Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone!

May you enjoy yourself and the people you love most over the next couple of days. May you do all the things that delight you. May you eat great food, play games with small children and stay in your pajamas well past a respectable time.

May you greet wonder with open arms, wherever it may find you.

May you be overwhelmed with the wonder of God-with-us, may you know — even in your own darkness — the truth of light coming into the world, and may it bring you peace and hope in the midst of whatever you may be facing this year.

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I’ve already written and scheduled one post for next week, a kiss-off to 2015. And I’ve already planned several posts for the first week of January. But for now, I’m going to take a short break. For the next two weeks, I’ll be trying my very best to be present in the moment with my family and perhaps a few friends along the way.

Thank you for reading along in 2015!

Merry Christmas!

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You ARE the Gift

Christmas creeps closer every day, and if you’re like me – a terrible combination of a procrastinator and bad gift-giver – there’s a certain level of panic starting that’s starting to rise up. And if you’re also conscientious, which I’m sure you are, you also feel a pressure to find the “perfect gift.” The gift that, for $20 or so, says “this is how much I value you and your friendship.”

Ugh. Come Lord Jesus.

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My friend Steve’s first book, Beginnings: The First Seven Days of the Rest of Your Life is coming out on January 1st. I got my copy over the weekend and started reading. I’m forcing myself to only read a chapter a day, treating it like a good scotch and not cheap beer. (I’ll write a lot more about the book and post about it the first week of January.) But this line is something Steve has asked me before about my own life:

“What is your great gift you bring to the world?”

To someone, somewhere, you are a gift. The words you say, your actions, your laugh, your smile, your listening ear, your presence, your music, your art, your cooking skills, your willingness to show up is a gift to someone.

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I gave a Christmas gift to some friends last weekend. I know, it’s early. But when I get excited about something, I can’t hold back. Before we had children, Jennifer and I had usually opened all of our gifts by about the 20th of December! So this year, I had made something – put time and energy into it – and I was really excited to deliver.

And my friends said, “We didn’t know we were doing gifts!”

And I said, “We aren’t! No gifts! I don’t want anything from you, but what you already give.”

See, from these friends, there is no gift they could give us greater than their willingness and insistence on showing up in our lives, of listening, of chasing us down when we were in our darkest spaces. The gift is their friendship. And it’s more than enough.

When you’re in that kind of relationship, there is no quid pro quo to gift giving, there’s no scorecard. Gift giving just overflows out of the heart, it’s just what you do.

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It’s always a little awkward for people, I think, when pastors talk about sex. But it shouldn’t be.

Anyway, I tell people in pre-marital counseling sometimes, if we’re talking about sex, that this spirit of giving is at the heart of great sex. When two partners have lost themselves in the act of giving to the other – if both partners are in this place of giving – then sex becomes something more than just animal instinct. It becomes something mystical, transcendent, beautiful and, well, spiritual.

And the reason I’m talking about sex (besides, well, duh!) is that sex is just the most intimate of a range of intimate relationships. When two friends have this spirit of giving at the heart of their friendship, when business partners have this kind of giving at the heart of their partnership, magic happens.

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So, go ahead, search for the perfect gift. Stress yourself out. Give your all to taping neat corners and tying perfect bows. Giving gifts is a good thing. (And, yes, some gift giving is obligatory, and you only give some people gifts because you ought to. Seriously, spend as little time and emotional energy on these gifts as possible!)

But don’t be confused. To some of the people on your list, what they want most is you – all of you. They want your time, your voice, your ear. They want you to become the best version of yourself, no strings attached, no manipulation. They want to be in the same room as you as often as they can. They want you to write, to speak, to paint, to sing, to do what’s in you, and while it may not be “good,” while you may never get a book deal, and no one may give you money for what you paint, to “your people,” it will mean everything because you ARE a gift and what you do matters to them.

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So, today, or at least sometime in this Christmas season, be a gift to someone. Give someone a piece of yourself that you wouldn’t share with just anyone. And while you’re at it, let someone else know that they are a gift to you – that when they show up, it’s enough.

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From the Vault: Rhetoric Matters

On Mondays, I’m going into the vault, reworking an old post, and reposting it with some comments attached. This morning’s post comes from January 12, 2011. At the time I wrote it, I was writing about Sarah Palin and a shooting in Tucson, AZ. I’ve re-edited this post quite a bit to reflect more current realities, but I’ve kept the main point of the post the same.  I’ve added additional comments and a few questions at the end of the post.

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If you ask people what they’re afraid of, public speaking is high on their lists. So apparently, I’m a freak. Almost every week I stand up in front of room full of adults and speak publicly for somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes. I’ve spoken to large crowds and to the shower wall, both having a certain allure. (My ego loves the crowds, but to the shower wall I’m brilliant and brave.) Our church podcasts my teachings every week, and so what I say is available to anyone on the planet with an internet connection. And this blog, like all others big and small, is also accessible to anyone on planet Earth with an internet connection.

Why do I make such an effort to say what I’m thinking?  Because words matter. What I say on a Sunday morning, or what I write on my blog or what I say to a friend or parishioner just might challenge someone to think or live differently for the sake of a better world. That gets me out of bed in the morning.

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That’s why all the Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Donald Trump stuff that’s littered my Facebook feed these last weeks bothers me so much. Rhetoric matters; how you say something is as important as what you say; and the venom and hate spewing forth, masked as political rhetoric, is contributing to the feeling that the world is dark, scary and tense.

Most of the time – especially when it comes to political stuff – I choose to stay silent. It seems not many people are interested in civil political discourse these days. The partisans drape themselves in vague, ad hominem attacks, asserting the other side “is out to destroy America.” And they’ve retreated to their Fox News and MSNBC. (I had a friend tell me once how he stopped listening to Rush Limbaugh and found he was happier, less cynical, more open. Hmmmm. Makes me wonder about how the rhetoric we choose to let into our minds affects our outlook, but that’s another post sometime.)

But last week, I couldn’t stay silent. The politics were about religious things. And even though I got a fair amount of good feedback, both online and in conversation, I still felt conflicted. I still don’t always know the right answer to the question, “When should one speak up and when should one stay silent?”

Or to ask the question in a more Biblical fashion, when do I choose to take the advice of Proverbs 26:4: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” Or, when do I choose to take the advice of the very next verse that says exactly the opposite, “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”

How do I take seriously the idea of being a peacemaker, but at the same time say my truth, say to the world, “Jerry Falwell Jr., while he may be a godly man in a thousand ways, doesn’t represent me when it comes to how he talks about Muslims and guns in America. I don’t think we’re following the same Jesus.”

There are plenty of people out there who have written excellent articles denouncing Falwell’s or Trump’s rhetoric in a balanced way, fairly critiquing the rhetoric without impugning the person, without making sweeping generalizations about people or ideas, so I won’t spend time doing that here. (While you may not agree with his points, I think Brian McLaren modeled this well on The Huffington Post last week.) But I’ve been thinking about myself and the responsibility I have of speaking in public. And if I could have Falwell’s or Trump’s ear – or any of us who speak to a public audience – here’s what I might say:

Words are powerful things. With our words, we can make people laugh, cry, and consider what we want them to think about.  With our words, we can change people’s minds about even the biggest issues – faith, politics, and the meaning of the universe. So what you say, and the manner in which you say it, matters. It matters a lot. And at times, we’ve all erred. We’ve all over-exerted ourselves on a point we shouldn’t have pressed so hard, or we’ve done the opposite and chickened out, when the occasion called for more passion and elucidation than we gave it. And in those times, we need to use our words to put things right, to apologize and point to a better way.

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Three years ago I wrote this post, and it’s still true, still relevant. And I still don’t know the best answer to when to speak up. But I’m more convinced that I ought to speak up more.

Here’s an example: Last week, someone on my Facebook asserted that Jesus is a incomplete picture of God, because he only lived 33 years. If I understood correctly, his specific point was that we should minimize Jesus’ calls to pacifism and round out Jesus’ message with a strong dose of “wipe out all the Philistines.” I think, even in my conservative, evangelical seminary, I wouldn’t have passed my orals with this kind of hermeneutic.

But I didn’t respond, because I didn’t want to have a protracted argument on Facebook.  And part of me feels like to say nothing was a failure of my own nerve, a laziness on my part, that to stay silent was wrong.

So, my friends, help a brother out: how we respond matters, of course, but when should we speak up and when should we stay silent? When, at the family Christmas dinner do you just ignore what your drunk uncle says, when do you say what you really think, and when do you just play Adele and sing together?

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Peace in a World Gone Crazy

At church this past Sunday, we lit the second candle in the Advent Wreath – the one that represents peace. Ironically, peace seems fragile in the world right now. It feels like extremists of all types are hellbent on saber rattling, stereotyping and pandering to fear and violence.

This morning, I’m little overwhelmed by everything in the news. The world seems to have gone crazy. It’s almost beyond belief. It’s almost beyond belief that there have been more shootings than days in America in 2015. It’s almost beyond belief that Christian leaders are calling for more guns in hopes they can “teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” It’s almost beyond belief that the leading Republican candidate called for a ban on Muslims (both American and foreign) entering America. It’s almost beyond belief the comments and conversations on my newsfeed.

And so, on this second week of Advent, when the church calendar tells me that I’m supposed to be thinking about “Immanuel” – God with us – and peace, I’m struggling with how to live in the world and yet at the same time take Jesus seriously.

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I understand that the world is a complicated place. I understand that when it comes to political solutions, nothing is simple, especially when we’re talking about peace and safety and terrorism and the like. I understand that when it comes to gun ownership, there are devout, level-headed Christians who disagree. I’ve had deeply respectful, loving discussions with people all over the political spectrum.

In fact, I think the argument can be made that the only people who don’t see it as complicated are the extremists – the fundamentalists – on either side of any given debate. To the right wingers and left wingers, to the conservatives and the liberals, the solutions are general, sweeping and simple. But to the vast majority of us who don’t overly identify with either side, being peacemakers is complicated.

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What grieves me most this morning, as a pastor, is how we subvert or just ignore Jesus in all of this. You don’t really need to be all that religious or devout in order to say that Jesus is one of the most important ethical teachers in the history of the world. (I think he’s much more than that, but for this conversation, we don’t need to go any further.)

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” I wonder how you take that seriously and then talk with humor about “killing those Muslims.” Maybe you sincerely believe that you should defend yourself. We can debate that. (I’m actually not an all-the-way pacifist.) But there shouldn’t be a celebration of that harsh reality. There shouldn’t be joyful anticipation of the opportunity to kill someone to “teach them a lesson.” I believe if we are put in that situation, it should grieve us. It should trouble us to no end that we might be asked to violate “thou shalt not kill.”

Jesus also said, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” I wonder how we’re supposed to do this in reality. It is undoubtedly difficult, but that doesn’t mean I just get to ignore it. And I’m pretty sure praying for my enemies doesn’t mean killing them or stereotyping them.

This is a really small thing, but today I reached out to a local imam, just to say, “How do I bless you in a time where many want to persecute you? I don’t know what will come of this, but just maybe, in a small way, it will help foster peace in our community.

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I was arguing in my head with someone who wrote something on my Facebook page about how violent Jesus was, quoting the Hebrew Scriptures and Revelation 21 as justifications to set aside – or at least to minimize – the pacifist leanings of Jesus.  And I had this thought:

What if the disciples had their concealed carry permits? What if the disciples had defended Jesus with deadly force? Oh, wait. Peter did, and Jesus told him to put away his sword.

It’s really, really hard to read the gospels and ignore the non-violence of Jesus. My goal here isn’t to shame those who aren’t pacifists, or even to advocate for pacifism, really.  I understand that theology is complicated and people see it differently. I mainly want to say:  let’s keep it complicated.  Let’s keep going round and round with the hard stuff, even if we think we’ve landed on a position. I think the faithful response to Scripture and tradition is to keep talking, debating, arguing and loving each other the whole time.

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At the very minimum, and maybe especially when the world is as it is right now, we ought to daily pray the prayer of St. Francis:

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console,

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love;

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”

AMEN?

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From the Vault: Jimmy, Bono & Joe

On Mondays, I’m going into the vault, reworking an old post, and then reposting it with some comments attached. This morning’s post comes from February 18, 2014. Additional thoughts have been added at the end of the post.

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Facing a mix of “winter blues” and the remnants of a head cold, I was ready to pull the covers over my head by about nine o’clock last night. But, like many of you, I was excited to see Jimmy Fallon take the reigns of The Tonight Show, so I stayed up to watch, but channel surfing during commercials.

On AXS.tv I came across a re-airing of Def Leppard‘s “Viva! Hysteria” concert shot in late-2013 in Las Vegas. I was in 7th grade when “Hysteria” came out and Def Leppard was my favorite of the “hair bands.” When I started driving, Def Leppard was always in heavy rotation as I attempted to blow out the speakers of my red Buick Skyhawk. So, I was intrigued to hear what Def Leppard sounded like 25 years later.

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Back to Fallon, U2 was performing their new song “Invisible” on the roof of The Rockefeller Center. It was beautifully shot with the sun setting in the background over New York City. (You can watch it here.) And performing with a drum line from Rutger’s University, U2 sounded amazing. What an iconic kickoff for The Tonight Show returning to NYC.

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Commerical. Jump back to Def Leppard. Joe Elliott is trying to get through their 1987 hit “Love Bites,” but he’s having a hard time finding the notes that came so easily 25 years ago. My friend Jamie, who saw them when they came through Peoria in the late 80’s told me that they could never reproduce in concert the background vocals that gave them their unique sound. And if that was true in the fall of 1987, it’s more true today. While the music is still there, the vocals – lead and background – are long gone.

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Back to The Tonight Show, Jimmy has U2 on the couch and wants people to hear how good U2 is even when they’re not in front of an arena, so he asks them to do a song acoustically. And they perform their Golden Globe Winning “Ordinary Love,” the song they wrote as a tribute to Nelson Mandela. The Edge starts off playing the opening riff of “Stairway to Heaven,” they laugh, then he starts “Ordinary Love” and it’s so good. No, Bono doesn’t have the strength of vocals that he had back in the 80’s or 90’s, but because they’re writing new stuff, they create things that work today.

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One one channel, an 80’s hair band trying to re-live the glory days, to reproduce something that is long past. They still dress much the same way. Phil Collen still has his shirt off, they’re doing the same old songs and it comes off as tired, sad, and not very good or particularly relevant. I don’t see anyone in the crowd much younger than 40.

On the other channel there’s another band from the 80’s, except this band is constantly writing new material, “reinventing” themselves, still pursuing something, not looking back. They’re as relevant as they were when they recorded “The Joshua Tree,” in 1987.

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It seems like many religious people are like the 80’s band trying to relive their glory days. They pine for “the way it used to be,” they talk about “getting back to the good ol’ day when…” They ask the same old questions, belt out the same old answers, and wonder why the next generation chooses to stay home on Sunday mornings.

But for me, faith is like the 80’s band that isn’t resting on their laurels, simply replaying all the songs that made them famous. Instead it’s forward facing, asking new questions, offering new answers, describing new ways of what it means to be God’s people in the world. It’s relevant and significant because it’s interacting with the world now, as it is, and not as they wish it would be again.

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This was fun to go back and revisit about a year-and-a-half later. My writing has gotten stronger – I changed some words, cut a lot, and reworked probably 10-12 sentences. In the original post, the links had been uploaded yet, but I’ve included them here. 

I had a conversation 6 months ago with someone who was asking me about how our church is relevant to young adults. The church I pastor is the desired demographic for many churches – young adults, young families. I told him that it’s not because of music, or because we serve coffee or wear jeans, but rather it’s because of what I describe in this last paragraph.

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For These Things I’m Grateful

Here’s a smattering of loosely connected thoughts on Thanksgiving Week.

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I was telling someone the story of how in the first year of our marriage, Jennifer and I moved to Denver so I could attend graduate school. If we were making the same decision today, we’d never do it, because looking back it was completely irresponsible. There was simply no way that we had the finances to do it. But, young, naive, in love and a strong sense of Calvinistic Providence led us to move a thousand miles from home.

The first couple of months, I don’t even know how we managed to buy food. It was so very tight. And I remember how Jennifer’s grandma – who just passed away early this fall – not only paid our rent the first couple of months, but sent us a little money so we could go out on a date. All we could afford was to go to the double feature at a drive-in close to our apartment. I made carrot cake, popcorn and a portable thermos full of lemonade (we couldn’t even afford a couple beers!). Sigh.

But we were so grateful and so happy. Life was so very simple.

Obviously things have changed for us. On Friday night, we were sitting at a local wood-fired pizza place in Junction City (even given all my foodie tendencies, Jennifer and I will still always choose pizza (miss you, Mitchells!)) and we were talking about how, although we still have to mind our budget, life has changed and we have enough margin that we can go out on a Friday night.  But we aren’t any more or less grateful. Life isn’t simple anymore, but we still like each other a lot, and sitting at Brienzo’s for close to two hours talking, enjoying each other, we’re still young(ish), very in love, we don’t really believe in Providence in the same way, but we’re just very grateful for the life we have with each other.

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Two weeks ago, I had a good friend call me to tell me she was pissed at me. Frankly, I deserved her ire. Instead of being brave and wholehearted, I had played chickenshit and let my inner voices win the day, and in the process I hurt her feelings because of my actions. But she didn’t lead with “I’m pissed at you.”

She started with, “Help me understand why you made the decision you did.” And for about 45 minutes she listened and empathized and demonstrated to me in a powerful way that she loved me and valued our relationship and she was doing everything in her power to see the world through my eyes.

Then, she told me why she was pissed.

I don’t know that I’ve ever been so lovingly confronted by a friend. I called her the next day and told her how loved I felt.

I have a job where, in the course of events, people get pissed at me. Sometimes I deserve it. Sometimes my job is like walking through an emotional/relational minefield. Some days it feel like I’m skipping through, others it feel like I hit every mine on the field. And sometimes I’m just the “authority figure” who someone needs to rage against. And I’ve learned – mostly – to let those go.

And, in my job, I have plenty of people who are ready and willing to tell me what I “should” do in any given situation.

So, “confrontation” isn’t really all that unusual in my life. Emotional/relational messes are just the milieu of church work.

But, a “confrontation” that leaves me feeling all warm and fuzzy and loved?

That’s a gift. That’s the kind of interaction where I said to Jennifer afterwards, “I feel so loved because I talked to our friend and she told me off.”

Who ever gets to say those words?

I’m grateful for friends like her and others, who have lovingly walked beside me in my rumbling with stuff. And despite my prickliness at times, keep coming back.

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Jennifer pointed out to me the other day that in Matthew 25, where Jesus famously says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” Jesus is identifying himself as “one of the least of these.”

We talk a lot about “being Jesus’ hands and feet,” and how that means we ought to do good for other people. And that’s true too.

But, it’s also true that one of the hardest things for me to do is to receive someone else’s kindness and generosity. I am hell bent on keeping things “even-steven” in the scorecard of my mind. Actually, I’m hell bent on staying “one-up” whenever I can. It makes me feel strong, powerful and in control.

But the cross-shaped ministry of Jesus was about emptying, about choosing “one-down,” even to death on a cross.

I’m learning to be like Jesus in receiving things from others. I’m thankful for how – this year in particular – I’ve had to learn some hard things.

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And speaking of giving and receiving…Our culture is so uber-focused on material things. Verizon has a new ad campaign that is driving me batty right now. They’re calling it “Thanksgetting” and the tagline is “get into the spirit of getting.”

“Barf. O. Rama.” (To quote a friend of mine). As if Americans need any encouragement to “get into the spirit of getting.”

I think – especially as Americans – when we think gratitude, we think of the material things we’ve gotten. But, the most important things to me – the things that make me cry – aren’t material. They’re relational. It’s the ways people have given of themselves to me.

I have a long list of names that I’d love to put here, but I’m sure I’d leave somebody out and then I’d feel badly. But I’m very grateful this Thanksgiving for the people who have given of themselves to me, who have poured out their souls and who have sat with me and held my hand in one of the uglier years of my life.

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One final thought.

I think we over-assume that the people in our lives know how much we mean to them.

And, at the same time, I think we underestimate how much we mean to the people in our lives.

Don’t let Thanksgiving go by without saying some specific, heartfelt thank yous, like this one:

Peggy – thank you for editing pretty much everything I write on this blog and making me appear to be a stronger, more conscientious, more grammatically correcter version of myself. LOL! And thank you for the joy that you seem to take in doing so. I don’t understand how you love it so much, but I know you do. I thank you and everyone who reads this does too – even if they don’t know you!

 

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We’re Always Changing Our Minds

“I am not worried – I am not overly concerned

with the status of my emotions

“oh”, She says, “you’re changing.”

But we’re always changing”

– The Counting Crows, “Anna Begins”

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I remember in my teens, a not-yet-famous young earth creationist came to my Christian high school to preach his gospel of literal, six-day creation against the apostasy of evolution. I remember in my formative years, if I visited a museum and it said, “20 million years ago…” I would roll my eyes and maybe even say (with air quotes and a sneer), “At least that’s what ‘scientists’ say.”

Of course, this spilled to many other areas. Whenever “scientists” (air quotes, eye roll and sneer) said anything that conflicted with my beliefs, I was conditioned to dismiss them as godless pagans, interested only in upending my conservative beliefs.

Embarrassingly, it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I actually started to do a little reading and listening to what scientists actually said (versus what I was told they said) and found out that while there may be wild idealogues out there, most scientists are driven by a pursuit of knowledge and, to a degree unheard of in my religious upbringing, are willing to change their beliefs as new evidence comes to light.

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Recently, I was catching up on a past issue of National Geographic, reading an article about the discovery of homo naledi, an animal that appears to be much closer to homo erectus than australopithecus aferensis (“Lucy”), and in many ways appears to have blurred the lines between “animal” and “human” (for example, the upper body seems to be closer to an ape, while the lower body is remarkably similar to our own).

It was fascinating to read about the process of accidental discovery, in a cave near Johannesburg, South Africa, by two amateur spelunkers and the subsequent discussion of evolutionary theory that is erupting burgeoning due to the discovery of this new species. Homo naledi doesn’t answer all our questions, or end the argument or close any discussion. Rather, its discovery ignites entirely new questions and conversations.

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I recently finished a book on intimacy and marriage by Terrence Real called How Can I Get Through to You? and one of the skills that Real says is necessary for any marriage is flexibility – the ability to come at a problem from different angles, to change up one’s thinking in response to the other. He says of his wife, “what works is her flexibility, her willingness to try different tacks coupled with responsiveness.

You know, flexibility is such a good people skill. It’s good in marriage, it’s good in parenting, it’s good in a friendship. But it will probably lose you an election if you’re a politician, and if you’re a pastor or theologian, people sometimes go crazy when you change your mind. They often call you names (heretic!) and declare you “not-one-of-us.”

But that’s what life should be: staying open and flexible to new ideas and experience and, when it’s warranted, changing one’s mind. As I experience life, I learn new things about myself, about God, about wonder, about the world, about people, and it changes the way I think and the way I act. There are so many ways my mind has changed over the years about tons of things. I just see things in ways I never could have in my twenties or thirties.

I have this graphic that I’ve had on my desktop for a couple months:

 

Ain’t that the truth?

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The Scriptures are full of people who encountered the Divine, faced new circumstances and were flexible in their response. Peter ate with Gentiles after having a vision while hanging out on a roof. Abraham left Ur, Philip reached out to the eunuch, Paul got knocked off a horse and changed the trajectory of his life. I think this is what followers of Jesus always do, they pay attention to themselves, to the world and ask again, what does it mean to follow Jesus now?

So, what’s at your leading edge today? What are you learning? What are you growing in? How have your circumstances changed and where do you need to be flexible? How do you need to adjust your theories and ideas because of new experiences and circumstances?

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A Christian Voter’s Manifesto

While the 24-hour news outlets and political punditry started talking about the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election about ten minutes after President Obama defeated Mitt Romney in 2012, most of us are just beginning to start asking ourselves, “Who might I vote for one year from today?”

And while I have my own political opinions, I’m more concerned as a pastor and a follower of Jesus in this political season that promises, as always, to be ramped up with inflammatory rhetoric, feigned offenses, trash talking and generally unacceptable behavior to everyday, good people (but which has apparently become perfectly “normal” for those seeking the highest office in the land) that we behave as followers of Jesus over and above our political ideals.

So, I offer the following manifesto. What might it look like, if we, as followers of Jesus – Catholics, Protestants, non-denoms, all of us – committed ourselves to following five ideals?

 

No matter my political philosophy or affiliation, I commit to remembering that first and foremost my allegiance belongs to the kingdom of heaven.

I’ll quote Peter Enns’ fantastic post about evangelicals and politics, “All political regimes have a utopian agenda. Communist, socialist, fascist, monarchic, and yes, even our democratic system…They all make promises to be the ones who will deliver the goods. They all promise that, without them, you are lost. They all claim to have “arrived,” to represent the culmination of the human drama, to be the true light, a city on a hill, that which brings you and all humanity true peace and security.”

As those who claim to be followers of Jesus, we believe Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God/heaven must inform our vision of true peace and security. Therefore all conversations within the Christian community about politics should be conversations about what Jesus taught us, as well as cultural/political/socio-economic, context.

I commit to living by the ethics of Jesus in political discourse.

This simply means that I will love those who I perceive to be my political enemy. And as such, I will assume the best motives of those with whom I disagree. President Obama is not “out to destroy America.” Donald Trump is not “just an ego-driven maniac running to boost his own ego.” Loving our enemies means we don’t say something about someone on Facebook or in a blog post that we wouldn’t say to their face in polite conversation.

I commit to being an agent of redemption in this world.

This means I will not sit idly by and allow others to engage in slander. It’s funny that in Central Illinois, people just generally assume that because I’m a pastor I’m a card-carrying Republican. So, they feel free to say whatever they want to say about Democrats in my presence. I think that as an agent of redemption in this world, I have a duty to stand up to lies, half-truths and slander.

I commit to listening with as open a mind as I am capable.

May I quote James, the brother of Jesus here? “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

Especially on social media, where things move so quickly, let’s commit to showing restraint, slowing down, and making sure we are always responding lovingly and gently, especially when we disagree.

I commit to the practice of humility.

We’re just going to be wrong. There’s no way to be human and not get things wrong sometimes. Just last week I posted a link on Facebook that, while I personally agreed with most of the content, was still rather inflammatory. I told a friend, “It flew right past my radar, I didn’t even realize that it was inflammatory until after I posted.” In retrospect, I probably should have given a bit of context before I posted, instead of trying to pepper the comment section with as much grace as I could after the fact.

I believe that humility is more than an attitude, it’s the willingness to own our missteps. It refusing to “double down” when we feel threatened or attacked, to remain open to the possibility that we didn’t see things clearly at first, or that our opinion is always changing.

I believe in America. There’s no other place in all of history that I’d rather live than in present day America. We have the opportunity like no other time before us to engage in political discourse and work to change our reality with our voices and votes. Aristotle taught that the well-being of a political community is dependent upon the virtue of the citizens. As followers of Jesus, let’s lead the way in not just talking about other people’s virtue, but rather, setting an example by practicing virtue in our political discourse.

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The Redemption of All Things: Love146 Trip (Part Three)

The first week of October, I visited Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines with Love146, an organization dedicated to the end of child trafficking and exploitation. This is the final of three posts this week about that trip. Here’s a link to the first, and to the second.

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There’s this picture from the last night of our trip. I’m holding a bandurria, a short-necked guitar with fourteen strings, reminiscent of a mandolin. I’ve never held one before, but it’s close enough to a guitar that I’m finding my way around. In the picture my head is down, eyes focused on what my thick fingers are doing on this fragile instrument. Facing me is a young girl, probably six or seven years old, the one whose smile lights me up inside. In the picture, her small, delicate hand is on mine, showing me where to place my fingers, teaching me “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” In a few moments, I’ve got it down and we play together, laughing and smiling. A friend sent me the picture a couple days ago, and when I see it, it brings back the tears I held back that entire night.

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The last night of the trip was spent in Manila visiting the White and Round Homes. When Love146 first started, they worked with International Justice Mission and asked, “what can we do to help children?” And the answer from IJM was, “we need aftercare.” So, in response, Love146 started the Round Home, a home for rescued girls, staffed with therapists. In time, a home for boys – the White Home – was added as well.

I don’t know exactly what I expected, but I didn’t expect to be near tears the entire evening. After we briefly visited the White Home, all the boys and girls gathered at the Round Home to show us the gardens, goats, quail, chickens and catfish pond. And then they sang for us, played the instruments they are learning and ate with us. At the end of the evening a spontaneous dance party broke out and even the staff joined in.

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I’m still struggling to put into words what was so magical about that night, but I’ll do my best. After spending the previous week seeing people in the trenches trying to help boys and girls find a better life and after walking through the “entertainment” districts of Bangkok, this was the first time where we witnessed what redemption looks like. Sometimes, in our desire to help, we can be so serious, so focused on the evils in the world and what needs to be done, that we miss out on celebration. But that night at the Round Home, a celebration erupted.

[Theological Aside: The Bible is full of imagery that at the Redemption of all Things, there is joyous celebration and feasting. Even in the Hebrew Scriptures, a part of the tithe was set aside to but whatever one desired – strong drink included – and to celebrate!]

Throughout the night I’d have these moments where I would ask myself, “what hells and horrors have these children been witness to?” and then, I would get swept away again by their laughter, their joy in song and dance and the beauty of being alive. And no, their abuse can never be undone, but because of the work of Love146, because of the generosity of many donors, because of the work of the staff at the Round Home, these girls are on the pathway of redemption – their future is brighter.

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Before I left on this trip, people would ask me, “what do you hope to get out your trip?” and my truest answer was, “I don’t know. I’m going because the opportunity arose and I want to say ‘yes’ to the universe when it comes calling.”

I still don’t know all the words to say in answer to the question. It was an intense experience. I carried a book of poetry by Brian Andreas with me on the trip and this poem, called “Veteran Traveller,” says it so well:

carries a lot of suitcases

but all of them are empty

because she’s expecting

to completely fill them

with life by the end of

this trip

& then she’ll come home

& sort everything out

& do it all over again

I experienced a lot of life by the end of this trip. (I haven’t even talked about my 24 hours of severe food poisoning in Cambodia!) And I’m still sorting it out, still trying to figure out my place in all of this. I wish I had gobs of money that I could give. That last night at the Round Home, I could have given anything that was asked of me. For right now, I know that I can give my voice and my energy to this.

So, one last time, I’m asking you consider giving to Love146.  After seeing, up close and personal, what they do, who they are and what they’re about, I can vouch for them. I believe in what they do.

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If you have any questions, or want to know more about my trip, I’d love to sit with you over a coffee or a beer and tell you more, or, if you live farther away, send me an email, I’ll respond in a timely manner.

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How Strong Women are Changing the World: Love 146 Trip (Part Two)

The first week of October, I visited Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines with Love146, an organization dedicated to the end of child trafficking and exploitation. This is the 2nd of three posts this week about that trip. Here’s a link to the first.

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There’s a saying in Cambodia: “The tallest blade of grass is the one that is cut.”

After the Khmer Rouge systematically decimated the learned and artistic classes of Cambodian society in the late ’70s, a generation rose up conditioned to shy away from leadership. Who can blame them? If you saw what they saw, you’d be afraid to assert yourself too.

But confronting the problem of child trafficking and exploitation requires brave leadership. And indigenous leadership is absolutely the most effective. As outsiders we can assist, we can support, we can encourage but the people in the best position to do the work are the people themselves. That’s why, when you ask, “what can I do?” the answer truly is, give money to good organizations (like Love146) that have expertise and feet on the ground and know who to partner with in the work.

I was inspired by the leaders we encountered – nearly all strong women – who are choosing to stand up and lead. I’ll tell you some brief stories, but you should know – I’m obscuring names and some details to protect them and the young people they serve.

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We met a woman in Phnom Penh. She and her husband have started a ministry to garment factory workers. A study showed that in Phnom Penh almost 70% of the girls working as prostitutes in the bars were former garment factory workers. She and her husband are trying to get to these girls before they make bad decisions that will get them trapped. They are teaching them English and providing a social network.

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We met a woman who moved to Phnom Penh from a rural village when she was younger. She told us the story of starting her ministry, where she trains former sex workers in a trade and help them start their own shops. She told us through tears, “I went to the bars and when I met these girls, I fell in love with them.”

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We met a woman and her husband, who started a boutique shop selling XXXXXX. They exclusively hire girls who used to be sex workers in order to give them a way out. In the mornings, they teach English, teach them the Bible, teach them life skills, then the rest of the day, they run a business, teaching practical skills, so these girls have options.

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We met a woman in Bangkok who runs a coffee shop where she employs ladyboys. She started out by going into “massage parlors” where the ladyboys work and simply asking, “what can I do to help you?” She started by teaching them English, and her work grew into the current enterprise.

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Listen, I’m not sexist, there are plenty of men changing the world too. But on this trip, I was inspired by these courageous, focused, hard-working women, who are swimming against a cultural tide that is decidedly more patriarchal than our own and resistant to leadership in general. I was inspired by their courage and tenacity.

Sometimes, we need to sit down with people who are passionate about their calling – whatever it is. Talking to these women, reading Elizabeth Gilbert, hanging out with other passionate leaders – being near these kinds of people inspires me. Who inspires you? Who do you need to be near? You don’t need to go to Asia; there are probably people in your community, in your church, in your circles who are passionately pursuing their mission in life and for the price of a dinner, beer, or coffee and a couple well-placed questions, you can be inspired. (For me, these kinds of people are intoxicating!)

Here’s your assignment – particularly if you’re stuck in lethargy at the moment: Find a person who is passionate about something, anything really, and spend some time with them. Ask them about their passion. My guess is that you will feel a spark inside yourself.

[about the picture: this picture was taken by one of my teammates at Cheoung Ek, one of the many “killing fields” that dot Cambodia. The bracelets are left by visitors to honor the dead.]

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