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Words Have Weight

Thoughts from a young husband, father, and pastor

kevin durant, lavar ball, and life

Anyone who knows me personally (which is pretty much everyone reading this blog), knows that I love sports. I will watch almost any sport. I cruise ESPN3 broadcasts for chances to watch rugby or cricket or powerlifting competitions. I watch soccer a lot (and read about it… and play it). I really enjoy baseball.

I really, really like basketball. Soccer is my favorite, but basketball and baseball are right up there behind it on my list. Watching the NBA, watching these phenomenal athletes fly around and move the ball and do crazy, creative things… it’s so much fun.

If you didn’t know, the Golden State Warriors have been kind of a big deal for a few years now. They formed this electric way of playing, mostly built around spacing and shooting at historic levels. And then, after going to two straight Finals, winning one and losing one to Lebron (who is an alien force that will probably play for another 100 years), they went and got maybe the second best player in the league: Kevin Durant. Who is perfect for them. And they won another Finals the year he got there.

Kevin Durant is an interesting guy. I mean, he’s an amazing basketball player that doesn’t fit into any boxes. The guy is 7-foot and plays… anywhere his team needs, basically. His jump shot is pure poetry. And those telescoping arms are suddenly defensive nightmares waiting at the rim. He’s fun to watch play. But he’s also interesting off the court for any number of reasons.

A couple weeks ago, I was listening to a long podcast that he did with the Ringer’s Bill Simmons. It’s broken into two parts because of length (and clicks/downloads, I’m sure). Around minute 43 of part 2, he is asked about Lavar Ball. If you don’t know who Lavar Ball is, you can Google him. Let’s just say he’s the father of an NBA player that, for a long time, got more press than his very talented son. He talks a lot. And loudly.

Most of the media is very annoyed by him. I find him very annoying. Braggadocio has never been my preferred means of communication. I prefer arrogance be a little bit more PR friendly. Like I how do all the time. I figured Durant would use the opportunity to express either total disinterest in this off-court noise or dismissive annoyance at such a loudmouth.

Turns out KD loves Lavar Ball. I thought, before he explained, that it must be because of their matching business ambition. But that wasn’t it. Durant explains that he has seen Lavar Ball all his life. He’s an AAU dad, stalking his son’s game and thinking he can coach and run the team with his son as the star. That guy has been on the sidelines of KD’s games for years.

In his initial explanation, you can hear him start to say what he wants to say: “I grew up with- I grew up watching dads like him. I appreciate what he brings. I wish…” He then goes on to say precisely what he means. That he and his father are close now but not when he was younger. “I wish I had a dad like that growing up. A lot of players wish they had dads like Lavar.”

I’d never thought of Lavar Ball like that before. All I could see was the noise and the craziness and the arrogance and, honestly, the foolishness (because I think he’s helped his sons make some unwise decisions). I didn’t read all that in the most obvious way it was there to be read: Lavar is on his sons’ side. I found KD’s fondness for that so refreshing.

How many people out there just wish they had someone taking up for them, being unabashedly on their side, loudly believing their son/daughter/friend was the best in the world? How many people wish they had a fanatically involved parent in their life? How many people look at what I take for granted, either with my kids or with my father, and feel the ache of what they never had?

Lavar Ball is still terribly annoying to me. But I don’t think I’ll ever think about him quite the same. When I view him as a fellow father, as a son, and not just through the lens of sports media, I can’t help but see something different now.

His antics are still deeply annoying. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll never act like that. But I don’t think I’ll be able to look at him without hearing Kevin Durant, one of the richest, most gifted, accomplished people on the planet, saying they wish they’d had a dad like him.

I hope my kids look at me when they’re older and are grateful I was there for them, however I manage to do that. I know I’m grateful for my own father’s presence in the past and now (and hopefully long into the future). And I hope I can provide that kind of voice, that of a fanatical supporter, for others who need it. I hope my colleagues and friends and people in my church and people who will take my job… I hope they see me on the sidelines, making posters and pointing out how great they are.

If I can get my kids and other people I love to roll their eyes because “there he goes again. That’s just my dad/friend/mentor,” I’ll consider myself well-accomplished in life. The fewer people that we have in the world saying that they never had someone like that, I think the better off we’ll all be.

I guess we all need to take some cues from Lavar Ball. I never thought I’d say that, but… here we are. What a world.

 

The image attached above was from a New York Times story found here. If you’re wanting a story about how unique and interesting Kevin Durant is off the court, it’s not a bad place to look. 

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the good news about wrath

Today is Good Friday. Many Christians, perhaps most Christians, lose sight of the very obvious misnomer of the day. To people who are not Christians and are unfamiliar with the Christian story, it seems very confusing to call a day “good” that centers around the torturous execution of a good man. You may not have many friends in your life anymore who are not Christians (which isn’t a goal to shoot for, really), but if you are a parent, you can pick up on this from the little pagans that live in your home. Several times, I’ve had to look at my children’s confused faces as I explained that, yes, Jesus is good, and yes, it is sad that he dies, and yes, we’re still calling this Good Friday.

The Cross is the centrally beautiful thing about Christianity and remains a bit shocking, if you take the time to stare at it. It is also a moment of faith as we try to understand all we believe about what’s happening there but ultimately cannot fully comprehend. The Cross is not merely a place for your intellect, but your heart.

Perhaps one of the more difficult things to understand about the Cross is how Christians have so often surrounded it with the language of “wrath,” and yet still come away with ideas of God and His goodness. It is increasingly common, even amongst Christians, to scoff at this “wrath” idea and pretend like some nasty old theologians introduced this idea a few minutes ago because they were generally just miserable people who needed everyone else, including God, to be a bit miserable as well.

But of course, the idea that the Cross is where we find God’s wrath and love joined together has been around for a long, long time and seems quite apparent in the Scriptures as well. Paul’s question about how God must be “both just and justifier” (in Romans 3) is tied up in this idea. Of course, we take the language of wrath today and make it about a hissy fit in which God needs to kick something or is like some demon-monster that needs to be appeased by blood.

Neither of these, I’d suggest, is what we’re talking about on Good Friday. We are, in fact, talking about a Good Father on Good Friday. And a wrathful Father is precisely what we’re hungering for these days.

Cast your mind back on the #MarchForOurLives demonstrators. They are working for a better world, longing for peace, which is commendable even if you don’t want anyone touching the 2nd Amendment. The kids who are so forceful in this movement (and please remember that, as much as you may think of them as puppets of adults that you disagree with, they are in fact children), were launched into action by the violent loss of their classmates. They are dealing with a world torn apart by what we Christians call “sin,” this horrible, destructive force that tears people apart within and without. What they are hungering for is a justice that will make right the death of so many innocents. And yet even if all the guns were melted down and all the jail sentences were rightly administered, something in them would still be hungry. Violence was done and life has been extinguished. All the pushing and changing in the world will not fill their appetite for justice. Infinite justice.

A justice only found in a just God.

Wrath is not God losing control. Wrath is the love of God set in angry opposition to the destruction of the world, the people that he made. If God was not wrathful towards this terrible, destructive evil in the world, we would rightly wonder if he loved us at all.

His anger tells us that he does.

The Cross is the intersection of his anger and his mercy. God wants to obliterate the thing that ravages his children and yet he does not want us, conspirators with that darkness, to also be obliterated. So the Cross is the place where he can be infinitely just in a way that we long for and infinitely merciful in a way that we need if we’re ever going to survive into a world that is as beautiful as we crave.

When Jesus spreads his arms on the cross, he embraces the forces of darkness that assail us from without and from within and he collapses into the grave with them held tightly to his chest. On the Cross, the Father and the Son and the Spirit fulfilled their eternal plan to undo what unmade the world.

I am not afraid to say that it was wrath that raised the Cross. It does not mean that God is twisted or mean or bloodthirsty. It is the wrath of a Father who hates what is killing his child, the desperate violence of a mother bear who must protect her cubs. That wrath is the mark of a love stronger than death that cannot stand the sight of the Beloved Ones choosing to die.

When God let his enemies extend their swords into his side, he disarmed them, taking their weapons forever. He crushed what ever only oppressed.

Somehow, miraculously, mysteriously, at the Cross, something happened that was what I always feared and what I’ve always craved. Somehow, at that place of violent execution, what happened to one man, 2000 years ago, has something very much to do with me. Something violent and terrible and wrathful and dark and bloody. A loss, a defeat, a conquest.

And yet, on Friday, somehow what happened was Good. So deeply and purely and brilliantly good.

All our fears resolved. All our hopes surpassed.

It was and will be forever Good Friday.

“God demonstrated his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8

what is true

Years from now, I’m not sure how I will talk to my kids about what these last four years have been like. I’m not a doomsday scenario kind of guy and I’m not picturing this conversation in a hut on the edge of smoking ruin. I imagine that things will not be substantially different than the way they are now. At face, I mean.

But as I think about cultural and societal shifts over the last four years, I do wonder if American culture will be perched on the edge of ruin at that point. Things have changed and devolved so much over the last four years… what might happen ten years from now? And much of what frightens me about the future is probably the means by which you came to this blog post:

Social media.

There are lots of people, smart, tech-y people, talking about how bad social media is for culture. It’s bad for us collectively by the way it seeks to hook us into constant usage. It’s bad for individuals, especially teens who use it all the time. There is a lot that we know is bad about social media. And yet people still use it. And, from my perspective, it’s getting worse.

I read an interesting story recently about a man who saw the whole #fakenews phenomenon coming before the 2016 election. This is part of what I will have to describe to my children many years from now. From 2014ish onward, I saw how social media became a means of disseminating increasingly fringe varieties of “news” by people who were craving the message they passed along. And in that timeline, it seems pretty clear that agents of various interests began to jump on that propensity and toss fuel on this dumpster fire. In that Buzzfeed article, Ovadya describes the way he recognized how this could be acted on and (gulp) how it can get worse. Technology is changing so quickly that it will be easier and easier to weaponize #fakenews for all kinds of desired ends. One of the most alarming possible outcomes? “Reality apathy.” In other words, this kind of environment can lead to people checking out and saying, “Who can really know what’s real anyway?”

This does not sound like the distant future to me. It sounds like we could be seeing the edges of this right now.

Take for example, this podcast. RadioLab made this episode soon after a spate of Mueller indictments of Russian individuals who participated in disinformation campaigns, including the creation of protests, and sometimes even counter-protests on the same street, at the same time. They talked to three people who participated in one demonstration who were contacted by two “people” that aren’t actually real. The FBI is investigating this incident to trace back the origins and implications of it all.

One woman who participated in the event is aware that it now appears that neither person she talked to was real and money that helped fund the event apparently came from Russia and…. she doesn’t care. Ultimately, she says, these people didn’t create her opinion or make her a President Trump fan. The rally may have originated with these fake people, but it’s something she ultimately believes in so she just doesn’t care that she was manipulated. “I’m not stupid,” she insists. And she isn’t. She simply doesn’t care about the origins of the idea. She liked it because it served her desires.

This is typical of what I see on social media these days, especially Facebook, but not only there. People are fed articles from websites they may or may not have heard of before and, without doing any research about the actual facts of a post, they will share them. Sometimes based on the headline alone. I see both conservatives and liberals do this, by the way. More than half the time, I will read an inflammatory post, Google relevant phrases, and find that the article has, at best, grossly misrepresented the facts. I’ll then share links to show that the article is either very bad or very deceitful. You know, we can all be fooled on the Internet. I understand. It happens.

You know what I’ve seen on multiple occasions, though? People don’t care that it’s not representative of the whole truth.

This is what blows my mind, what scares me to do death. Again, I see both liberals and conservatives doing this. They simply do not care if the article or headline is false or half-true or fantasy. They will keep the link up because they like what it says in conjunction with their deeply-held beliefs. Without fail, these kinds of posts are inflammatory, purposefully enraging. They breed anxiety or disdain or shock. And people are prepared to let it stand, because they’re hungry to believe the very worst about each other.

There is a terrible kind of chicken-and-egg scenario playing out. What came first: The Liberal who turns their nose up at stupid conservatives or the Conservative who can’t stand the godless Liberal coming to steal America away? [Insert each side telling you who came first and who is really at fault.] But this absolute commitment to believe the very worst about the Other, the belief that they absolutely cannot have any access to the truth because of their bias (while having no problem believing that the bias of Our Team does not impede access to the truth), and the willingness to pass along, unexamined any kind of “news” so long as it lines up with our convictions… it’s a powerful, poisonous swill.

Our culture has drunk so deeply of it, we have sent ourselves spinning into a wasteland of mistrust and truth defined by our preferences.

Honestly, it seems to me that social media should be taken out back and Ole Yeller’d. I personally wouldn’t mind more stringent oversight, but I have already seen people screaming about the First Amendment (as if not being able to say something on a platform is a violation of your right to free speech at large). I doubt people will accept such filtering or monitoring.

What we need, as alluded to in the first link of this post, is Wisdom. The ability to discern what is true and right and to discern what should be done to use that truth at the right time. Of course, my belief is that the Church should be very helpful to culture on this point. Sadly, many, many of the people who I see participating in this urge to scorch the Other are all faithful church attenders. They see nothing wrong with flaming the Baby Murderers or the Haters of the Poor. It’s all in the name of righteousness, in the name of Jesus. So I’m not sure how quickly Wisdom will be rushing out into the streets from the Church sanctuary. I hope she pops up soon, though.

So what will I tell my kids about this time? Well I’ll probably tell them this era is why I would not give them a smartphone. Ever. Or one of those nifty virtual reality sets that everyone has. And it’s why I insist that they read actual books instead of watching Netflix all day everyday. Hopefully our conversations about the nature of God and Truth and the image of God in people will help them see how we should be different than this crazy, post-Truth world.

I’m hoping my kids will hear stories about this truth devolution and not be able to believe it was ever so bad. I really hope I’ll them how we became more committed than ever to treating our neighbors the way we want to be treated, believing the best about them until proven otherwise. I hope I’ll them that the solution to all of this on the other side surprised us all and it’s exciting to be a part of it.

That’s hopefully what I’ll tell them.

But there’s a scenario where I actually am sitting around the fire, telling them this whole era is why we live in the middle of the Canadian Rockies without electricity. So that we don’t get hooked up to the Brain Death Machines and that we can never go back except for foodstuffs and other essentials. Maybe that’s what I’ll be telling them

Ah but I’m joking. Don’t worry.

I’m mostly joking.

(Maybe.)

 

 

to father is to fear

Everyday, I wonder if I am doing it right. Every. Single. Day.

Everyday, I wonder if I am gone too much for work or present too much, showing too much of an impassive, gloomy face. I am allotted only so many hours in a day and very few of them are with my children. And when I am with them, I am usually tired or rushing or thinking of other things I have not finished. I go to bed with a pit in my stomach, wondering if they have heard me say “I love you” in the small ways that I have tried to say it. I say it with words, with hugs, with teasing, with bed time prayers.

Everyday, I am almost certain that I have hurt them more than healed them.

Everyday, I wonder if I left them a legacy in the word “dad” or if I have handed them an anchor.

Everyday, I delight in them behind their back and find a way to be frustrated and impatient to their face.

Every. Single. Day.

Children are a wonder. My children are special and a joy and the pride of my life. My wife seems to have been born with their language. I speak it only passably, awkwardly, and with moderate success. But their foreignness is only further indication that they are a gift to me, something not entirely of my making.

My generation is increasingly delaying child-bearing or forgoing it altogether. I think that, probably, people like me are part of the reason why. I publicly profess my unease with my own children, my fatigue, my failure. But make no mistake: I am fraught because they are treasures that I do not want to shatter. My friends that do not want children because they think that they are not “kid people,” they are missing out on the wonderful, terrible truth that none of us are, and we are better off for it.

Parenting feels like a high-stakes tight-rope game with only glacial payoffs and decades-long strategies at hand. It feels like failure comes in an instant and success is unknown. I cannot believe that so much of the best of me has carried on, and I am so sorry for my own darkness that has been passed down in their bones.

But their smiles, the giggles pile into my pockets like an inheritance that cannot be stolen from me. Diamonds and rubies and giggles. They charitably pour out wealth on me, seemingly unhindered by my incompetence in the field of joy.

Someday, their language will merge with mine. They will grow up and we will understand one another better than we do now. I can only hope that when that day comes, they will still want to speak with me.

What I will tell them is the truth: Their father has never been anything more than mortal. Their father has failed them and everyone else in uncountable ways. Their father has often treated them as if perfection was attainable, all the while groaning under such a load.

Fatherhood is facing the wilderness with very few directions. There are companions and the semblances of tracks ahead. But there is everywhere the sense that doom may be ahead.

And I will tell them that I have needed grace. So much grace. I will them that I remember so many times when I had to ask a four-year-old for forgiveness, for mercy. So many times when I should have. I will them what I hope to show them: That the love of God was never contractual, but given regardless of the other end of the bargain.

Fatherhood makes me feel small every single day.

Every. Single. Day.

I don’t know if I’m any good at it. Actually, I’m pretty sure I’m not. People think that when I say that, I’m asking to be reassured that I am. But I’m providing diagnosis, not invitation. I’m not very good at this thing.

But I’m so grateful for my kids. I hope they know that. I want to honor them with my life. With my fears. I would give them the world. I hope they know they have my heart.

There is no resolution here. I cannot solve this thing. I have no truth to be blogged that will warm the heart and solve the equation.

I’m clueless. Every. Single. Day.

And I need grace. Every. Single. Day.

I need to be given what I do not in any way deserve. Every. Single. Day.

And somehow, there is enough to make me think that the wilderness will not win, it will not crush me.

That we will be ok.

That I will be ok.

That we will make it.

Every. Single. Day.

 

the logic of violence

I wrote last week about guns and spiritual formation. In it, I asked how Christians might consider the potential spiritual formation implications of owning a weapon. These were merely questions, and not accusations of any kind. I wanted to follow up with another line of questions that I have that I did not fully include, but has since become more relevant.

Again, I am not a gun expert, nor am I a gun control expert. I should also say, in the name of putting all cards on the table, that I am not a pacifist, as classically defined, but would also probably lean more towards personal pacifism than some.

My question here revolves around the logic of gun ownership and its particular merits as a means for protection. Specifically, this is prompted by the repeated calls following a shooting not for fewer guns, but more. This is being seen here in the context of arming teachers for protection. I remember first hearing this suggestion after the Sandy Hook shooting. Another variant of this is to have more armed persons (often, it is suggested that these people be military veterans) assigned to schools.

Now, again, I have to say here that I know many trained gun owners. People who handle/d weapons professionally and in whom I have much confidence in handling that weapon, both to use it and to not use it. Many of the people who I know that own guns are people I absolutely trust with that gun.

As in my previous post, my purpose here is to ask maybe a slightly different kind of question. I’d like to here ask a question about the underlying logic of these kinds of arguments/policy suggestions. The logic is this: “Bad people will always want to do violence. What is needed for a good person to do violence to the bad person before innocents are harmed. Therefore, arm more good people.”

There is a clear, logical nature to this argument. It makes a ton of sense.

I confess, though, that I am disquieted with the logic of this rationale. What if our logic is incomplete? And if we use this line of thinking, where does it end?

If we accept this rationale, do we accept the nature of violence itself with the only end a ceaseless escalation of force? Because if “bad people will always have guns” is the accepted premise of this argument, what, then will stop those bad people from seeing the  escalation of force in response and then… escalate further? What if the next evolution of this dilemma is not a peace at the point of a gun but the appearance of shooters acting in tandem? Or triplicate? Or squad?

Or what if the weaponry must evolve to answer the threat of violence residing in schools or wherever else such persons are deemed necessary? What if it becomes more and more common to use grenades or fully automatic weapons or chemicals?

My point here is that accepting the premise of the argument beneath the calls of the arming of teachers or more citizens or whatever is the case is a confession that the premise might be accepted by those you are arming against. And what results is a perpetual ramping up.

Now, I have some caveats:

One is that, from what we’ve seen, people that carry out such violent acts tend to be more solitary and do not appear to be candidates to make friends or allies to commit the escalated forms of violence that I hypothesized. To this caveat, I’d add a caveat: Columbine High School was shot up by multiple people. So it’s not an impossibility.

Secondly, from a pragmatic perspective, one can see that this could be an effective stopping act for a shooter or potential shooter. And I would also add that I have no suggestion to interrupt such a scenario apart from violence. So I’m not about to unveil a magical solution that fixes this. You may say, “This is the best that we can do in the world that we live in.”

Here, I am only asking: “Is it actually the best solution that we have?” I don’t know that it is.

What if arming teachers prepares students for a more violent mentality in the world? What if all kids, constantly being around armed guards at their schools, only seeds ideas to those very few children who are troubled or hurting or alone or imbalanced or all of the above? What if, by pursuing such a course of action, we are actually at the genesis of an even more violent outcome?

Is violence (or the threat of violence) actually the only solution to the problem of violence?

I sincerely do not know if it is. But something in my gut feels uneasy about all of this.

That uneasiness could just be the fact that I’m a wimp that should not be trusted to handle this duty. I accept that charge. That’s fine.

I would merely ask of my fellow Christian, my people, to consider this path, though. Consider its origin. With certainty, I can say that the conviction that violence is the solution to the problem is not the rationale that will win the day in the kingdom of God. At the very least, there should be recognition that this mentality will end. It is temporal. What might that tell us and how should it shape us?

Also, we ought to recognize that the kingdoms of this world, who have no concern for King Jesus, are ruled by such a mentality. Violent imposition of your will is how things are done. The key is to make sure that maximal violence is on your side, and not on the other guy’s side. The kingdoms of this world, both Biblically and otherwise, have a commitment to this ethos. It is worth considering whether believers should accept this ethos as “the way the world is” and if Christians can utilize this rationale towards an acceptably good end.

I confess that a very big part of who I am is shaped by stories like the Lord of the Rings. And I fear that the rationale behind this response all-too-eerily resembles the ring of power. Could you use it for good? Yes. But what might it do to you, to us as we wear this power wielded, even towards good ends? I think we should be careful of the Ring of Power, wherever we stumbled upon and however good we think we might be in using it.

I went and saw the Black Panther movie yesterday and this is at the heart of that fictional conflict as well. Should the Wakandans export their weapons and technology to the oppressed black people of the world to rise up and defeat colonialism and its descendant powers? Or is the Wakandan way a better way? Is the export of weaponry actually a devolution into the ways of that colonialism, a kind of moral capitulation?

I know these are hard questions with complicated attendant circumstances. What is obvious and pragmatic may be obvious and pragmatic because it is right. It is also possible that what is obvious and pragmatic may be overly simplistic and more dangerous than we realize.

If anyone in this crazy, violent world should offer up a plea to pump the brakes and consider these things carefully, it should certainly be Jesus’ people, even if we are only asking for careful consideration of what we’re suggesting. Our God Himself suffered violence as a means to disarm and destroy the kingdoms of this world. It is worth considering what the Cross should do to us as our kids walk into schools stained by blood. As citizens of this country whose allegiance lies to a Better Country, should we not, as ambassadors, be careful to propose solutions to this problem (and every problem) that make clear where our loyalties lie and who our King is? If we cannot come to a better solution than multiplying weaponry, Christians should at least be the ones who throw up speed bumps so that we might very seriously consider the weight of what’s being suggested.

I absolutely do not have a solution to the problems of school shootings or the shootings of concert crowds or anything like that. I feel helpless at the prospect and certainly believe that very smart people and even very good people are behind the “offer up more guns” argument. If my questions are overly idealistic and unfounded, I would still suggest that we would be wise to ask them. We must spot all the temptations to join into the kingdoms of this world, even if it is a line we must walk ever so carefully. Because citizenship in the kingdom of God is worth such careful consideration.

And let us not forget how different and strange and beautiful is the kingdom of Jesus. Let us, even for a moment such as this one, consider again how different the kingship of Jesus really is. It’s a delight to question the logic of this world, this logic of violence because it reminds how foreign the answer of God is, how beautifully strange it is to be an alien and a pilgrim. Because Jesus’ kingdom is so wonderfully different.

The kingdom of the Cross is not like the kingdoms of this world. Forever will it be so. Hallelujah.

UPDATE: Dr. Anthony Bradley, a professor at King’s College in NYC, wrote an article at Fathom Magazine on the need for Christian wisdom that, I think, said a lot of things really well, some of which I was trying to get at here. He’s way, way smarter than me, way more concise and I’d commend his work to you generally, but this post specifically.

guns and the people of God

I have taken to stepping away from Facebook and Twitter for Lent. Actually, I’ve stepped away more and more from those places generally, with occasional dips back in the water to remind me to get back out again. Lenten abandonment of Facebook always leaves me refreshed and amazed at how much clearer my head is when I’m not finding ways to be annoyed or offended or whatever on my phone.

After seeing the numbers roll in from yet another school shooting on Wednesday, I very quickly thought, “Oh I’m so glad I’m not on Facebook right now.” We’ve seen so many explosively violent acts, so many school shootings that I know exactly what I would find there, who would say what. There’s the inevitable crying face emoji status, the statuses about being sad and praying for the victims. There’s the equally inevitable, often profane statuses of angry, hurt people telling the other people what they can do with their thoughts and prayers. There’s the people saying, “When will we do something about this?” There’s the pre-emptive, “We can’t ban guns, let’s have more guns to stop this” posts. Then there’s the collisions of the two groups shouting over rights and deaths and then… it’s over. Until the next one kicks up in, what, like five days? It’s the cycle we live through in this country, right?

I’m so glad I’m not on Facebook to watch it again.

And I’m so tired of it. I’m so, so tired of watching news clips and seeing photos of children, actual children, crying and screaming because violence has entered their sanctuary. I’m exhausted at being confronted with the thought that I send my children to these places and hoping the next one doesn’t happen with my kids inside. And I’m most exhausted at the reality that we will do absolutely nothing about this. We, as a society, have chosen to be this. Because these are our rights.

And I think it’s inarguably our right. I think the 2nd Amendment is what it is and has been interpreted to mean exactly what we’re seeing. It’s our Constitutional right to have guns with very few checks and balances on that right. And so we (very many of us) have decided that that right is worth the cost of violence like this. Gun owners are generally good, caring people. And they hate these news stories as much as me. But we, collectively, shrug our shoulders and say, “What can be done?”

I don’t know exactly, but it seems every other country on Earth has figured out what can be done. We could ask them, I guess. Or… you know… just wait for the next one.

I’m not here to argue for legal gun control. I don’t know enough about it. It’s not my area of expertise or particular interest. It seems like a meaningless conversation because it has become so politicized that I just think nothing will ever be done about it. Someone walked into an elementary school in Connecticut and murdered kindergarteners and we did precisely nothing about it. If we’re not going to legally do anything at the sight of babies bleeding out, nothing could convince us to change any laws. So I’m not here for that.

I would rather ask a different kind of question that I feel is more my field, my area of responsibility:

How do Christians in America provide counter-cultural formation in a culture of violence? How should Christians deal with guns?

I do not have all the answers here and I don’t feel like I have to provide all the answers. But I think there are questions worth thinking about here. And I do recognize these might feel like (and I’m sorry about this terminology) loaded questions.

One thing that will often be repeated (and probably is being repeated right this very second) is that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” And, of course, there’s real truth to this. There’s a broken mind, a broken spirit behind that trigger that is different from many of the other kind and loyal and compassionate minds behind other triggers.

However, we may need to stop and consider as Christians: are things ever only things? What I mean by that is, lost in the furor of trying to make legal arguments about keeping guns and protecting gun rights, I think many Christians fail to consider how a gun is a spiritual object, or an object with particular spiritually formative possibilities. “But it’s just a thing!” you might say.

True.

Pornography is just a thing, though. Really, it’s just images, composition of light and sound on a screen. It cannot force something upon you. It’s constructed in such a way to form us and provoke a response, though. And therein lies spiritual formation. Food is just a thing, yes? It cannot force a spiritual outcome on us. But gluttony and feasting are two potentialities lying dormant in food, preparing to form us. Money. Money is just a thing, right? Money is not inherently evil, but there lies potential for great evil or great good and riches seem to have with them an inherent danger that we should be wary of, though we are not helpless before those dangers.

I could go on. There are a multitude of examples. Things are never merely things because we are not merely living in neutral territory unencumbered by a spiritual world. We are spiritual beings, the world charged with more than what we see. Guns are not demons, of course. They are not stalking anyone or whispering lies at night.

But at the very least, Christians should be cognizant of what guns do as spiritual objects. How does Christian participation with gun ownership, then, expose us to spiritually formative powers? I would suggest that, at the very least, there is real spiritual danger in gun ownership. Not only danger. I do recognize the virtue of desiring to protect family and neighbor. But Christians should not be blind to the dangers beyond and behind the bullets. Let’s think about some of those possible dangers:

-Guns might convince us that we hold all the power to sustain our own lives. This is a lie, of course. Gun owners die in violent crimes. They die in car accidents. Or from heart attacks. Or from gun accidents. Really, there are thousands of ways to die even if you have a gun to protect yourself. You and I are not in control of our own lives to a very great degree. Our lives are sustained by more than our own strength or ingenuity.

-Guns might convince us that the way to secure a good world is through violence. Violence, even used towards a good end, does not appear to be the way that God will set the world to rights. In fact, it is by suffering violence that God drives a stake into the ground. It is the offering of sacrificial love that it seems that God intends to remake and reshape the world.

-Guns might convince us that our actions are disconnected from the lives of our neighbors. By this I mean that it may be possible to own a gun with good motivations, good intentions, and good practices. And it would be tempting to think that that alone justifies an action (any action). But that is not quite far enough to think, as a Christian. Does purchasing a firearm and ammunition fund an industry that harms your neighbor? Have you participated in and therefore facilitated something that is not so good? This becomes complex because it’s possible to make every possible choice connected to every possible evil, so I do not have a clear answer for you here. But my suggestion is that guns might tempt you into never asking the question.

-Guns might give us the wrong ideas about death. That it is acceptable and a small matter for some to die while others live. That death is the inevitable way of this world. That death can be an ally.

I’ll stop here. My point is not that you absolutely will believe all of these things or things like them. My point is that guns should be seen as dangerous not simply in the obvious way that they are so deadly. Christians should consider their involvement with weapons as also potentially spiritually dangerous.

If everything surrounding guns in this country is essentially boiled down to, “What is my right,” even for Christians, I think we have missed the mark. Like I said, I think gun ownership really is a right guaranteed in the Constitution (though… you know… we can amend it). But those are not good enough questions, those legal questions. They are incomplete.

Much of following Jesus is about forfeiting what are our rights. A better question to ask is “what would following Jesus as Master, as King look like in this particular realm?” The same question should be asked of every single facet of our lives, of course. Ours is a rights-driven culture. As long as Christians live by those ways of doing business in any realm of our lives (sexuality, guns, food, whatever), we will be capitulating to the logic of the kingdoms of this world that revolve around self-rule, self-empowerment, self-ish ways.

But Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world. Jesus said that himself. Accepting that to be true, how does Christian gun ownership look different? How do Christians own guns (or not own guns) in such a way that our friends, our families, our culture looks and says, “Ah yes. They’re that way because they follow Jesus. They’re all a bunch of weirdos.” Are they looking at us and seeing signs of an otherworldly kingdom?

What I’m asking is… are we sure that we are weird enough?

what I am and what I am not

I am a pastor. I am a pastor in a presbyterian denomination. My denomination is called the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

And I’m not sure what I am anymore.

The past year or two has seen the candidacy and then presidency of Donald Trump push for some clear identifying questions about what evangelicals are and what they are not. There are so many think-pieces on this, I cannot even pick which ones to link to. I’ve put up probably close to a dozen of them on Facebook over the past year.

Some of these questions are being asked with a twisted grin on the face of the writer that wishes to mock and cajole evangelicals. Others are written with tears in the eyes of the author that has found themselves alienated and unsure of what they’re watching.

Years and years and years of pitched culture wars and the growing belief that evangelical Christians are the culturally endangered ones in Western society, partnered with an increasingly secular society, created conditions where so many Christians felt they must tie up their theological (“evangelical”) identity with specific legislative battles (abortion, religious freedom… and that’s about it) that absolutely required that Christians committed to the authority of the Bible must, at all costs, fight the Democrats.

There was lip service to the idea that “we know Jesus isn’t a Republican” but almost literally, the same person would say, “But the Devil is a Democrat.”

This kind of persistent training in churches and in the news media that many evangelical Christians consume faithfully, some might say religiously, has formed people ready to go to electoral war to fight the Progressive Onslaught.

And I’m not here to convince you of one political philosophy or another. You work out for yourself how you think a country ought to be governed. Big government, small government, whatever.

But the blinders have been increasingly focused on the issue of abortion to the exclusion of all else. I believe abortion is a great moral evil that should be eliminated by law and by services rendered and whatever means necessary (almost). So I’m not saying this to minimize abortion. As evangelicals have increasingly focused on abortion and the Democratic party leadership has increasingly made it clear that it does not have time for pro-life rhetoric within its party, the stark moral battle has lined itself up.

Morals. Culture. Fear. Dogmatic religious training over the airwaves. Everything ramping up and up and up.

I was so surprised to see how strongly evangelicals came out for Donald Trump, a man with miles of immoral credentials and zero governing expertise. I’m disconnected from from the Fox News-Breitbart machines, so I undersold their influence. I have other ideas about how to eliminate abortion that I’m happy to see pursued, so while I don’t like that Democrats are so doggedly pro-abortion, I don’t see them as impossible to work with. Maybe I’m just a naturally moderating kind of personality. And I failed to see how out of step I was/am on that.

So I was surprised when he won.

And after that, nothing has surprised me.

The blind support.

The religious devotion.

Not even Roy Moore surprises me.

Everything (and I do mean everything) can be “But the Democrats”-ed away. And because everything can be and often is reduced to the issue of abortion…. Guess what? Nothing is a deal-breaker. Nothing. Abortion is the only deal-breaker

And it’s all in the name of Jesus.

Now, look, I know many evangelicals who sincerely felt their hands were tired in many of these things and they felt their vote was locked in by limited options. They voted with a sick stomach and teeth gritted. I saw their tortured consciences. I think that’s real and I think it’s pretty lame to paint all of those people as simple-minded bigots. These people felt torn. They didn’t now who was listening to their real concerns.

But this label. This “evangelical” label. Now it’s gotten chained to a morally leaky ship. And I’m afraid it’s only going to take on more and more water.

And I wonder who I am anymore.

I’m not an evangelical like I see on TV. I know that. I believe in the absolute authority of Scripture and the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus and the supernatural nature of Christianity. The whole theological lot, I’m in. I’m in and able to defend it to my last breath.

But so much has gotten packaged with this thing:

-The objections and the pain of people of color were dismissed as media-manipulated nonsense, as if black and brown people were too stupid to properly understand reality.

-The nationalism that excuses a way of talking about immigrants as if the concern for the foreigner in Scripture is a fabrication of the HuffingtonPost.

-The ability to excuse and defend and disbelieve the morally disgusting in “our” candidates while being absolutely willing to believe that the Clintons have orchestrated dozens of murders of all who stand in their way without ever getting caught. Roy Moore is innocent until prove guilty and every Democrat on the planet was guilty upon signing their voter registration card.

I’m not those things.

And I don’t know what to tell people anymore. Evangelicalism has been a good thing in many ways. But it’s also quietly held an underbelly to it that has, for longer than I realized, sheltered and excused seeds and fruit of racism and protected unhealthy power-obsessions partnered with abuse. There is a darkness there that we’ve tried to ignore.

Now, it’s as if the things that have been growing in darkness are finally being brought into the light. It’s as if judgment has come.

Test my theology. I dare you. Test me to see if I don’t pass your standards of evangelical theology. I’m not afraid of believing in the exclusivity of Christ or the authority and inerrancy of Scripture or traditional sexual ethics or any other test you can muster.

But I don’t know how I’ll vote Republican again.

Quiz me on what I believe about Jesus. See if I can’t answer your questions to the satisfaction of Billy Graham or John Wesley or Jonathan Edwards (ok maybe not him because he was a mega-genius). I’m there. I’m right there with them in the history and stream of American evangelicalism.

But Franklin Graham? Jerry Fallwell Jr.? Robert Jeffress? The names trotted out as moral and spiritual cover for political operatives?

Nah. I’m not with them.

I don’t know how to describe me anymore. I’m an EPC pastor. I’m happy to be so. Proud. I love the people I’m connected to in name and in relationship.

I love Jesus. I want to be identified with Jesus. I don’t want to be identified with Donald Trump or Roy Moore or the Republican party (or the Democrats) or quiet approval of racism or any number of other things.

I love Jesus. I want Jesus to be my identifier, “little Christ.” I want Jesus to shape my identity, not Twitter or NPR or Fox News. And I want my life to be a credit to Jesus. I want to live in a way that makes people curious about Jesus, crave to know Jesus.

I don’t know if I count as an evangelical anymore.

But I want to be counted as being with Jesus.

Can I stand here outside the camps and just be a Christian? Can I just cast my lot with Jesus?

I don’t know what else I am.

tentpole

The other day, I was listening to an episode of the Bill Simmons podcast** that he did with Chuck Klosterman. If you’re unfamiliar with Klosterman, he’s an author of mostly essays, (formerly) an ethics column in the New York Times, and music reporting. He’s done lots of other things and I’m probably not giving you an accurate picture of him. He’s a weird, creative guy who talks about lots of things and is certainly portrayed as very “cool.” Simmons is a former ESPN employee that has made his living talking/writing sports and pop culture. They occasionally appear on Simmons’ podcast together and have wide-ranging conversations about lots of things. They’re usually some mixture of fascinating and annoying.

This most recent episode was typically wide-ranging. Two men who like to talk and opine talking with and at and also to each other to varying degrees of success. As Simmons has gotten older, one of his oft-repeated tropes is his observation about the nature and speed of the way media has shifted. For example, we don’t go to the movies as much. We’re on our phones a lot more. The Internet can tell us and bring us everything. More and more people prefer watching sports at home on their nice TVs rather than live. In this instance, they were remarking on the existence of Netflix and the like that has created a culture of binge-watching on demand and has removed cultural conversations about common pieces of cultural artifacts. How often do people gather around the proverbial water cooler and talk about the latest episode of any show? Or any movie? Very rarely. Why? Because there’s so many options and we can watch those things when we want. This was referred to as the ebbing away of “monoculture.”

We’ve lost these cultural landmarks in entertainment that provide widespread points of connection between people.

Now, this is, to some degree, a good thing. There are more avenues for new producers of creative content to have their voices heard. People with money have avenues of placing more bets on younger talent that may have otherwise taken years to be seen/heard. Also, “monoculture” has the disadvantage of being heavily “mono.” We have seen that recently in the #OscarsSoWhite conversation relatively recently. Entertainment has suffered from a lack of people making things that weren’t entirely shepherded along by white males. We’re better off when we have more stories being told by more people.

But we are losing something in this lack of large touchpoints, cultural tentpoles around which big sections of culture can gather and have conversation. As they were discussing this, I immediately thought of one of the lasting tentpoles in society: politics. We still have large discussions online, in print, and in person, about politics. Eventually, Klosterman and Simmons made the same observation.

As I realized that this was true, how much of our corporate dialogue is driven towards this particular tentpole, I felt sick to my stomach. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but politics is a bit of a mess right now. “It has been for years!” or “It always will be!” you may cry. But come on. The President of the United States retweeted British fascists who have a reputation for racism and links with violence in their country. He probably did it out of ignorance because it helps spread the bigotry that will pass along some of his political objectives. And he probably won’t say “I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I didn’t know.” because those are not words this President will ever utter. Or he has to say, “I know they’re evil fascists and I don’t care.” And he won’t do that. He’ll just stay silent. Because he can. Because his party is thriving on people getting offended and the people in his party who are offended don’t want to lose their jobs.

I mean… it’s a mess. And that was yesterday. Not even all of the mess from this week.

But it’s true. Our culture has declining options in regards to tentpoles around which we can all gather and have common conversations. I’d say sports is still relatively on that list. But sports and politics? That’s pretty much it. And guess what is invading our sports arenas? Politics.

This is not a post to say that people should stop paying attention to politics. Politics is an important thing that deserves our attention. As a member of this Republic, it’s actually my duty to pay attention and to care. You and I should care and be involved. I’ve contacted my representatives more times this year than ever before. And I aim to keep doing that even when we don’t have a President who regularly tweets nonsense. Our system does well when citizens are engaged.

What I am saying is that if we abandon the place of tentpoles to politics alone, our common culture will continue to collapse. We need something to continue to provide big, wide spaces for people to find points of contact with our neighbors.

We need artists to continue to make good art.

We need writers to find compelling stories and make us pay attention.

We need city and town governments to keep literal central gathering spaces and to put things in those spaces that will gather us there.

And this is even more a conviction that I felt as I listened to that podcast that the Church has an opportunity to provide for the general flourishing of our society by being what a fracturing entertainment industry cannot and a better version of what our politics is becoming. The Christian claim is that there is an available society-within-society that provides pillars around which it is good for people to gather.

I’m saying that churches have the opportunity to provide places to circle around discuss justice and beauty. And not just discuss those things but to be instruments of those things. People, I think, are hungry to have those stories told and enacted. And the Church should absolutely be encouraging and facilitating those stories, those conversations. We believe them more deeply than we believe in politics or sports or entertainment. At least,  I hope we do.

And ultimately, Christians claim (or should claim) that the ultimate tentpole around which to gather is not a cause or commodity or politician, but around Jesus. I think we’re seeing fracturing not from bad desires, but from insufficient desires, if I could very loosely quote CS Lewis. Culture was meant to be built around worthwhile compelling things and, more specifically, around the most compelling Person in the universe.

Now, that is an increasingly eye-rolling proposition in our culture which has lost the enchantment it once held. But that’s besides the point! We can at least ask the question to our neighbors, “Are we really better off if the only things we gather around are politics and sports? Is that all we are going to leave our children?” I hope not! I hope that, whether or not people buy our suggestion that culture ultimately hungering to worship the infinitely good God of heaven and earth, they can at least buy that we must build better societal structures. We must purposefully turn towards better conversation pieces than the latest madness in Washington.

Christians, this is our responsibility. If you’d like to hunker down and wait for the end to arrive, well… I have some bad news for you. I don’t think you’re allowed to do that. I think you should take Jeremiah’s admonition in chapter 29 of his book (before the famous coffee-cup verse) and settle in for a while. Plant gardens. Work for the good of the city.

This is our task. We believe that God made people to be agents of His reign in this messy garden of a world, to build cities that last and are lastingly good. We can’t abandon our cultures to the twisted realms of sports and politics. Sure, we can send our athletes and our politicians there (those exist still, right?). But we also need to plant some common gardens that are life-giving and bring flourishing apart from those things.

And we better get our own houses in order. Are our churches full of vibrant society gathered around Jesus? Is he compelling enough that we share our tables, our conversations, our lives around who we say he is? If he cannot hold up the tent over the heads of black and white, rich and poor, then we have a problem. We do not believe what we think we believe.

But I think Jesus actually is good enough to hold up our dreams, our longings for society. And I think he can show us that even what we think we thirst for is too small a thing. He has for us life that is even better than we dream of or find anywhere else.

**Disclaimer: This is not a Christian podcast. If you are expecting a Christian podcast with people who talk like Christians, you will be offended. You have been forewarned.

a list of things

I have not written here for two months. I have thought about things to write many times. I have even written some drafts. I’ve never posted anything. I don’t know why. I cannot even muster a real post right now. Here is a list of things that I am thinking about/have thought about:

-I started using Instagram a few months ago to enter a contest to win free things. I did not win free things. I have ducked in and out of Instagram because it seems less crazy there and I can look at pictures of Switzerland and remember being there. Also, my wife posts lots of pictures there (or it feels like a lot, anyway), so I get to see them. One thing I cannot for the life of me understand: That stupid feature where people posts mini-videos of themselves and it just loops on them, usually, while tilting their head sideways and waving. What in the world is the appeal of this ridiculous feature? I’m sorry, I love all of you people, I do. But it’s ridiculous. Go away, wiggle-loop thing. Stop.

-I have been a fan of Arsenal FC (that’s a professional soccer team, Americans) for years and years now. It is, at this point, a mostly futile exercise. The manager is 67 years old, was once a genius, but has now fallen way behind the rest of the elite teams. He’s too stubborn to get help or substantively change. Now, I can tell you pretty much how every Arsenal season will go, except that in the last few years, we (yes…. WE) have won three cup competitions, which has been more fun than usual. But basically, Arsenal has slid from one of the most glamorous, exciting teams in Europe into a “meh… pretty good” team that won’t challenge for the biggest titles. There will be some really fun games and then a bunch of cowardly collapses against the most important teams. And a few losses to really crap teams.

I say all this to let you know that so far in the 17/18 season…. it’s all exactly the same. Wake me in May 2019 when there might be a new manager.

-What percentage of social media, particularly Facebook, is now for selling me things? 70%? 75%?

-I am tired. I am tired physically and mentally and emotionally. Things at our church are good, but in a state of flux in a lot of areas and that taxes me in a way that I have not encountered before. Preaching every. single. week. has started to grind me down in a way that I did not expect it ever would, which is probably compounded by a growing sense that I’m getting worse at it, not better. It is tiring to get up at 5am everyday and workout and then rush the kids off to school and then watch the youngest and then start teaching or meeting or whatever. My fatigue towards the end of the day, I fear, is all that my kids will remember of me. I’m tired of being tired. Hopefully this is a season that will pass away swiftly. But maybe I’ll live in it meaningfully. And, with God’s help, maybe I can stop being such a jerk in the evening.

-I have started using prayer beads, akin to a rosary, to help me pray. It is not a rosary. They are not magic. I do not have prayers to get through to repeat around the circle. But having the beads in my hands, something for me to touch, helps me to focus. Some days, I just walk around with them in my pocket. I reach down and finger the Cross. And in the most surprising, gentle ways at time, I have been enormously comforted and blessed. There is no magic in this. It’s just that I’m more easily distracted and simply comforted than I could have anticipated.

-I have become bizarrely fascinated by coolers. I’m so interested in really nice coolers of various kinds. I was very much interested before our power was out for a day and a half. I remain so even after the power has come back on. I have no idea why they fascinate me so much.

-In January, I am starting a Doctorate of Ministry program at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. I imagine this will make my life busier. But it will be the busy-ness of reading and writing and going to lectures twice a year. I’m already very excited. I can’t wait to pick out my Trapper Keeper. I’m sure I will regret this decision at some point, but right now, all I can think about is all the nerd things that make me excited. Notes and books and thinking and writing and talking and emailing with professors. And my Trapper Keeper. I’m excited.

-We have chickens in our backyard. We give them food. They give us eggs. I am mostly fine with this arrangement. When they run at you to search for food, though, they look like tiny, winged dinosaurs and they are mildly terrifying. This annoys me. Almost as much as the fact that they regularly choose to poop directly in front of the gate that we always walk through or in front of the door to our house. It is a minefield of feces.

Sometimes I hate those birds.

-I watch Hope every morning for the first few weeks of the school year. That will change to 3/5 school days once she’s old enough to go to Mothers Morning Out (in this circumstance, I’m playing the role of “mother”). Every day, around noon, I bring her to Erin where Erin works. Every day, Hope is ready to get out of her car seat. Her little feet start bouncing up and down, ready to get out of the car. Every day, she starts beaming at me as I get out of the driver seat and walk counter-clockwise around the car to her. I stop and peek through one back window and stare at her and she laughs. Then I move very slowly around the back of the car, where glimpses of my face pass in between the headrests in the back seat. Every time she catches my eye again, she giggles and wiggles her feet. I then slowly come around the corner to her door and pause and very slowly move my eyes into view into a tiny window, which causes her to laugh and smile so large, I fear the corners of her mouth may split right into her ears. The happiness leaping from her eyes honestly seems to generate light into the atmosphere around her. She is luminescent. I then, finally, open her door and begin unstrapping her from her car seat, but not before burying my nose and lips into her cheeks and neck so I can smell and kiss her joy.

I do this pretty much everyday with her. So things are pretty ok.

This is the end of my list of things.

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