Friday, December 14, 2012

Raising a Superbly Critical Student

“Today’s teenagers are just too critical!!”

     Oh, how I wish that were true. The truth is, while many students are vocally cynical about certain things, they are far less critical than they ought to be. Students need to be trained to be critical. Specifically, they need to learn the art of examining and evaluating the things they come in contact with in life. By “things” I mean anything and everything: music, books, movies, and internet sites. Even teachers, mentors, and other students should not escape scrutiny. Before you object to instructing students to be critical of their teachers and other leaders, think about what being critical really means.
     I am not advocating that students should naturally distrust everything. That isn’t healthy either. What I am advocating is that students should begin at a place of honest intellectual neutrality when taking something in, proceeding carefully, evaluating as they go. That isn’t what most students do when they listen to music, watch a movie, or read a book. Typically, they will instead rate and rank a given experience by how much they like it. That is a very natural thing to do, but we need to teach students to move beyond the initial appeal of something and to think critically about it.
     It may be time for an example. Let’s say that Jane is hanging out with Sue. Sue slips a CD into the car stereo and some band, say Metalbrains, begins to fervently destroy the speakers of the car. Jane says “Wow, that’s really cool – I like it!” But what does Jane mean by that? Maybe she is responding to Sue’s obvious enjoyment of the music. Maybe she likes the thundering drums or the screaming, ear-piercing guitar solo. Regardless, what she is saying is that something about this experience appeals to her. What she has not said is, “Gee, I really agree with the anarchist views of the singer,” or “this music really inspires me to do (fill in the blank).” There has been no criticism of the musical experience at all. Sadly, this is the level of thinking at which many students make up their minds about something. Jane is sold; she buys the CD and becomes a life-long follower of the band.
     What we need to teach students to do is to move past initial appeal and deal critically with the substance of the item at hand. This is hard work for both the student and the parent. But the hard work pays off in the end- with a student who is able to evaluate something based on its content rather than its appeal. Why is it so difficult? Because there are so many levels on which to evaluate, and so many angles to consider when being critical. If we continue with the music example, Jane might begin with the lyrics. What is the message of the vocalist in the song? She can’t stop there, though- she has much more to consider. What about the music of the piece? I’m not one to classify all driving, forceful music as categorically wicked, but if the music inspires Jane to go into a rage, it really doesn’t matter if the lyrics are “Kumbaya, my Lord, Kumbaya.” Additionally, Jane needs to do some homework on the artist. Is this band made up of people she can support with her money (or her parents' money) - with a clean conscious? Does the group support or sing about things (even on other CDs or songs) that are problematic?
     As you can see, Jane has her work cut out for her in making a decision about listening to a particular band. And the same applies to books, movies, internet sites… the list could go on and on. This type of evaluation should even apply to her relationships. “What do these friends encourage me to do?” “What kind of example are they?” “How do we spend our time together?” These are the important questions- far more important than “how do my friends make me feel?!”
     Books are another place we can teach Jane to be critical. Even within a particular genre, there are things to carefully consider. Let’s consider fiction. Again, I’m not one to say all fiction is bad; certainly one should consider how much fiction is read in comparison to other genres. If Jane is into the mythical-type fiction books, she might pick up Voyage of the Dawn Treader. As she reads, she needs to move past the initial “I like it- there’s a cute little talking mouse!” She would need to ask hard questions about the message of the story, the motives of the author, and the like. She might just as easily pick up a copy of the latest Twilight installment. I would suggest that asking good, critical questions of the two aforementioned books would yield startlingly different results!
     This approach is the hard-work way. What are the easy ways? Well, allowing our students to become (or remain) unchecked consumers of anything and everything the world throws at them is one  easy way. Another is to take the road of modernized monasticism: insulating and sheltering young people from all the world has to offer. But this is counter-productive. Certainly, as parents, we have to give an account for what we allow and disallow; the responsibility for what our children are exposed to lies with no one else. But there is greater value in training the child for righteousness. Take the time to  move past the realm of lecture (though there is a time for that!) and into a teaching wisdom moment. That doesn't make you soft or a pushover. you still have complete authority over whether Jane listens to the CD or not. The difference is moving from "you are never to listen to that garbage again!" to  "Jane, let's talk about Metalbrains... what do you think of them? Why? How does listening to them match up with this scripture verse?" Teaching Jane the difference between something that appeals to her and something that is beneficial to her is the key.

     Imagine the results of raising a generation of superbly critical Christians. Oh how the sway of the “stuff of earth” might be reduced in their lives! After all, what we’re really talking about here is training them to be discerning. The Scripture speaks on the value of a discerning spirit. It is what God used in Joseph to bring him before Pharaoh (Genesis 41:33, 39); it was the quality that was sought out in the youth of Israel when Daniel was found (Daniel 1:4). But Proverbs might be the best inspiration for us to train up radical discerners. Consider what Proverbs 2 promises to the son of discernment:

     “My son… if you cry for discernment, lift your voice for understanding; If you seek her as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the LORD And discover the knowledge of God… Then you will discern righteousness and justice and equity and every good course. For wisdom will enter your heart and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; Discretion will guard you, understanding will watch over you, to deliver you from the way of evil.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bad Storm, Good God

Here in South Louisiana, we're just beginning to recover from the effects of Hurricane Isaac. Though the storm was only a category 1 hurricane at its strongest point, it was surprisingly devastating. The greatest threats from Isaac were storm surge and rainfall, things the Saffir-Simpson scale doesn't necessarily do a good job of reflecting. In my area, rainfall and flooding were the biggest problems, coupled with the obligatory and ever-annoying power outages. Seeing a street lamp illuminate the neighborhood entrance, while every house on the street remains dark, is a frustrating thing indeed.

My patience was sorely tried on the last afternoon we were without power. I had been driving around, checking on some church members who were close to getting water in their homes. I knew of some others who were desperately sandbagging their homes and moving their furniture in an attempt to beat the water that was being forecast to rise another few days. On this particular afternoon, I needed to get my wife and kids settled in for the evening and refuel the generator so that it would continue running for them while I was out in town.  I opened the fuel tank and started adding gasoline. At that instant, the sky opened -without so much as a drop of warning- and a torrential rain began to pour down. It was all I could do to hold my torso over the top of the generator while I poured the gasoline, trying to keep the rainwater from going into the fuel tank. I know men who would have cursed aloud.

Though I didn't speak, my heart cursed inside- I was so very angry. Sometimes, you just feel like you deserve better... "Here I am, trying to take care of my wife and children for the afternoon, so I can check on a few other families that are in need." "Here we are, in the aftermath of a hurricane, with water rising all around, and its raining... again?!" "You are aware that the Midwest is in a terrible drought?! Why send the rain here?!" And then I stopped. It had become abundantly clear who I was angry with. In that quiet moment in my garage, with rain-drenched clothes and gasoline-fouled hands, I remembered my place. I half expected to hear the words of God to Job: "Gird yourself, and answer me like a man!" Instead, God reminded me of several reasons that I can always trust His goodness.

First, God is good. English actually gets its word "good" from the same root as the word "God." There's something to be said for that relationship. Christians talk about God's goodness a lot. Radio stations use His goodness as a tagline:" "God is good, all the time." Bumper stickers convert minivan real estate into billboards of God's goodness. I fear the world finds this all a bit trite. The statements are true, but hopelessly oversimplified. God doesn't simply declare certain things to be good. Good is not something that God has, and it is not merely something that He does. Yes, God is good- but reconsider that statement. We are not affirming that God measures up to our standard of what goodness is- just the opposite! His very essence is the standard by which we ought to measure all other things, to see if they are good. (Psalm 34:8: "O taste and see that the Lord is good."; Mark 10:18: "And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.")

Second, God graciously made and gives good things. Consider the creation narrative in Genesis 1.Scripture tells us that God created the world and everything in it. After each stage of creation, God observed the fruit of His own work and pronounced it good. And this was no man-made measure of goodness. With God Himself as the standard, He pronounced all creation good- it was without blemish and knew no hardship or grievous thing. When people ask, "What kind of God would bring a Hurricane?", or "Why would He allow such wickedness?", we would do well to remind them that God made a world that knew no hurricanes. No suffering, disease, or death. It was our action that brought sin and its terrible, dreadful consequences into the world. Let's not blame God for what our failures wrought. Additionally, God is the giver of good things - even in a sin-corrupted world. Despite the awful state of things in the world, good things do come. We experience life, beauty, we give and receive love, we have provisions to nurture and shelter us. Scripture reminds us that nothing good comes in this wicked world unless God gives it. Jesus made the comparison of an earthly father giving good things to his son. If a fallen man does this much, how much greater is the goodness of God?
(Genesis 1:1-31; Matthew 7:9-11; James 1:17)

Third, God's mercy is evidence of His goodness. God's mercy is evident in every tragedy. While this might seem an insensitive thing to say, it is absolutely true. Even the worst disaster we can imagine, be it man-made or natural, is not as bad as it might have been. In the storm, not all is washed away, not all is lost. In the Tsunami, not all are swept to sea. In battle, not everyone is killed. Until the last days, we can say with great certainty that "it could have been a lot worse." The difficult part of embracing this truth is admitting that "a lot worse" is exactly what we deserve! It seldom occurs to us that since God is Holy and hates what is wicked, He would be perfectly justified in wiping the human race out completely. Scripture tells us that the consequence of sin is death, and that everyone has sinned. When Jesus was approached with news of various tragedies, His response was to point people to this truth. The fact that God allows anyone to live, despite their sin, is an indescribable demonstration of His goodness. 
(Psalm 119:77; Luke 13:1-5; Hebrews 4:16)

So my anger was typical of two great sins we often commit in regard to God's goodness. The first is that we blame Him when it all goes wrong, while He is not at fault. The second is that we do not praise Him as we ought when anything in this broken and sin-sick world goes right. One is not better than the other. So praise God for every good thing that happens, knowing that He is the source of all good things. And when difficulty comes,  remember that His mercy is on display all the more. He is sovereign, and always does what is best for His glory. He sees the end from the beginning, while we have a terribly small perspective. Believers also have the added hope of knowing that He will one day restore a new heaven and a new earth, fashioned as He intended. In that place, all doubts about His goodness will come to an end. My resolve is to let the difficulties of this present life remind me of all the goodness I will experience in the life that is still to come!



Saturday, July 21, 2012

What's In A Name?

So where does "Volumes of grace" come from, you ask?

That's a good question, because names are significant in ways most people don't think about these days. I love names, precisely for that reason. Maybe it's the anti-postmodernist in me. Words do have meanings. (Sorry, Mr. Clinton. Is means is.) My daughter's name is Rebekah because I want to communicate something about her. Rebekah means "bound up," as if by beauty. Her middle name is Grace... we're still working on that part! My third child's middle name is Christopher. I was never big on the name Christopher until I took Greek. Phero is to carry or bear, which makes Christopher take the meaning "bearer of Christ." Every day, I pray that my children will live out the meanings of their names. As you can see, I'm really into the nomenclature thing.

But back to the blog's title...
One of the earliest influences on my life as a new believer was Christian music. I was schooled in basic Christian doctrine by the well-worn, pearly white, hardback Baptist Hymnal I sang from each Lord's day. There were a few artists in the Christian Contemporary scene that I followed as well, but not many. Looking back, I suppose I always found the more popular Christian contemporary music scene pretty boring and predictable. But one group that immediately caught and held my attention was Caedmon's Call. Their writing was filled with things that appealed to the intellect as well as the emotions; they were communicating hard things about the faith. As an example, contrast Rebecca St. James screaming "God! .... God!" at the top of her lungs with Caedmon's Call wrestling over how to reconcile God's sovereignty with human decision-making. There is a place for both songs, but Caedmon's won a special place in my heart and my CD folder. They were singing about the very things I was passionate to know more about. When I met my wife, Caedmon's Call was a huge part of our time together. So much so that we named our first child Jesse Caedmon. (The name Caedmon has a very interesting story behind it as well. If you're into name meanings, check out the legend of the monk named Caedmon, who couldn't sing.)

My favorite Caedmon's Call song is a bit newer than the original pieces that made me fall in love with them. But the writing is amazing. The song communicates the truth that Christ is the only one to whom we can run when we are "laden with guilt and full of fears." The problems, questions, and hurts we have can only be overcome in this amazing relationship with Him. The speaker experiences intimacy with the Savior as she reads through the scriptures; a thing that I too have often experienced, enjoyed, and repeated.

So here are the lyrics to the whole song. It was written by Sandra McCracken and appears on Caedmon's Call's album "In the Company of Angels."

Laden with guilt and full of fears
I fly to Thee my Lord
And not a glimpse of hope appears
But in Thy written word
The volumes of my Father's grace
Does all my griefs assuage
Here I behold my Savior's face
In every page

This is the field where hidden lies
The pearl of price unknown
That merchant is divinely wise
Who makes the pearl his own
Here consecrated waters flow
To quench my thirst of sin
Here the fair tree of knowledge grown
No danger dwells within

This is the judge that ends the strife
Where wit and reason fail
My guide to everlasting life
Throughout this gloomy vale
O may Thy counsels, mighty God
My roving feet command
Nor I forsake the happy road
That leads to Thy right hand 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Prolegomena / Why I Write

I've got a lot of explaining to do.

Over the years, I've been a notorious critic of blogs and blogging in general. Why am I so harsh? Partially because we live in a world full of wannabe experts. If I google "upper respiratory infection," I want to know facts, not what someone's Aunt Bipsie mixed with turpentine to relieve a stubborn cough. I'm also probably a bit harsh because many people who are writing blogs aren't very good writers to begin with. These things frustrate me, but there is a greater reason for my negativity. The main reason I have been critical of blogs and bloggers is because of the endless stream of superficial subject matter. There is a blog of Kim Jong Il "looking at things." Seriously?!

So as I said before, I've got some explaining to do for creating a blog of my own. Here are three reasons this blog exists.

1. Over the last few years, I have discovered something quite strange about myself. I... like to... write. All the frustrations of the late-night, last-minute seminary papers couldn't dissuade me. I enjoy this. Something about organizing my thoughts, carefully selecting just the right word, and even trying to predict how the reader will react to what is communicated- all appeals to me.

2. I believe there are important things to write about. Of course, I am primarily concerned with issues regarding the Christian Faith: theology, ecclesiology, church history, exegetical study of the scriptures, and the like. But all of these topics also have application in our society. So there is room for occasional social commentary as well. I need to write on these issues, because I believe that the discussions of such topics matter- now as much as ever.

3. Print isn't what it used to be. When I brought up the idea of writing articles for the benefit of my church family and others, my colleagues laughed at the idea of doing so in old-fashioned print. They were convinced that I would pour out my heart and soul on a page that was destined for the bottom of the canary cage. They convinced me. I don't want to waste my time writing. I want maximum readership because there are important things to communicate and discuss. Good theology deserves better than the recycle bin. Church history wasn't intended to be used for windexing minivan windows. In the electronic age of writing, the reader selects, (hopefully) subscribes, and reads. There is no wasted distribution. I suppose I like that.

So, I've been won over. Here is my blog. My earnest prayer is that its content would be salt and light in a darkened world, and an encouragement and blessing to the follower of Christ.