The Face in the Mirror

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

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

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

doughnuts

The doughnuts help.

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

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

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

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

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

brussel sprouts

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

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

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

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

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And that I look much cooler than I actually am…

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

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (Romans 7:15-20, NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

All because we do not want to feel ashamed.

Thomas Merton identified this epidemic of denial in his journals:

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

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

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

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

Playing Jesus

I spent hours last week pretending to be Jesus.

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

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

jester's hat

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

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

bedouin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elf_039Pyxurz

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

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

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

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

Lately? Not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernie_Sanders_2014

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

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

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

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

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

coach jesus

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

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.