From the Mental Vine


I’ve got several topics in me that I may never get out in full, so I’m going to post some abbreviated versions today rather than let them rot on the mental vine.

Christian Ghettos

In the wake of the International Christian Retail Show (which, by the name alone, sounds like something Jesus would’ve driven out of the Temple with a whip of His own making), several bloggers have given their impressions of the event.

What amazes me in the aftermath is the ghetto mentality on display in those recaps. The charismatics ooh and aah over the charismatic books and authors, the Reformed over their camp’s books and authors, the Baptists over theirs—and on and on.

When I was at Wheaton College, I tried with all my might to convince some of those young whippersnappers to bust out of their denominational ghettos and see how the rest of Christianity lives. It won’t kill the Episcopalian to attend an Assemblies of God service. The Free Will Baptist won’t spontaneously combust by checking out what the high-church Presbyterians are doing. The Covenant Church fellow might see how his counterpart in the Ukranian Orthodox Church worships and come away renewed.

But no, such a request bordered on heresy. Or crossed it, depending on how much starch one had in one’s undies. And back in the early ’90s when I attended, Wheaton could’ve passed for a starch factory.

To see that same paranoia from adults at the ICRS just drives me nuts. Folks, break out of the ghetto! Pick up a book favored by some other denomination and—before you start with the criticism—see if God speaks at all from within the pages. Because I believe that people who dwell in a ghetto never experience the beauty of all God has laid out for us. You can still love your particular denomination, but bring in something precious from elsewhere and watch how God will breathe life back into your ghetto. It’ll change your life and the lives of those around you, I promise.

Power Pop

Being a musician, I deeply appreciate a well-turned song. I’m an extreme sucker for power pop done well. Think huge hooks, anthemic themes, and suitability for cruising the carefree highway with the top down and the volume cranked up.

I don’t follow any contemporary Christian music groups anymore. Most of my faves are relics from the ’80s and early ’90s. I’ve bought one freshly-released Christian music CD in the last five years.

But I’ve got to say this: Newsboys possess this remarkable ability to totally nail power pop. Repeatedly. In a variety of styles. Like clockwork. That’s a rare skill.

The other day while running errands, I turned on the radio and heard this techno instrumental break that reminded me immediately of New Order (not the kind of music one hears on Christian radio) and I said right there, “Newsboys. Must be a new single.” And it was: “Something Beautiful.”

The synth part on the chorus? Simple to the point of stupidity, but absolutely pure genius. (Reminds me a bit of the lead guitar line in The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.”) I also love the abbreviated-bridge lyric construction in the verses. That’s the kind of chance too few artists take in Christian music today. As a drummer, I’m repeatedly bored to tears by the same beat used in song after song on Christian radio, but to hear a disco drum machine beat—ah, refreshing in a way some may never understand.

I dare you not to get up and dance to “Something Beautiful.” I just love a song filled with life, don’t you? What are your favorites?

And Now For Something Completely Different—And Heartbreakingly Sad

I don’t know why, but I have a total fascination with vanishings. Individuals, planes, boats, villages, and troops that go missing capture my attention. I read about a classic vanishing like the crew of the Mary Celeste and I’m riveted. I’ve always been a “What If?” kind of person, and vanishings afford tons of what ifs. When I see missing person posters, I can’t help myself, I have to read them. These are people’s husbands, wives, daughters and sons. They’re neighbors, friends. And they’re gone. Just gone.

Most end in tragedy. You read enough outcomes and you understand why women out alone cast that furtive, over-the-shoulder glance, eyes wide and frightened. I see too many of those stories anymore. And the number of blogs dedicated to someone gone missing keeps growing.

Mary Byrne Smith, pastor’s wife, kindergarten teacher, and mother of two, vanished from a Beth Moore conference back in March. A few days ago, they found her.

But hers isn’t the story of a shallow grave in a remote forest. No, her story is far more tragic. Though I’m not a sensationalist, I heartily encourage you to read it.

I’m not here to judge Mary Smith. What I’m here to judge is the system we Americans uphold that creates people like her. I see her smiling face in that FoxNews update and I wonder how it all went wrong.

Six weeks ago, I posted some sobering stats concerning ministers and their wives. Our inability to accept them as fellow laborers for Christ creates pressures few of us outside the ministry understand.

I remember last year when I first heard of the Winkler case in Tennessee. Minister’s wife shoots him dead and flees with her daughters. It’s terrible, but I thought what many thought: molestation. Turns out the reason was check kiting and money scams. And not by the minister.

I hate this trend. And I do think it’s a trend. I fully understand that people sin, and pastor’s wives are people, too. But something’s wrong and we in the Church need to wake up and find a way to fix what appears to be an increasingly dire situation in the homes of many families in the ministry.

Please pray for your pastor and his family. They need our covering.

Have a blessed weekend.

When Believers Stumble: Worry


WorryNormally, I post about four times a week. I write on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights, posting just after midnight so that the posts run Monday through Thursday.

I was shy a post last week because I ran up against my own failure. I stopped to write on Worry about a half dozen times, but every time I crashed into writer’s block—not a typical problem for me.

Over this weekend, I confronted my blockage and realized what had monkey-wrenched my gears. The reason I suddenly found myself at a loss for words is that worry is the single biggest sin in my own life.

I didn’t start out being a worrier. I don’t believe that any Christian who struggles with worry does. You can’t get sidetracked unless you’re already on the journey.

No one thought of me as a worrier, quite the opposite; I was the quintessential optimist. Still, I had my share of setbacks as I entered my twenties.

One of my friends took special note of the particularly harsh events that followed me around for a few years. Going for a drive together one night, he confessed to me that the reason he wasn’t a Christian was me. I was shocked. Hadn’t I been a good witness? Where had I gone wrong? He told me that it had nothing to do with how I lived out the Faith. My friend explained that he could not understand how God could treat one of His followers—me—so badly. If that is how God worked, he didn’t want any part of that God. Of course, I tried to sway him, but he didn’t want to hear it.

I shook off the funk of that night, but something had been planted in me that took root. I started noting how I fell into worst case scenarios quite often. Didn’t know why. That’s not the way that I prayed.

So I started worrying. I started thinking about the worst thing that could happen. I worried when I considered decisions. I learned to ignore shock when the worst possible thing actually came to pass. I didn’t become a pessimist as much as a disillusioned optimist.

But I’m a Christian, right?

We all know Abraham as one of the patriarchs of the Faith. Abraham was a worrier, though. Like most worriers, he envisioned the worst possible outcome. Think about this: Abraham worried that as he traveled, foreign kings would think his wife was such a hottie that he’d be killed and his wife wife-napped. So he hatched a plan to pass her off as his sister. Strangely enough, his worst case scenario came to pass. Twice!

Elijah fled into the desert, fearing that Jezebel would hunt him down and have his head. God fed him by ravens, yet Elijah still wallowed in his worry.

The Bible doesn’t have nearly as many verses on worry and anxiety as some other issues believers face. Jesus’ well-known words on worry, lilies, and sparrows is one of the most direct passages. Most of us know Philippians 4:6-7 by heart.

But as someone who struggles with worry, I’ve wondered why so many other Christians are tripped up by this problem.

Christianity is a faith that has strong roots in the past and a vision always looking to the future. Both the past and future play into worry. We can worry that choices we made in the past will somehow culminate in heartbreak later in the future. Worry, by its nature, fears what might be coming around the bend. Worriers prepare with hopes to prevent the future they don’t wish to see. Worriers, therefore, are people who can never live in the present.

Because there is such a strong emphasis in Christianity on eternal reward, Christians who struggle with worry are always fighting to ensure they are laying up treasure in heaven, fretting when that goal isn’t being met. And for Christians who worry, self-examination is never the issue. They are always keenly aware of each and every sin, every lack, every area that needs growth. Sometimes it seems overwhelming

Was what I did enough? Why did that happen? I did as God said to, but I failed. Why? The Bible says this, but the experience was just the opposite. I must have done something wrong since the Scriptures are always right.

Do any of those sound familiar?

At the heart of worry is fear. At the heart of that fear is loss.

You’d expect churches to deal with loss better than any other group, but in America that is often not the case. I think the Church does well with death in most cases, but other kinds of loss are bobbled. I know from personal experience that job loss is not handled well. Downward mobility is also problematic for some churches. I’ve known widows and widowers who received plenty of comfort within weeks of losing a spouse, but a year later their support had vanished. And for every heartwarming story of church support for those who have lost their health, there are others that border on horrifying.

So some Christians who face those issues worry.

For me, all I want is to be in God’s will because I know that being in His will means that I am living life to the fullest this side of heaven. I want with all my heart to go the Scriptures and find the answers for each situation I find myself in day by day.

What makes this harder is when the message of American Christianity intersects with that desire and crushes it.

As most of you know, I’m a stay-at-home dad. I do have a writing business, but my wife works outside of the home. Life is tough in Ohio right now. Our unemployment rate (from what I read a couple days ago in the local paper) is running 7% above the rest of the country. That means that a little more than one out of ten people in this state are unemployed. Many people we know are struggling and all the couples we know who were vehement about not falling into a dual-breadwinner household are finding that reality and theory aren’t intersecting any longer.

From where I sit, parts of the Godblogosphere and many portions of American Christianity have tried, convicted and sentenced to hell folks like us. There are a lot of Christian voices out there, many of them quite wise, but when they come down on your own little noggin, it’s hard to avoid worry for those of us who want to be doing the right thing. I don’t know how many times I’ve just wanted to burn my computer and forget blogging or reading blogs because yet another person I respected told me I was as bad as an unbeliever because I wasn’t the primary breadwinner.

Pick any aspect of Christianity and there’s a person laboring under a millstone of worry because they aren’t stacking up to the “accepted standard.”

I started out this post by saying that worrying is a sin. It’s rooted in fear and lack of trust; there’s no excuse for it.

But to all those Christians who don’t struggle with worry, I ask that instead of making it harder for worriers to triumph over worry, come alongside them. I know that I try very hard not to create burdens for people who come to Cerulean Sanctum. Millstones are plentiful in the American Church, unfortunately, and when we’re not placing them on each other, we’re often failing to help others remove the stone necklaces the world adds.

Some days are better than others for me. I pray that every day I shake off more worry. I know I’m not alone. As much as we talk about trusting God, there are more people like me in American churches than I could count in my lifetime.

We say that faith is like jumping off a cliff, but we don’t have a good answer for folks who wind up like Wile E. Coyote, nothing more than a poof of sand and a crater at the bottom of the canyon. If we did a better job backing up people, perhaps we’d have a lot fewer worriers in the Church.