Christians are the worst. So say the critics, many of whom come from within the Church. Everyone has a story of some Christian acting like a hypocrite, lying, committing adultery (or worse), or just plain being mean. The book UnChristian found that Christains (and Evangelicals in particular) have an image problem among nonChristians in America.

9780764207464Bradley Wright, a sociologist at UConn, says, “Not so fast my friend.” He believes that Christians don’t have an image problem so much as pollsters have a numbers problem. He doesn’t believe the polls, and doesn’t think you should either. The date, he claims, indicates that Christianity (and Evangelicalism in particular) is alive and well in this country.

To prove his point about the numbers game, Wright comments on a recent, shocking poll that claimed the only group of people who were viewed more unfavorably than Evangelicals were prostitutes. The truth, however, requires a closer look at the numbers. A disproportionately large number of people responded “Don’t Know” when asked if they had a favorable opinion of Evangelicals—more than twice the number of the next highest group. Maybe a lot of folks don’t know what an Evangelical is. The poll also asked people their opinions of Born-Again Christians. Maybe others didn’t know the difference between Evangelicals and Born-Agains. The point is, according to Wright, you can’t always trust a poll, nor can you always trust the pollster’s conclusions.

While I don’t have space to address all of the data (mostly encouraging) that Wright presents in the book, I do want to look at one issue that gets bandied about a lot these days, and that is the fear that Christianity is dying in America. Maybe you’ve heard some of the following statistics (11):

  • “Christianity will die out in this generation unless we do something now.”
  • “Only 4 percent of this generation is Christian.”
  • “Ninety-four percent of teenagers drop out of church, never to return again.”

These are frightening statistics! And they’re also demonstrably false. Almost 76% of Americans self-identify as Christian, and 26% say they’re Evangelical. While 16% claim the title Unaffiliated, only 4% of our population are agnostic or atheist. (35) Not quite the death-knell of Christianity, is it?

Evangelicalism isn’t shrinking either, having held steady at 26% of the population for 30 years. While the number of religiously unaffiliated people has grown in recent years (largely from the exodus of political liberals from mainline denominations), a majority of those believe in God, believe the Bible is the Word of God, pray regularly, and consider themselves to be religious and/or spiritual.

The truth is that atheism is not taking over America. Despite the fears of many Christians, atheism has not grown in the past 20 years, and atheists constitute less than 2% of the total population.

This is a very readable book that will help to dispel some of the myths about Christians and Christianity in America. Things are not nearly as bad as they seem. And if you read UnChristian (like I did), and thought that things were hopeless for Christians (like I was), then this book will be a great encouragement to you. Cheer up, Christian. You’re not really the worst!

That screaming sound you hear is me pulling the arrows from my soul after reading Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods. His incisive writing cuts straight to the heart of the issue of personal and corporate idolatry, those “counterfeit gods” we worship and serve rather than Jesus Christ. Keller tackles four of the most prominent American gods—love, money, success, and power—unveiling their worthlessness and the inevitability of disappointment we will experience when we worship them.

counterfeit godsEach chapter reads like a sermon and concludes with a call to worship the true God and his son Jesus Christ. Through this repetition of structure, Keller calls his readers to abandon their false gods and worship and serve Jesus only. It is an effective literary and rhetorical technique (I can only assume that these chapters were originally written as sermons) in which the false gods are crushed and the true God is elevated to his rightful place on the throne of our hearts.

The real cunning of idolatry, he argues, is that we make idols of good things (or at least things that are morally neutral). Money, Sex, Power, and Success are not evil entities. They corrupt us not because they are inherently corrupting, but because we are inherently corruptible. “An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’” (xviii) Idols occupy a place in our hearts that belongs only to God.

Many of the books I have been reading lately have an academic bent. Counterfeit Gods, while being intellectually rigorous in its own right, is a book that all Christians (and nonChristians, for that matter) should read. It will help you unmask your idols, and to see the deeper needs of your soul that you’re trying to meet through your idolatry. Only when we remove our idols from the throne of our hearts will we be free to fully worship the true, living God who loves us and sent his Son to die for us.

Yes, I’m writing a book. No, it will probably never be published. But that’s okay, because I’ll just self-publish it and buy a copy of it on amazon.com.

Anyway, I wanted to post a short chapter that I wrote to the blog to get feedback from folks. I suppose this is as good a way as any to determine if I’m on the right track or not.

The chapter is a reflection on the first sermon I preached at Ember, called The Divine Interruption. The sermon is based on Jeremiah 1, and you can listen to it in the sermon player on this blog. (Just scroll all the way to the bottom.) But you don’t have to listen to it to get this chapter.

So if you take the time to read this chapter, would you mind taking a few extra minutes to give me some feedback in the comments section? Honest feedback (positive or negative) only, please.

•••••
Racing Horses | Chapter 3
Reflections on The Divine Interruption

God is with those he calls. That was the lesson of the previous chapter, which was also the sermon I preached at the first worship service of Ember Church. That is an important truth to remember because when the storms of life come it will be the first thing you forget. When life gets hard, harder than you can bear, your first temptation will be to rage at God, “Where are you?! Where did you go?!”

The second temptation will be to question the veracity of your calling. “Maybe I was never really called to this,” you’ll darkly wonder. You will doubt your calling because the cruelty of your circumstances tells you that God has abandoned you. “If God is with those he calls, and God is obviously not with me, then I am not called.”

I wrestled with both of these temptations in my dark hours, often bouncing between the two in some sort of sadistic game of existential ping-pong. I would rage at God for disappearing when I needed him most, and then I would passive-aggressively despair that I was never truly called to ministry in the first place. Maybe I’m not even saved! Back and forth I would go, spiraling ever downward into an internal chaotic darkness.

The moments of clarity would come, however, when I remembered this message in conjunction with God’s undeniable call on my life. Despite my present circumstances, I could not doubt what God had done in my life up to that point, nor could I deny the deep draw to ministry within my soul. If I’m not teaching a class or preaching a sermon, then I’m writing a blog. If I’m not discipling young believers, then I’m thinking about what I would say to young believers in different circumstances. Ministry is something I can’t not do. It is God’s call on my life, and no amount of ministry failure can undo that calling.

Knowing that I was called then, it naturally followed that God was with me. I couldn’t deny the exegesis of the passage. It was clear as day in the words God spoke to Jeremiah. Perhaps that episode where God called Jeremiah to the prophetic ministry was a one-time, unrepeatable event. Even so, the principle behind God’s promise to be with Jeremiah and to rescue him is undoubtedly general, and applies to all ministers of the Gospel. Sometimes you need your head to pull your heart back from the edge of the cliff, and this was certainly one of those times for me.

Falling

At the beginning of the first chapter I wrote that Ember’s death felt like a failure, like I had stepped out in faith and fallen flat on my face. In the previous chapter I wrote that when you step out in faith it is not solid ground onto which you land, but rather the arms of God into which you fall. So which is it? Did I fall on my face, or did I fall into the arms of God? The answer, I believe, is “Yes.”

I fell on my face in the sense that Ember didn’t work out like I had hoped or planned, and the death of Ember was very painful for me. I also felt like a bit of a fool, seeing as how I couldn’t make the church thrive and survive, despite the near impossible circumstances. There’s a part of me that believes that, now that I’ve failed as a church planter, I’ll never be able to get another job in ministry again, and that I don’t even deserve one.

On the other hand, I fell into the arms of God in the sense that I was depending on him at a level I hadn’t experienced before. Even though God didn’t come through for me in the way that I wanted him to, my faith has been deepened. You never really know how sweet the still waters are until you’ve passed through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I also found, by laying Ember down, how redemptive failure and suffering are kingdom victory. I discovered how trials can be grace.

Is it possible that God would let us fall on our faces in order to teach us to trust him even more? I think so. In ways that seem backward and counterintuitive to us, stepping out in faith and falling on our faces is the same as falling into the arms of God. There are times when failure is the purest grace we can receive.

Success and Faithfulness

Success isn’t the point. It has never been the point. The metrics of the kingdom of God are in conflict with the metrics of the evangelical church. When Jesus says, “few are they who find [the path to life],” how can we obsess over how big our churches are? Shouldn’t we assume that the majority of the people who are already within our churches are doomed to spend eternity apart from God?

But I digress. Faithfulness is the point, not success. And it’s at least possible that some of the most faithful saints were also some of the most spectacular failures – so much so that we may have never even heard of them. If God has called us to an impossible task, then success is removed from the equation and all that is left for us is to be faithful.

In my experience, faithfulness meant laying the church plant down and becoming more present to my family in their time of need. Even though it was obviously the right decision, it still felt like failure. I suppose faithfulness will feel like failure sometimes.

Isaiah the prophet likely experienced this. God even prepared him for it by telling him, right from the beginning, that the people won’t listen to him and they won’t change their ways. We learn at the very beginning of Jeremiah’s book that he failed, too. After all, if he had succeeded in bringing Judah to the point of repentance, they would not have been sent into exile in Babylon. In fact, none of the prophets were able to stem the tide of God’s judgment against his people. In that sense, they all failed. Even Jesus failed. He was unable to convince the leaders of Israel that he was the Messiah, and in the end he found himself friendless, crucified like an enemy of the state.

You might be saying to yourself, “But that was the whole reason Jesus came – to die for our sins. He didn’t fail. He accomplished precisely what he set out to do.” That’s true, but how many of our congregations look like Jesus’s congregation? By our own Western, consumer-driven standards, is not the lonely figure of a crucified man the very definition of failure?

Every person – all the prophets, and even his own Son – that God sent to his people failed according to the world’s standards of success and failure. I think we ought to be paying more attention to that reality than we are. I think that ought to tell us something about what it means to succeed and fail in the kingdom of God. As I’ve already written, I believe that redemptive failure is kingdom victory. Our goal should not be to succeed on behalf of God, but to be so faithful to his call and mission that when we fail (because we will) our failure will be inherently redemptive, thus bringing about tremendous kingdom victory in the spirit of the Gospel, the crucifixion (redemptive failure) and resurrection (kingdom victory) of Jesus Christ.

Dreams are not eternal. The things we do in this life, the organisms and organizations we create, have a lifespan. Leaves bud, flourish, brilliantly change color, then fall to the ground dead, shrivel up, and get consumed into the ever-turning, ever-recycling earth, destined to become nourishment for the next round of leaves budding in the warmth of the coming spring.

So it was with Ember Church, my near-decade-long dream whose lifespan was all too short, lasting only a little longer than the leaves I just raked from my front yard. I had hoped that this church would take root and flourish for decades, outpacing my own life on this earth. But that’s not how it turned out. Despite my prayers and best efforts, Ember Church died young – just 64 Sundays old.

•••••

64-SundaysBefore we were married, I made a promise to my wife. I told her, “I will never sacrifice my family for a church.” I had heard enough horror stories of the rebelliousness of pastor’s kids, and I resolved that, as much as it was up to me, I would not push my kids into rebellion by putting the church before them. They, and my wife, would come first. And if I ever had to choose one or the other, I would choose the family.

When we decided to step out in faith and plant Ember Church, we knew that I would have to do it bi-vocationally, meaning that I would work a full-time job to provide for the financial needs of the family, and use my spare time to pastor the church. We knew this would be extremely challenging, and would demand sacrifice from all of us in the family. We determined that we could do this for 2 years, and then we would re-evaluate the situation. The hope was, at least on our part, that the church would have grown large enough by then to support me in full time ministry.

We were thrown two curveballs that caught us off guard. First, it took me a year to find a job. That process was brutal, and I really don’t want to relive it here. Suffice to say, it was a stressful and desperate year. The second curveball, however, was thrown with a full count in the bottom of the ninth, and it buckled my knees so hard I couldn’t even get the bat off my shoulder. That was Zeke’s epilepsy.

•••••

The first seizure was in May, and the second in June. Then a third one in July. After that, things went downhill, and fast. He started having seizures about 10 days apart, and we wound up at the ER five or six times in about a month’s time. As his meds increased, so did his seizures. He went from developing slowly (but developing) to regressing.

We didn’t know what was going on with him. He was losing words. He was losing motor skills. He was already developmentally delayed, and we had worked very hard to get him to where he was, but it was all slipping away. Before long Breena noticed that he was having tiny, micro-seizures throughout the day – lots of them. He would seize for a brief second at the top of the stairs, lose his balance, then tumble to the bottom. This happened a lot. All the words he had picked up through extensive therapy were gone, replaced by a loud, frustrated, “Enh!” He was descending into physical and mental chaos.

I made an offhand comment in one of my sermons at Ember that chaos is the defining characteristic of hell. Zeke’s chaos translated into chaos in our family, and the only word I could find for it was hell. Despite our prayers, despite the medication, Zeke just kept getting worse; and the deeper into chaos he spiraled, the more closely we followed him. Our lives became a living hell.

All the while I was trying to pastor this church that I loved and believed in, but that hardly anyone came to. Ember wasn’t growing; it was shrinking. And that’s hard to do when you’re a small church to begin with. I was discouraged. I was angry. I didn’t know what to do. I felt my son and my church slipping away.

•••••

Nobody was getting a good version of me. My wife was getting a bad husband. My kids were getting a bad father. My church was getting a bad pastor. I was stretched too thin. I couldn’t work a full time job, be a family man to four kids and a wife, be the father of a child with special needs, and pastor a small church into stability and viability. It was too much. I was desperately banging on and kicking at this “church” door, trying to get it to open, trying to make this church work; then God showed me: “This isn’t a door. It’s a wall. And if you keep banging on it and kicking at it, your whole house is going to fall down on top of you.”

It was time to call it. I couldn’t go on. If I persisted with Ember, it would cost me my family. I would have broken my promise to Breena, made almost eight years earlier. I would have sacrificed my family for the church. While the Son of God was an acceptable sacrifice to God for the sake of the world, the sons and daughters and wife of Andy Holt are not.

Things moved quickly after that. I told Breena. I told my parents. I told Ned Berube, the president of the ARC. That was Tuesday morning. I told Garth, our other elder, on Thursday. Then, on Sunday, I told the rest of the leadership team. That night, because Travis, who was scheduled to preach, got sick, I went ahead and told the church. That sucked. (And would you go freaking figure, it was our best attended service in weeks, and we even had a new couple!)

The following week we had a celebration dinner, telling stories of what God has done through the 64 Sundays we had together as a church. It was beautiful, and it broke my heart.

•••••

To the people of Ember Church I want to say this (and I know you’ll say that I don’t need to, but I do): I’m sorry. I’m sorry that this beautiful little church didn’t survive. I’m sorry that I couldn’t do more to make it last. You all said such wonderful things at our celebration dinner, and for that I’m grateful. I’m glad we got to do that. I remember a lot from that night, but one thing stands out: Mary, who always seems so happy, standing up and, through tears, telling us that Ember is the only place where she knew it was OK to not be OK. That got me.

I’ll always remember the Jeremiah series, and hopefully I’ll write that book someday. I’ll always remember the two baptismal services, and dunking Somers, Becca, and Cody the Guy I Didn’t Recognize Because He Shaved His Beard in that freezing cold baptistry on New Year’s Day. (The second baptism service, when I baptized Mary, Ian, And Dustin on Easter, was much more comfortable.) I have a lot of other memories that I’ll always treasure, and I hope you do too. We only got 64 Sundays, but they were beautiful and difficult and wonderfully worth it. And now that this leaf has fallen to the ground, I hope and pray that it will enrich the soil of the wider Church, and that you who were a part of Ember will nourish and flourish wherever God takes you.

Wednesday night I was out with my 2-year-old son Zeke trying to take care of some work-related stuff. I love this little guy! He’s curious, relentless, and fearless. He also has a speech delay, as well as some other developmental delays, that have prevented him from talking and doing other age-appropriate activities. On top of that, he’s started having seizures in the past few months, which means he’s been diagnosed with epilepsy. It’s a terrifying thing to watch your young child seize up, lose control of his body, and struggle to take breaths. Zeke disappears deep into himself during his seizures. I look into his eyes and I don’t see anyone there.

Before Wednesday night, he’d had four seizures, two of which I have seen in person. As we were walking into the store together, I noticed that he wasn’t acting like himself. He was quiet, tired, and cranky. He seemed to have trouble focusing, like his head kept moving, involuntarily, over his left shoulder. His left eye began to twitch, and I saw the emptiness in those big brown eyes. This was a seizure, mild in comparison to his other ones, but the first one without mommy around.

YogurtFor the third time in ten days, we wound up in the ER at Children’s Hospital. The seizure had ended by the time we arrived, and his energy and vitality slowly came back to him. He was himself again in about an hour.

I don’t know why this seizure happened. He had his regular dose of medication. It started in a familiar environment – our van. I have no explanation, which means, I guess, that a seizure could grip him at any time. This reality fills me, as it would any parent, with deep anxiety. What if it happens again and no one’s around to help him? Why didn’t the medicine work? Are the seizures related to his developmental delays? Will he ever be “typical”?

On the other hand, as Breena and I were driving Zeke home from the ER that night, we were both filled with tremendous faith. Despite the seizure, we both were seeing signs of progress with his speech and overall development. We believe that God will heal Zeke. We believe that God is healing Zeke. We don’t know when this healing process will be done. We don’t know how it’s all going to shake out. But we hope and believe that God is working, and will continue to work, a miracle in Zeke’s life.

Believing this, and saying it publicly, fills me with a sense of vulnerability. I can’t control whether or not Zeke has another seizure. There is no surgical procedure, that I know of, that will fix his developmental delay. He’s either going to grow out of it, or he’s not. God will either heal him in this life, or we’ll all have to wait, as so many people do, for the resurrection. Obviously, my wife and I are believing God for the former.

NbG3vWGQO-The nakedness of faith is that we put everything on the line for Jesus and let him decide how he’ll come through for us in the end. Faith demands that we let go of control, that we throw ourselves onto the person of Jesus Christ in complete desperation of soul. It’s him, and nothing else. (Of course we’re still giving Zeke his medicine, but we understand that the medicine isn’t actually healing his brain or aiding the developmental process, it’s just keeping his seizures at bay. Sometimes.)This kind of faith makes me feel exposed, like in those dreams when I show up to school naked. (Yes, I still have those dreams, it’s just that the context is different now.) To trust God for something, whether it’s your son’s healing or your own salvation, requires you to take a stand. This faith demands that you forsake all other avenues of rescue, and lean solely into the object of your faith – to believe, as it were, without the aid of a safety net.

I can’t control whether or not Zeke has another seizure or choose the day he’ll start speaking clearly. Neither can I manipulate God into making his seizures and developmental delays go away. All I can do is trust that Jesus is King, and that no matter what happens, he loves me, he loves Zeke, and in the end we’re going to be a part of his eternal and infinite reign. This has a strange way of making me feel both vulnerable and secure. I have nowhere to hide, and yet I can hide myself in Christ. I have no other clothes to wear, and yet I can put on faith like a garment. I believe, and I believe nakedly.