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Horror and Sinai

Horror and Sinai

I jumped off the boat and into the lake, my skin grateful for the cool of the water. I floated, face up, and closed my eyes. The sun burned red through the lids. There was no gravity, no up or down, or east or west, and my thoughts sailed off in the light breeze. All my cares melted away like the clouds in the afternoon heat. 

Then it touched me. My body coiled and wrenched my mind back to earth. I kicked my legs,  swiveled my neck, eyes darting down into the darkness around me. Something icy, slick, and fast had slithered up my back. 

Try as I might, I could not see more than a few inches below the surface. I couldn’t see my own feet, straining up against gravity’s slow snare. A sick feeling bloomed in my stomach and oozed to my fingers and toes. A feeling of smallness. A sense of incomprehensibility. A dread for the shapeless and nameless things that might lay below. I swam hard for the boat. 

Later, I gave the feeling a name: horror. 

Some version of this horror has probably found you, too. It creeps up from the darkness of the deep water. It steals in through the telescope pointed out into the emptiness of space. It falls down on the head looking up from the feet of mountains. It’s not the horror of Jason in slasher movies like Halloween. It’s not the cheap thrill of The Exorcist. It’s not even the suffocating fear of human depravity like Rear Window or Psycho. It’s the horror of the unknown – or more precisely – the unknowable. 

H.P. Lovecraft made a living on this form of horror. You may or may not know the name, but you’ve probably felt his influence. He is widely known as the father of cosmic horror, a sub-genre that does not so much play to our fears of death or pain, but to more existential dreads about our place in the universe, our smallness in comparison, and the sheer incomprehensibility of it all.

It is an effective form of horror because it is so deeply rooted in the human experience. It is, in fact, a form of horror we encounter in the biblical story. When Moses and the people come to Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, Israel meets the living God like this:

 [16] On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. [17] Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. [18] Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. [19] And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. [20] The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. [21] And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the LORD to look and many of them perish.”

The sense of the story is terror inducing. To the ancient mind (and perhaps the modern one as well), a mountain was as permanent and as awesome as it gets. This is why so many places of worship were set atop a mountain. When God descends to Sinai in Exodus 19, and seems to consume it with fire, the people tremble at the power of God, who is bigger, and older, and higher even than the mountains themselves. It’s almost incomprehensible. It’s horror on a cosmic scale. 

The story is a reminder that God is, in the Lovecraftian sense, horrifying. To actually see God as he is, what he is capable of, his purposes and plans laid bare to our eyes, would obliterate us. When Isaiah is transported in a vision to God’s throne room (Isaiah 6:1-5), he is not fascinated or awe-inspired. He is undone. Lovecraft would approve. 

It is important, as I’ve reflected on this, to understand the horror of God. Not because he wants to hurt us or scare us, but because he is unknowable to us. He is higher, and deeper, and wider, and older than we are, and even older than the stars and the planets. The vastness of space still teaches the same lesson that Sinai did; who is this God even the quarks and the photons obey? 

If God were to turn our horror to awe, or even to worship, he would need to reveal himself, hide himself, in something much smaller, something weaker, something very much like a person. Something like Jesus of Nazareth. This is, after all, how the author of Hebrews understood the incarnation in chapter 12:

 [18] For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest [19] and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them…[22] But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, [23] and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, [24] and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

The Old and New Testaments, when read together, equally affirm how thin the line is between horror and worship. The whole thing ultimately pivots on the incarnation of Jesus. He is, in a sense, the line. He is the Word made flesh, the fire and lightning become skin, the unknowable made touchable. 

Lovecraft is only half-right: there is a dread just beyond our conscious thought that, when it slithers up our backs, can evoke a horror unlike almost any other, and that horror is a holy God in the presence of a sinful person. But in Jesus, our God reveals himself not to be the boogeyman, but the Son of Man; we do not fully know him, but he fully knows us. And when we finally see this “monster,” he does not confirm our worst fears, but defeats them. And our horror becomes awe. And our awe becomes love. And our love becomes worship.

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.