The Substance of Faith

The Substance of Faith

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A Thanksgiving Prayer

Dear God,  Be patient with our ingratitude.  Be patient and forgive our failure to recognize all the things we have that are ours through no effort of our own.    Thank you for being born in a time when plenty is all around us, education is possible, and medicine advanced. Thank you that we have been born in a country with opportunity and into families that invest in our futures.   Thank you for minds that function well and abilities that help us make the most from life. Forgive us for the time we have thought ourselves self-made and remind us of all your gifts.

Forgive us as well for all our tendencies toward self-righteousness, which are not only false, but also rob Jesus of the thanksgiving due him for giving his life to save us from our sins.

Teach us this day that a little more of the things that have not satisfied at all will not satisfy us greatly.

Though is be late, long after a blessing is ours, or little in comparison to what we have received, or shortened by the distractions of the world, accept our thanks for our lives and for your grace.

Through Jesus Christ, Our Lord….

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More on Gratitude and Thanksgiving

I have had lots of traffic from people looking for quotes on Thanksgiving.  In my entry On Gratitude – Quotes for Thanksgiving I listed a link for UC- Berkely’s Greater Good project.  Very few people have clicked on that link.  Let me say again:  that site has some wonderful material on gratitude and giving thanks.  It is THE most helpful site I have found on the subject.  Here are some of the stories you will find – each title is a link that will take you to the original.

Dealing With Entitled Kids

Gratitude Activities for the Classroom 

How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times

What Is Gratitude?

Five Ways to Cultivate Gratitude at Work

If you are just looking for some easy quotes, there may be other places to look, but if you are looking for thought-provoking content about why gratitude is better than entitlement, click on the links above.

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Bucket Book – People of the Lie

In the 1980’s Scott Peck was one of the most popular authors writing in the self-help genre.  The Road Less Traveled became a small industry with follow up books like, Further Along the Road Less Traveled, Meditations from the Road Less Traveled, etc. I’ve read 5-6 Peck books, but none have had an impact as powerful as The People of the Lie.

The premise of the book is that there is a difference between moral failure and evil.  The difference is not a matter of degree; evil people do not simply sin more than bad people. The difference is in the intricate structures of denial that evil people build around themselves.  They build a self image of perfection and refuse to accept the possibility of their own error.  Peck points out that we can be forgiven and healed of any sin, except the sin of believing we have no sin, which is the problem with evil people.  As “malignant narcissists,” evil people destroy anyone and anything that gets in their way.  They do this because their sole motivation in life is to gain power.  Perhaps the most disturbing quality of evil individuals is their ability to portray a morally good aura around their lives.  On the surface they are good people, admired in the community, church, or civic club.

Peck’s theory sounds plausible in print, but it is utterly terrifying in real life.  The majority of evil people are not the obvious Hitler’s or drug dealers, waiting to steal the innocence of our children.  Rather, they are the respected neighbors, business leaders.  Or church leaders.

I learned this fact while interviewing with a search committee in the 1980’s.  The interview lasted over several weeks, with multiple trips by members of the search committee to visit me, and with my trips to their home turf.  The longer the discussions lasted, the more troubled I became.  I saw multiple dynamics in the committee and in the church that disturbed me.  On one of my last trips, I had the opportunity to meet with a man who had previously served on the church staff.  He and his wife greeted me in their home.  As we became more comfortable with each other, the couple began to recount times that they had been sabotaged and damaged by three main church leaders.  They painted a dark picture of half-lies, power grabs… and respectability.  I finally gained the nerve to ask if they had read People of the Lie.  The wife left the room and returned with a dog-eared, marked-up copy of Peck’s book.  She began to leaf through the pages, showing me where she had written the names of the three men in the margins.  Wherever one of these men seemed to illustrate Peck’s observations, she wrote his name beside the text.  The book was full of these three names.  I left their home and stopped the interview with the committee.  All congregations have wonderful members, as I’m sure does that particular church.  But over 30+ years, it also has a history of power-grabs and splits.  If only one-third of what that minister’s wife suspected was true….  Well, I understand the trajectory of that congregation’s history.

In my life I have known many people who are disagreeable, ornery, hateful, controlling, and selfish.  But I’ve only known three people that I would classify as evil – evil as defined in People of the Lie.  The most frightening thing about all three has been their respectability.  I wasn’t sure, if needed, I could get anyone to believe what I suspected about them.  Without Peck’s book, I might not have believed myself.

Ever since President Bush uttered his “axis of evil” comments, society has debated the use of the word “evil.”  Isn’t it a judgmental term?  Who has the right to declare another person or nation as “evil?”  For me the issue is not judgment; rather the issue is discernment.  And there are times when leaders must be discerning in order to know what they are facing.  Peck’s book has provided me with help in discerning the nature and motivation of individuals that I have considered evil.

If you find yourself wondering if the “evil” designation applies to someone in your life, search malignant narcissist or destructive narcissist on the internet.  I have come to believe that addictions are easier to overcome than extreme narcissistic tendencies.  I am not wise enough to know whether or not every malignant narcissist is evil, but they are usually dangerous.

People of the Lie does take some interesting twists in later chapters, particularly in regard to possession and exorcisms.  Before writing this review I skimmed the book again.  I find the chapters on possession and exorcism interesting, but outside my own experience.  Group evil is explored in a chapter on the My Lai massacre in the Viet Nam War.  Younger readers may not be able to relate to the alarming realization that American soldiers had the capacity for such brutality.  Consequently the impact of the massacre’s revelation to the public may be lost 40 years after the fact.

I often recommend this book to young ministers as a way of building a framework to recognize and address evil.  Although some question the later chapters, I have never had anyone say the book was not helpful.  People of the Lie has helped me in a few, critical junctures of life and I rate it as one of the 50 most influential books I’ve read.  Here are a few brief excerpts.

It is not their sins per se that characterize evil people, rather it is the subtlety and persistence of their sins.  This is because the central defect of the evil is not the sin, but the refusal to acknowledge it.  p. 69

The words “image,” “appearance,” and “outwardly,” are crucial to understanding the morality of evil.  While they  [evil individuals]  seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good.  Their goodness is on a level of pretense.  It is, in fact, a lie.  This is why they are “people of the lie.”  p. 75

 The evil deny the suffering of their guilt -the painful awareness of their sin, inadequacy, and imperfection, by casting pain onto others through projection and scapegoating.  They themselves may not suffer, but those around them do.  They cause suffering.  The evil create for those under their dominion a miniature sick society.  pp. 123ff


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Almost Christian

Our ministry staff recently read Almost Christian, Kenda Dean’s research driven commentary on the faith of present day Christian teens.  Her research and commentary are both alarming.  Dean finds that Christian teens today:

  • Are “Christian-ish” – They practice Moral Therapeutic Deism instead of following Jesus. (I would summarize Moral Therapeutic Deism to mean – a nice god wants to make us happy and we should be good.  That is not exactly the message of the cross.)
  • Tend to approach religious participation like any extra-curricular activity: a nice thing to do, but unnecessary for a fully integrated life.
  • Lack a vocabulary to articulate a faith. See my Observation from June on this subject.

Further, Dean points out that youth are this way because they learned this faith from their families – a striking indictment, one that no one wants to admit.  Despite what many families believe, they have incredible influence over their teens.  The only problem is that they have used their influence to lead teens to a faith that is almost Christian.  But not quite.

almost christian

If you have teens in your home, however, ask yourself some questions.

  • “When was the last time my family discussed experiencing or  following Jesus while eating together or driving together?
  • “From observing my choices, would my teens say that faith is one choice among many, or the undeniable center of my life?”

The first question helps us understand why teens lack an adequate faith vocabulary.  Few adults model it, or talk about it in front of them.  The limited religious conversation that takes place usually refers to a generic “God” and not to the personal “Jesus.”  We may mention God, but rarely describe how the living Christ directs our daily actions.  What did we do or not do today because Jesus led us?  How did I respond to a situation today because I have committed to following Christ?

The second question reminds us that children and youth are tremendous observers and terrible interpreters of life.  Anyone who has ever been divorced and had a child ask, “Is it my fault” understands this concept.  Children know what is going on; they just don’t understand why.  Failing to understand why, they jump to many false conclusions.  They see church, Christian service, and spiritual growth relegated to a status of one choice among many.  They simply have no way of knowing that you think it is more serious than that.  They just know what they see: you participate in faith-shaping activities when it doesn’t conflict with sports, dance, or a myriad of other options.  It is one choice among many.  All of these observations are  backed up by Dean’s extensive research.

Fortunately, Dean does not leave us with a depressing diagnosis; she also gives us proven, effective ways to stimulate our own youth to a genuine, saving faith in Jesus.  Some of her prescription for faith includes conversation.  Talk about your faith and encourage your youth to talk about theirs.  Encourage them so that “Christian’ becomes a native tongue.  As with any language we learned long ago, unless reinforced through usage, we lose the ability to speak it.

Send your child/teen to camp. Group faith experiences can be like language immersion courses, exposing them to a way of thinking and believing in a short period of time.  These events become shared memories with other participants and reinforce their faith.

And stress loving Jesus over believing in God.  Using a “band crush” as a metaphor, Dean points out that teens don’t enjoy a particular band’s music because of research.  They are swept away by a song, then, because they love the music, they research the band and learn all about it.  We all learn best what we love most.  The order matters.

Since reading Dean’s book, I have tried to articulate some matters of faith more directly and more clearly in preaching.  John Uldrick, our Minister to Students at FBC, is currently leading a study with parents called Hollow Faith, based on a book of the same name.  Hollow Faith echoes the findings of Dean in Almost Christian.  John is trying to help families build an intentional, Christian faith and not to default into the Moral Therapeutic Deism of the day.

I would encourage families in our congregation to participate in John’s seminar on Wednesday nights.  Anyone who works with students in a faith environment will benefit from reading Dean’s book.

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The Weapon in Your Child’s Hands


In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Leonard Sax points out that parents give their pre-teens and teens a new weapon capable of destroying a life.  They rarely train or monitor their teen’s use of the weapon.  Therefore they never realize that the weapon has been  misused or abused until it is too late, maybe even causing self-inflicted wounds to their child.

What is it?  A mobile device, such as an iPhone.

Teens bully and are bullied by cell phone.  Personal communication gets in the wrong hands and goes viral, leaving a teen humiliated and defenseless.   A prank intended as harmless ruins a life. It happens overnight.    If you are a parent with a teen who carries a cell phone, how many conversations do you need with other parents before you discover the misuse of a phone?  Not many.  This is a powerful and creative tool than can be turned into a weapon as quick as a Google search.

cell phone graphic

Parents have nothing from their teen years analogues to the power of today’s cell phones.  This fact may make parent less knowledgeable  of the changing ways teens use them, but it makes them no less responsible for how their teens use them.  In a point-blank statement, Sax says, “I blame their parents. The parents provided their kids with cellphones capable of taking, sending and receiving photographs, but they provided no oversight.”  If you allow your teens to own and carry a phone, you, the parent, have responsibility for how they use it. 

If you have a teen with a cell phone, consider reading the original Leonard Sax  article, linked here.

Read it and then have the moral courage to put a contract in place with your child about how they can use it and how you plan to monitor it.  Let your love for your children (and their friends) override the disappointment they will express at your perceived restrictions.  Don’t let your failure of nerve be the reason that someone gets hurt by the phone in your child’s hands.

Here is one of the more famous parent/child cell phone contracts on the internet.  It is a good place to start.




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Keith Reaves pointed me to this article during his father’s recent illness and death.  It contains some good advice for times when you want to be supportive of anyone going through sorrow or a crisis.

How Not to Say the Wrong Thing


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On Gratitude – Quotes for Thanksgiving


I find that people often come to this site as a result of searching for quotations for certain themes.  With Thanksgiving approaching, here are some quotes about thankfulness and gratitude.

Additionally, see this link to UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good stories on gratitude.  


In daily life, we must see that it not happiness that makes us grateful but gratefulness that makes us happy.   – Unknown

We discovered that the more mature prayers of thanksgiving are not those offered for the obvious blessing but those spoken in gratitude for obstacles overcome, through insights gained, for lessons learned, for increased humility, for help received in time of need, for strength to persevere, for opportunities to serve others.  Some of the most heartfelt prayers in my own life have come to me at moments when God enabled me to be of assistance to someone else or to endure some hardship to his glory.                              — Fleming Rutledge,  The Bible and The New York Times,  p. 23

There are dozens of such moments every day.  Moments when you stand—as it were—at a spiritual crossroads, with two ways lying before you.  Such moments are typically called “moments of decision.”  It does not matter what the frame or content of each particular decision is.  It all devolves, in the end, into just two roads before you, every time.  The one will lead to less gratitude, less kindness, less forgiveness, less honesty, or less love in the world.  The other will lead to more gratitude, more kindness, more forgiveness, more honesty, or more love in the world.  Your mission, each moment, is to seek to choose the later spiritual road, rather than the former, every time.   — Richard Bolles, How to Find Your Mission in Life,  p. 38 ff.

These young people are profoundly unhappy because they have lost a sense of gratitude.  They can speak only of rights.  Health is a right and sickness a frustration of this right. Healing, so quick now thanks to our antibiotics, is no longer a gift from God.  Happiness is a right.  Since no one achieves it, despite all our modern conveniences, everyone is the victim of a frustration complex.  No gift can bring joy to the one who has a right to everything.  — Paul Tournier, The Meaning of Gifts,  p. 32

The universal quest for gifts is nothing other than a seeking after God, by whatever name we may call him.  For only the One who has made all things and who owns all things can give them without asking anything in return except our gratitude.   –Tournier, The Meaning of Gifts,  p. 58

Praise is prayer speech that is endlessly surprised about the character god and endlessly grateful for life in the world that God makes possible.  Praise, beyond the specifics of thanksgiving, is not a concrete response to blessing but is a more elemental awareness that the overriding reality in our life—the reality of God—is a reality beyond our expectation, merit, or imagination.  Praise is a glad statement of “disbelief,” an acknowledgment that there is more to the reality of Yahweh than we dared to hope and more than we could have imagined.  —  Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms & The Life of Faith,  p. 50 ff.





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