Are Christians Kind Because of Their Faith or in Spite of It?

Does my Christian faith make me a kinder, more loving, more compassionate person?

I’m not sure that my answer has always been, “Yes.”

I would hope that I could answer that question in the affirmative today, but it’s easy to see how many barriers get in the way of caring for others.

We have no shortage of barriers between ourselves and others, and sometimes it’s hard to recognize them, much less to rise above them.

I grew up in the conservative evangelical ecosystem in America. Many of my afternoons included a ton of conservative/Christian nationalist talk radio. The one thing I remember from that period of my life was a kind of fear, if not contempt of people who were different from me.

Sometimes that fear or contempt gave way to a kind of hostility or suspicion of people who held different views from my own.

In addition, I was fixated on having the right doctrine. Having the right answers meant a lot more than showing grace and kindness to others.

Of course it’s easy to be dogmatic or to hold others in contempt no matter what you believe. It’s not like one vein of the Christian faith has loving others figured out. I can only speak from what I’ve experienced, and I know this: A lot of my time as a Christian was invested in being right and fearing others.

It’s hard to reach out to others in love if you’re already protecting yourself from them. Of course this raises all sorts of questions about the ways Christians in America have failed to love their enemies, let alone those who are different from them. I was so busy fearing others that it never crossed my mind to love them.

When I look back at the times that I helped others, I honestly wonder how much of my action was motivated by a genuine, God-inspired love for them and how much of it was just a shared sense of humanity. Was I aware of how much God loved these people? Was my service to them rooted in love and concern or more of a sense of pity and compassion for their suffering?

I don’t have an easy answer here for myself.

Can we evaluate our own motivations or the motivations of others?

Can we recognize the difference that God’s love makes in our lives, let alone the way God’s love influences our kindness toward others?

What is driving us to help others? Is it the love of God. I hope so, but sometimes I wonder.

Do I live each day with a grounding awareness of God’s love?

Have I spent time each day attentive to the presence of God?

Or do I leave my mind to wander with distractions in sports, news, entertainment, or who knows what else?

I can’t imagine it would be helpful to hold all of my actions under a spotlight to determine whether they are rooted in love or rooted in something else. Motivations are challenging to untangle.

Maybe one place to begin is asking myself, “What am I aware of right now?”

Much like a daily Examen that aims to look for God’s presence and to increase one’s awareness of God, I can pause to consider what’s on my mind and what’s driving me to act.

Too many times in my life, I’ve been driven by things other than love. I made a lot of noise, but I’m not sure I always shared a lot of love. That isn’t too say I’ve been completely useless, but I wonder how I could have loved others better if I’d seen them through the clarity of God’s love rather than the fog of today’s distractions.

Why Is Stopping to Pray Agony Sometimes?

If Wayfair sold a sitting chair that comes with a seat belt or, better yet, a five-point belt system like a toddler seat, I’d drop it right into my shopping cart with hardly a second thought.

Perhaps my common sense would kick in and overrule such an impulsive move, but some mornings, it’s so hard to sit in my chair to pray that a belt system sure seems like it would help. It takes an act of will to keep myself glued down, mind clear, and intentions directed toward God.

Why is prayer so agonizing sometimes?

There is something to be said of developing habits and discipline. I know that prayer isn’t anywhere near as difficult as it used to be.

There is also something to be said for mental health or other conditions of the mind. I know that some people have a much harder time focusing and single-tasking than others, and there is no shame or judgment for them.

Speaking only for myself, I can’t overlook the place of activity as a preferred state of being. Zipping from one thing to another while keeping a tally of what’s been done and what needs to be done all while nurturing a lingering feeling of “overwhelm” makes a seatbelted sitting chair sound awfully practical when it’s time to pray.

What motivates us to keep in motion? First of all, I don’t know if I can even recognize the negative side of being in motion. Oftentimes I’m moving from one good or neutral thing to another. It’s not like my day is piled high with vices or aimless distractions–although we all know that our phones can suck up plenty of time.

Second, I likely overvalue the benefit of the items on the running list that weighs down my mind but makes my feet light. I’m not even sure what exactly I hope to gain by getting so much done, but somehow these things gain an oversized importance.

Finally, I wonder if I can’t quite imagine the good that could come from silent prayer, sitting still in God’s presence, or interceding for others. At this point in my prayer practice, it’s not hard to make myself sit down at a regular time to pray (things haven’t always been that way!), but it remains quite hard to settle my mind sometimes.

The agony of sitting still during prayer means that I’m often too focused on getting one more thing (and then one more thing after that) done. I have overvalued the benefit of my own activity and undervalued the benefit of being present for God in a quiet moment.

There isn’t an easy fix for such agonizing moments during prayer. Perhaps the best solution I’ve found is knowing that I can endure the desire to bounce out of my seat, to remember such restlessness is often for a season, and that moments of greater peace and attentiveness to prayer are possible.

The solution I crave deep in my soul, the thing that keeps me on edge and ready to leap to my feet, isn’t going to come from surrender to my restless impulses.

Restoration will come on the other side of the agony of stillness (which really isn’t agony at all) where my mind grows in daily, even momentary awareness of God.

Attention to the presence of Jesus can shape our minds and direct our actions rather than letting the roller coaster of each day take control. Even today, Jesus can speak, “Peace, be still,” to our ever moving, ever shifting bodies.

The Worst Advent Sermon Ever

I shared the following sermon on November 28, 2021 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Murray, KY.

Passage: Luke 21:25­–36

If I could paraphrase the words of a Jedi master this morning:

“This isn’t the Advent sermon you were looking for.”

And if you were hoping for a clever, light-hearted opening anecdote after a Gospel reading like that, I’ve gotta tell ya: you’re out of luck.

On this first Sunday of Advent, we have a rather unexpected story of waiting. Rather than waiting for the wonder of God’s coming as a tiny infant, the disciples were waiting for a national tragedy and a personal upheaval.

The disciples had just walked out of the temple courts and marveled at the massive stones around them. And as impressive as these stones surely appeared then and now, Jesus assured them they would also marvel at their destruction in the near future.

The disciples were waiting, but they were waiting for the loss of a treasured national and religious institution and many of their hopes for the future.

What did Jesus say to people who were on the brink of a major national disaster? He didn’t give them precise details. In fact, he spoke in a lot of symbolic language that was derived from the literature of his day.

Today’s passage is full of sayings and images that are extremely unfamiliar to us but would have been familiar to the disciples and Jesus.

At the risk of getting too tangled up in the background, I want to at least draw your attention to the title “Son of Man.” By considering what Jesus may have meant here based on the words he chose, we may get a better sense of the entire passage.

Jesus frequently referred to himself as the Son of Man, and it’s a phrase that could have meant just someone who is a human. But it can also carry a deeper meaning based on Daniel and Jewish literature between the Old and New Testaments.

Even the language of turmoil in the heavens with “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” was a common literary device from Jesus’ day that could refer to currents events in symbolic terms.

The Son of Man was a figure who would bring justice and judgment at the end of time after a period of suffering and struggle. It’s not hard to see why Jesus would refer to himself in this way during the Roman occupation.

In addition to promising a kind of relief to Roman rule through the Kingdom of God, Jesus also saw himself as revealing the truth about those around him. By their words and deeds they would be rewarded by God, even if Jesus’ ministry and salvation have always been based on God’s mercy and grace.

Now, about that time of suffering and struggle, Jesus had a lot of disturbing things to say to his disciples. This passage is the ending of a longer conversation about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, if not the entire city by the Roman Army.

Historically, we know that it happened in 70 AD and that it was a horrifying loss of life and destruction. We can visit the old streets of Jerusalem today that have been excavated, and the massive stones the disciples once marveled over are still indented deep into the sidewalks.

It was a national trauma we can only approximate in small parts with our nation’s recent history of mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and the coup of January 6th. It’s no wonder that Jesus has described people as being in distress and faint from fear.

Prior to today’s passage, Jesus also described the kind of persecution his disciples would face at the hands of their own religious leaders. In short, his disciples would face alienation from every religious institution they had known all of their lives and then watch their nation’s most treasured buildings get laid to waste.

These were inexplicable tragedies they would have to wait for. This isn’t the kind of waiting we expect to find during Advent where we typically look to the hope of a newborn infant king. This is a difficult, dreadful waiting. But Jesus offers his disciples and us some simple, concrete ideas about how to handle this kind of waiting.

———————-

Now, before we say more about Jesus’ instructions to his disciples, I feel like I need to address the part of this passage where Jesus speaks of the Son of Man coming in the clouds. It’s an unusual statement that doesn’t really have a consensus of views that I can find.

One moment Jesus was speaking about the walls of Jerusalem being toppled and his disciples being persecuted by the Jewish religious leaders, and then the next, he is predicting the arrival of the Son of Man in the clouds.

He doesn’t say what the Son of Man is going to do in the clouds or where he’s going or what happens next after this moment in the clouds.

Now, we know that Jesus will return. That’s not in dispute. In the book of Acts his disciples watched Jesus ascend, and the angels assured them that Jesus would return in much the same way.

It’s interesting in this passage that Jesus chose to use the title Son of Man to describe this appearance in the clouds. And it’s interesting how this brief divine inbreaking in history is more or less sandwiched between quite practical advice about how to deal with historical events that happened to his disciples.

Some have made a lot about this passage addressing the return of Jesus. While I don’t dispute the hope of Jesus’ return to bring justice and deliverance, the burden of proof falls significantly on those with a future focus rather than those with a historical focus.

Consider this, if we added up all of the verses in this chapter that have a clear historical reference against those that may speak to the future, the majority speak to the history and perhaps two or three could speak to a future coming of the Son of Man.

Remember, we aren’t quite sure how Jesus was using this phrase “Son of Man,” and the details in this passage are sparse about what the Son of Man will even do when he appears in the clouds or what exactly he meant when he spoke of people standing before the Son of Man.

I won’t rule out some out some reference to the future in this passage, but any kind of future application is going to take a lot of work. Keep in mind that Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”

At the very least, the coming tragedy of Jerusalem that will upend what people rely on can stand as a kind of type for future disruptions. The way the disciples waited and prepared can stand as a type for how we wait and prepare.

Ultimately, our choices and preparation will be revealed by God for what they are. Have we waited well and prepared for the future or will the Son of Man reveal that we have only indulged in distractions to help us get through another day?

Whatever the details of the future of the revelation of Jesus may be, there is still so much we can meditate on without getting wrapped up in end times debates.

—————————-

As much as we can get tangled up in how much Jesus was speaking about the future and how much of it applied to events in ancient Israel, there is a lot here about waiting. Jesus’ words may help us during an Advent where we are enduring and anticipating many difficult circumstances.

For starters, when people were in distress and faint from fear over the looming threat of Rome, Jesus told his followers “look up to God for your redemption is near.”

In the midst of these wars and rumors of wars and a time of unspecified turmoil in the sky, the followers of Jesus should pay attention a lot like a farmer watching the seasons. Changes will come. We can’t stop them, but we can observe them and look to God for comfort and direction.

Every farmer has plans for the different seasons. Farmers don’t spend the winter looking out the window longing for summers gone by. They test their soil and plan the next season. They are hopeful that enduring the winter will give way to the renewal of spring.

It is hard to watch the warmth of summer fade as each falling leaf beckons the arrival of the darker, colder days of winter. And it is hard to watch the comforting patterns of our past fade away, to see new disturbing trends, and to wonder and worry about what the future holds.

I miss living in a time when we didn’t have a pandemic looming over every gathering of people.

I miss living in a time when we didn’t have the immediate threat of climate change.

I miss living in a time when we didn’t have social media facilitating conflict between us.

I miss living in a time when we knew that politicians would honor election results instead of inspiring violence in our capital.

The reality is that far too many people have been living with injustice, inequality, and neglect. We aren’t guaranteed that violent crimes will be judged justly or that our laws will guarantee peace and safety.

How can we pay attention to the challenges of our time that are filled with rumors, anxieties, and worries? Jesus says to both pay attention and to not get weighed down by the worries of life. That seems easier said than done, but let’s give it a shot.

First, we can recognize the traps that prevent us from waiting well. If giving in to obsessing about our worries is one trap, another trap is denial or distraction. This is the trap that a lot of people prefer.

We can distract ourselves with buying things, entertainment, drinking too much, eating too much, and filling our lives with screens that help us escape being alone with our own thoughts. We can’t run away from the challenges of this moment, and sooner or later the anxiety and worry we avoid will overtake us.

Second, if avoiding or indulging our worries is bad for us, we can accept our circumstances. Even if we can do some things to make life better for ourselves and our neighbors, we also need to see this season of life for what it is and accept that we often can’t control what’s coming next.

Our one recourse is to turn to God in faith. We can look up for our redemption. We can wait in faith that God will not abandon us. In fact, God has already come among us once and given us his Holy Spirit to comfort and guide us through our uncertain season of waiting.

Jesus knows about the burden of waiting and that we may even be waiting for things that are beyond what we can bear. That is why Jesus said to pray for strength.

He urged his disciples to pray for strength to endure the tragedy coming to Jerusalem, and his words continue to speak to us.

While we wait, we have one job to do, and perhaps that one job can save us from obsessing or worrying or losing ourselves in indulgent distractions. Our one job is to watch and pray.

It’s not enough to just watch.

It’s not enough to just pray.

We need to be aware of what is happening around us and entrust ourselves to God, looking to God for our direction and comfort. Jesus will reveal what is in our hearts, what we value, and how we have spent our time.

This is a season to place our hope in God’s coming justice, but it’s also a time to face the uncertainty of life.

How will we meet uncertainty and worry?

How will we face the upheaval of tomorrow?

Waiting well doesn’t rule out action. Rather, waiting well may even prepare us to act.

Our foundation for waiting well is to watch and pray. Watch the events unfolding around us with clear eyed realism. Don’t get swept up in hysteria and reactions, but don’t hide from reality.

And then pray about what you see. Pray for strength. Pray with hope in God alone to help you stand with integrity and wisdom.

From the stability of faith in God, we may find renewed capacity to act in keeping with God’s will for justice, righteousness, and restoration.

Being alert and aware of our times doesn’t mean we have to be fearful or overcome with dread. Being alert means that we watch what is before us, and then we meet the moment with unwavering faith that God is for us and God is with us.

Our hope is that we will one day stand before the Son of Man to be redeemed because we have spent time today on our knees.

We have one job during this season: to watch and to pray.

Image source: Unsplash.

Christian Prayer and Spiritual Gaslighting During a Crisis

At the start of the pandemic in America during March 2020, a friend and I emailed several large churches in our town encouraging them to take their services online as the pandemic began to spread in our town.

This was during the early days of COVID-19 when we didn’t know much about how it spread other than the fact that it was airborne. We politely urged them to consider that limited time in enclosed public spaces was the best way to prevent it from spreading and mutating into more virulent forms.

As many states announced quarantines and lock downs in order to slow down the spread of COVID-19, churches were a vital piece of the puzzle. Although the president at that time and his administration downplayed COVID-19 and politicized safety measures such as indoor masking, we saw that many churches in our region were meeting to discuss safety measures.

Some of the largest Baptist churches in our town did take their services online in response to the pleas of public health officials and doctors, despite some higher level leaders in the SBC saying that they should still meet in person and “preach the Gospel.” It felt like public health or preaching the Gospel were mutually exclusive.

Yet, the most disturbing response of a local church in our area, a nondenominational church just outside of town, came on its Facebook page.

The church posted an image of a man’s silhouette standing with his arms spread open in front of a blinding light. The bold lettered caption read, “Freedom from fear.”

The post announced that they would continue to meet despite the fears of the pandemic. They would meet this pandemic with FAITH, not fear.

I’ve seen a lot of absurd stuff on Facebook. I’ve seen a lot of absurd stuff posted by Christians on Facebook. But this post was damaging on many levels.

It was bad enough for a church to ignore a public health emergency that threatened thousands of lives. Yet, the entire premise of the post pitted medical caution against Christian faith.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Christians resist the advice of medical experts or avoid the benefits of preventative medicine like a vaccine. Yet, it was the first time that I saw scientific and medical ignorance paraded as a greater act of faith.

I could understand that some may not be as cautious about masking as I am. And since then, I can understand that some may want to wait for a larger sample size of vaccination before getting a COVID vaccine. Yet, framing a reckless decision that defies medical advice as an act of faith is on par with a guy suffering from high cholesterol and chest pains downing steak dinners every night and boasting of his faith in God’s protection.

Ignoring sound medical advice isn’t an act of faith, just as heeding sound medical advice isn’t an act of fear. If that guy with high cholesterol dramatically changes his diet because of his doctor’s advice, would we chide him for not “trusting his heart with Jesus”?

Of course not. That would be absurd and actually quite cruel to a man who is trying to care for his body. In fact, it would be an attack on reality itself, which is exactly where too many Christians have ended up today.

When that church posted their “Faith over fear” announcement, they were, in effect, spiritually gaslighting people in our community.

Gaslighting attacks someone’s judgment or perception of reality. It’s manipulative and advances a false version of reality that aims to sow doubt and may even cause someone to doubt his/her own sanity. Adding a spiritual twist to gaslighting can make it even harder to pin down.

It can be especially disorienting when pastors, who are assumed to be spiritual caregivers, spiritually gaslight the Christians they are supposed to care for.

When someone takes a precaution for the sake of their own safety or the safety of their family based on sound medical advice that is widely accepted and proven, there is no reason to call that person fearful or to doubt that person’s faith.

We all know that a healthy dose of fear can help us make good choices. Faithful people engage with “fear” all of the time.

We don’t let our 3-year-old daughter out front of our house without us outside as well. You could say that we fear for her safety, but the reality is that we are taking reasonable cautions based on how close our home is to the road.

Christians also hardly bat an eye at the concept of fearing God. In fact, if you have faith in God, then you also likely fear God, for you recognize that God is merciful AND powerful. There is respect and awe for God’s power, even if you find comfort in God’s patience and love. We obey because we take God’s mercy and power seriously.

All of this brings us back to why a church would spiritually gaslight people in the first place. Why would a church challenge the very foundations of reality during a national health crisis and twist the knife with a spiritual challenge?

We can’t underestimate the impact that manipulative and false information has had on our society. A small group of doctors and “experts” continue to push false information about masks, vaccines, and other safety measures during the pandemic.

Manipulative, agenda-driven news stations, social media personalities, radio hosts, and podcasters continue to agitate their listeners with false medical advice and agitating conflict. They’ve effectively created an “us vs. them” mentality where their fans are the truth seekers and the rest of society is just “sheeple” at the mercy of “agenda driven” doctors and scientists.

It’s hard to believe how effective and widespread these false narratives have become, and it’s quite challenging to respond to this gaslighting with patience and empathy. The place where I need to begin is clarity, because spiritual gaslighting, like any kind of gaslighting, can be upsetting, angering, and disorienting.

We can only respond with prayerful charity when we understand the full nature of the offense against us. If an absurd attack on reality is being spiritualized, we must say that it is such regardless of the person’s motives.

Without some clarity and a firm grounding in the reality of the situation, gaslighting will continue to frustrate and enrage us. Spiritual gaslighting can lead to guilt, uncertainty, and a deep unsettling of one’s faith.

Since that church’s poorly conceived post on social media, I’ve made two significant changes to the way I interact with information online.

First, I pay attention really well to stories I read in the news. I look at what experts say and try to evaluate how unanimous they are in their opinions so that I won’t be unsettled by gaslighting and false narratives.

Second, I try to avoid reacting outright to gaslighting or false narratives. If something unsettles me, I try to sit with it, pray about it, and dig down into what exactly is weighing on my mind.

Oftentimes, there’s nothing I can do to change a gaslighting situation. But I think it counts for something if I avoid responding with anger or letting gaslighting seriously disrupt my thoughts.

There aren’t easy times, but I believe we can find a bit of peace and hope by guarding our own hearts, examining what’s on our minds, and entrusting ourselves to God, even as we also trust in the proven advice of medical professionals.

Read more about the way Thomas Merton responded to the absurd challenges of his time in my eBook The One Original Cloistered Genius: Enduring Adversity and Absurdity through the Savage Humor of Thomas Merton.

Image credit.

What Matters the Most to Jesus?

The following sermon was delivered at the First Presbyterian Church in Murray, KY on November 14, 2021.
Title: What Matters to Jesus
Text: Mark 13:1-8

When I was growing up in Philadelphia in the 1980’s, the city used to have a rule of sorts that no one could construct a building taller than the hat on the head of William Penn’s statue at the top of city hall. That resulted in a relatively tame downtown skyline that made it really cool to visit New York City where the sky literally was the limit.

Out of all the buildings in New York City, I always wanted to see the Empire State building. It wasn’t just a giant rectangle of glass with a point on top. It had character and a sense of history that made it unique compared to so many other buildings.

To this day, I can’t imagine a trip to New York City without a moment to gaze at the Empire State Building. Central Park is nice enough, Time’s Square is an annoying mass of humanity with people shoving promotional flyers in your face, and Fifth Avenue is dull shopping. But the Empire State building gives you a sense of being somewhere unique and historic.

I imagine we each have a favorite building or location in a city. But there really is nothing in modern American cities today that can quite capture the impressive nature and significance of the City of Jerusalem and the temple mount complex for the Jewish people at the time of Jesus.

It’s hard for us to imagine how steep and imposing the valleys around the city used to be. We can hardly put ourselves in the sandals of peasant fishermen who had grown up in the forgotten backwater of Galilee.

The size and scale of the temple in Jerusalem and the surrounding buildings and walls were truly unique and impressive. And this was especially true for people who had only known small villages and cramped family homes. At that time adult children often built an addition to the existing structure when they were ready to start out “on their own.”

The stones used on the walls in Jerusalem and around the temple mount were enormous blocks that sometimes weighed as much as a 747. We can hardly imagine having to move those stones into place, much less stacking them up on top of each other with any kind of precision.

Today you can still see the lower portion of Jerusalem’s walls around the old city from the time of Jesus, and they remain quite impressive. I can only imagine how imposing these walls could have appeared at the time of Jesus when the valleys around them were deeper and people in that region would have had little experience seeing cities on that scale.

Now, the temple wasn’t just a fancy building in the big city. It was the center of worship and a symbol of God’s presence and their special status as God’s chosen people.

So when we read today about the disciples marveling about the massive stones and buildings, the truth is that we are still impressed today by the remnants of those stones. However, the tragic thing is that we can also be impressed by the massive indentations in the earth those stones made when the Romans hurled them to the ground in AD 70. The remnants of that destruction are also extremely impressive.

When we join Jesus and his disciples walking out of Jerusalem’s temple mount, we shouldn’t forget what Mark has already recorded.

In Mark 9:31, Jesus dropped some heavy news on his disciples: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

A short while after that, his disciples engaged in an argument behind his back about which of them was the greatest. It turned out that empathy for their master wasn’t at the front of their minds.

Mark chapter 12, which precedes today’s passage, showed Jesus in rather tense discussions and debates with the religious leaders of the temple establishment. They were trying to discredit if not incriminate Jesus.

Although Jesus had warned his disciples of his impending death and the discussions with religious leaders were extremely tense and combative, his disciples didn’t have a lot to say about it. In fact, while Jesus had the anticipation of his death and resurrection weighing on his mind, the disciples were acting like tourists sightseeing in the big city. “Hey, look at these stones! THEY’RE HUGE!”

In a sense, they acted a lot like fishermen from small town Galilee. Some commentators wonder if they were even anticipating Jesus’ coming conquest as king. Then Jesus, and by proxy them, would be in charge of the massive walls and impressive buildings.

Yet, Jesus directed the conversation in a rather jarring and painful direction. At the peak of their admiration for the beautiful buildings at the heart of their country and the temple at the center of their faith, Jesus snapped them out of it with a harsh dose of realism.

One day soon, their beloved temple would come crumbling down.

In a sense, everything around us is fragile and lacking permanence. Think of how many buildings have endured for 2,000 years. But the disciples immediately discerned that Jesus was talking about something far worse: Jerusalem will be destroyed by an invading army, which was exactly what happened about 40 years later.

We could spend the rest of our time talking about what else Jesus could have meant here. The rest of this chapter could also have something to say about the days in the future before Jesus returns. Then again, this chapter could very well refer to the events shortly after the ministry of Jesus and not much more than that.

It is compelling, to me at least, that Jesus ended this entire discourse, which is addressed to his disciples in the second person, with the following statement in verse 30: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” In addition, there was a strong Jewish tradition of using dramatic language of heavenly turmoil, such as stars falling from the sky, in Apocalyptic literature at the time that Mark wrote this Gospel.

All of this is to say, it’s likely that this passage is primarily about Rome’s war against the Jewish people and the final Roman siege of Jerusalem, even if we can’t necessarily rule out references to future events.

Now, some have devoted their time to passages like this as if decoding future events was all that Jesus asks of us. As I read what Jesus had to say, I wonder if figuring out the end of time was much of a priority for Jesus. While he offers details about the immanent destruction of the temple and surrounding buildings, he isn’t just delivering insider information about the future. Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to be led astray or to retreat in fear so that they can endure in their faith with confidence and hope.

There’s a sense that the disciples were still not fully aware of what was going on with Jesus as he traveled to Jerusalem. Even after several tense encounters with the teachers at the temple and Jesus’ dire warnings about his coming death, it appears many of them couldn’t quite put it all together.

They weren’t preparing themselves for the tribulation that Jesus would soon face or supporting him in his hour of need.

In fact, while Jesus did offer them some clues about the coming destruction of the temple, he gave them many warnings about themselves. Much like Jesus comforting the women who wept for him, Jesus prepared his clueless disciples for the adversity that would soon come their way. While drawing so near to his own suffering, Jesus prepared his followers for a distressing and uncertain future where they would need to rely on the Holy Spirit in order to persevere.

In today’s passage Jesus warned them about being led astray by false teachers who would come in his name. But in the verses that follow, he gave the chilling prediction that his disciples would be slandered and attacked. There would be family divisions over faithfulness to Jesus, and he went as far as predicting that everyone would hate them!

Although the disciples were concerned about the fate of stones and buildings, Jesus was concerned about their safety and faithfulness. He predicted attacks and trials, but most importantly he promised that God would help them endure, saying:

“When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.”

These are high stakes situations where their world is going to be flipped upside down. Family members will be divided, the religious leaders they once admired will treat them like enemies, and their freedom and safety are far from guaranteed. Jesus isn’t as concerned about the buildings of Jerusalem enduring as he is concerned about his disciples enduring.

It’s easy to empathize with the disciples here. War in that era was terrifying and devastating, bringing famine, the destruction of communities, and the brutality of an occupying army. The Jewish people were already living under the oppressive rule of Rome, but Jesus predicted something far worse that would signal the loss of religious and national symbols.

In addition to the distressing wars, invasions, famines, and natural disasters, the disciples also had to prepare themselves for false prophets claiming to speak in the name of Jesus.

This level of disruption to their nation, their society, their religion, and their personal lives is quite staggering to consider. Although the disciples started this conversation merely worried about the future of the temple and the city of Jerusalem, they now had a whole pile of fresh worries to weigh on their minds.

It’s a little jarring to hear in this morning’s passage Jesus saying, “Do not be alarmed” about the coming wars and famines and disruptions. Alarm feels really natural, and every other coming crisis he mentions seems to warrant alarm as well.

Yet, there’s a comforting pragmatism in what Jesus said. These things must take place. They can’t stop them. However, they can trust themselves to God and rely on the Holy Spirit to guide their thoughts and words in the midst of this coming disruption.

This unusual and uncomfortable passage may prompt us to ask what we value right now. What are the things that impress us? What gives us a sense of security or belonging? What are we counting on?

Perhaps we can ask how we could depend on God if we were apart from our work, apart from our homes, apart from our cars, or apart from certain relationships? What can’t we imagine living without?

It’s possible that we may be focused on the wrong priority right now, and we need Jesus to redirect our attention to what matters the most. Perhaps we are so focused on outward religious practices that we fail to ask about the state of our souls or the resilience of our faith.

We may hear of rumors and predictions that alarm us and leave us frightened. There’s no guarantee that the institutions or organizations that we count on will always be there to support us when everything falls to pieces.

Jesus can remind us of the fragility and uncertainty of our world. Disruptions have happened in the past, and they will certainly happen again. Can we stand firm in our faith and hope in God’s presence and power to carry us through the moments that we simply can’t even imagine?

If Jesus could help a group of small town fishermen tourists to Jerusalem endure in their faith after years of missing the point, I believe that he is more than able to help us today. Amen.

It’s OK to Call Dangerously Absurd Situations Dangerous and Absurd

One Original Cloistered Genius

In the 1960’s the majority of people in America were preparing themselves for a far-reaching nuclear catastrophe.

Many of the people who prayed to Jesus the Prince of Peace on Sunday were quite alright with the idea of blowing up entire cities of godless Communists.

Even though the Pope had written about the urgency of peace on earth, plenty of Catholics remained disconnected from such thinking.

Monks were even building fall out shelters for themselves while debating finer points of obscure Medieval theology or selling their fancy bread and cheese for a handsome profit.

All of this infuriated Cistercian monk and bestselling author Thomas Merton who plodded away on his typewriter in the isolation of his hermitage in the hills of Kentucky.

As he wrote articles publicly about the madness of his times and the negligence of his church toward people who had been created in God’s image, Merton faced a stinging backlash from the superiors in his monastic order. They believed that a monk should remain silent, weep, and pray.

This only deepened Merton’s frustration, as he watched monks labor for hours each day on profit making ventures rather than “weeping or praying.” In fact, he directly linked the loss of any monastic prophetic function with the neglect of prayer and weeping. He wrote in one letter:

In a word, it is all right for the monk to break his ass putting out packages of cheese and making a pile of money for the old monastery, but as to doing anything that is really fruitful for the Church, that is another matter altogether. What is the contemplative life if one doesn’t listen to God in it?

The Hidden Ground of Love, 79

He dug the knife a bit deeper about all of the “weeping” monks did at his monastery in a journal entry:

I had been hoping to republish a few articles on nuclear war that had been permitted by Dom Gabriel—thinking that it was enough that he had permitted them once. Not so. The new General, Dom Ignace Gillet, dug into the files, held a meeting of Definitors, and declared that there was to be no republishing of these articles. Thus I am still not permitted to say what Pope John said in Pacem in Terris. Reason: “That is not the job of a monk, it is for the Bishops.” Certainly it has a basis in monastic tradition. “The job of the monk is to weep, not to teach.” But with our cheese business and all the other “weeping” functions we have undertaken, it seems strange that a monk should be forbidden to stand up for the truth, particularly when the truth (in this case) is disastrously neglected.

The Intimate Merton, 215

Although Merton tried to overcome the barriers to his publications about peacemaking and justice at a moment of great peril for humanity, his superiors won in the short term. Blocked from public publishing, he regularly found solace in his journal entries and in letters to friends that pointedly and humorously described the absurd and dangerous state of the world and his monastic order’s inadequate response.

There was no other way to describe his moment in time than a failure of Christians, and monks in particular, to grasp the enormous challenges facing the world.

In both journal entries and personal letters, Merton’s humor is sharp and cutting. His sarcasm thick and heavy. He knew that he was only fleshing out what the Pope had already written, but his station as a monk, bound to obey his superiors, meant they had the final say about which of his works on the dangers of nuclear war or the injustice of racism could leave the walls of his abbey.

As an honest man convinced that he was right but also realistic enough to mockingly call himself the “one original cloistered genius,” Thomas Merton felt a burden of helpless despair to use his notoriety for the good of humanity. It appears nearly his entire order had no concern about the well-being of the many people who could suffer from nuclear war.

Having experienced a profound vision of God’s love for humanity during a trip to Louisville, Merton longed to write with clarity and sanity about the dangers of his moment in history.

Thankfully, many of those works, even the ones that were originally blocked, have finally been published. Yet, I take particular comfort in the unflinching realism of Merton’s letters and journal entries detailing his conflict and frustration over his blocked attempts to meet the madness of his times with a bit of God-inspired sanity.

It often feels like the threats to humanity have only multiplied since the time of Merton.

Today we are awash in misinformation, political partisanship driven by fabricated culture wars, vaccine misinformation during a pandemic, climate change’s threats to our planet’s viability, and attacks on voting access. It can be maddening to see the state of our world.

There are real dangers, and these dangers are only multiplied due to bad faith political actors. Even worse, too many people flat out deny these dangers, and plenty of Christians either ally themselves with those denying

We are living in a moment of mass gaslighting and an avalanche of misinformation that is threatening to tear our society apart, to marginalize minorities, and to warm our planet beyond a dangerous point of no return.

How can we stay sane during a moment that is so filled with absurdity and danger? Should we panic? Should we cry? Should we scream? Should we disconnect from it all to care for ourselves?

Thomas Merton stared down many dangerous and absurd threats in his own time, and he used a blunt realism matched with a sharp wit to endure. He sought to do what he could, he spelled out the absurdity he encountered, and he kept praying and trying to make a difference for the common good of God’s beloved creation.

It’s impossible to say what kind of impact had been achieved by Merton’s letters or limited articles that reached the public. However, we do know that peace activists and social justice leaders regularly sought his insight and support. The few times peace activists met Merton’s disapproval, they immediately sought to repair the relationship.

In my new eBook short The One Original Cloistered Genius: Enduring Adversity and Absurdity through the Savage Humor of Thomas Merton, which is also available as a paperback, I have collected many of Thomas Merton’s humorous journal entries. These brief passaged show how deeply he loved his monastic community and also how badly it let him down when it could have done so much more for the common good at a moment of international crisis.

There isn’t a simple application in a collection like this. If anything, Merton’s sarcastic and humorous letters offer us solidarity and encouragement to face the absurdity and danger of our times.

It’s helpful to know that a man recognized as a “spiritual master” in his own time mocked his own pride and leveled devastating criticisms at his superiors and monastic orders when so much was on the line.

In retrospect, it’s quite clear that Merton was right. Blasting untold numbers of densely populated cities to dust with nuclear weapons was a really bad idea and still remains a really bad idea.

I can only hope that more people will realize that issues like stopping climate change or having wider access to voting are good for humanity, good for the poor, and good for the people who are marginalized the most.

Perhaps reading Merton’s struggles in a previous generation will give us the courage and hope to persevere as we face the absurd dangers of our time. And the starting point for facing such a moment is to simply acknowledge that it’s absolutely absurd that we have even reached this moment of crisis in the first place.

On sale now: The One Original Cloistered Genius: Enduring Adversity and Absurdity through the Savage Humor of Thomas Merton

Order the eBook for $1.99 or the paperback for $7.99.

Pride Isn’t Just a Fall. Sometimes It Kills

One of the strangest experiences in my career as a writer has been writing for a welding company for about ten years.

I learned a lot about welding helmets, the latest welding machines, and the biggest trends in welding supplies and accessories. I logged untold hours on YouTube welding channels, analyzed the benefits of several different welding processes, and got to intimately know the websites of many leading brands in the industry.

In short, I was experienced in “talking shop” about welding without ever actually stepping into a welding shop. For all of the research I’d done into the processes and products that helped customers buy products, you really didn’t want me setting foot in a welding shop, striking an arc, and then afflicting two pieces of metal with it.

Since welding uses a lot of electricity and gives off plenty of sparks, it would have been a huge mistake for me to assume I had anything to offer in a welding shop.

For me to confuse hours of online research with the hard-earned dues paid by welders would have been misguided at best and probably quite prideful. In fact, any kind of online researcher who claims to be equal to, or superior to, an actual hands-on expert is most certainly quite prideful.

Yet, pride is hard to nail down. I wonder if we overlook it because we try to give someone the benefit of a doubt. “Well, he was wrong, but at least he meant well.” Or we may say, “He was just trying his best to be responsible by learning something new.”

But isn’t rejecting expertise inherently irresponsible and prideful?

In addition, perhaps we are so inundated with pride as a society that it’s almost impossible to spot. It’s just becoming the de facto way of living.

I can’t say for sure, but I do feel like I’m just swimming in an ocean of unidentified pride each time I walk into a store or coffee shop throughout the pandemic where people have refused to wear masks during a highly contagious airborne pandemic.

We could surely mention how science has been politicized and people are inundated by so much misinformation, but does any of that excuse the pride of thinking we know better than a doctor or researcher with decades of hands-on experience?

The past year or more have been especially galling for me because I’m surrounded each day by pastors, church volunteers, and devout Christians. They are eager to go out with their Bibles, but I have rarely seen any of them inside with masks on during some of the most highly contagious and highest rates of infection during the pandemic.

I surely understand the hesitancy to wear a mask when vaccination rates are high and local infection rates are low. I’m talking about resistance to masks, to say nothing of safe vaccines, during the most dire moments of emergency during the pandemic.

Would the prideful flaunting of a public health crisis count as a sin to these Christians? I doubt it, but why wouldn’t it? Isn’t it the very definition of pride to believe you know better than the experts in the medical field?

I can imagine the mask-resistant Baptists in my town would take a different view of things if I stepped into a biblical Hebrew class and told the professor that I had a better idea of how to translate a Psalm based on my year of biblical Hebrew twenty years ago.

How is that imagined pride of my Hebrew “prowess” any different from Christians imagining they know better than doctors and researchers giving the recommendations to wear a mask in an indoor space?

We are familiar with the teaching that pride comes before a fall, but in America today, pride also comes before sickness and even death if we continue to reject the guidance of experts who continue to be ignored by far too many.

I know first-hand that it’s unpleasant to face pride. Yet, considering the consequences of pride and believing anyone who has done some “online research” over an actual medical expert, the discomfort of confessing pride is way better than someone slowly suffocating to death while on a ventilator.

From that standpoint, wearing a mask indoors doesn’t seem like a huge risk or inconvenience for the sake of others.

With a constantly evolving pandemic, the guidance of medical experts may change over time. New information may be discovered, and our guidance will change.

If I change anything that I do, it will surely be done based on the consensus recommendations of doctors and medical researchers.

The thought of an internet-researching novice like me in the welding shop is bad enough for my own safety. I can’t imagine an internet-researching novice can do much better when it comes to public health recommendations during a pandemic.

Photo by Marvin Esteve on Unsplash

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.