- 2017May 17
The other day I overheard some friends, fellow believers, bemoaning several problems in American evangelical church life. One of these was the tendency of some people, in a small group setting, to respond to a call for prayer requests by asking for prayer for an “unspoken” concern. My friends sighed in exasperation and rolled their eyes. I once held the same view as they, but I’ve changed my mind. Lord knows we need lots of things changed in American Christian culture, but the unspoken prayer request isn’t one of them.
To be fair, it’s been a long time since I’ve actually heard someone give an unspecified prayer request quite that way, but over the course of my ministry I’ve heard it a lot. I’d end a Sunday school class or a small group retreat asking for what we should pray about, to have one or two people say the simple word, “unspoken.” I think we should hear this more.
The unspoken prayer request is, first of all, almost all the time a genuine asking for prayer, as opposed to a means of communicating facts to others. We’ve all been in prayer meetings where every detail of a skin-rash treatment or of a child’s honor roll grades in college are offered with the kind of specificity that, at least sometimes, is more akin to a Christmas newsletter or a Facebook post than to a petition to God.
The person who asks for a request that is “unspoken,” though, is almost always someone genuinely grappling with a burden or a dilemma. The burden is so great that he or she doesn’t even feel ready to talk about what that burden is. Why would we not want that? When the Bible tells us to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), why would we not want to bear even the burden of not knowing whether or how to talk about the burden?
After all, sometimes the requester is dealing with a sense of shame, or navigating how to pray for someone else without embarrassing that person or subjecting the prayed-for to gossip. We actually all have “unspoken” prayer requests. A person might ask you to pray for their Aunt Flossie’s heroin addiction, but it would be terrible to do so on the town’s Christian radio talk show. We should confess our sins to one another (James 5:16), so it is good if a Christian asks her friends or her pastors to pray for her struggle with pornography. She should not make the same request as she’s leading children’s church. When thinking through how to forgive those who’ve harmed me, I can’t very well give a prayer request that is itself can be an attack on those I’m trying to forgive. Would it be better to not ask for prayer at all?
But even more than that, the unspoken prayer request is fully in line with how the Scripture calls on us to pray. Jesus teaches us how to request our daily bread, but tells us not to rattle on and on, as though it is our “many words” that gets God’s attention (Matthew 5-13). That’s partly because our Father knows what we need before we ask (Matthew 6:33), and he, unlike Baal, isn’t summoned down by theatrics or incantations (1 Kings 18:27-29, 36-38).
God calls us to make our petitions known to God (Philippians 4:6), and so it is good to do that together. But often it’s not just that God knows what we need before we ask, but that God knows what we need before we do. We often don’t know how to pray as we ought, Paul teaches us, and in that “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). The person who asks for an unspoken prayer request may well just be in this process, trying to figure out how to pray and for what to ask. Maybe he or she needs prayer to be able to pray. That isn’t a sign of rampant evangelical individualism but rather the exact opposite. Moreover, the unspoken prayer request is often a confession of powerlessness, of vulnerability. God doesn’t despise that, and neither should we.
We pray often for God to revive his church, to breathe life into these dead bones. Maybe one way he will know he is doing so is when we hear more of us reaching out for one another’s hands and, with tears in our eyes, saying one word: “Unspoken.”
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- 2017Apr 28
The streamed television series 13 Reasons Why is Netflix’s newest hit program. The program is about a teenage girl’s audio recording, left behind after her suicide, which explains the reasons why she killed herself. Many school systems and psychologists are warning that the series could be dangerous, if already depressed or troubled teens watch and see suicide as an option for them. If not already, every Christian parent of teens and certainly every church youth ministry ought to be ready to explore the questions raised by this dark series.
Some would say that 13 Reasons Why doesn’t at all “glamorize” suicide or anything else. After all, the vibe of the series is jarringly bleak. No one would see, they would argue, anything there that could be seen as an advertisement for suicide. That’s true, of course, but suicide isn’t glamorized by glamour. Suicide isn’t, in fact, “glamorized” at all, anywhere. The appeal to suicide isn’t that it might be fun. The appeal to suicide is that it might be an escape. This is what makes the message of 13 Reasons Why perilous. In order to provoke tragedy in a hurting teens life, no one needs to make suicide glamorous; one only needs to make suicide plausible.
What concerns me about the show is that the central conceit of the series feeds one of the drivers of teenage suicide, and that is the sense of suicide as storyline. Many depressed teenagers that I’ve talked to over the years, and others with suicidal tendencies, don’t actually want to be dead as much as they want to end one story and start another. In many cases, the suicide becomes, in the imagination, the way to resolve storylines that one sees no other way to resolve. In some cases, I’ve found, what the teenager imagines is not so much the shadow of death (though many do speak of a longing for death as a kind of sleep), but instead is the aftermath of the suicide itself.
I’ve not found many depressed teenagers who really longed for revenge (the way sometimes those hurting left behind suppose). I have found though that many of them liked to imagine the ongoing story—the way that those who have hurt them or traumatized them might “come to their senses” after the suicide. The reactions these teenagers sometimes imagine are, in fact, a kind of repentance. The rejecting love realizes how hurtful he or she was. The school bullies see the weight of their actions. Or, maybe, the imagination is that simply those around will see the reality of the burden the teenager is facing. This is not so much vengeful as a twisted-up vision of a kind of repentance. It’s a longing for the story to be different.
The peril here, though, is that, of course, a victim of suicide isn’t able to survey the scene of the aftermath of his or her death the way an imagination can—or the way a filmed drama can. The story for the victim ends at death (as it pertains to this life). What the troubled persons is really longing for—a resolution to his or her story—is then, horribly, ought of reach. The problem here is not that the suicidal person is irrational. The way of death is always irrational. That’s why we need people around us, when we walk in darkness, to point us to light.
13 Reasons Why, I fear, just might fuel the pull to suicide in some because the storyline itself furthers the illusion that suicide is “fixing” something—even if only bringing a kind of closure to the character arcs of the supporting figures in the drama. The “star” of the program is still the deceased teenager. This is not what suicide is like—and the dramatization of suicide as story-shift could be deadly for some.
That said, I believe, as a Christian, that any situation this side of Judgment has redemptive possibilities. While I wouldn’t want my children or my church members watching 13 Reasons Why, I hope the controversy itself might bring some grace-filled moments. Sometimes parents and teachers and peers assume that a suicidal teenager is one who seems sad and down. Such is not necessarily the case.
Sometimes those around someone in suicidal trouble assume that there’s one problem that just needs to be “fixed.” If the series shows anything, it is that there are multiple reasons behind the darkness that can lead to death. Maybe this controversy will prompt friends and parents and youth ministers to talk about suicide, to signal to those in trouble that they are not alone and they won’t be judged if they come forward and seek help. Maybe it will prompt some of us who are parents or friends of teenagers to talk about what to do if one ever does start to see “reasons” for desperation, opening the imagination to what it could look like to share burdens with those who will be glad to help bear them.
Whatever is streaming on Netflix, though, we can be the kind of church that speaks of life and hope to those who see death as their only way out. Suicidal kids aren’t crazy or freakish or, sadly, all that rare. They are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters. And, like all of us, they have trouble seeing something in the moment.
It may be that you are one who feels as though you’re living through your own dark, streaming drama. Maybe you are a Christian, and you feel badly about thinking this way, but you want death to interrupt your story. Don’t watch this series alone. Seek out help. Life may seem hopeless to you, but you have a life that is worth living. There are a trillion reasons why.
Photo credit: Netflix
- 2017Apr 10
Willie Parker is an abortion doctor. He says he’s not ashamed of that. Willie Parker also says he is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ. That one’s more complicated. His new book on why Jesus would support his abortion practice shows us the end-result of a cultural Christianity in which the self can redefine anything: Jesus, the gospel, morality, justice, even life itself.
Parker is a kind of circuit-riding abortionist, spending time at various abortion clinics all over the South. The book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice is one part an autobiography, and one-part a political manifesto for the legality—and even the goodness—of abortion. Even as one who has to wade through all sorts of material assaulting human dignity, I found that I would gasp at the lackadaisical nature of Parker’s reflections.
Parker writes about his profession of faith in Christ. He even discusses listening to some beloved Christian writers—C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton, for instance—on his long drives between abortion clinics. Jesus, Parker tells us, has no issue with Parker’s vocation. And, apparently, neither does Parker. He writes, chillingly, about aspiring to learn how to do abortions. He said that he would go to the Planned Parenthood clinic “and perform abortions, over and over, like the athlete who goes to the gym after practice to shoot three-pointers.” He would sometimes do fifteen abortions, sometimes thirty “I wanted to get to the point where the procedure was automatic, a synthesis of muscle memory and mental vigilance,” he writes.
He learned not only how to do these abortions, but also how to quiet his conscience along the way. Parker doesn’t hide the grisly mechanics of abortion. He writes, step-by-step, of what he does in an abortion, and in the aftermath. “I inspect what has just come out of the woman’s body: what I’m looking for is the fetal sac, which at a later gestational age, becomes the placenta, and, after nine weeks, every one of the fetal parts—head, body, limbs—like a puzzle that has to be put back together.” This job of “recreating the fetus in the pan,” Parker writes, is what “assures me that I’ve done my job completely and well.”
The nonchalance of the metaphors is no accident. The aborted “product of conception” is a puzzle; the act of aborting him or her is like learning to shoot basketballs. Parker writes of how he calms women down as they approach the abortion, sometimes with guilty consciences. He talks to them about Dr. Seuss books or southern cooking, Parker tells us, “and if all else fails you can talk to them about football.” More specifically, he writes, he talks to them about whether they are fans of the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide or Auburn.
He admires a similarly casual approach to abortion in his patients. He praises the woman who asks to see the remains of the abortion, nods her head, and goes back to her crackers and juice. He admires the woman who asks to see the ultrasound afterward but seems unmoved by it. He chastises a woman who sees the joking about the abortions by fellow patients on the table around her as lacking respect. “When she wrote a letter to complain of the atmosphere in our clinic,” Parker writes, “I was unmoved.”
And on his enemies list to be attacked in the book are not only pro-life Catholics and evangelicals but also pro-choice feminists who speak of abortion as a tragic, if necessary, choice. “Most of the women I see are utterly matter of fact about they’re doing,” he writes.
In fact, he writes, the problem is, in part, “liberal women with children who themselves became enraptured with the sonogram images they saw at the obstetrician’s office and who wept when they heard the fetal heartbeat.” This is, Parker argues, a “fetishization of motherhood and children that I don’t quite understand.”
Parker issues what amounts to a kind of altar call at the end of the book. He asks the reader whether he or she is truly committed to abortion as a moral good. “Or are you secretly squeamish about abortion rights now that you’ve seen the sonogram images of your precious and beloved children in utero?” he asks. “Do you find yourself agreeing, a little that life might begin at conception, that abortion is tragic?” If so, he implies, repent and believe in the wonders of “reproductive choice.”
How, you might ask, would one be able to boast in a practice condemned by the Christian church from the very beginning in the Roman Empire, while simultaneously claiming to be a follower of Jesus Christ? Well, one does so, first of all, by moving the locus of authority away from the Scriptures. Parker will, at some places, attempt to argue that the Bible doesn’t actually prohibit abortion.
Still, these arguments don’t get him quite to where he needs to go—toward undoing the Bible’s prohibitions on not just killing but on sexual immorality as well. Parker then describes the Bible as misogynistic and patriarchal. Even God must be redefined. Parker writes of God in impersonal, cosmic terms and argues that the Christian vision of a personal God who judges the living and the dead is “a tendency to anthropomorphize” God. Not coincidentally, he argues through the book that to call a “fetus” a “baby” is to “anthropomorphize” the entity in the womb.
The biggest hurdle, though, for Parker, is to redefine life itself. Like many in the abortion movement, Parker scoffs at the possibility of fetal personhood because the child is small, “no bigger, from crown to rump, than the first two digits of my pinkie finger,” and because the child cannot live, in most cases, on his or her own outside the womb. He seems to recognize though that lack of size and lack of power won’t be persuasive on their own, so he continues to what he sees as the real problem: the idea that life is “a miracle.” Parker writes that to say that “conception, or birth, or even death is ‘miraculous’ does an injustice to God.” Life is, instead, he argues, merely “a process.”
As I read this abortion doctor’s repeated inveighing against the metaphor of “miracle” for human life, I could not help but be reminded of Wendell Berry’s manifesto against scientism and materialism, which he says demotes humanity from creature to machine. The rejection of the miracle of life, Berry wrote, leaves us with the coldness of abstraction.
“The giveaway is that even scientists do not speak of their loved ones in categorical terms as ‘a woman,’ ‘a man,’ ‘a child,’ or ‘a case,’” Berry wrote. “Affection requires us to break out of the abstractions, the categories, and confront the creature itself in its life in its place.”
Berry concluded. “We know enough of our own history by now to be aware that people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love.” It all turns on affection.
To dehumanize the unborn child, to reduce the child’s mother to her ability to make “choices” about the life and death of others, is to dehumanize Jesus. In Christ, after all, God has “anthropomorphized” himself. And we are introduced to Jesus in the biblical story, just as John the Baptist was, as an unborn child (Luke 1:44). To keep doing his job, Parker must depersonalize the women and children he encounters. He must depersonalize God into an unblinking, non-judging cosmic abstraction.
The good news is that God has dealt with even guiltier consciences than Dr. Parker’s, and he has done so in mercy. The good news is that Willie Parker may one day see a different vision of himself, and of God. He might one day be found in Christ Jesus, a new creation. That’s happened many times before, to many of us. And this new birth is not just a process but a miracle.
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