The Face in the Mirror

I just spent the last month telling people they were sinners.

It didn’t come across that blunt, of course. At least, I certainly hope it didn’t. But that was indeed the truth at the core of the four-week class I taught in my church’s annual Summer Institute, a two-month season in which our regular Sunday morning classes take a break and our staff offers a handful of specialized courses not usually on the Sunday School menu. Downstairs, my colleague Allen educated roughly one hundred folks on the history of the Bible’s composition and translation while a large carafe of coffee percolated in the corner. Across the hall, a trio of associate pastors took turns leading discussion with four dozen parents about strategies for effectively rearing one’s children in an often tumultuous culture. And in D-311/312/313, the old classroom partitions were accordioned away in order to accommodate fifty people who, for whatever reason, were willing to come hear me talk to them about their bad habits and psychological hang-ups.

Oh, the strange activities we Christians involve ourselves in on Sunday mornings…

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The doughnuts help.

Mine was an ambitious class. I knew that going in. In only four 50-minute sessions, my objective was to not only present a particular hermeneutic on Romans 7 and the spoiling influence of “the flesh,” but also to discuss a variety of teachings on the process of sanctification – that is, how we lowly sinners can actually become more like Christ by way of the Holy Spirit’s influence and transforming work in our inner life. I endeavored to talk about the Desert Fathers’ teachings on spiritual disciplines, the oft misunderstood “seven deadly sins” in Church doctrine, the threefold path of prayer and reflection, and, most directly, the Enneagram system of personality – a tool of spiritual direction that has helped me better understand the root fixations and self-preserving inclinations in my own life. So, yes, I might have been biting off more than I could chew with this course.

Nevertheless, it went as well as a pastor can hope when speaking specifically about sin for the better part of an hour for four straight weeks. But even from the very beginning of our first session, I experienced a pair of sobering realizations that stuck with me throughout the course, and have continued to chime in the back of my mind in the days since the class wrapped.

The first realization was that, for all the many Bible lessons I have taught in my (has it really been?) eighteen-year ministry career, and all the sermons I have preached, and all the panels I have sat on offering far larger sums than a mere two cents can buy, rarely have I found myself speaking explicitly about sin – the human struggle with it, and the Christian’s continual struggle against it. Oh, sure, the concept of sin – the reminder of it – is always there, darkening the edges of my lessons like an integral plot point in a film or novel you mustn’t forget about if the ending is going to make any sense.

I am a pastor who delights in speaking of the love of God and the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, but I am not so ensorcelled by this truth that I have completely done away with references to the effects of sin – its invasive influences and erosive effects. It does not escape me or the messages I preach that we live in a fallen world, that we are broken people in need of mending, and that it is somehow both necessary and futile to resist temptation. We are a people who stand in need, everyday, of salvation.

But aside from the occasional passage of Scripture that requires I address the issue of sin, as I dove into this latest lesson series I realized that my usual modus operandi is merely to dance around the idea of sin rather than look it full in the face. After all, nothing puts a damper on an enjoyable Bible study excursion than a self-selected detour through the swampy thicket of human wretchedness.

brussel sprouts

If Bible studies were family dinners, teaching about sin would be the Brussel sprouts of the meal.

The second realization was that I am not alone in limiting my use of the ‘S’ word in my lessons. I cannot speak for all churches, of course, but I get the feeling that aside from a few denominational traditions out there that are customarily fixated on iniquitousness, the majority of Christians in the West are not well-versed in the specifics of the biblical witness regarding sin. This is not because we deny the problem of sin, but because we would rather hold it in our minds in a vague and generalized way, and then move right on past to the bits about love and salvation and faithfulness and a grace that is greater than all our sin.

And that’s understandable. The more sin can be that faceless, nebulous villain threatening the entire collected populace, the better we can function within the reality of its constant influence on our lives. It is only when I begin to consider just how guilefully and intricately its tentacles have entwined my own soul that I recall just how dire and desperate is this struggle.

Sin does not merely stunt spiritual growth, it creates a crippling drag on every motion in my life. And, worst of all, sin is a mirror that, when I dare to gaze into it, shows me not the face of some sinister outside invader, but myself. It reminds me that I am my own worst enemy.

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And that I look much cooler than I actually am…

The Apostle Paul was willing to look hard at this familiar face in the mirror, and then he conveyed his utter bewilderment with an equally bewildering description:

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. For I know that good itself does not dwell 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 I do not do the good I want to do, but 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. (Romans 7:15-20, NIV)

For the devoted Christian, this is the vexing mystery of sin. It is us, but it is also not us. Paul found this dilemma both infuriating and humbling. After all, no one enjoys looking in a mirror if they know something ugly is going to be staring back at them. We would much rather avert our eyes whenever that dark glass hoves into view. A few of us will go so far as to deny the mirror exists at all.

Thus, without noticing it, I had put together a course in which, over the span of four weeks, I forced both myself and the fifty people in the audience, to lock eyes with that gaunt and ghastly figure grinning back at them from their mirrors. And I was reminded of just how important (and yet terribly unpopular) an exercise this is for Christians. In the earlier days of the Church, this practice of constructively contemplating one’s sinfulness was known as mortification of the flesh. As an element of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life, mortification referred to willing meditation on the darkness and death that clings to the soul like June bugs on a T-shirt. It’s objective was the adoption of particular spiritual disciplines (e.g., fasting, chastity, solitary prayer) that would, little by little, purge from our souls the self-centeredness and deeply rooted compulsions which, as the Apostle Paul insisted, continually prevent us from living godly lives.

There is nothing fun about mortification of the flesh. Looking inward to identify our bad habits and behold our crippling wounds, even with the comforting guidance of God’s Spirit, is no picnic. It can be an arduous and uncomfortable process. If we forget the truth that Paul declared in Romans 8 (right on the heels of his personal lament about sin) – that there is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ – we can easily sink into the murky depths of self-loathing and despair.

However, never has the ancient practice of mortification been more necessary than in our modern culture. This is an age in which people will rush to publicly shame someone who has violated or failed others, but will keep a tight-fisted hold on individualistic pride if and whenever their own shortcomings come to light. We have little trouble maligning others, but often refuse to admit our own shame. And while the Christian life is certainly not about shaming sinners – seriously, it is not about shaming sinners – it is absolutely concerned with how people come to identify, accept, and find forgiveness for their sins, which, contrary to popular worldly opinion, is the only way to really move on from them.

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And yet, knowing all of this, I still avoid looking in the mirror. As a minister, I too often preach the grace of God without taking the time to ponder its limitless depths. All the while, the masses continue their endless search for alternative, non-messy methods to overcome the rottenness they know lies at the core of their being.

All because we do not want to feel ashamed.

Thomas Merton identified this epidemic of denial in his journals:

“What (besides making lists of the vices of our age) are some of the greatest vices of our age? To begin with, people began to get self-conscious about the fact that their misconducted lives were going to pieces, so instead of ceasing to do the things that made them ashamed and unhappy, they made it a new rule that they must never be ashamed of the things they did. There was to be only one capital sin: to be ashamed. That was how they thought they could solve the problem of sin, by abolishing the term.

Oh, that we would brave the embarrassment and, yes, even the shame of our sin in order to find the way past it. If only we would learn that ignoring the plank in our own eye is responsible for far more disappointments in life than our neighbors’ specks could ever be. If only we would trust in the love and strength of the One who heals us – who called us out of the miserable grip of sin – and, in that source of confidence, level our gaze at the false self staring back at us in our mirrors.

As I told that gathered group of fellow sinners, if we are willing to do this – to bravely and honestly look inward and behold who we truly are – perhaps we will finally be able to see past the grim features and fiendish grin of the old, false self, and behold the truth that lies behind its leering eyes. Perhaps we would recognize the fear hidden beneath that gaze – that the old man in the mirror is dying, his power has been stripped away. He has been rendered nothing more than a fading shadow that now dissipates in the radiant light of the sun of righteousness.

Freedom breaks like the dawn, and, if we really look, within its rays we can indeed see the visage in the mirror slowly but surely being transformed from lowly sinner to soaring saint.

The Ridiculous Thought Experiment That May Save Your Life

I want to challenge you to contemplate something for the next few moments.

How would your life be different if you considered everything that happened to you – every situation or experience or person or, yes, even problem that came your way – as a gift? As something at least somewhat unexpected, and wholly unearned, undeserved?

What would change about the ways you carried yourself throughout your day-in-day-out routine if you disciplined yourselves to receive each question, each concern, each dilemma with a sense of wonder, of excitement at all the possibilities that lay in each moment?

Every long checkout line.

Every opportunity to help someone with directions.

Every bug-eyed kid peering at you over the back of the restaurant booth.

Every Facebook comment.

Every neighborhood dispute.

Every first episode of a new series on Netflix.

Every piece of music.

Every troubling news story.

Every parent-teacher conference when you suspect the report is going to be less than stellar.

To see all these things as gifts, to receive each little thing as groundwork for an utterly unique future – what would that do to your spirit? To your mood?

More importantly, what would become of the way you interacted with others? With your kids? Your spouse? Your parents and relatives? Your neighbors and coworkers?

Now, this may seem like an idealistic exercise, especially when we think about all the bad experiences that drift our way, sometimes daily. But all around us right now we can observe the trappings of the holiday season – a season that is marked by gift-giving. And I know well by now that not every gift I will receive this season is going to be enjoyable. From a friend, I’ll get a book I have no interest in reading. From a family member, I’ll get a shirt that is frightfully out-of-style, which I’ll have to slog to the mall in order to return. I’ll open the package from that relative who lives far away and it will be just as I suspected, another dog-ugly tie I can wear nowhere. (I don’t even wear ties!)

And yet, even in these disappointments, if I’m willing to look for it, I can find the potential for gladness and intimacy.

As a pastor, I talk often about the concepts of grace and forgiveness and gratitude. In Greek, the word for grace is charis, which means, “gift.” The word for forgiveness is apheses, which literally means, “release from bondage.” And the word for gratitude is eucharistia, “thankfulness.” Each word carries with it an air of unexpectedness – of hopeful surprise. Each word signals the opening of possibilities.

So, what would happen if everything was charis? Grace. A gift.

In everything we do, from going over the family budget, to keeping the house relatively clean, to disciplining our children, what if we looked carefully for the opportunities to issue apheses, a release from bondage, or remission of a penalty?

In this volatile day and age, it seems to me there are really only two kinds of people, but it isn’t the happy and the sad, and it isn’t the kind and the mean. It’s the thankful and the dissatisfied. What if you chose eucharistia – to be thankful in all things?

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. – Frederick Buechner, Now and Then

Christ the King

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last day of the Christian Church calendar.

Depending on the tradition of the faith in which you worship, you may or may not observe this particular day. There are a lot of significant days and seasons within the Church year, and almost all denominations observe at least some of them (e.g., Christmas, Good Friday, Easter). If you are Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox, it is likely your worshipping community follows the Christian calendar very closely, including such focal observances as the Feasts of Epiphany, the Annunciation, and Pentecost, to name merely a few. The same is mostly true for more “high church” traditions like Anglicans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and some Methodists, in which it is not out of the norm to participate in special services like Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Trinity Sunday.

While it is less common in “low church” circles like the Baptists, Assemblies of God, and the majority of non-denomination communities to observe many aspects of this ancient Christian liturgy, the last decade or so has seen a resurgence of ancient traditions within modern contexts of church worship. Younger generations, including those that did not grow up within liturgically based systems, are beginning to reintegrate an increasing number of observances and practices once considered outdated or traditionalistic.

What makes Christ the King Sunday a valuable component of the Church calendar for all Christians, regardless of denominational tradition, is not simply the fact that it stands as the culminating observance of the whole year (which will begin anew next Sunday with the first week of Advent). It is what the central theme of this “feast” is concerned with, which is the crowning of Jesus Christ, in a devotional sense, as Messiah and ruler over every aspect of our lives. Having anticipated his incarnation during the season of Advent, celebrated his birth throughout the twelve days of Christmas, recognized within the season of his Epiphany the greatness of his mission, the genius of his teaching, and the glory of his wonders, followed him throughout Lent as he set his face toward Jerusalem, mourned his death on Good Friday, glorified him on Resurrection Sunday, and accepted his call to a revolutionary discipleship at Pentecost, we finally arrive at a moment of “completion” (Phil. 1:6) at the Feast of Christ the King.

While a relatively new observance within the liturgical year (it’s current placement on the calendar was established in 1925), I can think of no better way to culminate the Christian year than by crowning my Lord and Savior as king over every part of my life. As Pope Pius XI wrote upon the establishment of this feast day:

“If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.”

Or, consider how Frederick Buechner puts this concept of personal Lordship in his memoir, The Sacred Journey, as he recalls the sermon that finally moved him to a point of conversion, delivered by the renowned preacher, George Buttrick:

There came one particular sermon with one particular phrase in it that does not even appear in a transcript of his words… I can only assume that he must have dreamed it up at the last-minute and ad-libbed it and on just such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that, I suppose, hang the destinies of us all. Jesus Christ refused the crown that Satan offered him in the wilderness, Buttrick said, but he is king nonetheless because again and again he is crowned in the heart of the people who believe in him. And that inward coronation takes place, Buttrick said, “among confession, and tears, and great laughter.” It was the phrase great laughter that did it, did whatever it was that I believe must have been hidden in the doing all the years of my journey up till then. It was not so much that a door opened as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon.

On Christ the King Sunday, we shed every allegiance that, whether intentionally or not, sets itself up as contrary to the Kingdom of God and its principles. We worship the glory and splendor of the coming King, but we also take a long, sobering look at ourselves and the myriad ways we are so regularly disturbed by, and entangled in, the fleeting, finite affairs of a world that is constantly trying to save itself through its own limited ingenuity.

So, in a day and age when, through both news and social media outlets, we are subjected to the blustering bravado of self-centered, image-obsessed world leaders…

When, in search of a better life, we make the mistake of placing our hope in partisan platforms, legislative moralizing, and the dubious assurances of politicians who are well versed in the dog-whistle buzzwords of various faith-based groups…

When we so frequently trade the timeless spiritual disciplines of formative prayer and Scripture-reading for pop spirituality fads and self-help books that do our study of the Bible for us…

When we stray from the ancient way of humility, compassion, and forgiveness because we buy into a lie that certain people with certain hangups, or particular groups hailing from particularly nasty regions, have in some way crossed a line which allows us to withhold our kindness and leniency…

When we forego the call to bear an honest and persuasive witness to the Way of Jesus and instead give in to the instant satisfaction that comes by way of pithy soundbites and hashtag “prayers”…

Of these things, we repent.

For these things, we ask forgiveness.

From these things, we confess our need for deliverance.

Before the refrains of the Advent hymns and Christmas carols begin anew, we pause today to swear the only allegiance that will endure – to profess faithfulness and obedience to the one true and worthy King. We bow our knees, realizing that this is not only good and right to do, but it is also the very reason we were given knees at all, so they might bend before the perfect authority and unrivaled mercy of the One through whom all things live and move and have their very being.

The Veterans’ Day Lesson I Never Expected

I am the son of a veteran.

My father is a retired Air Force pilot. He flew missions in the Vietnam conflict as well as the Balkans. During Operation Desert Storm, he spoke to an assembly of my entire middle school student body about the reasons for the war and the United State’s objectives in aiding the Kuwaitis. Throughout his career, he flew everything from bombers to F-4 Phantoms to the A-10 Thunderbolt (a.k.a. the “Warthog”). I still remember occasionally looking up to the sky during afternoon soccer practice and seeing that funny-looking, green warplane, with its massive front cannon, gliding across the sky. It would suddenly bank to the side, circle around, and fly over again, this time dipping its wings back and forth. This, I knew, was my father returning to Bergstrom Air Force Base after a trip. He had adjusted his flight-path in order to say a quick hello to his son (while simultaneously solidifying his status, in the eyes of all my teammates, as the coolest dad in the world).

Growing up, I played with models of various airplanes – A-4 Skyhawks, F-14 Tomcats, F-15 Eagles, F-16 Falcons, the list goes on. I watched Top Gun so many times as a kid that to this day I can still quote the final air battle scene in its entirety. And I stood in awe at airshows watching jet pilots scream across the sky performing barrels rolls and synchronized maneuvers. More than anything, though, I loved watching that twin-engine monstrosity roar in low and reduce a targeting shack to a billion exploding splinters of debris.

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Eat your heart out, Tony Stark.

I am exceedingly proud of my father, for his service, for the career he chose, and for what he taught me about discipline, honor, and respect for our country. I do not take it lightly that people like him (not to mention his father and two of my cousins who served in the Marine Corps) have dedicated their lives to protecting this country and its interests. And while I realize not every modern military conflict is directly concerned with our personal freedom, I still recognize that the freedoms we enjoy in this country and the possibility for an even brighter future is what inspires men and women like my father to serve.

I did not choose the line of work my father did. A thousand Top Gun viewings notwithstanding, I was afraid of flying. I still am. I’m also terrible at math, which any jet pilot will tell you is an integral part of the job.

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Not the best place to run out of fuel because you forgot to carry the one.

Instead, I entered another form of service. I dedicated my life to preserving and furthering the freedom of a different kind of country – a freedom, I believe, that is far more precious than even the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. And, on this Veterans’ Day, I recognize that my father’s military service has helped me comprehend a much deeper truth about my own choice of career.

As a pastor, I am tasked with teaching the disciplines of this other country we call the Kingdom of God. It is my job to incite respect and encourage honor for the interests of our Creator and his people. And just as our commander-in-chief, Jesus the Son of God, laid down his life for the sake of every kingdom citizen, so must I be ready and willing to sacrifice my own for the sake of his gospel. This isn’t just a job. It’s a calling. A way of life. And I do not undertake this service merely because I am commanded to, but because, like a good soldier fighting to preserve the interest of the country he loves, I am irrevocably inspired by the freedom I have in Christ, and the promise of a bright, shining future.

Without realizing it, the dedication my father exhibited to his career in the Air Force was at the same time preparing me for my own career in the fields of our Lord. And for that, above everything else, I am abundantly grateful.

So, thank you, Dad, for the discipline, honor, and respect you taught me. Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for the missions. Thank you for your life of service.

And thanks for those fly-bys over soccer practice. That was freaking awesome!

Why It’s Okay for Christians to Watch Scary Movies (A Halloween Post)

To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures. – Flannery O’Connor

The first scary movie I ever watched was Gremlins. I was five years old, and less than five minutes into the second half of the movie – after the furry mogwai balls become cackling, razor-toothed monsters – I wanted nothing more to do with scary movies for the rest of my life.

I know. Gremlins. 

I couldn’t even handle a horror-comedy produced by Steven Spielberg.

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Behold the face of unbridled terror!

Speaking of Spielberg, you know what else I couldn’t handle? E.T.

Something about that pug-faced, periscope-necked little alien freaked me out. All the moonlit backyard shots, and the foreboding sounds emanating from the family’s shed. Sure, the audience was granted a glimpse of these space creatures from the very beginning, but how was I to know that their flora-gathering interstellar expedition didn’t also include the consumption of human flesh. Maybe that’s why the government is after them in the first place.

The point is, no one had to warn me about scary movies when I was a child. I had gotten a taste of even the tamest examples, and couldn’t handle the emotional tumble that followed. So, while my older sister had slumber parties where she and her friends huddled in the dark watching movies like Poltergeist and A Nightmare on Elm Street, I avoided visual contact with every single brand of movie monster that appeared before my face. I shut my eyes in department stores whenever I saw Spike or Freddy Kruger’s visage emblazoned on a T-shirt. I ran screaming from the room when Lou Ferrigno transformed into the Hulk. Even at the age of ten, I turned down my friends invite to sleepover at his house when he excitedly told me his mom had rented Beetlejuice for everybody to watch.

I know. Beetlejuice. 

Now here I am, a month shy of thirty-eight, and I am no longer afraid of Gremlins or Freddy Krueger. A few weeks ago, I even sat down with my seven and five-year old daughters to watch E.T., and I was able to (I think) talk them through their initial misgivings when those same moonlit shots came on the screen, and the creepy scrabbling sounds started up in the shed. (Seriously, though, what kind of dunce is Eliot that he just grabs a flashlight and goes to investigate it alone?)

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Also, did you know at one time Warner Bros. was considering a sequel called Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian? Now, THAT’S scary.

However, thinking back on my childhood and the hair-trigger cowardice I sported, I’m not embarrassed. After all, shock and fear are instinctual components of the human psyche, and when you are a little kid the world can often seem much bigger, wilder, and more mysterious than adults let on. In time, we learn there are no such things as green monsters that multiply when they get wet, or a pedophiliac ghost who stalks your nightmares. But even as logic and rationalism sets in, we do not outgrow fear. Evil is not something you leave behind when you turn eighteen or twenty-one. No, these are very real elements present within human existence.

This is why I am not opposed to watching scary movies. Not as children, of course. I can assure you that for at least a few more years E.T. will probably be the most harrowing film my daughters will watch (with the exception of the villains in the first couple of Harry Potter films, or that part in Enchanted when Susan Sarandon turns into a freaking dragon). However, even as a devout Christian and a pastor, I retain a deep appreciation for scary movies. It’s not simply that horror movies provide us with unsettling and viscerally exciting experiences. It is also because a good horror movie, if we indulge it, can teach us something about the dangerous effects of fear and the unscrupulous nature of evil. (The operative word here is “good,” because there are a lot of bad horror movies out there.)

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A whole lot.

I won’t deny that drawing theological and social insights from horror movies is a bit out of the box. Certainly it is not a practice every believer should indulge. However, sometimes looking outside the box is what enhances our understanding of a particular spiritual concept.

Several years ago, my friend, Myles, who is a seminary professor specializing in Christian Ethics, found a way to force outside-the-box thinking in his students. The seminary hosted a theology-in-film night; each month a different professor would show a film they felt was theologically significant, and then they would facilitate some dissection of the transcendent themes. Myles was set to host in October, and, in the spirit of the spookiest month of the year, chose The Exorcist. (Hear him tell the story HERE.) The way he describes it, the night of the event, the teaching theater was packed with students. Most of them had never seen the movie before, and were exceedingly curious how their professor was ever going to find an edifying spiritual insight in such a notoriously horrific film.

And yet, those who have seen The Exorcist know that while there are indeed some graphic scenes that are difficult to watch, the film also raises profound questions on the nature of evil, its multi-faceted influences on a family, and the mysteries that abound between spirituality and psychology. Some Christians may still insist there are more sterilized ways to address these issues, but what a film as shocking and frightening as The Exorcist does that a dull drama or innocuous suspense film cannot is elevate the conversation to a more serious level. It gives such issues a greater sense of urgency, because viewers have just witnessed just how unexpectedly and deeply these issues can affect our regular, mundane existence.

The renowned Southern writer and devout Christian, Flannery O’Connor, was incredibly adept at utilizing unsettling, infuriating, and terrifying images to further the impact of her short stories. Whether it is a dull, bickering vacationing family suddenly encountering a gun-toting serial killer (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”), or a militantly-atheistic young woman being grifted and subsequently assaulted by a duplicitous Bible salesman (“Good Country People”), O’Connor sought creative ways to elevate her readers’ contemplation of the deceitfulness of evil in society, and how free will allows us to either choose or reject grace. For O’Connor, telling a story was an opportunity to share an eternal and devout perspective on human nature with people who would never give their time to such messages or existential questions. She therefore felt it was her responsibility, in every story she wrote, to point her readers’ attentions to the extraordinary influences of both good and evil in our lives.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, wrote: “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller. – Flannery O’Connor

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Okay, I won’t turn away, but can I at least peak through my fingers?

A person who has developed disciplined viewing habits of movies (as well as those who have trained themselves to read novels and short stories, or listen to music, with analytical and introspective eyes/ears) have the ability to consider questions and concepts many people never truly take the opportunity to think about. There are some horror and suspense films that, if we will sit with them for a while and really contemplate their deeper meaning, can truly enhance or transform our understanding of important societal issues and conventions. Recent films like Take Shelter, Get Out, It Follows, and The Babadook make incredibly profound comments on present-day concerns, but so do some ground-breaking classics like The Night of the Hunter, Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, and The Thing.

I realize that most people go to horror movies for the thrill ride – for the requisite jump scares or the gross-outs. I also realize that your average scary movie consumer is not interest in doing a lot of personal reflection afterward. But, as my friend Myles says, what makes watching a horror movie unique is the story on-screen shocks and frightens us in a way that makes us realize we are not equipped to handle the situation. The anxiety we feel for the protagonists is because we are projecting our own selves onto their characters, and we don’t know what to do with this fear except to sit with it and be unsettled by it. Indeed, this is similar to a lot of our experiences in life – when we feel trapped with nowhere to run, or powerless to eradicate the dangers we face. As such, learning how to accept the presence of fear and powerlessness can grant us greater perspective.

So, this Halloween, may you not be afraid to be afraid. If you aren’t a fan of scary movies, that’s fine, but may you at least consider the deeper questions being presented in stories of all kinds. May you not shy away from the unsettling aspects of this world, but rather may you find the courage to meet them head-on.

And, if you’re a parent, may you also help your children understand that while there are indeed things to fear in this big, mysterious world, there is also a very good and loving God who helps us face whatever comes and endure to the end.

For more on this subject, check out my podcast, particularly Mini-Episode 4: The Theology of Scary Movies which features a short conversation with my friend Myles about how to watch good horror movies. (iTunes link HERE.)

How to Be a Jerk for Jesus

When I was in college, I attended a two-day seminar on apologetics hosted at a church in Austin. A group of students from our campus ministry organization went up together. I can’t speak for them, but at the time I was mildly excited. I had only recently read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity for the first time, and was a bit of a neophyte when it came to this field of study and rhetoric. However, I found the practice of making valid arguments for faith, and rebutting arguments against it, exhilarating, and I was stoked to learn more.

And yet, what I encountered at this seminar quickly doused these kindled sparks of excitement, and for many years after soured my appreciation for modern-day Christian apologetics.

It was not that I saw through the arguments presented at this seminar (and, believe me, the amount of rhetorical ropeadopes and dialectical mic drops presented by the main speaker was staggering!). No, most of them were pretty impressive maneuvers of logic and reasoned rebuke. Commendable, even.

The problem, it turned out, did not lie with the apologetics being presented. The problem was the apologist himself.

ugly suit

No, it wasn’t because he dressed like a crazy person.

In one of his wonderful essays for Release Magazine, “Telling the Joke,” the late Rich Mullins recounts a heated exchange he once had with a friend, in which he systematically knocked down every argument against the validity of the gospel of Jesus Christ only to be shocked by his friend’s response. As Rich put it:

After I had whacked away his last scrap of defense, after I had successfully cut off every possible escape route that he could use, after I had backed him into an inescapable corner and hit him with a great inarguable truth, [he] blew me away by simply saying, “I do not want to be a Christian. I don’t want your Jesus Christ.” (Release, February/March 1996)

What left me feeling rotten about the seminar I attended was the unmistakable smugness and arrogant glee in the tone of the speaker (who had been touted as a sought-after expert in the field of Christian apologetics) as he walked us through his finely tuned workbook curriculum. Chapter by chapter, we learned, as each page put it, how to prove Mormons are wrong, how to prove Islam is a lie, how to prove atheists are illogical. (There was also a chapter on the fallacies of Catholicism, which in hindsight I realize should have been more of a giveaway of the kind of person we were dealing with.) It was clear that this man loved the work he did, and that, in and of itself, was fine. Indeed, I assume the Ravi Zachariases and Josh McDowells and Lee Strobels of the world love what they do. This man’s devotion to his field of study was not the issue. Rather, it was how much of the man’s personality, passion, and energy seemed focused on not simply contending for the validity of the Christian faith, but absolutely obliterating every opponent he could think of.

Throughout the seminar, this man related stories of past exchanges with imams, Hindu priests, New Age adherents, even Satanists, and, with each subsequent story, he seemed to relish recounting exactly how he had put each one of these pagans in their place. Rarely did he describe these exchanges in a way that highlighted kindness, or gentleness, or even patience. Only flawless precision. These stories were tales of how he outsmarted his opponents and became the undisputed victor of each argument.

What it boiled down to was this. For this alleged expert in the field of apologetics, it seemed that the gospel of Jesus Christ was valuable not because of some inward transformation, but because he had determined ways to empirically and reasonably verify it. It was powerful because it was intellectually ratified, not because it was spiritually manifest inside him. I don’t mean to insinuate the guy is not a devoted follower of Jesus. But for three hours that night (and several more the next morning) the life of faith he exhibited had little to do with the fruits of the Spirit described by the Apostle Paul in Galatians, and much more to do with proving himself right in the face of all other faiths. In this tried-and-true notebook, he had clearly identified the enemies of Christianity, and his focus was not on loving them.

It was on beating them.

Now, apologetics can be a useful tool for Christians, especially in our increasingly pluralistic world. These days, if you are choosing to resist the anti-social hypnotism of your smartphone and are actually looking up at people and engaging with them, you are likely to encounter people who believe all sorts of things contrary to the gospel message. You will meet people who completely dismiss Jesus as a misunderstood and vastly overrated historical figure. You will meet others who are happy that you’ve found meaning in the Christian faith, but not to assume that everyone needs that particular belief system in order to find their own existential meaning. You may even meet full-fledged nihilists who, while outright rejecting any and all religious ideas presented to them, nonetheless surprise you by how well-rounded and gracious they are.

nihilists

Probably not these guys, though.

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you,” writes St. Peter. St. Paul echoes him in a letter to his protegé, Timothy: “Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”

If you are meeting people and truly engaging them in conversation and relationship, there will come moments in which you have the opportunity to talk about what you believe. Maybe not breaking out your Bible and flipping to the Romans road, but at least relating the fundamental narratives about who God is and how he interacts with humanity. And, in doing so, you may also find yourself entertaining questions about, or even arguments against, your beliefs. Apologetics is a way of organizing and articulating these narratives within various forms of dialogue. It is intended as a catalyst for deeper conversation, not as a club to bust the lips of skeptics.

Yes, it feels really, really good to win an argument. There is an exceedingly pleasant rush of dopamine that comes whenever you prove yourself right about something. In a day and age in which it has become increasingly rare to convince people they might be mistaken about even the smallest of issues, to actually win an argument is an extraordinary experience. But, like Rich Mullins’s friend showed him, there is more to faith than “proving” its legitimacy. The life of faith was never meant to be lived solely within the mind.

i-am-filled-with-christs-love-saved-mandy-moore-gif

The word evangelism refers to presenting the gospel in a way that persuades a person to surrender their lives to the salvation and direction of Jesus Christ. But the term is rooted in the New Testament word euangelion, which literally means “good tidings” and was later transliterated as “gospel.” From the very beginning this euangelion was far more than an intellectual exercise – an argument about the legitimacy of faith. It alluded to something much bigger – to the life-changing, reality-altering hope that God is not vindictive but gracious, and that his love for humanity knows no bounds.

At the heart of Jewish ritual prayer is the line, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your strength.” The Gospel of Luke  records Jesus quoting this line in response to a question about the greatest commandment, and the language includes “and with all of your mind” (in light of how the Greeks viewed knowledge as separate from the others). The point is simple: the life of faith is marked by a submission of the entire human experience – our appetites and emotions, our personalities and passions, our abilities and resources, and, of course, our intellects and memories. Genuine faith transforms the whole person.

So, if you’re in it for the rush of victory, or if the person with whom you are arguing rejects Christianity out of spite for the way you’re defending it, then you’re misusing the tool of apologetics. You might have fashioned a handful of clever points. You may have developed a shrewd and impressive polemic. You may have carefully honed the ability to make a captivating case for the validity of the Christian faith.

But have you made faith captivating? Have you exhibited a gospel message that transforms heart and soul as well as mind?

baby

You mean I have to be compassionate, too? What a drag!

May we never be so passionate to win an argument that we forget what we’re arguing for. May we encourage twice as much as we correct and rebuke, because, for many of us, that is weakest part of our interactions with others. And may we be people who trade a desire to be seen as right for the desire to be seen as whole.

“I am a Christian,” writes Rich Mullins in that same essay, “because I have seen the love of God lived out in the lives of people who know Him. The Word has become flesh and I have encountered God in the people who have manifested (in many “unreasonable” ways) His Presence; a Presence that is more than convincing – it is a Presence that is compelling.”

On 9/11, Death, and the Crippling Effects of Fear

We were afraid of things before 9/11.

What happened over a handful of hours that Tuesday morning sixteen years ago did not suddenly render the citizenry of the United States of America apprehensive or fearful. We had things to be afraid of back then. Like natural disasters, school shootings, the rise of gangsta rap…

But what happened on 9/11 was not an “it-just-got-real” kind of awakening to global terrorism, or even the unsettling feeling that America was more vulnerable than we had long assumed. It was actually far more subtle a change than these. What happened was a shift in a basic narrative about our own existence, both as a nation as well as individuals. We did not simply learn new fear.

We learned dread.

The World of Dread

One of the main effects of the 9/11 attacks was how unexpected they were – how utterly blindsided they made the vast majority of us feel. None of us – save for conspiracy theorists and maybe a few people in Langley, Virginia – woke up that morning on high alert. Our eyes weren’t already nervously glued to cable news (which, yes, was alive and kicking even back then) for the latest updates out of the Middle East or North Korea. Most folks on the West Coast weren’t even awake at all when the world started caving in.

My own morning began as mundanely as any of that year. Rising with the alarm clock at the crack of dawn to shower and dress up nicer than I had been used to throughout my college career in order to look as professional as a twenty-one-year-old can look to the student body of San Marcos High School in San Marcos, Texas, where I was less than a month into my student teaching semester, and my final sprint to the finish line of graduation. By the time I walked in the classroom, the radio was already reporting that a small, private plane had crashed into the side of the North Tower. Another hour and two additional crashes later, I was standing in the hallway of the school trying to call my father on a cell phone that weighed heavier than the laptop I’m currently writing this on. I knew he had been set to board an American Airlines flight from Miami to Dallas that morning, and the breaking news reports – which we mostly kept muted on the classroom TV – were still speculating that the hijacked flights could have originated from as far away as Miami. It was another couple of hours before I finally heard his voice on the other end of a scratchy cell connection, assuring me he was fine, not to worry, just going to be stuck in south Florida for a few more days. As a pilot himself, my father had flown all over the country when I was growing up. However, weighed down by the chaotic series of events that morning, he had never sounded, or felt, farther away than he did in that moment.

That night, I drove two blocks to the gas station nearest to my apartment and waited in line for thirty minutes to fill up. Not for any reason other than increased speculation that gasoline could very well become as scarce for all of us as it was for The Road Warrior. I didn’t know that this speculation would quickly turn out to be false. I didn’t know that, while probably a wise thing to do considering the circumstances, it was nonetheless an overreaction. The point is, I didn’t know anything for sure.

For all I and everyone else knew, more attacks could already be in the offing. As the week drew on and the rubble smoldered and the President spoke through a loudspeaker and cable news gave airtime to every interpretation it could think of, reassurance of safety never came. We became increasingly aware that the world – or at least our place within it – had irrevocably changed. We were living in a new normal. Fear had struck, and in so doing it had released its most dangerous toxins: suspicion and anxiety. As a result, these became the main contributors to our opinions and our behaviors. When the identities of the culprits came to light, a lot of us promptly became experts at identifying suspicious people (or, at least, identifying anyone with brown skin, be they Arab, Persian, or Puerto Rican) because we had been reminded of stranger-danger and were compelled to be ever-vigilant going forward. We keyed in to newscasts and foreign policy reports with greater interest than before, not because we were interested in the news itself, but because we were as stressed and worried as we had ever been, and we craved even the slightest of assurances that corrections were being made and retributions were being paid.

We hadn’t expected anything like 9/11, but now we knew better. We knew that it could happen again, at any moment, at any time, and be the work of just about anybody.

Whether we were aware of it or not, we had been ushered into the world of dread, a state of existence that befalls any who allow fear to rule over their lives. The world of dread is a vast, lawless landscape of the mind where anything goes and the darkest scenarios are not merely possible, they are probable. So protect what is yours at all costs, and trust no one.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the primary narratives about our lives, the world, even existence itself changed, and not for the better. We became less trusting, more withdrawn and individualistic. Our sense of community was no longer driven by hospitality and inclusion, but rather a circling of the wagons. However, this shift in our perspectives was so subtle that most of us hardly noticed. We just assumed we had learned a tragic lesson about being more cautious as a society. About individual responsibility and the dangers of naivety. About the need to indulge our doubts regarding the alleged kindness of strangers.

The Damaging Effects of Dread

I know how far-reaching are the effects of dread. I have experienced first-hand what happens when we let fear rule over our minds and cloud our perspectives.

Thirteen years before the Towers fell, my own little world caved in. On 12/19 of 1987, my sister died suddenly and tragically, the victim of a freak accident during a Christmas-caroling hayride. Like all of us on 9/11, I don’t think anyone in my family, or any other family who belonged to our small town’s First Baptist Church, woke up that morning expecting anything but another chilly, central Texas day filled with holiday shopping and home decoration. But by nightfall, I found myself in the back of the family van as it barreled along county roads, my father praying aloud the same desperate words: “Jesus, please. Please, Jesus.” When we arrived on a neighborhood street near the center of town, I saw the swirling red glare of an ambulance. My parents made me stay in the car. I don’t know how long I was alone in there. It could have been five minutes, it could  have been fifty. All I remember is feeling jealous that Katy would get more attention – maybe even more presents – over the holidays because obviously with this accident she would be in some sort of cast. Perhaps encasing a broken arm, or maybe a broken leg. But everyone would want to sign it, and that meant a lot more focus on her than me. (I hope you will give me a break on this; I was eight years old, and this was the most selfish time of the year for kids my age.) But then the side door of the van finally opened and my parents were standing there and my father looked at me and, in a voice strangled by tears, he spoke my name and said, “Katy died tonight.” I cried, too, and held onto my mother. Neither she nor my father ever appeared more helpless than they did in that moment.

In the weeks that followed, I found myself wandering into my sister’s bedroom a lot. It was the standard bedroom of a thirteen-year-old, eighth-grade girl. I opened and closed her music box. I ran my fingers along the spines of her collection of young adult paperbacks. I fiddled with her Garfield telephone that opened its eyes when you took the receiver off the cradle. Mostly I listened to the silence and allowed myself to exist in the sudden, gaping emptiness of the place.

I wondered where Katy was now. I wondered how soon it would be before death came for me as well.

For the next decade and a half, I lived with the knowledge that tragedy can strike at any time. And no one is safe. There was little I knew for sure, but I did know one thing. If death could befall a thirteen-year-old girl on a Christmas-caroling hayride, it could certainly come for me at any moment.

I had become acquainted with death, perhaps far sooner than children should be. It was on my mind a lot. I would lie in bed at night, paralyzed with dread, not so much by the standard closet boogeymen and half-dozen other nocturnal fears I was used to, but by the thought of my own candle being unceremoniously snuffed out. What did it matter how I went out, really? The simple fact was that, sooner or later, I was a goner.

It was this unrelenting weight of dread that eventually got me listening more closely in church. When talk arose of salvation and going to heaven (which was, of course, far better than the alternative), I perked up my ears and paid attention. Eventually, about a year after Katy’s death, I whispered some semblance of a sinner’s prayer beneath the protective shroud of my bed covers. Essentially, it was a get-out-of-hell-free prayer. I accepted that only Jesus could save me, and so I asked him to. But despite praying the prayer, my fears of sudden death were not instantly relieved. Quite the contrary. While I was happy to have followed the prescribed steps to ensure I wouldn’t burn for eternity, I was still destined to die, and that in itself remained a terrifying thing.

If anything, I became even more fixated on death, and the parasitic dread that had wormed its way into my mind continued to pump me full of anxiety. It got to the point that even heaven became an unsettling concept. Did eternity really just go on and on, never-ending, a perpetual, otherworldly existence? I couldn’t wrap my mind around such a thing, no matter how golden the streets were said to be, and so, ironically, I came to fear the unknown of a second existence as much as I dreaded the certainty that the first one would one day come to a most-assured end.

The Dwindling of Dread

It has taken a long time, a great deal of reflection, and the dismissing of a lot of bad theology to even begin to climb out of a self-dug grave of dread. But this is what fear does; it corrupts everything it touches. It can turn even the brightest hopes into unnerving shadows.

I believe this has been one of the most significant impacts of 9/11. For all our patriotic responses, I cannot help but recognize an undercurrent of dread in so much of what we think, say, and do as a country. We use the term “post 9/11 world” often, because we have accepted that things have changed. That life will never again be like it was in a pre-9/11 world. And the theological struggles of my youth have helped me understand just how difficult it can be to resist the relentless pull of fear upon our minds.

It is almost impossible not to feel overwhelmed by the prospects of impending disaster, or be swept up in the sensationalistic fear-mongering of cable news, social media, and presidential elections. The enterprises of suspicion, prejudice, distrust and dread are as robust as ever. In fact, it seems we have become expert practitioners in these unspiritual disciplines, to the point that no country in the world could ever claim greater proficiency in the neuroses of terror. We may barrel out our chests and insist that the terrorists will never win, but that’s only because we mostly judge the win-lose line according to physical destruction, not mental anguish.

Now, I’m not saying caution is all bad. And I’m not arguing that the dangers we perceive in our world aren’t real. While we had plenty to fear before 9/11, our cup does indeed seem to runneth over sixteen years later. We are afraid of terrorism hotbeds and lone-wolf attacks and mobs of white supremacists. We are afraid of rogue police officers and creepy clown sightings and all those killers and rapists who keep crossing our unwalled Mexican border. We are afraid of WikiLeaks and alt-right news and diplomats who hide their super-secret, society-crumbling schemes on private e-mail servers. We are afraid of the politics of Supreme Court justices, the inherent dangers in visiting crowded public squares, and the persistent reports that our oceans’ temperatures are rising. We’re afraid even of our own President.

As I compose this long and winding post, the unrelenting, peripheral winds of Hurricane Irma slam my house. I look out my bedroom window and see the trees swaying violently. So, yeah, there’s still plenty of natural disasters to fear, too. Maybe even more than there used to be, thanks to those (allegedly) warmer oceans. Sometimes it seems as unlikely that we can successfully resist fearfulness as it is that these trees will resist bending beneath the power of a hurricane.

One needs only a few seconds to take stock of how much we have to fear even in the present moment. As I write all this, half of Houston lies in ruins, a maniacal dictator aims his intercontinental ballistic missiles in our direction, and a catastrophic storm shakes my part of the country like a dog with a chew-toy. So it is that any reflecting I attempt to do on this 9/11 anniversary will of course be a reflection on the crippling, society-altering effects of fear. But at least these days my prayers are no longer voiced according to the language of dread. My supplications are not merely one despondent lament after another. No, I am learning how to pray hopeful prayers. They are honest, yes, and full of sincerity about the world I live in, but they retain an unabashed optimism about this present life.

Here are some of the things I pray for these days:

I pray that those like me – who have indeed repented of all their false narratives and embraced the salvation offered by and through Jesus – might exhibit the courage and the resolve so many people in this country boast about but don’t actually possess. That we would take a hacksaw to the shackles of future-fear, and vehemently refuse to let our perspectives become clouded by suspicion and anxiety.

I pray that even within this reality of ours, which some days feels as if it suffers under the sick compulsion to remind us that death is swift and inevitable, we would lean into a different set of disciplines – compassion, encouragement, patience, intelligence, mercy, advocacy, and self-control – and truly, truly become people who do not live inside self-made prisons of dread.

I pray that when doubts arise and fears assail, we would seize upon the greatest of all disciplines: love. And not just any love. Not a shallow, fleeting, self-obsessed love. Not a vacuous, tolerant, permissive love. The love we pursue must be much stronger than those. The love we choose to give must be a love that is resilient. It must not conform in any way to the patterns and prejudices of a frightened world. “There is no fear in love,” wrote the Apostle John, “but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.”

So, on the anniversary of 9/11, even as many of us sit amidst the rage of Irma, may we devote ourselves to a power that is as unexpected and society-altering as death, yet became the only force in the universe death could not defeat. May we learn His kind of love. Sacrificial, unconditional, irrepressible. A love that rejects every ounce of fear. A perfect love.

Free from dread.