Jay Kim Thinks...

Thoughts on God, faith, and other things

Dear Millennials

Dear Millennials.

In recent years, much has been made of your disenchantment of and mass exodus from the Christian church. Many of you have been labeled "none's" (those who mark "none" when asked about religious affiliation), while a growing number of you are now being called "done's" (those who were once involved in the life of the church but are now done with it and have no plans to return). Sermons have been preached, classes have been taught, books and blog posts have been written, all lamenting your departure from Christianity specifically and organized religion generally. The issues are many but they're almost always about what the church isn't.

The church isn't authentic enough.

The church isn't relevant enough.

The church isn't liturgical enough.

On and on and on. But I'm not buying it. I don't think you're leaving and staying away primarily because the church isn't a bunch of stuff you wish she was. No, I think that you are far too proactive and forward-thinking to care much about what something isn'tI think you're choosing to stay away not because the church is so disappointing but rather, because the other options of your life are that much more enticing, exciting, and fulfilling. And no, in my opinion, the two are not one and the same.

It's true that the church should certainly pursue deeper authenticity. But I think you're finding authenticity in more intimate settings. You and a few close friends over cups of coffee at your favorite cafe or a few pints at your favorite pub. No pretense, no frills, just good drink, good company, and good conversation about the really hard, really honest stuff of life.

It's true that the church should certainly desire to be relevant. But I think you're tapping into relevance all the time in all sorts of places, both strange and familiar. Culture, media, the arts, in pubs, museums, at the movies, on podcasts - they're all keeping you thinking, guessing, and wondering about what is and what might be to come. 

It's true that the church should certainly work toward rediscovering the beauty of our ancient liturgies. But originally the word liturgy meant a public work or the work of the people and the truth is, you're discovering the publicly shared work of brilliant, creative, innovative people all around you all the time. Their work is inspiring you, motivating and challenging you to offer your own unique work to the world.

So with all of that being said, the question remains. Why are Millennials leaving the church?

I'm sure the reasons are vast as each individual's story has its own set of particular circumstances and motivations. But I do believe that on the whole, the church today has tried so hard to be more authentic, more relevant, and even more liturgical in some cases, that we have forgotten to be the one thing I believe the church ought to be more than anything else.

PROPHETIC.

By prophetic I do not mean that the church should be in the business of foretelling the future. We have plenty of wannabes and phonies who do that work at the expense of, monetary and otherwise, people who are desperate to make some sense of their lives. By prophetic I mean something else completely. The theologian Walter Brueggemann describes the prophetic this way:

The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture.

I believe that the church ought to be about the work of speaking the loving, honest, mind-blowing word of hope that only God offers in the face of the dominant culture - a culture that lies to us by telling us that we can find hope elsewhere or that we can manufacture hope on our own.

Millennials, I believe you are leaving the church because we are failing to speak this prophetic word of hope into your beautifully authentic, relevant, work-of-the-people-inspired lives. I believe you are leaving the church because you want some help making sense of what all this authenticity, all this relevance, all this creative, innovative, transformative work you're doing is supposed to actually lead you to, how it's supposed to actually change you and your world. I believe you are leaving because you're looking for heaven-on-earth but the church, for far too long, has just looked like the rest of earth.

Here's my invitation. Come back. Jump in. Get your hands dirty with us. And let's dig into this prophetic work together, helping usher authenticity into transformation, relevance into truth, liturgy into transcendent, heaven-on-earth beauty.



To All Who Are Waiting And Hurting

Sunday is Mother's Day and this year will be unlike any other before it for our family. Last week Jenny gave birth to our first child, a little girl named Harper. Words fall short so I won't try to describe what it's been like to have her with us, other than to say that it's been truly amazing. This has all been a long while coming. For years, Mother's Days were difficult as Jenny and I struggled with the pain of infertility. The constant disappointment, the sense that we were failing somehow, the fear that we'd never be parents - these emotional mountains we had to climb on a daily basis were amplified to almost unbearable degrees on Mother's Day.

Bitterness and resentment took root in me. I started to think that my friends who were able to have kids without any issues had received some sort of special preference from God. In my mind I knew that this was theologically out of sorts and understood that God didn't operate this way. But viscerally I felt rejected and denied. I'd jump on facebook from time to time and be bombarded by a constant stream of baby announcements and baby pictures and updates and on and on. Nobody was trying to mock or ridicule or hurt us but it felt that way sometimes. Now I'm on the other side, flooding my social media streams with blog posts about our baby, pictures of her nursery, and tweets about the cost of diapers. I half-jokingly complain about the lack of sleep but many friends living daily in the agonizing hurt of waiting would gladly trade any amount of sleep to be parents. 

The distance between our desires and God's good gifts is often far and wide. At times, when we stand on the edge of the near side of this chasm, we look across to the other side and wonder why God wouldn't bridge the gap. We wonder if he's good. We wonder if he cares. We wonder if he's capable. Even worse, sometimes our friends are standing on the far side, enjoying some of these very gifts we've desired for so long. What are we to make of this? Does God arbitrarily pick and choose who gets what? Well meaning people will tell you from time to time, in a moment of irresponsible care and concern, that in due time, if you simply continue to pray, trust, and surrender, God will bless you with the desires of your heart. This idea is dangerous for a couple of reasons. One, it assumes that receiving God's blessing is somehow tied to our spiritual output or fervor or performance. Two, it assumes that God's blessing looks exactly like our deepest desires. The first is unbiblical. The second is rarely true. And often, these well intentioned people who say these sorts of things are standing on the other side, having already received the gift we ourselves so desperately desire. I'm not pointing any fingers here. I'm certain I've been this person in all sorts of ways, both knowingly and unknowingly. 

And so, to all who are waiting and hurting, I want to say I'm sorry. While I do not know your exact pain, I do know your pain in general. I don't know why some receive certain things and others don't. I don't have a theology for why, when, and how God gives what he gives and doesn't give what he doesn't give. I'm uncertain about the future, both yours and mine; what we will and will not receive. I want so desperately to tell you that if you just hang on, that if you just simply continue to pray, trust, and surrender, you'll receive what you so deeply desire. But I won't because I don't know that you will. 

Here is what I will say to you instead. You are not the sum of your gifts. Your worth is not in any way tied up in the life you've crafted for yourself or the one you think God owes you. But God does see your waiting and knows your hurt. He hurts with you. It doesn't mean that he will give you what you want in order to alleviate your hurt because, ultimately, that isn't his primary concern. God's primary concern is that through all things, even the waiting and the hurt, he might draw you closer and help you see and experience the fullness of his unfolding story, both in your life and in our world. So as you wait and as you hurt, remember that God sees you. God loves you. He has not left you. He has a brighter future for you than any you could possibly imagine or fashion for yourself.




Surprised By Rescue

I had a really dark dream a couple of nights ago. Literally dark. I was under water in the pitch black night. I knew instinctively that I was out in the middle of the ocean, alone, drowning in the darkness. I can remember feeling certain about death. There was nothing I could do. Even still, I tried calling out for help but I'd been rendered mute by the midnight sea. Then suddenly, I was surprised by rescue. I felt it gently on my cheek. The warmth of a soft familiar hand filled my lungs with breath and turned the cold killing waters into the comforting warmth of our bed, our home, and our joy.

As I'd been drowning in my sleep, Jenny lay beside me in bed, listening with concern as I murmured and whimpered along. She placed her hand on my face and asked if I was OK. And then I was.

I've found in my experience that rescue often surprises us. In particular, God's rescue is almost always surprising. Exclusively so, even. It comes unexpectedly, in counterintuitive, illogical, implausible ways. The Bible is rife with such stories.  

For over four centuries the Israelites have been slaves in Egypt, bricks in their calloused hands, whips at their tender backs. They're waiting for God to show up on the scene, to topple Pharaoh's empire and plunder his armies, and to lead them into a land flowing with goodness and hope. Instead, God sends an Egyptian reject, a man who once ruled over them, called their very oppressors family, and has since been banished from the land.

King Saul and his troops stand on a hill and tremble as they look down at the valley where a giant named Goliath taunts them to send their best to fight. They're waiting for a hero strong enough and fierce enough to be their giant killer. Instead, God sends a prepubescent shepherd boy whose only reason for being there was to deliver lunch. The armor doesn't fit his spindly preteen frame so all he takes is his sling and a few smooth stones from the river.

Elijah is on the run. A powerful woman named Jezebel has called for his head and he fears for his life. He is afraid and alone. He retreats into the wilderness where God meets him. Elijah's situation is dire and he needs God to make a big move. Indeed, big moves come, one after another. A great wind tears the mountains apart. An earthquake shakes the ground. A fire consumes the land. But God isn't in any of it. Instead, God speaks to Elijah in a gentle whisper.

The people of God are awaiting a Messiah who will come and free them from the tyranny of an empire called Rome. Rome rules with sword and spear and so they expect their Messiah to arrive with enough military might to vanquish the enemy. Instead, the Messiah is born into a peasant family and spends his time teaching, feeding, and healing. Eventually, the Messiah dies a criminal's death on a Roman cross, defeated by those he came to defeat. But the story takes a turn three days later and, surprise of all surprises, the Messiah defeats something far greater than Rome - death itself.

Life has a tendency to take some ugly turns and we regularly find ourselves in need of rescue. There are moments when we come to the absolute end of ourselves, realizing that we'll be unable to see ourselves through. These moments feel like we're drowning out at sea, alone and afraid, looking up at the pitch black night through the water glass keeping us from breathing. But even there, in the cold dark sea of your despair, rescue is coming. It may not be what you expect but it will be exactly what you need because when it's God doing the rescuing, even the gentle touch of his hand upon your cheek is strong enough to fill your lungs with breath and turn the cold killing waters of your pain into the comforting warmth of new life. 






Lamaze Theology

A few weeks ago, Jenny and I attended our first lamaze class. The entire thing was a perfect balance between quite helpful and exceptionally ridiculous. There were a few moments we had to fight hard not to laugh out loud. The room was set with the lights dimmed down, fake candles lit, and new age music softly filling the room. The low point (or high point, depending on how you look at it) came when the instructor asked us to gaze lovingly into our partner's eyes and begin massaging their head. Jenny hates being touched on her head and I'm terrible at giving massages. We couldn't stop laughing. We annoyed the handful of couples who were taking it all way too seriously. You know the ones I'm talking about. 

But our amusement was interrupted with one profound moment. About halfway into the class the lamaze instructor said this about the birth process [a loose paraphrase]:

There is a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is your ally. Pain reminds you that you're alive, that your body is doing its work, and that new life is on the way. Suffering has no meaning, no purpose. When you give birth, you will feel pain. But we will make sure that you do not suffer.

Her words reminded me of Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search For Meaning. In it he writes this:

Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose. [...] In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

I don't know what sort of pain you've experienced in your life. But if you're human, you've known pain. You've known the pain of betrayal, regret, guilt, shame, sickness, death and on and on. And when left alone, when our pain is left to linger there, detached from any sort of meaning or purpose, it soon becomes suffering. But you don't have to suffer any more. Your life has meaning and purpose, whether you know it or not. And you're not alone. All of us who live here in this reality we call human existence, along with all of creation, are with you. The writer Paul reminds us of this truth in Romans 8v22-25 [The Message paraphrase]:

All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

So no matter what you're going through, no matter how much it hurts, how impossible it seems, how immense and enormous the pain may feel, remember that the pain is enlarging you. The pain is your ally. The pain reminds you that you're alive, your soul is doing its work, and new life is on the way. Your life has meaning and purpose far greater than the pain you feel now, the pain which will eventually pass. Remember that the longer you wait, the larger you become, and the more joyful your expectancy will be.

Ignoring The Holy Spirit

Easter was great. It's always great. But today is Wednesday and Easter, just a few days in the rear view, already feels like a distant memory. So what comes after Easter? The opening chapters of Acts tell us:

After his suffering, [Jesus] presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." - Acts 1v3-5

They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit- Acts 2v3-4a

What happens after Easter? The Holy Spirit happens. And this used to make me uneasy.

First, a bit of personal background. I grew up in a conservative Baptist church and during my formative teenage years, I was firmly entrenched in 90s church youth group subculture. Acquire the Fire and True Love Waits conferences, Vineyard worship songs, DC Talk concerts, the whole nine yards. I played Demon #2 in our youth group's stirring rendition of Carman's The Champion. I was bought in, or, as one of our camps was aptly themed, I was completely souled out. Classic, right?

But there was also something quite non-conservative about our conservative little youth group. My freshman year, a few families from a Pentecostal church in town left their church and began attending our place. Their kids were about my age and really cool, really popular, and really really charismatic. The first night these kids were at our youth group gathering, during worship, with the lights dimmed down and one of those really emo Brian Doerksen songs being sung by the pubescent masses, one of the kids started speaking in tongues. It was loud enough to hear over the music. Then another one joined in. Soon, four or five of these new kids were all speaking out loud, fanatically, in their own unique tongues. Chaos ensued. The rest of us didn't know what to do or how to respond. And this moment changed everything.

Within months, speaking in tongues became the norm.* No one ever interpreted a single word. And every tongue was what they called a heavenly tongue, meaning it sounded like gibberish to the rest of us. It was never Korean or Spanish or Dutch or Farsi. Always just heavenly. And because it was heavenly, there was no questioning it. When asked about it, the kids who spoke in tongues would uniformly reply, "It's just the Holy Spirit. We have the Holy Spirit." This bothered me. It bothered me bad. What were they saying? That because I didn't or couldn't speak in tongues, somehow I didn't have the Holy Spirit? This left a terribly bitter taste in my mouth in regards to the Holy Spirit. I began to believe that God the Father loved me, Jesus the Son was my closest friend, but the Holy Spirit was choosy and had not chosen me. I began to resent the Holy Spirit.

Fast forward a few years. I walked away from God, the church, and a life of faith for a short time in college for all sorts of angsty reasons. But when I returned, I returned by way of the mind. I began reading books written by brilliant men and women who also happened to love Jesus. The idea that one could be a thoughtful Christian drew me back in. That was about 15 years ago. But in just the last few months I've come to the surprising realization that I left the Holy Spirit at the door of faith when I walked back through. I've given him plenty of lip service over the years. I've attributed profound moments to him. I've sung songs about him. I've talked about him and taught about him and written about him. But truth be told, I've largely ignored him in my day to day interactions with the Three-In-One God. I've ignored him because I've assumed him to be that choosy part of the Trinity I remember from high school, the one who didn't give me the gift everyone else seemed to receive. But I've been wrong. The Holy Spirit isn't a pretentious, selective elitist who arbitrarily bestows certain gifts on people he likes better than others. No, the Holy Spirit is most interested in something else altogether.

           Credit: Casa Editrice Mistretta, Palermo, Italy

           Credit: Casa Editrice Mistretta, Palermo, Italy

Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." - Mark 1v9-11

At the time when Mark wrote his Gospel, Jewish rabbis would regularly translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Aramaic forms called Targums. These were the most commonly heard and read versions by the Jews at the time because Aramaic was the common language of the day. In the Targums, there is only one place where the Spirit of God is likened to a dove. It's found in Genesis 1v2, which we read in English this way: Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. The Hebrew word for hover here means to flutter, like the wings of a bird flutter in flight. So the rabbis translated Genesis 1v2 this way in the Targums: And the earth was without form and empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttered above the face of the waters like a dove.

Tim Keller explains the connection this way: There are three active parties in the creation of the world: God, God's Spirit, and God's Word, through which he creates. The same three parties are present at Jesus's baptism: the Father, who is the voice; the Son, who is the Word; and the Spirit fluttering like a dove. Mark is deliberately pointing us back to the creation, to the very beginning of history. Just as the original creation of the world was a project of the triune God, Mark says, so the redemption of the world, the rescue and renewal of all things that is beginning now with the arrival of the King, is also a project of the triune God. [The King's Cross, p.5]

I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe he is at work here and now, in our world and in our time. I believe that he is with us and in us and actively moving and working through us for the purpose of helping us to participate in God's redemptive work of rescuing and renewing the world.

I believe that the Holy Spirit convicts because in God's good new world there is no more deception.

I believe that the Holy Spirit heals the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the sick because in God's good new world everyone can see, hear, and run. In God's good new world everyone is whole.

I believe that the Holy Spirit resurrects the dead because in God's good new world there is no more death.

So, what comes after Easter? The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes to continue the work of bringing to bear God's good new world that was inaugurated in and through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Easter is just the first word, friends, not the last. Easter is the beginning, not the end. Easter is the initial glimpse, not the whole picture. And the Holy Spirit is here, fluttering over our dark world like a dove, ushering in that which Christ began on Sunday morning. 

 

*Let me be clear: I believe and affirm all the gifts of the Spirit, including the gift of tongues. I believe that every genuine tongue ("glossa" in the Greek; a better translation might be "language") given as a gift of the Holy Spirit has meaning and purpose and reason. But I also believe that the gift is a gift to be shared between the receiver and the Spirit, and only between them, unless there is a means for interpretation. I arrive at this understanding for a number of reasons but primarily because of what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14v1-25.