Monday, April 25, 2011

127 Hours and Sovereignty, Part 1: Questions

Our next piece in the series, Tough Stuff, comes to us from our newest contributor, Dan Wolf, youth director at Anglican congregation, Church of the Apostles, in Columbia, SC. Dan takes a look at three critical questions and issues when discussing the sovereignty of God with students. He uses the movie '127 Hours' as a vehicle to unpack this heavy topic. 

Recently, my wife and I watched Danny Boyle’s newest film, ‘127 Hours.’ If you have not watched the movie, I am sure that you are familiar with the true-to-life backstory: A mountain climber named Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) becomes trapped by a boulder crushing his hand in a narrow canyon in Utah. After realizing no one is going to rescue him, he brutally severs his own hand. In the movie, he internally dialogues before commencing on the unthinkable:

“You know, I've been thinking, everything is...just comes together. It's me. I chose this. I chose all of this. This rock...this rock has been waiting for me my entire life. It's entire life. Ever since it was a bit of meteorite a million, billion years ago. There in space. It's been waiting, to come here. Right, right here. I've been moving towards it my whole life. The minute I was born, every breath I've taken, every action has been leading me to this crack on the out surface.”

This quote illustrates one of the major tensions of the faith, who is in control of this world we live in? Is it our own choices? Is it the random unfolding of a world devoid of God? Or is it an all-knowing, all-loving God? The Gospel claims the latter, that God is in fact sovereign over all life. To give a full definition, God has ownership, authority, and control over all things. In short, this means that God is in control of the whole universe and nothing happens that is a surprise to Him. Recently, I taught on this crucial doctrine of the sovereignty of God. And, as I am sure you can imagine (or have experienced yourself), the questions immediately begin to bubble up. And the questions were not uniform, but custom fit to each of the different lives of young people whom I serve. Some questions were more intellectual, while some were very poignant and personal.

I think most of us steer clear of ‘tough stuff’ like sovereignty because we don’t want to throw sticks into the spokes of our students’ young faiths. After all, they are still wobbling all over the place and falling down all of the time anyways. Let them wrestle with the hard stuff in college. If they crash and burn, the blood is on some campus minister’s hands (tinge of sarcasm intended). So, I know I have personally tried to stick to the uncontroversial, like God’s love for us (which is controversial in its own way) and our need to reach out to those in need. But, I have come to believe that doubts and questions are a cornerstone of a healthy believing community. If our students don’t feel free to struggle with these issues, then we are building nothing but straw-man beliefs that will be swiftly dismantled by their first philosophy class. Therefore, as Tim Keller aptly puts it in his book The Reason for God"Faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person's faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection."

So the issue remains: What of the questions relating to sovereignty? The inquiries are many, so I will just share a few of the more common ones that arose in our study. First of all, there is the more circumstantial questions of, “If a good God is in control of this world, how can it be so screwed up?” As songwriter Patty Griffin succinctly notes, “I must confess, there appears to be a whole lot more darkness than light.” I tend to agree with her. So, how can God be in control and let all of these things happen? The Japan earthquakes are an obvious case-in-point. How about my friend who ‘left’ the faith? Or my cousin who committed suicide? Or how could God let my parents get divorced. These are the questions that arise, and must be handled with both truth and grace. With these more delicate questions, we must first make sure that the person is aware of God’s love for all people and His desire for all people (1 Tim 2:4), before we can talk about the more intellectual answers to their questions(below). How we communicate becomes of the utmost important when addressing the more personal questions. As Eugene Peterson quotes, “We cannot skip the way of Jesus in our hurry to get to the truth of Jesus….Only when the Jesus way is organically joined with the Jesus truth do we get the Jesus life."

The above questions lead to the more theological question of, “If God is in control of the world, isn’t He ultimately responsible for the way things are?” This is a very good and important question; it is vital to give the young people an understanding of sovereignty. In Romans 9, Paul deals with this issue from a number of different directions, revealing that God is not responsible for sin. Another helpful way I have found to process this tough question is distinguishing between foreordination (God’s ordaining of all things) and causality (God did not cause sin, we did). God ordains all things according to His will (Eph 1:11) and God works all things for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). But God’s foreordination does not override or violate the will of His creatures. So, the cause of sin therefore rests solely with man. In God’s sovereign world our choices do matter. The sin in this world, both actions (murder, genocide, slander, etc) and consequences of our sin (death, natural disasters, accidents, etc), are due to our rebellion against God. But, we have the promise that God, who is not abstract or impersonal but is of the same heart as Jesus of Nazareth, is weaving all things, even our sin, into an unspeakably beautiful plan of redemption and restoration. And, in the midst of the struggles of our youth’s lives, whether it be divorce, death, or sin, they can know that God is ultimately in control and working all things according to His perfect will. In this truth, no matter if one finds themselves stranded in a lonely canyon, one can rest in the peace of the Gospel offered to us in Christ Jesus, that it is God who is in control.

In the movie, as Aron Ralston finally detaches his hand and frees himself for the first time in 127 hours, he looks out of his would-be tomb to the heavens and shouts, “Thank you.”

This is the first of three articles from Dan Wolf on this topic.  Check back later this week to read more.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tough Stuff: Chewin' on the Leathery & Unpalatable but Realizing it's the Sweetest Thing.

Radical Grace.  Unfettered, life-changing, paradigm-shifting, gift-love. 

How do we even begin to define and describe this reality to our students?  I’ve found that people who have come to know the grace of God in and through Jesus have had their understanding of the Christian faith drastically altered.  Often, what was once an intellectual understanding of Christianity or a works-based operation out of Christianity becomes a need- and gratitude-based relationship to a Living God which hinges on His provision.  There is a shift that happens here, from a self-dependence (e.g. relying on the self’s capability to understand/obey) to a God-dependence (which is inextricably linked to and based upon the atoning death of Jesus which offers us utterly undeserved and full, real, life-giving love).

Most basically, we’ve got to realize that this is an offensive message, and it goes against everything the Western World tells us.  “You can’t do it” isn’t exactly what anyone wants to hear.  And really, apart from the intervention of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation that “But, He has done it- and for you!” we can’t expect anyone to readily accept God’s offer of grace.  It should actually fall into the category of ‘too good to be true.’  We are used to earning our merit, working for success, and performing for points; there is very little that’s freely offered us.  Therefore, the free offering of eternal life and of present, hope-offering, life-transforming relationship with Jesus doesn’t make sense.  That just isn’t the way we’re used to relating to the world or others.  Granted, God’s gift of grace doesn’t come freely- it came with the greatest cost of all: the sacrifice of His own Son.  But the point is: He paid that price, we didn’t.  We couldn’t.  We can’t. 

But we are offered that gift.  And although we’re not very inclined to open our hands and receive, it’s still always there for us.  In ministering to students, one of the most important things we can do is share with them the ways we experience our need for Jesus, for His grace.  We can offer them stories where people have been met where they are by love (which reflects the great Love, Himself) and have had an undeserved, unmerited, transformational experience.  We can help kids to expose the hamster-in-a-wheel-based paradigms of the world and hold Scripture up to them, pointing to the redeemed grace-paradigm of Christianity.
“But what about the seeming free-license to sin that may offer?” you ask.  “Won’t this understanding of unmerited and unconditional gift-love lead our kids to act recklessly and irresponsibly?

Chances are, if you’ve come to really believe in and understand the grace of God, it came through knowing His gifts of forgiveness, love, and redemption in the midst of your sin and/or failure (aka ‘reckless or irresponsible’ behaviors or thoughts).  This is not to say we want our kids to go out and sin, causing themselves (and those around them) pain and suffering.  But it is to say that we are sometimes more interested in trying to protect our kids from the consequences of sin than sharing with them the God of Grace who meets them right in the middle of it and loves them, helps them, and forgives them.  Those of us in leadership positions are especially prone to controlling or attempting to control things.  We fall into a trap of believing (sometimes unconsciously) that we can protect these kids from Satan and sin, we can tell them just the advice which will prevent suffering, or we can have such tight relationships with them that they surely will not make bad decisions.  I mean, really?  Really?  We live this way, and sometimes we minister this way.  We need Jesus!  We need His grace just as much as our kids do- and this pattern of thinking we can save them is just as sinful as the acts we are trying to save them from.

That shift from reliance on self to reliance on Jesus, the lavish Grace-Giver - for us and for the kids we minister to- is one of the most (if not the most) important things we can talk over/think about/ponder/share in/teach on in our positions as youth leaders.  We’ve got to highlight grace in our ministries; it separates Christianity from everything else.  Instead of man reaching out to God (and reaching, reaching, reaching for everything else in life), God reaches out to man through Jesus.  Hallelujah!

Friday, April 08, 2011

The Comfort of Absolute Truth

This post comes to us from a new Rooted contributor, Sandra Hagood. Sandra is an attorney, parent, and outstanding youth Sunday school teacher in San Diego, CA. She leads off our series, Tough Stuff, with this excellent piece about teaching absolute truth.

Recently, I was talking with a college-aged friend who was expressing intense anxiety that a cherished career goal of his may never come to pass. I asked him which he would choose between obtaining this goal and following Jesus. I only asked him the question because I thought he would easily answer that he would rather follow Jesus, and I was intending to suggest that we all have to choose what we want the most, pursue it, and pray that the rest will follow.

He hesitated, and then looked at me horror stricken and said he wasn’t sure. He clearly expected me to chew him out or tell him what a fool he was. But I told him that every once in awhile, I feel like, if I could, I would walk away, and that apparently, I’m not alone in that sentiment. Then we talked about one of my favorite Bible passages:
After this [Jesus’ explaining that to have eternal life, one must feed on Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood], many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, "Do you want to go away as well?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God."                           - John 6:66-69
There’s more than one way to read Peter’s answer, but I think it’s important that Peter did not say, “But Lord, why would we want to go anywhere else when this is so much fun?” It seems to me that it’s implied in Peter’s answer that Peter would go away if he could, or at least that he’d been tempted to consider it.

Close to thirty years ago, when I was in high school and had been a Christian about two years, I was struggling to keep up with the demands of my performance-based understanding of the Gospel. Even though I was madly in love with Jesus, I remember thinking that I was going to have to give up Christianity because it was just too hard and I couldn’t do it. I felt like I was looking into a terrible abyss. But I realized almost the next instant that the reason that I could not walk away from Christianity was that it was true.

I have returned to that moment several times in the last thirty years. Thanks be to God, I understand much better now what it means that His yoke is easy and His burden is light, but I still sometimes think for a moment that I would prefer to have no one to answer to. (Of course, in my right mind, I absolutely cannot imagine the unbearable wasteland that life without Jesus would be.)

I take great comfort in two things. First, the above passage in John shows me that Jesus understands that we are human and He does not expect us to be spiritual robots. He realizes that, no matter how much we love Him, serving Him is costly (Luke 14:28), and that, even though it’s really a “no brainer,” it seems like a hard decision to us. But even more, I am greatly encouraged that even when I cannot hold onto the Truth, the Truth holds on to me. As Peter said, Jesus has the words of eternal life. I think once you have tasted those words, you cannot walk away anymore than a thirsty man could walk away from water in the desert.

In the present climate of moral relativity, many students are conditioned to label those claiming the absolute truth of Christianity- or any worldview- as intolerant, immoral, and close-minded. The absolute value of the postmodern world is tolerance. However, knowing that the “words of eternal life” are, in fact, True yields an amazing comfort to students in the long run.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Tough Stuff

In the coming weeks, the Rooted blog will provide a series, called Tough Stuff. Certainly, every student minister, Sunday school teacher, and parent knows the cringing sensation that comes when students ask tough question. At the same time, a gap in a student's belief system on all of the pieces that comprise their knowledge detracts from their full appreciation and grounding in the Gospel.

This series aims to identify tough issues and why they are important to discuss in the name of a more fully understanding the Gospel. Also, included are ideas on best approaches to discussion of these sticky topics. Get ready to cringe; these topics just are not easy.