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Life Up in Smoke

Life Up in Smoke

“I think everyone should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” 


I have found myself returning often to this quote by actor Jim Carrey. It’s one of those sentiments that is really easy to nod along to, but hard for most of us “normal” people to believe. 

If you are like me, you would not say this aloud to anyone, even yourself. But there is something you want from life that you are sure, if you had it, would be the answer: more money, more time, good health, more confidence, better friends, less depression, prettier looks, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, that promotion, this car…on and on that list could go. But if the story of our lives were a simple fill in the blank, we probably all know how we would complete the sentence: “If I only had _______, then I would finally be happy.”

But paradoxically, many of those who have been lucky enough to achieve their dreams like Jim Carrey, look back to the rest of us and shake their heads. It didn’t work. They are just as broken, insecure, and unhappy as they have ever been, and in some cases, even more so.    

Carrey isn’t the first person to make this observation. In fact, thousands of years ago, the author of Ecclesiastes wrote the now famous words about the human pursuit of happiness: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” He knew it didn’t work, either. 

Whether we put our hope in wealth, pleasure, youth, workplace success, or even things like human justice and vindication, Ecclesiastes forces us to acknowledge, again and again, that we will ultimately be let down. At some point, we will find our lives up in smoke with no answers and nowhere to turn. And even if along the way we get the life we always wanted, we will find it wasn’t enough. 

But hidden in this bracing book, there is something, if we are open to it, that can lead to real satisfaction on the other side of our disappointments. We hope you will join us this spring as we start our sermon series on this amazing book of Ecclesiastes. It won’t always be easy, but there is wisdom on the other side. See you Sunday! 

Cultivate and CRISPR

Cultivate and CRISPR

You’ll have to forgive me. These blogs are probably supposed to be devotional, even (rarely) inspiring, but sometimes I just have to write about something I can’t shake. In the midst of our politically-polarized-strange-labor-market-when-is-COVID-over world, I can’t shake the feeling that this is not how we will be remembered when the history books are written.

Instead, I wonder if our children’s children’s children (should the Lord tarry) will only know this time for the powerful technologies that were born right under our noses. One of those is AI. But I’m more curious about another one: CRISPR.

If you don’t know what CRISPR is, I didn’t either, until Ezra Klein explained it. I was browsing his podcast and saw an episode entitled, “Humanity’s Awesome, Terrifying Takeover of Evolution.” That piqued my interest, and gave me a clue. While the mechanics are beyond my scope, the basic idea is simple. After listening, here’s what I gathered: CRISPR is a burgeoning technology capable of genetic editing at the molecular level. Give it a specific genetic sequence, say, for early onset Alzheimer’s, release it into the body, and watch it search and destroy.

But it can do more than delete faulty genetic code. It can put another sequence in its place. If you have ever edited a document in say, Microsoft Word, it’s not unlike the “find and replace” feature you used when you realized you misspelled a name throughout. CRISPR finds the sequence, cuts it out, and replaces it with another.

The technology is still relatively new, and there’s lots of kinks to work out, but this is happening right now. In fact, a patient in Mississippi has already undergone treatment using CRISPR to fix her sickle-cell anemia. She’s a year in and currently shows zero symptoms of the disease.

How much good could we do with a tool like this? Cure cancer? Treat heretofore incurable diseases? Completely change the outlook on life for millions of people with any number of chronic genetic conditions? Yup. It’s as awesome as Ezra Klein said.

And as terrifying. Because what else could we do with this? Or, perhaps more pessimistically, what else will we do with this? Pay-to-play designer babies with a “superhero” genetic package available? “With this CRISPR, your son or daughter is guaranteed an IQ of an MIT graduate and the physical strength of an NFL linebacker.” Hair colors, eye colors, skin colors, falling in and out of fashion like first names? “Oh, you have blue eyes. That was such a thing in the early 2050s!”

I haven’t even gotten creepy yet: growing disparities between the rich and poor as the vulnerable are “priced out” of genetic enhancements, transcending ethnic markers that are God designed and inherently good, and yes, even the potential of species splicing. Terrifying indeed.

I told you that I just had to get this off my chest. I honestly don’t know how to think about this. Did God intend for us to develop these tools, like the automobile and cell phone, as a way we cultivate the natural order? Or are we crossing a line to make our own name great, like the builders of the tower of Babel of old? I honestly don’t know. I’d love your thoughts in the comments on how believers are to think about these things.

Two ideas come to mind that I think are helpful for all of us:

  1. Follow the work of thoughtful Christians in the hard sciences. Francis Collins, the former director of the NIH is someone in this category (he’s written several books on the integration of faith and science). So are the bioethicists at the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity at Trinity International University, my alma-mater.
  2. Pray for wisdom. As I said, as important as all the conversations we are having right now are, I feel that technologies like this are flying under the radar. This will have massive implications for our world and our witness as believers. May God help us navigate wisely and compassionately.

Let me know what you think! Comment below with thoughts, questions, or resources.

Real Faith

Real Faith

There are many reasons people choose not to follow Jesus. For some, belief in the supernatural is just too much. For others, the questions of eternity, meaning, and purpose are simply not a priority. However, the most devastating reason I hear from people who do not want to follow Jesus has nothing to do with Jesus. It has to do with His church. They are not interested in faith, not for some intellectual reason, but because they actually met a Christian, and found absolutely nothing compelling about their lives. Or worse, found something outright repulsive about their lives.

This reason, I’m afraid, has become more and more common in our culture.

Interestingly, it was not skeptics and doubters who first raised this problem. It was James, the brother of Jesus, and an apostle in the early church. James, who wrote the book that bears his name, has the audacity to ask us the same question we hear from the most hostile critics of Christianity: what good is your faith in Jesus if no one could tell by watching you?

For our own sake, and for the sake of a watching world, we are starting a new sermon series in James called Real Faith. The world needs our real faith now more than ever, and needs to see Christians living with integrity, with spiritual wholeness. So that what we believe, who we love, what we want, and how we act work together in seamless alignment. And how we spend our money, how we use our time, and how we speak point unambiguously to our obedience and apprenticeship to Jesus.

The world needs real faith, and Christians need it too. Of course, we will never do this perfectly. But that is the goal; ever increasing love for and obedience to Christ. Anything less than that, as James reminds us, is not only incomplete or immature faith; it is dead faith.

Let’s pursue real faith together this fall as we study the book of James. We hope you’ll join us!

 

Chronic Illness and the Good News

Chronic Illness and the Good News

We were having coffee, just catching up. I asked politely about work, about summer schedules, just small talk. Then I asked about family. His whole demeanor changed. The smile faded. The shoulders dropped. The eyes shifted. He told me, “You know, my wife has chronic headaches. Migraines. Sometimes, she can’t get out of bed. It means that every day, we don’t know what we can and cannot do, who we can and cannot see, what we can and cannot enjoy. It is very difficult and lonely for her.” 

“That sounds really hard,” is what I say back. We kept talking about other things. 

Years later, I am sitting in a doctor’s office. An ENT actually. He’s great. Friendly. Competent. He’s telling me that the symptoms I am experiencing are part of a larger phenomenon known as sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL – because who wants to spell that ever again?): an unexplained but rapid hearing loss in one ear, accompanied by tinnitus (ringing), bouts of vertigo, and a constant sense of “fullness” or congestion. None of the symptoms, mind you, actually mean anything. They all represent the brain’s stubborn attempt to re-establish a connection with the nerve of the inner ear, which is (likely) permanently damaged. It’s a futile attempt to fix something that is fundamentally unfixable. 

How did it happen? I don’t know. The doctor doesn’t know. We never will.  

Anyway, I’m sitting there, realizing that from this moment on, my experience of life will never be the same. And all I can think about is that guy, over coffee, trying to tell me something about his wife and how hard her life is. I do a lot of coffees, a lot of sharing, a lot of listening. I’m a pastor, after all. And I know a lot of people with chronic illness, just stuff that will never go away. I’ve talked to them, held their hands, read them Scripture, prayed over them. But until this moment, I didn’t understand them. What it feels like to know, deep down, there are no next steps, no more doctors, no more meds, no more plans. There’s just a broken body, and the ways you learn to live around it. 

I haven’t shared this with many people. I wasn’t ready. I don’t want this to be a long, drawn out thing about my health. I was listening to someone recently talk about their own chronic illness, and he said, “One of the hardest things about it is that I’m offended when people don’t ask how I am doing, but then I’m exhausted when they do ask how I am doing.” I loved that. It’s so true. I don’t want this blog to be about how I’m doing (I’m really ok). But I’d love to share what I am learning. So here goes…

I need daily bread. During this time with my health, I have learned that some days I can do whatever I want, and some days I just can’t. I have no control over it. My plans are very much plans for the day. I know now more than ever the reason Jesus teaches us to ask for daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer. Not weekly bread. Not monthly. Not quarterly. Not annually. Just daily. Upon further reflection, I think too much of my energy in life has been looking ahead to some hypothetical future, or mulling over some unchangeable past, instead of living the day right in front of me. Now, I find myself concentrating more and more on this idea, to live the day God gave me. There is a design element here: God indeed made us to plan as well for the future as we are able, but more importantly, He made us to live and obey and depend on Him today. When you really begin to pay attention, this idea is all over the Bible. Hebrews 3:12-13 comes to mind: 

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 

My body failing me is difficult, but it also throttles my attention from drifting too far ahead or behind. What can I do today? What does faithfulness look like right now? I need daily bread, and Jesus is happy to give it to me when I ask. I’m asking now more than ever. 

This body is not my home. It’s one thing to feel out of place in the world. It’s another to feel – even just a little – out of place in your body. To feel that your own body is an obstacle to who you want to be and what you want to do. This, by the way, is a feeling we will all experience at one point or another. If illness doesn’t get us, age will. My fellow chronic-illness folks and I are just practicing a little early. 

I hate to admit this, but for most of my 20s and 30s, Paul’s teaching on the new body has been for me a fascinating abstraction. Chronic illness has cured me of that. When I turn to, say, 1 Corinthians 15, rather than reading for mere comprehension, I read for hope. I read for reminders and promises. Promises that reshape my reality. Promises like “what is sown perishable will indeed be raised imperishable”, and that a glory awaits me that I can hardly fathom, just as I cannot fathom the beauty of a rose by merely studying it’s seed. 

I no longer just believe this is true. I need to believe this is true. And there’s a sense in which the culmination of our faith only happens when we don’t just think it; we feel it. 

I feel now, in a way I didn’t before, that while this broken body is a gift, it is also a problem. It has limits, weaknesses, short-comings, and liabilities that I was not designed to carry. But God is not surprised by this, and He gave me good news about it before I knew I needed it. If that is true, if my broken body is not an obstacle to His love and care, then I can trust Him with what comes next. I can trust Him with tomorrow. And so can you. 

Keep Growing This Summer

Keep Growing This Summer

Summertime is finally here, and this one feels different. After a year of uncertainty, I sense a growing light at the end of the tunnel. My hunch is we all have plans we’ve put off, vacations we’ve canceled, and family trips we’ve postponed that we are itching to make up for this summer. That’s great! In the flurry of activity, restauranting, traveling, and hugging that may be headed your way, let’s not forget to keep deepening and growing in our apprenticeship to Jesus. The floodgates may be opening, but our disciple-making mission stays the same. Here are just a few “outside the box” ways I plan to keep growing this summer for you to consider: 

  • The BibleProject: I have mentioned this in a few places, but the BibleProject is the most innovative Bible study tool I have seen in a long time. Tim Mackie and company have created a host of resources for increasing biblical literacy, including incredible videos on books and themes of the Bible, and a podcast that gets you behind the scenes on their process. I recommend at least subscribing to the podcast and digesting a few during long car trips, flights, or chore time at home.

  • The Chosen: If you know me at all, you know I have a strong aversion to cheesy Christian media. Maybe you disagree with me there, but it’s okay; we can still be friends. But even if you are wired like I am, you will still love The Chosen. This streaming series is the first of its kind: an episodic look at the life and ministry of Jesus and those closest to Him. I have yet to start season two, but season one was incredible and did as good a job of capturing the essence of Jesus and His first century context as I have ever seen. What I appreciate most about this show is its ability to remind me how lovely the real Jesus is, the sheer force of His teaching and personality, and why I will never find words of life apart from Him. Check it out!

  • The Formed Life: Okay, shameless plug. BUT, I really do believe that this daily devotional deep dive our church has created is one of the best discipleship tools I have ever engaged in. Sign up for daily blogs, videos, and practices designed to help us go deeper into God’s word, to train in the disciplines that shape us, and draw us closer together as a church family. If you have yet to participate, or have fallen behind in your engagement with this resource, this summer is a great time to re-up. 

Keep growing, church! And have a great summer.