Christians & Coronavirus: 4 Reminders

As Covid-19, the potentially life-threatening coronavirus, spreads across the world, people are reacting in a number of ways. Some drink bleach. Others hoard toilet paper. The rest slather their social media profiles in 100-proof speculation and consternation. Among these are professing Christians, whose anxiety over this health crisis is as palpable as everyone else’s, despite the fact that Christians are supposed to be “crucified with Christ” – it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Gal. 2:20).

The Bible has much to say about fear, and how believers should cope with it. But it is important for Christians to remember and admit that we are as human as everyone else. We are just as susceptible to this virus, not to mention to the instinctual emotions of anxiety, fear, and panic. As such, even though “we know whom we have believed” (2 Tim 1:12), we do not always respond to crises the right way.

So, as a pastor currently waist-deep in the mire of this crisis and its far-ranging effects, I want to offer a few reminders for believers on how to maintain our calling as Christ’s ambassadors in the midst of this fearful time…

 

#1 – Stop Blustering. (It’s OK to Be Honest about How You Feel.)

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Have you ever watched a sitcom or a comedy sketch in which a bunch of people go to a scary movie, or to one of those haunted house attractions? Within the group there is always at least one person who acts like nothing scares him. He continually speaks derisively about the frightening elements, the joke being that he is actually terrified but won’t admit it.

Sometimes, saying “I’m not scared” can help decrease my fear. (I know as a parent I’ve had to do that on occasion, during a bad thunderstorm, or when there’s a sudden, strange noise in the house.) But putting on a false air of boldness, or ranting about how everyone else is overreacting and there is nothing at all to be concerned about, only makes a person seem increasingly out-of-touch and unhinged. There is nothing gracious or compassionate in ridiculing others for being scared in what is quite obviously a scary time.

It is better to acknowledge fear than deny it. To name it rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. To admit you are scared is to be honest (with yourself, with others, and with God) while to announce how un-scared you are is to bear false witness and only dig yourself a deeper emotional hole to wallow in.

Even if you are truly unafraid of  the coronavirus, Christians should recognize that a lot of other people are. As children of the living God, we should not be found rolling our eyes at people’s anxieties, but listening to them, and speaking gently out of our own experiences of leaning on the sovereignty of God over the shortcomings of man.

 

#2 – Stop Vilifying the Media

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Look, I’m not saying every report coming out about Covid-19 has been completely inerrant. Indeed, there are some elements of hysteria woven within our news cycle. However, the vast majority of media outlets and journalists are simply focused on informing people about the details of this virus, not stirring them into a frenzy.

How can I be so sure of this? Because journalists are people, too. I happen to know a few of them personally. They’re good people, trying to do their jobs in the midst of constantly shifting reports from federal agencies and response centers across the globe! I would not want their job for a minute, and I respect the work they are doing. Sure, without the media there might be less hysteria, but without the media we also wouldn’t know anything about this sickness, which would mean even more sick people and even more deaths.

In the last decade or so, Christians have really fumbled the ball on how we think about the media. I know several folks who are absolutely convinced that every major news outlet (except their particular favorite one, of course) is operating under an agenda so sinister it would make a Bond villain blush. It’s astonishing how quick we are to point a finger and cry “Bias!” and yet refuse to admit we may cling to some biases of our own, like a twelve-year-old with a security blanket.

Media offers perspective, and a free media is the lodestar of a free country. It is not something to be denigrated or perpetually distrusted. We may not always agree with a specific angle of media perspective, but, then again, why would we expect to? As followers of Jesus, whose identities are secured by his love and mercy, it’s our responsibility to receive the information distributed to us and then to weigh each point according to the truth of God’s Word. If we skip this second step, we do a great disservice to ourselves and the rest of the world, especially in times like these.

 

#3 – Contemplate Our Fragility

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In a country as technologically advanced as this one, most of our lives unfold a comfortable distance from extreme hardship. Certainly, we experience difficult times. Divorce, high crime rates, systemic poverty and mass shootings are significant plagues upon our society; neither are we immune to natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, and floods.

However, it is exceedingly rare for the whole of our country to face an apocalyptic reality on the level of what the coronavirus has delivered – the very real fear of exponential infection, of a scarcity of goods and services, of overflowing hospitals, of entire cities and industries grinding to a halt with no clear idea when normalcy will return. This is not something we Americans are familiar with. But it is what many other people in other parts of the world face every day. Think Sudan. Think Venezuela. Think Syria. What is frighteningly abnormal for us is, for them, just another Tuesday.

To be a Christian is to think beyond your national identity. It means recognizing we are members of a global movement, a people group that transcends race, gender, nationality, socio-economic class, and the privileges (or lack of privileges) that come with those things. Those of us who profess faith in Christ would do well to remember that extreme violence and extreme poverty and extreme sickness – the desperate groanings of a fallen world – are alive and well throughout the planet. What we are experiencing in America right now is frightening, but we can take comfort in knowing we have powerful infrastructures and trained professionals in place who can and will respond to the crisis. The same cannot be said for everyone.

In times such as these, human beings are confronted with the fragility of their existence. We see how quickly everything we trust in – all the little routines and comforts we hardly think twice about – can be taken away. Most folks in America expect they will be restored, and soon. If nothing else, may this crisis show us the extraordinary luxury behind that expectation.

 

#4 – Lean Into This Unexpected Sabbath

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Speaking of things grinding to a halt, there might actually be a benefit hiding behind all this chaos of school closings and the cancellation of public events. Yes, I realize a plethora of people are still slogging to work everyday (thank you, medical professionals and first-responders!), and there are a lot of folks who are now forced to juggle childcare, not to mention worry about whether or not their small business will fail, or if they can even make enough money to pay rent. I don’t mean to make light of those concerns in any way.

And yet, many of us who too often find ourselves going-going-going, running from one to-do on our lists to another, chauffeuring children from school to sports practice, balancing grocery shopping with church activities with all the little appointments and family responsibilities sprinkled in… All of a sudden, a lot of these self-imposed obligations have disappeared. We find ourselves standing in the eerie quiet of a relaxed schedule, our aching shoulders suddenly relieved by a significantly lightened load. There is time to breathe. Time to think. Time to take things slow.

The Bible has a word for this. It’s called sabbath. At its core, it was a time to slow down, to rest from our labors, to set aside the to-do list and enjoy the peace that comes flooding in when you do. Scripture tells us that God intended his people to practice this once every seven days for the entirety of their lives, but in our modern culture we have all kinds of excuses why that just doesn’t work anymore. We keep ourselves so busy these days that we don’t even have time to feel guilty about ignoring God’s commandment. But all of a sudden, and in only a few days time, so many of the things that kept us busy are – poof! – gone.

Guess what isn’t gone? Guess what’s still hanging around, waiting to be indulged despite always playing second fiddle to our life-draining busyness?

Family. Storytelling. Reading. Laughter. Singing. Playing music. Long walks. Bike rides. Fishing. Hiking. Lingering over a home-cooked meal. You know, the things that make life worthwhile in the first place.

Yes, there are very real concerns to be aware of right now. There are dire needs to pray for, and a truckload of cares to cast upon the mighty arm of the Lord. This is a serious time. But Christians, especially Christians in America, have never had such an extraordinary chance to do good, to exemplify the principles of God’s kingdom, and to model what an honest, gracious, compassionate, and blessed life actually looks like.

Can we really afford to let this chance go by?

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

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

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

I know. Gremlins. 

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

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Behold the face of unbridled terror!

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

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

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

I know. Beetlejuice. 

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

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

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

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

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A whole lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.