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.

#Charlottesville and the Folk Religion of the “Alt-Right”

I write this on Sunday morning. I’m sitting in my office at the church considering how many of my friends and colleagues are preparing to stand before their own congregations and preach their sermons, and how many of those preachers have felt compelled to drastically change the sermons they have already crafted, and the anxiety they feel when this broken world of ours is beset by sudden and shocking events that inevitably tip their hand – when they know they must say something even when it feels like nothing we could ever say will take away the pain and outrage and confusion.

torches

This weekend, a large group of American citizens gathered for a march in Charlottesville, Virginia. They lit torches, created signs, and stuck a handful of catchy chants into the back pocket of their blue jeans and camouflage pants. As darkness fell, they advanced upon a city square like some ultra-racist variation of pitchfork-toting villagers come to kill Frankenstein’s monster. Numerous confrontations ensued. Passersby became entangled in the violence. Counter-protestors shouted back. Eventually, mere rhetoric gave way to fists, feet, clubs, and pepper spray. One person turned his car into a weapon and plowed into a crowd of pedestrians, killing a young woman. In the process of patrolling the madness, two law enforcement officials died in a helicopter crash.

Social media has been awash with pictures of angry faces, provocative signs, human walls, and the professionally issued statements from civic leaders and politicians, most of whom have denounced the violence. The president is one of these (though his statements have been a little too ambiguous for a lot of people’s liking). Personally, I am shocked by everything I have seen and everything I have read.

beating

Not to be callous, but I spent my more reflective moments last week considering how I might answer the question, Would God allow a nuclear war? I figured this was the big concern on most people’s minds, at least at present. As such, when I first learned of the events in Charlottesville on Saturday morning, my equilibrium was rocked. Despite the state of race relations in our country, I still wasn’t expecting this.

Unfortunately, a discouragingly large number of people with access to torches and a plethora of hate-filled rhetoric vehemently disagreed with what I had thought was the biggest problem of our day. They disagreed so sharply that they organized a march. So, here we are once again, fighting amongst ourselves, engaging in a vitriolic blame-game about individual rights and societal influence despite a looming shadow of much more dire issues aimed directly at our collective humanity.

I turned my attention, though, to the events in Charlottesville, and it was not long before an image shook me to my core. It was that of a human wall populated by men and women in clerical robes, priest collars, and prayer shawls. They stand shoulder to shoulder. Some clutch Bibles against their hips, while a few feet away the blue-jeaned and camouflaged-adorned “alt-right” scream about the need to return America to “its Christian roots.”

clergy

What?!

And I realize that whether I like it or not, we must not only adjust our sermons and Bible studies this morning because of an astonishing outbreak of insolence and rage in our country; we have to change them because tangled up in the back-and-forth arguments of both sides is the Kingdom of God. Both sides believe they are standing up for its principles, and to the millions of outside observers it is almost impossible to distinguish if one side is completely right and the other completely wrong, or if the Christian faith is just another malleable philosophical system that can be manipulated into bearing all manner of social views, however alternative or fringe.

A Prayer for Clarity

This past week, I sent an e-mail welcoming a recent visitor to the church, but it turned out I had the wrong address. I received a snarky response from an obvious atheist who attributed the Christian faith to nothing more than 2000-years worth of mass hysteria. I’m not the kind of person who can leave such a parting shot alone, so in addition to apologizing for confusing his address, I added a short plea for civility rather than rudeness. He responded curtly, “Get off your high horse, Bo. Your religion is responsible for more intolerance and injustice than rude assholes like myself could ever aspire to.”

Now, I probably shouldn’t have written back in the first place. I probably should have allowed this apparently militant atheist to insult my beliefs without response. However, what bothered me most was not the insult. It was that this man had learned a completely false concept of God’s Kingdom. When he thinks of Christianity, what he sees is the catalyst for suffering, not the remedy for it. When he encounters a Christian, he doesn’t see someone who’s life has been radically redefined by a relationship with God’s son, but rather someone who has applied for membership in an oppressive, power-hungry regime of moralistic bigotry. And that’s as much the fault of actual Christians not denouncing such behavior as it is his for accepting such fraudulent expressions of faith.

So, this morning, what I pray for from my fellow preachers and teachers regarding the events in Charlottesville is clarity. I hope that we will denounce what is clearly not Christianity – in this particular instance the hate-filled, violent tantrums of the “alt-right” – because avoidance or ambiguity of this situation will only muddle society’s comprehension of Christianity. In this case, the truth is that a Christian who steps into the fray can do so only with those who stand against the cries for subjugation, exclusion, and regressive entitlement. If he steps in on the other side, he has effectively stepped out of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus often spoke of the Kingdom of God as if it were a real place – a true reality that was slowly unfolding, day-by-day, beneath the surface of our worldly events, however mundane or chaotic. He did not shy away from pinpointing where certain people – or, at least, certain behaviors – were located in proximity to this coming Kingdom. To a lawyer who agreed with him that the greatest commandments were not ceremonial directives but rather wholehearted love of God and neighbors, Jesus responded, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” When his disciples tried to prevent children from crawling onto his lap, Jesus rebuked them, saying that the Kingdom is populated with people who do just that. And he taught that the poor, the peacemakers, and the persecuted were the ones who would “inherit the Kingdom of God.”

But Jesus also told a story about a man who missed out on God’s Kingdom when, after receiving unexpected forgiveness for an astonishing amount of debt, threw one of his own debtors into prison, having failed to let that forgiveness permeate and transform his life. Then there was the time Jesus watched a wealthy man walk away from his counsel and remarked, “It is exceedingly difficult for a rich person to enter God’s Kingdom.” In contrast to the poor, the peacemakers, and the persecuted, he also lamented the self-centered perspectives of the rich, the prideful, and the self-actualized, which would inevitably lead only to ruin.

The Folk Religion of the Alt-Right

White Supremacists March with Torches in Charlottesville

The main reason white supremacists have historically been able to claim Christianity as a banner is that society long ago replaced a life lived according to the radical truths of Christianity with cultural concepts like decency, propriety, and “know-your-role/know-your-place” classism. For many people, the Kingdom of God became intertwined with the idolatrous City of Man, where conduct, appearance, and status reign supreme.

I do not doubt that many of those who support views espoused by the alt-right, and perhaps even some who marched on Charlottesville, believe they are on the side of a good, fair, and moral citizenry. I accept their earnestness and their passion. I recognize that they truly believe they are stemming the tide of a great injustice. In their minds, they are heroes, not villains. However, what they are actually standing up for is not Christianity but the ideology of a particular brand of folk religion.

In his book, Questions to All Your Answers, Roger Olson provides a helpful description of what exactly folk religion is. He writes, “[it] is practiced mostly by individuals although they may network with each other. A folk religion spawns little or no research or focused thought. Theology is anathema to folk religion; it lives by word of mouth and internet circulation. It cares only about feelings and experiences and hardly at all about doctrine or critical reflection.”

Indeed, so much of the Christianity we have encountered over last year’s election season, as well as the way some particular evangelical leaders have contorted Scripture to support our current administration’s policies (including this one), is not Christianity at all. It is folk religion. It is molding and shaping a faith system that fits neatly into our particular opinions, ambitions, and carefully curated prejudices. Sadly, some of the most successful pastors in our country are mere folk Christians, not true citizens of God Kingdom. Of course, we must remember that the same can be said for some individuals on the opposite side of the present issues, who can become so focused on “progress” that they speed right past the Kingdom in search of a utopia of their own design.

So, I pray for clarity, because folk religion dupes a lot of people. Contrary to what my short-lived e-mail pen-pal believes, the actual culprit behind all the intolerance and injustice in the world is folk religion – a ghastly legacy of ruthless selfishness perpetrated by person after person donning a Jesus mask utterly stripped of its true colors and features, like the unnatural Shatner mask from Halloween. And in whatever venue we have at our disposals – pulpits, classrooms, blogs – we need to call it what it is. We need to re-establish exactly how far such people are from the Kingdom of God, if only to clarify what the Kingdom of God really is. 

Giving an Answer

both sides

Just a few minutes ago I heard a church member remark how much wiser it would have been for those who oppose alt-right ideologies to have simply turned their backs on this group’s torch-lit march through Charlottesville. No counter-protesters. No news agencies. No photographers. I have to admit, I started chuckling at the thought of a bunch of indignant white nationalists assembling on an empty university lawn, their only audience the summer crickets chirping indifferently. They look around curiously, holding signs that no one will read. They shrug their shoulders impotently. “Should we just go home?”

If only.

The truth is that our society will not – cannot – ignore such people. It’s going to give them its attention, and its going to comment on them and react to them and formulate ideas in response to them. And because of this, those who unequivocally offer their allegiance to the eternal Kingdom of God cannot ignore them either. We cannot turn our backs on the issues at stake. We must not pretend like everything will eventually settle down and revert to life as usual.

“In your hearts revere Christ,” writes the Apostle Peter to the churches of the first century. “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls your beliefs into account. Only do so with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who slander your good deeds in Christ end up ashamed” (1 Pet. 3:15-17).

Whether it knows it or not, this world is calling us to account. Let’s not be afraid to give a clear answer.

A Need to Disconnect

This is part two of a two-part essay. The first part, which you can read HERE, focused on the problem. This week, I do my best to offer a solution.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Desperate times called for desperate measures. Even if someone could have foreseen the dangers that lay far ahead, what other choice was there. They could not concern themselves with future generations. If they didn’t do something now, there would be no future generations.

So Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh. The Egyptians, one and all, sold their fields, because the famine was too severe for them. The land became Pharaoh’s, and Joseph reduced the people to servitude, from one end of Egypt to the other. …  Joseph said to the people, “Now that I have bought you and your land today for Pharaoh, here is seed for you so you can plant the ground. But when the crop comes in, give a fifth of it to Pharaoh. The other four-fifths you may keep as seed for the fields and as food for yourselves and your households and your children.” 

“You have saved our lives,” they said. “May we find favor in the eyes of our lord; we will be in bondage to Pharaoh.”  (Genesis 47:20-21, 23-25)

This is how the Bible records the origin of Hebrew enslavement to Egypt. It starts in the midst of a terrible famine. It’s the socioeconomic backdrop that we don’t often notice raging behind the drama of Joseph and his brothers. Year by year, the peoples of Canaan and the other surrounding regions find themselves unable to grow crops, unable to raise animals, unable to hunt or forage. And Joseph, who has ascended all the way to Pharaoh’s cabinet, responds to the suffering of a lot more people than his remorseful siblings.

skywalker 2

Joseph’s family are the Skywalkers within a Universe full of other compelling stories.

Of course, by establishing a system of civil servitude and taxation based on the productivity of Egypt’s subjects, Joseph has also opened the door to oppression. Though he is essentially the first taskmaster the Israelites will know, at least he is kind. He understands their plight. He strives to create a system that maintains balance.

But Joseph cannot live forever.

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us.”…

So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.  (Exodus 1:8, 11-14)

More often than not, oppression is the go-to tool of an empire. To keep a heavy hand upon the common rabble is not simply a way to exert power. It is a way to prevent the people from considering any other power but yours.

Still, in the story of the Israelites’ toil in Egypt, we see more than just a picture of oppression. We see the ingeniously cruel amalgamation of oppression and productivity, of enslavement and efficiency. Despite such persecutory suffering, Pharaoh’s demand for endless toil somehow still breeds blind allegiance! Consider what the Israelite elders say to Moses and Aaron after their royal court disruptions, which only serve to enrage Pharaoh who turns around and accuses the Israelites of laziness – laziness! – and ups the ante on their brick-and-mortar production quotas.

…they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them,  and they said, “May the Lord look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”  (Exodus 5:20-21)

Today, when we read this story, we shake our heads at the infamous Israelite stubbornness, how they lash out at the very people working for their deliverance! We fail to recognize that systems of endless productivity and efficiency make us oblivious to what real freedom looks like when it actually presents itself.

phone

This sermon is a little long for our taste. Glad we brought something to pass the time.

In my previous post, I ranted about addressed this same oppressive reality in our society today. We may not struggle under the thumb of a tyrannical Pharaoh, but we are fools to deny that numerous, present-day taskmasters aren’t woven into our own cultural fabric. They hide behind so much of what we have come to accept as modern-day realities, often whispering even behind simple phrases like “normal society,” “status quo,” “tech-savvy,” “bonus check,” or “Sorry but I’ve got to take this call.”

I also wrote about a new law that took effect in France this year, which places restrictions on large companies regarding their employee’s connectivity to work e-mails and messages; it is a small yet significant step in trying to give people back some semblance of rest, a portion of their existence not wholly defined by occupational pursuits. And it is the very thing that so frightened and enraged Pharaoh.

Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments is an iconic piece of cinema, but it doesn’t get everything right about the Exodus story. The most memorable of all its lines – “Let my people go!” – is deceptively inaccurate. Moses and Aaron did not swagger into the royal court as tenacious liberators, brazenly offering Pharaoh a lose-lose deal. No, their request was much tamer. “Let my people take a break” would be a more accurate line. All they asked for, at least at first, was a spiritual retreat – essentially a three-day weekend – in which the Israelites could pilgrimage into the wilderness and offer sacrifices to their God.

Ten Commandments

Also, Ridley Scott wasn’t the only one to envision Egyptian and Semitic peoples as slightly tanned Caucasians.

Pharaoh refuses not because a three-day retreat would mean three days of limited brick and mortar production. Remember, the productivity quotas imposed on the Israelites were designed to oppress, to weary, to strip away every defining aspect of who they were, except hopeless slaves. This almost impossible workload was instituted so they would have no time whatsoever to indulge in their own sociocultural identity. After all, awakening to the reality of who you truly are – and what you were made for – poses the greatest threat to the powers of oppression.

Why? Because you start to realize you may not actually need them anymore. That there might be another way of life. One that liberates rather than subjugates. One that frees rather than abuses.

This, by the way, is the Rosetta Stone of interpretation we should apply to the Law, which is given to the Israelites on the other side of the Sea of Reeds after the waters effectively annul Joseph’s citizen-slave system. Consider how the Book of Exodus introduces the Ten Commandments:

And God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery…”  (Exodus 20:1)

Every single law and ordinance and regulation flows from this foundational identity, and should be understood as pointing back to the principles of the Lawgiver, rather than arbitrary codes of conduct for a fledgling nation. God is the Deliverer. He is the breaker of chains. He is the new taskmaster that, in stark contrast to Pharaoh, desires his servants to live in peace and prosperity, to live free from the wearying, life-sapping bonds of endless productivity and efficiency.

Game of Thrones Season 3 Review

Copycat.

For any who may not be convinced by this, consider what the fourth commandment is, and the way both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 describe it. “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” If the greatest Ruler/Creator/Designer/Builder dedicated a day to complete rest (the Hebrew word, menuha, literally means “to cease”), and, what is more, if out of every single piece of creation it was this day of complete rest that He chose to call “holy” (qadash), you can be certain He wants His subjects to do far more than honor it. He wants them to experience it.

Let’s consider that fact for an additional moment. In the Creation poem that opens our Bibles, only one thing is explicitly deemed “holy.” It’s not the vast Pacific. It’s not the majestic Rockies. It’s not even the man and the woman, made in God’s own image. Sure, they’re called “good,” but only the seventh day – the Sabbath – is actually called holy. This day in which God ceases from extraordinary, glorious productivity – this is what must be declared most excellent, set apart, and preserved.

The French legislation is known as the “right to disconnect law.” But God’s law already has one. It is a “need to disconnect law.”

Sabbath, at its core, is about disconnecting from the cultural obligations and expectations to produce, to want, to crave, to be stimulated and insubstantially satisfied by the world’s systems. As Jesus corrected the Pharisees, the Sabbath was made for man. It should never be defined by deprivation or a list of don’t-do-and-can’t-do’s; instead, we should see it as a happy return to the freedom and peace we have already been given by our Great Deliverer. It is a day we devote to face-to-face connection with our families, cultivating deeper relationships with friends, celebrating the extraordinary beauty of this short life, and worshipping the One who made the world and called it very, very good.

France’s passing of a “disconnect” law should give us pause. It should remind us that insatiable productivity is an ever-present threat, and the assumption that everyone should always be connected – dialed in to the Matrix – is not a passing fad. Even in a society that prides itself on individualism and personal freedom, Pharaoh’s identity-sapping edicts are alive and well.

And just like in Egypt, it thrives off our wearied acquiescence to the system. It feeds off a culture that spinelessly shrugs its shoulders and says, “I can’t afford not to check my e-mails, answer my phone, come in on a Saturday. I can’t afford not to check my Facebook feed, respond to these texts, be one of the 300,000,000 people who viewed this video…”

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What are you talking about? I’m quietly sitting still in a mostly dark room. How is this not restful?”

What would it look like if not just a negligible minority of us but rather a whole country full of Christians (not to mention Jews) decided to truly observe the Sabbath for what it was always intended to be? What would happen if, for a single day each week, we turned our backs on all the professional obligations and nagging responsibilities that incessantly demand our time and energy, and also set aside all the tools and gadgets that sneakily tether us to unquenchable compulsions? What would happen if, instead, we pursued the things that gave us true rest? The things that restored our awareness of freedom, intimacy, joy, and celebration.

While the stresses of daily life and work would remain, I suspect our weariness of them would lessen. I don’t think we would so often lament how busy we are. Maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to consult our phone screens when we’re in the company of other people. Maybe we’d even become a little kinder. A little more patient. A little more peaceful.

Because that’s what deliverance does. It changes your life.

When They Just Don’t Get It

This week’s post is a rerun, originally published on June 24, 2013. Next week, look for Part 2 of “A Right to Disconnect.” 

Yesterday, I received an unwelcome glimpse into the future of my vocation.

While the interim senior pastor at my church has been traveling, I’ve had the privilege to deliver the sermons in the morning and evening worship services. I don’t take these invitations lightly.

I love preaching. I love the preparation – choosing the text, meticulous researching, jotting down good lines turned in captivating ways. I enjoy writing the manuscript. And, despite the unavoidable pain that comes from revising and cutting it down to size, I relish the way slashing paragraphs and removing unnecessary repetition seems to grant freedom to the whole enterprise.

I even enjoy practicing the manuscript out loud, contending with it until I’m able to leave it behind without losing point or pace.

cheater

Cheater.

Preaching is an art form. It is as much a specialist’s craft as poetry, painting, playing an instrument or writing a short story. I know I still have a long way to go before I can consider myself an accomplished craftsman, but each opportunity afforded me is practice I need and practice I crave.

But yesterday, following the worship service, I came face-to-face with one of the biggest drawbacks to making this art form part of a ministerial career.

It wasn’t criticism. By now, I’ve preached enough sermons and taught enough Bible studies to receive my fair share of negative responses. A few disparagements have been called for. A few have not. And a few of the “have nots” remain, without a doubt, the most selfish, insensitive and tactless attacks I’ve ever heard leveled against another human being. (That last group usually comes by way of e-mail, one of the many ways the Internet allows us to wage bloody trench wars against people we disagree with.)

It’s true that criticism can be acutely discouraging. I have had my sense of accomplishment and my confidence behind the pulpit sapped more than once by the homiletic equivalent of “haters.” Ultimately, though, negative criticism only makes the preacher work harder and pay more attention to the words and illustrations he chooses.

writing-sermon

Okay, so how can I keep this point from sounding like “the vapid, ignorant utterings of a pea-brained, liberal jackass with all the common sense of a monkey throwing its feces?”

No, what left me so disconcerted with the preaching life yesterday was not criticism. Rather, it was some of the conversations I had with parishioners at the close of the service (no more than ten minutes after I’d finished delivering my sermon). I should say that most of the people who greeted me had only kind and encouraging things to say. However, there was a small minority of people who expressed their enjoyment of the sermon, but then lingered to tell me why. The reasons they gave flowed directly from a point-of-view I had spent the last half hour arguing against!

In a nutshell, yesterday’s sermon intimated that the gospel of Jesus Christ erases all manner of distinction between a person and others. Orbiting the life-altering words of Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”), my main premise was that the truth of the gospel abolishes all lines of contrast we humans so often draw around ourselves or our communities, be they cultural, political, racial, or socioeconomic. I insisted that if followers of Jesus want to live as authentic Christians rather than by the weak and maligned societal definition of the word “Christian,” then we must submit to this radical new way of thinking and speaking and doing. There can be no argument. The gospel of Jesus robs us of the permission to figure our identity by worldly standards.

Somehow, despite so carefully preparing this message and painstakingly practicing its delivery, it seems that a few people nevertheless heard the exact opposite message than I intended. When they praised the sermon, they did so based on a particular cultural, political, or social perspective, and seemed brazenly unaware that bad-mouthing or lamenting people whom they considered different from them was the very thing I had spoken against.

What bothered me most, though, was the presumptuousness. Each of these point-missers simply assumed I shared their point-of-view, when, in reality, all I could think was, “Well, that’s not what I meant at all,” and “Did you even listen to the part where I said ________?”

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Aah! He’s saying something that sounds impactful. Quick, plug your ears!

Look, I’m no fool. I understand it is unrealistic to expect one sermon to completely change every heart and mind, no matter how much preparation I give to it. And I also realize that God is patient, and that he calls his children to be patient as well. Changing minds takes time. As a matter of fact, that happened to be one of the main points of the sermon – that sanctification is a struggle because we are constantly pulled backwards into our old ways of life, into cold legalism and the convenience of social distinctions.

And yet, there is something deeply disconcerting when the words you speak are not only heard incorrectly, but the people who most need to hear a message of deliverance interpret what you say as encouragement to keep on living the way they’ve been living. It made me wonder if this is always going to be an unwelcome aspect of the preaching life. Will anything ever break through to such people? Will the Spirit ever be able to convict them?

Furthermore, how exactly do I respond to such misinterpreted praise? Granted, I was a substitute – a guest preacher. Communicating the truth of God’s Word comes as one-shot opportunities right now. I’m not sure it’s my place to stop the well-meaning commenters in the middle of what they’re telling me and say, “Wow, you just didn’t get it at all, did you?”

Spiritual Life Week

“C’mon, be honest. You were just doodling in the bulletin the whole time, weren’t you?”

As I ponder the next step and whether or not I’m really up for this kind of life, I realize that maybe there is no significant difference between receiving negative criticism and receiving misinterpreted praise. It still just makes me want to work harder – to meticulously pour over that next message (whenever the opportunity to preach comes my way again), and consider even more deliberately the audience to whom I speak.

I realize something else, too. It occurs to me that it’s one thing to stand up on a stage or behind a pulpit and preach a good sermon. It’s a whole other thing, in the midst of post-sermon conversations, to live as that very model of grace and Christ-filled patience.

God have mercy! There’s no greater art form than that.

A Right to Disconnect

This week’s post is the first of a two-part essay. First, I’ll identify and examine the problem. Next week, I’ll do my best to offer the solution…

Did you hear about the “right to disconnect” law that went into effect earlier this year in France?

Essentially, it requires companies with more than fifty employees to establish certain hours – normally evenings and weekends – in which employees are discouraged from making phone calls and sending or responding to work e-mails. In other words, the law makes it much more acceptable for a person to “leave work at work.” Imagine that.

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Those crazy French with their ridiculous berets, baguettes, and perceptive approaches to employee health.

I don’t know if you are as stunned as I am that France passed this legislation. Honestly, I’m surprised its proponents were able to get enough people on board in the first place. At the heart of this new law is the sober recognition that unchecked pressure in our occupations can lead to a wide variety of health problems, including, according to one article, impaired sleep, depression, alcohol abuse, and heart disease. However, I have no doubt that when this legislation was proposed, many people feared potential negative effects – for one, placing limits on employee connectivity would reduce workplace productivity and efficiency. Maybe its the cynic in me, but I’m blown away that enough French lawmakers could agree that the value of a human person is not defined by the stuff he or she makes.

When I first learned about this law, I couldn’t help but wallow within my own cultural discontent. I continue to doubt the U.S. would pass similar legislation, and not simply because of complications due to bureaucratic rigmarole (which, over the last decade, has surpassed baseball as America’s greatest national pastime). I don’t know how popular the law’s passage was in France, but I think it is an exceedingly safe bet that quite a few U.S. politicians and lobbyists would be up-in-arms about it here; this, as they so often shout with fists held high, “is a free country.” Granted, what people actually mean when they use that line is, “This is a country steeped in opportunistic individualism, and therefore, by definition, any suggestion of a better way to do, well, anything, is immediately and forever suspect.”

Let’s face it, any law that even suggests limitations on our level of connectivity would certainly be met with adamant opposition. After all, look how convenient technology has made it to stay dialed in to our voicemails, e-mails, text messages, and social media profiles? We can literally carry all of that around in a single pants pocket. Even if they somehow miraculously reached a consensus on the benefits of such a law, can you see our government succeeding in the same way France’s did? For the sake of comparison, after the Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Pulse shootings, multiple congressional representatives sought to regulate background checks for the purchase of assault rifles – assault rifles! – and hardly made a dent. How do you think people would react to regulations on items we can’t even bring ourselves to set aside when we we’re using the toilet?

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“How dare you tell me I can’t overstimulate myself? I earned this stress-induced Irritable Bowel Syndrome!”

So, kudos to the French for acknowledging something most perpetually stressed-out people don’t like to think about. There but for the grace of God go us not.

But whether we choose to acknowledge the dangers of ceaseless productivity or not, we also know there are other perils just as significant as physical health, and workplace pressure is not the only phenomenon in which they surface. The technological advances of the past few decades have been extraordinary, even mind-boggling. They have increased to an incredible degree humanity’s ability to produce, and to produce more efficiently. At the same time, we are awaking to the truth that increased automation and connectivity does indeed come with a downside. And it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the negative effects birthed by these new advances, whether in our occupational spheres, our local communities, or even our most intimate relationships.

My wife and I often talk of what we percieve as a pervasive, willing bondage to connectivity and endless productivity. While we do not have a “right to disconnect” law in our country (yet?), there are other laws intended to protect basic human health in the workplace. Even so, due to our society’s incessant striving to do more and do it faster, these laws are not always enforced very… forcefully. For instance, it is not uncommon anymore for Leigh to come home both exhausted and ravenous after her twelve-hour hospital shift, and this is because she did not get so much as a lunch break during that entire amount of time. I used to get so indignant about this injustice; because I care so much for her, I would fume about the blatant squelching of her occupational rights. Didn’t the hospital ever worry that fatigued nurses who hardly even have the opportunity to sit down over the span of twelve hours, let alone get time to consume a single meal, might become a liability rather than an asset? However, after ten years with little change in the culture of hospital staffing, now we simply shrug our shoulders, shake our heads, and I do my very best to make sure dinner is ready and waiting when she staggers through the door.

The hard reality is that our jobs are perpetually frenetic, and one of the main reasons for this is our culture’s habitual obsession with productivity and efficiency. But instead of viewing this as a hazardous or unsafe reality, we’re encouraged to think of our stress-saturated jobs as “challenging,” “fast-paced,” or “highly rewarding.” Thus, staggering through the door like zombies and collapsing onto the living room sofa at the end of the day is now our norm. No wonder a once negative word like “bingeing” has become the popular and acceptable way to consume entertainment; it takes far less energy to just watch another episode of something than to go for a walk, or actually carry on a meaningful conversation with another person.

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“This isn’t even good, but I’m too tired to have standards.”

And that’s the other side of this cruel coin. Even if your drive to produce stays in the office parking lot, still the ever-expanding human appetite for connectivity is not satiated. The cravings for instant and perpetual stimulation follow us no matter where we go. We have become a people less and less comfortable with quiet and stillness, with morning commutes not infused by drive-time radio or Spotify playlists, with evenings not spent sitting in front of the electronically-enhanced binge boxes we still quaintly refer to as “TVs.” Quiet, meandering, agenda-less conversation is fast becoming a lost art.

Every time my family has the opportunity to eat out for dinner, my wife and I cannot help but subtly draw each other’s attentions to how many couples, families, or groups of friends are all staring down at smartphone screens rather than actually talking with the flesh-and-blood humans sitting mere inches away. It’s become a kind of game, like when you would play “Slugbug” on car rides. Except the pain you feel isn’t from your brother socking you in the shoulder, but rather a gradually swelling sense of melancholy at the state of the American social circle. Is this really the picture of our future? Is this the relational landscape my children will inherit?

It turns out that having our eyes glued to smartphone screens for hours on end, whether we’re checking e-mails, texting “friends,” or allowing our brain cells to gorge on YouTube videos, can be detrimental to both our mental and social health. We marvel at how cutting-edge technologies have ushered us into a brand new epic of human existence. And yet, hidden beneath every utopia is a dystopia. Yes, we can celebrate that humanity has become deeply connected across the entire globe. But we should also acknowledge that an increasing number of face-to-face relationships between family members and proximal friends are quietly suffering in the aftermath of such an extraordinary societal shift.

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Pictured: suffering.

I realize the French law doesn’t address personal overuse of smartphones, or how many hours we wile away staring at Netflix and Facebook, or that our knee-jerk response when our children get rowdy is to shove an iPad in front of their faces. But all these issues orbit the same evolving nucleus of human behavior. How we interact with one another (or how much we neglect interacting with one another) is changing. Whether it’s the job pressures or a personal addiction to Twitter that’s causing this distancing, something needs to change. And soon!

Now, please understand the purpose of this essay is not to make you feel rotten for indulging technology. That would be highly duplicitous of me. I own a smartphone that I’m constantly stuffing full of frivolous apps. I’m entrenched in a half-dozen different television series on Netflix and HBONow (because, I mean, c’mon, it’s not like I’m going to just pass on the last two seasons of Game of Thrones). And I’m definitely aware that, at this very moment, I’m using an online word processing program on my laptop to write this post, all while iTunes ticks through song after song in an 80’s/90’s Rock playlist.

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And to answer your inevitable question, yes, “More Than a Feeling” is currently up to bat… again.

So, no, I’m not advocating we rid ourselves of technology – that we actually go “off the grid” like that family in the Domino’s commercials. I realize doing so would, among other things, mean the death of my blog and its humble little audience. After all, you’re also accessing this article on a smartphone, or a tablet, or a laptop (or, if you’re reading it sometime in the future, on the fully integrated nanobot sensory chip imbedded behind your left cornea, which we all know AmaGoogleSoft recommends as the most proficient of the implant’s locations).

But there is a distinct difference between indulging the benefits of our technological advances, and allowing these advances to infiltrate every aspect of human existence. Especially those moments that once provided us with stark, unbounded, freewheeling contact with others. Last week, after a three-year abstention, I decided to rejoin Facebook. I was tired of finding out secondhand, and months too late, about the significant events in so many people’s lives. However, if you were to tell me I had to choose between the 950 Facebook friends (yep, still there after three years) and a single, face-to-face friendship with another person, I would not hesitate to choose the flesh-and-blood friend. Wouldn’t you?

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Now there’s a good TV show pitch! Next week on The Bachelor: Facebook Edition, find out which one of Skyler’s 1000 friends will receive the final red rose emoji!

My intention with this essay was not merely to lament the harmful side-effects of our increasingly connected culture. But I do think it would be a very healthy choice for us to tred carefully through such societal advances. To not be so quick to trade human interactions for the artificial succor provided by our various devices and other online compulsions.

Even if setting aside or turning off our gadgets results in awkward silences or off-putting stillness, let’s not be so quick to flee the emptiness we have momentarily established. There is something hidden within it – something deep and eternally true. Someting that, if you are patient, will gradually begin to make itself known to you, and, in so doing, reveal a treasure that all the sleekest gadgets and fastest connection speeds in the world cannot replace.

But more on that next week…

Playing Jesus

I spent hours last week pretending to be Jesus.

If you grew up in an evangelical tradition of the Church like I did, particularly one that unfolded in or around the so-called “Bible Belt,” you probably remember a little thing called Vacation Bible School. Granted, it is an understatement to call this old standard of summer children’s ministry a little thing; anyone who has worked the VBS of even a small-to-moderate-sized church knows it often commands the attention of dozens, if not hundreds, of church members. Even before the actual event arrives, it’s all-hands-on-deck. There are materials to organize, rosters to assemble, costumes to distribute, sets to build, and a plethora of decorations to plaster in every nook and cranny of the church campus.

I was volunteering with Vacation Bible Schools  – whether willingly or compulsorily – well before I ever chose to enter the ministry. Over the years, I’ve contributed in a variety of areas: registration clerk, recreation leader, classroom helper, recreation leader, drama team member, recreation leader, and storyteller. Oh, and recreation leader. If you work in VBS long enough, you will find yourself donning a variety of hats. I mean that literally. You will end up sporting some of the most ridiculous and unnecessary headgear you’ve ever seen, all in service of the event’s exuberant, almost manic atmosphere.

jester's hat

VBS: the only week of the year a senior pastor can wear shorts, sandals, and a jester’s hat and nobody complains.

This year, though, it was determined my headgear should emulate none other than Jesus of Nazareth, or as stereotyped a version of our risen Savior one might expect to find within a suburban Baptist church’s Vacation Bible School. Now, having spent years in silly period costumes – playing everybody from Noah to St. Peter to a Roman centurion to a wise, old Bedouin shepherd I ignorantly named Apu Nihasapiddananajada – I wasn’t immediately phased by the thought of putting on a fake beard and long-haired wig and, four times each day, portraying Jesus to an auditorium full of elementary-aged children. After all, I hammed my way through countless Bible dramas throughout high school and college, and, as a twenty-something youth pastor, directed just as many groan-worthy yet well-intentioned productions. So, I was no stranger to playing the Son of God.

bedouin

Seriously, guys, I really do apologize for that name. I was 25, lazy, and I’d never traveled anywhere farther than southern Québec.

It wasn’t until I’d struggled through the first day of VBS that I realized I may have finally taken on a role that was over my head. I had never portrayed Jesus to children, let alone in such a wide-eyed, jovial, and interactive manner. I’d never had to go sans script and improvise my way through an entire performance, all the while happily acknowledging eagerly raised hands and the astonishingly perceptive questions that followed.

Why do your sandals look like my daddy’s flip-flops?

How did you get here from heaven? Did you fly?

If you were nailed to a cross, why aren’t there holes in your hands?

Do you know my grandmother? She lives in heaven, too.

I never thought I would envy the people who wrap themselves in long underwear and furry red and white coats every December to play Santa Claus. At least the people portraying Kris Kringle are working with an easily malleable mythology; when your backstory includes a fabled home at the North Pole and a perpetually efficient labor force of elves, what harm is there in adding the occasional fabrication?

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Like the fact that, for some reason, the guy who knows every address in the world doesn’t even attempt to find baby Will Ferrell’s correct residence…

But when you’re playing Jesus to children (and you also hold a masters degree in biblical theology), the last thing you want to do is stretch the truth about God’s Son, or satiate them with a spurious answer. I didn’t want some unbiblical exagerration imbedding itself in their brains for years to come. By the same token, I didn’t want to be dismissive of their questions, either. I knew these kids weren’t asking merely to humor me. They weren’t simply playing along. Each concern was genuine; each child expected an answer.

I remember having several conversations during my years in seminary regarding the alleged “age of accountability.” The essential question went like this: At what age is it appropriate to encourage a personal response to the gospel message? Few of my fellow grad students debated whether it was all right to teach kids the story of Jesus, even the grisly and mysterious details of his death, burial, and resurrection. After all, most of them had heard the story themselves since before they were even out of diapers. However, plenty of them differed on what age children must reach before they can genuinely respond to the inherent truth of that story – when they can be expected to actually understand what it really means to “admit, believe, and confess.” Five years old? Seven? Ten? How about a wise-beyond-their-years six? How about an eight-year-old who always makes the Honor Roll?

I had my own opinions. When I became a father, those ideas didn’t change all at once, but the older my children get, the more sheepish I feel about how uncompromising I used to be. I used to answer decisively to the age of accountability question.

Lately? Not so much.

Plenty of people who reject the teachings of Christianity are quick to label things like Vacation Bible School nothing more than manipulative indoctrination of the young. And I will abashedly acknowledge there is plenty of misguided and even damaging manipulation alive and well in our churches today (and not just with the young). However, as I struggled through four days of Good Shepherd performances, inundated each day with questions upon questions, one thing became clear to me. It is a fool’s errand to definitively apply, across the board, an age of accountability for children hearing, and reacting to, the gospel.

While Christians may disagree on what exact moment in a person’s salvation experience the Holy Spirit spurs his insight, even more mysterious is the vast array of ages that receive his prodding. It can take a lifetime for the truth part of The Way and The Truth and The Life to resonate in some folk’s minds. And yet, sometimes the Spirit will choose to illumine the path of salvation to a child who hasn’t yet mastered the “loop-it-swoop-it-pull” method on their sneakers.

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Who’s got time for laces when you could be reading the collected works of Kierkegaard?

Throughout this past week, I was regularly reminded of the moment I awkwardly stepped onto the trailhead of my own spiritual journey. I was only eight years old when, one dark night beneath the bed covers, I whispered the Sinner’s Prayer. My sister had died less than a year earlier, in a freak accident on a church youth group outing. Prior to that moment, I hadn’t given much thought to death – the how or the why of it – or what exactly the afterlife might be, if there even was such a thing. I was just a kid who liked marshmallow cereal, Saturday morning cartoons, and Voltron. My acquaintance with Jesus was through the handsome, white-robed depictions on Sunday School room posters and storybook Bible covers. I knew he was the guy all that Sunday morning stuff revolved around, and that he somehow related to the Sandy Patti and Amy Grant songs my mother listened to on our car’s cassette player, but I couldn’t have articulated that connection in any coherent way. Still, I believed in God because I was told he was real, and because we bowed our heads before every meal, and because there were at least a dozen churches in my tiny, bucolic town and how could every single one of them be wrong? It just made sense to believe in God.

But after Katy died, it stopped being enough for me that God’s existence made sense, that Jesus was a nice guy who wanted you and me to be nice, too. In the void left by the passing of my only sibling, I was curious for more than logic. I didn’t realize it until much later, but what I was really interested in was hope. So, I responded to the gospel because, alone in the dark beneath the dubiously protective shroud of my covers, I decided there must be more to Jesus than niceness. Something about the combination of his cross and his empty tomb offered possibility, a semblance of hope beyond the dark finality of death. I didn’t have the whole equation worked out yet, but what I did have was the memory of a simple prayer our pastor had taught a sanctuary full of wiggling grade-schoolers a few weeks earlier at the annual Vacation Bible School.

That patchwork prayer was the first meager offering I brought before the God of the Universe.

There are some who could no doubt point to that moment as yet another example of indoctrination – the actions of a child who had been subtly brainwashed to interpret a recent tragedy, and his own connection to that tragedy, all according to something that amounted, ultimately, to little more than a fairy tale. If I consider things from their perspective, I can understand where they’re coming from.

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I don’t blame you, Bernie. If I were you, I’d probably think it sounded crazy, too.

And, of course, there is much more to salvation than the articulation of a prayer. More than human cognition and abstract thinking. Because just like the kids at last week’s VBS who prayed such a prayer to God for the first time, eight-year-old me didn’t understand everything about what I was praying. I couldn’t fully comprehend the ramifications of what I was saying to God. But, oftentimes, understanding comes later. If we Christians are honest, and we certainly should be, we will admit that genuine understanding takes longer than even a lifetime allows. As Rich Mullins once said, “We never understand what we’re praying, but God, in his mercy, does not answer our prayers according to our understanding of them, but according to his wisdom.”

All I know is what I have become. All I know is that from time to time I have found another couple of crumbs scattered along this path. Not every day, of course, but every season. If I keep my eyes peeled, eventually I spy yet another modest clue that leads me onward. Perhaps one day I’ll discover that they were all incidental, and this path I have chosen has lead me only to a dead-end. Or, perhaps I’ll come to the termination point, push back the undergrowth of weeds, and behold a wide and magnificent river.

Several times during their handful of years spent together, Jesus’ disciples would ask him what it really took to be considered “great” in the heavenly kingdom. On one of those occasions, Scripture says Jesus called a little child over and had him stand in front of the disciples. “Unless you become like this little guy,” he told them, “you’ll never even get a look at the kingdom. And whomever makes room in his life for children just like this one is the one who makes room for me.”

I don’t know if the children who encountered this freckled, fake-bearded Caucasian Jesus last week received from him any great truth. Then again, maybe they weren’t the only ones the Spirit was interested in teaching.

coach jesus

I know, I know. Look, it was a sports theme, OK. So, yes, I was “Coach” Jesus, and, yes, I wore a whistle and I had … oh, never mind.

On Rest (Lenten Reflections, Week 7)

I write this early in the morning on Good Friday, at the welcome desk in the lobby of the chapel. To my left is a simple, black and white sign indicating the starting point for my church’s Stations of the Cross prayer exercise. A little c.d. player spills gentle, acoustic ballads into the solemn atmosphere. In each of eight classrooms behind me, there is a small table bearing the name of each station, a corresponding Scripture text, and an artistic, black and white photograph imagining eight individual seconds of an event that unfolded in the early morning hours of the first Good Friday 1,990 years ago, give or take a couple of years.

My mind is not in this… yet. I am still imbibing my first cup of coffee, still going over in my head the setup for today’s prayer exercise to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything, still wondering if the air conditioning is going to cut on. (Oh, there it goes. That’s good.)

But my mind is also toeing the high-cliff edges above a reservoir of doubt. In the past couple of days, my soul has been bombarded by troubling news and dark truths. News stories have flashed across my little smartphone screen, informing me of chemical warfare and subsequent retaliation; of a massive bomb dropped in Afghanistan (Oh, not a nuclear bomb. That’s… good?); of North Korea threatening to test an actual nuclear bomb; of the president of Turkey actively pursuing despotism. To top it off, I just finished a podcast all about super volcanoes. Did you know that when the super volcano residing beneath Yellowstone Park finally explodes, it will release 580 cubic miles of molten rock and dust up to 16 miles into the atmosphere, inevitably triggering a nuclear winter that will almost certainly bring human life to screeching halt?

Well, now you do.

I behold a world of chaos, of natural and man-made disasters roiling just beneath the surface of quotidian life. Then I step into the pre-dawn dark of this chapel lobby, and I click on the little spotlights that illuminate eight simple images of a first-century Jewish peasant scalded to death by a brief steam vent of that chaos. And I am reminded that a Christian is one who is supposed to believe this betrayed and beaten and brutally assassinated Jewish peasant is, somehow, in control of everything else. That there is no measure of chaos, momentary or catastrophic, to which he cannot speak a pacifying word – that he cannot, if he would choose, remove entirely from reality itself.

No wonder so few people in this world truly believe, let alone truly follow, this Savior. It does not merely seem as if the scales are tipped in the other direction; it seems like a joke to believe some massacred miracle-worker from an utterly insignificant blip of a town within a long-lost empire could possibly hold power over a gentle spring breeze, let alone all the world and all its contentious inhabitants.

It is a difficult thing to apply ourselves to the disciplines of which I wrote in my last post. But it is a far more difficult thing to rest in the Master who guides us in his discipline. To accept that what I am doing with my life – these commitments I am making and striving to keep – holds any consequence, makes any difference. Because, in the scheme of things…

But things don’t have schemes, it turns out. World powers serve a lie that one violent act can end violence, rather than naturally necessitate another. World leaders falsely believe that the pinnacle of achievement is asserting their authority, even though millennia have proved all authority is fleeting. And the world itself simply spins and shifts and rumbles along, a slave to chemistry and physics. There is no scheme – no rhyme, no reason – to what it does.

The only scheme belongs to God alone. The only efficacious plan is the one of a Heavenly Father who sends his Son to model true humanity to misguided humans, and to surrender to that misguidedness to the extreme point of blood and nails and death.

It makes no sense… to me. To us. But, then again, I’m a misguided human. When false schemes frustratedly vent their steam, I quake in my boots. I cannot comprehend the mind of the Lord; I cannot fathom his divine logic.

All I can do is rest.

Rest in his power. In his authority. In his order.

If this season of Lent has taught me anything, it is that discipline without rest is just a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Repentance without reassurance is pointless. Purgation without peace is worthless. Confession without joy, meditation without stillness… it is all for naught if we cannot lay our myriad fears and doubts and disbelief at the feet of our Savior and say, “Please cast these shackles so far away they cannot be remembered. And defend me, because this world loves to jangle about in its carefully fashioned chains. It loves to rattle sabres and hear the cruel and pretty sounds they make. Guard my eyes. Preserve my ears. Still the anxious beating of my heart. Help me, glorious God, holy Other, to rest in you.”