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.

KctdSNN

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.

a-10

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.

spielberg

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.)

saw

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

finger watching

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.

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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.

#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.