How Francis Chan Helped Me Become Catholic

Francis Chan’s book Crazy Love was basically a life-changing book for me. He challenged me in a powerful way to really live out the Christian life as though it is true (because we believe that it is, right?). Jesus really died for us, and this should be life-changing knowledge. If we are to truly follow Jesus, then eternity really matters more than enjoying this life. The all-powerful Creator loves us so much, and our love for Him and others should reflect this knowledge. But I read Crazy Love at a crazy time in my spiritual life, and as excited as I was to live the life that Francis described, he left me with more questions than answers. Eventually, further down the road, I found the answers in the Catholic Church.

Francis Chan motivated me in 3 overall ways that ultimately helped lead me to the Catholic Church (for which I am honestly grateful to him). I will briefly cover them in this post.

Christianity Takes Courage

“Jesus’s call to commitment is clear: He wants all or nothing. The thought of a person calling himself a ‘Christian’ without being a devoted follower of Christ is absurd.”-Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg. 85

Courage is an essential aspect of Christianity. Sacrificing, loving, and living with a reckless reliance upon God should be a normal aspect of life as a Christian. If you’re in your comfort zone, then you might not be on the right track. Obeying Christ in everything is not optional for Christians, even if it involves being poor so that others might have enough, or being ridiculed by people who don’t understand, or even giving your life for the faith.

Thanks in part to Francis Chan (and Dietrich Bonhoeffer), I really began to see how a true pursuit of the Christian life will naturally meet with opposition and hardship.

Jesus said,

“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” -Matthew 10:37-39

I wanted to take my motivation to live a real Christian life and use it to serve God with all my heart. But what would that look like? What sort of things should I be doing to live courageously for God every day? I had it in my mind that no cost was too great, but I wanted my service to be God’s will, and not just my own ideas… so I needed direction.

“Should you put your house on the market today and downsize? Maybe. Should you quit your job? Maybe. Or perhaps God wants you to work harder at your job and be His witness there. Does He want you to move to another city or another country? Maybe. Perhaps He wants you to stay put and open your eyes to the needs of your neighbors. Honestly, it’s hard enough for me to discern how to live my own life!” –Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg. 166

I began to get frustrated. How are Christians supposed to be living? Does anyone know?

“…I cannot say in this book, ‘Everyone is supposed to be a missionary’ or ‘You need to sell your car and start taking public transportation.’ What I can say is that you must learn to listen to and obey God, especially in a society where it’s easy and expected to do what is most comfortable.” –Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg. 168

I must learn to listen to God …how? Partially thanks to this book, I began to ponder what this really means. It didn’t help when I stepped back and began to see that there are thousands of denominations of Protestant churches with different ideas of what God is saying to us. I believe I did indeed learn how to listen to God enough for him to guide me to the Catholic Church, where people are not figuring out from scratch what it means to live a Christian life.

Take the Bible Seriously

Francis Chan had a great way of explaining how real Christians must study the Scriptures in a direct and painfully honest way, not allowing our preferences to explain the meaning. This means not skimming over verses that we don’t understand or don’t like. Courage must be applied when reading the Bible. I began to realize, however, that direction can not only be obtained from reading the Bible, but must also be obtained for reading the Bible.

Understanding and obeying instructions from the Bible is essential, but for the Protestant, this is subject to personal interpretation. Chan’s conclusion seems to be that the more extreme you are in your interpretation, the more likely you are to be correct.

Reading the Bible honestly is not enough. You must have it explained (Acts 8:30-31), or you will end up extremely frustrated (if you’re honest). The question is: who do you trust to explain it, especially when there are thousands of differing opinions? If you’re going out onto the mission field, you need to have concrete answers to people’s theological questions, not just your opinions about what you think the Bible means. I don’t assume that Francis Chan’s book was intended for deep theological instruction, but it would be nice to know that someone has straight answers.

“Pray. Then read the Bible for yourself. Put this book down and pick up your Bible. My prayer for you is that you’ll understand the Scriptures not as I see them, but as God intends them. I do not want true believers to doubt their salvation as they read this book. In the midst of our failed attempts at loving Jesus, His grace covers us.” –Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg. 87

How do we know we’re true believers? What does that mean?

One of Francis Chan’s motivating verses became the biggest example of my frustration:

“So then, none of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.” –Luke 14:33 (NASB)

I have long believed that truth is not relative. I knew that it was up to me to discover what Jesus meant, and that I did not have the liberty to decide for myself what He meant. I wanted to be a real disciple even if everyone else was making excuses not to be, but what did Jesus mean when He said things like He did in that verse? How was I to understand it? Did anyone have definitive explanations?

I found that we don’t need a fresh look at the Bible. We need an infallible interpretation of the Bible. Otherwise we’re all walking around following our hearts like Disney princesses… or going crazy trying to find the actual truth and never being sure if we’ve found it.

I came to the conclusion at the end of it all that the only thing that really makes sense is if God placed something exactly like the Catholic Church on the earth to be the infallible interpreter of Scripture for the whole world. Otherwise it’s basically just relativism, and I didn’t want to live a life of courage and sacrifice for a Christianity of my own making. If God fits into a box of my assumptions and preferences, then chances are I’m not serving the real God.

“Not being able to understand God is frustrating, but it is ridiculous for us to think we have the right to limit God to something we are capable of comprehending.” –Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg. 33

We Have Work to Do

We’re here to love God and love other people. This means serving God on His terms, not our own, and serving others even at the expense of our own preferences and prosperity.

“So we can follow our own course while still calling ourselves followers of Christ? So we can join the Marines, so to speak, without having to do all the work?” –Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg. 85

“Lukewarm people say they love Jesus, and He is, indeed, a part of their lives. But only a part. They give Him a section of their time, their money, and their thoughts, but He isn’t allowed to control their lives.” –Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg 72

I knew that I wanted to offer my God-given strengths and abilities as part of the Body of Christ, His Church. I wanted to do whatever I could to help. But I was running into a similar problem that Francis Chan did…

“But I think we all feel deeply, even if we haven’t voiced it, that the church in many ways is not doing well.” –Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg. 22

“…I quickly found that the American church is a difficult place to fit in if you want to live out New Testament Christianity.” –Crazy Love, 2nd ed. pg. 68

Thanks in part to Francis Chan, I could see that an Americanized Christianity was not original or likely to be correct, and fitting in too much can be an indicator that I wasn’t living the faith authentically. Yet I wanted to be giving my all as part of the Church. This was a quandary. All of the acceptable Protestant options that I tried seemed so inadequate if I wanted to be part of a biblical culture and a more ancient mindset.

I knew from experience that being on fire to make the necessary changes to a flawed system does not turn out well. Ideally, it would be better to find the system that isn’t flawed. And I was even open to the possibility that what might appear as flaws to me might actually be my own flawed criteria. Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church (Matt. 16:18), so I knew the Church still exists, but I also knew that it could not simply be a general unity of agreement between Christians about basic doctrines, because I could see so many disagreements even on fundamental issues. I also was not content to sit back and announce that my preferred interpretation of Scripture and Christian beliefs is right while everyone else’s is wrong, thereby insisting that my location is the location of the Church, like many people seem willing to do.

Biblically, Christians must be part of the Body of Christ, His Church. But what does His Church look like? Around the time I read this book, I had a couple of experiences where I could see plainly that the Evangelical Protestant concept of Church authority is hollow. Without universal authority in spiritual matters, how can you be the Church in possession of the Truth? The instruction we see in Matthew 18:17 to “…tell it to the Church…” seems to require a singular, authoritative Church, but where could this Church be found? Jesus prayed earnestly for His followers as recorded in John 17: 20-23: “…that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know…”

Francis Chan was onto something, but he was only scratching the surface of a much bigger picture. Christians must be part of a globally united Church that possesses the authority and unity of Truth. Then they can effectively reach the world with the message of God’s crazy love.

The Catholic (“universal”) Church has been there all this time (going on 2,000 years). Many of us have just preferred to ignore it so that we can do our own thing. But what if Christians really had courage and a commitment to truth like Francis Chan is encouraging us to have? Then it’s no longer about doing our own thing, is it?

-Ben 6/6/14

Beard Success!

Well, I’ve apparently done it. I got my first random beard complement from a total stranger. “Nice beard dude” were the words I heard, and turning I was relieved to see a normal-looking dude with an appropriate expression. I said thanks and went on my merry way. I’ve put a lot of work into my beard. No seriously. As great as my Northern European genes have turned out to be, there’s a lot more to growing a good beard than one might think. Last year I grew out a beard for the first time. I was dealing with dry, crackly hair and split ends that made it rather uncomfortable, and I had no idea how to properly trim and take care of it. So after about six weeks I basically panicked and shaved it off entirely. After going back to work and hearing that I looked like a 12 year-old boy, I figured there must be a better way. Once people get used to seeing you with facial hair, be careful about just shaving it off.

This year, as my 30th birthday approached, I decided on two things. First, I was determined to stick with it this time, and this required making myself wait a few months in anticipation before starting to grow it. Secondly, I was determined to give my beard the best possible care. So, in the months preceding the start, I did my homework. With YouTube, and Jack Passion’s book The Facial Hair Handbook (which was ordered in at the local library thanks to my request), I learned quite a bit about growing a healthy and well-kept beard. Many things these days are a lost art that every man used to be taught as a boy in the “old days”.  Yes, it’s possible to simply grow out a beard in the same way that it’s possible to grow out your hair. Just stop shaving, right? It can be that simple, but putting a little extra thought into it can go a long way. Most people like to keep their hair looking and feeling civilized, and a beard is no different.

Beards are coming back into style. I’m quite sure of it. It’s probably a combination of many influences, like the guys on Duck Dynasty and Vikings and professional ball players who are getting people used to seeing beards again. I think that many men are beginning to question why beards were out of style for so long. In the twentieth century, thousands of men came back from the World Wars where the military required a clean-shaven look of uniformity (also gas masks required a good seal on the face). Shaving companies jumped on the opportunity to portray men as clean-shaven and went a long way in encouraging that appearance. Hippies made beards look (and smell) bad in the sixties and seventies. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there are many feminist types who apparently suffer from beard envy and don’t wish to compete with such visual reminders of manliness. It is a sign of healthy manhood in an almost Darwinian sort of way. You can’t grow a good beard unless you are healthy and possess plenty of testosterone. A beard signifies someone who can provide and protect. Since pre-historic times, women have known deep down that a man with a good beard is a good choice.

So what are the secrets? First of all, in my late teens and into my twenties, I basically could not grow a decent beard, and I was in the military anyway. If you can’t grow a full beard, growing a scraggly-looking one may not be the best plan. It is important these days to make beards look good as they re-emerge on the cultural scene. In my late-twenties I was surprised to discover that I could grow a nice full beard. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a few years. Don’t give up hope entirely. If you are ready to grow a beard, remember that before the hair leaves the skin is the best opportunity to care for it. This means a healthy diet, drinking plenty of water, and taking an Omega-3 supplement and multivitamin. This is easy stuff. Avoiding processed sugars, smoking, or stress is also important. Married men have the ability to boost their testosterone in the traditional way (wink wink), and working out is important as well. Get plenty of sleep, and basically be as healthy as you can in general (which is good to do anyway).

What about caring for your beard? First of all, do not use shampoo, or any soap with excess chemicals. I have tried “Grandpa’s Pine Tar Soap” and it seems to live up to the hype. Any soap with only a few (natural) ingredients should work fine. I’ve heard that conditioner can be good, but just using natural soap on my hair, face, and beard has been working great for me going on 3 months now. Take an extra minute to rinse well when using soap. Also, and this is important, your face puts out a certain amount of natural oils, and it’s important to brush and comb these oils through your beard a couple times a day. It’s especially important to do this during the “itchy phase” in the first couple weeks. Scratching with a comb is fine and feels great. Try to avoid touching your beard too much, as it can work grime into the hairs and also cause split ends. A boar-bristle brush is the way to go, and “Kent” handmade saw-cut combs are totally worth the money (I like the 6T). Avoid typical plastic combs and brushes! They have tiny seams that can snag and scratch the hairs. Don’t brush or comb your beard when wet, and let it air dry for the most part. There are reasons behind these things, and Jack Passion’s book goes into more detail about a lot of them. I just wanted to pass along some basic tips that have helped me a lot. As far as trimming goes, I suggest YouTube, and being very careful. When it comes time to get the scissors out, take just a tiny bit off at a time. I’m still working on establishing a standard method for myself.

By the way, if you stop your beard at the jaw line, you’re severely limiting yourself. The natural neck line is best, allowing the beard to grow to a much better fullness. It may be a bit itchier at first, but if you care for it then it ends up feeling fine. One of the benefits of growing out a beard is that it requires minimal upkeep, so why grow one that requires daily maintenance? Goatees, mustaches, and excessively-trimmed beards look really bad if they go a couple days without shaving around them. A razor has not touched my face in months. I take care of the stray hairs on my neck and cheeks well enough with scissors and clippers, but basically my beard’s natural lines look fine. I like to have the ability to go weeks without upkeep and look natural (albeit a natural mountain man) if I choose or if circumstances demand it. Unless you’re a male model for a cologne company, there’s no sense in being dainty about it.

I was tempted at first to let my beard grow wild (and it’s always a possibility, so look out), but I have thus far settled on a more conservative look. I’m seeing what I can do with a standard shorter length and I can always go longer later. For now the style is more like Sean Connery or Ulysses S. Grant than Stonewall Jackson or Phil Robertson. I feel like a new man, and as the beard has grown out, it’s grown softer and sometimes I even forget that it’s there. It’s cool how it actually helps to protect my face in the cold air or harsh sunlight as well. Around here, many guys have beards this time of year, so it’s perfectly natural to grow one out. Encouraged by my success thus far, I don’t plan on getting rid of it any time soon.

-Ben 11/25/13


Five Outstanding Combat Memoirs

Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell was written before the recent slew of Navy SEAL books that have come out since bin Laden was killed. This book is the real thing. Luttrell gives fascinating insight into the training that SEALs endure and what it takes to fight and win modern wars. This book is practically guaranteed to bring you to tears, and keep you on the edge of your seat as Luttrell and his fellow warriors face vicious combat in the mountains of Afghanistan. He describes how fighting the Taliban is made more difficult by politicians, malicious media, and fickle public opinion, but he also describes the priceless value of close family, friends, and brother warriors. The combat is intense, the losses are heartbreaking, the determination is inspiring, and the lessons are invaluable. This is the best memoir of 21st century warfare that I have yet read.

To Fly and Fight: Memoirs of a Triple Ace by Clarence E. “Bud” Anderson tells the thrilling experiences of a man who flew a P-51 Mustang over Europe in WWII, and went on to become a test pilot and even fly missions over Vietnam. We get to feel the thrill and terror of a young pilot taking part in legendary air battles. Chuck Yeager, his fellow pilot, called Anderson a “mongoose” in an airplane, and “vicious” even though he was such a nice guy on the ground. The life of a fighter pilot with the experiences that Anderson had would be interesting either way, but he puts energy to his writing that makes the book all the more enjoyable. Because his career spanned such a broad timeframe, we also get insight into decades-worth of American military aviation development and tactics. As a person who is very interested in the role of airpower in war, I can say that this is the best all-around combat pilot’s memoir that I have read.

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge gives us a glimpse of the fighting conditions experienced by the Marines in the Pacific theater of WWII. He started out learning from the “old breed” of Marines, but gradually became a battle-hardened veteran in an environment where sanity was difficult to maintain. The Japanese were a savage adversary, and often fought to the bitter end from their island entrenchments. From a critical lack of water in the sweltering heat, to staring at the same grinning corpse day after day, Sledge’s experiences were effectively and hauntingly put on paper to help us remember what our veterans went through. The less-serious moments balance this powerful account well, and help to make it one of the undisputed classics of war. As far as I’m concerned, Sledge describes the most difficult and horrific fighting conditions of any combat memoir I’ve read.

Seven Roads to Hell: A Screaming Eagle at Bastogne by Donald R. Burgett is nearly unbelievable because there are so many stories in the book that are simply incredible. The 101st Airborne, more specifically Burgett and the guys he fought with, were among America’s premier fighting men in WWII. They were the best, and they knew it. At times I was almost feeling sorry for the Germans, because the “screaming eagles” were such aggressive warriors. Burgett described intense warfare, where audacity and training made up for many disadvantages. These young guys were cold killers, and they took the fight to the enemy. All four of Burgett’s memoirs from WWII are classics, but this one about Bastogne, where the 101st Airborne held out and fought hard despite being surrounded and freezing, is to-date the overall best combat memoir I have ever read.

I Rode with Stonewall: the War Experiences of the Youngest Member of Jackson’s Staff by Henry Kyd Douglas is not only a first-hand account of the entire length of the American Civil War by a soldier from the South, and insight into one of the greatest American generals to ever live, it is also an action-packed account of combat from that era (which can be extremely rare to find). In this case, truth is indeed more interesting than fiction. We get a unique perspective of “Stonewall” Jackson, from him sleeping in church to his amazing battlefield accomplishments, along with a fresh perspective of many Southern generals who together made up the most formidable group of tacticians in that war. We see a human side to these guys when normally accounts of these men and their battles can seem quite dry to us 150 years later. Douglas is an interesting character in his own right with plenty of experiences and a Southern perspective that has helped to balance my own impressions of the conflict. Of all of the combat memoirs I’ve read, this one is perhaps the most fascinating, and is sure to be a pleasant surprise to most any person interested in the Civil War.

What combat memoirs would you recommend?

-Ben 8/25/13

My F-16 Ride

DSC01244It felt like someone was setting a car on top of me. At that moment, my body probably weighed over 1,300 pounds. Even though the Colonel made sure I was ready before starting the turn, and I was breathing and tensing my body as instructed, my vision was beginning to narrow. Eight and a half “G’s” is nothing to snicker at. I could not imagine trying to dogfight with another fighter jet under those conditions, lacking the ability to even turn my head and look at the air vapor rising over the wing. The F-16 has the ability to sustain up to 9 times the force of gravity in a turn. On that particularly beautiful day of May 2, 2005 above the snowy mountains of Alaska, I had a lot to be thankful for.

Being a particularly patriotic chap with a thing for airplanes, at the age of 18 I joined the U.S. Air Force. In 2002 there were good jobs available for the mechanically inclined, and I endured Basic Training and Tech School to become a 2A353B, a crewchief/mechanic on the F-16 Fighting Falcon (and/or the F-117 Nighthawk) tactical aircraft. While stationed in Japan working with F-16s I was able to learn many useful life lessons early on, as you must when the government trusts you with its $40,000,000 toys. I worked my tail off on the flightline, and overseas there was a unique camaraderie. Shortly before leaving that assignment to work with the F-117 stealths back in the States, I went with the squadron to the Cope Thunder exercise at Eielson AFB, Alaska. I was informed by my flight chief that I had been placed at the top of the list he put together for an “incentive flight” if the occasion arose. This was no small thing, and I was hugely grateful. Hard work paid off big time.

There I was in the land of the midnight sun, with an opportunity to fly in a D model (2-seat) F-16. Admittedly I was looking forward DSC01238to flying with the female pilot who was assigned to take me up, but when the squadron commander found out that his crewchief was getting a ride, he volunteered to personally show me around the sky; another huge honor. After being trained in how to eject from the aircraft and steer a parachute, and getting fitted for a G-suit, I was ready to get strapped in. After the canopy was down and sealed, the Colonel got the engine started, and it was unique to be sitting inside the jet for a change. As a crewchief I was used to standing outside the jet during this process, looking things over, pulling safety pins, and talking with the pilot over the intercom headset. This time I could actually see the screens and gauges light up as the massive motor growled and whined to life.

We were soon rolling toward the end of the runway for takeoff. We lined up on the runway and he called the tower for clearance to do a vertical climb up to 12,000 feet, and he said “get ready for a kick like you’ve never felt.” We started to race down the runway at a rather alarming rate and took off in what felt like 500 feet. I was pressed back against the seat looking out the window at the ground flying past below when he yanked the nose of the jet up and I felt my G-suit inflate to keep enough blood in my head. We left the earth behind us and rocketed into the sky. Soon cruising at altitude upside down, he flipped us upright. It had been less than one minute from the time we were sitting still on the runway. We headed out over the beautiful Alaskan frontier to the area where we could play around. It would have been bad to shatter someone’s cabin windows, so breaking the sound barrier wasn’t allowed, but there were plenty of other fun things to do.

He explained the area we had to stay in on one of the cockpit’s screens, and let me “take” the jet with my own set of controls. The F-16 has a “fly-by-wire” system, DSC01243which basically means that the slightest pressure on the control stick translates into an electronic impulse which moves the flight control surfaces with 3,000 pounds per square inch of hydraulic pressure… instantaneously. Not being a pilot, I had little imagination or ability beyond delightedly cranking the side stick controller to the right or left and watching the earth spin around my head. He demonstrated some barrel rolls, and helped me work the throttle and controls through a “loop” (going straight up and backwards… see photo), and through some high-G turns. With appreciation for the rugged landscape, we also went down below the height of the mountains. While cruising comfortably at about 350 miles per hour, he showed me what full augmentation (afterburner) felt like, and it was like a car accelerating from a traffic light. Lifting the throttle over its natural stop and going all the way forward injects extra fuel into the exhaust, creating a large flame out the back and delivering a glorious kick in the pants.

Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of flying like Peter Pan or Superman through the clouds. I asked the Colonel if we could fly through a cloud and he replied “Ok, how about that one?” and we were off, zooming toward it. I flew in and around those big clouds with a birds-eye view of whatever I wanted. Looking to my right I saw my shadow. I was mesmerized for a bit watching it get really close and then far away. For a few moments flying felt like a helicopter scene from the movie “Black Hawk Down” when the sound diminishes and time slows down as the aircraft gently rises and falls. It is amazing how the F-16 can be beautiful and terribly powerful at the same time. It is a large complex machine of war, and yet something that you can strap around you and fly as though you are alone in space… like a bird of prey. My words are insufficient.

-Ben 6/6/13