Places to go, books to read

So, back at the turn of the year, I thought I would do a bunch of blogs on stuff I liked in 2017. Now that we’re more than halfway through the 2nd month of 2018, I am woefully behind. But because this stuff doesn’t have an expiration date, here’s some more stuff I enjoyed in 2017.

Places I visited last year:

  1. New River, West Virginia. Rafting the New River was one of the best things we did as a family in 2017. My next goal is to tackle the more difficult Gauley River before I’m too old to hold a paddle.
  2. Eagle Falls, Kentucky. Located just down-river from the way-more-popular Cumberland Falls, Eagle Falls has a similarly deep waterfall, without all the visitors and the guardrails. If I get back to Cumberland Falls State Park, my first priority won’t be Cumberland, but Eagle — with a goal of going during the summer so I can swim up to Eagle Falls.
  3. Cabins with friends & family. There’s something about spending time at a cabin by the water that helps put everyday life on a needful pause, even if for just 24 hours.
  4. Fred Howard Park, Florida. This fall, I enjoyed time with my wife at this public park on the Gulf Coast. I even did a bit of snorkeling — one of my all-time favorite activities.
  5. Fritz’s Frozen Custard, Missouri. On any trip to the St. Louis area, you need to go to either Fritz’s or Ted Drewes. My family has something of a running debate over which of these 2 has the best custard, but I don’t think you can go wrong with either one of them. If you want history and nostalgia, go to Ted Drewes. If you want good custard and don’t want to look like a tourist, go to Fritz’s. Or, cover your bases and go to both.
  6. World War 1 Museum, Missouri. This museum in Kansas City helps make WW1 real, with all of war’s death, destruction, and evil. Visiting this museum — and then watching Ken Burns’s series on World War 2 — reminds me how even the winners of war face terrible losses.

Also, in 2017, I read some books that I would recommend. If you’re a reader, pick these up. If you’re a thoughtful reader, buy these. If you don’t read, find someone to read these to you:

  1. Daniel Taylor, The Skeptical Believer. Perhaps the best treatment I have ever read on faith, doubt, and the honest search for truth. Taylor writes as a believer in an age when faith is increasingly marginalized and mocked. Taylor honestly wrestles with reasons to disbelieve, and doesn’t offer 4 simple steps to know that everything you know is absolutely certain. Instead, he does something better: he takes a look at the options, and suggests a way forward that deals with the reality that any choice a person makes is ultimately a step of faith.
  2. Randolph Richards & Brandon O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. Great insight into how we can read the Bible through a different mindset, one more in tune with its origins in the Mid/Eastern world. Just one example: Richards served as a missionary in Indonesia, where he learned that Sunday worship started at “midday” (siang). Being a westerner, Richards tried to tie that to a time on his wristwatch, but his Indonesian friends didn’t think of it that way. He finally came to learn that ‘siang’ was connected to temperature, not time. Once the morning turns hot, it becomes ‘siang’. But, he wonders: “How do you start church at ‘hot’?” In short, relationships trump schedules – the opposite of how we do it in the west.
  3. Alan Jacobs, How to Think. A much-needed rebuke of the current tendency to listen only to people we agree with — and to ostracize those we don’t. Jacobs gives a simple, yet challenging, call to listen and think better.
  4. N.T. Wright, The New Testament & the People of God. A thorough examination of the background of the NT, and how we should read it. Has reshaped my understanding of the story of God. Wright is an indispensable thinker and writer that every thinking Christian ought to know. (If this book is too long for you, he has plenty of other shorter, more accessible works, like: Surprised by Hope, and Simply Christian.)
  5. Shushaku Endo, Silence. Powerful fictional account of how far faith can take us, and how deeply challenging it can be to know what faithfulness looks like. The movie version that recently came out is equally good.
  6. Gerald Sittser, A Grace Disguised. An easy-to-read, but hard-to-forget book on grief, loss, and moving on. I would recommend this book to anyone who has faced loss of any kind — written by a man who has been there.
  7. Brene Brown, Rising Strong. A friend recommended this to me, and while not everything in it stuck with me, this definitely did: her insight that, by-and-large, people are doing the best they can, and so we’ve got to offer grace. At the same time, this doesn’t mean we accept everything they do. We’ve also got to establish healthy boundaries. It seems to me this is where we should meet everyone we encounter: at the intersection of grace and boundaries.
  8. Walter Wangerin, Paul. An account of the Apostle Paul and the early church that just rings true. Wangerin writes fiction that is deeply rooted in truth.
  9. Andy Crouch, Strong & Weak. Leadership is rooted in authority and vulnerability, Crouch writes. A true leader has to have both. I’m convinced he’s right.
  10. Henri Nouwen, Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective. Rooted in John 15, this short book is rich with insight into how God calls us into intimacy, fruitfulness, and joy. A wonderful read, along with just about everything Nouwen wrote. Hardly anything he wrote was over 100 pages, but it’s amazing the spiritual insight and wisdom this man packed into the pages he wrote — as well as the life he lived.

Is Faith on the Decline in the U.S.? Yes … and no

Courtesty of Ross Douthat’s column (well worth a read, by the way), I came across this fascinating study. It contends that religious faith is not diminishing in the U.S. — rather, it’s nominal faith that is on the decline. The authors contend that it is those who loosely hold to their beliefs that are increasingly letting go of the traditional ways of expressing their faith.

Their first piece of evidence: a chart that shows that the percentage has remained essentially unchanged of those who have a “strong affiliation” to their faith — it has hovered around 40% for the past 25 years. During that same period of time, those who don’t have a strong affiliation have dropped from the mid-50s to just above 40%. And those who claim no affiliation has doubled in 25 years.

Likewise, church attendance is dropping among those who “attend sometimes.” Those who claim to “never attend” a church service now is a group that includes more than 20% of the population. But those who attend multiple times a week — while it is a small percentage of the population — is a line on the graph as straight as the lives of the people it represents.

And there are many more insights in the article. Take a look for yourself. It’s well worth it — even if only to look at the charts and what they represent.

And what they represent is fascinating. Yes, religious commitment in the U.S. is diminishing. But it is diminishing among those who are loosely affiliated, not among those who have a strong connection to their faith.

What can this teach those of us who would consider ourselves in the “strong commitment” category? For one (as the authors of the study themselves point out): We are increasingly preaching to the choir. We should expect that, as a general rule, fewer and fewer people in our culture who are not connected to church will consider giving church a chance. For most congregations, the “seeker movement” is over. Or probably should be. If you’re trying to keep your church on the cutting edge, you may only be reaching the religiously-interested-but-disconnected hipster; you’re probably not reaching the not-interested-thank-you hipster.

Which means, of course, that we need to increasingly find ways to engage others on their turf. We should not expect the “not-interested” crowd to come to us; we’ve got to go to them. Which, come to think of it, we should have been doing all along.

I was recently at a Bible study where I was told that one of its newest participants was a teacher, and had gotten connected because their church was so faithful to volunteer at her school. Bonnie noticed (not her real name), and the church’s love and concern for her kids reached her, and she began attending church. She then volunteered for the church’s weekend cafe, and had recently began participating in this small group.

Even though for 5 years now Bonnie has been in what this study would call the “strong affiliation” category — she still is figuring this faith-thing out. One of the passages we read that night at the study was from 1 John. Bonnie had prepared that week, and so had read it. Or thought she had; but instead of reading 1 John, she read from the Gospel of John. When she found that out, she said to all of us: You mean there’s more than one John? D–n! Later, the leader had us turn to Romans, and Bonnie asked, slyly but honestly, Is there more than one Romans?

As our society becomes increasingly secularized, those of us who have been around church for a long time need to extend plenty of grace to those who haven’t. Those who do get connected to church are going to come knowing a lot less about Bible and faith and God. Which to me means that if the Church is going to reach folks outside of the strongly committed segment, we are going to have to ramp up our discipleship and teaching ministries. The days of “feel-good” sermons and “fun-and-games” youth ministry are over. The next generation of believers is going to need much more than that.

And one more thought: We in the Church must first be known for what we are for, not for what we are against. If we are going to reach people with the love of Jesus, then we are going to have to lead with the love of Jesus. I mean: isn’t that what Jesus did? I find it immensely fascinating and instructive that the kinds of people Jesus ticked off were the kinds of people we often try to assuage. And the kinds of people Jesus went out of his way to engage, we often try to avoid. (For example, see Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown in Luke 4; or the next chapter in Luke, where Jesus heals a guy who can’t walk and gets into a row with some religious types; or the next chapter, where those same folks protest the timing of Jesus’ healings; or the next chapter where Jesus heals the kid of a hated occupier, and then lauds his faith; or the next chapter, where Jesus heals a demonized Gentile pagan, and then sends him out as one of the first missionaries. And that’s just 5 chapters in just one of the four gospels. If you need more examples of the ways Jesus interacted with the kinds of people we avoid, and avoided the kinds of people we tend to interact with, keep reading. There’s plenty more material.)

None of this is about criticizing the church, or those who work in it. I deeply value those who give themselves fully to lead and love others. It’s hard work. There are no easy answers. I know. I’ve been there, and I have the t-shirt to prove it (a bunch, in fact).

But it’s time for those of us who are strongly connected to church and faith — for those of who are serious about the call of walking in the way of Jesus — to find ways of engaging a culture that increasingly doesn’t care, and doesn’t know why it should. And it probably will be less about what we do on Sunday mornings, and more about what we do the rest of the week.

You think?

I used to enjoy watching those political debate shows on television. You know the kind; the ones where they line up people on the right and the left (literally and politically), and they proceed to yell at, through, and around each other. For some reason, I used to enjoy that kind of stuff.

Not so much, anymore. Perhaps because I’m getting older. Perhaps because I’m less strident than I used to be. Perhaps because I have experienced enough angry people in real life that I’d rather not sit and watch them on TV, too.

But this week, I found another reason why I no longer enjoy people getting whipped up into a righteous lather: because it doesn’t work. Rare is the person who changes a position on something by being tongue-lashed into it.

I was reminded of this truth by a helpful new book: How to Think by Alan Jacobs, a Christian intellectual (and yes, those 2 words can go together, despite what some intellectuals think, and despite what some Christians think). Jacobs challenges us to actually stop and think about thinking; because, in fact, often that’s not what we do. Often, when we hear something we disagree with: we react; we assume; we pigeon-hole; we rely on categories and catchwords. In short, we do anything but think. Therefore, debates, whether they are on television or simply happen in the classroom or the cubicle, are often about anything but thinking; they are about winning.

In this vein, Jacobs describes how debates happen in the Political Union, a debating society at Yale University. There, the goal is to win, yes; but not by “scoring points.” Instead, the goal is to win someone over to your position. But that’s only one of the goals. There’s a second one: to be won over. That’s right: a debate where you win when you win, but where you also win when you lose.

The first win is described as “breaking someone on the floor” – where you change someone’s mind in the middle of the debate, right there in front of everyone. But the second win also involves a change of mind — yours. This is called “being broken on the floor” — where you are the one who changes your mind, out in the open, for everyone to see.

When members of the Yale Political Union are interviewed as potential society leaders, they are expected to have experience with both kinds of “wins” – changing someone’s mind, and changing their own. For, as a member of the YPU points out: Who, exactly, has perfect political and ethical ideas? Who among us, whatever age or education, knows everything about everything? In other words, why, when faced with truth, should we, unthinkingly, continue to hold onto error?

All of this came to mind today after I happened to watch the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” It’s well worth watching, though it deals with some heavy stuff. (In fact, just a heads-up: if you watch this movie, it will wreck you. At least it did me.)

The movie tells the story of two boys in World War 2 who happen to be on opposite sides of the fence. Literally. Bruno’s father is the commandant of a concentration camp. Shmuel is a boy on the other side of the wire; a Jewish prisoner in that camp. As the movie unfolds, Bruno and his family slowly learn what the camp is all about. Told that Jews are the enemy and that the camp is a legitimate part of the war effort, Bruno has to learn to face the truth as it comes at him in real and personal ways.

In other words, Bruno has to learn how to think. Not take what he’s heard; not simply swallow what he’s told. Bruno grows up as he learns to face what is — and think about what it all means.

Bruno’s naivete and innocence isn’t surprising; after all, he’s only 8. The same can’t be said for the German Church during the same period. History has documented for us how timid and unthinking the Church was in the face of Hitler’s rise. According to James & Marti Hefley, as Hitler’s Nazi Party rode roughshod over his parliamentary opposition, a group of German Christian leaders proclaimed, “We German Protestant Christians accept the saving of our nation by our leader Adolf Hitler as a gift from God’s hand.” They affirmed “unanimously our unlimited fealty to the Third Reich and its leader.” By 1936, even leaders of the “Confessing Church” (congregations who saw some of the wrongs being done) did not protest the requirement that German citizens take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and nothing was said about the increased discrimination against the Jews.

In other words, not thinking is dangerous. Only watching our favorite network is not thinking. Only listening to those we agree with is not thinking. Accepting the party line of our favorite politician or political party is not thinking. Accepting the spin by our favorite commentator, or even our favorite TV preacher, is not thinking.

In fact, I think that those who believe in truth — Big Picture Truth, what we might call “capital-T Truth” — should be the last ones to swallow the lines we are handed by those who have microphones, and instead should be the first to ask: But is that True?

We should do the hard work of listening and learning — as we seek out the Truth that is real, lasting, and available for all of us who are willing to really think about Truth.

Because here’s the thing: Truth never justs stays in your head. It gets lived out. Truth never just shapes how you think; it also changes how you live.

So, how are you living? It’s probably in direct relationship to how you’re thinking.