Why I Am a Christian

The universe cries out for the blood that only Jesus can give.

This post was written two years ago. This week I’m republishing it for Holy Week.

This is embarrassing to admit, but here goes. If I were not a Christian, I’m pretty sure I would be a Unitarian Universalist, or something like one.

I’ve known the answer to the “What religion would you be if not Christianity” question for a long time. It’s not that I’m impressed with UU from an intellectual or even moral point of view. On the contrary, it seems vapid and incoherent in the extreme. No, the reason I’d be a Universalist is Charles Dickens,”What a Wonderful World,” and Coke commercials. I’d be a Universalist because of Star Wars, art museums, and the New York Times. If you were to take most of my favorite things about American culture and wring them like a rag, universalism would pour out—not so much the idea of it, but the mood. My day to day happiness would multiply if I could go about my middle class American life and sincerely believe that everyone who walked into my favorite coffee shop on a Saturday morning was gonna be OK, or that all my favorite pop songs and blockbuster films were different hymns of the same church.

For me, this exercise is hypothetical. For a lot of people, it’s where they actually are. A whopping 72% of Americans believe in heaven; 58% believe in hell. That 14-point gap is one of the most seductive places I can imagine. Who wouldn’t sell all they had to live in a world of just heaven, no hell? Who could measure the psychological relief that many would experience if the red and green lights of Christmas signified only the spirit of giving, carols only the sentimentalism of the past, and church bells merely the brotherhood of all living things? Life would be so very simpler if it were a metaphor rather than a babe in that manger.

My inner desire for a world such as this has been my version of a “crisis of faith.” I’ve never actually seriously contemplated rejecting Christianity for universalism. Then again, the universalist in me doesn’t play by the rules of  serious contemplation. C.S. Lewis made famous the “apologetic from desire,” the argument toward the God of Christianity starting from our need to make sense of our deepest human longings. What I’m describing is an argument from desire, too, an apologetic for rejecting everything that obscures a romantic view of the universe.

In his first letter, Screwtape advises his apprentice to interrupt a human’s journey to Christianity by showing him the minutia of a typical day—”a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past”—and gently suggesting that this is real life. The genius of this demonic strategy is that it’s all happening underneath reason and argument. The point is not whether ignoring the evidences for a personal God and the truth of Scripture is a logical or illogical thing to do. The point is that, given the choice between Christianity and unbelief, there is only choice that will let you look at the universe, whether the Milky Way or Main Street, and accept that that’s all there is to it. That’s what I find romantic about universalism: “This is the world, this is reality, and you don’t have to think or do a thing about it except eat, pray, and love.”

***

I decided several months before my oldest child was born that I was going to watch the whole birth. I wanted to do this partially to support my wife, partially out of curiosity, but also because I’d heard countless testimonies of how seeing the “miracle of life” and then holding the miracle in your arms annihilated any doubt of the existence of God. Not that I doubted God’s existence, really; I just wanted the sensation of doubt being annihilated.

When we checked into the hospital I brought in all sorts of romantic ideas about watching a life come into the world. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I now know that most of these ideas were sterile, almost offenisvely so. I expected to see a beautiful infant glide effortlessly into the room. I expected to hear cries as soft as whispers break my mental rendition of Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open.” I looked forward to the moment of my son’s birth as a moment that I knew would transform me in its greatness, exorcise my demons and balm the proud callouses of my soul. I was going to be a different person just for having seen this, I thought.

What really happened was blood. What really happened was searing pain in a trembling wife. What really happened was gore and viscera, as a grey-purple mass of human anatomy slowly came out covered in its own fecal matter. My son’s cries were almost entirely muted as he struggled to cough his own waste out of his lungs. Instead of a moment of enlightenment and transformation, there was confusion as nurses swept him away from our arms and took him to the NICU to help him not asphyxiate. Instead of the soundtrack-backed beauty penetrating my soul, my wife, in-laws and I cried and prayed that our son would be able to cough the waste out of his body and breathe.

Thus was my sterile, romantic view of this slice of existence shattered. The real world, it turns out, is not one of perfect-pink babies who melt your heart at first glance, but of blood and meconium-soaked infants who (might) need technology just to live. Yes, there are precious newborn pictures to take and sweet “Happy birthday” celebrations to come, but these don’t exist apart from trauma, stitches, the risk of hemorrhaging, heartbeats that can bottom out, and lungs that can flail. My son only lives because his mother endured violence to her body. He could have not lived. There was nothing in the book of Science! that said his lungs had to successfully eject his own body’s poison. Infants die every day. Infants die.

This isn’t just being “realistic.” It’s one thing to not live in a happy-go-lucky fairy tale like so many literary creations. It’s another thing to suffer. It’s yet another thing to know, to feel, that the very universe is “red in tooth and claw.”

As I write these words, my grandmother is only a few days removed from suffering a severe, life-threatening stroke. Whether she will ever regain her speech is unknown. When I opened my Facebook feed this morning, one of the first things I saw was a friend’s heartbreaking image of his little boy hooked up to hospital IVs. Just now I saw someone else on social media talk about his wife’s days in the ICU. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t hear about cancer, disease, or death.

Red in tooth and claw.

***

The sterilized metaphysics of Western spirituality, the liturgies of eat-pray-love, are sieves when it comes to the bloodiness of reality. I could, if I chose, close my eyes and insist on believing in the inherent goodness of man, the brotherhood of all, and the common destiny of all but the worst people. But I could not close my eyes hard enough to un-see the blood of vaginal delivery. The blood does not merely sit there. It calls out, just as the blood of Abel cried “out from the ground.”  It calls out for reckoning. Almost every secular person agrees that children are the closest thing we have to divine love. What does it then mean that the existence of children is brought about not by ephemeral well-wishing but by the tearing of flesh? What does it mean for the millions of modern people who long for heaven and laugh at hell that heaven has hell clutching at its heels?

Christianity is about blood. It is a blood-stained narrative about a blood-stained universe. The Garden teems with spectacular creations of life, and blood courses through the veins of animals and image-bearers alike. When God gives Adam and Eve skins to cover themselves with after they plunge the cosmos headlong into darkness, the unspoken realization is that somewhere, a creature’s blood was shed so that this man and woman could be clothed, protected, and unashamed.

Atonement is not mere ritual, it is a reckoning with the world as it really is. Everyone offers a blood sacrifice for something: a creature’s blood for my food, a stranger’s blood for my survival, my own blood for the life of my child. Try to believe for one minute that this world is not fallen, not broken, not longing for a redemption denied it hence, and you won’t take three steps before you see blood. Blood is the stuff of life, as well as its price.

What the Easter story gives us is Jesus’ blood for our life. Blood is the price of life, and we have forfeited life with our bloodletting sin (sin’s first fatality was that Edenic animal). Jesus sheds his blood for our sin, pays the price of life, and gives the rewards of that payment to us. Some insist that the idea of “sin” is psychologically damaging and repressive. But what other word is there for a perpetually bleeding existence? The world is red and tooth in claw. No philosophical or religious system that fails to reckon with this speaks truthfully. The sanitized inward journeys of Eastern contemplative religions do not explain the blood. Moralistic therapeutic deism doesn’t receive the blood. Atheism and scientism choose to drown in the blood. At the center of Christianity is a man with shredded flesh and pouring veins, a bloody overlay on top of a bloody universe. Look away in disgust if you will, ignore if you can, but every step of your daily, embodied existence reminds you of blood. This is the world as it really is, not as how gurus want it to be. You don’t get a choice whether it’s true. Your very birth shed blood.

The world we find ourselves in has blood at the center of it. You can scrub away at it all your life and it will not come up. Holy Week is about blood calling out to blood. His blood exchanged for mine. The blood of a violent, sinful, dying world transfused for the blood that spoke the stars into existence and washes whiter than snow. A bloody world must receive a bloody Savior.

That’s why I’m a Christian.

Arms nailed down

Are you telling me something?

Eyes turned out

Are you looking for someone?

This is the one thing

The one thing that I know.

Yes, Jesus Loves Me

His love binds us to himself.

Every night when I lay my son down to sleep we sing the same song. He will hear me begin, “Jesus loves me this I know…” and then jump in: “The Bible tells us so!” What began as a way to disciple my four-year old has turned into nightly catechesis for Dad and son. We confess our weakness and rest in the strength of Jesus. We remind ourselves that it is to him that we belong.  As the familiar refrain tenderly reminds us, “Yes, Jesus loves me; yes,Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”

These words resonate with Christians young and old because of their simplicity and depth. The melody is simple enough for a child to remember, but the meaning demands prayer to even comprehend it. The Scriptures declare that Christ’s love for us is immeasurable. With intercession Paul prays that Christians “… may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18-19). In other words, yes, Jesus loves us—and that love is so immeasurable we can’t even comprehend it without his help.

I lead my son in singing the line “little ones to him belong.” Naturally we might think of Jesus’ reception of children and the humble way adults are to come to Jesus in faith (Matt. 18:1-4; 19:14-15). But I can’t help but also think of how belonging to Jesus means we are caught up in a love that is both eternal and perfect. The Father’s love for the Son (John 3:35; John 5:20; 17:24-26) and the Son’s love for the Father (John 14:31) is the basis for our redemption in Christ Jesus. Our belonging to Jesus means that Jesus loves us as the Father loves him (John 15:9). Jesus even prays that the love the Father has for the Son might be in us (John 17:26). Those in Christ are, as D.A. Caron says, “friends of God by virtue of the intra-Trinitarian love of God…”[1] Is there a greater motivation for obedience than this? After the day’s battles with temptation, doubt, and fear, this musical nightly rhythm reminds me that I belong to Jesus, who loves me as the Father has loved him. This is what refreshes the heart to desire to abide in the love of Jesus by keeping his commands (John 15:9).

The confession of our weakness leads to trust in Jesus’ strength. The nightly proclamation that He is strong grants us gospel rest. Was not God’s love made manifest in our weakness? “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Rom 5:8) It is Christ who intercedes for us after all; who can separate us from this intercessor? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? (Romans 8:32)

Our world is ever changing. The most loving parents can’t protect their children from the worry and distress of every day. I may want to be strong for them, but I can hear my own weakness in the melody as I sing. So my frail voice points to the strength of Jesus. His love binds us to himself and the reaches of Hell will never be able to pull us from his grasp; “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

We sing the final verse and he slowly drifts off to sleep. I retreat into the quiet of the night, leaving the business of the day behind. My mind, finally “free,” is now reminded of failures, past and present. The feeling begins to build along with anxiety, doubt, and despair. But there has been grace in this nightly repetition. The melody is stuck in my head. Unlike other children’s songs I don’t rush to block it out, but breathe deeply and sing, “Yes, Jesus loves me; yes Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me; the Bible tells me so.”


[1] D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000) 43.

Chris Pratt Pre-Evangelizes the MTV Awards

Last night, actor Chris Pratt accepted a “generational award” from MTV. He used his acceptance speech to give “Chris Pratt’s 9 Rules.” (erm, that sounds familiar) At the end of the speech, which was part serious and part funny, Pratt pointed his millions of viewers to grace, grace that was “paid for with someone else’s blood.”

8. Learn to pray. It’s easy and it’s so good for your soul.
9. Finally, nobody is perfect. People will tell you you’re prefect just the way you are. You’re not. You’re imperfect. You will always be. But there is a powerful force that designed you that way, and if you’re willing to accept that, you will have grace, and grace is a gift. And like the freedom we enjoy in this country, that grace was paid for with somebody’s else blood. Do not forget it, don’t take it for granted.

Would You Leave Your Church Over Politics?

Question: Would you, Christian, ever be so disappointed in the political views of your pastor or fellow church members, that you found yourself unable to even bear going to church anymore?

To be totally honest, before today, I would have dismissed this theoretical as too ridiculous for serious contemplation. It seems to me self-evident that the kind of people most likely to regularly attend church are not the same kind of people who would just decide to stop going over an election. That feels intuitive to me. I don’t believe I’ve ever met a person who admitted to abandoning their church over red vs blue.

I did however see this Twitter comment today.

Now of course, the problem with writing in response to posts on social media (and the reason I usually don’t do it and tend to look down at the practice) is that Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, et al, exist in uniquely strong cultural vacuums. I’m sure the author of this tweet is telling the truth about hearing from all those people who’ve quit church since Donald Trump was elected. But I’m also sure that the people she has heard from do not represent any kind of serious movement or trend. When something written about a handful of people gets a lot of shares on social media, it’s easy to mistake something that merely reverberated in your particular slice of Twitter for something with actual consequence and meaning outside the internet.

Here’s the thing though: I do worry that the notion of leaving your church over political disagreements is one that can sell easier right now than it could have 20 years ago. In fact, if you’re paying attention to what’s going on inside college campuses, for example, finding out that there are some Christians who can’t bear to attend church because of who the President is shouldn’t stun you. It bears the stamp of the hyper-polarized, relationally recalcitrant age we live in.

Not only that, but it also seems to comport with a trendy spirit toward the institutional church, particular amongst younger religious Americans coming out of a conservative Christian childhood. It’s a spirit I’ve written about before in regards to the “purity culture” debates. The fastest way to get hip young evangelicals to heap praise on your blog is to write about how dangerous and worthy of suspicion the local church is, and to insist, contra the backward-minded (and probably Trump-voting) fogies, that if a church ever betrays your trust or makes you feel unhappy, you should leave–that church at least, and possibly faith itself (if doing so helps you get your groove back).

If you know this kind of culture within evangelicalism, then it’s hard to read about adults who can’t attend church post-election 2016 with much empathy. And that’s not a good thing, because there is something prophetic to be said about the way some church leaders and ministries turned their backs on their own theological identity in order to sell their politics. It’s good that people are grieved over that.

The problem though is that this response to sin and failure within the Body of Christ is simply trafficking in one kind of consumerism in response to another. Yes, many Christians do not have a consistently Christian politic. Yes, there are hypocrites in the church, some of them leaders. Yes, there is much to be ashamed. Yes, yes, yes. But none of this should be a surprise, and none of it is a caveat to the importance of the church. To stand over and above your brothers and sisters in the faith and say, “Your political sins disqualify you from my presence,” is to turn the entire gospel of the church on its head. It’s an intensely therapeutic and self-oriented relationship to the Christian faith.

It’s also giving politics way too much credit. The failure of many of us evangelicals has been to let politics subsume our Christian theology and identity. We’ve been “Christian conservatives” instead of conservative Christians. But that failure won’t be remedied by merely allowing our faith to be subsumed by a more progressive or more contemporary politic. Christians who cannot allow themselves to be in the same church as those who hold opposing political beliefs are, whether consciously or not, looking for a religious faith that is ultimately subservient to their politics.

One of the glorious benefits of Christian church membership is the opportunity it gives us to be shaped and formed, with others, by truths and practices that we did not create and that we cannot co-opt. And this process begins immediately in the local gathering of the church. When you find yourself worshiping and praying and confessing and hearing and singing alongside those who in any other walk of life would be an utter stranger to you, you are experiencing not just more inclusive relationships, you are experiencing spiritual realities that transcend even human relationships. When the bodies that share your pew but not your politics recite the same covenants or the same creeds as you, the idea that we are all the sum total of our own ideas explodes.

But all this is lost in a religious culture that understands church and spiritual disciplines as just more possibilities for self-actualization. The idea that a stodgy institution, filled with hypocrites and culturally illiterate patriarchs, actually deserves a self-crucifying kind of loyalty is not one that you’ll find in the pages of bestsellers. In the age of merciless autonomy, life can and should be blown up and traded-in for whatever works today. Eat, pray, love–what, to whom, and with whom you want! Spiritualized versions of this, even if accompanied with harrowing first person narratives of the horrors of old time religion, are no better in the end.

Evangelicalism could use better politics. But first, it needs members. It doesn’t matter how well we know the social justice implications of the kingdom if what we mean by the “kingdom” is merely the sum total of our individualistic lives. The church is imperfect, not despite me and you, but precisely because of me and you. Keep that in mind the next time you think of politics and feel tempted to skip Sunday.

My Father’s Anger

Growing up, I did not see my father angry often. But it did happen. If my father was angry with me, it was almost certainly for one of two reasons. Either I had disrespected my mother, or else I had been cruel to my younger sister. On those occasions I did witness and endure my Dad’s anger.

But here’s an important distinction. Though I felt Dad’s anger, I always knew what kind of anger it was. It was the anger of, “You, my son, have done something wrong, and I am angry that wrong has been done.” But there’s another kind of fatherly anger that I never felt. It’s the anger that says, “You have done something wrong, and I am angry to have such a son who would do this kind of thing.” The first kind of anger came and left. Even minutes after discipline I knew I was welcomed into the love of my father.

But the second kind of anger sticks with you. It never really dissipates. The emotions will calm, and deed will be forgotten, but there’s just something about feeling the weight of that anger–anger directed, even for just a moment, at the father-son relationship itself–that darkens the heart. I’ve heard from many friends whose fathers were angry in this kind of way. Healing is possible, but the scarring is there.

One reason I believe some Christians struggle with the idea of substitutionary atonement is that they cannot convince their hearts that a God who would sacrifice his own son for their sins can really ever forgive them. They cannot imagine in their soul a Father who pours wrath, wrath over their sin, on his beloved Son, and then actually welcomes them–the one responsible!–with open arms. The idea of God’s wrath at sin is, for them, inextricable from the kind of deep-sealed anger that God must feel at having to put up with sons and daughters who caused the death of his begotten. For them, God’s anger at sin is not the anger at sin and its wages, but anger at them for being what they are. For these Christians, the gospel of Christ’s substitution does not comfort. It reinforces their fear that their heavenly Father resents them, even when he says otherwise.

It does not surprise me that people would think this about God. Fatherly anger is such a precarious thing. Children are good at hearing the heart behind the words. Vocabulary is not a disinfectant for resentment. This is why, I think, the authors of the New Testament go to such great lengths to talk about the love of God for his church. He really does love us. Not begrudgingly, not resentfully. He loves us day and night, and his love does not even sleep.

I thank God often for showing me some of Himself through my father’s anger. There were times I knew Dad was displeased. But there was never a time when I wondered if he was displeased to have me. The difference is the difference between life and death.

Disappointed By Christmas

I’ve heard several people say the days and weeks after Christmas are one of the sadder and more melancholy times of the year for them. True for me as well. My parents have told me that when I was younger they watched as I emotionally primed myself for Christmas Day, only to seem sad and distant after the last present had been opened. Eventually they realized my mood had nothing to do with gifts; rather, I was “crashing,” reentering reality’s orbit after weeks of fantasy. Christmas didn’t let me down; my own hope did.

For many of us, the symbols and sounds of Christmas unleash an intense kind of longing. Sometimes we may not even articulate what this longing is for, but we feel it nonetheless. In American culture, Christmas is often talked about like an all-healing euphoric experience; advertisements and literature often acknowledge that the “holiday season” is a particularly good time to be happy, or childlike, or charitable, or even just alive. By the week after Thanksgiving, when the Christmas carols start to swell in our car radios and colored trees beam into the lengthening fall evenings, many begin to feel this inarticulate hope throbbing, like the memory of something long forgotten.

It’s no wonder then that for many of us, the days after Christmas inspire a dour kind of “Was that all?” True, sometimes our Christmas is difficult, or lonely, or sad. Sometimes its just not what we expected. But for me, I think what has disappointed me is not the holiday itself. It’s my hope for it. The reality didn’t “live up” to my expectations because it was never supposed to; the expectation was the point. And now, it’s gone.

The realization that it’s possible to get exactly what you want and yet feel that hope has betrayed you is one of life’s milestones. We are all born believing that what really stands between us and joy is not getting what we want.  We have to be taught otherwise, and many never are. We have to be taught that peace and satisfaction are not the same thing, and then we even have to be taught that sometimes the two are opposed to each other. None of this comes naturally, because natural human nature does not discern it.

To feel disappointed by Christmas is to plunge headfirst into the truth that we are made for something even greater than hope. For the Christian, the hope of Christmas is not formless and void. It has a shape, a color, and a name. It has blood and sinew. The hope of Christmas is not even the numinous experience we feel when we hear “O Holy Night” or see Gerard van Honthorst’s manger scene. In other words, the hope of Christmas is not hope at all. It’s a Savior, a Savior whose bloody birth stank of manger in a real place at a real time. To hope in some ethereal Christmas ebullience is not the same as to hope in Jesus of Nazareth. This is why the apostle Paul went out of his way to say that if the baby in the manger hasn’t actually been crucified and actually raised from the dead, then Christianity is an idiocy so extreme that we who name it should be pitied more than anyone.

The hope of Christians is that “If.” And that’s what all hope is at its essence: An “if” that means joy to us. Yes, Christmas will disappoint us if we return to the manger hoping to see a baby. He is not there, and so neither are we. On the Monday after December 25, the Christmas child is exactly where he was before: Preparing a place for those whose hope is in the light of the world.