of math, millennials, and the mission field

My sister Hannah is a mathematician.

She’s the only mathematician I’ve ever actually known personally. You just don’t meet that many people who go to grad school to learn things like real analysis and partial differential equations with the hope of spending their careers doing research in the area of “pure math” - and I’m still not fully sure what that means. Even less often do you hear someone exclaim, while writing proofs in what appears to be another language, “It’s so beautiful!” (Hannah has said things like this on multiple occasions.)

Far more common? “I hate math.” “I can’t calculate the tip - I’m terrible at math.” “Why don’t we stop teaching kids all this stupid algebra and just teach them useful things, like how to do their taxes?”

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Every now and then, you meet a one-in-a-million, like my sister. Someone who has found the beauty and the wonder that others may never appreciate, due to their deeply-held baggage of fear, confusion, inadequacy, or ignorance. Sadly, they grew up learning mathematics as a series of formulas to memorize and complicated steps to master, but no one ever taught them the logic of it; they never got the opportunity to problem-solve, to think critically, to ask why.

So they struggled through twelfth grade, or maybe as far as the undergraduate requisites, and then said goodbye to math forever. After all, we’ve got calculators for that.

The same thing has happened to the Christian church in America.

People are mystified at the numbers of the millennial generation who are leaving their Christian faith upbringing behind. Many of them, like me, were raised in Sunday school and AWANA, active within their youth groups, and never missed church. They went on mission trips and had records of great spiritual transformation. They loved Jesus. And now they’re gone.

And it’s for the same reason so many people hate the beautiful thing that is mathematics: because all they ever learned was the rules. They learned how to look, act, and speak like a Christian. They learned the Ten Commandments and all the other Biblical rules that their church considered important. They learned verses and stories and could sing the books of the Bible in order; they learned the formula for a salvation prayer (“Jesus, please come into my heart”), and how to categorize people into the ones doing it “right” and the ones doing it “wrong.” They learned how they should vote and how they should dress and who they should associate with. They learned the black and the white.

But no one ever taught them the logic of it.

No one gave them the chance to problem-solve, to think critically, or to ask why.

No one led them past the rules and into the relationship that their hearts were crying out for - beyond the formula and into the beauty of Christ and His love.

And no one gave them permission to consider that maybe it’s not all black-and-white, after all. Maybe some things are gray.

Why wouldn’t they bolt as soon as someone offered them the freedom to think outside the box, to be loved for who they are rather than what they do, or to ask the questions they’ve been dying to ask all their lives?

It’s not a mystery. They know the Bible, they know the Gospel, and they know exactly why they’re no longer part of the Christian church. If we’re listening, so do we.

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And I hope we’re listening, because to steal my sister’s words - it’s so beautiful. What God has done, the story He is writing, is so beautiful. The love He has offered is so beautiful. The desire of His heart to draw His created image-bearers back into relationship with Him, and to give them an inheritance as His own sons and daughters, is simply breathtaking. What a heartbreak to imagine that many will reject that truth because of deeply-held baggage like fear, confusion, inadequacy, and ignorance.

But we can’t share this beauty and freedom with others until it’s a reality for ourselves. Just as we’re the product of an education system that taught math as something you’re either “good at” or “bad at,” so many of us are the product of a church culture that has diminished Christianity into a list of rights and wrongs. Hannah has put in years of hard work and persistence to find and celebrate the beauty in mathematics; likewise, this issue can’t be solved by making churches more “relevant” - it has to be solved the hard way, which is by example.

The mission field of America, in many ways, starts inside of us. Even if we have never walked away from what we know to be true, most of us still have some callouses from clinging to the rules at the expense of the relationship. And our friends and peers who have abandoned their practice of faith very likely know just as much Bible and Christianese as we do - so they know how to spot a fake. They won’t be fooled by a religious show.

Only when we ourselves rediscover the beauty of the Savior, the genuine delight of walking in relationship with Him, and the blessing of counter-cultural unity with the His body can we possibly hope to recapture the young hearts in this nation. And truthfully? Some of the hearts that most need recapturing are our own.

6 Comments

Hallie Liening

Hallie grew up on a small farm in rural eastern Washington. At 18, she moved across the country to go to Bible school, and then married the Boy Next Door at 20. Now 22, she is a graduate of Great Commission Bible Institute with a Certificate in Biblical Studies and resides in Olympia with her husband and her two cats. She survives the claustrophobia of living near the city by making frequent trips back home to visit her family and her horse, writing sentimental blog posts about the countryside, and by filling her house with photographs of Mt. Adams sunsets.

this is God's will

God has been working in me.

It's always interesting to watch Him, because so often, His shaping touch is so gentle that I don't even feel it until I notice its tangible effects on my life months or years later. He works slowly, deliberately, never hurried or pushy, and why not? He has all the time in the world. I am learning, the longer I watch Him, that the aggressive, domineering, hurry-up-or-you'll-regret-it messages I sometimes hear in my heart and mind are never from Him - they are just my Enemy's strategy to distract me from the loving and teaching voice of my Father.

Today I noticed that my prayers have changed in the last year, maybe two. It was such a gradual shift that it didn't occur to me that anything was happening at the time, but now I can see it: Where I once asked for miracles, I've begun to ask for the revelation of God's character. Where I once asked for changed circumstances, I've begun to ask for changed hearts. Where I once asked God to step in and do blatant divine work in my life (and others'), I've begun to ask Him to lead His children to be His hands and feet toward one another.

I've asked God to miraculously heal the pain and suffering of a family member (well, let's face it... more than one family member), and I don't think that's wrong - but the beauty I have found in "Thy will be done" is that He often wills to do far deeper and greater work than simple healing of a physical problem. He shows us who He is - and there is no greater miracle than that.

The gloriously inefficient plan

But He doesn't necessarily show us who He is the way that I have often expected or desired, either. Looking back, I see that I wanted Him to sweep in in a grand vision, in an incredible event that no one could possibly doubt was an act of God - that would force us to turn our hearts toward Him more. But He has very rarely done so. Instead, He seems to prefer to work small... gentle... slow. He seems to prefer inefficiency. He seems to prefer to involve us, not to force us.

And I am coming to see that His favorite inefficiency is to reveal Himself chiefly in the small, Spirit-led voices and actions of His children. He shows us who He is in the unconditional love, the bottomless forgiveness, the open-hearted welcome of people who are just like us, people who are broken, but have been saved by the blood of Christ and transformed by the Holy Spirit.

So instead of asking Him to put on a huge show of power to remind me of His worthiness, His faithfulness, or His love, I have begun to ask Him to send someone - one of His small, saved people - who can gently, slowly, inefficiently live out His character before me in the humblest of ways. I am learning that He wants to do His deepest work through us, the Church. He wants me to hear His voice from the mouths of His children and see His love through their sacrificial actions and invite His grace into my life in the form of these genuine and difficult relationships.

And He wants me to do the same for them.

We, the Church of Christ, are intended to be His will. His voice. His hands. His arms. His feet. His heart.

The call to imitate Christ has never been more vital.

Now is not the time to wait for miracles to rain down from heaven. If God chooses to do that, then hallelujah, but here is the truth: we are the miracle. The God of all Creation has spared no expense to purchase a relationship with us, and to offer Himself fully to every living soul. That is a miracle. Every day that we walk with Christ as the active manifestation of His love, His grace, His power, His mercy, His unity, and His forgiveness for others is a miracle - and it's the miracle that will save the world, that will bring life to those who are dying in darkness.

God isn't showy or controlling or in a rush. He's not even all that efficient at times. But He is working - and He wants to work in me, and in you, and through us all. Broken and hurting people in our sanctuaries and our world are praying for a vision of what God's heart really looks like. What if we - the Church, the body of Christ - are the answer to that prayer? Am I ready to step in and live it? Are you?

This is your calling and mine - God wants to do His deepest work in us and through us. His Church is called to be His love to the world.

The hard, healing work

This is hard work. The hardest work. It means that instead of burying our brokenness, we re-open the old wounds to the community of Christ - to be healed and, equally importantly, to provide an opportunity for His Church to practice its lofty call. It means that instead of pretending we're all okay, we build relationships based on the assumption that we are all not okay - and that no matter what your pet sin or your coping mechanism or your personal trauma, I've got my own pet sin or coping mechanism or personal trauma that really isn't much different, except maybe by name.

It means I am not just climbing to get myself to the top, but I'm choosing to throw my weight into these burdens in perfect sync with those who are climbing beside me, so that together we can lift up those who are too wounded to make the trek on their own.

And it's risky, because without exception, all of our deepest wounds came from other people to begin with - often the people closest to us. It seems counter-intuitive that we'd need to look for healing in the same position of vulnerability that hurt us, or that we'd ever trust someone other than ourselves to pull us up the treacherous mountainside to victory. But this is the plan.

The gloriously inefficient and hazardously optimistic plan.

Disorders. Addictions. Emptiness. Trauma. Sin. Pain. Abandonment. Disease. Not a single one of us is not suffering somehow from the wounds of a broken world. But until we stop pretending otherwise, until we stop hiding from each other - which can only mean we are hiding from the healing hand of God - the destructive cycle will go on.

God has been working in me. Slowly, gently, He has been clearing my vision to see what my true vocation as a servant of Christ is. It's not to preach the Gospel to a certain number of people or to write a particular book or to revolutionize the way we learn Scripture. Even if any of these things did happen, my real, bottom-line vocation would still be exactly the same as yours: To imitate Christ, who lived unapologetically real, fearlessly vulnerable, and inexhaustibly loving.

He laid His life down for His friends - not just literally, but also daily, entering into other people's muck and empathizing with their pain and loving them all the way to healing. And all this He did fearlessly, freely, even at the risk of unimaginable betrayal.

Now He has passed the baton to me. To you. To His Church.

This is God's will. We are God's plan.

Will we obey?

Jude 1-7 - a call to vigilance

We're coming to the end of Bible180 for another year (although now's a great time to start if you haven't yet - you will finish right at the end of 2018, and how exciting it would be to get that whole picture of God's amazing story in the months leading up to Christmas!) and so I am mulling over some of the prescriptive writings of the very end of the New Testament. Jude is always one of my favorites - its two pages in my Bible are heavily annotated in three different colors of ink - and its wisdom seems to become more and more relevant to the daily reality of the Church as our culture continues to shift away from Christian values.

And so this is the first of three short but in-depth studies I will be sharing on the book of Jude, starting with the first seven verses.

A study in Jude, part one

Jude, a bond-servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James,

To those who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ: May mercy and peace and love be multiplied to you.

Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

Now I desire to remind you, though you know all things once for all, that the Lord, after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe. And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day, just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.
— Jude 1-7
A study in Jude, part one: A call to vigilance

Our foundational identity

I always begin my study of an epistle by reading it straight through, preferably aloud, sometimes more than once. I think we are used to taking in Scripture in bite-size pieces, but the reality is that these letters are just that - letters, written to a specific group with a specific goal in mind that can't be fully expressed in just a couple of verses. Reading the whole thing is the only way to get an accurate feel for what the author was really trying to get at.

My reading of Jude left me with one highly potent feeling: a sense of urgency.

He names his recipients in the first verse as follows: "The called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ." Perhaps he could just as easily have said "Christians" or "believers," but there's a purposefulness to his choice of phrasing, as if he wants to remind them right away of who they are. They have been called. They are loved. They are kept.

We have been called. We are loved. We are kept.

A solid rooting in this identity is vital if we are to effectively follow Jude's call to vigilance - and all the hard and ugly stuff that it entails.

Our call to vigilance

But Jude wasn't even planning to write this letter. He had an entirely different one in mind - one "about our common salvation." What might that letter have been like?

But this is the one God put on his heart - an appeal for these brethren, whoever they were, to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints."

God inspired Jude, a bond-servant of Jesus Christ, to urge "the called, beloved, and kept" to struggle for their faith - and not a faith that they themselves thought up, defined, or manufactured, but one that had long preceded them and was faithfully passed down from one disciple to the next. This faith isn't something fluid that flexes with changing times or shifting standards. No, it is a firm and solid thing - a thing worth fighting for, even when the fight is bitter indeed.

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And why is the fight necessary? Not because we strive to dissent and divide, but because others do, and idleness and ignorance are both unacceptable responses to this threat. "For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ."

This should sound familiar. It is the same battle we face today - no, not a battle, a war, and one that is raging more fiercely with every passing year.

There are people coming into our churches who operate under a guise of false righteousness while preaching an "almost-right" brand of grace that is actually nothing short of heresy. They call out "Come as you are!" and then let everyone leave as they came. They preach grace's freedom with no thought for grace's cost.

They deny our Master, Jesus Christ, whose own blood was that cost.

We are called, first, to be vigilant - to notice the lies, because we are so firmly rooted in our identity in the truth - and then, to struggle on behalf of the integrity of our faith in the face of these deceptions.

Our call to remember

And in all this, Jude reminds us: heed history. Remember the high price of deception, disobedience, and heresy.

God saves the believing, but for the rest, there is punishment. This is what makes our vigilance so necessary and so urgent. If we can keep watch over ourselves and our communities, if we can guard the sheepfold from the wolves and thieves, if even one more soul can be protected from deception because we contended earnestly for our faith - then all the struggle and hardship and discomfort of the fight will have been worth it.

I think many Christians and many churches are so keen to avoid the possibility of division that when unsound doctrine enters our sanctuaries, we try to ignore it or "understand" it rather than confront it and kill it. But what we forget is that not all division is bad division: Truth is naturally a dividing line, between what's true and what's false. That is a beautiful and uncomfortable thing. That is the line we're called to defend.

And it's the difference between saving a soul and losing it forever.

We are held safely in the protective hand of Christ. We are called to struggle hard to protect the faith. And we are asked to remember that the stakes are high.

It won't be easy, it won't be comfortable, and it likely won't make us a whole lot of friends. But it will be worth it.


Check back for parts 2 & 3 in the coming weeks!

Meanwhile, you might also like....

2 Comments

Hallie Liening

Hallie grew up on a small farm in rural eastern Washington. At 18, she moved across the country to go to Bible school, and then married the Boy Next Door at 20. Now 22, she is a graduate of Great Commission Bible Institute with a Certificate in Biblical Studies and resides in Olympia with her husband and her two cats. She survives the claustrophobia of living near the city by making frequent trips back home to visit her family and her horse, writing sentimental blog posts about the countryside, and by filling her house with photographs of Mt. Adams sunsets.