Review of Children of Divorce by Dr. Andrew Root

Returning to Family Matters

In July’s edition of the WLC Messenger, I am returning to family matters after a couple of months on other topics. If you know me well, then you know that divorce, remarriage, and the effect such decisions have upon children is a topic that is close to my heart. I myself am a child from a home that has been touched by divorce. I have close family members, friends, and parishioners whose lives have been touched by divorce. I have studied the teachings of Scripture on the topic of divorce and remarriage.

Children of Divorce

Lately, I have been reading Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family As the Loss of Being by Andrew Root. It is a heavy book (not in weight, but in content), and having been published by Baker Academic, it is indeed an academic book. It is 171 pages in length, and its author, Andrew Root, holds a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary and is the assistant professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. Professor Root is renown for his interaction with German theologians Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he converses and writes on the area of youth ministry. In an era where so many are attempting to merely entertain youth with the latest trends, Root has breathed theological depth into relational youth ministry. In addition to his training and expertise, he also brings his own experience of his parents’ divorce to bear on this 2010 publication—Children of Divorce.

Introduction

In the Introduction, Root shares about his own experience as a child of divorce. He also briefly describes the increasing cultural acceptance of divorce that grew out of the 1970’s and “no fault” divorce. The book provides a much needed perspective in all of the divorcing going on—the perspective of the child. He states his thesis, “My overall thesis is that divorce is an ontological issue, one that impacts our very being-in-the-world” (xviii). Ontology is the study of being or existence. Therefore, Root is suggesting that when a divorce happens, the union which gave a child his/her very existence is removed and results in an ontological crisis.

A History of Family, a History of the Self

Chapter one develops the history of the western family along with shifting objectives behind why people have married. He sums up this development when he writes,

The history of the family has followed a broad progression the last six hundred years: its objective has shifted from property and power mergers, to labor, and then to love. These changes follow the evolution of cultural currents impacted by the Enlightenment, currents that changed us from premodern to modern to late-modern people. Divorce, then, is the tragic underbelly of the liberation of marriage and family from being centered on land or labor to being centered on love. But now, standing in late modernity, we find ourselves with a problem, a problem much like the effects of modernity on scientific discovery or technological advance. It is the problem of risk. Scientifically and technologically, this means we can split the atom, but in doing so can destroy the world. We can construct effective power plants, but they pollute the planet. Similarly, marriage and family are free from the bondage of a harsh earlier world, but free for what? Making family about love heightened the significance of the person (the self), but it left us with a dangerous risk. When marriage is about love between persons, and nothing more, what remains when love is doubted or destroyed? . . . then who are [the children] once the love that created them and their primary community is gone? (4–5).

As love became more individualized, subjective, and about self-fulfillment, “the step out of marriage into divorce was then increasingly inevitable” (22). While objectives for marriage such as mergers or labor cemented the child’s existence in the family’s tradition or function, these things were much more difficult to discard or destroy. Families formed out of mergers or labor needed the father-mother-child community to survive and succeed, and it took monumental shifts or changes to take away the security the family provided for the child.

But for the children of the late-twentieth-century love union, all it took to destroy a marriage was a change in Mom and Dad’s individual, subjective feelings. Here, then, is the conflict that we have yet to solve: what do you do when the self-fulfillment of mother and father requires the dissolving of a marriage, but the security and self-fulfillment of the child depends upon its continuation? (23)

Marriage, Divorce, and Ontology

This opening chapter sets the stage for chapters two and three where Root interacts with Giddens’s Social Theory and Heidegger’s Dasein (German—being there). Root concludes, “My being, as we have seen with the examples above, is contingent on the being of others.” In other words, “In confronting the question of my identity, I am also confronting the question of the identity of others . . . To be is to be with” (64). That is to say, a child is only with the parents. Gidden and Heidegger lead Root to assert,

that divorce in this detraditionalized late modernity may have a deep ontological impact that is often overlooked . . . divorce confronts the core of the young person’s humanity, for it affects his or her being and acting in the social world (64).

Barth’s Anthropology and Imago Dei

Subsequently, Root moves to the theological in chapters four and five. Here, he engages the anthropology and imago Dei (image of God) doctrines of the German theologian, Karl Barth. These chapters touched my soul and gave expression and words to feelings and thoughts that I have harbored for twenty years. Root discusses Barth’s analogia relationis, “an analogy of relationship between the being of humanity and the being of God.” That is to say, “To be is to be in relationship.” Barth demonstrates this first in the Trinity’s relating as Father, Son, and Spirit and then moves to anthropology and deeper still into the imago Dei—being in relationship is fundamental to being human, even to being real. Root writes,

This means that relationship constitutes reality; it is relationship that leads to being (not the other way around). We find our being in being-with-others (71–75).

Considering the child of divorce, I hope that you can begin to see and feel Root’s argument as he employs Barth’s theology. The relationship—the union—of father and mother gives the child his/her being, his or her reality. To be in this relationship is to be real. When divorce divides the union which gave the child existence, he slips into the unreal. While a child of course forms other communities in which he lives and moves as he gets older, divorce means that he “has lost the one that has been from the beginning the one that made him real . . . When this is taken away, the young person is lost.” At this point, Root shares an interview with a young lady named Nicole who describes her parents separation and divorce,

That afternoon, after he left, she [her mother] sat us down on the couch and said he wasn’t coming back. I can’t even remember my reaction. I know I couldn’t understand what was happening. But I know exactly how I felt. Lost. Now everything I see I have to know the cause, so I can explain the effect. Since I can’t really understand why the divorce came about, I constantly struggle to make sense of my family (75).

Having engaged with “the being” of Barth’s anthropology, Root also engages “the acting” of Barth’s anthropology as it relates to the child of divorce. Beyond the ontological crisis for the child, there is a crisis of acting. The child of divorce now lives in two worlds but is in his very being a reminder of the old world, the old reality. His resemblance, the shape of his eyes, his mannerisms, expressions “are no longer undeniable witnesses to their being as being-with these people [i.e., the parents]. They become instead signs or reminders of division” (65). In these two worlds, the child struggles to find coherence regarding his acting or his agency. “He must act one way in one world and another in the other world” (65). Root acknowledges that living in multiple “worlds” (e.g., work, school, social gatherings, etc) is part of our modern society and that children must learn to act and compartmentalize appropriately in these varied settings; however, he writes,

But to have to act differently, even contradictorily, in relation to those who correlate and are responsible for your being is quite different. When there are two family worlds, the child is asked to do the impossible. To find his being in two opposed worlds, he is asked to be two people (65).

I summarized this in the margin of the book by saying that ontological duplicity leads to relational duplicity.

Also within chapters three and four, Root offers exceptional research that distinguishes the difference between the impact of the death of a parent upon a child and the impact of divorce upon a child. One difference is that the death of a parent points a child forward to a future event regarding his being while a divorce causes a child to look back to a past event regarding his being.

Death looks to a future reality, an event that will happen as time unfolds for the young person. Divorce does not so much point forward as throw the foundational event of the child’s very origins into regret and question. Death promises the eventual end of his being; divorce questions if he ever should have been at all (77).

Root calls this a “haunting reality” for the child of divorce. Second, the death of a parent and the divorce of parents differ in the area of agency. Root writes,

Death (unless it is suicide, which opens up a whole other truckload of issues) rarely if ever occurs through the agency of the dying person. Disease, accident, and tragedy happen to the parent over and against their choice (action). But divorce is an action, not a fate; it may feel unavoidable, but from the child’s perspective it will always come finally by the choice of one or both parent to end the union (77).

Barth’s view of the image of God introduces a substantial shift in theology and gives further explanation as to why divorce causes a crisis for the child at the ontological level. Many have articulated the image of God as pertaining to humanity being endowed with an essence similar to God’s, possessing a diluted form of God’s substance. Categories such as intellect, volition, and emotion are described. Having these capacities, we are able to serve God, have dominion, pursue freedom, liberty, and happiness. Barth looked beyond these capacities to something else that makes us truly human—our relationships.

Barth proposes a major paradigm shift in theological anthropology: one from seeing the human being as an individual defined by innate faculties to seeing the person as a dynamic-interpersonal agent whose faculties arise only as they exist in relations to others (91).

The point is this: what good is intellect, volition, and emotion without relationships in which to employ them? Root writes,

To reflect the image of God is to be in community, it is to be with and for others, just as the Father is with and for the Son through the Spirit . . . Reality itself is constituted not in substances and essences, but in relationships. We are real and freed from the unreal, not because we can think, reason, or feel, but because we are held in the community of others composed by the relational community of God (92–93).

He connects Barth’s relational imago Dei shift to the topic of divorce in this way,

When the image of God is seen as a relational reality, freedom is not understood as the freedom to do whatever is needed to make oneself happy and free. Rather, freedom is understood as the freedom to be for others. In the logic of a relational imago Dei we find our freedom, not away from others, but in giving ourselves to others (93).

Going further, he connects the relational imago Dei to the children of divorce by correcting assumptions,

We assume that divorce impacts [children] at the level of intellect, will, and emotions. Therefore, our actions for them seek to help them think correctly about the divorce (“It is not your fault”), reason realistically (“Mom and Dad are not getting back together”), and feel properly (“It is OK to be mad and sad, but soon you’ll feel better and be better because Mom and Dad will be happier”). Most of the initiatives to help kids deal with divorce seem stuck in this substantialistic perspective”(93–94).

This approach often results in the theory of “The Good Divorce,” which is founded upon two myths: (1) “Happy Parents Make Happy Children,” and (2) “Divorce Is a Temporary Crisis.” Both of these are untrue, and neglect the ontological crisis of the child. Thinking better or providing more information won’t help. Parental happiness will not enduringly influence the happiness of the child who has experienced a deep cut against his imago Dei. Even will power—of the parent or the child—will not be able to limit or restrain the far-reaching ontological effects of divorce.

Barth’s relational imago Dei reminds us that a child needs the parental union in which she can experience objective relational encounters in three areas: (1) male and female, (2) environment, and (3) mirroring. First, male and female are realities of the imago Dei. The mother and father provide a communion in which the child can securely figure out his connection to and difference from them. Second, the child encounters “Mom and Dad in the distinction and unity of the environment” (108). It is in the environment of male and female that the child belongs and is the image of God. Further, this environment also produces rituals that became larger than any one individual and anchor the individuals in common, shared experiences. Third, whether “for good or for ill, the family environment serves as a mirror, which through its action reflects our being back to us” (110). The problem divorce causes for mirroring is that not only has the mirror been shattered, but also multiple mirrors replace the one mirror, and the result is oftentimes contradictory images that leave the child ontologically insecure. Root draws this section to a close by quoting another writer, “To be human is to be concretely ‘this person’ belonging to ‘these people’” (112).

Ontological Security in Christ and His Church

As Root transitions to the final chapter, he explains that for most children the announcement of divorce does not come as good news. It is also not an end for them, rather it is a beginning—“the beginning of her search for a place to be as she acts between their two worlds. She must find a way to be ‘this person’ now that ‘these people’ regret their union that created her” (116, italics mine). The child will search for communities of belonging, and it is Root’s hope that the church can be the kind of place where a child of divorce can find belonging and ontological security in the perfect and powerful love of Christ. In this chapter, Root develops four practical actions that church’s can take to help children of divorce, and he addresses them to three different kinds of people: (1) the youth worker/children’s minister, (2) the parent, and (3) a friend or mentor (e.g., a grandparent). The four practical actions are (1) Mirroring in the Church as Seeing and Being Seen, (2) Autonomy and Belonging in the Church as Speaking and Listening, (3) Routine in the Church as Mutual Assistance, and (4) Bracketing out Anxiety in the Church by Acting in Gladness.

Conclusion

Finally, I should say that Root is sensitive to those tragic situations in which divorce may indeed be the severe mercy needed for the family. So, he doesn’t view divorce as impossible. The strength of the book is Root’s ability to discern and integrate multiple disciplines (i.e., sociology, psychology, philosophy, and theology) in a powerfully harmonic voice regarding the ontological challenges and solutions for the child of divorce. While I realize it was not necessarily the aim of his academic publication, I would have benefitted from a longer book; perhaps, he could have included another chapter that addresses the biblical imperatives to honor and care for parents in light ontological realities and challenges following a divorce. Although I must share that when I attempted to correspond with Dr. Root regarding these additional topics, he was quick, personal, and very kind in his response to me via email—a true scholar and a gentleman! All in all, I am so thankful for this book that gives voice to the children who live through the tragedy of divorce.

On Mission in Alaska!

Safe & Sound . . . Groceries Too!

One of the things that surprised us as we came into Naknek was the towering stacks of refrigerated shipping containers! They are used by the canneries to ship the salmon.  For those of you that don’t know, we are here at this time because it is the salmon season.  That means this small town of 500 grows to several thousand people from around the world.  What an opportunity!  When we got to our apartment at KAKN radio station, we were excited and nervous to open our box and bag filled with the produce that you all helped us buy.  It had been quite the trip and we wondered how it had made it.  Helmar church donates quilts up here and sent a bag with us.  We used it to wrap the veggies and fruits.
Everything was good! And they were so excited to see the fresh produce.  Groceries up here must be shipped or flown in, usually and are very expensive.  (For ex.: a gallon of milk is about $10.).

Worship & Prayer

Sunday morning we enjoyed going to Hilltop Christian Church where Pastor Jeff Swanson is the pastor.
Then, after salmon for lunch (!), he and Pastor Jeremy Crowell (who is also the pilot here) invited 4 of us to go with for Sunday afternoon services in the remote village of Ekwok.  We flew in a Cherokee Six 300.  It was our first time in a small plane.  So EXCITING!
Pastor preached to a small group of natives, and Debbie was able to play keyboard for them – they usually sing with no musical accompaniment.
Sunday night when we came back to Naknek, we went to prayer service at Hilltop Christian.  When they asked for prayer requests, we were able to pray with them for Emily Holman Nash!

The Net

Monday morning, bright and early it was our turn to work at The Net.  The coffee house outreach program run by Hillside Christian Church.
The busy season has not begun yet, but ships are hiring and canneries are hiring, so crews are coming in.  After only 2 hours our first morning, we had met people from Anchorage, Miami, Costa Rica and the Czech Republic!
The coffee house needs to be ready for those coming in.  We serve coffee, hot chocolate, lemonade, and tea.  Also, we make cookies, brownies, and cupcakes etc.  One of the main things that we have seen bring people in, is the free internet.  The Internet is very, very expensive up here, and phone service is very hard to get!  Many times we hear Pastor, or someone, say. “We offer free coffee, free conversation, free books and Bibles to represent the best free gift — salvation through Jesus Christ!”
After our shift at the coffee house, we looked around Naknek and learned more about it.  Following supper—when The Net was closed for the day at 8:00— we helped Pastor Jeff and Jane paint the front steps of The Net.  We had plenty of time, the sun doesn’t set until 11:45 P.M.!!
Tuesday, we again were on the morning team at The Net.  We really enjoy visiting with the “locals” who come in each day to start out the morning.  One of the pastors gives a devotion and prayer to start the morning out.  If we are caught up in baking and there is plenty of coffee, etc., we can sit and play checkers or put together puzzles.

Adventures

After our shift, we volunteered to take the garbage to the dump outside of town.  Bears had been spotted there and they were hoping to see one.  Not this time!  But, later we saw the beach and a closer view of 2 of the canneries.  After supper, Pastor Jeff and Jane offered their 4-wheeler.  Caeley had a great time on the beach on the 4 wheeler with one of the other volunteers up here.  They saw a beautiful bald eagle.  Debbie enjoyed riding in the van with Jeff and Jane and seeing the same scenery.  Maybe the 4-wheeler next time!!
Thank you for all of the prayers! Keep them Coming! God Bless.
-Caeley & Deb

Holy Week: Redemption Devotion Two

WLC Holy Week: Redemption Devotion for Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

Redemption in the New Testament

Redemption means freedom from bondage, which is secured by the payment of a price.” The “price” referred to here is the “ransom payment” required to deliver a person or thing from slavery or captivity. There are a number of dimensions into which the theme of redemption continues in the New Testament:

  • Setting free of the Jewish people from beastly kings and empires by the ransom price (Luke 1:68; 2:38; 21:28; 24:21)
  • Setting free from sin by the ransom price (Rom. 3:24; 1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; Tit. 2:14; Heb. 9:12, 15; 1 Pet. 1:18)
  • Setting free from the curse of the law by the ransom price (Rom. 3:24; Gal. 3:13; 4:5; Heb. 9:15)
  • Setting free of our bodies by the ransom price of the legal adoption as sons (Rom. 8:23; Eph. 1:14; 4:30; Heb. 11:35)
  • Setting free of opportunities/time/relationships from evil by the ransom price (Eph. 5:16; Col. 4:5)

The New Testament gets to the heart of why we need a more profound redemption and stronger Redeemer. Sin is at the root of the political, spiritual, physical, and relational slaveries encountered in our world, personal lives, relationships, and experiences. Sin has affected every person who has ever lived (cf. Rom. 5:12); therefore, it affects every institution, group, and activity of which people are a part. Until we get real about the problem (=sin), we can’t begin to get real about freedom.

Dimensions of New Testament Redemption

Political: Do you believe God cares about politics? Do you believe he cares about your politics? The righteousness or wickedness of nations and their leaders? Historically, we can observe that God frequently advanced his program by his sovereign activity over global politics. The redemption of Jesus is the cornerstone of God’s plan for an eternal kingdom of righteousness and peace that will eliminate every trace of the beastly kingdoms of the world (cf. Daniel 7). How can you partner with God’s kingdom agenda by redemptive living at the political level? Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel, and even Paul employed their political influence to advance God’s program and glorify him to nations and kings.

Spiritual: Jesus paid the ransom price to set you free from sin’s slavery—freed from its punishment with justification, freed from its power with sanctification, and eventually freed from its presence with glorification. He also paid the price to set you free from God’s law—its penalties, its demands, and its brand of righteousness. While God’s law is holy and good, it’s purpose was to make sin sinful. Now, the cross is where we discover the sinfulness of sin. We aren’t lawless; rather, we are filled with the fruit of the Holy Spirit and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Do you know how to walk by the Spirit and to be free from the law? Read Galatians. You’ll gain an understanding of redeemed spiritual living in Christ by the Spirit and learn how love for God and others sets the boundaries of our freedom (cf. Gal. 5:13).

Physical: Did you know that believers have been granted a legal right to inherit a new and free body on the future day of redemption? This is what is meant by “adoption to sonship” in Romans 8:23. God will set our bodies free from death, just as he did for his Son through the resurrection of his physical body. Through God’s legal adoption of believers in Christ, we now belong to him in life and in death, body and soul; therefore, we should glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20). Are you using your body as an instrument of righteousness or as an instrument of unrighteousness?

Relational: The way to “buy back” opportunities, time, and relationships from evil is through a sacrificial and evangelistic lifestyle filled by the Holy Spirit. It’s going to cost you. Redemptive living always costs, just as it cost Jesus his life. However, it also results in you becoming a life-giver, just like Jesus. By sacrificial worship in the community, we give life to the church. By sacrificial love and submission in our marriages, we give life to our spouses. By children sacrificing their wills in obedience and honor to their parents, we give life to them. By sacrificing the time to be a parent that teaches, we give life to our children. By sacrificing status and rights in order to serve the Lord in difficult situations, we give life to those around us. By sacrificing cultural expectations that are contrary to God’s will, we give life to others. By committing to the work and sacrifice of an evangelist, we give the words of life to needy sinners. What’s the New Testament’s response to evil days? Redeem the time. Take advantage of every opportunity and relationship. There are adventure and freedom in the sacrificial and evangelistic lifestyle of a life-giver. Will you redeem the time God has given you?

Holy Week: Redemption Devotion One

WLC Holy Week: Redemption Devotion for Monday, March 26th, 2018

Redemption in the Old Testament

For these three Holy Week Devotions, we will use a very precise definition of the word “redemption.” It means freedom from bondage, which is secured by the payment of a price.” The “price” referred to here is the required “ransom payment” needed to deliver from some sort of slavery or captivity. There are a number of ways that redemption was practiced in the Old Testament. Here are a few:

  • Setting free of a criminal by the ransom price (Ex. 21:30; Isa. 63:4)
  • Setting free of land or property by the ransom price (Lev. 25:24, 29, 33, 51; Jer. 32:7–8)
  • Setting free of the firstborn by the ransom price (Ex. 11:1–12:7; 13:13–15; Num. 3:46–51; 18:16)
  • Setting free of the childless widow to the kinsman-redeemer by the ransom price (Ruth 4:6)
  • Setting free of the sinner from guilt and consequences by the ransom price of the covenant (Ps. 111:9; 130:7; Isa. 59:20)

In ancient Israel, a household typically designated a man to be the go’el or the redeemer. He was responsible for redeeming property. We might compare it to our practice of a father co-signing a car or education loan for his child. If necessary, he designates himself to pay the ransom price in order to set the child free from the bondage of debt. The Israelite go’el avenged a harmed or killed family member by seeking the legal ransom price from the guilty criminal. This is comparable to our legal definition of restitution. In a patriarchal society, a childless man who died suddenly was a great tragedy for his name and inheritance, and a childless widow entered a desperate condition (cf. Gen. 38). Therefore, ancient Israel practiced levirate marriage in order to redeem these situations. Finally, Israel’s God is the Supreme Redeemer, whom they trusted to deliver them from their enemies, who had taken them captive, like Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, and to deliver them from their sins by his faithfulness to the new covenant.

As you think about redemption in the Old Testament today, notice that many of the applications pertain to family relationships. To “free” a family member from bondage always came at great cost to the redeemer. Notice too that the Old Testament speaks of redemption in both the physical and the spiritual realms.

Redemptive Living

Redemption for You:

Physical: Are there any areas of the natural, physical life (e.g., debt, crime against you, emotional or social trauma) in which you need redemption—freedom from bondage secured by someone willing to help with the price? What is your hope in the situation? Have you prayed about it? What other friend or family member may be able to help you navigate this? Are you willing to be honest with them?

Spiritual: Are there any areas in the spiritual life (sin’s temptations, guilt, consequences, Satan’s darkness, influence, or accusations) in which you need redemption? Jesus stands today as your Redeemer. Your Redeemer lives! He has paid the price. Have you singled out the spiritual problem? Have you referenced God’s word to see what it says about that topic? Have you written out your reflections—connecting what God says about this spiritual matter? Have you prayed about it? Have you found authentic fellowship with another man or woman to help apply Christ’s redeeming power?

Redemption for Others:

Physical: Are you in a position to redeem someone who has fallen on hard times, fallen into one of the bondages of the natural life? Inventory your resources and loved ones. Redeem where God may lead you. Remember, the one redeemed can’t possibly pay you back.

Spiritual: Jesus redeemed us by paying a ransom that we could never pay ourselves, nor repay. Have you experienced the power of the gospel in redeeming you from sin’s temptations, guilt, and consequences? Have you experienced freedom from Satan’s darkness, rule, and accusations? If yes, then you are in a position to help others find this freedom in Christ. Inventory your spiritual knowledge, resources, and your loved ones. Redeem where God may lead you. Even if you feel your spiritual experience or resources are meager—remember that our God is strong, and it is he who is at work in you.

Singleness & Spirituality

Singleness & Spirituality

In the 2018 blog posts, I intend to focus on family and relationship matters as they relate to the spiritual life. I plan to share insights by way of both book reviews and devotional thoughts from God’s word. As you seek God in this new year, I hope that you’ll follow along, that you’ll be blessed by the content, and that you’ll receive some direction about where to look further for spiritual wisdom in relational and family matters. Our vision here at West is for Jesus to fill every heart, head, and hand. I pray that these articles may be one way of leaning into that vision.

With Saint Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, love is in the air! I’ve been taking the same beautiful gal out on dates at this time for nearly 13 years now, so for me, the decision of “Who?” has been settled. Now, the decisions are narrowed to “Where?” “When?” and “How do we secure a babysitter before everyone else does?!” However, many of my friends are still asking that first “Who?” question, and they’re not just asking it for February 14th, but they’re asking it about their lifelong partner. “Who?”

Unique Challenges to the Single Life

I want to acknowledge the unique challenges of the single life today, at least the ones I am aware of. I add that disclaimer, because honestly, I don’t know what it’s like to be single today. I was single over fourteen years ago. Things have changed. Yet, some things are timeless for any single person of any era. Single people today wrestle with God about their marital status; some single people may be disappointed. You may feel like you missed your only chance to be happy, and you are still blaming yourself. Others wonder if they’ve waited too long. Impatience short-circuits the spiritual development needed to prepare you for what is next. The single person may find it difficult to find his or her place and voice in the church’s vision, mission, and goals. You may be dating someone right now, and you are looking for guidance. Finally, some of you are boiling angry that the thing that people notice most about you is your singleness, instead of the gazillion other wonderful things about you (Cue: SCREAM!!! Go ahead; let it out.).

In 2011, I performed a cultural assessment on the layers of the world’s voice and message to people, particularly in the areas of romance and singleness. The world has something to say to you, but it is the way of folly. The way of folly always leads to a grave of many kinds of spiritual death. The single, faithful Christian set on purity and pursuing God will receive ridicule from the world. Virginity today is mocked instead of treasured and protected. Unfortunately, single people who seek refuge in the church often encounter an even more perplexing, profound, and painful mockery. I have talked to single adults throughout my years and places of ministry who have experienced blindspots in the church when it comes to singles. For example, the church hurts singles when it carries the unspoken “rule” that marriage is the rite of passage into true adulthood.

Unique Joys in the Single Life

I also want to encourage the unique joys of the single life. It can be a season of unique friendship. The single life may provide a unique opportunity for adventure, education, career advancement, and spiritual maturity. It is a time for your skill in living to develop in areas such as finance, responsibilities, exercise, and trades and crafts that will benefit you and others. It most definitely presents a time of unique Christian ministry—particularly in connecting with and edifying children, tweens, and teens. Don’t worry; I’m going to catch myself here: Single adults also have a unique ministry to the church and its adult ministries. A faithful, single Christian adult is able to write, teach, and minister with a clarity, conviction, and boldness that sometimes escapes married people because the affections of our hearts are divided. Paul—a faithful, single Christian—called married people out on this, remember?

He wrote,

Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another . . . I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:6–7, 26–35).

I have had the privilege to serve with an array of solid, single people throughout my pastoral ministry. They don’t simply acquire joy, but they spread their joy to those around them. They are often very self-less with their time, resources, and giftedness. The church is the body of Christ, and single people are significant members of the body—both historically and today.

Harmonizing with God’s Voice

Single friends, keep seeking God. Harmony is a wonderful sound to experience. God’s voice is clear, constant, reliable, and trustworthy. We must find his voice on the matters of the spiritual life. I’d like to share a number of harmonic voices that have helped me explore God’s wisdom on the single life. This list is by no means conclusive; in fact, I would love to hear from single people about what they’re reading these days on Christian spirituality and the single life. I hope that in the end you are able to find your voice and add it to the harmony. Here are a few resources that impacted my life in a way that matured my spirituality as a single person and a couple of newer ones that I recently encountered:

Oldies But Goodies

  1. The Bible — Well, duh Captain Obvious. I know, but seriously; consider all of the single writers and characters of the Bible (e.g., Jesus, Paul, Jeremiah). Still further, consider the characters whom we observe both as single and married (e.g., Joseph, David, Ruth, Naomi, etc.). Clearly, God employs people who are single to advance his purposes on the world stage. God made us, understands us, and cares for us. What kind of theology of the single life might you gain from studying God’s word from this perspective?
  2. He That Is Spiritual — I’ve read this book several times. I’ve gone back to it again and again when teaching on the spiritual life. It was written by Lewis Sperry Chafer in 1918. The book is an exposition on the (1) Natural Person, (2) Spiritual Person, (3) Carnal Person (the Christian who should be mature, but isn’t), and (4) Spiritual Infant (a new Christian). For Chafer, the key to the spiritual life is understanding the ministries of the Holy Spirit available to you in Christ alone. As a single person, this book helped establish me on a path of seeking the filling of the Spirit and of trusting in his works of grace in my life. It helped me put away some childish things and embrace the responsibility for my spiritual life.
  3. Basic Theology — It doesn’t have to be this particular theology for you, but every single person should work though a volume on basic Christian theology. What do you believe? It’s important for you to know, and it’s important for you to be able to share. I went through Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology numerous times. I used it for teaching early on in my ministry.
  4. Wild at Heart — Aimee, my wife, reminded me the other day how important this book was to me when we first met. She’s right. Wild at Heart was written by John Eldridge. This book is for men, but ladies, I hope you can find something that is equivalent. There comes a point in every adult’s life where they have to face their past—things that were in our control and things that were not but affected us nonetheless. This book helped me confess, heal, and advance as a man who wanted to experience God.
  5. I Kissed Dating GoodbyeThere are actually some interesting, current developments going on with this 90s–2000s classic. For me in my own experience, it exposed the sexual and emotional sewage in which I had been swimming. It showed me the lies that I’d believed about love, trust, dating, happiness, purity, and more. It helped me discern what matters at 50. It caused me to be honest about the sickness in my heart. It challenged me in the area of genuine friendship. Joshua Harris had some wise things to say back in 1997 that are still relevant today; however, he may be presently fine-tuning his thoughts on IKDG. As a new Christian in 2001 wondering what on earth Christian spirituality in dating was supposed to look like, this book helped me.
  6. The Book of Romance — Harris’ book deconstructed my non-biblical worldview for dating, but Tommy Nelson’s book helped build something new in its place. Nelson looks at the biblical book of the Song of Songs, and paints a beautiful picture of what romance can be like for the person who loves God.
  7. Passion and Purity — Elisabeth Elliot’s book interwove the spiritual life and the romantic life by means of her own story. As a man, the book gave me insight into a woman’s perspective. A new edition was released in 2002. She’s real about our passions; she’s tenacious about purity. She understands that whatever estate we may find ourselves in, our lives must be brought under Christ’s control and lordship.

Newbies

  1. Just Do Something — Every Christian at some point has to have a frank conversation about “God’s will” for their lives. If you’re like me, you needed more than one conversation to clear the fog. John MacArthur has a sermon that I have listened to again and again for years. More recently, Kevin DeYoung authored this book. I love the subtitle: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will OR How To Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, Etc.
  2. Gospel Fluency — In the Christian’s spiritual life either at the beginning or at a point of revival or re-commitment, he or she must encounter the reality that the gospel of Jesus Christ is EVERYTHING. When it is replaced by some counterfeit, the whole of Christianity crumbles. Jeff Vanderstelt places the gospel on the throne of the spiritual life.
  3. Exploring Christian Theology — If Ryrie is a little too old school for you, then try this three-volume set. Don’t worry; each volume isn’t too terribly long. The authors are professors whom I spent time with in seminary, and they have really put together a great beginner’s theology that also connects with the devotional life.
  4. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy — And may I add, single guy. Bonhoeffer was engaged, and he has some other books on that particular topic. However, his engagement was cut short. Eric Metaxas’ biography shows how God was at work in Bonhoeffer’s life and how he redeemed the time during evil days.
  5. Your Money Map — This book by Howard Dayton is one in a long line of succession from Larry Burkett’s influence. As a single Christian, one of the most beneficial things I did was to complete a financial workbook that gave me a sense of what God has to say about money. Single or married, a person needs to know how to handle money, or it will handle you!
  6. Living Together — In a world where cohabitation is on the rise and viewed as a smart thing to do, this book offers biblical insight and wisdom on the matter, particularly for those who find themselves in a situation to give advice. It’s written by my former pastor, Jeff VanGoethem. All the research says the same thing—cohabitation lays a poor foundation for marriage as a sacred covenant and as a life-long commitment. Single adults need to wake up about this, and the church needs to know how to approach the trend with grace and truth.

There are many more books that could or should be included. but these are some with which I have become familiar. I hope that you’ll let me know what book or stories God has used in your life as a single person. Face the challenges with courage. Embrace the joys with great delight. Remember that Jesus loves you; he has not lost track of you in the crowd. May the church be blessed by your presence.

Building a People Full of Jesus

Fresh Proclamation of an Ancient Vision

In 2015, we began having conversations about the vision of West Lisbon Church. For the Christian Church, vision is not something that we have to create out of thin air. God has revealed his vision in Jesus Christ. We are charged with a stewardship of that gospel vision—a fresh proclamation—in this culture and among the people of this generation. Awhile ago, I preached a short sermon series on the book of Haggai, whose message is an important one for a historic church seeking God afresh. Haggai wrote to the people of Judah, who had returned from exile. His vision for a fresh experience of the presence of God caused him to challenge the returning exiles to rebuild the house of the Lord.

For West Lisbon Church, we want Jesus in every heart, head, and hand, and the members of WLC commit to moving people who love God into deeper discipleship experiences with God resulting in activities and relationships that glorify God and advance the gospel in our community and world. Haggai’s message of revival can encourage us as we seek to participate in God’s mission.

Consider Your Priorities

Through the decree of Cyrus the Great (538 B.C.E.), which was later confirmed during the reign of Darius I (522–486 B.C.E.), the Jews were permitted by the Persian Empire to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. The Persian emperors did more than simply permit the return and rebuilding; they also provided security and resources for the project (see Ezra 6:1–15) until the completion of the temple in March of 515 B.C.E. Despite the support from the Persian emperors, the rebuilding project ceased around 536 B.C.E. and did not begin again until the prophetic ministries of Haggai and Zechariah in 520 B.C.E.

Like many of the prophets, we do not know much about the prophet Haggai’s personal background. His name means “festal,” which has given scholars fodder for conjecture: (1) perhaps he was born at the time of a festival; (2) perhaps such a name anticipated the timing of the prophet’s ministry—“1:1 on the New Moon’s day, 2:1 on the seventh day of the Feast of Tabernacles, and 2:18 on the day when the ‘foundation’ of the temple was laid”; or (3) perhaps “Haggai” is not the prophet’s real name but a name given to the author because of the calendar events associated with the prophet’s ministry.

Further, little is known about Haggai’s “exilic experience.” Some conclude that Haggai was an older man who saw the glory of Solomon’s temple (see 2:3) and that he was either one of those who returned from the Babylonian captivity or one who had remained in the desolate Jerusalem until others returned. Others suggest that Haggai was a younger man who was born in Babylon and traveled to Jerusalem after the decrees of the Persian emperors.

Regardless of his background, the prophet Haggai bursts into the lives of a discouraged population in Jerusalem with a brief but powerful ministry during which he communicated a single-minded message that reoriented the spiritual center of the people and the leadership. To the surprise of the reader of the prophetic literature, the people respond in obedience! Haggai’s message to the leaders and inhabitants of Jerusalem is to “Consider Your Priorities” (1:5, 7; 2:15, 18). The leaders and people had established priorities in their lives that were inconsistent with their covenant responsibility and covenant loyalty to the Lord. For example, 1:4 reveals that the people were busy about building their own homes while the house of Lord remained in a state of ruin. The glory and pleasure of the Lord had taken a backseat to the people’s comfort to which the Lord responded with judgments according to the stipulations of the covenant (1:5–6, 9–11; cf. Deut. 11:13–17). The Lord stirred the hearts of the leaders, Zerubbabel and Joshua, and the people to respond with obedience by rebuilding the temple of the Lord (1:12–15) as Haggai encouraged them with the promise of God’s presence (1:13), to be strong in the Lord’s presence and fear not (2:3–5), and to trust in the Lord’s sovereignty (2:7–9). Upon responding to Haggai’s message to “Consider Your Priorities,” the temple was eventually rebuilt—stirring hearts for the return of the Lord’s glory, presence, and blessing upon his people.

A House Made of People Who Are Full of Jesus

Haggai’s implications for the church today are numerous. The western church has largely become inundated with marketing, entertainment, and consumerism. Let’s be honest; it’s the culture we swim in. Sometimes our culture can be harnessed to draw people to Jesus, and other times our culture hinders drawing people to Jesus. Are we building our own houses and our church facilities with “wood paneling, gold, and silver”? Are we really building the house of the Lord? The house or temple being built according to the New Testament revelation is the Church of Jesus Christ—composed of people—living stones—from every nation because of the peace of salvation secured for us by Jesus Christ (see Eph. 2:11–22; cf. 1 Pet. 2:1–5). The message of Haggai to “Consider Your Priorities” could not be more relevant.

Are we willing to truly build the Lord’s house through relationships that involve evangelism and discipleship (Matt. 28:18–20)? Gaining church members from other local churches by means of attractions is not really building the house of the Lord; it’s not real church growth. Instead of reaching people who already know and who already grow in Jesus, let’s reach the lost and broken. Let’s reach the forgotten. Let’s reach those who have wandered away from God’s house. Let’s make it a priority to offer them the life-giving message of Christ crucified and resurrected. Let’s provide a warm and effective fellowship family in which these new believers grow, mature, and make an impact for generations. Conversions and disciple-making build up the house of the Lord. God’s call to us is to consider our priorities knowing that he is with us and that we are desperate for him to set our hearts ablaze for the sake of his house.

What Shall We Give Him? Surrender to the King

At West Lisbon this Advent season, we have been exploring the Miracles of Christmas each Sunday morning. These miracles have caused us to think about gifts that we may give to Christ or to others that are uniquely spiritual in nature. Some of the gifts have included giving Jesus our fellowship and our hope. Last Sunday, we learned how the angels came to announce the presence of the Christ in the first advent. The message challenged us to give the gift of unconditional presence to our own family and friends—no matter what. In this blog post, I want to explore another gift that we can give to the Lord—the gift of surrender.

War Elephants . . . Now That’s a Gift!

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln wrote a cordial letter to the King of Siam to politely reject the offer of a most generous gift. President James Buchanan was the actual addressee of the two letters from the King, which were received on February 14th, 1861—the same year the Civil War began—but President Lincoln was left with the responsibility of responding to the King’s offer. The gifts of the King were fourfold—namely, a sword of costly materials and exquisite workmanship; a photographic likeness of His Majesty and of His Majesty’s beloved daughter; and also two elephants’ tusks of length and magnitude indicating that they could have belonged only to an animal which was a native of Siam . . .

The fourth gift was really something. President Lincoln wrote,

I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of good offices in forwarding to this Government a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised on our own soil. This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States. Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.

The President ended the letter: Your Good Friend, ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

It is very interesting to study the gifts given between the leaders of nations and the occasions that prompted their international generosity. The beauty and thoughtfulness are striking at times. As I looked into this a little, I thought to myself,

Yes, a king knows exactly how and what to give to another king. But what do you and I know about giving gifts to a king?

I think we all probably feel a little like Clark W. Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when he delivers his gift to his boss, only to find a mountain of other, unopened, underwhelming gifts that preceded his own. You can see and sense the feelings of both resentment and insecurity that begin to take hold of Clark.

He doesn’t need anything, but I have to give him something . . . I can’t look bad, but, really, what can I give to him?

It’s Christmas time. The King with whom we are concerned during these days is the Lord Jesus. What do you give such a King? The King of Kings. The One who has the name above all names, before whom one day every knee will bow and tongue will confess that he is indeed Lord and Master of all creation. What do you give to God?

Perhaps, and quite honestly, it hasn’t occurred to you that you should give God anything at all. Maybe others of you have wondered about this question. Possibly, you’ve given it some extensive thought — what does God want from me and my life? What should I give him? Maybe others of you are in a place where you feel that you’ve given God quite enough—life has been hard this year. Yet, deep down, you know that Jesus possess the words of life, and you love him even in the midst of difficult days.

If we read the story of the manger scene where the Shepherds flocked to see the baby King or the narrative about the visit from the wise men to the young child Jesus, we can envision quite a reception. Time has passed since the infancy and childhood of the Lord Jesus. The mature King eventually offered his life as an atonement for the sins of the world – the righteous one for the unrighteous ones – and he demonstrated his power and right to rule by defeating death through resurrection, wherein the church places her hope for life eternal.

Shepherds and wise men aside, what now does the modern person have to offer a resurrected and returning King like Jesus? I’d like to suggest to you that Jesus answers this for us himself. He tells us in the Gospel of Mark 12:13–17 just exactly what he wants from us. In a word, he wants you. He wants you to surrender yourself, your life, to him as King.

WDJW or What Does Jesus Want?

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him (Mark 12:13–17).

King Jesus is very clear about what he wants in this passage. God wants those on which he has stamped his own image. He wants boys and girls, and men and women. He wants YOU. The idea of surrender to Jesus as King brings three thoughts to my mind, and they illustrate the internal process we go through as we weigh the meaning of surrender.

First, We Resist Surrender to God’s Ownership.

Maybe we, like the men in this story, try to avoid surrender by means of flattery. We flatter Jesus with our bumper stickers, with our wristbands, with our donations, and even like these men, with our words. But Jesus did not come to be flattered by people. He came to rule. Jesus seeks to rule the heart by his grace and with his power, for the heart, he says, is the place, the source, out of which his image is defaced daily by evil deeds, thoughts, and feelings. God wants to restore his glorious image in you by transforming your heart. The King does not receive flattery from an unyielded heart; he despises it.

Maybe you don’t flatter Jesus, but also like these men, you look at King Jesus with false pretenses—false pretenses about who he is and why he has come and what he will do to cause you to remain unsurrendered to him as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Maybe you don’t believe him and his claim upon you as someone on whom he has stamped his image of ownership.

Sometimes our process of surrender stops there. We resist and that’s it. End of story. But some of us hear the Scriptures and are willing to go a little further, discovering within ourselves a bit more humility toward God about this whole surrender thing. The next step in the process of surrender is a place of insecurity.

Second, We Question the Value of Our Surrender to God’s Ownership.

We come to believe that, yes, indeed Jesus is King, and he has stamped his image on me. He’s not only the King, but he’s MY King.

But then, we look at what we have to offer him, and we grow insecure, which results either in despair of ever bringing anything worthy to offer to God, or in an endless attempt to try to bring him something to earn his favor.

Consider our FEEBLE KNOWLEDGE in light of the all-knowing God.
Measure our FALLIBLE WILL in light of the holy God.
Discern our FICKLE EMOTIONS in light of the God who is perfect in justice and mercy.

There is some truth here about the insecurity of the value of our surrender to God, for even the Scriptures say,

There are none righteous, not even one,” and “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

It is proper to feel insecure before such a God, such a King, no matter the quality of life we may think we have brought to him. Perhaps, we could call this healthy insecurity “the fear of God.”

However, the wrong kind of insecurity can breed anger and bitterness, and these are certainly the wrong gifts to bring the King. Rather, the right response to the insecurity over the life that we have to surrender to God is humility—a crushed and lowly heart, made so by an encounter with the greatness of God.

The realization that not even my life is of great enough value to win the favor of this King—this realization should crush us and bring us low, low enough to bow the knee, the head, and the heart before the King of Kings. And it is here now that our surrender meets grace and favor. For it is written,

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite (Isaiah 57:15 ESV).

At this crushing point of surrender, the heart bows low before God, and we can understand exactly what it is that God has done—why it is that the Holy Child came to earth. He came so that the humble heart may rejoice in the hope of salvation.

Lastly, We Welcome Surrender to God’s Ownership.

As the Holy Spirit opens the heart in surrender, humility leads us into the hope of salvation. When we give to God what belongs to God, as Jesus said, we are ready to experience the hope and treasure given to us in the work of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 8:9 offers the basis for why Christians should be generous to one another by restating the good news about Jesus Christ’s coming into the world. The first part reads,

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .

God’s grace finds the one who has been brought low in surrender. You say, that’s it?! I mean, the King of Siam sent a flawless stock of war elephants to President Lincoln—war elephants! But remember the words of the songwriter,

Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

By God’s grace, such a humble offering satisfies him.

The passage goes on,

. . . that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.

Here the writer speaks to us of the Great Exchange that took place at Christ’s first coming. He become poor, so that you and I could possess all the treasures that are in Christ and his gospel—pardon, forgiveness, freedom from guilt, a new birth, a new life, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, a new talk, a new walk, fellowship with God, justice and creation made right, eternity with God in his glorious presence, forever and ever. God offers these treasures in Christ. When you welcome surrender to God’s ownership of your life, you discover the fullness of the Great Exchange of Jesus Christ, that by his poverty you are made wealthy in him.

Surrender Your Heart to the King

Will you welcome surrender to King Jesus this Advent season? Invite God’s ownership into your life. Will you let his ownership spread, allowing his rule in every nook and cranny? Will you, as the children sing, “give him your heart”? Has God’s Spirit been working in your heart and life leading up to this reading? The Lord Jesus became poor—he died on the cross and was resurrected out of a borrowed grave—so that you could be made rich in him. Are you ready to begin experiencing the treasures that are in Christ Jesus?