This is the decade when you're going to start to learn who you can't trust. I wish there were a way around this, but I don't see one.
So, I want to give you a few thoughts to hang on to while you're walking through the weirdness of investing yourself in people, realizing your trust was misplaced, and then trying to get over that hurt into the next stage of your life.
As you try to figure out "adult you," you're going to land in different types of friendships. Those friendships might be platonic; they might be romantic; or they might involve older people who take on a coaching role in your lives.
Because adulthood can feel a little isolated sometimes (nobody is forcing you to sit in a classroom of your peers everyday, right?), it can be easy to get stuck in whatever friendships come to you in your first few years of starting out alone. You find yourself making do with the connections you already have because the world out there feels random and anonymous. I mean, where would you even begin with beginning all over again? That would take so much work. And who's to say you'll find anything better than what you have already?
So you start to overlook things. You adjust yourself to put up with more and more that isn't quite right. You ignore the fact that you have a headache every time you leave the house of that friend. You say, "Every relationship has stuff. This is just our stuff."
If you're in that cycle and feel sort of embarrassed that you have let your relationships get this bad, please don't beat yourself up. Finding trustworthy people is difficult. It's not like strangers come with a big warning sticker on their foreheads. Controlling boyfriends start out as Prince Charmings. Emotionally-abusive mentors start out as kind older people who project the confidence and wisdom to be able to help you grow. Toxic friendships begin over coffee with warm smiles and laughter.
One of the strangest quirks of adulthood is realizing that certain unhealthy people have managed to secure positions of power and influence in society. I remember how shocked (and even frightened) I was in my twenties when I realized that a couple of leaders others considered "heroes" were actually nasty and abusive people in private. I couldn't understand why the world continued to affirm them. I didn't understand why they hadn't been exposed. I felt small and helpless as I struggled to admit the truth to myself while the mighty force of those personas loomed so large. It was disorienting to stand on my own two feet, feeling pretty much alone, with the heavy task of saying, "No, this isn't right."
I'm sorry that this often comes with the territory of being in your twenties. Maybe it will help to have someone who is older tell you that you aren't crazy if you find yourself there.
Also, you're not stupid if you've invested your heart into an intense relationship that has become weird and unhealthy. If you have slowly become trapped by emotional manipulation, abusive criticism, narcissism, or disrespect, know you aren't alone.
So many of us went through this in some form in our twenties. For some of us, getting over it felt like the end of the world. But I want you to know that you're going to grow from this pain. This heartbreak is going to make you wiser and more discerning. Someday it's going to help you help others who find themselves trapped in bad relationships.
This pain will also help you clarify what you actually believe. These sharp hits of the chisel are knocking off bits of confusion in your worldview. You're finding out what you value. You're finding out what is worth fighting for. You're finding out where you stop giving in and where you draw the line to say, "No more." Those are vital discoveries.
Lastly, I want you to know that it's possible to have friendships that are healthy. I get it if you need to be cynical and defensive for a while. That's a normal reaction after getting hurt like this. But when the grieving time is over, know that the world is an awfully big place.
When I was devastated over what didn't work in my twenties, I couldn't have anticipated the richness of new friendships that would form in my thirties and forties. Yeah, I've had some disappointments later in life as well. But I've also found generous friends who are worthy of trust--people who love me selflessly, who fight for me, who put up with me, who believe the best of me, and who make my life so much richer. So don't let six or seven rotten eggs determine what you believe about 7.6 billion.
The wounds you have received in this stage are making you smarter and stronger. Don't feel shame over what didn't work. Just own your scars--we all have them. Name what you've learned. Mourn what you need to mourn. And get back in the game. Twenty-something is good. But there's a lot more good life to live at thirty-something, forty-something, beyond.
My heart skipped a beat when she said it.
“When I was a kid, you mostly told us about the love of God, so it threw me for a loop when I found out that He had wrath, too. I didn’t know how to process a God who could do some of the hard things he did. It seemed like this was a different being than the one I had been taught to worship.”
She was right. The accusation was fair. I gave our kids children’s Bibles full of cartoon drawings that simplified and softened the stories of the actual text. I wasn’t trying to hide anything; I was just trying to be age appropriate. Some of the stories in the Bible are difficult--how do you tell a six-year-old that a Levite’s concubine was raped to death then cut into twelve pieces and shipped bit-by-bit across the nation?
I think I made a subconscious choice, too. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, years when consumer-driven mega-churches were exploding. We used words like “equipping,” “relevance,” and “felt needs,” subtle indications that we needed to make the Bible more palatable for a non-believing world.
It’s not that we were trying to be deceptive—we were just trying to operate inside of a culture that had been given a hateful, legalistic, and judgmental distortion of Christianity. We were trying to show the world that we didn’t serve an angry God who hated dancing, beer, and women. So we talked about the aspects of God that resisted those voices most strongly, trying to separate ourselves from false teachers.
But somewhere along the way, we revised Jesus. Somewhere along the way, we reworked the Bible instead of just correcting those who were teaching it poorly.
Evidence of this mistake is found all over the place. The tale of Noah’s ark—a story about the destruction of most of humanity--has become material for Precious Moments figurines and Fisher Price plastic toys.
We sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” without any awareness of the fact that God also commanded genocide for the Amalekites—even little children and nursing babies were to be killed” (I Samuel 15:3-4).
We talk about the healing of a blind man instead of a God who commanded that anybody who skipped the Sabbath be stoned.
The lyrics to so many of our modern worship songs could almost be make-out-with-your-boyfriend lyrics. “Heaven meets earth like a big sloppy kiss” stands a long way from Isaiah’s first response when he experiences the presence of the God of Heaven, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5).
CCM stars groan and sway, staring into the camera with soft, sexy eyes, as if it’s doing God a favor for cool dudes to be on Team Jesus. We are so casual, so comfortable, so relevant, the hard passages of the Bible feel odd when we stare at them.
We don’t say it out loud, but we grow afraid that if we linger too long, the God of the Old Testament will feel cruel, selfish, and unfair.
In the 80’s and 90’s, apologists spent months creating resources that would help Christians prove God’s existence to the world. These training programs and debates argue in terms of history, science, and epistemology. However, many of these programs do not address the real hang up modern atheism has with the faith. 21st century unbelief doesn’t wonder if God exists—it stands convinced that the God of the Bible is not good.
“Would you really pick up a stone and throw it at a gay friend of yours?” he asked me. “If God commanded you to do it, would you do that--because homosexuals were supposed to be stoned! You realize this is the God you worship! How can you worship a God who could tell people to do something like that?”
The question threw me for a loop because I’d never had to think about it. Post New Testament, all those laws are wrapped up. I know that God wouldn’t ever ask me to do anything like this because Jesus has completed in his own body what those rules could not.
I also know that when God appeared on earth in human form, when the command to stone a woman for a violation of sexual law was sitting there in the flesh, Jesus said, “Are any of you sinless? If you are, then you throw the first rock at this woman.” He said that because the Law was supposed to humble us all, not turn us into hateful, angry mobs.
So yeah, I would drop the rock and say, “I know how this works. I know the state of my own heart. I cannot throw a thing.”
I wonder if maybe that was always the telos of the command.
But still, thinking that way doesn’t take the sting away entirely. There are still some passages in the Old Testament that cause me to bristle in silence. Some of the things God demands hurt.
I’m a GenXer after all.
I’m not one of those Baby Boomers so smitten with politics that I let party affiliation determine which men are called perverts and which are called heroes. I don’t automatically march in line, excusing my team and calling the other team names. I expect integrity all around.
I don’t speak in that high and holy disconnected church language that says, “Well, we just have to trust the Lord.” For decades I've heard people say that who actually mean, “I’m so scared of hardship that I’ll call a sexual abuser 'God’s man' if that means keeping my comfortable lifestyle.”
No. That isn’t trusting the Lord. That’s bowing to a golden calf.
And so it’s been lonely and strange to grow to adulthood in the shadow of an incorporated, politicized religion. I understand why Millennials are disillusioned and hurt. I understand why they are leaving the church en masse, why they don’t trust a church that dismisses the hardest teachings of the Bible.
I understand why they feel like their morality is better than anything gained by exegesis, for the secular world is ravenous for a beautiful human ethic, and consumer-church hasn’t given it to them. You and I stand at the intersection of self-protecting religion and self-righteous secularism, and those two cannot mix.
You and I stand at the intersection of self-protecting religion and self-righteous secularism, and those two cannot mix.
This past week, a friend asked me what I thought about predestination. I took a deep breath, nervous about getting into it because so many conversations about Calvinism/Arminianism are proud and pointless.
But she was insistent, so I tried to explain.
First came five years of ravenous, ecstatic study—I was giddy back then, thrilled to finally find a theology that fit my intellectual capacity—an engineered system in which everything finally made sense. Piper. Grudem. The Puritans. Stacks and stacks of books, hours of research. It all clicked!
Well, it clicked until it didn’t. When I finally admitted that several key principles of Calvinism were derived from logic and not exegesis, I was stunned and disappointed. This machine was rooted in humanism, in the supremacy of the mortal mind, in the elevation of logic. And while I loved logic and trusted Reformed teaching (mostly), I also had to admit that the core presupposition behind Calvinism wasn’t “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” so much as “Humans are able to figure all this God stuff out.” This fundamental flaw was skewing the trajectory of the the belief.
So I spun into the mystics, never trusting them entirely, but thirsty for a correction to the errors I had been making. I didn’t find systematic theology here, but I did find the story told by C.S. Lewis in Till We Have Faces. Some of the mystics offered unorthodox theology that I could not accept, but still, I was heartened to find the mystery and wildness of a free and living God—a God who was good but not necessarily safe.
Next I fell deep into the writings of Lewis and Chesterton, into German Romanticism, into a world that allowed me to keep the full force of my mind engaged without worshipping my own ability. These writers talked about Sehnsucht, a German word that means something like homesickness for a country we've never visited. As my view of God grew greater, as my heart began to engage as well as my mind, I began to welcome the whole Bible in all of its mystery. I found room for a God who made sense to me sometimes and sometimes didn’t.
I found room to ask hard questions. I found room for Romans 9 in which Paul attacks the demands of my human ethics by saying, “What if God makes certain people to be vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? Wouldn’t he have the right to do it?”
Really think about that question. What if God has the right to create people knowing they will be objects of wrath?
If you can read that without it shaking you up, you are missing what Paul is actually doing here. He’s intentionally shoving this problem in your face. He’s trying to rile you up.
I know some Christians who brag about being resigned to predestination, but they don't impress me at all. Most of those folks are selfish and proud—they aren’t bothered by election because they aren't empathetic. If you watch them walk through life, other people’s pain doesn’t bother them. They don't weep with those who weep or mourn with those who mourn. Their resignation to election isn't spiritual--it's myopic.
I don't want to disengage like that, nor am I convinced that Paul wants us to. I think he's intentionally letting this shake us up. My first impulse is to roar over Romans 9.
I cry out because I am always expecting a Bob Ross Jesus, a deity who passes out happy little salvations—not this holy entity who is strange and dangerous—perhaps beautiful—but terrifying, too.
Paul gives us a mysterious and difficult God who isn’t easy unless you are self-absorbed or dense. He boldly sticks his apostolic snoot in my face and says, “If God does something that feels wrong to you, he is still right”
How can I worship a God like that?
I can see why the atheists brace at such a suggestion. Don't mock those who bristle here; they might be understanding the point of Paul's argument better than you do.
Yes, there is more to the story. Paul doesn't end here.
But I want to pause to let the terrifying rights of such a God sink in before I explain that this same Divinity had all the strength in the universe, all the power to condemn, all the ability to create and destroy without accountability to any other creature, all the right to create impossible laws and command the death of nations—and instead, He used that power to come down and take on a human body; He used his power to absorb every ounce of severity that he could rightfully dish out on the most vulnerable into himself.
If that seems like a tame story, you’re not reading it clearly.
It’s not just Cinderella; it’s savage, and flattening, and epic. The God who welcomed little children to sit on his knee, this small man so gentle that he would not break a bruised reed---he could have come as a merciless judge. He could have, but He did not.
The final chapters of Job make a lot of people uncomfortable and discouraged, but they are a lodestar to me. They show me the fullness of the God I often dilute--the God I associate with only logic, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. They show me the capacity of the God who tells me to do unto others as I would have them do unto me, who urges me to turn the other cheek, to care for the poor, to go unto the least of these and minister with respect, conveying dignity to those who feel no worth.
This is the same God who has the right to say,
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
On and on the Lord goes in those chapters. He’s relentless. He shows Job how far above humanity He reigns, and something about his ferocity clears away the fog from my eyes. As those chapters progress, my heart pounds with excitement and longing. I find that I, like Hwin, tremble and say to the Lion, “I'd sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.”
He is God and I am not. It’s shocking, I suppose, because I so naturally assume that I am.
This is the God who chased self sacrifice, gentleness, tenderness, generosity--not because he had to, but because he so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. The blinding force of holiness, a force which is so strange to me, so other, so flattening, so offensive even--that it makes grace a sonic boom, a wonder that rattles my walls and my windows with the full rights of a divinity who has come to wash the dirty feet of the desperate.
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this
That caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!
- - - - -
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, a to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
--from Romans 9
The problems start with good intentions, I think. Friend B is going through a rough patch with clinical depression, and Friend A wants to help. Friend A offers to take on the project, opening her emotional and physical resources to the crisis.
The first few days, Friend A knocks it out of the park. She listens to long and complicated stories. She empathizes, and she verbalizes support. She comforts. She becomes a doctor and a mother. If things keep going this well, Friend B should be up and running in no time.
But by the end of the second week, Friend A is tired. She’s heard all the stories twice or three times. The weight of this depression is starting to feel...well... annoying. It would be different if she could reach down into that darkness, say a few positive truths, and fix the problem. But this... this feels like a bottomless pit, and it seems like there’s nothing she can pour into Friend B that will be enough.
Friend A is ready for Friend B to hurry up and figure this out so life can get back to normal.
So, Friend A googles “tough love” and takes on a coaching posture. She starts to make direct, honest statements that she hopes will jolt Friend B out of her funk. Instead of opening her whole, soft self up to Friend B’s wounds, she tries to implement boundaries, pacts, and procedures to regulate the danger.
"This is when we will talk."
"This is when we will sleep."
"You have to promise me that you won’t hurt yourself."
"You have to promise me that you won’t drink."
After all, she’s invested now. She’s earned the right to wield some leverage.
The shift unnerves Friend B. She feels pressure to perform, but she doesn’t know how. This isn’t like trying to resist a second piece of chocolate cake--this is like trying to stand against the force of a tsunami.
Friend B hates herself for being too needy. She hates herself for pushing everybody to exhaustion. She feels guilty, hopeless, tired. It’s always going to be like this; she will always be too much for everybody. So she experiments with giving up... writes a letter... takes a few steps toward trying to check out. Maybe she just needs to get out of everybody’s way.
The threat of suicide, then. The threat of suicide is the weight Friend B holds over Friend A. “If you aren’t a good enough friend to me, if you don’t have the right answers, if you can’t figure out how to heal my disease, I’ll kill myself,” and the terror of that thought is so overwhelming to Friend A that she starts to feel anger as well. What kind of card is that to play? How dare you? Suicide is a power move. It’s immature and selfish. It’s narcissistic. It’s cheating.
Friend A tries to live her life knowing that at any minute, she could get a phone call saying they’ve found a body. How is she supposed to carry that? How is she supposed to maintain any sort of normalcy with this in the wings?
Friend A realizes she can’t do this anymore. She wants out.
She’s full of shame because she feels like a failure. She wanted to be a messiah, and she ended up being a fool. She made promises she couldn’t keep. She tried to be a physician and couldn’t heal. She needs space. She’s ready for somebody else to take this—somebody who knows what she’s actually doing.
- - - - -
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a similar dynamic play out in friendships over the past twenty years. I’ve seen this happen between friends, and I’ve also been involved in messiah-friendships gone awry. Until you’ve dealt deeply with depression, you don’t realize how complicated it really is. Even if you’re smart and sensitive, even if you have a knack for identifying truth and saying the right things, you might not be able to “fix” someone who is depressed with your presence or your words.
You and I would never offer to do an living room appendectomy on girlfriend who was suffering with gut pain, but we might try to stand the role of an emotional physician, jimmy-rigging psychological surgery on a friend with severe depression. But so often when we get into the bowels of the problem, we find that the infection is too deep, that it’s spread too far for us to heal. And when that happens, we sit with a royal mess on our hands, not knowing who to call to sew things back together.
So I just want to write down a few thoughts about friends tending friends with depression. These thoughts don’t come from clinical experience, so if you have training in the field and want to add a few thoughts or corrections below, go for it. But maybe this post will at least put a few words on a common problem and get a healthy conversation started.
FOR THE MESSIAH FRIEND
1. At the outset of the situation, don’t promise more than a human can give. You can offer to listen. You can offer to walk with your friend. You can pray and provide an occasional landing place. But be careful not to put yourself in the position of solitary savior for a deep, old problem. That’s a promise you won’t be able to deliver. If your friend knows Jesus, she has a messiah. If you try to take that weight from the Lord, even your best intentions will land in a bad place.
2. Consider your motives early. Why are you wanting to help? What needs exist in your own heart that you are carrying into the crisis? Do you need to feel smart? Do you need to feel helpful? Is anyone watching that you want to impress? This stuff matters because the intensity of caring for a depressed friend will force these motives to the surface. If possible, it’s better to examine your own heart at the outset and get honest with what you are trying to gain as you try to give yourself away.
3. Are you trusting Jesus to work through you, or are you trusting yourself to work for Jesus? This feels like a subtle difference, but it’s crucial. The epistles constantly place religious works in opposition to works of the indwelling Lord. Especially in a situation like this, you need to keep your union with Christ at the forefront of everything you do in the friendship. Maintaining awareness of your ultimate dependence can prevent you from attempting what you cannot, and it can protect you speaking with false authority. Because depressed people can sometimes be emotionally-manipulative (out of desperation), holding firm to union with Jesus can also help those friends feel healthy boundaries that they may not always want... but need. Even though those boundaries may feel insensitive at first...in the long run, they will help you run a marathon instead of checking out after a quick sprint.
4. Have the humility to encourage your friend to get professional help. This just makes sense when you think about how depression works. The problem could be chemical. It could involve factors you aren’t trained to recognize or heal. There’s no failure in admitting that you don’t have the skill set to identify and untangle every wound. Your role as a friend is vital, and you just need to do that role well. Think about how important it is for friends and family to show up for encouragement at a hospital. That’s your work here. You don’t have to be everything.
FOR THE DEPRESSED FRIEND
1. This monster inside you is huge. You know it is, and that’s why you’re so scared. I know it feels like you are drowning and that you just want to find someone to grab on to, but let me use a word picture to explain what might happen if you do this. Sometimes drowning people will try to climb the bodies of lifeguards because they are desperate to reach the surface of the water. In doing this, they can drown both the rescuer and the person in distress. When this happens, a lifeguard is trained to dive down into the water, not because he is going to let the desperate person drown, but because he needs the victim to let go so he can better grip on her to save her. Please don’t feel ashamed of your impulses to climb your rescuer—those impulses are just normal for hurting people. But do know that your friend might have to make space now and again so that he can come back and help you more effectively.
2. Don’t beat yourself up for being messy. Depressed people make embarrassing mistakes that we would never make in easier times. We might write ugly letters and texts. We might lie. We might manipulate. We might explode in anger or fear. We might try to escape. We might indulge in wrong behaviors that give us at least some little endorphin rush to break hour after hour of suffering. I’m not saying these mistakes are morally right--sin is still sin. But reactive responses are super normal in seasons of intense pain. We wouldn’t expect a trauma patient in the ER to behave with perfect civility—we would understand if a man who had just been shot in the abdomen were screaming in panic. So if you’ve been stupid or awkward in depression, instead of adding the weight of condemnation to the emotional baggage you already carry, take God seriously when he tells you to confess your sins and trust him with forgiveness. He knows your weakness. He’s not freaked out by what you’ve done, and he doesn’t want it to define you for the rest of your life.
3. Admit what your friends can’t do to help. They are great people, I know they are. But as much as they love you, your friends don’t have the training to fix what’s broken. There’s probably not a lot you feel like you can give your friends right now, but there is one thing you can do for them. Give your closest friends a role where they can win. Let them be your cheerleaders, your prayer support, your peers. Let them give everything they have in a way that fits their skill set. Even if they offer, don’t let them try to be your messiah. That rarely works long term. Let these people be your companions because that’s what you need most from them. Love them enough, and love yourself enough to find professional help that understands how to get into the deep places. Let doctors be doctors so that friends can be friends.
FOR THE FRIENDS WHO HAVE GOOFED THIS ALL UP
A lot of us have goofed this up, right? Either we’ve been too needy or too explosive in seasons of depression, or we’ve tried to be a savior to someone we ended up not being able to carry. Maybe we got scared or angry and abandoned ship, and now we are ashamed of bailing. Maybe we’ve used blame to try to recreate the whole narrative so that we don’t have to admit our failures. If any of that’s been you, don’t shame yourself. It’s not like we all had lessons in how to handle depression in friendships. This stuff hits out of the blue, in real time, and we do the best we can based on our instincts and the little bit of knowledge we’ve collected in life. If/when we fail, then we struggle to understand everything that’s just happened--often making more mistakes while trying to patch together an explanation of the past.
Can I just relieve some pressure here and say, there’s grace for all that? Your depressed friend was hurting. The friend who tried to help was confused and totally overwhelmed. Give each other permission to be human in all of this. Confess weird motives (everybody has them), say sorry, be quick to release blame, and move on. And in situations where the other friend (the messiah or the wounded) isn’t ready to admit all this stuff, the work of simply getting honest with yourself will help a lot. What you don’t want to carry is a narrative of shame and chaos. It’s okay to define what happened clearly, tell the truth, confess what you did wrong, and move on in freedom from the past. Who you were in one terrible situation of trauma doesn’t define who you are forever.
Again, if you or someone you know is a professional counselor who wants to correct or add to any of this, feel free to message or comment. I’m speaking from experience, not from training, so I’m open to new insights. But maybe just getting the conversation started will be helpful to those who are trying to recover from a bad experience.
The whole first day is like a bad dream.
Your tectonic plates have shifted, leaving a vast expanse of wild sea where there was solid land. Your world will be different from now on. You know that, but you can’t believe it.
You go through the rhythms in a daze. You make the meals. You drive the kids. You try to stand outside and get your bearings.
But all the while, your brain keeps going back over and over that terrible moment when you realized everything had changed.
Maybe there were words spoken. Maybe written.
"I’m done with you."
"I’m moving on."
"Leave me alone."
"You’re dead to me."
Cruel words. Words coming from a face that you thought you knew better.
When this happened to me, I remember the sensation of falling. Somehow my body felt the crash of my soul.
I had dreams that night of stumbling into an old, moss-covered well that tunneled thousands of feet down into the earth. As I plummeted into the darkness, faces emerged from the moss, faces of people I loved and trusted, faces that smiled at first then morphed into monsters.
It was like a death, but worse somehow. In a death, you get to keep the person you loved. Betrayal steals the past, stains it, destroys every memory.
You want to fight. You want to explain. You want to redo.
You want to retract the hope you once had so that the throbbing can stop.
But before the pain subsides, wave after wave of new consequences come.
A tape begins to self-construct as the enemy of your soul circles above death with a carrion’s cry.
“You are damaged.”
“If you had only been more...”
“God doesn’t see you. He doesn’t care. He won’t intervene…”
“This is how the whole world works. “
“Nobody is safe.”
“You are incompetent.”
“You are damaged goods.”
“This rejection defines you.”
“This rejection names you.”
When it happened to me, I got in my car and drove through tears, yelling and shaking. I had to go to the place it had happened, and I had to see with my own eyes. I had to feel the walls with my two hands.
I grieved so hard for so long. I was angry. I was disoriented. I was lost. I grasped for whatever would float.
They should have loved me better. And they should have loved you better, too.
I want you to know that rejection is unjust. You’re right to be shocked, right to be struggling to breathe.
There’s no shame in your knees buckling.
I also want you to know that this will become an opportunity. It will become an opportunity to stare your worst fears in the face and learn to stand your ground. This sorrow will not be wasted.
Truth you have recited with your lips, truth you have embraced with your mind, this is about to get real. You’re about to learn to walk in two worlds at once.You’re about to face the Balrog. You’re about to feel the hot wrath of hell. You’re about to find out how much your soul’s enemy hates you.
You’re also about to look behind the temple curtain and find that what you always hoped would hold firm is firm indeed.
Soon you’re going to hear the voice of God telling you what is true of you, and this time, that voice will sound different than it ever has sounded before. It won’t be muddled up by background noise--this time your world will grow still and dark, and He will whisper over you, “Let there be light.”
And there will be light, and that light will be good. I want you to believe the name he gives you when this happens. It will be a clean, strong name. It will be regal, and intimate, and bright.
His name for you will seem too good to be true because you will feel wrong, all wrong, and filthy, and ugly, and worn, and unwanted.
You will be tempted to let the pain of human rejection limit God's embrace, but listen to me—tell Him those lies that throw themselves up like arms before a blow—give Him the lethal words you are tempted to believe—and then be willing to hear beyond them.
Trust what He says, not what you feel.
When you have learned to recognize the voice of the Shepherd, I want you to go stand under an open sky with wind in your hair and the peace of God swelling up in your heart. Say, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away--then the Lord giveth again. Blessed be the name of the Lord, the God who sees me."
Blessed be the God who anoints your head with oil. Blessed be the God who lifts your chin and claims you as His own.
That is the end of your pain: love, and love, and love forever more. Lo, he is with you now and always, even to the ends of the loves of a bruised and battered earth.
On road trips in the 80’s, we’d push a cassette tape into the console, hit rewind, then play an entire album over and over again. None of this MP3 song-by-song stuff. We listened track by track, and in this way, entire records became the backdrop of our lives.
So it's kind of funny now to sit at Chilis and watch the faces of my friends when Metallica, Randy Travis, Billy Joel, Erasure, or Bon Jovi, start playing. We don't just hear a song; we hear a record. We don't just hear a record; we hear an era. We get flashbacks of high school dances; crazy summer nights with friends; sitting in our bedrooms whispering into a phone with a long, twisted cord.
Some of those memories are good. Some we wish we could erase.
I was twenty the summer I spent exploring London while listening to Enya’s Shepherd Moons on a Walkman. Two-and-a-half decades later, the buoyant ache of these haunted vocals still makes me smell the diesel of double-decker buses. I taste Earl Grey with milk, hear my own footsteps in the Tate, and feel the thrill of two beautiful older men from France asking me for a phone number I refused to give them. That summer was exhilarating, dangerous, and beautiful, and so that record knocks down a domino train inside me. It pulls me back through time and revives old joys and old temptations.
Repetition gets in our bones, see. It links us to experiences, to values, to desires; and I think about this a lot when I consider how the enemy of our souls works.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a group of young friends about how scary it is to grow up. My heart grew soft listening to their concerns because I have felt so many of these struggles myself over the years.
“I’m not the sort of person anybody could love.”
“Something is wrong with me.”
“The world is too messed up for my generation to live a good life.”
“Everybody is just grabbing what they can get. There’s nobody left who would wait for me.”
“Nobody could want me as I am—I have to find an angle.”
These weren’t small, passing concerns—they were hard confessions of silent threats that had been spoken in the background of their young lives over and over again. These young people were brave enough to verbalize the amorphous but particular sense of doom that hung about them: You’re alone. You’re ugly. You’re incompetent. You’re a fake. If anyone could see the real you, he would hate you.
Here were tapes that had been rewound and restarted over and over again. Each conclusion began as a single suggestion on some hard, past day long forgotten. A twinge of doubt had grown there, and that doubt had repeated itself until “What if” became “This is who I am. This is where my whole life is going.”
As I listened, I began to think about the strategies of darkness—about how important it is for our enemy to create negative records to rewind and replay over our lives. He knows how ideas get stuck in our guts, so he works to knit little events together that cause us to define ourselves and our possibilities, note by note, phrase by phrase, creating choruses that eventually become so common to us that we live by them.
I encouraged my young friends to take a moment and stare even more directly at the tapes that were being played behind the scenes of their own hearts. Why were these words being repeated? Why would a spiritual enemy work like a military general seeking weak spots that maximize attack? I encouraged them to name what has become subconsciously accepted even behind their felt doubts and to take each assumption back to Jesus, asking him directly if it were true.
I wanted them to do this because when we let such tapes drone in the background unchallenged, we are carried into more decisions than we realize. If we will only take a straight, hard look into what the hater of our souls is trying to use to paralyze and discourage us, we can uncover so much. What insecurities is he using? What fears is he using? How is he attempting to monopolize loneliness and shame? How has he tried to hit the root of our identity, and what is he doing with the names he has assigned to us? What labels has he tried to write upon us and our world?
This morning I read the story in Luke about Mary and Martha. It’s almost embarrassing to see Martha’s internal tape exposed by Jesus. While Mary sat at Christ’s feet listening, Martha was up doing all the hard work until the responsible sister finally cracked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”
How many years of being “the good one” had gone into that single complaint? Martha assumes that Christ couldn’t possibly disagree, and that’s telling. This is the confidence that grows after many years of self-righteous martyrdom. How often had Martha harbored silent criticism of her daydreamy sister? How many times had little bits of random praise affirmed her internal narrative? Since childhood, she had been the sister who kept things in line.
But in an instant, this old recording of pride was exposed by a sharp rebuke. “'Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.'”
Ouch. Just like that, the tape was ripped out and shredded. Here’s your heart in the bare light, Martha. You’re nervous. You’re unsettled. You’re trying to get your worth through performance.
It’s emergency surgery on the part of Jesus. He’s able to look at the core of the records we play and call a spade a spade so that we can get out of a bad rut. It had to sting to hear what Martha heard, but what freedom was waiting for her after the truth settled? Was she finally able to feel loved for who she was instead of for what she did? Was she able to serve from that moment onward with a heart that was giving instead of trying to fill her own cup?
It's a little bit unsettling to think about the tapes running in the background of our lives. There's no telling what we might learn. But when we identify the whispers that drive us, bonds can fall off, and we can begin to know freedom of the good portion that cannot be taken away.
I attended my first creation/evolution debate in the late 1990’s, and even as a believer in Jesus, I was turned off by what I witnessed. I wasn’t overwhelmed by data. After spending the first half of my life studying biology, I was accustomed to technical scientific dialogue. If anything, the scientific aspects of the debate were too general for me--a smattering of details a mile wide and a few inches deep.
At the time, I thought Scripture allowed for both theistic evolution and old earth creationism, so most of the arguments raised by these men felt peripheral. I had no doubt that God had orchestrated the origin of the universe; everything I had studied about biology in secular environments (ranging from cancer research at UC Berkeley to a symposium at the University of Florida) indicated the presence of a creator.
On both sides, these men seemed to make mountains out of molehills. I left that night feeling like the heart of Christianity had been missed, and as I fell asleep, I wondered how anyone might find a living Jesus through a venue such as that.
These were strange and lonely years for me as a believer. In the 1990’s, the main purpose of evangelical Christianity seemed to be winning the culture wars. During those years, I attended several seminars that promised to equip Christians to stand firm against the assaults of secularism, and when I remember the body language of those teachers, I remember a lot of swagger and pomp. I think these teachers were trying to demonstrate a confidence that would help young Christians feel assured about their beliefs, but it always felt odd to me. The undercurrent to this body language was: “Those dumb atheists. Those dumb secularists. We’ve got the real answer. We’ll show them.”
I was in my 20's then, so maybe I was just waking up to how theological conversation has always worked, but it was here--during the dawn of internet forums--that I watched dominant, cavalier postures take root in many areas of the faith. A haughty spirit ran through creation/evolution debates, through Biblical gender roles debates, through Calvinism/Arminianism debates, through Rapture/amillennialism debates. Christians didn’t just have an opinion, they had a spirit of bravado. Above all things, in all areas, Christians were certain about everything.
Discernment bloggers began to bless and curse with directives: Christian women should have more babies. Christian families should homeschool. Christians should vote for Candidate X. Only young earth creationism respects the inerrant text. So many lines were drawn in the sand with a swagger, and some of those directives were bizarre. I was smart enough to banter, so I jumped in the fray. Like little billy goats wrestling on the side of the hill, we used one another to try to get stronger. In a crude and untrained form, we were attempting to grow by dialectic.
It wasn’t until I began to reread Western philosophy that I realized the great irony of these matches. Essentially, we were adopting the core premise of secular humanism: we were agreeing that humans are essentially thinking creatures, and that by the power of our minds, we could achieve enlightenment.
This belief—this belief about what we were and what we were capable of doing—was the prime influence on our posture. It was causing us to puff ourselves up. It was causing us to trust ourselves. It was causing us to create a secondary “religion” of the human mind that could operate without God's living, active force in our day-to-day operations.
By saying all this, I’m not making an argument for anti-intellectualism. My favorite theologians are thinkers who have researched deeply. But these dear souls also pursue knowledge with a living awareness of the limitations of humanity. They leave room for a real God to adopt an active role in reaching the world with the gospel--as a result, their posture is different. They understand what they can do, and they also understand what they cannot.
This morning, I was reading the book of Luke and ran across this uncomfortable glimpse into the life of Jesus:
“In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.’”
God hides truth from some people. He reveals it to others. He's that active.
If this is true, it impacts our ability to argue our way out of the culture wars.
It teaches that our best efforts at evangelism will come to nothing, if God doesn’t reveal himself.
It teaches that truth that can’t be forced through the best debates in the world.
It shows us that Paul's brilliant rhetoric in Athens and in the book of Romans will come to nothing if the Lord doesn't go before his words.
It shows us that when C.S. Lewis or Tim Keller are used to woo a soul to Christ, that the Holy Spirit has been involved. Without the Lord's active hand, not even these great evangelists could make progress for the Kingdom.
This passage shows us that our dependence upon Christian bravado, upon debate, upon proof, upon a condescending and dominant posture is foolish—because the revival of a culture is ultimately a product of the outpouring of the Lord's quickening. America is dead, and we will stay dead until he revives us. We will remain dry bones until the Spirit of the Lord hovers over the surface of the deep. Here is the true state of our dependence. We cannot save ourselves.
While we should always be ready to give a ready defense, and while we can be good stewards of reason and research, we must root our ultimate dependence in a Holy Spirit who must go before us to open eyes and hearts, or else all our efforts will be in vain. This is humbling information. It doesn’t allow us to swagger into a secular culture with fancy, intellectual guns-a-blazing. It calls us to get up early and pray before we engage. It calls us to cry out to the Lord before we cry out to our lost friends. It calls us to step every step in utter reliance.
Understanding our reliance calls us to a posture that is not confident in our own readiness but confident in the near presence of our King. When I find teachers who set bravado aside and adopt a posture of dependence upon the living God, I'm enthralled because these men and women point beyond their own abilities and goals to a God who fulfills more than intellect, to a God whose Kingdom extends beyond today's culture wars. These teachers shift my focus from gaining immediate dominance to keeping communion with a God who made specific plans for my life long ago (Ephesians 2:10).
Reliance protects me from self-worship and self-salvation and reminds me that I am a branch in a vine that must wake up every morning and look for sustenance. Apart from Him, I can do nothing of eternal significance--no matter how intelligent I am, no matter how prepared I am, no matter how confidently I stand. All that will come to nothing if I do not abide in the God who goes before me.
This morning I spent two hours writing a post that I am not going to publish on my blog.
It was the sort of post that would have connected with people. If I had put it online, readers would have immediately said, “Me too!” and they would have forwarded it to their readers who would have forwarded it to their readers. I’ve been writing long enough to know how these things multiply.
Because I was writing out of strong emotion, I stumbled into several metaphors that were powerful and unusual. Here were the sort of images that make readers say, “Aha! You put into simple words what I have been carrying around for months! Look here, everybody!”
The post was honest enough to make readers feel like they could trust me. It was relevant enough to connect with the mood of social media this week. In terms of platform-building, it was a gold mine.
The post was also reckless.
It was mostly right, mostly selfless, mostly Christ-centered—but running under the surface were fear, pride, and anger.
I didn’t write it in faith. I wrote it trusting my own feelings and wisdom. And as far as the world's standards go, it was darned good writing.
One unexpected benefit to an extended time away from big Facebook has been the growth of my sensitivity to dilemmas like this. Because I am keeping more company with myself and my God, I’m starting to develop more of an inner dialogue about how and why words are used in public. Lines of distinction are starting to grow between what I give the world and what I allow to develop in quiet.
I'm starting to get more of a feel for when a piece is ready to be spoken aloud.
I’m not fully grown here yet. Several times a week, I still lash out in frustration or offense. But through trial and error, and through limiting my venue--through days of waiting, I’m starting to at least begin to feel the edges of that distinction.
So this morning’s first post is going in the drafts folder, a place for writings devoted to wrestling with God in private. That drafts folder is becoming a sacred space for me, a realm in which I unpack my most convincing arguments with the full force of emotions and intellect and then sit to wait in the dark for my Lord, knowing that the morning light may expose what is right and what is wrong with what I have felt.
I'm learning love for an audience of one. Not 20 likes. Not 20,000. 1.
This is a novel concept for a click-to-publish world in which we've come to expect to say and hear everything. But there are also secret and beautiful ways to write--there's a worship that comes from a lavish and holy waste of time--writing poured out in trust and patience, like perfume on the feet of Christ.
They pray, "Come quickly, Lord Jesus," but I cannot pray with them.
My heart wants an escape hatch, a beam-me-up-Scottie, some ruby slippers to click.
There's no place like home.
There's no place like home.
But my spirit resists.
"Delay, Lord," it prays.
"Delay. Lord, and protect me from asking for the end before its time."
Oh Father, I want to be with you. How I ache to recline on your chest, to hear your eternal heart beat with my own ears, to walk in the rooms your artistry has made for me, to revel in your creativity and thoughtfulness, and to rest forever in your joys.
But if today were that great and terrible day of your coming, how many souls would pass into an eternity void of even the simplest pleasures?
No sun on their arms forever and forevermore.
The wind in their hair. Lost.
The sound of a whippoorwill.
The feeling of clean sheets on their legs. Gone.
A hot shower. Gone.
The taste of a strawberry.
Only fear and regret and darkness and pain forever and forever...only the great sucking void left by the absence of God's bright presence.
Only the eternal echo of, "My will be done!" resounding in empty halls of an empty castle
Creation revels in the glory of God, but hell is an alien horror.
Hell is the cyclical praise of the natural earth come to a sudden stop.
Come, Lord Jesus?
Wait, Lord Jesus. Wait.
We can wait.
Because if today were that great and horrible day, how many would be caught unprepared? How many would pass into a realm in which today's sick fear and despair have no end?
Yes, I see this violence. Yes, I taste on my tongue the bitterness of the hater of humans.
I can barely stand to see the chaos.
I can barely breathe.
Is hell so bad as even this? Worse too?
Oh, then delay, Lord Jesus. Delay.
Delay though it burns us to stay on this sin-scorched planet. We can bear it. We can endure for their sake
Receive all prayers that you might come with an outpouring of your Spirit. Come in invisible ways. Read every plea as, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
While we linger like the grass that fadeth,
come to make us more focused.
Come to make us more courageous.
Come to make us more reliant.
Come to help us see through the glass darkly so that we spend every resource well.
To die is gain, but to live is Christ? Then delay our gain. Hold our rest. Wait. Wait. And though these brief years of sorrow break us, make our sorrow yield a spiritual harvest beyond what we can ask or imagine.
Don't rescue us yet.
Let us stay, instead, for the rescue of the lost.
Let us take rush into the fray with the gospel
Send us into this darkness to tend the wounded.
Use our weary, war-torn souls to bring your children home.
When I realized that I had a serious gift for writing, I felt a moral obligation to become a “writer.” By “writer,” I don’t mean someone who does the work of tilling words and ideas like a farmer tills wild ground; I mean the labor of identity development--the labor of trying to get large numbers of people to recognize me as someone who writes well.
That goal sounds so strange now that I look at it directly, and I’m not sure where this pressure originated. Maybe I noticed what other writers were doing and felt the need to follow them. It’s also likely that I was still carrying the burden of “saving the world,” either from some long-past Baptist revival or from the plot of a superhero movie.
But the work of writing and the work of trying to be a writer are not the same thing. The former involves long, solitary hours of reading, thinking, praying, connecting images and thoughts to words—work that is complete when the chasms between what is perceived and what is communicated are spanned.
Trying to be a writer, however, involves attention-getting strategies and branding. It means:
Posting twice a week
on certain days
in less than 800 words
using lots of pictures
focusing on a theme
building a platform
asking strategic questions to make your readers feel connected
maximizing social media
developing a persona
networking with other famous writers.
You tell yourself that you do all this because the world is dark and because if you get famous enough, you will at last have the power to wield the one ring in such a way that Middle Earth is saved.
Perhaps that's the calling God has given some people. I don’t doubt that these strategies have been used well in some lives, but over the past few months, I’ve found liberty and purpose in another viewpoint.
It’s also possible to invest small for the glory of God.
Going small opposes so many ideas I was taught as a young evangelical. I was trained in strategic planning, target audiences, the identification of natural leaders, spiritual multiplication, megachurches, megaconferences, and superstars. The Baby Boomer generation applied corporate strategy to every possible angle of the gospel of Jesus, and this made a certain amount of sense to me in my twenties.
But in my 40’s, I’m no longer sure that the ends justify the means. If 2016 gave me one good gift, it was permission to finally admit the inherent dangers of an incorporated Christianity. 2016 showed me the deformed end of a church that relies upon the stuff of earth to accomplish the will of heaven, and I want nothing more to do with it.
I’m finally ready to look for something different. And out of frustration with the mechanics of the American church, I've withdrawn significantly in the past few months to focus on my work and to figure out how I want to invest the last 1/3 of my life.
This morning I was reading Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Body and the Earth,” and I found a quote that applies to the stewardship of a writing gift. In this paragraph, Berry explains that for all our talk of global citizenship, we serve the world best by living well in a small area. We don’t give best by becoming influential on a national scale or by becoming known. The world is changed when citizens are faithful in local realms. Berry writes:
To forsake all others does not mean--because it cannot mean--to ignore or neglect all others, to hide or be hidden from all others, or to desire or love no others. To live in marriage is a responsible way to live in sexuality, as to live in a household is a responsible way to live in the world. One cannot enact or fulfill one's love for womankind or mankind, or even for all the women or men to whom one is attracted. If one is to have the power and delight of one's sexuality, then the generality of instinct must be resolved in a responsible relationship to a particular person. Similarly, one cannot live in the world; that is, one cannot become, in the easy, generalizing sense with which the phrase is commonly used, a "world citizen." There can be no such thing as a "global village." No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one's partiality.
This bit in particular applies to what I am learning:
No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one's partiality.
I can’t save the world through my blog. I can’t save the world through a book release. I can’t save the world through becoming famous enough to bear the weight of this planet on my own shoulders like some evangelical Atlas.
I can be a good teacher in a classroom of 20 students. I can listen to a teenager who is having a bad day. I can unpack a novel in light of the lavish love of Jesus. I can be fair. I can be kind. I can be patient. I can speak up for four people who are being treated unfairly. I can write notes of encouragement with a real pen on real paper, and I can use my gift by God’s power to resurrect one dead soul.
Now and then I can write an encouraging post for five people--or I can write a post for one person who is struggling.
I can wait to post until I have something important to say.
I can let the gospel apply small. I can let God be God and trust Him to place my labors in the context that is most useful to him.
I can live small then smaller still, encouraging my readers to do the same.
I can do all this because the gift of writing doesn't offer an identity that springs into being with a publishing contract, or with a following in the 100’s of thousands. Writing well is simply a tool to utilize in the context of an identity that was secured long ago by the work of Jesus. We have nothing to earn; we have only to wake up each morning and say, "In every small step I take, Thy will be done."
God hasn’t fulfilled two of my most urgent requests for two decades.
One of those prayers is so important to me, my faith has shuddered and failed while I’ve been waiting for God’s help. As days have turned to weeks, as weeks have turned to months, as months have turned to years, I’ve wrestled deeply with theological assumptions that were once easy for me—assumptions that God is real and that he is kind.
Intellectually, I have enough evidence to know these things. Historically, scientifically, inter-textually, I can show you why God exists and that he is tender. In an academic sense, it would be impossible for the Bible to be false. Still, reason and proofs can’t medicate certain types of sorrow.
When I am hurting, I don’t want evidence. I want relief.
When I hear atheists talk about religion being the opiate of the masses, I wonder if they realize what they are actually saying. The process of learning to trust God is profoundly beautiful at times, but it can also be agonizing. When Jesus urged us to take up our cross and follow him, he was serious. Faith leads to life, but it also involves suffering and death.
Christians are given a paradox—a light and free burden of salvation that sometimes involves long nights in Gethsemane wrestling, sweating, and crying out, “Not my will but Thine.” We have been told that the new wine will burst the old wine skins because the old life and the new life cannot coexist.
It's true that union with God leads to eternal delight, and we can experience some of those joys now. Some days we get flickers of vision that drive us onward and upward. But when the foretaste of those joys fades, we inevitably endure the painful shedding of old skins. Salvation may be instant, but sanctification takes a long time.
After walking through several long seasons of emotional suffering, I can see why books that promise the secrets of harnessing God's immediate relief sell millions. The agony of trusting the Lord while faith is yet unseen can be overwhelming, and the thought of a shortcut is so sweet.
Yet there are also opportunities in the midst of waiting that come at no other season in our journies with God. Only now--when things seem most impossible, most chaotic, and most unbearable—can we offer the unique sort of worship that such times allow.
First, in long seasons of pain, we come face-to-face with our idols.
Maybe fifteen years ago, I cried as I prayed, “Give me one pure and holy passion,” trying to imagine what it would be like for someone as scattered and earthly as I am to love God supremely. I wanted that sort of love for Him, but I had no idea how to focus my wild, artistic heart.
It didn't matter if I knew how to do it. All that mattered was that I had asked. Over the next season of my life, methodically, God began to expose my idols. I didn’t realize what was happening at first. I thought my life was just falling totally apart. But through taking what I loved away, or through destabilizing it, God allowed me to see how many good things I had prioritized over him.
This may sound cruel and selfish, but it isn't. God isn't a narcissist or an egomaniac. He is a realist who wants my ultimate worship because he is worth loving more than anything. He is for me, and he knows that core devotion given to any lesser object will be ultimately harmful.
The expressions of love and trust that we can offer God after much has been taken away are different from the prayers we pray when all seems well. As we sit in heartbreak and overwhelming loss, we find that we are still able to whisper, “But you are here, and you are ultimate." We might not feel this at first, and it will be tempting to run away before we get there. But in moments when this truth settles, we begin to see how unstable any other form of joy truly is. When such sorrow ends in trust, we find a cornerstone upon which we can build the remaining days of our lives--and we can know (finally) that this cornerstone cannot be shaken.
Secondly, in long seasons of pain, we can offer up a quality of praise that is impossible at any other point in our walk with God.
Praise comes spontaneously when I can see the obvious workings of God’s hand. In nature’s beauty, in relief, in abundance, it takes no faith to rehearse the goodness of my Lord. But when all is darkness, loneliness, and emptiness, I have an opportunity to worship that I might never have again in my life.
Here I have the opportunity to get very still before my Creator and say,
“You were master over the void. From the void you brought life. In this void, I trust you.”
Here I have the opportunity to say,
“All I cared about is gone, and yet, I have your company. In this utter poverty, even as I cry out that I am ruined, I find you here--and I see that I have all I need.”
I can pray,
“Great surgeon, I resign. Whatever it takes. Finish what you have begun in me.”
At this level of brokenness, we can stop simply asking God to work and begin to implant the core of our trust in the fact that he is working already.
At this level of brokenness, we can begin to take a few steps in the heavenly realms in which we are already seated, a realm that has no end.
Our school verse of the year is Hebrews 12:28a: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” I love this verse because it anchors me in this mad world in which secondary loves yank me like a boat on wild seas. My devotion and my agony toss and turn, and yet always, always, my home remains steadfast.
According to Hebrews, our proper response to this unshakable kingdom is worship. We worship God in reverence and in awe because our He is a consuming fire--a fire that burns away everything that can be destabilized. If you are here, you are in a sacred space. If you are here, you are loved enough to be shown a portal into some of the deepest mysteries of this life.
If you are here, you stand with one foot on earth and the other in eternity. "Give me one pure and holy passion." It is a radical prayer, a dangerous prayer--for Aslan is not safe, but he is good."
Thanks be to God.
I'm sitting in a cafeteria in Maryville, Tennessee, waiting for my daughter to finish her All-East Choir tryouts. She's not nervous this year like she's been in the past. She's a senior, and she knows the ropes. She has learned that life goes on after you make it to State, and she has learned that life goes on after you don't.
Before her sophomore tryouts, she practiced obsessively in the car on the ride down. That was the year I tried to ease her jitters by pointing out all the cute, red-headed tenors before the big audition. She giggled, and paced, and got through her first big scare, but there's no need to do any of this this go around. This year, she's a couple years older than almost everybody. The ginger that would have turned her head three years ago now looks like a little brother.
She's grown, see. She's learned to jump in and do the hard thing and manage the jitters. That's the goal--it's why we encourage our children to belly flop into all sorts of risks at this age. It's the grown-up version of holding our baby's hands while she takes her first few barefoot steps on the hallway carpet. "Go. You can do this. And you can survive and try again if you can't."
This year my daughter also started Brazilian JiuJitzu, which has been a quirky and hilarious journey. If you know anything about the art, you know that people don't "like" JiuJitzu. They fall in love with it.
Frankly, I'm astonished that a teenage female has the courage to walk into a practice room with ten huge adult males twice her size and learn to flip them on their butts, but she does it. I sit on the bleachers to watch, biting my nails and holding my breath. I pray for her bones, and I laugh, and I yell things I never thought I'd say in public--things I've only ever yelled at a television while watching Rocky.
Over my past few months of hanging out with ninjas, I've picked up one of my favorite sayings from the martial arts community:
"The hardest belt you'll ever get is your white belt."
Blue, purple, and black belts say this to newcomers as a statement of affirmation because it takes a long time (two years) to rank up in this complex martial art. Yet all those experts want beginners to remember that 99% of people in America never even achieve a white belt because they aren't willing to walk into the room to try something new.
You win the first day you show up for class, feeling stupid and awkward. You win even bigger when you show up for the second class after spending your first session feeling like a fool. You failed, and you were worse than everybody, and you'll never get this right, and it's too hard... yet here you are again not giving up. Bravo.
As I wait for my daughter to finish her choral tryouts, I am watching clusters of rural Tennessee families pass in and out of the cafeteria doors. Little bands of teenagers are walking out of their auditions, some with tears in their eyes, some complaining about the sight reading, a few saying they aced "Ave Maria" or botched the Whitaker. From their accents, it seems that more than a few come from tee-niny towns in the mountains, but here they are, glorious and brave because they've learned to sing a few lines of Bach in German.
One girl just passed me singing still, singing what she just sang in a tiny room full of tension, a song now pouring from her lungs in relief and delight. She likes that song. It's part of her now.
She showed up here this morning because she was willing to invest in beauty. She showed up because she was willing to believe that her small voice had a shot at something wonderful. She might never make it to All East or to All State, but that little songbird was a flutter of levity as she nearly danced through the doors. It's over. She did it. I'm so darned proud of her.
I got tears in my eyes a few minutes ago--maybe because I'm a teacher, maybe because I'm a mom--I can't tell. I was trying to grade reasearch papers, but I couldn't focus because I kept wanting to grab these kids and tell them what they've accomplished already.
I kept wanting to make all the choral teachers and parents stand and make an ginormous arch with their arms for all these kids to run through. I want to applaud for them, and find cheerleaders to call out their names, and assure them all that no matter what results they get two weeks from now--showing up today was practice for the rest of their adult lives. This stuff is so much more important than any of them realize. No matter what happened in there, they've won already.
Our school's cross country team keeps a meme in the hall of our school. "Run the mile you are in," it says. I think about it all the time. I remember those words and tell myself, "Do the next thing, and do it in faith and with all your heart. Trust this minute's resources. Eat today's manna. That's all you have to do right now. That's it."
Jump in. Try. Engage. Look stupid. But keep going.
Get a cramp in your side. Fall on loose gravel. Then finish that mile. That's a win.
Goof up the sight reading. Mispronounce the German. Walk out of that room on your own two feet and promise yourself you'll do better next year. That's a win.
Botch the MLA citations. Forget to match your pronoun and antecedent in number. Wreck your verb tenses. Then go in to writing lab to learn to do it better. That's a win.
Stand up for a lost cause. Have the conflict. Pray and leap. Be willing to apologize if you mess things up. That's a win.
Ask the girl out who rejects you. Try out for the role in the play you'll never get. Love your someday enough to flub up your now. Believe that there is grace enough from Jesus for your weakness, grace enough to begin what we can't learn without failing some along the way.
Then get back up. Run one more mile. Do the humiliating, awkward, faith-laden work of a white belt. Receive the awkwardness of learning, knowing that some failures are victories in themselves. This is where all of the greatest things begin. I'm proud of you for taking a single, wobbly step. I'm even more proud of you for taking a second.
- - - -
(This post is dedicated to my brave friends Mitzi Pierce and Jessica Rogers and their warrior children. It's especially dedicated to Xander, who has taught me more this week about the fierce, proactive work of reconciliation and forgiveness than any book I have ever read. Miss Becca loves you, X-man. And kiddo, you have no idea how much I needed your example this week.)
I should start by saying that I understand why evangelical leaders felt compelled to make such a declaration. This past week, a first grade student in California was sent to the principal’s office for using the wrong name for a trans classmate. After children were trained in gender fluidity by a state-funded school, parents were told that it would not have been possible for their children to opt out of moral training that their school offered.
I’m not citing that incident to ignite shock, anger, or fear but to demonstrate that the legal and cultural demands of the LGBTQ world do not simply exist within the realm of private, individual rights. They are moving actively into culture while demanding the authority to inflict punitive consequences upon anyone who fails to comply to one, specific morality. This movement declares that the state's authority trumps the wishes of parents--a posture which (historically) rubs feathers the wrong way, no matter what the flavor-of-the-month worldview issue happens to be.
Atheist parents don’t want a public school shoving young earth creationism down their children’s throats just like Christian parents don’t want a public school forcing assumptions about gender fluidity into their families. Americans generally dislike it when state institutions function in a morally-didactic role. But since worldview can’t be neutral, any government stance that feels like baseline, essential human respect to one group will feel oppressive to others. And these issues are not just impacting adults who can ignore what other adults do in their private bedrooms--they involve captive children being forced into vocal compliance.
The California situation is only one example of an aggressive cultural agenda promoted by certain activists within the LGBTQ community. And while some LGBTQ folks are fine living private lives that don’t intrude upon the private convictions of others, I have listened to other speeches by LGBTQ leaders who are now working a strategy, infiltrating power structures within America and positioning themselves to force (yes, force) the general public to comply with the one interpretation of human morality that those leaders feel is ultimate.
This extreme agenda of aggressive gay activists doesn't extend to my closest gay friends--men and women who would never bully me or my kids into forced agreement. Likewise, I would never attempt to wield human power to change the views of my gay friends. I don't put my trust in politicized evangelism--I trust the Holy Spirit to show up in individual, heart-to-heart engagements. This works small scale. As individuals, my friends and I are able to love each other and respect one another as we are. But in different circles, among different people, conservative and liberal forces struggle to gain dominance at the legislative level. Even if it's not my style to try to effect life change there, I cannot ignore that the struggle exists among others.
For this, among other reasons, it makes sense to me that evangelical leaders would want to create a definitive document naming a clear, Biblical stance on sexuality. As random as the timing of The Nashville Statement feels to many of us--as peripheral as the subject may feel while Houston is flooded and racial wounds are infecting--this is not an out-of-the-blue document falling upon a neutral culture. Despite yesterday's barrage of scoldings from condescending leftist Christians, there are legitimate, active tensions driving the creation of such a statement.
After acknowledging this, however, I think it’s also important to look at the way the Nashville Statement reads to a large segment of thoughtful evangelicalism.
Many of us have spent the past year watching evangelicals rally around one of the most perverted, crude, and ungodly leaders America has ever seen. For decades, Donald Trump has flaunted a lifetime of gross sexual exploitation. He has bragged about instigating adultery and voyeurism. His third wife was a nude model. He was divorced multiple times. He has objectified and commodified sex. It would be difficult to find any man in America who has demonstrated less respect for traditional, Biblical marriage—yet all this has been ignored and excused away.
As President, Trump has offered the public ongoing and unapologetic pursuit of flagrant sins of the flesh. He has celebrated pride, cruelty, materialism, violence, and dishonesty, leading scores of others to embrace such evils. Yet evangelical leaders have looked the other way and celebrated this man, regardless of his past, present, or promises for the future.
It’s incredibly ironic to think about how several signatories of the Nashville Statement have excused away Trump’s abominable character. And when I go back to reread the “Declaration concerning religion, ethics, and the crisis in the Clinton presidency”--the 1998
document created and signed by dozens of theologians after Clinton’s sex scandal (https://www.layman.org/news86fd/)--I can’t help but feel a sinking sort of political despair. When it suited our political ends, we were bold to decried moral offenses that we now excuse en masse because the offender is a Republican.
After watching the 2016 election, I can't help but believe that men like Eric Metaxas, Jerry Fallwell Jr., Franklin Graham, and James Dobson would rally around a LGBTQ candidate in 2024, comparing him to Biblical heroes and calling him God’s salvation, if that candidate were simply Republican enough. Maybe that’s too cynical. But if you had told me that James Dobson would be campaigning for Donald Trump back in the good old days, I would have thought you were absolutely nuts.
So, if the evangelical right had any business drawing up a statement on LGBTQ morality (which we probably did), we had just as much business drawing up a statement on the perverse behavior of evangelical pastors during election season. That’s not just a cheap tu quoque, it’s an acknowledgement of a massive elephant that stands in any room in which evangelicals attempt to talk about morality post Trump. I might read the Nashville Statement and agree (technically) with most of it—but I’m also reminded of a mom I once saw smacking her kid in a Wal-Mart while angrily yelling, “Don’t you EVER lose your temper and hit people again!”
So I see both sides of this one. I see why theologians are feeling the need to unite and resist the punitive tsunami of the politically-active side of the LGBTQ movement— a movement that will not be satisfied until it saturates every corner of American culture with its single, unrelenting angle on human morality. I also see why thoughtful Christians think a written statement feels thin and hypocritical—especially now—and especially after all the wrongs we’ve done.
I understand why thoughtful Christians are agitated by the whole thing, wishing for more active reliance on the Truth embodied--why they are tired of words and politics, thirsty for the living gospel, feeling little hope that any mega-statement signed by a troupe of famous white men might have any sort of power to change the world.
I get this ache--not because I'm a relativist who is tremblingly nervous about declaring homosexuality unBiblical--but because I don't know that evangelicals post election 2016 have enough cultural credibility left in the bank for words to do much good. So much of American culture is inflamed to extremes right now, and evangelizing our nation is going to require a far more embodied gospel than any written treatise can provide. I see why the document was created. I'm also skeptical that it might bring any meaningful sort of change to our nation.
What do we do, then? Well, I think it's a super good time to be reading Andrew Murray, Corrie ten Boom, and the New Testament. All those good promises about Christ living in us, indwelling us, directing us moment-by-moment couldn’t fall upon a more thirsty, desperate season. Because If Jesus isn’t real---if the Holy Spirit isn’t guiding hearts that are wholly yielded to a God who has a plan for every step we take--all the networking and posturing in the world won’t get us out of this. America is too messed up for political strategies to work now. We need God’s active rescue, his daily leadership, his constant provision desperately.
No matter how brave we are, no matter how smart we are, no matter how united we are--nothing else but the indwelling presence of Jesus is able to save us now. Even if a legitimate political threat drove the creation of the Nashville Statement--we must not trust it to do what only the living Truth can.
I received one of the best questions I’ve ever received from a blog reader this week, so instead of replying in a comment, I’d like to devote an entire post to my answer.
A reader named Allen wrote to say:
“I would love to hear your thoughts on the influence of Social Marxism and the efforts to foment and manipulate some of the deep connotations of both the left and the hard right to bring chaos and deconstruction.”
First off, it did my heart great good to hear that someone in America is even thinking along these lines. Bravo.
Secondly, I wish I had time and space to devote to a longer answer, but the best I can do at this super busy stage of life is throw out a few bullet points and related comments. Perhaps these will at least give you direction for more research.
1. Marxism vs. Marxism vs. Communism and Socialism
If you’ve read Karl Marx’s writings, you know that they vary enough to be organized into at least two eras (pre-Engels and post Engels). Marx’s early manuscripts (known as the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts or The Paris Manuscripts) were published in 1844 and were hidden from the public eye for almost 100 years. Marx never referred to them in his later writings. Those early manuscripts had a big impact on Western intellectuals.
Marxist theories that resulted from Marxist writings split into more subcategories after his death. When we talk about Marxism today, we might be talking about Classical Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, Western Marxism, Libertarian Marxism, Structural Marxism, Neo-Marxism, Cultural Marxism, Analytical Marxism, Post-Marxism, Marxist Humanism, or Marxist Feminism.
And while there are similarities among Marxism, Communism, and Socialism, Americans tend to err by using these terms interchangeably. I am not going to distinguish between these philosophies in this post, but I want to at least acknowledge that there are differences.
2. Some Time Well Spent
When the Emergent Church began to appear on the landscape of evangelicalism, I was concerned that modern voices were beginning to echo the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch (early 1900’s). In fact, I found uncited sentences that were nearly verbatim Rauschenbush in several emergent writings. While it’s true that the church should bring the the Kingdom ethic to the earth, the Social Gospel is riddled with grave theological error. I won’t make time to unpack those errors here, but I will urge you to spend time with two sources that may shed light on how political evil intends to commandeer the church.
The first is an interview with former KGB agent and defector Yuri Bezmenov (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgmg2VFX058 ). Yes, this video is old. Yes, every single American should spend the hour and a half needed to watch Bezmenov explain how enemies of democracy can maneuver a government and its people to gain power. Even if you think Russian aggression is no longer a threat to the United States, the practical instruction you will gain from hearing about Russian cultural strategy is vital. Every Christian (Republican, Democrat, and independent) needs this information to grow in awareness about how the cause of Christ might be manipulated for worldly ends.
The second resource is a little more obscure. It's a list of 45 Communist Goals entered into the Congressional record in 1963 after they were given in a speech by U.S. Representative Albert Sydney Herlong Jr.. (Liberal readers might find it interesting that Herlong was, in fact, a Democrat. As you read the list, remember that.) http://nwlibertyacademy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/communist_goals.pdf . Whether or not these goals were ever official, it’s fascinating to see how many have come to pass in the past 54 years. And it's helpful to at least think about why each step might (or might not) be important in undermining a democracy.
3. Intentional Unrest
Stirring up internal cultural chaos is almost always a declared goal of opposition forces, and we should be aware of the vulnerability of our own reactivity. When discussing this matter, our fingers should not simply be pointed at young people taking to the streets en masse, but also to the highest office in the land, and to every political leader who has built a platform on vitriol.
I do not know where the deep, secret allegiance of our leaders takes root, but even an unintended personal weakness (such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder) can feed the chaos that is beneficial to America’s enemies. This is why it is vital that our leaders maintain a dignified and mature presence on social media. Words have consequences, and any true patriot would be wise to remember that while rhetorical boldness can be as inspiring as one of Churchill's speeches, it can also be as foolish as any "Hold my beer" redneck with a handful of lit firecrackers on YouTube. Loud and proud doesn't equal wise and trustworthy.
4. None of this complexity excuses Americans from taking a stand for essential human morality.
The proper response to this tenuous social context is not silence. We are to speak truth—even hard and costly truth—into the public sphere firmly, wisely, and repeatedly. Furthermore, the evasive move of answering the KKK with “But BLM...” does not remedy the essential problem America faces. We must call evil evil and not allow reactive bifurcation fallacies (which benefit our enemies) to determine our course.
That’s all I have time to offer for now, but I will try to give more another day.
Allen, thanks for your good question. For now, readers, please be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. Not only is it right and good to take the time to be informed about the complexity of our situation, educating ourselves is the second-most patriotic effort Christians can make for our nation at this time. The first, of course, is to live in complete submission to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
One of the first things I teach first-year rhetoric students is the difference between denotation and connotation. Knowing the difference between these two terms has always been important, but in 2017, it’s critical to engaging with a broken society.
DENOTATION is the literal definition of a word. It’s the definition you would find in a dictionary.
CONNOTATION is much more complicated. Connotation includes the social overtones of a word—the cultural connections it evokes in a given group of people.
For example, the denotative definition of the word “home” is, “the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household” (Google).
The connotative definition of the word “home,” however, is different for different people. A home might mean a place of warmth, safety, shelter, fellowship to some. To another, it might be a place of chaos, abuse, criticism, loneliness.
While the term “home” is relatively benign, many other words used in modern public dialogue are inherently explosive. Simply speaking a word like, “patriot,” “Obama,” or “Second Amendment” can produce a surge of affection or ire. In America 2017, words are triggers, which makes public discourse a walk through a field of land mines.
HOW THIS PLAYS OUT IN SOCIAL DIALOGUE : A SAMPLE CONFLICT
So let’s create a fictional but likely scenario in which to explore these terms.
Let’s say that Citizen Left is frustrated that a public university building is named after a war general who was also a slave owner. Citizen Right reads Citizen Left’s complaint, and he tweets, “Snowflakes who can’t deal with America’s actual history can get on a boat and go back to Africa.”
News of this conflict hits the press, and furious posts are written on Citizen Right’s favorite news cites, claiming Citizen Lefts are attempting to erase the past and destroy national history from coast-to coast. Journalists aligned with Citizen Right write columns about the snowballing demands of political correctness, claiming this single change will lead to removing all national landmarks. Readers on the Right grow emboldened, feeling like patriots when they stand in hostile defiance Citizen Left’s complaints.
Citizen Lefts see this response and feel threatened. Citizen Right does not simply say, “No. We do not want to change this building name.” It says, “You are the enemy for wanting to change anything.”
In the wake of this heightened response, Citizen Left feels the need to join forces with other Citizen Lefts to resist what is now a escalating movement of anger toward a declared people group. Online dialogue divides and hardens people into two groups. A request for a simple name change has become a national line in the sand.
Such a domino train of connotative conclusions is nearly impossible to stop once it begins. No issue stands alone because every single complaint or cause is impregnated with all the meaning imbued by these extreme micro-cultures. Wild expressions of generalized connotative emotion overtake focused expressions of reason, and national aggression grows.
WHAT NOBODY TAKES TIME TO SEE : OUR CONNOTATIVE CONTEXT
It’s impossible to divorce ourselves from connotation, nor should that be our prime aim. Humans are not robots, and the emotional power of words is just as important as their technical definition.
However, if America is going to heal, we must openly acknowledge the central role of connotation and begin to operate accordingly. A couple in marital counseling has to identify and admit key problems before it can to work through them, and America’s fundamental threat to unity at this time is the threat of connotative context.
Every single human being carries a connotative context into every single human interaction. This context develops over decades, beginning in our first homes. Most of us learned to either love or mistrust Jimmy Carter (or Bill Clinton) by listening to comments made by family members we trusted--not by evaluating statements during a Presidential debate. As we grow older, additional friendships and life experiences become formative, and allegiance to a faith system (or non-faith system) and political affiliations calcifies our sense of context.
Eventually, a connotative context can overtake our whole personhood, and because connotation is affective, it impacts our sense of self far more deeply than denotative facts. Connotative context is stitched together from the faces of people we know, from places that are familiar, from real-life relationships, experiences, and metaphysical affiliations grow to define “us” instead of simply defining our coordinates in a world in which we operate.
If left to itself, a connotative context becomes identity instead of simply a lens by which to see the world.
CONNOTATIVE CONTEXT AND THE CONFEDERATE FLAG:
Let’s look at one example to unpack this tendency a little more deeply.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen how the Confederate flag can evoke wild and varied responses. For one man, it evokes feelings of Southern pride, independence, and patriotism. For another, it evokes images of lynchings, KKK rallies, and threats of genocide. If these two individuals try to have a conversation, they are unlikely to find a middle ground because their presuppositions are rooted in experience.
Old white men may remember giving a happy rebel yell to the sight of that flag while riding bikes as a ten-year-old, thinking nothing of racial issues, only warmed by a sense of Southern loyalty. An African American woman may remember flagrant racial hostility that she encountered from angry men flying this flag from their trucks.
These two people have had different experiences with this one symbol, and once their connotative context is calcified by time or by pain, it’s not likely to change. The man who remembers a childhood feeling of warm glee at seeing the Confederate flag will find it very hard to empathize with a woman who feels threat of abuse at the same sight. A woman who feels the threat of abuse is unlikely to feel comforted by another man’s benign childhood memory. This one flag is nostalgic and patriotic to one person, while it is ugly and hostile to another. These two realities exist at an incredibly deep level in each of these human beings.
In fact, you may have noticed that when people argue about the Confederate flag, they use denotative details almost exclusively to support their own connotative context. One may reference the resurgence of this flag during the 1960’s as a symbol of opposition to the Civil Rights movement. Another may reference its origin as the symbol for Virginia’s Army of the Potomac. But those details almost always fall within the tsunamic force of an affective soul which remembers either feeling threatened or warmed by this flag. The real fight isn’t happening in the exchange of data, but way deep under the surface, where our first loyalties and threats are formed.
Meanwhile, to make all this more complicated, our connotative context is a reality we can hardly see because it exists too close to us. Trying to see our context is like trying to see our own eye balls without a mirror.
THE DISCIPLINE OF SEMINOTICS
The discipline of seminotics—how signs communicate meaning--might be helpful here as well. This discipline was developed by Frederick Saussure, then expanded by C.S. Pierce who introduced a triadic theory of signs. I’m offering an incredibly simple reduction of the discipline below, but knowing that a couple of these terms exist might be important.
Pierce’s model of seminotics suggests that there are three parts to how signs work in a culture:
1. First, we have a SIGN (the representation)
2. Behind this sign, we have an OBJECT (what the sign represents)
3. Finally, we have AND INTERPRETANT (the interpretation of the sign)
This language allows us to admit that every sign causing tension in our culture points back to an object for interpretants.
Ignorant people try to avoid this complexity by dismissing opponents as “snowflakes,” but it would be more intelligent and fair to take the time to say, “Here we have a sign. This sign points to ______________ (object) for me. Where does it point for you?”
Admitting this difference isn’t a move of relativism. It doesn’t require the erasing of history or the undermining of our republic. It’s a move of essential humanity—admitting that we all grew up in different contexts, in different situations, and therefore that we see the world differently.
Understanding connotation is hard and humble work, and I’m not sure how a nation addicted to pride and anger can begin this sort of dialogue. I’m incredibly angry with a huge portion of America right now, and frankly, I don’t care why certain people feel what they feel.
White supremacism, for example, is clearly a satanic force in this nation; therefore, I am unwilling to ask meaningful questions about why KKK members feel the way they feel. I don’t care what their stories are. I don’t care what their families were like. I simply want those dastardly people to go away. However, brave souls like Daryl Davis are doing the work of personal engagement, and they are seeing change as a result. I am in awe of Davis’s courage and character. If I hadn’t read his story, I wouldn’t even be able to imagine trying to do such a thing.
God also gave supernatural grace to Corrie Ten Boom as she engaged with one of her former Nazi abusers. After watching the ugliness of Charlottesville, I see now more of how astounding that move was. It would take divine empowerment to push me to care about people so driven by foolishness and hate.
I’m not ready yet to try to engage with those sorts of people. But I can take baby steps with other groups who make me angry.
For example, I’m profoundly angry with Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, and Jerry Falwell, Jr. because they have bastardized the gospel with political allegiance. I’m convinced that these men are living out the sins of the church of Ephesus in the book of Revelation, and I think they are misleading thousands of sincere believers, corrupting a gospel that should be kept pure at all costs.
I’m also profoundly angry with Eric Metaxas and other so-called conservatives who have abandoned their professed morality to operate from fear and political posturing. I believe they have done far more harm to the conservative cause than any liberal has ever done.
I am certain that these men are committing grave wrongs. I don’t think that engaging with them will change my opinion on how Christians should engage with politics. However, asking better questions of their followers might allow me to operate more humanely instead of dismissing them in disgust. And maybe if I am more humane, asking questions about fears and their sources, eventually those people will calm down enough to be able to hear my own viewpoint.
For example, when I realize that reading Left Behind twenty years ago caused a woman in Alabama to believe that Trump is preventing globalists from issuing in the anti-Christ, I am likely shake my head. But understanding her fear also helps me understand this woman’s decision-making process. And when I realize that thousands of people like her are operating out of a connotative context in which “America first” feels like it will prevent Nicolae Carpathia from planting sign-of-the-Beast microchips in every citizen, I see a fear strong enough to make a person unable to see Trump’s actual violations of Scripture.
Hearing all this doesn’t make me automatically patient or compassionate with people who should be acting better than they are. But as hard as it is to take time for this sort of thing, I still think it’s important.
I also think it’s essential to resolving some of the problems that are overtaking America at present. Why are some statues so offensive that people are willing to risk jail to tear them down? What stories are behind that? Why do certain people feel heard and represented by someone like Donald Trump? What does Franklin Graham fear so much that he is willing to use his social media page for political ends? Why would someone feel the need to say "Black Lives Matter" instead of just "All Lives Matter?"
If individuals don’t take time to understand their own connotative context as well as the connotative context of other individuals—if we don’t stop lazily blowing all opponents off as “snowflakes”-- if we don't start seeing why different signs mean different things to different people—we are going to end up simply killing each other for stories we never took time to hear.
Declaration concerning religion, ethics, and the crisis in the Clinton presidency
The following declaration can be found at moral-crisis.org, November 16, 1998
The following declaration can be found at moral-crisis.org
To be released on 13 November 1998
As scholars interested in religion and public life, we protest the manipulation of religion and the debasing of moral language in the discussion about presidential responsibility. We believe that serious misunderstandings of repentance and forgiveness are being exploited for political advantage. The resulting moral confusion is a threat to the integrity of American religion and to the foundations of a civil society. In the conviction that politics and morality cannot be separated, we consider the current crisis to be a critical moment in the life of our country and, therefore, offer the following points for consideration:
1. Many of us worry about the political misuse of religion and religious symbols even as we endorse the public mission of our churches, synagogues, and mosques. In particular we are concerned about the distortion that can come by association with presidential power in events like the Presidential Prayer Breakfast on September 11. We fear the religious community is in danger of being called upon to provide authentication for a politically motivated and incomplete repentance that seeks to avert serious consequences for wrongful acts. While we affirm that pastoral counseling sessions are an appropriate, confidential arena to address these issues, we fear that announcing such meetings to convince the public of the President’s sincerity compromises the integrity of religion.
2. We challenge the widespread assumption that forgiveness relieves a person of further responsibility and serious consequences. We are convinced that forgiveness is a relational term that does not function easily within the sphere of constitutional accountability. A wronged party chooses forgiveness instead of revenge and antagonism, but this does not relieve the wrong-doer of consequences. When the President continues to deny any liability for the sins he has confessed, this suggests that the public display of repentance was intended to avoid political disfavor.
3. We are aware that certain moral qualities are central to the survival of our political system, among which are truthfulness, integrity, respect for the law, respect for the dignity of others, adherence to the constitutional process, and a willingness to avoid the abuse of power. We reject the premise that violations of these ethical standards should be excused so long as a leader remains loyal to a particular political agenda and the nation is blessed by a strong economy. Elected leaders are accountable to the Constitution and to the people who elected them. By his own admission the President has departed from ethical standards by abusing his presidential office, by his ill use of women, and by his knowing manipulation of truth for indefensible ends. We are particularly troubled about the debasing of the language of public discourse with the aim of avoiding responsibility for one’s actions.
4. We are concerned about the impact of this crisis on our children and on our students. Some of them feel betrayed by a President in whom they set their hopes while others are troubled by his misuse of others, by which many in the administration, the political system, and the media were implicated in patterns of deceit and abuse. Neither our students nor we demand perfection. Many of us believe that extreme dangers sometimes require a political leader to engage in morally problematic actions. But we maintain that in general there is a reasonable threshold of behavior beneath which our public leaders should not fall, because the moral character of a people is more important than the tenure of a particular politician or the protection of a particular political agenda. Political and religious history indicate that violations and misunderstandings of such moral issues may have grave consequences. The widespread desire to “get this behind us” does not take seriously enough the nature of transgressions and their social effects.
5. We urge the society as a whole to take account of the ethical commitments necessary for a civil society and to seek the integrity of both public and private morality. While partisan conflicts have usually dominated past debates over public morality, we now confront a much deeper crisis, whether the moral basis of the constitutional system itself will be lost. In the present impeachment discussions, we call for national courage in deliberation that avoids ideological division and engages the process as a constitutional and ethical imperative. We ask Congress to discharge its current duty in a manner mindful of its solemn constitutional and political responsibilities. Only in this way can the process serve the good of the nation as a whole and avoid further sensationalism.
6. While some of us think that a presidential resignation or impeachment would be appropriate and others envision less drastic consequences, we are all convinced that extended discussion about constitutional, ethical, and religious issues will be required to clarify the situation and to enable a wise decision to be made. We hope to provide an arena in which such discussion can occur in an atmosphere of scholarly integrity and civility without partisan bias.
The following scholars subscribe to the Declaration:
1. Paul J. Achtemeier (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)
2. P. Mark Achtemeier (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)
3. LeRoy Aden (Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia)
4. Diogenes Allen (Princeton Theological Seminary)
5. Joseph Alulis (North Park University)
6. Charles L. Bartow (Princeton Theological Seminary)
7. Donald G. Bloesch (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)
8. Carl Braaten (Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology)
9. Manfred Brauch (Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary)
10. William P. Brown (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)
11. Don S. Browning (University of Chicago)
12. Frederick S. Carney (Southern Methodist University)
13. Ellen T. Charry (Princeton Theological Seminary)
14. Karl Paul Donfried (Smith College)
15. Richard Drummond (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)
16. Jean Bethke Elshtain (University of Chicago)
17. Edward E. Ericson, Jr. (Calvin College)
18. Gabriel Fackre (Andover Newton Theological School)
19. Robert Gagnon (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary)
20. Joel B. Green (Asbury Theological Seminary)
21. Robert H. Gundry (Westmont College)
22. Scott J. Hafemann (Wheaton College)
23. Roy A. Harrisville (Luther Theological Seminary)
24. Stanley M. Hauerwas (Duke University)
25. Gerald F. Hawthorne (Wheaton College)
26. S. Mark Heim (Andover Newton Theological School)
27. Frank Witt Hughes (Codrington College)
28. Robert Imbelli (Boston College)
29. Robert Jenson (Center for Theological Inquiry)
30. Robert Jewett (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary)
31. Jack Dean Kingsbury (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)
32. Paul Koptak (North Park Theological Seminary)
33. John S. Lawrence (Morningside College)
34. Walter Liefeld (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)
35. Troy Martin (Saint Xavier University)
36. James L. Mays (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)
37. S. Dean McBride (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia)
38. Sheila E. McGinn (John Carroll University)
39. John R. McRay (Wheaton College)
40. Robert Meye (Fuller Theological Seminary)
41. David Moessner (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)
42. Grant Osborne (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)
43. Carroll D. Osburn (Abilene Christian University)
44. William A. Pannell (Fuller Theological Seminary)
45. Jon Paulien (Andrews University)
46. John Piper (Bethlehem Baptist Church)
47. Stephen Pope (Boston College)
48. J. E. Powers (Hope College
49. Mark Reasoner (Bethel College),
50. John Reumann (Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia)
51. David Rhoads (Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago)
52. W. Larry Richards (Andrews University)
53. Daniel E. Ritchie (Bethel College)
54. Joel Samuels (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)
55. David Scholer (Fuller Theological Seminary)
56. Keith Norman Schoville (University of Wisconsin)
57. J. Julius Scott (Wheaton College)
58. Mark Seifrid (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)
59. Christopher R. Seitz (St. Andrews University)
60. Klyne Snodgrass (North Park Theological Seminary)
61. Max Stackhouse (Princeton Theological Seminary)
62. W. Richard Stegner (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary)
63. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)
64. R. Franklin Terry (Morningside College)
65. David Tiede (Luther Theological Seminary)
66. Reinder Van Til (Eerdmans Publishing Company)
67. Warren Wade (North Park University)
68. J. Ross Wagner (Princeton Theological Seminary)
69. David H. Wallace (American Baptist Seminary of the West)
70. Timothy P. Weber (Northern Baptist Theological Seminary)
71. Merold Westphal (Fordham University)
72. Jonathan R. Wilson (Westmont College)
73. Edward and Anne Wimberly (Interdenominational Theological Center)
74. Harry Yeide (George Washington University)
You grew up listening to Adventures in Odyssey,
soaking down stories that taught your young heart
to swim against the current.
They told you it wouldn’t be easy to do what was right
because the world was dark and ever darker--
they said you needed to be willing to stand alone.
So you walked through the halls of a ratty high school,
wearing a purity ring and carrying a Bible,
defending your faith while the other kids laughed
because even if you were
the only one,
you would keep your eyes on heaven.
It was lonely to hope,
lonely to wait,
difficult to see beyond all this chaos.
“It’s worth it,” they whispered.
“Here is the pearl of great price.”
And your heart fluttered because
you saw how goodness was beautiful.
You decided you were willing to die for it.
They warned you about the coming evil,
the sly tricks of the devil,
the progressives and the humanists.
You were ready for all of it.
You sat through The Truth Project
strengthening your muscles with a ready defense.
You resolved to stand firm though all hell broke loose,
so you divided the values of earth from the stuff of God,
and you drew a hard line of allegiance.
“All of me, God,” you prayed.
“God, take all of me.”
You kissed dating goodbye,
read marriage books, prayed, and prayed,
and resigned again.
You studied Biblical womanhood,
waited for the wedding night, then
homeschooled the babies that came to you.
No matter how difficult it was,
you were always willing,
“All of me, God. All of me,”
because His kingdom was not of this earth,
and your eyes were on the prize.
Then you woke up one morning to a man shouting,
“Grab them by the pu**y, you can do anything.”
“It doesn't really matter what (the media) write as long as you've got a young and beautiful piece of a**.”
And God’s people said, “Amen”?
You looked round stunned.
“HERE IS THE SALVATION OF THE LORD!” they cheered,
this clanging, vulgar man
was King David, King Solomon,
a friend of the Kingdom--
lo, he was the salvation of the world.
And you stood still as a little girl
who has just been molested by her favorite uncle.
You held your empty hands out and trembled when you said,
“But here is everything you have taught us...”
They told you to shut up.
They told you that it was time to ditch the fairy tale.
They called you a snowflake and a RINO.
They said you didn’t understand anything at all.
They said you were delicate and spoiled,
they mocked you and said, “What’s wrong with you?
Don’t you know that out in the real world,
good men do bad things.”
“Grow up!” they hissed.
“The work of Jesus is dirty sometimes.”
Your knees shook as you ran from them,
and you wept as you knelt by your bed to pray.
You are weary now,
weary from a life poured out like nard on the feet of Christ,
only to be shoved back
by angry men
eager to tattoo vulgarities from a gas station wall
onto the Good Lord’s clean skin.
You have written to me quivering,
asking if the gospel was only a dream.
In your agony,
proud theologians have shoved
the equations of orthodoxy into your face,
dismissing your sorrow with a wave of a hand.
“You were never His at all!” they say,
"or you wouldn't doubt at all."
An easy answer to scratch their own itch.
But oh, you dear, tired little lamb,
let me be a mother to your broken heart.
The storm rages round and round,
and I hear your heart pounding these many miles away.
I see the strain on your face,
like a child pulled from rubble.
Come in close.
All is not lost.
Though the strong be drunk on power and on fear,
though men who claim to know God prove that they do not,
though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains quake at its swelling pride.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
The holy dwelling places of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her, she will not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations made an uproar, the kingdoms tottered;
He raised His voice, the earth melted.
the Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our stronghold.
All you have entrusted was not wasted.
All you have believed was not a lie.
Heroes are only men,
only small and passing men.
So remember how our Jesus knelt in the Garden
abandoned by all friends,
how he wept with blood and sweat intermingled.
And here we kneel, too, following.
It is a holy posture to grieve so.
You have not believed too much;
the masses have believed too little.
Hold firm, then. Hold firm.
Whatever is true,
whatever is honorable,
whatever is just,
whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely,
whatever is commendable,
if there is any excellence,
if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.
See your Savior high and lifted up.
He lives forever.
His name is holy.
You have been no fool to give what you could not keep
for that you could not lose.
“All of me, God,” you prayed, and do not retreat.
In the face of the very opposition you never expected,
pray it again.
I will pray it with you.
Evangelicals spend so much energy trying to prove that God is real, but most of the atheists I know wouldn’t want the God of the Bible, even if we could prove his existence.
Why? They would reject the faith because they don’t think the God of the Bible is moral.
Don’t just laugh that thought off as ridiculous. Considering some of the information many atheists have received, I can understand why some have drawn this conclusion.
If Christians want to make any progress in sharing the gospel with an unbelieving world, we need to listen to the reason atheists have this particular problem with our faith. And we need to clear some of the fog away before having surface arguments that lead to nowhere.
I. First off, there’s confusion about the facts.
It’s human nature to believe the worst about any worldview that we don’t like. (Look at how quickly we eat up dirty gossip about our political enemies!) So when misinformation about our faith hits the news, many atheists stand eager to embrace the worst possible angle on Christian beliefs.
I don't like seeing this happen, of course, but I can't blame nonbelievers too much because I have made similar mistakes about others I suspect. Having this wrong done to me reminds me how important it is to be fair.
After the hard lesson is taken, though, it's helpful to think about where all this bad info coming from. I've seen two main sources, and I'd like to talk about both of those a little bit.
A. BAD INFO COMES FROM SECULARISTS WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE TRYING TO WRITE ABOUT THE BIBLE
For example, last week atheist sites were giddy because Canaanite DNA was found in the Middle East. A secular writer found a verse from the Old Testament and said it was a claim that all Canaanites were destroyed. Before anybody who actually knew the Bible could get a grip on that story, the thing spread like wildfire.
Of course, that’s not what the Bible teaches. It teaches the opposite in fact, showing us why Canaanite DNA should still exist in the Middle East. But over and over again, this sort of viral brouhaha rolls out of a simple misunderstanding, adding to confusion and mistrust on both sides.
B. BAD INFO COMES FROM PEOPLE WHO CLAIM TO BE CHRISTIANS
My head literally hurts when I see bad teachers handling Scripture. I don’t mean to be an academic snob, but seriously, I wouldn’t let some of the people I see trying to interpret the Bible read me instructions out of a John Deere riding mower manual.
Some of those folks mix theology with bad science. Some mix theology with bad ethics. And while bad Bible teachers are making some of the most embarrassing mistakes I’ve ever seen anybody make on a public stage, they roar with all the confidence in the world. (I need my blog to have a GIF option. You've seen that one where the guy runs headlong into a wall and slides off, right? Insert that here.)
The Bible isn’t about being “smart,” of course; the core of the gospel is simple enough that even a child can understand it. But people who have never been taught to think clearly—people who don’t know fair principles of literary interpretation—those people often carry raw weaknesses into their attempts to teach about God. And unless God intervenes miraculously (and sometimes he does), especially if pride takes over, a lack of information can lead to goofing the Bible up super badly.
Average Joe would never attempt DIY brain surgery after watching a YouTube video on the subject. Average Evangelical Joe will, however, attempt to teach about the almighty Lord based on hearsay and gut instinct. Attempting the second is even more dangerous than the first. So much damage has been done to the gospel because of this sort of overconfidence.
II. Secondly, there’s a ton of confusion about how the Bible works
Somewhere along the way, the public began to believe that any story included in the Bible was also endorsed by the Living God. But that’s not how the Bible functions.
Some of the most horrifying narratives in the Old Testament don’t show us what God loves; they show us how ugly human sin can get if it runs its free course. The book of Judges says, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” And indeed, this is a book of the Bible which teaches us how violent and selfish humans can be when entrusted to develop and maintain their own morality. These sorts of narratives show what we look like when God doesn't protect us from ourselves.
So many secondary moral issues clear up when we realize the Bible is doing this. Many teachings about slavery, the treatment of women, even genocide fall under the narrative umbrella of a culture that was thoroughly resistant to submission to God. Laws that you and I criticize would have been utterly unnecessary if God’s people had been willing to seek God’s heart. Instead, they were rebellious over and over again, insisting on doing things their own way.
This is why I get so frustrated when atheists start citing random laws from the Old Testament as some sort of claim against the Divine. It’s not that those laws never existed, but they did exist inside of a human context that didn’t fit into God’s ideal. Like a temporary restraining order against a violent husband, protections were sometimes put in place that a healthy marriage would never require.
As the New Testament expands, we see a truer picture of the sort of moral order that God intends—a morality that is based on union with his Spirit instead of just rote regulation and obedience. This is why the Old Testament must always be read through the lens of the New Testament. They are not equivalent. One foreshadows, and the other completes.
III. Despite all this, there are still confusing sections of the Bible
I’ve studied the Bible for over thirty years now, and there are still some passages that are difficult for me to understand. There are still a few passages that I feel are unjust, too, and I don’t ignore that feeling like I used to. I don’t check my brain at the door and trot along in trusting ignorance, excusing sections that seem to contradict the greater thrust of Scripture.
I will say, though, that quite a few times over the course of my life, disturbing, obscure passages have opened up beautifully once the right information has appeared. So while I was defiant and angry about unclear passages of Scripture in my twenties, in my 40's, I'm more patient about sections that seem offensive or mysterious. I don't try to hide my horror from God. I pray, “Uh, what do you even want me to do with this part because it doesn’t seem to fit with 90% of what you’ve said in the rest of the Scriptures.” I pray, “What in the world? Why would you even care about this?" I’m honest about all that stuff when I pray because God’s my Father, and I trust him with my gut reactions.
And where the Old Testament seems wonky, I interpret the unclear by what is clear. I interpret the old through the new. And I never act on obscure teachings that seem unstable or disjointed.
I don't strain to apply stories I don’t understand as moral guidance for my soul. I WAIT FOR GOD to show me how mystery fits, and I leave it alone until he clears the confusion up. There's plenty to do in the clear, direct commands of love and compassion without getting snarled up in what is uncertain.
IV. What I've written here doesn't make the core snag of atheism vanish
Sometimes I think atheists are unfair about the Bible, and sometimes I think messed up Christian teachers distort the Bible. But even if all this is handled properly, determined secularists will still hit a snag.
Even if all narrative confusion is swept away, the God of the Bible still asks for us to trust him, and trust comes hard for people who haven’t lived in a trustworthy world.
You and I have been hurt, so we trust ourselves and not much else.
That old temptation of Eve’s serpent is still running the circuit, and it's still powerful. “Has God really said he’s going to take care of you? Why don’t you just try to be like God without involving him? You don’t need him--you can be strong on your own. You’ve got this. You’re smart enough. Just be the best you that you can be. Look at these resources around you.l and use them. That’s all anybody can do.”
Gosh it's such a sweet promise for hurt people because we want to hold the controls to our own lives so badly. Even deeper than arguments about evolution, genocide and misogyny, lies a real question of whether or not we would be willing trust a God to hold authority over us.
Lest we point too many fingers at atheists, this is the same mistrust that has led evangelicals astray for years. We make political alliances because they promise tactile safety. We make strategic plans because God is too quiet. We reach for fading comforts because eternity is too dang hard to imagine and too far away to embrace.
In fact, sometimes I think the atheists have one up on us in that they are at least willing to admit that they don't trust God. I want to trust Him always, but a lot of the time, I don't. In that regard, I suppose we all have a whole lot to confess and a whole lot to learn.
“Fifty years ago, the main cultural tension of being a Christian in the United States was that the Christian believed things regarded as naive and false by the general culture: that believing in an omnipotent creator required the checking of your brain. Now the main tension is that the Christian's tradition is regarded by the general culture as immoral: that the God of scripture is a bad character, and those who adore him are misshapen by the company they keep. Consequently the work of the apologist today resembles more closely that of the early church's apologists. The Romans, to be sure, regarded the Way as false, but (more gravely) they regarded it as dangerous -- a thing that produced bad citizens.” David Mitchel
I understand the embarrassment, and I’ve had the same urge myself. However, at least for now, I’m not ready to hop on board that train.
And my reasoning isn’t political—it’s spiritual.
I don't think most evangelicals or most conservatives are bad people. I do think many have been flattered and manipulated so long that they are now having trouble discerning good from evil.
This whole situation reminds me of that scene from The Silver Chair in which a villain throws green powder onto the fire, drugging good Prince Rilian, Jill, and Scrubb. Those three young heroes don't want to do the wrong thing, but as they breathe in the enchanted smoke, they find that they cannot tell truth from lies. They lose their ability to think clearly.
At this moment, the brave marshwiggle Puddleglum charges forth and stamps out the fire with his bare feet. He does this because this is what true friends do for one another in such times. We put our own bodies on the line to break the spell of evil.
As embarrassing and as frustrating as it is for clear-headed conservative, evangelical believers to watch the intoxication of those who abuse these labels, love compels us to go try to help them.
I realize that a whole lot of folks don't realize that they need help. In fact, many think they are the only ones who see the world clearly.
I know many are proud. I know that many feel secure in money and in power. I know many are so full of propaganda they can't hear the instruction of the Holy Word.
I am human enough to tremble when I see leaders of massive movements tickling the ears of millions of people with gross distortions of grace. I'm also human enough to grieve when my old heroes give in to this cause.
But despite all of this, those people who are being deceived are in grave spiritual danger. And when a brother or sister is endangered, it is right and good to try to help. Even if we feel like the cause is futile.
All my trail-blazing instincts want to cut off the old and charge into a new frontier, but I'm not listening to those instincts. Not yet.
I'm willing to give restoration the first fruits of my strength. Why? Because when a fellow soldier is wounded in battle, you run into enemy fire to drag him to safety, even if he is hallucinating.
How do we help? Here's one possibility.
In Acts 17, we find the Apostle Paul sharing the gospel with the men of Athens. He could have charged in there like a raging bull, proclaiming a new system of salvation--but he doesn’t. He’s far more shrewd in his approach.
Paul has listened to the culture well enough to communicate on its own terms. He makes his argument by referencing an object that is familiar to his audience--something they trust and worship. He says, “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.”
Paul does the work of redemption by unpacking the tiny bit of truth that his audience already sees.
So, strategically, I think it's worth using the terms "conservative" and "evangelical" in a similar manner. While the connotative use of these two words has been corrupted, denotatively there is still much to unpack. It's even possible that these two words can be used to show our brothers and sisters how they have abandoned their first love.
It's a good time to consider the church of Ephesus in Revelation--men and women who have worked long and hard for the cause of Christ while losing focus on what originally drew them to him. Jesus says, "Without growing weary, you have persevered and endured many things for the sake of My name. But I have this against you: You have abandoned your first love." Then the stern warning--if Ephesus will not repent from this behavior, the Lord will remove their lampstand.
I don't want this to happen to my brothers and sisters. I think they began well, I just think they grew confused along the way.
I want to remind them that “evangelical” comes from a Biblical Greek root word meaning “good news.” This means that if evangelicals are not primarily about the business of sharing the gospel, they have veered off course.
I want to remind them that to be “conservative” is a call to follow the wisdom of Jeremiah 6:16, a call to look back at the old ways and find what was good in them. This isn't the work of blind nationalism, sentimentality, or cliché. It's not the work of fevered anger and fear. It's humble work involving study, reflection, and discernment. It's careful. It's kind. It's selfless.
Over the past year or two (and arguably over the past few decades), evangelicalism and conservatism have become separated from their own visions. It's so important for us to talk about this. I think that if we talk about it enough, instead of just threatening to run away and start all over, we might be able to stamp out some fires.
I don't say this because I am scared of what will happen if Christianity amputates its diseased limbs and hobbles onward.
I say that because people I love are diseased. They are being sucked down into evil while thinking they are doing good. They are losing Jesus while trying to fight for him. They are so terribly sick, and they don't even realize they are dying.
I see millions of Christians wobbling like Prince Rilian, Grubb, and Jill, increasingly unable to see the things of God with any clarity. I see a great Green Witch who is tweeting and rallying them into their own demise.
The situation is dire, and I cannot turn my back on all those people. If the bare feet of a Marshwiggle can do any good here, I'm at their service.
So yes, I'm an evangelical. Yes, I'm a conservative.
Men and women of evangelical, conservative America, I have seen the altar you have built, and I know this Unknown God you serve. Let me introduce him to you. Let me remind you who he is in Spirit and in Truth.
I love real books.
I love how they feel and how they smell. I love their sense of space and progression. I love their permanence.
Sometimes, however, I run into people who advocate for real books as if they were advocating for trafficked children. I think that’s a little extreme.
I know an older person who has invented body language for the specific purpose of disparaging e-readers. She doesn’t just say that she prefers physical books. She views e-readers as a moral wrong. She’s also pretty sure they cause brain damage. “I only read REAL BOOKS,” she declares, standing firm as the final line of defense against an invading army.
I get tickled when I see this, imagining the transition between scrolls and the codex between the 2nd and 4th centuries. Maybe the old folks back then complained, “There’s no way a human brain can process the true flow of writing with all these blasted page breaks. These great works were meant to be taken in by scroll, and I’ll read scrolls until the day I die.”
Or when parchment began to replace papyrus, “These young kids have no commitment to precision. They can erase on parchment. You couldn’t erase back in my day. You had to get it right the first time.”
Was there ever a critic who griped about portability of papyrus? “I remember the good old days when somebody who had something worth saying carved it into a big, fat rock. Now THAT was a world of stability.”
For whatever little it matters, here’s my philosophy on the thing.
There are some books I only read in bound form. I tried to hit the ESV Reader’s Bible on Kindle, for instance, and that just didn’t work for me. I need the layout of the printed set to do part of the work.
But there are other books that I find much easier and more effective to read on Kindle. I’ve been taking a leisurely approach to Les Mis for the past year, and reading this book on Kindle is a far better experience than reading it on the printed page. With a click of a thumb, I can look up rare historical references, and reading footnotes is a breeze.
I’m not thumbing through a thousand pages every few paragraphs to find out what a “Saint-Jacques pragmatist” is. I touch the footnote number, get the historical nugget, close out, move on. Takes five seconds instead of thirty. That makes a big difference when you are tackling a project like this.
Here’s another confession. I bought Les Mis in three formats, audio book, hardback, and Kindle.
I knew that I would enjoy this book for the rest of my life, and I knew that this first reading would be a big part of my recreation for many months, so I took the leap.
On long bike rides, I listen to George Guidall’s brilliant rendering of the story--which is mighty helpful in some of the historical passages with complex pronunciations. When I want to go back over a specific passage in depth, I open the physical book and set Julie Rose’s translation up against several others that chose a word-for-word approach instead of an idea-for-idea method. Late at night while my husband is snoring away, I open my beautiful new Kindle Paperwhite and revel in the miracle of a 1300-page novel reduced to 7.3 ounces.
7.3 ounces. I can take that anywhere. And I do.
In every format, I am delighted with Hugo’s work. In those passages I have read three different ways, I have found that my brain picks up different things...not greater or lesser information but different information. Some details I have missed in bound form, the audio or the Kindle have revealed. It’s been humbling to realize that.
One more thought. It’s not true that all printed books are created equal.
When my friends over at the Rabbit Room print a hard copy of a book, they obsess over margins, fonts, paper quality, typesetting. This publisher is thoughtful and precise so that when you buy a Rabbit Room book, you’re buying a reading experience that enhances the reading material. When I have the opportunity to buy a book by Rabbit Room Press, I never pick the Kindle form over the hard copy.
But Rabbit Room production stands head and shoulders above the cheap paperbacks being thrown out en masse today. The classroom versions of so many brilliant novels are hideous, and I can’t blame students for being exhausted by them.
Great classics are ruined when they are thrown onto grey-smudgy, thin, stinky, cheap paper, words in tiny fonts crammed together, margins virtually non-existent, no beauty in page composition, a binding that makes opening pages fully impossible. We do our teenagers a great disservice when we hand them these aesthetic disasters.
I would much rather my students read Pride and Prejudice on a Kindle in a nice, clear Bookerly font than to mess with the headache of a poor physical reproduction. I can see why students toss many of those books aside for the SparkNotes summaries. I wouldn’t waste my time on trying to hack through such a mess, either.
All this to say, if you have been exposed to e-book shame, be free, be free. Do what you need to do to get the books read. Find the venue that works for you, and don't let anybody make you feel guilty about it.
Because I have the Kindle app on my phone and iPad, I wrestled for a year about a Paperwhite purchase. It seemed extravagant. Now I see that it’s one of the most important investments I have ever made. How I wish I could go back in time and make myself buy this two years ago. I could have used this sweet little thing during the election. Curling up in bed with a device that won’t let me check the news or social media is helping me sleep better than I’ve slept in a long time.
Having the option of silently reading a chapter or two when I wake up in the middle of the night is lowering my stress. I don’t see headlines. I get away from all that madness and allow hours meant for rest to be restful. I wake up, click on a soft little backlit page, read for fifteen minutes, then go back to sleep without the weight of the world on my shoulders.
And while "real books" will always have a soft spot in my heart, I'm completely smitten with this little thing. Welcome to my world, Paperwhite. I think we're going to be good friends for a long, long while.