Next Christians and Our High School Ministry

Each year we give a gift to those who went on our Senior High Winter Retreat. Examples include shirts with that year’s theme and recycled bookbags made by those rescued from trafficking. This year, we handed out the Next Christians by Gabe Lyons. If you are following this blog, you might remember that I picked this as one of my favorite books of 2010 (it was picked by just about everyone).

Which begs the question, what’s so special about this book and why would senior highers be interested in it? In some sense, you may not find anything special or unique about it. Many in the emergent conversation have been offering similar perspectives for years. Others may dismiss this as just another book on how Christians need to make a difference in their world and honoring God and so forth while citing illustrations and providing commentary. It’s true that many of these have been written already.

But for me, here’s the important difference – it’s genuinely hopeful. It could be that Gabe’s natural disposition is optimistic but what I really think is that he’s inspired by what he sees God and others doing in the world and is dedicated to contributing as well.

He’s also in a unique position. He’s extremely well-connected for a younger evangelical and has access to so many stories of what people are doing. You might think he’s a name-dropper and that may be true if his organization was called “Gabe Lyons International Ministries” or something but it’s called Q (it stands for “Questions”). And the Q Conference is quite the showcase of what many diligent Christians are doing in the 7 Sectors of Culture. If you can get to one (next one is April 27-29 in Portland), I highly recommend it and if you can’t, check out presentations from previous years on their website.

All that said, this is not a cheerful naive book. How could it be when the subtitle is “The Good News About the End of Christian America” and the book opens with the line “A few years ago, I was twenty-seven and embarrassed to call myself Christian.”? Mentioning his strong Christian upbringing and contrasting his experiences in the world, he was among countless that saw the disparity between the Christianity described in the Scriptures, what’s going on in the world and the Church’s involvement in it. Referencing the research of UnChristian, a book he cowrote with his friend Dave Kinnaman, he shares what many think and feel towards the term Christian.

Many high schoolers already know all about this. In fact, in some ways, they may know it better than anyone because they have never been a part of “Christian America” (at least not the version of it that children born in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s know of it). After all, the Millennial Generation’s first words out of their cribs were”I’m spiritual but I don’t believe in organized religion.” While that line could create an entire set of posts, I’ll jump ahead to what Gabe’s main themes which calls for “Relearning Restoration”.

I highly appreciated Part 2 – “The Restorers” where each chapter calls for a better way of Christian engagement with the world. They include “Provoked but Not Offended” “Creators, Not Critics”, “Called, Not Employed”, “Grounded, Not Distracted”, “In Community, Not Alone” and “Countercultural, Not Relevant”. They include accounts from people like Jaime Tworkowski, the founder of To Write Love On Her Arms (a non-profit trying to bring awareness to teen/young adult cutting. Their t-shirts are worn in every high school and mall in America) and discusses global crises like AIDS and human-trafficking (issues that today’s young people are very concerned about).

Between the stories (postmoderns love a good story) and the insights (postmoderns appreciate wisdom), there’s a lot here for everyone including teenagers.  Even in my youth pastor fantasies, I know that not all of our students will read it. But the book is very much about them and some will really resonate with it. Like last week, one of our 9th grader girls “tweeted” that she loved the first two chapters  – I was so proud.  I’m telling you, it’s a different world and high schoolers understand more than we realize about it. If we as a church can challenge, equip and guide them, we may be a real asset to them as they discover life in the Kingdom.

Answering the Question, “Why Don’t You Plant a Church?”

Primary Audience – Whoever Read the Previous Post – A Yankees Take on Church-Planting in Nashville

Sometimes you have to provoke what you perceive to be a problem to see that it’s not (or may not be as bad as you think – make sense?) As I mentioned, I received a couple cool emails and links from people doing good work in Nashville like here and here.

I’ve also been asked the obvious and legitimate question, “Why don’t you plant a church here in Jersey?”  In truth, I’ve been asked this quite a few times. It’s not because I am special; I’m pretty sure most pastors (and seminarians) in their 20’s & 30’s get asked as well. I confess, I do have a fascination with church planting. Some guys make it look so fun and easy on Twitter that you can’t help it and some of my friends are planting (they either do not exaggerate as well on Twitter or not planting missionally/purposedrivenly/annointedly/Jabezly). And similar to how I am fascinated with the idea of batting second for the Yankees, I am just not sure if that’s the direction I am going.

I certainly do believe in the importance of church planting so yes, to compare it to playing major league baseball is a bit ridiculous – even for this blog. But I also do believe in the importance of reforming and rebuilding our existing churches. Just like it takes a special type of person to plant, I think it takes a special type of person to reform. And I’d like to add that it takes a special type of person to be in youth ministry. Hmm, maybe I was wrong, maybe I am special :)

To use the “called” language, not only do I feel called to be a part of reforming the Church, I feel that I am to be doing that in youth ministry. Honestly, most days, I really like what I do. Indeed there are days when I get frustrated, like when a need comes through the church and someone else volunteers the youth group for it (Volunteer yourself bro!), but really, I find a great deal of fulfillment and consider it a privilege to be a part of this chapter in our students’ lives.

A lot of is due to the type of youth ministry we are trying to build here. I know it sounds a bit dramatic but I actually believe this stuff – we are trying to create & foster a Christ-centered culture of young disciples to serve God’s kingdom. Blessed with a great Jr. High pastor and some fantastic youth leaders, we have been working on a culture that is loving, sacrificial, generous and “deep” (not always sure what that means, but we do tackle some tough content). To be truthful, there have been times when our students have completely dropped the ball. There have even been times when the youth leaders have dropped the ball. And there was one time that I forgot to fill up the church van after an activity but I would hardly call that dropping the ball Ok, ok, I’m the worst of them all but come on, I was distracted by the prospect of batting second for … :)

But there have also been times when our students have really went above and beyond anything I/we have expected. Many of them have the godliest parents I have met, some of them have not been as fortunate but the Lord has been just as near – and it’s been incredible to witness. I’ve seen students barely stay awake in youth group and then months later, tearfully express to the group what the Lord is doing in their lives. I’m betting that it wasn’t my teaching that had drastically improved in the short span but rather the student taking hold of the faith that God was extending. There is a goodness you gain in knowing that you are doing your job well but then there is an overwhelming fulfillment in knowing that you are a small part of something that is happening through you and your community and in spite of you and your community.

Witnessing students embrace Jesus and pursue the work of the Kingdom is among the greatest joys of my life. As you can see, this is a very special thing to me and until the Lord changes my heart, I doubt I’m planting a church, leading one, or batting second for the Yanks.

Church-Planting In Nashville as Seen By a Yankee

Primary Audience – Those Interested in Church-Planting

Last week I saw a tweet about a meet-up of Nashville church planters. My reaction was, “What?? There is more than one person planting a church in Nashville??” Then I proceeded to tweet about that. The first tweet was more of an appeal to consider planting in places like New Jersey and the Northeast. The following tweets became sarcastic and speculated the real reason Regis was leaving was to church plant in Nashville.

I received a few tweets and dm’s. One mentioned that it’s surprisingly hard to find a church in Nashville. Another said that it was extremely easy. Another said I was a jerk (it may be true). And another (a Nashville church planter) offered to help me understand his context better by sending me links and dm’s. There was a Christian rebuke in all that too to which I sincerely apologized and thought that, “Indeed my sarcastic tweets are not helpful”.

So here’s a bit of what I was/am thinking. First my context – I’m a youth pastor in New Jersey and have been serving in ministry for 11 years. Born in Jersey, raised in PA, went to college in the South, married a beautiful girl from FL who taught me some southern expressions and how to correctly pronounce the term “reck’n”. I’ve only served in two churches, one in a Philly suburb and this one in North Jersey. If you know anything about North Jersey, we don’t consider ourselves part of New Jersey. This is somewhat similar to the superiority complex that Texas feels in relation to the rest of the country. Being just outside of Manhattan, we feel a sophistication that Central Jersey could never understand. Further, we are working on sending South Jersey (“They’re about as useful as a back pocket on a shirt”) to Delaware and that campaign is called “Building Jersey by Subtracting”.

Now for something deeper – The church landscape here in Jersey is a tough one. There are a fair amount of churches, but many of them are under 100 people and many are hanging on by a string. Regularly, church buildings are begin turned to Mosques and gyms. I wish I had the time to weed through all the stats regarding “churched” and “unchurched”, the number of churches, etc. but I’ll leave that up to you but as subjective as it sounds, here’s what I am seeing.

It is a bit strange that we have so few large churches because of our high population percentage but there are only two evangelical churches in my area that boasts an attendance of over 1000 people and I think one of them is exaggerating (despite my friend’s flawed counting, they are a fantastic ministry). As an evangelical surveying the scene here, you will notice a high number of Catholic churches, synagogues, atheists and a high percentage of successful/intelligent people who see no real need for God though they are “spiritual” and think church, if not taken too seriously is a good thing.

Regarding church planting here, “It’s runs like a herd of turtles”. I literally know of two church plants in my area – The Plant in Allendale and All Souls Church in Nanuet, NY. Yes, All Souls is in New York but we are really close to the border here and technically, the closest plant in my area. One day, I thought I met another church planter, but it turned out it was just a unicorn. Among many cultural reasons, the high cost of living makes it difficult for young couples to either move in or build roots here which also eliminates a lot of the workforce of a church plant. Further, as everyone knows, church planting is extremely expensive though there is an enormous amount of wealth here (“so rich, that guy buys a new boat every time one gets wet”. How am I doing on these Southerisms? They are painful to write but I’m willing to speak the language if it helps :)

A personal annoyance is that it seems the talent called to plant in this area heads over to NYC. There are exceptions, like Liquid Church, in Morristown, NJ (a campus in New Brunswick and another one coming in Montclair) but it’s hard to figure out if they are a viable model or as I mentioned, an exception.

I’ve been to Nashville, it’s a beautiful town. It not only has a church on every corner but a big church on ever corner. I picture families of 6 pulling up in their suburbans and upon entering they complain that it’s Michael W. Smith’s turn to lead worship instead of Amy Grant’s. I suspect that the need for church planting in Nashville is a result of the over-churched culture that Nashville has created. And I reck’n everyone walks in with the current issue of Relevant Magazine (which I love too) and does devotions with Stuff Christians Like and Jesus Needs New PR.

I picture houses with three car garages being sold for less than $200,000. I bet when you buy a house there, the former owners leave up the mailbox with a cross on it and the sign above the door that says, “As for Me and My House, We Will Serve the Lord”. Cars are sold with the ichthus already in place and the only thing that you get on your windshield wiper when parking downtown is a tract that reminds you that “Jesus Loves You” and a note that thanks you for using the free parking.

To my church planting Nashville friends, I say a few things – “Don’t pee on my leg and call it rain”. Please consider the perceived disparity between our respective contexts. Obviously plant where the Lord is calling you so do not let the stereotypes created by the Yankees to dissuade you. However, consider perhaps the Lord is using people like me to speak to you. Second, consider sending people to other parts of the country like the North East and the North West, places that we should start considering similarly to as we see foreign missions fields. Third, consider leaving your church plant and coming here. Not just Jersey, but suburban Philadelphia and the New England States are desperate for strong churches.

Church planters by their nature love a challenge so I tell you as one of our northeastern saints put it, “If you can plant your church here, you can plant anywhere, it’s up to you, Nashville, Nashville.” :)

Feel free to comment, disagree, or correct my Southernisms.

How/Why We Do Our Movie-Themed Retreats

Since my last post, a few youth workers asked about how (and why) we did our movie-themed retreats so here’s a snapshot of it.

Obviously using media in student ministry is not new. For years I used clips and would try to use them as illustrations, recreate the context, and attempt to share some type of point or principle. The problem was many times, I could not recreate the context adequately enough. Sometimes the clip became more of a distraction than a tool. I’d hear whispers of “I hated that movie” (Braveheart), “How OLD is this movie?” (Braveheart), “This is such a Dad-movie”, (Braveheart) “is that Charlie Sheen?” (Braveheart; talking about Robert the Bruce played by Angus Macfayden). It got too painful for me to hear such cruelly uttered. In my pain, I would lash out and threaten had such disrespect continued, we would read from the KJV for the rest of the year.

Anyway, as I entered this current ministry 5 years ago and saw their winter retreats were over holiday weekends like (MLK and Presidents’ Day), I worried that I would not have enough interesting content to fill 3.5 days. I know every speaker thinks this is easy, but believe me, I have sat through some of these weekend retreats and can painfully remember the thought, “Now I gotta listen to a month’s worth of sermons from this guy? I thought this was a retreat not an intensive”. Not wanting to recreate a month’s worth of youth group meetings, I had two options, hire a speaker or come up with something that cannot be done over a month’s worth of youth group gatherings. I chose the latter and decided to make it a movie-theme. Among the reasons, movies are among the most sacred of scriptures of pop-culture and further, it is very difficult to do a movie and legit discussion in youth group and it work for everyone.

So where do you start? I know this sounds overly-spiritual but for me the process is a prayer-led brainstorm of what does my group need and which movie will serve that function. Most years, I share the movie search with like-minded and “other-minded” volunteers. Also, there are a few movies that I would love to do but I/we have found other needs to be greater.

Movies we have shown for these retreats have been The Matrix, Saved, Crash, and Religulous. In theory the possibilities are endless, but I have always found it to be a pretty short list. Here’s why – finding a story that captures our Northeasterner students’ attention is a tall task. So many of our new Christian movies like Facing the Giants and To Save a Life will have a hard time in our youth ministry. It’s not because our students are unchurched, in fact, it’s more the opposite. They wouldn’t be challenged by them.

Second, I have always been hesitant in choosing a movie that they really like because in some way, we are reinterpreting it for them and that’s a bit risky. So out went the epic sagas like Lord of the Rings, Potter, and Star Wars. Check your students’ Facebook profiles to avoid others.

Third, it has to be interesting and powerful enough to survive the weekend because it’s difficult to carry the metaphor throughout the entire weekend and still be interesting. So movies like Gladiator have many Christian references but for me, I could not see them lasting more than two sessions.

So here are a few things I look for in a retreat movie. The most recent should be when your oldest students were still in Junior High, so generally, nothing popular in the last five years. The Matrix came out in ’99, when most of my current 12th graders were 6 yrs. old. To avoid duplicating retreat themes and “feels”, use different genres. We used the satire Saved! exactly for this reason. Probably my favorite of all of them was Crash because it’s such a powerful story, multiple-themes (Justice, Racism, , Providence, & Redemption) and very few of our students had ever seen it. We also did it for MLK weekend which was of course, powerful. Some years, we kept the movie a secret to add more mystery to it, other years we promoted to create an appeal (like The Matrix).

On the retreat: We play the movie once we arrive to the retreat center/camp. After a hectic week of school, no one wants to listen to a speaker (unless the speaker is Giglio, Bell, or Bono). And after driving for 3-4 hours, most youth pastor/speakers don’t want to speak (unless they’re are described by the terms “Baptist”, “NASCAR” or “Seminary” ;) We press play, relax, recap the next morning, start slow, have discussion groups and start getting into the deeper aspects by Saturday night. By Sunday night, we largely abandon the metaphor because the themes usually support themselves by this point.

Every now and then, I wished I had a movie-making background but with this new internet thing, you can research to your hearts content. There is plenty of help from Google searches, to books, to ministries and organizations who have already thought of this before you did. Also, you can usually find your movie already edited. (One year, my tech-savvy volunteer got creative for me).

I’m not sure if I will always do movie-themed retreats but they have been very helpful for us and if you are looking for something new to try, I highly recommend it.

Reflecting on our Sr. High Winter Retreat

Primary Audience – Our students and the fine folks of MEFC
Secondary Audience – Youth workers who can relate

We just got back from Harvey Cedars on Monday afternoon and I am enjoying that post-retreat afterglow/hangover that youth pastors/volunteers know very well. It’s a great way to spend a weekend but each year has its challenges. For one, in today’s crazy busy culture, it’s tough for students and volunteer leaders to commit to a weekend like this, especially since we go from Friday-Monday to take advantage of the holiday weekend. We dragged ourselves there Friday and left on quite the high note Monday afternoon.

It may be a bit too early to write this post but here some initial thoughts on this past weekend’s retreat. Each year, I appreciate our group more and more. We keep doing movie-themed retreats because if you have a good enough movie, you have a working metaphor that can last the weekend. Further, it’s so difficult to discuss a movie over a month (given that few students can attend each week of the month) and of course, we tend to forget scenes and lines as time goes on.

This year was the ever-popular, The Matrix. It being our second time doing at Montvale, it was the first time for anyone in this group (as this class of seniors were still jr. highers last time). Though I hate doing “repeats” (I know, I know, work smarter not harder but still…), we were able to build off of the previous retreat and offer add some more serious content. Since last year’s retreat on Bill Maher’s Religulous and our typical youth group gatherings, I have a lot of faith in our group. We may never become an gigantic-sized youth group, but we are going to be a deep one.

They caught on pretty well, asked good questions during our recap, followed along during our lesson time and had some pretty intense small group sessions. I know it sounds like I am exaggerating (and maybe even bragging) so forgive me, but I am so grateful for this group. One of the biggest discouragements in ministry is when you offer something that you think is solid and the feedback is negative or apathetic. One of the greater encouragements is seeing students connect with deeper content and also hearing them say, “Wow, I never thought of our faith like that before” and “I needed this.”

They’re not perfect kids (I blame the volunteers ;-) but they continue to demonstrate their desire to grow in their faith. Even our time of worship is improving! We have a solid senior class that is leaving and I feel that we have some underclassmen that are ready to go. The combination of great homes and Pastor Tim Nye’s Junior High ministry is yielding fruit in each new 9th grade class. I needed it too and a few of our leaders offered similar sentiments. It’s not because we are discouraged. In fact, we find ourselves in a good rhythm these days but I think we needed it because we are committed to this work. May the Lord forgive us for our missed opportunities and our shortcomings and may He bless our faithfulness as students draw closer to Him. Indeed these are special times for us and though we are tired, we are grateful.

Question: What If Adam and Eve Were Not Beautiful?

Yes, I am obsessed with Adam and Eve …

The other day I wrote a somewhat serious post about the historicity of Adam and Eve.
Today, I want to ask, what if they were not as attractive as we have made them out to be?

I have heard countless people describe Eve to be a ravishing beauty and Adam to be a muscular, handsome dude.

But what if they were not? What if instead of Tom and Giselle, they were more like George Costanza and Ugly Betty?

What makes me ask such a thing? I don’t know it’s a blog.

What makes me think they might not have been as attractive as the flannel board pictures in Sunday School?
Because the Bible describes Jesus as a mild-looking man (Is. 53:2’s prophetic description).

What if Adam was bald and had a beer gut and what if Eve looked more like Leah than Rachel and spoke with a lisp?

Of course it doesn’t matter what they actually looked like, unless we need them to be beautiful.

And what about this glorified body of Jesus that we are to receive upon our entrance into eternity? Further, what about all this last shall be first stuff too? If you were not attractive on earth, will you be a hottie in heaven? If you were a model on the cover of Christian Men’s Health, will you look like Homer Simpson (or Gary Busey or Steve Buscemi in heaven?

What if our heavenly appearance was in direct relation to your heart on earth? Ouch.
What if our heavenly appearance was in direct relation to our tithing record, or our service to others? We gonna have a lot of ugly peeps up there :-)
What if God’s idea of beauty is completely different to our earthy understanding of it?

Why Genesis Is Important to Youth Workers

Among the reasons, why I have been posting a few thoughts on my readings of Genesis is that these questions are not just my own – but they reflect years of discussions with doubters, Christian and non-Christian. Even more, many of these thoughts have been asked by students over the years. If you are a part of an evangelical culture that allows for the expression of doubts and questions, you will know from your own experiences that this is a good thing.

Having questions about the Bible is not wrong or heretical. In fact, it’s necessary for any disciple to be a learning one and among the ways we learn is from questions. The problem becomes when we place ourselves over the authority of Scripture and/or objectify God as if He were a being to satisfy our intellectual curiosity or a being that simply exists to give us what we want. God was not created for our amusement, but rather we as part of His creation for His pleasure, glory, and communion.

So where does a humble, truth-searching disciple start? The Beginning seems a fair place. And so, we find ourselves reading through Genesis with a lot of questions. I am not sure if it’s an exaggeration to say that I have been asked more times about the topic of evolution and the Bible than I have about the validity of the resurrection and whether or not pre-marital sex is really an “abomination”. The bottom line is students are interested in the topic of origins. And can you blame them?

I remember the first time someone my age told me that they believed in theistic evolution. It startled me because I believed his faith to not only be quite genuine but one that I greatly admired. Initially, I dismissed it as, “Well not everyone can be perfect. Some people struggle with porn and love Jesus and some people struggle with Darwinism and love Jesus. May the Lord loosen the chains that grip our hearts …” Some time later, I accepted that this was his conviction in the same way that I accept that some people love the Lord just as much as I do but really believe that the consumption of alcohol is sinful.

Certainly, I used to see such questioning as the beginning of the slippery slope that would eventually lead to the destruction of their faith but things changed for me. I remember a student in my first church telling me he believed in evolution. I began counting the days when I would hear the news of him quitting his faith, it never came and he’s a growing believer today (Facebook told me so).

Mark my words, there are many who call themselves the same type of Christian as you, who will hold very similar beliefs as you but are not following Jesus. Relax and know the Lord will be their judge (and yours). But take comfort in the realization, that there are many who call themselves a very different type of Christian, that have different beliefs but join you in the praise, “Christ is Risen from the dead – Hallelujah!”

After a few years in youth ministry, you begin to realize that not only are students not going to hold many of your convictions, you also realize that you do want them to. Why is that you say? Because for the students who are pursuing a growing relationship with God, they are to be led by the Holy Spirit. This releases me as a youth pastor (and more importantly, parents) from being their personal conscience to being guides who love, nurture, and serve them along their journey.

Genesis is important to me as a youth pastor because in a student’s search for identity, they inevitably come here. When I am teaching about Genesis, whether in a group context or one-on-one, I emphasize that among the major themes of Genesis is that God is the sovereign, loving Creator of All and He is the God of Abraham. Certainly, unpacking that reveals my evangelical convictions but those two points are crucial for any student trying to make sense of a fallen world with a God who is near.

Thoughts on Reading Through Genesis – Were Adam and Eve Real?

Intended Audience – Open-minded followers of Jesus who enjoy searching the richness of the Scriptures. This post is not to undermine our faith but rather, to strengthen it. Frankly, I’d rather think about these types of questions as opposed to wonder if Brett Favre is going to retire or what’s going to happen on American Idol. Hope that helps.

As I mentioned in the last post, I have always carried a sense of frustration as I read through the Bible. Some of it is due to my skeptical nature, another part is due to my 21st Century, Western perspectives trying to engage an inspired, ancient, middle-eastern text written in Hebrew. I’m sure there are several other factors but to cut to the chase, I find Genesis to be filled with questions. Know that I love the text, questions and all, because I believe that struggle and prayer lead to a deeper faith.

In the previous post, I asked if the penalty of sin was too severe? At first glance, I believe it is. However, after a better understanding of the character of God, and the severity of sin, the story of the fall of humanity is tragic to say the least. However, I find praising God for His love for humanity and His redemption of all creation and for giving us a choice.

Today I put the question out there, “Were Adam and Eve real people?” It used to anger me that people would even question such a thing. It’s right there in the Bible, is that not good enough? Throughout my upbringing and during my undergraduate, I was taught that if you did not take one part of the Bible literally, than you could not take other parts literally. So if you wanted to the resurrection of Jesus to be literally true, than you needed things like the Creation account to also be literally true.

Here’s why it’s in question for me:

If you read commentaries and studies on Genesis, you will notice there is a lot of figurative language in Genesis 1 especially. (It’s quite beautiful too).  Why is it written that way?

Similar Ancient Near East Accounts. (This is what got me thinking about it this question)
“The description of human beings in the Babylonian Atrahasis. The background to this passage is a strike on the part of the lesser gods who are tired of doing heavy labor on behalf of the major gods. They insist that they be replaced. Belet-ili, the mother god, takes clay and mixes it with the blood of the instigator of the strike, then the text says:

After she had mixed the clay,
She summoned the Anunna, the great gods,
The Igigi, the great gods, spat upon the clay.”
(exert taken from this biologos post)

Adam – simply means “mankind”. It may be hairsplitting, but a name like that tends to favor the figurative rather than the literal.

Some of our early church fathers didn’t see Adam and Eve as historical figures.
“Who would be so childish as to think that God was like a human gardener and planted a paradise in Eden facing the east, and in it made a real visible tree, so that one could acquire life by eating its fruit with real teeth or, again, could participate in good and evil by eating what he took from the other tree? And if the text says that God walked in the garden in the evening, or Adam hid himself under the tree, I cannot think that anyone would dispute that these things are said in the figurative sense, in an effort to reveal certain mysteries by means of an apparent historical tale and not by something that actually took place. . . . . ” (First Principles – 4: 16 by Origen of Alexandria) – Ouch – that one hurts.

I know Paul writes about Adam in Romans but if I want to be honest, you could likely justify either presupposition.
However, Romans 5:12 (“Just as sin entered through one man …”) seems to point at a historical Adam. It would have been different to me had he written, “Just as sin entered humanity or mankind or the human race …”

So here’s where I am with this. I am not convinced either way, though I lean towards the historical Adam and am fascinated by the figurative argument. In all honesty, I have no problem that God could have created the universe and all it contains in 6 days, 6 months, 6 million years or 6 seconds.

I have no problem with Adam and Eve (although I do think when if/when I meet them in heaven, I am going to kick Adam in the shins and try to insult Eve by saying something like, “You are not as pretty as the picture my Sunday School teacher showed me on the flannel board” and “So you’re the ones we have to thank for cancer, telemarketers, traffic, death, and country music.” It being heaven and all, I’ll forgive them, hug them, and invite them over for a game of “Apples To Apples” while listening to music by the Cranberries, Lemonheads and Fionna. I’ll have an enormous fruit buffet, all in my beautiful backyard which I call the “Garden of Eatin'” How do you like them app… ;-)

Here’s what I know, I no longer need them to be real. And here’s why. Whenever we equate something non-essential to the Resurrection, we undermine the central foundation of our theology. If I get to heaven and God tells me that Adam and Eve were fictitious characters created to give the children of Israel a frame of reference and exalt the truth that God is the sovereign Creator of all things, I won’t assume that this being  is really the devil and that I am in hell. I’d like to think that I’d chuckle and ask what else was I wrong about and God would spend the time telling me, or maybe He would just spit in the dirt, touch my head and allow the scales to fall off my theological eyes – it’s up to Him.

So in the end, I have two questions, Do you believe Adam and Eve were real? And do you need them to be? And a bonus question, Do you believe that it undermines the Resurrection to equate the Creation account with it? And a bonus, bonus question, Does this threaten your view of inspiration?

Interested in reading more? Check out:
The Biologos Forum – Science and Faith in Dialogue
Scot McKnight’s many excellent posts under “Adam”
and this Youtube Clip

Reflecting on the Fall of Humanity and The Choice God Allows

Note: I am making a couple of observations as I read through the Bible. A lot of these are thoughts that began a while ago, most recently in seminary but trying to give them a place now. Feel free to disagree, reframe, push back, complain, ask for clarification or comment however you like (the only rule is to be honest and respectful).

The Adam and Eve account has always been a frustrating one for me on a number of levels.

1. The first few chapters of Genesis functions differently than rest of Genesis (and the OT for that matter).
2. When I get to heaven, I am going to ask, what ever happened to Adam and Eve? You bored me through genealogies and the book of Numbers and could not give me a little more about Adam and Eve? Was there any redemption after their exile? Did they ever see God again? Did they stay together after Cain and Abel? But Genesis gives us nothing – hmmm, suspicious.
3. Were they real people or more of a literary device to help create a point of origin and a backdrop for the story of Abraham and the eventual birth of Israel?
4. Was the consequence of their sin too severe? I mean, all they did was take a bite out of a piece of fruit. Why does God bother with even creating the tree of good and evil? And still, people have done much worse and have been not charged with being the reason for the “fall of all humanity”.

Well let’s go in reverse order as the latter are the more important questions to us today (at least to me).
Humanity is fallen, it’s corrupt, it’s depraved. And while the word carries so much baggage today, humanity is “sinful”. During my most severe and honest sessions of doubt, I cannot accept the fact that our morality has evolved this way. In some sense, society has become more civil along the millennia, but in another sense, the human heart seems just as selfish and I cannot see something like Darwinism to account for this (and I am somewhat sympathetic to Darwin for a post-conservative Christian). Frankly, it feels more that we are cursed, stained, and doomed and the Biblical narrative of creation, fall and the need for redemption works very well for me.

Why does God bother with a creating this Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?
Earlier I saw a tweet that said something like asking a toddler to play with the loud toys is like asking a fraternity to guard your daiquiri maker. In some sense, the tree is not a big deal for me. I know that sounds dangerously arrogant but my point is this, God asked Adam and Eve to not do something. He could have said, don’t cross the Line of Absolute Truth or take a ride on the Unicorn of Unity or don’t pee in the Pond of Peace. So in some sense, I’m ok with the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” but I don’t really need it to be a tree – make sense?

Here’s what I need though. A loving God that offers humanity a choice. A choice to obey or rebel. If you followed my “Everything Has a Reason” posts, you will remember that the idea of choice is essential to me because without it, you cannot have love.

Is the punishment too severe?
At first glance it seems it is. However, we need to understand several things: God’s divine intention of creation, His attributes of holiness and just how terrible humanity’s rebellion really is. I am not sure a more dramatic title could have been found than “The Fall”. It ruined everything. Sin defiled the relationship between God the Creator and Humanity His creation and also spoiled the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation.

In some sense, Adam and Eve’s rebellion demonstrates that A. They want to be their own God. 2. Worse, they don’t really need God. 3. Their pride trumps their obedience. When put like that, I am afraid that the story could have been entitled, “The Fall of Tim Ghali” and not much today would be different.

So as I sojourn through this fallen world following the risen Savior, I observe the frustrating complexity, the suffering and the beauty of it all. It’s only in this framework can you have something like The Jersey Shore be as popular as it is, yawn in the middle of Handel’s Messiah and be moved when your child with a face smeared by mac and cheese kisses you and tells you that he loves you. It’s a crazy, flawed and beautiful world.

Reflections on Eden – I’m Sure It was Beautiful but Was It Boring Too?

Over the weekend, I read the first few chapters of Genesis and like most people, I’m quite captivated by the idea of the perfect life of Eden. To be honest, it’s not the frolicking in nudity with my soulmate. Though there is something cool about having a giraffe and a pack of coyotes as pets that all got along, it’s not that either. At this point, insightful Christian leaders will assume that I am captivated by the idea of taking walks with God in the cool of the night. To talk to my Creator is an idea I have thought about many times and await the day when this becomes my reality.

But something else caught my mind’s eye and that was imagining the idea of living in a world that made sense. I’ve thought of the idea of Eden being sin-free and pain-free before but what does a reality of wholeness actually mean? Beyond the coyote laying down with the giraffe, I have trouble imagining a world where that is not odd. A world without selfishness, scheming, and swindling but rather a world of selflessness, submissiveness, and serving. Even if you do not take the early chapters of Genesis literally, the idea of Eden is compelling.

We would be quick to point out that heaven is what Eden was like. Or at least that’s what some of us think. Maybe God will surprise us. But I have worried about heaven too. I said this at Second Mile service a few months ago that I used to worry that heaven would be boring. And in reading about Eden, can I confess to you that there was a part of me that thought that this sort of existence might be boring? Can I admit that my mind raced that perhaps it was this boredom that led Adam and Eve to consider the words of the serpent? Is peace and perfection boring? As you may recall, Agent Smith told Morpheus in the first Matrix that the Machines had been built a world that was perfect but the humans rejected it because they needed some type of struggle to feel human.

I can somewhat imagine a world where peace is possible. For the most part, my local life is lived in peace. Fortunately, I serve in a church where I have access to things like struggle and conflict. My life may be free of physical violence but it is certainly not free from disunity and selfishness. A lot of the peace that I observe is a forced peace. Meaning you must be peaceful or suffer the consequences. This is one of the many benefits of civilization and societal living.

However, what does a world look like where there is complete peace? Here’s my best answer. I assumed such a place had to be boring because of my fallen, sinful, narrow-minded nature. It’s not completely my fault, this is the only world I have had access to. But to use the real Biblical metaphor of the lion laying down with the lamb – it’s not a forced peace like I assume it is. But rather it’s a peace where the lion would not think of harming the lamb. To them, it would be unimaginable – it’s the only reality that they know.

Eden was a place where evil was unimaginable. Granted, that story of Adam and Eve tells us of their fall into temptation. Though they knew immediately that they had fallen, they did not expect the consequences and the curses. Prior to the fall (and the idea of the Return to Eden), I imagine it was a selfless place where the interests of others naturally came first. I have never experienced complete joy but I like to wonder what that looks like in a world where there is no pain but complete restoration of creation, our bodies, our relationships and the divine intention that God had created us with. Honestly, when I look at it like that, it doesn’t sound boring at all.