The Church & The Single Person

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The other day an acquaintance from college messaged me out of the blue, asking if I’d ever written about single people in the church. I was kind of taken aback, as he’s one of those guys who became fluent in Greek and Hebrew and listened to about 14 sermons and Church History lectures a day in his spare time. Not only that, but he has been married as long as I’ve known him and has a bundle of kids. Right after we graduated, he became a pastor in the midwest. In other words, this is a dude who has it all together on the ministry side of things.

So of all people, I was surprised that he would ask me for input when it comes to practical ministry in the church. Granted, it may have been a while since he was single and having to deal with the pressures and awkward conversations we face as singles in the church, but nonetheless, I have given a lot of thought to his question.

More specifically, he asked how churches can best minister to the single people in their congregations. I gave it a lot of thought and, though this post is far from comprehensive, this is what I have come up with:

No more segregation.

For some reason, the popular practice in the past decades in the American church has become to separate people by the season of life they are in. Many churches sequester the 60+ crowd into their own Sunday School classroom, while the Young Marrieds are in another. The youth group and children’s church have their clubs, of course, which often leaves that awkward gap for us single people to mingle in whichever classroom we happen to drift into.

I don’t think the answer to the question is to create “Singles” or “Young Adult” classes or groups. Assigning people a place to be based on the season of life they inhabit is not as helpful as overhauling the entire system of apartheid.

What I mean by that is, What good are we doing the members of our churches by separating them? Shouldn’t the oldest people who have been walking with God the longest be the ones mixed into small groups with younger people, mentoring them and helping them to walk in step with the Lord? And can’t the middle-aged couple pour into the newlyweds as their marriage builds muscle in its thighs and begins to walk?

One of the most unappealing things to me is the thought of going to a “singles mixer” at a church. I mean, how desperate am I? (Pretty desperate, honestly) But the idea of going to this meeting where the entire premise is all these lonely souls searching for our better halves just grosses me out. I mean, talk about awkward pressure and forced conversations. Is this all the church is to single people? A mixer?

I think the issue is not with churches “doing singles ministry better,” but uniting their entire church as one. A family where all age groups and statuses interact. After all, isn’t that something Paul was adamant about across the pages of the New Testament? There is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, man or woman, old or young, single or married, but all are united in faith in Christ.

After mulling the question over this past week, I reflected on which experiences have been the most fruitful as a single person in the church. I think the answer is, I grew the most by being in close contact with those who were not in the same category as I. How much can I really learn solely from other single people in their 20’s? What can they learn from me? (A little of course, but you get my point…)

Many of the most formative hours of my life have been spent eating with college professors or meeting with influential writers or pastors decades older than me. Sure, there are the meaningful conversations I have with people my own age, but of all places, shouldn’t the Church be a place for the coming together of people of all ages and seasons of life? Why do we feel the need to divvy ourselves up rather than come together?

Maybe what the lonely single person needs more than other lonely single people is to be poured into by older folks who have moved through where they are, and can give them hope and wisdom.

This past summer I was part of a class on addiction in Chicago, put on by my church for people of all ages who wanted to learn more. Due to the nature of the course, we all became very close and intimate very quickly. The nice thing is that the others in the class ranged from college students to 60-year-olds, and across the entire spectrum of marital statuses. And because of that, I got to hear firsthand accounts of porn and drug addiction from married couples, divorced men and women, and of course single people like me.

The beautiful thing about this class was that it was a holistic representation of the Body of Christ, from young to old, not just a segregated slice of it sitting by itself and spinning in circles.

So how should churches go about doing singles ministry better?

I think that’s the wrong question, and if we find ourselves asking it, we are probably already heading down the wrong path.

A better question is, how can we cultivate a church that simultaneously ministers to the 70-year-old couple and the 25-year-old-bachelor? What good is the church if it does not bring together the widow and the newlyweds and enable them to love one another uniquely in Christ? If grandparents want to hang out with people their own age, they can go to the YMCA or a bridge club. If I want people my own age, I’ll go to a coffee shop or join a sports league.

But we should go to church to interact with people with whom we have nothing in common except our union with Christ. As a single person, I don’t want to be stuck with other single people, but with a variety of people in a collection of life seasons. This is closer to the picture of unity Paul longed for, and the best place for real growth to occur. Not only that, but it makes the single people feel less dissociated and awkward.

There isn’t anything wrong with us. And I think the last thing we want from a church is special treatment. Or “singles groups.”

Let’s work on returning our churches to places of inclusion and invitation. Places of unity. Let’s make them places where Blacks chill with Whites, old folks hang with hooligans like me, and single people spend meaningful time with couples.

And it isn’t weird.

e

A Poetic Reflection on Pornography

 

Cognitive dissonance so thick you’ve convinced yourself you’re actually that hot doctor from Grey’s Anatomy. I’m familiar with porn: That thing that reduces you to a little boy nervously wringing the church bulletin into a telescope over and over again in the presence of a woman. It makes you insecure; it shatters your manhood. Or womanhood.

My friend Dave says everything is psychological. He asks me why I rest my head on my palm when listening to him speak and says it’s from social anxiety. I say it’s because my scruff feels nice, but he’s probably right. Porn has robbed me of a lot of confidence.

Pornography is: That focus so singular everything else pulls into the background and ceases to exist. It’s just you and your desires. In that one moment, it is the biggest thing in the universe. I know what it’s like to have no alternative and you have one extant purpose in your life: To slide open your phone or crack your laptop and type in that one phrase. To view that one video which will bring relief. That one image that will save your soul.

The bedroom shrine and the bathroom liturgy.

Our idol now comes in pocket-size.

The ancients built their three-dimensional gods out of wood, metal and stone. They constructed the Tower of Babel to touch the heavens. Genesis once said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

We decided to do them one better: “Let us build a two-dimensional idol that will enslave the population. It’ll keep them in their dark rooms. Look how flat we have formed this ruling god. Come and worship.”

A scorpion, when surrounded by a ring of fire, senses its imminent doom and begins stinging itself to death.

We have become the arachnid.

We have attached our instruments of death to our own palms and remain unaware of the destruction they promise.

Stop stinging yourself! Stop stinging yourself!

The worst sinner of them all, a.k.a. the Apostle Paul, knew addiction. I call it the do-do verse: I do not do the things I want to do, and I continue to do the things I don’t want to do.

Sound familiar?

Chicago, five and a half months ago. My pastor stands in this little exposed-brick room on the west side and says that if there is one thing that unites every human, it is addiction.

Roses are red,
violets are blue.
I was born an addict
and you were too.

Let’s learn the language of addiction since we all have it in common. It’ll come slow. You live in a foreign country long enough, meaning will eventually come of the alien voices babbling nonsense.

The more I realize the counterfeit nature of pornography, the more criterion I concocted for when exactly I would quit. It’s bizarre. Porn is a counterfeit adventure, so once my life looks like an Indiana Jones movie, I won’t struggle with it anymore. Porn is a counterfeit intimacy, so when I star in The Notebook sequel, I won’t struggle with it anymore. Once ______ happens, I’ll be able to stop.

I’ve got a stack of postcards in my room and no one to send them to. I can’t seem to shake the loneliness out of my bones.

“I’m still single so I’ve got time to quit.”

f that.

It burns you bad. It burns you so freaking bad.

Like sometimes you look at a sunset but it’s as if someone poked it with a thumbtack and drained all the color out of it.

You ever find yourself wrapping your fingers around the very thing causing you so much pain and refusing to let go? I have this recording from the turn of the 19th century and it’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. An old black man croons,

Leave it there,
O, leave it there.
Take your burden to the Lord
and leave it there.

A Denver mentor of mine recently told me I’ve fried my taste buds by eating so much s#!t that I no longer have a palate for delicious things. You were made for intimacy but you fry your brain with this hollow substitute.

Jesus offers us the Bread of Life and we turn it down in favor of internet doo-doo.

And He is God, that thing which is bigger than all things. God, who, when porn seems like the biggest thing in the universe, is bigger. God, who patiently waits until our session has expired and once again extends His almighty hand to help us up.

See, I’ve been overtaken by an overwhelming God and all my sermons about mercy have come true, unlike my dreams about becoming an astronaut. (Guess I can still write about heaven from down here.)

A God who turned water into wine can surely turn our years of lust into songs of victory. The same God who raised His friend Lazarus from the grave can surely sir to life our numb hearts.

AA says that the first step on the journey toward recovery is to admit your own powerlessness to help yourself. So quit trying.

Let yourself be resurrected.

e

 

 

 

 

 

Adulting is (not) Hard

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It’s New Year’s Eve today.

Today we sit on the edge of another 12 months of possibilities, disappointments, and discoveries. In essence, it’s the same as any other day but we tend to assign more weight to it than it’s due, and this is why gyms will fill up the first two weeks of January, then return to the normal hum of fitness regulars. We expect tomorrow to be greater than it is.

Which is (kind of) why I wanted to write about a trend, or phrase, I’ve been seeing a lot lately. All across the worldwide web, I see people regularly complaining.

“Adulting is hard,”

they say.

We—upper to middle class Americans—have every opportunity known to man. And those of us who have passed from high school to college and have now graduated have literally all the freedom in the world to go wherever we want, make investments, start organizations, start families, work hard, save money, move, read for fun, and literally anything else we could imagine.

And what do we do with this freedom? Complain.

We invented the word “adulting” just so we could complain about how difficult it is. And don’t get me wrong: With this new form of freedom and responsibility, there are new problems and difficulties which arise. We are suddenly thrust out of the comfort of a structured life and into a totally foreign realm of malleable time and opportunity. But I find it odd that people prior to our generation never complained about this as much as they simply rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

I mean, in certain African tribes, boys go out into the wilderness and kill lions in their mid-teens as their rite of passage into manhood. Then they begin their grown-up life. And here I am, ten years older, tempted to complain about how difficult my life is.

The fact is, as a middle-class American, I will not go hungry. I have tried dozens of things since graduating high school, and many of them failed. And I have certainly been a whiner at numerous points. Yet there was not one day I worried about going hungry or not having clean water to drink.

Rather than embrace our opportunities, make daring attempts, or even just work hard, we stress, flip our phones on, and whine about how hard it is to ‘adult.’

The irony here is that those who are truly in need and who are really struggling with life are those who are not complaining about ‘adulting.’ The single mom working three jobs to provide for her kids, or the family in India who splits one sack of rice for their weekly meals are the ones who deserve our sympathy and help more than the recent college grad who can’t decide what color Jetta to buy.

I don’t mean to build arguments on hypothetical situations, or guilt you into sympathy. But I do want to call something out in today’s American Christianity.

When it comes to ranking our sins, we are good at averting our eyes from certain categories and focusing on others. One of the more overlooked areas of sin is complaint. Let us not forget that in Numbers 21, God allowed snakes to kill several thousand Israelites simply because they were complaining.

They weren’t worshiping other gods or sleeping around; they were complaining.

Yet today, we feel a liberty to complain without consequence. I think this comes from a notion of entitlement Americans are raised with, and when things don’t go our way, or we feel a bit of discomfort and stress, we have a right to complain about it.

Why is complaining such a big deal? Why would God let thousands of His people die simply for complaining? I think the short answer is because complaint is the opposite of gratitude. The height of anything a human can ever give to God is gratitude. We literally have nothing else to offer Him. Gratitude is the root of worship. It all begins with giving thanks for what God has given to us, from the big things to the small.

So when we complain, we are giving God the middle finger. We are telling Him that what He has given us is not good enough for us; that He is not good enough for us.

So it seems odd that people my age would complain about becoming adults. We now have the opportunity to build something with our own hands. We have the materials and the resources to really make differences in our communities, but rather than embrace this new season, many of us simply complain about its difficulties.

‘Adulting’ has its difficulties, but I think more than that, it has its promises. It is pregnant with opportunity and excitement. Don’t let the hardships of this new season lead you to depression and complaint. Instead, embrace it. Help the needy. Try something new and fail at it. Then fail a few more times. 99% of you won’t go hungry so stop worrying about it. Create new things and start something that matters.

This year, I intend to work more than I complain, to create more than I stress. I hope you’ll join me. We don’t need to dispose of the word ‘adulting;’ we need to see it as a positive thing rather than a negative. We need to embrace this new season we are entering.

Sincerely,

Someone who is kind of tired of complaining.

e

 

Porn and That Place in the Distance

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Somewhere between Sao Paulo and Rio, c.a. 2011

I have a journal filled up with dozens and dozens of pages recording possibly the most epic episode of my life: The time two friends and I backpacked along the coast of Brazil. We began at Lucas’ house in Sao Paulo, mapping out our route, arguing about whether we should plan it out or simply play it by ear.

Of course, the entire voyage ended up being played by the seam of our pants because there was no way to plan out everything that happened over the ensuing voyage. Without going into detail about everything that happened, there was one distinct attribute of that season that loomed large over the entire expedition. One thing that was different than anything else I had experienced or have experienced since.

From the morning the three of us walked out Lucas’ front door, Rio de Janiero was on the horizon. It was a mysterious destination we were working toward with every step we made and every bus we boarded.

There was one night we earned some cash on a ferry by singing kid’s songs with Joel’s guitar and dancing with the kids. Afterward, one of the families invited us into their home for the night.

There was the wild night in Ubatuba, and the wilder night at Paraty dancing behind the Gecko Chill Bar, which ended with me running five miles barefoot along the river and collapsing on the front steps of a cathedral on the edge of town.

All of these episodes were overshadowed by this singular goal which drew nearer to us every day. Or rather, we drew nearer to it:

Rio.

Every local bus and ride we hitched brought us that much closer to our destination. Lucas had a girl waiting for him there, and Joel and I were excited to arrive and take our boots off and simply sit on Copacabana Beach having finally arrived. We knew Corcovado (The giant Jesus statue) was welcoming us atop his hill with open arms, and we were eager to arrive.

That time was so unlike any other solely for that reason. There was a destination toward which we strived every hour of every day. I grow nostalgic for that trip because when I look at my present life, it pales in comparison. There is no city in the distance toward which we sojourn; I simply go to work and make enough money to pay rent and the heating bill. There isn’t really momentum as much as there is stagnation and sedentary routine.

So it makes sense that we would seek out alternative forms of adventure. Like pornography.

When we lose sight of the mission we are on, and the country that awaits us beyond the horizon, the tedium often drives us to what Michael Cusick calls “counterfeit goods.” Porn gives us the same rush as an authentic adventure, but it burns out quickly and leaves us feeling more empty in the end. Cusick says it’s like going to Thailand and buying a knockoff Seiko watch because it looks and feels the same as the real deal, but the quality is a sliver of the authentic thing. The counterfeit—though it makes you feel cooler for a few days—ends up in a drawer after a few weeks because the wrist strap broke or the mechanics gave out.

It’s easy to see how we could turn to porn as a counterfeit for intimacy, love, and approval, but I think adventure is one of the most overlooked thirsts in a man’s soul. I think we were all created with a longing for adventure—whatever form it takes in each individual—but we have lost sight of our destination. Whether you’re a white collar cubicle employee or a vagabond elephant wrangler, it’s possible to neglect the larger adventure you’re on. Even on days when life feels like the opposite of an Indiana Jones film, we must remember that there is a home that we’ve never seen; there is a city where we’re headed and every day brings us one step closer to its gates.

Most days I don’t live like I’m moving toward my true home. Most days feel rather bland and boring, which often leads me to find adventure in more nefarious forms. Of course, the ‘adventure’ is nothing more than a rush of chemicals to my brain that promises to be fulfilling and exciting but ends up leaving me emptier and more ashamed than before. The ‘adventure’ is actually a form of cognitive dissonance in which I deceive myself into thinking I’m not just at home in my bathroom, but am actually with a beautiful woman.

But we are hungry for real adventure.

So how do we conjure up this sense of expedition and keep our minds set on the destination resting on the horizon? I’m still working on that part. But I think it begins internally before externally. I don’t think a plane ticket is necessary for us to be reminded that nowhere on this world is our home, or our ultimate goal. After all, when Joel, Lucas and I finally did arrive in Rio, we were mugged at gunpoint on the northern edge of the beach.

Nowhere in this world is our ultimate destination.

I think it’s important to keep in the forefront of our minds the fact that we are moving. Philosophically speaking, our lives are teleological, or, they are heading in a direction whether we realize it or not. We are on the move constantly as we pass through time, and for those of us who are hidden in Christ, our home is that beautiful country on Mount Zion; the New Jerusalem where once and for all, peace will prevail and we will live in the light of the Lord.

As we journey toward this nation, shouldn’t we be inviting as many people as we can to come with us? Whether we like it or not, we are on a mission. And there is a destination. As it relates to addiction, I’ve thought a lot about how this distant place can help set us free now, and I think it comes down to adjusting our mindset.

Imagine if two men were assigned the same job for a year. Their daily tasks are identical for 365 days. The first man is told he will receive 20k at the end of the year. The second man is told he will receive 5 million.

Suddenly everything changes.

The fist man drudges through his tasks, complaining about how arduous his work is, while the second man attacks his work with joy, exclaiming THIS is all I have to do today?? How fantastic! Though their day-to-day lives are identical, their end goal—that anticipation of the future—shapes their present attitude.

Does your future shape your present? Do you anticipate a destination more glorious and beautiful than you can comprehend today?

This is why hope plays such a central role in Christian theology: Without anticipation of a better world, we only have doom and depression to accompany us.

So may we be a people with hope for a glorious future; people who eager long for the coming of the kingdom which brings with it peace and joy. May we keep our eyes on that country in the distance, nestled just beyond the horizon, and constantly be reminded that we draw nearer every day. And may we happily bring many people through those gates with us, inviting them into joy and out of despair.

e

December 27, 2016

 

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I remember the late nights at Moody heading North a mile to the 24-hour Starbucks. The train ride would usually take as long as walking because the Brown Line ran so infrequently late at night unless you caught it at just the right time. I remember Lila Carvell and I making the trek more times than I can count, though it was probably fewer than my brain conceives, because the mind has a way of painting infinite layers over a few small events, making the quality compensate for the quantity.

The mile went fast or slow, depending on the night. Perhaps the distance itself was fluid. Perhaps it depended on the company I walked with. Lila made any time fly by. I remember many days with her, wasting time in coffee shops, supposedly doing schoolwork but talking endlessly instead. I don’t know why a beautiful, creative, and curious mind like her put up with me, always talking about myself, where she was always, always interested in others.

It’s hard to find anyone to match her level of energy, creativity, and most of all, her curiosity. I think the thing I miss about her the most was her curiosity. Hanging out with curious people makes the world burst into fitful life, endlessly entertaining and always unraveling new mysteries.

To those who have the world figured out, the world is bland, redundant, and tiresome, as if you’re watching a film you’ve seen a dozen times and you’re just waiting for it to be over. But to the curious, it’s exciting. You’re turning a page and you have no clue what the next one contains, what you’ll learn from it or experience on its canvas.

Lila was curious about me. She wanted to read what I wrote—my stories and poems—and I was excited to share them with her. Just like tonight, as I write these things down in my favorite late-night coffee shop in Denver, I’m thirsty for someone to pick up this page and pore over these words with the same intense curiosity.

Tonight I just wanted to write something. Something that may or may not be read by anyone else, but the fact that I created it stands. So I’m pulling from the ever-present alphabet and arranging these guys for you, whoever you are.

I don’t want to charge for it, I just wanted to say something.

Perhaps all creativity is a quest to not be forgotten when we’re gone. To say, Look, I made something that will be read when I’m gone. Look, I’m not really gone.

Perhaps all creativity is a battle for immortality.

The thing I realized about my blog posts as of late is that they have become far too formulaic. I get an idea and lay it out in the same pattern and the same level of intensity; that of a baby canary.

But tonight, I’m creating a new formula. It’s a free-form formula, like that category of math that uses letters instead of numbers. It’s a formula that doesn’t look like math because really it’s not, and this post is more of me sitting here and slicing my stomach so my innards can pour out before you onto this page. Or screen.

There is another point I remember in Chicago.

There were times in my life when I would look at actresses like Emma Watson and wonder if it were possible for me to find someone as beautiful as her. But then one night, when I watched the movie Noah seated beside Lila, I saw Emma Watson on the screen and thought meh. Because I looked next to me and suddenly saw someone so much more interesting, so much more curious, so much more beautiful than any distant A-lister on a screen.

What can a 2-dimensional character offer me that’s better than a 4-dimensional relationship with another human being? How much more tangible is the girl sitting next to me in seat H6? Look at the way I can ruin her night with one word, or make her feel like a billion bucks with a different one! Look at how I could reach out and touch her nose if I wanted.

I feel like in some ways, I have retreated back to that place of longing for distant two-dimensional actresses and models because there is a hunger and thirst for artificial beauty (book title). Because I haven’t been touched in a while.

Look at the way a man can touch a tree, a brick, or a computer and feel nothing. Look at how a woman touches her light switch, her carpet, and her tabletop, and feels no attachment.

But watch the two of them touch.

Watch her calf touch his under the table of a crowded restaurant and the entire night shifts. If it’s the first touch of a relationship, it’s a rush, like cracking open the lid of a chest discovered underground. If it’s a familiar touch, there is comfort in it, like the smell of your house when you return for Christmas.

There is value in skin touching skin. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes that a man who lies alone will grow cold, but two who lie together remain warm. Skin is unlike any other surface. It’s dynamic and raw. It flinches and it slides over bones. It bends and it’s warm. It smells both good and bad and in many ways, the feeling of it is what all of us are after. Touch from fathers who didn’t hold us when we were younger or mothers who misused their skin against ours. I don’t know what this is like, but I know something of the deprivation of touch. Of wandering the world like a passing thunderstorm; it’s looked at and talked about, but never really touched.

Skin is a nice thing.

I’m sitting in this coffee shop watching a girl run her boot along her lover’s leg. Even through shoes and jeans, it seems like human touch is enough to melt men made of even the strongest of materials.

I don’t know why I sat down and wrote this today, nor did I know where it was going when I began. It feels like the night I sat on top of a skyscraper drinking wine and writing poetry with Lila. She inspired things in me I haven’t felt in a while but hope to again. Sometimes I wonder if maturity is some kind of letting go of these passionate feelings and settling down into routine and mundanity.

I hope not.

I hope God was more creative than that when he crafted men and women in His own image. I imagine that the Creator is exactly that: Creative. And therefore I must conclude that, if we are made in His image, we are meant to have nights like these. Nights wondering about the world and where the next turning of the page will take us. Of what we will learn and who we will be when the page turns again.

There’s no way to know; the only possibility is to fill up the page I’m on with the best possible combinations of words. So here it is: A post I’ve created for no other reason but to leave something here, like a footprint which lasts longer than I will, but ultimately, as language and syntax march on and are forgotten, will blow away with the eroding of the world.

It was fun while it lasted and I enjoyed this particular string of metaphors.

Hope you did too.

e

Dear Fellow Gym Rats

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Dear Fellow Gym Rats,

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while and just how to convey what I want to convey. I think this letter, which is to myself as much as it is to you, is long overdue, and I’m hoping that in writing it, we both get something out of it. Before I get too far into it, I want to present my thesis, which is the heart of this letter:

You are loved.

Believe me, I know how shallow, cheesy, or even off-topic that sentence is in a letter to my gym boys, but let me explain. I’ve spent a good amount of time thinking about what the gym is to me, and why I spend 7+ hours a week there, why it matters, and what it does to me mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

What are we looking for in these iron bars and plates? Let me briefly walk through a typical gym session.

It starts before I even get to the gym.

The rap music bangs in my car, preparing my mind for the intense session of manliness and physical exertion ahead of me. The tradition of getting “pumped up” before working out predates my college years. I remember being in high school and blasting music or watching YouTube videos to get amped before a workout.

However, somewhere along the line, I realized it was no longer about getting pumped up about exercising anymore.

At some point, I started becoming someone else.

I get to the gym and give my mandatory bro-nods to the guys at the front desk and slowly walk back to the locker room. (Walking slowly emanates swagger and toughness.) Once in the locker room, change and throw in my earbuds producing the same genres of music to produce the best possible workout. Or maybe to encourage the coolest possible version of myself.

What I’ve realized is that when I’m at the gym, I have a tendency to become someone else.

Someone cooler.

Someone tougher.

Because of all the places I spend my time, the gym is the one place you don’t want to exhibit weakness. It’s the one place you feel wary of smiling and never, ever, ever want to ask for help. Don’t smile when you’re working out; keep a frown on those brows.

Because weak people don’t go to the gym; strong people do.

If this resonates with you at all, chances are we are in the same boat. It’s a lonely boat, to be sure, because we are looking for love in metal and sweat rather than intimacy and vulnerability.

When the gym becomes an addiction, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re doing it “just to stay healthy,” but there is a point where a pursuit of health turns into a source of identity. It’s when your level of confidence is directly linked to the circumference of your biceps. I know what it’s like to be scared no one will love me because my six pack begins to wane. I know what it’s like to feel like less of a man when you miss more than 3 days of lifting.

And there are hundreds of companies happy to take advantage of this dilemma: Think about the whole concept of ‘gains.’ There are entire sections of the internet dedicated to helping you improve your gains, add inches, and boost strength. YouTube creators make millions off their “shortcuts to gains” videos. Stores pop up across the country like the acne on a power lifter’s shoulders shelling the same supplements to make you huge. Pre-workouts now include “pumps” because it’s not enough to simply grow stronger, you now need to look more pumped up and vascular.

These companies profit from our insecurities. If we don’t look like Phil Heath, they’ll make sure to put that desire into us until we feel emasculated into buying their products. There is a deep desire in every man to feel strong and courageous, and these supplement companies exploit that to the point of creating an entire culture out of it. The same is true of women and being desirable and beautiful. The gym offers us a sort of identity that promises that people will desire us and see us as more daunting than we really are.

The gym offers us an escape from our own insecurities. If we don’t feel strong and confident within, at least we can look it on the outside.

So once again, I want to remind you, fellow Gym Rats, that you are loved. We are loved. For some reason, it’s harder to lay down our defenses and accept that than it is to put in hours and hours of work in order to look like Hercules, but we keep doing it. We exhaust ourselves in pursuit of this ideal body which will inevitably one day fade away and grow weak. Whether it’s old age or simply death, we will not hold onto a single hour we put in at the gym.

Believe me, I am very familiar with thoughts like But no woman will be attracted to me if I don’t have the biggest pecs and carved obliques. But whenever I look at the old married couples who have clung to one another for decades, I necessarily must come to the conclusion that there is more to attraction than toned physiques. How can these 70-year-olds still be madly in love despite their wrinkly skin, saggy muscles, and creaky joints?

There must come a point where we realize our belovedness. Where we stop working so hard to earn our appreciation, approval, and praise. The more I realize God’s inherent love for me, the less of a desire I have to look like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and can relax into simply being “Ethan…happy in his own bones.”

And strangely, this mindset makes it easier to relate to other people. When you and I strive so much to create this unapproachable and intimidating persona, it’s hard to connect with others. Being intimidating is lonely. But the more we are able to lay that persona down, we will begin to see people being more attracted to who we are as a person. I don’t mean sexually attracted necessarily, but simply as a human being whom others want to be around.

Don’t believe the lie that you need to get bigger and bigger, like a balloon on the verge of popping. This lie is instrumental in getting you to buy more products.

Focus on being genuinely healthy and staying in shape rather than on gains and becoming superhuman. You will never get there; it’s an endless cycle of insecurity and striving to get better or getting just this one final muscle group ‘to really pop.’

I enjoy lifting weights. I really do. And that’s the reason I’m not simply going to stop working out. However, my mindset toward it is changing. I have to remember to keep it as a hobby and a pathway to fitness more than a source of identity. The gym will not save us from insecurity. We have another, more thorough Savior for that.

And He won’t stop loving you if your arms shrink or your belly grows. You are unable to shake His love for you, no matter how hard you try. And you cannot earn more of His love by getting bigger, more sliced up, or better looking. You’re loved as you are, and as you will be, regardless of how you look.

Just like sex, money, and work, the gym is inherently a good thing. It is a place to build relationships, push our bodies, and release stress. The danger comes when the gym, or as The Hodge Twins call it, The First Pentecostal Church of Gainz, becomes more than that; when it becomes a necessary part of our humanity.

When we remember that we are loved first and foremost, the gym can once again return to being an enjoyable hobby rather than a chasing after approval.

I love you guys.

See you in the gym.

Let me know if you need a spot.

e

 

 

Anxiety and the Myth of Christian Peace

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This holiday season, more than any I can remember, has been stressing me out.

It’s not so much the buying presents or parties or fears about the new year, or anything I can actually put my finger on. In fact, I think it has less to do with the holiday season itself as much as it does with the season of life I am in (three jobs, interviewing for a fourth, publishing a book, navigating singleness, sorting out my eschatology, etc, etc…).

I have never been a high stress person. I have always had more of a chill, laid back personality, but for whatever reason, this past year has seen a decline in that and an elevation in my blood pressure. I think too much. And becoming momentarily-almost-famous over a year ago certainly did not help to relax me. Quite the opposite in fact.

So for whatever reason, I have for the first time in my life experienced anxiety.

I used to always critique people in my mind who complained about anxiety, because I was so ultra-chill and didn’t understand the concept. I guess I still don’t, as anxiety is still very undefinable for me, and I can’t really put a finger on the source of this unrest in my bones. But whatever it is, I don’t like it, and I can see the negative effects of it in my life.

The worst part is plugging this experience of anxiety into my beliefs about Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the tender love of the Father.

I mean, the Holy Spirit is referred to as “The Comforter,”(John 14:16) and Christ, “The Prince of Peace,”(Isaiah 9:6) so naturally, as a Christian, I shouldn’t have to wrestle with foes like stress and anxiety, right?

I think the American conception of “Christian Peace” is a myth.

And here is what I mean by that.

I think we expect that simply because we wear the label of “Christian” our lives should be a model of peace and the absence of worry or fear. We expect our coworkers to approach us and say things like Wow, you seem so at peace with the world…Why? What do you have that I don’t??

But realistically, how many times has that happened to you? To me? Far less than I’d like…if ever.

I say that Christian Peace is a myth—to Americans anyway—because we talk about it despite rarely having experienced it. To the outsider, most Christians I know are just as stressed out and anxious as the rest of the world. We may use our mouths to talk about The Prince of Peace, but not give much experiential evidence of such.

We have not experienced the peace we so adamantly proclaim.

We allow things to stress us out and fill our minds with worry just like everyone else; as if the Creator of the cosmos weren’t watching over us. We neglect the small voice who whispers peace and life to us in favor of trying to grapple the reins from His hands and work things out on our own. Despite how much we talk about peace, we are not often shining examples of it.

I once had a friend who nightly drank away her fear of death. She was a Christian but had no trace of peace because of the anxiety which held her mind in a constant state of angst and unrest. I imagine you and I are no different, we just may use different escape vehicles. For instance, until recently, I realized I could never drive in silence. My hands and thoughts were jittery until I had a podcast pumping through the speakers in order to distract my mind from the lack of peace within.

Silence became more of a nice thought, like a friend who lives on the other side of the globe, than a routine experience.

The worst part of this, as Francis Chan points out, is that worrying is a sin.

In America, it is one of the most overlooked sins, right up there with gluttony and greed. Jesus specifically tells us not to worry (Matthew 6:25ff). Therefore, by worrying, we are directly disobeying Him.

I know how that comes off—like we are being punished for something that’s out of our control…or for feeling like things are out of our control and clinging to that thought. But I think there is a different way for us to look at it.

What if, instead of feeling dread about anxiety, we saw Jesus’ words as an invitation out of worry? What if we believed Him when He said that He sees the birds and the flowers of the field, and we don’t have to worry about ourselves? Why don’t these words comfort us more than they do?

I think there are some practical steps we can take away from anxiety, but they all begin with acknowledging that we are not in control of our lives, and that God is. Does an infant worry about what they’re going to eat tomorrow when they are in the loving hands of their father or mother? We need to position ourselves like that infant, fully dependent and wanting for nothing.

This doesn’t mean that our life’s circumstances will always be ideal—in fact quite the opposite—but when we take on the mentality of a child of God, we can relinquish our tight hold of control and trust that God is moving. We may not have control of what happens in our lives, but we can control how we respond. Will you respond with worry, anxiety, and stress, or will you allow yourself to relax, knowing that the Prince of Peace and the Spirit of Comfort are at work, bringing all things together for our good (Romans 8:28)?

God never promised easy lives for His followers, but He did promise to be with us in the midst of the storm. So if the Prince of Peace is with us, who are we to be stressed out?

I want Christians to be a people who truly embrace the peace of Christ, no longer allowing it to exist only in theory, or a ‘nice idea.’ I want the peace of Christ to so radically invade our lives that the notion of Christian Anxiety vanishes and is replaced by total reliance on The Comforter.

So….

breathe.

We who confess Christ as our source and our sustainer are no longer allowed stress or anxiety. We breathe Him in with every breath and exhale our fears and worries. The more we allow ourselves to be consoled by Him, the more we can let go of our ‘opaque futures,’ to borrow from AA’s terminology.

May we be a people who carry the peace of Christ with us. May we experience it in times of quietness and stillness, not only talking about it externally with our mouths, but demonstrating it through our interior life.

e

Letter To My Younger Porn-Addicted Self

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As a 25-year old college graduate, I have been battling pornography for just about half my life. The fact is, more young men and women than ever are growing up with this same struggle against pornography. I decided to write a letter to myself, a younger version of me, sharing some of the things I wish I had known when I first started looking at pornography and what I’ve learned in the past ten years.

Dearest Ethan,

As you enter the tenth grade you’re going to be faced with many challenges. You’re going to be hit smack in the face with a new set of struggles and the navigation won’t be easy. But you’re going to make it.

There will be insecurity – mostly around the pretty girls. This will happen for a few reasons—one being that half a dozen of them have turned you down already. I want to tell you that your value doesn’t come from being accepted by them…but I’m not sure you’ll believe me.

You’ll feel different. You’ll start to feel an apparent distance from every other person on earth, and the looming sense that you’re the only one of your kind, the only one who gets you. You’ll feel alone on a very crowded planet and you won’t understand why. I want you to know that you will eventually find people like you, people who understand and get you. I want to tell you to hang in there.

It’ll happen.

I want to warn you—most of all—that you’re about to begin the battle of your life. The struggle with pornography.

Younger Ethan, you’re going to live for quite some time in a dangerous place; a place where you feel like the struggle doesn’t really matter because marriage is a long way off. I mean, you’re still in high school, and no one else is being affected by your little secret, right?  You couldn’t be more wrong. I know you expect that the struggle will simply fade away eventually. I know you expect to finally reach a point where you can just stop and live life to the fullest. I know all of your excuses. The one that says it’ll stop when you meet the right girl or get the right job. Or maybe just when you find the right circle of friends so you don’t feel so alone, then the struggle will just fade and you’ll carry on with life.

You need to know that it doesn’t happen that way.

Pornography doesn’t simply fall off or fade away, but clings tighter the longer you let it invade your life.

Your secret sin of pornography is going to follow you. It’s not just going to go away on its own. It can’t. I want to tell you to stop and do something about it.

Find help,

tell someone,

but you aren’t going to. You’re going to let it hang on, and it will stay just as long as you let it.

Pornography will follow you into your first year of college. It will tag along as you travel around the world and do international ministry for a few years. The sin and struggle will hide itself in the shadows; in the corners and crevices when you close the door. It will follow you to your third year of college, the place where you expected to meet the girl who would become your wife.

But here’s the thing with this porn ‘habit’: without working through the insecurities and pain from the past, you will only be more tightly tethered to it. This addiction—and I hate to break it to you but it is an addiction—will prevent you from making any real move toward an actual woman. Your brain has been altered, the lines between pornography and reality are blurred. You will graduate as single as ever, and the struggle will only continue.

You see, Big Guy, porn has a way of sticking around. I know in the beginning it creeps up so slowly. It lies to you with its sultry voice telling you it’s no big deal. It entices you with its deceptive ways and makes you believe it’ll go away on its own later on.

That’s the lie pornography wants you to believe.

It’s fine.

It’s temporary.

You can quit anytime.

Pornography is like a weed in your garden: The first one shows up and it seems like no big deal. You simply ignore it because one little weed poses no real threat. Five days later, you return to the garden and things have changed a bit more, now there are a bunch of weeds. Three weeks later the garden is being overrun and you can’t stop thinking about the weeds. 6 months later the weeds begin to choke the very life right out of your plants. Pornography is a weed in your life. Don’t wait to fight it. Take action against it now!

I know what you’re thinking: What do I do? How do I stop this habit that has barged into my life rather uninvited? The truth is, it won’t be easy. Remember I said you were about to enter a battle? Battles aren’t won easily and they certainly aren’t won overnight. And honestly, there is no clear-cut simple path to freedom from pornography. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start.

Start now. Start today. Start before you wake up 10 years from now and find yourself in deeper than you ever thought you could be. And once you start, keep up the fight—never letting your guard down.

And most importantly, remember that when you mess up, there is grace. When you feel down, the Lord can lift you up. And when you feel dirty, it is Jesus who makes us clean. But more on this in the next letter.

Be cool, Little Guy.

Sincerely,

25 year old you.

e

A version of this article was originally published on Family Life Canada’s website. 

A Millennial Hymn

 

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I have learned that the best thrift stores
cannot be Google, Bing or Yelped;
They’re spread by word of mouth
without requesting Siri’s help.
I have learned a plastic zip tie
holds my hood shut while I drive
across the states in my Corolla
just to feel some more alive.
I’ve learned that cops don’t let you trespass
just “to get a better picture,”
and that nine times out of ten,
I’ll feel remorse after I’ve kissed her.

Because I’ve learned that people come and go—
or maybe I’m the one who’s leaving,
always packing up a bag because it’s better over there
…so I’m believing.

I’ve worked a half a thousand jobs
and I’ve made almost that much money,
and I’ll make light of just how broke I am
even though it isn’t funny.

I can’t name every president,
but I’m fluent in memeology,
and I’d probably be richer
if I’d not studied theology.
Yet here I sit, broke af
and borderline content.
I’m loving what I’m doing
though it won’t make me a cent.

e

The Pig Farm

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I figured it was about time for another creepy fictional piece, so I was inspired last night simply by the phrase “The Pig Farm.” I Googled it and found this place, on which this story is based, although I have a few more ideas revolving around Pig Farms. This is not as gory as some of my other pieces, but be warned, it is still strange.


The website promised 80 acres of free range woods for the hunt.

The Pig Farm was located in western Pennsylvania, removed from most of the state’s civilization and miles from the nearest highway.

“You kill ’em, we fill ’em” was the motto for the taxidermy portion of the farm ($500 extra per head. Not included with price of hunt).

Mac and his son Wilbur arrived on Friday afternoon, per their lodging instructions. They had paid nearly two grand to come take their crack at two of the best boars in Pennsylvania. The 80-acre plot was pumped full of the finest European boars, with a minimum weight of 200 pounds.

“I haven’t been to this farm since my college days,” said Mac as he plopped his duffel bag and rifle on his bed. You and what friends? Thought Wilbur sardonically. He had never met any of his father’s college friends despite how often Mac raved about their wild weekend at the Pig Farm.

They were standing in the upper room of the wooden lodge in the northern corner of the farm. “It even still smells the same!” exclaimed Mac.

Wilbur was a big boy, at about six and a half feet tall, he towered a full foot over his father. He had just graduated from Penn State and this was his first hunting excursion. His father had always tried to get him to go up to Pennsylvania’s back country, but Wilbur refused. Now that he was out of college, he figured he had no excuse and agreed to come to the Pig Farm for his first experience. He figured that somehow, it was more humane to kill animals bred to be hunted on the large swath of land. Or at least less dangerous for him.

A knock sounded on their thin wooden door. Continue reading