Monday, December 26, 2022

Learn the Story: What the Old Testament Teaches About Jesus

Artwork by Aase Mattson
In September through November, I gave a sermon series I called “Learn the Story” that was based on two main ideas. First, the Bible is really one story told over many books, authors, and years. Second, that story points to and is centered on Jesus, our God made flesh. 

I was motivated to preach this series because of how often I encounter the suggestion that the Old Testament is, well, “old” and unimportant, or that it has little to do with the New Testament, or that “the God of the Old Testament” is not the "God of the New Testament." The more I personally study scripture and Christian theology, I find these ideas to be false and often dangerous. 

For those who couldn’t listen to all the sermons, or anyone who wants a written reference point, here is a summary of my ten sermons from “Learn the Story.” (All the sermons can be viewed in the worship services on our YouTube Channel starting on September 11, 2022.)

1. Made in God’s Image (Genesis 1:24-2:3 and Mark 12:13-17)

  • Big Idea: When humans are made in God’s image, we are created to be representative of who God is to the world. When we are fully human, we remind anyone who sees us of what God is like. Language in the creation story suggests we should see all of the earth as God’s temple and we are the priests who manage proper worship. 
  • Jesus Connection: Jesus, being both fully God and fully human, is the most perfect image of God we have ever known. A huge part of his mission was to restore the proper relationship between us and God and us and creation so that “Your kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven.”

2. Rejecting God’s Image (Genesis 1:1-13, 19-23 and Mark 7:1-23)

  • Big Idea: Sin (with a capital S) isn’t a broken rule, it’s a broken relationship. Sin comes into the world when we reject God’s image for our own. We prefer to seize control of our lives and don’t trust God to truly be good. 
  • Jesus Connection: After losing “paradise” because of sin, God goes with Adam and Eve into the unknown. Jesus meets us in our unknown and dark places and even when we try to put God to death on the cross, Jesus returns to save us from ourselves and restore our lost relationship. 

3. Abraham, Sarah, and the Forever Promise (Genesis 12:1-8 and Luke 1:67-79)

  • Big Idea: God makes a promise to one faithful family, Abraham and Sarah, that they will become a great “nation” or “gōi” in Hebrew. But God’s timeline is not always ours. It takes 25 years for Sarah to give birth and hundreds of years for the full promise to arrive. And the promise is for all because “gōi” is usually the word that refers to foreign people, not Jews alone. 
  • Jesus Connection: Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham and Sarah. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, all of humanity is invited into the family of Abraham and becomes part of the promise made forever. 

4. Blessed and Limping: Jacob (Genesis 32:9-12, 22-31 and Luke 5:27-32)

  • Big Idea: Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, has a checkered past of lying and cheating to get what he wants. It comes to a head when God shows up to wrestle with him in the night. In the morning, Jacob is wounded by God but blessed with a new name and destiny: Israel, “wrestles with God.” We will likely wrestle and struggle with God in our lives, but we can emerge blessed and limping.
  • Jesus Connection: Jesus specifically seeks out the “sinners” like Jacob and blesses them. His goal is to transform our shortcomings into blessings. 

5. God the Liberator (Exodus 3:1-14 and Luke 4:16-21)

  • Big Idea: This may be the most important story we have outside of the Gospels because it shows us God’s heart. God sides with the oppressed and hurting, and seeks to liberate them. We are meant to “image” God, but sin breaks that and creates a cycle of violence and oppression. God seeks to free the enslaved from their pain and free the slavers from their sin. 
  • Jesus Connection: What God does in Exodus, Jesus does at Easter. When we cannot free ourselves, Jesus leads us through the sea of baptism, drowns our oppressors in the water, and we come out as God’s freed people. 

6. Becoming God’s People: Commandments and Wilderness (Exodus 19:1-8 and Matthew 5:13-20)

  • Big Idea: God seeks for the Israelites to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” The Commandments are often seen simply as a list of rules, but God intends for them to tell us what a priestly and holy people look like, what it looks like to bear God’s image. 
  • Jesus Connection: Jesus comes to “fulfill the law,” meaning to help us know it’s proper place. We love one another because we have been loved, not because we expect a reward. 

7. What is a Messiah?: Saul, David, and the Kings (1 Samuel 10:17-25 and Mark 8:27-37)

  • Big Idea: “Messiah,” or “Christ” in Greek, was not a title unique to Jesus. Messiahs in the Old Testament were usually kings who rescued God’s people from their enemies, established a kingdom for them, and restored proper worship of God (like King David). They were military and political heroes and that’s what people expected Jesus to be. 
  • Jesus Connection: Jesus is the True Messiah who turns our assumptions on their heads. He rescues us from the enemies of Sin and Death, establishes the Kingdom of God that has no borders or end, and restores us to worship God as image bearers. 

8. When Everything Falls Apart: The Exile to Babylon (Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14 and John 13:33-35)

  • Big Idea: When Jerusalem is destroyed and God’s people sent to exile in Babylon, many question where God is and what they should do since everything they’ve known is gone. God’s answer is to live with hope, act with love, and create peace. No matter the circumstances we should seek that same goal. 
  • Jesus Connection: Jesus one time says that the greatest commandments are to “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” In times of crucifixion and times of resurrection, we are called to do the same things, just as the exiled Jews were.

9. How to Speak to God: The Psalms (Psalm 13, Psalm 23, and Matthew 26:36-44)

  • Big Idea: The Psalms are my favorite book because of their raw honesty. They include songs and prayers that are angry, confused, joyous, hopeless, and everything in between. Instead of “dressing up” or wearing a mask to come before God, we can be honest with our thoughts and emotions. We sometimes limit faith to what we do, but more importantly it’s about what we are: God’s beloved children.
  • Jesus Connection: Jesus teaches us to pray to God as “Our Father,” because that’s the relationship God wants with us. And even Jesus prays to God with brutal honesty: “Father take this cup from me. Yet not what I will but your will be done.”

10. Don’t You Remember?: The Prophets (Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 23:23-28)

  • Big Idea: The prophets can make God sound like a grumpy landlord — “Don’t break the rules or I’ll evict you!” — but their words are more like the concerned parent who can see their child going down the wrong path: “If you keeping doing that, there are going to be bad consequences, so please don’t.” Micah summarizes many of the themes from the Old Testament in three simple commands: “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.”
  • Jesus Connection: What Micah commands is what Jesus does — for us! He brings justice for the suffering in his ministry and for all at the cross, he shows kindness and compassion to all, and he walks humbly with us, teaching us the way of God’s love.

The Big Story’s Big Idea: God created this world and us to be a physical living-out of everything that is good about God. Out of fear and our self-centered nature, we reject God’s image and choose to pursue our own images or idols. God spends the rest of time seeking to call us home and show us that everything we are seeking — liberation, purpose, community, security, hope, peace, justice, acceptance — are found in relationship to God. Jesus is the ultimate example of God’s way, but more importantly is the Messiah who rescues us from ourselves and restores us as God’s image bearers.  

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“I’m still learning things I ought to know by now.” -Vertical Horizon, "You’re a God”

Friday, October 7, 2022

Let's Stop Fighting About Turkey Sandwiches

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash
One of my first jobs was working at a coffee and sandwich shop. Every day, I'd take orders and make sandwiches with a variety of vegetables, condiments, cheeses, and even grill them if asked. There were thousands of possibilities for customizing a sandwich, but all of them included two pieces of bread and some meat. 

And no one ever got into an argument over what someone else ordered on their sandwich.

"Why would anyone get into an argument about what someone else likes on their sandwich," you ask? We shouldn't, but it occurred to me recently that many of the debates and arguments that we get into in churches are like fighting over sandwiches. 

Churches have many ways of doing things. In worship alone, congregations need to decide on:

  • Do we have music? What style? What instruments will lead it?
  • Is there preaching? Who can preach? How long should it be? 
  • Do we read scripture based on themes? Reading a section in order? Following a lectionary (i.e. a predetermined schedule of readings shared by many churches)?
  • Is worship loud and energetic? Quiet and reflective? In the morning? Evening? How long?
  • And more recently for many churches: will people worship in person, online, or both?

We have many denominations and congregations in the United States that have started over questions like these and most people choose a church to attend based on their preferences to questions like these. But they are preferences. They are not requirements or orders from God. 

In the sandwich metaphor, we might say they are like the toppings on a sandwich. Some people like their sandwich to have lots of onions and spicy mustard with two kinds of cheese; others prefer just turkey, mayo, and a slice of cheddar. And that's fine. There's nothing wrong with having different preferences.

Martin Luther and his fellow reformers had a word they used to describe these preferences: "adiaphora." It's a Latin word that basically means, "things that don't really matter" and for their purposes, meant "things that don't impact our salvation." In other words, whether or not you like a certain hymn or piece of architecture doesn't change that your faith in God's grace grants you new life. 

But many congregations have debates that sound like: "The way I make my turkey sandwich is the only way to do it and everyone has to agree with me or they aren't welcome." For example: 

  • "Someone keeps wanting to put whole wheat bread in the sandwich line. No one likes that stuff."
  • "I tried a grilled sandwich once and it was terrible. I hope we never serve that here."
  • "I don't like Swiss cheese. Maybe we should stop offering it so that people learn to stop eating it."
These sound ridiculous, but if we swap out the options with words like "classic hymns," "upbeat music," or "worshipping online," they probably sound like things many churchgoers have heard or said. So, are we fighting over sandwich toppings? 

Again, there's nothing wrong with having different opinions about sandwich toppings, but they are adiaphora. They aren't necessary to have a turkey sandwich. You just need to make sure you have turkey and bread. So what is the turkey and bread?

Luther and the reformers had an answer for that, too. In Article VII of the Augsburg Confession they wrote: "The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered." So, church is where people of God hear the Gospel and receive the sacraments. In preaching on Luke 13:10-17 recently, I paraphrased it by saying, "Church is where Jesus shows up and healing happens, physically, spiritually, or otherwise." That's the turkey and bread: Jesus shows up; healing happens.

There are hundreds of ways to make that happen. Most churches come up with one recipe and stick to it. My church tries to swap in different options from time to time because we know we have a variety of preferences in our congregation. Last year, we made the decision to have at least one hybrid service per week for people to attend in person and online together. We're learning to make everyone who attends feel included and welcome. I know there are many things we try or do regularly that not everyone loves, but I always try to have a space where something for your sandwich is awesome, even if you don't like everything on the table. Like a buffet, if you don't like something, just skip it and let someone else eat it up. 

But always -- ALWAYS -- let's make sure we have meat and bread. Welcome to church. Let's eat.

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“I’d rather fight you for something I don’t really want than to take what you give that I need.” -Rich Mullins, “Hold Me, Jesus”

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Why No One Should "Go to Church"

Is it church if no one's there?
(Photo by 
JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash)
Years ago I cut out a magazine article and posted it on my office door. It was written by Dan Kimball, an Emergent church pastor from California. As he starts out, he shares a story of telling a group at his church that “According to the is actually impossible to ‘go to church.’” After letting confusion wash over their faces, he explains that in the New Testament, the word “church” never applies to a building, but always to the people who follow Jesus. “We can’t go to church,” he concludes, “because we are the church.” (Unfortunately, other than these quotes, I can't find any trace of the original article. 😞)

This is a principle that we’ve all learned (I remember singing in Sunday school, “I am the Church, you are the Church...”), but we don’t act like we have. The way we typically talk about church actually suggests that we think of “church” as the building, or, at least, as only what we do in that building. 

Instead, we need to distinguish between the church that is a static building and the church that is a people or a movement. Being an English major and a writer, I like to think of them as the "little c church" (building) and "big C Church" (the people).

The word the early Church used to describe itself in Greek is “ecclesia,” which literally means “those called out.” The Church, then, is the people who are called by God. We are called out of things and ways of living that rob us of life and joy and God’s presence, called to gather to hear the Good News of life through Christ. And we are also the people called out of our places of worship (out of our comfort zones?) to be the Church in the world and for the world.

This is why Paul says Christians are the "Body of Christ," a living, moving extension of God, instead of an unmoving building. (Or maybe an unmoving audience?) If we think church is just the building, we can think our faith and lives are as static and passive as the building. It becomes the country club (or bomb shelter) that we retreat to when we need to rest. 

One of my favorite images for the church I heard years ago at a youth gathering (I apologize that I can't credit the source), where someone said, "We too often think of church as a buffet, where we come to gorge on God and then hope we won't starve before we return; instead, we need to think of church as the grocery store where we gather the ingredients we need to make meals throughout the week."

Just as the goal of going to the grocery store is to have a dinner party, the goal of going to church (the building) is to live as Church (the people). We are "called out" as the Church not to escape from the world or hide from it, but to learn to live in it with identities, patterns, and habits that are healthy and cooked from good ingredients. 

The God of Life has called us out, called us out of death and into life, called us out of the noise and chaos the world around us to rest in (and then share) a message of hope. God calls for us to grow in that life and God calls us to share that life with others. God doesn't want us to go to church; we are called to be the Church.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"May this place of rest in the fold of your journey bind you to hope. You will never walk alone." -Jars of Clay, "The Shelter"

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Faith in Media: When the Pop Star Interviewed the Late Show Host

Image Found at
When I first heard about this interview clip between Stephen Colbert and Dua Lipa, I was confused. I was told that Dua Lipa, the pop star, was interviewing Stephen Colbert of The Late Show on his show? And Lipa, known for sexy dancehall hits, was asking him sincere questions about his faith as a Christian? And Colbert had a profound and personal answer? 

That combination of factors didn't really compute in my brain, and so I forgot about it at the time. Then about five months later, someone told me, "No seriously, you need to watch it."

I've now watched it multiple times because I think it really is that good. And the novelty isn't even the best part. (The first few minutes sets up the conversation, but the relevant Q&A begins at 2:43 in the clip.) There are at least three things that I find particularly worthy of reflection. 

First is simply the authentic humanity of the conversation. While they are joking around, Lipa's question is honest (she is really curious to learn what he has to say) and dignifying (she recognizes something that is important to Colbert that she may not share or understand) and Colbert's response is respectful (he answers honestly without scoffing at the question or trying to convince her of anything). In an age where we so often see differences of opinion as a threat or lack the curiosity to want to understand another point of view, it's refreshing to see a conversation that isn't a debate. I wish more conversations around the dinner table or water cooler went like this.

Second, I think it's amazing how well Colbert is able to use his faith to interpret a movie and a quote with theological lenses. And he doesn't use clichés to do it. I know I struggle to do that at times with a master's degree in religion, but he is at ease with the ideas and language of his faith. It's clear that he has thought about how his faith, his comedy, and current events intersect in strong ways. If I could teach that skill effectively, I would probably put myself out of a job. 

Finally, I love how Colbert identifies fear as the opposite of faith. Fear leads us to excuse evil, he says, and the solution isn't to ignore death or evil, but to disarm them with laughter. I think we're often more likely to ignore uncomfortable feelings like sadness or pain, but Colbert suggests we need to confront them or else they become too powerful. Finding ways to laugh about death to care for one another has echoes of "take up your cross and follow me." If you want to find God, don't run from hurt, but tend to it until something new grows out of it. (Luther called this his "Theology of the Cross.")

I hope you can find something as useful in this interview. If you have your own perspectives and know how to reach me, please engage with me by email or on Facebook. I'm happy to continue the conversation started by a pop star and a late night host. 

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“I’m a walking, talking question mark, but what is the question again?” -Jamie Lidell, “What’s the Use”

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Learn the Story: How the Old and New Testament Fit Together

Illustration by Aase Mattson
While I was growing up in the church, I got the impression that the Old Testament, which makes up the first three quarters of the Bible was... well, old. As Christians, we could learn some important things from the Old Testament (or the Hebrew Scriptures) but it was mostly background information. The Bible that really mattered was the New Testament, the Greek Scriptures, because they were about Jesus.

As I grew and studied scripture though, I came to a very different conclusion of what Christianity teaches. Thanks to some good mentors and authors like Philip Yancey and Daniel Erlander, I realized that the New Testament doesn't replace the Old Testament, it continues and completes it. 

One of the best examples of this is in Luke 24, where the resurrected Jesus twice explains to his disciples how his ministry, death, and resurrection is a fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures: "everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled" (v. 44). (See also: v. 27) Jesus is the culmination of everything that has been taught and done through the history of God's people, not the rejection of it. In fact, if you aren't familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, you miss a lot of the symbolism and meaning behind what Jesus does.

Unfortunately, I still hear from people that they believe (or have been told) that the Hebrew Scriptures are... old. 

This past week, I started a special sermon series at my church I'm calling "Rooted: Learn the Story."  I'm teaching from ten major stories of the Old Testament in order to show how they are part of one continuous story and how that story points us to Jesus. If that's the kind of thing that interests you, please check out the sermons as they are posted on our YouTube page. The first one, "Made in God's Image," can be seen here. In it, I make two central points: 1) to be created in God's image means we are created to reflect God's character and nature to the world and 2) when we do, creation is good, as God intended it to be. 

I hope someone may find this helpful.

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

"Gonna need a little water from another time." -John McCutcheon, "Water From Another Time"

Rooted: Learn the Story Sermons

  • September 11:
    • Made In God’s Image -- Genesis 1:24-2:3
  • September 18: 
    • Rejecting God’s Image -- Genesis 3:1-13, 19-23
  • September 25: 
    • Abraham, Sarah, and the Forever Promise -- Genesis 12:1-8
  • October 2: 
    • Blessed and Limping (Jacob) -- Genesis 32:9-12, 22-31
  • October 9: 
    • God the Liberator (Exodus from Egypt) -- Exodus 3:1-14
  • October 16: 
    • Becoming God’s People (10 Commandments & The Wilderness) -- Exodus 19:1-8
  • October 23: 
    • What is a Messiah? (Saul, David, and the Kings) -- 1 Samuel 10:17-25
  • October 30: 
    • When Everything Falls Apart (The Exile to Babylon) -- Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
  • November 6: 
    • How to Speak to God (The Psalms) -- Psalm 13 and Psalm 23
  • November 13: 
    • Don’t You Remember? (The Prophets) -- Micah 6:1-8

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Cancel Culture and Dealing with Sinful People

The author at Taliesen West
Last November, while doing some continuing education in Arizona, I took the opportunity to visit Taliesen West, Frank Lloyd Wright's second home and studio in the desert. Wright has long been someone I admire because of the artistry of his designs, but even more for the way he thought about the experience of his buildings. He wanted to create specific emotions and thoughts for people who used his buildings.

Wright was also a selfish, irresponsible jerk.

History attests to the fact that he abandoned his first family to chase a mistress, he skipped out on many of his debts and contracts, he would often use his students as free labor, and he was known to be rude and condescending. 

My spouse and I have long discussed how to properly balance respect for his work with disgust for his character. Can you admire the art and condemn the artist? How do you praise one part of his life without approving of all of it? Or do we have to be all or nothing -- his art was great so his character doesn't matter OR we shouldn't study him or honor him in any way because he was so flawed?

I've thought about my dilemma with Frank Lloyd Wright often in the past few years, as we've had reckonings and reexamination of many public figures in movements like #metoo, confrontation of racism, and what is sometimes referred to as "cancel culture." 

  • Thomas Jefferson and George Washington made incredible and brilliant contributions to human liberty, but they also kept slaves, the antithesis of human liberty. 
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. was a giant of the civil rights movement for his moral and rhetorical clarity, but he is known to have carried on an affair until his death and to have plagiarized in his college papers.
  • Michael Jackson was one of the best pop music performers of all time, but he's alleged to have sexually exploited boys. 
  • Ellen Degeneres was known for bringing inclusion, kindness, and positivity to daytime television, but she has been accused of being abusive, rude, and uncaring to employees behind the scenes.
  • Bill Cosby, Placido Domingo, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, and on and on...

Let me be very clear up front that I don't think these are all equivalent in terms of the public contributions OR the alleged crimes. Nor do I think the answer to "How should we deal with their legacy?" will be the same in every case. These are all unique situations and problems with different complexities to be debated on their own. But that's partly my point.

One of the observations I've made is the public often wants to take the all-or-nothing route for most cases. Either the good they did was too important and we should ignore their faults altogether, or they are flawed and so we should remove them entirely from the public record. Hence there are pastors who admit to adultery and get standing ovations from their congregation and some people get fired for stupid things they wrote when they were teenagers.

We seem to be really bad at dealing with ambiguity and human foibles. We want our heroes to be pure of heart and are deeply hurt when they aren't. Or we want people to fall neatly into "good or bad" categories and struggle when they (always) fall in between. Exactly why is beyond the space of this blog or scope of my knowledge, but from a Christian perspective (which fits into both) it seems we should be better at handling this. 

The Bible is full of heroes who have serious flaws: Jacob is a liar, Moses has a bad temper, Samson is controlled by his lust, David is an adulterer and murderer, and so on. Yet God was able to redeem them and use them. Paul says in Galatians, "You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it," but God "called me by his grace" (1:13, 15). 

The Bible doesn't have "good" and "bad" people; it just has human people who "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). And unlike many popular depictions, God's goal isn't to catch people screwing up and condemn them forever, but to transform them and reconcile them to lives of faithfulness, like Paul describes above or Legion in Mark 5. 

None of this is to say that there shouldn't be consequences for moral failings. Christianity also calls for confession of sins, repentance, and justice. Sometimes people should be fired, arrested, or publicly shamed for their faults, but we can never divorce that from the hope for their redemption. 

We should never be surprised that humans can do stupid, hurtful, or even evil things, nor should we assume that great people are free from criticism. We are all what Martin Luther called, "simul justus et peccator" or "simultaneously saint and sinner." And he was a prime example of that. 

Luther was a brilliant theologian, preacher, and pastor, but later in life, he became deeply and violently anti-semitic. Some of the things he wrote were awful enough that Lutherans have publicly apologized and condemned these writings. 

As I said earlier, I don't think there are any one-size-fits-all solutions to the problems of flawed leaders and celebrities, but perhaps that is part of the solution: being honest about sins (either our own or our predecessors) and humbly pledging to do better, while welcoming others who make similar promises. 

At least, I hope I can receive that grace when my imperfections are brought to light... and can share it when the roles are reversed.

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“Don’t have to settle the score, ‘cause we all live under the reign of one king.” -Creed, “What’s This Life For?”

Thursday, June 30, 2022

“Midnight Mass,” Mars Hill, and Religious Extremism

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
In one week last fall, I finished two very different series that were recommended to me for very different reasons from different people but had nearly identical lessons. 

The first was a documentary podcast series from Christianity Today called, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” Over thirteen episodes (plus two bonus episodes), the series traced the ministry of a mega-church in Seattle and its “young, restless, and reformed” lead pastor, Mark Driscoll. Mars Hill became one of the largest churches in America, appealing especially to young adults and men in a notoriously unreligious city. But, as the name suggests, the church fell apart publicly and suddenly when Driscoll resigned in the wake of an investigation into his leadership that alleged abuse and bullying. 

The second series was "Midnight Mass," a Netflix horror series that was the most popular streaming show in the country for a few weeks. (Note: NO spoilers ahead.) Normally it never would have been on my radar, but three different sources offered the same basic review: "I normally don't like horror, but this was different and it raised a lot of questions about religion that made me think, but I think it would offend a lot of Christians, and I really want to talk about it with someone." With that intriguing trinity of recommendations, I started watching it and ended up binging it with my spouse and daughter who wandered in while I was watching. And talk about it we did! 

It's the kind of show that is difficult to say anything about without giving away spoilers, but the basic premise is that a small fishing village on a New England island is dying. After a new priest unexpectedly arrives at the Catholic Church that serves as the heart of the community, strange things begin happening -- some terrifying and some miraculous -- and there are disagreements about what they mean. Once you learn what is happening and why, but you are left wrestling with questions about ends justifying means, the difference between faith and cultishness, the meanings of love and life, and so much more. 

It was these nagging questions that form the bridge between these two series. Both are asking deep questions about one central question: When does religion move from being a medicine to being a disease?

In the case of Mars Hill, the host tracks the way the church helps many people develop their faith and become better people, but often does so with methods that are antithetical to the character of Jesus. Despite narcissistic, dishonest, and vengeful behavior, Mark Driscoll grows in power and people that get in his way become "bodies under the bus" as he says in one infamous conversation. As long as the church is growing, people believe, Mark must be correct. Over time, the church becomes focused on promoting Mark Driscoll instead of Jesus, while the differences between the two are ever more stark. 

Likewise, in "Midnight Mass," there are people who are willing to defend and overlook what should be objectively evil as long as it also brings blessings and miracles. In both cases, people will use scripture and theological language to excuse bad behavior or attack those who are trying to speak the truth. 

I found myself feeling very uncomfortable on multiple occasions in both series as I would hear Mark Driscoll or a villain in the fictional series use theological language and Bible lessons that I largely agree with (and have at times used myself), only to have them land on a conclusion completely opposite of what I believe. 

On hearing and seeing how people are wounded by those words, I had to think deeply about my own vocation and the authority I have as a pastor to shape what people believe is true. I was reminded of times I have been less than Christ-like in my leadership or hurt people in the name of my higher priorities.

Both series are powerful because they make the audience stare at the worst of religious extremism and abuse, but neither one is really anti-religion. They also celebrate what is beautiful and life-giving in religious practices. They offer compelling examples of how faith brings out the best in people, even in the worst of times. They are haunting and compelling because they show how thin the line can be between good and evil, how good intentions do not guarantee virtuous outcomes, and how easily we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are on the side of God as we banish God from our presence, just as the religious leaders of the Gospels crucified Jesus in the name of defending God. 

I highly recommend both series to anyone who likes to think or who wants to wrestle with the questions I've outlined. I'm still thinking about these months after finishing them. Be warned that you will really want to talk to someone about them. I'm available if you know how to reach me. 

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“Bad decisions, they don’t feel bad at the time; consequences, they don’t always fit the crime.” -NEEDTOBREATHE, “Riding High”