Thoughts on Fandom as I Wait for Spring

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I think the joy of sports fandom comes in direct correlation with one’s investment in the team. It’s not about whether one has a “valid” claim to be a fan—no one except the players and coaches directly win or lose games—but how much one has given heart and soul over to share the team’s fate. None of this changes the actual outcome, contrary to what my, and every other fan’s, superstitions dictate. How you sit, which hat you wear, whether or not you breathe during the pitch, which beer cozy you utilize, these do not impact pitches and swings, catches and throws. They don’t.

But telling a fan this won’t convince him or her, any more than telling a dog that the ringing bell has nothing directly to do with getting fed. Bell leads to salivating because it means food in the dog’s mind. Sitting on the beanbag hunched over with my Yankees shirt and cap and batting helmet and batting glove and glove on meant victory. The dog gets food not because the bell rings—there is no causal effect between bell and nutrition—but because the owner/experimenter took the food and put it in the bowl. The fan gets a victory because Bucky and Reggie hit home runs and Guidry and Goose threw the ball well enough to keep the Red Sox from equaling those homers (Woohoo!), notbecause of my clothing or baseball equipment or position or respiration. 

However—however!—the investment we make, emotionally, and even spiritually, in our teams, in paying attention to them, talking about them, thinking on them in our idle moments, making our world about their world, knowing them in this sense, these all cause us to feel attached and thus we experience either joy or sorrow at their contest’s outcome. We have invested our hearts.

Believing that we influence any game’s outcome makes us feel connected more than anything else could. It’s a fantasy, a delusion, completely and utterly in our minds and nowhere else in reality,* but to believe fully that our and their outcomes are joined, are one, we must convince ourselves that their win is our win, our loss is their loss, and only because we, together, did everything right do we share our collective triumph.

As convincing as this sounds, it does not tell the whole story. The relationship between player and fan is much more intertwined than I just described because one other point of connection exists, that keeps this insane planet and moon spinning together and, in fact, leaves us questioning which is the planet and which the satellite. Which is dependent on the other? Or, as some astronomers have argued, are we interdependent after all? 

The “fantasy world” of fans would not exist without the physical world of players. But neither would the world of professional athletes exist without fans. We aren’t mere spectators. We, collectively, are patrons. The players play their games in what we call the “real,” physical world and fans build massive sky castles atop this world. But fans fund the enterprise. We don’t write the players’ checks but we pay the salaries. Fans, in the big picture, foot the bill for the whole venture.

We talk about rich, spoiled modern players, but fans make them wealthy. The entire solar system of sports and fandom rests on the people who don’t play the game professionally and our willingness to finance the people who do. I am a big fan—that might have come across—but how hilarious that fans imagine we control pitch location by how we hold our tongues, yet forget (or never quite grasp) that this entire house of cards depends on us because we paid for the cards!

Image result for sitting alone in a stadium during a game

Now, as with our body politic, this doesn’t feel true, or doesn’t feel personal. If you or I decided to boycott professional sports when players went on strike to demand more compensation from owners and, when no agreement could be reached, a season was cancelled (not hypothetically speaking, see 1994) our dollars would not be missed. There are too many of us, and too many varied levels upon which this castle is built, for any one of us to feel like he or she, you or I, have power—exactly as with voting, when we “know” that one vote means nothing. Enough votes together means everything.

One fan buying tickets and jerseys and full season broadcast viewing and sports cards and beers and hot dogs at the stadium, though this can add up to a significant budget item for a middle class individual, still means jack in terms of a professional sports franchise. If, next year, you decide to spend all that money, be it hundreds or tens of thousands of dollars, on ballet lessons, the works of Moliere and Flaubert, and a trip to Naples, Italy, instead of Naples, Florida (spring training) and whatever is left from your previous year’s fan budget on eye and dental care for refugee children, though your life might change significantly, your team would not change one accent mark of a Hebrew letter. They will still make their budget, sign their multi-year players, offer their tens- or hundreds-of-millions dollar contracts, fill their stadium, and keep their crazy world spinning. 

Related tangent: The most alluring/enticing/maddening figures, to me, are the ones that estimate the good we could do with the money we would save if only we would stop drinking Coke (for example) and give that money to feed starving children or cure malaria. It might be true, those might even be accurate estimates, but it will never happen. Too many people like Coke, too many people believe in their “right” to buy whatever they want with their money that they earned, too many people love their own comfort and small luxuries more than a stranger’s “right” to eat or stay alive. What does “right to life” mean in that context? “If you could afford it, you would have a right to life? Unfortunately for you, you can’t.” Sorry, got serious there for a second.

In professional sports, which is the planet and which the moon? Without this major league game, can our fandom exist? Without fans providing the gross national product of developing nations on sports team-related expenses, would the professional players end up in local adult leagues? Would the Carolina Mill Leagues form again? 

And thus, when a team wins their title, be it Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Championship, or Stanley Cup, almost every single year when the players from the winning team get interviewed after the game, in that frenzy of excitement and manic joy of receiving their ultimate prize, they will say, “We wanna thank our fans, the best fans in the whole bleeping world, cuz we could’na done it without you.” 

That is true. 

Here, then, are the two poles of my argument: We are not, in reality, connected with these players or teams personally or directly to have any claim that they are “ours,” though many of us garner meaning in our lives from precisely this claim; Yet we, the fans, spend absurd and obscene piles of money on what must be called, by definition, luxury, and we sustain the system that makes 20-year-olds into multi-millionaires because they happen to be born with certain athletic ability and drive;

Is it all in our heads? Or does forty—or eighty—years of shouting for a team, crying (or cussing) when they lose, rejoicing when they win, wearing their colors and following their stats day after day while our kids grow up and get married and move away and have their children, while our pets go from young pups to old dogs and die and we get new ones and maybe even our marriages don’t last (though I hope they do), does all this mean that we’ve been “with” this team for longer than we’ve been with anything or anyone else in our lives? And even if that’s so, maybe it’s still all in our heads.

Is it real? Is it a superstition? Is it like praying to the moon or worshiping the fairies that come dance on our lawn? Is it more real if we do it for more years than we do anything else? Just because we’ve done it our whole lives doesn’t make it true, or substantive. Does it?

But maybe there is a connection. Maybe the one who follows his or her team through the ups and the downs, as reigning champs, cellar dwellers, and middle-of-the-pack hopefuls, who helps (in small part) to keep the team in business and collects cards of each player, whether great or mediocre or hopeless, who sends the grandchildren Yankees or Tigers onesies, who finally makes the team part of life, maybe this one has made him- or herself part of the life of the team.

If some of our happiest memories are at the ballpark, or in front of the TV when the impossible finally happened (Chicago Cubs, 2016), if we can recount a story in such vivid detail from the ninth year of life and it only makes us want to know and learn more, about then, about now, perhaps…

Perhaps.

*Except maybe if you’re a 12th Man for the Seahawks.

Some Quick Thoughts on Prayer (while I’m up in the middle of the night and in a good mood)

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I have not been praying as much recently. That’s because my world has been topsy-turvy and I’m trying to find my way back, not to normal–which I’m increasingly convinced doesn’t exist, for anyone–but to living more centered on God.

I’m seeing some things about prayer more clearly while returning to the practice. I guess that’s a silver lining. So I’ll share these, in case they encourage you or help you think about prayer a little differently.

I believe we pray more for the purpose of opening ourselves for God to change us than for changing God. I’m not going to dig into the theology of whether God acts or changes in response to our prayers (those aren’t quick thoughts and I do need to sleep sometime).

When I don’t pray much, I leave vastly more space for negative thoughts to go wild in my head. You’d think that might be enough to keep me praying. You’d think…

I believe sin makes us think wrong. When I don’t pray as much, I also don’t open myself for God to realign my thinking. Picture your vehicle out of alignment and anytime you try to drive straight it pulls off the road. I need not only to repent of my sins but to have God do an alignment on my thinking. If that sounds like, “Whoa, God is brainwashing you,” I mean things like “I’m so pissed off at people, people suck, I think I’ll avoid all people.” That’s going to make it challenging to love my neighbor. Jesus says to love my neighbor as myself, which puts us right back to the point above–not thinking well of myself, not thinking well of my neighbor. Sin makes us think wrong. Prayer restores thinking clearly.

I’ve been very angry at this current administration for a long time. I’ve been bogged down in that anger, stuck there, and been getting consumed by it. Setting aside whether you agree with my assessment, I’m not doing myself or anyone else any good allowing this to happen. The fruit of a little more prayer has been writing about peacemaking in the midst of this, rather than raging futilely at things I can’t change. Speaking the truth? Yes. Giving myself high blood pressure? No. More prayer equals more Jesus-looking response to the things at which I feel angered.

Once again, you might wonder why I don’t just pray and pray? Taking that seriously and not merely as a rhetorical question, I find that drifting away from prayer and moving back toward prayer tend to be gradual processes. When I’ve drifted far, it takes me time and focus and work, frankly, to get my focus back on God. Mental discipline.

“But can’t you just jump back in and pray a lot again?”

If you can, do. I find it doesn’t work this way for me, so I choose to be patient with myself and trust that God who loves me is drawing me back. Wooing, even.

Last thought: Sometimes I get stuck on a big theological question I can’t answer or I’m angry at God or I’m just so confused I can’t make any sense out of the world. Sometimes, like now, two of these or even all three. I’ve learned that getting road-blocked like this can lead me away from prayer and then I think, “Okay, I’ve got to sort this out before I’m able to get back in and pray.” I don’t mean just having problems, I mean having problems with God–or with what I believe about God. So I finally realized that in these cases I need to call a truce on that thing or those things, just agree with God not to bring them up, and get back to praying so that I can eventually work through them.*

I know it sounds a little funny, “Just agree with God not to bring them up.” God does what God does, whether or not I agree to it. But I’m the one who returns to these things incessantly, obsessively (as my wife might–no, would–say). I fixate. So I’m giving myself permission to believe God loves me anyway and come back to where I can hear God reassure me that it’s true. That always puts me in a better position to try to work through such difficult things, anyway.

So on one level I’m kind of lost and floundering right now. I’m told that reverse culture-shock does this to most people and it’s “normal,” which is mildly reassuring but fixes nothing. I’ve still got to find my way through it.

On another level, I think I’m coming to a better understanding of some things, which in the long run should bear fruit in my life. Yeah, painful as hell now, but once again, Jesus shows absolute commitment to my growth and significantly less commitment to my comfort.

Is he safe? No, no he’s not.

Is he good? Yes, I believe he is.

*I’m not talking about being stuck in some conscious sin here. Tabling that to pray does not work so well, certainly not in my experience. If you believe that wrestling with, being confused with, or being angry at God is itself such a sin then we understand relationship with God very differently.

Hate Is Louder than Love

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“Well darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable 
And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear.”

–Indigo Girls

This one makes me sad to write. But it’s also a statement of hope.

I believe love is stronger than hate. I absolutely do.

But hate, in my experience, is louder and, for most of us, more…

Enticing? I don’t want to say “compelling.” Alluring?

This came to mind because my last post, about being right versus being loving, got very little attention. Nope, I’m not bitter. But I wrote two strongly anti-Trump posts that still reside in my drafts folder. I think both of them express important ideas and truths. I know, absolutely, that if I post either of those, it will get ten times more reads than the one in which I talk about peacemaking.

I’m not drawing a conclusion from one example. But that triggered my thinking. Why does expressing a bunch of negatives draw more attention than encouraging us to positives? I’m the same way. Bad news draws me. It makes my stomach churn and my chest tighten but I let myself get sucked in. No, that’s too passive. I willingly bite on that fishhook. I know better. I should be a smart fish by now, considering all the times I’ve had my mouth ripped open by those barbs. But I still bite.

It’s easy to hate and it’s hard to love. Is it a flaw in the design? Why is lightness hard to hear?

Okay, in case I’m moving on before I convince you: Is it easier to try to understand the person who posted something stupid that conflicts with all your views and beliefs or to call them names and dismiss them? Is the person who cut you off maybe having a bad day, maybe distracted as you sometimes are when you (never ever) glance at your phone, or is that person just a *(&*(#&%&# for cutting you off? Is it easier to give people the benefit of the doubt or jump to conclusions about them? To forgive those who hurt us or to dismiss/bear a grudge against/distance ourselves from them? It can be easy to love people who love us, but if we really dig into love as Jesus talks about it, that’s no cakewalk* in the park, either.

I recently gave a sermon in which I stressed, repeatedly, that God as revealed in Jesus is great at loving enemies. I am perhaps more grateful for that than for anything else in my life. God loving us when we made ourselves enemies is grace. Me? Love my enemies? I kind of stink at it.

I have not kept secret that I consider President Trump and his administration horribly dangerous, not merely politicians whose tax policies I question nor whose fashion sense offends mine. I have spoken out, and taken flack for it, because I believe I have that moral responsibility.

But I keep looking at this abyss we’re excavating, this schism that grows wider every day, and I know shouting into the chasm will not help our divide.

Many people on both sides have concluded that “They are unreachable. No point in trying. We just need to focus on how we know we should fix this country and ignore them or shout them down.” Both sides say this. A guy I was friends with in college told me that he and others would “crawl over broken glass to vote to keep the other side out of office.” “Great,” you say, “he’s a patriot, a dedicated voter.” But it wasn’t to get his party elected; he expressed such drastic motivation because the other political party has become the enemy.

Name-calling comes easily. “Snowflakes” and “Libtards.” “MAGAts” and “Drumpfsters.” Generalizing and oversimplifying the oppositions’ positions while assuming the depth and nuance in our own. I no longer post political memes because they increase rancor; they bring nothing positive to the conflict.

I’m talking about politics, of course, but talking about more than politics. Hate is loud. Yes, media adds to the problem by what and how they choose to report, but we eat what they serve. We buy what they sell. We like it. We might complain about it, but it works for them. We make them money by producing it so they keep producing it. We weren’t all kind and cuddly until they made us hateful and vicious. They have responsibility in how they report and we have responsibility in what we buy (click=buy). That cycle feeds upon itself.

I’ve been trying, as a proactive campaign, to report all the good news I can get my eyes on. (Why yes, that does include Jesus’ Good News.) It lifts my agonized and antagonized heart that friends have started sending good stuff my way. I’m thrilled to become known as “that guy who likes to share positive things.”

That’s one means I’ve found so far to amplify love in my own little sphere.

But I need a lot more.

What can we do? Brainstorm with me. Put away your sarcastic response of “If they would just go away…” They aren’t. But more to the point here, hate rejects and love accepts. Did I mention it’s harder to love than to hate? I think I did. So think with me about what we can change to raise love’s voice.

Today, I read a discussion/debate spurred by a study that found “Almost half of Millennials (47%) agree at least somewhat that it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.” As you might guess, that raised some ire and heated disagreement.

My mind immediately went to the surveys that tell us how non-Christians most often describe Christians. The top words used are almost always “hypocritical” and “judgmental.”

I can’t speak for the younger generation but I can say that, in my efforts to express Jesus’ love for people, I’ve heard too many horror stories how people have been belittled, mocked, patronized, and verbally abused by Christians.

I mention this because the answer is more than “Tell them about Jesus.” Or, as we used to say in BOC, one of my young adult groups, “That’s the right answer, but it isn’t the complete answer.”

Here’s what else I’ve got so far:

  • Affirm the heck out of people. Just speak up more, find positives and say them, write them, mean them. Most of us hear criticism so much louder than we hear praise and take negatives to heart much easier than positives (which sucks, by the way). I suspect some just think I’m a little rah-rah. I’d rather be known for that.

Can you find ways to affirm the people with whom you disagree? Can you try?

I know, I know: they’re the enemy. But that doesn’t get us out of anything, because Jesus told us “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

  • Find people you can talk to who see things as you do and agree with you and express your strong feelings to them. I’m totally serious here. If you are reading this and you like Trump, do you want to hear from me all the reasons I do not? I’m going with “no.” How do I know that? You would have asked me. I have friends with whom I try to make sense of it all, and though we don’t solve anything, it does prevent me from expressing my frustration in a way that would come across as unloving to others.**
  • Find people you love and respect who see things differently than you do and engage them personally. DON’T do this in a public forum where their buddies will chime in by calling you an idiot. Mmhm, had to learn that one the hard way. A couple of times. Sigh.

Categorizing and dismissing others is not love, it’s that other thing. Demonizing the enemy, which countries have long done against other countries in war (and I consider this evil), we now do with no hesitation to our neighbors. Don’t believe me? Check out some memes against someone you like, for whom demonizing might prove more recognizable.

Because this current of mockery and hate flows so strongly, I encourage you to find smart people who read and know what they’re talking about with whom you can discuss these issues to understand their perspective. The ideal would be to find all that in a person of grace. But we may not be looking for the intelligent, well-reasoned discourse partner. Sometimes we like to keep the opposition’s viewpoint oversimplified and easily dismissed. It’s way more fun than having to acknowledge “they” may have a point. But intentionally misinterpreting, ridiculing, and mocking are hateful actions. If we dislike having it done to us and our views, we must not respond in kind. We are called to treat others as we want to be treated, not “if they start treating me better then I’ll treat them better.”

Coming back around, hate, in my experience, is louder and, for most of us, more…

Oh, shoot. I hope the word I was looking for isn’t “fun.” As in, “Hate is more fun than love.” Because honestly, we act like hate is more fun than love. But I don’t believe it is. The fun that hate offers is a bitter, cynical, spiteful warping of true, life-giving fun. Love is harder, but it’s more fun, more real fun.

  • Last thing. Hatred is in the eye of the beholder. I know, we live in a time when people get offended by everything. I understand that you may feel the current political correctness means you can’t say a single word to anyone without causing offense. That makes this tricky, yet it remains true that if someone feels hated by us, we don’t get to fix it with “But I didn’t mean that,” nor “Well, that’s just your problem.” If you’ve been taking this stance and feel justified, I’m just going to say again, love is harder. Wining the argument and going home the conqueror does not embody Jesus’ love in the world, no matter how stupid we might consider the other person’s argument. I believe in reasoning and persuading, but I’m coming to realize I no longer believe in arguing as a means of engaging others. If I have to choose between having someone feel loved–or at least not hated–and arguing with them, Lord, help that to become an easy choice for me.

Hate is louder than love, in my own heart as well as on my Facebook feed. I have to change that now, in whatever way I can. I am convicted by Jesus to become more of a peacemaker. This does not mean I will stop speaking the truth. But as I seek to speak truth, I want to embody love.

I want to love as loudly as I can.

*Our eldest, when young, would win every single time at the cakewalk, to the point where it was not a game of chance but an automatic walk-in-a-circle-and-get-a-cake.

*If you said, “Mike, I’ve seen what you post, and it’s not working,” just imagine what I’d say without my venting friends!

Being Right vs. Being Loving

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Here’s the thing: you can be right all the time and still be a horrible human being.

When Jesus followers use the word “believe,” we mean an action, not a set of abstract truths to which we consent. Therefore, “Believe and you will be saved” does not mean “Agree to this information and your soul will know life.”

People ask me, all the time, “Why are Christians so awful?” Christians and people who are not Christians alike ask. That’s not a fun question to hear. It’s even less fun because a lot of people who label themselves as Christians do atrocious things and claim Jesus as their inspiration or justification or moral covering. I’ve already tried to weigh in with what I think being a Jesus follower really means. I expected a bit of backlash for that one, but got none, which probably means either people didn’t read it or they just quietly cut me off.

Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” He said, “They shall know you are my followers by your love for one another.” He also said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and, just to make sure he’d covered the range, “Love your enemy.”

Then there were all the times he said, “Make sure you’re right.”

No one will know we are Jesus followers who have God’s love by our winning arguments. Absolutely no one will know we follow Jesus when we behave like buttheads in our arguments.

Being right, biblically, is not as important as being loving.

I’m going to say that again: Being right is not as important as being loving.

Some will immediately jump on their high horses (meaning they must be good high jumpers) and shout “Truth! Truth! You can’t compromise truth!”

I’m not talking here about truth. I’m talking about our seemingly unquenchable need to prove ourselves right.

Three things remain, Paul writes. Remain after what? See how it begs that question? Three things endure, last, still matter after everything else has passed. What are those three things? Faith, hope, and love.

Of these, faith might be the one related to knowing and expressing the truth, but most of us realize that living by faith or practicing faith requires action and obedience, not mere assent to information nor the ability to debate that I have the right information. Both “belief” and “faith,” in biblical language, are actions. But by no stretch of the imagination (at least not mine) can I render “‘faith remains’ means dying on this hill of my own rightness.”

The greatest of these is love.

Of course, no one here does what I’m describing. You aren’t feeling convicted because while we all know “they” do this, we certainly don’t.

So let me tell you what I do: I think less of people when they argue too much and I judge people who won’t stop arguing. Sometimes, in my mind, I call them names. Sometimes, those names move from my mind to my vocal cords.

You know why I do this?

Because I’m right.

So let me dig in further: when I say this, I don’t mean “If you disagree with people, love requires deciding that they are right and you are wrong.” That isn’t love. Neither does love require staying silent in every discussion.

However, neither does speaking the truth substitute for love. I know (too) many people who believe that if they just speak the truth, God will open people’s minds, convict their hearts, and therefore the only thing that matters is “speaking the truth in love.” If every time I speak the truth it’s guaranteed to help people, then speaking the truth in love simply means speaking the truth, which is, de facto, loving.

What’s the strongest way I can say “That is wrong?”

I suspect this view explains how we get people equating “I prove I’m right” with “I’m being faithful to Jesus.” I see people label this “Standing for the Truth” or “Refusing to Compromise.”

I’m not even wading into whether we turn out to be wrong when we think we’re right. That, as they say, is another kettle of fish. I’m saying that we’re better off staying silent than speaking the truth without being loving. When people seek to start arguments with me on social media, most often I simply don’t respond because I see no fruit coming from the argument. If I can’t figure out a way to respond in love, I try to shut up. I will tell you, doing this hurts my ego, wondering if they think they’re right and have silenced me with their brilliance (when I happen to think they’re dead wrong). But I’m not seeking to preserve my ego; that would require different priorities than Jesus calls me to.

To drive this home: You can “win” an argument and push people further away from Jesus. You can be right and demonstrate the opposite of God’s love for them. You can do that in Jesus’ name.

Getting back to me for a moment: I have strayed too far from staying centered on love. When I witness someone arguing, and I disagree with their view, do I think “how can I love that person?”

If that seems extreme, I have this sermon I’d recommend on loving your enemy.

The answer may simply be “Shhhh.”

It may be praying for someone whose views oppose mine so strongly that I would label him or her an enemy.

It may be disagreeing respectfully.

Can you really be right all the time and still be a horrible human being? If we define “being right” as “having an accurate understanding of a specific truth,” then yes, absolutely. Knowing the truth and living the truth turn out to be widely, sometimes wildly different things. “Living the truth” means being changed by the truth we live. If you can’t see yourself changing (or have someone you trust see that change for you, if you’re a harsh self-critic), growing in grace, humility, love, generosity, kindness…then it’s possible your “truth” may be merely the hammer you wield.

I know that sounds harsh. I just see too many people swinging hammers and feeling self-righteous about the assault.

God, let us be known by love and not assault.

I want people to ask me, “Why are Christians so loving?”

Art and Faith (and Mental Health)

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First, I’m a writer. I’m not a fine artist, though I have utmost respect, admiration, and bitter jealousy of/for them. No, I got over the jealousy a some time back, but I did struggle for a while with how some people can pick up a pencil and magically bring forth life while I stick out my tongue, grab the crayon in my fist, and struggle to stay within the lines. I once watched a friend draw cartoons while we were bouncing along on a train. It seemed to make no difference whatsoever, as if the art required only his hand and the materials and images would translate to the page regardless of conditions.

I’m exaggerating, but I think God gives artistic expression as a gift. God is a creator, an artist. That’s the second thing we learn in the Bible about God. We learn first that God exists; second, we discover God is an artist. Those who make things, who create, reflect the image of an Artist God. Iraneus taught us that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. When we experience all of who we can be, when we live to the utmost, we glorify God. Jesus said he came that we may have life to the fullest.

I’ve come to define “artist” expansively. Your art form may be decorating, organizing, putting together an outfit you love. You might sing in front of people or just warble in the shower. Your art form may be building homes, repairing cabinets, landscaping. You may be a gardener or a surgeon. You might work in origami or drywall. My late step-father-in-law had the spiritual gift of driving. I didn’t know driving was a spiritual gift nor that it could be performed as artistry until I saw what he could do. I’ve said for years that playing ultimate is a means of worship for me. Ballet, figure skating, synchronized swimming, ultimate. Works for me. So I do mean nearly anything can be your expression of art: Does it employ your gifts and your creativity? Does it satisfy something in you? Does it make you feel a little more alive?

Some of my writer friends may have choked on that last sentence. “Does it make me feel a little more alive? Does it make me feel like choking someone? Does it make me feel like pounding my head on the keyboard?” Maybe all three.

Track with me for a second: It sounds like I’m idealizing art when I say that creating makes us feel alive. I absolutely believe it’s true. Some people find their form of artistic expression therapeutic, instantly and consistently. If you garden because getting your hands in soil makes you happy and gives you a peace and connection you can’t find elsewhere, you may have found your art. My dad gardened. We had a huge garden. I have vivid memories of his shouting at robins. I don’t mean jokingly. His gardening didn’t always look peaceful. But he found some deep satisfaction in growing food. So does my wife, though I’ve never heard her yell at a bird in my life.

Some of us wrestle with our art forms, and that, too, can be therapeutic, though it may look less peaceful. A brilliant friend of mine produces art that others label “dark,” but it’s exactly what my friend needs to express. My friend doesn’t merely scribble like I do but sells these pieces, puts on exhibits, and conveys something deep and true and hard about our human condition. That’s not always pretty or tranquil.

If we’re going to define art broadly, we then must recognize that we might experience being creators like my friend on the train whipping out a new sketch, apparently effortlessly, or, at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, like a woman giving childbirth. We live in this crazy world in which some of us can carry a human being inside us and create. You, also, born of God, born of a woman, are creation as well as creator, both art and artist.

I am now going to give my opinion on a controversial point (for some) about art: we can glorify God with our art without explicitly trying to make our art “Christian.” A landscape painter does not have to find a way to sneak in a cross nor footprints in the sand in order to reflect God in the painting. In my view, art need not be reduced to one point nor to “saying something,” in terms of a blatant message. I’ll go further and say that preachy art may lose something. Preaching is, itself, an art. When I preach, I’m preaching. When I write, I’m not preaching. I may be persuading or exhorting. But when I’m writing fiction, I’m telling a story and trusting that the truth of the story comes through.

This could be a longer discussion which I may take up more in a subsequent post (and if you’re interested, I highly recommend reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water). For now, consider that a garden speaks of God. So does a person singing, because a singing voice is an instrument given by God and using it reflects who God is. If you desire to glorify God with your art form, pour your heart into your expression, be it ultimate or construction or weaving, writing or painting or dance. Find your way to create with integrity.

If God gave you artistic gifts of any kind, use them. Just that. Don’t worry if what you do isn’t perfect or beautiful or–Lord help us–good enough. Let me say that a different way: Don’t let that worry stop you or paralyze you or cheat you. God, out of love for you, gave you gifts. Made you a co-creator.

Create.

Fog

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I went out for a walk with my dog after midnight.

When we started walking, I looked up at the moon, which is about two-thirds full, and thought, “Wow, what a clear night!” It was 28 degrees out when we left.

We had walked maybe a third of a mile, at most, when I noticed it was getting foggy. We live in a semi-arid region, and while we do have fog once in a while, I associate it more with other places I’ve lived than I do with here.

Unsurprisingly, there weren’t a lot of folks out there during our walk. We encountered no other pedestrians. A car would drive past every few minutes. The fog got thicker.

When we had walked a mile, I could no longer see far at all. The moon looked hazy, like it was trying to break through a cloud cover, but there weren’t any clouds in the sky. Just fog. It started reminding me of hazardous drives back in Illinois during my teen years, when a cold front would come in on the warmer air and suddenly visibility dropped from twenty miles to twenty inches. I’m almost exaggerating.

The next streetlamp became a glowing spot in the air. I couldn’t see the pole. They aren’t set very far apart. I wasn’t really nervous–the part of town we were walking in is very unlikely to present any real dangers, on a twenty-something degree Friday after midnight. I was out with friends a few weeks ago and know first-hand that there’s a bar in town where a fight might be breaking out the very moment I decided Nicki and I had no threats on the street.

But it’s funny: I had to decide consciously that nothing was out there to make me feel nervous. Once I did, I felt peaceful and relaxed and just cold enough to keep me walking briskly. Nicki stopped to sniff often, but we moved along steadily. I wasn’t uneasy, just aware that if anything did appear, we would have little notice. Headlights were showing up at the same moment I could hear the car.

For those cold walk connoisseurs, the air was frigid enough to feel in my nose but not enough to freeze my nostrils. My standard for cold is still leaving high school basketball practice, walking from the locker room to the car, and in that time my wet hair freezing solid and my nostrils freezing closed.

Nicki and I walked a little faster back uphill toward our house. We had walked a rectangle of a few miles and, nearing the final side, either she was chilly or she’d smelled enough. She paused less and trotted more.

Then, to my complete surprise, we walked out of the fog. It was exactly the clear night we’d started in. I turned to look behind me and the fog was still there, just as thick. I couldn’t tell when we were coming out of it–it didn’t seem to lessen at all–but looking back I could see where it started, or at least I could see what I couldn’t see. That is, I could identify clearly what was missing.

The route we took was downhill, so it’s possible that “down there” was just warm enough to cause the fog when the cold air rolled through. But it’s only a few feet difference in elevation.

I looked up at the moon again, and had the same thought–“Wow, so clear!” But it wasn’t the same, because on its heels followed, “But you can’t see from everywhere as clearly as you can from here.”

Hiding from Ourselves

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I’m writing while listening to music by someone who killed himself. 

That doesn’t narrow it all the way down.

It’s good writing music. I loved it when it came out and I still really enjoy it.

I’m thinking about depression and how we hide from ourselves. I’ve chosen to be very open that I struggle with depression, but very few people seem able—or willing—to integrate knowing about my depression into their relationships with me. The people who can handle it are people who deal with depression or anxiety. Friends who work in mental health. Maybe a handful of others.

Do my friends suck? No, they really don’t. I have spectacular friends. I’m blessed beyond what I could deserve.

Putting the shoe on the other foot, I find treating others with awareness is tricky because I don’t want to patronize or belittle. But it’s also tricky because I prefer not to know negatives. I’m saying this about me, and I dwell in the land of knowing people’s “dirty little” secrets. I also don’t want to reduce anyone to their struggle. I don’t want to think less of them than they deserve. I don’t know any “drug addicts,” but I do know some people who wrestle with addiction. I don’t know any poor people, but I’ve lived next to beautiful, generous people who live in poverty.

I’m not “a depressive.” I’m a pastor and a writer and a husband and a father and a bloody good ultimate player (comments welcome). I also live with depression. Naming it doesn’t mean we become only that.

I’m thinking about a picture I saw recently, a collage of entertainers and famous people (how is that for categorizing instead of seeing individuals?), all quickly identifiable, all looking deliriously happy in that moment…and all now dead from suicide.

I hope you see where I’m going. Someone, many someones, did not integrate their knowledge of these people’s condition into their relationships. Maybe they didn’t want to know. The people–these mothers and fathers and children who had experienced success in their careers but also fiercely battled depression–hid it from themselves, or at least covered it up when they needed to be getting more help. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have that collage. I don’t know that every suicide is preventable–people have free will and some will make their decision no matter what we do–but I have known people who committed suicide and I know I could have done more. Could I have prevented it? I’ll never know. I’ll live with that question the rest of my life.

I’m thinking specifically of someone I knew for much of my life. We weren’t always close–for a while we couldn’t stand each other–but we had become friendly antagonists, the kind you have only with someone with whom you once had a fistfight (symbolically or literally). Sometimes you’re just friends due to proximity (see: high school), but because we’d bonded and kind of gotten each other, because we had good and bad memories together, we stayed connected.

We went very different directions. He served in the military. He never married. Tragically, he developed a drinking problem and then suffered a horrible accident. He got very depressed. His health was never right again after the accident. He had to use a lot of prescription medication, including pain medication. Then he died.

Except in between there, we had conversations. A few times he wrote me when he was clearly inebriated. I don’t know how much he remembered of those. He asked me questions. I tried to tell him about my faith.

Except. Here’s the part I live with. I didn’t want to force it down his throat. I wanted to be the cool Christian who wasn’t beating him over the head with my Bible. I didn’t exactly play coy–I was direct with him about what I believe and why. I talked about our work in Nicaragua. I made a few suggestions for him. But I left it to him to connect the dots. I told him I’d be happy to tell him more when he was ready to ask me more about it.

You might think that’s fine. You might even say, “Good for you! People shouldn’t push their faith on others.”

Yes. But then I woke up one morning and found out he’d died.

Could I have done more? Could I have helped prevent it somehow?

I’ll never know. But I could have told him more about the hope I’ve found in Jesus in my life. I could have been more open about my own depression and how I’ve felt suicidal at points in my life. Maybe he would have raised his hands and said, “Okay, enough.” Maybe. But I won’t know, will I? I was trying to give him the space to ask in his own time. I think I also wanted to come across a certain way.

So I’m not doing that again.

If you deal with depression, if you struggle with negative thoughts and wonder if all this is worth it, I see you. (I mean, I don’t, I’m staring at a computer screen, but I get it and I am willing to see you.) Hiding from ourselves does no good. I just checked in with a dear friend who attempted suicide a few months ago. That person is doing okay right now and has found support.

I’m still listening to INXS. Michael Hutchence is still dead. You’re reading this, so you’re still alive. If you’re hiding from yourself, not really dealing with your depression, I urge you to take a step. Talk to someone. It’s hard to know whom to trust with such heavy truth about ourselves. It’s easier just to smile in the pictures. A friend has said when he’s completely depressed, he isn’t going to talk to anyone. That means the conversation needs to happen now, before it’s to that point.

I have a friend whom I have told, “The morning I decide to kill myself, you’re the one I’m going to call.”

If reading that just made you horribly uncomfortable, I’m sorry, but I really don’t care (I’m sorry that I don’t care? Guess that’s what “Sorry, not sorry” means). I’m not making the same mistake again, ever, and to me that means helping others by talking about it. If being more open saves a life, I’m willing for you to be uncomfortable and me to be embarrassed. I’m even willing to have people be awkward around me or, if necessary, lose friendships. I’m not exactly sure why God put me here, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t to make you comfortable. Or if it was, I suck at it.

I’m being completely serious now–if you need to tell someone, do it today. If you have someone you need to check on, do it now. This time in January is reportedly when depression hits people hardest in the US: grey winter, bills from the holidays, New Year’s Resolutions broken…oh, and this year a government shutdown.

Do what you can, while you can. You don’t know what you’ll wake up to tomorrow.


Are Most “Christians” Actually Christians?

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I write to have an impact.  I write to bring about change.  I write to try to help people know Jesus better, specifically to know that they are loved more than they yet believe.  I also write to challenge people’s thinking.  I write to exhort and encourage.  And sometimes I write to keep myself from going insane.  

My best friend from high school, who is not a Jesus follower, asked me this question.  I took a long time to think it through and respond.  I wrote this several years ago and have been fine-tuning it since then. With his permission, I’ve decided I should share it here.  

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Do I think most “Christians” are actually Christians? Okay, you’ve asked for my thoughts on this a couple times. I haven’t exactly been putting it off, just taking my time thinking about it.

This is very hard to answer for several reasons.  I’m going to try to address those.

 But of course, on another level it’s very simple to answer, because it’s a “yes” or “no” question.

No, I don’t.

Having said that, here’s why I think it’s complicated beyond such a glib answer.

What IS a Christian? 

What you’re really asking, in a sense, is “what is a Christian?” or “What makes someone a Christian?” People have developed many different answers for that. Some of them are ridiculous. Many of them try to base their answers on what Jesus said, and some of those are still ridiculous. The trouble is that Jesus didn’t just say, “If you want to be my follower–” oh, wait, yes he did.

If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” This is where it gets hard. Because if it were, “If any want to be my followers, give $1000 to the charity of your choice,” then we could tell objectively who is in and who is out. But how do I look at your life and decide whether you have denied yourself, taken up your cross, and followed Jesus? He said many other things that could be taken as definitive litmus tests for people choosing to be his followers—all equally unquantifiable. “A new commandment I leave you: love one another as I have loved you.” “There is no greater love than this: to lay down your life for your friend. If you do this, you are my disciple.”

Now in reality, I think this is cool, not awful, because all these commandments point to God’s desire for people to have a relationship with him, not to jump through hoops. Because another sketchy little secret of the Christian life is that all these things turn out to be impossible for me to do by myself. I can’t love people as Jesus loved them when I’m just trying my hardest to do that. When I try, I quickly come to the end of my strength and ability, and then have to choose whether to cry out to God for help, or decide that this is “good enough.” I mean, our best has to be good enough, right?

Pothole One: People who suck at being Christians

Ah, here’s one of the first potholes. People who claim to be followers of Jesus and do their best to love their neighbors, love their enemies, et al, but in fact, they suck at it. But they’re doing their best. It’s entirely possible that [fill in person you don’t like here] is a Christian and is doing his very best, but he is, in fact, a narrow-minded, egotistical, megalomaniac. I mean, that’s how he seems to me.  Or take my friend Jared. [Name changed here.] Jared is, in our old lingo, a loser. He’s a recovering alcoholic who either fried his brains with too much substance abuse or else, to use Dad’s lingo, he didn’t start out with much gray matter. He lives a kind of small and shallow life, plays lots of video games, works occasionally, and spouts off on FB a lot. Not long ago, he was offering Christianity lessons, I kid you not, for $50 a session. And he wasn’t doing this out of greed or as a scam; he had recently felt a powerful encounter with God and, in his utter lack of self-awareness and appropriate behavior, thought this was a good way to share what he’s experienced.

 

The thing is, I do believe Jared is a Christian. I believe that God loves him and is in the process of rescuing him from a horrible existence. But we can’t measure Jared by anyone else’s standards. The second we start doing that, we become legalists, i.e. people who set arbitrary standards (based on their own preferences) for who qualifies as “holy” or “righteous” or (gulp) “Christian.” The Pharisees who hated Jesus were legalists, and proud of it, because they believed that strict adherence to God’s laws made them righteous with God. Over time, people had decided that the best way to keep from breaking God’s laws was to add a whole range of laws in addition to those laws, figuring if we don’t break the man-made laws, which are stricter, we won’t even come close to breaking the God-given laws. This was known as “The Fence around the Law.” You can see the visual.

 Pothole two: Setting legalistic standards for being a Christian puts us at odds with Jesus

If we set any “reasonable” standard for minimum behavior of a Christian, I doubt Jared would presently qualify. He might try. He might grow into it and eventually become a more Godly-looking man. I’m believing this will happen. But the problem with setting that standard is it makes us the people who decide who qualifies. Now, part of me desperately wants to set that standard, according to my own best understanding of Scripture, so that I can answer your question with a resounding, “NO! These jackasses are NOT Christians!” The reality is, they might not be. But I don’t get to decide.

 People with different definitions of “Christian” and my definition of “Christian”

What about people who claim to be Christians but have a completely different definition of what that means? This is a bit easier, but still presents some problems. My view is that our non-negotiables for being a Christian should be very few, based on what Jesus said and what the rest of the Bible says, and that disagreements over theology, standards, practices, etc, must be discussed and worked through, preferably with some of that love of Jesus that’s supposed to define us. For me, the sinner’s prayer that everyone talks about in some form is really the entry point—and almost the whole deal. Some version of “God help me, I’m a miserable sonofabitch.” I don’t think the wording is the key. But it comes down to asking for God’s help, specifically asking for God to forgive me and be part of my life. But here’s the rub: I have to mean it. There’s no double-reverse psychology to fooling God. 

 

Here’s the bigger rub: God doesn’t actually settle for “be part of my life.” Because remember what Jesus said about “If anyone wants to follow me…” So the prayer is really, “God, forgive me, a miserable sinner, and take my life.” I believe that’s salvation. But here’s the Biggest rub: it’s Forever. Capital F. It’s not “God, get me through this rough patch and I’ll pay you back with a ‘good life.’” It’s not “I had some time in my younger years when I was on that Christian kick. I’m still a Christian, I’m just more focused on my job and family now.” It’s all or nothing. God either gets your life or he doesn’t.

Going back to Jared, God knows whether he’s a Christian or not. I believe he is, because I have seen substantial changes in him—and that’s the only way I can tell from the outside whether it’s happened or not. Is Jared committing his life to following God? It doesn’t look impressive, but C.S. Lewis makes the point that we can’t compare a godly-looking non-Christian to an evil-looking Christian. That proves nothing, because you have to take into account the vast differences between individuals. The only fair comparison is between the same person, pre- and post-becoming-a-Christian. Jared is a profoundly screwed up recovering alcoholic, but before he was a profoundly screwed up alcoholic. It’s a dramatic change. He doesn’t have it as together as our friend Murdock, lawyer, Gigi’s Playhouse board member, still in the same shape he was when he played football in high school and all-around great guy (how do we stand him?) and probably never will. But Jared is changed because of God’s life in him.

Now that we know what we mean by “Christian” 

Okay, I’m finally going to hone in on your explicit question, which is “How can they be Christians if they act like that?” or the rhetorical version, “They can’t be Christians when they act like that, right?” I have screamed and anguished and lamented in prayer over how people can seem to believe and live the opposite of what I understand to be Christianity and still be Christians. The reality is I never know whether they are or not. Never. I simply can’t judge their hearts, I can’t see their lives, I can’t tell whether they prayed for God to rescue them from their own self-destruction and are seeking to live in obedience to Him.

When I look at people who rape the environment—God’s Creation, which He designed to bring Him Glory through His extravagance to us—enslave children (in practice, with their financial and legislative decisions), spread hate about other people (homosexuals, refugees, progressives, “anyone who disagrees with us and our propaganda”), gather vast amounts of wealth and share nothing with the poor and needy (they might give to their churches, but tragically that is often another version of spending it on themselves), and do all this in the name of Jesus Christ, I strain the limits of my faith to believe that these people know the same God of love and forgiveness and justice and compassion and mercy who saved me. 

Our lives following Jesus will increasingly reveal the Spirit of God who lives in us. Our actions should increasingly reflect God’s love for one another and for the least. Jesus said, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 

 

Matthew 25 is in some ways the most challenging of all Jesus’ teachings in regard to what following him and not following him means. You might know it, but if not, do me a favor and read the whole thing:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

Doesn’t sound like he’s kidding, does he? People sometimes like to refer to this as “The parable of the sheep and the goats,” but it isn’t a parable. This is Jesus describing what will happen in the future, and he uses the simile of a shepherd with sheep and goats. That’s all. I see no reason in the text to take anything else here less than one hundred percent literally. BUT, I still can’t make this my litmus test, because I don’t know how God judges people. If Jared manages to share a glass of water with a thirsty person, that might be enough. If a millionaire shares $50K with some people but turns away from the starving kids in Africa, the second half might be his answer.

The Real Question

But even describing it this way feels misleading. Because again, this is what I can see from the outside. The real question is what happens on the inside. I really believe this. Jesus says, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” 

When I became a Christian, I experienced a change in me. I went from sometimes thinking that God is real and remembering to pray (maybe every few weeks, sometimes less) to having a conscious experience of God’s presence. It’s not like I walk around with this tangible cloud of Spirit hanging out with me (picture old Sunday night Wonderful World of Disney movies; the cloud is probably green), but internally, the connection is more or less constant. God is real to me. I don’t know how to say it better than that. Before, he was a thought among many, now he’s real to me like Claire and Ashly are to you—you don’t forget them, they don’t slip your mind and come back next week; they are your waking, ongoing reality.

But the awareness is just the beginning, just like meeting Ashly and getting to know her was just the beginning. Your life changed through your relationship with her. My relationship with God has shaped my life. I make my decisions, big and small, based on my connection with God. Now it’s not some freaky, wake-up-in-the-morning-and-pray-about-whether-to-put-on-underwear-or-not deal. God gives us brains and reason and expects us to use them. He made you and me smart for a reason, and it’s not to live like idiots (which also connects back to your question). My study of the Bible has also shaped my life. To me, Jesus is concerned about 1)whether we know God’s reality and love for us, and 2)whether we are communicating that love to others. 

But the way Jesus describes and models doing that is not handing out tracts or shouting on street corners or building political parties that can make everyone be more loving (much less make everyone drink poisoned water and breathe poisoned air while we get rich!!). Jesus spends time with children, he touches lepers and sick women, he feeds people, he goes to parties, he speaks hard truth to rich and powerful people, he gets in the faces of self-righteous religious folks, he forgives people who need forgiveness, he says, “A physician does not come for the healthy, but for the sick; I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” But the Bible makes clear that THERE ARE NO RIGHTEOUS PEOPLE. And Jesus tells this about the physician to the Pharisees when they’re complaining that he hangs out with the dirty sinners. Thus, the people who believe they are righteous have cut themselves off from Jesus. The people who know they are sinners have put themselves in the position to receive him—and he makes a beeline to them (e.g. Zacchaeus). 

So I look at these people’s lives who to you don’t look like Christians and I ask myself, “Do they seek God’s direction for their decisions? Are they growing in their awareness of His love for them and their own sinfulness and need for Him? Do they take seriously what Jesus commands? Are they trying to live this stuff? Can they have misunderstood Matthew 25 and all the other 2,000 [not exaggerating] verses about the poor and needy in the Bible?” 

And that’s how I can come to my answer: “No, I don’t believe they are Christians.”

BUT! HUGE “BUT!!!”

But I still don’t know. Because God’s grace is always bigger than I think it is. Since becoming a Christian, I have fallen off the deep end at least two times. The first was in my senior year of college, the second was the period after Isaac and Dad died, especially the year we moved to Wenatchee (2000). I had massive crises of faith, and in the latter case, full on decided to reject God and screw this whole thing because of Isaac’s death and how miserable I had become. If this was how well it went following Jesus, I thought I’d try not and see how that went.  But God never abandoned me nor let me shove him away, though I couldn’t feel his presence for about 3 years (which sucked). [I should note here that not everyone does feel God’s presence, even people who have been Christians all their lives. I can’t explain that one. People are just different.] It’s a much longer story to tell, and I’d rather do it over some really good beer or wine. I realized that telling God “fuck off” was still being in relationship with God, because I was still talking with him—I just wasn’t using nice language. God eventually helped me get back again, but I had to reach a point where I wanted to come back and asked for his help—and that took a long time, because I’m stubborn as hell. So I’m convinced that God has mercy and grace on people who look like they should be toast, because He is more loving than we can imagine. Had I been hit by a car 1 ½ years into my prodigal wanderings, I don’t believe God would have said, “Sorry, I meant to get you straightened out but you didn’t try hard enough and then you died too soon. The goats go that way.”

 

If I take that grace for myself, I have to extend it to everyone else, as well. This is one of the core truths of Christianity: It’s not whether you’re good enough, because you’re never good enough. It’s always grace, and sometimes we just see it more clearly than other times. I’m as much saved by God’s grace today, living in Nicaragua as a missionary, as I was in Wenatchee, getting myself addicted to destructive things because I had stopped caring whether I was obeying God or not. I’m still an addict and I have to live in recovery to keep away from it. It’s probably not as intense as Dan Koenigs’s recovery, but it’s serious. 

Phillip Yancey writes that “Grace has the whiff of scandal about it.” He means, in part, that grace looks scandalous because it offends us when it applies to people whom we feel deserve judgment. The thief on the cross who asked Jesus to remember him got the response, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Now I have to believe Jesus didn’t mean “And I’ll be sending you to hell from there.” The guy acknowledged to Jesus that he was a bad man who deserved punishment and then asked Jesus for help (“Remember me”). Again, no formula. If the man meant it, I believe that’s what counts. So what happens if one of these guys who looks so horrible to us asks God–sincerely–to forgive him for his outrages against humanity? I believe God does forgive. Scandalous, but true.

What If…

But honestly, that’s not our hard question. Our hard question is, “What happens if they ask but then don’t change?” Saul was out chasing down Christians, dragging them away in chains, getting them killed. Then he saw a flash of light, fell to the ground, and a voice spoke to him.  When he got up, he couldn’t see. He went around blind for three days, and when it was over, he changed. Radically. One of our seminary profs said “The proof of Jesus’ Resurrection is that Paul ate pork.” As in, there’s no other rational explanation for a guy utterly committed to his Jewish laws of behavior to do a 180. He would have died for those beliefs, but he had an encounter with God. Encounters with God should change people. Maybe dramatically and instantly or maybe quietly and over the long term, but they should. Jesus talks about this as “bearing fruit.” Paul talks about it as “being transformed into the image of Christ.” There is no following Jesus without this happening.

I don’t think I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth when I say:

Grace means that God takes us exactly as we are and “Nothing we do can make God love us any more, and nothing we can do can make God love us any less.” (Phillip Yancey’s definition of “grace.”)

and

He will be infinitely merciful to our repeated failures; I know no promise that He will accept a deliberate compromise.” (C.S. Lewis.)

Because when we say “God takes us exactly as we are,” we mean he receives us in whatever wretched condition as our starting point with him. We don’t mean God is blasé and says, “Eh, if you want to push cocaine or molest little girls or oppress the poor and cause children to starve, that’s fine, because I accept you.” There is no sin so awful we can’t repent of it, but we do have to repent!

And I don’t know, for the life of me I cannot figure out, what is going on in the minds and hearts of these people who pray every day to the same God I know and who read their Bibles and go to church and read books by Christians and do not see their behavior as sin. But I know I have blind spots, and I know God is merciful to me while I slowly come to recognize them and even more slowly come to repent of them.

Now all this is based on the assumption that these people are Christians the way I mean it. In reality, I am guessing that a whole slew of them don’t have any actual direct connection or relationship with God, don’t understand it to mean what I described, and believe that if they go to church on Sunday and thank God for their food at mealtimes, they are Christians. I think that’s wrong, and you’d be hard-pressed to get that to match up to any one of Jesus’ definitive statements about his followers. e.g. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Hard to get “Dress up for church and vote a certain way” out of that. To me, anyway.

I don’t think that everyone who truly abides in Jesus will end up living in Nicaragua, or some comparably impoverished nation. (Hoo-boy, does that sound self-righteous! I don’t mean it that way. I just mean this has been our response, or at least a big part of it.) I DO think that their lives will change. Jesus also told the Pharisees that “The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of Heaven before you,” which couldn’t have gone over well. He meant, “they are repenting and seeking life in God and following me, while you are clinging to your laws and rejecting me.” I expect to be surprised when I die, both at who has chosen to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and who has rejected the Kingdom of Heaven. Passages like this make me wonder: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” ‘

I have to believe, because I know God is faithful and I know what happened to me, that God is “speaking” to these people and calling them to repentance all the time. These things that horrify us certainly offend God much more. I don’t know how it works in their lives, whether they are taking tiny steps toward obedience or whether they are hardening their hearts against having to change when they like their lives just the way they are. 

I dare not try to pass final judgment on an individual, because that would only put my heart in a bad place, and what do I know? On my good days, on the days I’m praying and feeling strongly connected with God (because all relationships have ups and downs), I am so intensely aware of how sick my heart is that it would be overwhelming, except that I can see how far I’ve come already and I know God is patient with me. Having said that, I still believe I can safely say that a whole lot of people who are blind to the truth (what you and I call “caught in the Matrix”), who believe they are Christians and their behaviors and actions are just fine are in for a harsh wake up. God is certainly calling to them. I hope they will hear that call while still on this side

 

Advent, Day 6: Occupation

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[Right about this time in every series, I wonder, “Are people reading these?  Is it worth the time and effort? Does it matter, anyway?”  Then I take a deep breath…and write some more.]

Something we mention but rarely stop to ponder about Jesus’ advent: he came to an occupied country.  

Rome had conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C.  At Jesus’ birth, Israel was going on three generations of Jews who had lived under Roman domination.  In 70 AD, Rome would lay siege to Jerusalem and destroy the Jewish temple.  

No one born in Jesus’ time knew a country free from political oppression.  No one in his parents’ generation had, either.  Life expectancy was not as long then, especially among the poor, so sixty years later there would be few left alive who had known the time before the Roman centurions marched into Jerusalem.  When we read the Gospels—“…and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile”–they are often shaped by Israel’s being under military rule.*

The Bible gives us these details to root us in the concrete, historical reality of the time.  “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  These aren’t myths set in timeless abstraction.  Jesus first opened his eyes into a world in which Roman soldiers could do as they pleased to Jews, Jewish tax collectors were backed by the power of the Roman military (and thus considered traitors to their people), and Jewish “rulers” ruled at the pleasure of their Roman governors.  Thus, Herod “the Great” could do as he pleased to all the children under two years of age born within his province.  Herod could do nothing that would suggest resistance to Roman authority.  

Into this world comes Jesus.  What does this mean?  

Herod wanted to kill him because Herod feared Jesus presented a threat.  Herod feared both a king who would usurp his power and anyone who would draw the ire of the Romans.  When the Chief Priest and the council debate how to deal with Jesus, the argument hinges on how the Romans will destroy all of Israel

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all!  You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.

From birth to death, Jesus had the specter of Roman power casting its shadow.  When we read the Gospels we see that Jesus was not ruled by fear of this power and let it neither truncate his message nor urge him to violent reaction.  I think it’s hard for us, in the midst of an ongoing national debate as to whether five thousand impoverished refugees fleeing for their lives represent a threat to our country, to imagine these martial law conditions under which Jesus entered the world.  

Jesus came to bring us peace.  Jesus came to be our peace.  The prophesies about Jesus include that he will make all wars to cease.  He shall be called “Prince of Peace,” and “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace.”  We tuck this away and hope in this in a future sense.  But the angels (I wrote about yesterday) sang:

“Glory to God in highest heaven,
    and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

Our Prince of Peace is born in this season, and this season reminds us that he came to give us peace.  He came in the midst of violence, under a violent, expanding empire, to be our peace.  I am struggling to be peaceful, to live and spread peace, in this season.  But Jesus did not live this way in a snow globe of tranquility, he chose and taught peace among a people oppressed by vicious, racist soldiers, and who in turn were seething for rebellion or revolution.  They mocked and spat on Jesus and called called him “King of the Jews”–how racist is it to bludgeon and lacerate an unarmed man and then proclaim him king of his people while executing him?  

From that position, Jesus forgave.  

I want Jesus’ coming to be for me a calling to peace, to follow our Prince of Peace into a peaceful resistance of the violence within me and around me.   I want to respond not out of anger nor fear, even to those who are angry and fearful, but as Francis prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

I need so much prayer for this.  But it is a season of miracles.  

 

 

*Roman soldiers, under Roman law, were allowed to force residents of conquered territories to carry the soldiers’ equipment up to one mile.  Thus the radical nature of Jesus’ commandment.  

Advent, Day 5: Hidden

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I don’t think you’re stupid if you don’t believe in Christianity.

I say that because I know a bunch of people who call themselves “Christians” may have expressed, explicitly or implicitly, that you must be an idiot if you, too, aren’t a Christian.

I also know you don’t need me to validate your intelligence for what you do or don’t believe.  But nonetheless I’m going to say, whether or not you follow Jesus is not a measure of your intelligence.  

I’ve had people tell me, fairly recently in fact, that I am foolish for believing what I do.  One of their main arguments against my belief is that there are so many awful people who claim to be Christians.  I’m not denying that, either.  There are.  I don’t particularly enjoy being called “foolish,” but I get it.  It doesn’t always look like it makes sense, and the way I do it probably extra doesn’t look so sensible.

Here is a mystery of our faith.  God is hidden.

I recently stated that I believe, in large part, because I have experienced God.  A friend and a slight bit of a troll on my page, like a mini-troll, immediately responded that never having experienced God is exactly why he does not believe.

Do I argue that?  Do I say, “Oh, sure you have!  You just weren’t paying close attention!”

God is real and God has changed my life, but can I point God out to you?  No.  I can point to all the changes God has made in me, and the people who have known me longest tend to agree–“Yeah, no, he was an incredible jerk, definitely something happened.”

In Advent, we’re celebrating the coming of Jesus in human form, what we call “The Incarnation.”  Today while I was driving a secular radio station played a Christmas carol and there I was singing “Christ…is the Lord.”  A verse from O, Holy Night.  You don’t have to turn on that secular station, you can just go Christmas shopping and you’re decently likely to hear somebody sing about Jesus being God (or a baby who doesn’t cry. Or both).

But deep in the heart of what I believe God did, there is hiddenness.  Jesus was born to poor parents, peasants, who happened to be traveling far from home–forced by laws that in no way would benefit them–and all the images that we love, that make up the parts of our “Nativity Scene,” are different ways of saying, “This happened off the world’s radar, this was not held to be important, when we say ‘born in obscurity’ we mean this.”  If a baby is born tonight to a mother who is part of the “caravan,” in a tiny little hovel on the Mexico border near, but emphatically not in, the United States, and the world keeps right on spinning without a blink, that is the equivalent of our God’s birth story.  It’s funny that we are so into this obscurity, when otherwise people in those conditions rarely pique our curiosity.

Yet having said this, the obscure, unnoticed arrival had some remarkable witnesses.  Angels sang, which I write and you read without a blink, but tell me, have you ever seen an angel singing?  “Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exaltation!” I’d love to see that.  I don’t mean I disbelieve it happened, I mean I’d love to see that!  If one angel scares the bejeebers out of people, what would a choir of angels do?

They sang, as we all know, to shepherds.  What?  Or maybe they sang to God and shepherds just got to see the concert.  But they got to see it!  I have friends who tell me they’ve seen angels–yes, I believe them–but I never have.  If angels exist, and I believe they do, they are hidden.  From our view, at least.  Except for this one special time, when a baby was born where no one saw it and no one cared–the songs revel in how barn animals witnessed the birth, no one else–yet angels “in their multitudes” appeared to bust out a rousing chorus.  Hidden, yet revealed.  Yet hidden, because only the shepherds saw those angels.  They didn’t play their One Night Only concert in Jerusalem.  They were out in–or over?–the fields.

 

Again, I believe this stuff.  I don’t always know how it fits together–the magi most likely visited Jesus when he was two years, not two hours old, but I’m not going to go around pulling those crowned figures out of everyone’s Nativity sets. I’m not describing it this way to cast doubts or aspersions.  I’m saying this is the deal:  God chose to enter the world in obscurity and hiddenness, in near anonymity, and there’s something marvelously ironic about how we all sing about how obscure and anonymous it was.  God did this wildly improbable thing, God became a human being while still God and started as an embryo, and God chose brown-skinned peasants in a tiny dot on the map but they didn’t even get to stay at the boarding house for his birth.  God’s glory hidden in human form, God’s fame hidden in obscure circumstances, God’s power completely concealed.

Why?  Does anybody want to ask “why?”

Circling back around, I don’t think you’re stupid if you don’t believe this stuff.  I don’t think you’re foolish if you do.*  I’m not going to give you a crack-the-code answer for why I think God did it this way, but more of a visceral one.

In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.  I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Jesus was a stranger.  He came to earth as a stranger and though “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”  He was a stranger.  His parents carried him into Egypt and he was a stranger.  He became a rabbi but the religious authorities rejected and then reviled him.  He was a stranger.  He loved his followers, gave his life to them in every way, and one of the men he shared everything with turned him over.  He was a stranger.  He was tried in the middle of the night, in a farce of a trial, found guilty with the help of false witnesses, and forced outside the city gates to be executed.  He was a stranger.  

This hiddenness, this lowliness, this becoming as the least is how God reveals his, or her, face to us.**

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Maybe he really meant that.  

God hides in the face of the stranger.  

Or maybe God is waiting for us to look there.  

 

*I’m not a big fan of saying you do while disregarding or doing the opposite of Jesus’ teaching and modeling, but that’s another post.

**Jesus was a man, God the Father is no more an anatomical male than female, and the Holy Spirit is referred to as “she” throughout the Bible.