I wasn’t raised in a church, but I decided to attend a year ago, and here I am a year later, still attending. I’ll try to sum up the reasons for that decision as concisely as I can, because I really could write a thousand-plus words about it.
Back in my college days, I listened to a lot of Jordan Peterson’s podcasts (I can maybe feel some eyes roll at this statement). He cracked the defenses I’d built up in my ignorant youth against all that is traditional. Suddenly, I became aware that the stories in the Bible contained powerful truths that pertain to the lives of all people, religious or secular.
My memory isn’t perfect (probably due to the undergraduate alcohol culture) but I think it was after hearing many things that Jordan Peterson had to say that I started to notice a light emanating from the people of faith I encountered in random places. By light, I mean that their behavior resonated positively with me in some way. I did not literally see light around them.
I remember I felt particularly good when a stranger at the financial aid office said “God bless you” as thanks when I directed him to some other administrative office he was trying to find. I remember Anna and Nick, who were fellow counselors at the summer camp where I worked. They did not keep their faith a secret, and it seemed they were working with children for all the right reasons. I remember George, a history major studying at CUNY Hunter College in Manhattan whose coptic faith seemed to animate his passion for history. I felt these people were particularly admirable and I would remember them years later.
During the pandemic, I moved to Kansas City and I had to start rebuilding my social life. I made a few friends through work, but I was also ready to try new things. Over the years, I had consumed a great deal of media produced by public intellectuals like Jordan Peterson and Glenn Loury. I found myself not as comfortable sharing my thoughts or being myself around the people I usually associated with through school and work. I hate confrontation, and I can be very timid when it comes to sharing contrarian views, so politics and religion were off the table most of the time, even though I was deeply interested in those topics.
At the time, I was doing an online church with some friends back home, and I remember how those sermons empowered me to face the challenges of my job when other activities didn’t. They also provided me with validation for certain beliefs. The thought crossed my mind that maybe going to church in person would be a good idea.
Weirdly enough, I found a link to the Gospel Coalition’s website through a math pedagogy page I was exploring for work.
I typed in my zip code and Christ Community’s Downtown Campus was the closest church to pop up. I emailed one of the pastors, who suggested we get coffee. When we met, I was relieved by his understanding demeanor. It made me feel relaxed, and I felt comfortable talking openly around him. He invited me to church on Sunday.
Upon arrival at my first Sunday service, I was warmly greeted by a stranger my age who introduced me to his friends who were similarly welcoming. This receptive environment and the relationships I began to form kept me coming back. I eventually joined the men’s group where I got to meet and converse with guys from all walks of life about topics of masculinity and faith. This environment of a unified group which also contained so many diverse opinions was such a welcome change from others I inhabited in university and at work. Many of the people I met at church were admirable like those other Christians I’d encountered, which didn’t feel like a coincidence. Church has felt like an answer for a deep yearning for community and meaning that I sometimes forgot I had.
While I’ve found community at church, I wouldn’t consider myself Christian in the colloquial sense. I’m not yet willing to concede that the miracles in the New Testament are historical or more than symbolic. After watching many hours of debates about the resurrection of Jesus on YouTube, I came to the conclusion that if I were to someday believe that Jesus really did rise from the dead, my belief wouldn’t come from rational arguments. Maybe rational arguments would play some role, but the belief would mostly come from something more akin to a feeling powerful enough to fend off the disbelief.
That isn’t to say that scholarship on the historicity of the gospels hasn’t altered my views. It was interesting to learn from the Wikipedia page on the historicity of the gospels that John’s baptism of Jesus, and Jesus’ crucifixion at Calvary, are held to be historical facts. John’s baptism is supported by something called the criterion of embarrassment which essentially just says early Christians wouldn’t have made up that story since it might have been used to argue that John was in authority above Jesus. The writings of first century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus make reference to Jesus’s crucifixion at Calvary and therefore serve as strong evidence for the historicity of that event. Now that I’ve seen how some aspects of the gospels stand on historically solid ground, I am more open to the possibility that the gospels as a whole may be historically true.
I also have yet to satisfy many questions before I’m willing to take next steps with Christ. There are other spiritual practices outside of Christianity that seem to produce positive changes in people. How is Christianity reconciled with cognitive behavioral therapy, Buddhist meditations, or reports of positive changes in behavior from therapy involving psychedelic drugs? What about the positive effects that MDMA therapy has reportedly had on people experiencing PTSD? How is Christianity reconciled with the findings of research where cancer patients had their death anxiety alleviated by doses of psilocybin? I want to understand how Christianity can incorporate these findings, and I feel confident there’s a way. I still have a lot of exploring to do, and, in the meantime, I’ll keep attending church.
If I’m honest, I want to make this Christmas season all about me. To enjoy losing myself in the endless distractions.
December naturally lends itself to easy numbing, doesn’t it? A beautiful season—crisp cold weather, family traditions, the buying, the travel, the delight of holiday food & drink, the cozy nights in front of the fire…so much to enjoy and so much to help us forget.
Frequently all the “good” morphs into something insatiable and results in unhealth. A morning after feeling of “Why did I eat that?” “Buy that?” I can also get so harried I begin to feel numb to some things. But to paraphrase one of my favorite thinkers—if we numb one thing, we become numb to everything. It’s impossible to pick and choose what we numb. And honestly, I don’t want to miss Christmas because I was comatose.
I’ve found that when I choose to slow down and spend time reflecting—when all the good things are given their proper place of importance in my life—the joy in them is actually magnified, and even better than I imagined.
My efforts to gorge on all the decadent happiness then transitions into a slow discipline of gratitude, joy, peace, and ultimately adoration of the beauty of the Maker of all the lovely things.
These wonderful books for the Advent season have helped me reclaim my focus. I hope they will do the same for you:
The Greatest Giftby Ann Voskamp – a yearly read for me. Food for the heart and mind. Audience: predominantly women, but I recommend it for men, too.
Honest Advent by Scott Erickson – for those looking for a fresh perspective. I’m reading this for the first time this year, hoping it lives up to expectations. Endorsed by a couple of my favorites, John Mark Comer and Sarah Groves. Audience: men and women.
Shadow and Light by Tsh Oxenreider – another new one for me, but one I’m really excited to do with our family this year. Short readings, accompanied by Scripture, a daily Advent playlist, and instructions for lighting the Advent candles. Seems thoughtful but also approachable enough for the whole family. Audience: everyone.
Unwrapping the Names of Jesus by Asheritah Ciuciu- lovely daily perspective on Jesus’ names as they relate to Advent. Audience: women
Hidden Christmas by Tim Keller – I haven’t read this one yet but with Tim Keller as the author, it’s a guaranteed win. Audience: men and women
Come Let us Adore Him by Paul David Tripp- I’ve enjoyed this daily devotional for several years. I appreciate how accessible it is, while still getting straight to the heart of the matter. Audience: men and women
And there is no better vocational effort that we have been called and commissioned to put forth than that which takes place day in and day out in families, churches, and schools in order to create a world of goodness and beauty. But evil has other intentions, and as such finds no more lucrative work than in those very communities where we first learn how to learn. Where our natures are first nurtured with the intention of growing us up to become effective, loving parents, students, educators, farmers, park rangers, teachers, police officers, and all the other vocational domains we occupy.
It is therefore helpful to know that shame begins to take root in our minds as early as fifteen to eighteen months of age. This means that we initially take it in and are largely affected by it more so via our nonverbal brain activity than we do via language. Hence, if we are parents, it behooves us to be aware of our own narratives and where shame is trying to tell our story such that we can prevent it from having as much of a say in the stories our children are beginning to tell. As we rear our children, knowing where our own shame attendants are hiding out is the first step to quieting the attendants that have our children in their crosshairs.
Then, there is our larger family of faith—one that, if taken seriously, is potentially an equal if not more significant formational one. If it is true, as I said above, that evil does its best work in the middle of good work being done, why would we be surprised that we experience so much shame in the church? It only makes sense that in a place where we intentionally gather in response to Jesus’ invitation for all of us who are weary and heavy laden to come to him for rest, shame would be waiting for us.
Evil does not so much knock on our door and straightforwardly ask us to commit unspeakable horror. Rather, it waits for our movement to do good things, and simply joins our parade, weaving its way into the motion and direction in which we are already moving.
In our deep desire to love God, it reminds us that we don’t love him enough or in the right way. Only in the church, where we expect no one to shame anyone in any way, does it naturally catch us especially off guard. Only in the church does the proclamation of the good news so often begin by reminding us of how bad we are in the first place—often because we so fear that without that shaming element we might not respond as we should. Only in a place where like no other we genuinely desire to do the next right thing do we worry that we won’t. But let us be clear—this should not surprise us. Furthermore, it is not our fellow parishioners who are the enemy. Evil is the enemy, but would rather use shame to convince us that the enemy is sitting next to us in the pew.
It is therefore incumbent upon us to be as ready to meet the devil in our church families as Jesus was when he went to the synagogue in the third chapter of Mark’s gospel. It is in church where Jesus confronts—simultaneously—the woundedness and shame of both a deformed man and the religious community that was presumably responsible for nurturing his life in God. When we come to our worshipping communities expecting to work against shame, it will be less able to catch us off guard, and so be made more impotent to do what it usually does.
And from church, we send our children off to school, to institutions that themselves at times become cauldrons of shame. We know this not least because of the increase in the number of anxiety disorders in children in elementary schools who worry that they may not be making straight A’s, which might preclude them from eventually getting into Yale. This, not to mention how much school administrators worry that they are not providing enough for the worried parents they serve, and so, in their attempt to do the next right thing, apply more pressure to teachers who apply pressure to students who apply pressure to their parents who call the administrators to find out why their child is so anxious, yet is still not making straight A’s. And to be clear: all these people do not wake up in the morning planning to do these things. We are all trying to do the best we can. This is how evil wields shame: silently and subtly, largely outside of our awareness.
But there is hope. Indeed, to the degree that we are committed to allow our stories to be fully known and loved, whether that is at home, at church, or in our educational systems, we proclaim the gospel. Even as we learn math. As we learn how to make our beds and say please and thank you. As we preach sermons that proclaim God’s delight in the presence of the naturally occurring limits he has infused into the creation. As we discipline each other and ourselves.
So be of good cheer. As you have babies and then take them to church and then send them to school, know that as you are known and transfer that way of being known on to those for whom you are responsible, the Holy Trinity is working as hard as they can on your behalf, bringing you further up and further into the age that is here and is to come.
And if that’s not nurturing our natures, I don’t know what is.
The Trinity Forum hosted psychiatrist Curt Thompson to discuss his insights on suffering, shame, and isolation, which are felt acutely in this COVID-19 pandemic.
Psychiatrist, speaker and author Curt Thompson connects our intrinsic desire to be know with the need to tell truer stories about ourselves — showing us how to form deep relationships, discover meaning and live integrated, creative lives.
From Ash Wednesday to Easter, the Lenten season beckons us to consider our mortality and sinfulness. But that inward look can develop into tunnel vision if we don’t venture up from the depths, into God’s light, to see what He’s doing in this great cosmic battle. And that’s really what we’ve been experiencing this past challenging year—and every year before it and after—the cosmic battle playing out on our home soil. In our distress, we can easily miss this bigger picture, the telescopic view of our Savior and our world, and when we do, we see more dividing lines than unity, more failure than victory.
The three movements of “A Word Spoken for Ash Wednesday” were created for the Ash Wednesday service in February 2021, to help us remember who we are as the church in Christ—and whose we are in this great battle. Take a few minutes to WATCH each movement in video format, created to help you contemplate our complicity in the problem, Jesus’s offer of absolution, and His invitation into something wholly and divinely better.
Based on Isaiah 55; Ezekiel 37:1–14; Ephesians 2–4; 6:10–20 With help from the body: Randy Bonifield, Dawn Heckert, Callie Johnson, Kia Hunt, Bobbie Jeffrey, and Emily Hobbs Video Performances: Michael Burke, Alyssa Hershey, Michelle Lee
Under the steeple steeped in truth, full of people, a darkness persists in the middle of the light.
’Cause while we the people in our pews take an hour away from news to turn our eyes on Jesus, in our flesh, we’re priming for a fight.
See, we’ve been stepped on, and the truth, it’s been dumped on, and there’s a sea of white crosses for the ones who’ve been imposed on to give their lives for our freedom.
So we lash out with lashes against the trash talk of the masses that we see as the crowd of our country, the overloud of our culture—the ones who don’t think like me. In fact, the ones who are evil, the ones who need Jesus.
And so we take our Bibles, and we flail them at our neighbors. We holler like children, “Mom, he started it!” We cry, “I didn’t do it!” And inside we seethe at the injustices on earth.
All the while— in a dark corner of the cosmos, the underworld of the universe, the serpent nurses bruises and sinks low to sit and watch the great reality, the show of earth.
He might run scared from a legion of saints from every region, arms locked not with religion but relation to the Regent—the King of kings—the Savior—as we fight a common foe.
But here? There’s just a dust up in the ranks that need to stand up, that are subdivided by our make-up and the privilege we won’t give up.
So Satan, he’s gettin’ cozy as us cretins, we just mosey on down to the mud pits he set to trap us in.
Like a sister getting fed up or a brother who won’t put up, we just bicker till we break up, we argue and we beat up God’s own image for a mockup of his kingdom.
And the image that we hold up to the world is a soul that feels so small. We have eaten and devoured the Word so much that our spirits are parched, so that our hearts dry and shrivel. But we deny it.
We might be right, but still wrong because brother against brother, and sister against sister, we leave our father and mother to fight a holy war all our own.
No grace, no irresistible attraction, no quarter for our enemies. From dust we were taken and to dust we shall return, but in the middle, we want power, we want pride, we want perfection, we want profession, we want protection, we want possessions, so in our pews, we take our eyes off the redeemer of the nations, and we set the world on fire. We set the church on fire. We reduce ourselves to ashes.
And Satan, in his Lazy Boy, kicks his feet up and laughs.
Jesus stands over our ashes and he weeps— for his church, his tears clear the air. Can you see him?
While we wager on our dreams, he fights for our imaginations. While we wheedle through politics, he fights for our ideals. While we wrestle over pennies, he fights for our souls. We fight for our philosophies, our rights, and our security. He’s not just a lover of wisdom, he’s the wisdom that loves. He’s not just the defender of right, he’s the righteous defender. He’s not just the giver of riches, he’s the giver of life.
With the earth as his footstool, his thoughts rise to the heavens, his arms reach around the universe. His word created the cosmos, yet his hands bear the scars of sinners. (That bit wasn’t Satan; we did that.) His heel crushed the serpent but was nailed to a cross. (We did that, too.)
So let me declare boldly the surprise of the gospel, the mystery of the ages, the foolishness of earth: We can be so wrong, yet still right with the Father— Gentiles share privilege with the Jews.
They’re members of the same body. They eat at the same table. They partake of the same promise.
In fact, the gospel gets better than that. Hold your hats on, my people.
See, the banquet is waiting.
You bet Satan is watching; he has turned up the volume; he’s perched on his chair to pick off survivors, to see who we’ll vote off the island. In his hand is an app that picks the winners and losers, he swipes and sows more division, he posts and scorns with derision, he manipulates the algorithm of the human mind and heart.
But Jesus, standing in our ashes, divine ruler of the cosmos, lays his sword down. He lays his stone down. He lays his body down and rolls in the dust that is us. And when he rises, the all-sufficient, the magnificent glory of God is encased in our own mingled ashes.
The Christ once held his arms out; now, he holds his hands out and he offers the bread and the wine of the banquet not just to Gentile and Jew but to socialist and capitalist, to the nationalist and the centrist, to the populist and the elitist, to the Calvinist and the Methodist, the fundamentalist and the syncretist, the anarchist and the conspiracist —and get me, church— to the rapist and the murderer, the papist, the embezzler, the racist, the ignorant, the opposition, the arrogant, the repugnant, the grumbler, the reviler, the complainer, the promiscuous, the gambler, the drunkard, and the arguer. He holds his hands out to the liar, the thief, the snitch, and the denier, invites the tax collector, the fallen woman, the self-made man and his choir. Are you worried that I’m naming you? Or afraid he’ll leave you out? His guest list includes the self-indulgent, the lazy, the jealous, the crazy, the gossip, the bully, the self-righteous, the unholy, the pedigreed, the undocumented, the worshiper of idols— and such are we. Such are we, yet he holds his hands out and invites us to unity in the beauty of our diversity to the one faith that can bind us and uphold us; he holds his hands out so we’ll know him— so we’ll know him— so we’ll know him: the Son of God.
And at the banquet there are two names on the guest list:
First, the unconquerable, the Savior, the unquenchable, the Spirit, the unchangeable, the Father—and the name we must profess is Jesus. The other label, despite our libel and our slander, is fully able to get our nation back to livin’ to get the church back to lovin’ to get our world out of the scorched-earth mud because our name is forgiven.
Come and seek. Come and see.
All across the grieving world, the Christ holds his hands out: “Come buy wine and fresh milk without cost, without price.” But while these bones, dry and parched, reach for Jesus, we look around at devastation and ask, “How shall we now live?”
In the valley of ashes, we hear a great rattling as the bones that were battling join together— bone, flesh, and sinew, every joint held with glue— every part working properly. From the ashes we rise.
As with the clay he once formed, Yahweh fashions a new body. One arm equipped most for justice; the other, more for truth. This hand, equipped for mercy, that tongue, equipped to soothe. He empowers one foot to follow; he humbles this leg enough to lead— Yahweh forms us from every tribe, tongue, and nation, every color, stripe, and creed and burns away our strongholds— from the ashes we rise.
He pumps the bellows and stokes the coals and lights a holy flame; for us, he forges a heart of flesh and reignites us again. He names love as the stumbling block, recommissions service as our crown, hammers out his holy Word so we grasp heaven and bring it down. And though we may not know how to do this, even though we disagree, this new temple isn’t just me full of God; it’s God housed in we.
The church stands when we understand; from the ashes we rise. Because as we call ourselves “blessed Christians” and also “those with a wicked bent,” we will look to our head that is Jesus to remember why we’re sent. We will think the thoughts of God and look at others through his eyes, and speak his words of mercy. The cosmic battle wages in us, but we’ll respond as the One who’s wise—from the ashes wewill rise! We will see the down and out, the CEO, the angry, the terrorized, the journalist, the common man, the woman who took our prize, the family member who makes it hard to breathe, the victim who just cries, and we’ll set aside our roar of thunder and our earthquake reprise; we will bend to embrace all these who thirst and those we once despised and engage their ears with a whisper:
“Leave the war. Come to the banquet.”
Then the trees will clap their hands, the mountains will start to sing because the valley of ashes has come to new life— what was cut off and dry now sprouts green!
At the last, Yahweh dips his finger in the ashes— see, with this new body he isn’t quite done— He says, “Put a mark of peace on their foreheads. Ah! This one is my Son.”