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When death still stings

In the TV series 1883’s final episode, a young Elsa Dutton, having been mortally wounded by an Indian’s arrow, watched a jack rabbit munching on some grass with not a care in the world, and asked: “What is death? What is this thing we all share? Rabbits. Birds. Horses. Trees. Everyone I love. And everyone who loves me. Even stars die. And we know absolutely nothing of it.”

For some reason, those words haunted me.

For much of my life, I have been relatively sheltered from death. Going to funerals sums up the vast majority of my experience.

In the last two years, I have had to look at death directly in the face. Not my own, but in others.

In the fall of 2020, during the COVID craze, I lost my dad. I was recovering from a double-whammy case of COVID and pneumonia which hospitalized me for a week and which included one night in intensive care. read more

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Battling demons and finding God on the ash heap

2017 finally comes to a close, and I am ringing in the new year firmly ensconced upon a pile of ashes.

This is definitely not the place others flock to when welcoming in a new year. Dusty, bleak, a place of exile and uncertainty. You don’t count down the final seconds of 2017 on the ash heap; instead, you wrestle with endless questions about how you got there with a God who seems more interested in the annual ball drop in Times Square. You wait, trying to understand the rationale of another who is infinitely above your pay-grade.

Kind of like Job after the Accuser chopped him off at the ankles. As part of what looks like a mysterious cosmic bet, Job loses his children, his livestock, his wealth, and eventually his health over a short period of time. He retreats to the mound of ashes where he sits quietly with friends, saying nothing for a week. Then the characters engage in a misguided debate about the cause of suffering and its relation to sin before God himself finally enters the discussion with one of the most beautiful and frustrating responses to humanity’s suffering in the entire Bible.

Most of the book of Job takes place on this gray, arid mountain of ash.

Admittedly, the events that brought me to my ash heap were nowhere near as dramatic as Job’s suffering. In most ways, my crisis pales to those others face. Shortly before the holidays my wife and I were informed that, due to cutbacks, our primary means of household income was coming to an end after a ten-year run. At our age, this can be especially disconcerting as Human Resource Departments seem more interested in terms like “fresh” and “new” over others like “skilled” and “experienced.”

So, at the start of 2018 our household sits upon an ash heap of uncertainty, caught in a strange vortex between the present and the not-yet. I am not sure what the next year will look like, or where. I can only be certain it will be different. Perhaps better, maybe worse, but definitely different.

Living in limbo is a life of distraction. It is difficult to concentrate on just about everything. We hold our breath, waiting to see if or how all those promises in the Bible will work out in our lives. Lacking focus or energy, everything seems on hold. The speed of life hits a wall. The world runs in slow motion. Nothing seems important.

Unfortunately, this includes even my writing, or more accurately, trying to maintain my fledging writing career. This has been my first attempt to write something since Thanksgiving. I’ve got all kinds of ideas swirling around in my head as my wife and I work our way through the uncertainty. But the words don’t come. My mind cannot generate more than a sentence or two before being distracted by the next shiny thing. Maybe it is simply because the heart is not there or anxiety crowds out the passion.

However, not only do I sit upon an ash heap of uncertainty but also one of self-condemnation. Questions about my lack of any marketable skills and abilities that haunted me years ago suddenly return with a fiery vengeance. The Accuser whispers in my ear words that reignite feelings of self-loathing that I had wrestled with a long time ago: worthlessness, failure, washout. At times, the Accuser’s words seem terribly convincing. Too convincing. My heart knows these words are untrue, but my head isn’t so sure.

It becomes yet another throw-down between my spirit and my flesh. My spirit reminds me that my value comes from God and his love for me. However, my flesh counters, nobody cares about that on a resume. God thinks I have worth isn’t a very marketable skill. My spirit won’t answer that point. Not because it has no answer, but because it stands solely on its initial premise and doesn’t see any need to repeat itself.

Finally, my ash heap is built on distrust. Not necessarily toward others, but specifically toward God. I want Jesus to come and move in my life, yet I also hopes he doesn’t. I never liked my life’s direction, but that doesn’t mean I would like to change it either. Then the realization hits me that even after decades of direct evidence to trust God, I still don’t really trust him. At times, I am not sure he has my back. Is he really looking out for me? Does he want what is best for me, or does he merely want to teach me yet another lesson I will never understand? Has my life used up its quota for miracles? Am I going to be truly thankful for the ending of my current ordeal?

Silly questions for a “mature” Christ-follower.

Oh how I wish I could be a Super-Christian. Heck, at this point, I would be happy just being Super-Christian’s clueless comic sidekick.

So, I watch the world’s new chapter from the dusty mountain of ashes. It’s a place of boredom and discomfort, of uncertainty and fear. It’s a place to battle my personal demons.

But it also seems to be the usual place for God to enter into my story. Like he did for Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kings 19). Or Jonah in the desert (Jonah 4). Or the shepherds in the chill of a night (Luke 2). Or Peter in the dungeon (Acts 5). Or Job on the ash heap (Job 38).

The ash heap—built upon uncertainty, self-condemnation, and distrust—is where my spirit battles my flesh, but it is also where I am sure God will once again enter into my story.

God’s objective is not to bless my household with wealth or certainty or even courage. He comes to the ash heap to remind me exactly who is in charge of the universe as well as who is really charge of, and thus responsible, for my life.

On the ash heap, God throws out a list of questions that point only to his power and sovereignty as the correct answer (Read those questions for yourself in Job 38-41 and see if you can answer them any differently). God’s objective is not to get me or my wife a good job. It is to get me to once again admit what is truly important.

So, as 2018 begins, I will find myself still ensconced on a pile of ashes.

However, this year also begins with Job’s final confession ringing in my ears and filling my mind and heart:

“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:4-6)

I pray Job’s confession remains on my—as well as your—lips and heart all year long, whether in a new location or career or even while continuing to grieve on the pile of ashes. Whatever new challenges or chapters that come our way, God wants us to know that he is the one in control of the universe and that he is the one who controls our lives.

No what matter what ash heap we find ourselves on, that is the only outcome God wants.


Is it ever okay to celebrate a sinner’s downfall?

Sin is frightening and dangerous. Its seed is within all of us, lurking and waiting for its moment to act. It slithers beneath the surface, never proclaiming its presence until it is too late. In many ways, it knows us better than we know ourselves, and it definitely knows what buttons to push.

Sin’s allure is hypnotic and seductive. It can even be beautiful. Sin appeals to our own hedonism and promises us the world. It assures us that there is nothing wrong with it, that it’s actions are victimless, and that it feels really, really wonderful. And most importantly, it assures us that we will never get caught—provided we are uber-cautious in covering our tracks, we have the power and finances to silence any witnesses or bury any evidence, or we have a good alibi or rationalization to at least minimalize our guilt and shame in the event we get caught.

In fact, sin is so good at convincing us to act on it that we never bother to ask the question, “If there is nothing wrong with my action, then why should I even worry about getting caught in the first place?”

However, there comes a point in every person’s life when sin comes full circle back on us, where its sirenic mask is ripped away exposing all its true ugliness. Sadly, this often happens in view of loved ones and sometimes, even worse, in the watchful eye of the camera.

In an instant, the tantalizing pleasure of your sin explodes with a humiliating flash. And when your life begins crumbling around you, you look with astonishment at your new friend Sin only to discover that it has betrayed you and now stands as your accuser.

With the dominance of social media, it doesn’t take long for one’s sins to go viral under the seething judgment of cyber-finger-pointers.

When word began to surface about the extracurricular activities of Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein, I must admit my initial reaction was one of smugness. I became one of those finger-pointers. I have never really liked Weinstein for any number of reasons, primarily because we share very different political opinions. This in and of itself is not a problem. What bugs me, is his arrogant hyperbole against anyone who disagreed with his political agenda. He was an elitist, judging everyone to the right of him as little more than an ignorant rube who don’t know any better. His movies come across more like propaganda than art. He had an agenda, and he was never hesitant to throw money and vial words to achieve it. And I really grew tired of his—and other Hollywood elites—diatribes against us from behind every glitzy awards podium, reminding us idiots of all the evils of the world caused by, well, us.

Recently, sexual harassment accusations against Weinstein flew across cyberspace, gaining steam and picking up momentum—a snowball evolving into an avalanche. Only God knows how many more women might come forward. The liberal media were slow to cover the charges, but the conservative media were quick to fill in for the lapse.

In a matter of days, the board of his own company fired him and changed its name. Recently, it was announced that Weinstein’s wife left him. Words like “rape” are starting to be thrown around which would surely warrant a criminal investigation. News came out that Weinstein was flying to Europe or Arizona to enter rehab—the Hollywood euphemism for “damage control.”

Then, rumors swirled about police responding to a possible suicide call…

We can only guess what new developments will come out today.

With each new, sad revelation, I began to think more and more about Harvey Weinstein. I picture him standing within the smoldering rubble of what once had been his sparkling empire. I wonder what is going through his mind. Defiance? Panic? Bewilderment? Sadness? He was a very powerful man in Hollywood. He could make or break multi-million-dollar careers. He hobnobbed with presidents and other important people. He has more wealth than any of us could imagine. It was a kingdom he himself had built. And now it is a kingdom he himself had destroyed.

I no longer saw Harvey Weinstein the man standing there. I saw Harvey Weinstein the sinner.

Then, I saw myself standing there in the rubble of my own sin.

My smugness at his downfall started to wither. Suddenly, my perspective changed.

What filled me with glee that some elitist jerk finally got his come-uppance now became sadness of a man broken by his own sin. Not only has his sin destroyed and humiliated many lives, his sin had also destroyed his own.

So why would this make me happy? Why am I so smug? Why do I inwardly cheer at the immensity of his downfall?

What if that was me?

Harvey Weinstein man who needs a savior’s forgiveness, or even my forgiveness for that matter. This is a man who genuinely needs not my pointy fingers or smirking condemnation but my prayer.

Please believe me—I am not trying to minimize the damage that man brought on to others. What Weinstein did was disgusting, atrocious, and evil. If it warrants jail time, so be it. His actions were despicable.

Just like my own sins.

Granted, I can say with certainty that I have never sexually harassed a woman. But Jesus said that if a man lusts after a woman “has already committed adultery with her in his own heart” (Matthew 5:28). Sadly, I can’t say I am not guilty of that.

Rich and powerful Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein is no different than I.

Sin has placed us on the exact same level: sinful humans in need of the cross.

As this mess continue to unravel across the internet, my glee has turned morphed into remorse. In many ways, I am not writing about Weinstein’s sins. I am writing about my own. To watch fellow conservative media dance with glee at Weinstein’s downfall in the same way the liberal media dances over the grave of the fallen minister or politician troubles me. I am a sinner just as capable to committing the same sins. I need to treat Weinstein with the grace of Jesus, the same grace I hope others treat me with when my own sin catches up to me as accuser.

I find it interesting about how Jesus deals with the sinner. Standing over the woman caught in adultery, surrounded by a crowd ready to stone her, he offers her no condemnation, telling her to “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). Jesus reserves his judgments for the accusing crowd eagerly waiting for permission to cast their stones at the sinner’s head and says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7).

Never should we celebrate someone else’s sinful downfall.

No matter how much we think they deserve it.

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The outsiders: Faith and exile in America

5130991619_5f2a3bd38d_zLately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to live as an outsider, marginalized by society.

Being an outsider is the focus of a chapter I am currently working on for my next book: when I am not researching, I am writing and reflecting on the topic.

I have always struggled with a feeling of “outsiderness,” but the feeling has been getting stronger recently. I really don’t “belong” anywhere. Academically, I wear the scarlet letter of a failed PhD. Philosophically, I am a small-town Montana boy whose beliefs and values go against those of my city (Portland, Oregon). Temperamentally, I am an introvert in a society which prizes extraversion. And politically, I find the most popular candidates for president to be either childish and vulgar, or lacking in credibility, or both. So even in my own country’s political process, with “outsider” candidates capturing huge numbers of votes, I feel like an even bigger outsider than they are because I don’t understand what their supporters see in them. I don’t get it; I just don’t fit in. I keep thinking, Why am I so out of step with everyone else? What am I missing?

For most of my life I have been “on the outside,” but like most people I have never wanted to be – and I have wasted much time and energy fighting to get “in.”

I wasn’t always an outsider. In grade school, I was the “it” kid (whatever “it” is); my house was the happening place. I reached out to everyone, and every prepubescent person in our neighborhood congregated at the Hochhalters. At church I won every “bring-a-friend” contest, and each summer they sent a Vacation Bible School bus directly to my front door to carry all of the friends I invited (true, the bus did make a few other stops, but not many).

But after my parents’ divorce, everything changed. I became bitter, shy, and fat. I definitely wasn’t popular anymore. Kids no longer came over because I had “it”. They only came over because I had a BB gun.

I flunked sixth grade and started my journey as the reject, always dreaming about what it would be like to be cool again.

4268300971_baf56e495d_zAnd then I added yet another undesirable “outsider” trait to my already-long list: gradually, over time, I decided that I was serious about being a Christian. This choice has only increased my “outsiderness”. Culturally, I long to be accepted and live in the center; but—especially in Portland, one of the most “unchurched” cities in the U.S.—I am marginalized. The harder I resist being rejected for my faith, the more society insists that Christians like me are outsiders, relegated to the margins.

Yet as much as I dislike my “place” on the outside, at the edges, in the margins, I see that it is here where God is the most comfortable—the most intimate and redemptive. It is here where grace shines the brightest. It is here where Jesus lives.

Jesus is the epitome of an outsider. At his birth he is laid in a manger (Luke 2:4-7), certainly not the hippest choice for a crib. He grows up in Nazareth, a town held in low regard (John 1:45-46). He lives to upset cultural and religious norms (Mt 10:34-39). He dies as a reject (Isaiah 53:3). And he says that, in this world, his followers will experience the same. Instead of status and prestige, he promises us hostility, saying: “You will be hated by everyone because of me” (Matthew 10:22).

Not the strongest recruiting line I’ve ever heard.

Throughout scripture, God is always working in the margins. In Genesis, he chooses as his people a bunch of nondescript nomads who become slaves in Egypt (Exodus 1:8-14) and, to lead them, Moses – a fearful, stuttering individual (Exodus 3:11, 13 and 4:1, 10, 13) with anger issues (Numbers 20:9-12, 27:17). After Moses dies, the people inhabit the Promised Land and eventually grow into the great nation of Israel, led by a succession of three great kings – Saul, David, and Solomon. But their golden age of wealth and expansion as a superpower lasts only a couple of generations; then Israel fractures into a divided kingdom and ends in another form of rejection and outsiderness: exile.

While the Israelites are living in exile, as outsiders in pagan Babylon, God does not promise immediate rescue but instructs them to embrace their “outsider” status for the long haul:

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:5-7, NIV).

During this time, God never tells his people to seek recognition or acceptance in the center of society. He never tells them to fight for their rights – not even the right to worship him. In fact, he almost seems to prefer the times when they live as nomads, slaves, and exiles. If so, I don’t know his reason, but it could be that those are the times when his people are the most humble, teachable, and dependent on him.

In our time, God’s people are again being pushed to the margins. Many previously “Christian” countries, including the U.S., are now post-Christian; Christians have lost the culture war. More and more, we are in exile. We are outsiders.

This reality, though painful, is not necessarily a bad thing. Like the Jews in exile, maybe we are meant to accept and thrive in our outsiderness – because it is on the outside, in the margins, where the church really thrives.

Political pundit and former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan writes:

Pagans have been trying to kill Christianity for two thousand years, and each day it dies, and each day it rises. Force it underground and you empower it. You draw rebels, real rebels, the kind society doesn’t acknowledge till half a century later, but powerful people nonetheless. The faith will not only endure but flourish, and, as it does in times of adversity, produce real saints.[1] read more

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Three words only the smartest people can say

Current events can be hard on one’s mental health. Reports of terrorism, racism, and other insanities flash across our TV and computer screens faster than we can follow. We’re only a decade and a half into the twenty-first century, yet already so much has changed that we hardly know how to make sense of it.

But it doesn’t matter; we don’t have to think for ourselves because there are others to do that for us. For every headline in traditional and online media, there is an endless parade of experts proclaiming an endless parade of sure-fire solutions.

Some of these people are really smart.

But the more I read, watch, and listen to them, the more I believe this: if their confident solutions were given the free rein they desire, the crises would not be solved but in fact could be made worse.

Cynical? Perhaps.

Still, it got me thinking: why do so many of us listen to them?

I think our hunger for such content goes deeper than simply seeking support for positions we hold dear. I think it’s because, dating all the way back to the Enlightenment (~1600s–1700s), our western society has put more and more trust in human reason and effort until we’ve come to believe we can fix virtually every problem. Over time, this belief has led to increased research and knowledge and, in turn, more and more people claiming with certainty that they have the answers to every ill: Solution A will end this problem; Solution B will end that one.

Yet hardly anyone among them—or among us, their listeners—ever says, “I don’t know.”

Would that be the worst thing anyone could say? Why are we so afraid to say it?

I think it’s because doing so is admitting we have limited knowledge and power—an admission which flies in the face of our “can-do” American humanism. Even our Christian culture claims that we can do all things “through him who gives us strength” (Phil. 4:13), as if that verse were about our own achievement and not about Jesus. We desperately fight appearing ignorant or helpless by offering an opinion on every subject, even if we truly don’t know anything about it.

Our national motto seems to be: Better to say something stupid with certainty than to say nothing at all.

Yet this attitude runs counter to God’s ancient wisdom, which states, “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues” (Proverbs 17:28). This proverb contains a truth so deep and enduring that it’s been reworded many times since; one paraphrase is, “Better to shut your mouth and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.”*

Indeed, it takes great courage and wisdom to say, “I don’t know” and really mean it. For public personalities, doing so surely would be the end of their interview invitations from the media – but such a refreshing change to the rest of us.

The more I thought about this rhetorical device of admitting we don’t know, the more I began see its merits.

It’s disarming. In the marketplace of media attention, a quick, strident “rush to judgment” tends to get more reactions – and ratings – than a slower response which has been thoughtfully considered and verified. This reality encourages media personalities and their guests to react to each situation more quickly and stridently than to the last one, even before any facts are known. Such reactions can spill over into the general populace and stir up conflicts among neighbors, coworkers, close relatives, and members of the body of Christ, often based on speculation rather than truth.

However, saying “I don’t know” tends to defuse tension, nip quibble-matches in the bud, and open up more honest and meaningful discussions about the issue at hand.

It’s authentic. We invest much time and energy in trying to present our best faces to the world. We put on masks (in social media, these masks are called “profiles”) and try to sound intelligent, insightful, and confident. We don’t actually have to be these things; appearance is good enough.

But saying “I don’t know” rips off the mask. It indicates that our own views probably have no more merit than anyone else’s, and invites others to express their views in return. It takes the focus off of the self and affirms the old saying that the more we learn, the more we see how much we still don’t know.

It’s vulnerable. Human reason and scientific inquiry are just as fallible as anything else: although they can and do greatly increase knowledge, they still can’t unlock every last secret of the universe. Try as we might, as long as we are on this earth we will never fully understand the mind of God (Isaiah 55:7-8), nor will we ever solve all of the heart-breaking problems in the world. The root source of these problems is sin, and the only solution is the one who has conquered sin.

So saying “I don’t know” is a reminder of our smallness, our need for God—individually, culturally, and globally. It takes vulnerability to admit that we still can’t fix everything; we still don’t know it all.

So what should Christians do? Should we say “I don’t know” in the sense that we abdicate from the public forum altogether?

Well, not necessarily. Especially if we feel a specific leading to do so, I think it’s good to be informed about, and involved in, what is happening around us—seeking God’s wisdom as diligently as possible, and sharing his grace in any way we can.

But even more, it’s critical to remember that Jesus said: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36, NIV). We are citizens not of earth but of heaven, and eventually any wisdom we espouse will fade in the light of his truth.

Therefore, I suggest admitting, to God and to each other: “I don’t know.” Because we really don’t. We may know how to do some good, but we don’t know how to permanently end racism, terrorism, or poverty. We don’t know how to stop all violence and evil. We don’t know how to heal a broken world.

Only God does.

I’m not saying we should give up on trying to solve problems, nor am I saying every attempt to take action is always wrong.

I’m only saying that before we do anything else, our very first step should be to fall on our knees and pray, “I don’t know” – a step we should repeat frequently, even if (and especially if) we try to take any specific actions to help.

This three-word prayer is by far the wisest, most effective first response to every problem—because it opens us up to God’s wisdom instead of our own.

That’s why it’s three words only the smartest people can say.


* This sentiment is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain. However, according to, the first documented variation of it appeared in 1907, “Mrs. Goose, Her Book” by Maurice Switzer, page 29, Moffat, Yard & Company, New York (“It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it”), while other attributions of similar sayings – including those naming Lincoln or Twain as the original source – lack substantive documentation

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