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More Wisdom from “Help for the New Pastor”

To add to yesterday’s post, here is another passage from Charles Malcolm Wingard’s book, Help for the New Pastor. This is a great read; it would be helpful for anyone… to whom it applies. So, new pastors. Or seminarians.

This time, here is some advice on Social Media use.

My personal rule for social media is simple: it is an extension of my ministry. If information does not advance the work of my church or seminary, I do not post it on my blog, Facebook, or Twitter.

My posts tend to fall into two categories: events of church and school, and celebrating the achievements of the people I serve.

What about matters of political controversy? I assume that the world does not need my opinion about political candidates or public policy. I gladly leave that to others.

My personal opinions are best shared in private, if at all. Why needlessly offend members or potential members of my church? If, for example, I endorse a candidate, why run the risk of alienating persons who will vote for the other candidate? Unlike some ministers and Christian celebrities, I don’t think I can say of any man, “He is God’s candidate.”

Whether I like it or not, my social media will be judged to represent the churches I serve. They don’t endorse candidates or issue public-policy statement, nor will I. If I were voicing my political beliefs on social media, readers might wrongly conclude that I speak for my church on these matters.

I do not deny that these are pressing moral issues that the church must think through. Abortion, the nature of marriage, racial justice, and poverty are just a few that come to mind. As these issues arise in Scripture, the minister must declare the mind of God from the pulpit.

But the crafting of legislation and public-policy solutions is not the work of the minister or the church. Forums can be established by concerned and competent Christians to help believers understand and think through complex issues. Often, even when Christians agree on the problem, they disagree on public-policy solutions. The pastor can do more good by pointing people to forums that host reasonable and informed debate than he can by wading into controversy himself.

Additional thoughts about social media:

  • Too often pastors address complex issues about which they have no competence to speak. They embarrass themselves and their churches.
  • I steer clear of theological controversy. Comments on Facebook do not lend themselves to thoughtful discussion — the kind I wish to promote.
  • Many social media sites drive readership by trafficking in outrage and personal attacks — precisely the opposite of the climate I want in my church.
  • When I comment on someone else’s Facebook page, it is ordinarily a congratulatory note or a word of encouragement or a promise of prayer. I want to build goodwill.
  • Some pastors get into trouble with what they think are humorous posts. What they find humorous might needlessly offend members of their own congregation or people we would like to see visit our congregation. So be careful.
  • I am first and foremost a minister of the gospel. All else must be subordinated to that work, even my deeply held political and policy convictions.

Handle social media with extreme care. (80-82)

This is advice that we all have learned, in some ways, from the last presidential election cycle. But in May, when that cycle begins afresh with all its dehumanizing vitriol, we will be tempted to forget what we have learned. Rage! Fury! Opinions! I myself need to be very careful of this approach. Not because I fear other people, or even for the considerations Wingard gives, but because of the spirit of critique it fosters in my own heart. Such a spirit is unhelpful in all of the Christian life.

Wingard also recommends that we find level-headed sources for politics, and just direct people to those instead of trying to be that source ourselves. I agree. From his position as a pastor, it makes sense. Why do a poor impression of someone else’s work when they could just do it for you? I only have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (Or, 16 waking hours a day, and 6 days a week because of Sabbath?). This is really sound advice.

Alright, that’s enough. I probably can’t post a third excerpt from the book or P&R Publishing might send WordPress a take-down notice for copyright infringement. (Publishers have bots nowadays that find long excerpts from their books). But if I could, it would be his comments on prayer from 167-172.

Hymns and Songs

I have enjoyed reading Charles Malcolm Wingard’s book Help for the New Pastor over the past week. This book was part of the selection for Together for the Gospel earlier this year. I probably wouldn’t have bought it otherwise, but thankfully it has landed in my hands. Some of it won’t apply until I graduate in a few years (e.g. how to conduct funerals), but Wingard is full of the wisdom that comes from years and years of experience. Again, I’m thankful to have been given this book.

Something worth sharing: his thoughts on selecting hymns and songs for corporate worship.

The best hymns take their cues from the psalms. As they are sung, believers adore God’s character, praise him for his works of creation and redemption, express trust in the finished work of Christ, consider the sobering distinction between the righteous and the wicked, and exhort one another to covenant faithfulness in the midst of struggles, fears, and doubts.

Apart from its fidelity to Scripture, the most important requirement for a hymn is that the congregation be able to sing it with confidence. During your first year at a new church, work with your accompanist or music director to determine which hymns your congregation knows and sings well. This is especially important in smaller congregations. When numbers are small and your people can’t sing the chosen hymns, a musical train wreck leaves everyone discouraged.

One new hymn every two months is plenty. When introducing new hymn tunes, have the accompanist or musicians play through an entire stanza once, so that people can hear the tune. If you have a choir or band, let it sing or play the hymn the previous week as an introit or offertory, and then sing or play the first stanza on the Sunday the hymn is introduced. The congregation can listen and then join in singing the first stanza again, followed by the remainder of the hymn. With a little forethought, you can help your congregation sing confidently.

Even if your congregation is comfortable with only a small number of hymns, you are in good shape. You can work to build its repertoire over time. If you think a song would enrich your congregation’s worship, but they don’t know the tune, substitute a well-known tune in the same meter. If you don’t know what a hymn’s meter is, ask your accompanist to explain. (54-55)

What a refreshing perspective. So much of contemporary worship thought is focused on the performance quality, instrumental variety, the display of emotion from the stage… but Wingard seems laser-focused on the congregation’s ability to sing. I would add to his advice that most syncopated rhythms are going to be unsingable for most people. And worse, too, if they have thirds, forths, fifths, or my goodness, sixths intervals throughout. Most singable tunes have most intervals as steps; it just works.

I love his point that the best songs in worship take their cues from the Psalms. This is why I love Jonathan Ogden’s work. And the solo projects that John Foreman did… ten years ago??? They have enriched my walk with Christ by reminding me of the psalms He would have so often read and prayed through.

A final thought: if the point of worship music is congregational singing, then it would not make sense to have a super loud band. (It also does not make sense to have carpeted floors, or hall-arranged sanctuaries, or synth noise).

14 ordinary things that made me smile this week

Because not every post on this forlorn blog needs to have a controversial thesis, here are 14 ordinary things that made me smile this week. The photos are unrelated to the post but just enjoy them because why not? They are from Paris back in May. For the record, Paris did not make me smile. But each of these 14 things did!

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1. The breakfast shop on campus was “out of large coffee cups.” I sputtered “out of… out of… out of larges? out of large… cups?” in a voice very similar to the Valentino White Bag lady which probably sounded rude but whatever. I was laughing the whole time as I filled my medium-sized coffee with cream and sugar.

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2. A Junior High student mistook me for someone her own age. We were at a get-together for several of the area youth groups. One of the eighth graders I lead found someone from a different church but his same school. I decided to step into the conversation because it looked interesting and anyways I was bored. “Did you know that Bobby has a crush on you?” he said. “Oh, I had always thought that!” she replied. “Oh yeah, Bobby, of course he has a crush on you, yeah, you didn’t realize that? It’s so obvious!” I commented, pretending to know who Bobby is or anything about him. “Do you have Mrs. Livingstone this year?” she said. “I wish. She is the best teacher ever!” he replied. “Oh man, if there’s any teacher I could choose to have, it would be Mrs. Livingstone,” I commented, almost absentmindedly parroting their conversation. “Oh, I didn’t realize you go to our middle school!” she exclaimed with some excitement in her voice. Then, a beat. “I’m a junior in college. I don’t go to your middle school,” I said, satisfied in both my acting ability and my youthful deportment.

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3. A professor in one of my classes has crazy quotes all the time during his lectures. We created a google doc to record them, which will remain a secret to him until the last day of class. Given his general m.o., we think it will be received well and with humor. The latest quote was a parable along the lines of: “A mother is walking through the forest with her children, when suddenly a pack of skunks comes up ahead. She yells out, ‘run children!’ and they all pick up a skunk and run away. ” We are not sure what this means.

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4. Our men’s Bible study group at school is called Men Under God, abbreviated as MUG. The leadership team decided to order coffee mugs with the logo printed on it. Though five dollars the lesser, I am satisfied.

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5. We went on a bike ride with some junior high students. Jon was faster than the other riders, especially the adults. His dad was also with us. When it was his turn to lead the group, Jon kicked up the pace and we were dying. “You should really maybe think about slowing down just a tad bit if you want” his dad said, feebly. When Jon did no such thing, his dad called out again, more passive-aggressively, “Any time you want, you can do that whole ‘slowing down’ thing I mentioned earlier.” Jon slowed down a little bit, but soon picked back up. His dad was the verbal equivalent of my reigns during a trail ride when my horse will not keep proper spacing — check and release until it understands the pace I want. Not that Jon is a horse. He is a 7th grade boy. This whole episode reminded me of the horrible education system I was forced to endure (and am still enduring) that has held me back from the pace I have wanted to learn. Because we do education at large groups at once (28-34 per teacher in my school growing up), it is mass produced and I was always at the fastest end, even in the highest classes. 15 years and counting of tedium. Of check and release until I “get” the pace the school wants for me. Not that I am a horse. I am a 21 year old man. That I made this connection to something as mundane as fast bicycling made me grin, at least.

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6. After leaving the bike ride, I turned right from the forest preserve because I didn’t feel like waiting for the left arrow. Then, as I drove in the opposite direction of home for about 10 minutes, I saw a Half Priced Books store. Sounds like my kind of thing. So I went, parked, and walked to the front. A lady is with her ~ 8 year old son looking at some movies in the clearance section. I walked up, also wanting to see the selection of cheap flix, and realized that the lady is Kate from my church small group with her son Isaac! Her other son, who is in the junior high group with me, is around the corner looking at books. We said hi and everything. What are the odds? I was just randomly there.

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7. A great comparison between my sometimes-chaotic program at school and sidewalks. I made the comment that nobody ever sat down and decided how our 5 year M.Div. program “works” from a Student Life perspective. They figured it all out academically, but nobody from the Housing, Dining, Chapel, Campus Life, and most critically, Financial Aid departments ever worked it out. So, the students have from time to time started our own precedents, which the next grade followed, and eventually those became Norms, which even later became policy. My philosophy professor compared this to the sidewalks on campus. None of them make sense, because they are just the result of people stomping the grass dead. Then some administrator realizes that the dead muddy trail from building to building looks bad, and said, “hey, lets pour some concrete in here,” and now they are sidewalks. In a system with no plan, the community will fill in the gaps.

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8. My friend Keegan found it funny when I sent him the link to some vines I was watching. The viner’s voice sounded just like his. He texted back saying “Oh my goah Ross thank you 😂😂”. It was this one.

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9. We had a department BBQ with my fellow wannabe philosophers. I got to stir the fire up to make s’mores. It made my flannel smokey. Everybody needs a go-to smokey flannel in the fall. It also reminded me of camp, and wow does that place beat Suburgatory any day. I wish society could revert to the days when everything in town was within walking distance. Less concrete poured probably also means more natural areas, which is conducive to my denial that modernity is suffocating our world. But anyways. Smokey flannel. S’mores. Fire.

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10. A friend came to my dorm apartment and made Indian food for my roommate and I. It was just a rice dish with some spice in it. My friend isn’t Indian nor does she know how Indian food is made, I think. But it’s okay. We talked about the doctrine of inerrancy. I like that.

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11. My micro-TA job for the semester is to guide the presentation groups for Intro to Philosophy. I met with the first group this week. One guy didn’t have the textbook, and was struggling to figure out financial aid. (He has also missed classes because he has thrice gotten stuck in the bureaucratic black hole that is Trinity Central). Being the admin of the textbook selling group on facebook, I connected with someone selling the book and bought it for this guy. He didn’t understand why I would buy him a book. “It’s a gift,” I said. “Oh, I’ll pay you back,” his words rushing out. “That’s not how gifts work,” I said, confused. This left me feeling like a Gideons Int’l guy but for philosophy.

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12. One of my campers from Timber-lee was at Trinity this week. He goes to some private Christian school, which sent the whole sophomore class on a college visit together. All eight of them, about. I did a double take when I saw him — Isaac, of all people — sitting just across the aisle from me at Chapel. Then at lunch I showed him the greatest secret of all in the Trinity cafeteria. Take two cookies, and ice cream, and with them make an ice cream sandwich. (It’s the little things that make college life bearable).

Seeing Isaac reminded me of the fun that we had that week. It was a junior high group, so, naturally, we spent almost every free minute gathering sticks in the woods and making a catamaran to try to cross the lake. We also did a lot of dancing. It was the first round with Gus, Foster, and Jake, three of the best humans I have ever met. (This summer I had the God-given privilege to be with them again). I also had one kid who I requested for my cabin named Colin, who thought I was the coolest thing ever. (Helpful for my ego especially after the events of the previous week). I have nothing but happy memories from those days. It reminds me of an Andy quote from The Office finale. He says

I spent so much of my time here at Dunder Mifflin thinking about my old pals, my college A cappella group. The weird thing is, now I’m exactly where I want to be — I got my dream job at Cornell — and I’m still just thinking about my old pals. Only now they’re the ones I made here. I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good ol’ days before you’ve actually left them. Someone should write a song about that.

But in this case, it was 100% obvious at the time that I was, in fact, in the good ol’ days. I enjoyed every second of it, and seeing one of my friends from that week was the sweetest reminder I could have asked for.

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13. I went to a rummage sale at a Catholic church in town. They had something like 600 purgatory-years worth of merch, if someone had stolen it all. (Thus, I have reached my two purgatory jokes per post limit). A giant circus tent filled with goodies, along with the entire church gym and all the classrooms. I walked away with two books, two movies, a winter coat, and a director’s chair, all for $18 bucks.

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14. Last one. Tonight at the combo-youth group mixer night, we played a variant of dodgeball where you had to dance the entire time. And if you got out, you became a member of the opposite team. The second variant here is useful, but the first was just hedonistic joy. I danced for about 35 minutes straight while dodging and throwing foam balls. This was more cardio than my usual weekly dose (none). It was gorgeous.

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Here’s to another week, filled with not-too-special moments which, taken together, make our daily lives memorable, enjoyable — and ultimately, livable.

The Berlin Holocaust Memorial: Dehumanizing, haunting, and larger-than-life

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The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe  by architect Peter Eisenman was built in 2003-04 in the urban center of Berlin. The abstract, grayscale memorial occupies the space of one city block with rectangular prisms (“stelae”) rising out of the uneven ground. Stelae are situated into a row-column grid, though slightly uneven. The stelae are mostly the same height, but as the viewer walks to the middle of the field, the ground sinks to reveal deeper “heights” of the concrete blocks. The memorial is controversial, yet not an outrage or a scandal; it presents the subject matter in a way that reasonable people can reasonably disagree. And disagree they have. However, despite the at-times divided public reaction, the memorial makes a memorable and effective impression on the viewer through its desolate presentation and uneven construction.

Eisenman’s design was selected in 1997 as the replacement for a previously selected memorial which received backlash from the city’s Jewish community. After years of stalling from politicians maneuvering to avoid losing public support, and eventually the Bundestag itself taking on voting authoring for the project, construction began in 2003. It was not long until the press reported that anti-graffiti-coating company was also the company that produced Zyklon-B, the hydrogen gas that was used to kill millions of Jews in the Holocaust — to understandable outrage. The decision was made to proceed with the construction anyways — also to outrage — and the memorial opened on May 10th, 2005, near the 60th anniversary of the end of the war.

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It is worth sampling even a few of the reactions, as catalogued by PBS Frontline. Michal Bodemann criticized the memorial for existing at all, saying that a constant focus on Germany’s racist past is used as a shield against Germany’s racist present. Julius Schoeps writes, “I find it regrettable that they decided on a design that can stand for everything and for nothing.” Ilka Piepgras comments that an effective memorial to an atrocity like the Holocaust should overwhelm and overpower one’s emotions, though even that cannot be enough to match the true tragedy of the events. She claims that the Berlin memorial fails to do this, and asks, “Shouldn’t it be disturbing rather than inviting a picnic on its stones?”

Conversely, Heinrich Wefing praises Eisenman’s work, calling it “a new type of memorial”: a beautiful abstraction that “does not dictate what its observer should think or experience.” An American critic of architecture, Nicolai Ouroussoff, claims that the memorial “conveys the scope of the Holocaust’s horrors without stooping to sentimentality — showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion.” Many more have opined on the success or failure of the memorial, in proportions that do not seem to overwhelm each other.

The memorial, in my brief experience, successfully and lastingly impressed upon me both the dehumanization at work in the Holocaust, and its grave extent. Though often cited in criticism of Eisenman’s design, I found the lack of names, or placards, or designations, or really any other words at all, to be disturbingly plain. The barren stone bespoke a time in the not too distant past when humans themselves were reduced to barren, lifeless bodies — alive, but only in a strictly biological sense. In the same way that the stelae are “memorials” only in the strictest sense (after all, they would not memorialize anything in particular without the whole field being given a title), the Jews had become “humans” only in the strictest sense. In every other way, they were reduced by the Nazis to the status of mere animals. I found this aspect of the memorial compelling and haunting, even nearly three months later.

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The uneven, disorienting construction also left a substantive, lingering impression. As I walked deeper into the belly of the memorial, the ground itself shifted and sank. Rather than have the blocks grow higher and higher (though that was partially happening), Eisenman had the floor sink from beneath the viewer. Viewer may be the wrong term, for in an all-encompassing, larger-than-life experience like this, I became a more than a viewer: a participant, all of me caught up in the remembrance of the murdered Jews in Europe. As the floor sank, so too did the depth of the dehumanized concrete reveal its true depth; as the Holocaust progressed, so too did the depth of dehumanization become more and more pronounced and intentional.

To create a memorial that is not just viewable, but inhabitable, is to create something on the border. Not the border of “void and monument, between vague symbolism and a denial of interpretation,” as Tom Dyckhoff wrote in the London Times. No, more than a void, the other pole of the tension is tangible experience, something that could do much to help regular people remember the tragedy of the Holocaust.  

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The Sky Garden in London but also urban policy and land use

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The Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street occupies the top three floors of the “Walkie-Talkie” building. Designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly in the early 2000’s. The project was delayed for years because of concerns that the building’s ugly construction would ruin the visual appeal of nearby spaces. In retrospect, this concern was certainly true. The building also has numerous flaws, the worst being an Archimedes Heat Ray effect on the neighboring buildings and roads that shoots temperatures up to 196 degrees Fahrenheit and earned the tower the nicknames “Scorchie-Talkie” and “Fryscraper.” The Daily Express reported at one point that the building causes dangerous wind-tunnel effects on the surrounding streets, raising concerns over public safety and working conditions for public sanitation workers.

Not the least criticized is the Sky Garden itself. While sky is acceptable, does garden describe this space? The view of London is blocked by steel support beams at every angle. Is it truly a public space if only open by appointment, for 1.5 hour slots, until 6:00 pm, at which point the public is carted away for the “paying clientele to enjoy the twinkling lights over cocktails?” These issues, writes Oliver Wainwright in a review for The Guardian’s architecture section, make the experience feel more like “an airport terminal, jacked up in the air.” For my part, I felt similarly out of place in somewhere that claims to be “a unique public space” and “an open and vibrant place of leisure” (per the building’s website).

The mere existence of the Sky Garden, however, betrays a deeper tension felt in all public (or “public”) spaces in a hyper-capitalized environment. To Wainwright, the Sky Garden is “the “public park” used to justify building such a vast office block on the edge of a conservation area,” and yet even then is “not the public park that was promised, but another private party space.” He claims that the purpose of the space is to provide a justification for otherwise non-public spaces, the offices taking up floors 1-34. Worse yet, it is only “the catering concepts which make the whole thing viable.” In other words, the space does not exist for, and does not continue to operate because of, the public space that it provides.

Conversely, Peter Rees, the city’s then-chief planner, thinks that the space is designed for socializing. The lurid imagery in his comments are worth quoting in full:

“The secret of the City’s success is having places to gossip,” he told me [Wainwright], describing the financial capital as “a cluster of beehives on a compost heap.” “The honey is the gossip,” he said. “It’s how business gets done: the result of the bees rubbing up against each other by chance. So it’s very important for business that people can party as close to their desks as possible. We are taking every opportunity to create the party city in the sky.”

To Rees, the Sky Garden has nothing to do with money, or maneuvering through otherwise- impassible red tape, or successfully completing another project for the architect’s portfolio and future commision prospects. Social space! It’s how business gets done!

These are the tensions of place in a corporate-capitalist environment: that no spaces can exist without business interest, and that nobody will unilaterally take on the cost to provide those spaces, even if they are “how business gets done” on a macro level. Who is incentivized to do this? The companies that refuse will have more capital on-hand and will survive as the fittest. Non-excludable and non-rivalrous goods are the orphaned children of the free market, picked up, much like actual orphaned children, by government and taxpayer dollars. The essential tension is that we need what Rees describes, but in the market only have what Wainright describes.

This is at great odds with the pre-industrialized world and indeed the pre-industrialized West for thousands of years. But before we mourn the loss of the Greek areopagus or the Roman Forum, we should recognize the great opportunity at present for land conservation and the expansion of public parks. This can only happen by reunderstanding, at a conceptual and a policy level, the idea of use and of land use in particular. Cities that could benefit from a new understanding of land use — Hong Kong, San Fransisco, Zurich, Sydney — will have to overcome major incentives hurdles that have for decades created an economic environment doomed to housing policy failure. To create spaces like what Rees envision for the Sky Garden, cities will need to rezone land for housing (thus also slowing urban sprawl), expand public transit, create new business corridors for the widening of the urban job density, and so on.

However, even if all these problems were to be solved at once, and Ross’s ideal urban policy world was created, it would not be enough. The more foundational question that has to be asked is, do we, not corporations, but do we value common, unowned spaces enough to give of ourselves to preserve them? Not through taxes, but through time, energy, and the humility to pick up trash left by others? This type of civil service, rather than the power politics that consumes churches today, is the truly Christian route to replacing Sky Gardens with a hospitality in place.

On being in London during the Royal Wedding

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The best view of the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, was ours. Because the couple decided to host their ceremony in St. George’s Chapel, in Windsor — rather than the traditional venue, Westminster Abbey — there was little to no activity in the city of London concerning the wedding. To the extent that I paid attention at all, the most I noticed was a single, sad t-shirt booth selling clothes with “I was in London during the Royal Wedding!” printed across the chest. To be in London during the wedding, as we were, is indeed the best view because it is no view at all.

To be my wedding-watching grandmother, or any average American, is to have a worse view. Why do Americans, in particular, have such a fascination with the Royal Family? I assert that the British Monarchy is a mediating image, propelled by a larger culture rooted in Spectacle — to draw from Guy Debord’s 1967 seminal work The Society of the Spectacle. To live vicariously through the social images of another culture is to experience, in an even more American sense than normal, the malaise of modern industrialized life.

So, the wedding. While I thankfully cannot describe it firsthand, I find from other sources that the total cost was around 32 million pounds sterling. Meghan Markle’s dress was a “double- bonded silk cady cushioned by an underskirt in triple silk organza,” not to mention the 16-foot long veil, the gold jewlery, a diamond tiara, etc. William wore military attire to reflect his membership in the British Army, and his time served in Afghanistan in the early 2000’s. The Archbishop of Canterbury — whose parents met while serving as personal secretaries to Winston Churchill during the war — presided over the ceremony.

In the 1980’s, the wedding of Princes Diana and Prince Charles was a superbowl-level event for television; after Diana’s tragic death in 1997, her funeral was similarly publicized. Tabloids have for decades sprung upon the Royal Family’s youngest new additions, the birth of royal babies, as was the case in 2013 with Prince George and in 2015 with Princess Charlotte. We can expect the same for the forthcoming child in early 2019. One professor of history in a CNN interview even claimed that the American fascination with British royalty “has been alive pretty much since 1776,” and that almost “as soon as we severed ties, we were back to being fascinated — captivated really — by the royal family.”

Such events as the recent royal wedding image the good life for American audiences in a different way than British audiences. The key difference is the American folk narrative where anybody could wind up at the top of society. While this was not confirmed by the recent wedding, where Meghan Markle, though of mixed race, was raised in an upper-class Los Angeles family… it was confirmed in 2013 with Kate Middleton’s entrance into the family, who was essentially a social nobody before accidentally and unwittingly beginning to date Prince William. I remember at the time hearing the comparison made all day between Kate Middleton and “any of us that it could have happened to!” though of course that is nonsense. Where the British from their youth understand the strong role that socioeconomic Class plays in deciding your ultimate role in this world, Americans pretend that Class does not exist and so fantasize of elaborate weddings, grand receptions, life in a fairy castle, and so on.

The fascination with British royalty does not begin or end with the American Dream. Though propelled by The Dream, it exists in another social space divorced from The Dream by the malaise of everyday under- and middle-class life in America. This is the space where, as Debord claimed, “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity” because our relations to one another are mediated by images rather than just existing in their own right. In this transition, which is only possible after the rise of a nation-wide media culture, nothing is authentic and everything that we consider real is a symbolic representation of what lies behind it. Famous actors become sex symbols, important musicians attain cult-status, Royal Family members are stars of a soap opera, and politicians are reduced to boogeymen.

This smokescreen effect extends not just to politicians, but even to politics itself, where no true debates happen in the 21st century, only minor tinkering among policy wonks. True change is impossible in a system where R&D does not mean research and development but rather Republican and Democrat, parties with major incentives to race to the center and thereby eliminate any possibility for radical change of the system that they sustain and which in turn sustains them. In a world where we are defined by our relationship to brands, to parties, to celebrities and generally to symbols, we all have a bad view to the Royal Wedding.

Seven Theses on Inerrancy

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A question that my theological studies have always pointed to is Biblical Inerrancy. Does the Bible have errors? And as a conservative, Reformed, evangelical Protestant who studies Apologetics and wants to teach the Bible for a living, I desperately want the answer to be no.

But as a doubter and skeptic the answer keeps coming back as yes, or maybe, or “it depends on what you mean by error” or “what, exactly, is this Bible you speak of” or “do texts have inherent meaning such that they even could be wrong” and so on. Biblical Inerrancy is a question I wrestle with almost daily, turning ideas over and over in my head until I land on something that works. Then next week I ditch that idea in favor of another one. I have many questions.

In about two months The Gospel Coalition ― Chicago is hosting a conference near me called Leading With The Word. Per the website,

Ministry leaders are invited to gather to affirm and celebrate our commitment to the complete trustworthiness and absolute authority of Scripture. Leading with the Word will include teaching from TGC council members from the Chicago area.

The conference will encourage and equip ministry leaders to take the highest view of the Bible and its application in the church, in preaching, teaching and in their own spiritual lives. The goal is that attendees will walk away with a fresh commitment to press on in gospel-centered ministry, confident in the power of the Word of God.

There are five or six speakers over two days and I’m sure there will be a bookstore.

(I also notice that D.A. Carson has a tantalizingly open-ended topic, “How Can We Be Sure of Our Interpretation?”)

I’m going with a few friends from school in my program. Something that I want to do, before I hear their perspectives on inerrancy, is write out some of my questions in the form of theses. These are not final — by giving them in thesis format, I’m trying to signal that they are not substantiated and I don’t stand by them with confidence. Ordered from least controversial to most.

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Seven Theses on Inerrancy

I. Inerrancy is a necessary but not fully helpful principle in understanding the Bible because the next question that always arises is, “What would it mean for a poem to be errant?” or “What would it mean for a prophetic writing to be errant?” or “What would it mean for apocalyptic literature to be errant?” etc. In other words, we must delineate inerrancy across literary genres.

II. While genre is important for understanding texts in their original authorial intent, all scripture is one genre in its application to Christians. In the inspiration, preservation and canonization of scripture, the Holy Spirit has signaled to us that all scripture rises together into a common genre called Christian Scripture which is always useful to believers.

III. The concept of Biblical Inerrancy was developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to new challenges to the scriptures. Those challenges, however, were based on the new mindsets of scientific precision and textual accuracy which Biblical authors did not have or even imagine when writing the text of scripture. To read ancient texts with modern questions will always lead to failures of interpretation.

IV. For a text to have fixed meaning the text itself must be fixed. Therefore texts generated in oral cultures do not have fixed meaning until finding form in writing.

V. Contradictions are not always errors. A later writer can contradict an earlier writer because the earlier writer’s position no longer applies. Two writers can disagree in-cannon because their disagreement, preserved in the text, is itself intended to teach us something today. Whole doctrinal ideas can contradict each other in a theological sense because their resolution will not be found until the eschaton. If contradictory statements come from different genres, they may not be true errors.

VI. A text is not inerrant in its “autographs” if the text originated in an oral culture (and therefore has no true auto-graphs). It is the codification of that text into a final form, and more importantly into a broader literary cannon, that locates its inerrancy.

VII. The Bible does not teach that the Bible is inerrant; nevertheless, inerrancy is true. It is a doctrinal construct that is naturally implied by an understanding of God’s revelation through words, even if nobody in-cannon tells us so. Again, I repeat, inerrancy is true. It is true. It is, it is, it is, it is; please, don’t misread me. But, like the Trinity, or the two natures of Jesus, or the eternal generation of the Son, etc., it is not explicitly stated in scripture (though strongly implied, even necessitated, by it).

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(Hope you like the photos. They are from Cinque Terre in Italy.)

My plan is to go to the conference, hear it out — really, just soak it all in — and buy 3 or 4 books that will help me keep figuring it out. Then I want to see if any of the above theses can be knocked out.

I think I’m playing devil’s advocate with myself at this point.

Fall 2018 Reading List

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Beyond my textbooks for school (which I certainly will read in full 👀), I present to you a list of books I plan to read between now and December 14th. Somebody out there, hold me accountable to this. Come nag at me if there are any I haven’t read by 12/14/18.

Giorgio Agamben, Opus Dei

Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz

Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty

Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

Merold Westphal, God, Guilt, and Death: an Existential Phenomenology of Religion

John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve

John Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest

John Walton, The Lost Word of Scripture

Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age

Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker

Robert Epstein, The Case Against Adolescence

Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

John Santrock, Adolescence

Laurence Steinberg, Adolescence

P.J. Graham, The End of Adolescence

Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine

Don Carson, How Long, O Lord?

Jim Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Andrew Naselli, No Quick Fix

Charlie Wingard, Help for the New Pastor

 

Some of these are daunting. I may spend half the semester reading Charles Taylor’s book. I already tried once, got to about page 200 (of 800) and had to stop. The Agamben books are 6, 7, 8, and 9 of 9 in the Homo Sacer series, which I have spent much of the last year slogging through. Incredible stuff, but a slog. Opus Dei is about ethics and is supposedly the hardest one. The John Walton books are because I read The Lost World of Genesis One and it totally changed my perspective on creation. His other books are more or less the same methodology but on different topics.

The books from Andrew Root to P.J. Graham are for my Senior Thesis which I am writing in the spring semester. The rest are either books I’ve wanted to read for a while (Carson, Packer, and Arendt) or books I got at T4G back in April (Naselli, Marshall and Payne, and Wingard) or Bonhoeffer. Or idk why Darwin but I bought that book at the Darwin Center at the Natural History Museum in London because that seemed like the right place to buy it, if anywhere. Same with Arendt too. I bought that at Sachsenhausen in Germany because it seemed right.

These are also just spare time reading. My Greek and Hebrew (ugh) work will mostly be textbook work not book work, same with my final two philosophy classes and my undergrad Teaching the Bible course. So this book list may be all of the book books I read this semester.

Here’s to a semester of expanding my perspective on the Bible, on the Christian life, on youth ministry, and on the world. And to another semester of forgetting to update my “What I’m Reading” tab.

Reflecting on this summer of camp ministry

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As the campers left grounds on Saturday, and then hours later the entire summer staff did too, our season of ministry at Timber-lee came to an abrupt end. I felt the whiplash of a quick transition from a mentality of full-steam-ahead-don’t-quit-until-the-end to suddenly one of wait-what-it’s-the-end-how-do-I-act-normal-again in just a few hours.

I had two groups of elementary school aged campers, three groups in middle school, and two groups in high school. Eight straight weeks with a maximum time-off of about four days over the 4th of July break. While I recover from this sprint-marathon of a summer, I want to offer up some reflections about what God has been teaching me, and maybe give an example or two to illustrate each point. Interspersed are some photos from this summer that our camp photographer captured (and they are unrelated to the text surrounding them, just general photos). This post is more for my own personal benefit than yours — after all, most of what I learned has been learned from experience, and therefore is not something I can communicate in writing. But whatever. Here I am writing it anyways, and here you are reading it anyways.

 

10 Reflections From This Summer of Camp Ministry

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1. Being vulnerable even to those who look up to you. Something I did not understand before is that I had tried to present myself as perfect rather than the lazy, slobbish, forgetful, doubting, undisciplined, worried person that I actually am. Presenting myself as perfect is hard to avoid because I want to be a good influence, and ultimately my influence should be towards Jesus, who was perfect. Why would I want them to see anything other than Christ in me?

For whatever reason, during high school week I got real with my cabin one night. We were talking about global missions and the need for people to leave North America, leveraging their jobs for the spread of the Gospel. It was a great conversation. And then I shared something that had happened to me back in April. I was at Together for the Gospel, T4G, in Louisville. What I did not realize prior to arriving was that I had signed up for all of my breakout sessions with David Platt. All of them. I love Platt — his sermons have influenced me greatly over the last few years — so this was not a problem.

At one of his sessions Platt asked us to pray, “God, send me wherever you want to send me,” even if you are convinced that God has no plans to send you abroad. Just to have the willingness at heart to pray that prayer, no matter what actually comes of it. I started to pray it, but stopped myself. I couldn’t say it. I felt fear creeping up in me, fear that I didn’t know I had until that moment. And for almost the whole rest of the conference I was consumed with the question, do I really trust God with my eternal life if I can’t trust him with my current life?  There was a whole mix of emotions bouncing around inside me: fear, confusion, hypocrisy, frustration. Like I had somehow failed at being a “good Christian.”

I shared all this with the few campers sitting around at the time. Matt, Thomas, Ty, maybe a few others. Matt commented words like, “Gee, Ross, this is all so different from last year. I just remember you being this perfect counselor, but now you are telling us all these things you are failing at and still working on.” Which was a hillariously on-character comment if you know and love Matt as I do. I’ve been slowly learning to share stories like this one. Because even though the person I’m pointing to is perfect, I am not and never will be perfect. And my campers are not and never will be perfect. What they need is not some far-off vision of what a flawless Christian looks like. They need to see someone who struggles in different ways, as they do, so that they can see how to process through those struggles. That is far, far more helpful.

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2. God’s sovereignty. I guess I’ve always been a big fat Calvinist. Though for the past two years I’ve found different theological systems to help me understand it all. This summer there were some changes here. The first was that I began to process on a new level some of the implications of God’s sovereign election. My spotify playlist for the summer was almost all King’s Kaleidoscope and Beautiful Eulogy, so you can imagine why. If I’m so convinced that salvation is not a gift to be accepted or rejected but rather God’s effectual calling drawing to himself his elect, then maybe I should stop explaining salvation to kids like its a prayer or a commitment you make to God. Maybe I should explain the gravity of sin to them and see if God by his Spirit begins to change their hearts from the inside out. Maybe I should pray for them more and talk a little less. Maybe.

It’s also crazy to see God’s providential hand guiding different situations that have happened. Like, the one kid who accidentally forgot to sign up for the high ropes course is the same kid who had tons of questions about God that he wants to ask me one on one. Well, thanks to his forgetfulness during the sign up paperwork, we had two hours to talk, just me and him. And that conversation was, by his account, potentially life-changing.

Or another camper, who I met while volunteering in 2014 and 2015, and then had in my cabin in 2016, and then bonded with a lot in 2017, and then had again this year. He got to camp and found out he was in some random other cabin, not with me or the friends he came with. We scrambled very last minute to rearrange things, and it all worked out because someone had last-minute dropped who was supposed to be in my cabin. Which meant I had seven campers, and thus an open spot for this kid. God directed that process, somehow, so that it all worked out. I had a borderline-life-changing week with him, too.

Strange to say it this way, but I also saw God’s providence in my sickness. Halfway through the summer I developed bronchitis, and then two separate upper respiratory infections, a bad stomach bug, a normal cold, and then a sinus infection. My health was nearing an all-time low at one point, when several of these were overlapping. But God in his providence directed these circumstances so that… actually, I probably shouldn’t write this story and post it on the internet where it will remain forever. But let’s just say that it was 1. absurd, 2. miraculous, 3. involved some screamo preaching, and 4. was based on Romans 6 and Colossians 3 and may be the subject of a future blog post. God is good, and in his wisdom directs even garbage situations like my run of illnesses to result in good.

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3. That 14 year olds are adults. I began research for my Senior Thesis this summer. The project will focus on the Age of Majority and how it’s a total mirage that was constructed 100 years ago. One of the relevant books I have been reading this summer is Robert Epstein’s The Case Against Adolescence (which I know is not the best book on this subject but it will work as a starting point). The whole idea is that the category of “adolescence” was socially constructed to accommodate a new social strata of industrialized societies, and their middle classes, even though there is no basis in biology for this category. The result is a fundamental mismatch between a teenager’s capacities and their expectations, the capacities being way higher than what we expect of teens. And so we are “infantalizing” them, or babying them along instead of expecting them to act like adults.

The obvious implication is that we should use biology, not social convention, to decide when someone becomes an adult. The biological marker would be puberty. The social convention would be 18. Something I was reflecting on the whole summer was the rapid rate of change in my campers by their age — just how different a 10 year old is from a 12 year old, and just. how. different. a 12 year old is compared to a 14 year old. I’m not sure that I have all the developmental categories straight to explain it yet (which is the goal of my Thesis), but it was clear to me that my campers entering 8th grade and above were in every functional way adults. Which meant that for them, I pushed hard on understanding the Bible and on living a full Christian life. Much harder than I think I had pushed in past years.

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4. Helping boys express their emotions. In May I watched a documentary called “The Mask You Live In” that dealt with the gendered social expectations of American boys and the harmful effects this can have. I didn’t love it, but the documentary said some valuable things and helped me assemble my thoughts on this topic. The main one is this: that our society conditions boys to not feel emotions. But… you can’t not feel emotions. Feeling emotions is just part of being human. So what our society actually does is condition boys to not express their feelings, or only express them in unhelpful ways.

I cannot tell you how many times this issue came up with my campers. Maybe a hundred times. And I only had about 50 campers. Boys are trained to bottle up their feelings, and move on. (Then bottle up the next feelings, and move on, and then the next ones, and move on). This continues until they no longer have the capacity to hold them in, and they have a mega-meltdown and let everything come flying out. Unfortunately, even here this doesn’t work because you cannot ever really, fully conjure back up feelings that you have repressed. You can only bring back half the passion. This is why recognizing and expressing feelings in the moment is so important. Not that boys need to cry all the time, like when they stub their toe playing soccer. Holding back those tears can be an act of courage to continue on in the game. But other tears — like in the death of a close friend, for one of my campers — need to be shed.

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5. The Local Church is where it’s at. One of the inherent flaws of camp ministry is that it only lasts 6 days a year, but the camper is living the Christian life for all 365. There are so many friendships made this summer that I wish I could continue, but it is just not feasible to travel outside my little North Suburban area. I am so limited in what I can do for these kids after they leave. The most is to reply to their emails a couple times a year. This is why I want to do youth ministry in the Local Church, where I meet students on their first day of 6th grade and walk with them in the faith until they graduate high school. Forget six days, that would be seven years of discipleship. God can use camp ministry in really important ways in their lives. He did for me. But it will never be the primary source of their discipleship, and that’s where I really want to head when college ends in a few years.

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6. Christians appreciate it when you call them out on sin. At least, they should. To look another person in the eyes and say, “you are wrong on this, and you need to change what you are doing” in a way free of judgement, being only gracious, and yet firm and insistent… That balance is hard to strike. But I think that there was one moment in the summer when I did strike it, by the power of God’s Spirit. It was brought to my attention that one of my campers was living dat partyboi lyfe in all its hallow glory, and posting it online. When that was shown to me, it almost broke me.

So we needed to talk. We went to a mostly-secluded place on camp grounds and talked it out for a few hours. And it took all the courage in my heart to look him in the eyes and say that I knew exactly what was really going on. Even though he played the part of the good little church boy when around me — which meant that such a confrontational conversation was bound to completely change our relationship. And it did. But I was also clear that nothing I was saying came from a place of bitterness or frustration or anger or disappointment. But that just as God’s love reaches out to us when we don’t deserve it, my love for this camper was reaching out to him even when he didn’t deserve it. And I want nothing but the best for him.

It was the most difficult conversation I have had in a while, which is saying something given the kind of year this has been for me. But at the end of it all, much like the two campers I mentioned before, he was thankful and said that because of that conversation, he would not go home from camp the same person as before. The lesson here is not to shy away from difficult conversations, because God can write a beautiful story of redemption through them.

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7. The Church is failing to teach Christian Sexuality. This was something I already knew but which became more and more obvious by the day. By “The Church” I mean effectively every church everywhere. And by “failing” I mean a true F, not one of those 59% F+ grades, but a solid 20% F- grade. Of course I was limited on what I could say. I could say nothing to my grade school campers (which makes sense). But with the older kids it was important for me to be a frank and open source to talk about different topics in this area.

The most common one was porn, of course. I would love to enter prophetic-voice mode and call down droves of locusts and frogs on every youth ministry that has never mentioned this to their students. If I hear the question “is it sinful to watch porn?” from one more eighth grader I swear to God I’m literally going to go burn their church down. Not because the student is at fault. But their youth pastor sure is. And their parents sure are. And that is just ground zero for a whole life of future disobedience to God’s design for their sexuality.

This is what happens, by the way, when your whole “purity” message is just “don’t have sex before marriage,” end of story. Christian students are given basically zero other guidance than this because the youth pastor is afraid they are stepping on the parents’ turf, but meanwhile the parents assume the youth pastor is covering it. hahahahaha. And so random ol’ me had to explain, no less than a half dozen times, the way that God has designed the male body to deal with sexual abstinence, and that God’s plan for Christian sexuality is chastity in singleness, and to submit all sexual desire to the authority of Christ, who himself was single for his entire life and did not sin, and… (I think I wrote about this once…). This is so basic that it could be taught in a half hour lesson at youth group. If it sounds like I’m bitter based on my own poor experiences growing up, that would be because I am and this is a widespread problem in American Evangelicalism.

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8. Show a 7th grader how to be a 7th grader for Christ, not how to be a college student for Christ. You know what 7th graders like to do? They like to yell, and scream, and throw sticks against trees while ironically quoting memes they don’t like. They are eager to learn more about God but get bored if you used technical vocabulary. But they can totally handle the technical vocabulary — it’s just boring. They love playing kickball and 9 square, but don’t like “aesthetic spaces” designed solely for socializing. High schoolers love those. But 7th graders don’t. They want to have deep conversations but not all the time and those conversations will meander around the bend and form ox bow lakes so big you didn’t think a single conversation could have produced that. They want to worship God by song but they also want to have fun while they do it. They don’t have much of a boring-tolerance yet, which is fine. Whatever, so what if they get tend to get bored. Just do more exciting things. It will work out.

What is crazy is that somehow I can become a 7th grader when I’m around them. Or a 9th grader. Or a 5th grader. Being an age chameleon is exhausting, by the way, but it is in part how ministry is most effectively done for these campers. Becoming all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9). My goal is not to train 7th graders how to live the college life for Jesus. My goal is train them how to live 7th grade for Jesus, and then in a few years we’ll get around to how to live high school for Him. But for the time being, I cannot afford to have unrealistic expectations about their development. I just have to enter into their developmental stage and show how Christ impacts it.

Which means I cannot get mad at my 4th graders for being homesick — but I can use it as an example to talk about how Jesus was away from home for 33 years and missed his father tremendously. Nor can I get mad at my 8th graders for wanting to date every girl at camp — but I can show them how our priorities for who to date are mostly set in scripture in Proverbs 31 and 1 Peter 3. Neither can I get mad at my 11th graders for complaining to me about their college search — but I can help them think of ways to use their interests in Business, in Engineering, in History to further advance the Kingdom.

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9. The awkward balance of belonging and believing. There was a phrase used by this dumb youth group I went to my senior year of high school. They would say, “You can belong before you believe!” all the time. But something that God has taught me this summer is that that doesn’t always work. For example, if 51% of your Christian community doesn’t believe, then you no longer have a Christian community. If even 20% do not believe, I am not sure how you will get anywhere with discipleship. So maybe the number is 10%. Or maybe there is no ideal number because the number goes up and down based on how extraverted or intraverted those people are. I don’t know.

But I do see the importance of making space for people who aren’t all the way there yet. That was me just two years ago! Christian community is always reaching out with the out-reaching love of God, and that means we will always have people who aren’t all the way there. But including those people can be a huge problem, especially for those who believe and are young in faith. Like campers at a Christian summer camp. I have a few examples in mind of times when that went south quickly. I’m not sure how to balance this tension, but I know that Jesus found a way to do it.

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10. Humble service because God can use anybody he wants. One week, the speaker talked in chapel about SOAP: Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer. It is a basic framework to show students how to not just read a passage of scripture, but also interact with it. I love this already. But then my favorite camper, ever, says to me that night, “Ross, I really liked what the speaker said about SOAP. Can you show me how to use that?” and yep youbetcha I can. So the next night we read through Philippians 2:1-11.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by becoming like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

♪♫♪ Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature
of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. ♪♫♪

This is a passage about the unity that Christians can have by looking out for one another. Our primary example of this is Jesus (though Paul also gives Timothy, Epaphroditus, and himself as examples in the book of Philippians). As this camper and I read each verse, observed things about it, thought of places in our life we can apply it, and then prayed over it all, something struck me. He is the most humble kid I’ve ever met. He doesn’t need this passage at all. (That’s part of why I appreciate him so much). I, on the other hand, am the owner of rossneir.com and anyways could use some lessons on humility.

Here’s what I was wrestling with. God by his providence can work miracles in these campers lives through any counselor he wants. It isn’t about us in particular. Our ministry is enabled by the Holy Spirit, not our own authority or persona or years of experience. Romans 1:16. The power of God brings salvation to all who believe. Not me. The power of God. The question I had been wresting with is whether next summer I should return as a counselor or as a village leader, which while one step up on the org chart is honestly a way worse job. My former VL called the position a “glorified janitor” because all you do is clean up vomit all day, seemingly. I don’t want to do that. I want to be with the kids. But maybe that is just a reflex of my pride, my unwillingness to serve others, my confidence in my own effort to make camp ministry work, my deep lack of faith in God to be the God of the impossible.

I don’t know. Maybe all those reasons are hyperbole and I just don’t want to do it because vomit is gross and wet beds are gross and bossing people around is inherently confrontational and I’m comfortable where I’m at. But God was convicting me not to rule it out just because it is service to others. Jesus was all about humble, self-giving service.

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Conclusion

My 10 points of reflection, in bullet fashion, are:

  1. Vulnerability in mentoring
  2. God’s sovereignty
  3. 14 year olds are adults
  4. Helping boys express their emotions
  5. The Local Church is where it’s at
  6. Christians appreciate it when you call them out on sin
  7. The Church is failing to teach Christian Sexuality
  8. Show a 7th grader how to be a 7th grader for Christ, not how to be a college student for Christ
  9. The awkward balance of belonging and believing
  10. Humble service because God can use anybody he wants

This summer was a season of seeing firsthand the goodness, the sweetness of God, through magical, super-human highs and through frustrating, embittering lows. I saw God relight a passion in the hearts of students who you would never think would come around. Only He can warm and soften a cold and stony heart. At least one of my campers openly professed faith in Jesus for the first time. Several others basically did too, but having not grown up in the church, they didn’t have the categories to be able to describe what they were feeling for the first time. My prayer for the summer — that God would create a love for the Bible in the hearts of my campers — was absolutely answered affirmatively. (More than my prayer for good health…). I saw a few junior high and high school students who had struggled with a lot of pain in their walk with Christ find new healing and redemption in Him.

For this summer, I, like David in Psalm 16, have nothing but thankfulness to God, because “apart from him I have no good thing… because he alone is my portion and my cup… I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken; therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices… because you make known to me the path of life; you fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”

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Helping a student understand the existence (and presence) of God

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With my group of middle school campers this week, one pulled me aside during the day to talk about his struggles and doubts with faith. Let’s call him Aidan. Aidan had a really hard school year with grades and sports and family life, where it seemed like a lot had fallen apart. He felt like God had abandoned him, but then got around to questioning if maybe what was happening was that there is no God at all.

This is not an uncommon train of thought. I have asked the exact same question at times over the years. If it wasn’t for a really solid background in Christian Apologetics, I would have certainly become an atheist. (Instead I continued to believe in God while writhing in pain over his abandoning me. Doesn’t feel much better.)

So as we talked, it became clear that several different issues were mixed up in Aidan’s thinking. And I wanted to sort them out, one by one, before answering any of them. The first question is why God would abandon me if God is good. The second question is, implicitly, can God be real even if we do not experience him? The third question is, does God exist at all? And a fourth lingering question is, how can I trust God if he has abandoned me before?

In order, these are the answers. First, there are a number of good reasons God could have for leaving us on our own for a season. Sometimes God knows that we are proud and wants to humble us by allowing us to see the fruit of life without him. Other times, God will lovingly withdraw himself from us so that we can grow in faith in different ways than those we have already grown in. Some call this “pruning.” A tree can bear good fruit, yet need to be cut back so that it can bear better fruit. Similarly, in our Christian lives sometimes we are doing well but God has unseen horizons for us to cross. He must allow us to fall so that we can rise in Him. (All of these answers, of course, leave out the most common answer of all: that we have no idea why God does what he does, but in retrospect he works it all out). These “dark nights of the soul” are bitter but common. David experienced it in Psalm 42. Mother Teresa described a period lasting fifty years like this. So too can God use it in our lives to further what is good.

Second, yes, God can be real even if we do not experience him. I drew two pictures for Aidan on my cabin chalkboard. Here they are:

Does God exist?

Y-N

Can God be experienced?

Y—————N

And the point that I was trying to emphasize was the further space between Yes and No in the second question. The existence of God seems to be a binary. Either he exists or not. But there is a whole other dimension to the existence of God, in a pragmatic way, that sees God not as a truth but as a lived experience. Can I experience God? At times the answer to this is yes, and at times the answer is no, regardless of the actual existence of God. When a person believes God exists yet does not experience him, this is the dark night of the soul. When a person does not believe in God yet does experience him, this is what Charles Taylor calls being “haunted” by God. God is dead to you, yet his presence lingers on in your life. These two mismatches between reality and lived experience are very uncomfortable. Nobody likes them. So while the actual question of the existence of God can be argued all day from the merits of scientific evidence and philosophical reasoning… the question of the presence of God is elusive to these types of argument. This is so true that I even said to Aidan that there have been points in my life “where I have experienced that God is not real… even though he is.” The phrasing is intentional.

The answer to the third question, on the existence of God, is that yes, God does exist. We know this because of a demonstration called the Kalam Cosmological Argument. In this argument we find that everything that begins to exist has a preceding cause. (A preceding cause is something that comes before and leads to another thing happening. Also, it cannot just be the thing it causes, or else it isn’t really a “preceding” cause at all). Because of new developments in astrophysics the past 100 years, we know that the Universe began to exist. So, it must be true that the Universe has a preceding cause. What could be the Universe’s preceding cause? Well, the Universe is made of matter, time, space, and energy. And the preceding cause to these properties cannot be the properties themselves. So whatever is the preceding cause of the Universe, it must be immaterial, outside of time, not bound by spatial dimensions, and not just energy (must be a being). These fit the classical description of God, and at minimum imply that atheism cannot be true. It doesn’t get you all the way to Jesus, to the Trinity, to the Bible being true. But this argument does offer strong support than there must be something beyond the physical world and the five senses.

Can I trust a God who has abandoned me? This fourth question is much harder than the others. My own past is riddled with situations (some still sting today) where it feels like God has abandoned me. In my youth ministry in junior high. In my school as an eighth grader. Once, as a junior in high school, I lost a really important student council election that I had invested a lot into. In that moment, I prayed that God would give me the emotional courage to handle the loss well. I did not handle the loss well, at all. Why would God not agree to a prayer that is so obviously the right thing? Why would God abandon me when all I asked for was his comforting presence? More recently, through a bizarre turn of events, I have landed on academic probation at school and I’m not sure anymore how the future looks for me. This is unsettling because of how obvious God’s direction was of my college choice and program choice. He wanted me here. So why does it now look like that may not be true anymore? Has God abandoned me halfway through?

And, again, I’m not sure that this question has an answer in words. Or in categories. Maybe the answer to this question is one that must be a lived experience. That our relationship with God cannot play out in theory, it must take place in time, in history. And so the answer to the question, “Can I trust a God who has abandoned me” is not actually an answer but instead an action: to trust him anyways and see what happens.

Of course, in my life, I have seen in retrospect that God works out all things according to the good of the those he has called. That each of those times I had felt abandoned had been for a greater purpose and ultimately for the glory of God. While my feeling of abandonment was real, that I had been abandoned was not real. God was there, intervening even in times of his silence to prepare me for the season of life that was next.

As I tried to communicate this perspective, I would ask Aidan how he was feeling, and what his thoughts were. Over the conversation it became clear that I had left my own voice behind and was speaking from a different voice. One richer than my own, one fuller than my own, one more graceful than my own. And this voice, while materially coming from me, was the Spirit of God intervening to give Aidan exactly what he needed to hear. He would later share with our cabin — nay, with our village — nay, with the entire camp — that in this moment he felt moved in a new way to follow God and live for him. Something clicked in a way that gave Aidan hope for the future in his faith. He wants to find a youth group in his town so that he can be mentored by people who love God and so that he can learn more about the Bible.

What more could I ask God for?