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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.

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

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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.

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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.

Prophets Are Always Most Popular When They’re Dead

The following sermon text is from a sermon I preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church on March 7, 2021 on the Gospel passage in John 2:13-22.

Prophets are always at their most popular when they are dead. Their challenging messages that disrupt the status quo have a way of softening in their absence as the original audience for the prophet’s message fades away.

We could describe Martin Luther King Jr. as a prophet  who quoted scripture throughout his struggle in the American Civil Rights movement, advocating in part for voting rights, fair wages, just laws, and equality for all.

Ironically, politicians who have voted against what King stood for annually offer him social media tributes without fail on MLK Jr. Day. One former member of Congress with strong ties to white supremacy even had the gall to share one of the more inspirational King quotes that conveniently avoided any discussion of racial justice.

The Washington Post quoted King’s daughter Bernice on a recent MLK Jr. Day, “There will be an overflow of King quotes today… We can’t, with truth and consciousness, quote my father, while dehumanizing each other & sanctioning hate.”

We may also remember that Pope Francis spoke to Congress in 2015 and honored King, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Abraham Lincoln as  “four representatives of the American people,” using their dreams of justice, equal rights, liberty and peace to make America a better place.

Yet, during their lifetimes, Merton and Day were often criticized, ostracized, silenced, and slandered for calling into question the buildup of nuclear weapons during the cold war. Merton and Day exchanged letters over their frustrations as exiles among the mainstream of Catholicism that approved of war.

Merton wrote to Day with his customary sarcasm,

“My peace writings have reached an abrupt halt. Told not to do any more on that subject. Dangerous, subversive, perilous, offensive to pious ears, and confusing to good Catholics who are all at peace in the nice idea that we ought to wipe Russia off the face of the earth. Why get people all stirred up?”

The Hidden Ground of Love, Page: 74

Merton later griped in his journal about not being able to write about nuclear war:

“I am still not permitted to say what Pope John said… [The] Reason: “That is not the job of a monk, it is for the Bishops.” [But] Certainly it has a basis in monastic tradition. [Quote] “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.

Intimate Merton, Page: 215

It’s easy to honor a prophet when you’re not the immediate target of the prophet’s message.

At the time of Jesus he noted that his people wept at the tombs of the prophets whom their ancestors had killed. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn what happened to John the Baptist and Jesus when they took up the prophetic mantles of the likes of Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.

Our challenge today is to encounter the message of the prophets and to do our best to imagine ourselves in the same shoes as the prophet’s audience. We need to see how these messages, cutting through the pretenses in their original audience, can convict us as well. It’s not an easy or desirable position to be in!

If we can place ourselves alongside the original audience of the prophets, we may find that the prophets have messages for us about how to draw near to God and how to treat our neighbors with love, kindness and justice.

Today’s Gospel reading clearly presents Jesus as a prophet within the Jewish tradition. In order to better understand today’s reading, let’s begin with a brief look at what a prophet was and how a prophet functioned.

A prophet in the Judeo/Christian sense may be described as a person who conveys a message from God. Abraham J. Heschel writes about the canonical Hebrew prophets like this, “A prophet is… endowed with a mission, with the power of a word not his own that accounts for his greatness—but also with temperament, concern, character, and individuality… The word of God reverberated in the voice of a man.”

We should not view prophets as men and women who merely reveal the future. Prophets reveal God’s perspective. Some call prophets ambassadors for God, and so their revelation may be a message about what is coming in the future, but even that message about the future tends to be more wrapped up in God’s assessment of the present moment.

Jesus frequently imitated the prophetic ministry of Isaiah, Elisha, and Jeremiah with his miracles, messages, and actions. For his original audience that was steeped in these stories and traditions, the prophetic role of Jesus was beyond dispute. Taking a whip into the temple like he did in today’s story is exactly the kind of action we would expect from a prophet.

Jesus’ words in John and the other Gospels were drawn directly from the prophet Jeremiah, even as he hinted at the destruction of the temple:

We read in Jeremiah 7:11-14 NRSV

11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord. 12 Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel…  I will do to the house that is called by my name, in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your ancestors, just what I did to Shiloh. ”

In other words, a foreign invader will destroy the Jerusalem temple in the southern kingdom of Judah just like what happened to the holy place of Shiloh in the northern kingdom of Israel.

Much like the prophets before him, the words of Jesus are a little easier for us to read today since we aren’t the primary targets of his message. And since we lack any kind of modern equivalent for the Jewish temple, we’ll have to work especially hard to grasp the significance of what Jesus did and what he said.

Setting the Scene for the Cleansing of the Temple

The temple was the religious focal point for the Jewish people. At least three times each year, the Jewish people traveled en masse to the temple for major feasts and holy days. The Passover was among the most important, and we should imagine Jewish pilgrims arriving from not only throughout Palestine but from around the world. There are travelers of Jewish descent and also Greeks who have adopted the Jewish religion as the two cultures interacted together.

There is hardly a united front of Jewish leaders at this time. There are factions and divisions along religious and political lines at the very least. Caiaphas the high priest and the religious leaders in the Sanhedrin have arguments and feuds, and among them is the location where sacrificial animals for the temple and money changers for the temple tax will be located. Historically, these merchants and money changers were located outside the temple grounds in the nearby Kidron Valley, but allegedly, a Jewish Midrash reports that a feud among Caiaphas and other religious leaders in 30 AD resulted in select merchants and money changers receiving a prime position within the temple.

We may imagine that this was likely not popular with the Jews of Greek descent who now had to pray while mingling with nearby animals and merchants. In addition, the entire atmosphere of the temple would have been altered significantly. Perhaps the typical pilgrim was annoyed but also resigned to accept whatever the most powerful religious leaders demanded.

We shouldn’t be surprised to know that Jesus soon earned himself a number of powerful enemies when he drove out the animals and money changers. He likely expressed the opinions of many Greek Jews and of many pilgrims who were likely shocked by this change at the temple grounds.

Nevertheless, Jesus still appeared to be attacking the most important religious institution of his people. First, he attacked the money changers and drove the animals out of the temple who made its functions run smoothly. Even if they had to relocate, there was surely a disruption to the day’s religious practices.

Second, Jesus predicted that the temple would be destroyed. We simply don’t have a comparable institution to the temple that embodied religious and national identity like the Jewish temple. To predict its destruction, even in a prophetic tradition, touched a nerve among the Jewish people. In fact, the paranoia of the Romans coming to destroy the temple was a part of what drove the conspiracy to kill Jesus.

What Does This Prophetic Act Mean for Us Today?

We could spend a lot of time asking what this passage means for us today and focusing on what Jesus may drive out of our own churches and sanctuaries. Are we abusing or misusing our sacred spaces? Are we too focused on our own self-preservation and not on the ministry of prayer and worship?

That isn’t a wrong line of application here, but it’s certainly the low hanging fruit. This is the easy application that frankly doesn’t ask too much of us. Perhaps we’ll uncover some issues that we need to address, but there’s something deeper and far more challenging in this story that we can experience and apply if we’re willing to follow Jesus into the fog of his mystical ministry.

At the climax of this story, Jesus made a shocking, confounding, and ultimately tragic statement about destroying the temple and then “raising it up” in three days. He used a verb, raising up, that applies to both construction and resurrection. John directs our understanding of this statement, saying it refers to Jesus’ death and Resurrection. While commentators have speculated about the many different meanings and possibilities here, I think we can find a lot to ponder if we take John at his word.

What if Jesus wasn’t just challenging the corruption of the temple? What if he was challenging the very centrality of the temple for his people?

His authority to cleanse the temple comes from his place as the new meeting ground between God and humanity. He will unite God with humanity through his death and Resurrection, and that connection to the Father made him the definitive voice on worshipping God.

Now, it’s not a shock to think that Jesus was more or less reimagining the role of the temple around his own body and the significance of the Resurrection. Consider in John 4 that Jesus explicitly predicts the replacement of the temple as the center of worship.

In John 4 Jesus spoke to the woman at the well.

21 “Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…  23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 

If we take the whole of John’s Gospel about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the significance of Jesus himself becoming a new “temple” or center of worship after his resurrection, then this passage challenges us to go beyond the simple interpretation that only looks at our own buildings and traditions for a point of application.

This is a passage that draws us into the mystical ministry of Jesus where we are united with Jesus through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Yes, we benefit from having a sacred space for worship together, but Jesus doesn’t want us to get lost in the details of where we worship. Our sacred space for worship is within our own bodies since God is present with us. The Spirit is resting within each of us, and so the dwelling of God is with humanity.

Worship is now in Spirit and in Truth, not within stones and wood. Jesus prophetically told his listeners that the temple is irrelevant in comparison to the new Resurrection life he will bring to the world. When the Holy Spirit of God comes, the pilgrimage is now complete. God has made the pilgrimage to each of us, and so the “where” of worship is no longer a central issue.

We could spend our time fighting over the details of sacred space, and we may need to make changes in order to ensure our sacred spaces are houses of prayer that allow people to focus on God the Father. Yet, we’ll miss the bigger part of Jesus’ mission if we only look at buildings.

We need to look into the fog of his shocking message. We need to step into the void where our knowledge and concrete experiences fail us.

And perhaps entering into this mystery will help us ask new questions about what prevents us from praying, what interferes with our awareness of the Holy Spirit? What fills our minds or undermines our ability to be present for a God who is dwelling within us even right now?

Do we need to drive something out of our lives? Do we need to flip some things over? Do we need to let the hard message of Jesus today shock us into a new awareness of God among us?

I won’t say that our sacred spaces aren’t important. Yet, for the audience of Jesus, their resistance to his message was rooted in part in their attachment to the familiar stones and sacrifices they had used for years. They couldn’t enter into the mystical unknown of a God who didn’t actually require temples or sacrifices or temple taxes. When offered freedom to worship God in whatever space they came from, far too many of them retreated to the system that, although corrupt and broken in many ways, felt familiar and safe.

Jesus is offering an invitation to join him in the mystical fog, to trust that the Holy Spirit has been given to all who trust him, believe in him, and follow him. That Spirit is present for you as you pray, as you worship, and as you study. We surely see many benefits from gathering together to pray in sacred spaces together, but we’ll miss out on the great liberation and freedom of Jesus if we reject his prophetic invitation to follow the wild winds of his indwelling Spirit into the places of worship that are as close to us as they are unfamiliar.

Amen.

Christianity Isn’t a Lie, But There Are Too Many Leaders Who Lie

I’m not particularly interested in proving whether Christianity is true to anyone. I’m more concerned about helping people give Jesus and shot and seeing what happens.

To me, Christianity is a living faith. You get some information (which is true and historically reliable, by the way) and then put it into practice with the help of the Holy Spirit. My practice has grown simpler over the years, with a greater emphasis on listening and silence, depending on God rather than my own knowledge or experience–even if a foundation of some sort can help with getting these practices started.

I don’t lose sleep at night about Christianity being a fraud or a fabrication. I’ve surely got some parts of it wrong, but the central idea of a loving God present for us and revealed in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has been a constant through my highs and lows.

Yet, I do have some concerns about the amount of lies being told among Christian leaders and the kinds of lies these leaders have leveled. I mean, some of the biggest names in Christianity during my formative years have been exposed as fraudulent abusers living double lives.

It’s not all a lie, but there has been way, way too much lying among some of the most influential and powerful leaders among Christians in America, with some even extending their influence overseas.

These frauds, abusers, and liars were certainly not my own pastors, but they were EXTREMELY influential among many of the pastors in the churches I attended and among many churches throughout America.

The list is daunting to the point that I don’t think I can remember all of them. There’s Gothard, Driscoll, Hybels, Yoder, and Zacharias, just to name a few. Also, there’s the lesser deception of the likely well-meaning Joshua Harris who wrote one of the most influential books about not dating while having little to no experience in male/female relationships. Although not intentionally abusive, Harris’ book has had a devastating impact on relationships and sexual identity throughout the evangelical subculture.

Revisiting the stories of those who misled, deceived, or failed us won’t do much to help us move on, provided we’ve fully confronted these events and seen them for what they are. Yet, if so many people who presumed to be leaders in morality, theology, church planting, and spiritual formation were abusive, fraudulent, or, at best, misleading, what does that say about the substance of Christianity?

I understand that some could dismiss this as just a few bad apples. There are so many others who have been faithful and good without making names for themselves or without egregious moral failures or misrepresentations of themselves.

That’s true to a point. The unfaithfulness of one group doesn’t cancel out the faithfulness of others. But the sheer number of liars, deceivers, and abusers at the highest levels of American Christianity should make us want to examine ourselves and hopefully make such people less influential in the future.

What does it say about American Christianity that so many can amass power and influence and yet avoid scrutiny or accountability to the point that they lead double lives, harm people behind closed doors, and peddle in deceptive ideas?

This troubles me because I often wonder if we measure the wrong things in our spiritual influencers and leaders. I include myself in this. Do I value the wrong things in leaders and influencers?

One thought I’ve had is that inspiration is probably overvalued. We love it when leaders inspire us to do better. But I wonder if we need to look for leaders who are willing to ask the hard questions, to say the unpopular things, and to make us uncomfortable.

That certainly isn’t a perfect safe guard, but it at least could help us check some of our inclinations to build cults of personality around inspirational spiritual leaders. Leaders can inspire and direct people to great things without being spiritual or in step with the Spirit.

I also wonder if we need spiritual leaders who can point us to spiritual processes rather than moral outcomes that meet certain standards. In other words, instead of spelling out what faithfulness and morality will look like as an end result, we need leaders who will help us seek God and then trust the outcome to God.

At the very least, this would help us ask whether our spiritual leaders actually have the credibility to direct us. Do they have an active spiritual life, an interior depth that is grounded in God’s presence and power? People who focus on correct answers and correct outcomes don’t need to have spiritual depth or a vital relationship with the Holy Spirit.

Finally, I wonder if we honestly just need to view spiritual leaders of any large enterprise with extreme caution. Without accusing them of the worst, we should recognize that spiritual leaders with massive followings are, at best, on dangerous ground and we should increase our scrutiny as their followers increase.

Leaders who give away more of their influence and power, who plant new things, who give away what they’ve built, who know when to step back , and who recognize when life is out of balance should have more credibility in my eyes.

This may not be the perfect example, but a few years back pastor and author Francis Chan left a large, thriving ministry. Some people thought it was irresponsible. One prominent pastor I mentioned above even asked him if he was proving himself unreliable to people who would minister with him in the future.

Without getting into all of the details, Chan recognized a need to step away, and I think that sensitivity to the Spirit is the kind of thing we should value in our leaders. Leaders who move away from more power and influence should not be anomaly. We shouldn’t be shocked by this.

Too many well-meaning leaders have been crushed by the entrepreneurial, corporate-influenced model of pastoral leadership in America. Far, far too many church attending Christians have been burned by abusive leadership systems and toxic church cultures.

If we have this many prominent names leading double lives, deceiving their congregations and readers, and perpetrating horrible abuse to the most vulnerable, it’s time to start second-guessing our judgment when it comes to our spiritual leaders in the American church.

At the very least, we need leaders who show evidence of a deep inner life of prayer, a message of dependance on God rather than working toward specific moral outcomes, a capacity to recognize their limits, and a willingness to even give up the power and influence that is so readily given to them.

When a spiritual leader’s popularity and influence increases, so should our scrutiny and our caution toward them.

Are We Prepared to Receive God’s Message to Us?

The following is a sermon I preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church on January 3, 2021 on the Gospel passage in Matthew 2:1-12.

Have you ever gone somewhere and you just didn’t fit in? Or have you ever been to a place where you didn’t feel welcome? Uneasy stares may have followed you until you walked out the door.

One year, Julie and I had a great idea for Valentine’s day. Everyone goes out for a dinner date, but who goes out for a breakfast date? Just us, we thought. We could beat the crowds and save on babysitting. So, we dropped the kids off at school and set off for a local restaurant. We didn’t want to go to the same old diner. We wanted a restaurant, and we found one that had great reviews for breakfast. We’d never been there before, but how could so many positive reviews lead us astray?

We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

The first thing I saw upon entering was the hazy cloud of smoke rising from the many, many cigarettes. I’m allergic to smoke, and so that was an immediate deal breaker. Yet, we next saw that this “restaurant” was actually more of a cafeteria. And it was packed. Even worse, every eye seemed to turn right at us as we walked in.

We didn’t say a word to each other or even the hostess. We turned around abruptly and then had a very, very enjoyable Valentine’s Day breakfast at our usual diner with thankful hearts.

Thinking of the dramatic irony in my own story where I didn’t know what I was walking into at the local restaurant, I wonder if we see the 3 Magi in a similar light in today’s Gospel reading. Did they even imagine what they were getting themselves into when they set off on their journey? Here are 3 kindly, generous, wise astrologers who naively entered a place where they don’t belong. They had walked into the court of a crazy, violent King and delivered the worst possible news to him—he had competition.

While the Magi weren’t sure where to find the newborn king of the Jews, perhaps we miss some major insights if we don’t see them in all of their complexity and intrigue. By looking at the details of this story a little closer, we may get a better handle on what God was doing and what God may be saying to us today.

Let’s begin our closer examination with the low hanging fruit:

Point one: Everybody, including the Magi, Knew Herod Was Bad.

You didn’t have to be a wise man (or woman) to know that King Herod the great was bad news. After conspiring with Rome to overthrow the unpopular Jewish Hasmonean line of kings to take his place as ruler of Israel and neighboring territories, Herod suffered from persistent paranoia, imposter syndrome, and a taste for drowning opponents in his massive swimming pool at his Jericho palace. Herod’s paranoia drove him to construct a mand-made mountain south of Jerusalem called Herodium, which he turned into a military stronghold. He also spearheaded an even more remote cliffside fortress near the Dead Sea that is known today as Masada.

Yet, Herold wasn’t content to safeguard his fragile kingdom through murdering and fortress building. He soothed his imposter syndrome as a non-Jewish Idumean by marrying a princess from the Jewish Hasmonean royal line. He pacified his Jewish opponents by constructing an impressively ornate temple that significantly upgraded the 2nd temple that had disappointed its original builders. Herod also ingratiated himself to Rome by building an impressive and commercially successful harbor at a town he would name Caesarea. With Herod in place as a client king who had finally brought a degree of uneasy stability to a vital Middle Eastern crossroad, there’s no doubt that the wise Magi of the East knew enough to never take Herod up on an offer for a “dip” in his pool.

Herod looms over this whole story as a larger than life villain who found just enough leverage, common interests, and fear to stay at peace with his Jewish subjects and Roman benefactors. The Magi knew that visiting the volatile Herod was a huge risk.

If we’ve heard quite a bit about Herod’s monstrous reign, we certainly know quite a lot less about these Magi, who were respected for their social, political, and religious influence as interpreters of the stars and planets. Knowing who they were may help us get closer to the action of God pulsing throughout the layers of this story.

That brings us to our second point of clarity about this story:

Second Point: The Magi were important, and God was sending a vital message through them.  

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the Magi showing up at the birth of Jesus.

Within the 70-60 years before the birth of Jesus, astrology was an especially hot topic for Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus—the unchallenged ruler of the Mediterranean world and beyond at that time. As if to prove his position and authority as supreme ruler, Caesar widely promoted his horoscope and even included parts of it on coins, which served as imperial propaganda. In his eyes, the alignment of the moon with the powerful planet Jupiter at the time of his birth proved that he was destined to become the Roman Emperor. For people who valued these signs and symbols as influential omens, it appeared quite cut and dry.

By the time of Jesus, astrology had swept through the ancient world in part after Alexander the Great conquered Persia, a fate that astrologers in Persia had allegedly predicted no less! A mix of Greek-influenced Persian astrology became widespread and important to the point that the Ruler of the Roman Empire found it vital in justifying his reign. Suffice to say, astrology could make or break a king’s claim to the throne.

The Magi in Jesus’ day were a big deal in the eyes of their country, and they were likely respected in most countries they passed through—until they got to Israel. The Jews were surely a minority in their dismissal of astrology, and that position put them in a tough spot when the Magi showed up talking about the birth of their own King, if not the Messiah himself! To Jewish thinking, astrology was a pagan practice—full stop. The Magi were certainly intelligent and wise, but Jewish thinkers would never pair the Magi’s star viewing with Micah’s prediction about the Messiah.

The dilemma of the Jewish religious leaders could be our own to a degree. Although they relied on the scriptures as their ultimate guide, they had to consider that God had mercifully met the Magi where they were. If the Magi were looking at the night sky, it was possible that God provided a sign in that sky to guide them toward the true light. Perhaps we have too narrow a concept of God’s revelation.

While we shouldn’t bring astrology charts in church, perhaps we underestimate the possibility of finding God in nature. Maybe we overestimate our own wisdom and the authority of our own journeys to the point that we can’t see how God is reaching out to others in the only signs they’d recognize.

In addition, I can’t help noticing how much the Magi followed through on the star’s revelation. Although they were surely wealthy men with a degree of power and position, they didn’t let that keep them from making a perilous journey to a land where they were surely not welcome. The king was a murderous and often crazy tyrant, and the people had the lowest regard for astrologers. Whatever drove them to leave home was compelling enough to send them into a land where they surely stood out.

Now that we have a better handle on the Magi and Herod—or as much as we can manage in a few minutes for a character like him—let’s take a look at one other vitally important group in this Gospel narrative: the Jewish teachers.

Point Three: The Jewish teachers missed the Messiah due to divided loyalties.

While we can see the mercy of God toward the Magi in bright star over Bethlehem, we can also see the crisis of the Jewish scribes. They surely wanted to keep the peace with crazy king Herod. They had a lot to lose, and so we need to feel the alarm of Jerusalem when pagan astrologers reported a new Jewish king had been born. Was this an insurgent Hasmonean king? Was this the messiah? This had to be wrong, right?

Most importantly, if these Jewish teachers were reading about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem in Micah 5:2, they surely knew that a lot of fighting against God’s enemies follows in the rest of that chapter. If the Magi were right, which seemed impossible, a major disruptive, violent event was coming.

They had every reason to downplay the Magi and to stay put in Jerusalem while the pagan astrologers used a Jewish prophecy to find the long-awaited Jewish Messiah! It’s both tragically ironic and understandable that the Jewish teachers stayed put. Following the Magi would undermine their religious beliefs AND their fragile political alliances. They couldn’t afford to be curious, to just take a chance that the pagan astrologers were right.

For all that we can piece together about the setup of this narrative, we still have a lot of questions to ask. Let’s consider them for a moment before turning our attention to the bigger issue at play in this story. And so we have…

Point Four: We still don’t know much about the Magi or Jesus’ family in this story.

What motivated the magi the most to take this journey in the first place?

Did magi take such journeys regularly to celebrate royal births?

Or was this star such an astrological outlier that they HAD to see what the fuss was all about?

Was it really worth a brief visit to honor a newborn king in such a dangerous land?

What did they think of this poor peasant family living in a town far from where they had met and where Mary’s family resided? It appears that they left their gifts with this poor family in a forgotten arid town without asking any questions or making a fuss. We only know that they worshipped Jesus, gave him gifts, and then went on their way. When God spoke to them in a dream, they obediently went home another way in order to spare the child’s life even if it endangered their standing before Herod—should he pursue them.

The Magi took huge risks and stepped out in what we would call faith. It’s tempting to make this story all about them and to suggest ways to imitate them. Yet, while we can find much to imitate about these Magi, I wonder if we can best ask what this story teaches us about God, not just what it teaches us about the Magi.

In fact, the importance of the Magi shifts and even grows once we realize that they surely represented God’s wider outreach to all people. The scope of Jesus’ ministry is already being established by the people who first served him. Jesus didn’t start his life among the wealthy and powerful of his own people, being honored by shepherds, but he also had a wider reach to the Gentile people whom these Magi represent.

Underneath the questions, awe, and irony of this story, we find that God has been at work in ways that would surprise us if we ourselves had been in the narrative. This subtle work of God offers us three points for reflection and action:

  1. God may show up in traditions outside our own.

If the Magi looked to the stars and many superstitious Gentiles relied on the stars for guidance, God offered a signpost to Jesus in the heavens. It was a remarkable star that literally pointed at a specific home beyond all doubt. The Magi would have been ridiculed by their own people for ignoring so obvious and significant a sign. God made the revelation of nature quite clear.

Such revelations in nature may prompt us to ask what other signs God has given to people from different religious traditions. How is God speaking to them? What should we make of these signs without giving in to superstition? Most importantly, how can we welcome sincere seekers who have religious experiences outside our tradition yet also want to know more about Jesus?

Will we stare at them as if they don’t belong?

2. God can speak to us in many ways.

In this story alone, God spoke through stars, scripture, doubting religion scholars, and dreams. Are we prepared to hear God in dreams, visions, revelations in nature, and unlikely, even unwilling prophets?

If we believe that the world is God’s handiwork reflecting his glory, power, and presence, then surely this story is an invitation to look at the world with more reverence and expectation. Even a religious leader with divided loyalties can surprise us with a timely insight. When we read scripture, God may offer us an answer that is precisely what we need in the moment.

That isn’t to say we should expect daily messages in these places. Rather, we have a reminder to be open and aware of how God may speak to us. When we have clarity, then we should act.

3. Finally, God will meet us on unfamiliar ground.

As we take obedient steps to follow God into the unknown, we will place ourselves beyond our own resources. When we are most powerless and uncertain, we have an opportunity to rely on God in new ways.

While God isn’t always asking us to take such risks or to always go beyond our resources, let’s remain aware of what is in front of us and what faithfulness looks like for us today and in the weeks to come. God doesn’t bless extreme challenges and actions for their own sake. Rather, God meets us in our obedience and attentiveness, whether that’s in everyday mundane acts or in the challenges and disruptive moments of life.

When obedience leaves us feeling the most exposed, conspicuous, and even vulnerable, we can trust that the eyes of God are also upon us.

As our attentiveness to God translates into obedient action, we can take comfort in being held by God’s loving gaze that carries us even in the most unstable moments of our lives.

A Lot of Healing Needs to Happen

We’re nearing the stage of renovating our home when we need to figure out where to put our pictures. That means I also can’t help reflecting on what life was like at the moment of the picture in question, and phew boy, does that bring up lots of feels.

Perhaps the most stereotypical thing you can do in middle age is to look at your wedding picture and to ponder all of the ways you’ve changed since that joyful day.

For myself, I saw my optimistic 20-something self and thought, “A lot of healing needs to happen for you.”

I had no idea how much healing I would need, and I would venture that I had aimed to be at least somewhat self-aware and humble. Whatever measure I possessed of humility or self-awareness was hardly enough.

Yet, having cracked into my 40’s, I’m looking back at all of the ways that my healing journey has made my life so much better, and knowing that I still have plenty to sort out, I am at least a little bit hopeful about the future—at least for the space that’s in between my ears and for the people around me who I love the most.

So many of the conflicts, challenges, and shortfalls of my life can be traced, at least in part, to the deep healing I’ve needed in my life. The lesson seems to be that I have needed healing more than I could have guessed, and I will continue to need healing in ways that I cannot predict.

The theme is more or less this: healing, lots of it.

Seeing the amount of healing needed can be discouraging. It can feel like a long checklist of stuff to sort out. But perhaps it can be hopeful as well.

If we are aware of our failures or struggles up to this point in our lives, then perhaps we’ll be encouraged to learn that things could get a little bit better if we pursued healing.

As I’ve sought to understand why I think and act as I do, the roots of my anxiety, anger, fear, and disconnection from reality have shown that there is something to address in what otherwise appears to be unexplained chaos.

Just about every struggle, anxiety, or shortcoming in my life has some sort of root cause that can be explored in journaling and prayer. That root cause may not be easy to identify, and it may be extremely difficult to deal with. We may need a lot of help. I know I do.

Going through my healing journey up this point, I can see how that 20-something newly wed had a seeming tidal wave of challenges coming his way. There’d be an emergency room visit over a panic attack, therapy, EMDR, spiritual direction, and whole lot of help in so many other forms.

A lot of healing needed to happen, and I didn’t know that as a 20-something. I wish I had known just a little bit of what was coming my way and that it would be OK to struggle, to even hit what feels like rock bottom, and to seek help.

While I’m grateful for the healing I’ve gone through since then, I’m perhaps even more thankful for the simple knowledge that I will need a lot more healing in the years to come. I hopefully won’t be quite as surprised by my need to heal, and I have at least, hopefully, learned a few things by my healing process so far.

How to Love Our Neighbors Who Believe Vaccine Conspiracies

I’m sure that we’ve all been impacted by COVID-19 in one way or another, with some of us experiencing some especially challenging situations. I wanted to share a few ideas about where to find vaccine and COVID safety info that you all can pass along to others on Facebook or wherever else.

Over the Thanksgiving break, a relative started asking me some strange questions about the vaccine for COVID and whether it would be safe or not. He was pretty sure that what he’d seen was wrong, as someone he knows on Facebook had shared these conspiracy theories with him. I grew up as an evangelical Christian immersed in end times conspiracy theories, and even these conspiracies seemed way over the top.

How should we respond when we see

It’s not productive to shame or attack people who buy into fringe conspiracy theories, so I wanted to start sharing some helpful links to articles and data about the COVID-19 vaccine. It will be essential for 70% of the population to get vaccinated since the immunity from having the virus is likely wearing off. A growing number of people have already been re-infected.

Here are some links to check out and share. Feel free to add more in the comments!

  1. The top infectious disease expert in the U.S., Dr. Fauci, is urging us to get vaccinated as soon as possible. https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/01/health/us-coronavirus-tuesday/index.html
  2. The CDC has answers to frequently asked questions about the vaccinesd. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/faq.html.
  3. The Mayo Clinic has answers to frequently asked questions: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-vaccine/art-20484859
  4. The World Health Organization on the COVID-19 vaccines: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/covid-19-vaccines
  5. Science Magazine on the Moderna vaccine: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/11/absolutely-remarkable-no-one-who-got-modernas-vaccine-trial-developed-severe-covid-19.
  6. The vaccines for COVID-19 are not partisan. Trump even hoped to have the vaccine ready by election day or at least “very soon.” He was never opposed to the vaccine. https://www.politico.com/news/2020/10/30/white-house-aide-says-trumps-vaccine-by-election-day-promise-was-arbitrary-433670
  7. Career scientists are in charge of approving the safety of the vaccines: https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/01/politics/mark-meadows-fda-vaccine-trump/index.html.

That is hardly comprehensive and I doubt it will satisfy everyone who believes in conspiracy theories about the vaccines or who is dubious of vaccines in general. Yet, we have a lot of experts who have no reservations about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines being developed.

Please pass these links along. Copy and paste this post if you like. Add more links in the comments. Whatever you can do to spread accurate information will help.

People tend to gravitate toward the information they see first about an issue, and misinformation posts/conspiracy theories travel faster online because they’re designed to spark outrage and reactions.

If we can flood others with useful safety information, hopefully more people will get the vaccine.

Image source: Unsplash.