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Words Have Weight

Thoughts from a young husband, father, and pastor

heroes, mortals, friends

If you are a Christian connected to the Internet, you know that Eugene Peterson said some things.

And then, apparently, he went and said some more things.

Basically, Eugene Peterson, a very famous, much-loved pastor in the twilight of his life seemed to very simply affirm same-sex marriage and then 180’d and said he did not. Much hullabaloo then followed.

I watched the whole thing unfold with a bit of melancholy. Originally, I was moved to start writing about sexual ethics, something I had been planning on for some time. But I saved the document and shelved it to be able to put more time and care into it*. While I was writing and reading, though, I just felt… sad. Peterson is someone that I have come to deeply, deeply appreciate. Someone who has simplified and yet also expanded my view of pastoral work (I mean just look at the article where I found the image on this post. He really can crush false images of the pastoral but push for much bigger). I was disappointed to find myself in disagreement with him. I was disappointed in his clipped and brief way of talking about complicated things. And his lack of interaction with the Bible. That bothered me.

Some part of me expected to feel jubilation at seeing a kind of hero of mine flip back onto “my team.” Instead, as I incredulously read the news that, after some time to think about what was apparently a thoughtless hypothetical, he actually doesn’t affirm same-sex marriage. Kinda? Even his retraction was kind of weird.

But I felt no jubilation. I felt more sadness. Sobriety.

I’ll share a few thoughts on why.

1. I think it’s very possible that my LGBTQ friends can/will feel punted around again, like some sort of rhetorical football. One team cheering their victories and another team cheering theirs. And many of the noisy people loudly cheering or making snarky comments signaling their victory or defeat… they’re straight people. We can be friends with LGBTQ folks and still get lost in winning arguments. And this whole thing feels like a way to publicly point-score using them. These are their actual real lives. They are people who want to follow Jesus and want to know about what they should do with their attraction to people of the same gender/sex (or have questions related to gender/sex). And this whole thing, to me, felt like a bunch of Christians wanting to carve out a trophy or beat the other team. I know this is not universally true and I know I may be skewed by the people I’m exposed to online. This has troubled me, though.

I wish I could gather up my gay friends and give them a hug and tell them that I love them and I’m sorry that the Church may be a place where they feel kicked up and down a football field. They are not “an issue.” They are my friends.

2. I was saddened by the reminder that heroes are mortals. People whom we deeply love and respect are not perfect. I think Eugene Peterson probably would have told me that himself. But I was reminded again of the ability of people who I deeply love and admire to be…. well… not admirable in even isolated respects. This is, of course, ultimately a liberating thing. For reasons I’ll elucidate later. But I was sad to be struck again by the fallibility of those in whom I’ve emotionally invested infallibility.

3. Here’s that elucidation: I was saddened by my sadness at being confronted with a mortal’s mortality. How could I have missed this? How could I have let myself think that heroes wear a cape that makes them invulnerable? Really, what I was mourning was mortality. But the death knell for the craving for immortal, infallible leaders is that I can’t have everything I want in a leader until I come to an Immortal, Infallible Leader. So my sadness was really a confrontation with reality and with my cravings. I really want a hero that won’t let me down. I will not find one among the mortals like myself. Not even when they’re Eugene Peterson.

4. Social media is… woof. It’s really bad for us. It may be good in small doses, but it’s constructed to be mainlined. It’s constructed so you never look away. It accelerates reactions and isolates people amongst a crowd of people they agree with. It’s fractious. It feeds on the emotional swings of the moment. It can do other things, very good things. Snicker bars can do good things for you in the right moments and right doses.

But we’re eating 12 Snicker bars a meal for three meals a day. We’re in trouble.

And that makes me sad.

This has all been a strange few days on the Internetz. I still love my friends. I still appreciated one of these quasi-heroes of mine no matter what he did or did not say (which I’m not totally clear on even now). This whole thing, though, has given me a bit to chew on, not so much for the “issues” at hand, but for how we talk about them, speak about them, pray about them, sing about them.

I think I can do better. I hope I learn how to be better.

I hope my Hero can show me how.

 

 

*I will still do this. The past couple of days has helped me really focus on how I might do better to talk about some of the things that go into how we talk about sexual ethics. I want to more talk about why these issues are so important to Christian rather than giving another defense of traditional Christian sexual ethics. There’s lots of that around. That larger “why” question is what I’d like to write about. I’ll do that some other time, after things stew for a while.

read and review: insidious technology

Some time ago, I saw mention of Andy Crouch’s new book The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place. I ordered it months before it was released because I was very interested in what he would have to say on the topic. I think Andy Crouch is a very sharp thinker and is worth listening to on just about anything. I was very happy to receive my copy of the little book as soon as it came out (thanks, Amazon Prime!) and speed right through it.

The book is small and very easy to read. The pages are smattered with helpful graphics from the Barna research group. They become a bit redundant because the data is reiterated in text form at the end of the chapter, but it probably makes the read quicker and easier for some people. Crouch passes on 10 principles for how families should manage technology use in their household. They are mostly very easy to imagine integrating into your life (probably), though one or two may seem daunting. He then, helpfully, gives an accounting for how his family did or did not live up to these principles. And they often failed just like my family would often fail.

I very much recommend this book to anyone and everyone.That’s mainly not what I am writing about here, though.

At the end of his book, Crouch recommends further reading for those interested in some of his claims or takes on current trends. My curiosity was piqued by a book that he said was the primary source of inspiration for his own book. I figured, “I liked his book, I should probably read the one that he liked so much.” So I pretty quickly ordered Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle.

Turkle is a social psychologist that serves as a professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT. So, you know, a real light-weight. She wrote a book a few years ago called Alone Together that got a consider amount of publicity. I had not even heard of Reclaiming Conversation until I read Crouch’s book, though. But boy am I glad that I did. What an eye-opening read.

Turtle uses Thoreau’s three-chair metaphor from Walden to serve as the narrative framework of her examination of the role of technology in society. Thoreau wrote, “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” So basically, there are three levels of relationship: relationship to the self, relationship to other persons, and societal/large-scale relationship. Turkle turns her analysis to all three spheres of relationships and asks questions about the role of technology.

The basic driving concern is the lack of conversation, actual conversation, that is going on in our technological age. She makes the point that conversation is very, very important for human development. This seems like an obvious claim, but when you consider how obvious that claim seems and then compare it to our larger practices as a society, you can start to see some problems.

Here is a basic example: Babies and small children desperately need eye contact. That visual connection teaches children that adults are trustworthy, attentive creatures who can provide a safe environment and will teach them how to navigate this crazy world. Eye contact communicates care and teaches empathy by mirroring and reflecting back their own experience. Eye contact is super important.

But kids today are seeing less and less of their parents’ eyes and more and more of the top of their heads as their parents give their attention over to their devices. They are quietly and persistently being told that the world is less safe, that adults are less caring, and that empathy isn’t that important. Turkle’s book leads with the observation of teachers at a middle school that their students seem to be several years behind what would be normal empathic abilities for kids their age. Their parents’ iPhone usage is not the only thing that causes this, because kids have agency all their own. But kids themselves are also being formed in other ways by technology itself.

These are just some of the problems at the two-chair level of things. At the societal level, in education and work environments, institutions and businesses are having to take increasingly drastic and even architectural steps to teach people, especially younger people, how to be attentive, empathetic, caring persons. They are literally changing the walls and spaces in their buildings to force workers to have collaborative meetings instead of taking turns data-dumping.

And individually, people are being driven away from moments of solitude out of a pervasive fear of boredom. Turkle argues, though, that boredom is an incredibly important mechanism in the life of a human that forces moments of creativity and introspection. Perpetual distraction feels good, but is ultimately harmful.

Neither Crouch or Turkle are advocating that we move in with the Amish. Both of them are careful to praise the real values of technology in our society that has made more and more things possible, more information available. One thing neither one discusses that’s also important to consider is that technology can help close poverty gaps in important ways that deserve serious considerations. So in some sense, their argument is to a middle-to-upper class audience. However, I’d still insist that both authors are speaking to ways that Technology can shape us, our families, and our whole society, and we should attend to what they are saying. Means of communication is communicating content. And we should pay attention to that content.

I was already seriously considering ditching my smartphone. I am too distracted by my iPhone and I often feel the costs outweigh the benefits. I will miss some things about it, but I feel more committed to at least trying the experiment after reading these two books. Maybe you don’t want to go there. Neither one of these authors actually lays that down as a suggestion. Turkle does suggest that future innovation will be for apps that are more functional and not as geared to perpetual usage. But she never says, “Dump your iPhone.”

What I would suggest as one practical takeaway as a parent:

Do. Not. Give. Your. Kids. A. Smartphone. DO NOT. As one author pointed out (and I can’t remember which, at this point), we restrict teenagers from all kinds of privileges (including alcohol) because we do not believe their brains are ready. They are not ready for a smartphone. They may throw up a holy racket, they may bring down the house with their rage. But they do not need to navigate increasingly difficult peer relationships through the medium of GIFs, constantly updating streams of social media, exchanges of images, etc. You can keep your iPhone if you want. But I would strongly recommend you do not let your kids have one.

And here is one practice I got from Andy Crouch that I have adopted as a means of breaking my perpetual need to be plugged in:

“Our devices go to sleep before us and wake up after us.” I used to bring my phone into the bedroom with me as an alarm clock. But you know what I can use as an alarm clock instead of my phone? An alarm clock. Those things still work. I need to have definite boundaries where my real life exists without a digital life nearby. I don’t need to bring a Twitter feed into the bedroom with me. I can wake up and pray the Lord’s Prayer and have a moment to be quiet, awake human before I plug in to the information pipeline. I have taken to keeping my phone in a different room to make sure I’m doing that. Sometimes, I feel this has done nothing for me. I read books before bed and did before I decided to do this. Sometimes, I feel like things are harder. Before, I would wake up at 5am for my workout and my phone’s glow would wake me up. My alarm clock has gone off lately and, several times, I have dozed back off. But I largely believe I am better off for this practice. And, like I said, I might be expanding it by just dropping my iPhone altogether.

I highly recommend these two books to you. If I had to pick one, and you’re up for a longer (though very entertaining) read, I would probably just push for the Turkle book, though Crouch’s is more spiritually directed and is itself a great conversation-starter. We need to be a people, though, that are moving towards wisdom in regards to technology. We need not be luddites that eschew all things with lights and buttons. But we do need to be wise masters of that technology and not give our formation over to app engineers.

Ok, now that you’re done reading this, put down your device and go talk to a live, in-the-flesh human being. Siri does not count. She never counts. Go talk to your neighbor.

creation

“For the beauty of the Earth
for the glory of the skies,
for the love which from our birth
over and around us lies;
Lord of all, to thee we raise
this our hymn of grateful praise.”
– For the Beauty of The Earth, v.1

Yesterday, President Trump announced the United States of America’s withdrawal from what’s known as the Paris Accords. Citing an economic burden and disproportionate responsibility on our shoulders, he vowed to get a better deal for America. Pointing out that the is the President of “Pittsburgh, not Paris,” President Trump announced his intentions to act entirely in the best interests of this country, over and against the interests of all other countries. Albeit not in an instant (it doesn’t work like that), we’re out of the Paris Accords.

What I’d like to look at more closely is the issue of responsibility. Who is responsible for what kind of action, when it comes to the climate?

First off, I have to say that our country has uniquely politicized the issue of climate change and man’s effect on it. In most countries, I think this is a question of science, not the left/right political spectrum. In our country, that is largely not the case. If you believe in man-driven climate change, you’re a liberal. If you’re a conservative, it’s all bunk (though there are a few notable exceptions). I have to confess, I find this to be a bizarre phenomenon. I do see this as a science question and it seems to be a largely settled question in the scientific community. In questions of science, I defer to the experts. Experts say: Yeah. It’s real.

After that begins our questions of responsibility.

Government or Private Sector

In our tour of responsibility, we can philosophically ask, who should be the one who is the responsible party for adjusting carbon emissions and such? This, I think, is where the actual discussion of liberal vs. conservative actually makes sense. Forget asking whether climate change is real (or don’t… but then you can skip most of this blog post). The real heart of the conservative/liberal divide is the role of government in any given question.

Liberal answers to the question of responsibility will lean (and sometimes very heavily lean) towards government intervention. This is probably at the heart of much of the unexamined mistrust of the Paris Accords. The idea that the government can come in an fix the problem is, at face, a nice idea, but with government power to fix things comes… government power. And governments have been notoriously bad at efficiency and efficacy and things like that. At least, to the conservative mind. On the other hand, the questions involved in carbon emissions and the incentive that cheap products give means that it may be necessary for an institution as large as the government to put a check on business.

Conservatives tend to say (either moderately or to extremes) that the government has no business doing anything. More government power equals less personal liberty and the possibility for disaster. People acting in their own self-interests are far more effective at innovation and change. Let people solve the problem! Of course, people are also very self-interested and who’s to say that we won’t milk the cheap and easy solution for way too long?

Cards on table, I think there’s actually a decent argument for a solution that relies primarily on private sector innovation, but with helps and incentives from the government. You’ll be shocked to know that on the liberal/conservative scale, I usually tend to be a a right-leaning centrist. Well… here you go. A middle way is what I’d be interested in. The government can provide baseline regulations and incentives (tax credits for green technology) and disincentives (CO2 taxes) so that the market then turn towards the problem of making/saving people money. People motivated by money are powerfully creative. Let that creative energy do its thing!

Developed vs Developing

One of the primary questions of responsibility revolves around nation-states. Who, exactly, should be responsible for curbing consumption of fossil fuels? This question is the one very much in play with the Paris Accords. Of course, now all but three nations on Earth (hey guys!) agree that everyone has a part to play. But who should bear a leading burden? Countries that we’d formerly call First World countries? The US, Germany, Japan, etc.? Or countries that are more likely to be more populated (per square mile), poorer, and unable to purchase green technology?

I think the “we’re all responsible” answer has a lot of merit. But as an American, I have to look at the list of nations most responsible for CO2 emissions and… well… we’re number two. China beats us by a good bit. But we’re a strong number two. If you are the number two contributor to a problem, you should probably bear some burden in solving that problem. Everyone on that list has some degree of responsibility. But we can’t shirk our own responsibility and just say, “AMERICA FIRST!” when America doesn’t have designated and isolated “America atmosphere.” We’re contributing to a global problem. We have to take responsibility.

Meanwhile, the most serious offender, China, is staying in and trying to clean up their act. They don’t have some of the natural advantages that we do. And their participation could merely be a giant marketing ploy as they try to step onto the stage of global leadership. But hey… they’re in the game. We’ve just stepped out of it. We’ve said, “Responsibility? Nah.”

I think that’s a mistake.

God vs. man

I’d like to speak explicitly as a Christian here. I mean, I guess I always do. But I’d like to take a theological look at responsibility on this issue. I guess I would point to Congressman Tim Walberg’s comments as a type of thought on this issue that I often hear from Christians. Some variation of “God will fix this/God gave us this Earth to use/It’s all going to burn anyway/Save the people not the lame trees/What about abortion killing people.” That umbrella.

Responsibility here, is actually a question of anthropology. And I don’t mean that in the sense of the university department normally associated with “Anthropology.” I mean the study of the nature of man in the field of theology. The Christian belief is that people were created in the “image of God.” What that thing is, that image, has been the subject of a lot of spilled ink over the millennia.

I think it’s best to read that term in light of the focus on “images” that runs throughout the Old Testament. What does that term “image” usually refer to? Idolatry. Images were idols, representation of a spiritual reality. But they also have monarchical ramifications, because we know that, in Israel’s time and place, kings would conquer territories and set up their own idols, their images in conquered lands to loudly announce to the people, “This is Emperor Steve’s land now. Deal with it or die, suckers.” There weren’t billboards or Facebook or even beepers back then. There were these images that announced authority.

Humans bear the image of God. Humans were meant to be walking, talking, breathing declarations to Creation that God is the Good King of the whole Earth. The Image of God, does not mean that we became God on the Earth. It’s that we have some divine distribution of authority proclaiming God’s own authority and power. And God the Good Gardener, the Creator King, left us to replicate his task on the Earth to the degree that we, seemingly pathetic little images that we are, are able.

So is climate change God’s responsibility? Well… kinda. It’s his world after all. But we already know his solution to the problem. He’s already given his intended answer. He’s sent his emissaries to clarify the task, the intention. Who are they?

Well, they bear the king’s image.

Yeah. It’s us. We are responsible to reflect the image of the King into the Creation and steward his Creation. And while, yes, the Christian story does involve some fire at the end, it doesn’t involve an abandonment of Creation. In fact, it involves God’s eternal home being joined to the natural world. New Heaven and New Earth. Same place. Forever.

Are trees more important than babies? No of course not. But let’s not go hunting for false dichotomies here. We can be responsible image bearers and stewards of the rest of Creation while, at the same time, caring for and protecting human life. In fact, because our lives are so entertained with the natural world (which modernity keeps trying to get us to forget), if the planet we live on really is heading towards some serious problems, then human life is heading towards serious problems.

Any way you turn, the question of responsibility keeps pointing back to this answer: We’re responsible. We are.

Like I said, I’m not a scientist. I don’t have all the solutions for us. I’m not saying that the Paris Accords were the be-all, end-all of this question. I don’t think that’s how they were designed to work, considering there was nothing legally binding in the agreements to begin with. I’m not running around, waiting for the global conflagration that is coming tomorrow because of global warming. I’m really not.

But it’s worth considering the question of responsibility. Along what axises do you answer those questions? What is your understanding of your role in all of this? And how do you understand that role in light of God as Creator-King? These are questions worth considering.

The picture above is from Glacier National Park. The glaciers there are shrinking/disappearing at an alarming rate. Places like that induce me to sing hymns like the one at the top. This question of responsibility is one that matters to me because I want to keep beautiful places like that where my heart can be stirred to think on the Creator-God and delight in him. As with all areas of my life, I’m sure you can find hypocrisy on these issue in me. I’m confident of it. But I pray that God might help me to better reflect his image into a Creation that groans and longs for the resolution of all things. I hope that I can help work towards the future reflected forward a bit, a little taste of the New Earth before it arrives, a little glimpse of redemption from afar.

I think that task is my calling. My responsibility.

ordination

“What does it mean that you’re going to be ordained?”

“Uh… well….”

“Does it mean that you’re going to be ordinary now?”

Fair question, daughter. Fair question.


I have been the pastor of our church, in just about every sense of the word, since October 2011. I was the one responsible for the bulk of the preaching. When things would go wrong, it would fall on all of the leaders, but it was recognized that I was the leader of the leaders (or I was supposed to be). But, being presbyterian, nothing is so simple as that. Because the church is a part of a presbytery which is part of a denomination, I don’t get to just walk around and decide who will be pastor and who won’t be.

So our little church fit in under some technicalities. We got by until 2013, when our presbytery officially said, “Look, you’re not like all the other pastors, but you can do everything they do.” I was called a Commissioned Pastor. Our church officially had a pastor (me).

But in our system, most people that go to seminary and serve as pastors are called Teaching Elders. When I was preparing for the exams to be a commissioned pastor, the group that passed me said, “You really should be a teaching elder. You’ll have to do this all over again. Except it’s much harder.” Considering I’d just spent eight hours being grilled, I wasn’t especially excited about that. But I knew they were right.

The problem was that I didn’t fit into the normal boxes. I went to seminary, but when I did, I didn’t have any appreciation for the fact that Presbyterians like things to move along ordinary lines. Most pastors ordinarily get a degree called a Masters of Divinity. The ordination process kind of assumes that you’ll do this.

But I started preaching in a bar-church when I was 20. “Ordinary” wasn’t very compelling to me at the time. I said, “So what?” I chose to go do a degree that had more theology, more history, and less classes about preaching (because I was already preaching and, therefore, had nothing more to learn [insert GIF that implies I’m an idiot]). So I did get my seminary degree. I just got a different one. In my exit interview with my program supervisor, he saw that I was functioning as a pastor (this was May 2012) and he said, “You know, your denomination is going to want you to have a Masters of Divinity. If you stop the process right now, you can just work for another 18 months and graduate with that degree. If you graduate now, though, you’ll have to start all over again.”

I just dragged my wife and (then) two kids through with me doing school full-time. I wasn’t going to reset the clock. I said, “No thanks.”

So there I was, the Strange Guy. Seminary-trained. Wrong degree. A pastor doing everything a pastor does. But people looking at me and saying, “Why aren’t you this other thing?”

Because the boxes, man. The boxes.

Eventually, I decided I’d like to go ahead and be in that Teaching Elder box, where it seemed people like me are supposed to be. So I asked how to jump in there. And everyone who knows things kind of looked at each other and said, “Uh….?”

I fell into the void between boxes. Which I understand. It was my own fault.

Eventually, over the course of a couple of years, a bunch of people helped me figured out the pathway into that other box, that Teaching Elder box.

Yesterday, I was ordained.

People, one of whom was my daughter, asked me, “What’s going to change now that you’re being ordained?” And honestly the answer was, “Well… nothing, really.”

No one had ever stopped me from doing what a pastor is supposed to do. They’d helped me be sure that I could do exactly what I should be doing. Well, as far as other people have the ability to do that. So none of my duties would change, none of my ability to perform those duties would change. I preached week on week before yesterday. I imagine it will pretty much be the same now.

So what does it mean?

It means very little, in some ways. And in some ways, it means very much.

When I was on my knees and the elders from my little corner of the Church put my hands on me, they stood at the end of a long line of people, many of whom are very far away from me now. They physically did what so many had already done and told me, “You are gifted for this. You trained for this. You are called to this.” I have so many people in my story that said those words, one way or another, in that bar or in a living room or in an email. And those elders yesterday put their hands on me and said it again. Said it physically.

That means something.

But more than just the people from my own story, those elders stood at the end of a much longer line. The Christian Church has an extensive history of this very act for setting apart some for ministry. The kneeling, the laying on of hands, it’s thousands of years old at this point. Men (and some women) have hit the ground in a number of locales, across decades and decades and centuries, in all kinds of languages and been designated for ministry, called to the office, installed in that responsibility. The weight of all that history was resting on my shoulders yesterday.

That means something.

My church was there this time. When I was commissioned as pastor by our presbytery in 2013, I was at a meeting with a bunch of people I mostly don’t know. They celebrated and prayed for me. It was done. But this time, this was a worship service at my church. People who have seen me as, basically, a child, were there. They have heard all my worse sermons. They have seen me make terrible decisions. I have failed them so many times. I am so much less than what they deserve. And they were there to vow to support me, to say, “Yes. This is right. This is good. This is our guy.” I felt that yesterday.

That means something.

The answer to my daughter’s question is that I have always been ordinary. Unremarkable. Not special. But something special happened, not to make me special, but to call me to a special task, one I cannot live up to. Nothing visibly changed yesterday. Nothing extraordinary. But it is the ordinariness of Christian life that, I think, is so compelling. It is simple water, broken bread, cups of wine that somehow communicate magnificent, divine things in the Christian Church. I am not special. I am ordinary.

God is extraordinary. I am truly caught off-guard by how good God is, with such a wavering, ordinary fool like me. Nothing about me change yesterday. Nothing special happened. Nothing changed. I have a certificate and some photos and… nothing much else.

And yet it all means something. Something I cannot rightly describe. Maybe something that only I can appreciate, and will likely only appreciate more fully as time unfolds. Nothing changed yesterday, and yet something happened. Something has been happening for 32 years now. Ordinary things, hard to trace. Significant things, obvious for all to see. Things that no one has seen. Things in which so many have played a part.

What does it mean to be ordained?

It all meant something. Something ordinary. Something special.

It means something.

when hope was born

Valor, my son, was born under trying circumstances. I have spoken about this in many contexts. I’m certain I’ve alluded to it on this blog. It was traumatic for me, pushing the boulder of anxiety down a mountain that I cannot seem to level off. I cannot describe to you how, when I tell the story of his birth, I can remember the walk to the recovery room from the NICU so vividly, feeling again the heart break, the despair as I figured out how to tell my wife that our son was going to die.

He’s fine. He’s great. The story ends well. But I carried the scars in my body from that walk. I still do, I guess.

When we were able to catch our breath after Valor was born, we said, “We’re done. We can’t do this again.” I wrapped my head around the completion of our family-building. Two girls, one boy. Just like the household I grew up in. This was nice.

I started saving up for a big 10-year-anniversary trip. Life was launching into a new phase.

And then the pregnancy test came back positive.

And I cried.

Like I buried my face in a pillow and I cried a little bit. I then kept my face buried there as I tried to wrap my brain, my heart around this news. I just couldn’t face doing this all over again.

I couldn’t face the fear.

But face it we did. One boring day of pregnancy at a time (which is obviously much easier for me than for my wife).

And then delivery day came. And we went to the hospital. And things started moving quickly, like I tried to tell the nurse would happen. And then she was pushing. And no one rushed in to tell us something was wrong. And then the baby was here. And no one came to see why the baby didn’t look right. And then the little girl was right there with us. And then the doctors kept saying, “Everything is great.”

And then all her scores were great. And her hearing test was great.

I kept waiting for the catch, the trap door of terror to open up. I kept waiting for Valor’s birth to happen all over again.

But before  I knew it, we were going home with a new, healthy baby. Another member of our family.

Hope Joyce was the name we had for a girl when Valor was born. Valor was the only baby we didn’t find out the gender. So we had two names ready. Hope was the one that we had picked out. But it wasn’t time for Hope to be born yet. Instead, we needed Valor to be born to teach us… so many things.

Terror. Gratitude. Joy. Insanity.

We needed to be taught valor.

But Hope was born at the right time. When I wasn’t expecting her, when I wasn’t ready for her, when I wasn’t looking for her, Hope was born. And Hope has been the sweetest addition to our family. I cannot imagine us without her. Her smile is the sweetest smile that any of our kids have had. And as gently as she came into the world (well… as gently as that can happen), she has sort of seasoned our life with very gentle grace and beauty.

She is not perfect. She is the worst sleeper we’ve ever had. She’s very stubborn about it. LOUDLY stubborn.

But in general, her personality has been a very gentle, very healing, very beautiful presence in our life.

And this is the way of Hope, isn’t it? A quiet, radiating presence in our lives that comes when we don’t think we have the muscle for it. It’s just this insistent, beautiful thing that worms into our hearts and refuses to be shut out. I cannot imagine my family without Hope. I cannot imagine my life without Hope.

God has been patient with me throughout my life. He has been gentle. I am so, so fearful that my very-good-life is going to fall apart. I have this fear all the time. And much of that is rooted in mistrust of God. I have no reason for that mistrust besides the darkness I see in the world.

God has never directly confronted my mistrust. Never come in the whirlwind and argued his case. Never shouted me down. Never pummeled me, like I feel he should.

He has answered me with Hope. He has answered me with quiet, enormous smiles and gentle eyes. He has cast Hope at me again and again to say, “I am good and I will do good to you.”

“I am good and I will do good to you.”

“I am good and I will do good to you.”

I don’t believe it all the way down to my bones yet. But I have Hope that some day I will.

I have Hope.

learning to fly

I decided, somewhat haphazardly and not altogether intentionally, to shut up during Lent. Shutting up is a good spiritual practice for the season. 

A few weeks ago, I had some road trips I needed to do, so I used the OverDrive app on my phone to get some audio books from the public library (if you didn’t know this was a thing, you’re welcome). Actually, I checked out two. One was The Hobbit, because I know that’s a winner, guaranteed to keep my attention. The other was The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. I’d actually wanted to read that book one way or another for some time because, upon seeing it on a bookstore shelf, I realized that I knew next to nothing about the Wright Brothers. Something about bicycles and Ohio and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and *POOF* humans flew to the moon. My knowledge was pretty bare and I was intrigued. I’ve read McCullough books before and figured he would shed an interesting light on them. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be well enough entertained, but hey. If I wasn’t? That’s what Bilbo Baggins was for.

Turns out, I didn’t need a backup. I was absolutely mesmerized by the story of the Wright Brothers.

In my opinion, I don’t think we pay enough attention to their particular blend of genius, determination, and courage. And make no mistake, their achievement (machine-powered flight) took all three. They never had college education, but they had a genius for solving mechanical problems. Combined with that natural mechanical mind was a dogged determination to solve problems, no matter how much study and experimentation was required. And because we’ve been flying for more than a century now, it’s easy to forget that flying is insane and scary. Large things carrying humans end up floating in the air. But because no one succeeded before, there were plenty of stories of those large things falling to the ground very rapidly and breaking those humans into irreparable pieces. There was a lot of risk involved.

But the brothers put their heads down and got it done. They did what no one was able to do prior to them. Their thoughts on flight and manipulation of machines helped to spark a revolution that, just a few decades later, would result in jet engines and commercial flights and, yes, the moon landings. Remarkable.

In the middle of this fascinating book, McCullough’s voice (which was particularly charming, if you’re interested) read out a quote from Milton Wright, the brothers’ nephew. When I heard it, I leapt back and listened to it again and again.

“History was being made in their bicycle shop and in their home but the making was so obscured by the commonplace, I did not recognize it until many years later.”

This quote describes the brothers’ reality for many years. They were viewed, for years at a time, as absurdly passionate weirdos attempting the impossible. And even after they succeeded, years went by before pretty much anyone noticed or cared or believed.

But I was struck by the words of Milton Wright on another level. Something marvelous was being accomplished in incremental fashion in the most mundane, ordinary way possible. Humans were in the process of flying while these two men put together and took apart small models in their bicycle shop. As they worked on wings and steering systems. If you walked in on their shop at any given time around 1900, you would not think anything remarkable was happening. Their own nephew confesses as much.

Several years later, though, if you were one of the thousands that congregated with the large crowds and gasped in awe as they made loops of a cow pasture, you would say that you’d never seen anything more extraordinary.

And no one could see it in the shop. No one could see it in the making.

This image has stuck with me as I have thought about spiritual formation. I find myself to be the most frustrating person on the planet. I don’t know anyone as well as I know myself, and the fickle, stumbling, bumbling fool that I am drives me crazy. I am more failure than success. If you asked me, I could tell you that I would like to be a very different person. I even know what I would look like. I could tell you what the extraordinary reinvention of myself would be like. I would be patient and open and forgiving and friendly and warm and self-sacrificing, amongst many other virtues. There would be a Copernican revolution of my character and I would be… better. So much better.

We often want life transformation to be the flip of a switch, an instant change, a transfiguration into something better and brighter. And for some people, in some specific ways, this may happen. Crisis may produce radical change in one part of their life. But for everyone else and in most ways imaginable, we all know that life change is not like this.

Formation is hard and slow work, often obscured by the commonplace.

This may be the first thing to accept about spiritual formation if we intend to reach our intended aim of life transformation. For Christians, the target is pretty clear: the character of Jesus and the fruitfulness of his Spirit-abundant life. The “how do we get there” is what plagues us. The journey is, quite literally, that of a lifetime. It’s a journey with no arrival promised in this life. We are aiming for the impossible. If you’re like me, this feels hopeless. It feels like nothing is happening in us. It feels dry and slow and… blah.

But when you enter into the workshop and you go to work everyday and you allow yourself to be worked on everyday, the commonplace of your life, the cumulative power of the barely-altered ordinary slowly starts to work away at your character. If you intend to be a follower of Jesus, you intend to hear and obey his teaching (Matthew 28:20), you should be encouraged that, as you get down to work everyday, working out this life in your own life (Philippians 2:12), you should take heart that monumental things are being done in the midst of the grind of your life. In fact, there is a patient Craftsman not deterred by the short time horizons that you may put on his work. He is busy in your life (Philippians 2:13).

“The making was so obscured by the commonplace…”

Let that be an encouragement to you and a call to you. Be encouraged that, in barely perceptible ways, God could be up to very serious, very big things in your life. Let it also be a call to you, as it has called to me, to give yourself over to the work of life with God. His particular genius and determination and courage should bleed into your own heart to apply the genius and determination and courage of the Spirit. If you are like me, you may be quickly discouraged by the seemingly minuscule progress in your life. Very often, big things are done in small measures. You are today participating in something that, in 10 years, may make you gasp in surprise and gratitude at the grandeur.

Jesus wants to do big stuff in the life of his people. You can be sure that he’ll finish what he starts. Even if it seems like it’s taking forever.

The dream of flight is worth the wait. And the work.

immigrant or criminal

You may have heard the news but the issue of illegal immigration is kind of a thing right now. The President issued an executive order that emphasizes enforcement of existing immigration laws, which translates to focus on deportation of all illegal immigrants.

Enforcing laws is actually what the executive branch of the government is supposed to do in this country. It has not been uncommon in the last couple of decades for Americans to view the Executive as the one who generates policy/law. Technically, that’s not what the Executive is for. It is supposed to execute the laws (notice “Executive” and “execute”) that Congress passes. The Judicial branch helps to interpret those laws, when there is such a question, but the Executive is there to do the will of Congress. And Congress’ laws about immigration are the ones that the President is looking to enforce.

At face, the President is doing his job. This is exactly what he should be doing. To some degree, responsibility should be cast back upon the legislative branch if the people do not approve of the laws being executed. Congress is responsible for changing those laws.

However.

There are more facts that cloud the analysis of Constitutional faithfulness of what’s going on right now. Most distressing is the way that immigrants (legal or otherwise) have been cast by the current administration as a suspect and dangerous, invasive force. If you love President Trump, you can protest all you like that these orders only target illegal immigrants, and especially prioritize illegal immigrants that have committed crimes here (beyond the laws they’ve broken to come in illegally). No one else is being demonized.

If that’s really what you think, I admire your dedication to the President’s cause. But I don’t think your fellow supporters are all getting the message. I’d argue that this man took uncommon, violent action to express a common sentiment that is stoked by President Trump and his people: “Get out of my country.” Illegal immigrants are a convenient icon for this sentiment because they have, indeed, broken the law to move here.

And look, there’s no way around that. People who have run or swam across the border really have broken the law to get here. And the law really is clear about what should happen to them. They truly are criminals. I’m a pretty black-and-white person and I just don’t see any way around that. And as a person whose grandparents fled here legally from Cuba, I can testify that it is not impossible to legally immigrate.

But I think you are making a serious mistake if all you can do is pin frustrations and fears on illegal immigrants and refuse to see them as anything other than criminals.

Often, illegal immigrants have highly commendable motivations for doing what they’ve done. They are desperate to care for their families. Whether they are afraid of gang violence in Central America or they are desperate to earn a better living or secure a better education for their children, their desires are commendable. And the vast majority of illegal immigrants that I’ve known are incredibly hard-working people who are not looking for any kind of handout. In fact, they’ve worked hard to try to pay their taxes. And they’re often working hard at jobs that no legal resident wants. They are doing hard manual labor at lower-paying jobs. They do it better and harder than the white people that complain about their presence and would never want the job those Hispanics have. These “criminals” have children who grow up here and deal with the stress of trying to have a normal, responsible life without making any trouble or being found out without papers. And they’re all doing it because they want to pursue that quintessential “American dream.”

I’m not saying they’re not criminals. I’m not saying the solution is that the border should be open and there should be no consequences. I do think we should secure our borders and control the flow of immigration (though the fascination with a big wall is silly to me). I think any responsible nation should do that. I’m not at all saying that no one should be deported or that I even know who should be the ones that are deported. It seems to be a wise strategy to deport undocumented immigrants who have committed violent crimes. That’s a great place to start (though it seems that the language of this executive order makes it easy to move out from there… and quickly).

Where I’d like us to start is to maybe just pause in our hearts and say, “These people have committed a crime by sneaking in. But they are not just criminals.”

These are people. People who have good, American dreams. I’d go so far as to say that the desire to provide a better future for your family is a Godly desire. Can you imagine being so desperate to provide for your family that you were willing to sneak across a desert, live in an apartment with lots of other people, just so you could send money home to your wife and kids? That’s a level of desperation that many of us will never feel, and we should feel compassion for people that live that reality everyday.

We Christians should also acknowledge that we are often talking about our brothers and sisters when we talk about immigrants (legal or otherwise). And they are scared. Even if you are deeply committed to the execution of these laws, you truly feel these laws are just and right, you should at least acknowledge that we are talking about our brothers and sisters often being the recipient of these actions. And that family identity transcends national identity. Our Christian identity is more central than our national identity.

Maybe I feel this a bit more poignantly because my last name is Rodriguez. Maybe the years of names that people thought it was ok to throw at me because we were friends makes me all-too-aware of the kinds of antipathy towards Hispanics that is acceptable in many parts of our society. If my friends thought it was ok to laugh about calling me “wetback” (and I know they weren’t harboring any hatred in their jokes), people I don’t know probably are pretty comfortable about being derogatory like that for real.

I don’t know how to fix the problem of border security in this country. I truly don’t. I don’t know how you make room for people and who should stay and who should go. I just know that we can’t allow people grasping for power to trick us into thinking that immigrants, even illegal immigrants, are just criminals. They are more than that. They are fathers, mothers, children, grandchildren. They are often some of the bravest, most family-oriented, hardest-working people you’ll ever meet. If you’re dead set on kicking them out of the country because they don’t have a visa, I can understand how you’d arrive at that position.

Please just don’t forget that they’re people. I hope we can at least tell them to go with a tear in our eye. I hope we’re not doing it with glee. I want to believe we can still see them as bearers of the image of God. I really want to believe that.

But I’m having a hard time actually believing.

to love

1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most famous passages in the Bible. People who generally have no time for the Bible will make space for the reading of 1 Corinthians 13 in their wedding. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast” etc. It’s nice. It has a rhythm to it and it speaks very truly about love.

It’s even more lovely in the larger context in which it is meant to be read. Paul has spent the previous chapter speaking of gifts that God gives the Church by the Holy Spirit. The Church in Corinth (like portions of the Church today) seem to overemphasize some gifts or the others. The gifts that really get hairs raised, the spines tingled, those are the ones that the Corinthians seem to like. Prophecy. Tongues. Healing. Paul says that those (and every other gift) are indeed very good gifts given by the Holy Spirit, but there’s no hierarchy just because one seems more supernatural than the other.

Except there is a greatest gift. Paul says it’s love. Mundane, awe-inspiring, easy-to-find, hard-to-keep love. Love is the greatest gift. And not just any generic kind of love, but Spirit-given, Spirit-enabled, Christ-centered love. That kind of love is enduring and is a gift that will have no end (unlike some of the other gifts that the Corinthians are obsessed with).

There is no more intense school of love for me than the school I live in: my home. This is not to say that those who are celibate (by choice or by circumstance) cannot know or be sanctified by love. The love of friendship is powerful and important. But for me, I am most persistently brought to the task of loving when I at home.

So, in the Spirit of 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is the language my wife speaks, the underlying the current of who she is. My wife can silently express what her verbose husband cannot touch with a million words, simply by laying her tear-streaked cheek on the shoulder of a friend. Love is the treasure she passes out to me and to my children and to her friends, not as if it is a precious thing that has gained its value by being in short supply, but as if it is a thing easy to find, easy to manufacture, though few have seen a love like hers. Love is the song she was born to sing.

Love is striving to learn patience for four children who have a knack, a sense for the moment when they must all ask or demand or request or cry for something so that they can, jointly, wield the force of a mob out of control. Love is wanting to learn patience so that they will not believe that the desperate sighs and exasperation are the only thing we feel for them. Love is the kindness of a child who is not trying to be kind, but does not know any other way. Love is a son at rest in your arms as he wakes from his nap, trying to gather himself for the assault on the last part of the day. Love is your daughters who want to delight in being delighted over.

Love is a family with a husband and a father that is far too often irritable and selfish but still leaps to greet that flawed father as if he’s done no wrong. It cannot help but believe that the force of that love will one day wear down his rough edges, the angular mirrors tilted at himself, and make him a man who will one day not sigh so loud when he’s asked to do something so simple as play a game or take out the trash. And love is what allows that family to treat him as if that day has come even if, sadly, it has once again tarried.

Love is what makes ten years of marriage fly by in a flash of friendship and stretch out like a bottomless well of holiness. It is what made a family to begin with but also calls a husband and wife to leave that family for a few hours, a day, a week at a time to be reminded that love has many stories and some will last longer than others. Love is shouting, demanding to know what is really going on and surrender, acknowledgment that our hands are bloody with the damage we’ve done to our beloved.

I have read a thousand, a million words. I have learned to write and to speak better than many. But I will not be satisfied with a book deal or my ten thousandth sermon if I do not speak the simple truth of love to my family and know that they understand it. You can take away my fingers for typing and my voice for speaking, but if my family knows they are loved, then I have accomplished something worthwhile on the earth.

To be caught up in the drama of love, to love and be loved, is at the heart of what it means to be human. And the degree to which we fail to be good lovers is the degree to which we fail to bear God’s image. Can I accept the love that my family gives to me in generous delight and hear that there is still a greater love which knows me better and loves me truer? Can I respond to this Love with a love of my own, a teacup thrown at a tidal wave, and give myself in self-forgetting surrender to the power of a tide that has already swept me out to sea?

You can keep all the gifts you’ve ever given me. Love is what I crave. Love is what I’ve been given. And Love is the greatest of all of these things.

Love never fails.

but what about the truth

A couple weeks ago, some posted a link to the video from Shawn Spicer’s first press briefing from President Trump’s White House. Now, I thought the whole tone of the thing was pretty bizarre. I can’t imagine this is the best way to start a four year working relationship. The tone of this press conference and others has, of course, been brilliantly lampooned by SNL. I hope everyone can laugh at the sketch because… well… it’s pretty funny.

Anyway, I’m sure Mr. Spicer was just doing his job as requested. What I found so bizarre about that original press conference was the time devoted to the size of the inauguration crowd. I have never been President of the United States, so I can’t say for certain, but I can imagine a few more important things I’d need to address on January 21 besides how many people were there to see me sworn in. I was just so confused about why this was even an issue.

And to be fair, I thought it wasn’t that unlikely that NBC or CNN might use less-than-flattering images of the inauguration because, well, they probably don’t like President Trump. But what started out as confusion and amusement, changed for me to alarm as I realized that this wasn’t going to be an actual refutation of the size of the crowd. Now, remember, I think it was meaningless how many people showed up. Who cares? You’re the President! But if there was an overhead shot showing how full the National Mall was, put up on the screen and show everyone they were lying. Instead, there was a parade of facts and a shot from a different angle (that wouldn’t be able to show how many people there were) and then shouting and chastising and that’s it.

Why was this alarming?

Because, as far as I could tell (and can tell to this day- correct me if I’m wrong), the administration went out of its way to lie about something as stupid as the size of a crowd. At the very least, they didn’t feel the need to actually provide real evidence about this silly thing they wanted to argue about. This is horrifying because someone in power is aggressively lying about something stupid. I keep thinking back to that day a couple weeks ago because I’m haunted by the choice to lie compared to the stakes of it all.

If you’ll lie about this, what won’t you lie about?

Look, politicians aren’t known for their truth-telling. Liberals like to claim that “facts tend to be liberal,” but that’s a load of garbage. Liberal politicians lie. Conservative politicians lie. We’ve all kind of accepted this to varying degrees. But this administration is taking things to a whole new level. The other day, President Trump chose to pass on a familiar lie about how terrible the murder rate is compared to 50 years ago. It’s simply not true. But the administration doubles down on it and becomes belligerent about it. Andrew Sullivan wrote a post about how maddening this habit is getting.

Full disclosure: I started writing this post and saved it a day or two before I read Sullivan’s thing. Since I started my draft, more craziness has unfurled. For example, today, President Trump tweeted that the New York Times lied about him and said he hadn’t talked to China since November. Now, he could have read some version of something that failed to mention this, but the current edition (and print edition, from what I’ve seen**) of the New York Times has a story whose first line says that they spoke. This is either a phenomenal reading mistake (accompanied by a strange Twitter-reaction) or a choice to lie about something that’s easily disproven. And this is only one example of what’s happened in the past couple days! Take as another example the whole thing with Neil Gorsuch’s comments that were reported and then publicly called fake news, even though they weren’t.

**edit: Politico explains what happened. The President read an older printed version, and then later print versions + current online version has been corrected. Now the Times should have noted this correction, whether it was through the fault of their reporting or because the events happened after publishing. Either way, the correction should be noted. But it should also have been noted by now by the President. I’m striking some of the above because of the explanation for events. Note: This is called a correction. It’s what happens when you’re wrong about something. You don’t pretend like the truth is otherwise.

Lying really bugs me. My kids know this. Part of it is that I feel like you’re telling me that I’m stupid when you lie to me, and that you don’t think I can figure it out. That’s a really stupid reason to be bothered, really prideful. But it’s true.

But lying also bugs me because I was brought up to believe that the truth matters a lot. And I don’t mean the “your truth” version of truth. When people say “I’m just speaking my truth,” I want to scream. You don’t get personal ownership of a version of truth. You can’t publicize to the world what you decide is true. What’s true is true is true is true. It does not matter if you are my child or a friend or a colleague or a professor a neighbor or the President of the United States, the truth is the truth and we are all subject to the nature of truth as an objective reality.

Call me black and white or whatever you’d like, but I absolutely hate it when the nature of the truth is impugned. It drives me crazy. And the nature of truth has somehow now become a political issue.

Let me be very clear: This public lying is not a political opinion issue. This is not something you get to vote on based on the D or R next to your name. Public lying like this should be universally condemned by Congressmen, Senators, justices, media, and by citizens everywhere along the political spectrum. This is not a political issue. This is a moral issue.

Specifically, Christians should be vocally opposing this distortion of the truth. Politicians cannot think that we approve of twisting the truth and outright distorting it to consolidate their power base to present themselves as both politician and arbiter of what is true. Media bias bothers you? Me too. The answer is not to lie to get things straight. The answer is to demand truer journalism. Don’t like politicians from your opposing party telling untruths about you? Great, me too. I’m on your side about that. But the answer is not to lob retaliatory lies on Twitter and pretend to be a truth-teller under the guise of shouted “FAKE NEWS” charges.

We have to keep telling ourselves, our communities, our kids that the truth really does matter. That no person owns it. And everyone is subject to it no matter their power and influence or what their opinions are on policy issues or anything like that. We have to speak up for the truth.

It matters. It matters a great deal. And we need to think and talk and act like it actually does.

 

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