Change is the Only Constant: Reflecting on Graduating from High School, 10 Years Later

There were several crazy things that happened in 2010, but a few stand out in the early days of that year. 

On January 12, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti, killing more than 316,000 people. The Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform exploded on April 20. On May 28, 94 people died during Friday prayers at two mosques in Pakistan.

A lot of negative things. It’s kind of amazing how we mark years by violent and deadly milestones. I mean, I just did it. 

But as I sit here writing this on May 31, 2020, it’s evident that very few things have changed. We’re in the midst of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands around the world. Global stock markets crashed on March 12, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by the single-largest point drop in history, and the second-largest percentage drop ever — a greater crash than the single-day drop that kick-started the Great Depression.

And we’re reeling right now, on this day, from peaceful protests around the US that gave way — somehow, some way — to violence, brutality and death.

Not much has changed.

That made me think about what has changed in my life, and as I thought about it, I thought also about what hasn’t changed.

10 years ago, I was desperate to have a girlfriend, because it seemed cool. Now, I’ve got a wife and it’s the best thing ever.

10 years ago, I walked the stage with great friends. Now, I still think of them often, much more than many of those I knew in college.

10 years ago, I thought having kids was a thing that would be easy and simple. Now, it seems so much more complicated, expensive and anxiety-inducing.

10 years ago, being a Christian seemed like the right thing to do, so I did it. Now, I understand that it’s a beautiful, difficult, complicated and simple thing.

10 years ago, approaching government and political matters seemed easy: vote Republican. Now, I know it’s a lot more nuanced, and no political ideology or party has all the right answers.

10 years ago, taking a stance on so many moral issues – homosexuality, abortion, assisted suicide — was easy and straightforward. Now, I know it’s a much more painstaking process to come to conclusions that may change over time.

10 years ago, social media was how you told people who you were dating, what music you were listening to and what you were doing that night. Now, social media is where I learn how people feel on political issues and what else is on their mind.

10 years ago, I loved Chick-fil-a. Now, I love Chick-fil-a.

10 years ago, I listened to Christian rap all the time. Now, I listen to singer-songwriters from Australia, Canada, Sweden and Ireland.

10 years ago, I was a little on the chubby side and grew facial hair I was proud of. Now, I’m almost decidedly (still hard to admit) on the chubby side and grow facial hair that sometimes I like and sometimes annoys me.

I could go on and on, but the clear takeaway from this list is that some things never change (thanks Princess Anna for getting that song in my head now) and some things are radically different.

But one thing that’s very different from this time in 2010 and this time in 2020 is that everything is different. Seniors graduating from high school now are walking into a world marred by a global pandemic, a country agitated by more and more deaths of unarmed black men and women at the hands of police and, the places I’ve been, people going out of their way to celebrate their graduation with signs, banners and social media posts. There’s good, and there’s bad.

I don’t think I know any graduating seniors — tells you how crazy the last couple months have been, I’ve likely forgotten some people exist. Sorry. But I want to share this message with them:

Some things that are in your life now will never change. And some will change radically. 

I used to believe so many things about Christianity that I’ve now abandoned. I’ve had friends that I thought would last forever with whom I no longer speak, or am even curious what’s going on in their lives. There were passions and hobbies I wouldn’t spend a dime on now, and there are hobbies now that weren’t even in existence when I graduated. 

History will happen. Important people will be born and important people will die. Technology will advance but still provide some of the same services it always have. You will lose things, find things, love things, hate things, trash things, cherish things, invest in things, abandon things. Things that once had deep meaning will lose their luster, and things you never thought you’d like will become precious.

Some last pieces of advice:

Enjoy life. Life is hard. Life sucks sometimes. Find joy. Hold on to joy. Don’t assume that because something doesn’t bring you as much joy as you thought it would that it has outlived its usefulness. Don’t assume because something makes you feel good that it is good for you. If you feel bad, tell someone you trust. 

I hope I’ve helped you understand that some things change, and some things don’t. Prepare as best you can for that change. Because of all the things I’ve said in this post, change is the only constant.

Other than Chick-fil-a, because Chick-fil-a is always awesome.


Pandemic Panic: Burnt Out by COVID-19? Me Too.

There’s a term in the English language that has popped up in video games I’ve played over the years: “fatigue.” It’s usually used to describe the speed at which my player/character gets tired. When that player/character gets tired, their abilities weaken and they’re not able to perform at their best.

Aren’t we all in that place right now?

I’ve not written much for myself in a while, probably partly because I’ve been writing so much for everyone else. I’ve had 34 stories posted on my newspaper’s website since April 1, and I’ve also put together 11 editions of a newsletter. That’s 1.5 written pieces of content a day — along with daily updates to our COVID-19 counter online and social media.

And I’m tired, guys. I’m burnt out. And some things have just made it worse — like an ER doctor from New York taking her own life after spending hours and hours watching COVID-19-positive patients die before they even get to the hospital, dealing with the virus herself and then going back to work. Someone with no known history of mental health issues, burnt out, just done.

That story wrecked me. I couldn’t bear to see it. I get it. I haven’t felt suicidal — although I have in the past, several times — during the pandemic, but I understand how someone can get worn out. Extensive work on something like that, something so depressing and overwhelming, wears out your brain’s thinking processes, and it hurts. Literally hurts. The synapses have been firing so much that they’re tired.

As a result, you don’t think straight or clearly. You’re just exhausted and worn out. You’re less productive.

That’s why so many people have been stressing the need for self-care: for taking a break, not watching COVID-19-related media coverage, getting outside and taking a walk, that kind of thing.

But the world we live in doesn’t necessarily encourage that, especially when the economy is down. Productivity is primary.

It shouldn’t be, but it is.

I don’t have any call to arms with this. This is just more me saying I feel the same way.

Living With Anxiety During a Pandemic: 6 Things to Do

If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, you’ll know that anxiety is a major part of my life.

Or was. Praise God I’ve come out of the most anxious season of my life, aided by friends and family and helpful medication. 

But not all are that fortunate. Their anxiety is much deeper than mine was, or they can’t afford helpful medication, or they live in a situation where friends and family or either non-existent or far away. And now, those people are living in a pandemic. 

I could regurgitate everything about COVID-19, but I want to cut to a few things I want to encourage those with anxiety to remember right now. I don’t promise these will remove your anxiety, but perhaps they might help you cope. At least I hope so.

It’s OK to be anxious.

Don’t ever let guilt or shame overwhelm you about your anxiety. You have good reason to feel anxious. All over the world, governments are asking people to stay away from mid-sized gatherings, stay at home and homeschool their kids. You are not alone in this.

You are not alone.

You’re not the only person who’s feeling anxious right now. I’m not, but I know many who are, who are laying awake at night not sure what to do next, who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, who are trying to keep a restaurant afloat when they’re forced to only do takeout or delivery. 

Take a deep breath.


Slow down.

Anxiety often takes the form of your mind racing a million miles an hour. By practicing breathing techniques and calming yourself, you just might give yourself a second or two to think about nothing.

“Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.” – Winnie the Pooh

Distract yourself.

Read a book. Watch a movie. Play a video game or a board game. Play with your pet. Dance like no one’s watching. Distractions often get a bad rap, but they serve a good purpose more often than we expect.

Remember you are loved.

God loves you. No matter where you are. Right now He does. 

If you need someone to talk to, reach out to me at God bless.

Wrestling with a Religious Dichotomy, My Ego in the Balance

Growing up in a religious household, in a religious community, among religious people, you learn certain things. One of the first things I learned was this: “For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44).

I don’t know if I heard that in a message from Leviticus or it was told in another form — the “be holy for I am holy” part is quoted in 1 Peter 1:16 — but the message was clear: you are to be holy. What does holy mean? Be obedient and do not sin. God doesn’t sin, Jesus doesn’t sin — so to be like them, don’t sin. If you do sin, you’re failing and you need to do better.

When I got to college, I eventually figured out, thankfully, that everyone sins and that’s just part of being human. So it’s OK that we’re sinners! We have nothing to be ashamed of because everyone sins, and the grace of God steps in to help us.

Wrong, apparently. Confession of sin was saved for one-on-one conversations, filled with religious platitudes like: “Thanks for sharing,” “I admire your honesty and transparency” and “We’ll pray for you.”

So simultaneously, it was holy and righteous to be a good person — to be obedient and righteous — and to confess how much you suck — to be honest about your failures and how much you needed Jesus. In fact, the more you needed Jesus and the more you confessed it, the more holy you appeared.

So which one is it? Or is it both? I’m not quite sure.

Doing an “About” Face

I listened to a message recently from Crosspointe Church in Cary about the first few verses of Matthew 6. Here’s the Scripture the preacher covered, in the words of Jesus:

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Jesus Christ, in Matthew 6:1-8

The base of the message was this: Why do you do what you do, and who do you do it for?

So often, he said, we try to seek people’s approval by being certain things. We’ll stoop to any level to find satisfaction in what people think of us.

Not that it’s a bad thing to be loved and accepted by others — in fact, he said, it’s “normal” and “healthy.” We as humans — and Christians, specifically — have an amazing opportunity to make a difference in this world by loving others, particularly those who are looked down upon by society.

But we end up draining ourselves and others, our relationships, when we seek to be approved by others as the reason why we do certain things. That thought process made me think about my life as a Christian, made me ponder my life and what it looked like and does look like. And as I hinted in the open, it has relied both on being an amazing Christian and being a sucky Christian.

The Best Frickin’ Christian You’ll Ever See

When I moved from my small private school in fourth grade to the slightly-larger private school in fifth grade, I transitioned worlds. Granted, it was also an age shift, but the Montessori School of Sanford and The O’Neal School in Southern Pines were worlds apart, despite being 30-40 minutes away from each other.

At Montessori, “niceness” was the goal. It was the whole ballgame. We would be fussed at for picking on people. At O’Neal, at least among the students, it was a different scenario. I heard cuss words used by people my age for the first time.

So I became the “good guy.” People would come to me for questions on homework. They’d cuss in front of me, turn to me and say, “Sorry, Zach.” I tried to play it off as “I’m cool, do your thing” — most of the time at least — but inside I was deeply judgmental. That continued into college.

Side note: I had a wake-up moment early in my sophomore year when I was told by a friend of mine that someone else in our friend group felt judged by me for what they did or said. It was very enlightening.

Anyway, I began to feel like I needed people to know I was a Christian. Not necessarily outside Christian circles, mind you, but within the campus ministry I was a part of. The people that were cool and admired were the holiest — the ones that memorized Scripture, the ones that didn’t struggle with porn, the ones that did the most evangelizing, the ones that prayed the best prayers, the ones that confronted the most sin in other people’s lives, the ones that did the most mentoring.

“Christianity” became my calling card. I thought that was what it was supposed to be. But it wasn’t always a good thing.


I was in a group counseling session during my senior year of college — long story, maybe some other time — and the counselor asked us to draw pictures of what our lives would look like with X or without X, the thing we were struggling with.

I drew, not too artistically, what I thought it would look like.

Without X, I would go down a road that was winding and difficult, but had happy stops along the way: getting married to a good Christian girl, having kids, writing books for a living, just generally being happy. With X, I was alone, just sitting there.

But in the top right corner of the page, I drew a cross.

After we were all done, and a couple other people shared their pictures, I shared mine. The counselor leading the session asked about the cross. “Well,” I said, “God is always with me, right? Even when I sin, even when I X?”

The counselor did not dispute that claim. Instead, he said something to me that shook me. I don’t remember the words, but it was something to this effect: “Perhaps you’re wearing a mask of hyperspirituality.”

We had been talking about masks, the things we wear to hide our issues from the world, the coverings we have to protect our fragile selves from letting people know about our X. The counselor was right: I didn’t want to let people know that I was struggling, so “being a Christian” became the thing I did to hide my weakness.

I thought being looked upon as a “good Christian” was the right thing, that it was holy and righteous. But really, it was masking my insecurities, driven by my failures and many X’s.

I’ll always remember that conversation — maybe not the exact words, but the feeling I got when that was said. “But God will always be there,” I reasoned — can’t remember if it was in my mind or I actually said this. I probably said it. The response was something like: “But why is that so important to include in your drawing? Is it because you really believe that, or is that the image you want to give to the world?”

Sweetly Broken?

From that point forward, I knew I had to change. I knew there had to be something different. So I began writing, blogging and talking about transparency and honesty about personal sin.

I remember one time I posted a Facebook status that said something like: “Would you ever, unprovoked, confess personal sin in a public Facebook post?” Of course no one said yes, and I probably wouldn’t have said yes either. But that was the attitude I took.

I want to emphasize a couple things before moving forward: Believing that God is with you through your X’s is good and correct, because He is. Seeking to be honest and transparent about your life and your mistakes is good and correct, because it’s the way to healing.

But where I got confused is thinking that being those things made me an acceptable Christian in the eyes of people. I was hailed on one hand for being a “man of faith,” and on the other hand for “sharing honestly about your struggles.”

As I thought about this part of my life in the aftermath of the message I referenced earlier, I began wondering: Which one should I have been seeking?

After all, the song goes “sweetly broken, holy surrender.” To be broken down and ruined by your sin is considered a holy thing. To be sorrowed and mourn over your loss of innocence and failure to obey is “righteous.” But then, being obedient and a “good Christian” — whatever that means, that’s a whole other conversation — is what gets you book deals and speaking gigs and a good Christian wife and praise from people.

What the fork?

Being Yourself

Just be.

I’ve spent most of my life evaluating and re-evaluating my thoughts and actions, trying to make sure they are the “right” thoughts and actions. And while that’s not inherently bad — of course we should try to do the “right thing” — if that’s the motivation, you’re sucking the life out of yourself.

Just be.

Know that who you are is loved by God, and you are enough on your own. We all have things to work on, things we struggle with, and of course we should strive to improve as human beings. But making it about impressing others or being considered the “most Christian” is not just incorrect, it’s harmful to yourself and others.

Just be.

Just be.

Be who God made you to be. Don’t be ashamed of your obedience or proud of your failings. Just be who you are, and know God loves you. Strive to improve, but don’t let that improvement or your quest for improvement define you or bring you satisfaction. You’re loved!

Just be.

What Will We Do With Our Phrase? A Matthew 5:16 Reflection

One thing I’ve grown up to believe in Christianity is that being a Christian is not about us. It’s not about what we do or how we act or what we believe. It’s all about Jesus.

That’s why I was confused this morning when I read Matthew 5:16.

I was praying this morning — an infrequent occurrence, by the way — when I thought of the idea of the “light on a hill.” Seeking some kind of encouragement, I turned to Matthew 5:16 and found these words: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” I was encouraged, yes, but also slightly confused a bit. 

After all, why would we want to act so people could “see your good works.” Isn’t this the Jesus who also said a little bit later, in this same sermon, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1)? 

Now, what I would normally take from this surface-level contradiction is that it is no contradiction at all. In fact, the essence of Jesus’ teaching lies in the purpose of your works. Are you doing it “in order to be seen” by others, as He warns against in Matthew 6, or to encourage others to “give glory to your Father in heaven,” as He encourages in Matthew 5:16? But as I pondered this, a realization crossed my mind.

Far too often, I’ve withheld my efforts or not made them known for fear of people thinking I’m bragging about myself. Individuals spending a lot of time talking about themselves is one of my major pet peeves, perhaps because I grew up with the attitude that it’s not about me. 

But in Matthew 5:16, isn’t Jesus encouraging His disciples, and thus passing words of wisdom onto us, to make their good deeds visible and known? That seemed blasphemy when I first thought of it. It seemed like the most arrogant thing to do. But if Jesus encouraged it, it has to be good, it has to be right. After all, Jesus did most of His works in public. At varying times, He did tell some of those He healed or helped to refrain from sharing the news, while at others he made no such request. And clearly His disciples saw no issue in writing down or sharing His works for future generations, or at least for the ones immediately after them. 

So if Jesus says it’s good to do good works, and it’s His command that others see it, shouldn’t we be visible with our good works? Shouldn’t we make it plain what we’re doing? 

The trick, I think, comes in the intent. Doing good things for the sole purpose of making yourself look good is no better than the self-righteous Pharisees and those who gave their alms to the poor with trumpets blowing, drawing attention to their charity. But doing good things for making the world a better place, and thus leaving an opportunity to tell people, “This is what God’s love leads me to do,” is something altogether different. It’s an act of love and giving, a way to encourage others to do good things and an opportunity to receive praise and say, “Jesus is the reason.”

I believe this is Jesus saying He wants us to be part of the story of humanity, and He’s challenging His disciples — and, through them, us — to make a difference in the world in a noticeable way. He’s asking us to write our phrase in a sentence in a section on a page in a chapter of the book of human existence. 

What is our phrase going to look like? What words will be used to describe us and our impact? Why will our phrase be one worth reading? What difference will we make with the years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds we have? This is not an attempt to shame or guilt those who may feel they are “wasting” their lives in light of this — that’s a whole other conversation, and one I’ve been having with myself a lot lately. But how will we use the time we have? 

I think it’s allowing God to use you, but not in a “I don’t matter, He does” way. It’s in a way where we choose how we’re going to be that light on a hill, and when people ask us why we do it, we say why. We say it’s the love of Jesus spurring us on, not just to obedience but to making a difference in the world.

We’re not here just to wait for Jesus to come back — although I wish that day were today. We’re here to create a place where there are lights on every hill. And think about what a light does — it shows what’s happening, it attracts people to it, it removes darkness. That’s what we’re called to be. Don’t be afraid to do it visibly. 

The Hard Things: INSECURE, Pt. 2 – Why It’s OK

Author’s Note: This is the second part of a four-part series in a new stretch of blog posts I’m calling “The Hard Things.” You can find the first part, which includes some background on why I’m doing this, right here.

In the movie Ocean’s Thirteen, the titular group of thieves knocks out the power to a new hotel on the Vegas Strip in order to take a lot of money from a casino owner who did one of their friends wrong.

I’m not advocating for you taking this course of action, but it’s a decently-entertaining film.

Anyway, by knocking the power out, the casino’s fancy new security system, which utilizes facial-scanning software and heat monitors, is disrupted for three minutes. During this time, the thieves are able to cheat at various casino games while going undetected by the system, which measures a winner’s reactions to see if the win is expected or a genuine surprise.

Funny enough, at this time of no security within the casino, the room that houses the fancy security system is locked down.

Our insecurities do that to us. When we sense a threat to our personal sense of comfort and security within ourselves — whether it’s from an external source or within our own thinking — we lock up, clam up, don’t let anyone in. And while these posts are intrinsically about being insecure and how to work with that and through that, I want to emphasize that insecurity is normal. 

It’s OK to be insecure. Insecurity is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s part of the human experience, and part of working through your insecurity, I believe, is recognizing why it’s perfectly normal for us to feel that way. Here’s three reasons why, and they go along with the three reasons why we’re insecure from the last post.

We will always find something else to do.

I’m lazy. I’ve been lazy most of my life. That’s just part of who I am. But even I, in my laziness and my enjoyment of doing nothing, find myself at times knowing there’s more I have to do.

When you’re a kid, you’re not overwhelmed with the worries of the world like your parents are. All you have to do is go to school, get to Friday and just chill over the weekend. The older you get, the more work you have to do around the house or at a part-time job, and then college rolls around. By the time you’ve walked across that stage — or maybe you’ve foregone college and went straight into the workforce — you’ve learned that life isn’t as simple as it used to be.

When you’re an adult, there’s always something to do. Maybe it’s paying the bills. Maybe it’s going to the grocery store. Maybe it’s heading to church for small group or choir practice. Maybe it’s putting the final touches on that paper for grad school. Maybe it’s signing a permission slip for your child’s field trip. There’s always something next on the to-do list. Even if you find a moment to relax and not worry about that list, it will be there when you get back.

Because there’s always something left undone, you may find yourself worried about how much you haven’t done. And that’s perfectly normal. In this fast-paced world, there is always something to do.

We will always compare ourselves to one another.

I’ve spent a good chunk of my teenage and adult life comparing myself to my younger brother. He made better grades than I did and is smarter than I’ll ever be. He’s a mighty fine musician and a really good guy. 

Because I have a brother who’s less than two years younger than me, I will likely always be making comparisons, whether it’s warranted or not. We’re different people, with different interests and personalities, but the temptation to compare will remain. 

We live in a comparison-driven world. It’s impossible to avoid it unless you become a hermit and literally have no contact with anyone else. For whatever reason, our brains are made for comparison. With comparison becomes insecurity. Our selfish selves derive pleasure and contentment, sometimes at least, from being better than others, from having more than others. We can feel content if we’re the ones on top of the food chain, if we’re the ones doing well. 

But if we’re on the bottom — or if we feel like we’re on the bottom — the opposite will happen. We’ll constantly be looking over our heads, over our shoulders, wanting more. It’s not inherently bad to want to be more or do more. Sometimes that can be a strong motivator. But sometimes it can de-motivate us. “I’ll never be like them, so why even try?”

That is in and of itself insecurity, a lack of confidence with who we are.

We will always have room to improve.

Whether it’s in our spiritual lives, our work abilities or simply our attributes as a human, there will always be room for growth. We will never be perfect. Because of that, insecurity or the temptation to it, for some at least, is a given and always will be. 

There is no one perfect, and there will never be a perfect human. Perfectionism is rampant, and while some might say it’s a good goal and maybe a standard worth pursuing, it’s an impossible one. 

What I want to get across with these three points is that what we feel when we’re insecure is somewhat true. We will never really accomplish everything on our to-do list, and we will always be not as skilled, talented or smart as at least one other person, if not millions. Those realities, and many others, can make us feel like we are not enough, that we need to be somebody else or make ourselves better than somebody else to feel secure in who we are as humans.

I was in a mall in South Africa a few summers ago — long story, no time to get into that here — and saw a sign in a clothing store. It said something to the effect of, “Try on the new you.” The effect was this: You are not enough in and of yourself. You need our clothes — translation: you need us — to be the best you can be. It was a marketing ploy, to be sure, but I wonder how many people saw that and said, “You know what, they’re right.”

Our insecurity is just like that sign. It says that we’re not enough on our own, that who we are is not as good as who we aren’t. There may be some truth in that, but I believe that idea is missing the point.

The Hard Things: “Insecure,” Pt. 1 – Why We’re Insecure

Author’s Note: This is the first part of a four-part series in a new stretch of blog posts I’m calling “The Hard Things.” There are so many things in humanity that are difficult to discuss for various reasons. You name something hard to talk about, and there’s usually a one-word answer for why it’s difficult. Sex? Awkward. Politics? Contentious. Mental health? Complicated. Religion? Personal.

I’m calling the first series of posts “Insecure.” I’m really excited about this one because I think insecurity a topic most if not all of us can relate to and, at least I think, doesn’t get as much attention as a topic, particularly in the Christian atmosphere. So let’s go. – ZH

The other night, I sat at our kitchen table, head down, moisture on my forehead. My anxiety had peaked.

“Everything OK?” my wife asked kindly.

“Eh, not really,” I said. “I feel off.”

After a couple minutes of hemming and hawing, I was able to get it out — I was feeling really insecure. I had no reason to, no real reason at least. In my head, anyway.

“I’ve always been this way,” I said. “Ever since I was younger.”

Insecurity has plagued me for most of my life, and while it’s taken a lot of days off in my adulthood, it still comes roaring back every now and then. And I’d wager that I’m not alone. After all, we’re surrounded by things and people that can flick that insecurity switch in our brains. 

Insecurity, if you’ve somehow never heard the term before, is the feeling of not being comfortable with yourself. If security means comfort and contentment, confidence and constancy, insecurity is the opposite. 

Actual quantification of humanity’s insecurity is hard to come by. In a blog post on the website of The Scientific American, clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen says the best two figures that could describe insecurity are these: the 13 percent of Americans that experience social anxiety disorder and the 40 percent that identify as shy. Both social anxiety and shyness relate, she argues, to the fact that we’re not comfortable with ourselves.

But why do we end up this way? Why do we define ourselves with this term? How do we get there? I think there’s at least three main reasons at the root of most of our insecurity — whether that feeling pertains only to certain areas of our lives or exists as a constant companion — and they all have to do with how we feel.

We feel insufficient, not doing enough.

I’m not somebody who’s looking to fill my calendar with things. I like having free time and space to do whatever it is I want to do during my day. But even with this free time, intentional or not, I often feel like I’m not doing enough, like I’m not carrying my load as part of society, or not measuring up to what is expected of me.

For something to be incomplete, it has to be started but not finished, begun but not ended. It can refer to a piece of art we’re creating, a business transaction we’re facilitating or a book we’re reading. There’s something done, but it’s not fully complete or finished. Simply by existing in that state, the project or book or artwork stands on the precipice of completion. It’s like standing on a fence post. You can go back to where you started or on to the other side with a gust of wind or a little burst of energy, either positive or negative, internal or external.

We can feel insecure when we haven’t yet done what we feel what we need to do, especially when compared to someone else who has accomplished much more than we have at our age or even younger. 

Every so often, I’ll have a conversation with someone about another person who is my age or younger, and one of us will remark, “What were we doing when we were their age?” Most of the time, it’s something relatively less remarkable or profitable, at least on the surface. 

For many of us, our comparative insecurities in the productivity field don’t come from comparisons to celebrities or athletes, but those around us — the ones who seem more spiritual, who got that raise and promotion before us, whose marriage looks more sparkling and golden than ours. 

We feel incompetent, not skilled or smart enough.

The scenario I described in the opening of this piece revolved around incompetence, or at least feeling that way. I had discussed things with someone who was objectively much smarter and, at least on the surface, much more self-assured that I, and it made me feel incompetent.

Whether it’s in on a work project, some home repair effort or simply in conversation with a friend, we can often feel like we don’t measure up to another person or some sort of standard we’ve established in our mind. This comparison is the basis of many insecurities, I think. Much has been written and said about how negatively comparison affects a person, how much comparing yourself to someone else can actually hinder growth. 

Insecurity can arise in this arena, especially around insecurity itself. You look at someone who’s clearly self-assured and confident in who they are and wonder why you can’t be that way. What have they got that I don’t? What do they know that I don’t?

While females most assuredly struggle with this, I believe males maybe have a much harder time with this kind of insecurity. It starts when you’re young on the playground, when races take place to see who’s the fastest to go across the monkey bars. As you get older, it becomes sports: who makes more baskets, who runs the fastest, who throws the ball better. If (or when) you learn you can’t be a professional athlete, it’s about money and success: who has the better job, who has the nicer car. 

Really, it comes down to this: who are we?

We feel inadequate, not enough.

For the insecure, “who we are not” is the comparison. Ultimately, it goes beyond what other people are like and what they have accomplished to a version of ourselves that we dream to be one day. We conjure up this picture of who we are not yet, maybe even who we should be right now, and when we find ourselves less than, we fall into insecurity.

Whether it’s from religion, music, movies, art or social media, we are bombarded by ideas and about who we could be if only we did this or paid for that or took this time or effort. If we are unable to make that effort — withheld by finances, talent or some other unmovable barrier — we feel we have failed, and thus, we are failures. And even if we are able to make that effort, but still fail, the feeling remains.

Religion has a certain way of, in my experience at least, enabling this insecurity. Religious practices and institutions are, on their face, all about making yourself more into the image of something, more like an ideal or a standard. And while that is not necessarily bad, and those ideals can even be good aspirations, improper teaching about those standards can lead to heavy shame and guilt and immense insecurity. We feel like we won’t be a true fill-in-the-religion-here until we meet all the standards and goals set before us by some religious teacher or moral behemoth. 

These feelings get at the very heart of who we are, our identify, our selves. What we do and what we are skilled or talented in can change and vary with the season. We may be in a job that we are good at or have completed a particularly difficult task, so we feel good about those parts. But who we are permeates everything. 

Thus, this insecurity is the most damaging and crippling. If we can’t be confident and comfortable in who we are, the most basic and fundamental thing about us, what can we be secure in?

Part 2 coming soon.

7 People I’d Buy Dinner for in 2020

It’s the end of a year and the beginning of another. Thus come the lists of bests and worsts and favorites and least favorites and so on and so on.

I was tempted to do a couple on music (favorite song is Dean Lewis’ “Don’t Hold Me” or Alec Benjamin’s “Must Have Been the Wind”) or movies (“The Two Popes”) or TV shows (“The Mandalorian,” obvs). But as I was thinking about what I really want, what I most desire, it’s not more movies or music or TV. It’s time and conversation with people.

Thus I present you with my 2019 end-of-year list: The Seven People I Want to Buy Dinner For in 2020. They’re split into three categories.

First: People, sadly, I won’t be able to because they’re no longer with us.

Rachel Held Evans: Here’s what I wrote about her when she passed away in May:

As a writer myself, I love her style of mixing emotional self-reflection with life story, biblical application with textual criticism. She was both humorous and intellectual, realistic and self-deprecating. I want to write like her, to turn phrases with emotional impact and spiritual depth while pointedly approaching problems she sees. She wrote with compassion, understanding the reality of life as a Christian and a human, not taking any crap while seeing people’s flaws and elevating them [the people, not the flaws].

By all accounts, she was a wonderful person as well.

I’d want to take her and her husband to dinner with my wife and I. We’d talk about growing up evangelical, being Bible know-it-alls, going through significant faith changes and being a writer. That last part, particularly. Maybe she’d let me write a book with her. Or maybe she’d just read something I wrote and give me a good piece of writing advice.

Jarrid Wilson: Here’s what I wrote about him after his reported suicide in September:

This was a guy who, the day before his suicide was reported, wrote on Twitter, “Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure depression. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure PTSD. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure anxiety. But that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t offer us companionship and comfort. He ALWAYS does that.”

He was so, so, so, so right. And he lived that message! He was the guy who more-or-less singlehandedly, just through his presence on social media, helped me believe that it was OK to be a Christian who had depression and anxiety, that my mental illnesses did not disqualify me from being loved by God and loved by Jesus. 

By all accounts, he was a good guy too.

We’d talk, if he was willing, about writing and mental health, our own struggles and how Jesus loves us through it. With his permission, of course, we’d scheme about ways to raise awareness of mental illness and mental health in Christian culture and walk out planning to save some lives.

Second: People who are alive who are way too famous and/or busy for me to realistically have a chance to dine with them.

Andy Mineo: I enjoyed Andy’s music when he first landed on the Christian rap scene earlier in the 2010s, but it’s his latest stuff that’s really helped me appreciate his life and journey and our similarities. Maybe he could give me some writing pointers as well. But mostly, like Rachel, he speaks my language:

Yeah, built my life on this (huh)
Half my adult life like unlearnin’
Lies that I heard in a dumb sermon
What I unearth got me uncertain
More knowledge and more sorrow
Worryin’ that never fixed tomorrow

Andy Mineo, “Clarity”

Jon Bellion: I discovered him and his music this year. While he’s not my favorite, there’s a couple songs of his that just cut to my core like good songs do. I’d want to pick his brain on creativity and the music industry, how on earth he got such a good voice and what the inspiration for songs like “Human” is:

I always fear that I’m not living right
So I feel guilty when I go to church
The pastor tells me I’ve been saved, I’m fine
Then please explain to me why my chest still hurts

Jon Bellion, “Human”

Pete Enns: Pete wrote a book that radically helped shape my perception of the Bible this year. I wrote about it here. I’d want to get into the weeds a little bit on the academic and nerdy side of faith, but also learn how the academic connects to the trusting, spiritual side of things. He also seems like a pretty funny guy. I had a couple minor qualms with the book — that’s what writers do — but I also really liked it. I’d still ask him for writing advice.

Whatever else we do, and especially with issues that generate so much conflict, wisdom must be pursued by all and invited to take a prominent place in these discussions — if only so that they may remain discussions and not an exercise in lobbing back and forth ‘clear’ Bible verses as grenades. Using Bible verses to end discussions on difficult and complex issues serves no one and fundamentally misses the dimension of wisdom that is at work anytime we open the Bible anywhere and read it.

Pete Enns, “How the Bible Actually Works”

Pete Holmes: His book “Comedy Sex God” was one of the more enjoyable reads I had this year. He’s a comedian and actor, but my favorite thing he does is his podcast “You Made It Weird.” He interviews actors, comedians and authors about their line of work and various other things, but he always ends with faith and religion. The conversations are enlightening and hilarious. I’d want to have a similar one. I’d want to talk about growing up a Christian, growing up a white Christian male, where he’s at with his faith now and what marriage is like for him — he was married young, divorced after his wife left him and got re-married a few years ago.

Faith isn’t certainty, it’s adventure, something you’re going to come back from dusty and bruised, having seen and done things you never would have even considered before.

Pete Holmes, “Comedy Sex God”

The last category is the people I know for sure I can buy dinner for this upcoming year.

My wife. No explanation needed. She’s the best.

He Comes Back to Love: A Thought from the Early Chapters of Jeremiah

For a long time, I’ve lived with the impression that when the prophets of the Old Testament spoke to the nation of Israel, they were simply speaking out of God’s displeasure, and it was all condemnation and judgment. 

I knew there were bits of hope in there. Jeremiah speaks of the “righteous Branch” of David (23:5-8), a small encouragement smashed between words of condemnation and disappointment in the people of God. But most of what I remember from my first reading of Jeremiah is the warnings and the disciplinary words.

And I get it. The book was mostly written, scholars say, after the Israelites’ exile to Babylon. There’s explanation and context given for their circumstances. 

But stuck in chapter 3, early on, is one of the reasons why I love God and I love Jesus.

After talking about how Israel has “played the whore” (v. 6) and “took her whoredom so lightly” that she began “committing adultery with stone and tree” (v. 9), Yahweh, through Jeremiah, offers an escape. He tells the prophet to face north and say:

“Return, faithless Israel, says the LORD. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, says the LORD; I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you have rebelled against the LORD your God, and scattered your favors among strangers under every green tree, and have not obeyed my voice, says the LORD. Return, O faithless children, says the LORD, for I am your master; I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion.” (v. 12-14)

There’s something very — as evangelicals like to say, and that’s not a criticism — “Gospel-centered” in this passage. God is saying to His people, the ones who have abandoned Him, that they’re not beyond reconciliation and saving. He doesn’t ask them to do any spectacular acts of repentance or make up for their mistakes — simply acknowledge their guilt and return.

It’s so simply powerful to me that God offers this chance at reconciliation to the people of Israel. This is a people that worshipped false gods, disobeyed the real God’s commands and abandoned the One who had given them so much. As a result, they ended up in exile in Babylon. But God says they’re not too far gone, not too far away to be saved.

So many people will speak of the God of the Old Testament as a judgmental and angry God. And I get it. There are many words even here in the first few chapters of Jeremiah that get that message across loud and clear. And there’s confusion that even I have had recently about this seeming juxtaposition between the loving and grace-filled God of the New Testament, represented best by Jesus, and the condemning and disciplinarian God of the Old Testament. 

These verses show that those versions of God actually meet in the middle. 

What the authors of the books of the Testaments report to us is that God is a complex figure, but at the end of the day, He comes back to love. He centers on it. His inclination is to love. Even if His children have disappointed Him and He has to discipline them, He comes back to love, community and togetherness. That’s His default. 

So when we speak of God, we must speak of Him faithfully, as the prophets did, as Jesus did, as Paul and Peter did — a God driven by love and welcoming, not one driven by judgment and condemnation. Yes, He has standards and desires for us, mainly one: to love others as He has loved us. 

Let that be our default as well.

What We Talk About When We Talk About School Shootings

Vicky Villareal and Matthew Arauz, both 16, pay their respects at a memorial at Central Park for the Saugus High School shooting. Photo by Kent Nishimura of the Los Angeles Times.

Do we really know the impact of school shootings?

We know the lives lost. We know the violence, the fear, the panic. But do we really know the impact?

According to a database compiled by the Washington Post, more than 233,000 students in America have been at a school where a shooting has taken place since the Columbine High School murders in 1999.

That’s more than a quarter million kids.

After an incident of school violence, the national conversation turns to two things mainly: mental health and gun control. While both are worthy topics of discussion and worth the time and worth the action, I’m afraid that something gets lost — the mental health of the students who were nearby, saw their classmates gunned down or simply heard the shots and experienced fear.

A report from the American Psychological Association says this:

Most survivors show resilience. But others — particularly those who believed their lives or those of their loved ones were in danger or who lack social support — experience ongoing mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. The National Center for PTSD estimates that 28 percent of people who have witnessed a mass shooting develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and about a third develop acute stress disorder. Research also suggests that mass shooting survivors may be at greater risk for mental health difficulties compared with people who experience other types of trauma, such as natural disasters.

Amy Novotney, Monitor on Psychology, September 2018

These people often get lost in the discussion afterward. Maybe we believe that the grief counselors and assistance provided to those survivors is enough. And to be sure, that effort is to be applauded and appreciated.

But what about when the counselors leave? What about when those students have to get back to their normal day-to-day lives? Sometimes, even if the best counseling occurs, this happens:

Both were students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, during the February 14th, 2018, shooting that left 17 people dead. Both survived the school shooting—the deadliest since the Columbine High School massacre. Now, both are dead of suicide within a single week. Sydney Aiello, a 19-year-old Parkland graduate, killed herself with a gunshot wound to the head last weekend, the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office told NBC News. Her family told CBS Miami that Aiello had struggled with college because classrooms scared her and she had survivor’s guilt following the death of her friend in the shooting. A week later, on March 23rd, the Coral Springs Police Department announced that a current Stoneman Douglas sophomore (whose name remains unreleased at this time) had died in an “apparent suicide”…

A decade after Columbine, survivors told ABC News that they remained haunted by flashbacks, anxiety, and survivor’s guilt; the two Parkland student suicides evoke the death of Greg Barnes, a star Columbine basketball player, who took his own life two weeks after the first anniversary of the massacre. On Monday, the father of a first-grader killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was found dead of apparent suicide, the Hartford Courant reports.

Jared Keller, Pacific Standard, March 25, 2019

When we talk about this most recent school shooting, let’s not forget the people who survived. Let’s honor the ones who have passed, and let’s pray and express sympathy for the family and friends of the alleged gunman, who took his own life after the shooting according to news reports. But let us — Christians, non-Christians, men, women, children, adults, politicians, non-politicians, everyone — remember those who are still here.

Mental health efforts aren’t a sprint to be completed as soon as humanly possible just so we can take a seat on the sidelines. They’re a lifelong marathon requiring water, food, sports drinks, encouragement, new shoes, training and a desire to run the race to completion.