Saturday, January 26, 2013

Teaching Character Traits [A Self Salvation Project] Part 2

(Part 2 of a 3 part post on Teaching Character Traits. Read Part 1)

Is It As Bad As It Was?

Could it be that one of the reasons we focus on character in our culture today is the belief that we are headed for disaster because of the epidemic immorality and shameful character displayed in our generation and the generations coming up behind us? Have we fallen for the lie that says we are worse off now than we've ever been? Are we witnessing a kind of backlash and hysteria that this kind of thinking creates - in education, in politics, and in evangelical Christianity? I would answer yes.

I am certainly not an expert in this area, but I look around and see that there is a strong commitment in our culture to moral and character education because our society believes morality and character is sorely lacking these days. I am not convinced however, that it is any worse than history reflects. Again, I'm not an expert or a historian, but it wouldn't take long to look back over time and see the truth about our moral climate.

However, we don't typically consider the past. We rush to demonize today and romanticize yesterday. The truth is that moral decay and cultural and human atrocities have been around since the beginning of mankind. It doesn't take long after the fall in the garden of Eden to see anger and murder played out. Cain, Adam's son no less, killed his own brother. It doesn't get any better from there, only worse. The bible is full of immorality and questionable character on the part of God's people. Fast forward several centuries and we read about wicked roman emperors beheading innocent victims.
Nero (ruled from A.D. 54-68) ordered the slaughter of Christians. Among them, according to tradition, were the apostles Peter and Paul. Christians, wrote Tacitus, "were nailed on crosses...sewn up in the skins of wild beasts, and exposed to the fury of dogs; others again, smeared over with combustible materials, were used as torches to illuminate the night.
Caligula (born A.D. 12, ruled A.D. 37-41) had a great passion for women, gladiator games, chariot racing, theatrical performances and ships. He liked to watch people be tortured and executed and murdered his brother along with countless others. He lasted only four years in power before he was assassinated. According to Suetonius in Lives of Twelve Caesars Caligula invited a crowd to the dedication of a bridge and then had them all pushed in the water so he could watch them drown.
Tiberus (ruled from A.D. 14-37) was known for hedonism, decadence and cruelty.
An accounting of more recent moral failure was compiled by author Matthew White. One hundred of the worst human atrocities (by death toll) includes these top ten:
1. World War II (Worldwide 1939-45)
2. Genghis Khan (Asia 1206-27)
3. Mao Zedong (China 1949-75)
4. British India Famines (1769, 1876, 1896, 1943)
5. Fall of the Ming Dynasty (China 1635-62)
6. Taiping Rebellion (China 1850-64)
7. Stalin (Soviet Union 1928-53)
8. Mideast Slave Trade (ca. 700-1900)
9. Tamerlane (Central Asia 1370-1405)
10. Atlantic Slave Trade (1452-1807) 
I could go on, but if you took some time to read the history you would find that throughout the centuries we see example after example of character and moral deficiencies in the culture. When we forget that truth, we look around and surmise that the culture is currently as bad as it's ever been. That is just not true.

Why is all this significant in a discussion about parenting and teaching our children character traits? One reason is that it drives our often times frantic and frenzied approach to producing children that will be strong in character and grow up to be morally upstanding citizens. We believe that we bear the heavy responsibility of changing the cultural tide of immorality by training our children according to a certain set of character standards. We also wrongly assume that character training alone will produce "good" children and guarantee "success" in adulthood. In effect, we have high hopes that the character of our children will in essence save them. As Christians raising children, this self salvation project is dangerous. I'll discuss why in my final post of this series tomorrow.

Finally, consider all of the character education emphasis in our culture today and then consider the violence in schools, malls and theaters across the country. At some point we have to ask the question - is it working?

Have we succeeded in producing conformity yet overlooked true heart change? Have we accomplished a consensus on the "rightness" of good character, and yet neglected to acknowledge the truth that " no one is righteous"?

Is there something that counts more than character?

My final post tomorrow will provide a simple illustration of pointing to Christ vs. training in character, and a brief discussion on the danger of placing our hopes in character development.

*please don't hear me saying character development and training are bad things. Teaching your kids about honesty and kindness are valuable. The problem comes when we put them at the top of our parenting priorities as Christians, believing we have completed our parenting responsibilities when our children display the character standards we've set.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Teaching Character Traits [A Self-Salvation Project] Part 1

(Part 1 of a 3 part post on Teaching Character Traits)

I read an article about parenting recently and I thought it would be an encouraging word to moms and dads who are overwhelmed by the day to day challenges of raising children. The thrust of the article was "it's worth it". All of the chaos is well worth these precious ones.

It's true, it is worth it, and more.

As I continued reading, the encouragement I initially felt dissipated into despair as the article turned into nothing more than an exhortation to persevere in developing godly character in my child. I have posted about moralistic parenting here and here so I was hesitant to venture out again on the same topic. In both posts I discussed "why" and "how" parenting in order to produce moral children is misguided and dangerous. Rather than repeating myself, I will comment instead (in three posts) on the "what" of character training in our culture today, the romanticism with which we tend to view morality in our history, and then end with a simple illustration of pointing to Christ vs. training in character.

Merriam Webster defines character as:

conduct that conforms to an accepted standard of right and wrong
Synonyms: character, decency, goodness, honesty,integrity, probity, rectitude, righteousness, rightness,uprightness, virtue, virtuousness

Character is simply those actions that meet the requirements of a standard of right and wrong. The standard can vary depending on who constructs the list. For example, our county public school system developed a character program district wide. With public input they determined the standards:

After extensive public involvement, the School Board of Broward County, Florida has adopted eight character traits that will be infused throughout our curriculum and student activities: Cooperation (September), Responsibility (October), Citizenship (November), Kindness (December), Respect (January), Honesty (February), Self-control (March), Tolerance (April).

Good Character: It's not just for school-
In order for the District to be successful in its efforts, we need the help and cooperation from the entire community. The following are some tips for businesses to help their employees model the same Character Traits Broward's public school students model.
It's not just public schools. The business world is focusing on character in the workplace. Sports organizations highlight character in their training, and everything from Girl Scouts to prison reform echo similar programs. It's not a bad thing.
The troubling aspect of all of this is how it's seeped into our Christian culture. We have taken up that mantle in our Christian community and in our Christian schools. This excerpt is taken from a large Christian school's admission welcome message:
Coming alongside the Christian family, we provide an atmosphere where students are challenged to further refine their pursuit of godly character within their families, churches, schools, and communities. This godly character is the foundation our students build upon as they advance in the call God places on their lives. (italics added)
This message is offered as a Christian conference resource:
God calls us to the ministry of character development in our children, and honors us with the position of a constant trainer in their lives (“Train up a child in the way he should go . . .”). Through your ministry, you get to pass on to the next generation all the values you treasure most: love, faithfulness, sacrifice, honesty, generosity, self-control.
You have received this commission from God. As a mother, your privilege is to teach your children how to respect their daddy and be kind to their siblings; how to choose good nutrition and wholesome entertainment; why they should value courtesy and orderliness; and which causes are worthy of their efforts, their reputations, and even their very blood.
And this article came up when I searched Google for "character development in the bible":
We are to become perfect. And with God's help, we can. When we sin, it is because we are not as close to God as we should have been. And, perhaps, because our will has not yet reached perfection, either. But that is what character development is all about.
Just in these few examples alone we can see the slippery slope we're on. Character development and training has become a foundational part of our culture. It makes sense, it resonates with us and it promises to be the solution to a society many believe is headed for self-destruction. We may smirk at the comment above pointing to character development as a path to perfection, but I think a part of us really believes that it is true. If we can just get our kids to behave they will receive all the promises of "a good life" because of their "goodness" to others. The bonus? It reflects well on us as parents.

One more example:

As you read this, have your radar up for 1. The biblical untruths you find, and, 2. The crushing demands of this seemingly harmless rhyme.
Christian Character ABCs
A is for alertness, being careful to see
Things which could hurt others, and which might tempt me.
B is for benevolence when the things that I do
Are for the good of others, and to God's Word I'm true.
C is for courage to do what is right,
When in trials we walk by faith, not by sight.
D is for diligence, when I work with a will,
And if the job is not done yet, I keep working still.
E is for endurance, with my eyes fixed on Him,
And the joy set before me, my resolve must never dim.
F is for faithfulness, when I do heartily
All the good in my power, which God has for me.
G is for gratefulness, not forgetting the ways,
In which God has done good to me all of my days.
H is for honesty, saying only what is true,
And not deceiving by the things that I do.
I is for integrity, when people can see,
Because my heart is sincere, that they can trust me.
J is for joy, that contentment of heart,
That comes from obeying and doing my part.
K is for kindness, when we are careful to treat,
As well-loved by our Father, all those whom we meet.
L is for love, when I'm patient and kind,
And do my best good for others each chance that I find.
M is for meekness when I take last place,
When I'd rather honor others than save my own face.
N is for neatness, keeping all that is mine,
From being a distraction and taking people's time.
O is for obedience, when Jesus is Lord,
And my life is all His, I obey all His Word.
P is for patience, when I'm willing to wait,
Because I have faith that God's timing's not late.
Q is for quietness when my heart is at peace,
It comes when my own wants and plans I release.
R is for resourcefulness, when I creatively use
What God has given me, contentment I choose.
S is for sincerity, when people can see,
That my motives are pure; I'm not living for me.
T is for temperance, when my senses don't reign,
As I enjoy in moderation God's blessings and gain.
U is for unity, when God's heart we share,
We serve Him together and each other's burdens bear.
V is for virtue when my life is a light,
Because obeying God's Word is my chief delight.
W is for wisdom, seeing things through God's eyes,
When I study God's Word, that's how I become wise.
X is for excellence in all that I do,
As unto the Lord, His own plans to pursue.
Y is for yielding to God's perfect will,
Giving up all my own plans, His plans to fulfill.
Z is for zeal, sincere eagerness to
Make life count for God's kingdom in all that I do.

What did you find as you read? I'd love your comments.

Part 2 tomorrow - Are Things As Bad As They Were? A Romantic View of Character and Morality in History.

Stay tuned for Part 3 - I'll wrap this series up with a simple illustration of pointing to Christ vs training in character and a biblical explanation of the danger of placing our hopes in character development.

*please don't hear me saying character development and training are bad things. Teaching your kids about honesty and kindness are valuable. The problem comes when we put them at the top of our parenting priorities as Christians, believing we have completed our parenting responsibilities when our children display the character standards we've set.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Four Gospel Truths We Get Wrong

We may sing "Jesus Paid It All", but we live as if we believe "God Exacts Paybacks".

I heard a woman today lament the fact that the rebellion of her son is just
payment for all of the sin
in her own life during her younger years.

Another woman steeped in guilt believes her
wrong choice led to a violent act against her 
and she is struggling under the weight of shame.

And another can't help but believe that consequences she is facing in her life right now are a result of
God's just punishment for her bad decisions.

Sadly, these women have a distorted view of who God is and what Jesus has done on behalf of sinners.

Gospel Truths We Get Wrong

1. Jesus Paid It All - We functionally get this wrong every time we "go back to Egypt" looking for what we thought was so great - turns out it is still just slavery! We enjoy the benefits of the gospel when things are going "well", but in the heat of the moment we fall back on our own frail and faltering abilities.

2.  It is Finished - While we may believe Jesus paid it all, we don't believe his death on the cross keeps paying it all. What I mean is, we believe Jesus paid it all for our salvation, but we think there is somehow atonement to be made for our ongoing sins and work to be done for our ongoing sanctification. We acknowledge that there is a debt to be paid, but we forget it's not ours to pay. Jesus finished it at the cross.

3. The story-line of the bible is Jesus - Everything points to him. We forget that the entire bible points to one story, one man, Jesus Christ. We take verses out of context and whole books of the bible out of The Story. We [wrongly] believe that the sins of our fathers count against us now. Yes, the sins of one person need to be paid for by someone else - that someone was Jesus.

4.  God loves us and in Christ he can NEVER not love us. We [wrongly] believe that all the bad stuff that is happening now is the direct result of God's just wrath and his punishment for all the wrong we have done. We falsely believe God is after us and looking to exact a payback for all of our wrongdoing. We so easily forget that because of what Christ has done on our behalf, God loves us - forever, finally, and fully. Yes, his just wrath deserved payment, but Jesus Christ paid it in full at the cross.

Viewing our sin and our sufferings through a wrong lens will always leave us with a distorted view and a crushed spirit. Knowing the truth about Jesus and all he came to accomplish on our behalf is a radical lens adjuster!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

High Jumping

My Pastor is preaching a short series on how the gospel compels our sacrificial and spontaneous service. You can watch it here. I have been rolling this around in my mind all week and thinking quite a bit about how this plays out in my own life. While I agree wholeheartedly that only grace compels true sacrificial and spontaneous service, this truth has left me with one nagging and embarrassing question.

Can I clear the bar?

You see, I work in ministry. I love my job because I get to work at the church I worship at and adore. I labor alongside amazing people and I often marvel at what I get to do every day. But, I get paid for it. Yes, I sincerely love what I do but I also receive a check every two weeks and that money helps to put food on our table and money in the bank. Here is where it gets sticky. I am constantly asking myself; is this enough?

Is it enough to "serve" in my job, or, is there something else I should be doing to "serve" outside of my paid ministry position? (Even if you don't work in ministry, the temptation to ask "How much is enough" lurks.)

I was tempted to ask my pastor that exact question...and then God spoke. Not audibly of course, but that still small voice in my heart wispered.

Could it be that the reason I want an answer to that question is so I can "clear the bar?" Is it possible that what I'm really focused on is "how much is enough?" I would love to think that I am genuinely interested in an answer that helps me to better serve others. However, I admit that all I'm really searching for is "how high is the bar."

Just tell me where the bar is set and I will train hard and make it over. Then I'll be done. Then I can check it off. Then I can move on. Nice and clean, clearing the bar, just the way I like it. (It's such euphoria to know I worked hard and achieved my goal, accomplishing all I set out to do. And the best part? The accolades and the human approval and recognition.)

I intellectually understand that no amount of my works can achieve for me a salvation that only Christ has accomplished on my behalf. Theologically, I get that my vertical relationship with God is a done deal and no amount of good deeds can increase his love for me and no amount of bad deeds can decrease his love for me.

But I still have that nagging question - how much do I need to do?

In addition to that, I am questioning my deeds for you. I know that there are good deeds I can do to increase your love for me. And, I know that there are bad deeds I can do that will decrease your love for me. All of that motivates my heart and causes me to hand wring and obsess over all that I'm doing....or not doing. At the core I don't really believe that in Christ, God's approval and acceptance is what I have and is all I really need.

It's always a matter of unbelief.

In an instant my heart was laid bare and my motivation for wanting an answer to that question became crystal clear. Just asking the question exposes a heart bent on self-justification and self salvation.Thankfully, I am in good company. In essence it is the same question the crowd asked Jesus. Then they said to him, What must we do, to be doing the works of God? (John 6:28 ESV)  The Contemporary English Version puts it this way; What exactly does God want us to do? the people asked. (John 6:28)

God, what exactly would you have me do outside of my paid ministry? Where is the bar?

God's response?

It's not a bar, it's a cross. Instead of trying to clear the bar, know that Jesus was nailed to a cross.

Jesus' death won all the approval and all the acceptance for me. On that cross at Calvary he took care of all my obsessing and all my hand-wringing when he exclaimed in his final breath "It is finished".

The moment I ask myself "how much?", I pray God reminds me "it's all done". Only this gospel truth can motivate my desire and animate my worship and ignite my service.
But of the Christian it can be said that he does not owe God's justice anything, for Christ has paid the debt his people owed; for this reason the believer owes the more to love... I am no debtor to his justice, for he will never accuse me of a debt already paid. Christ said, It is finished! and by that he meant, that whatever his people owed was wiped away for ever from the book of remembrance. Christ, to the uttermost, has satisfied divine justice; the account is settled; the handwriting is nailed to the cross; the receipt is given.
~ Charles H. Spurgeon
I feel like I will struggle with this every single day until I go home to be with Jesus or he comes back in glory. My sin sick soul will always seek to accomplish "enough" to make things right. Jesus, remind me I can never do enough to make things right, but you did. You accomplished for me what I can never accomplish on my own.  I can stop obsessing over what I'm not doing and rest instead in what you have done.


Starry-eyed an’ laughing as I recall when we were caught
Trapped by no track of hours for they hanged suspended
As we listened one last time an’ we watched with one last look
Spellbound an’ swallowed ’til the tolling ended
Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

~ Bob Dylan (performed by the Byrds)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Love Revolution

With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. 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.

God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that.

The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.

Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing. And God isn’t pleased at being ignored.

But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. 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—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that 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, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!

So don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!

This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!

That’s why I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.

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.

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him. After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun.

So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger? The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture:

They kill us in cold blood because they hate you.
We’re sitting ducks; they pick us off one by one.

None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

Romans 8
The Message
(italics added)