Posted by: Jack Brown | February 19, 2018

Thoughts on Thoughts and Prayers

Once again we find ourselves as a nation trying to make sense of something that makes no sense at all: the theft of precious lives in a mass murder by a sick individual. And sure enough, once again our polarized society rushes to social media to make their position clear. They use passionate words, catchy sound bites, statistics, quotes…you name it…all to venerate those they consider heroes and condemn those they consider to be at fault.

In the case of gun violence, the lines are pretty clear. Both sides have their tells, their go-to voices and their common arguments. But you’ve probably noticed that in the past year or so there’s been a new focus on the immediate response that many share in the wake of such a tragedy: the sharing of “thoughts and prayers.” In short, it has become not just the subject of mockery, but anger and hatred emanating from those who believe that offering thoughts and prayers amounts to inaction.

I get where the anger comes from. Offering “thoughts and prayers” is an easy thing to do, and no doubt many of those who offer them in a public way are doing so more to be seen doing so. And it’s true, many of those who offer “thoughts and prayers” are the very ones who refuse to act, who have done nothing and nothing again in the face of horrible atrocities. In those cases I, too, find the offering of “thoughts and prayers” to be shallow and self-serving.

But let’s make something clear here–the anger is towards the inaction, isn’t it? We’re not angry that people say they’re offering “thoughts and prayers,” but rather that they do so without putting any substance to their supposed grief and/or outrage, right? Then why are people directing their anger towards the “thoughts and prayers?” I’ve seen many comments and tweets like this one in recent days:

My first reaction when I read something like this is anger. I consider myself a compassionate person, and I can imagine thousands of compassionate people who feel helpless in the wake of something like the Florida school shooting offering what they can in these terms. Even more than that, I believe in the power of prayer. I don’t think offering prayer is doing nothing. But then my anger subsides, and I find myself facing a question: how is that people in this country have become so cynical towards offerings of support like this?

Yes, government is certainly to blame. That’s who most people are thinking of when they lash out at “thoughts and prayers.” But that’s not the only direction the venom is spit. I’ve seen friends of mine torn to shreds online for offering something akin to their thoughts and prayers towards those who suffer tragedy, vilified as if they were just as cowardly as those who have the power to do something but don’t. But all they were doing was trying to express their compassion, to share what’s in their hearts as they grieve a world where such things happen. It’s very sad.

How did we get to this point? That’s a great question. The hatred of “thoughts and prayers” is, at heart, a vitriol directed at those who talk a good game but put no skin in it. But while the phrase has become associated with politicians in Washington, D.C., I think the distrust and cynicism stem from somewhere else.

I said earlier I believe in the power of prayer. But too often in my Christian walk…as a friend, as a family member, as a pastor…that’s all I’m willing to offer. Most of the time those I’m praying for appreciate it because they, too, believe in the power of prayer. They know that prayer isn’t inaction.

But that’s not what our culture believes. They doubt the power of prayer…they doubt the existence of someone to whom prayer is offered. And what’s more–they have witnessed time and again a church that is great at saying they’re full of compassion while displaying none. Or worse–displaying the opposite of compassion. At the extreme end of the spectrum, people have witnessed a direct link between prayer and the kind of hatred that’s tearing our country apart:

I know you and I would never display a sign like that. But what are we displaying? What are we coupling with our prayers to demonstrate to a doubting, cynical world that those who pray are not merely proclaimers of compassion, but practicers of it as well?

Our culture is looking for people who will put skin in the game–who will care enough about the wrongs in our society (at all levels) to actually do something about it. That’s what we’re called to do. That’s what Jesus did–his coming to Earth was God literally putting skin in the game. How might we also embrace an incarnate faith that not only impacts how we think and pray, but how we reach out to a hurting world?

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”–James 2:14-17

Posted by: Jack Brown | January 12, 2018

Off With the Gloves

So my first post in over 2 years, and I’m tempted to do the whole “Wow…here’s everything that happened in my life that kept me from posting” thing. Not gonna do that. I’ll leave it at two words: “New job.” Hopefully that’s sufficient for your curiosity. Happy to share the story via DM if you like.

There have been a number of posts I’ve started over the past 2 years. I’ve kept them as drafts, but that’s where they’ll stay. Blog posts are best when they’re “of the moment,” and the moment for those has come and gone.

You may notice that my last post in January of 2016 had to do with mittens. And now my first post in 2018 is titled “Off With the Gloves.” That’s not intentional, but there is a link. Lately I’ve been feeling a lot of stuff gathering up in my soul, stuff that is perhaps a bit controversial in a way I would have avoided in my previous life. Whether or not the impulse to stay silent on these issues was good or bad back then is perhaps worth debating, but not here or now. The “of the moment” realization for me is that it’s time to start opening up about some things that I believe God has laid on my heart and mind, and hopefully from that some good dialogue can ensue (even if it’s entirely internal). That post from 2 years ago asked what kind of transformation God might do in me, and this desire has grown out of that transformative work in the intervening years.

I do this with a bit of trepidation. I’ve often said that the Internet has managed to whittle down debate over controversial topics to just four words: “I’m right, you’re Hitler.” This may remind you of Godwin’s Law, but that particular adage is now almost 30 years old and, I believe, no longer valid. We don’t need an online conversation to go on for any period of time to invoke comparison’s to Nazis–we now are completely comfortable using that analogy from the get-go. Our culture has been conditioned to believe, “If you don’t agree with me, you’re not just incorrect, you’re evil.” This is true for politics, social issues…and religion goes without saying, doesn’t it?

So as I tentatively dip my toes in the waters of hot-button topics, I appreciate your prayers and feedback. I firmly believe God is calling the whole church to do some significant soul-searching about the ways we have acclimated to the culture, the pursuit of political and social influence that is not biblical, and the abandonment of the “whole gospel” in favor of a prepackaged, simplified, consumerist model that is more about building impressive churches than impacting the world for Jesus.

If you’re like me, and you’re sick of it…let’s take the gloves off and see what happens, shall we?

Posted by: Jack Brown | January 7, 2016

Frozen in Time

When I was in elementary school I lost a mitten. That may not sound like a big deal to you. But here’s how it happened—I was walking home from school and one of my mittens fell off.

And that’s it.

When I got home my mother asked me, “What happened to your mitten?” And I replied, “It fell off.” And for the life of me I couldn’t explain why I didn’t go back and pick it up. I had no justifiable reason for just leaving it there and walking on. I guess it didn’t seem like that big a deal to me.

But here’s the thing—that story seemed to define me for many years. I can remember not too long ago a member my family mentioned that story as an example of what a space cadet I was growing up. And believe me, I was. Forgetful…absent-minded…scatterbrained…and some fourth word I was going to use but I can’t remember.

But here’s another thing—in response to my absent-mindedness I have, especially in my adult years, sought tools and methods to help with my natural inclination to woolgathering (it’s a real word–look it up). I’ve found some that work well, others that work somewhat OK, and unless I am suffering from an extreme bout of sleeplessness they serve me pretty well. And so it bugs me when examples of “scatterbrained me” are thrown out and assumed to be the norm. In fact, it’s one of my biggest pet peeves. When it happens I want to jump up and scream, “CAN’T YOU SEE I’M NOT THAT SAME PERSON? HAVE NONE OF THE CHANGES I’VE PURSUED BEEN NOTICED AT ALL? I AM NOT THAT SAME KID WALKING HOME WITH ONLY ONE MITTEN!!!!!”

It’s pride, I know. But underneath the vanity attacks there is a deeper truth I find myself thinking about a lot—the fact that we often fail to appreciate transformation and how precious and delicate it is. The reason things like this push a button in me is that I am seeking to grow as a person, a Christian and a pastor, and when someone uses what I consider to be “outdated” descriptions of me it feels as though I’m frozen in time—and I begin to doubt the reality of some significant changes which God is working in me. And this goes deeper than mere absent-mindedness: it hits on some of my deepest failures and my hope that they become more about transition than definition.

This may seem a self-centered post and topic, but let me share with you where this ultimately leads me these days, and how it’s exposing an ugliness in me that still needs a transforming touch. Because just as I desire to never be “frozen in time,” I need to acknowledge that at times I am the freezer instead of the frozen. There are times when I fail to see and appreciate God’s transforming work in others and continue to define them by experiences and seasons that do not define them any more than I am defined by a dropped mitten.

The biggest example for me is when I consider those who have hurt me in the past. When these faces and situations come to mind my tendency is to assume that nothing has changed since—even though many of them happened decades ago. I still define these people and groups by injuries that have long since healed, but I treat as though they are still fresh. If I desire people to acknowledge God’s transforming work in me, shouldn’t I extend the same grace and courtesy to others? If I am no longer the same person I was, can’t I accept the truth that the same power at work in me is in work in the lives of others? Why do I do them the injurious disservice of causing them to be frozen in time? And in what ways does my insistence on that hinder the further work of God in their lives?

In the next couple of weeks we’re starting a sermon series on transformation at our church. And I find myself wondering what kind of thawing work God might be up to in that for me. Should be interesting.

Posted by: Jack Brown | July 9, 2014

Jesus! The Name High Over All

I don’t often run into hymns I’m completely unfamiliar with, especially any by Charles Wesley, but I did yesterday. We sang a hymn at a beautiful memorial service I attended, a Wesley hymn that was totally new to me. I thought the words were amazing and extremely appropriate for the occasion, and I also thought them worth sharing:

Jesus! the Name high over all,
In hell or earth or sky;
Angels and men before it fall,
And devils fear and fly.

Jesus! the Name to sinners dear,
The Name to sinners giv’n;
It scatters all their guilty fear,
It turns their hell to Heav’n.

Jesus! the prisoner’s fetters breaks,
And bruises Satan’s head;
Power into strengthless souls it speaks,
And life into the dead.

O that mankind might taste and see
The riches of His grace!
The arms of love that compass me
Would all the world embrace.

O that my Jesu’s heavenly charms
Might every bosom move!
Fly, sinners, fly into those arms
Of everlasting love.

Thee I shall constantly proclaim,
Though earth and hell oppose;
Bold to confess Thy glorious Name
Before a world of foes.

His only righteousness I show,
His saving grace proclaim;
’Tis all my business here below
To cry “Behold the Lamb!”

Happy, if with my latest breath
I may but gasp His Name,
Preach Him to all and cry in death,
“Behold, behold the Lamb!”

Posted by: Jack Brown | April 5, 2014

The Shame is Not Ours, It’s His

It was, of all things, an episode of “Law and Order: SVU.” And to be honest, it wasn’t a very good one (as is often the case these days since the franchise is definitely past its sell-by date). But I watched it anyway because the subject matter was one in which I have a personal interest. The storyline may have been borrowed from the Ernest Lorch youth basketball scandal, but it also eerily echoed the Jerry Sandusky situation at Penn State (even though this episode predated Sandusky’s indictment by a month or two). It hit all the relevant notes: a popular sports coach who ran a private foundation to “help” young boys, an accusation of sexual abuse, a fervent denial…all the ugliness we watched unfold on our TV screens a couple of years ago, only this time it was fictional, and wrapped up in an hour (wouldn’t it be great if life were like that?).

At the end of the episode a huge NBA star steps forward to admit he, too, was abused by the coach, leading to his arrest. In a very poignant scene, a young boy we saw earlier playing for the coach’s program watches his hero tell the painful story on TV and breaks into tears himself, falling into his mother’s arms. No words needed to be spoken to see the deep well of pain about to finally be opened so he can find healing. And I loved the last words of the NBA star, as he pleaded with any victims listening to his words to remember: “The shame is not ours, it’s his.”

Those were words I needed to hear. Because I, too, encountered a sexual predator when I was very young–the janitor at my elementary school. And that encounter had effects that were long-lasting and far-reaching. For decades I have denied what happened and minimized it, calling it “nothing” because it “wasn’t as bad” as what other children have experienced. But the truth was I was running from the truth because the truth was too painful.

Interestingly enough, it was the word “shame” that God used to start me down the road to healing. A couple of years ago some organizations here in Michigan had run afoul of some local unions, and the striking workers gathered in front of the buildings holding signs that said “SHAME ON ___________,” and every time I drove by those signs I felt sick inside. Just seeing them provoked a visceral reaction in me that was overwhelming. I couldn’t explain it–something about those words provoked emotions much stronger than seemed appropriate. And the more I explored what it was that set me off, the more I centered on the word “shame.” I came to realize just how much I despise that word. As it turns out, I had good reason.

I once heard someone define “shame” as the deep feeling that there is something seriously, irreparably, disturbingly wrong with us. It’s a profound sense of inferiority, failure, and inadequacy. To feel shame is to feel “damaged” and “defective.” When you think about that definition, I have to ask: how in the world can we POSSIBLY ever wish that on someone? To say “Shame on you!” (which I fear is far more commonly said than I’m even aware) is one of the darkest, most vile things we could ever wish on someone. For years I struggled with an overwhelming sense that I was a complete and utter failure, which I am now able to see is rooted in my experiences as a child. The message I received at the hands of a sick person told me I was little more than an object, good only for certain things and ultimately only good to be tossed away when no longer useful. As a result, shame was my constant companion for years.

We are currently heading towards the end of the season of Lent, a time of year where Christians intentionally sit with the meaning of Jesus’ death, a season of deep reflection and meditation on the meaning of the cross. And in recent days a particular passage has jumped out at me from the book of Hebrews:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”–Hebrews 12:1-2

I’m struck by that phrase “scorning its shame,” referring to how Jesus himself viewed the cross. In Roman times to die on the cross was the ultimate form of shaming–it wasn’t just a death sentence, it was a death sentence carried out to publicly humiliate and degrade the victim. Death by crucifixion was the culture’s way of saying, “Here is someone who not only isn’t worthy of living, he’s not even worthy of dying with dignity.”

The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus “scorned” the shame of the cross. Other translations use the words “disregard” or “ignore” instead of “scorn.” I prefer the latter–it’s stronger language that implies for me a holy anger on the part of Jesus. It suggests to me that Jesus was well aware of the “defectiveness”–the failure and worthlessness associated with the cross–and that he was not only aware of it…he hated it. He hated the effect sin has had on humanity, the inadequacy and self-hatred that came with our brokenness, and out of that hatred he was willing to take it on himself for our sake.

I believe the root of shame is deception–it’s a place where we come to believe lies about ourselves, lies that tell us we are defined by our failures, our hurt, and our pain. And when I contemplate that Jesus looked those lies straight in the face, scorned them, and offered his life to break their power, I am wordless before that truth. Like Job, I place my hand over my mouth in silent awe. The message of the cross is that we are not defined by the dark voices of shame. We are defined by the steadfast, self-sacrificing love of God demonstrated on the cross. In essence, he looked at our brokenness and said: “The shame is not yours, it’s mine.” Not because he deserved it, but because he was willing to take it unjustly so that we could be free from it forever.

Posted by: Jack Brown | December 10, 2013

Carrie On

Like millions of Americans, I tuned in last week to see what NBC would do with one of my favorite musicals of all time, The Sound of Music. To be honest, though, I didn’t make it very far into the broadcast. Between the annoying white noise in the background (I already have tinnitus, don’t need any more noise!) and the issues I had with Carrie Underwood in the lead role, I found myself turning it off and declaring my intent to watch the Robert Wise film in the near future.

I have no issues with Carrie Underwood as a person or a musician, and to be honest I have seen far wooden-er performances. But apparently many in the blogosphere and Twitter were quite personal and severe in their anti-Carrie rants. It was, in a word, harsh. And when Underwood took to Twitter herself to respond with “Mean people need Jesus. They will be in my prayers tonight,” I applauded her honesty and her prayerful attitude. It reflected the teachings of Jesus, who encouraged his followers to “pray for those who mistreat you.”

Then I watched as the story of her reply made its own journey around the Internet. And how did many news sites choose to report her response? They framed it as her “vent” towards EVERYONE who critiqued her performance, not just to those who were unduly and undeservedly mean. Here are a few of the headlines:

“Carrie Underwood Praying for Sound of Music Critics” (
“Carrie Underwood Responds to Sound of Music Critics” (
“Carrie Underwood Responds to Sound of Music Live Criticism” (E! Online)
“Carrie Underwood is Probably Praying for You” (

Do you see the pattern here? Underwood makes a comment about the (VERY) mean things that made their way around the internet (here’s an example: “Carrie Underwood is trying. You know who else tried? Hitler.” And that’s one of the mild ones. There were also death threats, rude and violent sexual remarks, and racist comments about Audra McDonald as the Mother Superior), and her tweet gets portrayed as her response to every single person who critiqued or even disliked her performance. In that recast light, her comment about praying for them comes off in a completely different way–a way that is neither flattering nor accurate.

But such is the case when it comes to Christians who are in the media spotlight. It seems every attempt is made to cast them in a bad, hypocritical light. Simply put, the lust in the media to find Christians acting holier-than-thou and wagging their spiritual index finger at everyone else is insatiable, and as a result they love to miscast, misreport, and misrepresent. That’s exactly what happened here. Carrie Underwood responded to a very specific subset of those who reacted negatively (the haters), and the media took the opportunity to twist her words in order to portray her as a hater herself.

As I said, I didn’t care much for her performance at all. But I’m also intelligent enough to know her tweet wasn’t directed at me. That knowledge, however, doesn’t sell papers (or I guess to be accurate, doesn’t generate clicks and comments). And I have seen a LOT of comments to these misreported stories, and they’re exactly what you’d expect: “Who does she think she is?” “She tanked, and now she plays the Jesus card like every other born-again nut.” “Keep praying for me, Carrie, because I still think you suck.” And so on, and so forth, et cetera, et cetera.

I hope these people never find themselves on the receiving end of some of the truly hateful stuff I read about Carrie Underwood over the past few days. If they ever do, I wonder if they would show grace and courage in the midst of it as she did. But even if they did, you can rest assured they wouldn’t get raked over the coals for it…unless, of course, they mention Jesus.

Posted by: Jack Brown | September 24, 2013

Lost in Translation

I’ve often told the story of the early years of my Christian walk and how whenever things got difficult I would buy a new Bible. The gist of the story is that if I was struggling with a particular sin or feeling like my Christian growth was stagnant, I would deduce that all that was needed to fix it was a new Bible. Surely that would make everything OK, and would spark a new fire in my soul that would burn away all the nastiness and lethargy that ate at my nascent faith.

I had already amassed a wonderful Bible collection when this warped thinking took another ridiculous turn a year or so later. As I was now working in a Christian bookstore, I became aware of the reality that there were myriad translations of the Bible out there: NIV, NASB, RSV…all those other wonderful letters. And suddenly the failure of my previous solution seemed crystal clear: it wasn’t a new Bible I needed, it was a new Bible TRANSLATION. Of course! All my disobedience and rebellion and laziness weren’t my own fault, they were caused by the fact I was using the wrong version of the Bible! So I would research and sweat and stress over which was the “correct” translation, hoping beyond hope that once I figured that crucial question out all my problems would disappear.

Thankfully, by the time I graduated from college that kind of thinking was done. Well, sort of. I no longer looked to the inadequacy of my Bibles as the source of my struggles, which is a good thing. But I did continue to look to the inadequacy of just about everything else–my church, my schedule, my friends, my job…you name it, I blamed it. And by this point I was starting to get desperate. If I didn’t find the cause of my problems, I knew my faith was never going to thrive.

I wish I could tell you I snapped out of this kind of thinking, especially after heading to seminary where everyone KNOWS you finally have it all together. But the truth is, I persisted in this fruitless quest for quite some time–always looking to the external cause of my lingering sin and my lukewarm faith. Truth be told I still fall into that pattern sometimes today, asking God to give me discernment to see just who or what is to blame for my troubles.

I remember as a child touring the Columbus Zoo they had a sign towards the end of one of the exhibits that warned visitors that just around the corner was the scariest, most dangerous animal in the entire zoo. I remember seeing it the very first time as a child, terrified of what was to come, hiding my face from the display that awaited us. Of course when you turned the corner you came face to face with…a mirror. I’m sure they were making some sort of conversationist pitch, but my grade-school mind couldn’t grasp that message. All I remember is the thought that of all the things we think in the world are scary, perhaps the scariest thing of all is what we have the ability to be.

I try to think of that mirror when I’m tempted to look in an outward direction during times of difficulty and trial. Sure, sometimes there are external forces at work, I’d be a fool not to admit that’s a possibility. But I’m trying to train myself to first direct my gaze inward, to ask myself if the dis-ease and the discomfort I feel might be rooted in something about me, not something about what’s around me. Blame is easy to assign, unless it asks you to assign it in the first-person.

Over the years one of the versions of the Bible I’ve come to appreciate is Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, “The Message.” I love what he does with Jeremiah 17:9-10–

“The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful,
a puzzle that no one can figure out.
But I, God, search the heart and examine the mind.
I get to the heart of the human.
I get to the root of things.
I treat them as they really are,
not as they pretend to be.”

I pray God would search my heart and examine my mind, and get to the heart of what’s happening in me, the root of whatever I may face. May each situation I find myself in be treated as it really is, not as I pretend it to be.

Posted by: Jack Brown | July 27, 2013

It’s Just a Door

Many months ago on this blog I offered a bit of my childhood story regarding the pedophile who worked at my elementary school and the impact that experience had on my life. I don’t share many details for obvious reasons, but there is one I do share: the specific place where everything happened.

It was his janitor’s closet. A small, unassuming little space near the children’s bathrooms where he would “invite” (read: LURE) young unsuspecting boys like myself inside to become guinea pigs for his little experiment in twisted self-gratification. I grew to dread that closet–it was a place of fear and shame, and some of my earliest childhood memories are standing in the hallway, hiding against the wall to see if the door was open or closed. When the coast was clear I ran as fast as my little legs could carry me down to my classroom, praying he wouldn’t see me.

In the intervening years I have often wondered how I would feel if I stood in that place again–how would I react? What would it feel like? Would I be OK? I honestly didn’t know, but then this past week I got to find out. I visited my home town, and paid a visit to my elementary school building. I was shaking a bit as I made my way up the steps to the door, unsure of what was ahead for me.

I have pictured that closet in my dreams and my imagination for almost 40 years. In my mind it had taken on a rather brooding and ominous stature, for behind that door there was darkness and evil unlike any other–evil no child should ever have to experience. Which is why I was utterly shocked and amazed when I walked into that building and saw…just a door. A rather plain-looking, ordinary door. All my curiosity as to how I would feel was fruitless, because in the end I felt, well, nothing.

I was confused to say the least. Where was the evil? Where was the anger? Where was the shame? Where was the climactic moment of self-realization as I came back to the place where it all happened? It just wasn’t there, and what I was left with was a stupid old door and a lot of questions.

I’ve been pondering those questions for a few days now, and I’m sure I will for some time. But I think I have some clarification as to why I was so casually indifferent to the venue of my childhood pain: it was never the building. The closet was just a closet, the door was just a door. The school was that, a school. And in fact there are many happy memories associated with that school. No, it was never the building. It was always him. Evil is not defined by where it takes place but by those who perpetrate it: something I’m sure, for example, any modern-day German could tell you.

There was one other thing about this visit that I am only now beginning to understand. When I got to the school I was hoping to actually go into the closet…to stand in the exact spot where his tortures occurred. But unfortunately the door was locked and couldn’t be opened. I had some words with God about that one: “What? You brought me all the way to this point, and that’s it?” Again, I left with some serious questions to ponder. The door was closed, and I’m sure I’ll never have a chance to stand there again.

But here’s what I’ve just now suddenly realized–when I was a kid, seeing the door shut was an indication that things were safe, there was no danger. And now I can see that the door is shut and will remain shut for me.

The coast is clear. It’s safe to move on.

Posted by: Jack Brown | April 6, 2013

My Invisible Sky Friend

Many of you know I spend FAR too much time online debating atheists and self-styled “opponents of faith.” I use the excuse that I’m “sharpening my apologetic skills,” but truth be told I’m more likely responding out of anger and a bloated ego that desperately needs to be right. I’ve cut down a bit over the years, but it doesn’t take much to draw me back in–just a few well-placed insults about Christians or faith in general and I’m slipping on my rhetorical gloves and stepping back in the ring.

One phrase that has become quite popular with the online “anti-faith” crowd in recent years is the “invisible person in the sky” or the “invisible sky friend.” Thrown out there with just the proper amount of sarcasm it’s meant to imply that those of us who claim faith in God are fools for believing in something we can’t see and is “obviously” not there. I stumbled on it again tonight, in of all places an online discussion about the tragic suicide of Rick Warren’s son Matthew. Someone posted, “If they had gotten the kid some help instead of trusting in their invisible sky friend to help them, maybe he’d still be around.” I couldn’t believe my eyes, then my eyes reminded me that they were viewing something on the Internet, and my sense of disbelief subsided. It’s not a good sign that I’m getting used to that level of insensitivity, cruelty, and abuse.

By calling God or Jesus our “invisible sky friend,” the skeptics wish to demean faith by making it sound equal to something out of My Little Pony or a fairy tale. During the Easter season it’s often coupled with bon mots such as “Jesus is just as real as the Easter Bunny,” and similar sentiments are expressed regarding Santa at Christmastime. My initial reaction is to attempt to defend faith as perfectly reasonable and justifiably logical, but in the end such efforts are fruitless because the very concept of faith is irrational in their eyes–to have faith in something unseen is to be a fool.

But what these online provocateurs fail to note is that we place our faith in unseen things all the time. When I order food at a restaurant, and trust that the cook isn’t a homicidal maniac who will poison my Southwestern Mac n’ Cheese, I’m exercising faith. I can’t see air or gravity, but I have faith they will keep me breathing and grounded. The love of my family is unseen–I can only gauge it from the evidence of their love. Just because something is seen doesn’t make it trustworthy, and just because something is invisible doesn’t make it suspect.

But even more than this, I actually think it’s untrue to say we can’t “see” God. I see God every day in creation. I see God in the way lives are changed by putting their faith and trust in him. I see God in community, in selfless love, in service to the “least of these”–I see God a lot. Sure, I don’t see a white-bearded guy in the sky (which doesn’t describe God for me in the slightest anyway), and I don’t see Jesus in the same way the first-century disciples did. But I see him nonetheless.

In C.S. Lewis’ “Prince Caspian,” only one character, Lucy, is able to see the mighty lion Aslan for much of the book. Frustrated with her insistence that Aslan is near, the other characters put the matter to a vote and declare her sightings to be utter nonsense. Thankfully, the existence (and help) of Aslan is not dependent on their democratic process. He is real and he is there despite their stubborn insistence to the contrary. The problem isn’t his invisibility, it’s their lack of faith.

I need to keep that in mind. Without the eyes of faith, God might seem little more than an “invisible sky friend,” and my role is not to prove otherwise. I can’t convince someone he’s there–I can only live out my faith in such a way as to make God a bit more visible, while praying that the Holy Spirit opens eyes to see what is there to see.

Hebrews 11:1 calls faith “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (NASB) Perhaps it’s time I worried less about proving God, and more about engendering faith.

Posted by: Jack Brown | March 22, 2013

Great to Good

WARNING: Spoilers follow for the film “Oz the Great and Powerful,” currently in theaters.

At the beginning of Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful we meet Oscar Diggs, a shady con-man who ekes out a living doing magic for country folks on the dust bowl circuit. Despite his (many) faults, “Oz” believes he was destined for something more than making pennies from farmers at county fairs and risking his life romancing the Strong Man’s girlfriend. At one point the only person he seems to have genuine feelings for says to him, “I know you’re a good man, Oscar,” to which he replies, “I don’t want to be a good man. I want to be a great one.”

The distinction between “good” and “great” is one we’ve heard a lot about in America the past few years, thanks to the runaway success of Jim Collins’ book on organizational management, Good to Great, published in 2001. It’s a book that has enjoyed adulation in all sorts of organizations: small companies, big companies, schools, consulting firms, and yes…churches. In fact, there was a time there a few years ago when it seemed you couldn’t attend a church conference without somebody asking, “Have you read Good to Great yet?” If you had been standing near to me when someone asked that question you might have noticed the muscles of my face struggling to keep a grin while preventing me from making a snide remark. In the years since I have made no effort to hide my disdain for Collins’ book.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I read Good to Great and thought it a pretty insightful book, and I realize that many of the concepts in it are easily transferable to the church. The ideas of humble leadership, focusing on gifting and passion, being brutally honest…much of what Collins says is good stuff, and worth bringing into the church. No, my issues weren’t with the book itself, my issues were with the obsession many in the American church developed for it. In my opinion it’s yet another example of how we let the world define what makes us “great” rather than God. For no matter how many cool principles we adopt from the business world, “greatness” in the Kingdom of God is always defined as something different. In the business world “great” is defined by numbers, influence, and power. In God’s kingdom it is defined by servanthood (Matthew 23:11). In the business world you are great if you are noticeable and do enough things to “put you on the map.” In God’s kingdom our goal should be to disappear so that Christ alone is visible (John 3:30). In the business world the bottom line is profit. In God’s kingdom the bottom line is bringing glory to God (1 Cor. 10:31). When are we in the church going to realize that greatness is God’s venue, not ours?

On a personal note, I realize I used to be a lot like Oscar Diggs. Sometimes I still am. Sometimes I find myself struggling with how much I’ve accomplished in this life and wondering if there isn’t something “greater” out there for me. But leave it to a movie to expose the lie I so often believe. Towards the end of Oz the Great and Powerful there is a very striking exchange between Oz and Glinda the Good Witch:

GLINDA: I knew you had it in you all along.
OZ: Greatness?
GLINDA: Better…goodness.

When I heard that my heart skipped a beat. Goodness…better than greatness? And as I reflected on that I had to reply, “Absolutely!” Where “goodness” is defined not as an inherent, internal quality, but rather as the inward working of God’s Spirit in my life conforming me to Christ and causing me to pursue his purposes for my life, then by all means I desire goodness over greatness. To hell (and I mean that) with fame, fortune, power, influence, money, and all those things the world defines as “great.” I desire goodness. And God has defined for me what goodness is:

Micah 6:8 (NIV): “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Doing those things may not ever make me great in the eyes of the world. But in the end…that’s good.

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