Can You Recognize the Signs of a Spiritual Breakdown?

We have a 2002 Subaru Outback that burns through oil. Maybe it leaks oil. Maybe it does both. No one really knows. A mechanic told me the engine from that year was really, really bad.

To make things worse, the dip stick is extremely unreliable, so I’m always just guessing how much oil to add.

All of that is to say, when we used to drive that car daily, I had to keep a really close eye on the oil—among several other things.

It’s my understanding that cars generally have an “oil” light that comes on when it gets low. In our case, we were on a road trip with that Subaru, cruising up a hill on an Interstate, when the light came on and then we instantly heard an alarming crunch in the front of the car.

That was it for our engine.

Besides a useful dip stick and an engine that kept oil inside of it, I also could have really used a warning light BEFORE running out of oil completely.

It turned out that we had driven through a lot of mountains in western Maryland and West Virginia, and we had burned through all of the oil I put in at the start of the trip.

While we could replace that engine with a used one, I often think of the warning signs I see in my life before I burn out or hit rock bottom mentally or spiritually.

Do I have a functioning “warning” light for the times when I’m in emotional, mental, or spiritual trouble and in need of a pause for restoration?

As I’ve explored what spiritual health looks like for me, I have learned that I am at my best when I do at least 3 things every day:

Journal

Pray

Read scripture

These aren’t major revelations or secrets, right? That’s a pretty standard list of daily practices for a Christian. I could list things like exercising daily, getting 7-8 hours of sleep, reading spiritual books and attending church, but those three in my list above form the foundation.

If those three practices aren’t a regular part of my day, I can almost certainly expect to start feeling distant from God, out of sorts, or just kind of lost. Each practice plays a vital role in keeping my head in a good place and helping me to remain aware of God’s presence.

Since it’s so important, I have a schedule each day, and I fit my spiritual routine into it.

Here’s the thing, schedules change, life gets crazy, and the routine sometimes falls to pieces.

We had some pretty disruptive changes to our schedule over the past month, and my routine suffered.

Over the years, I’ve learned to watch for some warning signs that all may not be well. Here is what I look for:

Is My Journal Empty?

When I open my journal, I can know things are difficult or stressful if I don’t have any entries for the past day… or week.

During one really tough stretch, I would show up for church, open my journal to jot down some ideas during the sermon, and start right below my notes from the previous Sunday. That’s a whole week without reflection!

I use my journal for a wide range of ideas, reflections, prayers, meeting notes, and whatever else. It’s a place to get thoughts out of my  head, and if my journal is empty, that means my head is likely full of stuff I haven’t fully processed. That is usually not good for my mental health.

Journaling also makes it much easier to pray since a head full of thoughts can lead to a busy mind that will struggle to pray.

Have I Moved My Bookmark?

I use The Divine Hours to read, reflect, and pray through scripture daily. Each day offers a series of readings based on the day of the week and the time of day. It’s a very handy way to read a variety of scripture on a consistent basis.

But when my schedule falls to pieces or life gets chaotic, I may catch myself flipping past a few days in order to find that day’s reading. If I haven’t been keeping up with scripture reading, my bookmark will be off by a few days.

Having grown up in a Christian subculture that attached a lot of guilt and obligation to Bible reading, I’ve really had to rethink WHY I read the Bible. I prioritize devotional reading or using scripture to guide my prayers.

When I open up the morning scripture reading, I take a prayerful posture and ask God to guide me. I’m not looking for answers, prooftexts, or a duty I can check off in my list of spiritual things.

If I’m not guided by the words of scripture and the Spirit’s inspiration through those words, then who knows what will influence me. There are plenty of alternatives!

I shouldn’t be surprised that my head often ends up in an unhealthy place if my daily scripture reading slides.

Do I Have Enough Time to Pray Daily?

There isn’t an easy way to visibly track how often I pray, but generally I aim to land in the 20-30 minutes range for dedicated prayer. Of course there are plenty of opportunities to be prayerful and mindful of God throughout my day, but I benefit the most from focused, distraction free prayer time if possible.

But dedicated prayer time isn’t guaranteed each day. A kid may wake up early, a work project has a tight deadline, I miss an alarm, or who knows what else can spring up.

I do my best to stay honest about prayer. Am I getting at least 20 minutes? It’s not a magic number that guarantees some kind of spiritual epiphany. It’s just a way to keep myself from getting lazy or cutting corners.

Over the years, I’ve found that if I can set aside 20 minutes for prayer, it’s usually a breeze to hit 30 minutes. Of course, stretching my prayer time that long can start to take away time from my morning exercise routine!

What Are Your Warning Signs?

I’m certain that my three essential daily practices aren’t the only ones or that they aren’t unique to me.

I’d love to know which daily practices you rely on to be both mentally and spiritually healthy. If the comments are closed (they close after 2 weeks to prevent spam), you can always drop me a line on my contact page or share this post on social media along with your own list of essential practices.

Meeting Adversity with Gratitude

When something goes out of joint in life, it’s very easy for me to focus on it at the expense of almost everything else.

Most recently, I really boiled over with rage at the Republican legislature in Kentucky who overturned the governor’s mask mandate for schools while hospitals are at or beyond capacity and COVID cases are dangerously pervasive in communities. The stated reason for this change was purely about asserting the power of the legislature over the governor, not based on public health concerns or scientific data.

As a parent with three children impacted by that mandate, I have really struggled with anger and a seething rage at power hungry politicians seeking to score points rather than seeking the safety of children with a very reasonable emergency public health measure.

But gosh, what good does anger and rage do me or anyone else right now? Once I call out the absurdity of the legislature for what it is, now what?

My contemplative practices have certainly been heavily taxed right now. Letting go of anger or afflictive thoughts requires a lot of intention and grace.

It feels like I’m taking a hit on the chin and have to return with a smile. I’ll just say, it’s not a great feeling!

But there’s more I can do than simply let go of my anger and forgive those compromising the safety of children for the sake of politics. I can also look at what is going well and what I can influence.

It has been well within my power to both write to my school board and school principals about the safety of children wearing masks, and I have been quick to thank our school board and principals for continuing to have children in our town wear masks in school while the local case count remains extremely high.

All of the highs and lows we’ve been through since the 2016 election that seemed to throw so much of our assumed stability and shared reality into turmoil and the pandemic’s trauma has reminded me to be thankful for what we have right now. The stability of today just isn’t guaranteed for tomorrow.

It would take too long to recall how much we’ve lost over the past five years. Even so, I find myself badly in need of expressing my gratitude to God for what remains.

I’m grateful that at least many of local leaders are still guided by science and not politics.

I’m grateful for a church that continues to offer a sacred space to pray and to worship.

I’m grateful that my family continues to be safe even if quarantines have been quite hard.

I’m grateful for outdoor seating where I can still gather with others without worries of being infected with COVID indoors.

I’m grateful for doctors, nurses, and staff in the hospitals who continue to work very hard with so little support or sympathy for their plight.

In stressful and disruptive moments, there is a lot of value in seeing our problems and challenges for what they are. It can help to talk about them with others and to journal about them. Yet, at a certain point, we have to let go of what we can’t change right now. Personal ruminating or co-ruminating about concerns can become a dead end of sorts.

It’s good for me to practice letting go of my anger or concerns, especially as I practice centering prayer, but there’s a lot more I can do. I can focus on what’s going right, and the blessings that can be obscured by adversity.

If there is one thing we can count on in the days to come, it’s that plenty more adversity is coming our way before things get better. Now is the time to grow in gratitude in order to withstand what’s coming in the days ahead.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

God So Loved the World But Do We?

God so loved the world and peace with God crosswalk image.

His voice was monotone. His gaze was mostly directed at the ground. He had to know he was putting his co-worker in a very difficult position, but he kept going with his Gospel presentation.

This guy had theology to share, and he had not yet fully explained the glorification that comes after salvation. I imagined him thinking that his fellow cashier needed to know RIGHT NOW that after responding to his Gospel presentation she would one day receive a new body from God.

I was standing in line, too embarrassed by the situation to feel impatient. While a supervisor stood a few feet away, this guy working behind the counter had been laying out a very detailed and complex Gospel presentation. The woman at my register receiving this message should have been scanning my lumber order. Instead, she was caught in the awkwardness of trying to do her job but not rudely ignoring her fellow cashier.

When the supervisor prompted her to start checking me out, the guy kept droning on with his Gospel presentation. He was on a roll, and I don’t think anyone or anything could have stopped him. Well, maybe a 2×4 that accidentally bumped him in the head… but I restrained myself.

That moment has weighed on me because of how clueless that guy acted toward his co-worker. I don’t have any problem with someone sharing their faith, and if there’s a down moment at work, by all means have a chat.

Yet, I’m struck by how unaware he was of his co-worker. It felt like he had a script to follow, and he had to get through it no matter what. Perhaps I’m reading into the situation too much, but it felt very transactional: insert Gospel presentation, receive personal assurance of sharing the Gospel boldly, and then hope for the best.

In a brief moment, I felt that the man simply communicated a lack of care for his colleague that undermined how much God cares for her. He imparted cerebral information rather than an incarnational message of God’s love demonstrated for us.

Information without transformation is one of Christianity’s greatest challenges.

We have received a message that God so loved the world, but do we love the world?

In fact, when I heard about “the world,” it was often in reference to the people outside my faith who posed a threat, corrupting my holiness and thinking. The world was an opponent, if not an enemy. Someone untrue to the faith was described as “worldly.”

Language is subtle, and we can always try to talk down what exactly we mean when speaking of the world. At the very least, I wasn’t turning toward the world with compassion and incarnational love like the God described in John 3:16.

This isn’t a distinctly Protestant or evangelical challenge. Catholic writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton frequently bristled against the “contempt for the world” that many in his monastery harbored.

I have grown up in Christian circles where animosity toward the world was justified as a response to the world’s hostility towards Christians. There’s a fear of laws being passed against Christians or cultural marginalization that has long energized the platforms of pastors, politicians, and anyone else in media seeking to gain a following.

The old rule holds true that you can mobilize people to do your bidding if you tell them they’re being attacked. If the world is out to get Christians, then Christians can rally to their leaders who promise protection. These leaders will successfully deliver protection because there was no significant threat in the first place.

Reaching out to the world in compassion and presence can feel like a threat to those who hold the world in contempt or who need the world to be the enemy in order to consolidate influence and power. In fact, some pastor recently wrote in an article online that empathy is sinful because it erases one’s individual moral choices.

Thankfully, people with more training in psychology (and in responding to poorly conceived ideas) have addressed this deeply flawed thinking. Still, such articles gain a foothold in some circles because they tap into our existing disconnect from outsiders. To respond with empathy risks contaminating the purity of thought that fundamentalists try to maintain.

The practice of contemplative prayer that stills my reactive thoughts has a way of silencing my worries, fears, and anxieties. Once my raging mind is quieted, I’m generally in a better position to hear God and to be present for others.

Teachers of contemplative prayer routinely mention compassion and empathy as the byproducts of practices like centering prayer that make contemplation possible. If I’ve cut off the noise of my thoughts and tapped into the quiet presence of God, I’m far more likely to see others where they are, to hear their words with greater attention, and to process with less reactivity or prejudice.

When I’m talking to someone about my faith these days, compassion and empathy are a much better starting point than fear, contempt, or defensiveness. Without the drumming noise of fear, I have a better chance to be more hopeful and kind—not that I always succeed in doing so.

One conversation that remains with me was with a guy who appeared hostile toward Christianity when I met him. I asked him about his past experience with Christianity, and he immediately softened, sharing about some very negative moments in his childhood church.

I would have felt the same way if I’d been in his shoes! Of course anyone could relate to the animosity that arises from negative experiences when you’re a vulnerable child. Our conversation took a very positive turn from that point.

The ministry of Jesus involved a lot more than dying on a cross and rising from the dead, but it feels like talking about our faith can be reduced to those 3 days. His incarnation can offer us a really helpful path forward, entering into the situations of others, bearing their burdens, and embodying God’s love for them in the highs and lows of their lives.

Laying down my life for others like Jesus means that I have to drop my defensive posture. Sacrifice and loss may be called for, and let’s be honest: that is a tough ask.

I do have a lot of compassion for Christians who fear that the “world” is attacking them, trying to take away their Bibles, religious liberty, or whatever else. I spent a lot of years thinking that way.

I’ve found that a lot of hurt and fearful people, both in the church and out of it, are so alienated from each other that they can’t imagine dropping their defenses or hoping for the best in the other. Let’s not even talk about love for enemies!

Often the most angry, fearful, and combative Christian fundamentalists agitate the most angry, fearful, and combative atheists. And then both extremes offer enough anecdotes for the wider groups to feel under siege and to justify the status quo.

At the very best in these divisive contexts, we get people like the cashier who very dispassionately conveys information without apparent concern or care for the other in the moment. I wonder what motivated him to share the Gospel like that?

I know that I used to carry a lot of guilt and fear related to sharing the Gospel. If I didn’t share it, then I was a bad Christian who was ashamed of Christ. Would Jesus be ashamed of me? That guy didn’t strike me as very outgoing, so he very well could have been at his limits for reaching out to someone like that. It likely was the best he could do within the limits of his training for sharing the Gospel in a very extroverted manner.

Although I like to think I used tremendous restraint in not “accidentally” clipping him with the 2×4 I was holding at the time, the truth is that I could relate to him in many ways. I’d been in his shoes plenty of times and had been combative, clueless, or prideful in how I’d talked about God’s love for the world. Needless to say, I was a far cry from introducing people to the Father’s love for them!

It has frankly been hard to “learn” how to talk about God’s love for others because I wasn’t a very loving person to begin with. I was a messenger with information. I was a Christian trying to stay pure from the world. I was trying to prove myself, to do my duty, to not be ashamed.

I didn’t see myself as God’s beloved child. I didn’t imagine I was a recipient of mercy. I didn’t see how the compassion of God toward me should make me compassionate toward others.

God does indeed love the world, and God showed it through self-sacrificing love. When I let that love transform me, I can’t allow human-made divisions stand in the way of my love for others. Getting past those divisions is very, very hard, and that’s why it will always be tempting to leave them in place for ourselves and to leave “loving the world” to God.

Training Ourselves to Be Present for the Sacred Already Around Us

What if we spent our time seeking the sacred, being present for the holy?

We wouldn’t have to travel anywhere. We wouldn’t have to overhaul our routines. We would only have to add activities that bring space for thought and awareness of the present moment.

Where is the sacred found? Some may travel to a sacred space to find the sacred, but such spaces help us detach from distractions rather than bringing us closer to God. Jesus spoke of the indwelling Spirit and the Kingdom of God being within or among us.

We could say that the sacred is found among us in the present moment.

If we want to find the sacred, then what prevents us from seeking it? What blocks our path toward what what is deeper and more valuable?

This is the pearl of great price, the most valuable thing we could imagine. We spend our lives making cost/benefit analysis for our choices and practices. What do we gain, what do we lose, and is that trade off worthwhile?

My sense is that the sacred presence of God and the resulting presence of God’s Kingdom is found when we are able to be focused and stable in the present moment.

We may repent of the past and cast dreams and visions into the future, but we can only rely on God’s grace to cover what we have done and rest in God’s care for what’s coming tomorrow. We can’t change the past, and we can’t control the future. Our faith addresses these two areas where we exert no control.

Yet, the sacred now is where God’s dynamic energy is present, and preserving our attention to this moment will pay off in personal, spiritual, and relational ways. My faith in the present rests in God’s presence that I can easily miss.

Any of my fears about God abandoning me or my own sin making me unworthy have given way to the assurances of Jesus that he is present, he knows his own people, and nothing can separate us from the love of God.

The disconnect I often find in my own life from God’s sacred presence is my attention. Training myself to be present, to be still, and to be receptive to God’s presence changes my approach to spiritual practices.

If the sacred is already present, I’m not trying to summon God, to prove myself worthy, or to do the right thing in order to make God show up. ​My practice becomes a process of training myself to chase distractions from my mind and to be present for God in the moment.

This training to be present in the moment involves everything from the chores I do, the moments I wait in line at the store, and the ways I spend my free time.

Taking a run, painting a picture, or building something out of wood becomes part of the practice of prayer as I train my mind to be still, to release thoughts, and to be present for whatever God may have for me in the present moment.

My creative projects by themselves can draw glory to God, but they also become a formative experience that trains me in the ways of being present in the moment. The more I am present in the moment, rather than dreading the future or lamenting the past, the more I can enter into prayer with a clear mind that is receptive to the sacred that is already there.

This Is Going to Be Terrible: How I Embraced Offline Creativity

In 2017, my bouts with anxiety hit a major tipping point in my life. Something had to change, and so I looked at how I could improve my recreation time, among other areas of my life that included my adding to my spiritual practices and reducing my social media use.

As a writer and avid reader, my life had been wrapped up in words–reading them and writing them. I realized that while I have gardened in the past, I haven’t really “made” things very often.

Creating things offline especially appealed as a recreation alternative to the drag of social media that had a way of capturing my attention and then flooding my mind with thoughts that remained long after I’d put my phone down… although my phone was never very far away or left down for long back then.

My mind needed more free space and some kind of outlet that could engage it in a constructive way that didn’t require writing or even thinking deeply.

I could screw some boards together to make a raised bed, and I could strum chords on my guitar like any kid who grew up in the 1990’s, but there wasn’t anything I could make in my free time that was remotely close to being considered “art” or “creative.”

I had no idea where to begin, so I went cheap, picking up some charcoal pencils and a spiral bound drawing book. Sitting down at a local coffee shop, I stared at the blank page in a state of despair.

What do people draw?

The blank page had been a welcome space of opportunity for me as a writer. Now, it was more like a wall–a rather flat wall but a wall nonetheless.

I had brought Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander along in my newly relegated “art bag,” and turned to it for inspiration out of desperation.

Merton was a bit of an artist in whatever spare time he scraped together when he wasn’t writing books, writing letters, complaining that he only had time to write books and letters, and arranging scandalous outings with a nurse from Louisville. He had painted the image used on the cover , a school of fish swirling in a variety of directions.

I still have no idea what a bunch of wiggling fish has to do with a monk feeling guilty about all of the troubling stuff going on in a world that appeared to be on the brink of nuclear war and the dehumanizing shifts brought by technology, but I’ll give Merton a pass here. Regardless of the meaning of the fish, I doodled the fish with my charcoal pencils.

It wasn’t very good, but the fish were simple enough that a few appeared to be passable–maybe two or three out of sixteen or seventeen.

When I started sharpening the charcoal pencils, I promptly broke off the tips.

My Art Was Terrible at First

That was a pretty terrible start to my pursuit of art and creativity in general. I made some horrible drawings back then. Honestly, I’m still pretty below average when it comes to drawing or sketching or just moving a pencil in a straight line. I moved from the precision of pencils to the impressionistic palette of oil pastels.

My wife thought that I would enjoy trying out oil pastels, not realizing that I’d secretly been fascinated by them since my days working at an art center as the volunteer coordinator. The oil pastel landscapes of artist Penny Viscusi had always been my favorites during exhibitions.

It never occurred to me that I could try making them myself until my wife gave me a set of oil pastels for my birthday.

And gosh, those first few attempts at oil pastel landscapes were horrendous.  They weren’t even close to being acceptable for an elementary school art contest.

But it still counted that I got started, even if I cringed over those splotchy, dreadful landscapes, just as I cringed over my charcoal fish a few years earlier.

Starting out terrible was really hard to accept. I couldn’t even relax at first. I thought that art was supposed to be this therapeutic activity, but I just cringed and gritted my teeth most days.

I know that a lot folks fear making horrible art or creative projects when they begin. That fear is real, but it’s something that you can bear, much like a first time author has to face an editor or agent’s rejection letter.

My terrible art work was even more terrible than I thought it would be.

Over time I watched instructional videos, learned to observe landscapes better, asked anyone I could for a critique, and kept practicing a little at a time.

I began to relax a little more, to observe the world around me a bit differently, and to establish oil pastels as one of my go-to recreation activities. It’s usually far more beneficial for my mental and spiritual well-being than anything I can do while doom scrolling social media or plopping in front of a show.

My Artwork Is Still Kind of Terrible

One of my latest oil pastel paintings has a lot of detail invested in some sand dunes. I really sweated over the tall grass in the dunes. When I reasoned that I could do nothing else to improve them, I was pretty sure they were garbage.

When my wife saw it, she thought the dunes looked pretty good. Then she pointed to the horizon line of the ocean.

In case this is news to you, the horizon is more or less a straight line. If there’s a curve to the horizon, you’re not going to see it while sitting on the beach. It’s going to be super duper straight in real life.

Whoops.

My horizon had a gentle but perceptible arch downward as it reached the edge of the page. You can see the painting at the top of this post.

I find mistakes like this all of the time in my paintings. These are not gallery worthy works even after a few years of practice with a bunch of YouTube tutorials under my belt.

Living with those mistakes is a lot easier these days because I can see that I’ve still made progress. Even with the terrible stuff at the beginning and the glaring mistakes I still make, it feels really good to make stuff.

I didn’t really know how good it would feel to create things with my hands. Taking a bit of paper and some color to replicate the look and feel of a scene in nature grounds me in the moment. It’s like I’m asking myself, “Are you REALLY paying attention right now?”

When I drive anywhere or sit in a new spot, I tend to look at trees, grass, or even a freshly plowed field and ponder how I’d paint it. How much brown and green would I use? Would I use a dark blue for the shadow? How would I blend in some shades of yellow to show highlights?

That sure feels a lot more constructive than other things I used to do in my free time. … Scroll … Scroll … Tap … Scroll … Scroll … Tap.

Everyone Pays the Same Price to Create

The price of growing in creativity seems to be making terrible stuff at first.

My early writing was terrible. My early art was terrible and has only gotten better in tiny increments.

In the moment, it is kind of humiliating. I remember wondering if it was even worth it, doubting myself and worrying that I was just making myself feel worse!

I’m glad I stuck with it. I kept experimenting and just settled on the kind of creative projects that drew me in and spoke to me.

Even if you won’t see my art in a gallery, I have a new creative practice where I feel somewhat at home. This is my space where I can safely make stuff, even if there surely are plenty of people in the world making better art.

Comparison is a creativity killer.

While painting on the beach with my family last week, a woman walked by with her family and noticed my work in progress. She suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, beautiful!”

I wasn’t super impressed with my work right at that moment, so her comment really jarred me. It mattered to her right then that I was capturing the scene in front of us, and that meant a lot to me.

Even more importantly, I heard her conversation as she walked away, “I’ve always wanted to learn how to paint.”

I thought about going over to her and saying, “You know, there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube. There’s no reason why you can’t start tomorrow.”

I didn’t want to be awkward and sound like some sage because I’m just a guy messing around with some oil pastels, so I stayed put.

Also? Introvert.

But I can imagine what she would say because I’ve heard it plenty.

“Oh, if I tried that, my art would be terrible.”

I can also imagine myself replying, “Well yeah. My stuff was really terrible at first, but I did get better. And it got a lot more fun when I got better.”

Making terrible stuff is not a lot of fun, but I’m so grateful that I stuck with it.

I’m sure there are some people who can pick up artistic stuff faster than others. Yet, almost all of us are held back by the fear of making something terrible.

I made terrible stuff. It felt pretty bad. But then I learned some more, practiced, and now I really, really enjoy my creative work. On the other side of that day in the cafe with my charcoal pencils, the terrible stuff was well worth it.

And if you ever ask to see my terrible stuff, I guarantee you that I’ll just laugh awkwardly and ask what in the world you could be talking about.

The Problem with “I’ve Been Doing Some Research…”

I knew a conversation at the start of the pandemic was going downhill fast when the other person said, “I’ve done a lot of research on this, and I have good reason to believe these people wearing masks on their faces are cutting off the flow of oxygen they need to breathe!”

A similar conversation hit another dead end: “Well my wife has all kinds of respiratory problems and she’s done a lot of research on those COVID vaccines. She’s afraid they’re just going to make things worse.”

These were two separate conversations that started casually and innocently enough and then suddenly turned into a very high stakes health conversation with implications far beyond our individual health. These stakes extend to everyone in our immediate circles and then to everyone within their circles, and so on.

Both conversations included claims of “having done research” as the justification for a controversial, if not contrarian point of view that runs against all scholarly research, expertise, and standard medical practice. Yet, in the heat of the moment, it’s probably not even worth debating the points–let alone possible to debate them.

On the face of it, there appears to be my sources of research vs. another person’s sources of research. We all struggle with confirmation bias and blind spots, so how can we say who is right and who is wrong?

Yet, not all sources of research are the same. Defying expertise and scientific guidance can become a kind of lifestyle, a contrarian mindset, or even a rebellion against scholarship that seeks personal liberty from the supposed limitations imposed by experts. It seems at times that it almost feels irresponsible to trust an expert or to follow a scholarly consensus.

“Doing some research” can feel responsible and even necessary. Given the right sources, it can be very helpful. Yet, once you latch onto the wrong sources, the downward spiral away from useful research that could bring you and others some benefit can seem endless. In the worst cases, we end up with a kid of alternate version of reality with faux experts and faux sources scientific and scholarly consensus.

“Doing some research” can become a way to latch onto conspiracy theories that deliver supposed insider knowledge and a sense of purpose in life–being special and able to discern what the vast majority just accept at face value. In Christian circles this commitment to personal research and opinions can almost feel prophetic, or it can at least feel like being on the narrow road to the truth that many miss.

My concern is that not all “research” is equal today, and even worse, people are endangering themselves and their family members by relying on the wrong voices.

There is no shortage of misguided, deceptive, and bad faith voices today. Social media and television ensure that we never have to miss a conspiracy, a trending social media post, or an inflammatory video.

If I could remove some of the tension and defensiveness from those conversations with people who have “done some research,” here are a few things I would want to discuss with them from my experience with research as an author of nonfiction books who relies on good research for his livelihood.

Not Many of Us Should Become Teachers

As someone who writes and preaches regularly for others, I am often mindful about the great responsibility I bear in what I communicate in the public domain as a commercially published author and lay preacher. One particular Bible passage looms in the back of my mind:

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes…” James 3:1-2a, NRSV

What I teach others can have a significant impact on their mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual health. Each line in my sermons and books is weighed against my confidence in their accuracy and the burden in my conscience to present ideas to my audience that are highly likely to be true.

A big part of what I do as a nonfiction author is research, and after working with several publishers over the years, I came to appreciate the rigorous fact-checking and source quality standards at each publisher. Several editors combed through my books to make sure my statements were accurate or backed up by sufficient reliable evidence.

For me, commercial success or popularity in my niche is not worth sacrificing the challenge of James to take my words with appropriate gravity. I won’t court attention by playing fast and loose with the truth, assuming the worst about another point of view, or stirring up a fight based on dodgy details. I’m grateful for editors who would hold me to a high standard if I ever made a compromise.

My drive to write or preach doesn’t come from wanting to be noticed. It’s just something that wells up from within and has been recognized by others as a gift to share. The honor of ministering to others with my words also comes with the weighty responsibility to examine my past failures and to prayerfully move forward with care.

I’m under no illusions about my limitations when it comes to research. I’m married to a university professor, and we have many friends who are professors. I’ve seen first hand the breadth of knowledge and analytical ability that experts in their fields have. When a consensus of scholars with expertise in their fields agree about something, you better believe I’m going to shelve my own research and listen to them.

Yet, with social media and YouTube, anyone can instantly become a teacher without necessarily weighing the consequences for others. That is true for people I agree with and disagree with.

Today, anyone can crank out conspiracy videos that “just ask questions” or that boast “having done some research” into vaccines. Greater visibility too often requires making the material more provocative or controversial, not truthful, helpful, or constructive.

At the foundation of our misunderstandings and disagreements about the “research” we’ve done is a massive quality issue. High viewership on television or lots of shares on social media doesn’t mean the ideas are reliable or the creator can be trusted to value good information over high engagement for profit.

There’s always a place for rigorous debate among experts when it comes to public health. Conspiracy theories and contrarian reporters tend to look for the outliers, the compelling exceptional anecdote, or the “lone courageous” voice taking on the scientific “establishment.”

We end up with a lot of dodgy ideas presented as “research” by amateurs that is suddenly considered on roughly equal footing with people who have devoted their entire careers to the scientific disciplines in question.

It’s a great narrative for a novel. It’s not great for a public health catastrophe.

Personal Responsibility vs. Death by Anecdotes and Conspiracies

We all know a story of someone who beat the experts, or the one contrary person who correctly stood up against group think and expert assumptions. There will always be occasional outliers and the lone revolutionary who gets things right when the masses are wrong.

Yet, we shouldn’t swing in the opposite direction, especially when it comes to science and public health. The few intriguing exceptions should not become the rule.

Anyone can make a YouTube video and raise doubts and questions that rile people up with conspiracies and make people wonder. Anyone can draw random connections between unrelated trends and claim to have discovered a secret.

Who wouldn’t want to be the person in on a secret? Who wouldn’t want to be the underdog champion who beats the best of the experts?

It’s a compelling narrative that can also tap into a sense of pride and a desire to be special or to be an insider who is “in the know.”

Just the other day I was watching highlights from a hockey game on YouTube and a suggested video popped up in the sidebar that caught my eye. The title was something like, “Farmer has questions about COVID-19 Vaccine.”

Based on his skeptical expression and gestures along with the quirky font choices for each vaccine maker, it was clearly a video casting doubts on vaccines that have been vigorously tested and approved by the FDA. These are the same vaccines taken by the most powerful politicians in both American political parties, including all of the most recent Republican and Democratic presidents, as well as Senators in both parties who have access to the top medical minds in the nation.

My initial thought upon seeing this screen shot was, “Why should I trust a farmer’s opinion about vaccines?” That’s a bit like asking a hockey player to help you decide what to do with a toothache or a leaking pipe.

We should never discourage people from researching their health options, and it’s counterproductive to mock those who choose a path different from our own. Yet, there is a huge quality, experience, and expertise gap today.

There is a world of difference between a farmer calling his doctor, shooting an email to a local biologist, or reading summaries of scientific journals in order to make up his mind about a health decision and a farmer passing his own skepticism as worthy of attention on social media alongside lifetime infectious disease experts.

In order for someone like that farmer to be right in his COVID-19 vaccine skepticism, a whole bunch of the top disease experts in the world would have to be wrong.

Every FDA panelist, doctor, nurse, and epidemiologist in America who gave these vaccines the green light would be wrong.

Every health authority, doctor, and epidemiologist who approved these vaccines in approximately 164 countries would also be wrong.

I would caution that farmer about presuming to be a teacher about vaccines.

Yes, individuals may have done “some research” into the safety of these vaccines or listened to a report on a news program that they believe to be credible (even if the report was largely driven by anecdotes), but is there any other area in our lives where we’re willing to dismiss the consensus health advice of thousands of experts from around the world?

Have we ever worked so hard to find contrary opinions from anybody else who appears to be a doctor in order to contradict what every serious doctor and researcher has told us to do?

The COVID-19 vaccine safety debate isn’t like diet and fitness experts debating about the best ways to lose weight, to gain muscle tone, or to prevent heart disease.

The safety discussion over the COVID-19 vaccine safety is much closer to the passionate arguments that assert the earth is flat. The two sides aren’t even close.

Those arguing for the safety of the vaccines have a scientific consensus behind their research. The other side has little more than a few random doctors getting a few minutes of fame on television and farmers making YouTube videos.

The main difference is that we can only prove the COVID-19 vaccines, which are working unseen in our bodies, are safe by pointing at charts and spreadsheets, scientific studies, and many, many personal anecdotes. That’s a much harder narrative to communicate to people than snapping a picture of the earth from a space station and saying, “See, the earth is round, case closed.“

Rest assured, as long as provocateurs can attract attention on social media by being contrary and as long as some equate independent thought with rejecting expert advice, we’ll still have people who reject the reality of safe vaccines.

Research Doesn’t Necessarily Change Minds

For all of our talk about the value of reliable research and the dangers of low quality sources, it turns out that research can only do so much to change a skeptic’s mind. In fact, a series of panel discussions with vaccine skeptics who later changed their minds found that many relied on trusted sources who could interpret reliable research for them.

You can watch the video or read the article based on the conversation here.

The trusted individuals who turned the tide on vaccine skepticism included personal doctors, pharmacists, and well-known CDC or children’s hospital doctors they had relied on in other situations. Some people changed their minds when they heard first hand accounts of those suffering from long COVID who then found relief from the vaccine.

Those who changed their minds tended to have existing relationships with people that weren’t oriented around whether or not they should take the vaccine. They trusted these individuals with their health in the past, and so they were more willing to trust them today.

In addition, the personal testimonies of individuals about the benefits of the vaccine helped remove the unknown nature of the vaccine’s impact. Instead of trusting that the vaccine was preventative, they could see a marked improvement among people who had no reason to lie about their conditions.

It turns out that we can always benefit from doing some research that depends on reliable sources, but it’s often best to find experts we trust who can help us figure out what to do with the research we find.

Jesus Won’t Give Up on Doubting Disciples

I preached the following sermon at St. John’s Episcopal Church on the passage Luke 24:36-48.

When we moved to our new house, one of our boys suddenly forgot how to close the front door. With a two-year-old constantly on the hunt for new adventures, this became a major safety concern. The two-year-old charged out that open door plenty, and it seemed that nothing we said could help our son remember to close the door.

We didn’t tell him once. We didn’t tell him twice. We didn’t tell him three times. We frankly lost count.

Out of desperation, I finally turned to a right brain activity that I should have tried right from the start. I told him that this isn’t a punishment. It was only a reminder. I simply asked him to draw a picture of a closed door.

He then drew a bright, gleaming, happy closed door with rays of sunshine shooting out of it.

After that, he finally remembered to close the door.

But adults are also pretty good at forgetting what other people have told us. When I lined up for my second dose of the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19, my mom warned me that she felt bad the next day. My dad was wiped out for days. One of my sisters had a rough time as well.

After the shot, I braced myself and eventually took some Tylenol in the evening as a slight headache showed up. In the morning the slight headache retreated once again with some Tylenol, and I medically cleared myself for a family outing to Paris Landing State Park. I triumphantly texted a friend who was getting her second shot that morning, “Just a headache! All good!”

I wanted her to know that some people could beat the odds. Maybe she would too.

While our kids braved the icy water of Kentucky Lake by submerging themselves one centimeter at a time, I took it easy on a camp chair. The sun shone bright, but there was no way I was diving into that freezing lake. I felt worse and worse as the afternoon drew on, tired and sluggish. I reasoned that it must be the heat as we drove home–perhaps dehydration.

Yet, even in the comfort of our home, I still felt like I’d been hit by a truck well into the evening. Finally, I remembered that I’d been warned by nearly everyone in my family that I will feel bad after my vaccine shot. I should have known better, but I had developed a narrative in my mind that I only had a headache. It turned out that I stayed off my feet for the following day as well.

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus was trying to get a message across to his disciples that they just weren’t grasping.

The gist of it is this: Jesus knew that he would be handed over to his enemies, his enemies would kill him, and he would triumph by rising from the dead.

In fact, Luke records three separate occasions when Jesus told his disciples precisely what would happen, and Luke carefully notes that they did not grasp what he meant.

The disciples were thinking of thrones for themselves, Jesus rising as the new King of Israel, and the Romans being defeated. They had a picture in their minds of God’s intervention in their lives and in their nation that prevented them from grasping the events that Jesus had precisely predicted.

The disciples could not understand how Jesus could be the king who is starting the rule of God’s Kingdom on earth and yet his most decisive actions would involve his death and resurrection.

They didn’t see how these pieces could fit together with God’s all-powerful Kingdom, and so they selectively listened to Jesus–eager to learn how to perform miracles but less eager to learn about Jesus bearing suffering and death in order to literally rise above both.

Jesus’ victory came through Jesus joining himself with the worst that this world has to offer, defeating it, and then joining himself to his people so that they can experience that victory. It’s hard enough to understand that today, and with so many other hopes and dreams tied to Jesus, the disciples sure didn’t get it.

And so, when the disciples saw Jesus die, most hid in an upper room.

When some women from their group of disciples reported that Jesus had appeared to them and angels had explained his resurrection to them, the disciples still doubted.

Peter ran off to the tomb and checked it out. It seemed that the women were on to something, but a Resurrection? Even though the Jews believed in the Resurrection, which was quite unlike the Greek and Roman religions, something still didn’t click.

Some even set off for Emmaus. They were done, even if the women and Peter spoke of some hopeful developments.

Did anyone speak up and say, “Wait a minute… Maybe you guys should stick around for a day. I think Jesus predicted this would happen.”

Probably not. It sounds like most of them just doubted.

And so the disciples stayed put, waiting around until a knock on the door. The two disciples who had left for Emmaus rushed in to report that Jesus had appeared to them on the road. They hadn’t recognized him at first, but they finally figured it out when he broke bread with them.

We don’t know what the disciples made of this report because it seems that they were then joined by another guest. This time, he didn’t knock.

Jesus just appeared.

Now, remember, the disciples were told by Jesus three times that he would rise from the dead. The women reported seeing Jesus and an angel. Peter confirmed that the tomb was open and empty. The men traveling to Emmaus saw Jesus.

They had all of these predictions and reports. They had a bounty of scriptures in the Old Testament about God’s suffering servant. And yet, their first reaction to Jesus… was to completely freak out.

They thought that Jesus was a ghost.

On the one hand, can we blame them for thinking Jesus was a ghost if he was cutting corners by skipping the door?

And in fairness, it sounds like Resurrected Jesus looked a little different from the Jesus they knew. In fact, the words used to describe their reactions are also used in passages where angels appeared. So he likely appeared in a more magnificent glorified state that threw them for a loop.

Still, they had a mountain of evidence all pointing to a resurrection, and they still hung back in fear. What would it take for them to believe that this was Jesus?

It turned out that Jesus had to use the break glass option, the emergency backup plan of absolute last resort, the one thing that would prove he is the resurrected Jesus in bodily form and not a ghost. Jesus… had… to… eat… broiled… fish.

Now, I’m no stranger to broiled fish. It’s gross. My family used to go fishing all of the time, so family gatherings often included various kinds of fish. We frequented seafood restaurants near the Jersey shore while growing up. I’ve had warm, heavily seasoned broiled fish, and it still tastes gross.

Jesus offered to eat broiled fish, but it was also likely cold. And it was also likely unseasoned or poorly seasoned. Yet, once he scarfed down some bland, cold, gross broiled fish, and the disciples touched his body, they finally relaxed.

It’s as if they just needed to see someone with a stomach of steel before they could believe Jesus had risen from the dead.

*****

Just the fact that Jesus had to eat broiled fish reminds us that the disciples’ joy over the resurrection was mixed with doubt and uncertainty about the future. They were still hiding in an upper room, trying to piece together different accounts from individuals who had seen Jesus.

In a state of doubt, wonder, and confusion, the disciples then just about jumped out of their skin when Jesus showed up among them. And even when they finally received the good news of the resurrection, they had a long way to go before the life-changing moment of Pentecost.

Between Good Friday and Pentecost, there were quite a lot of doubts, misunderstandings of Jesus’ message, and confusion over what Jesus had said. The disciples were in bad shape. If you were going to figure out which movement, the Jesus movement or the Roman Empire, would have a longer lasting impact in human history, Rome would have been the easy choice on Easter morning–even if an empty tomb hinted that things were about to change in a really big way.

None of the disciples lost their spot due to doubts and confusion, but Jesus also didn’t accept their doubt as a static state. He invited his disciples to return to the scriptures, to revisit their past conversations, to consider what they see before them, and to wait patiently for the illuminating Spirit.

Jesus even steeled himself and said, “Hey y’all, watch THIS!” as he gamely scarfed down a hunk of broiled fish.

Doubt isn’t a dead end, and Jesus offered several paths to take after one vision for the future fell apart. Doubt can be a very real and very honest starting point for the journey of faith. It can also be a detour of sorts along the way. Yet I don’t see Jesus abandoning us to our doubts or settling for people who are doubting and confused.

I wonder if this speaks to our own pendulum swings today between prideful certainty and a doubt fest of endless deconstruction. At a certain point we have to ask if perhaps we’ve missed something or perhaps God can reveal something to us in the people around us, whether we can  find fresh insight through another look at scripture, whether we may find Jesus when we take a walk, or whether our faith can be rekindled by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe the academic calendar is just burned into our family’s routines right now, but this upper room moment in today’s Gospel sure feels like a final exam where the disciples are still drawing stick figures in the margins because they just aren’t sure about the answers.

Some are likely still clinging to the hope that Jesus will restore the Kingdom to Israel and that he’ll finally be an earthly king with the spiritual stuff out of the way.

All are confused about Jesus showing up like a ghost that can walk through walls but still eats fish. Jesus is unfamiliar enough that two disciples on the road to Emmaus can miss him, yet they can finally figure things out in the right context.

*****

Perhaps this story reminds us that Jesus himself will say things that sound pretty darn explicit and clear, and yet we’ll just completely miss the message. Even when he spelled out the details of his death and resurrection, his disciples just couldn’t process something so terrible happening. When Jesus fulfilled his own prophecy, doubts remained.

We’re going to miss stuff. We’re going to be confused. We will be wrong about things. That doesn’t disqualify us, but if we aren’t humble and receptive, we may miss out on intimacy with God and the deeply fulfilling call that Jesus has for us.

There isn’t a one-size fits all response to our doubts and confusioin. Jesus offers his disciples multiple paths to find him. Jesus appeared to his followers in the garden, on the road, and even in the upper room. Jesus walked on roads and walked through walls.

Jesus knew his disciples feared the future. They weren’t going to get the future for Israel that they wanted and that they read about in scripture. They had to completely rethink the story of their faith and of their lives around a Messiah who conquers and rebuilds the nation of Israel through his death and Resurrection.

This is mystical and mysterious and confusing. It’s a message that they need God’s help in sharing. That, in fact, is why Jesus told them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

If they can’t figure out the Resurrection even after Jesus spelled it out for them, you better believe they were going to need divine intervention.

And here is the crazy thing, even though things appeared hopeless, confusing, and on the fast track to NoWheresville, Pentecost changed everything.

With the wisdom of the Spirit on their side, the disciples staged a dramatic rally. They went from doubting, confused, and fearful to wise, clear-headed, and courageous. They wanted the rest of the world to know that Jesus is present, that Jesus has conquered the darkness, and that the first step is a change of direction toward his illuminating light.

The disciples had light to share with the world, and that same calling remains for us today. That promise of Jesus’ light and illuminating wisdom is ours to claim, to patiently wait on, and to experience. This gift of God’s light is meant to be shared for the benefit of others even as it shapes us from within.

As we wait for Pentecost, perhaps we can examine our hearts, asking which doubts linger, what confuses us, and what we just can’t sort out about Jesus and our faith. Jesus will stick with us whether we’re feeling stuck at a dead end, whether we’re worn down, or whether we’re not even sure where to begin.

Doubt or confusion does not disqualify you. Even the disciples started there.

Jesus loves you so deeply that he has sent his Holy Spirit among you. He is present with you even now no matter what’s on your mind. And Jesus cares so deeply for you and for his people that he even once ate an entire piece of cold, bland broiled fish. Amen.

Announcing My New Book Release: Tweet, Use Facebook, Pray

The future is digital.

Heavy Bibles, deteriorating church buildings, and offline spiritual practices are fads quickly fading into the past. If our spiritual practices are going to help us win the race to stay ahead of the pack in a rapidly changing future, then we need a reliable guide to a fully digital faith.

Enter… Tweet, Use Facebook, Pray: How Digital Spirituality Wins*

Tweet Use Facebook Pray Book

Order Your Copy Today!

Ed Cyzewski knows first hand about the roots of Christian spirituality and how simple spiritual practices can make your faith a winner.

After learning the ins and outs of digital technology’s best practices for keeping us hooked to our devices and consumed with thoughts, Ed is the ideal guide for merging digital technology and spirituality into a juggernaut of influence and captivating content.

Grow an Engaging Faith

What good is a strong faith if it can’t drive engagement in digital media?

What is the use of spiritual contentment if it can’t produce digital content?

Tweet, Use Facebook, Pray is the answer to our prayers for spiritual influence in the race to create the most engaging content that will attract the most attention. Ed’s easy to use, immensely practical guide to digital spirituality will show you:

  • How to tweet your prayers in threads that keep readers hooked.
  • How to post irresistibly sharable pictures of your prayer time.
  • How to build influence with spiritual leaders who can make your spiritual content a juggernaut.

The digital future won’t allow a moment for silence, meditation, or quiet reflection.

Long walks in nature are just taking you in pointless circles away from the real work of creating engaging content.

If you want to win the spiritual content game, then you need a proven guide: Tweet, Use Facebook, Pray by Ed Cyzewski.

Order Your Copy Today!

Help Ed crush the competition on social media by grabbing this sharable digital goody**!

Want to learn more?

Good! Because this is Ed’s annual April Fool’s Day joke! Visit my page of past jokes here.

Visit Ed’s Amazon page for all of his book listings.

Ed’s latest books, Flee, Be Silent, Pray and Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction are both on sale for $2.99 on Kindle during Lent in 2021. Those will be WAY more helpful for you.

Notes: * This is an April Fool’s Day joke. ** I loathe the use of “goodies” as a word in any context but ESPECIALLY when referring to digital products that are not even remotely close to an actual goodie and are, in reality, overvalued useless crap.

Social Media’s Solutions Often Make Our Problems Worse

Where does your mind turn in a free moment?

When it’s time to relax, what do you do?

What do you crave?

These are the kinds of questions that the designers of technology have in mind when creating devices, apps, and other tech-centered “solutions” to our perceived problems. And even before we realize we have a problem or a craving, technology is there to present a version of what we desire.

Consider some of our most important and meaningful desires in life.

We all want to do something meaningful and important that somehow makes a difference. And even if some people are largely absorbed in themselves, they’ll never flourish until they turn their gaze outward.

We all crave interpersonal connections with others. We want to belong, to be seen, to be appreciated as we are, and to know we have a place to call our own.

We all need downtime for leisure, freedom of thought, rest, and restoration.

Spirituality weaves its way through all of these areas of need, and my sense is that the goals of spirituality and overall human flourishing often suffer because of the technology-driven solutions offered to our most basic needs and desires.

That isn’t to say that technology and spirituality are completely at odds with each other. They can work together toward shared goals.

I receive spiritual direction over Zoom. Churches are streaming services online, and we keep in touch with others via phone calls, text messages, emails, and video conferences.

The meaning and connection that spirituality offers is not fundamentally opposed to technology in theory. Taking a smartphone in hand to send a message to someone is hardly anti-spirituality.

But, what if I can’t stop picking up that smartphone ?

What if I have a hard time putting that smartphone down?

THAT gets us to the deeper issues at the root of technology’s proposed solutions to our deepest desires, needs, and challenges. In the view of technology’s designers, it’s often the case that our good and essential needs, desires, and challenges are reduced to a marketing sales pitch for a tech-driven solution that may not truly fulfill our needs.

In fact, the tech-driven solution often makes things worse. Technology can offer a solution of sorts, but too often it’s a partial solution or a counterfeit solution.

Consider how the person craving connection with other people may opt for the easily accessed and socially distanced option of social media. There may be some meaningful connections made via groups or in some discussions.

Yet, that genuine need for connection drives the design and features of social media sites. The good of interpersonal connection is exploited in these social media apps that use the feedback of other users and the most engaging content of others to keep you hooked.

As a result, I’ve found myself less physically, mentally, and emotionally present for others because I’m “engaged” on “connecting” with others on social media. Social media uses up time I could spend with others in person or in one-on-one interactions. Social media fills up my mind with the most engaging (or enraging) content, making it harder to hear other people or to be silent and still before God.

It’s true that we can do good through social media. We can meet people and even loosely maintain some relationships, but how many relationships can we realistically maintain on social media? Couldn’t we just as easily use an email or a text message to maintain that relationship if it is a high priority for us?

Most importantly, what do we lose when we use social media to meet some of our deepest needs for connection, relaxation, or entertainment?

Do we lose time to make deeper connections with individuals? Are we actually relaxing or being entertained? Wouldn’t reading a book, doing an art project, or intentionally reading a newspaper be a better, more restorative practice?

Consider how much better it is to read a few focused articles in a newspaper or newspaper app vs. the reactive stream of outrage and tragedy that afflicts us on social media where we may not even know the reliability of a story’s source.

The more I think about what social media is and the impact it has on me, the more I’m convinced that it offers partial or counterfeit solutions at best to my problems. In too many cases, social media often makes my challenges worse.

Are We Searching for the Wrong Sign?

The following sermon was shared at First Presbyterian Church in Murray, KY on March 14, 2021. The reading was from John 3:14-21.  

Back in my college days, which have a way of appearing longer ago each time I recall them, I had two friends named Geoff and Jon. They were the archetypes of quiet, polite, God-fearing mid-western guys. I roped them into serving at a local youth group with me, and we always ate dinner together with the other guys on our floor.

Not too long into our first semester, Jon and Geoff started going to the gym to lift weights. I had done a little bit of weight lifting in high school. I was on the tennis team after all. I’d flexed my forearms with hand grips and arm curls, and I thought that perhaps I could join them. Maybe I would learn something new.

One day I asked if I could join them, and they kindly let me tag along.

Now, these were unassuming guys who wore jeans and plaid shirts to class and maybe sensible basketball shorts and t-shirts with a favorite team on them when we played sports. But for weight lifting, they wore these ragged shirts with cut off sleeves. There may have been red bandanas or headbands involved.

They started slapping their hands together and pumping each other up.

“Come on! Let’s go!” and “Come on! Let’s do this!” There was a call and response quality to this, where a shout of “Come on!” with a clap was met with a reply of “Yeah!” and a responding clap.

Then I noticed their biceps… they were quite large. These guys took this really seriously.

They took turns lugging these 50 pound weights and loading them onto the bench. It turned out that Jon was working on his way to bench pressing 250 pounds. Geoff could hold his own as well.

Needless to say, when the former high school tennis player took his turn, they had to lug all of those weights off the bar. It turned out that I had a lot to learn about lifting weights, and if you took a good look at me today, you’d know that I still haven’t learned that lesson.

Turning to Today’s Gospel Reading, I’d We Have Some Heavy Lifting to Do

Today’s Gospel reading feels a bit like Jesus is lugging these heavy theological concepts and dropping them in our laps. These ideas are heavy lifts. They aren’t comfortable or easy, even if some of the passages like John 3:16 may strike us as familiar.

In particular, Jesus is approached at the start of chapter three by Nicodemus, a Pharisee who is known as a leader of the Jews. The Pharisees were respected teachers of the law—Jesus even refers to Nicodemus as a “teacher of Israel.”

This is an important office for a people living under Roman military occupation after enduring generations of invasions, exiles, and oppression. We need to avoid making negative associations with the name Pharisee.

Much like my enthusiasm about being on the same page with my weight lifting friends, Nicodemus approached Jesus in the dark of night to say that he believed Jesus came from God because of the signs he did.

Remember John is not a strictly chronological Gospel like the other 3 Gospels appear to be. So it’s extremely likely that Nicodemus has witnessed quite a few miracles at this point. And keep in mind that Jesus likely had already cleared the temple of merchants in a surely controversial move. Nicodemus knew that publicly supporting Jesus would be risky.

In fact, throughout the rest of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus pops up in the narratives at key moments. At one point, the chief priests and Pharisees intended to arrest Jesus, but Nicodemus suggested that they couldn’t technically judge Jesus without giving him a proper hearing (John 7:50). That motion was swiftly dismissed.

Then, after Jesus’ death, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who feared the Jewish leaders, removed Jesus’ body from the cross and buried him in the tomb.

Nicodemus was a man with divided loyalties. It’s tempting to speculate about whether he finally became a disciple or whether he returned to the ranks of the Pharisees. That John never fills us in on his choice should serve as a warning sign to us about being willing to take on the weight of Jesus’ words.

Taking John 3, verses 1-21 as a cohesive conversation, we can see…

Nicodemus Had a Lot to Lose

As tempting as it is to see with 50/50 hindsight, we shouldn’t be too hard on Nicodemus. If we were in his sandals, we would have certainly found Jesus quite challenging.

To Nicodemus’ thinking, he was already way ahead of the pack among the Pharisees. He was willing to meet with Jesus one on one, and he correctly attributed the signs of Jesus to the presence of God. Some of his contemporaries attributed Jesus’ miracles to demonic influence!

He was at least on the right track.

Yet, as he found out from Jesus, he still wasn’t willing to do the heavy lifting that faith in Jesus would require of him. He couldn’t just believe the signs.

The word “believe” that Jesus used in this passage is the verb form of faith. Jesus is asking Nicodemus to go beyond mental assent. In that sense, we could say that even the devil “believes in” Jesus and the signs of the Jesus. The devil can’t deny them.

But Jesus is asking Nicodemus to make a shift in his thinking toward trust and reliance, to have faith in the Son of Man who came down from heaven to reveal the Father and who would be lifted up as the light guiding all people toward the Father.

This step toward the light was a single step on a much longer journey of faith. Nicodemus had to enter into a spiritual way of seeing the world, and he had to place even greater trust in Jesus than he imagined. He had to lay his life down so that God’s renewal could lead him to rebirth.

Nicodemus had to rethink so many things at once with Jesus. In John chapters 2 and 4 we find references that Jesus was already redefining the role of the temple around himself. Jesus’ body would become the meeting ground between God and humanity.

THAT was a big ask to make of any Jew  who associated the temple with the presence of God and Israel’s national identity. It had been the center piece of the Jewish people for generations, and it’s original construction plans had been handed down directly from God.

Could Nicodemus trust that Jesus was offering something better in his own body? Could Nicodemus see how the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus had fulfilled everything in the Law and prophets that he had devoted his life to both learning and teaching to others?

Imagine devoting your life to a certain way of thinking and amassing a public reputation around your expertise and then one day meeting someone who claims to offer something better. Imagine being asked to rethink your religious beliefs on a completely different, spiritual level.

That may sound hard enough for us to do today, let alone for someone like Nicodemus.

Jesus had also challenged Nicodemus to rethink what it looked like to truly put his faith in God and to be reborn spiritually. This was a conversion experience, being reborn in water and the Spirit.

It’s most likely that Jesus was referring to a baptism of repentance. John had been baptizing people in order to prepare the way for Jesus, and we shouldn’t overlook what Baptism meant to the Jewish people.

So far as I know about the current background research into Jewish customs, there was ceremonial washing before worshipping at the temple in a pool slightly larger than a hot tub called a miqvah, but also converts to Judaism were baptized.

It’s possible that being baptized in the time of Jesus was a way of acknowledging past unfaithfulness and failing to live as God’s people. It wasn’t just a ritual, it was a statement about turning away from a failed identity and taking up the identity of being God’s people again.

All of this is to say, Jesus wasn’t condemning Nicodemus, but he was confusing him and challenging him to make sacrifices and to rethink things about himself that he’d grown quite attached to.

All of that is to say….

Nicodemus Had a Heavy Lift to Place Faith in Jesus

If we are looking to make sense of how we can tie the conversation with Nicodemus together with the rest of today’s passage about light and darkness, Kamilla Blessing suggests a helpful path forward in her contribution to the IVP Women’s Bible Commentary. Blessing notes that John offers a useful foil if we compare Nicodemus with the woman at the well in the following chapter.

Let’s start with Nicodemus…

Jesus said in chapter 3, verse 8 that being born from above is mysterious and unseen and yet it has an impact on the world just like the wind. Yet, Nicodemus responded to Jesus with incredulity when Jesus spoke of a spiritual rebirth, of being born from above in chapter 3, verses 4 and 9.

Nicodemus focused only on the idea of a physical “rebirth” instead of asking Jesus to explain the nature of being born of the Spirit from above.

Then Jesus reminded Nicodemus that Nicodemus had just said a few moments ago that Jesus was from God and empowered from the very presence of God. Jesus drove home the source of his authority and wisdom in verse 13. Jesus is the only one who has ascended into heaven to bring the things of God down to humanity.

If Nicodemus finds it hard to believe Jesus, it’s because Jesus is revealing wisdom from heaven. He shouldn’t be surprised by this being a heavy lift!

John’s narrative here seems to step back into a commentary on the conversation in verses 1-15 with Nicodemus. Some commentators even think that Jesus’ discourse ends at verse 15 and then John offers the commentary starting in verse 16.

At the very least, it’s likely that Jesus’ specific conversation with Nicodemus seems to end in verse 15, and then he transitions to a more general commentary on the big picture about salvation, comparing and contrasting those who love the light vs. those who love the darkness.

This conflict between light and darkness that occurs in the discourse between Nicodemus and Jesus is a recurring theme in John. John drops little clues throughout his Gospel about contrasting light and darkness.

Now, let’s turn our attention briefly to the Samaritan woman at the well…

In her commentary notes, Blessing writes that even if the woman at the well started out as evasive and combative, she recognized the divine wisdom of Jesus. She was willing to bring her deeds into the light, facing the fact that Jesus knew everything she had ever done and things would still be OK.

She could have retreated in belligerence and shame. She could have returned to her old sources of comfort or her identity as a Samaritan woman who doesn’t talk to Jewish men.

Yet, she was willing to lay aside her assumptions and identity in order to recognize the light. While Nicodemus resisted stepping into the light with his tepid belief in the miracles of Jesus, the woman at the well brought her whole life into the light of Jesus and found mercy and a chance for a spiritual rebirth.

She found what we read about today: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

And so we come to our final question: What do you love?

In particular, today’s passage concludes by more or less asking us if we love the darkness or the light.

If you’re afraid to admit how you’d answer that question, that’s OK. Jesus came to us because of the Father’s love in order to save us, not to condemn us.

We don’t have to be like Nicodemus, who ran away from the tough questions and who was unwilling to let go of his identity. We don’t have to slink off into the night out of frustration that our attempts to identify with Jesus were somehow off the mark.

Jesus is making a big ask of us to trust in him, to see him lifted up on the cross, lifted up in the resurrection, and lifted up in the ascension so that he can give us the Spirit who will lead us to be spiritually reborn.

We can trust that the mystery of the Spirit in us has been given to us reliably from Jesus who brings his message directly from the Father who loves us.

Coming into the light may result in us seeing ourselves in ways that we’d rather not admit. Unhealthy patterns, destructive habits, and addictive sources of comfort can all take their toll over time and they can be hard to leave behind.

We’ll only get out of this mess by trusting in the new birth that comes from God alone. Hiding in the darkness won’t bring the solutions, resolutions, or security that we desire. Only by exposing ourselves to God’s light can we see what we are and who we trust in.

Like the woman at the well, we may have a checkered past. We may be evasive and combative. But in the end, there is hope for us if we are willing to trust in the one who already knows everything we’ve ever done.

Nothing surprises Jesus. We can’t hide anything from him. And yet, when he came to us, it isn’t in judgment or with a light that shames us. Jesus came to all people in love.

This light from Jesus is a light that give us clarity, wisdom, healing, and the indwelling Holy Spirit who can make our lives like new. We may have loved the darkness. We may even love the darkness now.

But look… the light is coming. It’s already here.

And what matters more than anything we’ve said, done, or thought is that God loves us and God’s light is here for us. And praise God that the light will always be stronger than the darkness. Amen.