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.

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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!

We don’t pledge allegiance to a religion, but to a Savior.

Do we ever think about what it means to “pledge allegiance” to something?

I admit that when I say the Pledge of Allegiance at certain events, I don’t really think too much about the words I’m saying. I just go through the motions.

If we can step back and not take it too seriously for a moment, let’s examine the first phrase — “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States.” I know there’s more to it than that, and I don’t want you to take this as me being unpatriotic. 

Why are we pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth? Doesn’t that seem a bit silly? You don’t see me pledging allegiance to the towel that dries me off after a shower, or to the pants that cover my legs when I go to work.

I know the rest of the pledge says the allegiance is to the “Republic for which (the flag) stands,” so it’s not really that silly. It’s a representation of the nation and the group of people, and when we pledge allegiance to the flag, we’re really pledging allegiance to America. Fun fact: we didn’t have an official pledge of allegiance until 1942, so we spent 166 years as a nation without an official pledge. I kinda like that idea.

Did you know there’s also a pledge of allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Bible?

My point is not to write a treatise on whether or not we should even have those — I could get on a bad rabbit trail there — but to examine the very idea of allegiance. Did you know that there’s not an official Pledge of Allegiance to Jesus?

If we have a pledge of allegiance to our country, our faith and our book, why shouldn’t we promise fealty to our Savior?

Apollos, Paul or Peter? 

The idea of “allegiance,” to my knowledge, isn’t discussed much in the Bible. After all, the New Testament followers of Jesus were under the rule of the Roman Empire and didn’t have much choice in the matter. 

But we do see 1 Corinthians 1, where Paul discusses divisions in the church at Corinth. Now, this is a church where there’s TONS of divisions and difficulties and problems, but the first one he chooses to address is who people pledge their allegiance to. Verses 10-12 say:

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’”

Reportedly, the people in Corinth were associating themselves by what teacher or important leader they aligned themselves with. Paul, of course, was the writer of a ton of important letters. Apollos was a powerful preacher. Cephas/Peter was a disciple of Jesus. Christ was, well, Christ. Each had some claim to allegiance or listeners. But as Paul emphasizes in v. 13, only one is worth following: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” 

Paul wasn’t the one who died on the cross. Paul wasn’t the Son of God. He was simply, as he states in v. 17, sent “to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” 

Jesus was the One. He was the One they were to pledge allegiance to. The Greek of v. 12 literally says that they were saying they were “of Paul” and “of Apollos” and so on. Just like Paul being a man “of Tarsus.” It’s who you’re associated, who you belong to.

No, Paul says. We don’t belong to a man. We belong to Jesus.

Where Do You Go to Church?

I’ve heard in a couple Christian comedy routines or other places that, in the south, after someone asks you their name, they ask you where you go to church. While I must say I’ve never had that exact conversation, it seems to be possible.

We often take great pride in where we go to church. As a journalist that covers small-town politics and government in North Carolina, I will often hear or read elected officials proclaiming that they’ve been a member of such-and-such church for this many years. The same information shows up in obituaries and bios of speakers at big events.

And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Churches can be amazing things that point people to Jesus.

We can often be loud in proclaiming that we are a Christian. Politicians do it all the stinkin’ time, saying that they’re a “Christian first, conservative second and Republican third.” There’s even some Democrats running for the 2020 presidential nomination that have begun to spoke about their faith. I remember having some conversations in high school and college where I would say, with some internal pride, that I was a Christian.

And that is not necessarily a bad thing. We should not be ashamed of being saved by the Savior.

We’ll often list the preachers we listen to and the authors that we read. We have our favorite authors and favorite musicians, and whenever they release a new project, we’re buying it as soon as possible. 

And that is not necessarily a bad thing. We have learned from those men and women and can point others to them for learning, encouragement and help in growth.

Pride in our church or religion or favorite pastors and authors becomes a bad thing when that’s how we primarily identify ourselves. It becomes a bad thing when we’re not willing to admit or see flaws in those things. It becomes a bad thing when those things take precedent over our true allegiance: Jesus.

Defending the Hope

Apologetics and I have had an interesting relationship. I feel that I’m an intellectual guy, but far too often, apologetics can be an aggressive and hostile approach. 

I know plenty of people that enjoy apologetics and do it well and aren’t aggressive and hostile. They’re people that have a passion for Jesus and want others to know Him, and they’re awesome. We need more of them.

One of the primary base verses for apologetics comes in 1 Peter 3. Peter is writing about those who would think ill of Christians, who might even want to harm them. He writes, in verses 14-15:

“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”

The Greek for “make a defense” is “apologian,” the root of which is “apologia.” The literal translation is “from intelligent reasoning” (“apó” + “lógos) (https://biblehub.com/greek/627.htm). Peter instructs his readers to use intelligent reasoning for the purpose of something. But what is that?

A reason for the hope in them. They were not called to defend their faith as an institution. They were not called to defend their particular church. They were not called to defend their favorite pastor. 

I think the same principle, the same wisdom, the same logic, applies to us.

If our institution, church or pastor are being misunderstood, then sure, we can and probably should defend them. But the outworking of this is that we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that those things — Christianity as a social institution, our church, our pastor — have been, are and will be wrong at times. Why? We’re not ultimately aligned with them. We’re ultimately aligned with Jesus. He is the reason we have hope, not our faith as a societal construct, our church or our pastor.

Jesus deserves our allegiance, more than our country, our pastor, our books, our church, our institutions, etc. Committing to those other things is not inherently bad, and those things can be and have been incredibly helpful in helping us see Jesus.

But if they takes precedence over our allegiance to Jesus, it becomes bad. Jesus is worthy of our allegiance. After all, He’s our Savior. What other reason do you need?

We Need to Rethink How We Talk about LGBTQ

We journalists like studies. They help us put stories and topics in context.

So a study released in 2018 exploring the association between importance of religion and suicide ideation is obviously going to interest me.

If you’ve followed my writing for any length of time, or you’re a friend of mine, you know that religion and mental health are two of my favorite topics. So of course, I wanted to learn about this study. Unfortunately, it’s $4 to access, but thankfully there was a news article about it from Reuters titled “Religious faith linked to suicidal behavior in LGBQ adults.”

If you’ve followed news somewhat closely, you’ve got to be aware of the stories of LGBTQ individuals, teens in particular, that take their own lives with motivations strongly related to their sexuality. According to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides mental health support to LGBTQ youth, gay/lesbian teens “seriously contemplate suicide” nearly three times more than straight youth and are five times as likely to attempt suicide.

So this study, reported in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, can’t be that surprising. Analyzing data from the multiple surveys on mental health of college students, the numbers were startling. While 3.7 percent of heterosexual young adults reported recent thoughts of suicide, the numbers increased for those questioning their sexuality (16.4 percent), living bisexual (11.4 percent) or identifying as gay or lesbian (6.5 percent). 

The numbers jump when it comes to attempting suicide: 5 percent for heterosexual youth, 20 percent for bisexual, 17 percent for questioning and 14 percent for gay or lesbian. 

The heartbreaking statistic came here:

“For bisexual youth, the importance of religion was not associated with suicidal behavior, while religiosity was protective against thoughts of suicide and suicidal attempts in the heterosexual youth. But lesbians and gays who reported that religion was important to them were 38 percent more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts. For lesbians only, religion was associated with a 52 percent increased likelihood of suicidal thinking.

Questioning individuals were almost three times as likely to have attempted suicide recently if they reported that religion was very important to them.”

One of the study’s authors, John R. Blosnich of West Virginia’s Injury Control Research Center, told the Huffington Post that studies for years have said considering religion important has limited the number of people considering suicide. But this study, as well as other surveys and data, indicates that things are different when it comes to sexual minorities.

So what do we do?

What Role Did the Church Play?

Before we get going: this is not an evaluation of whether or not homosexuality is a sin. That’s not the point of this piece. 

Anyway, most scientists of any stripe — social, physical, organic, chemistry, etc. — will tell you that correlation does not equal causation, and I agree. But this study begs a question:

Has the Christian church played a role in this?

The HuffPo article says, accurately, that “some of America’s largest religious denominations still hold non-affirming views of queer sexuality,” including the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church *(see note at the bottom of this article)*. HuffPo quotes Amelia Markham, described as a “queer Christian activist” with The Reformation Project, an LBTQ-affirming Christian group, saying more needs to be done in helping Christians have “a more nuanced view of queer sexuality.”

“There are some serious questions we have to begin asking ourselves if maintaining one interpretation of our sacred text is demonstrably linked to bodily harm and spiritual devastation for an entire group of people,” Markham said. “That is something I hope religious folks across the board would begin to think and pray more critically through.”

Markham’s call is serious, and based on the numbers, I think it would be dishonest if the Christian church, particularly the evangelical wing, didn’t ask itself if it played a role in these numbers, these realities. 

Again, correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did in this case. I’ve lived my whole life in a church culture that severely stigmatizes LGBTQ people, intentionally or not. The Christian evangelical community for many years has said flat-out that homosexuality is a sin, with some churches creating little to no space for LGBTQ people in churches, sometimes to negative consequences.

Countless stories have been told of teens or youth that have come out to their families and been rejected, sometimes kicked out. I listened to a podcast recently featuring Trey Pearson, former lead singer of the Christian band Everyday Sunday, who said he experienced severe trauma and pain due to fighting his sexual feelings for years because of his church upbringing. Countless Christian authors and speakers, including Rachel Held Evans and Jen Hatmaker, were more or less banished from evangelical circles due to their belief that homosexuality is not a sin.

Very often, evangelical Christians defend their actions and beliefs with the statement that they’re just sticking to the Bible, defending God’s Word and loving people to tell them they’re sinners. “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” they say. And while I’m sure there are many that are properly loving their LGBTQ family and friends and reflecting Christ in doing it, there are many LGBTQ people who have left the church and left God at least in part due to how they were treated by so-called Christians.

What Did Jesus Do?

Again, this is not a conversation about the sinfulness or non-sinfulness of homosexuality. This is a conversation about the effect the church’s position and attitude and approach to same-sex attraction and homosexuality has had on real people and real lives.

The culture hasn’t always done well with it, first of all. In 1998, gay college student Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming, an event that became a lynchpin for hate crimes due to looming suspicion the attack was motivated by Shepard’s sexuality. In 2010, 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate recorded Clementi’s intimate encounter with another male. 

These events have caused a societal push for LGBTQ acceptance and understanding and further discussion about mental health and suicide. That’s all awesome, in my opinion. And while some Christian congregations are actively addressing these issues in the right way, it’s my opinion that the church at large is falling behind on both counts.

How often are Christian blog posts written about helping people that identify as LGBTQ that doesn’t involve telling them they’re sinful? How often are sermons given where we’re encouraged to learn from and understand our gay and lesbian neighbors, friends and family members? I’m sure those things happen, but not enough. We’re often more concerned with being “right” than being “a good neighbor.”

What did Paul do, and what did Jesus do, more importantly? The people that were considered outside the “religious crowd,” how did he handle them?

He loved them. And no, I’m not talking about loving people by “telling them the truth.” Yes, that is a form of love, but anything LGBTQ person that’s been around an evangelical Christian has more likely than not already received that kind of love. 

What Jesus did is eat. Matthew 9:10-13 —

“And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard it, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

Eating was a very intimate thing to do in those times. You’d sit at a table and take your shoes off, recline and spend time. There were no cell phones, no menus, no TVs nearby. Just the food and the people. 

Jesus ate with people labeled “sinners,” both in this passage and other times. In this particular passage, both Matthew and the Pharisees refer to Jesus’ dinner guests as “sinners.” Everyone at the time sinned, so the distinction made here is about identity. These people were identified by their sin — not their profession, not their father or family, but their sin. They were outcasts, pariahs, weirdos. But Jesus loved them the same.

In the current evangelical Christian culture, members of the LGBTQ community are among today’s “sinners.” They’re outcasts, pariahs, weirdos, different. Far too often, the church today is known for shunning those “sinners” instead of eating with them, loving them, appreciating them as people created in the image of God.

The Concept Falls Short

This is where “hate the sin, love the sinner” falls short on so many levels. I get the concept: love the people, hate what they do. But in practice, it fails far too often.

What happens when someone drinks too much alcohol? We may say, “Hey, he/she is drunk.” That person becomes defined by their actions. We do it with so many things: profession, interests, religion, etc. 

Members of the LGBTQ community often take pride in their sexuality and make that a primary identifier, something the evangelical church picks up on. Because the “sin” begins to identify the “sinner” in our minds, they become interchangeable, and we begin to hate the sinner. 

Most of this happens subconsciously and unintentionally, I believe, but we begin to treat people the way the biblical culture treated “sinners,” making them outsiders and pariahs. We spend more time trying to change them than love them. 

And then we go in on how bad the LGBTQ culture is. It’s all about how they need to change and how the “militant gay agenda” is ruining America and allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with is dangerous for our children. Again, not everyone is like that, but it’s said way too often.

First of all, imagine if Christians had been treated like members of the LGBTQ community have been treated over most of the last 40-50 years. Wouldn’t we be frustrated with the persecution? For a long time, sexual orientation and gender identity weren’t protected classes in discrimination laws. Imagine if religion was in the same place.

Second, to group the entire LGBTQ community, as some do, with the “militant gay agenda” is dishonest. Most, I believe, just want to live their lives and be treated fairly. To see extremists who call themselves “born again” compare LGBTQ people to the Ku Klux Klan would make anybody mad.

It’s insulting. It’s humiliating. It’s discriminatory. No wonder they don’t like us.

But some of them like Jesus. I wonder why. 

Maybe it was because He never spoke about the “militant pantheistic agenda” of the Roman Empire. Maybe it was because He hung out with the pariahs. He listened, loved and taught. He was condemning of the religious people, those who were gleeful in telling people why they were wrong. He encouraged all to repent while turning water to wine and five loaves and two fish into an overwhelming feast.

As Jesus said in Matthew 9, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” His ultimate desire was for people to love one another. Yes, His message was one of repentance and of turning from sin, but how did He go about His ministry? Where do we see His efforts? In the good news of salvation, in the dying on the cross for our sins to be forgiven. “Follow me,” he told the disciples, “and I will make you fishers of men.” He says to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” He started with mercy and love and following Him. 

Maybe we should try to look more like him. Be listeners. Ask questions. Learn. Sympathize. Be compassionate. Treat people the way you would wish to be treated. 

That’s the Golden Rule, right?

I’ll end with a quote from a guy named Jeff Johnston with Focus on the Family. He wrote an incredibly powerful and helpful piece on “9 Ways to Reach Out to a Gay-Identified Friend,” which you should really check out. Here’s a bit:

“Imagine attending a gay pride parade and hearing insults shouted by church people standing on the sidelines. Would you want to follow a God like the one they’re displaying? Or imagine attending church and hearing derogatory language from the pulpit. Would you want to develop relationships with those people?”

– – – – – – – – – 

*Side note: the UMC’s official Book of Doctrine states that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” but most, American Methodists affirm LGBTQ individuals in their theology. (https://www.prri.org/spotlight/slim-majority-of-methodists-support-same-sex-marriage/)

God Can Handle Your Questions

As a journalist, I make my living asking questions. 

Questions are important. Questions are vital to our lives because, as limited humans, we don’t know everything we need to know, and we don’t know most of the things we want to know.

A lot of times in journalism and reporting, it’s about asking the right question, not necessarily the right amount of questions. A journalist at the White House recently got in trouble for asking the president supposedly “too many” questions, and while I won’t get into the politics here, I can see both sides’ frustrations in that issue. Sometimes you can be pesky and ask the wrong questions and be obnoxious.

Recently, I’ve been asking a lot of questions of God, particularly as it relates to the Bible, Christian culture and my personal choices and experiences in life. I won’t get into those questions here — maybe someday — but it’s caused me to think about how we in the church handle people questioning God.

For many, I believe, church isn’t the place where difficult questions can be asked safely. Questions like “How can I be saved?” and “Can I join the church?” are pretty easy to handle, I think, but there are some that we as a body of Christ don’t always do a good job responding to well, particularly when it comes to doubts over the reliability of the Bible and certain political positions.

As I’ve wrestled with questions of my own, I’ve come to one particular answer: God can handle our questions. He can handle when we doubt Him. He isn’t put off by us wondering whether or not He’s right. In fact, as we can see in a few passages of Scripture, He isn’t despondent or critical when we wonder whether or not He’s all He claims to be. He’s the exact opposite.

The Meat and the Fleece

The story of Gideon is fairly well-known if you’ve been in church for a while, but I’ll give the short version.

In Judges 6, God is shown to be pretty upset at Israel, His chosen people, so he gives them over to the military might of the Midianites and Amalekites. One day, “the angel of the LORD,” often believed to be Jesus Himself, comes to a guy named Gideon (v. 11), and tells him that he will lead the army of Israel against Midian. 

Twice, Gideon asks God to show him a sign. First, in v. 17-24, the angel of the LORD sets meat and cakes on fire via supernatural spontaneous combustion from a rock. Then in v. 36-40, God twice made a fleece wet with dew while keeping the ground around it dry.

God had spoken to Gideon and directly told him, “Hey man, you’re going to lead the army of Israel against Midian, your country’s oppressors, and I’m going to give you the victory.” 

But my man Gideon — seeing himself as “the least in (his) father’s house” and part of the “weakest” clan in his country (v. 15) — doubted. He asked God question after question, even put Him to the test with the fleece. Both times, God answered Gideon’s questions. In the next chapter, God used Gideon and 300 men to defeat a whole army of Midianites. It was the original 300.

This is not the only time in Scripture God responds to questions of those He calls. 

I think also of Moses in Exodus 3 — “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Then there’s Jeremiah in the first chapter of his eponymous book —“Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” 

All of these men questioned God’s call on their lives, His specific, pointed direction for their future. But instead of belittling them and ignoring them, He went a step further and spoke directly to their fears. God Himself even initiated physical contact with a man (Jeremiah 1:9) and turned a staff into a snake (Exodus 4:3), as well as His multiple interactions with Gideon.

If God can handle their questions, He can handle yours.

Are Doubters and Questioners Really That Bad?

An article on the popular evangelical website The Gospel Coalition sparked my thought process and interest in this topic.

Posted on Nov. 13, writer Alisa Childers’ “3 Beliefs Some Progressive Christians and Atheists Share” caught some flack from people on my Twitter timeline, especially for this final paragraph:

“After all, the contemporary views that many people call ‘progressive’ aren’t progressive anyway: they’re very old, echoes of that primordial question, ‘Did God really say’ (Genesis 3:1), signs of the most wicked rebellion imaginable. And we all know where that ends up.”

In the piece, Childers criticized the thoughts and positions of authors like Rachel Held Evans, Peter Enns and Rob Bell who have expressed doubts about the traditional understanding of the Bible. Childers’ reasoning was that doubting and questioning that understanding was one of the first steps to complete atheism. She extended that criticism to those who “may have an unresolved answer to the problem of evil” and “may affirm a culture-adapting morality.”

Along with quoting some of her targets’ work out of context — Evans’ book Inspired, which Childers quoted multiple times and I have read personally, was the most misunderstood — Childers’ article left little room for conversation, understanding and nuance. Instead of trying to really understand where people were coming from and speaking directly to their doubts and questions, she name-dropped those who don’t fall exactly in line with the traditional evangelical thinking and ignored the nuance and stories of their lives.

And here’s the final issue: by comparing these modern “progressive Christians” to the devil himself, she’s also comparing Gideon, Moses and Jeremiah to the serpent. Those men questioned God’s word to them to His face! Gideon was like, “So God, I know that you told me this, but did you really? Prove it to me.” Moses was like, “No, I mean, I know you said this, but I can’t do that. Are you sure you got it right?” Jeremiah, likewise, basically said, “Um, I can’t speak for you, I’m not good enough. You must have picked the wrong dude.”

It’s in these rough assessments like Childers’ piece of questions and those who question that we as the Church lose the skeptics. We don’t make ourselves as accessible as our God is to those who doubt and those who wonder. 

The Holes in the Hands

My new favorite story about doubt and questions is found in John 20:24-29. It’s about “Doubting Thomas,” which is really an unfortunate nickname because we tag the guy with a very small part of his life.

Jesus has recently resurrected Himself and has spent time amongst the disciples, save for the deceased Judas and Thomas. For whatever reason, the latter wasn’t with them the first time. The other disciples told him, “Hey man, we saw Jesus. It was sweet!” He responded, quite rationally, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (v. 25).

A little more than a week later, Thomas and the disciples were “inside again” — which I assume means that they were dining on some KFC and playing Boggle — and even though the doors were locked, Jesus showed up. The Scripture records that He goes to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (v. 27). Instantly, Thomas believes.

Jesus took some time — eight days, in fact — to answer Thomas’ doubts, but He answered them. He came to Thomas directly and said, “Hey man, here’s the answer.” Jesus, God Himself, was willing to acquiesce to the questions of man and the doubts of those who questioned Him. 

We have no right to question Thomas’ questions. Indeed, how often do we doubt something true we hear about Jesus? That He is with us in the storm? That He loves us in our sin? That He really wants what’s best for us? 

Doubt and questioning in and of itself is not sinful. Exploring those doubts and seeking answers to those questions is not sinful in and of itself. As the body of Christ, we must give the Thomases, the Moseses, the Gideons and the Jeremiahs the room to explore their doubts and questions. We must be willing to walk alongside them as they seek answers, not immediately write them off as “not believing the right thing” and certainly not comparing them to Satan. As Paul told the Areopagus in Acts 17, God made men “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him…he is actually not far from each one of us” (v. 26).

God can handle your questions. May we be a church that does the same.

The Death of Nuance: Max Baer, Hollywood, Modern America and the Church

One of my favorite books is Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History. It follows the lives of boxers James J. Braddock and Max Baer leading up to their 1935 heavyweight title bout, which Braddock won in upset fashion.

Braddock, a New Jersey native, was one of the best light heavyweight boxers in the world, but lost a title fight against Tommy Loughran in 1929. He was emotionally shattered by the loss, and his right hand, his strongest hand, was similarly fractured. Whereas before he was a strong, well-liked contender, his next 33 fights led to a record of 11-20-2.

Then the Great Depression hit. His financial stability shattered, he quit boxing and worked as a longshoreman. Working on the docks loading freight strengthened his left hand, and his right hand slowly healed.

Given a chance to get back in the ring in 1934, he knocked out up-and-coming heavyweight John “Corn” Griffin. After two more victories, he earned — maybe undeservedly, to be honest — a shot at the heavyweight title, held by Baer.

Baer was born in Nebraska, but was known more for his hometown of Livermore, California. He gained an interest in boxing and became a pro in 1929, working his way through the local circuits. But in August 1930, in a match against Frankie Campbell, Baer landed a couple punches that led to Campbell’s brain being knocked completely loose from his skull. Campbell died from the injuries. Two years later, another boxer named Ernie Schaaf died five months after a fight with Baer, and he was tagged once again with being a killer in the ring, although whether or not Baer was directly responsible for Schaaf’s passing is debatable.

Although he struggled a bit after the Schaaf fight, Baer eventually gained enough confidence and won enough fights to race to the heavyweight title. He upset former world champion Max Schmeling in June 1933, enhancing his already popular reputation as a ladies’ man, favorite of the press and strong puncher. Twelve months later, he took the heavyweight title from Primo Carnera, knocking the Italian champion down 11 times during the fight.

The 2005 film Cinderella Man chronicles Braddock’s story more than Baer’s, but it’s important for me to share both of their stories in this piece. Because while I enjoy the movie, there’s a tactic it takes to Baer’s story that is not just symptomatic of Hollywood but America in general and Christianity in particular, and it’s harmful.

Hollywood’s Penchant for Simplification

We know that movies and TV shows are best digested and easily processed when it’s simple. It’s good versus evil, clean versus dirty, the good guy versus the bad guy.

Cinderella Man takes that approach in Braddock versus Baer. Baer is painted as a playboy who doesn’t give a flying flip that he killed someone and actually revels in it. In the clip below, you see Baer and Braddock meeting prior to their fight, and Baer takes the opportunity to showcase his flippancy and attitude.

But Schaap’s book, history rather than entertainment piece, paints a different picture. After Baer punched out Frankie Campbell, Baer fretted over Campbell until the latter was pronounced dead the next day. Baer even turned himself into police being charged with manslaughter. He was eventually acquitted.

In the ensuing years, Baer would have many sleepless nights over the incident. He donated purses from several fights to Frankie Campbell’s widow. Baer’s son Max Jr. told The New York Daily News this after Cinderella Man’s release:

My father cried about what happened to Frankie Campbell. He had nightmares. He helped put Frankie’s children through college…They distorted his character. They didn’t have to make him an ogre to make Jimmy Braddock a hero.

Obviously, Hollywood as a whole or screenwriters and directors as individuals have the right to put on screen more or less what they want. The film never claims to be an exact re-telling of the story, just “inspired by” the real thing.

I’m not writing this to be critical of Hollywood and movies in general. There are many movies and TV shows that have made us laugh, cry and be inspired in our own right. But this brings me to my second point.

America’s Bent Towards Sensationalism and Laziness

An often-talked about point in America today is the “biased media.” News networks like CNN and Fox News and newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post are accused of taking a side on issues, and that affects the way we receive the news they’re sharing with us.

I’m someone who’s felt that way, particularly about Fox News, I’ll be honest with you. But once again, these entities are well within their rights to have slants if they wish. What’s wrong, and what actually harms America at the same time, is a bias of a different kind, and it’s explained well by Jon Stewart in this clip of an interview on Fox News. It starts at 4:28 and ends around the 6-minute mark.

It’s one of the most real and most true things I’ve ever heard about America.

It’s not necessarily that we have an opinion on things that’s bad, but we as America, and maybe we as humans, tend more towards the most flashy way to read and understand something, and it’s probably because of laziness. Trying to dig in and understand people and situations and events takes time, so it’s better (for both our wallets and watches) to just simplify it as much as we can.

Next time you watch the news, think about this. How much nuance is explored? How much is dedicated towards trying to really understand both sides, not just presenting them?

In Cinderella Man, it’s not much. Of course we see all of what Braddock is dealing with, but Baer is simplified to a thuggish, un-caring brute who doesn’t seem to care that he killed people. The reality of the situation is much more complex. To be fair, if director Ron Howard and screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman were to take the time to properly explore both men as Schaap’s book did, the movie would probably be 3 hours long.

I’d sit through that, especially because Paul Giamatti is amazing as Braddock’s manager Joe Gould.

The reality that the Cinderella Man creative team probably came to, and understandably so, is that people don’t really feel the need to know and understand. They need a hero to root for and a villain to root against. But when you take that approach in a situation that involves real people, someone is misinterpreted, misunderstood and/or misrepresented, thus Max Jr.’s complaints about the film.

Knowing the real story, his frustration is quite understandable, isn’t it?

Martin Luther and “On Jews and Their Lies”

Unfortunately, in the church, I’ve seen many Christians take the same approach.

For instance, did you know Martin Luther hated Jews? You won’t hear about it very often. If you do, it’s probably in a context like this:

There’s enough equivocating and “well, there’s this and that” to try to make a defense for someone these people idolize. These men try to make the argument that in On the Jews and Their Lies in particular, Luther was just speaking out against the religion.

But the reality is a little darker. Here’s some quotes:

  • “Did I not tell you earlier that a Jew is such a noble, precious jewel that God and all the angels dance when he farts?”
  • “Set fire to their synagogues or schools and bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn…”
  • “I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb…”
  • “…all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping…”
  • “I brief, dear princes and lords, those of you who have Jews under your rule if my counsel does not please your, find better advice, so that you and we all can be rid of the unbearable, devilish burden of the Jews…”

Hardly sounds like what those men in that video are talking about. Would Jesus be OK with that? Yes, he spoke often about what Jews to become believers and Christians. But he also said and wrote those things listed above.

But do we hear about it? No. And those who know of Luther’s virulent, violent and despicable language about a whole segment of people are thus confused when we make him our hero. In a short book about Luther, prominent evangelical pastor John Piper does nothing to wrestle with this reality. We often hear more about Luther’s defiant 95 Theses and his stand against the Catholic Church.

As explained in this article from the Religion News Service, however, Luther’s words were used to prop up the Nazi movement in Germany. German Christians supported the Nazis because of their harsh opposition to Jews, backed up by Luther’s writing.

Now, of course, Luther probably didn’t expect his writing to lead to the mass killing and human rights atrocities that his writings led to in the 1930s and 40s. But can you say it’s ridiculous for the Nazis to either a) read his writings and take their inspiration partly from him or b) see them as a piece of propaganda to boost their cause?

Tell me how often you’ve heard this explored when Luther is spoken about.

Nuance Is Right in Front of Us, If We Look

Luther’s past is just one example of a lack of nuance in Christianity. Here’s some other things I’ve heard:

  • Someone in deep addiction is just a sinner that needs to pray more.
  • Democrats are baby-killers.
  • People who think same-sex marriage is OK with God don’t believe in the Bible.

While there may be nuggets of truth in some of those statements, the reality is far more nuanced than we might want to admit. Let me examine each of those.

Addicts are sinners that need to pray more. Did you know that addiction can often be hereditary and genetic? Did you know that some addicts are believers who pray all the time for their addiction to go away?

To classify all addicts as sinners who need more time on their knees praying is a gross generalization that fails to take into account all the extenuating circumstances, human flaws and mistakes that are made in those situations. Maybe the alcohol addict didn’t know about his family history because his parents hid it well. Maybe the opioid addict was simply trying to get over some pain from surgery and got sucked in. These nuances don’t excuse behavior, but simply try to deal with them on a more real level.

Democrats are baby-killers. The Pew Research Center says 75 percent of Democrats think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That’s not 100 percent. That’s just 75 percent.

According to this article from Politico, there are three current Democratic U.S. Senators and three House Democrats that are endorsed by a group called “Democrats for Life.” Their website has a report on it that implores the Democratic Party as a whole to “be the big tent party” on this issue and “stop pressuring pro-life Democrats to change their position and stop discouraging them from running for office if they don’t.”

People who think same-sax marriage is OK don’t believe the Bible. While that might be true in some cases, not everyone is that way. On the website of the Human Rights Campaign, an organization that strongly supports pro-LGBTQ causes, former pastor Jimmy Creech writes that saying the Bible says homosexuality is forbidden by God is “poor biblical scholarship and a cultural bias read into the Bible.” Creech explains the Bible’s background of patriarchal culture and writes that “lesbian, gay and bisexual people (are) a part of God’s wondrous creation, created to be just who they are, and completely loved and treasured by God.”

While I believe homosexuality is sin, and some of Creech’s argument is logically flawed, his position is far from abandoning of the Bible. It’s misreading Scripture, of course — Romans 1 is clear on the sinfulness of same-sex relations — but I believe it’s an honest effort to try to love people the way God loves them.

Let’s Be Real About Nuance

Let’s go back to Martin Luther for a minute. The Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church has a statement on its website on the Lutheran Reformation about Luther’s messy past in regards to Jews.

The page, like the men we heard from earlier, deny the idea that Luther is an “anti-Semite.” He is not against Jews because they are ethnically Jews, but religiously Jewish. The Synod put together a resolution that included statements like these (italics mine):

  • “We reaffirm the bases of our doctrine and practice and the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions and not Luther…”
  • “…on the one hand, we are deeply indebted to Luther for his rediscovery and enunciation of the Gospel, on the other hand, we deplore and disassociate ourselves from Luther’s negative statements about the Jewish people…”
  • “Resolved, that we avoid the recurring pitfall of recrimination (as illustrated by the remarks of Luther and many of the early church fathers) against those who do not respond positively to our evangelistic efforts…”

The Synod’s resolution looks at the whole picture. It recognizes Luther’s contributions to the Christian faith and appreciation of the Gospel while also accepting that he was a flawed man that, at least for a time, held some dangerous and destructive views about another religion.

That’s how we need to approach things. We don’t need to whitewash over the bad parts or sensationalize the bad parts. We don’t need to only prop up the good parts of our arguments and ignore the good parts of our opponents’ arguments.

In America, we tend towards, like Jon Stewart said, sensationalism and laziness. Let’s be better. In the church in particular, we need to be better. We need to take the time to understand the reality and not try to simplify things. It takes time and effort. It’s costly. But it’s worth it.

Jesus was fond of going beyond the outward appearance and understanding someone’s situation. Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman at the well, Matthew the tax collector, prostitutes — He was known for being loving, caring and understanding, not letting a simplistic version of someone be how He defined them. He died for them.

Let’s ask ourselves, “WWJD?”

The Emotional Turmoil of A Truly-Held Belief: A Review of Netflix’s ‘Come Sunday’

“I can take that Bible and denounce what I’m teaching.” – Carlton Pearson, NPR

I don’t write a lot of movie reviews, at least not anymore. I used to write a ton. But I’m taking it back up because “Come Sunday,” a new movie on Netflix, challenged me, my heart and my faith in a way only one or two movies ever have.

The story follows Carlton Pearson (played by the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor), a popular evangelical Pentecostal preacher in Tulsa, Alabama. His church, affectionately referred to as “Higher D” by members and staff, is growing and popular. It’s fully integrated, with blacks and whites worshipping together in harmony. Pearson is counseled by Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen, who plays President Bartlett in The West Wing) and supported by his right hand man Henry (Jason Segel from How I Met Your Mother) and wife Gina (Condola Rashad).

But one night while watching a television broadcast about the suffering in the Rwanda genocide of 1994, Pearson hears from God. Hell can’t be real, because why would God let children who’ve never heard of Jesus go to hell? That God would be worse than Hitler, Hussein. He forms what becomes known as the “Gospel of Inclusion” — there is no hell, everyone goes to heaven when they die because Jesus died for all.

The film explores how Pearson responds to this new belief he has, how those around him react and the decline of his church. Come Sunday is based on a “This American Life” episode titled “Heretics,” which you can listen to here. I listened to the episode, and it seems that the filmmakers captured actual events pretty well.

This will not be a traditional film review. That being said, I enjoyed the performances, particularly of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Condola Rashad. It was fun to see Jason Segel in something like this, and Lakeith Stanfield — appearing as Reggie, a worship team member struggling with homosexuality — was great.

I want to dive into a couple of the themes throughout the film and how they affected me as a Christian, a person and someone interested in the culture of religion and the church.

‘The Gospel of Inclusion’

The crux of the film’s story is Pearson’s acceptance of what he later terms the “Gospel of Inclusion.”

He explains it using the Bible. He points to verses like 1 John 2:1-2, which say, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Based on the text of that Scripture, he says, how does the blood of Jesus not cover everyone’s sins? Who are we to say that the blood is not that powerful? 

I think it’d be easy for us to just write off this theology as obviously flawed. There are so many biblical passages that preach the need for repentance and belief in God — the film particularly cites Romans 10:9 — that contradict Pearson’s view. Even the original Greek of 1 John 2:2 states that “the whole world” referred to Gentiles, or anyone besides Jews. It means the forgiveness of the Gospel is available to all, not just freely given to all without repentance.

But can we for a minute try to understand where Pearson is coming from? It’s obviously a more appealing message, for one thing, and from our human understanding, it seems to be more reflective of the God we worship. Why would a good God send people to hell, goes the common question.

But for us to solely focus on the “goodness” of God in His grace and mercy is to leave out his passion for justice and righteousness. He will not let sin go unpunished, unless it’s taken on by Jesus on the cross. Then it is still punished in the form of Christ’s death.

I sympathized tremendously with Pearson and his search for understanding God. He just missed one of the biggest parts.

The Interior Turmoil

Pearson wrestled with this change in his theology. He said he heard from God directly that what he had believed all his life was in error, and that he needed to change.

In the evangelical Pentecostal vein of Christianity Pearson operated, hellfire and brimstone were as common as speaking in tongues and shouts of “Hallelujah” during worship time. The acknowledgement of sin of any kind would be replied to with, “It’s gonna send you to hell.” In his interactions with Reggie, who’s told his hero Pearson about his struggle, the pastor says he can’t “save” Reggie until he gives up his homosexual leanings.

It’s in this background that Pearson’s change of heart is explored, and it’s tough for him. He knows that he’s bucking years and years of church tradition and what he’s believed. He’s concerned about people leaving his church. He’s worried about how it will be taken. But it’s his new heartfelt belief that everyone goes to heaven, and he can’t ignore the strong conviction in his heart.

If we are unable to sympathize with Pearson, even while disagreeing with him, we are lacking. He just wants to love people, and based on what he believes God told him, this is how he can love people. There’s a couple times he almost changes his mind because of how those around him react, but he sticks to what he believes.

As Christians, we are called to love those around us with what we believe to be truth, just like Pearson. We might face backlash for our stances and what we believe, but it’s our call to stick with what God has revealed to us in Scripture.

The External Backlash

The climactic scene of the film is Pearson’s appearance before a council of charismatic bishops who are deciding whether or not to allow him to continue as one of their members. Pearson speaks passionately, even directing some words straight to the chairman of the group. I won’t spoil the scene because it’s powerful and you need to watch it on your own.

But he’s in a room full of people who are ready to crucify him. And that’s after months of criticism — to his face, on television, at the grocery store to his wife, everywhere. He loses the blessing of his mentor Roberts, the support of his ministry partner Henry and the large majority of his congregation.

How many of us Christians have lost friends and seen family abandon us based on what we believe? I hope no believer who sees the film is able to watch that and not feel sympathy. Just because we don’t agree with the reason for his change in belief doesn’t mean we can’t feel for Pearson.

It’s heartbreaking, honestly, and Pearson takes it hard.

Church culture usually doesn’t take too kindly to people who rock the boat. I understand the need for correction for incorrect theology, but the way we often go about it is displayed near-perfectly in Come Sunday. There are some in the film, particularly Henry, who do approach Pearson the right way, the biblical way. But for the most part, people speak about Pearson in a harsh, negative, unloving manner.

And that’s not what God would have wanted.

Summing Up

I don’t believe God would have wanted Pearson’s change of heart either. But I understand where he’s coming from.

And that’s what makes Come Sunday a compelling watch. Agree with him or not, Pearson and his quest for what he believes is truth is incredibly relatable, and I think it would be good viewing for all believers. Not just as a movie, but as a learning experience.

‘Modern Anxious Romance’ — In the Midst of Madness Preview, Pt. 3

NOTE: This is the third excerpt from my book In the Midst of Madness: A Christian’s Experience with Anxiety and Finding Relief. The book releases on Jan. 12, 2018.

Modern Anxious Romance

In his book Modern Romance, comedian and actor Aziz Ansari (who plays the hilarious Tom Haverford on Parks & Recreation) explores the quirks and difficulties of dating in the modern world. It’s a funny read. There’s profanity and some crude content, so if you’re not up for that, I’d avoid it. But I’ll share a pretty clean story from the introduction to his book.

Aziz was trying to decide if he should text this girl he had met that he calls Tanya. They had hung out one night and he wanted to get in touch with her again. Should he call her? Should he text her?

He waited a few days, then texted her. He began to picture what their relationship would be like. A few minutes after he sent the text, the status of the message went to “read.” Moment of truth. Nothing. Fifteen minutes, an hour, two, three hours go by, nothing. He begins to second-guess what he said.

After a few days, he realizes something:

“The madness I was descending into wouldn’t have even existed twenty or even ten years ago. There I was, manically checking my phone every few minutes, going through this tornado of panic and hurt and anger all because this person hadn’t written me a short, stupid message on a dumb little phone.

I was really upset, but had Tanya really done anything that rude or malicious? No, she just didn’t send a message in order to avoid an awkward situation. I’d surely done the same thing to someone else and not realized the similar grief I had possibly caused them.”

In the first chapter, Aziz shares about the difference between “soul mate marriage” (where love is the primary factor in marriage) and “companionate marriage” (where finding a life companion for safety and security is the motivator) and how marriage has changed from the latter to the former over the years for the majority of people, particularly in my generation. While reading, I noted the following thought:

“But searching for a soul mate takes a long time and requires enormous emotional investment. The problem is that this search for the perfect person can generate a lot of stress. Younger generations face immense pressure to find the ‘perfect person’ that simply didn’t exist in the past when ‘good enough’ was good enough.”

In modern times, romance has become one of the most stress-inducing, anxiety-filled, drive-you-crazy-because-she-hasn’t-texted-you-back-in-two-hours things that has ever existed. In fact, it’s the only thing that has ever fit that description. Romance, particularly in the smartphone and social media age, has so many more nuances and produces more insecurities than in previous generations.

When my parents were dating back in the 1980s, there was no Snapchat or Facebook. There was picking up the telephone and calling to try to set up a time to get dinner and see a movie. There was no analyzing the latest tweet your potential boo tweeted, or wondering why he had read your text but hadn’t replied when you thought things were going well. I’m sure there was still a ton of fear and insecurity and doubt, but it was different.

I personally believe that Christian culture has made things much more difficult for believers to process romance because there are so many “rules” and “guidelines” for how to do things. Whether it’s right or wrong, we as Christians have placed a great burden on trying to decide what our romantic lives are supposed to look like before we even dive into them. Yes, there is wisdom in thinking well and making good decisions, but often we make it so complicated.

We see a potential love interest’s faults as “red flags” when maybe they’re just human flaws. We want to wait for the “right time” when there really is no such thing as a “right time.” It induces so much anxiety, it’s ridiculous!

I’ve seen a lot of articles recently about how men in the Church aren’t pursuing women in the Church the way they are expected to. There probably is a lot of fear and some anxiety, but I would wager a guess that it’s partially due to the unreal expectations that are placed on what a Christian dating relationship is “supposed” to look like.

And then, there’s the “unwritten” dating rules and questions to answer that humans have come up with that aren’t un-biblical. There’s so much!

My modern romance is no different, but I also fought the beast of anxiety throughout.

‘Introduction’ — In the Midst of Madness Preview, Pt. 1

NOTE: This is an excerpt from my book In the Midst of Madness: A Christian’s Experience with Anxiety and Finding Relief, which is releasing on the iBooks Store on Jan. 12. You can read more about the book here.

Probably my favorite book of all time is Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning.

It’s somewhat unlikely you’ve heard of him. He’s not a big name author in Christian circles these days. But he should be, and here’s why: Manning was as honest about his struggles in Abba’s Child as I’ve ever seen in any book. He writes about how he viewed God as a punisher without grace for many years, and how that view negatively affected his spiritual life. A former Franciscan priest, Manning dove into his personal life, including his alcoholism. In a profile for Christianity Today in 2013, Agnieszka Tennant writes of Manning:

“Manning’s admission of his failings — combined with his ability to make others feel God’s love in spite of their transgressions — is one reason for his popularity among those who have paid more attention to their shame than to God. His message is a liberation of the perpetually guilty, those who grew up in churches that preached a lot of sin but little grace.”

Manning has influenced Christian music artists like Rich Mullins and Michael W. Smith and theologians like Larry Crabb, Max Lucado and Eugene Peterson. They’re names that aren’t as familiar to my generation, but are household in Christian circles in generations past.

Manning’s kind of narrative rarely fits in today’s circle because of its rawness, its honesty. It’s one that doesn’t pretend holiness or perfection, but readily admits and even details flaws and weaknesses, sins and shortcomings. Abba’s Child focuses on the realness and nearness of God’s love, of a Father’s deep love for His child, a child that can come to Him without hesitation and without fear, because it’s a love that never goes away despite any sinful shortcoming.

It’s a narrative that has spoken volumes to me since my first read. And it’s a series of truths that have helped inspired me to write this book about Christianity and anxiety. Not only have I taken inspiration from the style of Manning’s writing — intensely personal, thoroughly spiritual and superbly relatable — but I’ve been inspired by his message, one that is completely Christ’s.

I’ve lived with severe anxiety and depression starting around 2008. I’ve been a Christian the whole time. I accepted Christ in the summer of 2006, and two years into following Jesus, I got super anxious. And I’m not talking about being nervous for a little bit, but serious anxiety, leading to panic attacks and depression and even suicidal thoughts.

I’ve learned a lot along the way and God has given me desire to write about it. I want other people to grow from what I’ve learned through Bible study and life experience, and that’s what this book is all about. I want to help you deal with the anxiety in your life. I want to help you to think right.

So much in our lives can change if we learn to think right. Paul emphasizes the importance of thinking right in Romans 8:5-7.

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.”

And again in Philippians 4:8.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Setting our mind on the things of the Spirit, on spiritual things, on godly things, on God Himself, is evidence that we’re living by the Spirit, that we’re Christians, that we’re God’s children. And Paul gives us a list of adjectives that describe godly things. That’s how important thinking is.

And that’s what I spent this entire book trying to do. I thought about how I could help you think rightly about your anxiety and hopefully give you some wisdom on how to fight it, how to daily overcome it.

I want to tell you that this book was written specifically for those of you that struggle with anxiety disorders. I had you in my mind when I outlined the book, when I started it, when I was writing the chapters and as I’m writing this introduction.

But I don’t want to exclude those who don’t have diagnosed anxiety disorders. If you have stress or anxiety of any kind, these concepts are true and have continued to help me as my disorder becomes less of an issue. The book will focus primarily on those dealing with high levels of anxiety, but it’s really also for anyone who is a Christian and has stress over certain situations in your life with Christ.

Important note: This is not a medicine or health book where I’m going to tell you how your brain chemistry works and how to fix it. I’m also not going to suggest which medicine to take or even whether to take medicine. That’s a decision for you and a mental health professional. Full transparency: I’ve been taking medicine for my depression for about 18 months as of writing this introduction, and I think it’s been helpful. I think it can be helpful for you if needed. But I do not claim medical or psychiatric expertise. If you have questions about those those things, please speak with a professional.

Here’s another thing: therapy, or going to see a counselor to talk about this, is also incredibly helpful. A lot of the things I’ve learned have come through talking about things with a counselor. So if that’s something you feel like you need, go for it! I highly recommend it.

This book is not a fix-all for all of your anxiety problems. This book is meant to address some spiritual issues at play and try to help you with your spiritual life in conjunction with, if necessary, professional help from counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, whomever. If there are mental or emotional issues that you need professional help with, do not look solely to this book.

It frustrates me when Christians think anxiety is a spiritual issue and can only be fixed by reading your Bible and praying, and I don’t intend for that to be the case. In so many cases, if not all of them, it’s more than that. Finding solutions is often much more than simply doing “spiritual things.”

Most Christian books start off with hitting the overarching concepts first. Then they dive into specifics. Many of the books you’ve read probably work this way. They give you basics, then get down to the nitty-gritty. I’m structuring mine a little differently. I wanted to begin with my story of anxiety, so I’m starting by looking into particular areas where I’ve dealt with anxiety and sharing what I’ve learned about those areas. You’ll learn more about me in those chapters, probably more than you ever wanted to know about the author of a book you’re reading.

After those specifics, I’ll get into broader concepts that are big take-home points as you face anxiety on a daily or near-daily basis.

This book was written with believers in Jesus in mind. If you’re reading this book and you’re not a Christian, please keep reading. I explain in the book why I’m a Christian, why I follow Christ, something you might be wondering about doing. I believe that the ultimate solution to dealing with anxiety is following Jesus and believing in Him. So please, keep reading.

I want you to fall in love with Jesus even more as you read this book. He is the answer for the spiritual problems that drag you away from Him. And I hope that, through my transparency and His glory and goodness, you can find Him and fall deeper and deeper into His loving embrace throughout your struggle with anxiety. That’s my goal. I pray sincerely that you find and you fall.

The Same Old, Same Old Salvation Story, And How My Cynicism Got Punched in the Gut.

My church-related cynicism took a fresh hit of reality this weekend, one that was well-needed.

At a church event, the people leading it shared their testimonies. They were (separately) dealing with similar issues. They had heard of Jesus-related things when they were young, but they shoved it aside. Instead, they pursued drugs and alcohol, sex and sports, just about anything else to find happiness in life. Traumatic events shook them. Eventually, they found themselves ready to end their lives, sinking in desperate situations.

But God intervened. Maybe it was a Gideon Bible in a cheap motel room. Maybe it was a kind word from a family member or friend. Whatever it was, God intervened, pulled them out of the gutter and brought them to a place where they chose to follow Him for the rest of their lives.

When I heard these testimonies, I shook my head and thought, “Not again. How old and tired is this narrative? Are they just embellishing to make a bigger point? It couldn’t have been that bad.”

I carried that thought with me for an hour or so. See, not every salvation story is that way! I didn’t do drugs and drink alcohol in high school. I never hung with the wrong crowd. Not for as long as they did, at least, maybe for a couple hours at most before I realized they were the wrong crowd. So what does this have to do with me?

Eventually, I got reminded of something that’s amazing about God.

He’s the same yesterday, today and forever. And there’s something about that sameness that is ubiquitous in these kind of salvation stories.

See, humans are, at their core, the same. We’re all looking for the same thing. Happiness, fulfillment, contentment.

And, for the most part, we go to the same thing to find that. Attention from others, substances of some kind (drugs, porn, alcohol), pouring ourselves into our work.

And the same thing happens every time – it doesn’t fulfill it. It doesn’t do the trick. It doesn’t really help us.

So we all often find ourselves in the same basic situation – stuck, lost, hopeless. Maybe it turns to us wondering why we should even live anymore, but we essentially wonder what the point of life is.

And then God reaches us with the same message – “I love you. I care for you. In me, you will find rest for your souls and forgiveness for your sins. I am the same yesterday, today and forever.”

Then we ask God the same thing – to forgive us of our sins, come into our lives, make us whole again.

And the same thing that happened to everybody else who accepted Jesus happens to us: He does it.

I realized something else today as I was writing this: Those testimonies can perhaps be the most powerful because we can all find some way to relate to them. We may not have dabbled in drugs, but we’ve got something that gets us high but ultimately leaves us unfulfilled.

And that’s one of the many beauties of the Gospel. It relates to every single situation that man faces and provides the same answer: Jesus, on the cross, taking on sin, so we could live forgiven and fulfilled. The ultimate answer doesn’t need to adjust based on what we’re going through.

You know how one medicine doesn’t fix everything? You can’t take Advil to cure internal bleeding (at least I don’t think so). You don’t need chemotherapy for a flesh wound. That’s not how it works with Jesus. Every illness, every disease, every problem has the same cure.

That’s something to celebrate every time we hear the same old testimony of death to life. Because really, my testimony isn’t that different. I didn’t do drugs, but I was pursuing things that didn’t bring true fulfillment or joy. Then Jesus intervened, and I began to pursue the thing that did.

Cynicism can be a good thing in the right and proper context (that’s a whole other conversation for another time). But sometimes I’d wish it would just go away and let me rejoice in the beauty of the Gospel.

That’s the same thing I’ll be working on for a while.

So please, people, go on and testify.