I have six months to reshape my life. I can do this.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Soul vs. Spirit

Ulysses Everett McGill: What'd the devil give you for your soul, Tommy?
Tommy Johnson: Well, he taught me to play this here guitar real good.
Delmar O'Donnell: Oh son, for that you sold your everlasting soul?
Tommy Johnson: Well, I wasn't usin' it.

"What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from the desires that battle within you?" - James 4:1

"Therefore if any is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old is gone, behold the new!" Paul, 2 Corinthians 5:17

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin." Paul, Romans 7:15-25

Do you remember the old Tom and Jerry cartoon where Tom the cat was about to do something awful to Jerry the mouse and then out of nowhere, a mini angel Tom appeared on his shoulder imploring him to do right and be nice to Jerry? And then immediately following the angel's appearance, a devil Tom appeared on his other shoulder trying to convince him to do harm to Jerry? Tom would typically give into the demon.

I understand that is not truly the most accurate spiritual portrayal of what James and even Paul are talking about in their verses. But that is not too far from what is actually happening with us. We have these lesser demons we carry around with us all the time. They are in constant battle with the better angels in us. Not that we have literal angels and demons inside, I am using that more as an analogy to describe the struggle that goes on between the eternal aspects of who we are; the war of soul versus the Spirit.

Now, we understand that when we ask Christ in to be master, savior and Lord we are then inheriting the Spirit of God to live inside of us. We now have an eternal spirit that will allow us to experience abundant and eternal life. Eternal life with God in heaven.

So, are we therefore not eternal beings without the Spirit in us? Are we just temporal earth-bound flesh zombies wandering around until we expire? No. Of course not. We have an eternal destination awaiting us without the Spirit. Eternal separation from God in heaven. So, it stands to reason that we have an eternal aspect without God that sort of captures who we are, our personalities, how we relate to people - who we are deep down inside. Our soul. That immortal soul is bound for separation until we accept Christ as savior. And then the REAL battle begins.

That soul, that eternal essence that makes you who you are is at war against that spirit - James 4 talks about the problems we have and that they all stem from the war going on within our hearts. It is the war between who we were (soul) and who we are now (Spirit). We are almost constantly at battle with ourselves. Paul touched on this with his somewhat schizophrenic passage in Romans that doesn't really make sense until you realize that the new creation we have become is still at war with the old creation that will always exist somewhere inside us - it is eternal.

I was never really taught this. I was taught become a Christian and life will be sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. Nobody ever really shared with me how hard it would be to walk in Christ. Who I was, that awful and wicked and dead creature with such a huge appetite for sin would always be with me. Nobody ever told me. It was almost like Jesus was this tonic called "Sin B Gone!" and once I had taken it, everything would be better, easier and wonderful.

And it wasn't. I was still struggling with the same pet sins I used to before. Sometimes I still do. It never goes away. Ever. Why not? Because that will always be a part of who I am, whether I like it or not. That is there, deeply ingrained in my soul. And in a bittersweet way it makes me who I am. I can swing that pendulum from wretched to righteous, horrific to justified in a day or two. It happens so quickly for me. It truly is a constant battle. There is never a time when I feel confident that I have beaten that enemy down enough to rest. But there is good news.

You choose who wins. Simply by spending time with God, my better angels are strengthened, encouraged - reinforced, if you will.

There is a reason they are called better angels and lesser demons. You give God just a little time and He will help set a foundation that can stand up to that appetite. You give God a lot of time and He will really strip away what doesn't belong and you will begin to experience powerful growth. You will see things in a way you never saw them before. You will think things that you never thought before. You will have the eyes and ears and mind of Christ. That is more than enough to win that war.

Spend that focused time with God and it feeds the Spirit in you. Absorb the wrong things, allow the wrong thoughts and you feed the soul. The trick, the real hidden blessing, is finding the things that feed both - the Godly things that help the spirit thrive but that also connect with who you are- for some it is music, for some it is service for others it is simply relationships. You can find things that will feed the Spirit but will also satisfy the soul. Only God can provide those.

You know what those are now. You know what things truly feed your soul. They resonate deep within you, striking a chord with the very core of who you are. Why on earth are you NOT doing that all the time? Why are you struggling with all these other areas when you know what it is that will truly satisfy you? You have experienced it before. Go experience it again. And again. And again.

I never truly lived in Christ until I was spending consistent and focused time in God's presence and His Word. When I started doing that, things really started changing. When I do that now, things really explode wide open for me. And then I went on some mission trips and God began to fan some new flames that I didn't know existed. But they were always there. And then I began to visit two or three places that truly lit a fire in my Spirit and in my soul. And when in those dark nights of the soul when I feel that I am losing the battle, losing the grip of the Spirit, I reflect back on those things that feed both and I lean back into those habits and experiences and wonder why the heck I am so stupid and selfish.

Find the things that feed the Spirit and your soul. There are two or three or four that you know of. Help those better angels kick around those lesser demons. You have at your constant disposal a terrible and awesome force, a power you and I cannot even begin to understand. Depend on it today. You need to. If Paul struggled with the soul and Spirit war, what in the world makes you think you have it all down?


I was drawn to Luke 15 today to read. This is the chapter with the Lost Parables - sheep, coin and son.

I assume this is where the 20th Century church coined their comfortable phrase as "being lost" to describe someone outside the body of Christ. However, after reading through this chapter a few times, I wonder if we missed the original meaning behind the parables.

We speak of the sheep and the coin and the son as if they are outside the family - without any previous ownership or are brand new. We equate these parables with people who have yet to become Followers of Christ. But that isn't really the case, now, is it.

The sheep was in the fold. The coin was in the purse with the other nine. The son was already a member of the family. They already had their place. They already followed a shepherd, belonged to a master and stood to inherit as a son of the father in the story.

The sheep is lost. Maybe it wandered off. Maybe it was separated from the flock. Maybe it nibbled its way off without really noticing what was going on. Regardless, the shepherd left the other 99 in an open field, where they might be safe in their numbers, to go off and find the one.

The coin was lost, misplaced by the woman. She lost track of it. But once she realized it was gone, she scoured her house, overturning furniture, checking under every cushion. She went back over every place she would have left it. She thought about the last place she had it. She searched carefully, meticulously, until she found it.

The son chose to leave. He took what was due him and left. He walked away from the family. There is no denying it. The younger son chose to leave the family. Eventually he realized the only way for him to truly live was not in sin, apart from the family. He noticed that the life the servants of the family was better than the one he was living. So he came back. While he was gone, the father was out looking down the road every day for him. He was hoping that one day that lost son would turn up, come home. He ran to his son and welcomed him back with warmth and grace. He never asked what happened. No "I told you so." He never made any mention of why the son left or what junk the son encountered during his rebellion.

As a minister these stories strike a real chord with me today.

As a shepherd, how many students have I allowed to wander away? How quick have I have been to go find them? So many students really are not equipped to cope with what life throws at them. It is my job to stand in the gap, lead them to safe places and go get them when they leave. Am I willing to make the difficult phone call? Am I willing to step into an uncomfortable conversation? Am I observant enough to know when the sheep has truly wandered off?

What about when it was my actions, my words, my lack of attention that helped to move someone out. It happens. People need an extra touch. Some need more time and more attention. The hurt and pain in their lives merit it at that specific season they find themselves. Am I willing to give them that? And if I don't and they end up gone, am I willing to meticulously communicate my concern and care for them by exhausting every avenue to get them back?

And what if they leave? What if it is clear that the student is having a crisis of faith and there is nothing I can say in the moment. They are going to take what they want and leave. Am I willing to wait and watch for them prayerfully and graciously? And when they come back, do I treat them with anything less the genuine compassion?

I draw a line in my ministry sand today. I will no longer accept it when a student wanders off. If you leave my ministry, if you disappear, if you wander away distracted, expect a full court press from me and the students and workers. You have some of my kids gracing your place, youth pastor? Expect a large youth pastor to make you very uncomfortable and fight for our sheep, our precious treasure, our family. I will drive to Tuttle, OKC, Norman...I don't care. I will come and sit in your office and ask you point blank why you allowed someone from another family, another flock to wander into yours.

I have been less than stellar at this. I am now going to sort of take these absences personally. I don't see you, I am calling you. I am going to push you, student, to come to church on Sunday and Wednesday and Monday nights and Sunday nights and every event and anything else I can think of. You haven't been baptized? I may just show up with a horse trough at your house!

Jesus loved us with a relentless love. In these stories he talks about what HE was willing to do to bring us back to the fold. What am I willing to do? What are you willing to do?

I am too old to care about what people think about me, especially if they are not a member of my church, my family, my flock.

And how did each of these stories end when there was reconciliation? When the lost became found? There was a party. We always say the same thing when someone becomes a follower of Christ - there is a party in heaven. Well, according to what Jesus says, when one comes BACK to the fold, we are to celebrate.

That means it is time to throw some shindigs. Go bring BACK what was once part of your treasure, family and flock. Relentlessly search for them. Meticulously exhaust every avenue until they return. And when they do, celebrate like you just won the Super Bowl.

The Invisible Young Adult Department

Youth Ministers take personality hits all the time. Why? Because once these teenagers graduate into college, they stop going to church. I know. I was shocked too. They just NOW realized this? I knew it in 1994.

I am blessed here at my church. Our 18-25 year olds are very faithful and attend and serve and are a vital part of our fellowship. This isn't about my church specifically. Let me say that now. I am blessed to have many friends who are in their late teens and early 20's and are so great and faithful. This is more about the general criticism directed at youth workers from the church at large.

They act like there is something youth ministry or youth ministers can do to stem the tide of 18-25 year olds being an invisible element in church. And while there may be, let's revisit this from where most of us sit. Actually among that age group.

Most of the statistics out there show anywhere from 80-95% of people aged 18-25 are drop out of the church. First you need to know this about me. I always cast a very skeptical eye at any statistic. They survey 2000 people in New York, Ohio, Florida and Nebraska. How reliable are those numbers? However, I do know students graduate from high school and many also from their faith.

What could we do better in student ministry? That is always the question. Interestingly enough, it is posed by people selling you curriculum or a program idea that is specifically designed to aid in such a problem. How convenient. I most recently heard it from a Lifeway shill. He painted such a terrible picture of ineffective youth ministers and ministries, you would have thought every youth guy in the entire SBC was about to be on the unemployment line by Christmas.

They all raise questions. They all almost attack youth guys. And what is their practical step to help stem the tide of 18-25 year olds who are not coming to church in droves? Buy our book.


I have a little more insight, seeing as how I am not developing a book of curriculum (as far as you know). We have institutionalized the faith of our teenagers. Remember that predicament from Shawshank Redemption? Prison had totally formed their entire identity. Inside prison these men mattered, they had position and influence. Outside prison, they were just ex-cons.

From the time a church attender is born, their faith experience is basically programmed for them until they are 18. We plan the outings. We schedule the bulk of their spiritual formation with our teachings, events, weekly programs and camps. Parents leave most of that up to us. Teenagers leave most of that up to us. And then? Typically it stops.

We consider them adults. They go to college and most churches don't offer the same options. You go to Sunday school. You go to worship. You go to Wednesday Prayer Meeting and Gall Bladder Report. But there are no more trips. Maybe a retreat here and there. No more fun get togethers. No more Super Bowl parties and lock-ins. Unless you as an adult plan them. So now you are not only planning your life and your family, you have to plan your faith too?

The problem is we have not really equipped them to plan their faith. We have not really equipped them for that. The truth is we desperately need them to be co-dependant on us as Ministers to justify either our salary or our self-worth or purpose or all of the above.

The numbers say that churches are losing at least 3/4's of their college students. And it is our fault, apparently. Can you imagine what would happen if you inherited 40 sixth graders and by the time those kids were in 8th grade there were only 10 left? You would be under fire. You certainly couldn't go to the Children's Director and ask them what they heck they did wrong. You couldn't say that the Children's Ministry did not adequately prepare them for Youth Ministry. No, you have to take that hit.

I think Education Ministers come up with these stats to make them all feel better about adults not coming to church until they are in their 30's. Why actually think outside the box and problem solve when you can blame the Youth guy? Is it really that much of a stretch anyway?

And they never talk about the huge resurgence of church attendance by people in their late 20's and early 30's when they are bringing their families back to church.

So what can we do? I have some thoughts but none of them are complete and I would love to hear your thoughts too.

1. Develop relationships with them. Sounds easy. But sometimes their connection to their youth minister is really the only thing that may keep them around.
2. Give them the freedom to explore other churches. Maybe your church doesn't really hit the homerun with that age group. Let them go look. But you care enough to provide necessary insight into what they should be looking for. Any church that you can avoid actual in person attendance and just go worship online? Skip it. Any church where you may never actually meet the person who is preaching your sermon from another city? Skip it. The shepherd doesn't get to manage all the sheep on seven different mountains.
3. Show them what it means to serve God. Connect them to ministries and impress upon them the importance of a life of service. Not just a teenage experience.
4. Allow them to own some of your ministry. There is a fine line between student ownership of ministry and the inmates running the asylum though. Give them important leadership. But also press them to lead themselves.
5. Connect them to their faith in God through Christ. Don't allow them to live their spirituality vicariously through any personality, whether it be you, David Crowder or Billy Graham.
6. Keep up with generational markers and the the technology that is beginning to define their relationship management.

It has nothing to do with our silly facial hair or the ridiculous commitment we have to trendy hairstyles, backpacks and ball caps and flip flops. It has everything to do with a genuine concern and compassion for people. You can see your young adults thrive in church. And I guarantee you if they do thrive in your church, they are NOT giving you, the hard working youth minister, the credit, are they. I am really torn over this.

What say you? What else can you think of?