The Faith That Isn’t


You can’t be a Christian very long before you must come to grips with the meaning of faith. And in America that faith will come down to either a naïve faith or a mature one.

Maturity, at least if the brochures are right, is the true hallmark of Christian enlightenment. It’s easy to spot someone with a mature faith. They have that knowing, philosophical smile whenever they spot some brand spankin’ new believer anxious to be about God’s work, that person with a naïve faith that hasn’t been around the block a time or two.

The person with a mature faith understands that very few people ever see real results in prayer. That mature person knows that it’s one thing to believe something and altogether a different thing to make it happen. Supplementing one’s wishes with a little elbow grease never hurt anyone. The mature person of faith knows that backup plans are needed when idealism falls through. Sure, God is ready to say yes to the faithful, but it’s smart to hedge one’s bets against failure.

When Joe Sixpack loses his job during the recession, the counselor with the mature faith readily advises Joe to immediately find another job, any job. “God can’t drive a parked car,” the counselor says—with a wink. Because there’s always a wink or a reassuring pat on the back when mature faith is involved.

No, the American Christian of mature faith comprehends what the person with the naïve faith doesn’t. And his church makes him an elder or a committee supervisor for his discernment. Because we need his common sense wisdom and leadership. We don’t want to make the mistakes of blindly following some starry-eyed dreamer with a naïve faith who wants to change the world for Christ.

So we hold up the person of mature faith. He’s the model. And his common sense faith is an example for us all.

Except, as I see it, that mature “faith” isn’t really faith at all.

The Lord makes it clear:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven….”
—Matthew 18:1-3

You see, it’s the person with the naïve faith, the one who believes there stands no impediment to the God of the Universe, who is the real warrior in the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the one who believes that nothing is impossible with God. This is the person who takes God’s word at…well, His word. This is the one who sends the devil scurrying back to hell.

I’d like to find a real Christian today who believes the following:

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
—Psalms 127:1

Instead, we of “mature” faith like to force God’s hand. When we feel we’ve waited long enough, we build the house, we watch over the city. Because faith in God is nice, but if you’re going to build houses and protect cities, nothing beats the sweat of the brow. Yes, Jesus, I believe you...So leave the waiting in the prayer closet to the naïve, and let’s get the real men out there to do the job pronto. And for all our sakes, make sure we have a Plan B.

This is what passes for maturity today.

No, man’s common sense is just that, common. It takes a real naïf, a true fool, to think otherwise, to see with uncommon vision, to have God’s perspective.

Frankly, I’m a bit sick of all the people with supposedly mature faith who sit around saying, “Yes, but….” Those “buts” have a knack for getting in the way, stymieing the work of the Lord. Whenever those mature people bless us with their smarts, you can almost hear someone muttering along with them: “Isn’t that just Jesus, the carpenter’s son?”

You’ve got poor, uneducated nobodies in India leading thousands to Christ, laying their hands on the sick and watching them get healed. Meanwhile, you’ve got hyper-rationalists masquerading as the mature people in the church who raise their objections and quote from their science and philosophy books all the reasons why none of that can be happening.

Me? I’ll stick with Isaiah on this one:

…and a little child shall lead them.
—Isaiah 11:6b

The Loss of Innocence


Bratz—JadeI live in an area of the country that suffers from “chronophobia,” the fear of keeping up with the times. LA is about eight years ahead of us, and even our major Midwestern neighbor to the northwest, Chicago, is about five. I can’t point to the chapter and verse, but it’s a foregone conclusion the Rapture for righteous Greater Cincinnatians will occur at least three years after the fact.

When you live in a “backward” area, things that are “forward” startle you. I was jolted this last week by a seven-year-old boy in Kroger yelling to a woman who was clogging up an aisle, “Get out of my way, you fat f***.”

Besides being glad that my son was not with me to hear that, my unconscious response was to run the mental wayback machine to California, 1996. My wife and I were new arrivals, but we understood the vibe well enough to know we were “not in Kansas anymore.” The tape ran and ran, but I don’t remember kids in the Valley launching a tirade like the one I’d just now heard.

Still, it had to come from the coasts. Doesn’t that kind of filth crawl Godzilla-like out of the Atlantic and the Pacific, aiming to meet in the heartland, like some hell-tinged rendition of the driving of the golden spike?

I was in the new Wal-Mart about a half hour from us (tore down the regular “Center” and replaced it with a “Supercenter”) and was fascinated by the 40″+ flat panel displays strategically placed throughout the store playing “The Wal-Mart Channel.” A video by some new teenage singing sensations was looping, young people re-enacting everything they’d seen in Mountain Dew commercials throughout their young lives.

I could not stop watching that loop. This time my son was with me, pulling my arm with both hands, near-screaming, “Daddy, let’s go!”

There, in the eyes of those kids.

If you’ve ever seen the open eyes of someone freshly deceased, then you’ve seen that look. There’s nothing there in those eyes. Emptiness defines them. Even a child knows that something is missing when he or she sees the eyes of a corpse.

Those two dozen teens in that music video loop channeled that same deadness. Behind the eye liner and mascara was a vast nothingness.

After my son was practically biting my thigh trying to get me to stop watching corpses dance to the music, I could not stop staring at the under-20 crowd that filed past me everywhere we went the rest of that day. How had I—for so long—missed the ungrateful dead?

It’s miserable spotting a worn fifteen-year-old suburban girl you know could teach a fin de siècle Parisian hooker a thing or two. Madonna may have been a tramp in my era, but this girl is something altogether different. She may not even be human, at least as we define it. I’ve seen mannequins with more expressive faces. If there was a soul in that kid once, it vacated a while ago.

But more than anything else, I want to apologize to that zombie of a girl for my generation. We let her generation down. Our harebrained youth ministry experiments, our obsession with our careers, our self-centeredness—we allowed the Enemy to gut them while we slept on our watch.

Or maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe we did care, but we got stuck fighting so many endless battles against wickedness that we had to compromise somewhere. The low-rider jeans were too trivial to fight. It could be something worse; she could be doing crystal meth.

I just can’t get over the vacant stares.

What’s the entry point for death in our children? One day our sons are playing in the sandbox with their Tonka trucks and our daughters are having tea time with their stuffed animals, then the next they’re passing around rubber wristbands that signify what sex acts they’ve successfully completed, or strangling each other to the point of passing out—for the “fun” of it.

Sunrise, sunset, swiftly fly the years.

Sure, we’ll get some PhD pedagogue regaling us with tales of the Dark Ages and the need for kids to grow up fast back then, but childhood today seems to be measured in seconds anymore. When girls in the first grade consider Barbie a toy for preschoolers, and boys have abandoned G.I. Joe as young as six, maybe picoseconds would be a better measure of the length of childhood.

It gives me the willies to think of my own son encountering one of these kids who’s a fifty-year-old in a ten-year-old’s body. I used to think they only minted those out on the coasts, but when I hear a seven-year-old neighborhood boy calling an adult woman a “fat f***,” I’ve got to wonder if someone’s firing up a local franchise.

The soap hasn’t wound up in anyone’s mouth around here, yet. I’m not looking forward to that day. My son got out some Blue’s Clues tapes the other day and watched them almost nostalgically, eyes wide and still sparkling. I watched with him for a few minutes. Though I knew he wouldn’t want to stop watching, I let him go, even if knew he’d ultimately sit there for two hours. Why? Because the precious gift that God has bestowed on him is indeed that.

And once you’ve lost it…

When Parents Fumble for Answers


I had a second cousin on my dad’s side who was older than me; her name was Lois. She was a big, warm-hearted person with a nice laugh who was always nice to me. My dad, who was never the social sort, really liked Lois, too. And like many children, I wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand the whole relational thing, so Lois was always “Aunt Lois” to me.

When I was about twelve, Lois developed leukemia. I remember many nights I spent praying for Lois. In fact, I think I prayed for Lois more than anyone or anything I can remember from that time. I remember reading verse after verse about how God heals. I prayed my heart out for Lois.

She died a little more than a year later in her young thirties. I was so broken up by this that I did not want to go to the funeral because I thought it was my fault that she died. Part of my childhood died with her.

Friday, I had to take my four-year-old son to the emergency room at the local children’s hospital. Despite my constant care and attention (and only three hours of sleep each on Thursday and Friday AM), I could not keep enough fluids in him to prevent his getting dehydrated. Father & son, hand in handHe entered that vicious vomit cycle of losing so much water from his system that adding it only made him more nauseous. In the end, nothing could stay down. He awoke Friday morning looking like one of those hollow-eyed waifs you see in ads for Third World children’s charities.

Now he’s a resilient kid, and despite some bad allergies to furry animals, he’s relatively healthy. Never once have I heard him say, “Daddy, I feel really terrible,” but he did so today. He looked really terrible, too. So at 8:30 AM, I sat half-conscious beside him and said, “Let’s pray for God to heal you.” After I prayed, he looked up at me and said, “I still feel terrible. Why didn’t God heal me? Why will I have to go to the doctor?”

It was the look on his face that broke something inside of me. That look reminded me of how I felt when my dad came into my room late one night to tell me that Lois had died. The expression I must’ve given my dad then was the same one I now saw in my own son’s eyes.

In that teachable moment, I tried to distill the ideas of special grace versus common grace to him, to tell him that God heals alone and sometimes He uses doctors, but that hurt look remained. There was the chink in the armor of childlike faith in a little boy whom I wished would never lose that simple faith that children seem to be born with, the faith Jesus commends for all of us.

He didn’t say much to me the rest of the afternoon. They turned the TV on in the room they gave him at the hospital, and through much of the four hours we were there watching the electrolyte solution plump him up like air in a deflated balloon, he was glued to Nickelodeon’s snarky cartoons for adults packaged for kids. When I’d had enough of the veiled references, we switched to Nick, Jr. Me, the one with all the answers, didn’t seem too filled with them in that moment and I couldn’t compete with the TV. And though he didn’t once cry at the hospital, despite the IV dripline jabbed in his hand, he cried when he got home over a waxed paper pill cup he’d clung to during the whole ordeal; I’d thrown it away as we were leaving the emergency room.

He’s physically fine now. And though he’d already seen a brain full of TV, his mom and I had rented Singing in the Rain and wanted to watch it before we had to take it back to the library. My son laughed his head off during Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” scene, and for a while everything seemed like it had always been.

I was a sheltered child. Even at in my 20s, I was pretty naïve. I regret none of that. Yet trying to preserve childhood today is an effort I think all of us underestimated when we started having babies. I thought I knew how to handle every possible outcome, but I didn’t know what to do about the look of abject disappointment I saw in the eyes of my own child when he realized that God was not going to make him better there and then, and that a trip to the doctor, and then to the hospital, was the only outcome. In that moment was a slow leaching away of the reservoir of childlike faith that Jesus loved in the children He blessed.

Millstones. I started thinking about millstones we tie around the necks of people less spiritually mature than we are. Had I said something in the past to my son that setup the expectation that was not fulfilled? Not as far as I knew. Though I’m relentless in turning what he hears of naturalistic explanations for life back to explanations of the workings of God in Creation, I must’ve left open a chink.

Adults put on the full armor of God through the spiritual disciplines and intense discipleship. But children must don that armor through the grace of God working in their parents’ personal instruction. With so many forces of darkness attacking from untold directions, I often feel unprepared for that task. The last thing I want to see happen with my son is for me to fumble the answers, to fail to provide his cover as he moves into adulthood.

It’s that look of innocence lost in a child’s eyes that should chill every parent to the bone.