On Being Disturbed by Christmas

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas was once asked what he thought was the greatest threat to American Christianity. His answer was surprising. It wasn’t atheism. It wasn’t radical Islam. It wasn’t civil religion or consumerism. No, Hauerwas stated that what threatens to undo American Christianity is sentimentality.

Sentimentality is a kind of self-indulgent emotionalism. Oscar Wilde wrote that “a sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” Rather than actively engaging with the grit and grime of the world, sentimentality chooses to treat life as a Lifetime movie where events happen in a world illuminated by a soft, flattering light, where no one cusses, and where every conflict is neatly resolved. It views the world as a Thomas Kinkade painting. It’s safe for the whole family. It never disrupts, never demands, never makes us question. In a word, sentimentality thrives on comfort and making us feel good.

More than any other story, the Christmas story gets co-opted by sentimentality. Family, friends, food, smells, and carols overwhelm our senses and create deep memories. Nostalgia conjures spell-binding emotions. In and of themselves, these feelings and memories are not bad. In fact, it’s their inherent goodness that makes us susceptible to the trap of sentimentality. The complexity of our favorite memories is often flattened so we only remember the good. These uncomplicated emotions cause us to brush aside the difficult that exist along the good.

Every mother knows, pain accompanies childbirth. There is nothing sentimental about a child being born into the world. New life is born through stretching, tearing, cries, and tears. Joy makes it worthwhile, but that joy comes with a cost. The temptation is always to downplay the cost. We talk only of how “worthwhile” it was, essentially pretending the joy was free because to talk of the pain and sweat and blood makes us uncomfortable.

Treating the incarnation of God as fodder for a Hallmark card deflects from the outright disruption brought about when the Word made flesh invaded our world. Every mountain, the prophets said, will be brought low at the coming of the Messiah. Ask those on top of the mountain – those with power, money, fame, wealth, and every good thing this world has to offer – if they would welcome being brought low and watch the sentimentality fade way. Every valley will be lifted up. Those who only recognize the world through depression, grief, and loss will have their world upended by singing and dancing – which can be equally unsettling. The equality wrought by the justice of God will disorient all, leaving few of us feeling safe.

The church has its role in ignoring the rough edges of the nativity. It’s easy to blame culture for the commercialization of Jesus’ birthday, but we paved the way when we reduced the incarnation of God to a “birthday.” I say that as a member of a family who makes a birthday cake for Jesus. Why do we do this? In large part because it’s easy for our kids to wrap their minds around. But it isn’t the only thing we do during the advent season. Nor is it the most important thing. This is the tension we must allow ourselves to enter. Emotions aren’t bad. Being sentimental isn’t the end of the world. But sentimentality of the Christmas story tempts us to water down the Gospel. If the Christmas story loses its grit, so does the call of Jesus. Indulgent emotionalism sees the cross as only for us, never for us to bear. Suffering is what Jesus went through so we never have to. Death is avoided. The good news of this feel-good gospel is only for the life to come, not for this present life; not for those in war-torn Aleppo, the starving in the countryside of Cambodia, or those in a fatherless home in the inner city.

Instead, Christmas gives us courage to be honest about this world. The birth of the King of kings reminds us that the political powers of our world will be upended by the incarnated Kingdom of God. The visitation of angels to the shepherds gives the humble and overlooked confidence that God has not forgotten them. The escape to Egypt strengthens our resolve to care for the oppressed.

The Christmas story doesn’t need to be infused with cheap emotionalism. By entering the story in its fullness we will find our longings for a savior met, our broken hearts comforted, and our wonder at the beauty of this world enhanced. But it’s dangerous. Provoked by the unfiltered story we will find ourselves present to uncomfortable emotions, awakened to difficult situations, and gifted with eyes to see God invading our lives.

Rather than leaving us feeling sentimental, Christmas rightly understood will disturb us towards faith.

What Locker Room Talk Reveals About Masculinity in America

In the last presidential debate, Donald Trump weakly apologized for obscene remarks he made in 2005. Referencing his celebrity, Trump told a younger man, Billy Bush, that he, Trump, can just grab a woman in her most intimate region. “When you’re a star,” Trump said, “they let you do it.” During the debate, Trump brushed these comments aside as “locker room talk.” That was, in no uncertain terms, a veiled attempt to normalize his vulgar words by implying that all men do it.

No, all men don’t do it.

But, unfortunately, many men do talk crudely about sex. Vile speech of this nature is a product of the toxic hyper-masculinity that defines manhood in America. And locker room talk reveals the danger of this perversion of masculinity.

Locker room talk reveals the deep desire men have for the good ‘ol days when men had their space and women had theirs. The clubhouse after a round of golf. Donald Draper’s workplace. A neighbor’s garage. These were places where a man could feel comfortable being a man; a place where boy’s could be boys. In these sanctuaries a man could drink, smoke, cuss, and, of course, put his sexual exploits on full display in order to win the affirmation of his comrades. But the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude does little more than reveal the juvenile nature of manhood in America. American men feel most like men when they are acting most like boys.

There, in the company of other men, the assumption is that it’s safe to reduce women to objects existing for the sole purpose of sexual gratification. It’s understood that women serve as objects to procure one’s standing as a man among his peers. There is no need to offer dignity and respect in these fantastical locker rooms, because women are not thought of as people. Only as body parts for the taking.

Locker room talk reveals men’s preference for the pornographic: sex without relationship. Being weak in America is not allowed. Vulnerability is a liability, making any kind of intimate relationship a risk. Within relationship, rejection becomes a possibility. Relationships amplify insecurities, fears, and emotions. Therefore sex, within a mutual, consenting relationship, is problematic. What is sex if not an act full of emotions, closeness, and vulnerability? Pornography is safer. The locker room is sanctuary; a place to feign confidence and boast about conquests without vulnerability.

This isn’t about women misunderstanding that locker room talk is just what men do. This is about men failing to understand what locker room talk actually is.  Locker room talk is pornographic because it assumes women are consenting participants welcoming the lewd, aggressive advances of men. Pornography has taught us that with a little persuasion, even if it is forceful, a woman’s “no” can become a “yes.” Make no mistake about it: locker room talk of this kind is abuse. Nothing else. For too long men have been able to ignore the damage and violence our words incite on those around us. In a patriarchal society that idolizes the self-made man who gets what he wants out of life, men have enjoyed unusual freedom. We’ve been taught that the world is ours for the taking, so grab whatever you want.

Locker room talk is speech that paves the path for sexual assault on college campuses. If you cannot see the correlation between talking about grabbing what you desire and young men forcibly having sex with passed out women, you are purposefully being ignorant.

What breaks my heart is the number of evangelical Christians willfully turning away from such immoral and debasing talk to support the one who speaks it. Christians – who believe that words created the world and thus create reality – are dismissing these words from having real meaning. Jesus told us that evil words come from an evil heart, yet so many who claim to promote family values in the name of Jesus willfully ignore the obvious violence of locker room talk.

Men, whether you’re a Christian or not, this is on us. Women have been raising this issue for years, and it’s safe to say we’ve turned a blind eye. We’ve ignored and written off the obvious epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. We’ve bought into the lie that ‘boys will be boys’ and that men are for sex. We’ve talked out of one corner of our mouth about the need for self-control and discipline, and then out of the other corner bemoaned the idea that once a man’s libido gets going you can’t stop the train. We’ve blamed women for dressing too provocatively, while shaming them for being prudes. We’ve celebrated the “liberated” Playboy model who chooses to play according to the rules of a man’s world, and demonized the feminist who fights for a woman’s right to choose not to follow men’s rules. We’ve participated in creating a cultural standard for masculinity requiring men to reject and distance themselves from anything deemed feminine to prove their manhood – which even includes distancing from actual relationships with women. We’ve chosen pornography over intimacy. And then, when we get called out for our violent speech, we’ve whined like children about a newly feminized culture that won’t let men be men.

Society isn’t marginalizing men. Society doesn’t hate men. What society is doing is asking men to be better men. Yes, a different kind of man than we’ve known in the past. One who is emotionally available instead of a male automaton. One who shares in raising children so that children know it is safe and preferable for a man to be relationally connected and available. One who doesn’t walk through life with a destructive sense of entitlement, but takes responsibility for his actions, listens to the voices of others, and treats all people – regardless of gender, race, and religion – with respect.

In other words, society is asking men to be human.

What Christians Can Learn from Colin Kaepernick

I’m reminded of a story from the first part of the book of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar erected a statue of gold 90 feet high and nine feet wide on the plain of Dura in the province Babylon. Scholars are unsure of what the statue was or what it represented, but many contend it was a monument to the greatness of Babylon.

Anyone who attended Sunday school as a kid knows the story that follows. King Nebuchadnezzar issued a decree that at the sound of the musical instruments everyone was to immediately fall down and worship the statue or be thrown into a fiery furnace. And so, when the music played and it was time to bow to the statue, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – Israelites exiled with all of Israel to Babylon – refused, and were thrown into a blazing furnace.

This is a story of fidelity to God. We continue to hold it close because it teaches us the importance of courageously holding fast to one’s faith despite any consequences one might endure for protesting the worship of anyone or anything but God.

But this story also feels far off. After all, we don’t worship the state, nor we bow before idols, do we?

A National Liturgy

Playing the national anthem before sporting events is a longstanding tradition. The crowd stands and reverently turns towards the flag. Those wearing hats take them off. Hands go over hearts. Thousands go quiet or add their voices to the singing of the national hymn. On Friday night before the San Francisco 49ers football game, quarterback Colin Kaepernick refrained from participating in the national liturgy. Asked after the game about his silent demonstration, Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Unsurprisingly, Kaepernick now finds himself inside a fiery furnace of criticism.

Many are calling Kaepernick’s actions unpatriotic. However, it is better to say his actions are un-nationalistic. Patriotism and nationalism are different. Patriotism is a humble love for country, and true patriots aren’t blind to the ways in which life within their country could be better. Nationalists refuse to see the problems of the country. Nationalists see the country as supreme and only good. The good country demands blind allegiance, and blind allegiance arrogantly assumes it is never wrong.

Nationalism is insidiously dangerous in America. Co-opting god-language, American civil religion has weaseled its way into the American church such that, for many, Christianity requires unquestioning allegiance to America.

Notably, Kaepernick’s motives are different from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Rather than refusing to bow because of a Christian allegiance to Jesus, Kaepernick was protesting systemic racial injustice in America. But, for those who follow Jesus, systemic racial injustice matters greatly to the God of the Bible. In predominately white contexts people may quickly jump to see someone like Kaepernick as ungrateful. But in the African-American church there has long been the practice of holding the tension between gratitude for being part of the nation and speaking prophetically to the dominant culture. In fact, Christian tradition is replete with those who have spoken truth to powerful nation-states: Moses, Jeremiah, Daniel, John the Baptist, and, of course, Jesus. This prophetic voice must not be lost.

Refusing to Bow

Whether or not Kaepernick refused to give his allegiance to the flag for religious reasons is beside the point. Kaepernick’s act reveals our country’s cardinal sin: refusal to worship America. Very few would say that singing the national anthem or pledging allegiance to the flag is worship. Yet they have been elevated to that level. And refusal to do such things is now often viewed as the ultimate sign of disrespect to the hand that feeds you, the hand that won you freedom of expression as well as religion.

In such a situation, the church sacrifices its prophetic voice to become an agent of the state, producing loyal citizens who do not question, do not object, and do not see anything wrong. The nation-state replaces God as the supreme entity. It rises above criticism. It can be nothing other than good. Replacing Jesus with Caesar and the church with state, nationalism is idolatry.

People are pouncing on Kaepernick for protesting a country in which he makes millions of dollars. Notice that it’s the country that provides. Country has replaced the God who gives us our daily bread. They’re upset that Kaepernick disrespected the country that gives him the freedom to protest, revealing the underlying belief that this freedom isn’t an unalienable right endowed by the Creator, but something bestowed by the state. The nation replaces God as provider, liberator, and protector.

Why does national outrage burn after a quarterback refuses to stand during the national anthem? The music played, and he didn’t bow.

Farewell, World Vision!

Farewell, World Vision!

That’s what an entire community said as they celebrated the transformation over the last fifteen years.

Ten years ago it would take you three hours to get to Leuk Daek from the nearest paved road. During the rainy season, flooding made it impassible. The road follows the Mekong River, and when it rained, became the Mekong River.

Those living in the Leuk Daek district were nearly isolated – accessible most reliantly by boat, and destitute. In 2000, when World Vision began work in the area, only 36.3% of the homes had clean drinking water. A sobering 12.3% of homes had access to a toilet.

9 in 10 homes did not have a toilet of any kind. That includes an outhouse – otherwise known as a designated hole in the ground. I’m let you figure out the implications of that on your own.

Because life was about survival, educating children wasn’t valued. Two out of five students dropped out of primary school (elementary school). This wasn’t just a community of vulnerable families, this was a vulnerable community.

But, today, that’s no longer true. The community isn’t just surviving, it’s thriving; to the degree that World Vision is no longer needed in Leuk Daek.

When you drive the now paved road through the district, it’s hard to imagine what it was like a mere decade ago. Changing a community takes time – lot’s of time. Think about your community. How long would it take to change the effectiveness of your school? The rate of sexual abuse among girls? Drug use? Access to food for needy children and families? Would you say 10 years? How about 15? World Vision has been in Leuk Daek for 15 years and the community is completely transformed. Now, 91% of homes have clean drinking water, 94.1% of homes have access to a toilet, and 93.4% of girls are finishing primary school.

As impressive as those statistics are, they aren’t the story. The story is that World Vision is no longer needed. Let me explain.

When World Vision begins to work with a group of people, they don’t come in as the expert who knows what needs to be done. There are already experts there who are fully aware of the problems and needs of the community: the people who live there. Working with leaders, volunteers, and residents World Vision provides an assessment of the issues, determining what to address first. In one community it may be irrigation for crops. In another it may be building a road. And, in another it may be education. Every situation is different because the problems of every community are different.

Equipping local residents to take responsibility for the development of their community is a priority of World Vision. It would be easy to hear that people need water, show up with the equipment and dig the well; people would have clean water, problem solved. What sets World Vision apart is their commitment to bettering the lives of people by empowering them to solve their own problems. Does World Vision help? Yes. They will teach community leaders how to utilize its governmental resources, advocating on their behalf at the national level when necessary. They’ll teach the people skills they need – like best farming practices to increase yields, for example – but they won’t do the work for the people. It’s the difference between doing your kids homework for them, which is quick and much easier than walking them through each simple addition problem, and helping them with their homework. This process takes time, but, from what I’ve seen, its the process that transforms communities.

Photo Credit: Laura Reinhardt / World Vision

The Leuk Daek Agriculture Co-operative (AC) is one example of how effective World Vision’s strategy is. Just four years ago the AC was started and registered with the Cambodian government as a business. Residents could buy shares which would make them members of the AC, sharing in its profits, decisions, and work. When it began in 2011 it had 162 members, 143 of which were women, with a total of 394 shares. Today there are 177 members with 470 shares. The AC provides loans, cheaper fertilizer, water filtration, and is expanding to broker their own corn. Leadership is elected and shared by people who don’t take a salary because they believe what they are doing is important.

And it is. It’s changing lives.

More than that, it’s changing a community.

I sat across the table from the AC leaders, furiously taking notes on my phone, astounded by the impact this group was having on their community. There are so many ways I’m just going to list the ones they told us about:

  • Provide various farming loans

  • Buy fertilizer to see at a lower price to commune (village) farmers

  • Advocate for children in school

  • Work to improve the community one day every week (pick up trash, build latrine, etc.)

  • Set 2% of their profit aside to help children in need. Right now that means 3 children are being cared for by the AC

  • Help the most vulnerable families in the community by providing jobs

  • When the Mekong River caused the shore to erode and collapse a community family’s house, they built a new house.

  • Helped 2 members of the AC who died by giving their family wood for the coffin

  • Put drain tiling in so water can flow out of fields which helps the entire community

  • Help a divorced woman who has four children by employing her, enabling her two youngest to attend school

  • Sell purified water in two communities near border of Vietnam

  • Give free water to families affected by HIV

  • Sell water at a discount to poor families

  • Give free water to schools

You see? They don’t need World Vision. They have each other.

I couldn’t help wondering, “Do our churches have this kind of impact on our communities? Are we known for loving our community this much? Installing this much pride, this much hope, this much generosity in our community?”

The AC is just one group in the community. You could go the facilitators of the youth club and hear their stories. Ask them why they, young adults, are hanging out with children and you’ll hear their desire to be role models and to see their community continue to improve. This is no longer an isolated community. It’s a community full of pride and hope, with all the resources necessary to flourish on their own.

There’s something here for us to learn. Transformation happens when we take responsibility for the world around us. Whether its our spiritual lives, our relationships, or our community, transformation isn’t just going to happen. No one sits in front of the TV and is transformed. Transformation is not a passive process. It requires everything of us. Like Jesus said, “In order to find your life, you must be willing to lose it.” I can’t help but wonder, what would it look if we, the church, were more active in transformation – personal and communal – and committed to the flourishing of our communities for 10-15 years?

Maybe churches wouldn’t get farewelled by our community and culture. Maybe we’d get asked to stay.

Persecution or Clanging Cymbal?

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” -Matthew 5:11

Persecution can be a twisted badge of pride. Rather than being a comfort to one facing systemic, targeted hostility, the verse quoted above has become certification that one is a true believer. Since we in America don’t face the obvious persecution of so many Christian brothers and sisters around the world we have to go looking for it. And because we are looking for it, and because we may even want to find it to assure ourselves that we are blessed, we find persecution everywhere. Any act of anger. Any unfair ruling by the courts. Any push-back about Christian values. These negative experiences reassure us that we are among the righteous.

It’s no secret Christianity’s role in society is changing. Influence is being lost as our voice is no longer the dominating voice shaping social morality. We are now one voice among many, and increasingly, a quiet voice among louder voices. It might be fair to say that we are a voice asked to be quiet. What does it mean that the values we once helped shape are now being rejected? How should we interpret the increasing marginalization?

Persecution. Obviously.

Admittedly, saying our pizza parlors and bakers and values are experiencing persecution does bring us comfort. Persecution is evidence of being in the right, and therefore, those who are doing the persecuting being in the wrong. It does make us feel like we are doing exactly what we are supposed to be doing as Christians. After all, Jesus promised that if we would follow him there would be persecution. Unfortunately, what Christians are experiencing as the culture shifts is not only explained by persecution.

There is another way to interpret the quieting of Christians in society, but it is the road less traveled. It is the road that may require more humility than we are comfortable with.

At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount we find the famous words of Jesus telling his followers that they are the salt of the earth. But then he gives a warning. “If salt loses its saltiness it is good for nothing and will be thrown out and trampled by men.” Paul reiterates this idea 1 Corinthians 13 when he says that if we have the truth and are uber-spiritual but we don’t have love we will be like a clanging gong. An annoying, loud, obnoxious noise that no one wants to listen to.

This begs the question: Persecution or clanging gong? What if Christians aren’t being persecuted? What if our loss of influence in culture is because we lost our saltiness? What if people are trying to get us to be quiet because we have become a loud, obnoxious, noisy gong? What if the pushback, marginalization, and ridicule we experience is brought about because we have failed to love and, instead, we’ve treated the world with arrogance, insensitivity, and self-righteousness? What if we are reaping what we sowed?

It’s much easier to cry persecution than it is to confess sin. It’s easier to blame others than to accept responsibility. And when you claim to have the truth, as Christians rightly do, it’s hard to admit you’ve been in the wrong. But that’s exactly what we as a people who preach the importance of confession may need to do. It may be time to confess that we haven’t loved others well. We may need to confess that we have been more interested in being right than doing right. Let’s be clear, we do not need to apologize for being Christian, or having beliefs, or even for our beliefs. But we may need to apologize for the way we have approached and interacted with the world around us.

Confession and a change of posture isn’t a guarantee we will suddenly be accepted by the world. Jesus was rejected despite the fact that he loved perfectly. Looking at how Jesus loved people actually encourages us to rethink how we have been living. Jesus wasn’t hated because he was so holy. He wasn’t killed because of his moral code. People weren’t hostile towards Jesus because he beat them up with the Bible. Jesus was killed because the way he loved people was scandalous. He ate with sinners. A woman of ill-repute washed his feet with her hair. In public. Lavishly wasting expensive perfume. People hated Jesus because he went to Zacchaeus’ house and not a more dignified religious leader’s house. He was mocked as a drunkard because he was with a lot of drunkards a lot. Jesus was killed because he reoriented holiness away from a moral code and centered it on being like God and sacrificially serving others.

If we are loving like that and people are still mocking, ridiculing, marginalizing, and being hostile towards us, then it probably is persecution. Until then, let’s make sure we aren’t a loud annoying cymbal crashing over and over and over and over….

Outrage Over RFRA Might Be A Fear of Christians

Last week Indiana found itself at the center of the news cycle for all the wrong reasons. With Gov. Pence’s signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act our nation once again found itself taking sides in the debate over LGBTQ rights.

Honestly, I’m torn over this issue. I understand that the Indiana bill was fashioned after the 1993 bill that was signed into federal law by Bill Clinton. I know that 19 other states have RFRA legislation. And, as a pastor, I support religious freedom, not just for Christians but for Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and yes, even Westboro Baptists. I think most Americans support protecting individuals rights to conscientiously practice their faith. Freedom of religion is one of the things that makes this country great and that freedom is worth protecting. But this bill, supposedly enacted to protect those freedoms, has caused quite the stir. Even more interesting to me are the people I follow on social media who are much more interested and knowledgeable than me in politics who say Indiana’s RFRA won’t amount to significant change. This raises the very simple question, “Then why pass the bill?”

I believe RFRA was designed to protect people’s rights in their business. When I was in college I worked at Old Navy, and because of my religious beliefs, declined to work on Sundays and was thankful when my managers honored my requests. Even though I don’t agree with it, Indian tribes that use psychotropic drugs as part of their religion shouldn’t be forced to stop because drugs are illegal. Here you can find ten examples of individuals who have been helped by RFRA’s.

So let’s be clear. RFRA does serve some purpose AND this isn’t just about Christians. After all, it allowed the First Church of Cannabis to come into existence (bet no one saw that coming!).

While I agree with the legislation on one hand, on the other hand I think it may be an expansion that is unwise.

The outrage surrounding Indiana’s bill is that its language expands on other bills like it to ensure businesses are protected as well as individuals. Those who oppose the legislation fear this change will allow business to discriminate against people, particularly LGBTQ individuals. Legal experts deny RFRA’s provide a legal basis for discrimination saying that these laws give individuals and now businesses the right to file litigation and have their day in court.

So here we find ourselves, all whipped up into a frenzy with one side shouting at the other side. This is how things go in America. We yell and don’t listen. One side yells at the other claiming they are ignorant of the actual law and hate America, Christians, and religious freedom. The other side yells that RFRA is a concealed attempt to legalize Christian discrimination of LGBTQ individuals.

Just a typical week, America. Everyone is talking, no one is listening.

As a Christian, I believe it is my responsibility to listen. Here is what I am hearing: Christians are not trusted. Or another way to say, the anger and frustration surrounding the passage of RFRA is really anger and frustration with us.

That’s a hard pill to swallow, but I can’t help but think the fear surrounding the use of RFRA to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals is because Christians are not just not trusted to not use it for that purpose, but that it is expected that Christians will use RFRA to discriminate. And why wouldn’t people assume that? We have a lousy track record when it comes to walking alongside of LGBTQ individuals. LGBTQ youth are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than their peers. They comprise 40% of the youth homeless population. Students who identify as LGBTQ are 5 times more likely to miss school, and 9 out of 10 have been bullied in the last year. We have done little to help with change those horrible statistics. In fact, the case against same-sex marriage has become a rallying point for Christians. When World Vision changed its employee policy, the evangelical world dropped their support of impoverished children. What the LGBTQ community heard was, “We would rather children starve than have LGBTQ work with them.” When the ELCA changed its stance on same-sex marriage, a tornado that went through Minneapolis was said to be God’s judgement. Christians have blamed 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina and Sandy on homosexuals.

Rather than finding ways to aid our neighbors who, as evidence by the statistics above, are hurting, we legislate for our rights and say we are the ones being marginalized. Which, for good reason, gets a lot of side-eyes.

Admittedly, I still believe in traditional marriage. But I can’t look at the statistics above and not see the pain. I cannot imagine being blamed for tragedies like 9/11 or natural disasters. That is absolutely appalling, and the pain that causes must be immense. To be called unlovable. To be treated as if the image of God has somehow been removed from their person. To be so utterly rejected by a people claiming to speak for the God who is love. My heart breaks. And so I’m longing to find a way to converse and move forward that is different. I believe, that begins with me.

When I listen to outcry surrounding Indiana’s new law, I hear frustration with us, Christians. The outcry isn’t about the law, it’s about us. It’s a fear that we will discriminate. And it is a fear based on a history that, whether we like it or not, is ours. We have, in no shortage of ways, broken relationships with the LGBTQ community. We have expelled our sons and daughters. We have protested them. We blamed them for the ills of society like a scapegoat. And no matter what we believe about same-sex marriage, that is wrong. Because of that, restoring relationship and trust with the LGBTQ community is on us. Even if you disagree with all I said above, restoring the relationship is on us because we are called as followers of Jesus to be ministers of reconciliation.

For many Christians, homosexuality and same-sex marriage is a moral issue. But in the eyes of society, the morality of monogamous same-sex marriage has already been decided. It’s over. The morality that matters to culture and society now is the treatment of LGBTQ individuals. If non-affirming Christians are going to continue to try and convince culture that same-sex marriage is immoral we will find ourselves at a moral impasse. Perhaps we already have. But I wonder if beating the drum of morality is the best way to communicate the gospel and live out the gospel? You see, the question now being asked of Christians is, “Will you treat us as human beings?” That’s what behind wanting a cake for a same-sex wedding. Or photographs. It isn’t shoving a lifestyle down people’s throats. It’s simply a desire to be seen as human. To be treated as human. To enjoy life as we all want to enjoy life.

For that reason, I’d bake the cake. If Jesus can make 120-180 gallons of wine for a wedding party that is already long underway and not be condoning or celebrating drunkenness, I can make a cake for a wedding that I may have some theological issues with. Truth is, we as Christians do this all the time. We bake cakes for Jewish weddings, weddings for people who divorced for non-Biblical reasons, atheist weddings, and maybe even a Wiccan wedding. To choose one lifestyle we disapprove of as the one we cannot offer services to is hypocritical.

I cannot find a place in the gospels where Jesus refuses to serve someone who has a different worldview than he does. The Samaritan woman, the Roman Centurion, the Syrophoenician woman, tax collectors, and on and on. Jesus met everyone with an incredible amount of grace. In Jesus we find a relational God who is willing to go to extreme measures to love human beings. It’s why John says that we love because God first loved us. God gave us grace long before we wanted it. And so we give grace. Freely. Even to those we disagree with. Even to our enemies (I’m not saying LGBTQ are our enemies. I’m saying grace goes to those we think deserve it the least).

For too long our “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra has been a clanging gong. When we fear having a law force us to serve someone, I think it is safe to say we don’t love them.

Perhaps now is the time for Christians to focus more on our responsibilities than our rights. Our responsibility is to love others like Christ. Our responsibility is to lay down our lives for another. Our responsibility is to give grace with same reckless abandon that put Christ on the cross. Our responsibility is to comfort the hurting, mend the brokenhearted, and stand up for the oppressed – even if we disagree with their theology, lifestyle, and choices.

In this case, our responsibility is to listen.

Which may mean our rights have to take a back seat.

You Might Have to Break Some Rules to Love Someone

There is nothing that grates against me like someone who displays a blatant disregard for the rules. Cut in line at the grocery store, even unwittingly, and you will be inundated with eye-daggers in the back of your head. Talk on a phone during a movie and I will passive-aggressively turn my head and side-eye you ’till the credits roll. Parents who refuse to park in the parking spots, choosing instead to park along the curve so they are ten freaking yards closer to the door, when they drop off their kids at pre-school will incur so much muttering under my breath I look crazy. And don’t even get me started on the people who park outside of Target in the emergency fire lane while someone “runs in real quick”…

Hi, I’m Nate. And I’m a rule follower.

I know my desire to follow the rules is connected to my deep need to please people. I don’t want to give people any reason to reject me, and so I stay on the straight-and-narrow and apologize quickly when I’ve broken the rules.

But lately, I’ve been wondering if following the rules has been helping or hindering my ability to love people.

Every time I read the Gospels I can’t help but notice how often Jesus breaks the rules. Touching lepers, gathering grain on the sabbath, healing on the sabbath, talking to a  Samaritan woman, letting a prostitute wash his feet with his hair. Just think about that last one for a moment. Imagine the uproar that would ensue if were discovered that a well known pastor let a prostitute wash his feet with her hair and perfume. I doubt he is standing in front a congregation on Sunday. Jesus is usually breaking some rule – cultural, social, even religious – when he is extending people the most grace.

Which raises the question, can I love people, really love people, if I’m not breaking the rules?

Perhaps it is important to distinguish between rules and commands. Jesus wasn’t throwing out the Old Testament commands and sinning when he broke the rules. The rules were not the commands but the additions to the commands. God commands, “Remember the sabbath and keep it holy by not doing any work.” Well, that’s great but how in the world do you keep a day holy? What constitutes work? That’s a hard question to answer, so somebody devised rules to help people figure out what that meant – the number of steps, when to cook your food, lighting lamps and the such. And then somewhere along the line the rules became too important, completely missing the point of the command itself which was to deepen ones love of God and neighbor. So Jesus broke the rules to remind people what the commands were for.

Which got him into a lot of trouble with the rule keepers.

Would I have side-eyed Jesus when he went to a tax collectors house?

Am I more afraid of breaking the rules or failing to love people?

Adding rules to commands happens today. Human nature loves rules because it makes figuring out where you stand easy. Keep the rules and you are in. Break the rules and you are out. Rules provide an easy answer to the question everyone is asking, “Am I in or am I out?” And since we always want to be in, once we are there, we don’t want to end up outside by being found guilty of breaking the rules by association. So rule keepers tend not to associate with rule breakers.

This is getting a little philosophical. Let’s put some legs on this.

Take “Your body is a temple of the Lord’s” for example. What does that mean? Well, in context it’s about sexual immorality. Seems straightforward, and yet haven’t we added a lot of ‘rules’ around this verse as well? I’ve heard this verse quoted as reason not to drink, smoke, and get tattoos. They’ve become rules to follow that many in evangelical culture have heard hundreds of times. They may be fine rules to follow, but rules have a knack for becoming moral imperatives. It isn’t a short walk from “Don’t smoke because it is bad for you health and because your body is a temple of the Lord,” to “smoking is sinful.” We may never say that outright, but it sure gets implied. Now, watch what happens. If we imply that smoking is sinful, then what of smokers? They are sinners. And those groups of smokers huddled outside of restaurants on cold winter nights are the new lepers. We pass by on the other side – warning our sons and daughters to hold their breath – while those sinners stand in the cold shivering and sucking on their death sticks.

Kind of hard to love people when you won’t even share the air they breathe.

I wonder what other groups we are passing by as we keep the rules.

The point of this isn’t smoking, or even what does or does not desecrate our bodies. I just want us to think about how our rules might keep us from actually loving people in the way Jesus would. I don’t think Jesus would smoke, but I do think he’d hang out with people who did.

Loving people is messy. Sometimes, in order to love someone with the grace-upon-grace love of Jesus it means breaking the rules. People are dying, literally, as they wait for us to break some of the rules in order to love them.

When LGBT kids are committing suicide because they fear coming out to their parents will result in being rejected, it might be time to break some rules. I’m not talking about commands. Even if you think homosexuality is not God’s intended design, you can still walk across the room and give someone a hug. It might break some cultural rules in your church, but maybe that’s a rule that needs to be broken.

When boys are shooting up schools (and yes, it is predominately boys who do this), it might be time to break some rules. We groom our boys to be men by telling them to man up. We encourage them to hide their emotions so they don’t appear weak. We implicitly communicate that the only safe emotion for them to show is anger. And we are surprised when they get violently angry? Maybe it’s time to break a rule so our young boys can learn to be human.

When women are objectified through a pseudo-holiness reminding them that “modest is hottest,” it might be time to break some rules. When they are blamed for seduction by men who fail to take responsibility for their minds, it might be time to break some rules. The only way to stop objectifying women is to treat them like human beings.

When people suffocate in the pews under the weight not being able to express their doubts because their afraid of judgement, its time to break some rules.

When children aren’t allowed in sanctuaries because they might cry, it’s time to break some rules.

The question should always be before us. Do we love our rules more than we love people? Because if we don’t, then we should be willing to break them. Wouldn’t we run a red light in an emergency?

And isn’t that the kind of love that changes the world? The love that breaks all the rules? Isn’t that the kind of love Jesus shows us? Doesn’t the cross break all the rules? Doesn’t an all holy God who can’t stand sin break all the rules when he takes on flesh so he can touch a bunch of dirty sinners?

I don’t like to break the rules. It makes my stomach turn. But it might be time to start breaking some a little more often.

Seeing A Woman: A Conversation Between A Father and Son

Someday I am going to have to have the conversation with my son. No, not the conversation all parents dread giving and all kids are mortified having. I enjoy making people uncomfortable so that conversation should be fun.

No, I’m talking about another conversation. The one that happens after I catch his eye doing what male eyes do well – following an object of lust. We will probably be out at the mall, because that’s what dads do with their sons, and I’ll catch the look. Maybe we’ll go to the beach and see it. Doesn’t matter where it is, there will come a time when I will see it. And then it will be time for this conversation.


Hey, come here. Let me talk to you. I saw you look at her. I’m not judging you or shaming you. I know why you did. I get it. But we have to talk about it because how you look at a woman matters.

A lot of people will try and tell you that a woman should watch how she dresses so she doesn’t tempt you to look at her wrongly. Here is what I will tell you. It is a woman’s responsibility to dress herself in the morning. It is your responsibility to look at her like a human being regardless of what she is wearing. You will feel the temptation to blame her for your wandering eyes because of what she is wearing – or not wearing. But don’t. Don’t play the victim. You are not a helpless victim when it comes to your eyes. You have full control over them. Exercise that control. Train them to look her in the eyes. Discipline yourself to see her, not her clothes or her body. The moment you play the victim you fall into the lie that you are simply embodied reaction to external stimuli unable to determine right from wrong, human from flesh.

Look right at me. That is a ridiculous lie.

You are more than that. And the woman you are looking at is more than her clothes. She is more than her body. There is a lot of talk about how men objectify women, and largely, it is true. Humans objectify the things they love in effort to control them. If you truly love a person, do not reduce them to an object. The moment you objectify another human – woman or man, you give up your humanity.

There are two views regarding a woman’s dress code that you will be pressured to buy into. One view will say that women need to dress to get the attention of men. The other view will say women need to dress to protect men from themselves. Son, you are better than both of these. A woman, or any human being, should not have to dress to get your attention. You should give them the full attention they deserve simply because they are a fellow human being. On the other side, a woman should not have to feel like she needs to protect you from you. You need to be in control of you.

Unfortunately, much of how the sexes interact with each is rooted in fear. Fear of rejection, fear of abuse, fear of being out of control. In some ways, the church has added to this. We fear each other because we have been taught the other is dangerous. We’ve been taught a woman’s body will cause men to sin. We’re told that if a woman shows too much of her body men will do stupid things. Let’s be clear: a woman’s body is not dangerous to you. Her body will not cause you harm. It will not make you do stupid things. If you do stupid things it is because you chose to do stupid things. So don’t contribute to the fear that exists between men and women.

A woman’s body is beautiful and wonderful and mysterious. Respect it by respecting her as an individual with hopes and dreams and experiences and emotions and longings. Let her be confident. Encourage her confidence. But don’t do all this because she is weaker. That’s the biggest bunch of crap out there. Women are not weaker than men. They are not the weaker sex. They are the other sex.

I’m not telling you to not look at women. Just the opposite. I’m telling you to see women. Really see them. Not just with your eyes, but with your heart. Don’t look to see something that tickles your senses, but see a human being.

My hope is that changing how you see women will change how you are around them. Don’t just be around women. Be with women.

Because in the end, they want to be with you. Without fear of being judged, or shamed, or condemned, or objectified, or being treated as other. And that’s not just what women want. That’s what people want.

Ultimately, it’s what you want.

Don't Let Jesus Trump the Bible

Over the last year or so I have adopted a very Christ-centered hermeneutic. That is to say, I read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. The Bible tells us that Jesus is the “visible image of the invisible God” since he is the “exact representation of his being.” Even Jesus refers to himself as the “fulfillment of the law.” Because of this, I filter what I read in the Bible through Jesus. How does the Law point to Jesus? How does Jesus embody the words of the prophets? How does Jesus reorient what we think the Bible says when he says, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…”?

On the one hand, I think this is the right way to read the Bible. The Bible points forward to Christ and God’s redemptive work through his death and resurrection. Christ is the very centerpiece of what God is doing as he restores a broken world. So yes, by all means, read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. Because it’s all about him.

But let’s admit something we are all in danger of. In some cases, Jesus is simply an excuse to throw out certain texts all together. Who wouldn’t want to throw out the majority of Joshua with its genocidal mass killings? On the surface it would be so easy to do. Who can picture Jesus commanding the mass killing of all the Canaanites and then commanding people to love their enemies? Or turning Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt for one last look at her home and then telling people to carry a soldiers belongings an extra mile?

See? It would be easy to let Jesus trump the Bible.

And, if I am honest, I want to.

Is that bad to say?

I don’t know that it is bad to say, but I do think it is bad to do. For as easy and tidy and comfortable as it would be to let Jesus trump the Bible, doing so would require me to ignore the words of Jesus himself when he said, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

Simply put, Jesus, the one who influences how I read the Bible, says that the troubling parts of the Bible still matter.

Let me be even more honest. Some of what bothers me about the Bible are the words of Jesus himself. I want to filter some of the words of Jesus through the lens of, not Jesus as he is, but the self-selected version of Jesus I have constructed in my head.

Everyone picks and chooses which parts of the Bible they listen to and which parts they ignore. Everyone gives some attributes of God’s character more weight than other parts of his character. We naturally develop a Christianity that challenges us in the places we are comfortable being challenged in while dismissing, sometimes self-consciously, the words of God that challenge us in the areas we should be challenged in. Some of us love it when Jesus says, “You study the scriptures in vain!” We swing that verse like a billy club around those we see as legalists (never mind the fact that when we pick up that scripture to billy club those we see as legalists we have become the legalist…but I digress). Yet, Jesus himself taught often on the importance of studying the scriptures. After his resurrection, his explanation of the Law and the Prophets was essential to the disciples understanding what had happened.

Or we love to talk about Jesus giving grace and mercy to people but dismissing how much he talked about judgement. I’ve been preaching through the book of Luke and it is amazing how much I have to talk about judgement and repentance. Jesus talked a lot about those things. We can debate what judgement and repentance are, but we cannot debate that according to Jesus judgement is going to happen and repentance is necessary.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t think a Jesus-centered hermeneutic is helpful. Quite the opposite. I believe it is essential. Without it we run the risk of thinking Bible knowledge saves us. We are not to believe in the Bible, rather we are to believe in the one the Bible reveals.

I think we need a more robust understanding of Jesus actions and words and how they fulfill what God is doing in the grand narrative of the gospel. This means, rather than trying to use Jesus to dismiss the parts of the Bible that make us uncomfortable, we need to wrestle in the tension and let Jesus help us make sense of the text while still treating it as the inspired Word of God. But before we can even get to that, we have to be honest about the parts of the Bible that make us uncomfortable. For some, it is the stories that show the wrath and anger of God. For others, it is the grace of Jesus and who he extends grace to that scandalizes our sensibilities. For others, it is the hard words of turning the other cheek to our enemies. For others it is the role we have in naming what is good in the world – and thereby naming what is bad.

There is always something we would rather ignore.

The danger is letting ourselves turn a blind eye to what we don’t like. If Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, then we shouldn’t just focus on Jesus to the neglect of the Law, but we should ask “How does Jesus fulfill what God has already said?” How does Jesus fulfill what was happening in the Canaanite genocide? The exile of Israel? The killing of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts? Letting Jesus trump the Bible actually removes the tension those texts bring up. And the tension might just be the point! If I just throw down the Jesus trump card then I don’t have to wrestle any longer with the text.

But, I believe the growth is in the wrestling through the tension.

Better yet, Jesus is in the tension.

When We Sacrifice a Girl's Innocence

Sunday night I went to my wife’s dance recital. To be exact, my wife teaches dance and it was a recital for the girls she teaches. The opening of the show was just what you expect, nearly every Disney princess was represented by a ballerina. Of course, Let it Go made an appearance because it was a dance recital with about 100 young girls in it.

About halfway through the show there was a cheesy and beautiful moment when girls and their father’s danced to Butterfly Kisses. Even though it was cheesy, I sat there with a smile on my face as I watched dads awkwardly dance in front of 500 people with their daughter’s beaming. I give those dads a lot credit. I’m sure they weren’t comfortable in their white shirts and black ties as they waltzed on the stage. But they did it because they wanted to their daughters to feel like princesses.

Because they are.

I sat there and I watched and smiled. Those girls beamed in their dance shoes and flowing dresses, and everyone I could see looked intently and lovingly into their dads eyes. Their dads tried to look at them back, but more often watched their feet. It really was a sweet moment. In that moment I was overwhelmed by the innocence of those 6 -14 year-old girls.

I watched and I smiled, until I realized in a few years those innocent girls are going to be told they are dangerous. At some point those innocent girls’ bodies are going to turn into a woman’s body full of curves. When that happens, some well meaning person will tell that young girl that she is a threat to the innocence of a boy. They are dangerous. A temptation. A vixen simply because of gender.

How can a girl keep her innocence when we tell her she is dangerous? How can she feel innocent when her sexuality is directly linked to the danger in the world? The message we send to our girls and women is, “The world is not safe for you because of you.”

Rather than protecting the innocence of both boys and girls, we sacrifice the innocence of a girl by warning her of the impact she unwittingly makes for the sake of the boy’s innocence. By trying to protect the innocence of boys we destroy the innocence of girls. 

I’m sick and tired of men acting as if they are unable to control themselves. Men are warned to never meet one-on-one with women as if the allure of a woman will be so overwhelming powerful that a man will be unable to control himself. As my friend Micah put it, “We are not sex-fueled robots.” Listen, if a man cannot be alone with a women without making a sexual advance, the problem isn’t the woman or her clothes – it is the man. 

Men, avoiding women doesn’t does deal with the condition of your heart. It’s simply cleaning the outside of the cup and pretending that the inside is clean. It is time we take responsibility for what we can – our thoughts. You won’t be able to control every situation. There may be a time you end up in a room by yourself with a woman. Since you can’t control every situation, control what you can. Your mind. The only thing any of us can be responsible for is ourselves. For too long men have tried to control women, and purity culture, with its telling women they are dangerous to men, is an attempt to control women and free men of any responsibility they might have at controlling their own minds.

Everyone knows that objectification of women by men is a problem. But simply avoiding women doesn’t solve the problem. It actually does just the opposite by reinforcing the objectification and implying that men cannot ever see women as humans, and therefore must avoid them like a dangerous object.

The way we have dealt with this issue in the past is tired and old. Rather than helping men deal with the issue of how they look at women, we tell women to cover up. Where else do we do this? I often go to restaurants, look at the menu, and then order a crap-ton of food and eat until I am I stuffed. It’s not healthy. But you know what I don’t do? Demand that the restaurant stop selling food. If you rack up credit card debt rivaling the national debt of the US government, do you demand that stores stop selling stuff? No, because that would be failing to take responsibility for your actions. But that’s what we do when it comes to how men look at women. “Guys have a hard time not looking at a woman sexually. Women should wear burkas.”

For me, as a Christian man, I continue to be inspired by the original design of the Creator. Fear between the sexes is not part of that design. That’s what we create. Fear wasn’t part of the design in Genesis, and it won’t be part of the design when all things are restored. Fear isn’t part of the design, so it is time to stop acting out of fear towards the other. Women are not to be feared. They are not dangerous. They are not helpless princesses to be saved.

They are fellow humans to be danced with.