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What Stephen King Has Taught Me About the Real World

What Stephen King Has Taught Me About the Real World

It was 2015. I was on a camping trip with my family, lying in a tent in the mountains of Colorado. It was dark, everyone else was fast asleep, and if you’ve ever slept in a tent in the woods, you know how loud the nature noises can be. It was already the kind of night ghost stories are made of. It also happened to be the night I was reading my very first Stephen King book. I started with a doozy, The Shining, which takes place in a haunted, isolated place in the mountains of Colorado. Yikes.

I’d always avoided Stephen King, mostly because I don’t much enjoy being afraid. Now here I was, shivering in a dark tent, wind rattling the sides, feeling very much exposed. I’m sure it was just the cool mountain air that caused my goosebumps. Nope. I was scared. And I have been on a quest to read everything by him ever since. 

Now here is the disclaimer. Stephen King is NOT for everyone. I’ve convinced my wife, at least one campus pastor, and a few select friends to read some of his books, but this is not an apologetic to start reading him. Some of his books are truly terrifying, and the content isn’t always PG. Or even PG-13. A few of them are downright rough.

Even so, I have become a fan, and not just for the entertainment. Stephen King has expanded my imagination and taught me several important lessons about the real world. I might even go so far as to say that his writing has increased my capacity for faith, but if I did, you might accuse me of pushing it (although I really think it has).

As of now, I’ve read thirty-three of his books, and if that sounds like a lot, he’s written more than eighty since his debut with Carrie, in 1974. While some of them are absolutely terrifying, I’ve been surprised by the diversity within his writing style. People often assume it’s all horror but in my experience, most of them are just suspenseful mysteries. He’s also written some good dramas (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption), a little fantasy (The Eyes of the Dragon), and at least one that reads like historical science fiction, if that’s even a real category (11/22/63).

He’s super funny, unbelievably creative, and has a surprisingly good window into the human experience. I’d be hard pressed to tell you my favorite, but my top five so far are: The Shining, Misery, It, The Green Mile, and 11/22/63. Oh, and definitely Shawshank. And maybe Dolores Claiborne. Did I forget The Stand? I could keep going, but I’ll stop there.

If there is any living celebrity I could have over for dinner, Stephen King would be very high on the list (his memoir, On Writing, makes him seem surprisingly normal). I’d love to talk with him about what he actually believes about the universe. He clearly has a decent grasp of the Bible and the Christian faith, and it sure seems like he has a profound belief in the supernatural. But what does he actually believe?

I can’t answer that, but I can tell you that Stephen King has taught me more about the real world than I ever expected, and it is these things that keep me coming back.

 

There is more to life than what I can see

First, his writing has reinforced my belief that there is more to life than what I can see. To me, this has been one of his greatest gifts. Now, I’m a Christian, so of course I believe in the supernatural. But I’m also a 21st century Westerner, and according to philosopher Charles Taylor, I live with what he refers to as the “immanent frame.” Like most of us, Christian or not, I live much of my life believing only in what I can see.

Sure, I believe in God. I pray and I expect him to respond. I also believe in supernatural evil actively seeking to destroy everything good. This is what Christians are supposed to believe, right? But it is so hard to maintain that faith when we humans arrogantly and regularly assume that we can find a rational explanation for everything.

Not when I read Stephen King. His writing makes the supernatural plausible. He allows for mystery and tension that defies explanation; that there are things in this world that can’t be explained, that maybe shouldn’t be explained. That there isn’t a formula or lab or a logical argument to answer every question. And that we humans don’t actually know everything.

The Bible also doesn’t answer my every question. The gospel of Jesus contains tension and mystery and things I cannot explain. I don’t have to see in order to believe. I don’t have to fully understand in order to trust. Stephen King expands my capacity to be ok with that.

After all, it says in Hebrews 11:1, Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (NIV) I know his books are fiction (Right?). They’re even outlandish sometimes. Yet they make faith somehow just a tiny bit more plausible. He’s helped me see that maybe, just maybe, there is more to the universe than the things I can see. 

 

There is real evil in our world

Second, he’s made it easier to believe in serious, objective, evil. There is real evil in our world. I think we know that simply by turning on the news, and our Christian faith confirms it, and even offers some explanation for it. But Stephen King helps me feel it, helps me hate it, and even shows me my own propensity for it. 

Nobody can create a villain quite like he can, and as Christians, we believe there is true supernatural evil seeking to destroy us. Peter reminds us: Be sober-minded, be alert. Your adversary the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour (1 Peter 5:8). The devil is real. Demons, darkness, and hell are as real as the chair I’m sitting in, but so hard for most of us to believe in. 

Yet ever since reading It, I can’t even look at a sewer grate the same way, and while I don’t believe in Pennywise, I do believe in a cosmic enemy who is even more evil. Seriously. Even more evil than Pennywise! There are few villains I’ve ever hated more (or feared more) than the ones Stephen King has created, and it has reminded me to have an appropriate fear and hatred of the real supernatural evil in our world. The devil is non-fiction.

But it’s not just supernatural evil. There is real evil alive within each of us. It’s not just Pennywise I’m afraid of, it’s also Nurse Annie in Misery. It’s the evil that lives within the human heart (including mine) that’s also scary. Stephen King understands this, having battled his own demons of drug and alcohol addiction. He understands physical pain, after having been hit (and almost killed) by a fast moving van. Evil isn’t fiction, you shouldn’t trifle with it, and Stephen King has expanded my imagination for our need for rescue. We all long for a hero.

 

Good will ultimately triumph

Which leads to the last thing I’ve learned about the real world from Stephen King. Good will ultimately triumph. No matter how bad the story, no matter how harsh the evil, there is goodness in our world that seeks to overcome it. There is good that resists the evil, and sometimes even a hero who will help overcome it. 

Ultimately, I believe that hero is Jesus. He is the Promised One of Genesis 3 who will crush the head of the serpent under his feet. He is the Victor of 1 Corinthians 15 who had defeated the ultimate enemies of sin and death. He is the One we long for, and he is coming back to make this world right (just read Revelation 19:11-16!).

I don’t know what Stephen King believes. I don’t know what he thinks about Jesus. But I’m grateful for the unexpected ways he has strengthened my belief and my hope and my longing for Jesus.

Yes, there is more to this world than we can see, and some of that is remarkably scary, but the end of our story is good. Evil around us and within us will one day be defeated and even be eradicated, through the work that Jesus has done for us. While it might sound silly, I praise God that at least for me, Stephen King has made all of that just a tiny bit more believable.

Five Habits of Lifelong Relationships

Five Habits of Lifelong Relationships

By Nathan & Kelly Miller

Kelly and I recently celebrated 21 years of marriage, and while she and I have always shared a pretty amazing relationship, it’s not been easy, nor has it been without disappointments, hurts, misunderstandings, and a whole lot of hard work. In fact, these past three or four years have been the hardest. Parenting has gotten more complicated, life has been more stressful, time has been more fleeting. And this whole “midlife” thing is just weird.

We’ve learned more about ourselves and each other in the past couple of years than perhaps all the previous years combined. We’ve also cried more, had to listen more, apologized (and forgiven) more, and been stretched more. Simultaneously, we would both say without any hesitation, that we also love each other (and even like each other) more than ever before.

Recently we were asked by our Re Engage marriage class at the Olathe Campus to share a few of the things that have been most important to us in maintaining a joy-filled relationship. While I’m sure there’s a lot that could be said, and we are definitely not experts here, we wanted to share five habits that help us. 

If you’re not married, we’ve written this with you in mind as well, and we hope you’ll keep reading. Each of these habits can easily be translated for just about any relationship you believe is worth nurturing for the long haul.

 

Habit #1: Stay curious

Stay curious about yourself and stay curious about the people you love. Start with yourself. Never stop learning about and working on yourself. It’s so easy to focus on the other person’s shortcomings, and overlook the fact that I am also a bit of a mess. At the start of COVID, for example, Kelly and I grew increasingly interested in attachment theory, family systems, and how deeply our upbringing shapes our present and future realities. We pursued a variety of podcasts, books, and other resources (check out a few recommendations below).

As we’ve learned more about our own motivations, areas of woundedness, or unmet desires, this has given us new language with one another, greater compassion for each other, and a deeper desire and ability to love one another. We’ve discovered that many of the challenges in our relationship actually started long before we even knew each other. This doesn’t pass the blame (well, maybe a little bit), but rather gives us the ability to truly see ourselves and see each other. We have a newfound ability to see our own shortcomings, so that we can work on ourselves for the good of ourselves and each other.

Start with yourself, but don’t stop there. Never stop being curious about this person you love. For example, I love learning about Kelly, and I feel like I have learned so much about her in the past few years. As she learns about herself, I get to learn more about her, and then I get to meet her in those places of mutual discovery. Always be a student of the people you love, never stop pursuing deeper understanding of who they truly are, and then, knowing better who they are, find new and fresh ways to love them all the more. Stay curious.

 

Habit #2: Make time

Of course, staying curious takes time. So take the time! Sadly, this is an area that in different seasons, we’ve been a bit sloppy. When either of us feels a bit distant or we’re going through a rocky patch, one of the first questions we ask is, “Are we making enough time for each other?”

This is so obvious and still, we can be so bad at it. One of the dominant factors in any great relationship is time. Sometimes you need time just to plan your week or talk about the kids. You also need time to ask probing questions and to listen well. Those conversations cannot be hurried. For us, one of our best habits for this is taking walks together. It’s so much easier to have some conversations side-by-side rather than eye-to-eye. We also love sitting together at a winery, a restaurant, or on our deck.

We also make time for fun together. Whether it’s going on a hike, having a picnic, going out to dinner or the theater, visiting a national park (or whatever you might consider fun), those experiences together make the relationship more enjoyable. When was the last time you played with the people you love? Those moments of laughter and silliness or shared activity can bring such a bond of intimacy. Make time.

 

Habit #3: Apologize first

As you spend all this time learning about yourself and each other, it’s inevitable that you’re also going to hurt each other. This leads to Habit #3: apologize first. 

I can remember early on in our marriage, both of us feeling hurt and upset by each other, and then just sitting silently waiting for the other person to apologize. Waiting…still waiting… why doesn’t she??? Why doesn’t he??? While we just get a little angrier and a little angrier and a little angrier.

At some point, we were both done just sitting there! I don’t remember what prompted this, but it was in one of those waiting moments in awkward silence that I just made a decision. What if I make it a goal to always be the one to apologize first? No matter what, no matter how much I’m hurting, knowing that I’ve got my own messes and shortcomings, what if I always try to apologize first?

Now thankfully, Kelly joined me in this goal, so we both end up apologizing first from time to time. This responsibility should never land on just one person. But let us tell you, this has been a game changer for us. 

We’ve learned (and are continuing to learn) that our relationship’s health is more important than being right or justifying our actions (this should be obvious, but doesn’t always feel obvious).  How fast can we apologize—truly apologize without excuses or manipulation—and how quickly can we offer forgiveness to one another? What would this posture do to your most important relationships? Apologize first.

 

Habit #4: Pray together

We also recognize wholeheartedly that we cannot possibly do any of this on our own, and perhaps the very first habit we ever embraced as a couple was Habit #4: pray together. From our very first night together to last night, every evening before bed we take roughly 60 seconds to remind ourselves and each other that we cannot do any of this without God’s help. 

We take turns. One night Kelly prays. The next night I pray. And, yes, I have fallen asleep more than once while Kelly is praying. We don’t say anything particularly profound, and we don’t think anything particularly magical happens, but the habit itself is so profound. 

Not only does this make it hard to go to bed angry or even distant from each other, it gives us an opportunity to vocalize in front of each other our need for God. That humbles us, and just about any relationship needs humbling from time to time. At this point, we’ve done this more than 7500 times and there is no doubt in our minds that this is one of the reasons our relationship is so strong. 

If you’re not married, find a friend that you can pray with regularly. I know it may seem awkward at first, but it will feel more normal the more you do it. I started praying regularly with my friend Toph even before I met Kelly. We prayed together weekly throughout college and monthly for the past 21 years— 25 years in total. Not only has that provided a rich dimension to our relationship, I think it’s one of the reasons our friendship has withstood the test of time, distance, and a whole variety of different life-circumstances. Finding someone—anyone—to pray with regularly is truly a beautiful gift. Pray together.

 

Habit #5: Never stop cherishing

This last one is really just a bit of a “catch-all,” but we’re pretty convinced that the most important vow any of us make at a wedding is to cherish. If you truly cherish each other, all the other vows should fall right into place. Whether you’re single or married, it’s easy to take for granted the people you value most, but that’s so perilous to any relationship. Never stop cherishing.

I recently realized that I wasn’t doing a great job at this one. Over time it’s so easy to grow comfortable with one another and then to slowly take each other for granted. You stop saying thank you as much, you stop pursuing each other, and you can so easily begin to devalue one another.

Both of us have just recently redoubled our efforts to cherish more. It’s actually been fun to restart this quest together, even after all these years, to ask each other: what makes you feel cherished? What makes you feel wanted and loved? And then try to meet each other in these places for our own mutual joy. 

Again, this applies to all relationships, not just marriage. Ask difficult questions of your loved ones: how can I be a better friend? What would make you feel seen and known and wanted? Then actually take steps to show you care about each other. Never stop cherishing.

 

Jesus, too.

As we’ve gotten better at this relationship thing, it’s also been so helpful to remind ourselves and each other that every human relationship is ultimately meant to point us to the relationship Jesus wants with each of us. For our God pursues and cherishes and has time for each one of us. He loves us, and the very best of our human relationships is only a blurry snapshot of his delight in you. 

We’re 21 years into this, and while we don’t know what the next 21 will hold, we’re excited and we’re confident that as we continue to press into these habits together, and as we continue to receive and prioritize the love our Father has for us, even in the hard times, we can flourish. For the beautiful thing is that the more we receive God’s love, the more we are enabled and empowered to love each other, and when we do, there is incredible delight.

Resources

Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson (and anything else by Curt Thompson)

The Place We Find Ourselves podcast by Adam Young

The Meaning of Marriage by Tim & Kathy Keller

The Great Sex Rescue by Sheila Wray Gregoire, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach, and Joanna Sawatsky

 

God’s Face Is Toward You

God’s Face Is Toward You

When my kids were little, one of the best parts of my life was when I’d walk in the door at the end of a long day. They’d run to me, squeeze my legs, squeal with delight, beg me for piggyback rides, the “dragon game,” or other ridiculous forms of roughhouse. Their faces could practically light up the entire room at the very sight of me. I was a hero, a celebrity, the most loved human on the planet and the source of one of their greatest delights. It felt pretty good. 

I have teenagers now. Needless to say, I’m not even sure they notice when I get home (or that I ever left). While I choose to believe they’re still glad to see me (after all, according to Hebrews 11, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…), I do miss those little faces lighting up like that at my very presence. You know the feeling, right?

 

A face that is glad to see you

Does anything feel better than seeing another human light up when they see you? You show up at a friend’s house that you haven’t seen in years. You return home from a long and tiring business trip and your spouse greets you at the door. You arrive home after your first semester in college. Your grandkids finally pull up after a long road trip. Even as I write this, I can literally feel my face lighting up just at the very thought of these situations.

We also feel this in the small and subtle things. When you walk into church and you can just tell the people you see are glad to see you. Their faces light up, which makes your face light up, which makes their faces light up even more, which makes your face…. It feels good, doesn’t it?

We now know that there is brain science to back this up. Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks, in their brilliant little book, The Other Half of Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation, write:

Our brains desire joy more than any other thing. As we go through our day, our right brains are scanning our surroundings, looking for people who are happy to be with us.

God designed facial recognition circuitry into our brains and linked it to our joy center. My wife’s face lights up when she sees me, and this initiates a joyful chain reaction in my brain that I can feel in my body. Brain science reveals that this joy sensation is crucial for emotional and relational development. Our brain looks specifically to the face of another person to find joy, and this fills up our emotional gas tank. The face is key.

They summarize joy in three points. 1) Joy is primarily transmitted through the face (especially the eyes) and secondarily through voice. 2) Joy is relational. It is what we feel when we are with someone who is happy to be with us. Joy does not exist outside of relationship. 3) Joy is important to God and to us.

Of course, I didn’t need to quote these experts for us to know this to be true, nor do we need science’s confirmation for the things we already believe so deeply. We feel this deep in our bones! We know, even in our own bodies, that this is true.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that God has also known this to be true, for this is how he made us. Long before any of these scientific studies were even imagined, God imagined humans, and he made us to light up at the faces of one another. He made us for joy—joy with him and joy with each other. 

 

“The Lord make his face shine on you”

It even comes out in the “original” benediction or blessing in the Bible. It’s the oldest we have and it has long been my personal favorite of all the benedictions we give at church. In seminary, our pastor used to sing it over the congregation at the end of the service. We say it over every child in our dedication services, I try to work it into every one of my weddings, and I love using it on Christmas Eve and the start of every new year. It’s also become one of my favorite songs we sing from Elevation Worship, The Blessing.

Thousands of years before we knew anything about brain science or interpersonal neurobiology, God knew, and our brilliant Creator God gave us this benediction. I memorized it first in the NIV, Numbers 6:22-26: 

 The Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:

 “The Lord bless you

    and keep you;

 the Lord make his face shine on you

    and be gracious to you;

 the Lord turn his face toward you

    and give you peace.”

 

The original blessing, the blessing God commanded, perhaps the highest blessing we can receive, is that God’s face would light up when he sees us. That he would continually turn his face toward us. For this is the ultimate blessing, the ultimate protection, the ultimate act of grace, and the greatest source of peace. If you want real joy, here is where it is found—seeing God’s face light up when you walk in the room. Knowing that God is glad to be with you.

Reflecting on this passage, Wilder and Hendricks write: 

God designed our brains for joy, and He wants us to live in the glow of His delight. This blessing expresses a joy that can be paraphrased, ‘May you feel the joy of God’s face shining on you because He is happy to be with you.’

 

How can God possibly be glad to see me?

However, if I’m honest, I often wonder, does God’s face really light up when he sees me? He knows me. All of me. He knows the ways I tried to run from him in high school. He knows the mistakes I made in college. He knows my failures as a husband, as a father, as a son, as a brother, as a friend, as a pastor, as a colleague, as a boss, as an employee, as a neighbor, as a citizen, as a human. So many mistakes, so much sin. Every one of my faults is in his face, even the failures I’ve been unable to admit to myself. He sees.

You can’t hide anything from God’s face. And I imagine that disappointed look, like the one your mom or dad used to make. Or worse, I imagine him turning away from me, and walking out on me. If YOU really knew me, dear reader, YOU would turn your face from me and walk out on me. Each of us has felt this happen way too many times. Nothing destroys our joy quite like this.

And yet….

The good news of what Jesus has done for us means our God will never do that to any of his children. No matter what. Ever. You see, Jesus already died the death we deserve, and when he was forsaken on the cross, the Father did turn his face away. That is what we deserve, but Jesus experienced that for us, so that we never will.

Jesus also lived the life we could never live—perfect, holy, righteous, just. He took our shame and gave us his goodness, so that when the Father looks at us, he sees all the good that Jesus is. All of his beauty and righteousness and love. We are given credit for that.

This means, if you are one of God’s children through faith in Jesus, his face is always toward you. It’s always shining when he sees you. For our God is always glad to see you. Do you believe that?

Like lovers who have been separated for months. Like a parent who hasn’t seen their child for a whole semester. Like your grandkids when they finally show up for a long awaited visit. Like your closest college friends at an unexpected reunion. That’s how God feels EVERYTIME he sees you. And he always sees you! His face is always toward you. Can you see his eyes lighting up?

Now I realize this is hard to believe. The gospel of Jesus usually is hard to believe. So how do we actually experience this? I want to feel this—how can we? Let me quickly and inadequately suggest two things.

 

Turn your face toward him

First, if you want to experience the joy of God’s face toward you, you have to turn your face toward him. It’s mutual. He also wants to see your face light up when you see him! Like any relationship, the joy is best experienced by prioritizing time for that person, and mutually enjoying one another.

When you open your Bible, when you carve out time for prayer, when you quiet your life enough to listen for him, when you show up to church each Sunday, when you sing songs of praise to him, when you go on a walk alone in the woods. These are the spaces we are most likely and most often to experience his face and his joy, and he experiences it from us, too. If we want joy, we have to make these things a priority. Like the old hymn says:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus

Look full in his wonderful face

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim

In the light of his glory and grace

 

Turn your face toward others

Second, if you want to experience the joy of God’s face toward you, you have to turn your face toward others. So often our experience of God’s love comes through the love we feel to and from others. When you show up at church or your community group or Bible study, does your face light up from the people you see? As yours lights up, theirs will too, and you’ll get a taste of the joy of God’s face. If we want joy, we have to make each other a priority.

As we do these things, with faith in Jesus as our deep hope, we’ll experience joy, and we will live out the fulfillment of the greatest benediction. 

Let these words again wash over you—not simply as a wish, but as a truth that is fully yours in Jesus Christ. Read them this time from another translation:

“May the Lord bless you and protect you;

 may the Lord make his face shine on you

and be gracious to you;

 may the Lord look with favor on you

and give you peace.”’  Numbers 6:22-26 CSB

These words have already come true for all who believe. Amen and Amen!

Johnny Cash is a Friend of Mine

Johnny Cash is a Friend of Mine

Johnny Cash has been called a lot of things, not least of all, a walking contradiction. On the one hand he sang regularly about Jesus, performed at evangelistic revivals with Bill Graham, and wrote a novel about the Apostle Paul (yes, I’ve read it). He was a deeply committed Christian, attempting to walk in the light of Jesus. On the other hand, he struggled with drug addiction almost his entire life, as well as some of the other demons common to those who live a life of fame on the road. There was a darkness about him. 

For someone who’s greatest hit was about “walking the line,” he was never very good at actually walking it. This is one of the things that draws me to him most. 

Johnny Cash was a dark sinner who loved Jesus a whole lot. He knew about personal pain, loss, and deep heartache, yet he never lost hope in a God who loves him and offers forgiveness to him.

I grew up listening to Johnny Cash. My dad had a cassette or two and Johnny would always join us for our roadtrip family vacations. When I was in high school, and Johnny made the most amazing comeback of his career, I quickly became a fan in my own right. (His first album with Rick Rubin, American Recordings, is my favorite.)

 

Rediscovering the Man In Black

 

About two years ago I rediscovered the Man in Black. Through a series of difficult circumstances and perhaps my own seasons of a little heartache (and perhaps some darkness, too), I became not just a fan. I’ve become obsessed. I won’t bore you with the details (too late?) but I truly mean what the bumper sticker on my car says: Johnny Cash is a friend of mine.

I’ve acquired and listened to nearly every song he ever recorded (my playlist is 80 hours long with no tracks repeated), read multiple books (and purchased even more), got sucked into multiple YouTube rabbit trails (interviews, concerts, the Johnny Cash Show), and even made a pilgrimage to some of the most important sights and museums related to his life. 

I’ve actually started referring to my obsession with Johnny Cash as my midlife crisis. While I do drive my family nuts, it could be worse, right?

But why? Why do I love Johnny so much? That’s like asking me to list all the things I love about my kids — where do I even begin? So I’m going to limit myself to three things that I think all of us need a little more of today. As followers of Jesus, there are three things we can learn from and embrace from Johnny’s life.

 

Johnny loved people

 

First, Johnny loved people — all people and especially those who are easiest to forget. He worked for prison reform, spoke out against abuses toward Native Americans, and understood the plight of the working poor. He knew how to connect with just about anyone. 

The most enjoyable example of this is to listen to three of his most famous concerts, all recorded within a 14-month period: San Quentin Prison (February 24, 1969), Madison Square Garden (December 5, 1969), and President Nixon’s White House (April 17, 1970). The selection of music is almost the same at each of them — classic hits, murder ballads, gospel tunes — but the concerts could not be more different. 

He knew his audience and could speak to each of these people as if he truly saw them, understood them, and cared for them. He could encourage a prisoner, navigate the political tensions in New York, and challenge a controversial president. And he could do it all without condemning, alienating, or patronizing. 

Some might say he was just a good performer, maybe even a little bit of a politician himself. I don’t think so. I just think people — real people of any kind — actually mattered to him, and we could learn something from his example.

 

Johnny could embrace tension

 

Second, and not unrelated, Johnny could embrace tension. While he was considered the Man in Black, he didn’t see the world in simple black and white with neat and easy little categories of either/or. Yes, he believed in truth, but he also believed that we humans don’t always understand or live out that truth very well. Things tend to be messier than we often want to admit. Just take for example how he navigated what some would consider the politics of his own day. (Interestingly, since his death, both political parties have attempted to claim Johnny as their own.) 

Johnny can’t be parsed out so quickly. Johnny loved this country. He LOVED America. He has entire albums dedicated to our history and songs about how grateful we should be to live here. He was about as patriotic as a person could be. If you need evidence of this, just try Ragged Old Flag.

He also sang out about our environmental abuses, treatment of the poor, and inequities within the prison system. His entire 1964 album, Bitter Tears, is dedicated to our mistreatment of Native Amerians. Listen to it — it’s haunting and often considered one of the finest achievements of his early career. He even refused to get pinned down on the Vietnam War, at one point referring to himself as a dove (someone in favor of peace) with claws (like a hawk ready to fight).

He understood that we live in a complex and very broken world, and resisted giving simplistic answers to hurting people. I wish we had more people like him today.

 

Johnny knew he needed Jesus

 

Finally, Johnny knew he needed Jesus. Perhaps this is why he loved people and could hold things in tension so well. He knew he was a sinner who couldn’t possibly rescue himself. Many of his final songs (1993 through his death in 2003) are his best work, and many of them are about sin, regret, and a longing for redemption. If you want an example, his cover of the song Hurt as well as the music video (considered one of the greatest music videos ever made) is truly devastating. On the same album, his song The Man Comes Around, about the return of Jesus, is the song he wanted to be remembered for the most. 

One of my favorite stories about Cash comes from his friend Bono, lead singer of U2. Bono tells about a time they were all having dinner together and Johnny said the prayer. Bono describes it like this: “We were all holding hands around the table and Johnny said the most beautiful, most poetic grace you’ve ever heard. Then he leaned over to me with this devilish look in his eye and said, ‘But I sure miss the drugs.’ It was that contradiction that I admire about his music as well. It was hard and it was caring, it was about sinful behavior and devotion.” (quoted in Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn, 535-536).

Johnny knew he needed Jesus and longed for the forgiveness only he could give. He had a mountain of sin and regret but he knew he was loved, and that through the cross of Jesus, he could be redeemed and made whole. Perhaps it’s that sense of desperation — no facade, no pretending, no spin — simply clinging to Jesus, that I admire most.

A Loving and Biblical Approach to Gender Identity

A Loving and Biblical Approach to Gender Identity

A seminary professor recently said to a couple of our pastors “We used to argue about what the two genders mean, but this upcoming generation is trying to decide if there are two genders or fifty-eight, or even more.” They were discussing Christ Community’s recent paper on exploring a biblical theology of male and female. That paper raises crucial questions many of us now face on a daily basis.

Like the professor, you might also be shocked about how our culture is shifting around gender identity. For many of you, these are not abstract theoretical discussions. Perhaps you experience profound distress as your internal sense of gender doesn’t seem to match your body’s biological sex. Perhaps your son Jon recently told you his name is now Jen and asks that you only use that name from now on, and you haven’t got a clue about what to do. Perhaps these are the experiences of people you deeply love and care for and you don’t know how to both love and stay tethered to biblical truth. Even as we preach about the importance of male and female and how marriage points to the mystery of Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:21-33), these broader questions of gender identity may rush to the front of your mind. 

Whatever your story is, we desire to be a caring family who loves one another and builds our lives on biblical truth. Too often we place those things in opposition to one another. Our church affirms with our Lord Jesus and believers throughout history that “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’” (Mark 10:6; Genesis 1:27). There is a good design to our bodies being sexed, and a beautiful diversity of women and men contributing in genuinely complementary ways in the church, the family, and broader society. 

The goodness of this design does not reside, though, in cultural stereotypes. We also acknowledge that in our broken world, many people feel great discomfort when their internal sense of self doesn’t align with how culture expects people of their sex to behave. This is typically refered to as transgender identity or gender dysphoria. We want to love people with these experiences well, which means treating them with dignity, gentleness, and respect, as well as pointing them toward the goodness of being embodied, sexed creatures, as Scripture teaches.

We have created a list of ways to help us thoughtfully consider this topic, and to grow both in our capacity to love those navigating matters of gender identity, and to understand the biblical view of gender.

We do not necessarily agree with everything written or said, either in the linked resource itself or by the authors and speakers in their other publications. However, we do believe them to be helpful starting points for further conversation. The list is by no means exhaustive, but will help us begin a deeper interaction with the questions we are already wrestling with. 

 

Read 
 
Listen
  • Theology in the Raw Podcast #881 – “From Trans To Detrans: Daisy Chadra”

    It is important to listen to personal stories to keep this from becoming just another “issue” or opinion. In this podcast, Preston Sprinkle interviews Daisy, who formerly identified as transgender, and now reidentifies with her female biological sex. They discuss her story, the nature of gender dysphoria and social dysphoria, some of the gender ideology that she used to believe but no longer does, the role that the internet played in her journey and transition, and what advice she would give to parents of trans-identified kids. There are also many other interviews with people who struggle with gender identity on this podcast feed. 

 

  • Theology in the Raw Podcast #981 – “What Is Intersex?” Julie Zaagman And Dr. Sam Ashton.  

    Intersex people (umbrella term for a variety of medical conditions that cause someone to have physical/biological sex traits that differ from typical male or female characteristics in chromosomes, internal sex organs, and/or external genitalia) are often used in the gender identity discussions as justification for identifying as a different gender than one’s biological sex. In this podcast, Preston Sprinkle interviews Julie, who has an intersex condition, and Sam who completed a Ph.D. from Wheaton College on the topic of intersex. 

Attend 

However you interact with these resources, keep in mind that your pastors are here for you. If you or someone you love is wrestling alone with their gender identity, please reach out to one of us. Alongside the skilled Christian counselors in our network, we would be honored to walk this journey with you.

As we wrestle with these hard questions in our broken world, let’s not lose sight of praising God for how he created humans, men and women both, in his image to reflect his gracious rule in this world.

Psalm 8 (New Living Translation)

1 O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!

    Your glory is higher than the heavens.

2 You have taught children and infants

    to tell of your strength,

silencing your enemies

    and all who oppose you.

 

3 When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—

    the moon and the stars you set in place—

4 what are mere mortals that you should think about them,

    human beings that you should care for them?

5 Yet you made them only a little lower than God

    and crowned them with glory and honor.

6 You gave them charge of everything you made,

    putting all things under their authority—

7 the flocks and the herds

    and all the wild animals,

8 the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea,

    and everything that swims the ocean currents.

 

9 O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!