There is a growing sense that many Christians - and believers in other faith traditions - are feeling overwhelmed, sidelined, and misunderstood. It's more than a feeling. For increasing millions of people in the wider culture, Christianity feels like a long list of rules that matter to someone else. With a world that perceives Christians as irrelevant and extreme, we wonder about the future of the Church and how faith can be a force for good in society. Perhaps it begins with a good faith effort on our part to flip the script on the cultural perception. Join us for this three-part series entitled, good /fāTH/ effort with this Sunday's message Trying. (Mark 9:38-41)
Opening: “Glorious Day” (Kristian Stanfill) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
Reader: Hollie Hawkins
Preaching: Mark Briley
Special Music: “Greater” (MercyMe) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
Offertory: “How Can I Keep From Singing” (Robert Lowry) :: Todd Maxwell, soloist; Billie Kay Sawyer, pianist
The term ‘helicopter parent” was first used in 1969 by Dr. Haim Ginott to describe parents who would hover over their teenagers like a helicopter. These were parents who took an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their children. Helicopter parent, however, didn’t make the dictionary until 2011 and some would argue the reality is just now coming fully into its own in this generation of parenting. Some of us may be helicopter parents whether proudly or without even realizing it. Dr. Carolyn Daitch, who wrote the book, Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box, calls it over-parenting. “It means being involved in a child’s life in a way that is over-controlling, over-protecting, and over-perfecting in a way that is in excess of responsible parenting.” She notes four common triggers that create helicopter parents. Fear of dire consequences – their kid not making the team, not getting the job, failing a test and then what? Feelings of anxiety. In a tough economy or job market, parents rush in to take control of their kids options. These friends. That extracurricular. That college. Overcompensation. This is that parent attempting to live vicariously through their child’s success at sports or some other activity the parents felt they lacked in their own upbringing. Peer pressure from other parents. Trying to keep up with suburban soccer mom extraordinaire who seems to have her kids involved and excelling at everything and fluently speaking three languages by the age of eight while you can’t seem to get your kid to school before the second bell rings. Do you know a helicopter parent? I’m sure I’ve done some of that. We just want our kids to get it right, right?
Enter the free range parents. The free-range parenting style gives kids free roaming rights to figure out much of life for themselves. Discover their own problem-solving abilities… learn through their mistakes, not protect them from making any. “Let the kid burn their hand on the stove,” they say. “He’ll only do it once!” It was this spirit that brought about Adventure Playgrounds, a European concept that was popularized after World War II when people realized their kids were playing in bombed-out lots with whatever shards of materials they could find. These playgrounds are full of stuff that may be lying around your garage – boxes, nails, saws, old tires, wood scraps, and stuff many might consider junk. And the best part – at least for the kids – no parents allowed. Parents are fenced out while little Jimmy runs free with rusty scissors. There are some trained, designated, adult play-ers in these areas but they mostly stay totally hands off. Popularity in the States is taking off in part to the response of everyone’s concerns about screen time and technology addictions. Helicopter parents are said to respond to that concern with more extracurricular activities for their kids. Free range advocates say it’s the free play where kids are developing the best skills needed to navigate the world well and truly learn what they are capable of instead of simply having a parent or society as a whole prepare everything for them. Mike Lanza, a researcher and supporter of these new parks says, “What strikes me is that there is this extraordinary level of anxiety. Parents don’t have fundamental faith in their offspring.” Another of the recent organizers behind an Adventure Playground in New York City said one of the most important pieces of these parent-free zones is that it is democratic space for children. “It’s a space that should involve all kids; a place where they can be next to one another, inventing culture and transforming it. They’re making a new world.” They’re making a new world!
What do you think? Do you hover over your kids with wipes in one hand, organic applesauce in the other, saying “No, no!” more than anything else or do you give your three-year-old a saw, turn her loose with dozens of other three-year old’s and go get yourself a pedicure? Life is hard isn’t it? And we’re all trying. We’re trying to learn from our mistakes, correct errors from our own upbringing, give space for others to flourish while not making such a mess of life that we can’t hold some semblance of it together. We’re giving life the proverbial “good faith effort.” And we mostly want that to be enough, right? How often do you find the other shoe dropping and someone judgmentally saying to you, “Well you should’ve …” Exasperated, all you can shout is “I’m trying!” Good. Faith. Effort. Everyone one of those three words is loaded in some way. Each of us might look at them from slightly varied angles. We’re going to dive into the idea over the next three weeks as we start this new series today. What is good faith? What effort are we putting into faith itself? What difference does it make? Why are we considering this? Well… our overarching theme for 2018 surrounds the idea of Identity. Who are we? Who is God? Who is my neighbor? How do we make sense of those identities? Why does a Good Faith Effort matter? Because our neighbors are wondering if there’s even such a thing as good faith.
Christopher Hitchens wrote a book a few years back entitled, “God is Not Great.” If it was written in the 80’s it would have been called, “God is Great. NOT!” but Hitchens just wasn’t ready then. And … perhaps the market wasn’t there at that time. But now? It is one of the bestselling books of this century. It’s subtitle? “Religion Poisons Everything.” We can cast off the book’s popularity as no big thing but that doesn’t change the growing sense that many Christians – and believers in other faith traditions — are feeling overwhelmed, sidelined, and misunderstood. It’s more than a feeling. The Barna Research Group suggests one-third of college-aged adults want nothing to do with religion and fifty-nine percent of Christian young adults drop out of church at some point in their twenties. For increasing millions of people in the wider culture, Christianity feels like a long list of rules that matter to someone else but make no real impact in their lives. With a world that perceives Christians as irrelevant and extreme – as helicopter-ish followers trying to correct everyone’s wrong action or beliefs to free-range faith-ers who have little care about what others do with faith, we wonder about the future of the Church and how faith can be a force for good in society. Can we flip that cultural script as a faith community? That’s the question we’re carrying with us over the next three weeks. Are you up for making a good faith … effort?
Mark, the Gospel writer, is our good faith effort partner this morning. He gives us this little quip in a few short verses that are sandwiched between a very important motif of Jesus’ movement toward Jerusalem and ultimately the crucifixion. The Disciples are walking along with Jesus and Jesus can tell they’ve been squabbling like three kids traveling to grandma’s house, squeezed in the backseat for four hours. “Whatta you spattin’ about, boys?” Jesus asks. The silence was deafening. But Jesus knew. They’d been arguing about who was the favorite? Who’s the GOAT – the greatest of all time? Who’s the Disciple who would win the ESPY or MVP if Jesus was dolling out awards? Jesus sits down with them and reads them the children’s book, “I Love You the Purplest.” Not really. He say, “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.” They sit with that for a minute a bit dissatisfied before John speaks up. “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn’t in our group.” John’s head is still in that “Who’s the greatest?” conversation. “Yeah, yeah… I hear your servant talk but I’m kicking butt and taking names over here, Jesus, don’t you notice?” So often, we’re not hearing what Jesus is saying to us because we’re so focused on our own agenda. Sometimes we can even become disconnected from reality. Just before last year’s magnificent total solar eclipse, someone in the Dallas Fort Worth area called the local news station to ask if the eclipse could be rescheduled because Monday wasn’t a good day for them. Be a servant of all? John’s not hearing that. He’s more interested in being the Good Faith police. John’s being a helicopter Christian here. We’re quick to jump on others, even, if not especially, other Christians, for not doing it right. It’s why the Barna Research Group was not surprised to discover that 85% of those outside of the church feel Christians are hypocritical. And it’s hard to blame them, yes? We’re all over each other about this doctrine and that idea and who should get in the church and who’s out. One side points to the other and says they are hovering too much and the hoverers point to the free rangin’ Christians and say, “Well you don’t believe anything.”
We play favorites with scripture, with sins, and with people. I love the story about three brothers who used to the go to the bar after work every day and have a beer together. As time went on, they found themselves living in different cities. To keep up their tradition, they went to a bar in their respective cities at five o’clock at least once a week on the same day. They went alone but toasted to their brotherhood. One of the brothers would order three beers each time all at the same time. The bartender thought it was a little odd and asked, “Why do you order all three at once?” He told them about the ritual with his brothers. “I drink one for me and one for each of my brothers. This is how we stay connected,” he said. One day, this same man looked sad as he pulled up a chair to the bar, only ordering two beers. The bartender said, “Oh, man. I’m so sorry for your loss. What happened to your brother?” “Oh,” the man replied, “my brothers are just fine. I joined the Baptist church last Sunday and gave up drinking but my brothers have no problem with it.” We have different standards for different people. And we don’t like people who don’t do faith the way we do it. John says, “Jesus, you should be proud of me… that guy who was trying to heal and help people in your name? I shut him down. Who does he think he is? Am I right? They don’t know you like we know you. What’s worse? You’ll never believe the style of worship they were having – rock music? Really?”
Jesus shuts him down. “Don’t stop them, John. They are trying. And, they are meeting needs.” William Barclay says that “Intolerance is a sign of both arrogance and ignorance, for it is a sign that a person believes that there is no truth beyond the truth he sees.” I imagine Jesus saying, “John, the earth is round, right?” And that would have totally blown his mind. “What? Round? No.” “Trust me, John. It’s round. And two people can get to the same destination by starting out in precisely opposite directions.” Peter and the other disciples learn this again in the Book of Acts as they find the Holy Spirit active and at work in people they had previously written off. “Who are we to keep them from being a part?” they asked. I’m guessing that Jesus wasn’t only frustrated that John acted like he had it all figured out but also that there were much more pressing issues at hand… much more ultimately at stake than the petty things they were squabbling about; things we mostly choose to squabble about today. Why do we fight about the details? In the end, “We are,” what Ram Dass says, “just walking each other home.”
Because we are so quick to shut down others who don’t do faith like us, we miss out on some beautiful things in life… and the gift of growing with depth and diversity ourselves. It’s among the reasons why such a growing percentage of our culture finds our faith irrelevant and impractical. Barna’s research says that today, only 20% of adults in the United States strongly believe clergy are a credible source of wisdom and insight when it comes to the most important issues of our day. This isn’t great for me or what I’m trying to do with my life. It makes Christian leaders sort of like a smiling greeter at Walmart; we’ll point you in the right direction but after that, you’re really on your own. “Despite the faults we Christians bring to our faith, Christianity practiced well helps people thrive and communities flourish. Together, we want to discover how Christians can do good for and with people around us.” (Gabe Lyons).
Perhaps we need to work toward a good faith together; an iron sharpening iron sort of deal. Maybe you need a little spark. Maybe your version of Christianity has gotten a little flat. You know all the songs, things are fine, but there’s just no grit anymore. Your passion has waned. You may need a little spiritual WD-40. We’re quick to think of what we know and what we like and how our faith has become quite convenient for us. But think of the vastness of God. The magnitude! The mystery! How small would God be if I already had it all already figured out? John was feeling a little smug. But Jesus seems to say to him and us, “Think of what you don’t know.” Think of what is hanging in the balance based on whether or not you’ll take the next-level step in faith? We don’t know what; we don’t know who…. We don’t know what relationship we will miss or what joy we’ll not have by saying “No” to the simple invitation to take a growth step forward. If your faith has become a little boring… it’s not because God isn’t asking something new and exciting of us to consider and experience. Do you ever feel that thing in your gut? You know, every once in a while, you may feel challenged to step out of your comfort zone but you don’t? You feel prompted but you don’t? What is the fear? Is it change? Is it the possibility that God’s love is wider than you first suspected? It’s easier for us to shut it down than it is to make room for that possibility and… as Jesus notes… we’re talking about the extraordinary kingdom of God stuff – don’t miss the big picture because you’re hung up on the details. And don’t settle for a good enough faith, a convenient faith, when you can explore so much more. I tell my kids before every ball game or practice or lesson or experience, “The only thing you can control is your effort.” You can’t control your opponent. You may strike out sometimes. You may miss the mark. You can’t control much but you can always control your effort… and only you know if you’re giving it your best. This is not a plug for works righteousness. This isn’t about earning God’s favor. But if you feel spiritually stuck or wondering why you’re not expanding your heart, mind, and soul… only you know if you’re really working at it… if you’re putting in the effort toward a good faith or if you’re just hoping it will happen to you, rub off on you if you get close enough to a praise song once or twice a month. “We’re trying!” right? Is there a sweet spot to this whole thing?
Are there clear boundaries to the good faith we’re after? “I get it,” you may be thinking. Don’t hover. Don’t blow the faith whistle every other second and be open to the work of Christ in others, even when it’s not our way. “But I’m not ready for a free-range faith,” you might say. What about conviction? What about my interpretation of the biblical writer’s interpretation of faith? What can I hold onto? I want my church to have that rule; those people, not those, and use the King James Version of the Bible because we all know that was Jesus’ favorite. I kid but honestly – how do we know what to keep and what to reject? Jesus says let the wheat and weeds grow together but I’m standing here with a weed whacker and I’m ready to fire it up. The question, I think, is not ultimately how we regulate how everyone practices the faith but to seek genuinely to know how we are known by our family, our friends, our neighbors… even strangers.
There’s an old eastern fable about a man who possessed a ring set with a beautiful opal. Whoever wore the ring became incredibly sweet spirited with this beautiful, loving character that the community admired and appreciated greatly. It was a charm, of sorts, passed down generationaly from father to son and it never failed to do its magical work. As time went on, it came to a father who had three sons whom he loved equally. Who would get the ring? The father decided to have two other rings made precisely the same. Nobody could tell which of the three was the original. This caused great dispute with the sons because they all wanted the gifts of character that come with the magical ring. They took the case before a wise judge who examined each ring closely before speaking. He said, “I cannot tell which is the magic ring but you yourselves can prove it.” The sons scoffed at the idea. The judge said, “Oh yes. If the true ring gives sweetness and good character to the man who wears it, then I and all the other people in the city will know the man who possesses the true ring by the goodness of his life. So, go on with your life… be kind, be truthful, be brave, be just in your dealings and he who does these things will be the owner of the true ring.” The matter was to be proved by life itself. That opportunity is not left to fable but in the hearts and hands of you and me as we move back into our lives from this place yet this morning.
Someone will always try to write you off. What will you prove in response through your day-in-day-out living? The short poem says it quite well.
He drew a circle that shut me out – Rebel, heretic, thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win— We drew a circle that took him in.
What good faith effort will you make today? How will you flip the script on the cultural perception of Christianity? Will you helicopter hover over those other Christians with whom you disagree? Will you free-range faith-it to the extent that nobody even knows you’re a good-faith-effort Christian in the making? Or will you prove with your life, moment to moment, that Christ forgives, Christ redeems, Christ transforms, Christ gives you the chalk to draw a bigger circle yet. It seems that Adventure Playground quote I shared earlier may ring true in our life of faith as well. Do you remember it? I’ll share it with you again. “[This playground is] a space that should involve all kids; a place where they can be next to one another, inventing culture and transforming it. They’re making a new world.” In Christ, all things are made new. So, it seems, just like those kids on the playground, we’re making a new world too … .
 From article, “Where the Wild Kids Are” by Katherine Martinelli. March 29, 2016
 The Barna Group, led by David Kinnaman, compiled research data as noted throughout this message. Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons got together to write a book based on their findings entitled, “Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme.” Baker Books. 2016. This series, in part, is in response to this work.
 Fable as shared by William Barclay in his “Commentary on the The Gospel of Mark.” Westminster Press. 1975. The short poem that follows also comes from this source.
 From article, “Where the Wild Kids Are” by Katherine Martinelli. March 29, 2016