MTD: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (part 1)

I am a youth worker and I have aided the spread of MTD. I have accepted poor excuses absences. I have been complacent about uninvolved parents. I have even settled for activities that were more fun than formation. Sadly, almost no one in my congregation would be shocked.

MTD not the telethon disease du jour, but it can be just as deadly. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a term coined out of the National Study on Youth and Religion(NSYR) to describe the pale imitation of faith prevalent among teens and young adults. This week Kenda Creasy Dean is raising awareness and calling for action at the 2013 Texas Annual Conference.

According to Almost Christian–Dean’s book based on the NYSR– 3 out of 4 teens claim to be Christian. Yet only half of those say that faith is important to how they live their life and even those are “incredibly inarticulate” about their faith. What they profess instead is a feel good/do good malaise neither challenges nor supports them. For example, when asked about the goal of religion 330 young people used language about feeling good or being happy, while only 125 reached for traditional theological categories such as sin, redemption, or discipleship.

At the core of MTD are four assumptions:

  • God exists and created the universe
  • God wants people to be nice
  • The goal of life is to be happy
  • God is necessary only when I need assistance (and isn’t great at that)

Or put another way, it looks like this:

Baptism used to be about dying to self so as to commit to God and a faith community. Now it is about me; a public celebration of me as an individual (complete with gifts and a new wardrobe) that should reflect my personal style. And of course the cake is the center piece.

This may seem an extreme example, I’ve sat through enough painful graduation Sunday sermons and confirmation parties to appreciate how uncomfortably close to normal a “classy baptism” is.

Where did this come from? How did our young people end up this way? It’s easy to say this is just a phase. Perhaps it’s a symptom of adolescent narcissism or part of growing up with access to terabytes of data, but little access to wisdom. However the sad truth is, they learned it from us, from their parents and mentors, from the church.

Dean pointed out “Young people do not practice MTD because they misunderstood, but because we taught it to them. How we taught it to them is worth exploring (see next post) but the more pressing question is, what a we going to do about it now?

In recent years I’ve heard a lot of talk about the gap years. We now think its normal for young people to leave the church and that when they have kids if their own, they’ll float back. That held some truth for baby boomers, but ever indicator says that era is over. Most of the kids who leave the church today, aren’t coming back. Not unless we start offering them something more than MTD, something they can’t find anywhere else. Not unless we start offering Jesus unadulterated.

Hunger Games: Friends and Frienemies

A devotion for Jr. High Students

In the book and movie The Hunger Games, all the tributes know that only one can be crowned victor.  Yet many of them form relationships.  Just like in real life, Some of these are true friendships and some are not.

Do you remember your first friend?  Are you still friends today?  When we’re young most of us make friends with the people around us because they’re available.  These relationships come and go, a few may stay with us, but as we get older the bar for friendship gets higher and higher.  We make more conscious decisions about who is our friend and what kind of friend we want to be.

During the 74th Hunger Games, Marvel, Glimmer, Cato, and Clove form an alliance.  They have lot in common: they’re older, well trained and confident;  they all come from (relatively) wealthy districts and they’ve received a specialized education.  They treat the games like fun and bond over hunting and torturing the other tributes, but each knows in their heart only 1 of them can survive.  When something goes wrong– like a trackerjacket nest, or their food being destroyed– or when they have no other targets they are quick to turn on one another.   They even pretend to be friends with Peeta, just so he’ll help them find Katniss, and then   Have you ever known anyone like that?  Someone who always puts themselves first?  Or mocks others to make themselves look good?  [allow for answers]

The Career’s friendship is very different than the relationship Katniss develops with Rue.  How would you describe their alliance?  [allow for answers]

They help one another, they try to protect each other.  When Rue dies, Katniss genuinely grieves for her and tries to honor her memory.  It’s that same kind of friendship that makes Katniss volunteer for the games in the first place.

Jesus said “No greater love has anyone than this:  that they would lay down their life for their friends.”  (John 15:13).  That’s the kind of love He showed for us on the cross, and the kind of love he calls us to show to one another.  It isn’t always easy, in fact a lot of times we fail.  But the alternative is living like we’re in a battle; remaining constantly on our guard, never really trusting even the people we’re closest to because we know they’ll hurt us the same way we would hurt them.

Discussion Questions:

  • Can you think of any other relationships from the book/movie?  How did they become friends?
  • Can you name any friends in the Bible?  What is their relationship like?
  • Based on this what are good qualities to look for in a friend?
  • How can you be a good friend?
  • What about Katniss and Peeta?  How would you describe their relationship?  How does it measure up to Jesus’s standard?

A Letter for the Class of 2011 (or a shameless crib of Philippians)

I have to commend the class of 2011 for their taste. They chose our scripture for today and I can think of few things more appropriate to graduation Sunday than Philippians.  It is some of Paul’s best work; a letter full of joy and hope and love.  It is also a letter of goodbye.

Paul is in prison.  He is clear several times that his trial, and probably his death, are eminent.  So he writes to a people who loved him and supported him–a people he holds in his heart–to give them last things; to say, whether i see you again or not,remember this, hold in to these things.

So, if i may be so bold, I’d like to offer a letter for our graduates, in the Spirit–and occasionally  the words– of Paul.

From the Chapelwood family,  servants of Christ, to the graduates of 2011 as God guides you into the world.

We love you. We watched you grow up, some over the last 4 years some, all your lives. We worried over you and prayed over you. We’ve been blessed to see God in you.

Though sad to see you go, we know a good work is going on in you. And we know God, who began it, leads you in to the world now to complete it. Hold us in your heart.  God knows we will always hold you in ours.

We pray your love will overflow.  More and more each day, let love guide you to grow in knowledge and wisdom.  Learn from it what truly matters in life.

That isn’t easy.     Even in the church, where we are to glorify Christ, sometimes rivalries creep in, factions develop.  Sometimes when we disagree, we do it badly.  We know we’ve shown you that beloved, and we’re sorry.  If you were hurt by it, forgive us.  Try to see only, how much we wanted you to know Jesus.  Remember us proclaiming Christ in many ways, and rejoice in that.

Remember and outdo us.  Live lives worthy of the gospel of Christ. Make us proud whether we are there to see it  or not.

If there is any encouragement, any love or counsel we can give you as you go, it is this: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit. In humility treat others as better than yourselves. Don’t look to your own interests, but to the interests of others. In short See the world as Jesus saw it.

Hopefully we taught you that.  So many people supported you here.  We played games, made crafts, taught Sunday school and choir.  We laughed we preached, we built wheel chair ramps and painted houses, all so you would know the love of Christ.  Take charge of that faith.  Own it, contemplate it, work it out with the honor and dedication it deserves.  God is at work in you, every good thing you do springs from there.

Never forget that, and always, always, rejoice in the Lord.  Like Paul, you may have great success in life. Like Paul, you may lose everything. But If you gain Christ, it is worth it. If you learn to hold fast in the Spirit, it is worth it.  If you experience and share the love of God it    Is   Worth it.

None of us is perfect.  But as you work through the stages of your life, don’t waste time on regrets.  Leave temptations behind you, forget the roads not taken, strain forward to the kingdom God has in store.

True, not everyone lives like this, today.  You will meet many people whose minds are set on earthly things; they glory in shameful deeds, their God is greed, and their end is destruction.

But we look to Christ, who is our glory and our end.

Therefore, graduates rejoice, Rejoice, REJOICE in the Lord always; and again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

Know that God is with you always. Do not worry about anything, but take everything to God in prayer. Offer your joys and concerns; though you may not understand everything, the peace of God, come to your heart and mind.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Live the lessons you learned here.

We are so   very   proud of you and– though this isn’t the last time we’ll see you– we’ll miss you while your gone.  Go with the peace of God.  Find joy, find love. Be who you were meant to be. And remember, you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.

May God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his richness. To God be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Thoughts on Forgiveness

Forgiving is different than forgetting, or “letting it go”.  Forgiveness requires an acknowledgement, not only of what the other has done, but of who the other is.

Christ’s forgiveness is at once revolutionary and necessary, because it takes us first as we are, as we were created.  Christ sees us first as beloved children of God; after this Christ accepts what we have done and extends to us the absolution we sometimes do not receive from others and  can never give ourselves.

The burden we take up in Christ is easy because it replaces the pretenses, and false obligations we accumulate and it rejects the coordinating isolation by involving us in the deeply intimate act of forgiveness before ever requiring anything of us.

*Arendt The Human Condition (242)  and Matt. 11:30

Wisdom and Perfection in Tron Legacy

“I did everything you asked.  I created the perfect system.” –Clu

“I know…It’s not your fault.”–Flynn

If you haven’t seen Tron Legacy, I recommend it (and apologize for all following spoilers).  Yes, the movie has numerous faults, and no, its not as thoughtful as the original.  It is trying, nonetheless, to say some interesting things.  While watching it with the CSM youth last week, what struck me was this:  There is a very real difference between perfection and wisdom–between being good, and seeking the good life.

The premise runs thus:  After the fall of the MCP (see Tron), Kevin Flynn, enticed by the possibilities of User power on the Grid, sets out to create a perfect utopian system.  To this end he creates CLU (Codified Likeness Utility), in his own image, to carry out his will when he is not around.  All goes well; until a “miracle” happens–something Flynn neither planned nor created.  Flynn chases this new idea, CLU feels rejected, rebels, traps Flynn in the grid, and seeks to build the perfect system as originally  instructed.  Flynn, meanwhile, spends a lot of very humbling time hiding, pondering his mistakes.

Flynn made perfection (as he saw it) his central goal and source of meaning; he tried to play God.  In the process he convinced Clu that if he  worked hard enough and long enough, if he brought order to the whole system, if he lived up to expectations…then he would be perfect and, because of that, pleasing to his creator.  If Clu can just get every detail right, he will be loved.

I know I have been Clu.  I suspect most of us have at one point or another.  But after watching Tron, I think the bigger danger is being Flynn.  It is wrong to put too much pressure on our children–to ask for perfection in everything, even if we don’t really mean it.  It is risky even to teach them that “perfection” is the goal.  I know that sounds momentarily un-Methodist, but “perfection” for Wesley was not doing everything well.  It wasn’t even being a model Christian.  Perfection is to seek God in all things, to live for the Word of the Lord.  Yes, he felt that life would have some markers, but readily acknowledge that would would all fall short, probably often.  In the real world failure isn’t just an option, it’s frequently the outcome.  We learn more that way.

Flynn learns a great deal in his failures:  respect for CLU, love for Sam, the difference between might and power, the dangers of single-mindedness, the value of patience, the importance of sacrifice.  These he passes on to Quorra with great humility.  At the end of the movie, his greatest gift to Sam  is not the Grid or even Quorra, it is wisdom.

Flynn is opened to the wonders and possibilities of a world that is far to big and too strange for him to craft or control.  Sadly, the CLU he formed in his former image cannot get there.  The ideas of perfection and dominance are too far in grained; the pain of Flynn’s perceived rejection permanently mars their relationship. He cannot grow, he cannot marvel, he cannot forgive.  CLU does everything Flynn asked and in the end, it’s not enough because Flynn taught him the wrong question.

Some of what Flynn learns can only be won through age and experience.  But his mistakes with CLU aren’t necessary ones.  We can offer our children more than the unfulfilling pursuit of empty perfection.  We can teach them to do more than just “be good”.  We should set them searching for God; we should teach them to awe and wonder.  And we must walk beside them on their path, even if it’s not the path we would choose for them.  We can teach them to seek wisdom.

Then Job answered the LORD: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.  ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. –Job 42:1-3

Reading Revelation with the Surrealists: Part 5- All Things New

The Allegory of Silk (Salvador Dali)

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.  Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.  -Revelation 21:5-7

God is the God of new beginnings. After all the violence, all the turmoil there is new life. Here is the core of Revelation, John’s ultimate message: “Whatever you have to endure, however you are persecuted, terrorized, whatever disasters you encounter, the world is God’s and God will make it new.” In the end there will be no more pain, no tears, no fear; only joy and the worship of God.

All who resisted the beast are welcomed into the presence of God. Over and over God has called us to live lives characterized by baptism and worship. This is why, in this vision of eternity all our existence is worship. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be.

Reading Revelation with the Surrealists: Part 4-There will be blood

 And he said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. 16And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”  – Revelation 17:15-18

Guernica (Pablo Picasso)

Beginning with the wine press in Chapter 16 going through to the binding of satan in 19, we are met with images of horrific violence. Perhaps more than any others, these passages are difficult for me to honor as scripture. Yet it is important that we wade through them; that we neither turn away, nor give into the temptation to merely skim them. Even though they are bitter we must drink deeply here, or risk missing one of the greatest lessons of Revelation.

When John first sees the woman, the whore Babylon, he is “amazed”. Earlier the same amazement led others to worship effigies of the beast. There is something attractive about this woman. She bears all the markings of wealth and trade, education and culture. She is all that is best in Roman civilization–all the art and accomplishment the security of empire makes possible–and there is something attractive about her.

But she rides upon the beast– upon power and force and corruption and deceit–on all the things that keep an empire going. That beast will inevitably turn on her; it will destroy her. John shows us that, all that is good and attractive in an empire will eventually be stripped and devoured by the violence that sustains it–that is empire at its heart.

Picaso knew this. He painted it. There is a great story about Guernica. When Picasso was living in Nazi occupied Paris, a German officer was inspecting his studio, as they did from time to time. On the table were post cards of what was by then his most famous painting–post cards of Guernica. The officer picked on up and thrust in Picaso’s face. “Did you do this?” he asked. “No,” said Picaso, “you did. Have one. As a souvenir.”

Guernica is Picaso’s remembrance for a Basque town massacred, at the request of Spanish Fascists, by a German air raid. It is not easy to look at, no it is utterly disturbing. But even though it is bitter, we should look on it and take it in deeply. It is Picaso’s echo of John’s warning: This is what violence does. It may sustain an empire for awhile, but all violence eventually destroys.

That is not to say that our only valid option is quitism. I’m sure even Picasso was quite thankful for the tanks that eventually liberated Paris. And One of the most violent figures in Chapter 19 is indeed Christ, but though an army gathers behind Him, only Christ is said to slay. Vengeance is mine saith the Lord. In this life, it is inevitable that there be world powers, we are one now, as Babylon and Rome, and Spain, and Turkey and England were before us. And it is perhaps inevitable that such powers are violent. But we must be careful. Where the empire becomes an object of worship, where violence is as much an end as a mean, where power and corruption run amuck…there is Guernica.

Reading Revelation with the Surrealists: Part 3- In the wilderness

 A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth…And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.  -Revelation 12:1-2,5-6

Landscape with Butterflies (Salvador Dali)

I think one of the most misunderstood symbols in the Bible is “the wilderness”. Which is a little sad because it is also one of the most common. Jacob passes through the wilderness, so does Joseph. Moses is called there; the Israelites spend 40 years there (infact “Numbers” is named “In the Wilderness” in Hebrew). David hides out in the wilderness, so does Elijah. Ezekiel is taken there. Isaiah’s prophesies reference it over and over. Even Christ spent time there.

Actually I blame that last one for the trouble. Matthew leads with “Jesus was lead into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” but Mark is more ambiguous. In both cases Jesus is in the wilderness 40 days before anything happens with Satan. Most readings seem to miss that (i know mine frequently do), and so miss the real purpose, the real power of being “in the wilderness”.

The wilderness is not a place of trial and temptation. It is not to be endured, it is not where we get lost (thank you very much Dante) The wilderness is where we end up when we are already lost; when the trials have been too much or will be too much. We come to the wilderness when it most reflects our spirits: dry, barren, lonely, quiet. The wilderness does not sap us or challenge us, it mirrors what we already are.

Wilderness is liminal space. It is the space, the time in between. Something has come to an end when we arrive in the wilderness; but something is also about to begin. Again an again the wilderness is a place God takes people to prepare them for what comes next. For new relationships, for new roles. For difficult callings, and new realities. God shelters and cares for us in teh wilderness and shows us the possibilities to come. God makes new things spring spring forth like rivers in the dessert.

So it is in Revelation, there is new life, new beginning in the wilderness and that’s why I find Dali’s landscape most appropriate.

After the seven scrolls and the seven trumpets, before the seven bowls, there is (what some translations call) a parable. More often than not, when we come to this section we focus on the Beast and its number, or the dragon who calls it.

But we shouldn’t forget the woman, the pregnant woman. Like creation she groans for the coming of a new thing, a new life, a new kingdom. The child is born, and she is taken to the wilderness where she is sheltered and cared for. I believe John here claims the paradoxic nature of the Kingdom of God. It has come–the child is born–but it is yet to come–the child is taken up to heaven to come again. In the mean time we live in the wilderness–sheltered, cared for, and being prepared for the new thing that is coming.

Reading Revelation with the Surrealists: Part 2- Perspective

Son of Man (Rene Magritte) At least it hides the face partly. Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.

Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”  Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.  He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song:  – Revelation 5:5-9

Perhaps Revelation confounds us because it gives us exactly what we want, but not what we expect. By its very nature, John’s vision presents both what is visible and present and what is visible and hidden. It seems intended to to resolve our internal conflict, to satisfy our curiosity. But from the moment we develop a sense of object permanence, we live in the tension Magritte depicts. We don’t know how to live outside of it; we, like John, are ill equipped to perceive within a state of full revelation, and so the results are true and enlightening, but also strange. John hears the one who is worthy called the lion of Judah, but sees a slain lamb. He hears 144000 of Isreal called, but sees an unending multinational gathering. Three times 7 terrors are unleashed on the earth and the result is profound and unending worship.

As we move through the middle chapters of Revelation it is easy to be distracted by images of terror and violence. It is easy to be distracted, to be afraid, to become lost in the form of John’s vision. But always visible, though sometimes hard to see, is the glory of God. The call of Revelation is not fear and judgement, its worship. We should always hold Chapter 4 and 5 before us, viewing all that follows from the foot of the throne. Only from the perspective of glorious, unending worship, can we endure what is to come; both in the book and in our lives.

Reading Revelation with the Surrealists: Part 1-Assumptions

I was in the spirith on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”  –Revelation 2:10-11

Things are not what we perceive them to be, they are what they are. Or maybe better said, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

We are not in Kansas (well most of us aren’t) Nor are we in 1st century Smaryna, Ephesus or Sardis. That doesn’t mean John’s Revelation has nothing to say to us, but as we read, we should be aware of some things.

John writes to and for particular people at a particular time in particular places with particular internal and external problems; problems he seeks to address. He addresses them in a medium they were comfortable with (more comfortable than we are), drawing upon scriptural language and symbols they know well. This is a vision, the normal rules of time, physics, and sensory observation may or may not apply. John sees a voice, is transported to heaven and to Jerusalem, figures have more than one appearance simultaneously. Things are certainly not what they seem, they are what they are; they are truths that transend (and transgress) our normal perceptions.

John’s vision can be utterly strange and even frightening. This is impart, because we are not his intended audience. The ancient fathers were quite confident that John wrote about things immediately past and present for them, as well as about things to (quickly) come. Yet John also writes for the whole Church, including us today. The symbols of his vision are strong enough to bear interpretation, and re-interpretation. We must just be aware that we are re-interpreting, and must strive to do it faithfully. As we read our new context and its assumption should never obscure the core of John’s vision, for that is still true.

Even in all that has changed, from John’s time to now, God is still glorious, still with us, and still calling us into new life in God’s present/coming kingdom.

“This is not a pipe”
The Treachery of Images (Rene Magritte)