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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.

Training Ourselves to Be Present for the Sacred Already Around Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do people draw?

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Art Was Terrible at First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Artwork Is Still Kind of Terrible

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

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

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

Whoops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone Pays the Same Price to Create

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

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

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

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

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

Comparison is a creativity killer.

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

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

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

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

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

Also? Introvert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Many of Us Should Become Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Responsibility vs. Death by Anecdotes and Conspiracies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research Doesn’t Necessarily Change Minds

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

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

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

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

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

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