On Tears and Church Community…

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I’m not much of a crier. So, if you ever catch me with a tear in my eye, something’s up.

It’s not that I’m too “manly” to cry, and it’s definitely not because I’m all that tough. My best guess is that very few bad things have ever happened to me, and I’m too cynical to cry too many tears of joy. Sorry guys, I’m a monster.

That being said, recently, I teared up three times during one church service (“teared up” is what guys say when they don’t want to fully admit that they cried).

It’s funny when it happens. It’s as if God sneaks up on me and says, “Boo!” or would that be the Holy Ghost?… I digress. But in these moments, few and far between though they may be, I find myself convicted by the implications of a Way unlike any other I have ever experienced. I stumble into the rhythms of grace, and I can breathe again. I want to hold on tightly, but it always seems to slip through my fingers. So, the best I can do is tell the story.

It began on this particular Sunday when a family who has become dear to me reenacted a “family story time”-type moment by reading through Jesus’s parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. They then asked their sweet daughter how she would feel if she lost her favorite toy… “sad,” of course. Then they turned to their son to ask how he feels when he gets lost from his parents (as he often does around the church)… “scared”… “worried,” echoed his sister.

Their segment ended with a simple and sweet lesson about the way God feels when he loses one of us, and how we often feel when we’re separated from Him… Just simple enough to make me want to blabber like a little baby. But I don’t do that, so I “teared up.”

It may seem like a fairly innocuous scene to pull on my heartstrings like it did, and maybe it’s just because the older I get, the more I look forward to being a dad. But I think there was something more to it. It called the words of Jesus to ring in my heart and mind.

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”  When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.
(Matt. 19:13-15)

Jesus had a tendency to use those with little value to society to shame the established order of things.

As Dave Clayton once said, “Babies are useless.” And, though it’s a funny thing to say, it’s completely true, they can’t feed, bathe, or clothe themselves, let alone use a toilet. They have very little to offer the world other than being adorable. But Jesus, as he has been known to do, drops some knowledge on us.

The Kingdom of Heaven resides in these little guys. They hold timeless truths. They are not “the future,” they are the present, and they have a word to speak that’s worth listening to.

Those who have ears, listen up. 

After that part of the service came and went and we sang a few songs, it was time for our sermon from Brother, Dean Barham.

Now, call me a cynic… but sometimes I’ll keep an eye on one or two randomly-selected members of our congregation who are more advanced in years during sermons to see if anything visibly offends them.

“You’re a cynic, Jesse.”

Yes, I know. Shut it, I’m trying to write about my feelings.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying anyone is right or wrong here, I’m just saying that I am probably offended by a whole different set of things than my brothers and sisters who have earned their silver crown of wisdom. 

Seeing as how the Spirit had crept up on me once already this particular morning, I should’ve known that the elderly couple I checked-in on once or twice during the service would have a lesson to teach me as well.

Of course, what I witnessed instead of a sour look of dissatisfaction was a man and woman, well into their seventies, emphatically nodding along to the multi-faceted gospel truths found in Jesus’s parable of the sower. They were there to hear the good news of the Kingdom and to grow in their faith, not to nitpick and complain. I had been so quick to underestimate them.

It was at the moment that I realized my preconceived notions about these people were unfair that I heard an infant cooing behind me. I nearly lost it.

There I sat, amidst one of the most stunning expressions of what it means to be the Body of Christ I’ve ever experienced. Young and old, cynics and saints, all sitting together in hopes of being transformed by the Word of God.

This is why I do what I do. Because I want to see my students holding their children in church one day, teaching them about Jesus’s parables, as I nod my silver crown in agreement.

What a beautiful and rare scene in this world of ours for people of all ages and backgrounds gathered ’round to share life together.

Lastly, there was the college student who presided over the Lord’s Supper. It was her passion that delivered the third shake from the Spirit that morning.

She started slowly, nervous perhaps, slightly awkward at times… but as she spoke, she found her rhythm, and the treasure in her soul spilled onto the floor and piled around us until it filled the room.

To hear a young person (just a freshman in college, I believe) pour their heart out for the story of God, the whole, overarching narrative of Scripture, will never cease to amaze me. Heck, even as someone who majored in Bible at a Christian university, I’m amazed to see college students on fire for God. Not because I haven’t seen them, but because they are so counter to everything the world expects of them.

Those who have eyes, take a look.

God still does amazing, beautiful, counter-cultural things through his Body if only we open ourselves to become more attuned to his rhythms. He will unite across all social divides and barriers, shatter walls of notions and norms to reveal an upside-down Kingdom of Grace and Compassion… if only we’d allow him to work in and through us.

I am abundantly blessed to serve alongside a community of believers who believe wholeheartedly in the concept of family, that we may be unified in our pursuit of the Father.

I’m even thankful for the tears that well-up as reminders of God’s work amongst us.

May I learn to rest in the awareness of his presence ever more deeply.

On the God Card and Speaking Christian…

“I’ve been praying about it every day, and… I’m sorry, but I just feel like God is calling us to break up. I want to be faithful.”

The “God Card.” Perhaps the oldest trick in the Christian break-up book.

I can almost see the sweet, teenage girls in Corinth letting their beaus down easy after Bible study, because they read a letter from Paul that supposed it may be better not to get married at all.

“Cornelius, I really like you, I promise I do… but I think God wants us to take some time apart. You heard Paul’s letter… maybe it’s a sign.”

(To be fair, Cornelius probably married her anyway. It was a different time. But that’s beside the point.)

I’ve only had the God Card pulled on me once or twice, and, of course, it’s almost exclusively pulled by the most well-intentioned people. So, I don’t write because I think Christians are maliciously throwing around God’s name as a get-out-of-relationship-free-card all the time, but because there are worthy questions  raised by its sting:  important, challenging questions about the way we talk about God.

The first question, of course, is the same one I, and countless others, have asked when presented with a God Card.

“So, you’re saying God told you that? Because I pray too, and He never mentioned it to me.”

Ah, the infinite mysteries of God that He can send your faith through a paper shredder while simultaneously letting you know that your newly-single former partner’s faith has achieved Eden-esque intensity.

Talk about a punch to the gut. Talk about a testament to the power of Christian language.

I found myself genuinely struggling with the thought that my God no longer talked to me. Or, perhaps, I had wandered so far from him that I could no longer hear his voice.

When Did I lose my relationship with God? How did her’s become so deep and personal?

I must have been the only thing standing in between her and God.

It was as if a dove landed gently on my ex’s shoulder, and a voice from heaven declared, “This is my daughter, in whom I am well pleased. Also, you don’t get to kiss her anymore, because you don’t pray enough.”

I never would’ve thought that such a simple sentiment could cause so much pain and confusion.

But hey, Jesse, are you saying you don’t believe that God can put it on someone’s heart to end a relationship?

Good question, faithful reader! Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely believe that God calls people into and out of relationships in his timing, whether those relationships are romantic or otherwise. Our Father is immensely concerned with our hearts for one another. One might even go so far as to say the only thing he cares about more is our relationship with Him. So, I think it’s fair to say He is intimately invested in our intimate investments (clever, right?).

But how often are our “I feel God is calling me to…” statements more a reflection of our own desires than testament to divine intervention, and when is it better to leave God out of it?

Let’s face it, the girls who pulled the God Card on me were right about one thing: we didn’t need to be together anymore. They knew it, and they felt it. There’s nothing wrong with that (other than their loss, of course). I’m certain they even spent plenty of time praying about it. But the truth is, it’s likely they were simply no longer interested nor willing to invest in the relationship, and that’s a very natural, human thing to feel. In that case, feelings of unease and disenchantment may have been mistaken for a peace that seemed spiritual.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that God was indeed silently but actively convicting these young women. I am open to the idea that God knew that he had better mates out there for each of us (TBD), and decided we had tried being together long enough. Maybe we had learned all the lessons we were going to learn from each other, and it was time to go our separate ways.

Be that as it may, the point remains the same: putting the burden of responsibility on God means he’s left holding the baggage.

Many of us Christian folk have been brought up in a culture that teaches us to act Christian, look Christian, and speak Christian (especially those of us from the Bible Belt). These things, in-and-of themselves, are not bad, but as we have seen over time, the pressure to act, look, and speak Christian has the tendency to water-down the earnest following of Jesus’ teachings. It becomes status quo to meet the general requirements of what it means to appear Christian, and the Way gets lost in the process. I believe the God Card is a product of this facet of Christian culture.

We want to talk sweet, so we come up with sayings that soften the blow of what we really mean.

“Bless her heart.”

“We are very blessed.” (This has a dual meaning as a common replacement for the secular terms “rich” and/or “lucky.”)

“I hope this isn’t gossip, but I’m just worried about her witness.”

“God just needed him in heaven more than we need him here. He’s in a better place now.”

Usually we just don’t know what to say, so we come up with saccharine sweet Christian-isms to fill the awkward silences. They can be place-fillers. They can be condolences to mourning. They can be backhanded insults. They can be shackles. They can be daggers.

So, what do I mean about “leaving God out of it”? In spite of our best intentions, we can break hearts in our efforts to give God credit for the work in our lives. We inadvertently tell people that their prayer life is fruitless, or that losing a loved one shouldn’t hurt because the dearly departed is ‘better off.’ We do it all in the name of speaking Christian.

I wholeheartedly believe that God is here, and He is working on us. He’s working to redeem all of us and all of creation back to his original design so that we may dwell in perfect, renewed relationship with him. He wants to re-order chaos, and make right what is wrong, broken, and destroyed. He’ll even take heartbreaking chaos and weave beautiful stories out of it. But I’m still not fully convinced that he begins and ends every high school romance, determines the outcome of football games, and finds us spots to park our SUVs.

When we give Him credit for those kinds of things, at the very least, we need to be aware of who is going to be walking away carrying the baggage. I mean… What happens when he doesn’t find you a parking spot?

It may be easiest to load the burden up on God (He’s been setting the gold-standard for carrying others’ burdens since before time, after all), and tell your boss you’re leaving because God called you rather than discuss your underlying dissatisfaction with your current postion. Or it may seem nicer to tell your girlfriend that God is the reason to split rather than the other pretty girl who just made you realize there are other fish in the sea. It’s certainly simpler to say “God just needed another angel up in heaven” than to try to navigate the stormy waters of grief, mourning, and untimely loss. But when we place those burdens on God, we need not be surprised when the brokenhearted find fault in Him.

Perhaps, sometimes things just… happen. Maybe it’s the presence of chaos in creation or our misguided, human free-will… but I think it’s fair to challenge yet another phrase from the Christian language and allow for the possibility that not everything “happens for a reason.” Or if it does, maybe sometimes the “reason” is chaos and disorder. I believe it’s possible that hearts get broken and storms come because things are not all as they should be.

I don’t have all the answers for why things happen, and my theology on this (and in general) are always up for questioning and debate. But one thing I know is this: when someone pulls the God Card, they are usually playing a much bigger hand than they realize.

There is immeasurable power in the words we speak. Especially in the words we speak about God.

In our words we carry the power to create or destroy, the power to bind wounds or break hearts, the power to bring order or cause chaos and confusion…

May we learn to take care in how we use them.

On Advent, The Grinch, and Kenny G…


I’m a recovering Grinch.

I wasn’t born or raised that way, but somewhere in my late teens I started to think that Jesus was getting as tired of Kenny G’s tenor saxophone renditions of “Jingle Bells” as I was. And, surely, I thought, there was something more to Christmas than the shoulder-to-shoulder traffic at the JCPenney.

As I came to know Christ, I began to discover a Savior who by being born, helpless, in a barn declared that he came to serve those sleeping on sidewalks and waiting in lines, not because they were getting a jump on Black Friday deals, but because the world can be a hard place. There was a distinct dissonance for me in that realization. A dissonance between a Christmas from which people feared Christ being removed and what I could see as a Christmas of which Christ would want no part.

It was a funny thing that Jesus was doing to me, but I still didn’t quite know what to do with this new conviction. So, at times, I ended up stealing Christmas from others with my sour attitude.

But as a few more yuletide seasons passed, and a couple more partridges nested in their pear trees, I discovered something beautiful that may have been the Cindy Lou Who to my ever-shrinking heart towards the Christmas season: Advent.

Suddenly, I realized that many saints had come before to draw deep meaning from this season, surprisingly, even before the urging of my newfound angst.

Though we often still get tossed and turned by the messages of the world around us, there is a constant on the horizon. Like a light over Bethlehem that leads us back, there is a whisper of a song that sings, amidst a world of shouts, of a God who has come to dwell with His people. He has come so that He may experience the depth of our struggle firsthand. He has come to be Emmanuel, God with us, to know us, to love us, and to bring us back to life.

As I learn more about the Advent season, I am comforted to know that Emmanuel is much more concerned with bringing Light into darkness than the lighting of “holiday trees,” and, in the midst of our selfish wanting, He is calling us to be about the same business.

So, maybe I still don’t like most Christmas music, and I certainly don’t like when Santa Claus starts campaigning for Hot Wheels in late July… But, praise God for the Church, my Whoville, who just keeps singing anyway, reminding me that Christmas can’t be found in a store. Christmas is found when a body of believers commits to the notion that something better is coming and seeks to live into that future reality by being Emmanuel to a hurting and lonely world… even now, even today.
And that’s enough to make any old Grinch’s heart grow three sizes.

So, let us rejoice, all of us Whos. The King is coming to live among us.

Hallelujah, Emmanuel.

On Christian Music…

When you’re a twenty-something year old Nashvillian with any sort of musical aptitude, the sharing of musical background, experience, and aspiration becomes standard fare in the liturgy of social  interactions and introductions.

“What brought you to Nashville? You trying to do music?” he inquired.

“Yeah… trying,” she replied, sheepishly.

“Cool, what do you play?” he asked, graciously choosing to converse about her hypothetical music career rather than her day job at Starbucks.

“I’m a flautist for a anarchist post-metal hardcore band. Do you play?” she says, nonchalantly.

At this point in the conversation, many of us twenty-something, musically proficient people would wax poetic about our new industrial, reggae, dubstep project or reach into our pocket to retrieve one of a seemingly endless stack of demos with our band name scribbled in Sharpie across the repurposed jewel case of an old Ruben Studdard album we used to love but now pretend to hate.

However, for some of us… for those of us with backgrounds in worship music, this is the part of the conversation where we usually prepare to defend and/or distance ourselves from the music of the Church.

“Yeah… I play guitar and sing… Well… I lead worship,” he said, fully aware of the less than enthusiastic response he was about to……

“Oh… ok,” she said, less than enthusiastically.

If given the opportunity, the conversation that follows can often be quite agreeable and may even segue into constructive discussion about the ways in which many churches have failed to embrace the arts or even the creative gifts of young people. However, it’s unfortunate that it should ever be a surprise that someone passionate about music might also be passionate about the music of the Church.

I don’t mean to hate on Michael W. Smith, but this album cover was just too good to pass up.

But, let’s face it, friends… As far as music goes, a lot of “Christian music” really stinks.

At some point along the way (the 80s, I presume) Christian radio stations set a standard for how Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) would be defined henceforth, and Christians have been stuck with it, for better or worse, ever since. And, though no major shifts have occurred in the Christian radio world, there has been a veritable explosion of quality worship music and independent Christian music over the past several years.

Even tenured bands like David Crowder Band who started out well-within the bounds of CCM, eventually explored levels of creativity not previously associated with genre. Hillsong United has essentially crowd-sourced and redefined modern worship music world-wide. Gungor has pushed limits of Christian songwriting into whole new categories typically reserved for “secular” bands. There are even some Christian artists I am convinced I’d listen to almost as intently even if I wasn’t a Christian because of the style and quality of musicianship (i.e. John Mark McMillan)… And those are just some names that many people already know and closely associate with CCM.

I would love if the music of the Church was defined, not by the style of CCM that makes it onto Way-FM and The Fish… the kind that makes you want to brush your teeth after you hear it because it’s just so sweet and sugary… but rather by wellspring of creativity, authenticity, and diversity that I know exists within the People of God.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to be dismissive about all the music that gets played on Christian radio (and certainly not the musicians, themselves) . Even the music there has its place, and, just because I don’t like it, that doesn’t mean it lacks value, authenticity, or mission. However, I believe there is a relatively untapped wealth of creative, innovative, and heartfelt expression that falls within the realm of “Christian music” many people have not yet had the privilege of hearing.

John Mark McMillan

It is for this reason that I have spent a little time compiling some of my favorite songs of faith, hope, longing, and doubt.

It is my hope that these songs will inspire you as they have inspired me.

I also hope, for those of you who are already familiar with many of these artists, that you are able to find something new. Several of the songs on the list came by way of suggestions or new discoveries in searching for songs that might fit well, so many are new to me as well.

It’s definitely a work-in-progress and far from comprehensive, but it is a start.

So here it is… Songs of Faith, Hope, Longing, and Doubt (Because “Christian Music Doesn’t Have to Stink):

I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you’ll let me know which songs you’d add to the list.

Peace. Grace. Rhythm.

“God and Country” by Michael Gungor

This is a post from popular Christian songwriter, Michael Gungor that was sparked by this story from RELEVANT Magazine. I had strong feelings about the story as well, and I really appreciate Gungor’s words on the matter. Here they are, in full, as he posted them on his blog.

According to a tweet I saw today from Relevant Magazine, Billy Graham’s website recently removed “Mormonism” from its list of cults.

All silliness involved with cult-listing aside, when we start changing our theology because of our political alliances, something has gone awry.

But I guess this should not be that surprising in a culture that idolizes nationalism like we do.

Do you know how many churches in the United States have American flags on their church stages?

Do you realize how ridiculous that is?

Other countries don’t do this. Can you imagine Jesus breaking the bread at the last supper, and then stopping to raise a Roman flag in the middle of the table before pouring out the wine? Don’t you think that would be inappropriate? Yet, thousands of our churches do this every week. To make matters even worse, they often put up a Christian flag as well.

God.

Country.

It’s all over the place.

I was just in Fox News the other day, and throughout the waiting room, there were books like “Serving God and Country”, “Our Sarah (Palin)”, or “Spiritual Influence” (I’m sure things aren’t entirely subtle on the other side of the news reporting spectrum either)

Don’t get me wrong. I love America. On a number of levels, I think it’s the best country that’s ever been. But America is a human Empire. It is not the Kingdom of God. It is no more or less important or loved by God than any other nation or empire through history.

God and country do not belong on the same plane.

So why does this happen?

I think much of the idolatry of nationalism comes down to good ol’ fashioned, demonizing “us and them” crap.

“We” are the good guys. “They” are the bad guys.

It’s fear. It’s the essence and source of evil.

Here’s part of a conversation I watched happen two nights ago:

“Romney wants to make abortion illegal!”

“Well, good!”

“What?! How can he tell a woman what she can do with her body?”

“How can any of us decide whether we have the right to kill a human being? There are studies…”

I have my own opinions about all of those issues, but I just kept quiet and watched both sides sincerely knowing that his side was right.  As a result, they were not really listening to the other person, but just spouting off the clichéd answers of their particular parties.

(Pro-life) is horrified at this monstrous (pro-choice) because (pro-choice) assumes (pro-life) wants to take rights away from women. At the same time, (pro-life) is horrified at (pro-choice), thinking that she wants to kill babies.

In these situations, we stop conversing with human beings and start dealing with principles. Principles aren’t supposed to bend and flex. You’re not supposed to stay “kind of” faithful to your spouse. You’re not supposed to “pretty much” pay your taxes. So, when we get into these divisive discussions, we end up arguing against people and for principles, demonizing the other into a “them” that stand in the way of our principles.

(Anti-gay marriage) is horrified at this monstrous (pro-gay marriage) because (anti-gay marriage) thinks that (pro-gay marriage) is trying to desecrate the sacrament of marriage while (pro-gay marriage) is horrified at the monstrous (anti-gay marriage) who is trying to discriminate against gay people.

As a result, we’re rarely even talking about the same thing. The pro-choice person is talking about the woman’s body, but the pro-life person is talking about the baby’s body. And neither side really wants to talk about the exact thing that the other does.

The pro-gay marriage person is talking about the right of an individual to be who he or she is without discrimination and the anti-gay marriage person is talking about the concept and sacrament of marriage.

They aren’t talking about the same thing, but they both have red faces, yelling at each other. If you really listen to both parties, it can look pretty ridiculous. Like one person yelling that the sky is blue, and another saying “No! You’re wrong! The grass is green!”

Perhaps, in an insanely polarized culture like the one we are living in right now, it is high time to shut up and actually listen to each other. Treat human beings like human beings. Try sharing a conversation over a meal rather than just another red-faced debate in some blog’s comments.

The reality is that most people want good in the world. Evangelicals used to demonize Mormons. They put them on cult lists. But now that their interests are aligned politically with Romney, they’ve found it politically convenient to discover the humanity of a Mormon beyond his label.

Maybe the world would be better if we didn’t wait for the demons to bow down to our same idols before we look at them in the face to see if they are actually demons or not.

On Mansions, Fences, and Pearly Gates…

I had a beautiful dream last night…

It seemed an ambiguous Protagonist (Jesus, perhaps) was performing the great experiment of having mere humans enter the realm of heaven. However, there was a twist to each lucky contestant’s visit. They were walking into a blank canvas… a canvas that would be painted with their own preconceived notions.

With each visitor, heaven was shaped in the image of its inhabitants imaginations.

The first visitor brought with him the notion that heaven for him should be an expansive and luxurious mansion, surrounded by open fields of grass… and so it was.

The next visitor quickly noticed that there was no gate to this heaven, and so a pearly gate was soon erected.

Finally, there was a third visitor who found it strange that there was no fence dividing what was heaven from the hordes outside its gates. Surely people could not just come and go as they please in this heaven… And so, as if breathed into existence, the mansion was surrounded by thousands of people… just outside a tall wrought iron fence.

It was at this point that my waking-and-sleeping, unconscious, snooze-button-pressing mind began find truth in this unfolding story.

I questioned, “Is the real heaven inside the fence, or outside?” “Are all these fences, gates, and mansions evidence of the Kingdom, or only serving as evidence of our separation from it?”
“Why is heaven so sequestered, when all these people outside want in?”

The Protagonist was there to answer my subconscious questions even before I was able to finish asking them.

It became clear to me that the contestants were too distracted by their visions and preconceived notions of heaven to realize that if they just tore down their fences, gates, and mansions, they could be in the midst of it… heaven could be all around them.

If they shattered their own perceptions of what the heavenly Kingdom was, they could swim it in, they could breathe it in, brush elbows with it, and bear hug it…

May we all be so bold, to shatter our feeble visions of the Kingdom of Heaven… Even here. Even now.

Eleven Years

Eleven years ago, today, the world changed before our eyes.

No longer would we hug our loved-ones goodbye at the gate to their flight. Never again would we so easily assume our nation to be invincible.

Another beautiful Tuesday, eleven Septembers ago, I still remember clearly the confusion of the day. The rumors of unbelievable things that swept through the halls of my middle school as the principal refused to allow teachers to turn on the televisions. We weren’t to learn the extent of the tragedies unfolding until we were safely at home, in the care of our parents. Perhaps it was a wise decision on Mrs. Poe’s part, but, in truth, it only added to the uncertainty and fear swirling around us.

One of the images that shook me to the core. This will always be burned into my memory of 9/11.

It was on that day eleven years ago that I began to ask some of the larger questions that we fragile beings can ask… questions of faith, questions of doubt, and questions for some sort of certainty in the midst of near-deafening confusion.

The slack jaws and hollow stares on television screens. The flags in the streets. The accusations on the radio. The tears in the eyes of the broken. The endless replays, replays, replays… infinite loops of death and destruction…

It was too much for one thirteen year-old boy with no foundation.

I was swept away.

 

It was in this time that I sought something beyond myself for comfort, for stability, for peace.

Though I had grown up with some assumption of higher power, I had never truly looked for God anywhere, or even spent much time talking to him more than to ask him for a few things and then hang up (Come to think of it, sometimes it doesn’t seem like much has changed).

This was, in earnest, the beginning of my walk with God.

Born of confusion, fear, and uncertainty though it may have been. Tragedy gave birth to seeking, and seeking gave birth to faith.

Over the next few years, the Lord led me into relationships with people who would introduce me to a world of faith and ancient literature with which I had been almost entirely unacquainted previously. I was ferociously discovering the story of God, and, for the first time in my life, it seemed like it mattered.

It’s hard to believe it has now been over a decade since my faith journey truly began.

In that time, I have learned to hate, I have learned to judge, I have defended the gospel of legalism and the gospel of conservatism, I have learned how to talk-over and out-wit those who disagreed with me. This was my apologetic. This was my attempt to defend God… because I still thought he needed my help.

Then I learned how to be a perfect Christian. Cursing, drinking, smoking, kissing too much, and attending church too little had become the cardinal sins. I did my best to make sure no one appeared squeakier and cleaner than “Super-Christian Jesse Baker,” so that they may see and come to know the Light and find hope in Jesus. It didn’t matter that I struggled very seriously with a foul sense of humor, self-doubt, and a level of sarcasm that practically eliminated any chance of deep and meaningful relationships with my peers. I thought I had packaged my God for the selling, and anybody who wasn’t buying was likely hell-bound anyhow.

“Super-Christian Jesse” got his picture taken with the Jesus Painter

Later, I attended a university that wouldn’t settle for my packaged-and-sold version of Jesus, and my mentors, peers, and reading list simply would not allow me to remain the same version of myself I had strutted onto campus in the fall of ’06 (We should all thank God for that season of humbling in my life).

So much has happened since then, but this time of year always causes me to reflect on the infancy and budding adolescence of my faith since September 11, 2001.

My journey over the last eleven years has hardly been extensive. I am not an old man… in fact, I’m only barely a man yet at all (my beard being the only true signifier of actual manhood). I recognize that the decade-long reflections of a twenty-four year old may go as quickly as they come as life rattles my bones. However, it is astounding to me today to reflect back eleven years to an afternoon just like this one…

Barely a cloud in the sky, I was walking the fairways of Bluegrass Country Club during my brother’s golf match against Riverdale, asking my mother questions about what it all meant, wondering what was going to happen next… all with a heavy pit in my stomach, and an awareness, even in my youth, of the magnitude of what had happened… It was as big a turning-point in my life as I can remember.

I praise God that he found me in the midst of such confusion and doubt. I praise him that he found me when I didn’t even know to seek. I’m amazed at him that he would place me amongst such incredible people at such a delicate time in the formation of my spirituality.

I praise God that he continues to lift life out of those ashes and flames.

Each day, I know that he is redeeming the irredeemable, and reviving the lifeless. I am a testament to his unfailing wisdom and grace, and, for that, I am thankful today.

‘So, may the Lord make us instruments of his peace. Where there is hatred and violence, let us learn to sow peace and love; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

And let us not seek so much to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in our forgiving that we find forgiveness, and it is only through death that we may be born again.’

Amen.*

*Paraphrase of the Prayer of St. Francis