Inside (Out) the Christian Life, Sadness and Depression

45173My family and I love most of the Pixar movies. We haven’t seen The Good Dinosaur yet, but Inside Out was no exception.

Inside Out tells the story of 11-year old Riley and her family as they move from the midwest to San Francisco. But there’s a catch. Most of the movie takes place inside Riley’s head and the main characters are five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust.

I don’t want to drop too many spoilers but let’s just say that the plot takes a twist when Joy tries to prevent Sadness from having too much influence over Riley. In fact, much of the conflict revolves around Joy trying to limit Sadness’ influence.

The assumption, of course, is that it is “better” to be happy than sad. So much so that Joy is willing to pursue this agenda even at the cost of betraying Sadness, generally belittling her and suggesting that Sadness has little to offer and generally made things worse. The optimal state, according to Joy and many of us is happiness.

Most of us would probably agree. We would say that we would rather be happy than sad. After all, Americans have dedicated our country to “the pursuit of happiness.” We deserve to be happy, right? Happiness means that things are better.

And it seems that much of this mindset has found its way into “American Christianity” (moralistic therapeutic deism). Whether it’s Joel Osteen telling us that we deserve our “best life now” because we’re children of God or local megachurches promising people they can “win at life,” much of “American Christianity” seems barely one-step removed from simply wanting to make people feel good about themselves.  Our worship gatherings resemble rock concerts and our preachers mimic self-help snakeoil-men.

But, of course, one of the things that makes Inside Out brilliant is that everyone, including Joy, is forced to not only accept Sadness but cherish her. Because, they realize that, without sadness, empathy is next to impossible. Without sadness, happiness is simply a hollow masking over of the circumstances. Without sadness, we’re willing to make harmful choices to keep up the thrill of “happiness”. We may not long for sadness but we cannot truly grow without it.

I wonder, then, why so little of “Christian worship” welcomes sadness into the chorus. After all, isn’t our “worship music” supposed to be an extension and elevation of the everyday? Then why is it all in major keys? Life is not always joyful and triumphant. Sometimes you feel as though you’ve been kicked one too many times and you’re just not sure you’ll get up this time and you just need to sing, “How long do I have to wait patiently for you, God?”  Where are the songs that acknowledge that God’s help may not come until the morning (Psalm 46:5) and the sun feels as though it’s barely set.

We have equated worship with a positive emotional response because we have come to understand that faith in Jesus is ultimately about making us happy. We have signposts everywhere telling us that we’re on the wrong path. But it’s so smooth and everyone else is on it. You really want me to go through that narrow gate that hardly anyone else is going through to that really difficult looking path (Matthew 7:13-14)?

But a faith that serves primarily to make its holder happy is not a faith that will stand the storm (Matthew 7:24-27). We even have “Christian counseling” movements that tell people that their depression/anxiety, etc. is a result of sin. And they’re simply compounding sin if they take medication to deal with their already sinful sin of disbelief that God’s Word is not somehow sufficient to deal with their unrepented sin which caused their depression in the first place.

We have pushed sadness and depression and anxiety and frustration beyond the city gates because they just bring us down, man. But following Jesus is so beautiful because it envelops all of life. Of course there is a place for sadness and of course Jesus can see us through it because He himself wept (John 11:35). Jesus could have simply told his friends that “God works in mysterious ways” and that He was working even this difficult situation for their good and rebuke the sadness. But He didn’t. He wept. Because sadness is real and must be accepted because it gives depth, it makes us richer, it brings us closer, it gives us empathy and shows us the true value of happiness when it comes. It also reminds us that it’s not realistic or healthy to expect to be happy all of the time.

I’m not sure what it looks like but I want a Christianity that’s ministry to me when I’m sad is not just to point out the reasons I should be happy or to rebuke for the reasons I’m not. There may certainly be times when rebuke is necessary but I wonder how much richer our faith would be if we were simply willing to meet with people in their sadness and sit with them? What if more of our songs, sermons and gathered worship helped us understand sadness and depression rather than try to give us tips to avoid them?

Maybe it means writing more worship songs in minor keys? Maybe it means simply reading more of the Psalms together? Maybe it means more preachers admitting that following Jesus is sometimes really difficult and it will not always feel like our “best life now”? Maybe it means recognizing that there are parts of the Bible that we’d rather skip over? Maybe it means that it won’t be until we values the lows as much as the highs that our faith truly means anything in the everyday?

Am I the only one who feels like “American Christianity” deserves the Flanders stereotype? I guess if I am, I’ve got issues other than depression to work through. But if I’m not, I wonder why so many churches seem to take the same approach. I’d love your thoughts.

In the meantime, here’s a unique take on a “Christian classic”:


the Weekly Town Crier

Town CrierI’m in Boston town, in some restaurant
I got no idea what I want
Well, maybe I do but I’m just really not sure
Waitress comes over
Nobody in the place but me and her

It must be a holiday, there’s nobody around
She studies me closely as I sit down
She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs
She says, “What’ll it be?”
I say, “I don’t know, you got any soft boiled eggs?”

She looks at me, says, “I’d bring you some
But we’re out of ’m, you picked the wrong time to come”
Then she says, “I know you’re an artist, draw a picture of me!”
I say, “I would if I could, but
I don’t do sketches from memory.

Welcome to the Weekly Town Crier. A weekly world wide web page where I gather links of interest for your interest. Please show your interest by browsing.

Buy my art here or here or contact me directly to purchase originals.

Visit our family blog: “The Thomas Ten.”

Read as Quora wonders “Why Do Car Buffs Dislike Tesla?”

Read as Ozy considers the cost of weddings: “the more you spend, the shorter your marriage is.”

Read as CNN wonders about “How to think straight in the age of information overload” and why so many smart people wear the same outfit every day.

Read Smithsonian‘s piece: “Columbus Day Is Now Indigenous People’s Day in Seattle And Minneapolis.”

Read as the New Yorker considers Max Richter’s new eight-hour album: Sleep.

Browse Paste‘s list of “10 Hip-Hop Albums For People Who Don’t Like Hip-Hop.”

See “Gorgeous animated pixel-art depicting everyday Japan.”

Read The Art of Manliness‘ piece “The Lost Art of Cheap Recreation.”

Read as the AV Club reports: “Joss Whedon made more money from Dr. Horrible than the first Avengers.”

Read Pitchfork‘s report that “St. Vincent Working at New Dallas Restaurant.”

R.I.PThe Stooges‘ Steve Mackay.

See The World’s Largest Man-Made Wave.

Read Atlas Obscura‘s piece about “The Doomed Effort To Make Videos Go Vinyl.”

Read as Slate wonders how to “Become More Articulate in Everyday Speech?”

Read as The Atlantic considers: “The Cheapest Generation Why Millennials aren’t buying cars or houses, and what that means for the economy.”

Read The Daily Beast‘s piece: “Lou Reed “was a monster”

Read Fast Company‘s piece: “Getting More Done At Work Won’t Make You As Happy As Just Working Less.”

Read as First Things considers whatever happened to liturgy in gathered worship.

Read as American Songwriter considers “Lucero’s Never-Ending Tour.”

Read the New York Times‘ report that “Earliest Known Draft of King James Bible Is Found.”

Read IFL Science‘s report: “Study Claims People Who Like Their Coffee Black Are More Likely To Have Psychopathic Tendencies.”

See “A fully transparent solar cell that could make every window and screen a power source.”

Read as The Atlantic considers “Twilight of the Headbangers How long can the legends of heavy metal keep on rocking?”

See a “Bicycle That Lets you Play Records On Its Wheels.”

Read as Draft Magazine considers “Why the DOJ is investigating AB InBev” (SPOILER: It’s their war on “craft” beer).

Read Stereogum‘s report that Urban Outfitters will now carry cassettes.

Watch/read as AZ Central considers the “Day of the Dead” ritual.

See tattoos made from one continuous line.

Watch First Teaser for Netflix’s A Very Murray Christmas” at Paste.

Read about the move “to put DRM in JPEGs.”

ReadRelevant”‘s piece: “Playboy’s Move Away From Nudity Is Actually a Bad Sign.”

Help your kids discover punk music with this new new children’s book.

Watch Natalie Prass cover Slayer.

Read as the Guardian profiles Kristin Hersh’s new book on Vic Chesnutt: Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt.

Browse this list of “The ten best rock docs of all time.”

Browse this list of “must-read books by musicians.”

Read/Listen as NPR’s Fresh Air talks to Berke Breathed about the return of Bloom County.

Browse as Pigeons and Planes makes their picks for “2015’s top indie music labels.”

Read/Listen as NPR‘s All Songs Considered profiles Elvis Costello’s memoir: Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink.

Read as Paste profiles singer/songwriter Josh Ritter.

Browse years and years and years’ worth of KMart muzak.

Browse “a primer to the works of Flannery O’Connor.”

Read ABC‘s report that Phil Collins‘ “autobiography will be published in October 2016.”

Peace In The Waiting(?)

Many of you have reached out to us lately asking not only how we’re doing but what’s next for the Thomas Ten. Thank you, thank you, thank you. It’s comforting to know that people care. And, to be honest, we still don’t know what’s next. We’ve had several dreams sprout without taking root. We’ve become closely acquainted with life’s waiting room.

If you’re unfamiliar with our situation, here’s a summary: After resigning from ministry, I am seeking employment. I’ve applied to well over 150 jobs so far and yet I’m still searching. This in and of itself is frustrating enough. But on top of that, our house is for sale. We’ve had a ton of showings but no offers. Double Frustration. It’s sort of like Double Dutch but a lot less fun.

Our faith gives us the perspective of knowing that God is working in and through this for our good (Romans 8:28), but here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ve come to wonder why it is that some verses, though true, don’t seem to have the desired affect to those in the midst of struggle. In fact, delivering some verses to someone in the midst of struggle may result in disdain rather than comfort. How can this be?

Though well-intentioned, telling something in a dark night for the soul, “God moves in mysterious ways” may deserve a raspberry more than a “Thank you dear brother.” Let me try to explain:  sometimes verses like  Romans 8:28 feel more to me to be more “rear-view mirror” verses than a headlights in the storm. I know it is true but sometimes verses like this only find their significance once you’ve stumbled through the shadowy valley and are finally able to see a bit more of God’s perspective. In the meantime,  the verse is true but not entirely helpful. In the midst of struggle, I don’t just need to know that it will be OK in the future, I need to know that I’m not alone in the meantime and that sometimes, the best thing to do is to wait faithfully because I have no idea how this is going to turn out, even if you tell me it’s going to be for my good. So you telling me it will be good someday may not be the help you intended.

It’s like holding to a pre-tribulation interpretation of Revelation in which you argue that, John, writing from Patmos to Christians in the midst of persecution tells them that it’s OK, don’t worry because God will someday in the future rescue another set of Christians from persecution. It just doesn’t entirely make sense. But I digress.

I’ve had lots of time to wonder how to try and find peace in the waiting. As such, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Psalm 46.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.[2]Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, [3]though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.  [4]There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. [5]God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. [6]The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. [7]The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. [8]Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. [9]He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. [10] “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” [11]The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Psalm 46:10a, “Be still, and know that I am God” is one of the best known phrases of Christianese and it has come to mean a lot to me over the past few months. However, to carry its full weight, it must be understood in context. We don’t know the specifics of this Psalm other than it was set to music and likely sung in some form of Gathered Worship and that it heavily implies that its singers were accustomed to lives of struggle.

The song opens with encouragement in the midst of tumult: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.[2]Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, [3]though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

God is present in our trouble. In. Our. Trouble. God is with us,

  • though earth gives way,
  • though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
  • though its waters roar and foam,
  • though the mountains tremble at its swelling

God’s presence does not always make the trouble go away. But it does mean we react differently: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.[2]Therefore we will not fear. In fact, we may have to wait for God to actually deliver us. After pondering the beauty and security of God’s city, the Psalmist says in 46:5c: “God will help her when morning dawns.” But what are we supposed to do in the meantime? How long until dawn? Sometimes we will have to wait.

Be still and know that He is God. He is with us, therefore we will not fear even though things suck. Even though we can’t see a way through and even though dawn’s morning light seems like it will never come. He is with us and somehow, that is enough. His presence comforts us even when He is not flexing His muscles. Even when His help has not yet come. Somehow, the Psalmist tells us, somehow, God’s presence in the midst of our struggle should be enough.

I think that Jesus draws directly on Psalm 46 in the midst of a very real storm. Consider Mark 4:35-41:

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” [36] And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. [37] And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. [38] But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” [39] And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. [40] He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” [41] And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Jesus’ pals, highly experienced fishermen encountered a storm which caused them fear. The boat was taking in water and these men, who likely spent quite a bit of time roughing their share of storms woke Jesus up and asked why it seemed like He didn’t care that they were going to drown?!?!

This is one of my favorite scenes in Scripture. Where is Jesus during this life-threatening storm? Asleep on a cushion! They had to wake Him up to inform Him of the danger. I sort of picture Jesus (but not in too much detail because I don’t want to break any of the Commandments) wiping the sleep from His eyes and sort of groggily mumbling to the storm: “Peace! Be Still.” Then, as He becomes more awake, He also becomes more animated as He turns to the disciples in frustration: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.Therefore we will not fear . . .

“Why are you so afraid?” God is your refuge and strength. He is present with you in trouble. Don’t you get it?! I’m right here with you. You’re afraid because you don’t believe . . .

I’ve often wondered what the disciples should have done. Should they have diligently emptied the boat as it took on water? Should they have simply pointed the boat and sailed through the storm? Have a snack? Snuggle up next to Jesus and go to sleep? I don’t know, but Jesus seems to say: “I’m right here with you and that is enough.”

This lesson is not easily learned. Please pray for us as we try to connect our heads (knowing that He is with us and that is enough) to our hearts (knowing that He is with us and that is enough).

Why Aren’t We More Troubled By Christianity?

downloadFor the past nine months, I have been wandering in my own sort of desert. Yes, I live in Phoenix, but that’s not what I mean. I have given the bulk of my professional career to what many call “vocational ministry.” I have served in some sort of paid capacity in three different churches in three different states and my two-fold theme has remained the same:

  1. No matter where you find yourself in your faith journey, may you be drawn closer to Jesus.
  2. Equip God’s people to do God’s work.

You might summarize this as helping people “love God and love people” and, though this can take on many different looks, it is more than enough to keep any local church busy until Kingdom Come. Literally.

Nine months ago, I resigned from ministry for personal reasons. The ensuing time has given me a different perspective on the Church in America and what we do and what we don’t do. Did you ever watch the show Monk, about an OCD private investigator played by Tony Shalhoub? There would often be a scene in which the police would be fumbling about the crime scene and Monk would enter the building and almost immediately see things the police didn’t. I know, I know, it’s a tired plot device used by Psych and countless others, but indulge me for a moment.

These private investigators enter the crime scene with a different perspective than the police. They are asking questions the police might not be asking. The past nine months out of vocational ministry have prompted me  to ask questions, not just about how I am doing in ministry or how our local church is doing but how are WE  are doing. By this, I mean the royal “we”, “the” Evangelical Church in America. And I’m left with more questions and concerns than ever.

One of the questions that has haunted me recently is why “we” are not more troubled by Christianity. David Dark has superbly summarized this question in The Sacredness of Questioning Everything:

Will we let the double-edged indictments of the scriptures cut us to the quick, creating problems in the lives we are living? Or will we enlist the words to serve only in our projects of self-congratulation, skipping the bits that question our beliefs and practices? Will we read the Bible only to reaffirm our beliefs and practices?

I worry that much of what passes for Christianity in America simply uses the Bible for affirmation and self-congratulation. Instead of submitting ourselves to the Spirit’s questioning of our lives, we use the Bible to simply affirm what we’re already doing.

How else can we explain the complacency of so many professing Christians? How else can we explain the prevalence of poverty in our midst; our acceptance of and participation in injustice? “Worship” gatherings that resemble rock concerts more than worship? Local churches who spend more money on buildings than widows and orphans? So many professing Christians chasing the American Dream of upward mobility and Suburban stability? How else could we be so sure that God supports our political agenda except that we’ve stopped listening?

The list goes on and is equally directed at me. I include myself in tis indictment. But it is an indictment nonetheless. There is certainly assurance to be found in following Jesus. But what if we’re sure about the wrong things? The message of Jesus should cause us to question ourselves more than we do. It should cause us to squirm and perhaps sweat a bit. Though there are many angles through which to view this issue, I want to focus today on the broad notion of social justice.

After all, Jesus is pretty clear about what He expects of His people: love people, even (especially?) your enemies. Share your stuff. Practice forgiveness and practice reconciliation. Look out for those who can’t look out for themselves, especially children. If you say you love Jesus, do these things. It’s that simple. And yet, for some reason, we believe it is not. We say it’s more complicated than that with the result that we do very little except assure others that God is on our side.

How well are “we” doing at the things Jesus says mark His people? Are we pursuing peace through meekness? Are we sacrificially caring for others, even those we don’t like? Are we pursuing reconciliation or taking partisan sides?

Francis of Assisi is credited with trolling Reformed Christians with the saying (even though it is likely he never said any such thing):

Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.

My Reformed friends immediately point out that the Gospel is “good news” and that it must be articulated in words or it is not the Gospel. Yeah, yeah, I get it. But Francis is certainly in line with Jesus Himself who told us to live lives of light so that those around us might glorify God (Matthew 5:16) and I worry that, while we argue about the articulation of the Good News of Jesus, we fail at its demonstration. We argue with one another’s proclamation while few of us actually do anything with it. Why else is the call to live “radical” lives for Jesus so prominent except that we are simply swallowed by the mundane and even vain expressions of faith in commercialism masked with spirituality?

When we sit under God’s Word rather than over it, we should be deeply unsettled. We should be willing to question our lives. Do they match Jesus’ descriptions of His people? More and more, I’m worried that my life does not. More and more, I’m worried that we have lost our witness in America simply because we don’t do the things that are expected of us (no, our actions do not merit our salvation but they are certainly not negotiable).

And I am not alone. Lest you think I’m just alarmistly promoting a “social gospel,” Stephen Colbert calls us to the carpet quite directly:

“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

How in the world can we write off such sentiments so quickly? Do we have the ears to hear what Jesus expects? How in the world can we pursue lives of comfort when Jesus calls us to sacrifice?

I am convicted that it’s been far too long since I’ve been deeply unsettled by the call of Jesus to give up everything (maybe even literally) and follow Him. Truth be told, our lives are our primary apologetic. We can use words, but if we don’t live it, we must question whether or not we actually believe what we’re saying. Can we say we love Jesus and not love others?

Lord, wake us from our slumber. Remind us once again that forgiveness breeds forgiveness. Convict us once more that they will know we are yours, not by our political affiliation or the family-friendly movies we watch and “uplifting” radio we listen to but by our love.

Unsettle us. And move us to action.

There is work to be done.

 

 

 

the Weekly Town Crier

towncrierBlippity bloppity boo to you too. So what of it?

Buy my art here or here or contact me directly to purchase originals.

Visit our family blog: “The Thomas Ten.”

Browse Outside‘s 2015 list of “The 16 Best Places to Live in America”. Did your town make the list?

Read about the “121-year-old bottle of whisky” found in a “Scottish time capsule”. Would you try it?

Browse Paste‘s list of the 10 best things on Crackle (other than Seinfeld, though Jerry does make an appearance).

Read as Oregon Live catches up with NPR’s/”Portland’s Own” Ari Shapiro.

Read Time‘s report: “J.J. Abrams Says Nazis Inspired the New Star Wars Villains”.

Read about “One Woman’s Attempt to Become a Wrestling Fan”.

Browse this list of “15 Composers To Watch” in 2015.

Read reports that “Amy Schumer and Jennifer Lawrence are writing a movie together”.

Read as Salon explores “Why the ’90s are literally disappearing from history”.

Read FACT‘S piece reporting: “Spotify demands access to your contacts, photos and location”.

Adding traffic sound effects on ants makes them entertaining to watch“.

Browse Time’s list: “14 of China’s Finest World Monument Replicas”.

Read Outside‘s piece: “John Muir Knew How to Live”.

Read The Atlantic‘s piece: “How Coolness Defined the World Wide Web of the 1990s”.

Enter the debate: “Are Older Whiskeys Really Better?”

Read as Banksy interviews Run the JewelsRead about Banky’s Dismaland. See the trailer.

Read about “Pop Tart Beer”.

Watch Seinfeld Recut as a Devastating but Heartwarming Lifetime Movie.

Apparently “Axl Rose and Slash are friends again” prompting many to wonder about the possibility of a Guns n’ Roses reunion.

BrowseUncut’s 50 best bootlegs”.

Read Paste‘s report: “Paul Thomas Anderson to Release Documentary on Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood”.

See a $20,000 opal, which looks like “a nebula trapped in a gemstone”.

Read NME‘s report: “Morrissey announces release of debut novel. See the cover.

Browse Paste‘s list of “6 Fictional Languages in Literature”. What’s your favorite?

Read as the Washington Post laments: “We’re now averaging more than one mass shooting per day in 2015.”

Read Flavorwire‘s report: “Bruce Willis Probably Got Fired From the New Woody Allen Movie”.

Hear “Alice Cooper and Johnny Depp’s Hollywood Vampires cover The Who’s ‘My Generation’.

See photos of rarely seen cultures.

Read Consequence of Sound‘s report that Odd Future rapper Tyler the Creator has been banned from the UK.

See “Harry Potter re-imagined as the villain of a horror movie”.

Read the Washington Post‘s report that the Mormon Church will continue its relationship with the Boy Scouts of America.

Watch “a Supercut of All the People Batman Has Killed”. For a guy with a no-kill policy . . .

Browse Spotify‘s list of “the most timeless songs ever”.

Faith Anchors the Soul

2014-09-20 14.18.09I have come to believe that the search for “identity” is one of the key issues facing us all. By “identity,” I mean more than simply your name, rank and serial number, though that’s as deeply as many of us think on this key issue. Instead, I’m referring to how we understand ourselves and present ourselves to others. I’m talking about where we find our worth and our security. I’m talking about self-knowledge and security.

Our sense of identity is uniquely tied to what we do. In fact, many of us (unconsciously or not) find our identity in our jobs. Don’t believe me? Think about just about any time you’ve met someone new. After the exchange of names, what’s the usual first question?What do you do? 

Of course this is understandable. Our jobs are where we spend the most time and we rely on them for income, and by extension, stability. It is understandable but it is not healthy. When we find our identity in what we do, we find ourselves in the never-ending pursuit of working for our identity rather than from our identity and thus we rarely find true security. We will feel more valuable, we will have more worth (literally and figuratively) when we get that promotion or that other job. And when the work is not fulfilling, we are not fulfilled. We never truly find out who we are because we are looking for that in moving targets.

Unemployment is a special kind of hell in the midst of this essential conversation. I have applied to over 125 jobs across multiple states. I’m currently receiving 2-3 rejections daily. Every time I see someone I know, they ask about the job search; an unintentionally cruel reminder that I have been unable to find work. They mean well. But the question stings and, when repeated hundreds of times, can cause one to question their identity.

There are mornings when I second-guess the decisions that led to this point. I could have stuck out that situation but should I have? What am I doing with my life? What do I want to do? Does it matter what I want to do? Why can’t I get a job? How many no’s can a person receive without taking it personally? Am I not worth hiring? What am I worth? How do I know? Will I be happier when I find a job? How do I remind myself that I am not what I do, when all I can think about is wanting to do something?

This is why the issue of identity is so important and why my faith in Jesus is so essential. I have a tattoo on the underside of my left arm which depicts an anchor amidst a storm with the words: “Faith anchors the soul.” This is a personal reflection on Hebrews 6:13-20 which reminds us that our hope in Jesus serves as an anchor for the soul.

I don’t know how you deal with struggles or your personal faith journey but I know that, without my faith in Jesus, I would have had a nervous breakdown by now. The heart of following Jesus is not the politicians we vote for, the radio we listen to, the things we boycott, or the issues we oppose. It is that our very identity is changed and it is secure. In spite of our circumstances and in spite of us.

When the Holy Spirit brings someone to faith, a mysterious thing happens. We are somehow united to Jesus so that what’s true of the Savior is true of His people. We are transferred from the “domain of darkness” into Jesus’ kingdom, in whom we have “redemption and the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). “He who knew no sin was made sin on our behalf so that we could become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). We are united with Jesus in His death to sin and resurrection unto newness of life (Romans 6) and we are “seated with Him in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2) even now.

But, our union with Jesus means more than just getting in to heaven when I die. It has drastic implications for life here and now. I don’t have to find a job to be worth something (though I would like to find a job). Yes, I find my “identity” in something outside of myself, but instead of something like a job which ebbs and flows, my identity is anchored and becomes my anchor.

Over the past couple of years, I have meditated more on one scene of Scripture than any other. Do you remember the scene where Jesus goes out to the Jordan to be baptized by his crazy revival preaching, bug-eating cousin (found in Matthew 3 , Mark 1 and Luke 3)? As Jesus comes up out of the water, the Spirit descends on Him in the form of a dove and a voice comes from the heavens saying: “This is my Son in whom I am well-pleased.” Curiously enough, Jesus is immediately sent into the wilderness where Satan immediately attacks Jesus’ identity: if you really are who you say you are. . . but that’s a study for another day.

I know that, while we feel like our house will never sell, while it seems like I will never find a job, I know that I already have all of the comfort, security, belonging, and love that I could ever hope for because my identity is God’s child. He is pleased with me even when I am not pleased with my circumstances. I don’t have to work for acceptance because I am accepted by God. This is good news indeed.

I may not see the light through the clouds yet, and the waves don’t seem to yet but I have an anchor in the midst of the storm. This is good news indeed. This is how, even in the midst of life’s storms, we can “be still” and know that He is G0d (Psalm 46). I simply pray that these storms cause me to hold on tighter to my anchor.

What If Stability Is Not the Goal?

il_fullxfull.265505392I want to share something something that, due to our current circumstances, I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. (I know that I’ve said this before but it bears repeating because so much opinion is presented as dogma, especially on the internets. I process things with other people, sometimes verbally, sometimes through writing. I ponder something for a while and then put it out for feedback. This provides other viewpoints and different angles and allows me to (hopefully) come to a better conclusion.

The difficulty with this, of course is that I sometimes put out not-yet-fully-formed ideas which people perceive as more fully formed than intended. Processing together requires the humility to listen before speaking and then speak for the good of others rather than the pride of being right.).

Speaking of our current circumstances, as we try to sell our house and find employment, we are in the uncomfortable position of asking lots of prickly questions. What do I want to do when I grow up? Is it wrong to want to love your job? Are Christians obliged to pursue employment that results in the betterment of society? Is it worth it to live in a house that requires I spend the bulk of my time away from my family? What should we want out of life? What’s best for our kids? What does the Good News of Jesus have to say about the so-called ‘American Dream’? Is it selfish to want to love where you live? I’m no “Millennial”, but what if I don’t want a “work/life balance”‘ How can I teach my children that there is MORE to life than the daily grind and “working for the weekend”How can I best teach my children to take chances?

There’s a lot here that I’d like to write about. But today I want to focus on something else. There’s a way of thinking, often associated with the Boomer Generation (often in reaction to their experiences with war and their family’s fairly recent experience with the Great Depression) that keeps speaking in to my family’s current circumstances. It asks: Why don’t you just go get a decent job, work your way up and provide stability for your family?

You see the issue, of course.

IF this line of thinking is followed, then it doesn’t matter if you love where you live or what you do. That’s not the point. The point is stability. No sudden movements. The path of least resistance. And the point of parenting is certainly not to encourage risk-taking of any sort.

As we seem stuck at this crossroad, much pondering has been done.

I hear and appreciate the voices calling for stability. I mean, I’ve got eight kids, for crying out loud! One of the foremost considerations during this time of turmoil is what’s best for our kids.

But I wonder. Is stability really the goal of life? Have Christians been promised stability or is it the touchdown of the American Dream?

It might not be wrong to long for some stability in life. But I wonder if those times shouldn’t be for rest rather than the goal of life. In other words, what are the implications when stability is our goal in life? I’m not sure stability always leads to stagnation but the very pursuit of trying to remove turmoil from life (thus becoming “stable”), certainly for me at least, has concerning implications.

When the goal of work becomes to provide stability, what we’re really saying is that the family has a regular, stable income and schedule. Not only do I not think this is the goal of vocation (though it is a necessary blessing of work), I think that it can be dangerous to the soul.

Our version of “stability” usually also means “comfortable.” The point of work (as many believe) is to provide a comfortable life for you and your family. But I’m just not comfortable saying that the point of work (or, extrapolated out, life for that matter) is to be comfortable (see what I did there?).

Comfort breeds complacency because we most grow when we’re most challenged.

Striving to remove the challenges of life (in our case, significant and simultaneous career and home changes) simply atrophies our soul’s growth. We may form healthy patterns of repetition when stability is our goal but we won’t be stretched.

Seeking stability means that you’ve got to attach on to something tightly. The American Dream version is to attach yourself to a solid job and a quiet suburb. These things will provide the life you need. But the Christian must, by definition, attach themselves to something different.

Our stability does not come from our circumstances.

In fact, it often comes in spite of our circumstances. 

I keep finding myself meditating on Psalm 46. The one with the famous saying: “Be still, and know that I am God.” While purveyors of Crafty Christian Crap post it on pictures of waves and sell it to us as a heartwarming sentiment, I am frightened by this command.

Think about the context of God’s command (it is not a suggestion) to “Be still” and know that He alone “is God”. The earth is giving way. Mountains are trembling into roaring oceans. Nations rage and kingdoms totter. These are not stable times and these are not comfortable circumstances. And yet, God does not say He will calm the seas (which He does at another time) or pacify the turmoil. He speaks to us in the uncertainties and says: “Be still”.

He reminds us that He is “our refuge and strength” and “a very present help in trouble”. He doesn’t promise to make the trouble go away. He promises to be with us in the midst of it. He promises to be our stability even when our circumstances boil with uncertainty. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t take the right job to provide stability for my family (for the record, the right option to provide that stability has not yet presented itself) but I do think it’s worth considering what’s really best for our family. I don’t want to raise children to are afraid to take risks in life and pursue what they love.

As Kristi and I wait for what’s next, I keep thinking about rock balancing. Even if you don’t practice rock balancing, I’m sure you’ve seen pictures. Amazing people balance rocks on one another in sometimes astounding ways. Many of these could be knocked over by a strong breeze. But what if the point was never for them to be stable but beautifully balanced for that moment in time?

We certainly appreciate your prayers as we we try to sell our house and find the right job. And, if anything, pray for my wife. Her husband thinks way too much about things.

 

It Was The Prime Of Our Discontent

amazon-prime-day-1Unless you live in North Korea, you probably knew that Amazon, (the giant on-line retailer) celebrated their 20th anniversary by throwing themselves a party with, what they proclaimed would be “more deals than Black Friday”. Apparently, this was such a big deal that WalMart (the giant, giant retailer) wanted to celebrate Amazon’s birthday by also offering discounts!

One of the most notable things that has made this a cultural moment rather than just another sale was the immediate blowback against the products Amazon chose to discount. And yet, the site’s sales soared. So, we all complained about what was being discounted and yet still ended up buying more! I do wish I had known about the “Beard Growther” on Prime Day, but I didn’t buy anything because I didn’t see a single thing I needed.

Of course, “Prime Day” was first and foremost a way for the company to push Prime memberships and only secondarily a real sale. And yet, the loudest thing about Prime Day were the complaints.

I wonder what this says of us as a culture? A business has no obligation to discount its merchandise. Especially when sales remain strong. So, when a company does decide to discount merchandise, there is always a financial reason. They need to move certain merchandise, clear certain inventory, etc. When Amazon discounts merchandise, it does so for itself, not the consumer. Amazon said it would have more deals than Black Friday. Apparently, they did, because their sales topped Black Friday. And our response is to complain that they didn’t have what I wanted at a cheaper price.

What Prime Day forces us to consider is that we are selfish creatures who feel entitled to more. Amazon may have gotten people’s hopes up with the hype, but that’s good business, not false advertising. We, who were owed nothing, complain that we didn’t get what we wanted. We truly are the culture who, hours after getting up from a meal with family celebrating all we are thankful for, will trample one another at WalMart to get more cheap crap.

Content hearts don’t complain.

We who love and follow Jesus must be keenly aware (2 Corinthians 10:5, Romans 12:1-4) that we are marinating in a cultural stew of consumerism that places self at the center of the universe. How else could someone like Joel Osteen pass off as a Christian? The man literally teaches that we should have our “Best Life Now,” which Jesus says is actually a sign of judgment rather than favor. But I digress.

Why is contentment so difficult?

I would wager that most of the people who read my posts (if there are any?) live pretty comfortable lives. You may live in a smaller house than someone else. You may drive an older car than someone you know. You may not eat out at restaurants as often as that friend of yours or have the new appliances like your neighbor. But we are among the wealthiest population the world has ever known. Most of us may not have private jets or yachts, so we tell ourselves we aren’t rich, but that’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it? Try telling a subsistence farmer with no electricity that you’re not rich.

Consumerism idolizes the self.

Contentment is so difficult because everywhere we turn, we are told that we deserve more, we deserve better, cheaper, faster! One of advertising’s key functions is to create discontent in self-image so that the product in question can fill that void. And, even we Christians who owe everything to grace (Ephesians 2) believe these lies from time to time. We believe that life (or Amazon) somehow us us special treatment. Could be because we let people like Joel Osteen tell us: ““God wants to give you your own house. God has a big dream for your life” (page 35, Your Best Life Now). Osteen has allowed consumerism to color his view of our relationship with God. We know we are loved because of more stuff. We feel secure because we have a firm grip on our stuff and we feel better about ourselves when we get more stuff and since it’s all about me, I will complain that Amazon didn’t discount the right items. The items I wanted.

But what if we already have all of the love, acceptance we could ever hope for and that our identity is not found in what we do or what we own. What if, in Jesus, because of Who He is and what He has done, we don’t need stuff to find identity? What do I have to complain about? Because of the Spirit’s work uniting Believers to Jesus (Romans 6), the Father says that I am His beloved child in whom He is well pleased (Matthew 3:13-17)! Because of Jesus’ continued work of interceding for His people (Romans 8:34), we can know that our seat (our “position” // our “identity”) is in the heavenly places with Jesus and because of Jesus, it is secure (Ephesians 2:6), in spite of us!

What a great opportunity Prime Day turned out to be to examine our hearts. Do you feel entitled to anything? What? Why? What do we really deserve and for what should we be thankful? How might thankfulness change the way we live?

Why Do We Make It So Difficult (03): Emotionalism/Performance, And, “I Don’t Feel Close To God”

Emotional-TradingOver the past week or so I’ve been wondering whether our current system of “American Church” actually makes our fundamental task (Make, Mature and Multiply Disciples) more difficult than it ought to be. We’ve looked at questions like: “What is the Call To Ministry” and we’ve examined why many seemingly qualified men often feel discouraged from ministry as well as the idea that our current system actually promotes passivity rather than active faith.

We’ve also taken a moment to point out that voicing questions/concerns does not mean that I’m bitter in any way. I’m really not. But I am in a place of wrestling with a lot of really big questions which I feel deserve open consideration and public dialogue.

Today I want to consider another issue that I’ve thought a lot about over the years. As you might guess, I wonder if there aren’t many ways in which our current system have actually made following Jesus more difficult than it was meant to be. I’ll be open and say that, though it’s been many years since I’ve read Neil Postman’s essential Amusing Ourselves To Death (seriously, if you haven’t read it, please do so), his notion that “the medium is the message” has stuck with me as I’ve considered American Evangelicalism both as a pastor and church planter.

I have come to wonder whether the very systems we have adopted are actually distracting from discipleship. I believe that one of the main places where we see this disconnect is given birth in our Sunday Gatherings but matures in personal quiet times. Let me explain.

Though there are certainly exceptions, I’ve come to wonder whether American Evangelical “worship gatherings” can be separated from emotional appeals. The very notion of our Sunday gatherings has borrowed so much from the entertainment industry that I’m not sure they can be separated. We borrow our seating structure from entertainment venues, with the “crowd/congregation” seated as spectators and the “leaders” on a stage with cool lighting and a professional speaker. I’ve been to worship gatherings that were indistinguishable from rock concerts and that should be at least a bit disconcerting.

Many people describe their favorite concerts as “religious experiences”. There is something special about losing yourself in the moment to the power of music/crowd/shared experience. But I wonder how much of that we have set out to re-create in our Sunday gatherings. The most famous “worship leaders” are often the ones who can most consistently get an emotional reaction. The most famous preachers are also those who are typically the best public speakers. We have come to believe that the most “effective” worship gatherings are those during which we were most emotionally moved.

This, of course, carries over into the personal Christian Life. We have come to believe that we are most close to God when we “feel” most close to God. Our “most powerful” quiet times are those that are the most emotional. In other words, though it begins with our production/performance based Sunday gatherings, it certainly extends to our personal spiritual disciplines. We have have come to equate spiritual growth with emotional experiences.

I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me as a leader and said that they just “don’t feel moved” in their quiet times, so they must not be “close to God”. I get it. I mean, there are times in marriage when you “feel” closer to your spouse, but (hopefully), your commitment does not waiver when the emotion is not there. Yet, somehow, we have come to believe that our faith is in danger when our emotions aren’t moved.

If the medium is the message, as Postman asserts, then many of the ways we have adopted in following God owe more to American entertainment culture than with genuine faith. If emotionalism can weave and wane in a marriage, surely we will not always have an emotional response in worship or Bible reading/prayer. And I’m not so sure this should be as much of a concern to us as it seems to be.

In fact, the more we equate emotional experience with spiritual experiences (which are, undoubtedly often emotional), we are setting ourselves up for a never-ending cycle of theatricalism in our churches. Once a specific church hits a “dry spell,” many might head to the church down the road who has the “fresh experience”. When we don’t always feel “moved” in our quiet times, we will be tempted to substitute time with God’s Word for time with things that tug on the heart strings.

Many of us have wholeheartedly devoted ourselves to the chase of emotional experience while we hope that spiritual growth will follow. But what if spiritual growth is not always accompanied by emotional experiences? I have grown the most in some churches many would consider “dry” simply because I was regularly encouraged to place myself in an encounter with God’s truth. The speakers weren’t always dynamic nor the music moving but the truth was impressed in my heart.

I worry that by adopting so much of our systems from the entertainment industry, we have communicated that “church” is just another form of entertainment. Hopefully you’ll grow during the performance, but at least you’ll leave wanting more.

It has become so confusing that I have to wonder what it might look like to remove the performance aspect from our Sunday gatherings. Is it even possible any longer? And, while there is certainly an emotional equation to our faith, God’s move will always produce emotional responses in His people, but I’m just not sure that emotional experiences will produce the movement of God. Have we muddied the waters and made it more difficult than it was ever meant to be?

Why Do We Make It So Difficult (02)? Missional Living And The Plague Of Passive Christians

cemetery-church-416587-mOver the past ew months, I’ve thought a lot about various aspects of the way we “do church” in America. Though there are certainly variations on a theme, many if not most American Evangelicalism churches look pretty much the same. Though one may have “young adult contemporary with a hint of edginess to attract the Millennials” style worship while the church down the road maintains “traditional values”, chances are, the basic structure of what they do, (order of worship, ministry structure, classes offered, etc.) is probably pretty similar. You can repaint the barn all you want but it’s still a barn.

The other day I considered whether the American approach to “church” tends to exclude otherwise qualified men or whether I’m just a curmudgeon. By the way, I did get one vote for curmudgeon from a friend on FB, so that is still a real possibility. Just like I have come to wonder whether or current models of ministry tend to favor certain personality types over others, I wonder whether the current model of church has actually hindered rather than fostered discipleship. The primary thing Christians have been called to do may actually be stunted by our approach to try and fulfill the commands of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20).

While I love that there are exceptions, the general rule seems to be that the American church produces passive Christians. I have been part of the missional conversation since I was encouraged by my Acts 29 Assessment team to attend Soma School in 2008. Since then, I have been challenged to actively live out my faith and I have given my life to equip others to do the same. We tried to plant a church that would require people to participate. We have participation in our sermons. We are structured around Missional Communities, we limit our church programs, etc. After all, Paul is very clear that it is the people of the church who are to be responsible for the majority of its ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13).

And we have seen God change people’s lives! We have seen people not only learn their neighbors’ names but build relationships with them. We have seen families open up their homes for foster care and adoption. We have seen people learn to identify and de-throne the idols they worship. We have seen people increase in love for God and others.

But it has been a slow and sometimes discouraging process. It has meant that we have to be sensitive to the fact that many people are simply not accustomed to their local church expecting a lot (other than maybe money and volunteer time) from them. Jesus certainly gave people pause before following Him, reminding them to count the cost. Following Jesus will often cost us in life because Jesus expects our entire lives to be devoted to Him. The local church is the avenue in which and through which we live out this life-encompassing call. If you are never challenged or made uncomfortable by your church, you might have reason for concern.

God’s people have been blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12:2). God calls us to bless the cities in which we live, even if we feel captive (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Jesus  calls His people “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16). But I often meet Christians and pastors who feel like they just don’t know how to tangibly live out their faith.

Why have we made it so difficult for Christians to actively live out their faith in natural, unforced ways in everyday life? Why have we made it so difficult for so many Christians to talk openly and welcomingly about their faith? Why have we made it so difficult that throwing parties and serving others seems so unnatural? Why have we made it so difficult for people own their own spiritual growth?

I have come to believe that many of the challenges American Christianity faces are a direct result of the methods we have adopted in living out our faith. These methods have actually created a culture of passive Christians who need to be awoken, energized and equipped to put feet to their faith.

Though there are certainly other factors, I think that at least a few reasons we seem to pump out passivity, such as:

Theology (or lack thereof) of Place: American Evangelicalism generally seems to have a poor theology of place. Instead of challenging commuter culture, we have adopted it wholesale. We have removed most churches from their local context. Sure their property sits in a particular geographical area but it is increasingly rare for those surrounding communities to feel that the church is a blessing.

We need to regain and live out the notion that faith is put in to practice in everyday life. Local churches should be involved in their local communities. If we have been blessed to be a blessing, our communities should have tangible blessings to point out. Instead, they complain that our mega-services cram up the traffic and we take tax breaks from our communities rather than pouring in to the city.

The issue here is probably bigger than just a theology of place.

A n0n-holistic Gospel Leads to Christian Isolationism: Though the Evangelists and Revivalists of recent ages past certainly meant well, American Evangelicalism seems to have learned from them that the salvation of souls is the most important thing. But if all of creation has been affected by sin, surely the Gospel impacts and will someday redeem all of creation. The Gospel is not about getting in to heaven when we die, it is about living out the Kingdom here and now.

One practical result of this disconnect is directly tied to our poor theology of place. Not only have we disconnected the local church from its neighborhood, the separation of salvation from everyday life has only led to the fact that Christians like to clump together, removing ourselves from the “secular” world. We create our own sports leagues, reading clubs, etc. It is entirely possible for a Christian to have no contact whatsoever with those who believe and live differently. We can eat Christian toast, listen to Christian radio on our way to our Christian job, having lunch at the Christian coffeeshop, and then go to Bible study before going to bed.

As Francis Chan says in Crazy Love  (a book itself devoted to shaking Christians from passivity):

“Christians are like manure: spread them out and they help everything grow better, but keep them in one big pile and they stink horribly.”

Christians were never meant to separate themselves from the rest of the world (John 17). Not only does isolationism separate us from those who don’t yet believe, it increases passivity. Though I may be challenged on the certain nuances of particular ideas, when I’m surrounded by those I generally agree with, stagnation is usually close by.

The Professionalization of the Pastorate Has Led to Poor Equipping: Though Paul clearly say the five-fold ministry as given to the church to equip Believers for the work of the ministry, we have relegated this “work of the ministry” to those paid to do it. Instead of viewing themselves primarily as equippers, many pastors are forced to live as doers. Part of this is related to the fact that seminary is probably not the best way to train equippers and we primarily seem to have seminaries in general because we wanted legitimacy from the academic world, but I am digressing and hope to address some of those issues later.

The very fact that John Piper (regardless of your thoughts on him and his ministry) felt the need to write a book called Brothers, We Are Not Professionals reminds us that this is indeed a real issue amidst American Evangelicalism. Many Christians have adopted passivity because they have come to believe that that’s what they pay others to do. And, instead of encouraging people to take responsibility for their own spiritual growth, we have turned spiritual growth over to the professionals.

Consumerism and An Entertainment Culture: Very few would argue that American culture has not willingly gift-wrapped itself in consumerism and the desire to be entertained. But, as Neil Postman has pointed  out, the medium is the message. Our news shows are more scripted drama than simple reporting of events. And our worship gatherings are often more about entertainment than they are equipping Believers.

As Hirsch and Frost and others have pointed out, the very fact that our congregations are lined up in rows facing a stage means that the gathering will typically mean a passive audience. Top this off with the unhelpful aspects of “seeker sensitive churches” and we have many churches that will adopt the “USA Today” model of preaching, never challenging above a seventh-grade level. The music is led by slick emotionalists and the message is delivered by a professional public speaker.

Another side of this is the self-righteously Reformed folk who have adopted the notion that the sermon is the time for lessons in doctrine and the transfer of information. I was heard a famous preacher say, more than once, that if a pastor wasn’t spending 40 hours a week in their study, they had no business stepping behind a pulpit. While not necessarily entertainment driven, this approach certainly promotes passivity rather than engagement.

As I said the other day, I am not bitter towards the church. But I am in a personal place where I feel the need for public dialogue. Over the years, I have asked hundreds of people if they thought the American church was rocking it at actually making, maturing and multiplying disciples. I have not had a single person say that they think we’re doing a great job. That should prompt some deep self-reflection and some really big discussions.

As Einstein reminded us, insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Even though we have painted the barn lots of different colors over the years, it is still a barn. If our current system does not excel at the one main task to which we have been called and, in fact may have not only discouraged some men from serving but encouraged passivity, (and I am open to the fact that you may have had a different experience and that I may actually be wrong) we need the humility to talk openly about our shortcomings.