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.

Social Media’s Solutions Often Make Our Problems Worse

Where does your mind turn in a free moment?

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

What do you crave?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are We Searching for the Wrong Sign?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicodemus Had a Lot to Lose

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

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

He was at least on the right track.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of that is to say….

Nicodemus Had a Heavy Lift to Place Faith in Jesus

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

Let’s start with Nicodemus…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did magi take such journeys regularly to celebrate royal births?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. God can speak to us in many ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Lot of Healing Needs to Happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Love Our Neighbors Who Believe Vaccine Conspiracies

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

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

How should we respond when we see

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image source: Unsplash.

Why a Lying Leader Is Especially Serious for Christians and the Gospel

Back in 2008, I released a mildly controversial book called Coffeehouse Theology, which argued that arrived at “truth” is more complex than we might expect.

I say it was mildly controversial because I interacted with postmodern thinking without dismissing it out of hand. I suggested that we could stand to learn from a wider range of perspectives, rather than assuming, for instance, the white western male perspective has a corner on the truth.

I didn’t say “there is no truth.” Rather, I tried to say, “There is a lot of truth, and we need more perspectives to get a better handle on it.”

A few people wrote emails to me about how disappointed they were, a few people wrote critical reviews of the book, and at least one sermon decried my perspective, but all in all, I wasn’t excommunicated from the faith. It was more like a bunch of people who preferred “absolutes” and capital T Truth stopped paying attention to me.

While I spent a good bit of time trying to explain to folks the limits of what we could know, I was still very much committed to the idea of truth, of a shared reality, and of some common facts and ideas that we could all hold without argument.

I never in a million years imagined that I would have to one day write a blog post about the ways the lies of a leader–a leader supported by many Christians who used to argue for absolute truth–threatens to undermine our society, our faith, and our notion of shared ideas and facts that bind us together.

What Is the Problem with Lying?

The problem with lying, or bearing false witness against our neighbors if you’re a 10 Commandments fan, is that consistent lying by a group of people can have the effect of creating an alternate version of reality. If enough people from a political faction buy into the alternate version of reality, they can frame it as partisan preference, not blatant lying.

If one group of people decide to bear false witness against their neighbors, then opposing them can be framed as a partisan rejection of the group, not a dispute about the facts. The more people a leader can convince to accept his lie, the more power that lie generates.

This calculation is a long-standing tactic in seeking political power and control through dividing people.

Consider the early days of 2017 for instance when a few small lies set the stage for the thousands of documented lies that followed.

The pictures of the inauguration proved beyond all doubt that it was sparsely attended compared to expectations, and it was especially sparse when compared to the same shots of past inaugurations. Yet, we were told over and over again that there were huge crowds.

The press secretary even told us that there were “alternate facts” during his press conferences. Alternate facts is just another way of saying “alternate reality.”

Then, despite losing the popular vote and squeaking by in the Electoral College with wins in 3 states by a margin of about 70,000 votes total, we were told over and over again that it was a huge margin of victory.

These were mundane lies, perhaps even insignificant lies, but they were the early stages of creating an alternate reality. Anyone could look at pictures and public records of statistics and spot the lies being told.

Yet, these were just setups for bigger lies, including lies targeting evangelical Christians about the threat of persecution in America if Democrats rose to power. Such lies conveniently forgot that many Democrats are practicing Christians, Democrats have never shown any inclination toward persecution when they’ve been in power, and such a radical agenda would be political suicide in America.

Soon the small lies about the inauguration size or the persecution of Christians became a web of lies creating an alternate reality where Trump was the great champion of Christianity–despite several first-hand accounts of him slandering them in private.

The future of Christianity somehow became tied to Trump, and therefore any cruelty in his policies or any violations of the law were excused because of the “greater good” of saving Christians in America from persecution.

This whole notion is patently absurd, but enough lies have been stacked up year after year to the point that some are swept up in the narrative of this alternate reality where Christianity hinges on a guy with over twenty credible allegations of sexual assault and an official policy of kidnapping children from their asylum-seeking parents.

This Isn’t a Partisan Problem. It’s a Truth Problem

I could rattle off a list of people who are considered conservative in America today and who also affirm absolutes and our shared reality. This isn’t really a partisan issue, even if it has been framed that way by right wing media and some politicians.

My intention isn’t to choose one side of politics. In fact, if you look at many conservatives who are now out of office, they are alarmed by this attempt by right wing politicians and media to reshape reality.

Truth and a shared reality are important because Christian mission needs a kind of shared reality or at least an understanding of common ground.

Consider that so many Christians spend their time worrying about the evil persecution schemes of Democrats or praising the wonderful pro-life agenda of Republicans while seeking to end the Affordable Care Act that so many depend on for health insurance.

As author Ed Stetzer has noted, Christians have a massive credibility problem if they are motivated by ideas that are simply not true. Even worse, Christians have justified truly harmful policies on the basis of a false perception of the world.

Can you imagine someone trusting a Christian with the message of eternal life if these same Christians can’t even see the ways that fabricated threats of Christian persecution have been pushed for years by politicians seeking to win their votes?

I know that may sound like a hard word for some Christians to hear, but this is what’s at stake when an alternate version of reality is being offered.

Sadly, too many politicians on the extreme political right have created or tolerated an alternate version of reality that will have a long-lasting impact on the credibility of Christians for years, if not generations, to come.

The good news is that we get to choose who our leaders are.

However, if we choose an alternate reality for now, it will eventually fall apart. If we want to be taken seriously in sharing “the truth” of the Gospel, we better make sure we are living in the same version of reality as the rest of the world.

How Do We Begin Again After Failure?

I’ve taken up woodworking here and there as we settle into a new home. I’m not very experienced at it, but I did buy some new tools to help me at least fail at it properly. Each time I mess something up, I at least did it with the right tool.

In the past I would cut some jagged edge along a piece of wood, but I could console myself that I didn’t have the right kind of saw, sufficient clamps, or a suitable work table.

Now I’m in a much better position to create competent projects, and it’s still a good 50/50 chance that it’s going to look that way it’s supposed to look. Failure is a routine part of my day, and that can drain away the restorative benefits that woodworking could give to me.

It has been a master class in facing failure and then moving on from failure. It’s something I think about a lot as a Christian when I give in to my own weakness and stupidity. The old vice of sloth or acedia can come knocking on the regular, and it can feel really awful to have failed YET AGAIN!

Here are a few thoughts that have come to mind in the midst of my woodworking that I have applied to my “spiritual failures” as well.

Be Honest without Immersing in Negativity

The trap of negative self-talk can make any failure a real mess. It’s a downward spiral that doesn’t seem to have an escape.

When it comes to woodworking, I can beat myself up pretty good with negative self-talk. Yes, I should be honest about my failures, but it doesn’t help me to wallow in them or to view them as a dead end.

Failure doesn’t have to be the last word, and if I’m at least honest about what went wrong, I’ll be in a better place in the future.

There Is No Perfect Place to Begin Again

Picking up another brand new piece of wood is often humbling. I can tell myself, “Well, this thing isn’t going to look any better than it does now when I’m done with it!”

There is no perfect way to start over after failure. The first steps after failure can feel clunky and uncertain.

There’s the temptation to beat yourself up and to wonder if you’ll ever get out of this rut. Even if you know you’ve been forgiven, starting over isn’t easy.

God Is Most Concerned with Your Health and Restoration

Jesus talked about repentance because it’s a necessary step toward spiritual health and restoration, not as a “gotcha” moment. He’s not trying to out us as frauds or to humiliate us as some kind of divine retribution.

Yes, repentance can be humbling, humiliating, and illuminating in the most uncomfortable of ways. Yet, this is one step in the process, not the end goal. Jesus wants us to be healed much like a doctor wants a sick patient to fully recover.

There may be relapses, and we may be responsible for those relapses, but ultimately, Jesus wants to see us thrive so that we can have intimacy with God and bless others.

 

Restore Your Soul from Draining Technology

My book Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction shares ways to restore your soul in a time of fragmented attention and doom scrolling.

Learn More Here

Can We Do All Things Through Christ When Life Feels Impossible?

 

My conversations with friends these days tend to revolve around some pretty similar themes.

We all have too much to do and too much to worry about with a pandemic, the coming election, school being disrupted, and work being disrupted. Many of us are keeping our kids at home for school, and that adds a significant layer of exhaustion for everything.

Just as we feel this strain and burden with so much to do and to worry about, we have so many restrictions on our gatherings with friends, families, and groups, especially churches. Our support networks are suddenly limited and uncertain.

The isolation, the converging challenges of work and childcare at home, and the many external uncertainties feel like too much right now. In this moment of feeling overwhelmed, I’m reminded of Paul saying that despite his overwhelming circumstances, he could do all things through Christ who strengthens him.

“…I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me“ (Philippians 4:12-14, NRSV).

Given the scale of these challenges right now, it feels a bit cheap to say to someone, “I know this feels like a lot, but have you considered Jesus?”

What exactly is possible in Christ when there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything? Paul would read a lot easier if he said, “I can do the two most important things each day through Christ who strengthens me.”

Let’s be honest here, too: Jesus and Paul faced two enormous, impossible circumstances. The Romans and the Jewish religious establishment were as impossible as it gets, influential, and full of resources.

What exactly could Jesus and Paul “do” in the face of such powerful entities and impossible circumstances? Perhaps to the eyes of some, it appears Paul and Jesus hardly accomplished anything at all.

They were both opposed by the religious establishment, suffered enormous losses, and were executed by Rome. Those are hardly ringing endorsements!

I have had my moments of sadness and despair, exhaustion and worry. I need more breaks and moments of silence just to make it through a typical day filled with work, homeschooling the older kids, caring for a two-year-old, and trying to carve a bit of space for silence, prayer, and personal sanity.

What does it look like to do all things through Christ who strengthens us?

What does it even look like to do one or two important things each day through Christ who strengthens us?

Keep in mind that in the verses surrounding the passage quoted above, Paul wrote about real distress. He had suffered and gone through times of want and real hardship.

The mystery I find here is the life of Christ at work in us. This key to contentment and peace is also rather counterintuitive. In Christ, we are living from a source that seems at once apart from us, but in reality very much a spiritual presence in us.

How do we surrender to the power of God in us and still maintain a sense of drive and mission each day?

Perhaps the first step is that genuine feeling of being overwhelmed and struggling to make sense of a situation that feels impossible. That moment of great need and struggle is our opportunity, as unwelcome as it may feel at the time, to rely on God’s presence in us.

I suppose it would be ideal to arrive at this point BEFORE we feel overwhelmed by situations that feel impossible. Yet, urgency can be a great motivator.

In my journey through the worst seasons of anxiety, those moments of feeling overwhelmed often served as a prompt to pray. I didn’t want to feel so anxious, but I soon found that they could be turned into a useful step toward faith and mental health.

The crush of the many impossibilities today is hardly welcome. We face a lot of uncertainty, and some of us will still endure a lot of suffering. Too many lives are being lost, and too many families are grieving. Grief and sorrow are appropriate responses to our current reality.

Yet, this is also the moment when we can take another step in faith toward the mystery of the life of Christ in us.

What could it look like to turn toward God’s presence in us when life feels like a weight we can no longer carry?

Finding a place of contentment and peace may feel like a heavy lift right now. But faith doesn’t tend to grow through leaps and bounds.

Faith grows at the pace of a tiny seed taking root in the ground, sprouting under the pounding rain, and imperceptibly growing under the blazing sun. Even the unseen nature of the process itself can feel impossible.

I wouldn’t kid myself that we can do ALL things right now, but we can begin to learn what it looks like to lean more and more on the presence of Christ. This is God’s present gift for us even when it feels like so much else has been taken away.

Spiritual Formation with Catholics vs Legalism with Hard Partying Fundamentalists

I have some bad news for you if you’re a fundamentalist and also most likely if you’re an evangelical Christian.

There’s a pretty good chance that many of the leaders who enforce all of the rules and doctrines you’re supposed to follow are partying pretty hard on the weekends or have a secret vice that contradicts all of the rules for holy living they impose on you.

I’m serious about this. Some of these former pastors talk to me about publishing their stories because they know how hollow such a secret life can be. The number of national scandals of religious leaders who are household names are only eclipsed by those who are unknown but still mired in scandal and contradiction.

A well known court evangelical, who is outspoken in his partisan political positions and notable for leading an increasingly fundamentalist Christian university, recently posted a vacation photo of himself that clearly violated several of his own rules. In fact, many employees at Christian universities, churches, and other parachurch groups would be fired for similar photos.

This isn’t the first time this person has released evidence of his double standards, and he has a lot of company among similar pastors and fundamentalist leaders who enforce strict rules in public while living an indulgent double life.

There’s something rotten about it all. Considering that Jesus was most critical of the religious leaders who were laden with rules and remained “white washed tombs” on the inside, we should remain wary of a Christianity that demands adherence to excessive lists of rules. The longer the list of rules, the more likely adherents are to forget the point of it all.

Ironically, the leaders who enforce the rules of their tribes and issue warnings about “slippery slopes,” are among the first ones to slip and slide away from their own standards.

If you’re angry or despondent about such behavior, I don’t blame you. However, all is not lost. In fact, there is something much better for us if we’re willing to rethink what holy living can look like.

Spiritual Formation as an Alternative

The alternative to rule bound legalism isn’t anything goes, feel good religion or a surrender to the prosperity Gospel. Spiritual formation through the supernatural and mysterious work of God in our lives offers an alternative to the piles of rules for personal moral behavior.

In fact, there are still rules of a sort. We could say that a “rule of life” that guides our formation helps us keep space for God’s influence and transformative power. A rule of life helps us define our values and spiritual practices so that we make space for them each day.

Spiritual formation doesn’t rest primarily on external duty, obligation, or enforcement of rules. It looks to the inner work of God in our lives and trusts that the Spirit moves even in unseen ways in our hearts.

Catholic writer Henri Nouwen writes in his book Spiritual Formation:

“Spiritual formation, I have come to believe, is not about steps or stages on the way to perfection. It’s about the movements from the mind to the heart through prayer in its many forms that reunite us with God, each other, and our truest selves.”

He then adds:

“Thus to live the spiritual life and to let God’s presence fill us takes constant prayer, and to move from our illusions and isolation back to that place in the heart where God continues to form us in the likeness of Christ takes time and attention.”

Sustainable Spiritual Formation vs. Double Life Legalism

The biggest difference between the duty of external rules and the formation of God’s internal work in us comes down to what’s sustainable. There is tremendous pressure and energy that must be exerted to stick with the program of external rules. Meanwhile, spiritual formation calls for discipline and space for practices, but it entrusts the work of formation with God’s indwelling Spirit.

The results of spiritual formation are determined by God as we surrender our lives. We have a role in the process, but God’s renewal comes to us regularly like a spring of water that sustains us.

It is quite likely that those laden with rules will either develop secret vices as a way of letting off some steam or simply run out of energy to uphold all of the rules. This type of legalism is powered by fear of being outed and expelled from the group. It struggles to show mercy to those who have failed because membership in the group demands following the rules.

If the power for spiritual transformation comes by faith in God’s power at work in us, then we have something that can last for the long haul. We will certainly fail, but our failure is often rooted in exerting control over our lives rather than surrendering ourselves to God’s love and to the Spirit’s quiet work in us.

Call me crazy, but even as an avowed Protestant myself, I’ll take Henri Nouwen’s sustainable and quiet path toward spiritual formation over the double life of hard partying fundamentalists. Besides the inner emptiness of legalism, I’ll bet the fundamentalists also have really bad taste in wine.