Category Archives: Reflections on Life

Who am I? Integration and Identity in an Age of a Social Media

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People have always been good at putting on masks and personas to project a certain image to others. There is nothing new about being “two-faced,” as we called it in my generation.

Nevertheless, one disturbing aspect of social media is its ability to create personas that are inherently removed from both those who create and those who observe them.  We no longer need to be two-faced when we can be multi-faced, presenting a seemingly endless number of facades to the world around us.

If I’m young and don’t want my parents to see the “real” profile I have on Instagram or Facebook, for example, it’s easy to create alternative accounts and post a few wholesome pictures every now and then, giving them the impression that I’m actually living a somewhat normal and ostensibly moral life.

One of the great challenges of committed Christian discipleship is living a consistent, reliable, and integrated life.  We should be the same in private as we are in public, and the “face” we show strangers and neighbors should be the same “face” we show ourselves, our family, and our friends. There should be no “skeletons in the closet,” no secrets to remember not to tell, and no multiple and disingenuous personalities portrayed on various social media platforms either.

I fear that if it goes on too long, some will no longer be able to appreciate or understand the importance of being an integrated and consistent person—someone who is the same in public and in private.  Having a set of personalities to create and maintain will begin to seem somehow normal and healthy rather than socially disingenuous, distracting, and debilitating.

In addition, some could lose a true sense of self.  If we are too apt to present and promote various personas to the world, we may end up becoming increasingly ignorant of who we really are.  Aristotle was clear about the need to “know thyself.”  Failure to do so means a failure to flourish in the world as God intended and made us to be and become.

Because of sin, we are already prone to living dissipated and dis-integrated lives, cut off from the One who makes us unified and whole again.  Social media merely makes the opportunities to create and promote alternative versions of ourselves easier and more ubiquitous.

Lord Jesus, save us from ourselves that we might better know and be ourselves through our ever-increasing knowledge of the One who made and truly loves us.

Who am I trying to please?

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I want to be popular. Most people do.  Only masochists want to be reviled, ridiculed, and rejected.  I put on a good show and try to appear like I don’t care what others think about me, but deep down inside, I desperately want to be liked and respected.

Before my time, people tried to be “hip” and “groovy.”  Growing up, the goal was to be “cool.”  Years later, everyone wanted to be “bad.”  About that time, I lost track of (as well as significant interest in) the ever-evolving latest term for being “relevant,” “popular,” and one of the “in crowd.”

Once upon a time in America, being a Christian did not automatically disqualify you from being acceptable to others.  There were enough people around who thought Christians weren’t so bad, even if they weren’t Christians themselves.  Many of the social norms and expectations revolved around some of the basic moral (but often distorted) teachings of the Bible.  People were not afraid to identify themselves as Christians, even if their understanding of that term was nominal at best.

These days, it’s not so easy to identify as a genuine Christ-follower.  It’s no longer “cool” to defend and promote a traditional view of marriage (for example) or to suggest that sincere faith in Jesus Christ is the exclusive and only means to know and spend eternity with God.

Almost 2,000 years ago, it was not popular to identify oneself as a follower of Jesus either. It was much easier to “go with the flow” and not cause trouble by condemning sexual immorality or refusing to syncretize and compromise one’s religious faith.  In fact, refusing to follow the crowd could even get you imprisoned or killed. It was not an easy time to claim and proclaim the name of Jesus Christ.

In this respect, contemporary attitudes toward certain aspects of our faith place us in a long and storied history of being ridiculed and rejected for believing in Jesus.  And this should come as no surprise.  The Bible never said it would be easy or fun to follow hard after Christ.  God never assured us that we would be loved and accepted by others for following Him. Instead, 2 Timothy 3:12 provides us with this precious and magnificent promise: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

And 1 Peter 4:1 reminds us that since Christ suffered, as his followers, we should be ready to suffer as well.  Peter goes on to say we should not be surprised when we suffer for our faith, but rather, we should “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. . . .  If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”

Jesus makes a similar promise in Luke 6:22-23 when He states, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!  Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven.”

Paul also reminds us in Galatians 1:10 that our goal in life is not to be accepted and well-liked by everyone around us.  Rather, we are to seek to please God by fearlessly and single-mindedly serving Christ.

Of course, we do not intentionally seek to be odd or offensive for Christ.  But the goal of our lives is not to be cool, but to be clear, clear about the sometimes offensive simplicity of the gospel—that Jesus died to save sinners like you and like me, and that apart from Him, there is no hope of salvation in this life or the next.  If we face suffering for saying so and living our lives in light of it, we can rejoice, just as the disciples did in Acts 5:41, and thank God that He counts us worthy to suffer shame for His name.

The Longing to Be Whole

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The Best Years of My Life?

I was often told by well-meaning adults that the years of my youth would be the best of my life.  But in many ways, these years were anything but wonderful.  Although things at home were Christ-centered, stable, and supportive, life at school was positively miserable.  I remember vowing to remember what it was really like when I was young.  Life was full of formidable hardships and hurts.

Now that I’m older, it is much clearer that every life-stage is filled with tests, trials, and tribulations. They are inherent to the fabric of life within a fallen world.  For many, however, it is all too easy to see the past through rose-colored glasses, only recalling the joys and few, if any, of the sorrows.  In retrospect, the years of youth particularly seem like a time filled with wonder, strength, and beauty.  We long to be young again.

The Price of Wisdom

Part of this longing, I think, is produced by the physical reality of aging.  Herein lies a study in contrast.  On the one hand, with age comes wisdom.  And for this reason, I would not want to return to the foolish naiveté of youth for anything.  But wisdom comes with an unavoidable price—the price of both physical and emotional injury.  And while the emotional toll is immensely important, it is to the physical my thoughts have turned lately.

With time comes decay. Eventually, our bodies wear out and stop working well.  Ever since the fall, physical pain and death are an inevitable part of life.  In some way, shape, or form, we all experience the debilitating effects of sin and our bodies start “giving up the ghost.”  For some, that relinquishing comes sooner and exacts a greater cost.

Properly understood, this can help us contemplate the fleeting and fragile nature of material existence.  My early-onset deafness and chronic back and neck pain (for example) have forced me to face my mortality.

The Longing to Be Whole

In the midst of it all, we often find ourselves longing for the bodies of our youth when we heard and saw with unaided clarity, when we woke up without a morning backache and aching joints, when we had rock-hard stomachs and baby-soft skin.  In short, we long to be strong and young and whole again.

The world also has this God-given longing, but without any real prospects for a permanent reformation. The best they can hope for are more painkillers, a shot of cortisone, a botox injection, a tummy tuck, and a facelift.

The Source of Real Hope

In blessed contrast, believers are given “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . ., an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, reserved [for us] in heaven” (1 Peter 1:3-4).  There, we will see without glasses, hear without microcircuits and air-zinc batteries, and live without pain.  There will be no more death, agony, or aging.  Thank God, we will finally and unceasingly be whole.

Betting on Jesus

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The older I get, the more I see family and friends facing their mortality.  We are not as young and healthy as we once were.  And since I’m unlikely to live beyond 100, well over half my life is already passed.  The many doors of opportunity that stood wide open in my youth are either shut or quickly closing.

And yet, of all possible lives I might have lived, the one I am in is infinitely better and more interesting than I could ever have dreamed of or imagined.  I am also well aware that many people my age cannot say that about their lives.  Instead, they feel regret, disappointment, bitterness, and pain.  Of course, I have done plenty of things to make me feel these ways, but overall, the forgiving and magnificent grace of God, alongside the indescribable life He has given, have been nothing short of fantastic.

Pascal speaks of making a wager.  He notes that in view of the possible eternal benefits, believing in God is wiser than the alternatives.  Many have criticized his wager as being foolish and naïve.  We should, after all, only believe what is true, no matter how bitter or discouraging that reality might prove to be.

However, while marveling at the grand adventure of my life, it strikes me full in the face: even if none of it is true, even if there is no God and at death I simply ceased to exist and fall into “the big sleep,” I would prefer this life to any other I might have lived.  Seeking after and following Jesus has been one incredible and undeserved adventure after another.  It has been so much richer and better than anything I might have conceived of, sought after, or accomplished on my own.  I am overcome by a profound and immense sense of gratitude.

Don’t get me wrong.  There have been many tough times and bitter disappointments along the way.  Life is hard, no matter which path you choose.  But I would not choose a different life, even if promised the world in exchange.  The money, things, fame, pleasure, and comfort that so looked so enticing in my youth now seem increasingly petty, fleeting, and insubstantial.  Life with Jesus really is better than anything or anyone else.

I also want to say that I have thoroughly and repeatedly investigated and examined the overwhelming evidences for the truth of Christianity and am more convinced than ever God is real, and that Jesus really did die for my sins and rise again.  I have experienced rich and undeniable intimacies with Him at numerous times in life, and am utterly confident that because of Christ’s righteousness, I will one day stand in God’s presence holy and blameless, with great joy.  But even if, on some incredible fluke of reality, Christianity turns out to be false, my life lived within it has been indescribably better than any other possible lifestyle or viewpoint.

Pascal was right.  There are eternal benefits for betting on Jesus. But beyond this great hope, living for Him now will produce the grandest and most incredible adventure you could ever imagine.  That’s bet worth making for this life and the next.

The Significance of Sacred Space

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I said goodbye today to the office I occupied for more than twelve years.  Much-needed renovations mean the school is moving elsewhere for now.  Faculty offices will be reconfigured, and the old ones all demolished.

After all the boxes were packed and the desk emptied, I took some time to reflect on all that had happened and been done in this place.  I thought of conversations with students, faculty, and staff, the many books and articles read and digested, the countless class sessions created and prepared for, the mass of papers and assignments read through and graded, the meals eaten, the times of prayer, worship, and contemplation where I heard from, talked, pleaded, wrestled with, and even raged against God.  I cried, laughed, prayed, listened, and sang here—alone and with others.

In the midst of my musings and grief, it suddenly struck me: Through the years his humble little corner had become a holy haven, a sacred space.

Because of dangers and abuses, Evangelicals often avoid designating some spaces more sacred than others.  We don’t want them to become idolatrous places, distracting and distancing us from God’s genuine presence.

In our protective zeal, however, something important gets lost.  We can forget to pause and remember that God was actually in this place, doing things only He could do.  In this sense, certain places can provide meaningful memorials and reminders of His goodness and faithfulness.

One of the most obvious areas where such places can be found is the so-called, “Holy Land,” where Abraham sojourned, David reigned, and Jesus lived, died, and rose again.  When the Israelites entered into this land by miraculously crossing the Jordan River on dry ground, God directed stones from the riverbed to be erected as a memorial to what He had done there.  It was intended to be an important teaching tool for future generations to remember His powerful kindness.   Such commemorative spaces can help us recapture, reenact, and reimagine all that God has done, reminding us to give Him thanks and praise.

But we also must remember that Moses only stood on holy ground because God was there, not because of any holiness inherent to that place.  Spaces do not become or remain sacred in-and-of-themselves.  They become sacred when God sets them apart by His presence and power.  This was especially the case with respect to the Holy of Holies, the temple’s inner sanctum.  It was only holy because God was there.  And as a result, it was not to be entered without holy fear and humble reverence, lest that person be struck down by God’s righteous indignation.

Sadly, this sacred space would itself become an idol.  God’s people began taking Him for granted, repeatedly rejecting and rebelling against Him.  Eventually, when God had finally had enough, He left the Holy of Holies.  He allowed it to be desecrated by foreign invaders and permanently dismantled by the Romans in AD 70.  It was not sacred in-and-of-itself.  It was only sacred because God chose to dwell there in a very special way.

Similarly, there’s nothing inherently extraordinary about the 10’X10’ fourth-story slab suspended by concrete and rebar that constituted my office for over twelve years. Nevertheless, I thank God for visiting and using this blessed little cube in the sky for His greater glory.  Much more than this, I long for and look forward to living in that place Jesus promises to prepare for us, a space that will always be sacred and never taken away since we will dwell there for endless days in His magnificent and marvelous presence.

Is it really worth writing? Thoughts on Great Christian Literature

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There aren’t many truly great writers in the world today, and fewer still are Christians.  In any given generation, very few genuine classics are written, and this kind of literature is more often determined by history and the generations that follow than by those in which it was produced.  Magnificent authors are rare indeed and worth their weight in gold.

In contrast, above average and good writers are much easier to come by and abundant in every generation. But given the fact that the vast majority of Christian writers in our age will never write an authentically enduring work, does that make them unimportant?

I would argue no.  Like all contemporary cultural products, such works represent a wide spectrum of both quality and influence.  Some have great initial influence but are quickly left behind for the latest and greatest production.  Others have little initial impact but grow in influence over time as their significance and importance become increasingly acknowledged.  Still others are immediately recognized for their exceptional nature and outstanding quality.  Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example, was quickly (and rightly) hailed as one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, not merely in Russia, but throughout the world.

There are, of course, cases where magnificent literature is only recognized for what it is much later in time.  It’s influence and quality are only appreciated posthumously.  Pascal’s Penseeswere not found and published until after his death.  The writings of Thomas Aquinas were initially condemned by the Catholic church until, over a period of several generations, their value and brilliance became undeniable.

The vast majority of Christian works, however, find themselves in the category of being neither very noticeable nor influential.  They may have some value and meaning for their authors and the few who read them, but they do not bear the marks of magnificence and significance that truly great writings possess.

And yet, this rushing flood of what we might call “normal” Christian writings has a crucial place in the creation, maintenance, sustenance, and transformation of culture in our time.  Very often it’s the “average” and “mundane” things that we read and think about each day which ultimately mold and shape us most powerfully over time.

Consequently, most Christian writers write, not necessarily to make money, influence the masses, or produce magnificent works of literature that will be read and appreciated for generations to come.  Rather, they write because it is, in many ways, a divine calling and vocation.  God has given them something to say and a way to say it, even if only a precious few will take any notice.

I like the way Anne Frank put it in her now-famous dairy: “[I]t seems to me that neither I—nor for that matter anyone else—will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old school girl.  Still, what does that matter?  I want to write. . . .”

Perhaps the “unbosomings” of most writers—Christian and otherwise—will not be preserved in the museums, publishing houses, or churches of future generations in any concrete way.  They will, however, be read, absorbed, and creatively appropriated by some in their own time.  Perhaps a few will be passed on to those who come after by private collection, recollection, word of mouth, and way of life.  In the end, if God is in the writing, such an outcome is more than enough.  It is for this rather unremarkable Christian writer, anyway.

For Such a Time as This

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Growing up, I often dreamed of living in another time and place.  Some long to live in the future, fascinated by imagined and fantastic things that might someday become possible and common-place.  I, on the other hand, always felt like I was born too late, ill-fitted for life in the present age.  The quixotic past I envisioned living in was safer, slower, less technological and complex.

It’s easy, after all, to romanticize the imagined past and the dreams of the future when you don’t actually live in them.  It’s far harder is to live well within the messy and difficult realities of the present.

Many things make me want to live in the past, but the recent rapid rise of digital information technologies has been especially instrumental in increasing this nostalgic yearning.  The explosions of tech innovation and the accompanying breakneck pace of cultural and academic alterations in teaching have disoriented, dumbfounded, and discouraged me.  The methods and means of education are changing so rapidly, I wonder if I’ll be able to finish my career as a professor if I cannot quickly adapt to these relentless and radical technological transformations.

I frequently catch myself thinking, “Perhaps if I was born about fifteen years earlier, I would not have to worry about all these changes.  I would be approaching retirement and could let younger generations figure it all out.” But if my health and mind hold out, there could many years of teaching opportunities ahead.  God has been reminding me that like it or not, I will have to face these challenges in the here and now.  And when you really think about it, what other time do we have to live within but the actual present?

I suspect that many have wrestled with the longing to escape the difficulties of today by wanting to live in the future or the past.  And while we can certainly learn from the past and look to the future, God still calls us to live well in the present—the exact time and place in which He has chosen us to live and move and have our being.  As such, none of us were born too late or too early.

As Mordecai reminded Esther, we were born for such a time as this, created at just the right time for God’s sovereign plans to be revealed and fulfilled in and through us.  I doubt Esther wanted to risk her life to save her people from extermination, but it was the time and place in which God had positioned her.  That moment gave her the opportunity and responsibility to live well in the present. She accepted it with courage and used it wisely.

If we are willing to embrace with faith and joy the place and time in which God has positioned us, and if we are willing to live—really live—in that actual present, I suspect God will grant us many opportunities—big and small—that we alone are meant to accept and fulfill.  They may or may not be, like Esther, life-risking, nation-saving endeavors, but in the here and now of God’s purposes and plans they still matter immensely nonetheless.  May we therefore attend to and live well within the present prospects God grants us so long as it is still called today.