Saturday, January 11, 2014

Conversion: An Enigma to Paganism and Secularism

When Christianity is seen as an exclusive and singularly privileged religion by its adherents, history demonstrates that it does well. In fact, one can argue from history that to the extent Christians professed their faith in Christ as being wholly unique- not only a faith unlike others but a corresponding morality unlike others –conversions were never wanting. This defies conventional wisdom, to be sure. But the truth is that with high standards Christianity grew by leaps and bounds even when state-sponsored persecutions were unleashed by the Roman Empire.

Fr. Raoul Plus, in his book, Radiating Christ, S.J. captured the genius of having high spiritual and moral standards. He wrote the following in 1944:

“There is no need to be afraid of asking too much. What attracts the young especially is the hard task, the difficult exploit. If you want volunteers for easy work, they are not enthusiastic. When faced with a choice of a religious order, souls that have a vocation seem by instinct to adopt those orders which are more fervent and more exacting. Similarly, souls will only enroll themselves in the service of a leader or an organization if they see that there are sacrifices to make and hard work to do.”

Our Lord capitalized on the attractiveness of such an appeal when he demanded from his disciples the very lives. He wanted everything from them! To bury a deceased loved one or to even say farewell to one’s family had to give way to following him. And this, more than anything else, was symbolic of the kind of conversion he required from his followers. In the Gospel of Mark he prefaced the kerygma with these revolutionary words: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15)

To “repent and believe” hardly seems revolutionary. But it was to the ancient pagans! To believe all that Christ taught without exception; to observe his moral law as a condition of being his disciple; and to be exclusively devoted to him while manifestly rejecting the gods of the Greco-Roman world [also known as Hellenism] was preposterous to ancient pagan sensibilities.

Michael Green made this very point in his book, Evangelism in the Early Church (1970, 2003). He argued that Christian conversion- especially as it pertained to belief, morality and the exclusive claims that Christianity made on its adherents -was not only a scandal, but it was an enigma to the ancients. It simply was unknown to the unbaptized world.

As for belief, Green said, “In the first place, Hellenistic men and women did not regard belief as necessary for the cult.” “So long as the traditional sacrifices were offered,” Green continues, “so long as the show went on, all would be well. You were not required to believe in the deities you worshiped: many people like Lucretius and Juvenal scoffed at the stories of the traditional gods but they were careful to continue the sacrifices on which on which the safety of the state and the well-being of society were held to depend.”

Keep in mind that intolerance to religious error is a Judeo-Christian thing. The ancient pagans, on the other hand, did not subscribe to a creedal religion. The worship of certain gods was rarely fixed and religious tolerance was a social necessity. Hence, to be selective as to what one believed about the gods was entirely consistent with being a “good pagan.”

But Christianity was different. It inherited an imperative for doctrinal purity from Judaism. Christ said to his Apostles to make disciples of all nations by “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” About four centuries later, St. Augustine, as with the early Christians, took our Lord’s words, “all that I have commanded” quite seriously. He said, "There can be nothing more dangerous than those heretics who admit nearly the whole cycle of doctrine, and yet by one word, as with a drop of poison, infect the real and simple faith taught by our Lord and handed down by Apostolic tradition." Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that there was an expectation in the early Church that all of what Christ commanded was to be believed and obeyed.

“Secondly," Green adds, "Hellenistic men and women did not regard ethics as part of religion. It made little difference to your behavior whether you were a devotee of Mithras or a worshiper of Isis.” That’s right. Being a priest or priestess in ancient Greece did not  necessitate high moral standards. Even the Greek philosophers were wanting in virtue. As regards to Plato, he “condemned drunkenness but approved of it on the feast of Bacchus. In the ‘Republic’ he recommends infanticide and a community of wives.” (James Cardinal Gibbons, Our Christian Heritage 1889)

It is a Christian invention that religion and morality go hand in hand. Even the charge of hypocrisy that is often leveled against the Church nowadays is only possible because it was the Church herself that made belief and morality to be inseparable. Thanks to her, the creed that one professes is expected to correspond to the morality one lives. And all who wanted to join her ranks during those first centuries had to make a clean break with their immoral past and embrace a life of virtue. No half measures, partial commitments or nominal Christians were countenanced. “For whoever keeps the whole law,” wrote St. James, “but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it.” (2:10) Fidelity to all of God's laws gives credibility faith. Morality and faith cannot be divorced. Indeed, this is yet another reason why conversion was an enigma to the ancient pagans.

“The third reason why the idea of Christian conversion was so surprising to Hellenistic people,’ Green writes, “was the exclusive claims it made on its devotees. Christians were expected to belong, body and soul, to Jesus, who was called their master…” It’s not just Michael Green that makes this important point. E. Glenn Hinson, in his book, The Evangelization of the Roman Empire: Identity and Adaptability (1981) also brings to the fore this idea of exclusivity. Hinson said, “What was built into their corporate life was the exclusivism of the monotheistic covenant…The institutional forms, developed gradually in response to the challenge of enlisting and incorporating new converts, did much to inculcate and sustain the exclusivism of Christianity.”

This Christian exclusivity was expressed in ancient liturgical prayer known as the Gloria. The Gloria was added to the Mass during the second century; not too long after St. John the Apostle died. The prayer ends with the following exclamation: “For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.” If one were to read between the lines it might read something like this: glory only to the Holy Trinity and to no other gods! But to refuse worship or even honor of other gods was considered to be the height of arrogance and intolerance. Yet, the early Church flourished in spite of it; even in a highly pluralistic civilization.

This leads us to the reason why Michael Green’s book, Evangelism in the Early Church (1970), has valuable insights for today’s Church. It has something to do with the striking similarity ancient paganism has with modern day secularism. What made the idea of Christian conversion a scandalous one to the pagans is what makes it a scandal in our secular society as well. To believe all that Christ taught through his Church without exception, to sincerely repent from all mortal sin and hence live a virtuous life, and to profess a faith that is not just one among many is an intolerable kind of conversion to those who subscribe to secular values. And to be sure, this is why such conversion is rarely insisted upon in many Catholic circles. But as Fr. Raoul Plus said, what attracts people is the hard task, the difficult exploit. And do we not do a disservice to souls and to the Church when we over accommodate and make conversion out to be too easy?

Monday, January 6, 2014

A Football Life: Lessons for Fathers

The NFL Network features a documentary series entitled, A Football Life. Developed by NFL Films, it highlights not just leadership skills and athletic ability but the real life situation of the NFL stars. Each episode gives the audience a glimpse behind the public image of these football heroes; a glimpse that the public was not privy to in the past. If truth be told, many coaches and football players that have long been admired by football fans had real human shortcomings like the rest of us; some worse than others.

Take for instance, Vince Lombardi and Walter Payton. These are two men I always looked up to. As for Lombardi, he was the coach of the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1967. He achieved something no other NFL coaches achieved: three consecutive NFL championships. His work ethic was unparalleled. He once said, “The quality of a person's life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.” He was committed to excellence as a NFL coach and it paid off. For this reason Lombardi, for decades, has been deemed a football “god” to those who love the game.
Walter Payton, former running back for the Chicago Bears (1975-1987), merited for himself a glorious public image as well; and justly so. What he did on the football field amazed even those spectators who weren’t big fans of the game. Moreover, he was an all-time rusher for several years. Payton’s work ethic, like Lombardi, was superb. When it came to the game of football, he never took the easy way out. He once said, “Never die easy. Why run out of bounds and die easy? Make that linebacker pay. It carries into all facets of your life. It's okay to lose, to die, but don't die without trying, without giving it your best.”
I grew up admiring the leadership skills of Vince Lombardi and the athletic ability of Walter Payton. As a leader and coach, Vince Lombardi had a way of getting the very best out of his players. And if he had to be tough on them, he would let them know at the end of the day how good they could become. Payton was no less rigorous as a running back. Having submitted himself to a demanding training regiment, he was able to break the NFL record for the most rushing yards in one game while he had the flu. But after watching A Football Life, featuring both of these men respectively, my admiration was put into context.
Men have the amazing ability to compartmentalize. Like a Navy Seal, he can zero in on a given mission while deliberately blocking out danger, pain and even his environment. This no doubt, is one man’s greatest strengths; but it is also his greatest weakness. The problem is that there is a great divide running through his very being which separates two worlds from within. On one hand, he is a husband and a father- this the domestic world of his family. On the other hand, he is constantly seeking to impress his personality upon the outside world through his work. He wants to make a difference. In fact, his identity is virtually inseparable from his work or his career. But if these two worlds from within are not reconciled, chances are his family life will suffer neglect in the pursuit of professional excellence.
Like many men, Lombardi and Payton excelled in their profession. But they struggled in their respective family obligations. There was a great tension between their two inner worlds . Lombardi, for one, was so consumed with his NFL coaching career that his marriage and fatherly responsibilities were compromised. Lombardi’s wife, Marie, turned to alcohol in his absence. And Vince Jr. had claimed that even though his father was physically present, he was not there mentally. As for Walter Payton, throughout much of his marriage he struggled with marital fidelity. Indeed, he struggled to be faithful in what mattered most. And after his last game on January 11, 1988, the remaining eleven years of his life were spent trying to fill a void in his heart that football temporarily had filled during his twelve years in the NFL.
Fair or unfair, the documentary, A Football Life, gave the impression that once Vince Lombardi’s and Walter Payton’s career ended, both men were depressed and at a loss. They seemed to have put all of their eggs in one basket. But when that basket was gone, they didn’t know what to do with their eggs. Again, man can so identify himself with his work that when his work is suspended or when it ends, he suffers decline. In worst case scenarios, a man will kill others or himself over a job, whereas women rarely, if at all, are known to do this.
Yet, the Gospel teaches us that real success- the one that carries over into eternity –is all dependent upon how we love God and family. A man can be successful and even admired by millions for his success, but it doesn’t count for much on his deathbed if he wasn’t first a successful husband and father. Without this most fundamental of successes, man is failure in life. I think Payton learned this lesson when he died of a liver disease. After all, it was his wife Connie and his two children that took care of him in his last days. I believe it was then that he learned the true value of what a family is.
In sum, the prophet Malachi foretold that the coming of the Messiah would make men better fathers. In other words, the Christ will come to “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers…” (Malachi 3:24) When the angel Gabriel appeared to St. Zachariah in the Temple, he repeated the prophet Malachi’s words. And in doing so, he pointed to a time when God would pour out the Holy Spirit upon men, giving them natural hearts and making them fathers again. With this outpouring, men would better withstand being consumed by his work at the expense of his family.
Knowing the Christian standard by which God is the first priority, family is the second and work is the third is one thing; but living it is another. Even with Christian men, this God-given priority is a challenge to live up to. After all, Vince Lombardi attended daily Mass. However, with a constant turning towards Christ in prayer and daily examination of conscience, this Christian standard is attainable.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own and
 not necessarily reflective of any organization I works for.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Top Ten Mistakes Christian Parents of Teens Make

Top Ten Mistakes Christian Parents of Teens MakeTop Ten Mistakes Christian Parents of Teens Make 
Courtesy of the JeffSTRONG Pastor/Author blog
Sky View comment with mistake number six.

10. Not spending time with your teen.

A lot of parents make the mistake of not spending time with their teens because they assume their teens don’t want to spend time with them! While that’s true in some contexts, teens still want and need “chunks” of one-on-one time with parents.

Despite the fact that teens are transitioning into more independence and often carry a “I don’t need/want you around” attitude, they are longing for the securing and grounding that comes from consistent quality time.

Going for walks together, grabbing a coffee in order to “catch up,” going to the movies together, etc., all all simple investments that teens secretly want and look forward to. When you don’t carve out time to spend with your teen, you’re communicating that you’re not interested in them, and they internalize that message, consciously or unconsciously.

9. Letting your teen’s activities take top priority for your family.

The number of parents who wrap their lives/schedules around their teen’s activities is mind-boggling to me. I honestly just don’t get it. I know many parents want to provide their children with experiences and opportunities they never had growing up, but something’s gone wrong with our understanding of family and parenting when our teen’s wants/”needs” are allowed to overwhelm the family’s day-to-day routines.

Parents need to prioritize investing in their relationship with God (individually and as a couple), themselves and each other, but sadly all of these are often neglected in the name of “helping the kids get ahead.” “Don’t let the youth sports cartel run your life,” says Jen singer, author of You’re A Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren’t So Bad Either). I can’t think of many good reasons why families can’t limit teens to one major sport/extra-curricular activity per season. Not only will a frenetic schedule slowly grind down your entire family of time, you’ll be teaching your teen that “the good life” is a hyper-active one. That doesn’t align itself to Jesus’ teaching as it relates to the healthy rhythms of prayer, Sabbath, and down-time, all of which are critical to the larger Christian task of “seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

8. Spoiling your teen.

We are all tempted to think that loving our kids means doing all we can to ensure they have all the opportunities and things we didn’t have growing up. This is a terrible assumption to make. It leads to an enormous amount of self-important, petty, and ungrateful kids. A lot of the time parents are well-intentioned in our spoiling, but our continual stream of money and stuff causes teens to never be satisfied and always wanting more. Your teen doesn’t need another piece of crap, what he needs is time and attention from you (that’s one expression of spoiling that actually benefits your teen!).

There are two things that can really set you back in life if we get them too early:
a. Access to too much money.
b. Access to too many opportunities.

Parents need to recognize they’re doing their teens a disservice by spoiling them in either of these ways. Save the spoiling for the grandkids.

7. Permissive parenting.

“Whatever” — It’s not just for teens anymore! The devil-may-care ambivalence that once defined the teenage subculture has now taken root as parents shrug their shoulders, ask, “What can you do?” and let their teens “figure things out for themselves.” I think permissive parenting (i.e., providing little direction, limits, and consequences) is on the rise because many parents don’t know how to dialogue with and discipline their children. Maybe parents don’t have any limits of boundaries within their own life, so they don’t know how to communicate the value of these to their teen. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to, because their own self-esteem is too tied up in their child’s perception of them, and they couldn’t handle having their teen get angry at them for actually trying to parent. Maybe it’s because many parents feel so overwhelmed with their own issues, they can hardly think of pouring more energy into a (potentially) taxing struggle or point of contention.

Whatever the reason, permissive parenting is completely irreconcilable with a Christian worldview. I certainly do not advocate authoritarian parenting styles, but if we practice a permission parenting style we’re abdicating our God-given responsibility to provide guidance, nurture, limits, discipline and consequences to our teen (all of which actually help our teen flourish long-term).

6. Trying to be your teen’s best friend.

Your teen doesn’t need another friend (they have plenty); they need a parent. Even through their teens, your child needs a dependable, confident, godly authority figure in their life. As parents we are called to provide a relational context characterized by wisdom, protection, love, support, and empowerment. As Christian parents we’re called to bring God’s flourishing rule into our family’s life. That can’t happen if we’re busy trying to befriend our teen. Trying to be your teen’s friend actually cheats them out of having these things in their lives.

Sometimes parents think that a strong relationship with their teen means having a strong friendship—but there’s a fine line that shouldn’t be crossed. You should be friendly to your teen but you shouldn’t be your teen’s friend. They have lots of friends, they only have one or two parents—so be the parent your teen needs you to be.

[Sky View comment: Now, I certainly understand where Jeff is coming from here. There are many parents who put themselves on the same level as their children by trying to be their friend. The problem with this is that some parents put themselves at a disadvantage in trying to exercise their authority when their children truly need discipline

Yet, I would add this qualifier: Parents are called to imitate God the Father. And through Christ, God is not only Lord and Father, that is, a source of authority for us, but he is also a friend; an intimate one for that matter. This, I believe , is what every parent is called to do: to be a source of authority and a friend. Indeed, God has given parents a template.

True, if we are just a friend to our children, they will hardly listen to us. Our parental authority is thus compromised. But it is equally true to say that if we are just an authority figure to our children, they will hardly confide in us. And when they experience a problem or a crisis, they may be tempted not to seek help from the people that care about them the most.]

5. Holding low expectations for your teen.

Johann Goethe once wrote, “Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat as man as he can and should be, and he become as he can and should be.” All of us rise to the unconcious level of expectation we set for ourselves and perceive from others. During the teenage years, it’s especially important to slowly put to death the perception that your teen is still “a kid.” They are emerging leaders, and if you engage them as such, you will find that over time, they unconsciously take on this mantle for themselves. Yes, your teen can be moody, self-absorbed, irresponsible, etc., but your teen can also be brilliant, creative, selfless, and mature. Treating them like “kids” will reinforce the former; treating them as emerging leaders will reinforce the latter.

For an example of how the this difference in perspective plays out, I’ve written an article entitled “The Future of an Illusion” which is available as a free download from (in the Free Downloads section). It specifically looks at my commitment to be involved in “emerging church ministry” as opposed to “youth ministry,” and it you may find some principles within it helpful.

4. Not prioritizing youth group/church involvement.

This one is one of my personal pet peeves (but not just because this is my professional gig). I simply do not understand parents who expect and want their kids to have a dynamic, flourishing faith, and yet don’t move heaven and earth to get them connected to both a youth group and local church.

I’m going to let everyone in on a little secret: no teenager can thrive in their faith without these two support mechanisms. I’m not saying a strong youth group and church community is all they need, but what I am saying that you can have everything else you think your teen needs, but without these two things, don’t expect to have a spiritually healthy and mature teen. Maybe there are teens out there who defy this claim, but honestly, I can’t think of one out of my own experience. As a parent, youth group and church involvement should be a non-negotiable part of your teen’s life, and that means they take priority over homework (do it the night before), sports, or any other extra-curricular commitments.

Don’t be the parent who is soft on these two commitments, but pushes their kid in schooling, sports, etc. In general, what you sow into determines what you reap; if you want to reap a teenager who has a genuine, flourishing faith, don’t expect that to happen if you’re ok with their commitment to youth group/church to be casual and half-hearted.

3. Outsourcing your teen’s spiritual formation.

While youth group and church is very important, another mistake I see Christian parents make is assuming them can completely outsource the spiritual development of their child to these two things. I see the same pattern when it comes to Christian education: parents sometimes choose to send their children/teens to Christian schools, because by doing so they think they’ve done their parental duty to raise their child in a godly way.

As a parent–and especially if you are a Christian yourself–YOU are THE key spiritual role model and mentor for your teen. And that isn’t “if you want to be” either–that’s the way it is. Ultimately, you are charged with teaching and modelling to your teen what follow Jesus means, and while church, youth groups, Christian schools can be a support to that end, they are only that: support mechanisms.

Read Deuteronomy 6 for an overview of what God expects from parents as it relates to the spiritual nurture and development of their children. (Hint: it’s doesn’t say, “Hand them off to the youth pastor and bring them to church on Sunday.”)

2. Not expressing genuine love and like to your teen.

It’s sad that I have to write this one at all, but I’m convinced very few Christian parents actually express genuine love and “like” to their teen. It can become easy for parents to only see how their teen is irresponsible, failing, immature, etc., and become a harping voice instead of an encouraging, empowering one.

Do you intentially set aside time to tell your teen how much you love and admire them? Do you write letters of encouragement to them? Do you have “date nights” where you spend time together and share with them the things you see in them that you are proud of?

Your teen won’t ask you for it, so don’t wait for an invitation. Everyday say something encouraging to your teen that builds them up (they get enough criticism as it is!). Pray everyday for them and ask God to help you become one of the core people in your teen’s life that He uses to affirm them.

1. Expecting your teen to have a devotion to God that you are not
cultivating within yourself.

When I talk to Christian parents, it’s obvious that they want their teen to have a thriving, dynamic, genuine, life-giving faith. What isn’t so clear, however, is whether that parent has one themselves. When it comes to the Christian faith, most of the time what we learn is caught and not taught. This means that even if you have the “right answers” as a parent, if you’re own spiritual walk with God is pathetic and stilted, your teen will unconciously follow suit. Every day you are teaching your teach (explicitely and implicitely) what discipleship to Jesus looks like “in the flesh.”

What are they catching from you? Are you cultivating a deep and mature relationship with God personally, or is your Christian parenting style a Christianized version of “do as I say, not as I do”?
While having a healthy and maturing discipleship walk as a parent does not garauntee your teen will follow in your footsteps, expecting your teen to have a maturing faith while you follow Jesus “from a distance” is an enormous mistake.

You are a Christian before you are a Christian parent (or any other role). Get real with God, share your own struggles and hypocrisy with your entire family, and maybe then God will begin to use your example in a positive and powerful way.