Too Smart for God – Chapter One – Who’s This Book About?

TOO SMART FOR GOD Book CoverHere’s the first chapter of the book I’ve been working on for the past several years. If you have comments or suggestions for improvement I’d love to hear them. Or if you know of any agents or publishers who might be interested that would be good, too – it’s getting close to the point where I’ll be looking in that direction. As always, thanks for reading!

Being absent-minded means stepping up to the urinal and hoping you have to unzip your pants.

If you’re really absent-minded you’re not worrying about whether your zipper is up, but hoping there is a zipper at all. Did I remember to put my pants on this morning?

Please look away for a moment while I check.

Okay. I’m pantsed and they are zipped.

Because this book has such a conceited title, I thought I would start out with an admission of my struggle with incognizance. As I told Alex Trebek during the contestant interview segment of my Jeopardy Tournament of Champions Semifinal, my kids made a lot of money from my air-headedness when they were younger. I would tire of looking for my wallet, or my keys, or my glasses, and I would shout out, “I’ll give anybody a dollar who can find keys!” or whatever.

Alex asked, “Did they ever hide those things on purpose so they could collect the reward?”

I don’t think so . . . but you can never tell about kids. They can be sneaky little suckers. I’m pretty sure they didn’t hide my glasses that one time they were on my face.

Do you see what I’ve done so far? At the same time I was being all self-deprecating about my absent-mindedness, I casually mentioned that I was smart enough not only to be on Jeopardy but to win enough games (four, if you insist on knowing) to earn a spot in the Tournament of Champions . . . and I made it into the semi-finals, no less.  Plus I name-dropped Trebek.

But I’m not simply sneaking in a humblebrag (at least that’s not all I’m doing). One of the foundational ideas of this book is that smart folks can be Christians . . . and Christians can be smart folks. We’re not all like the doofuses who seem to get most of the publicity.

It would be easy to blame “the media” for the popular conception of Christians as dumber than dirt, but we Christians shoulder the blame, too. We keep sending our money to television preachers who give simplistic answers to questions like “Why do terrible things happen?”

Usually their answers revolve around God trying to punish people those TV preachers happen to hate . . . and who aren’t in the donor database.

One of the things I’ve learned since I’ve realized I was a Christian – and especially since I’ve become a pastor – is that I don’t have to know all the answers, or even many of them. Christianity ain’t Jeopardy, or even Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (the other gameshow I’ve been on).

In real life, sometimes “I don’t know” can be the smartest thing I can say.

So if I don’t have all the answers, why should you read this book? I can see you, standing there in the bookstore, perusing Too Smart for God in the midst of stacks of other fine books. The authors of some of those books – especially in the Christianity section – claim to have everything figured out. They even have God figured out!

Why should you march up to the register to invest your money and the promise of your time in these pages? Is it worth hearing another sales pitch about the bookstore’s Preferred Reader Program?

Or, if you’re reading this Sample Chapter on your laptop or phone or e-reader . . . with an almost infinite universe of other bits and gigs of data to download, why should you click on the button that says, “Add to Cart” and expose your credit card data to the possibility of being hacked by a teenager in his parents’ basement who in turn sells it to Russian gangsters or Nigerian scammers?

One good reason to take the plunge at the register or online is that someone has said Too Smart for God is “simply the best writing by an American author since The Great Gatsby, if not Huckleberry Finn.”

But because praise for my book by friends, family – or in this instance, myself – probably isn’t very persuasive, let me give you my strongest argument for buying this book:


I’m not just ripping off Rick Warren, who sold millions and millions of copies of The Purpose Driven Life, a book that started, with, “It’s not about you.”

This book really is not about me.

“Wait a minute, Dave,” you might protest. “Isn’t this your story? How you grew up in a family that went to church every Sunday, but became an agnostic/atheist (depending on the confidence of your unbelief on any particular day) by the time you got to college because you thought you were Too Smart for God, and that God was only for weak, stupid people? And about how you returned to the church in your early 30’s because it  was the only way the woman who is now your wife would date you and you eventually became not just a Christian but an unexpected pastor? Then how can you say this book is not about you?

Because this book is about GOD.

I know that might seem like a pretty bold claim, but it is actually meant with the deepest humility. Yes, I am going to be the vessel for the story; my life is the vehicle by which we’ll take this journey together.

A few years back I had to change planes with some friends in Edmonton, Alberta as we flew across Our Neighbor to the North. We had four hours between planes, so we rented a car and drove into the city to explore. If you’ve ever been to Edmonton, you know the North Saskatchewan River (a River to Remember if you ever want to be on Jeopardy – Trebek’s from Canada) separates the city from the area where the airport is located. There are only a few bridges over that river.

When it came time to get back to the airport, we couldn’t find the way onto any of those bridges. We would drive toward one, then find ourselves on a road way below it with no ramps to it or signs showing the way to get to one. We spent increasingly hectic time driving aimlessly trying to get on a bridge, but we would inevitably lose sight of the one we were seeking and get lost again. Edmonton is surprisingly hilly for a city located in Alberta, one of the “Prairie Provinces” (a nickname Jeopardy-aspirants should know).

We did not have GPS in the car or on our phones. We had declined the map along with the insurance at the car rental counter. How hard could it be to get from the airport to the city and then double back to the airport?

Too hard, apparently, for us.

Eventually we did find our way back, just in time to get on our plane. But we had no idea how we had blundered there until I got home, pulled up Edmonton on Google Maps, and traced our route. It was certainly not a straight line, and I could see how we had missed many opportunities to get back on track. On the other hand, we had seen areas of the city and its environs that we never would have experienced otherwise.  And we had a good story to tell.

This book is sort of my attempt to piece together a Google Map of my journey back to faith. Now that I’m a pastor, there are times when I am up front leading worship and wonder, “How did I get here?” Like the trip back to the Edmonton airport, it was not a straight line. Writing this account has given me the opportunity to see how the twists and turns led me to where, or rather, who, I am today – an Unexpected Pastor who was once Too Smart for God.

So please be patient with me as we go on this journey together. How it all works together is something I’m figuring out along with you. God is the real author of my story. God had a plan even – and especially – when I didn’t acknowledge God’s existence. All the time I thought I was running away from God, or more accurately, rejecting the very idea of God, God was writing this story in and through me.

Even when I kept driving around aimlessly, even though I didn’t have a map, God always knew I’d end up back at the airport.

Or back at church.

I don’t want you buy this book under false pretenses, however. Mine is not a story that climaxes in a dramatic moment when I see the light and realize I was on the wrong road.

The prototypical conversion story in the Bible involves a man named Saul who literally saw the light. When we meet Saul in Acts he is a despicable person. He hates Christians (which doesn’t in itself make him despicable), those Jewish apostates who are multiplying like rats ever since their leader died and supposedly came back to life three days later. Saul puts his enmity into action by rounding up members of the early church and throwing them into jail. At the stoning (death by throwing actual stones, not the use of mind-altering substances) of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, Saul didn’t have the guts to partake in the actual execution. He held the coats of those who hurled the fatal rocks. There’s something particularly smarmy about that kind of “I don’t want to get my hands dirty” participation.

In the ninth chapter of Acts, Saul is on his way to the Syrian city of Damascus. He is “breathing murderous threats against” Christians. They really piss him off. At his request, the authorities have given him a mandate to round up Damascus Christians and imprison them. Saul is portrayed as such a villainous villain that when I read this story I picture him twirling his mustache and rubbing his hands with glee as he nears Damascus.

But then! There’s a brilliant light from heaven, so bright it instantly blinds Saul. A voice says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” It’s Jesus! Saul gets the point, and after a follower of Jesus restores his sight he became the greatest evangelist of the New Testament and maybe ever.

And, like many others in the Bible (and many modern celebrities), his name got changed. Saul was hereafter known as Paul.

Now that’s a great story!

My story is not like that.

Because of the change he made – or rather that God made in him – Paul is my favorite New Testament Bible character. (Gideon is my favorite person in the Hebrew Scriptures – you’ll have to read the rest of the book to find out why.) There are similarities between my journey and Paul’s, but his is a different kind of adventure. I rejected Jesus, but I didn’t kill Christians. I just made fun of them. I was never knocked off my horse by a blinding light, nor did Jesus ever rebuke me personally.

If that ever happened, this would be a much shorter book.

As long as I’m being up-front here at the front of the book, I should probably tell you that my story is different from others who write books in the Spiritual Conversion genre. I didn’t do a lot of the dramatic and (self-) destructive things they did. I drank too much, but I am not an alcoholic or a drug addict. I’ve been divorced and I’ve lived with a woman who’s not my wife, but my sexual exploits are pretty tame compared to say, Wilt Chamberlain. I don’t have a tale of child abuse and/or neglect to share; the family I grew up in was pretty “normal,” whatever that means.

But I suspect my story is more common than dramatic stories like Paul’s and many others that get turned into books. It is more like the other great conversion story from the Bible, the one that happened not on the road to Damascus but rather on the road to Emmaus.

Luke tells this story in chapter 24 of his Gospel. It happens on the first Easter Sunday. Jesus died two days before. Two of Jesus’ followers – Cleopas and one who Luke doesn’t name, so I’ll call him “Dave” – have just left Jerusalem. They are walking toward Emmaus, a few miles away.

Cleopas and Dave’s journey is symbolic of their emotional and spiritual state. Jerusalem was the city of hope, the city where they Hebrew Scriptures promised that the Savior would take over and establish a perfectly just rule over the world. Cleopas and Dave, along with many who followed Jesus, had thought Jesus was that Savior. But then they had seen him nailed to a cross where he died just like any other man.

That wasn’t what the Savior was supposed to do! So Cleopas and Dave were walking away from Jerusalem. Away from hope. Away from faith.

They were at the end of their hope.

As they walked, Cleopas and Dave discussed the events of the last few days. They were joined along the way by another traveler. Luke tells us in an aside that this newcomer is the resurrected Jesus, but Cleopas and Dave don’t recognize him.

Jesus asks why they are so sad. They can’t believe their new companion hasn’t heard what happened to Jesus. Cleopas and Dave tell him the whole story.

Jesus gets angry. “Don’t you get it! Don’t you know the Scriptures?! Dying was what the Savior was supposed to do all along.” Then Jesus teaches them a Sunday School lesson about how the promises in the Scriptures had been about, well, him.

Then it’s time to stop for dinner. Cleopas and Dave sit down. They invite Jesus to eat with them. A meal is laid out. Jesus picks up some bread, breaks it, and blesses it. That’s when it comes to Cleopas and Dave.

This is Jesus!

This is the Savior they’d been waiting for!

Because he didn’t fit their idea of what the Savior should be, they had rejected him. Cleopas and Dave had walked away from their faith, but Jesus had been walking with them.

Luke goes on to tell us that Cleopas and Dave ran back to Jerusalem and told everyone their story of walking with Jesus, of finding him – and their faith – even though they didn’t know they were looking for him – or for it.

And that, my new friend, is what I will do in the rest of this book. I’ll tell you how I walked away from my faith because God and Jesus didn’t meet my expectations . . . and didn’t answer all my smart-guy questions. I’ll show you how Jesus walked with me even when I didn’t recognize him, much less believe him to be my or anybody else’s Savior. Finally, you’ll see how I realized, not in a flash but over the course of the walk, who Jesus is not just for the world but for me.

Like Cleopas and Dave, I can’t help but tell the world about it.

            That is what you’ll get when you read the rest of Too Smart for God. That and how to get on a game show.

And, if you buy this book today, I’ll throw in a FREE BONUS Christmas Short Story. It’s at the end of the book.

For now, take this book to the register or click on “Add to Cart.” Let’s take this journey together. I’ll be Dave. You can be Cleopas.


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The Women of Winter

Winter, 2015 films mentioned in this post: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part2; Brooklyn; The Danish Girl; Suffragette; Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Almost four years ago I encountered Katniss Everdeen for the first time. My daughter (then 14) talked me into taking her to the midnight opening of “The Hunger Games.” She had read all the books.  After seeing the film, I wrote, “As I got to know Katniss in the film, I was elated that my teen daughter was into a series with a strong teen female lead, a character brave enough both to fight and to cry, to assert herself and to sacrifice.”

The latter part of 2015 featured not just the conclusion of Katniss’ “Hunger Games” saga, but additional notable female role models. These realistically rounded characters are young women who rise above events and people that threaten to control them. They maintain their personhood in often dehumanizing circumstances. They are valued and valuable for who they are, not whose wife or girlfriend or daughter they happen to be. These women are portrayed by fine young actresses who will be a feminizing force in film for years to come.

AA BrooklynOne such actress is Saoirse Ronan, who shined in a small put important role in 2014’s Grand Budapest Hotel.  She plays Eilis Lacey, the main character Brooklyn, my favorite film of 2015. Although on the surface Brooklyn is the oft-told tale of an immigrant who moves to America and finds herself, as well as love, there is much beneath that surface in both the film and Ronan’s performance.

Early in the film during a scene at a dance, the shot tightens until only her face is in the frame. The camera lingers there for quite a while and nothing much seems to be happening, but in Ronan’s expression are the contradictory emotions of eagerness and caution, along with anticipation and uncertainty.

Those close-ups continue throughout the film, as we experience Eilis’ transformation from someone buffeted by events to a woman in control of her situation. She allows neither her suffocating hometown nor her blissful romance to determine her path or her person.  It is Eilis’ metamorphosis that is the heart of Brooklyn, and Ronan plays it beautifully.

AA Suffragette

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A different kind of transformation occurs in the life of Maud Watts in Suffragette.  Watts is portrayed by Carey Mulligan, also excellent in the summer 2015 film Far From the Madding Crowd.  In the hands of a lesser actress, her change from meek washerwoman to suffragette heroine would be unbelievable. But Mulligan makes it real by keeping it real; she is never histrionic even in the midst of tremendous suffering. And suffer she does! She is roughed up by the police and brutally force fed during a prison hunger strike.

But her greatest suffering is emotional. Mulligan bravely depicts  Maud torn apart by the rending of her family, especially when her son is taken from her  because she is considered an unfit mother. This is a choice rarely (if ever) made by male heroes – to be faithful for the cause they feel called to serve  or to have their children ripped from them. In Mulligan’s time being an instrument of change was incompatible with being a mother. (Maybe that’s not so different than our own time when women are still shamed for pursuing careers rather than full-time motherhood.)

Suffragette is not a great film – the action sequences in particular suffer from inexpert direction – but it is an important one. Unfortunately it was poorly marketed as a Meryl Streep picture; she is only on the screen for a few minutes. But it is worth seeing for Mulligan’s performance and for the importance of the subject matter. Our kids, especially our daughters, need to know who the suffragettes were.

AA Danish GirlTransformation is a theme in these films, and that is certainly true of The Danish Girl.  Although defending-champion of the Best Actor Oscar, Eddie Redmayne, is outstanding as the transgender pioneer Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, the heart of the film is Alicia Vikander’s performance as Gerda Wegener.

Gerda is no simple “stand by your man (or woman)” wife; Vikander portrays her as a complex woman who does support Einar’s need to become Lili, but is confused and conflicted by both her husband’s gender identification and her own reaction to it. She is loyal, yet independent, an artist in her own right.

Although neither Einar/Lili or Gerda are ultimately “faithful” in a traditional sense, this is the story of the love they have for each other. While Redmayne’s character is rightfully focused on the gender transition, it is Vikander whose vigorous spark empowers the film. Early in 2015, Vikander received some acclaim for her performance as a sympathetic android in Ex Machina. Her work in The Danish Girl is Oscar- worthy.

In addition to these three “small” films, the end of 2015 featured empowered women in central roles in blockbuster films as well. (Perhaps the tone was set earlier in the year with Imperator Furiosa and the other women in Mad Max: Fury Road, a film of feminist empowerment if there ever was one.)

AA Force AwakensOne of the surprises of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the centrality of Rey’s character. Pre-release promotion implied that the new film would be primarily Finn’s story, another epic film where men do heavy work and women are at the periphery. But Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a revelation. She is totally self-sufficient at the beginning of the film, living alone on a desolate planet, making a meager living scavenging wrecked and worn out spacecraft. But her genealogy and her destiny is for much more than that.

I want to avoid detailed spoilers here, but unlike traditional female characters Rey never needs to be rescued – when she is in trouble, by the time her (male) rescuers arrive, she is already out of the clutches of danger. However, that is not to say that she is totally self-sufficient. Her transformation from scavenging loner to rebel hero happens when she becomes part of a rebellion bigger than herself, and when she realizes she is part of an even greater whole (the Force). Rey’s story of self-discovery is only beginning. It will be fun to see how her character develops, and Ridley’s portrayal evolves, over the next few films.

AA MockingjayKatniss Everdeen’s film-story, on the other hand, has ended. In one of the final scenes of  The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part2, she lets go her arrow and demonstrates once and for all that she is her own person (that’s intentionally vague to avoid a spoiler). The Hunger Games saga is the story of the rebellion against the Capital and President Snow, but its power has been in its focus on the character of Katniss. At the time of the first film, Jennifer Lawrence was relatively unknown, but Oscar nominated for a film few people saw, Winter’s Bone.  Now she is an Academy Award winning actress who has inhabited a variety of roles in both popular and smaller films. She was the perfect choice for Katniss, and she will surely go on to play other archetypical characters and win more awards.

But at the end of 2015 a cadre of young actresses has emerged who will give Jennifer Lawrence a run for her money and for her Oscars. Let’s just hope that Hollywood continues to provide roles worthy of their talents.  That will be a good thing for those of us who love film, and especially for our daughters.

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Tamir: A Confession

TamirI am complicit in your death, Tamir, and in the life-negating injustice which followed.

I have never feared for my children’s safety in the presence of police officers.

But police officers gunned you down as you played with a pellet gun in a park.

I have never doubted that, if injured, my children would receive immediate aid from those whose vocation it is to protect them.

Yet you languished and anguished four minutes as your lifeblood drained before anyone came to your aid.

I have been taught in classrooms and by experience that my children would receive justice should they be victims of injustice.

Your family has been denied justice. A grand jury, guided by a prosecutor who acted more like a defense attorney for those who killed you,  has decided not to even bring your case to trial.

There will never be a public airing of what occurred, only the behind-closed-doors chicanery of the past months. The public has only heard the selective release of information favorable to the prosecutor’s apparent desired outcome.

And yet we fail to understand why people of color do not trust the “justice” system.

That prosecutor was supposed to be the people’s representative – your advocate – but the combination of the color of your skin and your class and your gender rendered you invisible and of no account.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” yet your family has waited 11 months for this unconscionable injustice.

I would not have waited patiently; to wait so long for justice for one of my children would have been completely contrary to my expectations.

I would have cried out, gone to the press, called public officials, demanded speedy justice for my child.

I would have been perceived as a grieved and aggrieved parent, righteously angry.

But when your parents cried out, the prosecutor implied they were only looking for a payout. His accusation echoed the repugnant views of my slaveholder forebears, who ripped children from their parents for profit, justifying the separation by denying sub-human slaves could have real parental affection for their offspring.

In the same way we have dehumanized you, the latest in a line of males of color lying in their own blood, denied the justice for which that blood cries out. Those who died before you were described in animalistic terms, their rage beyond the bounds of white reason.

Although the authorities have no problem apprehending white mass murderers alive, lethal force was required to bring you down, a 12-year old with a pellet gun.  You were described as “big for your age” so of course you must be gunned down; a large black male is most certainly a danger to orderly white society.

Tamir, we are scared. We are scared because we see our white domination of the system slipping away. We are terrified to hear that in the foreseeable future we white folks will not be the majority in “our” country. Our power and our place are threatened, and even though statistics tell us we are safer from violence than we ever have been, the fact that we will  soon be outnumbered by  the “other” causes us to tremble.

We will use our power structures to keep those “others” in their place as long as we can, desperately clinging to a white world that is no more.

We will continue our destructive, quixotic quest to “take our country back” from those “others” we perceive as threats.

Although I vehemently disagree with this course, I am convicted by the very fact of my ethnicity and my gender and my socio-economic status. I have benefited from this system. I am assured there is justice for me and for my children.

As long as justice is denied to you, Tamir, I am convicted and I am complicit. As my Savior commands, I put myself in your place and in the place of your parents. And I rage. And I lament.

But neither my compassion nor my confession will restore you or your family to wholeness.

Although this system bestows upon me place and power, I am ultimately powerless. For that system to which I am bound has failed you, and your family, and ultimately, all of us.

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“The Force Awakens” – A Christmas (Eve) Sermon

A Long Time Ago . . .(You can listen to a podcast of this message here.  The telling of the Christmas Gospel on which it is based, Luke 2:1-20, can be heard here.)

If the Star Wars universe was Lutheran, every time someone said, “May the Force be with you,” the people around would respond
. . . (Congregation: “And also with you.”)

Many of you have probably seen the newest Star Wars movie, “The Force Awakens.”  It is breaking all kinds of records at the box office.

I saw it last weekend with Karen and Philip. I wanted to see it before I heard any spoilers . . . Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything in this sermon.  We all enjoyed it. It may be a little intense and long for young ones, though.

So I was sitting there in the theater waiting for the movie to begin. The previews were over and the announcement about how rude it is to use your cell phone had just ended as well.

The theater became completely dark. Then, words in blue font appeared on the screen, familiar words that evoked memory and anticipation. . .

“Long ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .”

Then, trumpets and drums. Bah bah, ba ba ba bah bah. Ba ba ba bah bah. Ba ba ba bah.

John Williams’ “Theme from Star Wars” carried me back to 1977, when I was a teenager watching a movie I thought might be good, but really didn’t know. I was 15 again, experiencing “Star Wars” for the first time.

And simultaneously that music transported me into the intergalactic world of “Star Wars.”

The Star Wars Logo glowed on the screen. Words began to crawl from the bottom to the top, rising over a background of stars. Words that told a story. A story of good battling evil, a story of heroes and villains and light versus darkness.

Then the movie started, and it was the classic “Star Wars” story. Sure, there were new characters, but it was a familiar tale. In fact, the only real criticism I’ve seen of the film is that the plot in many ways is similar to the plot of the first Star Wars movie. But that’s a good part of what makes it so awesome – the retelling of the classic tale.

All in all, seeing the new Star Wars film, “The Force Awakens,” was a lot like Christmas Eve worship.

We gather here in anticipation of hearing the familiar story, maybe in a new way. But it is the story that we long for, it is the story that brings us together. It is a story that gives us HOPE.

When I hear the first notes of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” or when we sing “Joy to the World,” or especially when we get to “Silent Night” with candlelight, it really feels like Christmas. The music evokes recollection of Christmas Eves past, worshipping in places long left behind, with loved ones no longer here. The music of Christmas evokes powerful memories and emotions.

As we gather, we hear about familiar events and places – the census, Bethlehem, Galilee, shepherds’ fields.

And we encounter beloved characters in the story once again . . . Mary and Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, and of course the Baby.

Our hearts are stirred because the Christmas story begins the Greatest Story Ever Told.

Even better than Star Wars!

One of the unique things about Star Wars is the Force, that mystical, quasi-scientific power that binds the universe together. There are those who can channel the Force in powerful ways – the Jedi. They train and fight against those who have mastered the dark side – the evil side – of the force.

Star Wars is basically a good old fashioned drama of good versus evil, sort of a western in space where you can usually pretty easily tell the good guys from the bad guys.

Yes, it’s exciting and fun and the special effects are great.

But here’s the thing – the victory of the good guys doesn’t last. The new Star Wars movie is episode seven. At the end of Episode Six (“The Return of the Jedi”), evil had been defeated and peace reigned in the galaxy.

But here we are in the new movie and the dark side is again wreaking havoc. So the Force awakens to battle the dark side.

But the story we gather to tell today, the Greatest Story Ever Told, is different. Not just in that it is true.  Not just in that it happened.

It is different because the story that begins in Bethlehem with the birth of the Christ Child, ends with – SPOILER ALERT – the defeat of evil, the defeat of sin and death – once and for all!  That would happen when the baby grew up and died on a cross. He showed the world the extent God would go to show God’s love for me and for you.

You see, the story we gather to hear again today is the story of a different kind of force. It is the most powerful force in the universe.

The Jedi Knights in Star Wars fight with Light Sabers.

The weapon in The Greatest Story Ever Told is  . . . LOVE.

What does love look like?

A baby in a manger. That is certainly that is not the usual idea of power – a helpless baby wrapped in rags and lying in a trough where animals fed. But that baby was God, God in human flesh. Total power become totally vulnerable. God among us.

Star Wars happens in a fantasy galaxy.

The birth of Jesus is God entering the real world.

Our world. A world where he would experience cold and hunger and loneliness and betrayal and even death. A world where he would laugh with his disciples, and where he would cry with his friends.

Christmas is God saying to us, “I love you so much that I am willing to go through everything you must suffer in life, so that when you experience disappointment and struggle, not only will you know that I am with you, you will know that I have been through it.”

We try to pretty up the birth of Jesus into Christmas card perfection, but we lose its reality when we scrub away the filth and the smells and the pain of that birth where animals fed.  We run the risk of turning the real-world story into a fantasy.

That is so important!  Jesus was born into the real world so that God’s relationship with real-world people like us could be healed. That relationship between God and us is scarred by sin, and Jesus was born to break down that barrier.

When Jesus was born the force of love awakened in the real world in a way that it never had before.

God is love, the Bible says in First John. With the birth of Jesus, God is here. Love is here.

The darkness of this world is the absence of love.

We see the results of that darkness all around us. We see it in terror attacks and in violence of all kinds. We see it in hunger and preventable disease and in greed-spawned poverty. We see it in any attempt to divide the world into “us and them,” whether “they” are defined by ethnicity or nationality or religion or race or gender or who “they” love.

The force of love awakened in Bethlehem to break down those barriers as well, to conquer the darkness of division and bigotry and hate.

Hatred is birthed by fear. In an earlier movie, The Star Wars character Yoda said this: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

I agree with Yoda. Biblical he sounds.

With the birth of Jesus we no longer have to fear. We no longer have to hate. Over and over in the Biblical Christmas accounts we hear these words “Don’t be afraid.” The angel Gabriel says it to Mary, and Joseph hears it in a dream. It is the first thing the angels say to the shepherds. “Don’t be afraid.”

Sisters and brothers, because the force of love awakened in Bethlehem, we don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to fear anything or anybody in this life, or even death.

In Jesus, we are free to love. We are free to live his summary of the law – to love God and to love our neighbor.

And we are free to tell this story, the Greatest Story Ever Told.

It is OUR story to tell. When we were baptized, we became participants in the story. As “The Force Arises” introduced new characters into the Star Wars story, this year 18 babies, young people, and adults were baptized here into the Greatest Story Ever Told.

It’s up to us to tell that story. Millions have seen “The Force Awakens” already and millions more will watch it. People are hungry for stories of good battling evil . . . Are we willing to share the Greatest Story Ever Told – the story of God in human flesh born in Bethlehem, growing up to die on a cross simply because he loves us, then rising again?

If we don’t tell the story, who will?

Our greatest witness is to share with others our part in the story. The best evangelism is to tell other people what difference it makes that the force of love has arisen in us.

Every year on Christmas Eve I take a moment to address those who are here who don’t know – yet – that they are part of the story; those who are here but think it as much of a fantasy as Star Wars, those who are like me when I didn’t believe a word of the story. It took me until I was 33 to realize I was part of the story that the baby in Bethlehem was born for me. Let me encourage you, if you are now in your faith – or lack of faith – where I was then – to be open to the story.

I am still surprised the force of love awakened in me.

And to everyone, sisters and brothers, may the force – of love – be with you.

(Congregation: And also with you.)


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Joseph Did You Know?

josephIt was a wonderful half hour.

It happened on the day my daughter, Autumn, was born.  She emerged into the world through a C-Section, and after the doctor was done with the delivery, and the nurses were through weighing her and foot-printing her, they handed her . . . to me.  Karen and I shared a moment together with Autumn, then I was ushered into the recovery room to wait for the doctor to finish with Karen.

Autumn and I were alone in the room. I sat down.  I looked at her there in my arms; she was wrapped in a soft white blanket and she was wearing a little pink cap.  I looked into her big, blue eyes and she gazed back at me.  I  basked in the glow of new life and of unlimited possibilities.  Autumn could do anything, she could be anything.  It was indeed a wonderful half hour.

It was only later that I started to think about some of the possibilities that weren’t as wonderful.  The possibility of pain in her life, the possibility of loneliness, the possibility of disappointment . .

Disappointment in me.

I felt so inadequate.  Inadequate to protect her, inadequate to give her the care she deserved.  Could I give her everything she wanted, even everything she needed, everything she deserved?  Was I going to have the patience I would need, especially for an infant, and again when she was a teenage girl?  I knew better than anyone how imperfect I am.  I really wondered if I was up to the task.

How inadequate must Joseph have felt?

How many questions did he have as he held the newborn Son of God – the Savior of the World – in his hands?

Think about this: If Mary and Joseph were the only two humans present when Jesus was born – and there is no record of anyone else being there  – then the very first hands that touched, that held, that protected the Infant King belonged to . . . Joseph.  The first human, loving touch Jesus – God in flesh! – must have felt was Joseph’s.

But Joseph doesn’t get a lot of attention.

He’s there in the manger scenes but our focus is on Mary and the Christ Child.  Joseph gets lost amongst the shepherds and the animals and the wise men.

He’s there in our Christmas pageants, but Joseph is usually a role for a shy young man.  It’s typically not even a speaking part.

Do you know how many times Joseph is quoted in Scripture?  Zero.  How odd is it that such an important figure – the man chosen to be Jesus’ step-father, or adoptive father, or earthly father, however you’d like to refer to him – is totally silent in the Bible.

As Joseph held Jesus for the first time, I imagine he must have thought back over the path that had brought him to that time and place.

We first meet Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel when he finds out that Mary, the young woman to whom he is betrothed, is pregnant.

To Joseph, who knew he wasn’t the father, it sure looked like Mary was sleeping around. In that place and time a public charge of adultery carried the penalty of death by stoning.

It was Joseph’s right to denounce Mary public and to have her put to death.

Think about that for a moment.

It was Joseph’s right to have Mary killed . . . along with the child growing inside her!

In the story told by Matthew, not only did God place the baby Jesus into Joseph’s hands to raise, but God also entrusted Joseph with life or death power over God’s Son even before he was born.

Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man.  Because Mary was an apparent adulterer, his obedience to the law demanded that he could not marry her.  But Joseph’s righteousness was tempered by mercy.  His plan was to divorce Mary, but to do it quietly, without a public rebuke of her.

That was Joseph’s plan.  It was NOT God’s plan.

Before he could divorce Mary, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream.  The angel told Joseph to go ahead with his marriage to Mary. Strangely, the angel tells Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”  Do not be afraid?  What did Joseph have to fear?  After all, it’s not the man who is put to death for adultery.

But this is what Joseph had to fear: Public humiliation.  Ridicule for marrying this adulterous woman.  Suspicion that he is actually the father of this illegitimate child.   Joseph’s standing in the community – and in his own family – is threatened.

As Joseph held the baby Jesus on that first Christmas, he must have wondered how the public perception would affect the family.  Would his friends desert him? Would he be welcome a the synagogue? Would he be able to get work?

And he must have pondered the impact the scandal already had brought. . .

Have you ever wondered about the whole “No room in the inn” thing?

Why were they looking for an inn in the first place?  According to Luke’s Gospel that they were in Bethlehem because it was the hometown of Joseph’s family.  Hospitality was highly valued in that time and place, but apparently not one of Joseph’s Bethlehem relatives would take them in.  I would guess that was due to the aura of scandal that had attached itself to Mary, and, by extension, to Joseph.

As he looked into the eyes of that newborn baby, I imagine Joseph must have felt it was all worth it.

As I think about Joseph there next to the manger, I remember the words of the song “Mary Did You Know” by Mark Lowery (and performed on The Voice last night by the amazing Jordan Smith).  It asks if Mary knew, as she held her baby, that He would grow up to heal the sick, to make the blind see, to raise the dead.  Most strikingly, it asks, “Mary, did you know that this child that you delivered would soon deliver you?”

I can’t help but wonder, Joseph did you know?

Did Joseph have any idea how this child would deliver him . . . and the world.

I wonder if Joseph had any inkling of the Cross. 

As He held Jesus on that first Christmas, could Joseph have imagined the sacrifice that Jesus would make for him . . . and for us?

So, the next time you look at a manger scene, look away from the center and let your eyes rest on Joseph for a while.  Consider his example.  Take some time to ponder what Christmas promises him . . . and us.  And remember what Joseph was willing to do in response to that promise – he was willing to risk . . . everything.

Joseph was an ordinary man, who, through God’s provision, carried out an extraordinary task.  He gives hope to all of us other ordinary folks that we can tackle challenges for which we feel inadequate.

Like being a dad.

(Adapted from my 2009 Christmas Eve Sermon at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville.)

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Nothing To Do with My Savior

Fear provokes folks to do strange things. It inspired the president of the largest Christian University in the country to carry a handgun in his back pocket as he spoke to his students at a convocation this past Friday. He must be really scared . . . in the same speech Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr.,  encouraged those students to get permits so they too could carry concealed handguns.

I guess they’re putting together another kind of “Salvation Army.” Instead of ringing bells, they’re packin’ heat.

Sounds like Jesus!

That was sarcasm.

Jesus didn’t pack heat, he carried a cross.

But when people who profess The Prince of Peace submit to fear, they sound more like devoted disciples of Dirty Harry.

Liberty University’s motto is “Training Champions for Christ.” You might think that means teaching students to be champions of namby-pamby stuff like loving your neighbor or forgiveness or that ultimate pantywaist pursuit, praying for your enemies. (That Jesus, he is such a wimp.)

No, Liberty University is apparently training champions for the next crusade. If these were Muslim students being encouraged to arm themselves and get ready to kill Christians, folks would say they were being “radicalized.” President Falwell even said in his speech there were classes right there at Liberty University for students who wanted to learn how to blow away “those Muslims.”

In fairness, that’s not exactly what he said. Let’s quote President Moral Majority, Jr. exactly: “I’ve always thought if more people had concealed carry permits we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill.” So . . . the idea is to “end” random Muslims before they do anything wrong?

Of course! They’re not people. They’re Muslims!

(More sarcasm there.)

President Falwell was silent about “ending” all the white Christian mass killers (who’ve far outgunned “those Muslims” in the US) “before they walk in and kill.”

I keep hearing folks saying mainstream Muslims don’t condemn Islamic violence and the extremists who perpetrate it. That’s not true.  Just today I watched one such video, called “Nothing To Do with My Prophet, that was posted in one of my Facebook groups.

Obviously, that video inspired the title of this post. Christians should also call out violent extremists among us who pervert and twist the words of Scripture – and especially the words of Jesus – to fit their fear-driven agenda.

Those Christians whose fear drives them to vilify all Muslims and to celebrate violence do not speak for me. Their fear-mongering has nothing to do with my Savior.

It’s not so much the encouragement to get guns that bothers me about Falwell’s speech. What is most troubling besides his disparagement of “those Muslims” as a homogeneous evil group is his jaunty attitude about the possibility of violence.

Referring to San Bernardino, he said, “If some of those people in that community center had what I’ve got in my back pocket now . . .” The students interrupted him with cheers.  Falwell grinned and even giggled.

He giggled

Then he said, patting his butt cheek, but referring (I hope) to the gun he had hidden there, “Is it illegal for me to pull it out?” There were more cheers.

And he giggled again.

As he spoke, Some of the students stood and cheered for the beaming President Falwell. Others pumped their fists in the air and flashed thumbs-up.

He concluded, “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” (And we know who “them” are, wink wink.)

Let the little children . . .President Falwell certainly taught those students a lesson. He taught them what we’ve learned from politicians and other Christian leaders –  fear of, and hate for, “those Muslims” will surely get you applause.

He taught them to grin and giggle at the prospect of violence.

Those students also learned that the primary Christian response to fear is to get a gun license, to get a gun, to get trained to use it. Get “them” before they get you.

They learned to cheer for the gun. Trust the gun. The gun will keep you safe.

They learned to worship the gun.

That’s the real problem.

Let’s stipulate that  having a firearm for self defense is sometimes a good idea. I don’t want to debate the gun issue here.

BUT even if that is true, using a firearm is not something to anticipate with revelry.The video of Falwell’s speech conveys the atmosphere of a pep rally before the big game, as if he was getting everybody fired up for the big contest to come.

But at a university that claims to be Christian, the potential of lost lives – even the lives of “those” people  – should be lamented, not celebrated.

The possibility of self-defense by harming another – even one of “them” –  should be acknowledged not with a standing ovation, but with a community falling to its knees in prayer.

In this sin-screwed-up world, sometimes the only way to prevent violence may be with violence.

But that is cause for tears, not giggles.





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Anxiety Sucks (And So Do Panic Attacks)

I did something death-defying last week. At least it felt death-defying, kind of like a paratrooper with acrophobia taking the first step out of an airplane. I did it even though I dreaded what might happen, even though the apprehension of it kept me up at night for days before.

What was this death-defying act?

I got my blood pressure checked at the doctor’s office.

Do you feel set up? I’ve given you big buildup that seems to have prepared you for a disappointing letdown. “What’s so death-defying about getting your blood pressure checked?”

Only this . . . a year or so ago when they cuffed my arm and the automatic sphygmomanometer pumped it up, my heart started pounding like a John Bonham drumbeat and sweat suddenly soaked  my skin and at the same time my respiration revved up and I thought I was going to pass out because I couldn’t suck in enough air. I  felt like (and I mean this literally) I was going to die.

I had a panic attack.

Obviously a blood pressure check is not a dangerous invasive procedure. It probably involves less risk than your doctor hitting your knee with that little rubber hammer to check your reflexes.

But that’s the thing about panic attacks.  Like the unexpected rise in the polls of certain presidential candidates, panic attacks don’t make sense. They just happen.

The nurse’s reaction to my blood pressure reading did not reduce my sphygmomanometer-triggered panic attack. Her eyes opened wide and she looked like she was going to have her own attack.  She asked me if I was having pains in my chest or down my arms.

That certainly helped.

After a few minutes the attack abated and I didn’t have to make yet another wasted trip to the emergency room that wound up finding nothing wrong. I’ve had a handful of those fruitless ER visits over the past 30 years or so.

All of this is a way of easing into a confession I am going to make in this blog post hoping it will maybe help other folks . . .

 Hi, my name is Dave, and I battle anxiety and panic attacks.

I originally wrote, “I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks,” but although there definitely is suffering the reality is that it’s a battle not to let this part of me control my life.

Also, I hate the flaccidity of the word “anxiety.” I hope pairing it with “battle” may endow it with more heft. “Anxious” is something you get about whether you’re going to make the movie on time when the service at dinner is slow, or maybe even something positive like, “I’m so anxious to meet you.”

Anxiety, on the other hand, is like being on a roller coaster that has just crested the first hill, the moment you both experience the drop and anticipate it continuing. It’s the moment when, as my daughter said when she was young, “Your belly goes up.”  Except that anxiety is not a moment. It is a state of being that goes on and on. Even if you are thrilled by roller coasters, being trapped hurtling downhill for days, hours, weeks, even months with your “belly up” is not exciting, it is exhausting.

Let me be clear – in this roller coaster analogy I don’t mean “downhill” emotionally. I’m not talking about depression, although the hopelessness that is sustained anxiety can lead to or exacerbate depression. I’m talking specifically about the sensation, the reptile-brain response of “get me out of here” and heightened sensitivity to, well, everything.

Imagine trying to work or watch a movie or read a book or, God forbid, sleep while all the input to your brain is on overload, while neurons send out messages to every muscle and nerve, “Watch out! Be ready!”

It sucks.

The battle is trying to live life, to get stuff done, to be a tolerable human being, when your mind and body are in this amped-up state.

A panic attack is a hyperactive friend who drops by unexpectedly and causes chaos for an evening but then goes home.

Anxiety is the relative who comes to stay “for a few nights” but after one week turns into two and that turns into a month, they’re in everybody’s way and you can’t figure out how to get them to leave.

Not everyone who battles anxiety experiences panic attacks, and vice versa, but they are related. Panic attacks are short-term, amplified versions of the downhill coaster ride. They are more of a “Tower of Terror” plunge straight down that goes on longer than the few seconds of the Disney World drop. My panic attacks last up to 20  or 30 minutes, and sometimes the come in clusters.

Although anxiety may get in the way of life and even cause some folks to think they might prefer the alternative, a panic attack is when your body and your brain get into a feedback loop of “You are going to die RIGHT NOW!”  You experience dreadful wonder – “My heart is pounding right out of my chest, how can it keep beating so hard? How fast can it go without stopping? Am I going to pass out . . . and not wake back up?” (That last one’s particularly pleasant to pop into your head while you’re driving.)


I’ve dealt with panic attacks for as long as I can remember. The first really bad one – my first trip to the emergency room – happened when I was 24. Sometimes they come on when I’m stressed, but others crash in for no reason. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night out of a seemingly peaceful sleep, and five minutes later I’m up and have gone from being worried about waking up Karen to being afraid my heart is going to explode.

After a few nights of that, insomnia sets in because sleep no longer seems restful, but rather just the prelude to unpleasantness. Then not sleeping leaves you more vulnerable to anxiety, which interferes with sleep, which leads to anxiety, and so on and so on . . .

The battle with panic attacks is not just with their occurrence, but with the foreboding feeling that they may happen any time and that you may do something to trigger them.

Anxiety and panic attacks are strange in that they are not about being afraid of something, they are just pure fear.  It’s kind of like being afraid of fear . . . once you’ve had one or two you start dreading the next one.

The battle with anxiety is the battle against playing it safe.

Getting to be a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Jeopardy!” were two highlights of my life. But my biggest fear about going on those shows – and the thing I had to fight even to audition – was that I would have a panic attack and make a fool of myself . . . or die. Or maybe I would be like that guy who passed out at his podium during Final Jeopardy. How embarrassing!

Yeah it’s irrational, and I told myself it’s irrational, but this stuff sits in the reptile brain where the only response is “fight or flight” and reason doesn’t penetrate very easily.

The death-on-a-gameshow thing was definitely an exaggerated fear, but it was not helped by what happened the Sunday before the week I went to New York to tape Millionaire. On that morning I was greeted at church by a very kind woman who said, “Oh thank God you’re here! I had a dream last night you died of a massive heart attack!”

Thanks for that.

When panic attacks happen, my heart can beat 180 times a minute or more for what seems like forever.  When your heart’s racing that fast and you’re not doing anything to provoke it, like exercising, it makes you, well, panic.  “Am I having a heart attack?  Is this going to give me a heart attack?  Should I go to the hospital, call 911?  Relax, it’s just another panic attack.  But what if it’s not, what if it’s something more serious this time?  How will I know the difference?”

I’ve had panic attacks in the most inconvenient situations. Only once when I’ve been preaching, though. There’s nothing like trying to get through a sermon in front of a church full of people when your brain is telling you, “This is it, buddy.” It’s not just the fear of dying, it’s dying of embarrassment that someone might notice.

Sometimes there’s an explanation for a panic attack. I later found out the preaching one happened because someone had made regular coffee in the decaffeinated coffee pot. I have learned not to drink caffeinated coffee or tea – if you happen to be my server at a restaurant and I ask twice, “Are you sure that’s decaf?” that is why.

I’ve had many years to learn about panic attacks. But anxiety is a more recent addition to my oeuvre of unease. I never really dealt with anxiety until about a year ago. I had the “joy” of going through the busiest season of my job – the time before Christmas – feeling like I had started each day by swallowing a handful of amphetamines.  Yahoo!

It was then I knew I needed to get help.

One of the reasons I’m writing and posting this is to encourage others battling anxiety and panic attacks to get help if you need it.  I want you to know you’re not alone. I want others to have some idea of what we’re going through.

As a pastor who battles anxiety and panic attacks, I want to assure you that anxiety and panic attacks are in no way a reflection of your faith or lack of faith.

Panic attacks and anxiety are the result of chemicals in your brain and your body going haywire, perhaps exacerbated by something else physical. (I have a mitral valve prolapse which apparently makes me more prone to this stuff).  They may have their roots in something that happened to you or some other life event. Also involved are patterns of thinking that exacerbate the effect on your life.

It is usually just ignorance when folks “helpfully” say to someone battling anxiety that they just need to pray more or read the Bible more or have more faith because then surely they wouldn’t be so anxious.

Somehow those religious folks never say anything like that to people with diabetes or thyroid issues or other dysfunctions of body chemistry.

Those same “helpful” people will say, “You know, Jesus himself said ‘Don’t be anxious.’” And it’s true, he did, but not to make people feel guilty (which only leads to more anxiety) but in the context of a promise that God would provide for every need. What Jesus said is really more, “You don’t need to be anxious because I love you so much,” but like lots of other positive Biblical stuff we turn God’s promises into a gavel of judgment and a hammer with which to beat folks over the head.

Or to beat ourselves over our own heads.

Don’t listen to the people who tell you that getting help is a sign of weakness. In a culture that values the rugged individual, it takes guts to reach out for help.

Like any medical issue, anxiety and panic attacks sometimes need to be treated. Therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc. are the armorers in the battle against anxiety. They have weapons so you don’t fight the battle unarmed.

For some folks, medications are the weapons they need. I take a pill each day that helps mute the palpitations that my heart valve thing can cause, and I also have a prescription for Xanax to take if I feel a panic attack coming on. But here’s the thing – my bottle of Xanax just expired and I’ve only taken one – knowing I have it has been enough.

When the anxiety got really bad last year,  I tried a couple of medications for it, but they made me feel worse. I decided to be done with them when I had to call my wife to come pick me up at work because my legs were shaking so much I couldn’t walk home.

We’re not talking a long hike here – I live less than 100 yards from the church where I serve.

That doesn’t mean medications won’t work for you or someone you care about. It also doesn’t mean I won’t need a med specifically for anxiety in the future. There are lots to choose from, and if you need meds it doesn’t make you any weaker or a loser any more than a diabetic who needs insulin.

But, like some diabetics can manage their illness with lifestyle changes, sometimes anxiety and panic attacks can be handled without medication. Thankfully, I found an awesome therapist who not only gave me weapons – new patterns of thinking – to battle anxiety and panic attacks but also helped me realize I already had the power to utilize them.  Over a period of months, I learned to fight the battle and actually win sometimes. I learned to tell if anxiety or a panic attack was imminent and what I could do about it. I learned what triggered my anxiety and panic attacks.

Although I “graduated” from counseling, I’m still learning. I’m still battling. As you know from the beginning of this post, getting my blood pressure checked is a trigger I’m still struggling with.

But that’s okay. I am much better off today than I was a year ago. With Christmas coming again things are just as busy at the church, and I am somewhat stressed, but I’m not experiencing anxiety. I’m sleeping at night.

And I’m not calling my wife for a ride home.

Which brings me to one more thing.

Don’t fight this battle alone.

My wife Karen has lived with my panic attacks since we’ve been married, and she lived through the anxiety I experienced last year. She encouraged me to get help, and walked with me through the process. You need someone on your side and by your side. Perhaps you can start the conversation with someone by having them read this post. Feel free to share it any way it might be helpful.

Finally, if you do happen to be a Christian, I can assure you that you are not alone!  You are not faithless or faith-low because you have anxiety and/or panic attacks, neither are they a sign that God has somehow deserted you. I Peter 5:7 says, “Cast your anxiety on God because God cares for you.”  That is an invitation, not a command. It is an invitation that implies that we will have anxieties – that some stress is normal. But that verse – and the witness of the Bible as a whole – lets us know that God is not some detached supreme being in heaven, but God is intimately involved in our lives, even in our anxieties (and panic attacks).

God’s promise in Christ is not that we will never have any problems (including anxiety and panic attacks) but that we will never walk through them alone.

Oh, and by the way . . .

I never let you know how the Battle of the Sphygmomanometer turned out last week. Although I was nervous (okay, a little anxious) about it and almost cancelled the appointment, I did show up. My blood pressure was a little elevated but I got through it without a panic attack. I’m now taking my blood pressure regularly at home (where it’s normal).

I know the battle will continue next time I have a doctor’s appointment or something else happens that has triggered a panic attack before. My heart valve issue isn’t going away so there will probably be more palpitations and panic attacks.  I know that stress is a fact of life and that not managing it can lead to anxiety, or maybe it will just happen because the brain chemicals get messed up.

But I will keep fighting the battle not to let anxiety rule my life. I will not give in to fear. I am going to keep trying new things and going new places and being the best pastor I know how to be (and going on game shows should the opportunity arise). I know I am not in this  battle alone.

And neither are you.

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