Thursday, January 20, 2011

Growing Out of Churches

Last Friday, I wrote a post on the need to look at people's spiritual progress developmentally. A while ago, my friend, Cal, published a post on how some churches are good at "matching" people with Jesus (i.e. conversion), but not so good with the follow-up spiritual formation.

I was thinking of another analogy of these ideas recently that in some ways combines them. American schooling is broken into primary (elementary) and secondary (high) school (not sure where junior high fits in). Then there's "higher" education. Elementary schools meet the needs of little ones, as does high schools for the teends.

No one would expect a 14-year-old to attend an elementary school unless there were significant developmental delays or he or she missed a lot of school. Even then, the student would likely have a specialized plan in the high school.

Similarly, an 8-year-old would be significantly out of a place at a high school or college (unless he was Doogie Howser). Even an intellectually bright 8-year-old is not emotionally as mature as a 16-year-old (all sarcasm aside). At my work, we address very similar issues with kids of all ages. Yet we separate them based on age because they do not process the same way.

Why would spiritual development be any different?

Could it be that some church institutions are meant to be elementary schools (or even pre-schools) to introduce students of God to the basics? As they grow, maybe they are supposed to grow out of one church, into another. The latter church focuses less on conversion and more on theological development. Still another emphasizes spiritual formation.

All of these elements are important. And I don't know what order they might go in (I, of course, have my biases, but they are just that--biases).

Of course, we need mature Christians in the elementary churches to teach the little ones (just as our teachers should be mature). An elementary school teacher is no less qualified and amazing and mature and smart as a high school teacher. Or even a college professor. Believe me, I know many in each category! :) They are all called to different contexts.

Yet we often assume one church will, can, and should all developmental levels of Christians. One could look at the apostolic church, which probably ran that way. We also have to remember that they were pretty much all baby Christians, though. It was also a fledgling institution, like the one-room schoolhouse. And there is also 1 Corinthians 3:1-2, in which Paul talks about speaking to different developmental levels of Christians in different manners.

Perhaps modern churches can manage multiple levels of development. That would be awesome. I'm not sure many really do that. Maybe we need to be open to the idea of "moving up" from one church to another. Not that that truly says anything negative or positive about one versus the other. They're all vital.

I just wonder if churches focused more on a particular developmental level of Christian and were willing eager to "graduate" Christians, helping them move on when necessary, would we see more spiritual growth in the overall body of Christ?

And just as people graduate out of school and no longer pursue formal education, is there a point at which formal spiritual education is no longer needed?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Calling Out Sin

Those who have been following my blog lately have probably noticed a theme on sin and sin reduction. In general, I'm not a big fan of the holiness movements that (in my opinion) over-emphasize the role of the lack of sin in people's lives. The idea of confession can also be over-used in a way that guilts and shames people into being meek and mellow followers of a certain set of rules and regulations (at least on the surface).

At the same time, I have strong holiness roots, spiritually and secularly. As one of my friends and I have talked about, we both generally have excellent self-control. Heck, I've avoided eating and going to the bathroom for hours in order to get projects done.

Yet that kind of self-control can be just as damaging as a prodigal lifestyle. Perfectionism is debilitating. I don't know of any psychological theory that encourages perfectionism. Yet it runs in my family, making us all anxious. My wife often comments about how unhappy I must be trying to make everything "right" and fixing things. Living a virtuous life can be taken too far (look at the Pharisees).

Ultimately, it's all behavior and external. The heart is what matters. And virtuous behavior can kill the heart. Ironic, isn't it? Unrighteous behavior can kill the heart, as can the opposite.

That is why I so often see the need for love. Without love, there is no heart. And there is no room for error.

Being a psychologist, I daily work with people who have a variety of behavior problems. Most of the behaviors could be given the sin label.

I sometimes have to point out a dysfunctional pattern. However, most of the time, people know how they're screwing up. They need help fixing it. And usually the solution is some form of giving and receiving love.

Even the narcissists know their foibles. In psychology, we talk about how a narcissistic injury caused the over-inflated ego. This is a deep injury to one's self-esteem and identity. There is, in truth, a lack of self, causing a facade of strength to cover the emptiness.

There isn't a person with a psychological disorder (or lack thereof) who really needs to be told how awful they are. They already know. They may not act like it, but that's usually because they have no hope of any better kind of redemption.

So what do we, as a Church, often provide? More condemnation and calling out of what they're doing wrong.

What we need to emphasize is what everyone is longing for: A means for transformation, to become whole. And the answer is Jesus Christ. Through love. Through unconditional, unwavering, magnificent love. Despite our sins, despite our doubts, despite our lack of love. Christ loves us. And Christ loves others through us. When we let him.

Yet there are times when it is good and right to call out a sin. I think it needs to be done in the context of a trusting, solid relationship. Without that, the safety of assured love and acceptance leaves a void of rejection and antipathy. Who wants to confess facing that abyss?

This is the process I generally follow as a therapist. Before I can confront someone, I need to build a rapport with them, a relationship built on honest trust and love. Otherwise, the confrontation is not helpful. When done right, it can lead to transformation.

What do you think? When and how is it appropriate to call out sin? Should it ever be done publicly? Generally (like against the "big" sins)?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Public Criticism Confession @sandalschurch @dimai #sandalschurch

Almost a month ago, I posted about my church's Christmas sermon series, This is War. My problem with it was what I saw as the over-emphasis on sin reduction with little talk about the transforming power of love. At the core of the Gospel is love.

I debated about even posting something about my disagreement with the series. A couple of weeks before, I asked the question about whether or not it is helpful to criticize public pastors. I explained that I thought it was rarely helpful. At the same time, expressing disagreement can be a way to check ourselves so we don't become dogmatists who live in a bubble.

This was my motivation for finally posting something. Over the past several months, I've really been struggling with the messages I've been hearing from my church. They seemed to be so focused on rigidity and sin reduction, missing the transformational point of the Gospel.

Frankly, the post was less about changing anyone's mind (how often does a blog post do that, really?). It was more for my own process. Ultimately, there was a lot of confusion and intellectual pressure built up inside my head that I had to get out. I didn't know any other helpful way of getting it out besides blogging.

This has been true for many of my posts--it's a sort of spiritual journal. However, I've found that it's difficult for me to journal for myself. I feel the need to make it have a larger purpose--perhaps my struggles can give insight, validation, or direction to others. I truly believe the journey of seeking truth and power of the struggle is transformational in itself. And in this case, when I kept hearing so much praise for something I didn't like, I felt the need to stand up and say, "I disagree."

I'm not sure it was the right thing to do ultimately. As the anonymous commenter on my post on public criticism noted, a message (or a blog post) is often not the full context of someone's (or a church's) beliefs.

Having been a part of Sandals for a little over a year, my wife and I have gotten a good sense of the group, but there are still significant questions. We fell in love with the church because of its focus on authenticity. Yet I was feeling increasingly confused as I heard less and less about it (from my perspective) of the past several months. In some ways, I think my post was a desire to hope for the return of what I originally saw in Sandals.

Last week, I met with the primary speaker, Derek, in that sermon series. He agreed that the core of that message of sin reduction is not the whole story. There's another piece--love, transformation, and redemption. In the point of time of that sermon series, ultimately they could only focus on piece of the story.

On Sunday, I heard one of the best messages from Sandals I've heard in quite a while. And it restored my faith and connection to Sandals. While the point was about one of the core values of being "Real with Self," Pastor Matt Brown emphasized that we can only be authentic when we can trust others, which occurs when we are loved. And that God loves us through others.

It couldn't have been a more perfect answer to my questions. I know Matt doesn't know who I am (we've said, "Hi," in passing once--no exchange of names even), so I'm sure he does not know about my blog let alone that one post. In a service where there were hundreds in attendance and the speaker knows how to give appropriate eye contact around the audience, it often felt like he was looking straight at me. It's interesting how God can send us messages through someone when they don't even know they're the messenger.

All in all, the anonymous commenter was right: I didn't get the full context. The heart of Sandals does seem to be in the Gospel of Love, not the Gospel of Sin Reduction.

Was it wrong to write and publish the first post? I'm honestly not sure.

I'm sorry if it caused any harm or hard feelings (although I don't know if anyone reads this to make it worthwhile anyway).

At the same time, it provided an opportunity to have a good conversation with Derek about what he meant. Clarification is a great thing. I should have probably asked him first. Although I didn't know him. I didn't know who to ask. I have that opening now, at least.

But what about others? If you're in a place where you have a significant struggle with your (large) church, but don't have any contact with someone who has the answers, what is an appropriate way to get them? I wanted to ask Derek, Matt, or someone else. I didn't know how to approach it. "Oh, yes, here's an email asking if you're as 'Hell, fire, and brimstone' as I thought." Great way to start a conversation... A public blog post may not be as great a way, either.

So, sorry, Sandals and Derek.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Toward Proximal Development in Spirituality

As a child psychologist, it is important to understand what is appropriate for someone to do developmentally. And what is appropriate to encourage them to do. This doesn't end in adulthood. There are plenty of theories that explore developmental levels throughout adulthood. And therapists are encouraged to challenge people in their zones of proximal development (helping them grow into the next level, but not too many levels ahead).

I think the same is true of spirituality. While psychological development, particularly early on, corresponds closely to chronological age, spiritual development may not. There is definitely a correlation, but I have (anecdotally) found there is a wider range of developmental levels spiritually across age groups.

A very solid developmental model is Hagberg and Guelich's stages of faith, which I think does describe a lot of spiritual development. The idea of proximal development is critical in this model of stages of faith, as Hagberg and Guelich state that a person can somewhat comprehend the level immediate ahead of their current one, but not the further stages.

Therefore, if we try to push someone's spiritual development too far too fast, it simply won't work.

I also wonder if what many of us who push for various changes in the way church is done and theology is approached are doing a disservice to newer Christians. Frankly, most people who focus on these changes are not as focused on conversion, but rather existing Christians' spiritual development.

Perhaps the more rigid, information-driven, behavioral methods of spirituality are not only useful for some Christians, but necessary to lay a foundation. In many ways, this is what God did with the nation of Israel, creating a set of rather legalistic laws to create a foundation, later explaining that the law does not save anyone. As Paul stated in Romans 5:20-21, the law was given so that grace is more beautiful.

Just as little children need to know rigid rules about talking to strangers for their safety to later find there is appropriate ambiguity, perhaps rigid rules are appropriate for those who are young spiritually (even if they have been Christians for decades).

My appreciation of a devotional reading of Scripture is due to my prior reading for information. My love for transformation is accentuated because I have lived a life focused on sin reduction.

Remember the context of people's comments and their audience is important for me to remember. However, when a church only focuses on the more foundational elements, what happens when people are ready to move forward? How does one engage in zones of proximal development for a group of people with very different zones?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Creating Context in the Bible, Not More Information @KeithWilliams @TyndaleHouse @AdamSab

As I have mentioned a couple of times on this blog, I have come to really appreciate approaching the Bible devotionally. One of the ways such an approach can be bolstered is with a devotional Bible (surprise! :) ).

I recently received a copy of the In His Image Devotional Bible. The purpose of this Bible is to notice and meditate on the various characteristics of God throughout the Bible. This Bible has five primary features to aid a meditation on the imago Dei: Prayerful Readings based on Lectio Divina; Response to God Articles, essentially short devotional essays; God's Names and Titles, providing a quick time-out to focus on an attribute of God; Book Introductions; and Character of God Articles, fifteen longer essays about God.

Such elements can be found in plenty of devotionals, but I like how they are appropriately dispersed throughout the Bible. This allows for easy Bible reading with interspersed pauses to slow down and meditate on God's character. The earlier Mosaic Bible that introduced me to the NLT aids devotion by organizing Bible readings by liturgical year. While one could read through the Bible book-by-book and refer back to the devotional element, it is difficult to do in that version. The IHI Bible makes such reading seamless and more meaningful. So both can be useful, depending on the intention of the reader.

One of the things that particularly stood out to me was in the "user's guide" to IHI. On page A17, the editors explained that the Prayerful Readings (but I would say all the devotions) "may be different from other devotional you have read. Their primary purpose is not to give you ideas to think about. They, instead, provide a context for his Word and by the power of his Spirit."

As I have mentioned before, we often approach the Bible as a place to get information. It definitely has good information, but that's not what it's intent originally was in most (if any) cases. The biblical texts were meant to help us create a context to understand and engage in a lifelong conversation with God. This Bible definitely does that.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this audiobook in exchange for a review (with no obligation for a positive review).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Synchroblog: The Manifestation Of God

This post is part of the synchroblog on the Manifestation of God, celebrating the liturgical season of Epiphany. This season celebrates the Incarnation, God becoming flesh.

As readers of this blog know, I love talking about the Incarnation and consider it central to my faith. The birth and existence of Christ is obviously central to most Christians' lives by definition. However, I consider it as something important to remember as a continual Incarnation. Christ lives, breathes, and acts on this earth on a daily basis through each of his children. The Holy Spirit grants us the ability to love others with the love of God, which far transcends anything a human could do on his or her own.

We hear a lot of talk about loving others as Christ loved them. The other element of the Incarnation is experiencing and receiving Christ's love. While we can recognize how people are loving others, it can be difficult to see how God is loving us through others.

Oftentimes, it takes some sort of tragedy to really notice this love. And that's a tragedy in itself. However, this is how God can turn even the most horrible of circumstances into something beautiful.

Being a psychologist who deals with a lot of forms of tragedy, I love working with trauma because that's when I see people being authentic with themselves and others. And most importantly, people rally together and love.

Problems happen when we don't accept that love. Without love, we will die. With it, we will survive. It can and will be difficult, but together, we can continue to live.

Accept God's love today. Look for it in the eyes of another.

This is the most recent list of additional contributors for this synchroblog. For an updated list, please visit the Manifestation of God post.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Limitations of Biblical Canon

I have recently realized that I love collecting Bibles. I don't know how many I have, but I have a lot. My wife has started complaining about it, particularly as we start planning to move (we just entered escrow on our first house).

My first Bible was of the NIV Life Application Study variety. It was thick and chunky, with lots of good information, like I thought a Bible should be when I became a Christian as a teen. I was starting out as a good evangelical. :)

Over the years, I have collected Bibles from several translations, which I think is a useful thing. I have a massive (seriously, I think it's the biggest book I own) Bible encyclopedia. I'm not sure I would buy all that now since most of it can be found more easily and more quickly online for free. But there's still something I like about having it on my bookshelf. Maybe it's memories. Maybe it's pride. But there's a weighter feel to the Bible and Bible study with the actual texts (pun somewhat intended :) ).

However, over the years, I've noticed that my Bibles have moved away from the study variety that are large and chocked full of information. They are more of the devotional type. As I wrote a month ago, there's is great value in approaching the Bible as a devotional text rather than just a theological text of proof for one's doctrine.

In many ways, approaching the Bible devotionally allows me to view the Bible as more holy, or sacred, than if I had to defend it all day long to maintain my belief system. The devotional nature definitely has theology in it, but it is more organic and relational than a systematic theology text. And I don't believe God inspired the latter. God is organic and relational, and that is the type of the text he inspired.

Interestingly enough, even the biblical canon (the accepted compilation of texts that comprise the Bible) has been relatively organic. The Protestant canon is different from that of the Roman Catholics and the various Orthodox traditions. And it has changed a few times. This can make understanding 2 Timothy 3:16, stating that "all Scripture is inspired by God," rather difficult to fully understand because what is considered Holy Scripture is very much in the hands of men (and generally not women).

I have faith in our canon. Yet I also have to recognize that it was not handed down by God on tablets like the Ten Commandments. I have to have faith that the men who put together the current canon (and since I'm a Protestant, most of my Bibles exclude the Apocrypha) did listen to God.

This is where my studies of church history were very interesting and useful. There were many debates over what would be included as canon. There continue to be debates today. Ultimately, as people of faith, we need to look for consistency in the messages. And frankly, in moving against the Protestant tradition, the canonical tradition can be useful, too. There is something to be said for the fact that the existing canon has been so meaningful to so many people.

Ultimately, we have to come back to the fact that we approach the Bible with faith. Many Christians use it to bolster their faith in order to avoid the anxiety that arises with ambiguity from doubt. Yet it is possible to destroy support for the biblical canon as it stands, leaving no more "beyond a shadow of a doubt" certainty for faith.

I do believe the Bible was inspired by God. And it helps keep me connected to him. However, it does not "prove" my faith. Faith is not based on fact. It is based on my trust of God rooted in my relationship with him. Just as I have faith in the beauty and wonder of my wife based on my trust of her rooted in our relationship.

Brother Lawrence's Feast Day

Today in the liturgical calendar marks the feast day of Brother Lawrence, a strong influence in my life and this blog. He wrote The Practice of the Presence of God, focusing on experiencing and seeing God's presence in everyday life. This practice is one of the simplest, yet most complex and meaningful. I believe it is the foundation of an Incarnational life.

In celebration of Brother Lawrence, try to take some extra time to focus on how God is present with you in everything you do today. Share any experiences and insights you have here!

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Importance of Story @donmilleris @christianaudio @caReviewers

Narrative therapy is a technique that emphasizes and focuses on people's stories. The therapist finds the ways the client has "written" a dysfunctional narrative and helps the client find new ways to tell his or her story. Words are powerful and really do make a difference in how we understand our world and respond to it, even our memories of it.

Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, recently released A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, in which he explores his own story and its relevance. The book starts of quite slowly with no clear sense of direction. In the audiobook version, which I listened to, Miller narrates it himself, which is great. However, his almost apathetic tone makes it start even more slowly.

However, eventually the threads all tie together, with Miller not as much exploring how to re-tell his story, but how to engage in a story at all. He tells some beautiful and interesting tales along the way. I'm not sure how many are completely true and how many are embellished, but it doesn't really matter. His point comes across well that story is important. Without it, we wind up living meaningless lives.

John Eldredge often says the same thing, saying we do live in a story, but we have to wake up to it. Miller also quotes my psychology idol, Viktor Frankl, and his most famous (although not at all best) book, Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl's thesis for psychotherapy is that our primary drive is for meaning, and without it, we die.

Miller in some ways applies this idea and says that we make meaning through story. Without a meaningful story, we essentially live dead lives, just functioning according to the daily grind. Miller has some powerful imagery from his own life to elucidate this point.

I would generally agree that story elucidates our meaning. However, I would say that meaning comes through relationships. Ultimately, I believe our primary purpose is to love God and love others. We don't necessarily have to have a grand story to achieve that. Perhaps our meaning is to do so through the daily grind. But that transforms the grind into something transcendent.

It's not an either/or. But I think we have to remember the goal. The goal is not to have a story (and I don't think Miller would say that, either). The goal is to love God and others. We need a context and a motivation to do that. Finding our narrative can provide us just that, in turn giving us enough life and energy to love and be loved.

All-in-all, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is a good book. I liked it more than Blue Like Jazz. It made me rethink some of the ways I have told parts of my story (I may post on that at another time). The unique thing is you have to have patience with the book. This actually fits, as we need patience with our story. Patience makes the end product so much more meaningful.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this audiobook in exchange for a review (with no obligation for a positive review).

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Transformation and Sin

I frequently hear a lot of talk about sin. Mostly about condemning sin and needing to focus on reducing sin in our lives. Is reducing sin a good thing? Absolutely. But I've come to realize that all the talk about sin reduction reminds me of my battle with the emphasis on symptom reduction in the psychology world.

Christianity and psychology are about a whole lot more than inappropriate behavior. Sure, some people like focusing just on those things. In some ways, such a concrete focus is easier because it can clearly let us know if what we're doing is working or not.

But just as I did not go into the field of psychology to reduce symptoms, I did not accept a relationship with Christ to reduce sin. I pursued both to become transformed and help other become transformed.

In order to become transformed, we do usually need to change some of our behavior. But that is simply a means to an end. We need to address aspects of our lives that impede transformation. Yet we need to keep our eyes on the ultimate goal of being like Christ, not just in behavior, but in mind, body, and spirit.

We also need to remember Paul's words in Romans 8:12-17 that we are no longer slaves to sin nor under any obligation to sin. Yet we frequently believe the lie that we are defined by sin. As John Eldredge so eloquently states in Wild at Heart:

You are not your sin; sin is no longer the truest thing about the man who has come into union with Jesus. Your heart is good. "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you" (Ezek. 36:26). The Big Lie in the church today is that you are nothing more than "a sinner saved by grace." You are a lot more than that. You are a new creation in Christ. The New Testament calls you a saint, a holy one, a son of God. In the core of your being you are a good man. Yes, there is a war within us, but it is a civil war. The battle is not between us and God; no, there is a traitor within us who wars against our true heart fighting alongside the Spirit of God in us: 
A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death . . . Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won't know what we're talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells . . . if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he'll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus . . . When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. (Rom. 8:2, 9-11 The Message
The real you is on the side of God against the false self. Knowing this makes all the difference in the world. The man who wants to live valiantly will lose heart quickly if he believes that his heart is nothing but sin. Why fight? (p. 144-145)

We often believe a lie that Jesus has not redeemed us, our hearts, our minds, and our behavior. We fight with ourselves to change something and then also believe we have no hope of changing it because we are irreversibly evil.

Without God, little will change. With God, everything will change. However, that does not mean our circumstances, moods, and even all behavior will change. What I have found is that often God leaves those things to help further develop our spirit and character.

Character doesn't mean perfection. It's how we respond to life, even when those responses aren't perfect.

We should continually strive to put on the character of Christ, as Dallas Willard puts it. We should also strive to refine our behavior, attitudes, and moods. Our spiritual disciplines can help with this. So can psychotherapy. Yet if all we focus on is reducing or removing a certain misdeed, we miss the bigger picture of true transformation. And that might be the biggest sin and tragedy of all.


Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).