Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Violence: A Parable (Part 2)

A parable is a story that teaches a deeper truth by way of analogy. In this particular analogy, the yard is the city, the weed is violence, the grass is people and families, and the soil is the spiritual matrix those families and people grow in. Or don’t.

Now as with all parables, one cannot press the analogy too hard. The point is to illustrate the point.

So what’s my point? The spiritual soil many people in Chicago grow in is toxic. It’s poor at best and dead and barren at worst. This “soil” includes the way people relate to other people, the cumulative effect of both the sins committed against them and the consequences of the sins they commit, their emotional and social health, and especially the way they relate to God.

Violence comes from all kinds of people – rich and poor, white and minority, educated and uneducated. But it seems especially prevalent among the poor and minorities in blighted neighborhoods in the city. The soil these people grow in has been made toxic by everything from systemic disenfranchisement to generations of bad choices to corporate greed to exploitation by the record industry to open rebellion against God. It’s complex. Neither the liberals nor the conservatives have a corner on explaining the actual nature of the problem, which is often what happens when an issue becomes politicized and polarized.

But the problem at hand is that kids are dying, and all the awareness campaigns, candlelight vigils, prayer marches, gun legislation, prison sentences and educational initiatives have failed so far to make a lasting dent. Interestingly, this was not happening 40 or 50 years ago, even among the poor and disenfranchised. One would think people would ask themselves what has changed between then and now. Of course, people were killing each other back in the day. In fact, that has been happening since Cain killed Abel. But one did not see the devastated families and kids killing kids. I believe the increasing rejection of God is at the heart of this issue. Rejection by every level of society in Western culture. Humans have always been guilty of gross sin, and it always brings death, but the Western phenomenon of seeing God as quaint, even among professing Christians, surely causes us to forfeit His peace and order.

Nothing short of a spiritual revolution can change this problem. Even if the shooting stopped, the toxicity would simply manifest itself in another way. The bad soil has to be stripped away, rich, living soil has to be put down, and the grass needs to be able to grow healthy and strong. Families and people have to be healed. We must deal with the problem at its root. There is no solution that does not include the spiritual healing of families and people, and I just don’t see this happening unless the church rises up.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Violence: A Parable (Part 1)

I have a fairly large back yard, at least for Chicago. We bought our home here on the western edge of Humboldt Park almost five years ago, and when we moved in the yard was about in the worst shape you can imagine. It was barren, with broken glass and bricks and concrete and weeds and sterile soil. Where a pool had once been, there was a large area of sand that was completely devoid of anything living.

Not long after we moved in, I set out to create the Garden of Eden in my back yard, starting with the grass. So my plan was to remove the concrete and paving stones, pull the weeds and bring in some good soil. I bought six yards of dirt from Farmer’s Market up on Elston Avenue – about a dump truck full – and on my vacation that year I roto-tilled the entire back yard, then painstakingly transported the dirt from the pile in the empty lot next to my house to the middle of my yard using a plastic wheelbarrow. When I spread the soil over my back yard, I came to realize that I had only purchased enough to cover the existing dirt by about 2 or 3 inches. Undeterred by such a small detail, I proceeded to plant nearly a hundred dollars of premium grass seed and waited for my yard to transform into a golf course.

So it did. The grass came up beautiful and green, and it looked like I was going to have the yard I had always envisioned – a paradise for my kids to play in and a relaxing landscape for my wife and I to develop our green thumb in.

But then the problems began. Significant areas of grass just couldn’t handle the summer. I had to baby them with extra water, and still they looked like they were from Arizona. The grass just wouldn’t stay thick, and wherever the grass was weak and thin, weeds would pop up. Finally I gave in and bought a bag of Weed-N-Feed from Menard’s and spread the toxic junk all over my yard. Within a week – voila! – Beautiful thick lush grass was taking over again.

Problem solved.

Well, maybe not. Winter came and went, and the spring found my grass struggling again – in the same spots. Right over where the pool had once been, where the sand was just a couple inches beneath the topsoil. I painstakingly reseeded the bad areas and added some more topsoil from a bag, and when summer came I used the Weed-N-Feed again, but I soon realized that my efforts were in vain. Every year, my grass struggles.

I figured out what my problem was… I have bad soil. In the places where the soil is good, which is maybe 2/3 of the yard, I never have a problem. The grass has been thick and healthy since 2004 and weeds only show up on rare occasions and are quickly dispatched. This leaves me with a couple options: I can keep playing the Weed-N-Feed game every year, and every April and September painstakingly reseed the same struggling areas and do battle with weeds all summer, or I can go through the monumental job of removing the top layer of soil, getting rid of all that dead sand, bring in about $1000 worth of good soil, and actually deal with the root cause of my problem.

So what is the meaning of the parable?

Chicago is plagued with violence, particularly among young people. Every summer, as if on schedule, the gangbangers start shooting each other and numerous innocent bystanders, and the newspaper editorials, the neighborhood activists and the politicians parade their obligatory outrage over the problem and suggest the same tired approaches to try to deal with it.

What seems to be remarkably missing each year from the dialogue is the elephant in the room: The fact that these communities and the people who populate them are, for the most part, profoundly broken.

Broken people break things.

Poverty, fatherlessness, substance abuse, dysfunctional relationships and hopelessness are the order of the day. Yet when the politicians and activists speak, all I hear is more talk about more legislation and more funding, blah blah blah. Chicago is under four layers of firearms legislation, for example. Federal, State, county and city. In order for a criminal to use a gun in an act of violence in Chicago, he has to penetrate all four layers of government and violate around a dozen laws, many of which carry felony-level penalties. Despite the fact that this historically has resulted in nothing regarding reducing violence, the politicians suggest that if we just do more of what isn’t working, it will work.

I believe many of them mean well, but it’s hard not to think that some of it isn’t just posturing in order to appear that they are doing something about the problem. This is, in fact, the Weed-N-Feed approach: Ignore the genesis of the problem and keep attacking the symptoms.

And what is the genesis of the problem? Whew, that’s a thick one. It's the "bad soil" part of the parable.

That will be the next post…

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Has God Abandoned America as a Nation?

I know some of you can't stand John MacArthur, but he asks some piercing questions here.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Don't Waste Your Life - LeCrae

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Which Method Is Best?

While I believe there exist "best practices" in all kinds of endeavors, and I believe there is such a thing as poor methodology in ministry ventures of all kinds, I also think many Christians are a little too preoccupied with strategies and methods.

A good example is the approach to evangelism. Much ink has been spilled in the Evangelical world over which method is best, what is relevant to a given culture, and even whether there should even be methods. While some of these discussions certainly have merit, I am learning something. I have spent the last four months of my life teaching the book of Romans to a group of amazing college students and other young adults. We start chapter 4 tomorrow.

Yes, it's in depth.

I'm learning that the bigger issue is being intimately familiar with the Gospel itself. Not simply, "Jesus loves you and died for you", but rather the WHOLE gospel, articulated biblically. The more one is intimate with the biblical gospel, the better one is equipped to communicate it in a variety of settings using a variety of methods. I think we should be debating less about methodology and spending that time at the feet of Jesus drinking deep from books like Romans and Galatians and John until we are so familiar with the Good News that it simply pours out of us.

What I find fascinating is that the Bible portrays many methods of communicating the Good News. If you are intimate with the Gospel, chances are that you will be more skillful at knowing which method to use in which setting. It's true that different personalities lend themselves more naturally to different approaches, and that's fine. The body analogy exists for a reason. But I thought these examples from Scripture would be thought provoking:

6 Basic Approaches to Evangelism

1. Confrontational Evangelism
Definition - a bold, “in your face” straightforward communication of the gospel message.
Examples: Peter in Acts 2

2. Intellectual Evangelism
Definition - Using a logic & reason building a case for Christ to the hearer.
Examples: Paul in Acts 17

3. Testimonial Evangelism
Definition - using your unique story of what God has done in your life to introduce people to the gospel message.
Example: The man born blind in John 9

4. Interpersonal Evangelism
Definition - using creative strategies to help lost people develop relationships with soul winning Christians.
Examples: Matthew in Matthew 9

5. Invitational Evangelism
Definition - Actively inviting others to events where the gospel will be proclaimed.
Examples: The woman at the well inviting her neighbors to meet Jesus in John 4

6. Servant Evangelism
Definition - Intentionally doing good deeds, especially to the most needy, with the purpose of pointing them to Christ in the encounter
Examples: Tabitha in Acts 9

At the end of the day, the best method is the one applied well in the appropriate situation in the power of the Holy Spirit by a person who understands the Good News they bear.

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