Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hating Haiti: How not to Victimize Victims

I think we need to carefully consider our reactions in the midst of tragedy. For those who believe in an all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing God, we feel a great urge of responsibility to explain catastrophes as planned events from God. Whenever tragedy strikes it is human nature to ask “Why?” I think when we hear this question we think we need to formulate an answer lest we look foolish and admit our ignorance to such mysteries.

Therefore, for those believing in the infinite God with the ‘all’ attributes, tragedy must be the exact plan of God for something better. So we scrounge through the Old Testament and find a story where a terrible natural disaster occurred, which was caused by God to punish a certain people (the flood in Genesis, Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues of Egypt, etc.). This then leads us to jump to one more hypothesis, ‘what was the sin committed?’ Many have claimed that the Twin Towers were ruthlessly struck because the lack of homosexual restraint in our country, others that Hurricane Katrina was because of the loose living in New Orleans, and some suggest that every soldier killed in Iraq is again because of ‘the homosexual agenda.’ I am not saying that God does not punish because we know that the LORD is a God of justice (Isaiah 30:18). God does discipline those whom he loves (Proverbs 3:12). However, I am saying that we need to be careful not to make the same mistakes that Job’s friends made.

The story of Job (pronounced with a long ‘O’) is tragic. Job has everything, many children, lots of land, many workers, many cattle, and good health. In one day Job loses it all, his children are killed, his cattle stolen, his workers murdered, and his health flees as he develops sores. Job’s friends come to see him after hearing what has happened, and when they spot him far off they begin mourning, and continue to sit in mourning with their friend in silence for seven days! Job’s friends do the first thing that we all should do when we see others facing tragedy, mourn with them, and be present. However, after the days of silence Job’s friends try to convince him that his tragedies must have happened because of some sin or fault, and he is being punished. That’s where Job’s friends go wrong, and are told so in many words as the narrative continues on.

I believe we all make similar mistakes in the midst of tragedy. Every bone in our body becomes anxious to answer ‘Why?’ God finally responds to Job, but God never responds with an answer, and sometimes we never know why things happen. Who can understand the mind of the LORD? (Isaiah 40:13). The truth is we do not know why bad things happen. We have to stop thinking we need to be God’s public relations committee and look for fault somewhere else. We do not know the answer to “Why” and even if we did it would not make the situation better. Being present and praying in silence is what we need to do in the midst of tragedy. Quiet sometimes seems awkward, but it is in the quiet that God speaks. By all means help fix the tragedy when mourning is over, donate money, time, and expertise when the time comes. But in the midst of mourning, we cannot fix, we cannot concoct an answer to the universal ‘why?’, we can only be present and love.

However, there is an answer to why Haiti is suffering terribly; there is an answer to Katrina, the Tsunami, and other natural disasters. These answers do not help our grieving, but if you must know, the answer is sin. Sin affects our lives, our relationships, our jobs, schools, and yes, even weather. Sin affects creation. When Adam and Eve were caught eating the forbidden fruit, they were hurt by sin. Sin hurt their relationship with God, each other, and creation. The ground was made more difficult to bear produce. But we cannot say Haiti’s sin caused the earthquake because we do not know that. Paul says “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait til the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the men’s hearts” (1 Corinthians 4:5). To blame the Haitians alone is to miss the point. It is not Haiti’s sins that caused the earthquake, but it is our sins. The sin of humanity caused Haiti. It is not Haiti alone who needs to repent, but the entire world. And our comfort, it lies in the event of the resurrection of Jesus from Nazareth.

Friday, January 8, 2010

How to Save Youth from Church

I went to Wisconsin right before the New Year to go on a Youth Retreat as a supervisor for our Youth Group. There were many Youth Leaders, both paid and volunteer, with other adult volunteers there supervising their own Youth Groups. Our own group had 18 children, a bus driver, his wife, a youth leader, a parent of one of the children who is a school teacher, and myself, the senior pastor. I was the only one on staff, the rest were volunteer. That is six youth per supervisor (though there were two 18 year olds among the youth). I do not know if this follows the minimum guidelines for adults per youth, I do not know if this is a desirable ratio, but I do know that it is hard to get one on one time with that kind of ratio. I do know that if you have ever been a leader on a youth retreat the ratio of 1:1 hardly even seems sufficient at times. We live in a time of big numbers and big results. One pastor leading hundreds, maybe even thousands in the crusades of their church is what we call a success story. If leading one person to Christ is a good thing, then leading thousands is a great thing. If bringing people to church is a good thing, then bringing thousands would be a great thing. In the mean time we see many youth and young adults falling through the cracks. We create alluring programs to get youth connected to other youth, minimize commitment, maximize opportunity, and then wonder why they desert the church when it is time for them to become participating members of the church.

Families do not easily fall into the kinds of mistakes churches do. Having one child is a good thing, but unless you are the Duggars you do not think that having 18 must be a great thing. I am not questioning the Duggars’ parenting choices, I do not know them, but I am questioning the parenting choices of our church. We want to cram more and more youth into our churches without the necessary parenting available. We chastise and demonize Nadya Suleman (a.k.a. Octo Mom) for having more children than she can properly handle. Our churches want children and youth, but are not willing to parent them. We want more and more and we can hardly develop them to be healthy members of our church. We make up for our lack in parents with our excess in programs. However, programs are a poor substitute for spiritual parents. The goal in the church should not be how many youth the church can get, but how many spiritual parents can we pair up with our youth. If our goal is to be a healthy growing church, than growing our youth should be connected with growing our spiritual leaders to help lead the youth, and other new members of the church. We proclaim Jesus is about relationships, but we organize our churches to be about programs, and we wonder why so many fall through the cracks. Programs do not equal relationships. We don’t need directors, we need parents, we don’t need programs, we need families.

Churches often fail to establish the relationship necessary with their youth that families naturally make. When does a child become a member of the family? Is it when they turn 18? Is it when they make a verbal commitment, or a public address? In a healthy family (which for the most part I was fortunate to be a part of) a child becomes a member of the family at birth. I remember at a very young age having responsibilities. My responsibilities may have been small in the beginning, and perhaps I caused more harm than good in my attempts to be helpful, but nonetheless I was a participating member of my family. As I grew so did my responsibilities and my ability to actually become more and more helpful. The hope is that by the time I am 18 and go off to college, that I am a fully functioning adult. Sure there is still much to learn at 18. And the fulfillment of our responsibilities is not always graceful at that age, but we have the necessary tools to scrape by. In the church it seems that it is often all or nothing. We fail to bring the youth along in growing responsibilities of the church. We fail to teach them one on one the importance and joy of being a participating member of the church family. Therefore, when they turn and we expect them to be full participating members, they bail. It is not because they are lazy, but they have not been trained to be active members of the Body.

The solution? Better parenting. We need to ask ourselves are we ready to bring more children into the church and raise them up to be spiritual adults. We ask not, are we ready to invest not in thousands, but we need to ask are we ready to fully invest in a few, financially, personally, and spiritually? This is something that cannot simply be designated to the youth leader, or youth group session, but it must be a full commitment from the church, to grow disciples of Christ by joining with them on their journey to spiritual adulthood.