Meditations on Clarity: About the Bible, the World and Being a Christian

“Sometimes you can just be in a funk creatively or, you know, as a person, and it’s like there’s a fog around you and you can’t see out of it, but that’s part of the journey.” – Andy Mineo, “Clarity”

“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

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of something being “clear” or “transparent.”

In journalism, clarity and transparency are very important. Without those two things, we can’t really do our job right. If the truth isn’t clear, it’s our responsibility to dig and ask questions and figure out what is true. Transparency is vital, and it’s one of our main goals as reporters to be both transparent ourselves and to hold others to the same standard.

For most of my life, the faith journey as a Christian has been about gaining understanding and clarity, about trying to see God as transparently as possible and know what He says and what He wants. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I learn, it seems, that things aren’t as clear as I thought they were — with the Bible, with the world, what it means to be a Christian — and life seems to be more about the journey, about working through the fog instead of getting out of it.

These are my mediations on that thought.

THE BIBLE

Growing up, the message I got on the Bible was pretty clear: it’s God’s Word, it’s all true and it’s all applicable to us today.

In fact, the Bible was God speaking to us, a love letter, a manual, “basic instructions before leaving earth,” as it were. It was direct communication from God to me, with directions for how to live as a Christian. And I spent most of my life living that and believing that. 

But in the last year or so, as I’ve dealt with more of real life and grown as a person and a reader, I’ve seen that the Bible, to my understanding, was never meant to be that. I’m choosing not to get into here what exactly led me to that, but I’m left with this uncertainty.

So when someone says something is “biblical” now, I’m left asking questions because, and I’ll throw you this bone here, the Bible is a very complex, complicated, ancient and diverse book. Its sections were written over thousands of years to several different groups of people by several different authors with varying motives, some of them clear and some of them unclear.

For example, near the end of his Gospel, John writes that “these [words] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). But not every book of the Bible is that transparent in its meaning and purpose, so we’re left making well-educated, and often well-intentioned, guesses. 

What are the psalms for? In some cases, it seems to be David’s personal journal, pouring out his heart before God — and for a choir director to put to music. In other cases, it’s a recounting of who God is and what He’s done. In other cases, it’s asking God to put enemies to death and provide victory on the battlefield.

For us to look at the Psalms as a whole and say it’s all trying to say one thing would be a bit silly, wouldn’t it? A bit intellectually dishonest? Ignorant of proper literary criticism? 

Why should we not apply that method to the whole Bible? Yes, there are central themes — God, His relationship with Israel, the coming Messiah — but the whole Bible put together is not ultimately about one thing. 3 John covers hospitality and calling out one dude in the church that Gaius, the letter’s recipient, is running. Obadiah covers a prophecy from God about the land of Edom and Israel’s final triumph. The books of Esther and Song of Solomon don’t even say the word “God” in them. For us to claim the whole Bible is an instruction manual/“for us”/a love letter is at best a stretch and at most an improper appreciation for what it is.

It’s diverse. It tells different stories of different peoples at different times from us — or at least, my general perception of “us,” mostly-white America in the 21st century. The original recipients of the Bible’s sections looked nothing like us, spoke nothing like us and had a very different culture than we have. And since we didn’t live like them or experience that culture, how can we say for certain what specific things mean? 

That’s not to say there’s nothing for us. There are timeless truths and indelible wisdom throughout the Bible that we can apply to our circumstances, our lives and our situations today. The book of Proverbs is chock full of wisdom both practical and spiritual. The life of Jesus and His characteristics as shown in the Gospels are perfect and worth trying to emulate in our own context, and we can learn object lessons from the stories in Exodus, 1 Samuel and the Kings, among others. And, most importantly, we can learn how to be in relationship with a perfect and loving God and be forgiven of our sins.

But I think it’s crucial for me, at least, and for all of us to take into consideration that the Bible isn’t quite clear on everything. There are contradictions, and there are instances of historical context that undergird everything we read. We need to take that into account when we read the Bible and give ourselves and it space and time to understand and be understood.

Stephen Covey’s seven habits for highly-successful people are well-known, and one particular one sticks out to me as I meditate on this: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Before we go and try to put our spin on the Bible, it’s vital that we take the time to really understand what’s happening in the historical background of its pages before we go making pronouncements of our opinions on it. Where that might lead us — to the disappointment of many, including me — is uncertainty and murkiness. 

And that’s so opposite what we’re taught as Christians. We are the bastions of absolute truth, of what’s real, of what’s clear. But in reality, if we take the term “biblical” at its most literal, which we should, there aren’t a lot of things that are really “biblical.” There are things that are “godly” — like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) — and things we can and should “think on” — like truth, honor, justice, purity, pleasure, commendation, excellence and worthiness (Philippians 4:8) — but to apply statements to the Bible as a whole, I think, is missing the point. It’s not always “clear” or “transparent.”

THE WORLD

In sixth grade, I started going to school dances, at which I’d hear the popular music of the day while standing against the wall and, every once in a while, getting a cute girl to dance with me. She wouldn’t look at me much while we were dancing, something I always thought was weird, but now I see that as “I’m just trying to be nice to you, but I’d rather be slow-dancing with somebody else.”

Sorry, this isn’t supposed to be about me re-living past trauma.

I entered sixth grade in 2004, so some of the songs I heard included great songs like “The Reason” by Hoobastank (No. 6 on the Billboard Year-End chart), “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5 (No. 35) and “Sorry 2004” by Reuben Studdard (No. 53). Some of the other songs were a little less innocent: “Yeah!” by Usher with Lil Jon and Ludacris (No. 1), “Lean Back” by Terror Squad (No. 10) and “Get Low” by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz with the Ying Yang Twins (No. 70). 

That last one is particularly, well, explicit in its exploration of the artists’, well, appreciation for the female form while dancing. The popular line in the chorus — “to the window, to the wall” — would ring through my ears throughout the ride back home in my parents’ car. 

I remember one time after a dance saying that I liked the music, the instrumental background, but some of the lyrics were nasty. I still think some of them are. For real, just ugly and disturbing. 

There’s two reflections I have on this. First, I think it says more about Americans as music consumers than the artists as composers that songs like “Get Low” was that popular. It was No. 11 on the year-end Billboard chart in 2003, behind the classics “Ignition (Remix)” by the now appropriately-shamed R. Kelly (No. 2) and “Right Thurr” by Chingy (No. 7). 

I could slide in references to these songs all day, but the second reflection I have on this time was a subtle lesson I learned: the world can’t be trusted. The world has it all wrong. They’re focused on the wrong things. 

My perspective started to shift when I saw a tweet from then-Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson. He wrote about how bad pornography is for a relationship and how it harms you. 

My mind was blown. This guy, who was an arrogant guy from all appearances, was saying something good and positive. Johnson has certainly had his off-the-field (and on-the-field, for that matter) issues before and after that tweet, but the message still stands. 

Perhaps it was my misunderstanding what the church was trying to teach me about the world in the first place, but my mind was changed. The world wasn’t all bad.

In modern Christian culture, we often use “the world” as shorthand for non-Christians, usually in a context like, “The world does this, but you shouldn’t do that. You should do this. You should be different.” That was the general reasoning given for avoiding things from R-rated movies to alcohol to cigarettes to cursing. There were other reasons, but that was the underlying motivation. Having that mindset led to me having a judgmental attitude toward friends in high school or college that would watch and love R-rated movies (particularly ones with sex in them), cuss, do physical stuff with their girlfriends and more. 

But as I got older, I learned more about why people did what they did, and I found it wasn’t so clear and obvious like I was taught. Sometimes people drink for more reasons than sin — it can be fun, and just like playing a board game or a round of golf, bonding can happen over a beer. R-rated movies can be good entertainment and even teach us lessons about life that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. 

Basically, I learned that not being a Christian didn’t mean you couldn’t be a good person, that you couldn’t make a difference, that you weren’t worth listening to and understanding and appreciating. Non-Christians shifted from a salvation project to people and friends. Not being a Christian slipped from my list of judgment-worthy qualities. To be fair, it’s a list I probably shouldn’t have developed in the first place. 

It’s not clear that the world is all bad, or that it’s just something we should “be in, but not of.” I think Paul argued this point: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22). His example is stunning, as is Jesus’ as he spent time with sinners and tax collectors (many times, but particularly in Matthew 9:10). In a society where the “righteous” Jews didn’t associate with outsiders and pariahs, not only did Jesus speak to them — see the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 — He ate with them and went to their houses — like Zacchaeus in Luke 19.

The examples are endless. Jesus and Paul not only observed the world and knew about, they engaged it because they knew it wasn’t as clear as “bad.” It was usually a little more complex and complicated.

BEING A CHRISTIAN

Similar to the Bible, I had what I thought was a pretty clear picture of what it meant “to be a Christian” when I was growing up, and one of the major stipulations was no cursing.

One time after church, I wrote a Facebook status about how Christians who cussed were bad Christians or missed the point or something like that. A school classmate of mine commented and said something about how that’s not necessarily true, and she was offended that I had said that. I wrote something back about Proverbs 4:24 — “Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips” (NIV). 

Looking back now, I feel like I was misguided about a couple things. First of all, I don’t know if the writer of Proverbs was talking about those four-letter words that start with certain letters. Second, where in the Bible does it say that Christians aren’t supposed to use those words? Third, I wasn’t going to win that classmate to my side with a snide Facebook comment lobbing Scripture — however wise it is — at them from the other side of a phone screen.

That story is an example of where I let the culture around me tell me what it meant to be a Christian when the reality is much different. 

Because the Bible isn’t a clear, monolithic book, to me at least, there is no one version of “Christian” today. There’s the Southern Baptist Christian, the Methodist Christian, the Episcopal Christian, the Democratic Christian, the Republican Christian, the male Christian, the female Christian. Our faith and the wisdom of the Bible affects all of us differently and leads each of us in different ways that are not necessarily bad. They might contradict at times, but that shows even more that while the Bible may be “clear” about something to one person, it’s “clear” in a different way for somebody else.

To my knowledge, the Bible only gives one or two “clear” instructions for what it means to be a Christian: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, ‘Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame’” (Romans 10:9-11). Man, Romans is so good.

So what it objectively means to “be a Christian” is in one sense clear and obvious and in another a little muddier. There seems to be clear instruction for how to become a Christian, but after that, some of the practicals are up in the air.

Baptists believe in baptism after salvation. Methodists believe in infant baptism. The PCA and PCUSA, while both “Presbyterians” by denominational title, have several differences of opinion. But who am I to say that one is a Christian and the other isn’t? If they choose to follow Jesus, who am I to disqualify them for differing beliefs? 

THE FREEDOM OF CHRIST

For a long time, I didn’t quite understand the idea of freedom in Christ. After all, if we’re Christians, aren’t we supposed to be restrained from doing certain things because what it means to be a Christian is quite specific? 

Speaking about the “freedom” for which “Christ has set us free,” Paul writes in Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:1,6). 

Circumcision is a a topic in several of Paul’s letters. The Jewish Christian crowd was using it as a sign of faithfulness. Paul rebukes that idea in Romans 3:29-30 — “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.” Here in Galatians, Paul argues, in Christ neither being circumcised nor uncircumcision means anything. The only thing that counts, he says, is faith working through love.

Being a Christian, he argues to the Galatians, is not about doing certain things or acting a certain way. It’s about faith. The Greek for working is energeó, and properly means, according to HELPS Word-studies, “working in a solution which brings it from one stage (point) to the next.” Love, Paul argues, is energizing faith. Love brings faith from one point to the next. 

Whether that’s love of God or love of others, Paul does not specify in Galatians. But as Jesus says, the two greatest commands are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37,39). The Greek root for “love” in those verses and Galatians 5:6 is the same — agapaó, “to love.”

I think this gives us a snapshot of a framework by which we can look at the Bible and look at life. Faith, being increased and improved by love, is the guiding light. From there, we can determine what it means for us to be a Christian. Of course, we should take into account loving God and loving others; this is not a free-for-all where we define it for ourselves. The Bible shows us helpful wisdom and guidance. 

But trying to define what a Christian should act like on our own terms, without taking into account love and true wisdom, is a dangerous mission. I think it’s a lot more gray than we’d like it to be. 

That means this, even as I write this to you, is an exercise for me. I have to give you space to live the Christian life you choose just as I ask you to give me space for me. They may be different – heck, in some ways, they may be completely contradictory. But as long as it’s not sinful — the Bible and the Holy Spirit can help us understand that — it’s usually A-OK.

DOES CLARITY EXIST?

So here’s the real question: does true and clear and black-and-white clarity exist? No.  And yes.

There are some things that seem to be pretty clear. Gravity. Man as sinful — theologian Reinhold Neibuhr (the same guy that composed the “Serenity Prayer”) wrote that the doctrine of original sin was “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Salvation by grace through faith.

But there are a lot of things that aren’t clear. It’s dangerous, therefore, for us to paint with a broad brush, especially when we jump into conversations with other Christians. Cussing isn’t universally accepted as sinful. Voting for a Democrat who supports abortion rights isn’t universally accepted as sinful. Supporting the maintenance of Confederate monuments isn’t universally accepted as sinful.

So it’s good for us, in light of this, to carefully enter conversations and define terms. Because clarity doesn’t exist as much as we might think.

NOTE: All Bible verses quoted come from the New Revised Standard Version, except where otherwise noted.

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Your Church is Not God. The Church is Not God.

Living in the South, I’ve learned there are a lot of people that take pride in where they go to church.

Maybe it’s that way in the North too, but there’s something special, it seems, about your regular place of worship in the Southern United States that it becomes a line in obituaries and a talking point for local politicians. I’ve covered county-, city- and state-level politics and government for about 3 years now, and almost every one of them will list their church and how involved they are in it on their resumés.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong about being excited to go to your church, or being appreciative of the work a church or a few churches do. We should work to make our churches places where people want to be, where people can hear about Jesus, grow and mature and love one another well. 

But there’s a pattern I’ve noticed, especially as I’ve written at times somewhat critically of the church at large:

“Don’t criticize the church. It’s not productive. It pushes people away from the message. You’re just saying what Christian haters are saying.” 

I know some of my blog posts in the past have ruffled people the wrong way. I’ve gotten texts, Facebook messages and calls from well-meaning and often-right friends and family members saying, “Hey, you might want to dial it back a little bit.” I’ve deleted a couple blog posts over the years. One was about how I found K-LOVE incredibly dull and immature, that they should be “more real” when it came to Christianity, and the other I can’t remember right now. 

I’ll say this now: K-LOVE serves a purpose in the body of Christ, and as much as I may have qualms with them and their methods and the music they play, they’re just doing their thing, and if people love Jesus more because of them, awesome. Far be it from me to slam them outright without acknowledging what they do and their ministry.

Please don’t make that the only takeaway from this.

But there are some things I can’t let go, and today, that thing is my desire to see the church at large change. And that change, I believe, starts with pointing out flaws and weaknesses from the inside.

This is not intended to be a Trojan horse situation. I’m not going to try to blow up the church from the inside. The purpose of this is an antibiotic. You take it and ingest it to root out what’s bad in you, to bring you healing and redirection. I don’t intend to fix all the problems with the church — that takes more people, time and money than I’ll ever have access to, and changing hearts, which I can’t do, only God can.

But I think it’s important to say this: The Church is not God. Your church is not God. My church is not God. So why do we treat it that way?

Churches — whether it’s the building or the people that gather there at least once a week — were never treated as perfect entities in the Bible. The New Testament church spent a chunk of its time trying to root out the issues and problems within its various branches. Paul’s 1 Corinthians is all about errors in the way the church was handling itself, and several sections of the New Testament speak about false teachers and the need to correct actions and attitudes within the church.

The Bible never calls on us to defend the church, either a single building or the whole institution. Paul regularly praises the faith of those who believed, the individuals, due to his teaching, but he often used that as a set-up to say, “But you’ve got this wrong. You’ve messed this up.” 

I’m reading through the book of Romans right now, and I’ve tried to approach it differently than I’ve ever looked at a book of the Bible: trying to see it through the eyes of its original audience. Of course I can never do that perfectly, and I’ll bring my personal biases and perceptions and perspectives into the exercise. 

But as I’ve read through Romans, especially the first few chapters, I’m seeing that it’s really about Paul showing the Jews in Rome, to whom he is writing, how messed up their attitudes are. He spends the second half of chapter 1 talking about the sinfulness of the unrighteous, that “they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die,” but “they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (v. 32). 

So the Roman Jewish Christians are probably feeling pretty good at that point. “Yeah,” they might have thought, “we don’t do that stuff. We acknowledge God.” But Paul had another one coming for them.

“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you the judge, practice these very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things” (Romans 2:1-2).

The Greek “anapologétos,” used for “have no excuse,” is literally derived from the words “not” and “to argue a case.” The Roman Christians could not argue a case for their righteousness. They did not have enough evidence to be convicted of Christlike-ness. That’s why Paul said, “Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (2:5). 

Of course, Paul didn’t stop there. He told them what it meant to be a Christ-following church in later chapters.

I’m not claiming to be on the same level as Paul — I didn’t get blindsided on the Damascus road and then spend “many days” with the disciples in Damascus (Acts 9:23) — but I think there’s something to be said for his approach. 

Of course we’re willing to criticize churches that aren’t ours. I’m guilty of it. I’ve done that mess where I talk about another church that has this backwards theology or messed-up approach to mental health issues. But when it comes to our church, our place, or even “the church” at large, I’ve found that we’re often blind, either intentionally or unintentionally, to our weaknesses and, more often, the need to fix them.

The church, globally or locally, is not our object of worship. It’s not the perfect being that created us and gave us life. It’s not the perfect being that saw our sinfulness — saw the things that made our churches weak — and gave us salvation and new life in Him. It’s not the perfect being that lives and moves in us, guiding us to obedience and praise.

So we should be willing to admit our weaknesses and not be afraid of a little criticism. Far too often, it’s well-warranted. Some churches and Christians, after all:

Why do we need to be afraid of being called out for our sins and mistakes? Shouldn’t we want to change? Shouldn’t we want to be conformed to the image of Christ? The Imago Dei who loved prostitutes and tax collectors, who was not afraid to identify Himself with the “least of these,” who was deemed a rabble rouser for not following the status quo of His day, whose followers were deemed to have “turned the earth upside down” (Acts 17:6) when they loved Jesus and loved people.

Let’s be welcoming of criticism, no matter where it comes from. After all, the Church isn’t God. It doesn’t warrant our apologetics.

Chipping Away: Why the Mental Health of Teenagers is Vital, and the Church Needs to Step Up

My personal mental health problems, namely anxiety and depression, started in my teens, and  I’m not alone in that.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of youth ages 13-18 live with a mental health condition, and 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth ages 10-24, and 70 percent of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems have a mental illness.

The mental health of teenagers recently caught attention in light of the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, which graphically portrayed the suicide of a high school girl character who turned to self-harm as a result of a poor life at school. A recent study said there were more than 195 more suicides by kids 10-17 than would have been expected in the nine months following the show’s March 2017 release.

Researchers said they can’t prove the show is why the jump occurred, but they argued that the graphic portrayal of the act can be a spur for kids considering suicide.

This is not a piece where I’m determined to level 13 Reasons Why, to say that it’s bad for teen mental health. In fact, another study (note: it was commissioned by Netflix) showed that 58 percent of teen viewers reported talking to their parents about the show and the issues it raised, while 51 percent stated they apologized to someone for how they treated them after watching it. So I’m far from qualified in evaluating the show’s effect on teen mental health — mostly because I haven’t watched it myself.

But 13 Reasons Why has at least done one thing, whether you think it is worth watching or harm’s teen mental health. It’s started the conversation over what’s helpful and what’s harmful. And that is always a good thing, because America’s teens, and teens around the world, need more than what they’re getting, particularly from Christians.

The Precarious State Teenagers Live In

The world has changed a lot from when I was a teenager. The year I turned 18, 2010, was very different. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the top new album, Toy Story 3 the highest grossing movie, and Barack Obama was president. Man, it seems so long ago.

But as a former teenager myself — quite recently, in fact — and through my conversations with teens over the last few years, I’ve lived and heard what it’s been like to be a teenager in the 21st century and to deal with all the pressures that come with that age group.

Teenagers nowadays — and maybe always, to be fair — feel that they are not respected as much as adults and not loved as much as little kids. They feel that they are asked to be adults in many ways, but are not given the same level of respect and the same voice as adults. They go to school, have part-time jobs, take care of siblings and try to have social lives simultaneously. Adults may spend their time on specific things quite differently, but the amount of commitments is similar. 

Many teens fall in one of two categories: living under some level of pressure from their parents’ expectations, or living without one or both birth parents. Both situations cause stress and anxiety from a young age, with other mental illnesses affecting them depending on their circumstances. The 69 percent of children under age 18 living with both parents — a decrease from the 88 percent in 1960, by the way — will often find themselves struggling to meet standards set for them, whether in the classroom or on the sports field. The 23 percent of children living with a single mother — an increase from 8 percent in 1960 — and 4 percent living with just their father are missing a parental figure and thus a significant part of their development (statistics here).

Of course, it’s near impossible to accurately measure how teens many feel high expectations from home and how that affects their lives and academic performance, but there’s enough anecdotal evidence to prove it’s a significant problem, particularly among communities where an ethnic or socioeconomic culture adds pressure

Therein lies another problem facing teenagers and their mental health. Remember how that 13 Reasons Why study said the show helped some talk about the issues presented? The same study stated that 80 percent of adolescent and young-adult viewers said others their age dealt with similar issues to those in the series, and younger teens and teens with higher levels of social anxiety said they felt more comfortable talking about the topics present in 13 Reasons Why with parents, peers and other supportive adults after watching the show.

There’s a stigma wrapped around mental health, particularly depression and anxiety. Unlike some diseases, even mental illnesses, things like depression and anxiety are not bodily visible, but take a lot of work to keep hidden. A lot of teens seem to have not learned how to control their emotions, and that’s not necessarily their fault. They’re learning who they are, and they’ll often learn through experience how to control their emotions. But in a world where looking good, talking good and living good are prized above all else, anything that gets in the way of that is scary for a teenager. They want to be prized by their peers, and anything that makes them stand out or be different for any negative reason — like being sad all the time or coming to school with cuts on their wrists or arms — is something to be hidden.

Adults are no different, really. We all put on faces when we go out in public, desiring for our colleagues and friends to see us as the put-together person we desire to show. Most of the time, we even want to see ourselves that way. In my 26-and-a-half years of life, I’ve rarely met an adult who I could tell was totally and completely themselves the vast majority of the time. I’ve met one, a good friend of mine from college and even he, deep down, struggled with self-confidence from time-to-time.

Teenage-dom is a precarious state. Whether it’s the still-developing brain or the lack of life experiences, life is on a tightrope, a pendulum stuck in the middle, shifted up or down, back or forth, at a moment’s notice.

A Personal Matter

It’s in this environment that mental illness thrives. 

Struggles like anxiety disorders and clinical depression live for this scenario. Anxiety gets activated by the slightest uncertainty, with the mind beginning to race and rumble over the smallest worry. Early experiences with rejection or being left out can add substance to the feeling of depression — “Look what’s happened to me! Can you blame me for being depressed?”

I write this because I’ve been there. This has happened to me. The slightest uncertainty has sent me into a tailspin, wondering about the 50 different outcomes to a particular situation, which one is best, which one is worst, which one is most likely. 

Allow me to be nerdy for a second: It’s like Doctor Strange using the Time Stone to see the potential outcomes of the Avengers’ fight against Thanos, but he gets stuck in the time loop, preventing him from telling Iron Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy that there’s one way to win out of 14 million-plus. A remembrance of a specific time of rejection — either by an eighth-grade girl who didn’t want to dance with me or a place of employment going “another direction” with the opening — can kickstart a half-hour of unbreakable sadness.

Most people can shrug off those perfectly normal scenarios. But those of us with severe anxiety and depression try to avoid them like the plague because we know what they do to us. They cripple us. They lead us down a path we don’t want to go down, and most of the time we can’t help it or get out of it.

Last night — just under 12 hours before writing the first draft of this essay — I thought of rejection from multiple job interviews and another scenario where rejection was hurtful and got depressed, unable to have a good conversation with my wife and ultimately descending into an anxious state. I didn’t know how to get out of it because, no matter how hard you try, sometimes it’s impossible. And don’t tell me to “stop trying so hard.” I’ve done that too.

This is both a biological and sociological issue. We live in a society where mental health has either been put on the back burner, to be “talked about later,” or not discussed at all. And nowhere has this become more obvious than in schools, where America’s teens spend anywhere between 35-50 hours a week, depending on extracurricular activities.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, the ratio of students per school psychologist was estimated to be 1,381:1 in the 2014-2015. That’s higher than the recommended ratio of 1,000:1 in general and 500-700:1 “when more comprehensive and preventive services are being provided.” Hiring personnel for public schools has become an increasingly significant political discussion, with legislation for funding such positions often reliant on the increasingly divisive political process. While I’m not going to take a political position on this — I recognize that state governments do not have a bottomless treasure chest full of money to spend on every needed thing — this shortage opens students to a significant portion of their week when they are either underserved or not served at all in the mental health arena. 

This is not necessarily the fault of the schools or the states that fund them. I simply believe this is a sign that we haven’t taken students’ mental health seriously enough. I think that’s changing, as more and more groups advocate for increasing mental health services for students and increased funding for related positions in schools. 

To take it seriously, we’ve got to start by listening to personal stories and see how mental health services can actually help people and create safe spaces for conversation and healing.

And the church is one of the best places to do that.

The Body of Christ as a Safe Space

You might think that a church youth group would be better than your average high school classroom. The kids are mostly, if not all, Christians, kind to one another, finding a home in the Lord’s house on Sunday and/or Wednesday nights.

While my youth group was fantastic, I brought my depression and anxiety into the room with me every time. That made common youth group experiences, like lock-ins and summer camp, a haven for anxiety-inducing moments and triggers for depression. Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t know that’s what I was dealing with. 

Writing on why young people with anxiety and depression often don’t go to church, child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Steve Grcevich states, “To appreciate the struggles that teens might experience in attending worship services, participating in youth group, serving in outreach activities or going on mission trips, we need to recognize how attributes of mental conditions common to this population cause difficulty functioning in the environments where ministry takes place. We also need to see how the interaction of those attributes with common elements of church culture — our expectations for how people should act when we gather together — creates real barriers to church involvement for teens with mental illness.”

Dr. Grcevich lists seven reasons why it’s tougher for teens with mental health conditions to connect: stigma around mental health, social anxiety in certain situations, struggle with self-control, sensory processing issues, weak social communication skills, social isolation and even past experiences with church. 

I relate to those, but more in my college days with the student ministry I was involved in. I felt like social isolation was sometimes my only recourse for my straggling mind. For the crazy thoughts I had that didn’t make sense to me, so of course they wouldn’t make sense to others. For not feeling comfortable around girls because I still worried about how I’d be perceived by them. For not wanting to let others know I was doubting my faith because I felt I’d likely lose my position of leadership within the group and, even scarier, my place in the group as a whole. For not wanting to go out and share the gospel with people because making new friends, or at least acquainting myself with new people voluntarily, made me shiver in my boots.

It was in this environment that I did not find the body of Christ to be a safe space. I’m not totally blaming them. Christianity has historically lagged behind the “secular culture” in wrestling properly with problems, so why would mental health be any different? I’ve seen it on the bookshelves in stores recently, where new books claim to examine the Bible afresh with its diversity in thought and seeming contradictions, something “secular culture” has been doing for years.

It is vital, especially for the sake of our teenagers, both in and outside the church, that we become a safe space for those struggling with mental health issues. In the same way we seek to accommodate the elderly with wheelchairs and 12-year-old who broke his leg climbing a tree, we need to accommodate those struggling with mental injuries of any kind.

In today’s culture, some in the political sphere, or people leaning one way on the spectrum, mock the idea of “safe spaces” on college campuses or other places. These students need to deal with reality, they say, and accommodations for their little fears and worries is babying and coddling. 

Jesus babies us. Jesus coddles us. He meets us where we are, and while He does ask a lot of us, He’s willing to be the one who loves us as we are. We should be the same with those who are struggling with mental illness, inside the church and out.

Creating a Haven

How do we get there? Always the biggest question to ask when you’re suggesting a major shift in thinking, or working to consider something different. 

We have to be like Jesus. That seems to be the end goal, the operative framework. But what does that look like in helping teens with mental health issues in the church?

Welcome them in, warts and all. One of the most popular paintings of Jesus — or what white Christian America deemed as Jesus — is the Savior sitting with a group of children, one on His lap, another sitting nearby. Jesus is either teaching with an arm outstretched or has his hand on a child’s head in a gentle, fatherly manner. The paintings are probably inspired by the Savior’s words in Matthew 19:14 — “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

Having that attitude with teens with a mental illness — and all teens for that matter, but that’s for another time — is vital. It’s an attitude of not stopping someone because of any nerve they might get on or annoyance they bring or difficulty they have. It’s about welcoming them in and loving them the way Jesus did. They have enough difficulties on their own. Far be it from us in the church to give them another one by rejecting them.

Learn about mental health from professional sources. Paul’s method of ministry was remarkable: “I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them” (1 Corinthians 9:19). The original Greek word’s root, doloó, means to “bring into bondage, become a servant.” Paul said, “Hey, I’m going to turn myself into a slave to everyone, so I can preach the gospel to them.” He dedicated himself to being like others so he could relate to them.

The best example of this, to me at least, is when Paul preaches to the Areopagus in Athens, the center of Greek thought and academic discourse in the city. As Matthew Henry states in his commentary, “One discourse of this kind we had before to the rude idolaters of Lystra that deified the apostles (Acts 14:15); this recored here is to the more polite and refined idolaters at Athens, and an admirable discourse it is, and every way suited to his auditory and the design he had upon them.” 

Paul even went so far as to quote the Greek philosopher Epimenides and poet Aratus in v. 28 — “For ‘in him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” Both of those lines were attributed to Zeus in Greek literature, but Paul, being an educated man and dedicated to reaching people for Jesus, used that writing to make a point that God really is not that far away, and that the gods the Greeks worshipped were false.

We don’t need to have master’s degrees in psychology, social work or counseling to be able to love and counsel teens who have mental illnesses. We simply need to look to Paul’s example. It is good for those working with high schoolers and other youth to learn more about any relevant mental health disorders — anxiety and depression are a good start — so that we can better understand them. Find reliable sources, both Christian and “secular.”

Open the conversation, publicly. I don’t know the split, but the teachings of Jesus recorded in the Bible seem to be half in private conversations and half in public messages. There’s the notable Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. There’s the Upper Room Discourse in John 13-17.

I’m going to make a plug here that, when we speak about mental health to teens, we don’t limit the conversation or the scope to one-on-one interactions. The teens may feel more comfortable sharing their own stories and their own struggles in that smaller environment, but speaking about it in an open forum like youth group will help put them at ease that it’s OK for them to struggle and be a part of the group.

This extends to talking about it on Sundays in front of everybody as well. It is my firm belief that we won’t make significant progress on mental health in the church unless pastors begin making mental health a topic of Sunday sermons, or addressing it in the context of other messages. The church thing to do — at least it was for me growing up, and I’m sure it still happens — is to talk about the sermon during Sunday lunch. In today’s small group culture, the message is often the point of conversation during those weekly meetings. By having an open message on the topic on Sundays, we further the church’s awareness of the topic and stifle the stigma so often associated with mental health.

Chipping Away

I’ve worked with and around youth for years now, and having been a teenager myself pretty recently, I think I’ve got a decent idea about how they work.

There’s something they value a lot: commitment and consistency. I know because I failed at it myself.

I worked with a youth group at my old church for a couple years, helping out the youth pastor who was one of my best friends. He was a groomsman in my wedding and I was in his. 

He and his wife were about to move to South Carolina for him to attend seminary, so he announced he would be leaving the church at the end of the upcoming summer. It was a devastating conversation. The high schools seniors who had him as their youth pastor all four years were destroyed. One of them, who usually didn’t show a lot of extreme emotion, began to cry. 

Soon after that, my wife and I, who had just gotten married, left to go to another church. We didn’t really say much about it. 

When we’ve returned to that church on occasion, the bond that we had with them has felt strained, if not cut off entirely. High school kids are a lot more intuitive and smart than we often give them credit for. They know when things are going on, and they have feelings about those things. But like most people, they have to know you’re there for the long haul before they let you in. 

The relationship my friend had with them was so strong because he was committed. He went to their sporting events and music recitals. He went to their high school graduations. He would have them over to his apartment to hang out. He’d play video games online with them regularly. He was committed.

If you’re going to interact with youth at all and try to make a Christ-like impact — especially kids dealing with mental health disorders — you’ve got to be committed. You’ve got to show them, prove to them, that you’re going to be there for the long haul. You’ve got to, in a sense, chip away at the hard exterior to get to what’s underneath.

It takes time and effort. But that’s what Jesus did for you, right? It may have been one swing and He was in, or maybe He took little pokes until the shell cracked and He was in your life for good. He was able to do that because He lasted three years on earth, underwent every temptation known to man, and made it through all that without sin. Then He died the most horrendous death, in my mind, humanity has come up with.

The message of this piece is pretty simple: Be like Jesus when it comes to dealing with teens and their mental health, particularly in a church setting. Start chipping.

Why people leave religion, and why we should listen to them

It’s not a new study, but the Pew Research Center recently re-posted on Twitter a 2016 survey of people who identified themselves as religious “nones” — people who didn’t identify with a particular religious group.

According to a 2015 study cited in the article, around 23 percent of the U.S. population identified themselves that way. Seventy-eight percent of that group said they were raised in a religious group before quitting it as an adult. 

Looking at the numbers, some of it is understandable. Forty-nine percent said they left because they didn’t believe anymore, 20 percent said they didn’t like organized religion and 18 percent said they were “religiously unsure/undecided.” The numbers were broken down even further, and it’s those items, as well as some of the open-ended answers, that I wanted to look at in this post.

Focus on power/politics: Four percent of those surveyed said they left their childhood faith because they felt “religion focuses on power/politics.” The open-ended answers included things like “I think religion is not a religion anymore. It’s a business…it’s all about money.” Another said that they “see organized religious groups as more divisive than uniting.” Yet another cited “too many Christians doing un-Christian things.”

Rational thought: There’s no number for how many think religion excludes reason and rational thought, but one of the open-ended answers was this: “Rational thought makes religion go out the window.” Seven percent of responders said their “views (on religion) evolved,” and 1 percent stated they “went through a crisis of faith,” which could come from examining rational thought in light of religion.

No time: This statistic stood out to me — 2 percent of responders said they were “too busy” for religion, and that’s why they left. One stated simply, “I don’t have the time to go to church.” Seven percent of those surveyed said they were “not interested in/don’t need religion.”

Organized religion: Twenty percent of those surveyed said they left because they “dislike organized religion,” with 15 percent saying they considered themselves “anti-institutional religion.” One person said they “no longer believe in organized religion…I just believe that religion is very personal conversation with me and my creator.” Another person, who actually didn’t fall into this category, stated that they believed in a higher power, “but I don’t need a church to do that.”

I know the whole survey wasn’t about former Christians, but you’ve got to imagine that the majority would fit that category. And the reality is that I think faith in Jesus can answer all those questions and provide guidance — and I’ll get there later. But first, we need to think about what we as the institution of Christianity might have done to put people in that position in the first place.

As far as it depends on us

Something that Paul says in Romans has stuck with me since I read it is a simple instruction he gives to his audience with ramifications for us. And while it’s simply put, how it’s put into action seems to be quite difficult. Romans 12:16-18 states:

“Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

If we can be honest, the human institution of Christianity has not always done a good job of doing these things. While many Christians and many churches are good, committed and peaceful citizens of their communities, contributing in positive and powerful ways, there are some that take a different approach.

As reported in multiple media outlets, Pastor Hope Carpenter was speaking recently at a church in South Carolina where the pastors, John and Aventer Gray, have come under fire from the Greenville News newspaper for their extravagant spending. Carpenter loudly proclaimed that she was “rooting for” the Grays. Then, almost out of nowhere, the tone shifted.

“I cut people,” she says. “I’ve got a knife right in that pocketbook. Greenville News, come on.”

Shiver.

Not only is that a threat of violence on a free press — which as a journalist bothers me — it’s a self-proclaimed Christian promising violence against people. I don’t know the whole story of the Grays and the newspaper. It’s very possible that the newspaper has been unfair in its coverage or is cherry-picking facts or is making a story out of something that shouldn’t be. But this type of action is certainly not following Paul’s wisdom as shared to the Romans.

I know this is one example, and I’m sure that the Grays, Hope Carpenter and that church in South Carolina have done many, many good things for people, and have represented Christ well at other times. The Grays immediately distanced themselves from the statements, but through a publicist.

But when that’s the image of Christianity that people see, can you blame some for leaving the faith, saying organized religion in general is “more divisive than uniting,” and that “more harm has been done in the name of religion than any other area”?

It’s easy for me to cherry-pick Hope Carpenter’s comments, but let’s be real: this isn’t the first time something like that has happened in the same breath as the name of our Savior being said. 

Again, this is not about blaming the human institution of Christianity as a whole, or saying that people should just not be part of a church because of one pastor going crazy one time. But it’s high time we think critically about our role as Christians in how our faith and our religion is perceived. 

Paul’s wisdom to the Romans, principles that would be well-taken by us, is to do whatever we can to live peaceably with all. To live in harmony with one another. To “give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.” That’s a very practical and helpful piece of advice. 

What have we done — not just one crazy lady, but all of us — that could possibly be putting people off from our faith? What is our responsibility? Some will leave simply because they don’t believe, and that’s fine, there’s not much we can do about that. In fact, 49 percent of those surveyed said they left because they didn’t believe anymore. 

But what about those who gave other reasons?

Meeting people where they are

Another great bit of wisdom from Paul that showed itself in his own ministry is found in 1 Corinthians 9. He writes:

“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them…I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (v. 19, 22-23).

Paul stretched himself to try to understand and relate to his audience for the purpose of salvation, for the purpose of the good news of Jesus. We must must must do the same. We must not be afraid to engage people where they are. We must be willing to accept our own flaws and admit them and try to do better.

In that interest, I think there are good answers to those who have left religion, Christianity in particular, for the reasons listed in that survey. I don’t think the true Christianity, the true faith that saves our lives, excludes them. For example:

Focus on power/politics: The real Jesus didn’t focus on either of those things. Jesus’ life and commands were simple: love God and love your neighbor. In those two commandments, He said, is all the law and the prophets. Being a Christian, a Christ-follower, is not about accumulating earthly power or political influence. It’s about loving God and loving your neighbor. 

Rational thought: Paul’s life and writings were full of rational thought. He is more or less the father of intellectual theology. The book of Romans breaks down theology in an intellectual sense, capturing spiritual realities in a human vocabulary. Yes, being a Christian means there is faith in a higher power and supernatural entities. But there is space and room for rational thought.

No time: Being a Christian doesn’t mean you need to be at church from 10 a.m. to noon every Sunday. Those things can be helpful, yes, and there is certainly a need for time with other believers having conversations and being encouraged and challenged in the things of God. But there is time, I promise, to be a Christian, to trust in Jesus. It takes some time, effort and patience to get to that point where it becomes part of you, but it’s worth it.

Organized religion: Jesus didn’t like organized religion either. He spent more time criticizing the organized religion of His day than anything else. He flipped tables and cracked whips in the presence of the organized religion. When Christians organize in churches, we try to provide a human framework and structure to make it easier to access the things we believe we need. But because they are human institutions, they will fail and they will have flaws. We ask that you give us some patience and grace as we figure out how to improve.

Of course those are not in-depth examinations of those topics, but it’s crucial, I think, that we be willing to reach out to people where they are and try to meet their needs on their terms. Of course we shouldn’t compromise what’s really important, what’s really truth to meet their needs, but we don’t need to be so hardline on non-salvation theologies that it cuts off any good conversation or pushes away people unnecessarily.

Being like Jesus is usually a good start

I want to go back to something I said a little bit ago: Jesus was more critical of the religious institutions than those who didn’t belong to them. 

That seems backwards to most church experiences I’ve had. How often has a pastor said something to the effect of “the world has this wrong, don’t they? Haven’t you seen it?” Or “there are some who think God is this or that, and they’re missing the point”? Or “America has gone to hell in a hand basket and we all need Jesus”?

While their point may be well-backed up by facts and ultimately true, that type of attitude engenders an environment where world-bashing is easy and analyzing the human institution of Christianity for flaws becomes difficult. After all, we’ll say, the world does this and that. 

What did Jesus do? He ate and broke bread with the world, He took the world’s children in His arms, He so loved the world that He came to give it the best news it could ever get. He didn’t do those things only for the religious institutions of the day, but for all. 

If we really want people to stay in the human institution of Christianity, we need to be there alongside them as they consider leaving. It doesn’t need to be on this and that condition, it doesn’t need to be with a correcting tone unless Jesus or someone is being misrepresented. It needs to be with “What can I do for you? What questions can I answer? What conversations can I have? How can I love you?” 

Love needn’t be trumped by “right theology.” After all, God is love.

‘You’re Not Crazy’: Letter to Me Five Years Ago

Author’s Note: Five years ago, I went through a prolonged season of doubt in God and His existence and me being saved. It was one of the most stressful years of my life. Yeah, it was all of 2014. At the same time, I was finishing up college, sort of dating the girl who would later become my wife (after a few complications) and trying to figure out what was next in my career.

One of my favorite things I’ve ever found on social media is an image of a guy giving a talk with a phrase projected on a screen behind him: “Be Who You Needed When You Were Younger.” This is me trying to be that guy. 

Hey Zach,

Let’s slow down for a minute. I know you’ve got a lot in your head. It’s racing. 

Later this year, you’ll figure out exactly what that is. It’s pretty serious anxiety and depression. You don’t quite know what those terms mean, and frankly, you probably think Christians don’t deal with that stuff. If I’m a Christian, you’re thinking, why do I feel this terrible?

I want to stress something to you: you’re wrong, but in the best possible way.

You’re trying to make sense of what’s going on in your head. And I’m going to go ahead and warn you: you’re going to be experiencing this for at least the next five years. Today, as I’m writing this letter to you, I’m feeling what you’re feeling now. Confusion, frustration, wondering why in the world God is letting you deal with all the crap inside your head.

Depression and anxiety is not abnormal to Christians. It’s part of life for a lot of people, even the clinically-diagnosed depression and anxiety that you’ll find out more about later this year.

I’m not going to tell you how to change your circumstances because 1) that’s cheating in this time-travel scenario. And 2) if you don’t go through what you’re about to go through, you wouldn’t be writing this letter to yourself. Don’t think about that part too much, you’ll hurt your brain. Just wait for Avengers: Endgame.

So take a deep breath, a few of them, and read on. I want to share three things with you.

Being a Christian doesn’t make you exempt from depression and anxiety, and that’s not sinful.

You may have heard a few times, and you’ll read it a few times in the coming years, that anxiety and depression is simply the result of “not trusting God enough” or “not praying enough,” that one day it will just end. 

Maybe one day it will just end, but I want you to know that depression and anxiety are real, psychological afflictions that millions of people around the world have. It doesn’t disqualify you from being a Christian, and it doesn’t disqualify you from serving in the Church. I know you’re going to tell yourself that. 

But in a couple years, you’ll be growing and learning about your mental health, and reaching out to others who are dealing with the same thing. You’ll be sharing the love of Jesus with them, writing about it and making a difference in your small area. Don’t quit.

You’re going to go through some changes in your thinking, and it’s going to affect your mental health.

If I could do anything for you, it would be to warn you about what’s going to happen to your thinking, particularly about God and the Bible. It’s going to change. You’re not going to stop believing, although right now it feels like that’s a real possibility. 

You know God is real. How would all this get here without Him? His intricate design is too creative to be random chance. Remember in that psychology class your freshman year? Seeing those two bugs fight it out? You hate bugs, but you found the way the bigger bug devoured that littler bug so fascinating. Don’t lose that fascination. 

Anyway, these alterations and challenges are going to shape you for the better. It’s going to affect your politics, your faith, the words you speak, the thoughts you think. And it’s going to make you anxious and depressed at times. 

In those times, trust that God is there, that He is doing a work in you that will make you more like that bigger bug: able to handle whatever comes your way, as long as you keep His promises in your mind.

Don’t quit.

Don’t run. You’re not crazy.

You’re going to quit a few things in between now and then. You’re going to get scared: of relationships, of jobs, of faith. 

Don’t run away from them. It’s all in your head. It’s the result of your anxiety. You’ve got this thing called pure O, the obsessive part of OCD. You get a thought in your head and then you obsess over it. 

You’re going to start taking medicine for it real soon, and that will be very helpful. But it won’t take it all away, it’s not supposed to. In the times where you start freaking out about what you’re committing yourself to, remember that whatever happens, God loves you and everything will be OK. It might not be good, but it will be OK.

Don’t quit.

Really, that’s what I want to leave you with. Don’t quit. Quitting is so easy for you to do. You’ve done it since you were a little kid. 

In a few months, your mom will tell you that when you were little, you would start building towers with blocks. After the first time they fell — probably because your brother took all the LEGO-building skill that came from your grandpa’s engineering background — you quit. You didn’t try anymore. You’ve done that with countless board games, card games, books, screenplays, videos and more. 

Sometimes you will need to have quit those things. But not this time. Not this life. Don’t quit. Jesus really does love you, even if you don’t believe it right now.

Now, I want you to throw this letter away. Again, I’m not here to mess with your life path. It’s going to stay pretty much the same. I just want you to hear what I wish you had heard during that whole year of 2014 when you didn’t believe.

Don’t quit.

Zach

Speaking My Language: A Reflection on Rachel Held Evans

I’m not the least qualified person to write about Rachel Held Evans and what she meant to me. After all, I’ve read two of her books and followed her on Twitter for two long stretches.

But I can’t help but put words on a page about her work and her life and what it meant to me.

For those you who don’t know, Evans died last week of brain swelling. It was a shock to a lot of people. Only 37, and with two young children, her passing was heart-breaking not only because of her youth and motherhood responsibilities, but her love, care, concern and, of least importance, writing talent.

After hearing of her passing on Saturday, I re-read Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church over the last few days, finishing Tuesday afternoon. 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.

She spoke my language.

Most of us have a writer or musician with whom we relate. They’ve got a book or a song or a few songs that, when we hear them, we think, “That’s us.” I have a few music artists that have a smattering of songs that I love listening to because they feel like me — Ed Sheeran, two Australian artists recently recommended to me by a friend named Jacob Lee and Dean Lewis, and a few more. And when I was in high school, Relient K was me. Still are to some degree.

But I’ve only found two authors with whom I have that connection: Brennan Manning and Rachel Held Evans.

Not only did Evans challenge me as a writer, she challenged me to think critically about my faith. So many of us who grow up in the church environment have one of two outcomes: growing up and leaving the faith because we never made it our own, or growing up and keeping the exact same faith of our parents, never to be flexible because we didn’t learn how to be.

When I first read Searching for Sunday, I was in the midst of a bit of a sea-change in my walk with Jesus. I had more or less made my faith my own, but was struggling to find people with whom I could connect, who were thinking the same things I was thinking. I read Searching for Sunday and found a connection.

The book follows Evans’ church journey: growing up as a Bible drill nerd, asking deep theological questions at Easter lunch and going to college. In that journey, she discovers some things about the faith structure she grew up in that didn’t jive with the Jesus she knew and loved. Writing about the missionary Phillip’s conversation with the Ethiopian eunuch, Evans said:

“…we religious types are really good at building walls and retreating to temples. We’re good at making mountains out of our ideologies, obstructions out of our theologies, and hills out of our screwed-up notions of who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy. We’re good at getting in the way.” (39)

It got so bad that she just dumped church. She didn’t want to be part of the evangelical church structure because it stressed her out, made her made, made her sad. So she left.

I don’t blame her. There are a lot of things about the evangelical church industry that stress me out and make me mad and sad. There are things that, to me at least, don’t seem reflective of Jesus and who He is.

Rachel Held Evans wrote that and lived it. She spoke out about the church’s often-painful treatment of LGBTQ individuals, its regular allegiance to unnecessary and sometimes harmful politics and our consistent and general inability to just love people as they are. She found the places within the church community that were doing that and praised them, encouraged them.

The thing that’s amazed me the most in the last few days is how many Christian authors and speakers from varying points on the evangelical spectrum have written or Tweeted about Evans. RELEVANT Magazine compiled a good list here. Beth Moore, Jen Hatmaker, Peter Enns, Ed Stetzer and Russell Moore are among those who have posted brief or lengthy reflections on her life.

It’s a testimony to a person who might have had theological differences with some, but found common ground as much as possible. A person who stood for the least of these and the weakest because Jesus loved them most. A person who wasn’t afraid to speak truth about power because that’s what Jesus did. A person who just wanted Christians to be like Christ.

The other book of her’s that I read was Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. It’s about the Bible, how she found a lot of things in the teaching she grew up with that didn’t match with the Bible she read. Like Searching for Sunday, it’s about reconsidering what you’ve grown up with, asking honest questions and finding answers that match what you see.

That’s the life I hope to live: open to being wrong, open to growing and open to what God has for me.

I write like I knew her intimately, but I never met her or talked to her in any format. But she wrote so honestly and plainly and openly. I want to be like that.

I want to speak that language.

BARS at the Movies: ‘Heroin(e)’

Photo courtesy of Bluefield Daily Telegraph

Psychologists, doctors and more have spent years and years studying addiction: the condition where someone can’t live without something so much that it drives them over the edge sometimes.

Of course, that’s a rough, brief, basic definition of addiction. It’s much more complex, and takes different forms. But one of the most common in America right now is addiction to opioids.

I just watched the Netflix documentary “Heroin(e),” which follows three people regularly doing life-saving work in the small town of Huntington, West Virginia.

In Huntington, the drug overdose rate is 10 times the national average and at least five people every day overdose and are treated by first responders. The film, which runs around 40 minutes, follows Fire Chief Jan Rader, county judge Patricia Keller, who runs the drug court, and Necia Freeman of Brown Bag Ministry, which delivers food to women who turn to prostitution to support their addictions. They are the title “heroines.”

I won’t do a deep dive into the documentary and the filmmaking itself, but want to cover a couple takeaways I had and what it means for Christians.

People Who Save

There are a lot of people at a lot of nonprofits and organizations and churches across the country that help others, selflessly and sacrificially. And all of them deserve recognition for their work. But “Heroin(e)” stands out because of its heroes.

Rader, who in the course of the film becomes Huntington’s first female fire chief, is not a desk jockey chief. She routinely goes out on overdose calls, even once interrupting a television interview because, as becomes routine, there’s an overdose to go to. She helps apply naloxone, a drug designed to help people recover quickly from overdoses, and develops close relationships with addicts who are progressing and growing in sobriety.

Keller’s drug court is an opportunity for addicts who are caught with illegal substances to have a different interaction with the judicial system. One former addict who graduates from the program says Keller is the first “public official” he’s ever befriended, something he never expected. She’s tough, not taking crap from anyone and even sending people to jail for short times if the situation calls for it. But she displays a compassion for those she’s overseeing that’s refreshing and Christ-like.

Freeman is a Christian whose ministry includes handing out gospel tracts to prostitutes. She does the work that Jesus did. The film shows Freeman interacting with the lowest in society and offering more than just spiritual things: food, hygiene products, assistance in finding recovery options for these women. She’s not judgmental or over-spiritual: she’s a helping hand who loves people enough to go to the shady parts of Huntington and be a friend.

They’re people who save lives. It’s in different ways, but they’re people who have seen a problem and are doing something about it. Them being the focus of the documentary was a crucial part of its development, according to director Elaine McMillion Sheldon.

“Heroin(e) examines an epidemic that many communities are struggling with, so for this topic to have captured the attention of the Academy means so much to us, as filmmakers, and to those on the front lines,” Sheldon told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph after the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short. As native West Virginians living in the midst of this public health crisis, we believe the stories of these three tenacious and resilient women are what this country needs — a message of hope and survival to show us a way forward.”

The Addictiveness of Addiction

About midway through the film, Freeman is speaking about one of the people she helped, a girl named Hope. Freeman said she asked Hope why people get hooked on heroin.

“She said, ‘The only way I know to explain it to you is that getting high on heroin is what it would be like for you to kiss Jesus.’ She said, ‘That’s how powerful it is.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s probably pretty daggone powerful.'”

It was a powerful analogy. For a Christian, that could ring strong.

I’ve been working on a series for the newspaper where I work about opioids and opioid addiction, so this topic is fresh on my mind.

Opioid addiction starts when someone begins taking opioids, usually prescription pain killers, to deal with pain from surgery or an injury or even cancer. When the pills are taken, the brain begins creating receptors, which take in the opioids. It creates pain relief, which is what they’re supposed to be doing, and sometimes a sense of euphoria.

However, the receptors created are like hungry dogs. One treat isn’t enough. So even when the pain is healed, the opioids have created an addiction inside the brain that needs to be filled, and the withdrawal is horrendous. So people will do whatever it takes to find something to fill that gap. If they can’t get prescription pills, they just might turn to heroin, which is stronger (three times stronger than morphine) and more deadly.

It becomes a neurological change that needs treatment and sobriety to fix. And “Heroin(e)” captures that well: showing interviews with some recovering addicts who speak about how bad their situation was, that they would overdose or turn to prostitution to feed their addiction.

We Need These Films

One thing we can learn about the life of Jesus is that He was not ignorant of people’s issues. Whether it was poverty, sickness, adultery, premarital cohabitation, theology, government policy, church giving, He knew what was happening and offered a lending hand.

Christians watching “Heroin(e)” may or may not resonate with Freeman. Her faith being a central part of her ministry is admirable and it’s what we as Christians should aspire to. But she doesn’t go around sharing the gospel with everybody the first time, or trying to convince them to leave prostitution. It’s about handing out food and hygiene supplies, asking how people are doing, helping them to recovery clinics and homeless shelters. She’s an embodiment of what Jesus was.

I strongly recommend this documentary for a couple reasons: 1) to learn more about how the opioid epidemic can affect one town and 2) to see what real heroism, real Christ-driven heroism, looks like.

Judge Keller and Fire Chief Rader are admirable people as well. They may not profess Christ in their work — they may be Christians, I don’t know — but their attitudes and actions should be appreciated and reflected as well.

We the church need to be aware of this addiction, this issue, so we can be a place for help and aid. And I think “Heroin(e)” is a good place to start.

Justin Bieber’s ‘What Do You Mean,’ in GIFs from ‘The Office’

the office bj novak GIF

I had some time on my hands today, and I was listening to this song and texting my brother some lyrics with Office GIFs.

Enjoy.


What do you mean? Oh, oh
When you nod your head yes, but you wanna say no

What do you mean? Hey-ey
When you don’t want me to move, but you tell me to go

the office stanley GIF

What do you mean?
Oh, what do you mean?

the office GIF

Said you’re running outta time, what do you mean?
Oh, oh, oh, what do you mean?
Better make up your mind, what do you mean?

dead inside the office GIF

You’re so indecisive, what I’m saying
Tryna catch the beat, make up your heart

frustrated the office GIF

Don’t know if you’re happy or complaining
Don’t want for us to end, where do I start?

scared the office GIF

First you wanna go to the left then you wanna turn right

fail the office GIF by Cheezburger

Wanna argue all day, make love all night

the office nbc GIF

You’re overprotective when I’m leaving
Tryna compromise but I can’t win

the office nbc GIF

First you’re up, then you’re down and then between
Oh, I really wanna know…

the office television GIF

You wanna make a point, but you keep preaching
You had me from the start, won’t let this end

please stop the office GIF

First you wanna go to the left then you wanna turn right

running away the office GIF

Wanna argue all day, make love all night

finished the office GIF

First you’re up, then you’re down and then between
Oh, I really wanna know…

awkward harry styles GIF

What do you mean? Oh, oh
When you nod your head yes, but you wanna say no

Animated GIF

What do you mean? Hey-ey
When you don’t want me to move, but you tell me to go

the office television GIF

What do you mean? (I wanna know)
Oh, what do you mean? (Ooh)
Said you’re running outta time, what do you mean? (Oh baby)

the office GIF

Oh, oh, oh, what do you mean?
Better make up your mind, what do you mean?

hd wife GIF

Oh, oh
(Don’t be so selfish baby, yeah)

the office ugh GIF by Romy

When you nod your head yes
But you wanna say no

michael scott ok GIF

What do you mean? Hey-ey
(You’re so confusing baby)

confused michael scott GIF

When you don’t want me to move
But you tell me to go
What do you mean?

the office GIF

(Be more straight forward)

frustrated the office GIF

Oh, what do you mean?
Said you’re running outta time, what do you mean?
Oh, oh, oh, what do you mean?

michael scott GIF

Better make up your mind, what do you mean?

the office television GIF

A New Personal Project…and I Need Your Help

I don’t do this very often, but this is a special circumstance.

I’m working on a new personal project. I’m not sure if it’s going to be a book or a series of blog posts or a podcast…maybe even a documentary, who knows. But I’m surveying people.

It’s not a scientific survey, it’s more on the anecdotal side. There are a couple yes or no questions, but mainly, it’s about hearing about experiences and thoughts about growing up in church. Here’s what I wrote on Google Forms:

“Hello! I’m working on a personal project about being in high school and being a Christian. As part of the project, I want to get some input from teenagers and former teenagers about their experiences as Christians in high school. This won’t be a scientific survey, but simply one getting some other stories and input.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The results of this survey will be used in one way or another for a future public project. I haven’t decided exactly what that will look like. You can remain anonymous if you wish, or you can give your name, or initials, so on.

This survey will ask questions about how your church/youth group approached topics like sex & relationships, social media, media consumption, politics & government and more, as well as what you learned about them from your time in church as a teenager. The idea is to get a picture of what these groups are teaching about these topics ‘from a Christian worldview.’

It’s a decently lengthy survey, so give yourself some time if you’re willing to answer. Don’t worry about writing too much. The more, the better.

I’d prefer to hear from people who are 13-29, current teens and people who were teenagers in the ‘social media age,’ as it were, who grew up in church or became a Christian during their high school years. If you have any questions, let me know — zacharyhornereu@gmail.com.”

Please, please, please fill this out if you qualify! I’ll give you a hug…digital or otherwise. You can find the link here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfxu9dbFKuF7ObEncTmBGPV6mt9hVd4MdDy3mvnfQtdfQdX6w/viewform?fbclid=IwAR0bhdGLWxcWKSE24pMdp9c2kSrZkRyGhh4vI4TH1zgN9WJF8BFPRJ1LMVQ.

Thanks!

“Demon in a Bottle”: Tony Stark and Finding a New Route

I recently read my first full comic book arc: “Demon in a Bottle,” an Iron Man series of stories from from 1979.

First of all, I love the medium of comic books. I don’t know if I can exactly articulate why right now, but I just like them. Secondly, I loved the backbone of the story.

Tony Stark/Iron Man is in the midst of a ton of crap. His personal life is a shambles and the government is trying to take over his company Stark International. As he swigs some booze and ponders his troubles, the plane he’s in is cut in half by a flying tank.

Natural, right? Only in a comic book, and a 2000s-era Die Hard movie. I’m looking at you, Live Free or Die Hard.

I won’t dive too much into the story arc because it’s really worth a read, and I don’t want to spoil it. If you like the Avengers movies, you’ll like this because heroes like James Rhodes (aka War Machine), Scott Lang as Ant-Man and Captain America play significant supporting roles, and the villain Justin Hammer, seen in Iron Man 2, is also involved.

But what Stark deals with, and the arc’s author and illustrator intentionally explored, is the crux of the story, and worth our examination.

Multiple times, struck by his troubles and out of options, Stark turns to the bottle as his only salvation. He feels that he has no other choice, that pursuing drink is what will calm his nerves and help him face what’s ahead of him.

But in reality, it falls short. There’s a couple times where he has a little bit to drink and then dons the Iron Man suit, leading to predictable negative consequences. It causes more problems than it solves. It takes a while for him to realize that, but once he does, that’s when he changes.

How often in our lives do we look to things to soothe the pain? 

We’re no different than Tony Stark. We may not get drunk or harm people due to our addictions, but we’re really no different. Maybe we get a pint of ice cream and stuff it down to distract us. Maybe we look to sex to relax us and help us calm down. Maybe we seek attention and popularity to encourage us and boost our ego a bit.

None of those things — food, sex, attention — are bad in and of themselves. In fact, they can be used to help us rest and relax, recuperate and encourage us. Sometimes it’s nice to just get an ice cold cup of water to get us level. Sometimes spending time with our spouse in an intimate way can re-center us. And sometimes hanging out with friends can give us the love and encouragement we’ve been seeking.

It’s ultimately how we use those things that’s the issue. The things themselves are not to blame.

Tony’s butler Jarvis (the inspiration for the J.A.R.V.I.S. AI in the movies) and girlfriend Bethany Cabe try to drive home the point that he has to fix whatever else is going on, handle the problems that have come his way in his business and his personal life. It starts with handling his addiction to alcohol. It’s an arduous process in the comic. He shakes, shudders, experiences withdrawal symptoms. 

But what’s most crucial, and what Bethany encourages Tony to do, is facing your issues head-on. Talk through what’s going on. Express yourself, be vulnerable. 

If you’ve seen the Iron Man movies, they create a pretty accurate depiction of Tony Stark in this comic arc. He’s arrogant, self-centered and a playboy, while still retaining a sense of fighting for the good and justice. But he’s not a vulnerable guy, and it’s his inability to be vulnerable that leads him to another outlet.

It’s when he’s real with himself and his friends that he finds relief, and when he stops grabbing the bottle.

There’s a climactic scene near the end that’s just as melodramatic as you’d expect. Something in Tony’s business goes horribly wrong, and all the work he had done to shake the addictive nature of his alcoholism is close to getting undone. Jarvis and Bethany are begging him to say no. And he does.

It’s a choice. It’s a day-by-day battle.

Addiction is difficult, and it’s more common than you might think. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Survey on Drug Use and Health:

  • 16.1 million people in America suffered from alcoholism in 2011.
  • Over 800,000 people reported a cocaine addiction in 2011.
  • The number of people receiving treatment for addiction to painkillers and sedatives has doubled since 2002.
  • In 2010, around 13 million people reported abusing methamphetamines in their life and approximately 350,000 were regular users.

Addiction takes time and effort. For the body of Christ, it’s imperative that we see addiction as a physical and mental health condition that can’t just be solved by praying it away. It requires real support and encouragement and accountability. For people stuck in addiction, there is hope and there is help. 

With any sin, we need to start with the root cause. Why do we feel the need to seek the addictive thing? Where does that desire come from? Whether or not we beat the addiction in our lifetimes, figuring out the root is a helpful, healing action step.