We Know Less Than We Think, So Why Not Emphasize Love?

How often have I changed my mind about a religious belief I once considered essential?

I doubt that I could count that high. My shift from a regimented theology with an all-controlling God to a free-will-based world with a loving yet powerful God has been enough to make my head spin.

Don’t even get me started on leaving behind the rapture or how reading Jewish Apocalyptic literature changed how I read the book of Revelation.

It’s not that I’ve entirely changed religions here. I’ve always been a “Christian.” Yet, the type of Christian I am and the things I believe and prioritize have shifted enough that it feels like a completely different religion.

I shouldn’t be surprised by this. Trying to figure out a mysterious God sure gets tricky, and only my pride keeps me optimistically thinking, “OK, now I’ve got this figured out!”

I imagine that Jesus isn’t surprised either, and it feels like he tried to warn us that getting into the finer details of God would be a giant FAIL.

There were a few moments in seminary when I read dense theology books and wondered why Jesus told so many simple yet mysterious parables. Something didn’t feel quite right, even though I went along with the program.

When Jesus gave his disciples commands, he kept the list almost insultingly short. It’s as if he implied, “I know you’re in over your heads. Let’s keep this short and simple.”

Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

With all that I have sought to learn and couldn’t, with all that I have changed my mind over, and with all that I thought I had figured out and didn’t, two straightforward commands have never changed.

Those two simple commands supposedly unlock the path toward every other act of obedience. In other words, it’s impossible to love your neighbor and break another commandment. If you have loved, you have been obedient.

So much has changed in what I believe and practice, but if I’m going to take Jesus seriously, it sure seems like these are marginal matters that hardly touch on what’s most important to him. Loving God and loving my neighbor stand firm in place regardless of what I do with the other parts of the Bible.  

If it’s guaranteed that I’m going to get quite a lot wrong about God and how I interpret the Bible. Even though I think I’m “less wrong” today than I was in the past, that hardly justifies placing the pursuit of answers over the pursuit of love.

If love is the greatest command, then I have a much simpler and more accurate way of measuring whether I’m living in the way of Jesus. Letting two simple commands guide my life can be humbling, and perhaps that’s why it’s sometimes so hard to get out of my own way and love.

There’s a good chance I have much more in common with those who believe differently and yet love generously. Maybe I should start acting like that’s true.

Books by Ed Cyzewski

Jesus Heals What We Ignore

The following sermon was shared on June 19, 2022 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Murray, KY on Luke 8:26-39.

I have a confession to make to you. It’s not scandalous, but it’s the sort of thing that some may be ashamed to admit.

I assure you, I’m not ashamed in the least, even if some certainly would be.

Here it is: I’m a sucker for catch-phrase comedy. I can’t get enough of those predictable one-liners in comedy shows.

There are Arrested Development’s gold standards:

“I’ve made a teeny, tiny HUGE mistake.” And “There’s always money in the banana stand!”

There’s the catch-phrase parody from the more obscure Rickey Gervais comedy series Extras:

“Are you having a laugh?”

In dating myself a good bit, one of the best-known catch-phrase comedy one-liners from my childhood belongs to Saturday Night Live’s Church Lady skit where the church lady piously highlighted a quote, unquote “scandal” and then remarked with a smirk:

“Could it be… Satan?”

That parody of Christians highlights one of our culture’s two extremes regarding spiritual, especially demonic matters.

On the one hand, there are the Christians like the Church Lady who find Satan’s fingerprints on every temptation, trial, or setback.

Others deny any possibility of Satan’s influence in the world and tend to explain away demon possession in the Bible as misdiagnosed mental illness. Some commentary writers even go in this direction.

There are a lot of things in today’s reading that can make us uncomfortable, and perhaps demon possession is but one of several things on that list.

We can also talk about racism and nationalism, as well as valuing financial security more than people and God. We’ll get to them in a minute, but since this story hinges on what happens to a demon-possessed man, let’s talk about demon possession for a moment.

In a church like this, some of us likely grew up hearing a lot about demons, the devil’s schemes, influence, and even a hockey team called The New Jersey Devils. The devil came up a lot for us, and it’s safe to say that many of the actions, motives, and disruptions that Christians blamed on the devil or demons were more likely the result of living in a world where people have free will, people hurt each other, and sometimes bad things just happen.

It’s also likely that some of us grew up not hearing much about demons and the devil, or because we grew up hearing so many questionable assertions about them, we’ve started ignoring them. Must we think about demons and spiritual battles?

Because Jesus shows up in this land where he was not welcome to solve a problem that no one wanted to deal with, we must show up as well.

Here’s the thing about Jesus’ spiritual battles with demons in the Bible: we know them when we see them. Sure, we could come up with more scientifically palatable explanations for these passages, but today’s reading makes that feel like a stretch.

Maybe there are some occasions when someone comes under the influence of a demonic spirit, and the power of Jesus is required to intervene for their liberty.

A story from my college years comes to mind. During my Junior year at a Christian University, I served as a Discipleship Coordinator (or DC), organizing small groups and prayer meetings on my floor.

One of my fellow DC’s, I’ll call her Sonya, probably one of the most respected leaders among us, shared her testimony during one of our retreats, and it went in a direction that no one expected. A year or so back, Sonya had been hanging out with some of her friends and was in a terrible, angry mood.

As she grew more belligerent and confrontational with her friends, one guy, who had no experience with such things, sensed something terribly wrong with Sonya. He prayed for her, and at one point, he prayed in the name of Jesus for an evil spirit to leave her.

Now, this is when things get crazy.

Sonya says that this voice came from her that wasn’t her own. It was an incredibly loud, terrifying bellowing and screaming that went on for far too long. Her friends continued to pray for her, and eventually, she stopped screaming and felt at peace.

There is a world of difference between a situation like that and the person who attributes a personal difficulty to the devil or a pop culture song to “demonic influence.” Just as Sonya’s friend, who knew nothing of demon possession, recognized something wasn’t right and required prayer, Jesus could see that there was something in this Gerasene outcast that required his intervention.

More importantly for us, it’s striking to see just how terrified the demons were of Jesus. Even when just about everyone doubted Jesus, the demons correctly identified him as God’s Son! They expected to be tormented by him.

How odd it is that even though these demons tormented this man, Jesus didn’t torture the demons as they’d expected. I don’t know how they thought it would help them to relocate into a herd of pigs and jump off a cliff, but Jesus let them pick their poison. It’s a puzzling detail that only drives home just how unequal the demons are to Jesus.

They are the ones begging his permission to act. It’s not even a remotely close confrontation.

Shortly after the demons sent the pigs over the cliff, the man appears restored to his right mind, gets dressed, and quietly sits at the feet of Jesus. Maybe everything will be great now that Jesus has solved this big problem!

Unfortunately, by solving one problem, Jesus created another for the people in the Gerasenes region. It turned out that having the power to heal a man and kill a herd of pigs simultaneously makes you unpopular. Killing the pigs more or less canceled out the good deed for the people in this town.

The people had already written off this man. He was a problem they were only too willing to ignore. Sure, he posed a threat, but he wasn’t going around killing entire herds of pigs.

These weren’t pet pigs rented out for church events. They were a source of financial security for someone. They were putting food on the table. We may even imagine that the loss of this herd could have been a significant economic catastrophe for someone. It could be the equivalent of casting out a demon today, but then the demon sets someone’s small business on fire.

Time and time again, Jesus drives a wedge between us and our possessions and finances. He forces us to consider whether we value other people, even those who appear to be a beyond hope. Would we want Jesus to stick around if he set us back financially to the same extent while helping someone?

That’s an element to this story that haunts me perhaps even more than the demonic aspect.

And then, there are the racial and national elements to this story. Jesus was a Jew who considered pigs unclean. He landed in a Gentile area. So it’s not hard to imagine these Gentiles thinking, “Well, of course, this Jewish miracle worker will kill our pigs! What else will he take from us? He must hate our way of life.”

The fear generated through racism and nationalism that obscures the humanity of others poisons our ability to love. This was a highly charged racial and national moment. Just a few generations before this event, Greek rulers in Israel had banned worship at the temple and even killed many Jews who continued to follow their customs and laws. No love was lost between the Jewish people and their Greek neighbors in a Gentile region like this.

The Gerasenes likely rejected Jesus partly because they couldn’t help interpreting his actions through the limits of their racial and nationalist lenses.

Even the liberated man’s fate may hinge partly on the racial and nationalist elements in this story. This man had lived among tombs in a Gentile region with pigs all over the place. Those would have been three strikes against him, to say nothing of him being possessed by a demon. So, that’s four strikes.

This man had the perfect resume if you wanted to make someone appear cursed and unreliable to Jewish people. I wonder if Jesus expected the Jewish people to reject his testimony. No one in Israel, where Jesus planned to minister, would know if his story checked out. Could they trust him?

Yet, among this man’s Gerasene people, they could verify who he was. They had seen him and heard the stories from people they trusted. Even if some had lost a great deal financially and entertained suspicions of a Jewish miracle worker, no one could deny that this man had experienced a great miracle.

His testimony counted for something among his people as he gave glory to God and credited Jesus with his miracle. To the man’s credit, he obeyed Jesus, turning his story of trauma, pain, and rejection into a testimony of healing and restoration.

While God does not cause our pain and suffering, I have seen time and time again how those healed by God in a specific area of their lives have served others in meaningful ways by sharing their healing journeys with others.

In closing, this Gospel reading challenges us to consider our attachment to the status quo, financial security, and the convenience of ignoring the big problems around us. We can look at suffering people and ask what keeps us from showing compassion to them or believing that we can share spiritual or material relief with them.

It’s also noteworthy that today is June 19th, which is known as Juneteenth in America and is now a Federal holiday. It was the day in 1865 when word reached the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War was over and slavery was abolished.

Even in a pervasively Christian region, enslavers turned away from the inconvenient prospect of emancipation. They put liberation off until Federal representatives and soldiers made reality beyond dispute.

Educators Opal Lee and DeForest Soaries write about Juneteenth in the Washington Post:

“From the start, this holiday inspired Black Americans to celebrate overcoming the injustices of the past and take steps to pursue a more just future. And if our national history proves anything, it’s this: The more people who get involved in that work, the faster and better it goes. Just look at the civil rights movement, which inspired and then transformed our nation.”

It’s always been tempting to turn a blind eye to the suffering around us and to avoid the hard work of liberation.

As we sit here and imagine ourselves sitting next to Jesus as he pulls away from the shores of the Gerasenes, I have a few questions for us to ponder. I encourage you to meditate on the one that speaks most directly to your heart:

What is Jesus telling us to stop ignoring today?

Where have our priorities distracted us from what Jesus would have us do?

How can we seek God’s healing in an area of hopelessness?

How could the undisputed power of Jesus over evil spirits give us greater peace and confidence?

These are just a few of the challenging questions today’s reading prompts. If reflecting on them leaves us feeling challenged or even uncomfortable, then we have likely given God’s Spirit something extremely useful in our lives that can also bring many blessings to others.


Learn More about Ed’s Books

Is There a Lot of Pain Behind Strong Political and Religious Opinions?

There’s a deep suspicion of the Federal government in my region of Kentucky, and as someone who came from the northeast, I didn’t understand it at first. Once I learned about the history of the region, some of that suspicion started to make sense.

When the Federal government formed the Tennessee Valley Authority in order to create jobs and affordable electricity in our area, the dammed up Cumberland River resulted in flooding that required the removal of several towns in the region now known as the Land Between the Lakes.

In addition, the Land Between the Lakes region was designated a recreation area, and the few remaining homes were purchased by the government so that residents could resettle.

Although there were some excellent benefits from this project, including extremely cheap electricity in a region that has struggled economically, homeowners in the Land Between the Lakes region alleged that the government undervalued their homes and then paid them less than the home’s value. In addition, several long time communities were unwilling to move from land that had been in their families for generations.

Such incidents hardly account for ALL of the suspicion of the Federal government in our area, but they surely don’t help. From what I can tell, the good of providing jobs and electricity was undermined by some extremely troubling exploitation of people who already didn’t have a lot of resources.

When I hear someone’s strong views about government overreach around here, I’m mindful that there’s some history that I haven’t lived through that could be influencing such perspectives.

I’d also qualify that by saying there’s a history in our region (and to the south) of resenting the government for liberating slaves and assuring the rights of black citizens. Such resentment should be understood, but it’s certainly not a belief that should be honored or accommodated.

Looking a bit more broadly, it’s fair to say that when someone is deeply committed to religious beliefs, political ideology, or a certain school of philosophy, there’s sometimes (if not often) a good bit of pain involved in that person’s story leading up to those strong beliefs.

Looking back at my own history, I am strongly opposed to the politicization of the Christian faith for the ends of any political cause, but those strong beliefs are driven in part by my disillusionment with Christianity being exploited by the religious right in America.

I know I’m hardly unique in that sense. It feels like well over half of the Christians I know in my age range share my disillusionment with politics co-opting the Christian message.

I’ve met plenty of Christians who were disillusioned by organized religion, especially Christian churches with strong pastoral figureheads, and all of them have a story of a leader abusing his (it’s almost always a man) position to the detriment of others.

People end up supporting political leaders, rejecting religious beliefs, swinging from one extreme to another, and engaging in who knows what else because of pain from their past.

Perhaps they can’t draw a straight line right away from their pain to their current convictions, but it sure seems like pain changes us and prompts us to make really big shifts that we’d otherwise resist. At the very least, our pain prompts us to make changes that we feel very strongly about.

I had some extremely negative experiences with Catholic priests who were quite dismissive of me and who were quite authoritarian in their use of power. They more or less said, “I’m the priest who represents the authority of the church, so your beliefs need to fall in line with what I’m saying.”

Such things were said with a smile that belied an assumption that I would surely take their view of things and merely fall in line. They never thought that I’d want to read the Bible and consider ideas outside of their own.

To this day I find the Catholic mass almost suffocating and unbearable. The last place I want to  be is under the authority of a priest, even in the course of leading a mass.

I can read Catholic writers because there’s a different dynamic present with an author and a reader. I can go to an Episcopal Church because our priest doesn’t claim a kind of unlimited and unquestionable religious authority that is linked to a Pope. It’s quite clear in my mind, but I’m sure it doesn’t make sense to everyone.

The common link between myself and those who are suspicious of government, religious leaders, organized religious groups, or politicians pandering to religious groups is a history of pain and disappointment.

It’s easy to judge people based on how they act today. I’ll admit that it would be much, much easier to dismiss someone who doesn’t make any sense to me or who holds views that I find wrong or even harmful.

Yet, such a dismissive spirit falls well short of how I’d want someone to handle my own pain from my past.

I also know I haven’t been as kind and gracious to some Catholics or politically driven Christians because of my own past.

We all want to be understood. We want our pain to be acknowledged and seen for what it is, even if it can make us a bit hard to handle at times.

Maybe if we can talk about our shared pain, we can even more toward a common healing where we can drop our defenses just a little bit so we can see how much we hold in common.

Books by Ed Cyzewski

Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash

The Apostle Paul Would Have Loved Critical Race Theory

Critical race theory for Christians in America

The future of early Christianity hinged in part on the merging of Jews and Gentiles into one people in Christ. A Gentile could be from Rome, Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, or another region, but all Gentiles were united in not being Jewish by race, religion, culture, and politics.

There was a lot more than race wrapped up in this division among different peoples, but there is no doubt that race was certainly part of the mix.

As the Apostle Paul left his post as a powerful religious zealot among the Jews, he became an ambassador to the Gentiles, pursuing a seemingly impossible task. He didn’t see one group dominating the other in a colonial sense. Rather, he sought to unite two very different groups as one new, equal people in Christ.

The regulations of the Jewish law no longer applied to the Law of the Spirit in Christ, but the wisdom and philosophy of the Gentiles also fell short. The history of both groups and their religious frameworks were essential for understanding both groups and for pursuing reconciliation under Christ.

In fact, the entire Christian idea of repentance hinges on an honest accounting of one’s past. Collective action of a group or system was also quite relevant beyond personal reckonings with sin.

Paul had to face the ways he had relied on his knowledge of the Jewish Law and his special place as a chosen member of God’s people before he could see the superiority of a new identity in Christ.

Gentiles had to face the ways that Christ’s foolishness overturned their wisdom and philosophy, not to mention their own sense of cultural superiority over groups like the Jews.

The impact of racial divisions and the underlying challenges of racism in the laws, practices, and institutions at the time of Paul simply couldn’t be overlooked when trying to create one people in Christ.

There is no escaping a phrase like Critical Race Theory in America today, especially in the political realm. Conservative media and politicians have generally emptied the term of any real meaning and stuffed it with every fear, reaction, and grievance of white American culture for the purposes of political activism.

We are living at a time when allegedly small government “conservatives” want to regulate what teachers can talk about in schools, to the point that they are willing to ban discussions of Critical Race Theory. It’s a shocking overreach of the government, especially for people who supposedly dislike an overreaching government.

Even worse, the mere attempt to ban discussions of Critical Race Theory is based entirely on bad faith, unserious misrepresentations of what it is. If such conservative politicians actually presented the reality of Critical Race Theory, their Christian constituents would be forced to reckon with a very uncomfortable reality: Critical Race Theory rightly identifies many of the systemic sins in America.

If white American Christians aspire to live with their black brothers and sisters as one people in Christ, there is a lot more to reconcile than personal racism or racist attitudes in one’s family history. There are systems and cultural histories in America that have afflicted black people in ways that white people would find intolerable.

Mind you, there are enough white Americans who find merely talking about the suffering of black people in America intolerable. Can you imagine what these white Americans would do if they had to face actual discrimination and systemic injustice.

The uncomfortable truth for white American Christians is that a Christian like Paul would have likely loved Critical Race Theory. It succinctly and quite accurately labels the structural sins that black Americans face.

In the hope of cutting through some of the fog and misunderstanding of our times, let’s pause to consider what Critical Race Theory actually is. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s website:

Critical Race Theory, or CRT, is an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society — from education and housing to employment and healthcare. Critical Race Theory recognizes that racism is more than the result of individual bias and prejudice. It is embedded in laws, policies and institutions that uphold and reproduce racial inequalities. According to CRT, societal issues like Black Americans’ higher mortality rate, outsized exposure to police violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, denial of affordable housing, and the rates of the death of Black women in childbirth are not unrelated anomalies.

Let’s ask ourselves a few frank questions.

  • Is it God’s dream for anyone to receive inferior education based on the color of their skin?
  • Is it God’s dream for anyone to be denied the purchase of a home based on the color of their skin, as has happened often with red lining in cities?
  • Is it God’s dream for anyone to be denied a job, higher wage, or promotion based on the color of their skin?
  • Is it God’s dream for anyone to suffer higher infant mortality rates due to inadequate healthcare?
  • Is it God’s dream for anyone to suffer harsher treatment from the police or legal system based on the color of their skin?

I can’t imagine anyone affirming these afflictions as good, and there is no denying the fact that these things have happened regularly in America for generations and still continue in some communities. Sometimes even worse things happen based on the color of someone’s skin.

For Paul, who sought to join different races together as one people in Christ and who believed that confession precedes repentance, I can imagine him finding CRT’s clear articulation of cultural and systemic sins quite helpful.

It’s awfully hard to be unified with people who deny your pain and who can’t comprehend your personal story. Critical Race Theory is one tool we can use to simply articulate the pain of a group of people in America who are God’s beloved children and who have an equal share with every other race in God’s Kingdom.

It’s not controversial to say that God’s Kingdom includes all races. However, it is unfortunately controversial to say that some races have suffered and are suffering a great deal more than some others. To deny the suffering of black Americans by turning Critical Race Theory into a political punching bag only drives enormous wedges among God’s people.

Acknowledging the suffering of black Americans at the hands of some in white America isn’t anti-white or reverse racism. This is an opportunity for knowledge and wisdom, to learn and to grow so that we can repent of the systems that have caused a lot of suffering.

The goal of someone like Paul wasn’t to drag down or diminish the Jews or Gentiles. He simply critiqued where the two cultures got stuff wrong and identified how their cultural assumptions about race prevented them from becoming one people in Christ.

I don’t believe it’s God’s dream to tear anyone down. God doesn’t want us to hate our race. Such unfounded fears have been drummed up in bad faith and prevent us from acknowledging the pain of others.

We have an opportunity today to pursue the joining of different races together as one people in Christ in a way that both acknowledges the failures and the pain of the past and elevates everyone to an equal position as beloved children of God. Acknowledging the truth of our past through a tool like Critical Race Theory can help us get there.

Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

Of Course I Love Jesus. He Looks Exactly Like Me

Would I love Jesus if he didn’t look exactly like me?

That’s a tough question. I’ve been studying the Bible and praying for as long as I can remember, and I’ve shifted my beliefs several times. Each shift in my beliefs was an attempt to draw closer to a faithful view and imitation of Jesus.

I wouldn’t believe what I do if I didn’t think it was in keeping with the “authentic” Jesus. Even if my everyday life of work and family life is quite different from the itinerant preaching and miracle-working of Jesus, I do attempt to incorporate his teachings into my daily decisions and practices–at least as much as I imagine possible.

Even if I’d be the first person to poke some holes in my inconsistencies or the ways I fall short, I’m not the only person trying to follow Jesus in modern life who imagines that Jesus more or less approves of what I’m doing. I’m not perfect, but who is?

Considering things on the whole, it’s safe to say that I either consciously or unconsciously believe that I’m on the same page as Jesus.

Am I?

Well… I hope so. But it does make me wonder how comfortable I have become in my beliefs and how resistant I may be to shaking them up.

We can cherry pick verses all day about how Jesus was either more loving and gracious than we imagine or more critical and jarring than we imagine. It sure felt like the Gospels are just one story after another of people learning that God’s priorities and ways of doing things are very different from our own.

For the people who were challenged by Jesus, it wasn’t a sure thing that they would follow him. They had a physical Jesus standing right in front of them. There was no ambiguity back then.

Today, we study, pray, and trust the Holy Spirit to guide us toward the right way to live, but that doesn’t guarantee that sometimes we’ll shape Jesus into our own image. A Jesus who looks like us is a lot easier to follow and to love.

If my self-constructed illusion of Jesus gets challenged, would I stick around? I think so. I hope so. Yet, the Gospels also have plenty of stories of optimistic faith that faltered when under pressure.

A safeguard for today is to continue discerning if my faith rests in a Jesus who is God-incarnate or a Jesus who is me-incarnate. One clue may be whether I find Jesus really easy to love.

Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash

Jesus Loves You, But Then He Also Loves Everybody

I can’t remember when I first saw a t-shirt with this message: Jesus Loves You, But Then He Also Loves Everybody.

I’d like to say it was down the Jersey shore on vacation with my family because that’s such a quintessential New Jersey thing to say. Perhaps my teenage years in south Jersey help explain why I loved it so much.

Although I didn’t love that message enough to shell out twenty bucks for the shirt.

As cutting as that shirt aims to be, I find it refreshingly accurate and especially appropriate for our times.

Individualism, self-centered consumption, and personal branding are running rampant at a time when you can document your every meal, shoe choice, parenting decision, exercise accomplishment, and half-formed thought on social media. Our divided politics, white society’s mishandling of racism, and our failure to protect God’s creation all revolve around elevated notions of certain groups being God’s chosen, special people who are entitled to special blessings and provisions to meet their every need.

It’s not the worst thing to assert that we aren’t as special as we think.

Consider the potential benefits of American Christians (especially white American Christians) tempering our “chosen” status with the simple fact that we aren’t superior to anyone because everyone is beloved by God.

We still get to be loved by God. We haven’t lost anything really. We just aren’t as unique as we imagined. Any superiority was an illusion to begin with.

How many problems arise because we have lost sight of God’s image in others?

How much harder would it be to direct hate or disdain or indifference toward others if we remembered they are loved deeply by God?

Saying that Jesus loves you, but then he loves everybody reminds us of the incredible gift of God’s love we have been given without raising us above anyone else.

God’s love doesn’t generate supremacy. God’s love generates empathy and equality.

I can see that glaring mistake in my own life and in the story of Christianity in America. We’ve been too quick to make God’s love into an exclusive selection that gives us power and influence we were never offered.

A little bit of New Jersey’s cutting sarcasm can be a real gift for us today, provided we direct the sarcasm at ourselves.

I can say, “Jesus loves me, but then he also loves everybody.”

That is comforting and even liberating because it puts me in my place, both in a positive, affirming sense and in a humbling, realistic clap back.

Perhaps the greatest scandal I have faced in examining this statement is the fact that I’ve believed God’s love for me simply wasn’t good enough. I needed to be loved by God and also somehow more chosen or superior to others.

The good news is that God’s reign is here right now, and the God who longs to restore our world loves each of us without reservation as beloved children. There’s no need to long for anything more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Worst Advent Sermon Ever

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

Passage: Luke 21:25­–36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not enough to just watch.

It’s not enough to just pray.

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

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

How will we meet uncertainty and worry?

How will we face the upheaval of tomorrow?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image source: Unsplash.

Christian Prayer and Spiritual Gaslighting During a Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit.

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