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.

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‘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.

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. 

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?

I Like to Impress People. Even Though It Annoys Me When Others Do That.

I went to a Christian college ministry conference during the New Year’s weekend of my junior year at Elon University and met Shai Linne.

Shai is a Christian rapper whose rhymes are often characterized as “lyrical theology.” He attempts to explain spiritual truths and theological points in hip-hop form. He performs one of my favorite songs of all-time, “Mercy and Grace” with label mate Timothy Brindle.

In fact, it was Brindle I brought up when I met Shai. After the normal, “Hey man, I like your music,” thing that you always say when you meet a musician you like, I mentioned that I liked a lot of the guys on Lamp Mode Recordings, his label. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but it went something like this:

ZACH: “Yeah, I love what all you guys on Lamp Mode do — S.O., Timothy Brindle, God’s Servant — it’s good. Particularly Tim’s new stuff.”
SHAI: “Have you listened to Tim’s album ‘Killing Sin’?”
ZACH: “No, I haven’t, not yet.”
SHAI: “Bro, it’s so good.”

Within a couple days, I had bought the album.

Again, I don’t think those are the exact words that were used, but that’s generally how the conversation went.

I was reflecting on that conversation recently as I was listening to an S.O. song. While I may not remember the exact words in the conversation, I remember my motives. I wanted to impress Shai Linne. I wanted to be that guy that, as he left the conference hall that night, he remembered. 

I still carry that attitude in a lot of ways. I’ve had similar conversations with comic book store owners, movie reviewers, journalists, pastors, etc., people whom I’ve tried to impress with my knowledge whether or not that knowledge was actually impressive.

I think there’s a part of all of us that wants to impress people, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But here’s where I get tripped up.

It’s one of my pet peeves when other people try to do that to me. I just think they’re trying to make it all about them and what they know and how cool they are. But I do the same thing!

As I pondered this in my car the other day, I shook my head and said to myself, “Zach, what are you doing?”

Impressing people, I think, is part of being human. We want others to think well of us, to remember us, to think we’re pretty awesome, so we try to impress them. There’s the classic scene in the romantic comedy where the guy tries to do something to get the girl’s attention but ends up making a fool out of himself. There’s the politician who tries to spit off the best statistics to support his/her argument. There’s the friend you debate on Facebook who puffs his chest after owning you in an argument. 

And while the root of trying to impress people isn’t necessarily bad, the danger we encounter could be an even bigger mistake: not being ourselves.

Speaking of the coming Messiah, Isaiah says, “…he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:2b-3). 

Jesus, when He came, was nothing special, and nothing He did was ever to impress anyone. He lived and spoke and work in a way that brought glory to the Father, not to Himself. He never pretended to know something He didn’t, never brought something up in conversation to try to make someone think He was awesome.

In fact — in something that has always confused me — He often told people to not talk about what He did for them. 

If I were Jesus, I’d be trying to find ways to bring up what I could do and what I knew. I like to think of myself as a pretty humble, non-assuming dude, but when it comes to conversations like the one I had with Shai, I prove that totally wrong. I’m just an attention seeker like everybody else. 

God did not call us to draw attention to ourselves. His call for us, I believe, is like what Paul says to the Romans is their’s: “to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of (Jesus’) name among all the nations” (Romans 1:5). I believe that’s our’s too. We aren’t called to bring about people thinking we’re awesome and that we know a lot. We’re called to bring about people believing in Jesus.

That’s not to say we can’t have conversations about things we know about, that we can’t share the knowledge we have with someone else for the purpose of establishing a connection. Why do we do it? Why are we trying to impress people? 

I think we can impress people, but for the sake of Jesus. We can impress them with the beauty of His grace, the depth of His love and the gravity of His compassion. We can impress them with the prophetic way God and His people spoke and wrote of the world and of humanity. We can impress them with the way we take His words and His example so seriously that we can’t help but live like Jesus.

That’s the type of impressing I need to work on. 

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/)

BARS at the Cinema: CAPTAIN MARVEL and Changing Your Mind

NOTE: If you have not seen Captain Marvel yet, it might be best for you to avoid this piece. It has significant spoilers for the movie, which is fun and worth a watch.

A movie that’s stuck with me for a long time is Come Sunday, a Netflix film about preacher Carlton Pearson. I wrote about it here.

I referenced it the other day in conversation with a film critic about the movie First Reformed. In both movies, a preacher who’s done things the same way for a long time is challenged with a negative truth and is forced, either by rational thinking or a spiritual experience, to change what they believe.

In First Reformed, Ethan Hawke’s Rev. Ernst Toller is shaken by the suicide of a congregant’s husband. The man loses hope in the world, despite having a wife and a child on the way, due to growing climate change and impending environmental disaster. Toller pastors a small, traditional church that receives support from a megachurch led by Cedric the Entertainer’s Rev. Jeffers. Toller and Jeffers butt heads over how much the church should do about environmental change.

In Come Sunday, based on a true story, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Pearson sees a news report about the 1994 mass genocide in Rwanda and has what he deems to be a spiritual epiphany: there is no hell as commonly defined by the church. This puts him in direct conflict with the stated theology of his denomination’s elders and his spiritual mentor, Martin Sheen’s Oral Roberts.

Both of these films explore what happens when someone learns something new and it changes their world. Both also have a significant Christian/religious bent to them, which is probably why I like them.

But another movie, Captain Marvel, explores a similar theme, and while it doesn’t do it as well as Come Sunday or First Reformed, it makes you think about what it’s like to learn something new.

I won’t give the customary plot summary here because this part of the movie (SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!) comes in the second act.

Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel learns that the Kree race she has dedicated her life to — thanks to a plane crash, some brain-washing and super science — have misled her on the threat of the Skrulls, and that her people are the real villains. It shakes her world. All the while, she’s dealing with the fact that while she thinks she’s always been a Kree, she was actually an Earth-dwelling human for most of her life.

The movie does a half-decent job of exploring how these major shifts in thinking affect Carol. I think the filmmakers could have done more, but the theme is at least introduced, and I think it has a lot to tell us about living the Christian life.

The Bible is chock full of people who lived their entire lives thinking one thing and then changed in the blink of an eye when they got new information.

The disciples were just fishermen, doing their thing, when Jesus comes up and radically shifts their worldview and their profession. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus says to Simon Peter and Andrew in Matthew 4:19.

Saul was a Jew of Jews, zealous, imprisoning and killing Christians, when Jesus stopped him on the road to Damascus and changed his life. Eventually, his name was changed too, to Paul. He went from killing Christians to trying to recruit people to be Christians.

That’s a significant shift. We don’t know exactly how long it took Paul, Peter and Andrew to make that change in their minds. The Bible presents them as just changing their lives almost immediately. We do see that all of them have to take some time to adjust — Paul learns from the apostles for a time, and the disciples clearly didn’t get it for a long time.

When we become Christians, we make a similar shift, a similar change. We go from death to life, from condemned to saved. We learn a lot more about ourselves and who we were and who we are going to become.

Just like Carol Danvers, Carlton Pearson and Ernst Toller, our allegiances shift and we begin fighting and living life for a new purpose. That can be hard. Some of our friends and family will resist that change, wondering why in the world we’re investing in this new thing, thinking we’re losing our minds. Your brain has to create new ways of thinking due to this shift.

Clearly, this is a film trope that’s been around for a long time, but it’s a reflection of real life.

I want to end this reflection on Captain Marvel with this encouragement: there’s a good chance that, if you’re reading this, your mind is shifting on something. It’s part of life, and evolution is critical to humanity existing. If we didn’t change our thought processes and create telephones, vaccines, automobiles and more, we may not exist, or we’d still be like we were in the 1600s.

I believe your life of faith is the same way. Through reading man’s reflections on God and God’s words themselves in the Bible, we can learn wisdom and grow as Christians. By praying and seeking input and conversation with other Christians, we can change for the better to more reflect who Jesus is and what He wants for us.

But like Carol, Ernst and Carlton, we need to be open to it. I’m not writing this to pass judgment on their changes. But they set a good example for us to be open to being wrong and changing to reflect the reality around us.

Changing your mind isn’t an inherently bad thing. Sometimes, it can make the difference between following yourself and following Jesus. Give it a shot sometime.

How Christianity Increased My Anxiety, and Why You Don’t Have to Have the Same Experience

I know the title of this post will make some people instantly protective. God’s not a God of confusion, they’ll say. How could you take something as clear as the Bible and get confused by that?

A few reasons: God may not be a God of confusion, but how we talk about Him often leaves me confused. And the Bible isn’t really all that clear, if we’re being honest.

It’s things like clarity and certainty that help people with anxiety, that give us a sense of peace and purpose in a crazy world. But the Christianity most of us follow do little to assuage those of us who think a lot and think deeply. 

The reality is that the Christianity that’s real, the Christianity that’s true, allows us freedom to follow God mostly on our terms, in our environments and personalities and likes and dislikes. Of course, that does not give us license to sin willy nilly. But I’ve found out more about following Jesus when I learn it myself in my circumstances and my reality instead of following someone else’s prescribed rules. 

The first key to finding this freedom is understanding what makes us a Christian. What does the Bible say? In Romans 10:9-10, Paul explains: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believe and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

Being saved? Believe in Jesus and confess it. That’s it. There’s no list of stipulations we have to meet to be a Christian except for those things.

We get into trouble — and my anxiety ramps up — when we begin to place stipulations and clauses in our “contract for being a Christian.” We ask questions like, “How is your time in the Word?” And “how much are you praying?” 

Well, if I am spending time “in the word,” whatever that means, how much is enough? How do I know if I’ve met the requirement to satisfy whatever your desire is? Five minutes? Two pages of journal notes? 

If I am praying, how much is enough? Five minutes? Two pages of journal notes? 

Inevitably, I’m going to fall short. And in so much of modern Christianity, we define “how Christian we are” by how our actions seem to reflect our faith. While there is biblical basis for that understanding — James 2:17 states that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” — there is no standard given. There’s no specific guidelines. So giving out specific guidelines, while it may be helpful, and implying that faithfulness is measured by a certain level of “obedience” is not biblical, and leads to more anxiety and confusion.

A list of stipulations shows us we will always fall short, and when we define our Christianity by our actions, we will always fall short of feeling that we’re a Christian. The Bible never defines our Christianity by our actions. James says that Abraham’s “faith was completed by his works” (2:22). Our actions are the out-working of our faith and being a Christian, not the essence of it.

The second key to finding this freedom is understanding what the Bible is. Other than the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic law, there is no list of rules in the Bible that tells people how to live their lives. Even if there was, the Bible wasn’t written directly for us. It was written for a different people in a different time. 

That doesn’t make it useless. In fact, the Bible is stock full of wisdom and guidance that we would do well to heed. But we need to understand that the Bible was not designed as a checklist of rule-keeping. It’s a bunch of letters, histories, prophecies, poetry, songs and advice. But there’s tons and tons of wisdom in there, in both the Old and New Testaments. 

And most of all, we have the Word of God, Jesus Christ (John 1:1). That Word “became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17). 

The modern church has a long history of making the Bible a list of rules, but it’s conveniently left some things out. For instance, women are allowed to speak in church despite Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, and it seems that a woman not covering her head while praying is disgraceful and dishonoring according to 1 Corinthians 11:4-6. 

Since the Bible is not a list of rules, or even “God’s letter to us” — because it’s made up of letters to people from people — we’re freed to read it as it is and gain the wisdom and guidance we need to live as God’s people. 

The third key to finding this freedom is understanding who Jesus is. As already stated, the Bible says that Jesus is the “Word of God” (John 1:1), and is the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). But most importantly, a relationship with him looks like rest. He says it Himself in Matthew 1:28-30.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

That’s the words of God, in the person of Jesus. There seems to be some clarification here that when we come to Jesus, we don’t get a list of rules or a standard to uphold. We get rest. Taking his yoke upon us, it seems, leads to rest. It leads to learning. 

If we’re not getting that from following Jesus, we’re not following Jesus. We’re following some picture of Jesus that has been created by ourselves or the “Christian culture” around us.