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Words Have Weight

Thoughts from a young husband, father, and pastor

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.

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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.

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.

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