What You Lose (or, grief still feels like fear.)

“And grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen…”–C.S. Lewis

Some feelings strike all at once, like being suddenly slugged in the face. There is no denying the impact, no gnawing anticipation for the pain you know is coming sooner or later. The pain is there, throbbing and ever-present, always calling you back to the moment of collision.

But other expressions of emotion take time to fully form, like a sickness that you know is there, but takes a long time to show any side effects. Grief is one of those expressions for me. I have seen it take so much from me and from those I love that sometimes the part of me where doubts and fears run rampant wants to respond to Paul’s admonition of death in 1 Corinthians 15 (O, Death where is your sting?) with a biting, “It is here. And boy does it sting!” And I still do not understand nor can I articulate the depths of pain grief brings.

If you know me personally or have followed this blog for very long, you probably know that I started it back in 2012 as an outlet for me to deal with losing one of my best friends. I stand firm on the belief that the pain of loss is one thing about this world that shows you that all is not as it should be. As much as I may or may not be adjusting to life without Jordan, over 2 and a half years later, and as much as I stand firmly convinced that God’s mercy and grace is overwhelming in the face of all that overwhelms me, I cannot shake the thought that a 21 year old dying in a freak accident is an atrocity, a tragedy that cannot just be explained away as an act of God that would make more sense to us if we were only spiritual enough.

All that said, it is with a heavy heart that I add a chapter to the story of how I personally have interacted with the closeness of tragedy.

It was a normal Sunday morning. I went to church as usual and sat in my pew. I felt a staggering peace come over me that morning. Let’s call it gratefulness. And I remember praising God for blessing me with this job, this church family, for relationships in my life that truly meant something, for teaching me even when my stubborn self did not want to be taught, the whole nine yards.

I drove the church van that morning. As I dropped off the remaining teens, my cell phone started ringing. My friend DeMarcus and I sat at the stop sign for a minute for me to answer. It was my Dad.

“Hey, Dad. What’s Up?” I said, as if everything was normal. It wasn’t.

“Hey son,” he replied. Something was off. “Where are you?”

“I’m driving the van, on my way to drop DeMarcus off and then back to the church.” Silence. Odd silence.

“Oh. Call me when you’re done…we need to talk.”

We needed to talk? Was this a father-son conversation or was I being dumped?

“What do you mean? Is everything okay?” I stammered.

“No. It’s not.”

“What? What’s wrong?”

He sighed, “Charlene passed away this morning.”

Tears welling up. Heart hammering. My mind full of questions, doubts…fear.

“I’ll call you back.” I barely got the words out before I hung up. I apologized to DeMarcus and told him in what probably sounded like broken English what was wrong and that I needed a minute. He graciously gave me all the time I needed.

There at the stop sign, right outside of two of my teenagers’ house, I wanted to unbuckle my seatbelt, jump out of the van and beat the ground until it broke. I wanted to scream. I couldn’t form coherent sentences. I couldn’t stop shaking. I wanted to get out and run as fast and as far away as my legs could carry me. I wanted to run from Kannapolis to Belmont and hug my Mom, who just lost one of her closest friends. I wanted to embrace her and let her cry on my  chest until the tears couldn’t come anymore, like she did for me when I lost Jordan.

I wanted to take the pain of Charlene’s kids, her husband, her brothers and sisters, and throw it into the ocean. I wanted to reverse time, or pretend it never happened.

There are so many questions.

So many unanswered questions.

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I’ll never forget how she made people feel loved. How she, in my entire army of “second moms”, always took the role of the one who would remind me that everyone could see my underwear and I needed to pull up my pants…NOW.

How she always gave me the most creative (and hilarious) birthday cards.

And, most importantly, how she (and all my parents’ other friends) showed me the importance of surrounding yourself with good people, with loyal people who loved you and supported you. They modeled what healthy friendships looked like, and that has made all the difference in my own friendships.

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I guess I say all that to say this:

I am 24 years old, and I have lost so many people, gone way too soon. And it’s sometimes hard to balance what I believe about heaven and the afterlife with the gnawing emptiness that comes after experiencing a loss.

After Jordan died, I always felt bad that I felt bad, if that makes sense. I believed he was in heaven. I believed he was free from pain and from suffering. I believed he was with God and met Christ, the object of his affections, face to face.

But the gnawing emptiness did not leave. On some days, it still resurfaces. And I miss him. I miss him like I miss my friend Jennifer, who also died young due to complications from surgery. And Ariane, a friend from college who fought a terminal disease to the very end. She died on her birthday. And like I miss Charlene.

I want to make a few things abundantly clear:

1.) Fellow Christians, never minimize anyone’s grief. You may think you’re doing them a favor by reminding them that they are not God and do not know the big picture, but I promise you they have a crushing awareness of that already. If you invalidate their grief and dismiss it, you are not helping, you are damaging what is already damaged. You are kicking them while they are down. This is the most un-Christlike thing you could ever do.

2.) To those experiencing the kind of grief I’m writing about, you are not alone. Your feelings are normal and you have no reason to feel wrong or stupid. I promise you that God is a big boy, and he can handle your sadness, your depression, your darkest thoughts, and your most cruel indictments of his Character. I pray for you. That you would let him hold you close, let him heal those wounds and let you grieve how you need to grieve. He is a God who loves you as you are, not as you need to be. But God’s love is a transformative love, one that changes you, one that embraces you and leads you to embrace others.

The thing about loss…it isn’t the initial loss that hurts. It is the pervading absence.

It is the thought of living day after day after day without hearing the sweet voices of those you love again.

It’s those torturous moments where you think you see them in a crowd and you hold your breath. You know it is too wonderful to be true, but a part of you hopes the rumors of their death were greatly exaggerated.

It is the crushing defeat the day you finally have to delete their telephone numbers because you’ve accidentally called them more than you’d like to admit.

And it is the embarrassment and wave of nausea that hits when you accidentally call your other friends and family by the name of the one you’ve lost.

Grief is the sickness that leaves you guessing when it will rear its ugly head. I’ve had moments in the past two years (and two days) where I just start crying with no provocation. Where did that even come from? I think to myself. But it is there.

I have grown significantly in my walk with Christ in the past several years. My orientation towards grief is daily becoming less one of fear, and more of acceptance. That I don’t have all the answers to life’s injustices, and frankly, I don’t need them.

I am learning to rest in God.

I am learning that when Paul writes those bold words to death in 1 Corinthians, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” He is referring to the encompassing victory of Christ over our damnation. His proclamation that death is not the end. That there is peace, overwhelming peace to be found in Him alone, and nothing can overcome his furious mercy.

So I have hope. I have peace, like I felt Sunday morning, I know that I will grieve and I personally don’t fear it anymore, I know it is coming and I welcome it, trusting that Christ who bore all of my burdens bears them still.

When Jordan died, I raged against the very God who knit me together, who held me close to his chest as I soaked him with tears and curses and voiced all of my grievances, believing they were falling on deaf ears.

And though I am at a place in my life and my faith where I do not need answers to be sure of God’s well, God-ness, he has so graciously given some of the answers my heart has asked for in groans and hushed sighs.

The main one: Where are you in all of this, God?

His response was simple: Stephen, I am right here. With you.

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If you’ve made it this far, thanks. These are unfiltered thoughts, they may not make a whole lot of sense all jammed together. But I’d ask that if you are a believer, please pray for the family of Charlene. And please pray for my Mother. My heart breaks for her as I have lost a best friend. I know what that’s like and it isn’t something I would wish on my worst enemy. May God bless you all.

Here’s a song that came on my iPod as I drove to my hometown yesterday. I thought it was appropriate:

More to Be Said (a poem)

Words wound tightly around wounds from which our memories unwind,

Words said without thought,

Words leveled against enemies in haste,

Words full of truth but lacking in grace.

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Words of the heart misshapen and leaving intentions mistaken,

Words written without love,

Words spat out to the world with hate,

Words that create scars and sap from us the power to create.

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I was called to be a lighthouse,

a city on a hill that cannot be hidden.

But it seems in all of my bitterness,

I have chewed up more than I have bitten.

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I am constantly smitten,

Overwhelmed with love for my fellow man.

At least that is what I say.

But is it love for others I hold close to my bound up heart,

Or is it love for the man staring back from the shattered mirror,

Love formed of well intentioned words my well intentioned mouth has torn apart?

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Well if all my well-intentioned words have any merit,

Then call me elipsis,

I create sentences that sentence me,

Leave the posture of my heart in question and my good intentions fly amiss.

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Because with all I have spoken there is more to be said,

Because my words need bring life, and raise the dead.

But all too often I have held back life-giving words

At the behest of the doubts swirling in my head.

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Words, words, beautiful, wonderful, terrible words,

Ill-fated, broken, brutal, and wretched words.

Compassionate, lovely, graceful and healing words.

Words that sting and damaged, yet jubilant words.

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We cannot say enough.

In a word, there is more to be said because of The Word.

That which came into the world that all my idle words may lay irrelevant in the face of the truth,

The final word.

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The Word that says more in three words than I have in my entire life.

The Word who takes away all my empty words leveled in spite,

The Word who holds me close with blinding bright.

The immutable Word, the unshakable Word, The Christ.

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So if there is more to be said,

Let my words be His.

If there is more to be spoken,

Let my life and speech revive.

If there is more to be said, let it be the three words that cost His life.

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“It is finished.”

He is the Christ.

Screaming from the Sidelines

The characteristic of holiness, which is the outcome of the indwelling of God, is blazing truthfulness with regard to God’s word and an amazing tenderness in personal dealings. –Oswald Chambers

It happened yesterday. I was doing some last minute Christmas shopping against my better judgment. Amidst the clinging and clanging of the Santas with their bells and the singing of carols as I pulled out of the parking lot, I heard a semi-robotic voice screaming at the top of his lungs through a huge megaphone. I looked to my right and saw sandwich boards graffitied with apocalyptic proclamations like “The End is Near, the Day of Judgment is now, women shouldn’t wear pants, etc.”

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The young man (who couldn’t have been a lot older than me) was shouting in the best angry preacher voice he could muster. He spit out doctrinal statements faster and with more gusto than even Eminem could attempt. Most of his statements, at their core, I agreed with. But the whole mess just sat wrong with me. I sat at the red light for a good while listening to him as he ran up and down the street like a wild man, screeching as if he were an animal. He claimed that nothing could save you except Jesus. Agreed. That we as humans are inherently flawed and sinful. Agreed. That church tradition is not the final authority on Jesus. Agreed. But for all of his systematic theology, he was missing something. And I pulled into a nearby parking lot to listen and see if he would say it.

Not once was the love of God mentioned. In his eyes, God was a raging beast, poised to strike and throw whatever was left of you into the furnace as a punishment for looking at him the wrong way. Jesus was the only way to tame the beast.

This is not the God I serve.

This is not the God that scripture declares is the only true God.

No, the Bible portrays God as something much better and much more than we can perceive through our darkened glasses. It was love that compelled the Father to send his Son to us to die in our place and bear all of our sin away. It was in love that God turned away while Jesus died. It was in love that Jesus, who knew all of the wars we would wage and the death we would bathe ourselves in said “Father, not my will, but yours.”

See, I hate seeing this picture of God presented on the street corners to people who are just going to shut it out or get angry. I hate that the Church has reduced the Gospel to a list of doctrinal statements and propositions. I hate that instead of seeing the love of God patiently displayed through the lives of the people closest to them, unbelievers are faced with people who couldn’t care less about them and don’t love them unconditionally. People who will say, Jesus is the only way to God, but…you may want to try agreeing with my legalistic list of do’s and don’ts that have nothing to do with the Gospel.

Christians are truly in a culture war, but we will not win it this way. We will not win the culture war by waving signs and screaming through megaphones and compromising the glorious Gospel that God, in his love, sent his son to die for the sins of the world and trading it for the lie that God hates you.

Even if your message is, “Jesus loves you,” it’s not going to be received well if the person is shouting at you (unless of course, you’re at a For Today concert.)

Culture isn’t changed by legislation or a million angry street preachers with fists raised in defiance. Culture is changed by the tough work of discipleship, Christian people loving the non-Christians many segments of Christendom have long neglected. Building relationships and trust and speaking truth in love in the context of that relationship. Witnessing is not a proposition and it is not a screaming match. It is a patient love and an honest life. People respect honesty, and they respect you if you respect them, no matter what.

As the Church, we must be better. We must love people enough that when we present them with the Gospel, there can be no denying that we are doing it out of love. No more screaming from the sidelines in a culture war we cannot win. Show God’s love like Jesus did, by personal connections and by sacrifice. Do not shy away from speaking the truth, but be assured that the truth is a person, not a thing. And let that realization color how you see everything. That is the Gospel.

I pray that the men on the street corner know that. Most importantly, I pray that they show it. I pray that we will not fight to win the culture war by sweeping generalizations and ugly caricatures of God, wholly devoid of any scriptural truth. God’s love is not a condemning love, but a patient one. Surely, he’s been so patient with me, and his kindness leads me to repentance for sin, not his rage.

By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us. (1 John 3:19-24)

The Man that God Wants

I looked down at the note card filled with writing and then back up at him. I saw eyes full of pain, scarred from a life of bad decisions and suffering inflicted on him by others. I saw genuine repentance in his eyes. I saw a heart that seems irreparably broken into pieces by a lifetime of living a life that he was not made to live.

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It was a normal night with the prisoners, like the many I had experienced over the past four years. I spoke on Ezekiel 37, the same passage I preached from my last Sunday at Beulah. There are some things that God just sears into your head, never letting you forget. And from time to time, it becomes necessary to speak those same passages over others. As I talked about the grace of God, a God who does better than simply making us to be good people, but instead brings us from death to life and continually issues the charge for his people to prophesy  and let the power of God bring the dead around us, the dead in us, to life again, I looked out, wondering if the words I believed were from the Holy Spirit held any weight or could hold meaning for anyone in the room.

And I caught one man’s eyes. He may have been in his mid thirties and had tattoos all over exposed skin. He looked lonely, quiet, and like he didn’t really feel comfortable. We broke up into groups and the man I locked eyes with came up to me and asked if he could speak to me away from the group. Hesitantly, as to not want to leave my partner alone, I went to the corner with him where he handed me a note card with prayer requests written all over it. In it, he talked about a lot of things that were going on in his life. The rest of the details were very personal and it’s not my place to share, but on it he wrote, “please pray for God to help me change into the man that he wants me to be.”

We talked for maybe 20 minutes and he began to cry. He kept saying it felt stupid to cry, and I encouraged him to do whatever he needed to do. The Spirit then prompted me to intercede for him out loud, so I put my hand on his shoulder and prayed for Jesus to overcome him with need. Need for him, daily, purposefully, an ever consistent longing for the presence of God that will break the chains of addiction, depression, and the need to be self-sufficient.

We were not made to do life alone. And from my one bedroom apartment to the college campus I lived on then to a homely old prison chapel made of cinderblock walls and pews creak and groan when you sit on them, God has a funny way of placing people in our path that need his mercy.

I need his mercy, every day of my life.

And this man, who told me that he didn’t believe he could even construct a pure thought if he tried, was so overcome with his need for a Savior that I looked at him and smiled. From somewhere deep in my soul, I smiled and told him that maybe the purest thought we could ever have is in our need for God. We spoke about a lot of things that night, and he pretty much spilled his whole life story to me in the span of a few minutes and I was reminded of why Prison Fellowship has been such a huge learning experience for me.

I let him know that, though I’d never struggled with some of the things he has dealt with, I know what it feels like to feel so incredibly lost that the only words you can speak to God are “help me.” I understand that most days I value myself and my desires above my desire for Christ. I know what it feels like to be addicted, lonely, and afraid. But that he is not alone.

That Jesus Christ is the only desirable thing in me, and the sole objective of our lives is to make him the sole desire of our hearts.

He told me he missed feeling the Spirit on him, and I told him that I do too.

He told me he wanted to become the man God wants him to be, and I told him that I do too.

And as he spoke, I saw the spark of desire in his eyes and knew that he was so close to seeing what I strive (and many times fail) to see every single day.

God wants a broken heart, a contrite spirit, he wants us to be men and women that are primarily concerned with desiring him more fully. He is not content with half-hearted devotion, but instead wants everything from us.

A decision to follow Christ is not about the perks you can amass, it’s about finding your greatest treasure buried in a field and selling everything to buy the field so you can have the only thing that consumes your heart. It’s about coming to end of yourself in a jail cell and realizing your need to be saved. It’s about sitting across from a self-proclaimed loner/addict/criminal and seeing his desire for Christ and reminding yourself that he and you aren’t so different. It’s about growing up in a Christian home with loving parents and being so consumed with doing the right thing that you lose your way and become a slave to legalism and secret sins that rip your soul to shreds and coming to the end of yourself in a college dorm room your freshman year and realizing your need for Christ and knowing that you are nothing without him.

If those guys at prison and I have anything in common, it’s that we are united in our inability to save ourselves.

Humanity’s common denominator is its collective brokenness.

May Christ raise us up to be men and women who seek him, who desire him above every worthless thing and every worthless lie we have believed.

I pray that for me, that I could be the man that God wants me to be.

And I pray that for my brothers who have lived a life they weren’t meant for, that God would call each and every one of them to repentance and into a relationship with Jesus.

I’ve heard so many people talk about “jailhouse religion” and it frustrates me to no end. That may be true for some, but to doubt that God meets us at the end of ourselves and brings the dead to life in Jesus is to doubt that he is who he says he is. And, like I told my new friend, I don’t presume to know your life, to understand the depths of who you are, and I in no way mean to belittle the struggle that is this life, but God loves you. He loves you so much that he sent his son to die for you so you would be set free. Acceptance of this doesn’t make life easier, but it makes it better. It bends it toward purpose and makes you into the man or woman God desires for you to be as you desire him more and more every day.

I kept my friend’s note card. And I prayed for him, that God would undo the shackles he has placed on himself, and that at the end of the day, the desperation he feels would point him to Jesus, and if the only cry he can muster is “help” that God would honor that and draw him to himself. That his desire for Christ would overwhelm every vain thing that tries to take its place in his heart.

“O God, I have tasted Thy goodness, and it has both satisfied me and made me thirsty for more. I am painfully conscious of my need for further grace. I am ashamed of my lack of desire. O God, the Triune God, I want to want Thee; I long to be filled with longing; I thirst to be made more thirsty still. Show me Thy glory, I pray Thee, so that I may know Thee indeed. Begin in mercy a new work of love within me. Say to my soul, ‘Rise up my love, my fair one, and come away.’ Then give me grace to rise and follow Thee up from this misty lowland where I have wandered so long.”-A.W. Tozer

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Halloween, Christians, and The Gospel

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I will never forget his sermons leading up to October 31st. Or the handouts, boldly decrying Halloween as “the devil’s day.” I will never forget how he hooped and hollered and ranted from the altar about how he would never dress his children up and let them trick-or-treat, because of the pagan roots of the holiday.

How he left his porch light off and refused to give out candy to the idol worshipers at his doorstep. How God deserves the glory, not Satan, ghosts, or ghouls. And I guess we should now include Elsa, Ninja Turtles, and Captain America.

About how Christians should vocalize our outrage at this wretched practice and snatch the souls of our children from their Satan worship, praying for every haunted house attraction to burn down.

And so on, and so forth.

It was my 11th grade year of high school and this was the first time in my life I’d ever heard such a boisterous condemnation of Halloween. In my informational pamphlet, it talked lots about the celtic origins of holiday, the belief that the dead could walk the earth on one night, Samhain and Wiccan practices, etc. It did mention the Christianization of the holiday and re-branding as All Saint’s Day, but the preacher quickly denounced that, saying that “If a holiday has pagan roots, it should not be celebrated by Christians.”

Well, I rebutted in my head, what about Christmas? In a few months, this sanctuary will be decked out in boughs of holly and Christmas trees and all sorts of things with pagan roots. Why do we condemn this occasion and not that one? Because we are afraid of people in masks? Because someone in Christian history coupled Christmas with Jesus’ birth, even though we don’t know his birthday, but assume it’s closer to August? What makes one day different than the other?

This preacher also went on several rants about Christian rock music and how it was “ungodly” and “If it ain’t the Gaithers or Mercyme, get it out!” So I was used to vehemently disagreeing with my preacher.

And I fear that when we become this reactionary, when we generalize people and refuse to understand culture on its level, this is the Christianity we’re left with: an angry, unfeeling Christianity that would rather condemn the lost than befriend them. That would hold to our illusions that the whole world is out to get us because people and their children are knocking at our doors wanting candy, rather than swing open our doors and meet our neighbors and build relationships that last over something as simple as a fun size Kit-Kat bar.

When we are so guarded against culture, we forget who we are, we forget whose we are, and we forget that the One who call us friend, also told us to go and make disciples. And we don’t do that by being an exclusive social club that stands away from those we are called to love.

I don’t believe that any day in particular is evil. I don’t believe that dressing up and playing make believe is of Satan. I don’t believe that even if you do believe that, it’s okay to shut people, who need the gospel lived out in front of them and modeled for them in your life, out.

What makes Christianity so beautiful is that it can thrive in any culture it is placed in. From the African bush to the crowded streets of New York City to house churches in China. It doesn’t forsake the culture around it but grows through it, infiltrating it with the presence and power of Jesus himself, showing people of all color, of all origin, of all walks of life that Jesus is not just for me, he’s for you, too.

How can we spread that message this Halloween? First off, it’s a beautiful time to get to know your neighbors. Become part of each other’s lives if you aren’t already. Be kind to their kids and, heck, give them candy. The Gospel isn’t just something people get if you toss a Bible at them and walk away. It’s something to be lived out, its something to be spoken about, it’s something that takes a long time to grow, but the reward is great.

Be part of the solution, not the problem.

(Author’s note: I was bitter against that preacher (for lots of other reasons) for a long time. I stopped going to his church, I became very frustrated with his brand of Christianity. It just didn’t line up with what I saw in scripture. His version of Jesus was so wrapped up in legalism that it was indistinguishable from the Pharisees. But I’m not angry anymore. I’ve matured a bit since then, and while I still won’t accept what he said, I forgive him.)

Have a happy and safe Halloween. Meet someone new, and share the Gospel always.

Here’s a picture of me dressed as Poseidon.

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Leaving Left Behind, Behind (or, a theology of honest criticism)

I don’t leave comments on social media a lot when it comes to hot button issues or cultural trends.

It’s not that I have no position, or don’t feel strongly enough about whatever new crisis is being spoken to. But honestly, I don’t think it adds to the discussion. At least not gracefully.

When I posted a blog a while back about Aronofsky’s Noah, it was my way of dealing with something that everyone was taking to social media to write angry rants about in my own way. I said something to the tune of Christian people should be better, even when we disagree with the way something was done or how we felt our faith was represented, belligerent, angsty Facebook rants are not the way to solve it. In fact, that only makes us look stupid. Like, “you’re really going to make some big-budget action flick your hill to die on?”

That said, another movie has been ‘taking the world by storm’ so to speak. It had a whopping critics score of 2% on RottenTomatoes.com. That movie is “Left Behind.”

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I’m not going to do a review, because I have not seen this particular rendition of the movie (nor do I really intend to.) I did read the teen iteration of the novels and I did see the ones starring Kirk Cameron. (Yes, they are as abysmal as they sound.)

A lot of people have written about this movie, the old ones, and the books and pointed out how they are downright heretical from a reasoned, and even biblical perspective. I’ve read several of those posts and articles and, for the most part, I agree.

A pre-tribulation rapture theology is one that many people just assume that everyone sees when they crack open the book of Revelation. And, i’m sorry to inform you, but that is simply not the case for everyone.

I posit that pre-tribulation rapture is an idea born out of a very selfish Christian-ish idea that God would never let his church suffer. Oh, heaven forbid words like martyrdom and suffering ever become common language in American Christendom!

But that is not the point of this post. Sorry for chasing rabbits.

Back to what I said earlier about not leaving comments on controversial posts.

Well, I broke my own rule the other day and I did. The creator of the new Left Behind movie posted a status about his movie being attacked by sites like ChristianityToday and others as “not Christian.”

The implication is that the word “Jesus” is never used. There is never even  a realization of what the ‘why’. There is no portrayal of the Gospel. And, you know. I don’t fault them for that. Good movies ask lots of questions, but aren’t always so keen on shoving answers down your throat. And that is good. Good movies open the door for conversations about the subject matter.

So, cool. Not a problem, right? But something about the books and the movies bother me.

So I commented, against my better judgment. I didn’t lambaste the pre-trib rapture ideology, I didn’t really even say anything to the theology (or lack thereof) of the franchise itself. I simply stated that sometimes we worship ideas more than Jesus himself. And people need Jesus, not…this. Also, I think Nic Cage is the worst actor I’ve ever seen.

And, lo and behold, a lady told me I need to “read my Bible” and that I was a false prophet and a scoffer.

I wasn’t sure what to say to that.

It really just perplexes me that we are so quick to yell “read your Bible” at someone and not even think to do that ourselves. Is it possible that we’ve, for so long, just read our Bibles the way its been told to us, instead of actually looking into it ourselves?

(Author’s note: I am a Christian. I am a southern Baptist. I fall in line, for the most part, with the tenants of orthodox Christianity. I believe that the Bible is God’s word, written by men under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and applicable for all people. I believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to God, and so on and so forth.)

See, so many times, Christian culture has latched on to an idea simply because they’re told it’s “Christian.” They say “read your Bible” when what they really mean is “think back to all the sermons you’ve heard and Christian fiction you’ve read over the years and splice that with an ethnocentric view of the book of Revelation and then maybe you’ll come out on the right side of this argument.”

The issue for me is that we’ve taken to accepting someone else’s word for it, rather than studying scripture ourselves. We’ve fused American culture and easy-believism with Christian doctrine and made theology more about “the end times” than about Jesus himself.

As a guy named Chad Bailey says, “‘Are you ready?’ is not the right question. ‘Do you know Jesus?’ is. Let’s point people to Jesus, not away from hell.”

My prayer is that when Christians approach culture, lets not water down the powerful, life-giving message we are charged with to “Oh, man! Nicholas Cage is trying to understand why people are disappearing off his plane and the world is crazy and did aliens do this? Oh, yeah, here’s a pillow with the word “pray” on it and that one character is wearing a cross necklace. That’ll preach.”

Because many people have said Christ isn’t mentioned to help people spark conversations with unbelievers. Well, guess what…this movie was marketed to Christians. Christians who grew up in a cultural bubble. Christians who believe the best way to witness is to drag their non believing friends to a movie theater and have a come to Jesus meeting right there, instead of patiently being infused into that friend’s life and exemplifying Christ and sharing your struggles and where you find your hope (Jesus) openly with them.

This is not an attack on people who enjoyed the movie, and certainly not an attack on those who came to Christ after seeing it. If that is the case, then praise God! But saying it won people to Jesus as justification for poor art is like saying the Crusades were great because it produced Christians.

My prayer is that Christians will rise up to the challenge and make good art, quality art that attracts unbelievers not because it doesn’t talk about Jesus, but because it’s real. (An author whose blog I frequently read, Nate Fleming, wrote a blog on good Christian art over here. So check that out.)

Good Christian art is also art that doesn’t have to stifle the message of the Gospel to get people thinking. While it’s okay for a film not to have an altar call at the end of it (and probably better most of the time when it doesn’t,) Christians shouldn’t sacrifice their unique platform to be accepted. And just who is the target market here? Even that is very vague. (Which, judging by the scathing reviews both from Christian and non-Christian critics and the %2 score on Rotten tomatoes, we aren’t reaching the target audience.)

So, I say again: As Christians, we should be better. Jesus is the center of our message, the most attractive part of it, the one without whom our entire faith would fall apart.

left-behind

Dirty Words (or, how we sterilize Jesus and the Gospel)

Depression. Anxiety. Suffering.

depression

What are the first things that come to mind when you hear those words? 

It’s no secret that I was raised in church, my Dad being an associate pastor for much of my childhood, and I knew a lot about the Bible. I could tell you what it said about any issue, well, almost any issue. You see, in my formative years, I knew a few things about my faith but firmly rooted myself in the notion that I knew everything. I was that kid.

And I was wrong.

1.) I knew that God was good.

2.) I knew that Jesus loved me.

3.) I knew that Jesus wanted me to be happy.

I knew that the first two were true, and by extension, the third is true. And if people weren’t happy, well, obviously they were lacking in understanding the first two. Because duh. Because Jesus. Because good Christians don’t get sad. Good Christians don’t get depressed. And good Christians certainly don’t take medication for it. So if words like depression or anxiety flew across my radar, I chalked it up to a blatant misunderstanding of who God is.

Because for me in those days, the Gospel was wholly contingent on happiness, on how I’m getting along, on how much faith I had and the sincere belief that if something was wrong in my relationship with God or in my life, it must be my fault.

I believed that lie until I was old enough to comprehend that my Dad, a pastor, suffered through the very things I decried as faithlessness.

The echoes of Job’s friends had been my theology, the cries of Jesus’ disciples asking whose sin caused the man to be born blind had been my theme song. I was the Pharisee, antagonizing the son of God with my disbelief because I believed that I could be justified in myself, because my goodness depends on me.

Let me be clear: Depression, mental illness, or a general suffering is not sinful. It is not selfish. It is not evil.

Countless people I know and love have suffered with crippling mental illness. I myself, though I don’t know what living with a chemical imbalance feels like, have seen grief and pain and felt the sting of an emptiness in losing someone I loved. Until you have walked through the darkness with someone who can’t explain the gnawing depression inside of them, until you have stood by them at their most dire moments, do not assume to know what it’s like for them. And if you have walked with someone through their sickness, you know better than to assume anything.

In the church, we don’t have an excellent track record with ministering to people who are depressed. We’ve made words like “anxiety” and “mental illness” into bad words, symptoms of our lack of trust in a God who is good, who loves us, who wants us to be happy.

I no longer believe those criteria are the proper formula for ultimate joy. Ultimate joy rests in Christ and his work on the cross. And feelings are fleeting, joy is a constant understanding of those truths without having to moralize every little thing that happens in our lives.

So I won’t judge a fellow Christian who is suffering with depression, won’t tell them to just be happy, won’t tell them that if they are hurting, they aren’t trusting God enough. Because I believe that God is greater than your depression (that he is good), I can trust him to one day help you find resolution, and find peace. Because I believe that the love of Christ is stronger and better than anything this world can offer (that he loves you), I can trust that he is with you in the middle of your struggle. And because I believe that God wants you to know the difference between finite happiness and everlasting joy, I can trust that no matter what you’re feeling, Jesus is better and I will sit with you in your pain and cry with you and pray with you and suffer with you. 

Back to John 9, when Jesus’ disciples asked him about the man who was born blind:

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi,who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.  As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

 After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes.  “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam”. So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.”-John 9:1-7

It was a popular idea in that day that suffering came because of someone’s sin. Jesus cleverly debunks this myth and shows his power over stigmas by saying “This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” and proceeds to upset the status quo even further and rub his dirty spit on the mans eyes. After rinsing them in the pool of Siloam, he was healed.

No, I do not believe that depression cannot be healed. But when we moralize chemical imbalances it’s no better than moralizing blindness or a broken limb. I read somewhere before that when someone gets a cast, people flock to sign it, and when people say they are depressed, people run away.

This stigma is everywhere, but it bothers me the most that it exists in the church. We claim love and mercy and grace, yet many of us cannot be sensitive to hurting people because we have sterilized the Gospel. But I serve a Jesus who holds you in your pain. I serve a Jesus who breaks protocol and in the sight of a sterilized, sanitized congregation and rubs muddy spit on your broken heart.

A Christ who doesn’t care where you’ve been, only where you are.

A Savior who saves us from our darkness and loves us in the midst of it.

A God who commands us to mourn with the mourners and rejoice with the rejoicers.

A Lord who tells us, time and time again, to come as we are and be made whole.

Noah, The Biblical Story, and Stuff Christians Fight About

I don’t usually blog about controversial topics, but I’ve seen so much about this and I have some thoughts, so I figured I would get them out. I think many (not all) of the issues some of my fellow Christians have about the new Noah film are much more telling about a problematic understanding of scripture within the modern day Church than about some evil, maniacal filmmaker twirling his mustache and trying to dismantle Christianity as we know it. Russell Crowe as Noah

It’s not as if the book of Genesis is the sole intellectual property of Christians and it’s also not as if the movie (or any of the press surrounding it) ever states that it is intended to be an accurate representation of the biblical story. It’s exactly what it’s marketed as, a big budget action film loosely based on the story of Noah. I mean, would so many Christians freak out if it were named Gilgamesh? (see more: here)Look at any of the most popular action movies in the last year. What is one thing they have in common? They’re explosive, violent, and without your willing suspension of disbelief, are absolutely over-dramatized and ridiculous.

I see and have talked to Christians who have never taken an interest in anything remotely theological start to protest the flawed biblical epic in Aronofsky’s film. In fact, this story reads more like a midrash than a “based on a true story” blockbuster. A midrash is a method of interpreting biblical stories that fills in gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at. This has a rich history in Judaism, where rabbis would tell stories that were slightly different, stories that utilized the imagination rather than only what they had written down. Fact and fiction meeting to reveal truth about God. Obviously, I’m not Jewish so this method is foreign and strange to me and doesn’t quite resonate with me theologically. But the midrash taps from wells other than Christendom, something those up in arms about this tend to forget.

(UPDATE: To clarify, I’d like to say that I’m not calling the Noah movie a midrash by any stretch of the imagination, simply stating that there is this tradition in Judaism and in the world in general and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was a take on this practice. The comparison has been made before and will be made again. The media culture is always about repackaging and retelling the same stories over and over. And Aronofsky had an agenda, for sure, but the concern shouldn’t be on what that was but how Christian people can use the film itself to start a conversation about the truth.)

And to see people who would otherwise not care about deep theology freaking out because they feel like their faith is being attacked…it’s just a lot more complicated than that.

Also, it seems like there is some surprise that the biblical story is portrayed as dark? It is dark. Very dark. And we can’t wrap it up in a nice little bow and make it pretty if we are ever to really understand the depth of our failure and sin in the face of a holy God.  It’s easy to remember the murals in our church nursery and go back to Kindergarten Sunday School days and believe that Noah himself was perfect and without sin, but this simply doesn’t reflect.

I saw on one Facebook page someone complaining about the movie and a comment that read something like this. “What’s next? They’re going to make Noah a drunk?” and I desperately hoped they were being sarcastic. In fact, we have part of the biblical narrative that is rarely talked about (Genesis 9:20-25) in which Noah does get drunk after the flood, as well as lots of other awkward things that, for the sake of this blog post, I will leave a mystery.

But I think that Noah’s depravity post the flood is meant to teach us something. It’s to show us that even the best of us are not without sin. Even those of us who God uses to do a great work are desperately in need of something outside of ourselves to come in and save us from our wickedness and God’s wrath. And that is where the story of Noah becomes overwhelmingly and emotionally jarring for me, because it points to my own sinfulness and my own desperate need for a Savior.

Yes, I intend to see Noah when it comes to redbox. Yes, I go into it with no delusions. It will be flawed, it will not reflect my Christian faith. But I know the biblical story. Which means that when I talk to people who do not, and who may be “led astray” by the movie, I can speak to the true character of God. I can bring out how the story of Noah points to the justice and holiness of God and the overwhelming grace of God in sending his son Jesus to atone for my darkness and sin.

Christians are the only people in the world who are not without hope for the future. So share Jesus, not anger. Whenever you have something to complain about, think of ways to turn it around and use it for God’s glory. This world is too full of brokenness for us to waste time not living out the gospel in all we do.

Peace. ΑΩ