The love and offensiveness in freedom

The love and offensiveness in freedom

Today, America celebrates our freedom, and rightly so: it’s worth celebrating. Yet on this day, we would do well to remember that freedom is more than speaking, assembling, worshiping, and bearing arms. It has a cost. It’s not a license. It’s offensive.

Freedom has a cost

Freedom is never free. When we think of the cost of our freedom, many of us think of those who have fought for it. My family lives in a community with a strong military presence, so the everyday price paid by those who defend our country is never far from our minds: families separated by thousands of miles; spouses and parents and siblings for whom gnawing dread is a permanent companion, scars both mental and physical that never fully heal.

Yet even so, many of us aren’t actually free, for there are other kinds of bondage than political. We are bound to past mistakes, to toxic relationships, to self-destructive behaviors, to addictions of every kind.

From these demons, too, there is a way to be free; there is also one who has paid the cost of that freedom:

Freedom isn’t license

True freedom is limited in all kinds of ways, from preventing infringement on the freedoms of others to the Janis Joplin lament that “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose“. Those who make the daily sacrifices of marriage and parenthood know only too well how freedom, voluntarily surrendered in love, can be to our good. The self-sacrifice of our freedoms in love is very near to the heart of the Christian message:

Freedom is offensive

People like to mind the way that other people live. Always have. We want other people to act and think as we do; disagreement can cause interpersonal friction, so in one sense, it can seem easier if everyone is the same. Yet if we do not want to be told how to live and what to think, we must grant others that same grace. Scripture bears it out:

As Christians, we must not be offended when others exercise the same freedoms we enjoy. We must not confuse our national freedoms in the Constitution with our God-given freedoms in love. 

When we say destructive words that damage others, we must not take refuge in “freedom of speech”.

When we advocate violence against our enemies in defiance of scripture, we must not take refuge in “the right to bear arms”.

When we become the oppressors who would deny the freedoms of others, we must not take refuge in “freedom of religion”.

In all things, we must be more like Christ. We are not acting in his name when we insist on our own rights. We would do much better to seek ways we can sacrifice for the good of others, and especially those who offend us most.

look of anger and fear

A humble alternative to anger and fear

It’s been a rough month. A friend recently reflected on it all by observing that she’s never had to rely so heavily on the “angry” and “sad” Facebook reactions. I haven’t been blogging much, because it’s been hard to know what to do with that anger and fear, other than talking about it all amongst ourselves on Facebook.

Let’s take Brock Turner. I’ve got nothing to add to that conversation. The stories that need to be told now are going to come from those whose voices have previously been silenced. I believe that the gospel message can have life-saving relevance to sexual victims. But I am not the one to offer it to them.

Or Pulse Nightclub. That was a hate crime against the marginalized… the very situation in which Christ’s words should be most relevant. But so many others have used my sacred texts to beat up those same people for so long, how can I now use them in the ways they were intended, for comfort and compassion and healing? It’s like the Billy Joel lyric, “If I only had the words to tell you, if you only knew how hard it is to say, when the simple lines have all been spoken, and the radio repeats them every day.”

I haven’t wanted to speak recently, because, if I’m being honest, it’s just easier not to. So many see the calm, gentle messages of the gospel as clueless: out-of-touch when confronted with actual pain or suffering (that, for example, is the entire plot of the hit musical “Book of Mormon“) as if Christ’s death and resurrection had included no taint of pain or suffering.

Loud voices today are shouting that given our reality, other than total disengagement, fear/anger is the only possible response. But that is a lie. Other engaged responses exist. Better ones. Ones that have power for good instead of evil.

Christ on trial was not afraid or angry, but silent. That doesn’t mean he didn’t understand what was happening.

Christ on the cross was certainly alone and in agony, but even then he chooses words— not of fear/anger— but of forgivenessreconciliationredemptiongrace.

If the Bible is wrong, if we were never made for other places than this, if the notion of heaven is mistaken, if the notion of God is mistaken, then by all means: be afraid if you like. It makes sense if this world is all there is.

But for those who agree with me that God is real, we cannot be the leading voices crying out for personal safety. Anyway we have no control over that, and meanwhile we have more important things to do.

However bad the neighborhood may get, however few we may become, however cold the love of most may grow, some of us at least will always be here crying out the gospel message: peace not anger, love not hate, good not evil.

I look around me, and I see the love burning quietly in so many hearts, and believe the promise of scripture: the light will always shine in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.

50 dead

50 dead. Let’s keep being America.

I woke up this morning to the news— 50 dead, worst mass shooting in US history— and in my mind I could already hear the spittle-stained shouting to see who could respond in hate the most.

Gun advocates, gun opponents, the Muslims, the gays: All will be vengefully and vociferously hated by angry voices of popular and social media for days to come.

I wish my own quiet voice of peace could be louder.

There can be no question that this was a hate crime. How, then, can we possibly prevail if our only response is further hate? Martin Luther King Jr put it best: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Even as Trump’s poll numbers will surge in the coming days, even as millions of peace-loving American Muslims will endure one more round of excoriation as the nation’s whipping boy, what I long for is a warm and gentle voice of reason to lead us through the madness.

That voice exists. But it is not shouting. It is saying, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It is saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” It is saying, “Fear not.”

For all her faults, America has sometimes heard that voice before: when she wrote guarantees of basic rights unheard of in a day and age of autocratic monarchy, when she became a home for all of us former cast-offs yearning to breathe free, when she struggled to cast off her own inner demons of slavery and oppression.

In this historic moment, let us hear it too.

It has been said that the correct response to terrorism is militarismtorture, extermination. It has been said that we must think only of the extremists, that whether Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists, or 9/11 terrorists, the peaceful majority are irrelevant.

My question, then, is this: when our nation of 300 million lashes out in anger against our enemies, sweeping the innocent into the mix, where will our peaceful majority be? Will we speak or be silent? Will we risk our own lives to stand up for the innocent, or be those left mumbling “orders are orders”?

When our collective wrath takes us down the only path that wrath has ever known, will our peaceful majority pass the test that so many others in history have failed? Or will we, once again, be irrelevant?

Fingers Crossed

Why I am a Christian hypocrite (Part 2)

Last week, I wrote about how I don’t live up to the standards of scripture. There’s a case to be made that this brands me as a Christian hypocrite, but in another sense it is not too surprising. Scripture itself even says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

But what about the standards I set for myself, aka “my rules“? If I can’t even live up to those, what kind of tension does that create in my life? And how can I focus on helping others if I can’t even help myself?

Rules

My coworker grew up outside the church, but in a community with a heavy, legalistic religious presence. He has a joke about his churchgoing friends from back home: “If I go fishing with them, I have to bring two. If I only bring one, he’ll drink all my beer.”

So many of us “religious” types seem to have rules that we follow when it’s for show but privately ignore, or behavior that openly contradicts our stated values. From Newt Gingrich to Josh Duggar, the revelations have become so unsurprising that, to many hearers, any position on morality sounds like hypocrisy the moment it leaves our mouths.

My life is no different. Those who know me know that I have struggled with unhealthy attitudes towards sex and relationships for much of my life. Yet the  energy (to put it kindly) and obsession (to put it less so) I invested had only led me down a path of grinding loneliness and depression, and so the idea that all of that didn’t have to be my raison d’être was a revelation and a big part of what initially attracted me to Christian faith.

Tension

In some ways, then, my Christian practice outwardly looks a lot like legalism. Take, let’s say, “adult media”. I’ve been damaged by dependence upon it, and one of my first acts as a Christian was to rid myself of it. Since then, you’ve seen me: I’m legalistic, flipping the Victoria’s Secret catalog face-down and closing my eyes during the nude scenes in movies. What you don’t see is: I’m only trying not to put that stuff in my brain any more. I don’t like where it leads me or how quickly it happens.

But it’s way easier to be true to all of that when I’m accountable, that is, when people are watching. Kinda sounds like, “when it’s for show”. Any recovering addict will tell you, it gets exponentially harder when we’re alone. Scripture anticipates this: we can help each other up, one person can sharpen another, we can spur each other on toward love and good deeds.

The salient points here are:

  • I’m not doing the “legalistic” things I do for show or to prove I’m “holier than thou”. I’m doing them for the sake of my life and my emotional health.
  • During those times when I have had a relapse, it’s always been “in secret”.  At those times, what I say & believe are diametrically opposite what I do, which is the textbook definition of hypocrisy.
Focus

This kind of hypocrisy is as old as Christianity itself, going back at least to the Apostle Paul:

I don’t understand my own behavior. What I want to do, I don’t do; instead, what I hate is I do… What a wretched man I am! (Romans 7:15-24)

So given all this, it’s a very valid question, again: does Christian faith still have any value? If the point of it all were to have rules and follow them, I might well feel that the answer was “No.” But that is the exact opposite of the point.

Before Christ, they had rules. If the point now was just to still have rules, then the coming of Christ was just a waste of a trip. Rather, says scripture, the point now is to set us free from all of those rules. And yet, Christ himself followed all the rules. What is going on here??

The answer is a matter of focus. Is my focus on me or on “them”?

To me, what keeps my admitted hypocrisy from negating my faith is, I’m not here to lecture you. I’m not here to tell you that God hates you because what you are doing is “sin”. I’m not even here to tell you that what’s destructive in your life is the same as in mine. It’s probably not.

I really don’t know what to tell you about the many folks in our society who want to stand up in the name of Christ and tell you different. The best I can offer you is, I’ll come gently alongside you and help with you burdens. I would love it if you would do the same for me. Let’s treat each other with kindness and help one another in the ordinary sense of the word. In this way, says scripture—hypocrisy or not, criticism or not, legalism or not— we are each doing everything that Christ requires.

Christian hypocrite

Why I am a Christian Hypocrite

My wife and I like to tour open houses. Mostly we come away with a deeper appreciation of our own modest home (there are a lot of weird houses on the market), but there was one a few weeks ago… hoo boy. Three stories. Spectacular panoramic views from every floor. Five bedrooms, a game room,  an office, a gorgeous yard. And the asking price was “only” $2.5 million! I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go home and do the math. (Shocker: we couldn’t afford it.)

But now, in my imagination, it’s 2025. My Christian bestseller is in its third printing, and I’ve got the money for a house like that. I buy it. I move in. I enjoy myself and live in fabulous luxury, leaving undone much good that could, instead, have been done with that money… just one more Christian hypocrite.

Notions of hypocrisy and greed run rife through the modern outsider’s view of Christianity, and not without reason. Our faith calls on us to give, yet only 3% of us tithe and only a quarter give anything. While championing marriage and fidelity, many of us are unfaithful and divorce. We ask for grace when we fall short but give none when others do. I have to stop and ask myself… where have we gone wrong?

I am not going to pretend that I can answer for the misdeeds of all professed Christians, but perhaps there is some insight to be gained simply from examining my own. Do I live up to the teachings of scripture? Do I even practice what I myself preach? And if not, can my faith still have any value?

Not living up to scripture

Jesus requires me to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow him. Scripture assures me that friendship with the world amounts to enmity with God. In the zeal of his faith, John the Baptist moved out to the wilderness and lived on locusts and wild honey.

Obviously, apart from Shane Claiborne, few modern American Christians make such a commitment. Certainly I don’t. My modest house is a fabulous palace by the standards of much of the world. I own enough clothes and shoes to fill a closet. I am never seriously hungry. I have not committed the full weight of my existence my pursuit of Christ’s teachings, and it is reasonable to question whether that proves my faith is hollow.

My only defense is, some is more than none. I am doing my best. We give less than we possibly could, but more than a lot of people, and we do that because we believe the scriptures that urge us to do good in the world. I try to be patient and loving and kind. I’m coming along. I used to be a lot worse at it than I am now, and the Bible gives me a lot of tools I wouldn’t otherwise have.

It is possible to quote passages from the Bible that point to the total commitment it requires, and then to point to the shortfall in my own life as a fatal flaw in my faith. OK. But then what? I am not going to renounce such good as I am doing. I am not going to repent of my efforts to be more Christlike.

Instead, I will live my faith like I live every other area of my life. I believe in Capitalism, and don’t feel I must abandon it because in real life it needs commonsense regulation and a social safety net. I believe in the scientific method even though there are things we still don’t understand. Despite its many flaws, I believe in my country (though this election cycle may not be bringing out our best). There may be many parts of our lives— friendships, family, faith— that, though little and broken, are still good. Yeah. Still good.

To be continued…

Next week: Not practicing what we preach

Baby boy (would be nine years old)

Nine years old today, if only

Today is the ninth birthday of our sweet baby boy. We spent it at the cemetery. We knelt. The effort that should have been spent daubing antiseptic on a scraped knee, instead we spent darkening the letters of his headstone so they would be more legible. We put out lots of toys and little ceramic figurines and flowers. It looked nice afterward. We took a picture.

After nine years, a part of me has come to love it there. It is a peaceful and beautiful place. No one tells you to hurry. No one asks you what’s wrong. No one asks you why you look sad. No one is going to get their day ruined if you answer. No one tells you how you should feel or where you should be in your grieving process by now or what would make them more comfortable with your loss. When you have an angel baby, after as many years and as many losses as it has been for us now, there is value in peace. There is value in not having to pretend for a little while. Pretending, holding it together, smiling politely… these things have become so second nature for us now we often don’t even notice them. Until we get to the cemetery and remember that day.

That day we had to do the unthinkable. The day no parent should ever have to face. The day we woke up and had to put one foot out of the bed, and then the other, and every fiber of our being resisting every simple act because of the knowledge that the only place they were leading to that day was the cemetery, where we would have to say our last goodbyes to our sweet, precious, irreplaceable, beautiful baby.

Today, after nine years, it was nice to go back to that place and feel just a little bit of belonging to him. We wondered what he would be interested in now. Would he enjoy theater like his sister? Would he be a boy scout like his dad? Would he love getting his hands dirty in the garden like his mom? We dreamed those things. We sang our favorite hymns. We sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow“.

I know some members of our “club” have been beaten up with pious-sounding platitudes by “religious” friends and relatives uncomfortable with the way our grieving is being done. I sometimes think of all of you when we are at the cemetery, but for us, in those times, our Christian faith is never far away. There is such an immediate, visceral connection now to the pain of sacrifice and loss, an understanding of what it actually cost Christ to so graciously and freely pronounce the words, “Your sins are forgiven.”

We wanted to stay longer. The time we are allowed there always seems as if it is used up so quickly. We love the sun, the flowers, the quiet, the tears, the sense of weird belonging. We love so many things about our life. Our sweet angel baby is one of them, and today is his day.

Happy birthday, sweet baby. Mommy and Daddy love you. We miss you. We never stop thinking about you. You would be nine years old today.

Ideal Church

All I want in a church is…

My wife and I broke up with our church in January. We had been there for three years, and it’s not what you think. We have never been church “attenders”. We have never been the people who demand that we be served with a product that is to our liking, or we will take our business elsewhere. We invest.

This was our second church in the past ten years. During that time, my wife started a MOPS group and served for two years as its director. I did a yearlong pastoral ministries internship. We both started and led small groups.

Here’s the problem. You have to believe in your church.

You have to believe in the gospel that they preach.

For me, there are two “must haves” that I used to assume all churches had: room for the Holy Spirit, and grace for one another.

Room for the Holy Spirit

We live in a secular age, and through the power of human effort we have accomplished a lot. It is tempting to “do church” the same way. We make a plan, we set a budget, we track our progress, we achieve our goal! God’s kingdom is advanced.

Here is the problem. In none of this are we experiencing God. Some religions work fine that way, because they consist of a list of dos and don’ts, principles to observe, rules to follow. Some people treat Christianity as one of those religions. But it is not.

“I am the vine and you are the branches,” says Christ, “so long as you remain in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Christian faith is not a system, it is a relationship, a window into a larger world, and like Luke Skywalker vs. the training droid, you cannot connect to that larger world while remaining fully in control.

Grace for one another

All churches claim to have grace. Some even name themselves after it: a Google search for “grace church” comes back with over 100 million hits. It all sounds good, and you can go to those churches for a long time before you realize where the grace is limited.

Maybe grace is available to you…

To my mind, limited grace is no grace; it smacks strongly of loving only those who love you.

My dream

Last week at Starbucks, my wife and I ran into a dear old friend from two churches ago. We were delighted to see her, and all of us nearly made ourselves late catching up. Since we are “between churches” right now, we asked her where she is going. Turns out, she is also “between churches”, and I spent a few minutes sharing my vision of a Spirit-filled, grace-filled church. “I know, right?” she agreed, “I’m just not sure that a church like that exists anymore.”

Deep down in my heart, I believe it does. The word of God assures me that out there, somewhere, there are former pharisees and former “sinners” who have found true redemption. Somewhere there is a church of all of them.

Somewhere, meeting together, are those who have recognized their own imperfections too deeply to ever exclude others for languishing in imperfection; whose faith in their own power is limited by the memory of a time that only a power greater than themselves was able to restore them to sanity.

Somewhere on Earth, there is an echo of that great church, a multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language, praising God together.

I am praying to find that church. All I want in a church… is that.

April Fools' Day secret

Of deep dark secrets and April Fools’ Day

My family loves April Fools’ Day. It’s a classic day of lighthearted pranks, what with the biscuits that look like chocolate chip cookies and the purple food coloring in the toilet tank. We are tricking the people we love and it’s all in good fun, but on this day, I can’t help stopping to reflect, just a little, about the deeper questions of truth and untruth.

When does a prank become a “little white lie”? When does a little white lie become a deep, dark secret? And what is the harm of a deep, dark secret anyhow?

What’s the harm?

The truth has become a slippery commodity in the 21st Century. There is almost no claim you can’t support with a little creative Google searching. From global warming to GMOs to gun control, whatever side you are on, you can find experts to back you up. The result is that many of us have simply thrown up our hands. “You believe your ‘truth’, I’ll believe my ‘truth’, and they will both be equally ‘true’.”

This works fine for things like, “Is it better to shop at Vons or CostCo?” because really either way will work. It works less well for questions like, “Do cigarettes cause cancer?”, and even less for, “Does the third rail cause death by electrocution?”

Bottom line: some things are true whether we like it or not. There is an inescapable reality to confront: in the natural world, in the choices we make as a society, and— most importantly— in the personal choices we make in the course of our day-to-day lives.

Secrecy is a red flag

Scripture says, “People loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” That is a litmus test. If our “truth” is a harmless one, we can generally tell because we’re happy to talk about it. I have a friend who loves shopping at CostCo and will talk at length all the great deals on 12 pounds of nutmeg.

On the other hand, suppose we find ourselves thinking, “Well, I shouldn’t tell him about that, it’ll only upset him.” In my experience, more often than not, such omissions are motivated more to hide my own shame than out of any genuine concern for others.

I heard a public service announcement once that said, “When you’re lonely or sad, it’s always there for you… If alcohol is working for you, maybe it already owns you.” But it is just as true for every form of addiction, whether shopping or food or gambling or pornography or drugs, or anything else that the Bible warns can hold us captive. What fuels the addiction is the secrecy and shame. It may seem ridiculous, but all of us recovering addicts can relate to the plight of “the tippler” from The Little Prince: “I drink to forget… to forget that I am ashamed… ashamed of drinking.”

And the truth shall set you free

Scripture offers one prescription for those of us in the throes of self-damage or self-destruction: start by getting rid of the lies.

  • When he [the devil] lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
  • But let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No” be “No.” Anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
  • Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin… Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

As we joyfully trick the people we love this April Fools’ Day, let’s spare a moment for some internal spiritual house cleaning, and see if we can find some ways we are “tricking” them that may be not so joyful.

Other recommended posts:

Spring renewal

Spring renewal, or, starting again when it’s too late

I had a really bad breakup once. I thought we were going to get married; I had structured my whole life for months around that plan. Then I asked her and she said no.

When you are that wrong about something that important in your life, it makes you question everything, like, “What else am I utterly clueless about?” And that was what I did: my job, where I lived, my understanding of God… everything was on the table. This went on for months. Fall turned to Winter turned to Spring, and then, as it drew close to Easter, and I travelled to visit my parents for the holiday.

Sunday morning, my dad (not normally an early riser) woke me up: “C’mere! I wanna show you something.” And he led me out onto the porch, where we looked out over a dew-covered field at the sun just peeking over the horizon, the whole sky awash in the glory of the sunrise.

My dad and I have not always had the easiest relationship, but as we stood there together, the two of us just taking it in, thinking about the Easter message of resurrection, renewal, new life from the ashes, it felt like a new beginning. It felt as if the whole world were being born again. I didn’t have to be tied to a failed relationship, to past difficulties, to anything that defines me in ways that damage me. I could leave all of that in the grave and start afresh.

We always have that chance. The message of Christ is that, sometimes, there must be death in order for there to be life:

  • Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.
  • For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.
  • Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.
  • If anyone belongs to Christ, there is a new creation. The old things have gone; behold, everything is made new!

The worst mistake we can make is to be looking always backwards at “when we had that chance…” Yes, there are missed chances, but there are new chances too. There is no “back in my day”. If you are still alive, then today is your day.

Today is the first day after Easter. Whatever it is that you missed in the past can be in your future too.

Start now.

Christ is risen.

The end is not “the end”.

pro-gun mom with son

Pro-gun mom shot. Where is our compassion?

This week, the news broke about a vocally pro-gun mom who was accidentally shot by her 4-year-old son. It is axiomatic that, in today’s American society, for the next two weeks, the Internet will be alive with horrible cruelty towards her (the worse because she survived). All I can think of is that hospital room somewhere, filled with those heartsick for the recovery of their mom, their wife, their daughter. 

Friday, her family publicly stated that the incident does nothing to change her stance on guns; I imagine that will be a source of much scathing derision as well. All I can do is remember bad things in my life that were partly or wholly my own fault, few of which occasioned a wholesale abandonment of my worldview.

Does my compassion means I am pro-gun myself? On the contrary. But if our sympathy’s reach is so short that it encompasses only our friends, then what good is it?

Compassion is not agreement

It happens that there is much about this woman I don’t agree with.

  • I don’t agree that owning a gun would make me safer. I’ve never had an experience where I wished guns were involved; I’ve had several where I was grateful they weren’t. But nothing about that prevents me from understanding the opposite perspective.  
  • I don’t agree with the tone of her past published remarks on Facebook. Some of them, to my ear, sound sneering, condescending, mocking. But nothing about that makes me want to abandon my core values and retaliate in kind.

I cannot help thinking, what if our situations were reversed?

Bad things happen

Something bad happened to her because of what she believes, but bad things can also happen to me because of what I believe. There are situations in which I could become the poster boy for those who want to mock the “stupidity” in failing to own a gun. In a worst case scenario, I could find myself powerless to protect innocent lives.

None of that, if it happened to me, would make me go out and buy a gun. Life is a gamble, and everyone still loses sometimes. I have educated myself as best I can, and of the various imperfect options, I have chosen one that I can live with. Pro-gun Christians argue that scripture permits self-defense, but at the very least, it runs wildly contrary to the example of Christ, which we are repeatedly urged to follow:

I would hope that, come the worst, people who disagree with me would understand that I lived my life as I did out of sincere conviction and accepted the consequences of my choices, just as Christ accepted the consequences of his and as, I’m sure, this mom accepts the consequences of hers.

No place for ungrace

People go skydiving and break a leg. People go swimming in the ocean and get stung by jellyfish. People cross streets and get hit by cars. We make choices every day and those choices sometimes go horribly wrong.

If we will not show compassion and grace in those moments, who are we? There is no part of your being at fault excuses me from my humanity. No good ever came of gloating or bullying. The Bible teaches, “Do unto others as you would have done to you.”

Which of us, in our darkest hour, beset by tragedy of our own making, would have others come around us in scathing condemnation and judgment? Be kind. Be loving. Be Christlike.