Technology Will Save us Now

Society is falling apart at the seams. Cell phones, iPads, Google Goggles (those exist, right?) distract us from working. They limit our efficiency. You have heard it. As a teacher, I hear it daily. I say it daily. But is it true?

Lately, I’ve taken a different response. I am embracing it. I am about to begin a one-to-one program, which is a program where every student in two of my classes will have an iPad. Critics cringe. Hawks hover. Luddites lurk. Everyone waits for it to fall apart.

The critic-They will break them. They will just play games.
The hawk-It’s too expensive.
The Luddite-Technology is the devil.

I get it. I’ve been there. In fact, if anyone has reason to boast in his steps against technology it is me. Even as part of first generation with Facebook and Youtube in college, I chose not to have internet my sophomore year. In high school I was in a “no cell phone, no girlfriend club” (it made us losers feel better to pretend it was by choice). But even more, I went a year as an adult, a teacher without my own computer. I have a typewriter on my desk right now (on the very top not reachable), a record player, and more paper books than I could ever want. Once during a stretch of sever Thoreauvian zeal, I sold my iPhone and proceeded to run over my rather old Macbook with a rather large American truck. Then sanctimoniously, I told my students “I don’t have a smart phone. I don’t even have a computer. I destroyed it.”

And yet this week, my wife and I argued over my technology use. She claims that when I am GChatting with friends, I do not pay attention to her. We discussed it. I explained that as a father of two toddlers, a teacher, a coach, an intern, and a back-up shortstop on a church softball team, I do not have time to keep up relationships. All-in-all social media, online chatting specifically, has helped me keep very strong relationships with good friends that make me a better husband, father, friend, and teacher. But at times, like everyone, I am distracted by it.

We Can’t Fear Distraction

Distraction is perhaps the biggest argument against giving students iPads. I agree. Students will be distracted.

Distraction is the enemy, and it is also my argument for why we need iPads for high school students. For example, today, a student stood in front of the class at the beginning and looked at his peers. He said, “Mr. C, do you ever feel strange that everyone is looking at you?” My response was simple, “No, they are all looking at their phones.” In that moment, at the beginning of class it was true. Of course, I do what all good teachers do. I tell them to put away their phones. I fight it all day, and in my dreams. But this serves to illustrate my point: with or without school-funded iPads, students are distracted and will be for the rest of their lives. People are distracted. Last week I asked my 8th hour, how many of you have a smart phone or iPad to look at this article online? Every student had an internet-enabled device already. Every student. They Tweet and use Facebook all day. And get this, their parents do too. Their parents—who might be you—tweet and chat and check stocks and sports and everything else all day long. You might be reading this at work. You might be “distracted.”

Technology and Education

Without getting too deep into the philosophy of education, I think most people can agree that three essential aspects of the English classroom are

-Collecting information

Where will students be doing this in the future? Online. Why not start in high school? I have one reason: online is an awful place. It is. Whether it is projecting a false identity that makes people feel crappy, isolated, and lonely through Facebook, or never talking with your kids because you have sports scores available all the time, or writing that racist comment on a suburban newspaper comment section because you don’t have to sign your name. Or for young people, you might make fun of a girl on social media who was raped, or take a picture of someone’s failing test and put it all over Twitter, or Tweet about how fat your English teacher is and then wonder why she won’t write you a letter of recommendation. These things happen. I’ve seen them all in the last few months.

Is society falling apart because of the internet?

Yes and no.

Am I going to keep running over computers as grand symbolic gestures?

No. (actually, who knows. This is one topic I could totally change my mind on).

But for now, I am taking the stance that regardless of how passionate and “chill” I am as a teacher, regardless of how much my students respect me, regardless of how much I want them all to cut their cable lines and run over their Macbooks with large American trucks, they won’t. Virtually all of my students will spend most of their waking hours in reach of a device that is connected to the internet for the next 80 years. If futurists are right (which they never are) my students may be hard-wired to the internet by the time they are 40 unable to turn it off.

So maybe, rather than spouting sanctimoniously; about how I don’t have a computer; and MY phone is from the dark ages of 2005 and doesn’t even have a camera; and how I only use a type writer; and how MY knowledge comes from books written centuries ago, maybe I could do MY job and teach them how to be successful both in high school and beyond in the areas of communicating, collecting information, and comprehension.

Wouldn’t the most effective thing a student could learn at the age of 17 be how to wield the powerful tool of the internet without being totally distracted, or misled, or overwhelmed? Wouldn’t legitimate study on current brain research and the effects of “multi-tasking” be a helpful part of the curriculum?

Now you aren’t all teachers, and perhaps you’ve already stopped reading for that reason, but let’s be real. You are sitting at the computer right now. You tweet. You use Facebook. Have you researched? Have you thought deeply about your technology use, or do you fall into the camp of staring at the screen because it is pretty. Or are you the Luddite who decries the evil pixels.

Certainly the internet is an evil place with abuse and violence and lies and rumors and rhetoric that will make you wish you were run over by a large American truck. But so is an American high school; come to think of it, so is America and every other place on the planet. And maybe if we learn to appropriately use the web, we will live better in the world.

We will see.

I’m out,
Mr. Cedeno

Gatsby is a Sociopath But America Loves Sociopaths

poems are as heartless as birdsong, as unmeant
as elm leaves, which if they love love only
the wide blue sky and the air and the idea
of elm leaves.

These Poems, She Said

For the past six weeks my wife and I have ritualistically and urgently put the kids to bed as early as possible, prepared our snacks, and plopped down in front of the TV to feed our addiction for the Showtime Original Series, Dexter. Dexter is a blood splatter analyst for Miami Metro’s Homicide department who keeps a second life as a sociopath, a serial killer who takes his urge to kill out on people who deserve it: priests who molest children and then kill them, Doctors who kill their patients, etc. We have worked through six and a half seasons of 14 episodes at a runtime of 54 minutes a pop.

Our addiction knows no bounds. We have enacted this ritual late at night after returning from a wedding, we have enacted it after leading a small group in our home. Whatever else has happened over the past six weeks the one constant has been this pathetic devotion to a bizarre god.

Last night we broke the cycle to go see Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. (Appropriately for a film about bootlegging, we snuck a couple beers into the theatre in my wife’s purse.) I haven’t read Gatsby since middle school and I wasn’t a huge fan back then. But I love Baz Luhrmann and Kanye. (Any movie that begins with “No Church in the Wild” can’t be all bad.) Still, I was nervous that it would be a late night because inevitably We’d have to return home and watch Dexter. We are addicts, remember?

Gatsby fed our need for voyeurism into the mind of a sociopath.

Jay Gatsby is a sick man. Nick describes him as the most hopeful person he ever met. This is one line which makes more sense because of Luhrmann’s decision to place our narrator in a mental institution. Gatsby is hopeful in the way apocalyptic radicals are hopeful. He is looking toward the future with genuine optimism. But it is a future can only bring destruction because he isn’t really interested in the future. He just wants to return to the past.

He is a man who at the core is disgusted with himself. The fact that a young Jay Gatz doesn’t literally kill his parents is only aesthetically comforting. He disposes of them with the same cold indifference of a serial killer. His adopted father is chosen not because of a human connection but because he likes the appearance of this man and wishes to inhabit his skin, his house, his social circles. His fixation with Daisy is not the kind of romantic love that a person feels for another person because Jay abandoned himself along with his parents in North Dakota and because he isn’t actually in love with Daisy; he only loves his idea of Daisy. When the real Daisy refuses to match his dream of her he loses his temper and lashes out at her. (It is interesting that Luhrmann’s depiction of the “beautiful shirts” scene gives the impression of Gatsby joyously, and quite literally, burying Daisy alive in his opulence.)

Gatsby has spent five years doing anything, (we must imagine such a drastic transformation could only be accomplished by a truly desperate person) anything at all to become the kind of person who could be worth Daisy’s love. Fitzgerald never tells us what this includes. But Gatsby doesn’t blink at hiding the brutal murder of a woman. Of course he doesn’t, anything that stands between him and his desire is disposable. We must believe he has disposed of lots of things on his way to West Egg.

When Gatsby was shot dead I breathed the same sigh of relief I release when Dexter puts down a murderer in his “kill-room.” What would this person have done when the day or week or month passes and Daisy still hasn’t called? He wouldn’t care that she left the country with her husband. After all, no one understands her like he does. Even she gets confused. But everything would be alright he just needs to…To what? Kill Tom? Does that seem like a stretch?

To find another character so internally vacuous, so dependent upon the perception of others for his own existence, and completely enslaved to his Id we have to turn to Patrick Batemen, the first person narrator of American Psycho, nicely summarized as:

A 26-year-old Wall Street operative (his activity at work is left unspecified), dedicates himself to pleasure and conspicuous consumption. The novel is a sequence of restaurant meals, parties and clubs – interrupted by episodes of psychopathic violence (for which the novel has become infamous) and bouts of heartless sexual athleticism.

But actually, maybe Bateman isn’t Gatsby at all. Maybe he’s Nick Carraway. Nick is the twenty-something who shows up in New York to make his fortune and falls in love with the Gatsby dream. And we can stop calling it Gatsby’s dream because really it is the American Dream. Gatsby is just an idea, an aspiration. And when the dream dies there is no one to mourn it. No one except Nick who is broken totally by his indebtedness to this dream. The hopefulness of it, close and yet completely unreachable.

In the end everything Gatsby has touched has not turned to gold but only to death and violence. His lavish home is looted and deserted, his lover has left the country, and he has been shot dead in his own swimming pool. Violence was always at the center of his limitless desire for fulfillment. But as the possibility of that fulfillment faded that violence rises up and makes its master its first victim. Bret Easton Elis, Author of American Psycho has said

I was writing about a society in which the surface became the only thing. Everything was surface — food, clothes — that is what defined people. So I wrote a book that is all surface action: no narrative, no characters to latch onto, flat, endlessly repetitive. I used comedy to get at the absolute banality of the violence of a perverse decade.

What is so unnerving about Luhrmann’s Gatsby is the way he accomplishes very much the same affect (deliberately or not) by regularly reminding us through his normal anachronisms that we are not watching a real depiction of the Roaring Twenties. We are exposed to the complete superficiality of all of Gatsby’s adolescence. Also we aren’t like Nick. We can’t believe in Gatsby anymore and we can’t mourn his passing. We certainly can’t “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Because we know that the way of Gatsby is death. And now all we can see are the bodies he has left in his wake.

We don’t believe in him. But maybe that’s not because we’ve matured. Maybe it is because we are the children of Patrick Bateman. We don’t exist in a satirical 1980s world of obsessive superficiality. We are after that. Nick’s hope and Bateman’s narcissism are not virtues or vices to this public. They are equally entertaining. Gatsby might be a sociopath just like Dexter. But America likes sociopaths. They keep us occupied.

Jay Gatsby: Fully God and Fully Man

The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.

F . Scott Fitzgerald


Gatsby has been out for a few weeks, but you saw Ironman III. So now is the time for this post. Since you “read” Gatsby, in high school, you fall into one of three camps.

The Putzes -You didn’t read it at all. When your teacher asked, “What is T.J. Eckleburg?” on that ultimate softball question of the short answer test, you wrote, “Gatsby’s estranged brother who first crossed the Atlantic on a motor-plane. And then, (this part is just scribbling and you may have written symbolism down).” Actually, you may have written nothing, because you didn’t know what estranged meant. In fact, you don’t know how to read or write well, and you probably aren’t reading this blog anymore. But you will see the film because you find Cary Mulligan/and or, Leonardo DiCaprio attractive. So let’s move on.

The Pedantics-You read it. You even read it well. You are obnoxious at parties when people talk about the pop music that they like, you don’t hide rolling your eyes. You feel a need to explain that the green light is a heavy-handed symbol and that shows Fitzgerald’s immaturity as a writer. Sure, you think, at times his florid prose is beautiful, but it’s being choked by the weeds that are overwrought symbolism. You read this blog, and you will keep reading hoping that I agree with you because you know that Lane and I are obnoxious too. You will see the movie because you like to point out how bad things are and sound smarter than everyone.

The Purists-You read Fitzgerald’s masterpiece and loved it. You know a thing or two about that gin-drinking Irishman from the Twin cities. You even reference Generva King not Zelda. The green light, yeah, it’s a little much, but listen, it is a beautiful novel that is heavy-handed because the time was decadent. You have already seen the film twice and inexplicably prefer the Robert Redford version because it is purer. You forget how bad that movie is.

I am here to say, you are all wrong. 

Take for example how Baz Lurhmann, director of the 2013 film version, uses a much-maligned framing device of the even more maligned Toby Maguire in a sanitarium. The Purists don’t like it because it changes the story. The Pedantics don’t like it because it is Toby Maguire. The Putzes are hoping to see more Leo and/or Cary Mulligan. But the framing narrative works. It appropriately places the entire narrative into the subjective mind of a man who claims not to judge, but who judges constantly. He—like Fitzgerald, whom Lurhmann tries to channel more than the book’s version of Carraway—is a goober. Maguire does the job just fine.

Two Things Lurhman’s Version Does Amazingly Well

1-The drunken scene from chapter two- In the book the prose falls apart, as Nick gets drunk for the second time in his life, making the reader unsure of what is happening. The film gets trippy too, and the “I was within and without…” line is done perfectly. Once I saw that Baz Lurhmann was directing, I hoped he would get this line right. It is one of the favorite lines of English teachers. It needed to be surreal and is.

2-Tom Buchanan- Tom is perfect. In many ways, his acting is so good that he humanizes Daisy by making her return to him believable and almost, in a strange way, a respectable decision. Tom is the classic racist, misogynist, spoiled, businessman. Joel Edgerton’s performance reminds us how racist, rich white men took over most of the world #colonization.

Jay Gatsby as God and Man

Here are some important things from the passage quoted in the epigraph, in which Nick explains Gatsby’s transition from James Gatz, poor farm kid, to Jay Gatsby, Swagadelic King of Long Island:

-Gatsby sprang from the Platonic conception of himself.

-He was a son of God.

-He stayed true to this conception (following a meretricious beauty)

-His conception of himself was the type of swaggy adult that a seventeen-year-old would dream up. Think Justin Bieber.

Now the new film rightly emphasized Gatsby’s birth (not Gatz’s, Gatsby’s). It is essential to understanding the character, and it makes all of the absurd parties and symbols make sense. The CGI, anachronistic music, and synthetic elements of the film are not something at which the Purists should scoff: they should think, “OK, I see it. This is how a 17-year-old boy might dream up his existence.” If that argument doesn’t work, then let’s stick with the old standby, yes it is gaudy and anachronistic, but isn’t it the American dream that Gatsby embodies?

Lurhmann nails most of the more difficult stuff to cover in the book, but when he says that Gatsby is a child of God, the camera shows the stars. In case this was coincidence, the camera reminds us later of this when Gatsby is about to kiss Daisy for the first time and have his “incarnation” be complete. Once again it shows the stars. Lurhmann may be artfully changing this, or he didn’t read well enough. I will give him the benefit of the doubt, but it creates an interesting question regarding your purpose to change what “child of God means.”

What he may have missed comes from the sixth chapter of the book, and the epigraph of this blog post. The enthymeme (a truncated syllogism) that Fitzgerald sets up is as follows:

Major Premise-Gatsby sprang from the platonic conception of himself (or, he is his own dad)

Minor Premise-Gatsby is a son of God (Gatsby’s dad is God)

Implied Conclusion-Therefore, Gatsby is ___________. That’s right, his own God.

Fitzgerald tells us Gatsby is a child of God and must be about his father’s business. This doesn’t mean you show some shooting starts alluding to some vague western notion of the big guy upstairs who sends shooting stars when you need them, like Lurhmann did. No, this means that you are a postwar American, you refuses to acknowledge your past and will, by any means necessary including organized crime, create the lifestyle that you want. What you do is you have Nick Carraway voice over this line and you zoom in to James Gatz’s face. Then you zoom further. You use your fancy computer animation to show the very synapses of James Gatz’s brain. That is where Gatsby is born: in the mind of a 17-year-old boy. Like all 17-year-olds, he is in his own rite both Platonic creator, in whose mind all ideal forms rest, and the ideal form of man himself. At least that is how the age of 17 was for this writer whose Cross Country nickname was Beowulf and has created like 15 alter egos for himself with names like Javier Cassideno and Rey Pescador.

What type of god is Gatsby? He is the god of American consumption. He is the logical end of the American dream. And this makes sense with other writings from Fitzgerald. He famously wrote in This Side of Paradise.

“…a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken…”

Gatsby exists so powerfully in the mind of James Gatz that others begin to see it. He pulls himself from his proverbial bootstraps. He is god and man. He is the type of god that the roaring 20s wants. But why in 2013 would our version of Gatsby have him not as his own god, but as the son of a god outside of himself? Does Lurhmann’s rhetorical choice denote a longing to move back toward worshipping something other than the self?


Lurhmann’s view of Daisy as a speed bump on Gatsby’s road to success, rather than someone who makes him complete, strays from Fitzgerald’s text and provides several interesting questions. Could decades of divorce and crappy marriages make the idea that someone’s incarnation as a person could not be complete without finding the perfect person outdated? Does this weaken Gatsby? Was he weak already for wanting Daisy so much?

I’ll let you determine all that.

I’m done here.

Jesus is the Worst Superhero Ever

This is an excerpt from my blog post at Out of Ur today: 

If you woke up and the world had been transformed into a super-nerd dystopia where a demigod-Patton Oswalt forced you to choose only the best superhero to preserve from 100 years of American comics, you would choose Superman.

Sure, the more educated nerd-palate prefers a hero who is less of a boy-scout. (Batman is my pick.) After all, Superman is a little goody-goody. He ALWAYS does the right thing. He has the most complete set of powers: flight, x-ray vision, super strength, etc. He’s invincible, except for the whole kryptonite thing.

You would not tell demigod-Patton Oswalt that the ideal superhero for cultural preservation was Jesus Christ. Being honest, Jesus is actually a terrible superhero. Even if you give him the whole walking-on-water and miraculous healing thing, that doesn’t give you much to work with when Lex Luthor decides to blow up the sun or Darkseid starts a zombie apocalypse. Apart from the Ascension, Jesus can’t even fly. So there’s nothing he can do about the whole exploding sun fiasco. And re: the zombie apocalypse? Can he go around healing the zombies? No, no no. That’s not going to help. They will make more zombies. Someone has to stop Luthor and Darkseid. Someone needs to strap them to a meteor and toss them out into space. At least in the comic books, that will solve the problem.

Read the rest at Out of Ur

A Survival Guide for the Spiritual Desert

The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.

-David Foster Walace

Entering a Desert

In 2011 I was diagnosed with depression and nearly hospitalized for suicidal tendencies. As I look back on it, it is terrifying. Terrifying that I was so hurt that death seemed like the only option for relief. Terrifying that my children could have been left without a father, Laura without a husband. I think about the grief of my parents to see a child in so much suffering and to feel like there is nothing they could do. Mostly I think about Laura and the difficulty of loving me through it, the strength she showed, the faith she had for both of us.

But when I was in the thick of depression I didn’t think about any of that. I thought about one thing. God screwed me. I felt God had screwed me because I tried to follow him in faith and the floor seemed to fall out from beneath me. It is a long story but here is the cliff notes version:

In the summer of 2008, I lost my job. And instead of going out and finding a new job Laura and I decided to spend some time seeking God’s direction for out lives. We prayed, alone and with trusted friends. We received prophetic words from multiple sources. I took personality and gifts inventories. And when we felt like we had a direction, a solid word from the Lord, that I should pursue more education and a career in academic teaching, we put out the fleece of selling our house. Not an easy task in 2009, just a year after the markets collapsed. But we got a contract on the house. I quit my job (a job I hated with a boss who was one of the worst people I have ever known personally). We packed everything we owned into boxes and stored them. Our step of faith into God’s calling was being rewarded. Or so we thought. Two days before our scheduled closing date our buyer lost his job. He lost his mortgage. The sale was off. And since the sale was off so was my plan of continuing graduate school.

I don’t know what the hardest thing was during that following month. Telling my dream grad program that I wouldn’t be attending in the fall despite their generous financial support package or going back to a sales manager who had cheated me out of 18 months of sales commissions to ask for my job back.

But as surly as I had known God’s call on my life just a month earlier, I knew that God had screwed me. I stepped out of the boat in faith and he let me sink. And things went from bad to worse until I was daily hoping I would get hit by a bus or train.

Why the Desert?

Matthew tells us that Jesus was fasting forty days and that he was hungry. Aside from being one of those classic biblical hyperboles, DUH Matthew, we know he must have been hungry, this tells us that he was at the fullness of his fast. He was tired, ready to go and refresh himself. And things went from bad to worse. At this point of total depletion Satan comes and tempts him.

Why does this happen? Why is it when we feel like we are at our worst, like we’ve been in a spiritual desert for way, way too long, like we can’t take one more day of this trial, that we don’t get angels coming to minister to us? Instead we meet temptations that cause us to doubt the very core of our identity in God?

I believe that all of the synoptic writers put this story at the beginning of their gospels not only because it is chronologically correct, but because it is a truth so foundational to everything about the Christian life that if we miss it we will constantly be doubting God’s calling in our lives, we will be frustrated and angry when trials come across our path, and we will be crippled and self-centered in Christian ministry. Do you want to see the fullness of God’s promises made known in you life and the life of your family, in your church and in your community? Than we need to understand that the desert is not a place where God deserts us. But where he affirms his calling in our life and prepares us to join him in ministry.

We Survive the Desert by Remembering God’s Word to Us

Let me suggest that if we dive headfirst into the temptation narrative looking for answers about how we can be faithful during hard times we are like the man with a hammer who sees every problem as a nail. If you’ve been in the spiritual desert you know that it has this power of making you second guess everything you thought you knew. For one reason or another we are so comfortable letting pain, suffering, and failure become the anchor of our identity. In the same way if we let the temptation narrative be the defining portion of text here we are going to miss the bigger picture of Jesus modeling for us the Inspiration of Love, Preparation of Love, and Perspiration of Love.

Inspiration, Preparation, Perspiration

If we start in Matt 3:13-4:1 it tells us about the Inspiration of the Father’s Love

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

First, Jesus hears a word from the Father. He is the beloved son. We all know how much a word of affirmation from someone we love or respect means. We also understand that the words of our fathers have great power over us. Even as we grow up and have our own children we are often encouraged by their words of encouragement or hampered by their words of disappointment, or even at times hate.

But the word of God the Father give us the inspiration of love. This isn’t inspirational in the hokey motivational poster way. Think inspiration like the words God spoke in the beginning that brought forth all of existence from nothing. God’s word spoken to our hearts DEFINES us as children loved by our father and plants in us the seeds of love for him and others.

The seed of this love is immediately germinated by the Holy Spirit. The text says Jesus was led by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. The inspiration of Love doesn’t keep just affirm us where we are and leave us as is. It sends us forth like seedlings in the wind of the Holy Spirit to find root.

Moving now to Matt 4:1-11 we see the preparation of God’s love.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. 4 But he answered, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, He will command his angels concerning you, and On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. Jesus said to him, Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to him All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me. Then Jesus said to him, Be gone, Satan! For it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve. Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

NT Wright brings up a great point about this passage:

If there are in this story echoes of Adam and Eve in the garden, with the serpent whispering plausible lies about God, his purpose and his commands, there are also echoes of Israel in the wilderness. Israel came out of Egypt through the Red Sea, with God declaring that Israel was his son, his firstborn. There then followed the 40-year wandering in the wilderness, where Israel grumbled for bread, flirted disastrously with idolatry, and put God continually to the test

Jesus has also been told he is God’s son. He passes through the red sea of baptism and despite temptation, hunger, fatigue affirms his sonship. He shows us that this time is not a place of abandonment by God but is where the Preparation of Love happens.

The million dollar question is how is the desert a place where Preparation of Love happens. How is it that something we find to be an abandonment of God or a failure of his promise is actually the proof of that very promise?

Let’s reconsider my story. I purposefully left it hanging in 2011 to set up our discussion. Two years of elapsed time have given me more perspective on what was happening.

As I look at it now I can see how those years of struggle, frustration, and anger have humbled me, I know today more confidentially than I ever have that I’m desperate for Jesus; it taught me patience, two years of watching all of the things I valued in life get stripped away has taught me that God’s work is an incredibly long game; finally it showed me that God is faithful to his promises to me regardless of how angry or dispondent I become. The summary is that I have not left that desert crippled and bitter. I am more desperate for God’s love in my life and I’m more confident that his love will meet others than I’ve ever been before. A friend of mine who battled cancer once said, I wouldn’t take a million dollars to go through that again. But I wouldn’t take two million to have never gone through it. That’s the truth if I ever heard it.

To paraphrase Paul the preparation of love happens when we “know Christ in the power of his resurrection and participation in his suffering.” When we are invited with Christ into the desert for the preparation of love we can know that we haven’t just gotten excited about Jesus but have received the inspiration of the Father’s love, an invitation to become more like Jesus, to embody him.

Inspiration, Preparation and finally we come to the Perspiration of Love. Matt 4:23-25 says that

he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.

Why the heaven rending inspiration of love? Why the gut wrenching preparation of love? So that we can join in the work of love. We are being transformed not so that we can become perfect shining examples of humanity shedding our mortal coils and slipping into the eternal bliss of nirvana. No, the Christian Gospel invites us to participate in the work of Jesus. Proclaiming the kingdom, bringing healing to the sick, freedom to the captive.

Words from a Man in the Fire

For most of us, we are pretty confident that we are loved by the Father when we are in the Inspiration or Perspiration phases of life. We are being encouraged or engaged in our gifts. That feels good. It feels productive. It is pretty obvious to us and everyone around us that God loves us during those times. The bad news is that lots of times we feel like we are in the desert. Jesus might have gone into the desert once. We seem to go several times. So I want to offer some suggestions from my time out there.

1. Do not let the desert define you. As the Isrealites traveled through the desert the Lord told them over and over to remember. They were to remember that God had redeemed them from slavery. That memory of how God had freed them was to be the foundation for their compassion for the disenfranchised in their nation.

Remember what God has spoken over you, ask friends and family to remind you of it. Remember your baptism through the eucharist. Remember Christ’s own suffering in the desert place as you pray and fast. You are not alone. You suffer with Christ.

2. The desert is not an absence of God’s promises it is place where he prepares you to join him in his work. The most striking characteristic of Christ’s ministry to me is his compassion. The desert can be steroids for your compassion levels if you do not let the desert define you.

3. David Foster Wallace once wrote, “The truth will set you free, but not until it is finished with you.” That’s true of the desert. There’s no escaping it. That can sound horrible or wonderful depending on how you think about it. if you see yourself as a prisoner being coerced into a new lifestyle, it is pretty horrible. If you see yourself as a patient in the hospital it is good to know the doctor won’t send you home until you are well.

4. Don’t shut down communication with God. A huge grace for me when I thought that God had screwed me was my one prayer that I repeated every week or so. “God, I have nothing left to say about it. Your turn.” That’s not a model prayer life. The point is I left the line open. There is room for us to get angry at God, to be bitter about our situation, to scream and yell and spit and swear. But do it with God.

Over the past several years I’ve found level. I’ve had a ton of support from friends, family, a kind psychologist and a compassionate psychiatrist, as well as a spiritual mentor. I can look back and see how God was at work protecting me while I went through a crisis that some don’t survive. The recent suicide of Matthew Warren was a reminder to me that we don’t all make it. For much of that time I still wasn’t hearing God. At least, not in the way I was open to attributing to God.

It’s like we were a married couple on the fritz. He wasn’t talking because it would have turned into a shouting match. But he still made the metaphorical coffee and left me breakfast, which I would eat begrudgingly. And then one morning I came down for my coffee and breakfast and he was still there, waiting for me. And I realized I had been a jerk. And as I was about to apologize he looked at me and said:

You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.

Dear Church, This is Breathing: Keys for a Spirit Led Community

“So there is one Spirit who gives a bunch of sweet gifts to different members.
And listen, each member is a member of the body. You are baptized into one
body, one, not one billion, I’m willing to repeat myself to make this crystal
clear. So let’s keep that straight. Good talk.”

Paul, The Cedeno Version (a Paraphrase)

When I was in high school, I decided that I would make good on my amazing running career (which was mostly “amazing” in the mind of its creator, but there, believe me, it was the platonic ideal of running). I ran the 400 meter dash, which some find unpleasant, mostly because it is unpleasant. You sprint for a quarter mile. Yes, the body can pretty much do that, but just barely, which means by the end you have used up all of the stored energy you have. You can’t slow down and pace yourself because, well, it’s a sprint. And you can’t just breath deeply and get into a rhythm, because once again, it will be over in 50 seconds or so.

I liked running because I liked to win, and that was sometimes possible. In order to bolster my chances of making the state tournament in track and field my senior year, I decided to join cross country. I figured I would stay in shape. I would learn to be better disciplined. And, to the chagrin of my coach, I would jump into golf course ponds on runs to impress the girl’s golf team. They were not impressed. We were. After all, we were man enough to jump into golf course water. Have you ever seen golf course water?

Long story short: cross country did not teach me to run better. It taught me to lose. I would lose, and in cross country, you don’t just lose, you lose by minutes to A LOT of people. Skinny people. People you could, and probably should, throw into a golf course pond.

I decided if I could not win the race, I would win part of the race. So I started with the pack of skinny men, and then slowly and surely I ran out ahead. When someone else did this, I ran ahead of them. I ran ahead of everyone. I was Beowulf, I may have even roared as I passed them. Of course, once the workout moved from stored energy, and my fast-twitch muscles realized that they had no oxygen and lactic acid began devouring me, and the burrito suizo from El Faro started coming up in chunks, the skinny men passed me. All in all, I couldn’t go the distance.

Now, I will turn this into a spiritual lesson on the above text.

1-The church is a body. One body. She is incredibly strong, and incredibly gifted in order to edify herself (after all what is a body that lets itself rot?) and bring Christ’s kingdom on earth.

2-The church, as body, needs breath. Or else, well, you know how it goes.

Despite my lungs not being as good as Keith’s, or Steve’s, or any of those other skinny guys, I still breathed. If I decided not to breathe, the chunks of El Faro burrito would have been the least of my problems.

That being said, we read 1 Corinthians 12, and seldom read the two haves together. We know that the body of Christ section is in the middle of a long, exposition on the Holy Spirit that continues into chapter 13 and 14, but we forget that the body is just a corpse without breath. I would expect the original readers, who were part of one of the many Indo-European languages that used the same word for breath and wind and/or spirit, would have pieced together the metaphor that, yes there are many members, which clearly are the human members of the church, but the Holy Spirit is the breath.

You may have been to the congregation that runs like a sprinter running a marathon. By many accounts she could be fit and healthy and stronger than the rest, but once the first half-mile finishes, she gasps for air. You’ve been there, right? I have. The church where you are drawn by intelligent, talented, gifted people who have decent doctrine, a good sound system, and a better video system. They say the right things, and by all accounts should be healthy. Then she runs. She runs and she runs and she runs, until you realize that one leg is standing still and the other is trying to kick the crap out of the arm because the arm won’t get his act together. You’ve been there. The church that has all the right parts and even preaches on unity, but doesn’t seem to find it. You may have been at the church that forgets the bread and the wine, but devours the burrito suizo of American consumerism before the race. And at the beginning of the race, she may even be ahead of others in attendance, or book sales, or coolness, and then, well, she vomits all over her members. It isn’t a pleasant metaphor. If you’ve experienced this, it isn’t a pleasant reality.

Here is my suggestion to the aforementioned congregations: start breathing. Start realizing, that your years in the weight room aren’t helping, that you need cardiovascular strength from the Spirit of Christ and Christ himself. Realize that, yes, you cannot do this on your own, and no, just acknowledging that is not enough. You need constant breath of the Spirit. Bodies without breath are troubling. You have the dust version of Adam, the Jewish Golem, Frankenstein’s monster before animation, when he was just a bunch of sewed together body parts, zombies (do zombies breathe? I don’t think so), and the dry bones in the valley lying their with sinews waiting for Ezekiel to prophesy the the wind. So, don’t be like those grotesque creatures. Breathe.

What does this look like? A few tips.

1-Pray, a lot. Pray in the Spirit, expecting the Holy Spirit to move like in Acts, and well, the rest of the history of the Church. He will.

2-Lay hands on one another. Worked for the apostles.

3-If someone in your church asks you for prayer. Don’t try to schedule it. Don’t say, “that girl is dying, but we can’t get to her this week.” Go lay hands and pray now. If someone in your church is in line for food and says, “hey can you pray about this?” That doesn’t mean go home and say a few sentences. Call someone over and pray for him then, even if it looks strange to be praying line at a potluck.

And so, to mix New Testament metaphors, we’ve reached the moment of the race. It is a long one. The church is there. She is one body. She is fit. She is strong. She has talent. The gun goes off. And she has a choice. Without the Spirit, she refuses to breathe and tries to race. Her body gasps, collapses under its weight, lying lifeless, she wonders why God let her fall.

But when this body reaches its aerobic health, and every muscle, sinew, bone, organ, and limb, moves with blood rich in oxygen, communities are healed; tyrants are toppled; lives are changed; diseases are cured; nature is preserved; medicine and music and architecture restore human dignity. In short, the kingdom of God comes to earth; the body is toned and running ahead of the pack without wind or gravity or weariness to fear.

Too Many Years in Fantasyland: Guns, Kids, and some strange reality

This week I sat in a high school math classroom and listened to gunshots ring through the hallways. Of all the times I wished something would stop math class, I never thought, “I hope a madman runs around shooting people.” I’ve hoped for a fire, maybe, but a shooter, real or simulated, never. After Newton, my first reaction was that I wanted a gun, a big one. I wanted to move my family to the wilderness and raise them as deaf mutes (alright, part of that is Holden Caulfield’s dream), and shoot the life out of anyone who threatens them. That being said, I am almost a pacifist. I didn’t buy the homestead in Montana. I’ve enjoyed shooting guns, but the dialogue around them, the misinformation, and the Christian response based on consumerism not Christian theology or legitimate research or complex reasoning saddens me.

Yesterday a 4-year-old shot a 6-year-old.

During the active shooter drill, I overheard that the police had practiced before. All of the smoke and fog—from the dust leaving the acoustic ceiling tiles for the floor and the chemical reaction of gunpowder and spark—set off the fire alarm. But this time, it did not go off. In fact, the drill was almost peaceful. My life has little peaceful moments between teaching 16-year-olds and raising toddlers, so I enjoyed the surreal nature of it all. At moments during this drill, I prayed and followed the spring sunlight through the south-facing window to the bright desks in the center of this dark room.

On Saturday a 4-year-old shot his 48-year-old aunt with a law-enforcement officer’s gun.

And yet in the peace of a Math class on a Monday morning, I could hear the blank rounds, the simunition, ring through every wall of my work place. I was the “room teacher,” in charge if someone had a “real world situation” and freaked out. Plenty had real world reactions, none of them enough to need my help. A cross country teacher from another school stood by the door holding a ball-point pen for a while. He became the real teacher, the hero, the alpha. People joked that he should get the killer. I just wondered what would happen if during this role-play the cop with the gun opened the door and saw him there with a ball-pen that read, “Teacher’s Credit Union.” Was he so hopped up on the simulation that he would try to simulate his saving role? Would the officer take him down? Certainly. I wanted to see that. I wanted the violence.

During the briefing we were reminded of the mass shootings that have occurred and reminded that that in a few months we will probably be discussing another one.

Sometimes you don’t need prophets. Sometimes you know exactly what is plaguing your society, and sometimes you fight tooth-and-nail to keep it because of entitlement, and invalid chain Facebook posts, and folk wisdom, and vague 300-year-old prose of dead deists. But mostly you do it out of fear.

Simulacra is a concept that I teach, but I don’t really understand it. So if I’m totally off, let me know. At its most basic level a simulacrum is a simulation of reality. At a certain point, however, the simulacra inform our understanding of reality and we respond and interpret and see reality based on these simulations. We watch a dozen travel shows on the Grand Canyon, and when we finally see it, it doesn’t look like the Grand Canyon. That is, the simulation seems more real than reality.

In Tim O’Brien’s sublime novel on Viet Nam, The Things They Carried, he tells the story of a prank that the character Tim O’Brien plays on a medic who was nearly responsible for his death. During the prank, Azar—the type of guy who straps a puppy to explosives—sadistically goes too far. After salivating about death and saying that the prank’s target is a, “roast pigeon on a stick,” O’Brien confronts him reminding him that it is a prank. It’s not real. It is a simulation. Azar famously responds, “What’s real? Eight months in fantasyland, it tends to blur the line. Honest to God, I sometimes can’t remember what real is.” The simulation has become reality.

Earlier in the vignette, O’Brien is shot. He says he immediately thought of Audie Murphy movies—a type of war movie that O’Brien has earlier said is never “true”—he takes on the role of the hero. He sees himself, in this very real moment, in terms of the simulation. Not only does the simulacrum affect his view of the moment, it affects his judgment. A further layer of post-metafiction occurs, when the reader realizes that Tim O’Brien the character is not Tim O’Brien the author, but of course a simulation. But we won’t go into that now.

My point is this: I’ve played Call of Duty in those classrooms before. The bass reverberating; the bodies exploding; the helicopters spraying led; the life after life lost (I’m not very good at video games); the dizziness; the images are all too much for me. I’m a novice after all. But Monday, while I sat and prayed and tried not to imagine the deaths at Newton or NIU or Virginia Tech. etc. etc. etc., I couldn’t help but think, these gunshots are quieter than I thought. They are quieter than Call of Duty. Maybe this isn’t that bad. It’s just a simulation.

I certainly wished that I had chosen in the pre-shooting survey to be in “the red zone” rather than the green. Then I could have seen the fire come out of the gun, the sublime beauty of it. Then I could have something to write about the whole experience rather than sitting and looking out the window.

Then the drill was over.

An hour later, we debriefed in the gymnasium, and I noticed the people who were crying: those who knew that it was a drill, which is a different type of simulation, different than a movie or videogame.  Those who, even when they dragged the simulated corpse out of the room didn’t laugh (I did). Those who understood that school shootings are not funny. Those who respect the imago dei.

This morning my students asked me, “What room were you in?” “Were you close to the gun?” “Did you see the shooter?” “Was it scary?” “Was it cool?” “Could you see the smoke?” and of course, “Was it fun?”

I want to respond to them. I want to explain the reality of the gun situation in America. I want to say something true.

Was it fun? They ask.

Honest to God, kids, I don’t know anymore. All these years in fantasyland tend to blur the line.


Hey Protestants, You Should Go Confess to a Priest (or any believer)

 “How often the priest had heard the same confession–Man was so limited: he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the  animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died: the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater the glory lay around the death; it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or civilization–it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”

― Graham GreeneThe Power and the Glory

The road from a non-denominational Bible Church to Canterbury features a cornucopia of new sights and sacraments: robes, and crucifixes, and babies getting baptized, and titles like Canon and Archbishop, and collars, and stained-glass, and icons and a dozen other things still smelling of incense and smacking of Roman Catholicism. I grew up a million spiritual miles from this. The first time I went to a church in college that said the Lord’s Prayer every week, I condemned it as non-biblical. After all, the in the passage of the Lord’s prayer, Christ clearly says not to repeat your prayers like the pagans, and I—having never been taught that the practices of Jesus or the early church that were steeped in a liturgy that included written prayers and structure and sacraments—believed that this was unbiblical.

And now, here I am sitting in a folding chair, overlooking the parking lot and small wooded creek that line our church’s border, watching men and women in robes and collars walk into rooms with open prayer books, oil, and crucifixes. They will sit and listen to people confess their sins and then pronounce them free from sin. This too once would have concerned me. Perhaps for you it still does.

After all, only God can forgive sins, right?

I understand the concern still. I recently talked with a beloved family member on this point, the point of our priests proclaiming that sins are forgiven. Before I explain why I disagree with my previous sentiment, which is the sentiment of my family member, I will explain where both came from.

I recently finished The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. This story follows a nameless whisky priest who is escaping a totalitarian governor in the Mexican state of Tabasco. Within the book confession, namely priestly confession, creates a bitter irony that if the priest leaves the state, the people will have no one to whom they may confess and will be damned. If the priest does not leave the state, he will be killed and because he cannot confess to a priest, he believes he will remain in mortal sin and will be damned. And yet this bad priest, this whisky priest chooses time and time again to walk the path to not only his own crucifixion, but eternal damnation for his people. The conflict is gripping, but he believes only confession to an ordained priest can bring reconciliation. I love the book, yet, the theology of the whisky priest is precisely why I—and most evangelicals—see red flags when a church says “come to confession this Lent.” We see 16th century Europe (or 20th century Mexico, I guess) and indulgences and Martin Luther overcoming it. Then we throw the baby out with the bathwater, getting rid of confession, and incense, and art, and sacraments while we are at it.

Surely the whisky priest could have used a seminary class about Christ as high priest and the priesthood of all believers. But many of our pastors could probably use a class on confession. Growing up, I longed for a church where confession was threaded within the fabric of worship. I entered church, sang, listened to a sermon, felt guilty, went home, and forgot until I screwed up during the week and prayed that God would forgive me. From being 11 and watiching an ESPN 2 workout show to see the women in bikinis, I thought, “am I really a Christian if I keep sinning.” Then I went through this long internal dialectic of Bible verses regarding eternal security and the role of faith followed by the antithetical verses of the role of works and holiness, ending up on the secure side because of clarity and my need to feel secure.

It was exhausting. I watched movies with priests in confessionals and wished it was that easy for an Evangelical. But I knew something was off when the mafia kingpin confessed a sin, knowing he would murder again that day, or when I talked with someone who said how they loved confession because it eased the conscience, but they never seemed to turn from clear church teachings.

The first time I confessed to a collared Anglican, it was to a deacon (not a priest). I didn’t get it yet. I remember seeing him later that day and thinking, “wow, he knows how messed up I am now.” I was ashamed of even looking at him. I’ve confessed a lot since then, mostly to my wife, often to friends, and once a year (if I can make it) to a priest. Within the Anglican mindset, confession can be to any baptized Christian. We can also confess directly to Christ. But unlike I did growing up, we do not throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater. Because “priestly confession” smacks of indulgences and medieval corruption, we don’t pretend that the Bible says that confession should be a solitary thing to Christ our true high priest.

Until I became Anglican, I ignored the fact that Christ gave his church the ministry of reconciliation, that he gives us the ability to bind and loose, both here on earth and in heaven. I ignored the fact that he tells us to confess our sins to one another. Yes God is the one who forgives sins, but we speak on his behalf. We have his Spirit and we know his word. That is why in the Anglican liturgy around confession it clearly states, “The Lord has put away all your sins.” It doesn’t say, “I put away your sins, now give me money, you ignorant peasant.” It is the Lord acting, not the priest or lay-person to whom we confess. And yet, there is a power in hearing these words from another rather than from the internal conversation we have after sinning. And there is a power when someone who is acting out of obedience to Christ and the Holy Spirit speaks that you are forgiven.

And as I sit here thinking about confession and Canterbury and sacraments and the reformation, I hope that you will also find someone to confess to before Easter and receive the forgiveness that only Jesus Christ can bring.

I close my eyes and consider my sins, longing for the peace that Christ brings. I am aware of the black that I am wearing and the crucifix around my neck and the fact that it is almost noon on Good Friday and Christ was broken for my sins. The sun is warm through windows for the first time in months, not warm enough to be uncomfortable, but warm enough to remind me of a beach somewhere. The church secretary taps me on the shoulder. “Father Stephen is ready for you,” she says. “Do you know where Trevor’s office is?” I do, and I walk to it. Some friends are talking by the copiers, but I have more important things to focus on. I see the small man in the black robe. I sit down. I see the large crucifix next to the open prayer book.

“Have you done this?” he asks.

I have. I will. OK, here it goes.

“Bless me, for I have sinned….”


If you don’t know how to confess, you can use this liturgy. It is pretty slick.

Also, you can read this simple explanation from an Orthodox Metropolitan (yes they have even cooler and more ancient names than we Anglicans).

An Attachment Carefully Chosen or Should Children Be Proselytized?

“Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. what you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen.”

Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace

“For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?”

Luke 14:28

MY CHILDHOOD was spent in one home from my birth until I was ten or eleven years old. It was a small blue Cape Cod situated prominently on the main drag of our subdivision, Sunset Park. Our neighbors where mostly young families with children circa the same age as me or my siblings (a modest group of me and my two younger sisters at the time of this story). In the house next to ours lived a girl my age and her younger brother Derek, a peer of my sister’s.

I remember two things about Derek. When my mother called us into the house for lunch he didn’t go home. He lingered outside on our driveway, peering  through the dining room window. I have no idea if this was something that happened often or if it was just something that happened once and made a big impression on me.

One afternoon Derek and I were playing in the backyard and we got into a fight about the existence of Santa Clause. Our family had never even bothered with the idea of Santa. I seem to remember being told, at a tender age, that there was no such thing as a “Santa Clause.” So when Derek broached the subject I quickly rebuked him for believing a lie. In true apologetic fashion I exposed the entire myth as a sham; parents were behind the present giving. Yes, they ate the milk and cookies too. Derek left the yard perturbed. Presumably he vetted my information with his parents. I also assume that this was a disappointment to Derek’s parents. Or, at least, that he was disappointed and they were empathetic to his early loss of an innocent love for a benevolent man distributing gifts on an annual schedule. I’m making these assumptions because very soon after our conversation Derek returned to the yard proclaiming that babies were made when mommies and daddies did something called “sex.” I replied that this was completely wrong-headed. Babies were obviously delivered by storks. But this time Derek had the truth on this side and I was the fool.

ANOTHER TRUTH of which I was painfully aware as a child was that I needed to be saved by Jesus in order to go to heaven. I know many people who have had meaningful childhood “salvation” experiences. (My wife is one of them) But as I reflect on my own experiences it seems like a sham. I’m certain I prayed the sinner’s prayer about four-hundred and twelve times. Summer camps, Awana, that showing of The Jesus Film at Assemblies of God, and after a performance by the Christian power lifting group called The Power Team who displayed the glory of God and the message of salvation by ripping phone books in half. (I got a signed photo of the group, obviously) It never occurred to me that making a decision regarding my beliefs about the eternal security with Jesus as a child was anything but completely normal. I also never questioned the rhetorical honesty about asking a child to consider these issues and make a decision which would, presumably, bind their eternal soul without the consent, much less presence, of their parent(s).

A CATHOLIC friend of mine brought this problem to my attention last fall. His daughter was attending a local Awana during the week. My friend had sat through one of the evenings activities to get a feel for the program. It seemed like a good program, he said, except that they seemed to be pushing Jesus down the kid’s throats. Jesus is good, I thought instinctively.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I feel like having your kid make a decision about if they want to believe in God or Jesus is kind of like asking them if they are republican or democrat when they are seven years old. They shouldn’t have to make that decision yet. I feel like I got forced into biting off on a lot of stuff I didn’t actually believe in, as a kid.”

CATECHESIS is a word that can encapsulate everything from introductory knowledge of a faith through more advanced spiritual growth formally known as mystagogy, but it is commonly used to describe the process by which we introduce our children to the faith. To be crude, the process is often perfunctory, more of a ritual than a deep spiritual experience. But regardless, it is a formal process the church has used for centuries to train its children in the things we believe are most important. You might feel, as my friend does, that you were forced to bite off on more than you decide you really want to as an adult. But on the other side, we feel a debt and a responsibility to train our young fully. We believe, contra common sense, that you don’t really know how or what to want until you’ve been instructed in The Good. That’s what we are trying to do during the catechism.

The right motive for this, at least in my mind, is two fold. First, we are responsible for helping our children understand how to choose an attachment carefully. As David Foster Wallace wrote and I quoted in the epigraph:

what you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen.

In modern America most, if not all, of us are not really trained how to choose our attachments, or, rather, our objects of devotion. Instead we believe that the value of being devoted to something is that it fulfills the self. You don’t need to know how to choose your attachments, we say (though never explicitly), you need to understand yourself and what will bring you fulfillment.

The second motive for catechizing our children should be to help them count the costs of committing their lives to Jesus. This is nonsensical to us for several reasons. The most neglected of these reasons is the call Jesus makes in Luke 14:28 that we should count the costs of discipleship prior to embarking on the journey. He tells this story from the perspective of a builder and a general. Both who, because they are good at their jobs, figure out if they will be able to succeed in their task prior to starting it. The real startling conclusion here being that finishing the race, i.e. dying well, is actually more important than starting the race, praying the sinner’s prayer at a Power Team phone-book-ripping contest.

SO I WONDER, what of our lack of concern for the right of other parents, parents not of our religious persuasion, to catechize their children in the way they feel best? Do we do their children an injustice while disrespecting their authority if we invite children at a summer camp to receive Jesus? Have we both ignored the full purpose of catechesis while at the same time ignoring the second greatest commandment to love our neighbors? How do many of us feel when Victoria Secret’s is marketing to our children or the public schools introduce values which are not our own into our children’s young minds? Is this a double standard?

I DON”T HAVE an answer. I would only offer that in our scriptures we see men and women being proselytized and then their families being baptized. The only departure from this method that I can think of is that in the early church there was a widespread practice of adoption. Orphans or abandoned children were brought into families and then raised as Christians. I wouldn’t call that air-tight by any means. I’m just offering some of my initial thoughts. I’d love to hear yours.

Memento Mori: The Cross, Baptism, and Well, Death

 And if I found you in this city, and called it Paradise.

I say, I love you but I hate this city, and I’m no prize.
You want to walk around like you own the joint,

The way that Icarus thought he might own the sky.

I hope you die in a decent pair of shoes

You’ve got a lot more walking to do

Where you’re going to

Spencer Krug

A few floors down they are attempting for the third time to determine what vessel, or artery, or whatever contains an expanse that is filling my grandfather’s stomach with blood. Three days ago, when he first entered the hospital, I visited him. Thinking my aunt and uncle and grandma had been with him during the day, I drove at a leisurely pace stopping at Best Buy to dialogue about a car stereo debacle. When I entered room 350, he was alone. The yellow skin of his eyelids lit by the February sunlight from the window moved upward. He noticed me before I spoke and begin speaking. Before I knew it, he painfully told me the story of falling and hitting his head on the bath tub. He told me that he had been there all night. It was several hours before they stapled his wound shut. No one had visited yet.

“If I was taller, I would have broken my neck. It pays to be a little guy,” he said.

And yet, this optimistic octogenarian was convinced that he would be leaving the hospital soon. Calling my uncle that morning, he said, “Son, bring me my heavy flannel, and beanie hat, and some jeans. They are letting me out in a few hours.” That was three days ago. This is his fourth trip to the hospital in six months or so. I missed the first one. But each time, he expected to be out within a few hours. Each lasted a few days. The first time he went in, I thought he got out in a few hours, and then a week later I learned he was still being treated. My grandmother confronted me, rightly. I swore I wouldn’t miss again and blamed my family for not communicating it to me. “I won’t miss it again,” I said realizing the promise to be at the next hospital visit seemed morbid, like I was admitting defeat. In reality, I guess I was acknowledging the reality that 83-year-olds, even the ones who walk three miles a day like my grandpa, are frail, humans.

I’ve stopped writing this a few times. I don’t want to use my grandfather’s illness for a blog, but there is nothing to do but write and wait and listen to the conversations around me. A little girl has been here all week. I think her dad is sick. But she says, to whom I think is a stranger, that “They are moving him to another room out of ICU. He should be home soon.” She is happy.

Also, last week I wrote on my calendar that tonight I would write a post on remembering our deaths. It is based on a message I spoke on Friday night, an early Lenten stroll in mortality. That was a few hours before my grandfather fell and hit the bathtub. It was to be titled Memento Mori: The Cross and Our Deaths. So I will write it here in the waiting room, while the man with whom I received two of my three names lies unconscious as they use dye to determine from where he bleeds.


Daily, I discuss death in literature with a demographic that knows as much as I do, but contemplate it much worse. Developmental psychologists call it adolescent egocentrism. Among other characteristics, adolescents’ lack of frontal lobe development tells them beautiful invincibility fables. That is to say they seldom consider that their actions have consequences, potentially mortal consequences. YOLO they say. YOLO. You only live once, and within those four letters is the implicit logic of humanity: you only live once; therefore, seize the day; do something stupid; have fun; or more commonly, take a silly picture of yourself and post it on twitter: YOLO.

I was never quite like that. I will admit that in my adolescent days I felt terribly invincible, perhaps more than others.  But death has always been on my mind. I had several girls in eighth grade stop talking to me because I explained, “We are all dying. We are all terminally ill.” I had a lot of existential angst for a little guy. Maybe it was a few too many fire-and-brimstone messages around the campfire at Camp Awana (Did I mention I was the king of Awana [that’s for you K-Dawg]? Yeah, I even went to the one-and-only Camp Awana and won all-around track). How many times did I hear that message on Revelation and know that somehow my faith was a farce? I was no better than the heathen, and I’d be burning in a few decades with the whole damn lot. Even before that, when I was seven, in my attic bedroom with the orange carpet and the six foot tall ceilings, I would kneel and pray, for what seemed like an eternity, hoping that somehow I’d escape the fires of hell. For me, remembering my death pulled me to the floor in the shadow of an angry God.

God forgive me.

The prayer was simple enough. My school and church told me that was enough, but I knew my motivation was bad. Yes, at seven I questioned my motivation and intellectual understanding. So I continued hitting the orange carpet in fear of damning my eternal soul.

God forgive me.

And now, when Lent begins I sigh. I’m worn out already, and my favorite Lenten pastime of getting new tattoos has been cut off by my wife. So I’m left sitting here thinking of the cool palm ashes on my forehead and my body in the grave; thinking of my grandfather; thinking of my dad; thinking of my children and my wife and the incarnate Son of God.

So I think of Jesus and his death. I love the Mark version of Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as Christ because immediately after the first disciple acknowledges Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus tells his disciples of his death. To know Jesus as Christ is to know him as mortal. To know him as Christ is to know him as sufferer. To know him as Christ is to know him as sacrifice. And yet, Peter, living in the logic of my teenage students: the logic of humanity, tells Jesus YOLO. But before he can say, “Listen Christ, we have a world to overcome,” Jesus calls him Satan, which tends to stop conversations. Then of course, comes the noteworthy part for me, sitting here during Lent thinking of death. Christ explains that not only must he die, but his followers too. To know Jesus as Christ is to know your own death.

I have since left the hospital. Drove home and sat on my chair and tried to write or grade or something, but I fell asleep and then it was time for work. The dye found my grandpa’s leak. He is walking and drinking water and telling stories with phenomenal details again.

I can’t quite wrap my mind around this death concept. Perhaps no one can. Perhaps I have simply had so few people close to me die. But I know that I have hope. I know that I will die. I’m not sure what that will be like, but I have an idea. After all, I have died already. I was nine, about two years after I began my habit of face planting on the orange carpet, I stepped into the waters of baptism. I waded to the middle of the church, above the choir and under the cross, where David Hornack, an old college football player-one of the largest ordained men I’ve seen, grabbed my neck and plunged me into certain death in the grave with Jesus Christ. Then he pulled me up, showing me to the saints as I gasped for air in the shadow of the cross, proclaiming me alive in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.