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.

Imagining the Divine: A Response to Tim Challies

Recently, author and blogger Tim Challies, whose articles and book reviews I read on occasion, wrote a preemptive review of the upcoming film, The Shack, which itself is based on the 2007 novel of the same name by William P. Young.

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Prepare to be Hallmark movie-ed!

Preemptive review may not be the best term. Challies’s piece, entitled “Why I Won’t Be Seeing (or Reviewing) The Shack,” is a critical review of the core conceit around which the story revolves – a grieving, guilt-stricken man meets and is counseled by the Triune God (i.e., Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) who manifests in different human forms. Challies contends that such a representation of God is iniquitous, if not heretical, and his choice not to watch the film is a way of escaping an act of sin.

Of course, Challies can make whatever decision he likes regarding whether or not to see, or review, a feature film. He’s a grown man, a devoted Christian, and I do not deny that his choice may stem from deeply personal issues in his own spiritual development.

However, I believe Tim Challies has made a fundamental error in labeling the film The Shack “dangerous” simply because it casts human actors in parts that are meant to represent the divine persons of the Holy Trinity. And, taken to its logical conclusion, this error is actually an unwitting assault on imagination and creativity, two incredibly valuable faculties gifted us by our Creator.

Allow me to explain…

What is Lacking?

Tim Challies puts forth one particular passage of Old Testament scripture that he believes explains why a film version of The Shack, in which human actors will visibly and audibly portray the three persons of the Trinity on giant movie screens, is hazardous to one’s true understanding of God.

I take this to be a clear, serious violation of the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6). I will not see the film, even to review it, because I will not and cannot watch humans pretend to be God.

I have to hand it to Challies. He has conviction. But you know who else had conviction? The Pharisees.

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Now, comparing someone to a Pharisee in this day and age is usually assumed to mean that someone has become so concerned with religious legalism that he or she has lost sight of the gospel of Jesus. But this is not what I mean when I compare Tim Challies’s staunch rejection of The Shack to pharisaical behavior. What most Christians often forget about the Pharisees – or never learn in the first place – is how incredibly devout they were, how deeply they committed themselves to personal physical purity, and how exceedingly inquisitive they were of the Scriptures. In almost every case within Greco-Roman history of the Jewish world, the Pharisees are the spiritual heroes. They insisted on faithfulness to God’s Word. They sought to interpret and explain every single word and verse of the Torah in order to more deeply commune with the Creator. They continually clashed with Roman and Jewish authorities alike out of an insistence that Jewish religious expression should maintain purity and ethicality. Thus, ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the attitude and behavior of a Pharisee was directly in keeping with what modern Christians would consider a righteous person. As such, the Pharisees really only lacked one thing.

Imagination.

Time and again, when the Pharisees clashed with the teachings of Jesus, it was not because his teaching style was suspect, or because he was openly rejecting the Torah. Rather, what the Pharisees disliked about Jesus was his way of portraying God, and, by association, the purpose of various aspects of the Law that God gave to Moses. Regularly, Jesus told parables that fleshed out certain characteristics of God, or certain actions of a faithful disciple, and usually these stories scandalized the Pharisees’ painstakingly assembled understandings of theology and spirituality. And it is also worth noting that, in these parables, God is often portrayed through human characters: a bridegroom, a gracious king, a searching shepherd, a celebrating woman, a wounded father.

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Thank God first century Jerusalem didn’t have a film industry. Imagine the carnage!

But the topper – the assertion that really drove a wedge between Jesus and the majority of the Pharisees – is when Jesus himself claimed to be divine. To their eyes, this was a poor, upstart rabbi from a suspect town, possessing a suspect education, and he had the gall to say to them, “I tell you truly, before Abraham was, I AM!” (Jn. 8:58). If Jesus was nothing more than a poor, upstart rabbi, his utterance of these words was an offense deserving of public stoning. And since the Pharisees lacked the imagination – the creativity of mind and the expectancy of heart – to see Jesus as anything more than what his physical appearance revealed, they went on seeing him as such, and their pious conviction endured that what Jesus needed was a good, public execution.

What’s the Purpose?

Tim Challies is concerned that the physical, visible portrayal of any member of the Trinity – except perhaps the Son (since Jesus was also fully human) – is tantamount to blasphemy. He argues that it is impossible to accurately depict the holy Other-ness of a divine God through any kind of human guise. He even cites the second of the Ten Commandments to further his point. All of these arguments seem pretty solid.

And yet, integral to the Christian faith is our understanding that God chose not simply to command and direct humanity from his position of Other-ness, but instead chose to become flesh and blood and live in our midst (Jn. 1:14). Even though the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth is not made out of stone, it would seem that God violates, or at least sidesteps, his own commandment in order to help his chosen people grasp his true purpose for them.

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Though, if movies are to be believed, he was most certainly chiseled.

After positing the commandment as his reasoning for not viewing the film, Challies admits, “I will grant that the primary concern of the second commandment is worship. It forbids creating any image of God in order to worship God through that image. Yet the commandment first forbids any visual representation for any reason. Whether that image is used to better worship God or better understand God, the commandment covers it.” He goes on to insist that while Jesus might get a pass, it is sinful to portray the other two Persons of the Trinity, the Father and the Holy Spirit (even though the commandment of course makes no such distinction).

Really, Tim? So, did you seek forgiveness that time you looked up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (or viewed a photograph of it)? Did you shut your eyes whenever one of your history textbooks included an artistic rendering of God visiting Abraham at Mamre, or the Holy Spirit coming like fire at Pentecost? Did you run away screaming at the sight of Far Side cartoons or the trailer for Bruce Almighty when Morgan Freeman had the audacity to dress in a white suit and pretend to be God? Just how far does this self-righteous conviction, currently directed at a book you obviously don’t like, extend?

You are correct in your assessment that the commandment was chiefly concerned with worship. But like a Pharisee, you stretch it across as many specific cases as possible in a nervous effort to obey it.

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I hope this benefits your team, cuz you’re gonna burn for it!

It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to recognize that when you differentiate the application of the Ten Commandments based on the different Persons of the Trinity, you steer your boat into murky theological waters. Refusing to look upon any human portrayal of God the Father or the Holy Spirit is not simply imposing limitations on theological investigation – it is spurning human capacity for imagination and creative cognition which was given to us by our Creator! Nowhere in the entire Bible is there the stipulation that portraying the human form of Jesus is acceptable while any other representation is verboten. Why not? Because God understands there is a big difference between seeking to understand more about him by envisioning him in more familiar contexts, and actually fashioning an idol for the purpose of bowing down and invoking its power and authority for our lives. I mean, c’mon, Tim. Surely you can see this difference.

Look, I’m not a huge fan of The Shack either. I read it. I appreciated some parts, disagreed with others. I am a pastor, so, yes, some of the things the three God-characters tell the main character rubbed me the wrong way. But I understood that it’s a story. A work of imagination. It is as unlikely to be worshipped as this blog post is. So, at no point did I break out into an anxious sweat because William P. Young was tempting me to picture God in human form.

And if you don’t think there’s anything sinful about that act of imagination, as long as we don’t “flesh out” those characters on a movie screen, then the thin-ice semantics by which you are applying the commandment is astounding. Because, for all its little flaws (yes, little flaws), the purpose of The Shack is to spur people’s imaginations about what God is like. It is meant to challenge our theology not with blatant falsehoods but by asking us to consider whether we have unintentionally adopted a culturally acceptable view of our Creator, and, in so doing, collapsed into a lazy, shallow faith.

Does it get everything correct? Absolutely not. I wouldn’t expect it to. But I got to have some great conversations with church members and seekers about the nature of God when the book came out back in 2007. If the movie is at all similar in its impact, then this is all the more reason why a writer/reviewer as intelligent as Tim Challies should not refuse to review it. Perhaps his insights and corrections of what is portrayed on-screen could help people better process their own grasp of theology and soteriology.

Too bad Tim’s obedience to God’s command prevents him from offering such help.

Embracing Imagination

Again, I do not deny that Tim Challies’s decision is based on a desire to maintain faithfulness and obedience to the God he loves, and believes loves him.

But it is a dangerous thing to cite Scripture as a reason not to engage in theological exploration, even if it comes in the form of the movie version of a mediocre book. The commandments are not a leash. Rather, they are meant to set God’s people apart from a lawless, morally relative world. To obey God’s commandments is to live in such a way that people see the characteristics of God in you – love, goodness, forbearance, honesty, integrity, purity.

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Oddly enough, though, they shouldn’t lead you to do this.

In his “Sermon on the Mount,” God himself reminds us that true obedience is dependent upon the internalizing of each commandment. Thus, “You shall not murder” is as much about holding grudges and nursing hatred as it is spilling another person’s blood. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” is not simply a compulsory day-off as it is a directive that resting and relishing the rejuvenating presence of God is the only thing that will sustain us in this mad, mad world. And “You will not make for yourself a carved image” is an insistence that the creation should never attempt to comprehensively define its Creator.

In an essay entitled “Invisible Things,” the great songwriter-poet Rich Mullins writes:

He is the image of the invisible God. He is incomprehensible to our Western minds – as He was to Eastern ones. He came from that great beyond that no human mind has visited. When we true to squeeze Him into our systems of thought, He vanishes – He slips through our grasp and then reappears and (in so many words) says, “No man takes My life from Me.  No man forces his will on Me. I am not yours to handle and cheapen. You are Mine to love and make holy.”

Perhaps Tim Challies will read words such as this and think, “Exactly! Human actors should never portray God!”

But my understanding of God’s command is a bit more nuanced. No, I will not carve his image out of stone (or wood or sand or Lego bricks or George Burns’s face) and offer my worship to it. But I will keep seeking a deeper understanding of who my Savior is. Christianity is about a relationship with God, and I want to know the One to whom I am engaged. I want to think about Him more, and in more profound ways, and whatever medium will help enhance and mature my worship of Him, then I say, “Bring it on.”

May you not be afraid to imagine the divine. May you believe in a God who insists not on cold allegiance to law but rather ardent worship that flows freely from your heart, soul, strength and mind. And from your eyes, ears, nose, mouths, hands, and feet…

Thaw

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Today, the trees were turned to glassy silver.

This was the result of a collision between two of the most ubiquitous realities of the present season: dreary precipitation and bitter cold. In some places, like New England and New York over the last few weeks, the ratio is such that what you get is heaping after heaping of white snow. In other places, like the region of central Texas where I grew up, you get sleeting rain and slick ground. Today, in Georgia, I woke up to crystalline trees.

Underneath the early morning cloud cover, there was something dismal and austere about them. They stood there, frozen and gunmetal gray, hardly moving in the still morning air. Creation itself seemed appalled by the cold. And yet, as the day unfolded, the overcast sky began to dissolve, and patches of pale blue were made visible. And through those patches, here and there, spilled sunlight. It had been there all along. Only hidden. Not absent.

And those trees, their limbs encrusted in ice, began to sparkle. Beneath those paroled rays of sun, all that had been frozen became lively, ebullient. They caught the eye not with gloom but with hope.

And I thought to myself, how beautiful it is when something is frozen.

But then I realized that what made the limbs of all these trees beautiful was not the fact that they had been frozen, but the fact that they were in the process of being unfrozen. It was not the ice itself that dazzled my eye and filled my heart with promise, but rather the thaw.

The sunlight played within those crystals of ice in extraordinary ways, while the slight rise in temperature began to soften them. The trees were slowly, methodically warmed, and their limbs were, little by little, liberated.

So it is with my own life, and, specifically, my own selfishness. On the eve of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent, I cannot help but see myself as one of those frozen limbs, and the Church as that great tree appalled by the turn of coldness in the world – a world from which we do not stand separate. There is so much selfishness, it seems. It lays as close to us as a winter chill on the skin. We feel hardly able to move, sitting numb under a leaden sky and a bleak horizon.

Ah, but the Son is peeking through. He is not absent. He sees us, shines on us. He is the One who begins in us a great and liberating thaw.

He makes us beautiful.

Style Points: The Gospel According to NCAA Football

Yes, you read that title correctly. I’m about to uncover biblical truth within college football. Hold on to your hats (or big foam fingers)…

If its a Florida State finger, enjoy it for a couple more days.

If it’s a Florida State finger, enjoy it for one more month.

We find ourselves approaching a turning point in college football. This is the first year of a college football playoff system for Division I football, in which a twelve-member committee, composed of current and former university athletic directors, former coaches, administrators, a professional athlete, a reporter, and a former Secretary of State, wields the power to choose four Division I college football teams they believe to be the creme de la creme de la conferences to play for a national championship. Their preliminary selections over the past month have stirred much controversy, as some teams feel their successes and talents have been unfairly ignored by the committee members who seem to reward the almost identical successes and talents of other teams by ranking them in the top four spots.

The committee’s chairperson, Jeff Long, has been pressed to defend the selections by highlighting certain factors the committee believes to be the most impressive qualities of a team. In press conferences, he has gone on about two things in particular: game control and style points. Simply put, game control refers to a team’s ability to maintain a comfortable lead throughout the game, preferably by at least fourteen to twenty-one points. And the second is related to the first. Style points refers to when a team is able (and willing) to run up the score so their win will seem like total domination, because apparently the College Football Playoff selection committee is taking their cues from Sensei Kreese.

Mercy is for the weak.

Mercy is for the weak.

And so, that’s what’s being talked about now by game commentators, radio hosts, reporters, and, of course, fiercely loyal fans. It is no longer good enough for the team you root for to win. They must win big, and that big win must never be in doubt. Otherwise, they cannot be considered one of the best teams. It used to be impressive for a team to win the majority of its games, and perhaps even claim their conference championship. But all of a sudden there is a new dimension necessary for those teams angling to be considered the best. Not only must they score more points than the team of talented athletes lining up in front of them week after week. They have to score enough points to effectively gain the praise of twelve specific people.

Don’t look now, folks, but this playoff selection committee has ruined college football as we know it.

That is not hyperbole, and it is not sarcasm. I’m completely serious. I truly believe that the sport so many of us have loved all our lives has taken a turn for the terminal. Not because the committee is corrupt, or their system is illogical, but because they’ve surgically removed nail-biting excitement and edge-of-your-seat tension from games that we used to hope would play out exactly that way. Those were the kinds of games we enjoyed watching the most! The back-and-forth battles in which game control shifted as dramatically as a playground seesaw. The down-to-the-wire finishes in which one set of players triumphantly rushed the field while the other set lowered their heads under the combined weight of exhaustion and defeat.

I sure hope a photographer isn't taking a picture of our misery.

I sure hope a photographer isn’t taking a picture of our misery.

If I had to choose the most entertaining bowl game I’ve watched in my lifetime up until now, I would easily choose Boise State versus Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, but it wouldn’t be because Boise State won and I was rooting for them. It would be because that game was extraordinary: a David-and-Goliath match-up that, unlike the biblical story, went back-and-forth with each team claiming and then losing the lead on incredible, gutsy plays… and that was in the fourth quarter alone! Boise State finally won in overtime, 43-42, on a perfectly executed Statue of Liberty play for a two-point conversion (which means rather than easily kicking an extra point, they took the risk of either winning or losing the game on one trick play).

Those games, at least in regard to significance, are quickly going the way of the buffalo.

Not that Buffalo.

Not that Buffalo.

Oh, sure, we might still see something like it in a bowl game, when there is nothing to be gained from impressing the committee after the regular season is over. But consider the fact that endings like the one I described, as extraordinary as they are, have now been deemed unimpressive, especially when compared to a team that blows out its competition 43-0. Wins that come with great difficulty may be respected, but they are no longer proof of a team’s strength. This is what the College Football Playoff selection committee has already imparted to us, and I don’t like how easily I’ve conformed to their views.

For instance, last Saturday, I watched my favorite team, the Baylor Bears, white-knuckle a 48-46 win against one of their rivals, Texas Tech, who played with such desperate passion the team reminded me of a certain Fiesta Bowl champion from 2007. Baylor never trailed in the game, but ended up having to make two clutch defensive stops to prevent the Red Raiders from pulling off the upset. It was the kind of game I used to love watching, especially if the team I was rooting for ended up on top as Baylor ultimately did. However, for the last quarter and a half, as Tech mounted an improbable comeback, I was aware of a deep-seated anxiety rising within me. Not only had I become angry at my team, but that frustration lingered long after time expired. Baylor was currently ranked #7 by the playoff committee, three spots shy of that privileged top four, and I knew grinding out a two-point win over an inferior team was not going to rouse even one shred of admiration from the newly appointed supreme court of college football. So, despite a wild game that ended with a Baylor victory, I was left feeling disappointed and nervous for how their performance would affect their ranking.

And that was when I knew that college football, as I knew it, was over.

When all you care about is style points, you’ve lost sight of what the game is really about. If a genuine show of vigor from the opposing team is now only evidence of your own team’s mediocrity (rather than natural competitiveness between two forces that transcend statistics and rankings and the opinions of thirteen people in a boardroom), you have been led astray by a sports heresy. This is Neopelagianism on the gridiron.

Modeling next season's new uniform styles.

Modeling next season’s new uniform styles.

And this is where God comes in.

If the travesty currently befalling college football has taught me anything, it is that game control and style points have no place within the Christian faith. While Jesus called us in the Sermon on the Mount to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48), he left out any condition that said being perfect was the only way to get God’s attention or something you have to do in order to garner acceptance and praise.

For years, I tried to live my life as if game control and style points were what mattered most. I tried to live in such a way that my good behavior, faithful prayer life, regular church attendance, and increasing understanding of the Bible would get God to notice me and, in turn, bless me. I read ridiculous books like The Prayer of Jabez that essentially told me I had to pray for certain things a certain way if I wanted to get the good blessings God had to give. Much like the playoff selection committee, I felt what mattered more than anything (particularly those incremental improvements and small victories) was my “full body of work.” Had I done enough to impress God? Enough to warrant his favor and earn his endorsement?

And when the losses came (as they inevitably do), I was my own worst critic, a diehard fan who boos and jeers his own team. Those away games when I fell short of obedience, and those shocking defeats when the opposition exposed my weaknesses – they cultivated nothing but shame and self-loathing, a reminder that I would never be good enough. I would never be the kind of man I wanted to be.

In reality, it doesn't matter how hard you play. A loss is a loss.

In reality, it doesn’t matter how hard you play. A loss is a loss.

Sadly, there are a lot of Christians today who are still slaves to style points. They may call God full of grace and love, but, by the way they live their lives, they reflect a belief that he is as capricious and fastidious as a thirteen-member playoff selection committee. For them, grace, mercy and compassion have become nothing more than hollow, ineffectual terms relegated to Sunday School classes and hymn books. They have no place in the “real world.”

But the God I believe in – the God of the Christian faith – is full of those things. He looks upon us with kindness, forgiveness and generosity.

We don’t always live in control of our lives. In fact, most of the time we feel like life is a down-to-the-wire nail-biter, where anything can happen. Style points are a mythical luxury we are incapable of claiming. Praise be to God that grinding out a win is considered as virtuous as blowing out the other team. Even greater praise be to Him for sending his son to be the victor for us – to put the game out of reach and rack up more style points than we will ever need.

Better Words

For The Ink Well Creative Community

Word: Substitute
Parameters: Write for 15 minutes without stopping

Sacrifice_of_the_Old_Covenant_Rubens

the blood of bulls and goats cry out
from the ground, a ferment flowing
was death for naught, o chosen ones?
the left hand cuts; the right hand grasps
for pleasures to fill the clean slate
perpetual slaughter provides
the fire burns, never dies away
in your place we stand, knife to throat
will you remember us at all?

Substitute for sin, once for all
if this is what they need then why
were we called to give for so long
and why, when they finally see,
do they debate the hows and whys?
Ransom, Penal Satisfaction,
Christus Victor, Exemplary,
Universal or Limited
what power is there in a name?

is not power found in the blood?
does it not ferment even now?
does it not flow for you each day
you chosen ones, you wanderers?
the left hand pierces flesh with nails
the right hand gambles on garments
and the eyes behold death and say
surely this was a God unknown
will I remember him at all?

for those who faced death every day
so you might have a way to peace
the blood you spilt speaks better words
than those you use to describe this
in sight of death, theories shudder
and hang their heads, speechless, silent
and hope in this redemption too
let these words reign, for what we were
He is, forevermore, Amen.

Are We Up for This?

I wonder if most believers are really interested in the salvation Jesus offers people.

Let me clarify that statement. In my last post, I wrote about the alleged difficulty of defining the term “spiritual formation.” My argument was that the difficulty only comes when we lose sight of what those two words really mean. When you look at their roots, it’s not difficult to see what we’re describing when we’re saying someone is being spiritually formed. The Spirit is at work in that person, forming him or her into something different. Something new.

But for those who think that sounds perfectly agreeable, Jim Smith, executive director of The Apprentice Institute, reminds us, “Formation involves every single aspect of our lives: our thoughts, our emotions, our bodies, our experiences, our relationships, our resources, our time management, our loved ones, our health, our sexuality, etc. … There is no area of our lives that is not a part of our formation process. It is not, as I used to think, a separation of sacred and secular, of spiritual and physical, but a holistic, unified endeavor.”

I’m not sure many of us are up for that kind of formation.

But that’s the kind of conversion Jesus wants to bring to us. It is a far-reaching formation – a wholesale wholeness.

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By and large, though, people have stopped seeing Christianity this way, as a comprehensive transformation of body, mind and soul. Instead, we’ve portrayed a faith that is concerned only with moral behavior, or “traditional” values, or what comes after death. Christians have ceased seeing the all-inclusiveness of God’s transformative power.

I’m a Spiritual Person

I’m a fan of modernity. As a former teacher of American literature, I didn’t think the curriculum became fun until we hit the 20th century. However, with the modernization of the West came the tendency to relegate “spirituality” to one facet of what we began to think of as a multifaceted existence. Those who wanted to maintain belief in the supernatural – in that Something beyond ourselves – nonetheless compartmentalized that perspective in such a way that “the things of the Spirit” gradually began to lose influence over the other aspects of our lives. As modernism permeated the culture, our identities began to look like a region full of autonomous city-states. The social/relational sphere of our lives won its independence from all the others, as did the vocational/financial sphere, the familial sphere, the emotional sphere, the physical sphere, and so on. Sure, there has always been interaction between all of these various parts of our identity, but people are quick to guard the self-sovereignty of each one.

Pictured: Our identities.

Pictured: Our identities.

A perfect example of this is the all-too-common referral to being “a spiritual person” (many professing Christians included). Rarely are these people referring to a tangible, active presence – or Spirit – at work in their lives. Rather, what they are describing is a more self-seeking posture that feeds off of feelings we can’t easily name but still enjoy. Modern spirituality has become an amorphous pursuit – a hobby easily tailored according to each person’s preferences. Because of this, it is not uncommon to encounter a person who claims to be very “spiritual” but whose other spheres of life seem mostly unaffected by that spirituality.

This was not the kind of spiritual formation Jesus was referring to when, in Gethsemane, he promised the disciples that the Holy Spirit was coming.

All the Fullness of God

Likewise, there’s a moment in the middle of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he expresses what his prayers are for them, a church he so dearly loves. Having challenged them to recognize that the mysteries of God have finally been revealed in Jesus, and that this revelation changes everything, he writes the following:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16-19).

If Facebook were around in the first century, Paul would have been that annoying friend who always posts longwinded prayers in his status updates.

If Facebook were around in the first century, Paul would have been that annoying friend who always posts longwinded prayers in his status updates.

Paul was referring to a transformation that affected every aspect of a person’s existence. So was Jesus, when he said he came that we “may have life, and have it in abundance” (John 10:10).

Thus, the salvation offered by Jesus is not found in laying down only one sphere of my identity, but when I relinquish them all. Jesus is not the Lord of only the spiritual parts of my life. He is the Master of it all – my social interactions, my job and finances, my family, my emotions, my physical health, and so on. Jesus understood that just as we are not created in part but in whole, our recreation must happen the same way. Salvation is all or nothing.

Amen, Yoda. Amen.

Amen, Yoda. Amen.

Sure, there will be times when our rationalism causes us to doubt even a good and beautiful God, and we feel a need to hold something back. But this is why Paul’s prayer included a plea “to know this love that surpasses knowledge” – that our doubts would not lead to self-reliance, and our minds would be transformed alongside everything else. That by surrendering, we would learn surrender.

Simple, Not Easy

Like I said, I’m not sure we’re interested in that kind of salvation.

The Gospel is simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. We understand that by our own efforts we cannot save ourselves. Our healing and wholeness requires an act of God, and that act was Jesus. Believing this is simple enough. But responding to it is not so easy.

The problem for those who stop at mere belief is that salvation requires belief and response. What kind of response? Oh, just the relinquishing of every element of control you enjoy over your existence. Just the surrender of every sphere of your life into the hands of Another.

Amen, Neo. Amen.

Amen, Neo. Amen.

Simple? Yes.

Easy? Definitely not.

Maybe this is why so many of the most powerful stories of transformation we hear – the ones that stick in our minds long after we’ve listened to their telling – are the ones in which people surrendered their lives to Jesus after their lives became a complete wreck. They were at the end of their rope, the candle was flickering, the water was almost over their heads, there was nothing left to live for … and that’s when Jesus changed everything.

Perhaps too many of us still feel like we have something worth living for – a sphere of life we’ve arranged too much to our liking. Even if its not perfect, we’d rather keep things as they are than risk what might change if it were devoted to God.

I wonder why that is.

I’ve heard a lot of ministers complain that people are just too lazy to really seek after formation. But what if laziness isn’t our core problem?  What if our problem is bad theology? I mean, do we or do we not believe that God is good? That he is generous and trustworthy? That he desires the best for us, and that he has promised to daily care for us?

Because, if we really believe those things, what on earth has prevented us from responding?

Bedtime Prayers

I became a Christian because I was afraid of hell. I was afraid I would die before I woke. I was afraid of where I might end up if I didn’t pray a special prayer that assured my protection.

As a kid who already struggled with a plethora of nocturnal fears – of monsters and ghouls and all manner of wicked-faced, sharp-toothed frights – the last thing I needed to fixate on at eight years of age was the dreadful image of an eternal, fiery torment. I had enough trouble falling asleep as it was. So, one night, moved as much by an overactive imagination as by the Spirit, I prayed a patchwork sinner’s prayer – penitent phrases I had gleaned from church services and Vacation Bible Schools and stitched together by my hushed lips mumbling the words into my pillow.

Beside my bed, a Voltron nightlight projected the blazing image of a robot protector on the ceiling of my bedroom. In hindsight, I realize that the image wasn’t a far cry from my theology at that time – that God was an all-powerful being who watched over the weak. Something invincible that could vanquish the terrors that slithered out from a dark realm. But, as I understood it, if you had not acknowledged his all-powerful-ness and verbally professed your belief in his invincibility, you were bound for that dark realm, where you would suffer forever and ever. And so, I prayed.

It’s been twenty-six years since I lay in my childhood twin bed and whispered a desperate prayer for, among other things, peace of mind at bedtime. I’ve grown quite a bit since then, in every form of the word. I’ve learned quite a bit about God and Jesus and salvation and faith and grace, not to mention about sin and hell. I’ve been baptized. I’ve led Bible studies and taught Sunday School classes. I’ve obtained a seminary degree. I’ve been ordained into full-time church ministry. I’ve worked in many different churches and organizations in which all of the above beliefs and experiences have been well utilized.

And yet…

There are those nights lying in bed, waiting for sleep to usher me away, when I feel surrounded by fears as irrational but as palpable as the ones that tormented me when I was eight.

I don’t fear the darkness of hell anymore, but I do fear the very real possibility of separation – of loss and abandonment. I don’t fear the agony of the fire, but I do dread physical ailments and illnesses and the cruel what-if’s they cast before my mind’s eye like a fishermen’s lures. I don’t fear the prospect of an eternity apart from God, but in the quiet of my bedroom I stress over the realization that I have not lived my life as closely to his truth as one should.

My theology has developed in countless ways over the past twenty-six years. My God is bigger than he has ever been, and he only continues to increase, emerging from the shadows cast by my limited understanding in ways that remind me he is not – he cannot be – a figment of my imagination.

But the darkness at the end of the day remains a place where doubt resides, where fear thrives. So, with the same mixture of hope and terror that I possessed when I was eight, I still speak words into my pillow. Words of trust and rattled optimism. I ask for protection. I ask to be saved.

And I am convinced that, just as it was when I was eight, there is something greater going on. Something wider and deeper is taking place – something invincible and yet as connected to me as these doubts and fears that never fail to show their threatening faces and gnash their vicious teeth when I turn out the lights. This Something is that which fulfills the words of the Apostle John, that “perfect love casts out fear.”

It is in this Something that I must trust as much at thirty-four years of age as at eight. And when sleep does usher me away, it is this Something that I still believe watches over me while I sleep, like a light on the ceiling.

I am never alone.