Philip Yancey's Blog
April 14, 2017
Have you ever wondered what Jesus was doing between the first Easter Sunday and his ascension six weeks later? The New Testament records ten appearances, half of them... read on
March 25, 2017
Janet and I spent last week in Hawaii. After attending a conference in Honolulu, we opted to spend our free time not at a beach resort but rather on the small, sparsely developed island of Molokai. There, we hiked the Kalaupapa trail, a vertiginous descent that negotiates 26 switchbacks in three miles, the only land route to Hawaii’s historic leprosy colony.
Before statehood, the kingdom of Hawaii tore leprosy patients from their homes and shipped them to Kalaupapa, a peninsula isolated from the rest of Molokai by 3000-foot cliffs. From lookout points along the trail we caught glimpses of the peninsula, a lovely strip of land surrounded by a turquoise sea that caresses the coast with foamy white waves. The setting resembled an artist’s version of paradise, the kind of place that might attract a Hyatt or Ritz Carlton resort.
Instead, for more than a century Kalaupapa served as the dumping ground for some 10,000 leprosy patients, who called it “The Place of the Living Dead.” Such was the fear of contagion that the administration erected fences to prohibit patients’ contact with workers. One doctor examined his patients by lifting their bandages with the tip of his cane. Family members who visited an infected relative had to sit behind a barrier, as if visiting a prisoner. And if patients produced children, authorities seized them and sent them off the island.
At first the diseased lived in anarchic squalor. Disfigured, outcast, they lived by their own rules in a kind of community of the damned. It took the dedication of a Belgian priest, Father Damien, to bring order. Damien began honoring the dead with proper burials, found a safe water supply, and oversaw many construction projects: roads, a reservoir, 300 houses, several churches, an orphanage, hospital and school. He had little medical treatment to offer, but believed strongly that human beings should never be cast aside, regardless of their affliction. An advocate and activist, he got on the nerves of the government as well as his superiors. Who but the church, he asked, would care for the sick, the unwanted, the unloved?
Damien’s close contact with the sick eventually cost him his life. One morning in church he approached the pulpit and, instead of his normal “My Dear Brethren,” opened with the words, “We lepers…” He had contracted the disease, and died before he turned fifty, in 1889. Years later, Damien’s body was returned to his home country to lie in state before reburial. Among those who greeted the quayside procession, the King of the Belgians stood bareheaded as a mark of respect for “The Martyr of Molokai.”
Since Damien’s time, nearly everything has changed in our understanding of the disease leprosy:
It is one of the least contagious diseases; 95 percent of people have a natural immunity.
As modern versions reflect, the biblical word leprosy likely refers to a different ailment, an infectious disease of the skin.
Drugs now control the disease, and global rates of new infections have plummeted, to around 200,000 per year—although many of the 16 million patients judged “arrested cases” still need treatment and rehabilitation for previous damage.
Leprosy attacks nerve cells that carry pain signals, and almost all the feared aspects (blindness, loss of fingers and toes, etc.) can be prevented if patients safeguard any activities that might cause injury.
Due to my work with Dr. Paul Brand, with whom I coauthored three books, I have visited leprosy hospitals on several continents and heard firsthand many poignant stories from patients. Strangely enough, those who feel no pain have historically borne some of the greatest suffering, due to societal prejudice. As a patient in India told me, “I lost my job. I was kicked out of my village and rejected by my own family. I could not ride a bus, or enter a café. I was truly outcast.”
Christian history includes episodes that rightly cause shame and embarrassment, but the treatment of leprosy makes a proud balancing chapter. Most of the advances in the treatment of leprosy came from missionary doctors and nurses, the only ones willing to work with the dreaded disease. The tradition of compassion traces all the way back to Jesus, who ignored societal rules against touching those believed to have leprosy.
St. Francis of Assisi famously embraced a beggar with leprosy. In the Middle Ages, as leprosy ravaged Europe, an odd rumor spread that Jesus himself must have suffered from the disease, due to the prophetic description in Isaiah 52-53 of a Servant “disfigured beyond that of any man.” Improbably, leprosy gained a reputation as the Holy Disease, and Christians in Europe sought out sufferers as representatives of Jesus, who had promised that, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” [Matthew 25]. The devout, defying society’s stigma as well as their own fears, looked past the unsightly symptoms of leprosy and began treating its victims as they would treat Jesus.
Orders of nuns devoted to Lazarus (the beggar in Jesus’ parable of Luke 16, who became the patron saint of leprosy) established homes for patients—twenty thousand such homes across Europe. These indomitable women could do little but bind wounds and change dressings, but the homes themselves, called lazarettos, helped break the hold of the disease in Europe, by limiting transmission and improving living conditions.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Christian missionaries, including Father Damien, spread across the globe to establish hospitals and clinics for leprosy patients. The American Leprosy Mission formed, one of very few ministries dedicated to combating a single disease.
e spent seven hours at Kalaupapa before beginning the long trek back up the cliff. Now a National Park, the site duly honors the memory of Father Damien. His church has been lovingly restored, along with a few patients’ homes. Volunteers are helping to repair some of the 7,000 graves scattered among several cemeteries. The lava-rock ruins of scores of former buildings, now unneeded, are the ultimate tribute to those who served leprosy patients before a cure was found.
Only eight elderly patients remain at Kalaupapa, and they do so by choice. I spoke with one 92-year-old resident who has a home on Kauai yet keeps returning to the former colony, “because they’re my community.” Museum displays recount the stories of patients who lived through the era of fear and prejudice. As I read them, I could not imagine a more incongruous setting for the agony they described: coconut palm trees, wild orchids, the rhythmic sound of crashing waves, verdant craters straight out of Jurassic Park. Nevertheless, this paradise lies in the shadow of a wall of separation from the rest of humanity—a literal wall in the form of towering, tree-covered cliffs. A century ago, leprosy patients at Kalaupapa had every possible advantage save one: the love that only comes through human contact.
I had much time to reflect on Father Damien, Dr. Paul Brand, and others like them as I climbed the trail back to what locals call “topside.” I breathed a prayer of thanks for those who faithfully serve God, usually out of the limelight, often putting themselves in harm’s way. Diseases come and go, but the tradition of sacrificial service endures: the first foreigners to contract the Ebola virus were missionary health workers.
Mother Teresa once called the beggars she ministered to, “Jesus in most distressing disguise.” What if every follower of Jesus took seriously his assurance that we serve him by serving “the least of these”? Besides the sick, Jesus’ list in Matthew 25 includes the hungry and thirsty, strangers, the destitute, and prisoners. What would happen if we broke through the walls of isolation around the needy? Would those conditions fade away too, like leprosy?
February 4, 2017
For almost thirty years, one book has obsessed the movie director Martin Scorsese: Silence, the celebrated novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo. Now, in a lavish $40 million production, Scorsese’s cherished project has come to fruition.
I wrote about Endo’s novel in my book Soul Survivor, and I admit to misgivings about how Endo’s classic work might be treated by the director of such films as Taxi Driver, Gangs of New York, Goodfellas, The Last Temptation of Christ, and The Wolf of Wall Street. To my surprise, Scorsese played it straight, in an Oscar-worthy treatment that closely follows the plot of the novel. That approach may not help him at the box office, for the average moviegoer may have limited tolerance for a long historical drama about Jesuit priests in Japan. At the same time, Christians may balk at the honest portrayal of doubt, apostasy, and betrayal.
It would be sad, however, if Silence slips too quickly into the Neverland of Netflix and late-night cable. Christianity Today called it “one of the best films about Christianity ever made.” As Andy Crouch and Makoto Fujimura have argued in their respective books, Culture Making and Culture Care, Christians shouldn’t complain about popular culture unless they’re willing to create and to support good alternatives. Silence presents such an alternative, one that every cinema-loving Christian should see.
Though it depicts events from four centuries ago, Silence seems startlingly relevant for our time. Government officials crack down on followers of a foreign religion. A nation turns inward by sealing its borders and embargoing trade. Zealots behead, crucify, and torture Christians unless they recant. That is the setting for Silence.
At one point in history Japan seemed the most fruitful mission field in Asia. Francis Xavier, one of the seven original Jesuits, established a church there in 1549, and within a generation the number of Christians had swelled to 300,000. As that century came to an end, though, the ruling shoguns’ suspicion of foreigners, exacerbated by the rivalry among missionary groups, led to a change in policy. The warlords expelled the Jesuits and required that all Christians renounce their faith and register as Buddhists. The age of Japanese Christian martyrs had begun.
In an honor culture that exalts conformity, the fumie plaque—a bronze portrait of Jesus enclosed in a small wooden frame—became the ultimate test of faith. Japanese who made a public display of stepping on the fumie were pronounced apostate Christians and set free. Those who refused, the warlords hunted down and killed, in the most successful extermination attempt in church history. In scenes graphic though not gratuitous, Scorsese’s movie depicts the various torture techniques. Some believers were tied to stakes in the sea to await the high tides that would gradually drown them, while others were bound and tossed off rafts; some were scalded in boiling hot springs, and still others were hung upside down, their ears slit to ensure a slow death from bleeding.
“The blood of Christians is the seed of the church,” said Tertullian. Not so in Japan, where the blood of the martyrs was nearly the annihilation of the church. As the title intimates, the theme of silence pervades the novel. Over one hundred times Rodrigues, the central character (played by Andrew Garfield in the movie), sees the haunting face of Jesus, a face he loves and serves. Yet the face does not speak. It remains silent when the priest is chained to a tree to watch the Christians die, silent when he asks for guidance on whether to step on the fumie to set them free, and silent when he prays alone in his cell at night.
Endo later complained that the publisher’s choice of title, Silence, was misleading. In fact, God does speak in the novel. Here is the decisive scene when silence is broken, at the very moment when the foreign priest contemplates whether to step on the fumie in order to save the Japanese converts.
“It is only a formality. What do formalities matter?” The interpreter urges him on excitedly. “Only go through with the exterior form of trampling.”
The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”
The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.
Endo speaks to the inner person, where lie buried the feelings of shame and rejection that the average Japanese must endure in a culture that prescribes proper external behavior regardless of one’s inner beliefs or feelings. Ask any Japanese the difference between honne, what takes place on the inside, and tatemae, what others see on the outside, and they will nod knowingly. Ask any American, for that matter, or any human still breathing. Endo explores the crevices of failure and betrayal that we all live with, and often seek to hide. In doing so, Endo sheds new light on the Christian faith—at once a harshly revealing light that exposes what we try to conceal, and also a healing light that dispels what lurks in shadow.
Silence centers on the secrets that all of us hide: pornography, casual cheating, lies, buried resentments, family conflicts, addictions. It brings them into stark relief in a stunning tale of betrayal. It reminds us of a Servant who suffered the ultimate betrayal and then founded his church on the backs of one such traitor, the apostle who swore he never knew him; and on another, a professional torturer of Christians, who became “the apostle to the Gentiles”; and who prayed for his murderers, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” In the end, Silence is about God’s grace for the undeserving, which includes us all.
The reviewer on RogerEbert.com gave the film four out of four stars, saying, “Silence is a monumental work, and a punishing one. It puts you through hell with no promise of enlightenment, only a set of questions and propositions, sensations and experiences.…This is not the sort of film you ‘like’ or ‘don’t like.’ It’s a film that you experience and then live with.”
The movie raises many probing questions, and I suggest seeing it with friends and then scheduling some discussion time afterward. I mentioned the artist Makoto Fujimura, who has written an excellent book, Silence and Beauty. Mako also offers some introductory videos and a free discussion guide, which you can download from this website: silenceandbeauty.com.
If you are expecting a one-dimensional, happy-ending Christian story, save your money. Perhaps it took a director like Scorsese, with his lurid body of work, to plumb the depths of grace. Perhaps, just perhaps, in this sobering movie, the message of amazing grace might get through.
January 7, 2017
In its Person of the Year cover story, Time magazine gave Donald Trump the title “President of the Divided States of America.” With good reason. A glance at the electoral map shows solid blue on the west and northeast coasts and, in between, a huge swath of red extending across all but five states. Although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a healthy margin, Trump won 2,623 counties to Clinton’s 489. The modern United States pits the coasts against the middle, urban areas against all the rest.
The division cuts across religious lines as well. More people who claim no religious affiliation—the “nones”—voted this year than ever before, two-thirds of them opting for Clinton. In contrast, 81 percent of white evangelicals supported Trump, more than voted for Bush, McCain, or Romney. Yet almost the same percentage of African-American and Hispanic evangelicals voted against Trump. Our “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” is showing fault lines.
Society’s tainted perception of evangelicals especially grieves me. As a writer, for four decades I have lived within that world. They are my tribe, my community of faith. I wrote a column for Christianity Today magazine, a mainstream evangelical publication, for thirty-six years. Now the word has such a negative connotation that Fuller Seminary has publicly repented for whatever they’ve contributed to shame and abuse by using the word evangelical.
Prominent evangelicals such as James Dobson, Anne Graham Lotz, Jerry Falwell Jr., and Eric Metaxas heartily endorsed Trump, some of them calling his unforeseen victory “a direct intervention by God.” Others, including well-known author Max Lucado and the Southern Baptist executive Russell Moore, demurred. The man whom Moore replaced, Richard Land, quipped that Trump was his eighteenth choice of seventeen Republican candidates; like a lot of voters, he held his nose and supported him anyway.
I got a taste of the strong feelings about this election when I gave an interview to a journalist in Spain last September. We discussed the paradox of American evangelicals’ support for a billionaire who makes his money from casinos, offends women and minorities, and boasts about his extramarital conquests. I admitted that I, too, was baffled. I could understand why an evangelical Christian would vote for Trump on the basis of key issues, like abortion. But to make him a hero, a standard-bearer for Christians? I had no explanation.
Of all the words I’ve written and spoken over the years, only those have gone viral on the Internet. Responses on my Facebook site increased by a thousand percent, which landed me on Facebook’s Top Ten Trending list for four consecutive days, just under Brad and Angelina’s divorce. Over the next week I read through hundreds of comments, some of which labeled me a traitor, a pinko communist, a sodomy-loving, baby-killing Muslim who denies our Savior—all because I questioned Mr. Trump’s reputability.
And now, in a matter of days, he will take the oath of office. Trump supporters are jubilant that a brash outsider has arrived to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Meanwhile, his opposers actively fear his policies and world leaders are holding their collective breath. Donald Trump is our President, and those of us who follow Jesus have some repair work to do in helping to heal our nation.
Three Big Losers
I begin with a warning to fellow-evangelicals. We dare not gloss over the damage inflicted by last year’s presidential campaign. Donald Trump likes the word loser: a Twitter archivist has counted 170 times in which Trump called someone a loser in a Tweet. I see three big losers as a sour legacy of the 2016 election.
First, civility lost. I must fault Trump especially for debasing the presidential campaign. He had a pejorative nickname for almost everyone: Crooked Hillary, Crazy Bernie, Low-Energy Jeb, Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco. In the three presidential debates, Trump interrupted Clinton almost one hundred times. He bullied people offstage and on, mocking a disabled reporter, disparaging women for their looks or their weight, playing to racist fears and ethnic prejudice. Bullying, racism, sexism, and xenophobia have always been present in American society, but never before has a candidate for the presidency modeled them so blatantly. Trump let the bats out of the cave, in effect legitimizing the darkest side of a free society. When he won, a devout Christian friend sent out an email with a headline referring to Hillary Clinton, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead!”—I cannot imagine her saying that before the Trump campaign.
Second, religion lost. Robert Putnam’s book American Grace ties the rise of the non-religious, or “nones,” to a reaction against the entanglement of religion and politics. They view Christians as a Moral Majority trying to impose their values on everyone else, and in the process they miss the core gospel message of God’s extravagant love for sinners. The word evangelical means “good news,” and I think of the many disciplined, selfless people around the world who care for the needy and the suffering and who gather together to worship a God who wants us to thrive in this world. When the media use the word, however, they have in mind an uptight political lobbying group, mostly white, mostly male, and overwhelmingly Republican. The good-news tone gets lost in partisan acrimony. Shane Claiborne said it well: “Mixing Christianity with a political party is like mixing ice cream with horse manure. It might not harm the manure, but it sure messes up the ice cream.”
Perhaps most importantly, truth took a hit. As if in acknowledgment, the Oxford Dictionaries named post-truth as their Word of the Year 2016; facts took a back seat to appeals to emotion. When I ask friends why they support Donald Trump, I hear the common response, “He tells it like it is.” If only. I opposed the Iraq war from the beginning; I never mocked a disabled reporter; the NFL sent a letter asking me to reschedule the debate; thousands of Muslims celebrated in the streets of New York after 9/11; nobody has more respect for women than I do; millions fraudulently voted for Hillary—all these claims by Trump were provably false, yet not one hurt him in the polls. Truth didn’t matter.
At the same time, Clinton opponents pounced on her dissembling about email servers, her cover-up of speeches to Wall Street, and the shady dealings of the Clinton Foundation. Add in the fog caused by fake news stories—many of them concocted in Macedonia, it turns out—and truth emerges as the biggest loser of all.
Sebastian Mallaby, a British reporter from the Economist, described how post-truth distorts reality. Both the Clinton and Trump campaigns played on fears of the future. Where is the country’s infectious optimism that won me over as a young journalist? asked Mallaby. From campaign rhetoric, you’d never guess the facts: during the past decade, abortion, crime, immigration, and unemployment have all declined. Mallaby urged, “Do not talk the United States into a self-feeding depression.…If Americans can’t fix all their problems, can they at least rediscover their old talent for living cheerfully with them?”
President-elect Trump has backed away from many of his most controversial campaign promises. He has softened his pronouncements on such matters as jailing Hillary Clinton, mass deportations, military use of torture, climate change, nuclear proliferation, banning all Muslims, abortion, and Obamacare mandates. What message does this give future politicians? That truth doesn’t matter? That you can promise anything to get elected and then immediately pivot, even before you take office?
That kind of Newspeak makes me leery of trusting what Donald Trump says. After dismissing The New York Times as the scum of the earth during the campaign, President-elect Trump met with reporters and declared the paper “a great, great American jewel.” He once referred to Ronald Reagan as a “con man”; now he’s the president Trump most admires. After dismissing Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades as “totally unimportant,” he flipped, labeling him as “the worst abuser of women in the history of politics.”
Many evangelicals and Catholics named abortion as the deciding issue in their vote. But what is Trump’s position on abortion? The one in which he said women should be punished for having an abortion, or the one in which he supported Planned Parenthood and said his liberal sister, a pro-choice judge who ruled against restrictions on partial-birth abortions, would make a “phenomenal” Supreme Court justice?
According to exit polls, voters mistrusted Hillary Clinton as well, and she too flipped positions during the campaign. Making political decisions in a post-truth world gets tricky.
In the London subway system, as a train pulls up you hear the recorded announcement, “Mind the gap!” In other words, pay attention to the gap between the platform and the train lest you fall. I glance again at the electoral map, blue on the margins, predominantly red in the middle. A nation so divided is not a healthy nation. We need to mind the huge gap that risks making our nation divisible.
After their loss, Democrats are doing some soul-searching. Caught completely off guard, they are studying books like J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy in an attempt to fathom where all those angry voters came from on election day, whereas their polls showed candidate Clinton with a comfortable lead. Those who live on the coasts assumed that their “enlightened” ideas about tolerance, gender, political correctness, immigration, recreational drugs, abortion, and assisted suicide would gain acceptance in Middle America. They were wrong. Vance’s book shows how government policies in Appalachia did little to stop—and may even have abetted—poverty, unemployment, family breakdown, drug abuse, and a culture of violence.
Ross Douthat, a Catholic and a conservative voice on the New York Times op-ed page, has this advice, which he doubts will be taken:
Democrats could attempt to declare a culture-war truce, consolidating the gains of the Obama era while disavowing attempts to regulate institutions and communities that don’t follow the current social-liberal line. That would mean no more fines for Catholic charities and hospitals, no more transgender-bathroom directives handed down from the White House to local schools, and restraint rather than ruthlessness in future debates over funding and accreditation for conservative religious schools. Without backing away from their support for same-sex marriage and legal abortion, leading Democratic politicians could talk more favorably about moral and religious pluralism, and offer reassurances to people who feel themselves to be dissenters from a very novel cultural regime.
I am old enough to remember when both political parties tolerated divergent views. In 1972 Senator George McGovern selected a prominent anti-abortion spokesman, Senator Thomas Eagleton, as his running mate. (Eagleton later resigned in the wake of revelations about his treatment for depression, and was replaced by Sargent Shriver.) On the other side of the aisle, the Republican Mark Hatfield was one of few who consistently opposed the Vietnam War; he joined McGovern in sponsoring a bill calling for a complete withdrawal of troops.
Today, both parties push toward the extremes, in opposite directions. And here is where Christians come in. Oddly enough, we can mind the gap by withholding complete loyalty from either party. “Politics is the church’s worst problem,” warned the French sociologist Jacques Ellul. “It is her constant temptation, the occasion of her greatest disasters, the trap continually set for her by the prince of this world.” Christians have a divided loyalty, committed to helping our society thrive while giving ultimate loyalty to the kingdom of God.
We are resident aliens, taking guidance not from a party platform but from the life Jesus modeled for us. Sometimes that means crossing the gap, rather than widening it.
In a sermon to New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Tim Keller set forth eight characteristics of early Christians, who lived under a Roman government far less congenial to Christianity than is the modern United States. They followed the following principles:
Opposed bloodthirsty sports and violent entertainment, such as gladiator games
Opposed serving in the military
Opposed abortion and infanticide
Opposed sex outside of marriage
Encouraged radical support for the poor
Encouraged the mixing of races and classes
Insisted that Jesus is the only way to salvation
Go back over that list and apply the label liberal or conservative. Half of the principles reflect traditionally conservative values, and half traditionally liberal—precisely Keller’s point. Though some of the cultural issues may change over time, always Christians have a dual allegiance, to an earthly society and also to what Hebrews 11 calls “a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” That chapter in Hebrews honors heroes and heroines who stepped out in faith against societal norms, and paid a severe price for doing so. “And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth,” Hebrews adds. “They were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”
The early church formed pioneer settlements that showed their society a different way to live. When Roman citizens abandoned their unwanted babies to wild animals or the ravages of weather, Christians organized platoons of wet nurses and adoptive families. When plague broke out and villagers fled, the Christians stayed behind to care not only for their relatives but also for their pagan neighbors. They quietly demonstrated a better way to live, the way they believed Jesus had taught. Today, a cross tops the very Roman Colosseum that once showcased violent games and saw the deaths of many Christians. Against all odds, the Jesus way triumphed.
Many Americans shake their heads over the choice that confronted us in the election of 2016. Remember, the earliest Christians had no choice, and lived out their faith under the likes of Nero and Caligula. The trend continues: the greatest numerical revival in history has taken place in recent times under a regime harshly opposed to the Christian faith, Communist China. Christians should take heart that no hostile government can squelch the faith, while also heeding Jacques Ellul’s warning that our hopes do not depend on our access to secular power. Ellul wrote those words from Europe, a region that largely abandoned the faith because church and state had grown too cozy, too entangled.
Bridging the Gap
Because of our dual loyalty, Christians have an important role to play in bringing reconciliation and healing. After the election I received an email from a pastor in Chicago who, like many urban pastors, was shocked by the results.
“Being a Christian is hard,” she began:
Throughout the last few days I have thought about how much easier it is for me to be a “left of center leaning progressive” than it is for me to be a Christian. As a political party member I can vent and debate, mock and obfuscate other’s policies. As a Christian I must lean in and listen; I must embrace and include.
While the political part of me seeks revenge, (“Let the markets crash! Watch Putin’s advances with a weakened NATO! See the dismantling of America’s leadership!”) the Christian in me must pray for the welfare of the city, our country and the world. The claims of Christ demand that I seek the things that make for peace.
I can’t mock those who voted for Trump or suggest that the rise of the “know nothing” party is complete. I don’t get to paint them with a wide brush of ugly words. And perhaps most temptingly, I can’t try and write off the “other” Christians who supported President-elect Trump. That’s not allowed. Like me, they are beggars of grace. And the One from whose hand we have equally received will not allow me to stand close while my heart is far away.
She concluded, “God is still redeeming the world and asking us to participate. Please join us in praying for our country. Pray for people of color first, along with undocumented workers and those particularly dependent on governmental services and assistance. Pray for the losers and the winners. Pray for people of good will to reach out to their neighbors and friends. Pray that we may find a way forward for all of us together. Pray that the character of Christ will also be the character of his people.”
If Hillary Clinton had won, I would hope that conservative Christians would have responded in like spirit. We follow, after all, a leader who commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Politics is an adversary sport: it divides and labels, and demeans its opponents. Bottom line, politics is about winning. The Christian has a different bottom line: love. For this reason, I hope that evangelicals will lead the way in standing up for marginalized groups and minorities who feel genuine fear, even as we pray for the new administration taking office.
At times, Christians must enter the political fray, especially in a democracy that guarantees our right to do so. Some of the issues facing our nation are moral issues that require our activism. In a post-truth era, we still believe Truth matters. Yet, as Martin Luther King Jr. used to say, the Christian wields different weapons in political conflict, the weapons of grace.
King provides a sterling example. David Chappell’s book, A Stone of Hope, shows that for decades liberal humanists made no progress in overturning segregation laws. They assumed that education and their “enlightened” views would gradually change the minds and hearts of racist Southerners. I grew up as a racist Southerner under segregation, and I know well that it took more than contagious enlightenment to change me and those around me. It took direct action, led mostly by prophetic clergy like King, who fought with different weapons.
King understood his ultimate loyalty. His real goal, he said, was not to defeat the whites but “to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority.…The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.” That is what Martin Luther King Jr. set into motion, even in diehard racists like me. The power of grace finally disarmed my own stubborn evil.
As I wrote in my book Soul Survivor, “In the end, it was not King’s humanitarianism that got through to me, nor his Gandhian example of nonviolent resistance, nor his personal sacrifices, inspiring as those may be. It was his grounding in the Christian gospel that finally made me conscious of the beam in my eye and forced me to attend to the message he was proclaiming. Because he kept quoting Jesus, eventually I had to listen. The church may not always get it right—and it may take centuries or even millennia for its eyes to open—but when it does, God’s own love and forgiveness flow down like a stream of living water.”
Other scenes come to mind. Devout Filipinos kneeling before fifty-ton tanks, which lurched to a halt as if they had collided with an invisible shield of prayer. Nelson Mandela emerging from twenty-seven years in prison to plead against revenge, and entrusting the reconciliation process to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The prayer meetings in Leipzig, Germany, growing into candlelight processions by a few hundred, then a thousand, and finally 500,000 hymn-singing marchers; the marches spreading to East Berlin, where a million walked through the streets until the ugly Berlin Wall came tumbling down without a shot being fired.
Closer to home, I think of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, an evangelical who spoke out against sexual promiscuity—consistently he used the word “sodomy” when referring to homosexual acts—and yet became a hero to the gay community by forcing Republican administrations to devote massive resources to address the AIDS crisis. Why? As a physician, he spent time among the early AIDS sufferers. “How can you not put your arm around that kind of person and offer support?” he said. His Christian compassion trumped all else.
Some historians trace evangelicals’ involvement in politics back to Koop and his mentor Francis Schaeffer, who together toured the nation urging evangelicals to become active in abortion and end-of-life issues. I once asked Schaeffer which of his dozens of books gave him most satisfaction. He thought for a moment, no doubt mentally scanning the major works of theology and culture, and settled on a 35-page booklet often overlooked, The Mark of the Christian. Schaeffer considered it so important that he added the essay as an appendix to the last book he wrote, The Great Evangelical Disaster.
Toward the end of his life, as he saw the word evangelical become synonymous with political lobbying, Schaeffer sometimes wondered what he had helped set loose. He based The Mark of the Christian on some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Schaeffer added, “Love—and the unity it attests to—is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.…It is possible to be a Christian without showing the mark, but if we expect non-Christians to know that we are Christians, we must show the mark.” I see that as the biggest challenge facing committed Christians in the new year.
As the dust settles from the storm of 2016, I pray that those of us who follow Jesus remember that mark above all. The apostle Paul used these words to describe the characteristics of a true Christian: humility, charity, joy, peace, gentleness, forbearance, patience, goodness, self-control—words in short supply last election year. Republicans will busy themselves with the difficult task of governing a factious nation in a perilous world. Democrats will huddle to devise a new playbook. May Christians of all persuasions remember that our ultimate allegiance and our ultimate hope belong to neither party. As resident aliens in a divided nation, may we too form pioneer settlements to show the world the Jesus way.
December 17, 2016
A friend of mine named Angela told me about a time when her faith was just awakening. Raised Catholic, she had a wistful interest in spirituality though scant knowledge of the Bible. As she started reading the Gospels she felt a sudden fascination for everything related to Jesus. She recounted one such day:
I worked in downtown Manhattan, and I’d even stop and listen to the street evangelists and the wild prophets who stood on the sidewalk announcing the end of the world. Everyone else mocked them or turned away. I stood there and soaked it in. What if they were right?
One day I was walking to the train station with a colleague from work. I caught a subway to Brooklyn, which ran every few minutes. But my friend took a train, and if she missed it she’d have to wait an hour, so she was always in a hurry. It was a blustery day, and we had our heads down against the wind. When we crossed one street and looked up, there was one of the street prophets holding a sign, “The end is near!”
He was muttering in a raspy voice, “Jesus is coming. Start singing.” I put my hand out and tried to stop my friend. “Did you hear what he said? Jesus is coming. We should start singing.”
She brushed off my hand and kept right on walking. “Angela, you need to get your hearing tested. He’s saying, ‘Jesus is coming. Stop sinning!’”
Or did Angela get it right after all? Reading Luke’s account of the Christmas story this year, I couldn’t help thinking of a Broadway musical. The cast of characters—an astonished virgin, a devout in-law, a tottery old man, a choir of angels—burst into song at the news of Jesus’ birth. Even Jesus’ kinsman John [the Baptist] “leaped for joy” in his mother Elizabeth’s womb.
Like any good musical, however, this one also has a counterpoint theme: fear. Angels who brought the message of the first Christmas felt obliged to lead with the words, “Fear not!” Zechariah was gripped with fear, and quite literally scared speechless. Mary was greatly troubled. The shepherds, terrified, cowered in the field.
If you study the songs, you can sense one reason for the fear: they lived in scary times, these witnesses of Jesus’ birth. Mary spoke with longing of a power that could scatter the proud and bring down rulers from their thrones. Zechariah sang about “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” In the previous centuries a succession of empires—Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece—had tramped through the nation of Israel, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Now Rome, the most powerful conqueror yet, occupied the land.
Roman legions ruled with brutal force, repressing dissent and even invading the sacred temple to kill troublemakers. Although Romans did not invent the practice of crucifixion, the historian Josephus reports that they used it on an unprecedented scale, lining roads with thousands of victims. Crucifixion caused a slow, agonizing death, and made a gruesome public display of the consequences of rebellion.
“A sword will pierce your own soul too,” the old man Simeon warned Mary, a statement she doubtless pondered during her son’s time on earth. I wonder, in the three months that Mary spent sequestered with her relative Elizabeth, did the two expectant mothers have any inkling of the trials that awaited them? After enduring the shame of an unwed pregnancy and the ordeal of a late-term journey, Mary would have to flee to Egypt to save her baby from Herod’s massacre. That monarch’s successor would later behead Elizabeth’s son John as a party trick, and torment Jesus in a mocking trial.
Zechariah’s prophecy of “salvation from our enemies” did not play out as he hoped either. Like so many who encountered Jesus, he expected a different kind of Messiah, one who would lead victorious armies astride a stallion, not ride a donkey toward crucifixion. Yet a few decades after Jesus’ death would come Israel’s ultimate humiliation, the razing of Jerusalem and the mass suicide at Masada.
Luke knew about these defeats, of course, by the time he compiled his account of Jesus’ birth. A good historian, he avoided flashing forward to future events and kept the focus on the present, a moment in time when joy triumphed over the background of fear. The night of Jesus’ birth, angels filled the sky, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
“Jesus is coming, stop sinning!” muttered the street prophet in New York. With his animal-skin wardrobe and insect diet, John the Baptist was the prototype of such wild prophets, calling from the desert for his people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But my friend Angela heard a different message.
“Jesus is coming, start singing!” A melody of joyous hope floated through the air that first Christmas and throughout much of Jesus’ life on earth, although not everyone heard it. Why don’t your disciples fast and pray like John’s? his detractors asked. Why do they go on eating and drinking—with tax collectors and sinners, no less? Jesus had a simple answer: “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” A new day had come, an interlude of joy in the midst of fear.
We, too, live in scary times. Wars, a refugee crisis, terrorism, global warming, the rise of empires, a divided nation, unstable governments—we have much reason to fear. According to Google, on Election Day, 2016, more people searched “end times” than any other topic in the Bible. We do well to remember the setting of the first Christmas, also marked by violence, terrorism, empires, and refugees.
Jesus’ family hustled him off to Egypt to escape violence. Nowadays, most of Jesus’ followers are fleeing the region. Not long ago Bethlehem and Nazareth had a population 80 percent Christian; now only a small minority remains. The seven locations where John addressed letters in Revelation have few if any believers left, and Christians in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria have virtually disappeared as a cultural force. The media daily report hostilities against Christians in far-flung places such as China and Pakistan. At such a time, joy can get swallowed up by fear.
While suffering from an illness that he believed would soon kill him, the poet John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, wrote a meditation on Jesus’ resurrection. He turned to Matthew’s account of the women who discovered Jesus’ empty tomb: they hurried away from the scene “very frightened but also filled with great joy…” In their “two legs of fear and joy” Donne saw a pattern for himself. He who had conducted so many funerals had every good reason to fear the bubonic plague ravaging London. Could he somehow trust God to keep his fear from triumphing over joy? Can I?
Reading the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection back-to-back, I note that Jesus began and ended life wrapped in restraints: the swaddling clothes in a manger, the burial shroud in a tomb. In order to visit earth, he fully accepted its constraints—the story of Christmas, and also of the cross. In order to restore earth, he broke out of the constraints, casting off the burial clothes to herald a new era that would end in hope and glory. In Henri Nouwen’s words, “The resurrection of Jesus is God’s sign breaking through every form of human fatalism and despair.”
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time,” wrote the apostle Paul to the tiny knot of Jesus-followers in Rome, some of whom would be fed to lions or crucified like their master. Mary would have liked that analogy. As she held the baby Jesus, the childbirth pain receded into memory and her fears gave way to incautious joy.
I am listening to familiar Christmas carols differently this year. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” contains the line, “The hopes and fears of all the years do rest on thee tonight.” Kurt Vonnegut used that phrase with a tone of bitter irony in his novel Cat’s Cradle: a nuclear physicist hears office workers singing it at a Christmas party. Do the carolers really believe that the hopes and fears of all the years, which can be obliterated if one person presses the wrong button, rest on a Bethlehem newborn? Do I?
Then this carol, which celebrates the message that my friend Angela misheard:
Joy to the world! The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing….
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders, wonders, of his love.
May we remember that bright good news, this uneasy Christmas year.
October 16, 2016
Elk rutting season has just ended in Colorado, and thousands of spectator-filled cars lined the roads of parks and wildlife preserves to watch the show. I simply had to look out the window: witness this photo I took in my backyard.
Elk are large hoofed mammals—like deer on steroids—that can weigh up to 700 pounds. For eleven months of the year they hang out in segregated herds of cows and bulls, contentedly munching on grass (as well as the rose bushes in my yard). In early fall, however, their behavior changes dramatically. The bulls strut about, stomping their feet in a rumbling display of intimidation, and look for other male elk to challenge.
Through the spring and summer, the bulls have grown spectacular racks of jagged antlers. Come September, they start jousting with other bulls, at first practicing with head feints and then progressing to serious, antler-clashing combat. Sound from the collisions echoes through the canyon where I live, punctuated by the bulls’ high-pitched screams known as bugling.
As you might have guessed, the goal of all this activity is mating. After fighting off younger bulls, the winner takes possession of a harem of fifty to a hundred cows. Then, for the next two weeks, he exhausts himself in a round-the-clock orgy.
“You and me, baby, ain’t nothin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel,” belts out a popular rock band from the 90’s. The problem with that philosophy—a common view of modern sexuality—is that we humans don’t do it like other mammals.
Elk take no precautions of privacy, acting out their instincts on a municipal golf course or even in my backyard. Afterward, they don’t give sex another thought for eleven months. Sex for them is a seasonal, reproductive act and nothing more. As winter approaches, the bulls lose their antlers, reconvene in herds, and look for more grass to eat.
Humans, like all mammals, experience sex as a powerful force. But I have yet to meet a hormonal teenager who does it like the elk: fighting for dominance, enjoying scores of conquests in broad daylight, and then setting aside all thoughts of sex for the next eleven months. Relationship, intimacy, exclusivity, commitment, love—we humans want something more from our sexual experience.
Zoologists puzzle over the oddity of human sexuality, unable to find any evolutionary advantage in sex that does not lead to reproduction. Like the elk, most mammals confine their sexual activity to a specified time period: once or twice a year, when the female is in heat. Humans have no such restrictions, and continue to enjoy sex long after their reproductive years have passed. Why are we so oversexed? Some scientists conclude that for humans sex represents a huge waste of time—certainly true if fertilization is the only goal. (The elk demonstrate sex at its most efficient.)
Christians look back to the Book of Genesis, when God presented woman as an answer to man’s deep loneliness. “They will become one flesh,” says the author, who then adds the telling observation, “The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Sex is God’s great gift. Yet, somehow, over the centuries Christianity has gained a reputation of being anti-sex. Outside the church, people think of God as the stern spoilsport of human sexuality, forgetting that God invented sex, in all its strange and exotic varieties across the species.
I mention the church’s attitude toward sex because I believe we Christians bear some responsibility for the counter-reaction so evident in modern society. Jesus reserved his harshest words for sins such as hypocrisy, pride, greed, injustice, and legalism. Yet we who follow him use the word “immoral” to signify sexual sins almost exclusively, and reserve church discipline for those who fail sexually.
Perhaps worse, in its prudery the church has silenced a powerful rumor of transcendence that could point to the Creator of human sexuality, who invested in it far more meaning than most modern people can imagine. We have de-sacralized it, in effect, and along the way our clumsy attempts at repression have helped to empower a substitute sacred, or “false infinite,” in C. S. Lewis’s phrase. Sexual power lives on, but few see in that power a clue to the One who designed it.
Ironically, the double-negative in the rock song gets it right: You and me, baby, are not “nothin’ but mammals,” and as a result we don’t do it like others on the Discovery Channel. Animals do it forcibly, scripted by their genes, at certain times of the year. Humans cultivate a relationship between consenting parties, best protected in a long-term commitment. In every aspect, human sexuality encourages relationship. We get to know, and make love to, not a body but a person.
When sex becomes a mere transaction—as in prostitution, or pornography viewed online—we instinctively recognize the lie. No amount of immediate pleasure can silence the nagging sense that naked intimacy should involve more than body parts. Indeed, even our promiscuous society frowns on leaders (former Presidents, current candidates) who, elk-like, act in predatory ways toward the opposite sex.
G.K. Chesterton said, “Man is not a balloon going up into the sky, nor a mole burrowing merely in the earth; but rather a thing like a tree, whose roots are fed from the earth, while its highest branches seem to rise almost to the stars.” He was expressing the most basic fact of Christian anthropology. The gospel calls us to cast off the simple “biology is destiny” formula and to reach farther and higher toward spiritual reality. In short, we are asked to transcend biological destiny and prove that we are more than animals.
We are never more godlike than in the act of sex, as the New Testament passages often read at weddings make clear. This most human act hints at the nature of spiritual reality. We make ourselves vulnerable. We risk. We give and receive in a simultaneous act. Quite literally we make one flesh out of two, experiencing for a brief time a unity like no other. Independent beings offer their inmost selves, in a sign of promised faithfulness, and experience not a loss but a gain.
What about when we fail to meet that lofty ideal? Jesus set the example of how to respond by showing great tenderness to those who had failed sexually. Recognizing the depth of their pain, he offered forgiveness and not judgment.
Even the pain that lingers after sexual betrayal stands, oddly enough, as an indirect proof of sexuality’s original design. Those who test that design, and fail, in the process gain a haunting sense of what we are missing. As humans, we want desperately to connect, to grow in personal intimacy even as we progress in sexual intimacy. We want to be fully known and fully loved, and we feel betrayed when sex doesn’t lead there.
Sheltering sex within marriage and fidelity does not guarantee that we’ll realize perfect union with another person. It may, however, create an environment of safety, intimacy, and trust where the true meaning of sex, the sacramental meaning, at times breaks through. If only the elk could understand what they’re missing…
(Adapted in part from A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith)
September 19, 2016
On average, I take four international trips a year. For example, I’ve just returned from Spain, where I spoke at a conference of youth pastors. My travels have given me a snapshot glimpse of the church in some eighty different countries.
I remember my first Russian Orthodox service, designed to express mystery and majesty. The typical service lasts three to four hours, with worshipers entering and leaving at will. No one invites congregants to “pass the peace” or “greet the folks around you with a smile.” They stand—there are no chairs or pews—and watch the professionals.
I did not understand a word, and I learned that no one else did either: Russian services are conducted in Old Church Slavonic, which only the priests understand. Likewise, in Egypt I attended a service conducted in a Coptic language that none except the priests could speak. Whereas publishers in the U.S. bring out a newly readable version of the Bible every six months or so, in much of the world worshipers can’t understand the text read to them from the pulpit.
Global variations of faith are striking, somewhat like the stages in a marriage. Some places are enjoying a “honeymoon” phase. There, the gospel sounds like fresh good news that we should act on. A woman I met in the Philippines read in the New Testament that we need to care for widows and orphans. “I know some orphans,” she said, and over the next month invited 32 street urchins into her home; soon she organized a school to educate them. In many African countries, prisons do not provide food for inmates, so the church organizes feeding programs. In Brazil, poor villagers who have never heard terms like “social justice” or “liberation theology” find their economic status rising as the converted breadwinners stop drinking, show up for work on time, and start behaving like responsible citizens.
Other nations have declined into a “divorced” phase. In Spain, as in much of Europe, the main church stands out as the most impressive building in town, but you’re more likely to find Japanese tour groups than worshipers in those ancient sanctuaries.
Still more nations have settled into a mature marriage phase. In the United States, nearly half of us attend church on a given Sunday, and politicians running for office compete with each other in appealing to the religious constituency. The church, though, may seem to operate more like a corporation than a living organism. We appoint committees and hire others to take care of the orphans and visit the prisoners; we pay professionals to lead the worship. To return from a church in Brazil to one in the U.S. is like moving from a down-home county fair, where everyone gets to pet the cows and chase the pigs, to Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, where you pay a fee to watch the beasts from behind a barrier.
As Western culture abandons its Christian heritage, others reclaim it. Asians stock our symphony orchestras, collect our art, and in some cases embrace our faith. A teacher friend on Chicago’s north shore tells me her Jewish and WASP students no longer recognize such biblical names as Samson and Daniel; she has to call on Korean students to identify them.
Christians in developed Western countries now represent only a third of believers worldwide. Nevertheless, the US church still seems to set the style. One of the most successful evangelical churches in Spain follows our lead: the pastor dresses in jeans and an untucked shirt, and a rock band plays familiar “worship” tunes, their lyrics translated and projected on a large digital screen.
I have learned to see strength, as well as confusion, in the diverse worship styles. Some missionaries criticize the Russian service for its distant, impersonal style. Yet under a communist regime that had no place for God, the Orthodox Church managed to survive the most determined atheistic assault in history.
How strange we must appear to outsiders trying to comprehend our faith from such disparate clues. All these churches, from the sacramental to the user-friendly, have their own internal logic—my Coptic guide offered a vigorous defense of worship procedures he could barely understand—and all strangely trace back to a Palestinian rabbi who spoke mostly in synagogues or in fields of grass.
My travels have left me with a few lasting impressions:
1) Christianity may show its best side as a minority faith. I sense more unity and creativity in the shrunken churches of “post-Christian” places such as the United Kingdom and Australia, where Christians have little hope of affecting culture at large and concentrate instead on loving each other and worshiping well.
2) The seduction of churches charmed by state power comes with a heavy price. The Catholic establishment in Spain bears the stain of the Inquisition and its later alliance with the dictator Franco, and as a result the younger generation tends to avoid all churches. American Christians tempted to cast their lot with the latest fawning politician should take heed.
3) God “moves”—in the most literal, change-of-location sense—in mysterious ways. To visit the burgeoning churches of the Apostle Paul’s day, you would need to hire a Muslim guide or an archaeologist. Western Europe, site of the Holy Roman Empire and the Reformation, is now the least religious place on earth. In Latin America, the saying goes, while the Catholics preached God’s preferential option for the poor, the poor exercised their preferential option for Pentecostalism.
My theory is this: God goes where he’s wanted. That’s a scary thought in a country like the United States, home to so many entertainment and electronic distractions.
Meanwhile, the greatest numerical revival in history has occurred during the past half-century in China, one of the last officially atheistic states and one of the most oppressive. Go figure.
August 15, 2016
The National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday on August 25. Ken Burns, producer of a PBS television series on the parks, explains why he chose to title it America’s Best Idea: “…it doesn’t matter whether your ancestors came over on the Mayflower or your parents just arrived in this country, whether you’re from a big city or a tiny town, whether your father owns a factory or your mother is a maid. You are the owner of some of the best seafront property this nation’s got, from magnificent waterfalls to stunning views of awesome mountains and breathtaking canyons. They belong to you.”
The Park Service oversees 412 properties, including National Monuments and Preserves and Historical Parks, and as part of the celebration all are offering free admission from August 25-28. (See http://bit.ly/PYNPS100th) Of these, 59 carry the official designation of National Parks, sites famed for their abundance of natural wonders: the most impressive geysers, the biggest trees, the most famous canyon, the hottest desert. As I went over the list in Wikipedia I was pleased to learn that I’ve visited half of them.
My state of Colorado has four very different National Parks. Mesa Verde preserves historic native cliff dwellings; Rocky Mountain contains some of our most glorious scenery; the narrow and steep Black Canyon of the Gunnison is so named because parts of it get only 33 minutes of sunshine a day; and Great Sand Dunes features the continent’s tallest sand dunes, a thousand miles from the nearest ocean. In addition, more than a third of the state is designated as national forest, wilderness, or public domain.
To reach my goal of climbing the 14,000-foot mountains in Colorado, I spent a lot of time immersed in natural surroundings. I pity residents of megacities such as Beijing, Sao Paulo, and Jakarta, who live out their days amid concrete and asphalt, under gray, smoky skies. Nature has unique healing properties: one study in Japan showed that after people took two long walks through a forest, inhaling the organic compounds called phytoncides produced by plants, the number of their Natural Killer cells—white blood cells that support the immune system—increased by 50 percent. Numerous other studies have established that time spent in nature can lower blood pressure, promote cancer-fighting cells, and help with depression and anxiety.
I haven’t seen any studies measuring nature’s effects on spiritual health, although I’ve experienced it firsthand. Many of the Psalms extol the wonders of nature as proof of God’s power, creativity, and faithfulness; reminders that I fall back on when stress and human tragedies overwhelm me. Here are some wilderness lessons I have learned:
Nature destroys my illusion of control. As a guest I must adapt to its rhythms, determined not by alarm clocks and electric lights but by the rising and setting of the sun. Every morning begins anew: a chorus of bird song, dawn filtered through the trees, a coating of dew or condensation on the tent. Almost always, what I will later look back on as the day’s highlight occurs spontaneously, as if by accident. Once, I startled a flock of mountain bluebirds who flew into a shaft of sunlight with an explosion of color, bright as fireworks. The same day I heard a loud, hollow sound echoing through the canyon I was hiking; I peered over a ridge to see two bighorn rams jousting head-first, like football linemen. You enter nature on its own terms. Sometimes it seems nothing happens: the mountains just sit there, the animals remain hidden. Yet nature has its own sequence: tides move in and then recede, dusk falls, winds rustle the quiet, a crash of thunder announces the coming rain, and every morning the earth reawakens. If you stay long enough, and still enough, the epiphanies do appear.
We are but creatures, naked and vulnerable in a wilderness better suited to furry animals with claws and pointed teeth. On a hike in Glacier National Park I rounded a bend to closely encounter a grizzly bear standing on its hind legs sniffing the air. I backed up slowly and crouched behind a rock to watch as the grizzly proceeded to dislodge huge boulders on the hillside, tossing them aside like pebbles in a vain search for marmots. After observing his unsuccessful efforts for half an hour, I decided I should creep away, lest the grizzly remember that a much larger, more accessible source of meat lay within easy striking distance. Nature cures me of any sense of self-importance; it reminds me that we are small, temporary visitors on a planet that long preceded and will long outlast us. Stretched out in a sleeping bag staring at the Milky Way above, I often reflect on the psalmist’s words: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?”
Whole industries exist to offer storage for stuff that will not fit in Americans’ already-oversized houses. The wilderness proves how little we really need. You can spend the summer on the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trail with nothing but a fifty-pound pack on your back. And if you do, I guarantee that the clutter of civilization that we consider essential will suddenly seem ridiculous. The same goes for the synapses of an electronically connected society. On maps of cell phone and internet coverage, Colorado has many blank spots due to its protected wilderness areas. Nature beckons us to unplug, to stop measuring worth and productivity by quantity, whether we’re counting consumer goods or text messages. “In our relentless quest for human contact, we have forgotten the solace and friendship of Nature,” wrote the Irish priest John O’Donohue. One of the most refreshing books I read this year was Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice, by Belden C. Lane. He found that the wild provided an ideal setting in which to spend time with virtual companions such as Augustine and Thomas Merton and John of the Cross. One thing he did not experience was loneliness.
C. S. Lewis used to say that we do not go to nature to learn theology but rather to fill theological words with meaning. As he wrote, “Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word glory a meaning for me. I still do not know where else I could have found one.” I was twenty-two years old when I first entered Yosemite National Park and saw its pure white waterfalls spilling over snow-glazed granite onto the breathtaking valley spread out before me. I walked in Giant Sequoia groves among trees taller than 30-story buildings. Not just glory but words like awe and reverence took on new meaning—like the difference between experiencing fear when watching a scary movie and knowing the fear of encountering a grizzly bear in the wild. The emotions seemed wholly appropriate, inevitable even.
Finally, nature teaches me wonder. On one mountain climb I came within six inches of stepping on a nesting ptarmigan, a member of the grouse family so well-camouflaged that I mistook it for a rock until it scampered off with a cry. In winter months, I knew, every feather on the bird would turn white, adapting its disguise to snowy conditions. (Could someone please explain to me how randomness could orchestrate the many mutations necessary for a bird to molt and then sprout thousands of color-coordinated feathers simultaneously, when any partial costume-change would attract predators and doom the species to extinction?) Creation has about it a sense of delight and even whimsy. In my part of the world, the law of nature—“Big animals eat little animals”—has two notable exceptions. Larger mammals carefully avoid the bristly porcupine and the tempting morsel known as the skunk. John O’Donohue again: “We lament today the absence of God and the demise of the sacred. Yet it is we ourselves who have killed God. The world today is just as full of sacred presence as it was centuries ago.”
O’Donohue adds this prayer of blessing: “May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.” I don’t know if it’s possible to experience each day that way, but I do know that spending time in nature makes such days more likely. I’m grateful that a hundred years ago some politicians had the foresight to set aside large expanses of wilderness in perpetuity. As it happens, preserving the planet has the side benefit of nurturing our own health—physical, mental, and spiritual.
P.S. Thanks to Holly Davison for her stunning photos taken in some of our national parks.
July 21, 2016
Amid all the bleak news about America’s racial divide, I came across a remarkable video on a spiritual awakening in the largest maximum-security prison in the country. The documentary, produced by The Atlantic magazine, takes thirteen minutes to watch, and I hope you do so. (Click on this LINK and look for the large white “Play” button.) It reminded me that God’s work can thrive in the most unlikely places.
For several decades I’ve supported Prison Fellowship International, founded by Chuck Colson, which now has branches in 120 countries. Its 45,000 volunteers provide down-to-earth services, such as supplying poor inmates with food and medicine, and educating the children of incarcerated mothers. In several countries the government has actually asked PFI to take over the management of prisons.
As a journalist, I’ve seen the work of PFI firsthand. Not long after the fall of Communism in Russia, I attended two Sunday services in the monastery town of Zagorsk. The first took place in a cathedral within the grounds of the monastery, which is celebrated as the richest jewel of the Russian Orthodox Church. I sat before a wall covered with gold and inset with icons, listening to a 150-voice choir composed entirely of young monks in training. The air hummed with the throaty, bass-clef harmony of the Russian liturgy, a sound that seemed to come from under the floor.
An hour later I found myself in the basement of a dungeon built in 1832. We had passed through four steel gates to reach the prisoner’s cells on the bottom level, the stench growing worse with each step. In cells smaller than my bedroom, eight teenage boys lived, two to a bed. A ceramic-lined hole in the ground served as both toilet and “shower,” although the only water came from a cold-water spigot an arm’s length away. There were no board games, no television sets, no diversions of any kind. All day every day for a year, two years, maybe five, these boys had nothing to do but lie on their beds or pace around the room. For security purposes, the Zagorsk prison enforces a 24-hour lockdown.
During the last years of the crumbling Soviet Union, priests from the monastery had donated enough bread and vegetables to feed the prisoners throughout the winter. As a result, the warden, a dedicated communist, authorized them to build a chapel in the prison basement—a bold act for a communist functionary in the atheistic state of those days.
Located on the lowest subterranean level, the chapel was an oasis of beauty in an otherwise grim place. After the prisoners had cleaned out a seventy-year accumulation of filth from an old storeroom, the monks installed a marble floor and mounted finely wrought candle sconces on the walls. The inmates took pride in their handiwork which, they said, was the only prison chapel in all of Russia. Each week priests traveled from the monastery to conduct a service there, and for this occasion prisoners were allowed out of their cells, which guaranteed excellent attendance. One of the monks pointed to the icon for the prison chapel: “Our Lady Who Takes Away Sadness.”
On another trip I visited PFI’s work in Peru and Chile. In contrast to the formality of Russian Orthodoxy, the church service here had a distinctly Latin and Pentecostal flavor. A worship band comprised eighteen guitarists, one accordionist, and two men wielding handmade brass tambourines. The congregation, 150 strong, lustily joined in, with some inmates raising their hands above their heads and some apparently competing in a highest-decibel contest. The meeting room was overflowing, and extra faces peered in all the windows. I looked around at the congregation: all men, wearing a ragtag assortment of handed-down street clothes. A shocking number of their faces were marked with scars.
One of the band members, a short, wiry man with a thick scar running across his left cheek, spoke first. “They used to think I was so dangerous that they kept me in chains. And I’ll tell you why I first started going to prison church—I was looking for an escape hole!” Everyone laughed, even the guards. “But there I found true freedom in Christ, not just a way to escape.”
Another prisoner limped to the front. He explained that he had lost a leg and most of his bowels in a shooting incident in an Argentine prison. He became a Christian behind bars. Later, he confronted the man who had killed his brother. “Before, I would have killed that man,” he says. “But with God’s help I was able to forgive him. Now I know I am called to preach to the others here in prison. It’s a more important job than being President of General Motors. And with thirty-four years to go on my sentence, I’ll have plenty of time!”
We stayed for at least two hours, with the service still gathering emotional steam. Prisoners spontaneously knelt by the rough wooden benches to pray for their fellow inmates. The singing, animated with hand-clapping and foot-stomping, grew louder and more boisterous. Other prisoners abandoned their basketball games and crowded around the open doorway to see what they were missing. When I and the other foreign visitors left, amid many hugs and handshakes, all the prisoners stayed. They were just getting warmed up.
On the way back to our hotel, Ron Nikkel, then president of Prison Fellowship International, reflected on our day. “It never fails to get to me, no matter how many prisons I visit,” he said. “To see human beings in such miserable conditions, and yet praising God. In their faces you can see a joy and love like I’ve encountered nowhere else. I wish some of the dispirited Christians back in North America could travel with me and see the difference Christ can make in a person’s life. God chooses the weak and foolish things of the world to confound the wise and the mighty.”
Ironically, Ron sees the failure of penal systems around the world as a boon for ministry. “Marxists fail at their prisons, as do Muslims, Hindus, and secular humanists. Nothing works. Societies shut prisoners out of sight because they’re an embarrassment, an admission of failure. But they let prison ministries in, figuring we can’t worsen an already hopeless situation. And there, behind those bars in the least likely of all places, the church of God takes shape. In South Africa one brave couple started a series of Bible studies in the most violent prison in Africa. Within a year the annual incidence of violent attacks in that prison dropped from 279 to two. Wardens notice results like that.
“It’s a New Testament church in its purest form. Chile, for example, has five thousand different denominations and church groups. But in Chilean prisons, the Christians are one. Prison abolishes all the normal distinctions of denomination and race and class. I can’t give details on some of the most exciting frontiers. I can only say that in societies so closed that they apply the death penalty for a conversion to Christianity, prisons are opening doors to us. Nothing else has worked in those prisons, so in desperation they turn to the Christians.”
Ron pointed out that prison ministry is especially strategic in authoritarian countries, where potential leaders may be serving time right now. After South Africa’s changeover from the apartheid regime, a majority of the new cabinet had prison records. Think of Nelson Mandela, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Elie Wiesel, Vaclav Havel, Aung San Suu Kyi, Benigno Aquino, Martin Luther King Jr. Annealed by their experience behind bars, each emerged with moral authority and an iron determination for justice.
Prison need not be a dead end of despair. One of the Bible’s most inspiring stories tells of Joseph, falsely accused and persecuted, who later rose to become the second most powerful person in the known world. The prophets Daniel and Jeremiah spent time in prison, and the apostle Paul wrote some of his most powerful letters there.
The United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, holds almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. We lock in drug offenders with murderers and thieves, creating a perfect breeding ground for ever more crime. Thirty-seven states have a higher rate of incarceration than any other country—including places like China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia.
The state of Louisiana wins the dubious prize of the world’s prison capital, imprisoning more of its people, per head, than any place on earth. It seems an endless cycle of despair—until something happens such as what caught The Atlantic’s attention at Angola Prison in Louisiana. There, as in the other prisons I have visited, wise leaders and ordinary volunteers are bringing a message of hope to a very dark place. “In desperation they turn to the Christians,” as Ron Nikkel said. And light breaks out.
Even today, Jesus the former prisoner makes his home behind bars. “I was in prison and you came to visit me,” he said in one of his best known parables (Matthew 25).
“When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
And the King replied, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
June 19, 2016
I just returned from a week at the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop in Princeton, New Jersey. Buechner has always been a model for me, an author who expresses the essentials of faith in beautifully crafted prose, creating new forms as he writes. Spending a week with other presenters and prospective writers got me thinking about why I write.
Not long ago I received a letter from Indonesia written in fractured English:
“I been reading your book The Jesus I Never Knew. These truly a blessing. I read them three times. many times i couldn’t sleep at night thinking what you wrote. Your book help me see Jesus not only a person who lived and died on earth 2000 ago, but also a real person that risen 2000 ago that still reacheable until today.”
Whenever I get such a letter, I give thanks for the privilege of working with words and for the unlikely linkages they make possible. I know no more isolated occupation than writing. “We read to know that we’re not alone,” said one of the students tutored by C. S. Lewis in the movie Shadowlands. Yes, and we write in desperate hope that we’re not alone, hoping that the sometimes-tedious tasks of researching, composing, and polishing words will eventually become a virtual chain that links us to others.
Writing has afforded a way for me to work out my faith, word by word. As a journalist I sought out people I could learn from, people who ultimately pointed me toward the Jesus way (I wrote about some of them, including Frederick Buechner, in Soul Survivor). And to my astonishment God eventually began to use my own words to encourage others in their faith.
A woman in Lebanon told me how much my book Disappointment with God meant to her. She read it a few pages a night in the midst of the civil war there, descending thirteen flights of stairs in a darkened stairway to a bomb shelter underground and reading by the light of a kerosene lamp. Another woman in Beirut wrote that my book What’s So Amazing About Grace? helped her have a better attitude toward the P.L.O. guerrillas who had commandeered her apartment. I read such letters and think to myself, I really had in mind a chronic illness not a civil war, and neighbors who play loud music not guerrillas who move in uninvited. Again and again God has surprised me by using words written with mixed motives by my impure self to bear fruit in ways I never could have imagined.
I have an entire bookcase devoted to copies of my books published in foreign languages. I used to worry about how my words would relate to other cultures. As I travel internationally, though, I realize that we human beings are alike. We face the same basic issues: growing up, sex drives, temptation, romance, ambition, money, children, illness, death. We wonder how a God who created the universe can care about our petty problems, and why God’s intervention on earth seems so unpredictable and sporadic. We wonder about right and wrong, life and afterlife, pleasure and pain. Though they manifest themselves in different ways, at heart the same realities confront us all, no matter the culture we live in, and we writers simply try to tell the truth about those realities.
Words have a way of penetrating barriers. Think, say, of when a Jehovah’s Witness missionary knocks on your door: immediately defenses go up. But printed words are far less threatening. Someone in Indonesia can pick up a book about Jesus and decide to read it, confident that if she finds it unconvincing, she can simply put it down. Words literally saved my faith. When professors and pastors didn’t know answers to crucial questions, I could find them in authors such as C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton—and, of course, Frederick Buechner.
God forbade “graven images,” which can overwhelm and dominate, like an idol. Instead, God approaches us in the most freedom-enhancing way imaginable: through words. John’s Gospel settled on the title the Word for the clearest revelation of God’s own self.
Modern society keeps drifting away from words, relying instead on images and graphics. There’s even an emoji Bible that translates verses into emoticons (http://www.bibleemoji.com/). I won’t make that shift. I’m sticking with words.