The Spiritual Significance of Leaving

The Spiritual Significance of Leaving

When I was little, one of my friends moved away. After I began to feel the loss, I complained to my mom. “Mom, I want just one friend who will never move away.” She wisely responded by suggesting that maybe people get married for this reason. I still missed my friend, but she made a good point.

Regardless, when close friends leave town, it’s never really an enjoyable experience. I certainly don’t have an easy time with it at least. It’s really rough saying goodbye to people who mean a lot to us.

During my senior year of college, this hit hard for me. I was looking out my bedroom window onto the campus of Spring Arbor University as it glowed with that perfect combination of moonlight and some strategically-placed halogens. I thought for a long time that Fall evening about the relationships I had built during my time there. And soon, life would necessarily pull each of us away from one another.

I was pulled to Grand Rapids. Other friends headed other directions. Some stayed a bit closer, sticking around Southeast Michigan. One left for Virginia. One left for Louisville.

Leaving is hard.

More recently, I’ve had some newer friends leave. A few weekends ago, we had one goodbye event on a Friday evening then got up the next morning for a goodbye breakfast. One family left for California for a new job. The other couple left for Scotland to pursue education.

Did I mention leaving is hard?

Over the years, I have realized that some friends seem to stay friends over the long haul. And that fact seems to soften the blow. If I bear in mind that we will, in fact, see those people again, it seems to prop me up psychologically. But it’s not enough for me. I wanted to push further on the topic.

grey skies

After a little thinking, I’ve been left with two distinct impressions. First, that we deeply miss one another when we are apart reveals the importance of human relationships. Because we have that feeling of absence, the strength of our relationship is underscored. Proverbs 17:17 is spot on: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” [NIV].

Second, I am reminded [and this may seem like a leap, but stick with me] of the reality of death. At 28, I have experienced the loss of just a few family members and friends, and I am sure plenty more pain is ahead for me on the death front. In Ecclesiastes 3:11 it says this: “God has made everything fitting in its time, but has also placed eternity in their hearts, without enabling them to discover what God has done from beginning to end” [CEB]. That same chapter talks about seasons for pretty much everything, including celebration, mourning, and dying.

So we’ve established that God has created all people to think long-term. Now check out this, from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”

In summary, mourn away; leaving is hard, and death is far worse. But don’t forget that hope remains. Revelation 21:5 tells us this: “behold, I am making all things new.” And that’s Jesus doing the speaking.

Can I Share My Faith With My Kids?

Certain conversations have a way of staying inside my head.

One such conversation was about faith and its meaning. We were speaking with Duncan, a Chinese man who was visiting my parents’ home in West Michigan. I was in high school at the time. It was 2003.

Duncan was the father of our exchange student and visited to spend time with us, the hosts, and with his daughter, who we had supported during her time in America.

During his brief stay, we delved into the topic of faith.

Amidst the conversation, Duncan told us that one of his biggest regrets in life was not having imparted faith to his daughters.

That’s the part that stuck with me.

And now, over a decade later, having witnessed the first six months of our son’s life, I have become convinced that imparting faith to one’s children is vital.

Why? Because I have experienced God. I have witnessed God’s work in the lives of others. Jesus Christ is my role model yet also my Savior. He is also a friend. I really do want people to know about this, and our son is one of those people!

Now let’s take a step back.

Various families take various approaches when it comes to parenting. Some families allow their children to sort of “make their own way” and figure things out. Telling themselves they don’t want to restrict their children, they allow them to explore and encourage them to check out all kinds of faith systems, allthewhile making sure they assure their kids that no religion is superior to the other.

That’s one approach. Here’s another.

Some families are terrified that their kids will question their faith. They’re scared that another faith system will become attractive, so they make sure to create barriers against those other faiths. They may emphasize the negative aspects of other faiths and underscore the truths of their own beliefs and the significant leaders in their own theological and spiritual leaders.

Both sets of parents care about their kids and desire for their progeny to flourish. That’s not in question. What’s in question is this: how should a family guide their children spiritually?

This NPR interview tackles this question. I end up thinking much like Kara Powell, author of Sticky Faith, an influential book [and blog] on the process of imparting faith to the young. Listen and check it out if you have time.

Anyway, as a Christian, I think of Jesus as the ultimate. His teachings are true, and his provenance is divine; he’s God’s Son. But how should I communicate this to my children?

Here are several key steps I feel compelled to take ::

  1. Trust God.

When Silas was baptized, it was a mysterious way for God to say, “I’ll take care of Silas.” We took him to the feet of our Savior, and we trust that God will work through his power to bring Silas to an awareness, first, then a simple trust, and then strong confidence in his Creator. And we trust that God will use us in this process.

  1. Model the spirituality that I desire for my child to eventually own.

It starts very close to home–in my soul, actually. My wife and I need to be the kind of people who embody faith in every aspect of life. It’s how we treat strangers. It’s how we talk about people who aren’t in the room–especially people with whom we may not fully agree. It’s our deeds and our words and our inner predisposition.

  1. Connect to a community of faith–in my case, a church–where other people are doing the same thing, and allow them to help with the parenting process.

Asking other Christians to intentionally mentor our son is one way to mitigate the problem of family systems. See, no matter how hard Kaile and I try, we will unwittingly pass on our bad habits to our son. In our tradition, it’s called “sin.” When we humbly admit our own issues and permit other people to speak into our child’s life, there are new opportunities for transformation, and we trust and pray that God will work through our community.

We cannot foist faith on our children; instead, we invite.


And the alternative is terrifying. Think about how many systems for understanding the world exist! Peruse a newspaper or Flipboard or Instagram or turn on the tube and you’ll be greeted with a host of organizations seeking to disciple your child and offer their spiritual wisdom:

*Exercise is the key to happiness!

*Money is the goal, for it brings about so much opportunity for relationships!

*The right job will bring you the sense of purpose your heart longs for!

If we are unintentional with our childrens’ faith formation, we leave the task to the next most attractive influencer. Maybe their peers will be the ones who guide them in uncertain paths. Maybe it will be a really nice group of people that get lost in mind-altering substances. Maybe it will be a questionable website. Maybe they’ll stumble into Zoroastrianism. Hard to say, isn’t it?

I think we’ll introduce Silas to Jesus.

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#1] [Final Post in Series!]

Theology has teeth.

This is what I’ve learned throughout seminary. Here’s why.

Having graduating seminary, I have continued reading books within the world of theology. But I have also ventured into new territory. Recently I finished Annie Dillard’s classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Before that, I devoured Eric Metaxas’s eponymous 2010 biography of Bonhoeffer.

My college chaplain, Ron Kopiko, always said that we say what we believe but we do what we value. If one is interested in finding someone who genuinely did what they valued, look no further than the unassuming Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Born early in the 20th century, he grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and men just as a then-obscure Austrian man grew in hate and anger and favor not with God but with a few nationalistic henchmen. As Adolph Hitler carefully assumed control in a debt-laden and politically compromised Germany, Bonhoeffer pursued his vocation in pastoral ministry and professorship.

Before it dawned on most of the elites in Germany, Bonhoeffer sensed Hitler had the worst of intentions. Wooing over the clergy in Germany who were willing to pay a high tax for a very fragile peace, Hitler did his best to spiritually legitimate his actions by subverting Christian beliefs. Attempting to obscure the reality that Jesus himself was Jewish, the Hitler-subservient Reich Church of Germany tossed out essentially the entire Old Testament. It simply didn’t fit with their current goals of destroying lives and calling on the German people to denigrate and destroy the Jewish people. Jewish theology, to them, had no place in their version of “Christian” practice.

True, many leaders in the church bowed to Hitler’s increasingly uncompromising demands. But there were many brave clergy who said no to Hitler. Risking income, status in the community, and their lives, Bonhoeffer carefully coordinated a resistance plan to Hitler’s grab for spiritual power. He leveraged his influence in various international church councils while petitioning his fellow German believers to practice a bolder faith. Bonhoeffer helped sift out the true disciples, the true Christians whose faith meant coordinate action.

Eventually, Bonhoeffer realized Hitler was politically unstoppable. The way he had managed to leverage nationalistic fervor through propaganda made any kind of resistance futile. Begrudgingly and with great fear for his soul, he became a part of a plan to assassinate Hitler. This was for the sake of the Jews, the disabled, the homosexuals, and all other people groups Hitler sought to exterminate, but it was to him a duty to God.

Bonhoeffer’s beliefs were strong enough that he risked everything–even his standing before God, the way he saw it–to live out his discipleship after Jesus.

There are few people who, like Bonhoeffer, have taken Jesus literally when he said, “take up your cross and follow me[1].” He was imprisoned for several years and eventually hanged on April 9th, 1945. Bonhoeffer’s no to Hitler meant a yes to the call of Jesus Christ.

May we, as Christians living in the 21st century, search for ways to take up our own crosses. Theology is not abstract or distant or irrelevant; at its core, our theology informs how we act in the world. And whether or not we talk about theological things, we say what we believe then do what we value.

Bonhoeffer valued Jesus.

That’s the start. Then comes the taking-up-our-cross part.


[1]Bible, New Testament, Matthew 16:24.

The Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary

Having graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in May, here are a few of the things I’ve gained. I’ll be posting about one per day, out of order, over the next ten days. Some will be awesome. This one, #7 starts us off lightly.


The best stories rule the world; and the best story is the strangely compelling narrative of Jesus.


Try as I might to find meaningful stories to communicate the reality of God, the story God has given us is simply the most compelling story the world will ever hear. My favorite movie is Clint Eastwood’s 2008 masterpiece, Gran Torino. SPOILER ALERT: I’m about to give away the plot. If you haven’t seen the movie, go see it, and skip this post.

Anyway, I’ll make it simple. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a crotchety retired Polish-American line-worker from Highland Park which is couched within the city limits of Detroit. He’s angry that all his white neighbors have moved away to the suburbs surrounding Detroit, angry that his kids are distant, angry that his priest [he’s Catholic] is young and inexperienced, angry that his wife passed away, angry that poor Hmong refugees now surround his neighborhood, angry that crime rates are up and that Detroit is struggling.

But something happens within Kowalski. I’d say it’s nothing but the power of God. Some may say it’s an old, angry gentleman who experiences an inner revolution. But I’d say it’s the life-transforming power of God.

He takes in a young neighbor, Thao, who had attempted to steal Kowalski’s prized car, an early ’70s Ford Gran Torino. At first it’s restitution, and Thao does odd jobs to make up for his attempted crime. But soon, Kowalski becomes a real mentor to Thao. Thao needs a father, and Kowalski coaches him on how to gather tools, hob-nob with the good-ol’-boys, fix things, and even gets him a construction job.

Gran Torino

Kowalski makes the mistake of roughing up some gang members who had been trying to recruit Thao into their drug-running enterprise. Soon, the gang retaliates and shoots up the Thao’ house and rapes his sister.

Outraged, Kowalski takes things into his own hands. His priest comes over to confront him, but even though he makes a serious confession, he hides his plan from the young minister.

By this point, I’m expecting a shootout between Kowalski and the gangsters. No good outcome is really possible here, right? In the light from streetlamps, he storms in and yells at the gangsters from the sidewalk. Then, provocatively, he reaches his hand into his vest pocket. They light him up, cutting him down with automatics. As he bleeds out, the watcher learns Kowalski was unarmed the whole time; he was reaching for a lighter for his cigarette.

Instead of continuing violence, he absorbs it, laying down his life for his new and foreign neighbor, the neighbor who tried to steal his car.

Kowalski’s actions were powerful. But they were only powerful because they mirror the greatest action of all: Christ’s work on the cross. Jesus suffered and died, absorbing violence instead of continuing it. But where Kowalski did plenty of things to deserve anger–maybe not murder, but certainly anger and distrust–Jesus was a perfect sacrifice.

Kowalski discovered the deepest meaning of love: it’s laying your life down for your friend. And his story is compelling because it mirrors the greatest story-the story of Jesus.


Two [Or More] Approaches to Cultural Engagement.

It’s called Porchfest.

Every year, my undergraduate university, Spring Arbor, does a years-end gathering complete with songs, dances, parodies, and comedy of every kind.

Each year we looked forward to Dr. Patton’s humble submission to the show. As an actor with a deep attachment to the world of theatre, he leveraged his powerful voice and calculated training to broadcast a simple yet profound message.

He would take the stage, stand in front of the microphone, and recite–as if reciting a moving sililoque–the lyrics from a top 40 song. And no matter what song he picked, each was slightly ridiculous. For example, All Gold Everything by Trinidad James, pictured below:

Trinidad Hames

Gold all in my chain,

Gold all in my rings,

Gold all in my watch,

Don’t believe me, just watch.

Don’t believe me, just watch.

Or another song, apparently an interesting swing at the fashion industry by Right Said Fred:

I’m too sexy for my car

Too sexy for my car

Too sexy by far

And I’m too sexy for my hat

Too sexy for my hat

What do you think about that?

Just picture it–a middle aged man, greying hair–and he’s quoting these profound lyrics in front of a thousand late teens matriculating through a Christian college.

Maybe it’s hard to picture.

Maybe not.

Now, another perspective.

Ken Heffner, director of Student Activities at Calvin College, perceives culture differently. His job involves inviting bands of all kinds to perform at Calvin. In November of 2014, he brought in David Bazan, a talented artist well known for his journey away from Christian faith and into agnosticism.

Heffner invites the artists to perform, then entreats his students to discern how God is at work within their artistry. Ken does a talk-back session after every performance, asking insightful questions relating to spirituality and faith, and the artists respond from their own vantage point. He has invited crude rappers and hard-edged rock bands to sing at his mid-sized Christian university, preserving the cadence of performance followed by talk-back.

Paul Patton subtly sheds light on the foolishness of culture, recognizing its strengths while seemingly keeping it in its place. Ken Heffner tacks a slightly different line, attempting to carefully observe how God is at work within culture.

To me, these two individuals represent two seemingly conflicting perspectives on how to live effectively, as Christians, in the world.

How to deal with culture is the difficult question at stake.

One stream of Christian faith has embraced culture and seen participation as the best option, seeking to enter fully into it and reform it. We see this especially clear in traditions such as the Reformed Church in America, a denomination that has received inspiration and influence from Abraham Kuyper and other thinkers. The other stream has distanced culture, recognizing its inherent temptations. We see this in holiness churches, churches influenced by John Wesley, among many others.

Both streams provide Christians with important wisdom.

Christians are surrounded with cultural influences. Just try driving along the expressway in an urban area; my guess is you will have to discern which billboards proclaim important truths. Just try doing a Google search for local restaurants; my guess is you will have to sort through ads and pop-ups in order to make progress.

No matter how hard one may try, apart from becoming a hermit there are limited ways to hide from culture.

I think we need Paul Pattons and Ken Heffners in the Christ-following world. The church needs to recognize the fallacies and deceit of culture. And yet, at the same time, followers of Jesus need to learn to meet others where they are.

Jesus sets a strong example in Mark 1:35 by rising early in the morning to pray. He retreats from the world. But in other instances, such as Mark 2:15-17 we learn that Jesus is spending time eating with tax collectors–duplicitous cheats who have betrayed their own people for personal gain–and he insists, when questioned by religious authorities, that he has come not for the right-doers, but for sinners–the wrongdoers.

Jesus engaged people where they were.

Our problem is that we are not Jesus. This does not mean we cannot carefully discern culture’s effects and engage with music and art and film, attempting to deeply exegete culture for kingdom purposes. But it does mean that we have to preserve a strong sense of what is right and good.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we have each received a wealth of wisdom from his example. But we also learn from the development of the first churches. Paul instructed the churches at Philippi in this way:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things [Phil. 4:8].”

Because of our formation, we may relate more in our approach to culture to Ken Heffner or to Paul Patton. Because of my own formation, I must admit that I fall in line more quickly with Paul Patton’s skepticism of culture and his sensitive conscience. I know many other people who are more comfortable with Ken Heffner’s open yet carefully discerning approach.

Either way, we should honor or brothers and sisters in faith as we make choices that are reconciled with our conscience. And our best instruction always comes from Scripture. And whatever our spiritual heritage, our allegiance always belongs exclusively to Jesus.