26-27“And it will be when your children say to you: What does this service (mean) to you? Then say: It is the slaughter-meal of Passover to YHWH, who passed over the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt, when he dealt-the blow to Egypt and our houses he rescued.”

  • The family is the optimal place to teach the redemptive story of God.

Exodus 12:3 “On the tenth day after this new-Moon they are to take them, each-man, a lamb, according to their Fathers’ House, a lamb per household.”

  • Stories and symbols play an important role in remembering the redemptive nature of God.
  • The means and method of the Passover were to insure the retelling of the redemptive story of God for generations.

Exodus 12:42 “It is a night of keeping-watch for YGWH, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that is this night for YHWH, a keeping-watch of all the Children of Israel, throughout their generations.”

 

 



[1] Everett Fox, “The Five Books of Moses”, (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), p. 322.

Relating to Your Children and Grandchildren

As Sansui, my brother-in-law, called out in a loud voice to his son inviting him from boyhood to manhood I was reminded of the baptism of Jesus and the heavenly Father calling out to Jesus telling him that he was loved and that he was pleased with him. Although I am sure that Jesus knew of his Father’s love and that the message could have been communicated telepathically, it is significant that the Father chose to express his affection and delight for Jesus publically for others to hear. Perhaps the reason why I was deeply moved at my nephew’s “Calling Out” ceremony was the Godlikeness of Sansui declaring before many witnesses his love and pleasure in his son.

For the ceremony Sansui read publically letters that he and dee, my sister, had written to my nephew explaining how the meanings of each of his five names were tied back to his paternal and maternal genealogy. (Again I was reminded of how the story of Jesus begins with his detailed genealogy.) For my nephew an understanding of his ascendants will form his identity and also prepare him on how to relate to his children and grandchildren.

There are two tribal ceremonies for a Nigerian child. The first is the naming ceremony eight days after his/her birth. Here the five names of the child are whispered in the baby’s ear so that he/she is the first to hear the names. The parents then declare the baby’s name to the gathering and explain the meaning behind each of the names.  In a Christian home the child is then given a life’s bible verse and the parents and community pray a blessing over the baby.

The second ceremony is the “Calling Out” from childhood to adulthood at age thirteen. Here the parents reiterate publically the meanings of his names to remind the child of his heritage as they launch him into adulthood. In both ceremonies the tribe/community is involved.

It has been said that our attitude towards our ascendants will be the same that we will have for our descendants. Could it be that our inability to connect to our own children and grandchildren, especially as they get older, is a direct reflection of our own attitude towards our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents? In other words our children have picked up the same attitude towards us that we have had for our ascendants, which may simply be called indifference.

The Calling Out

This past weekend was the “Calling Out” ceremony for my nephew. Sansui, my brother-in-law, is Nigerian and it is their tribal custom for the father, joined by the other men of the tribe, to “call out” a son from boyhood to manhood when he turns 13. It is a rite of passage of love, belonging, responsibility, accountability, and identity. Now living in the States Sansui has adapted the ceremony to include the significant men who make up their family’s American tribe. The men ranged in age from 83 down to 15.

The ceremony began with my nephew sitting among his peers wearing a colorful woven hat that identified the tribe to which he belongs. Sansui asked his son to rise and then in a loud voice called out his name inviting him to leave boyhood and to join the other men in the room to manhood.  My nephew acknowledged the call and expressed his desire to enter manhood.

He then moved to a designated seat where each man read to him a letter he had written concerning manhood and gave to him a gift that correlated to his letter.  The letters were autobiographical in nature drawing from the unique spiritual pilgrimage of each man. (Unexpectedly I was moved by what the 15-year-old men had to say.)  Woven together these letters made up a beautiful collection of wisdom, counsel, love, but also warning.

The clear messages from the 2-hour ceremony were: (1) you are loved and (2) you belong to us and we belong to you.

A couple of observations:

  • The “Calling Out” was initiated and led by a dad. It was a family event.
  • Although the ceremony was meaningful to my nephew, it also reinforced the importance of belonging for the adult participants. The older men were visibly moved as well as those still in their teens.
  • The ceremony made clear what in life is important and what is not.

 

 

 

 

Destructive Family Emotions

The great test of faith for your disciple will be tied to the destructive emotions of his family. Extreme family emotions were the experience of many biblical characters- Abel, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Jonathan, and David, to name a few.  Abel was murdered by his brother, Jacob tricked into an unwanted marriage by his father-in-law, Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave, Moses’s brother and sister betrayed him, Jonathan’s dad tried to kill him, while David had a wife who despised him, a father-in-law intent on killing him, and even a son who tried to end his life.

In Hebrews chapter 11 these same characters are commended for their faith and given to us as role models to follow.  Here we have the convergence of God’s purpose, our faith, and the suffering we have experienced in our own families. Each of these individuals chose to trust in the father heart of God (Hebrews 12:4-11), in spite of their family’s behavior, which empowered them to patiently wait for the fulfillment of God’s plan, to forgive others, and to not take vengeance against those who had harmed them.

In closing:

  • The painful family experience of your disciple is not a disruption or hindrance in his life, rather it is a vital component of God’s purpose for him.
  •  The faith of your disciple will be seen in his willingness to forgive others and to not take revenge.

 

Destructive Emotions

Downtown South Bend, Indiana is home to a manmade Kayak run. A couple friends and I “shot” the waterway in a rubber raft that ended with us getting caught in a whirlpool. After our futile attempts to escape the lifeguard finally had to throw us a rope to pull us free.

Many of those I have discipled have been caught in a whirlpool of grief at the realization that they will never have the childhood they dreamed of or the life they had planned. This grief, if not checked, will turn to bitterness and “bitterness is always an incentive to self-destruction.”[1] Whether at home, school, church, work, or in friendship no one is exempt from the destructive emotions of others and for most the deepest hurt will be connected to their family.

The life experience of Joseph in Genesis was no exception. At pivotal points there were people with destructive intent that would knock him back for years. As the apostle Paul had to remind his disciple Timothy of a proper perspective so too you will need to remind your disciple that his life is part of a larger divine purpose no matter how malicious his circumstances. Destructive emotions cannot be avoided and are a vital part of the redemptive story of God as it unfolds. The discipler throws a rope to his disciple by helping him “ . . . realize that a higher plan is a work which will supersede the destructive force of these emotions.”[2]

 

 

 

 



[1] Richard M. Weaver, “Ideas have Consequences”, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 185.

[2] Everett Fox, “The Five Books of Moses” (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), p. 173.

Suffer the Little Children

How rare it was as children to have an adult seek to understand our suffering and to extend comfort to us. Although adults remember the pain from their childhood, they have a tendency not to appreciate the present suffering of the children who surround them. In his autobiography C.S. Lewis candidly tells of his many trials as a boy and then writes of his bewilderment at how adults fail to grasp the significance of the anguish of a child even though they themselves had experienced pain as children! He writes:

”Why, by the way, do some writers talk as if care and worry were the special characteristics of adult life? It appears to me that there is more atra cura (dark gloom, trouble, anxiety) in an average schoolboy’s week than in a grown man’s average year.”[1]

A pat on the head along with a “You’ll be OK” is not a Godly or thoughtful response to the pain a child is experiencing. (Obviously there are degrees of hardship in childhood and you must discern between what is true suffering and what is just a skinned knee.)

The Lord is no less involved in the life of a 6-year-old than he is in a 60-year-old. We are quick to give comfort, guidance, and counsel to adults who are suffering but give little reflection to the ways of God through suffering in the lives of boys and girls. The possibility that God and his purposes could be behind the heartbreak, sorrow, and despair of a child may not even cross our minds.

Some of the questions we should be asking are:

  • What is the Heavenly Father cultivating in the life of this child through suffering?
  • What is the Lord saying to this child through sorrow?
  • How is this trial affecting this child’s perspective of God?

 

 



[1] C.S. Lewis, “Surprised by Joy”, (New York: Inspiration Press, 1987), p. 50.

The Value of Children

My ministry report for January 2013 includes the following:

I was in two sword fights, made a tent out of blankets, played “Star War Legos”, lost three games of “Sorry,” “Candyland,” and “Hedbanz,” and slid down a hill on an “American Flyer” way too fast, which ended poorly when my sled stopped suddenly and I did not, smashing my face against the ice. (My nose is still swollen.)

Why, you may ask, would a 55-year-old man play “Candyland” and sled down a hill on a bitterly cold day? It is because children matter to God. Of all my ministry activities this past month I believe that the events involving the children in my life were among the most significant.

I have often wondered what was going through the minds of disciples when they tried to keep the children away from Jesus. Did they think that Jesus couldn’t be bothered with children? Did they see the children as unimportant or a disruption to Jesus’ ministry?

Adults forget what it was like to be a child. C.S. Lewis said of adults, “They are forgetting what boyhood felt like from within.”[1] Who can forget the delight we had as children when adults showed an interest in us? The Clark children still talk of our fond memories of “Ice Cream Uncle Jim” who would give us as much ice cream as we could eat.

Jesus noticed children and showed an interest in them. My hunch is that the twelve disciples never saw children the same after being with Jesus.

In closing:

  •  Have your disciple share his memories of the adults who had a positive impact on his life as a child.
  •  Discuss with your disciple the children in his life (siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins, sons, daughters) and the spiritual investment he could make in their lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] C.S. Lewis, “Surprised by Joy”, (New York: Inspiration Press, 1987), p. 36.

Crippling Shame

Your disciple cannot follow Jesus if controlled by shame. Following Jesus is about belonging and nothing destroys belonging like shame. It is not an issue he can avoid nor will it just go away. It casts a long shadow so even shame from years ago he remembers as if it was yesterday.

Shame comes in various forms and degrees. Some shame is emotionally crippling while other shame has less consequence. There is shame he has brought on himself and shame that was not his fault.  Some was imagined while some was very real.

It could be shame associated with his family or the shame of a mental or physical limitation. A man with a learning disability said to me, Lewie, do you know how painful it is to feel dumb every day of your life? School for me was a walk of shame.

Whatever its source shame makes cowards of us all. It was R.G. Collingwood who wrote:

What a man is ashamed of is always at bottom himself; and he is ashamed of himself at bottom always for being afraid.[1]

Ministries have tried to accommodate people’s emotional fears by creating approaches, curriculum, and programs that limits relational risk for everyone involved, including the leader.  It gives the illusion of love and community but behind the façade there are not the bonds of trust necessary for authentic relationships.

Leading a small group, teaching a bible study, leading worship, and doing service projects can be done in emotional safety.  One can give the appearance of vulnerability but the test of vulnerability is in relationships. Recently I was with a friend who told me how her boss would display vulnerability behind a podium, but in a staff meeting or one-on-one he was anything but vulnerable.

Your disciple needs for you to place yourself in the vulnerable position to love him unconditionally. To place yourself in the vulnerable position of being the first to say,  “I love you.”[2]

 

 

 

 



[1] Collingwood, Robin G. Retrieved September 17, 2012, from http://www.quoteland.com

[2] Brown, Brene (2010, The Power of Vulnerability, Retrieved October 8, 2012, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4Qm9cGRub0)

 

A Fear of People

Understanding your disciple’s fear is difficult enough but it is even more challenging when he has a fear of people. A fear of people is a powerful and deceptive lens, which transforms the truth to appear as a lie and a lie as the truth.

Jesus exposed the motives of the religious leaders of his day when he observed: “Everything they do is done for men to see.”  (Matthew 23:5). Religious systems are based on pleasing and impressing others, which places a fear of people in the heart of its followers. It was a fear of people that (1) blinded the Pharisees, Sadducees, Priests, and Elders from embracing the love of Jesus and accepting his deity,  (2) necessitated that they discredit the miracles that were before their eyes (Luke 6:6-11) and, (3) required them to nullify or modify the scriptures (Matthew 15: 21:23-27; Luke 11:37-53; Acts 7:51-53). A fear of people in a religious context is especially disorienting because it is taught that all we are doing is for God, but in reality many things are being done to please people.

A couple of observations:

  • A fear of people will cause your disciple to be apprehensive of your relationship with him since you are a “people”.
  • Getting to know the religious background in which your disciple was raised will help you understand how he relates to people and any misconceptions he may have of God.  (Lutheran, Methodist, Mormon, Muslim, Catholic, Non-denominational, Baptist, etc.) Just recently I visited the home church of one of my disciples which gave me new understanding into his perspective.
  • Teach your disciple to love God and the Bible in such a way that he lets it mean what it says and not what he wants it to say or what others have told him it says.