We Still Haven’t Found What We’re Looking For

metoo

Dear Wren,

You may have noticed during the yogurt round of your breakfast today that a few tears were flowing down my cheeks. As you’ve never seen your daddy cry before, I wanted to tell you what happened in my mind while we listened to our morning playlist.

Not all tears in this world are bad, Little One. Some of the best moments in your life will move you with profound emotion. The best tears are the ones that catch you off guard, when the smile of a friend or a line in a book is so beautiful that it rings a little bell hidden deep inside your heart. This kind of beauty fills you so full that you overflow in laughter or, sometimes, tears.

You probably don’t remember the particular song that was playing at the time. You are not yet to the age when I will consider it part of my fatherly duty to introduce you to bands like U2 as part of your growth into a responsible global citizen. The song was called “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and comes from The Joshua Tree, an album that came out three weeks after your daddy was born over thirty years ago.

I discovered U2 in high school, when I heard one of my favorite bands, Caedmon’s Call, cover one of their songs. I immediately went looking for the original and bought a copy of The Joshua Tree, which survived many rotations during my angsty, Christ-haunted teen years. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” was and is, for me, an anthem of the restlessness I feel as someone trying to follow Jesus in a broken world.

Disappointment and frustration seem to be around every corner. Friends let you down. People get sick and pass away. The Church can be beautiful but is often as selfish as the world around us. The song communicates a deep longing for Home, a place none of us have ever visited but about which we all dream. Will we ever find what we’re looking for?

This morning, however, something new rang true to me as we listened to it together. I thought about the world beyond our sunny kitchen, the world you are inheriting from us. Sweet Girl, this is a world full of so many beautiful things, like the snow-capped mountains where we went hiking this fall or the shore of Lake Michigan where you dipped your feet on your momma’s birthday.

But it is also full of dreadful things beyond what you may ever understand.

It’s a world where children with hands not much bigger than yours spend their many waking hours making clothing. This clothing is sold for lots of money to wealthy people like us while they struggle to fill their tummies with enough food to survive.

It’s a world where other little girls are taken from their families and sold for unspeakable reasons to men who do not love them. These little girls don’t get to go to the park or play with their puppies on the living room floor like you do. Their parents aren’t even allowed to see them.

It’s also a world where women like your momma are regularly seen as less special than men like Daddy. They often make less money for doing the same work. Men like Daddy interrupt them when they talk, take credit for their ideas, and say rude things to them when no one else is listening, and sometimes even when someone is.

US-NASSAR-CHARGESSometimes these women are mistreated horribly and, even if they tell someone about it, no one will believe them. Or worse, the people in charge (usually men) will blame these women for causing the trouble in the first place.

Sometimes, even the men who say they follow Jesus, like your daddy, are guilty of hurting these women and making them feel alone when they hurt. Sometimes these men stand up in front of large crowds of people and say nice things about the men who hurt women like your momma.

Little One, I am so sorry. I wish I could tell you these terrible things will never happen to you. I wish I could protect you from men like me and the terrible system we built. We still haven’t found what we’re looking for.

But, maybe you and your friends will.

The truth is that this world is also full of women and men who kick down the doors where those little girls are held against their will.

Sometimes brave women get up in front of people and share the stories of when they were hurt. When these brave ones tell their stories, it makes other people feel brave too and more stories are told.

Sometimes we even see justice here in this broken place.

Let me end with the best news. There was a good man once – a really good man – who told us that all of the sad things would, one day, become untrue. He told us that there was a house somewhere with no locked doors and no walls to keep people out just because they look different than us. He said it would be a place with no more tears and no more death. It’s a home where every little girl is safe and loved.

Men like your daddy didn’t like hearing that they would not always be in charge so they killed him. But, this man, Jesus, was stronger than death so he came back to life a couple days later. He told us before he left that he would come back one day to bring us home with him.

When you feel scared and helpless – and it breaks my heart to admit that you will – remember that this Stronger Man sees you and he hears you and he loves you, even more than Daddy. And that is quite a lot.

Love always,
Daddy

 

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Album Review: The Painted Desert by Andrew Osenga

(2018) The Painted Desert

More than a decade ago, I drove with some friends to one of Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God concerts at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. To this day, it is my favorite place in the world to watch a concert. There’s something magical about the otherworldly acoustics in the room and the hardness of the old pews that mixes together and makes it feel like you’re on the front row now matter where you are in the building.

During the in-the-round portion of the evening, a guitar player got up and played a mesmerizing song about a small town and its high school marching band. It felt like I was listening to a short-story set to sync with a Bruce Springsteen record. There was just one guy with an acoustic guitar on stage but the song expanded somehow and filled the room. Later on, this same guy came out and played electric guitar and sang harmonies for the BTLOG song cycle and, by the distorted volume swells on the third song, I was hooked.

I went to the merch table after the show and bought a record of his called Photographs. We listened to it on the way home. I was early on in college and songs like “Kara” and “Kankakee” made me ache for the hometown that like so many students experience, is never quite what you so fondly remember when you return after a few years.

Fast forward to 2018 and Andrew Osenga’s music is still making me ache for home. His new record, The Painted Desert, is a mature, well-crafted album that is as thematically tight and self-aware as any singer-songwriter record I have ever heard. In describing the genesis of the album, Osenga writes:

“I thought I was done making records. I felt I had said all I’d ever have to say. Then life happened. The past few years have felt like wandering in the desert, in a myriad of ways. I had to face some hard truths about myself and ask some hard questions, about who I am, what I believe, and what I’m called to do…The Painted Desert is, I pray, the album version of conversation with a friend where you have the freedom to be real with doubt, fear AND hope.”

This “freedom to be real” is an excellent thesis statement for this record and comes through beautifully in the lyrics, several of which made me cry on both the first and fifth listen. “The Year of the Locust” is a standout for me with lines like:

Take comfort and rest / When the heart is an uncivil war and you’re taking a beating
Blood red on your chest / He will restore the years the locusts have eaten

Another emotional highlight for me was the opening track, “Beautiful Places,” an exhortation to Osenga’s daughters to both know their family story and to find their own adventures in the world. As a dad to a little girl myself, I was wrecked by this line:

So grab some life insurance money / Call your sisters, and cross things off the list
Scatter my ashes in beautiful places / it’s the last gift I can give you
Beautiful places

The image of my little girl standing on our shoulders, acknowledging the beauty and brokenness of her parents’ story while discovering her own place in the world, will stick with me long after this record ceases to be new.

One of the crowning achievements lyrically for this album is its ability to walk the narrow line between relatable vulnerability and something more self-indulgent. As a fan of more aloof folk songwriters like David Mead or Josh Ritter, a line like “And if you love me, well, I am sorry / ‘Cause there’s no way I haven’t let you down” (“Mercy”) feel deeply candid and personal without crossing the line into over-sharing.

While artists like Ritter appear to maintain strict “show don’t tell” rules around their writing, disappearing completely behind narrative songs and more obtuse imagery, The Painted Desert feels like it was written by an artist who wants to be known by the listener. It pays off immensely upon repeated listening and, at least for me, achieved Osenga’s mission of creating space to “think, feel, and remember.”

One last highlight: I will be surprised if there is a better complete folk song written this year than “My Bittersweet Old Friend,” which combines beautiful acoustic finger-picking, layered vocals, melodies doubled by piano and electric guitars, and incredible lyrics like:

I’m listening are you calling? Am I just waiting
While hope is there within the longing?
My bittersweet old friend

Speaking of instrumentation, I am tempted to describe this album as “stripped down” compared to other records Osenga has released. But, honestly, I am not sure I even noticed the lack of traditional drums until they suddenly showed up at the perfect moment in the final track (“Give Up”). Some songwriters go for a smaller-scale approach in recording as a way to create intimacy but the end result is instead stale and lacking imagination.

This album is the opposite end of that spectrum. The production is complex and beautiful and each song feels like a complete thought. Though the instrumentation is perhaps minimalist in theory, the interplay between the lushly-arranged vocals and the ambient electric guitar lines, both staples of Osenga’s music, make every song feel like it would be equally appropriate in a coffee-shop or a stadium.

I could go on about The Painted Desert but this feels entirely too long already. Check out some of his previous music on Spotify or Apple music and then go support his new project on Kickstarter. He also has an incredible podcast called The Pivot that features interviews with fascinating artists, entrepreneurs, and more – find it wherever you download your podcasts.

The Clothes of Jesus

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And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out…and they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.” – Mark 15:20, 24

I’ve been reading through Russ Ramsey’s beautiful and helpful overview of Holy Week each day this week, trying my best to be present in each moment of the season. In reading the corresponding Scriptures in Mark this morning, I was struck today by this tiny phrase in verse 20 – “his own clothes.”

It struck me because of its possessive phrasing – his own clothes. I realize it is written to contrast these clothes with the purple robe that was not his but the contrast works a second way that I find sobering and fascinating as I reflect this morning. We don’t often see Jesus in the Gospels as owning anything. As Rich Mullins wrote, “The hope of the whole world rests on the shoulders of a homeless man.” Jesus himself said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” The King of Glory emptied himself fully of his heavenly riches and position and took on not simply flesh, but the fleshly existence of a poor day-laborer and, for three years, a homeless, itinerant rabbi.  These are the plain facts we see presented in the Gospels. I can’t think of anywhere in the text where it tells us that Jesus possessed something.

Yet, here he is, in his own clothes.  I cannot help but wonder where he attained these particular garments.  Perhaps one of the wealthy women that traveled with the disciples purchased them for him in a favorite shop while he preached or fed the multitudes. Maybe his sweet mother or his dear friend Martha from Bethany sewed them for him after he wore previous ones down in his three years of walking through the hot, dusty paths of Palestine. Maybe they still smelled like the house he grew up in or the perfume of a close companion.

Now, at the end of his journeys, his own clothes are covered in another of the simple belongings to be ripped from his body – his own blood.  For the first time this morning, I find myself acutely aware of the frailty of Jesus. This poor laborer-turned-teacher, wrapped in his last and final earthly possession – his own clothes – beaten, bloodied, mocked, spit upon, humiliated. And, at the end, they strip him of even his own clothes. To add insult to a long list of injuries, his own clothes become some cheap trophy, won in perhaps the most dehumanizing game of chance ever played. Perhaps they laid on some soldier’s shelf alongside the spoils of other victims of the Empire’s domination, quickly lost to history.

And so the Author and Perfecter of Life died on that first Good Friday. Falsely accused by those with religious power, denied by his closest disciples, killed by the very people he came to save, bereft of every earthly possession, even his own clothes.

A Few of My Favorite Things: 2016

The year 2016 is rapidly approaching its end and, like everyone else with a blog, I wanted to end the year (and my writing drought) with a simple recap to look back and remember some of my favorite things in a few different categories.

Before I begin, let me add a quick disclaimer. I am not an expert in any of these fields nor do I have the credentials to critically analyze any of them with any depth of insight. This is not a “best-of-2016” list; it is simply a “these are a few of my favorite things I consumed from January to December” list. A second disclaimer: not all of these things came out in 2016. I am in accord with C.S. Lewis who notes that we often need “the old books” as a helpful corrective to the errors of our age. I believe he would grant me the liberal application of that idea to “old” music or even podcasts as well.

With that in mind, on with the list-making!

Books: Fiction

north_wind
Winner:
At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald

Honorable Mention: Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry

At the Back of the North Wind is one of the stranger pieces of fiction I have read since G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. Similar to my feelings about Chesterton’s book, this book requires a bit of perseverance to make it through but the payoff is worth it. I found myself at times hating this book and nearly giving up on it and then I would find myself sobbing through some beautiful paragraph. This book is a lovely reflection on suffering and theodicy told around the perspective of a sweet young boy named Diamond and his fantastical adventures with Lady North Wind. I have always wanted to read something by George MacDonald, knowing his influence on C.S. Lewis, and this book did not disappoint.

Books: Non-Fiction

just-mercyWinner: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Honorable Mentions: Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch and Where Did We Get the Bible? By Timothy P. Jones

One of my favorite books from last year was Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is the perfect narrative complement to Alexander’s book and I firmly believe they should be read as closely together as possible. Among many other roles, Stevenson is most famously a public interest lawyer working to exonerate wrongly condemned death row inmates. His book contains much of the research and a bit of the historical analysis of The New Jim Crow but weaves it in alongside the compelling story of his own journey into working alongside the poor and incarcerated. Again, I cried my way through much of this book and at least two of the inmate stories he tells will be with me forever.

Music

coloring-bookWinner: Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper

Honorable Mentions: Lemonade by Beyonce, The Dark Before the Dawn by Andrew Peterson, and You Wouldn’t Believe What Privilege Costs by Civilian

In my opinion, the best kinds of albums are the ones in which every song feels inextricably connected to all the others. Each song is great on its own but listening to any one particular song makes you want to sit down and hear the whole album in the order it was put together. For me, there is often a mood or vibe that you could capture in a single word like “melancholy” or “joy” that permeates the whole record and each song captures it without erring into redundancy. A few albums that exemplify that for me: Coldplay’s Parachutes, Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, and now Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. From the opening line (“This ain’t no intro, it’s the entrée”) to the final hook of “Blessings,” this was my favorite record of the year by a longshot. Chance is brutally honest and thoughtfully complex yet the album maintains this infectious redemptive arc that kept it playing in my house from May until now. I wish I could tell you to go buy this album but in the typical way that Chance is five years ahead of and ten times cooler than everyone else, this album was released streaming only so just open Spotify and click repeat.

Podcasts

gladwellWinner: Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell

Honorable Mentions: NPR Politics, Quick to Listen (Christianity Today), Pass the Mic (RAAN)

I originally wanted to include some TV shows and movies on this list but honestly, all pretentiousness aside, my wife and I just don’t watch enough cool movies or shows to do those lists any justice. I think I saw maybe four movies that came out in 2016 of all the incredible ones that did and the only TV that plays in our house is Gilmore Girls on repeat and occasionally an episode of 30 Rock or Arrow when my daughter’s taking a nap. However, one medium I consume like hotcakes is podcasts and I am happy to give my take on it. There are so many fantastic podcasts out there on so many subjects that comparing them is pretty challenging but this is my list based on sheer subjective enjoyment of the content. Malcolm Gladwell is a brilliant narrator and dives into ten diverse subjects in a way that makes you suddenly fascinated by what the quality of food at a private university says about the kind of students they value or whether or not a $1 billion Toyota recall was actually the results of simultaneous human error on the part of hundreds of individual drivers. I literally cannot wait until the next episode.

What about you? What were you loving in 2016? What are you excited to read/listen to in 2017?

Social Media Praxis: Six Questions to Ask Before You Post

Ikea

Note: This is the final post in a six-part series on Christians and Social Media Engagement. You can read the first five parts hereherehere, here, and here.

I once tweeted so badly that it got published in the Sunday paper. It was grand opening day of IKEA in Saint Louis on a Monday and several of my friends were posting pictures of themselves in the crazy line forming around the building or standing in the parking lot with their new furniture. I thought I would add to the excitement by tweeting a snarky comment about the convenience of everyone now owning the same furniture so we would no longer feel the constant need to compare our houses. Helpful, right?

Normally, my need to be the jerk in a room full of happy people goes mostly unnoticed. But, within a few hours, one of the Twitter accounts of a local newspaper had replied to my tweet with the news that they were going to use it in their coverage of the grand opening. I assumed this just meant their Internet coverage but, lo and behold, someone mentioned to my wife the next week that they had seen my tweet in the physical newspaper that Sunday. She was less than thrilled.

Ironically, we were some of the very people who showed up on the first day at IKEA, a mere few hours after I posted my snarky tweet. We had been excited about opening day for months and had a blast going on the first night and exploring the store together. We bought something called “Len” for like six dollars just to have something from the first day (note: nine months later, neither of us are quite sure what exactly “Len” is and have never removed it from its packaging).

As I wrap up this series on Christianity and Social Media usage, I am reminded of this story because I wish that I would have had some sort of tool or process by which to decide whether tweeting an oblique, self-righteous, hypocritical critique of IKEA shopping was a good idea or not (PROTIP: It wasn’t). I wanted to end the series with something simple and practical, a grid to help myself and anyone interested learn to discern whether or not they are engaging with social media in a healthy way, based loosely on some of my previous posts and my own experience of using it poorly.

To that end, here are the six questions that I personally use to check myself when I feel uneasy about posting on social media:

Question #1 – Does this project a false self-image that I desire to create?
As I have written previously, social media provides us with a canvas on which to project our ideal self without the accountability of having to actually embody those ideals. Whether it is my passion regarding a major injustice of our day or simply my competency as a husband and (soon-to-be) dad, I constantly need to ask whether what I am saying has integrity with my life.

Question # 2 – Am I posting to avoid a call to further action?
Some good can be accomplished by posting online when it comes to issues of injustice or even as a way to promote products or people you think are great. However, it is also easy to use social media as a way of escaping the responsibility of getting directly involved. It is one thing for me to post a John Oliver video about equal pay for women; it is a completely different, much harder, much more legitimate thing for me to make sure the women I directly supervise are being paid adequately for the highly capable work they do. Both are important but if I am not doing the latter, I invalidate the former.

Question #3 – Am I using this to avoid healthy conflict resolution?
Occasionally when I see a friend post something that frustrates or even offends me, I feel the temptation to post some coded jab in response or to share an article that indirectly (or directly) critiques the way they look at the world. I have to step back and remind myself that if really care about this person and about our relationship, I should have the courage to directly address them and not allow the hurt I feel to poison our future interactions or my perspective of them as a human being.

Question #4 – Am I willing to be known for this?
Like it or not, your social media presence is giving people a type of mosaic overview of what you value and how you engage with the world. Especially when I am about to post something that could be controversial for various people in my circles, I ask myself if this position is something I want someone asking me about the next time they see me in person. Particularly if you are a person in leadership of some sort, it is helpful to consider whether or not whatever point you are trying to make is worth whatever residual impact it has on your relationships, especially with those directly under your care.

Question #5 – Am I willing and able to defend this and/or host conversation around it?
I am a firm believer that if you post something on the Internet that generates conversation, you are responsible for moderating that conversation. There have been several times when I have wanted to post an article that I found brilliant and perceptive but realized that my next few hours were too full to honor people who wanted to engage with me on the topic. This is particularly true if I think certain people in my life might say something harmful in response to what I am posting and I feel the due weight of engaging and deflecting their commentary. In those times, I simply closed the browser and went on with my day. Inevitably, other people found the article as well and I just liked their post when they did.

Question #6 – Does this honor the Lord?
This is my final question and it operates as a final “catch-all” check before I share. When I consider if a post honors the Lord, I mean does it make Jesus look good – does it acknowledge him as King? Does it highlight his resurrection and coming Kingdom as our only hope? Does it say true things about the world he made – both its beauty and its brokenness? There are many articles on “Christian” websites that do not honor the Lord; there are many articles written by atheists that do. I want my posts to make it clear that Jesus is my only Lord and this question helps to give a final screening for that.

Whether I’m posting an article about a political issue or a picture of my wife and I on a date, I find these questions helpful for self-examination and as a reminder that the Internet is not simply a vacuum into which I project whatever is on my mind, free of any consequences in the real world. These six questions ground me in reality and give me the freedom to simply walk away when needed, which happens more often than I would like to admit.

As this little blog series comes to a close, let me offer one final reflection. I have spent the past six weeks thinking, praying, discussing, and writing a lot about social media. I came into this series very optimistic; I have believed for a while now that social media had more potential for good than evil – I have seen it as a conduit for relationships and deeper connectedness across great distances, whether physical or ideological. As I write these final few paragraphs, I have to admit – I am leaving this series a little more guarded than when we began.

In studying the medium more closely, I feel a bit like Solomon considering the expanse of his kingdom and coming to the conclusion that all his pursuits were meaningless, a chasing after the wind. There are so many voices out on the Internet shouting about all kinds of craziness. Our world is not short of voices with opinions about issues – everyone is talking about everything at every given moment. Our world is short of people caring enough to close their laptops, turn off their phones, and do something about what they only pretend to care about online. The people I find myself wanting to follow have impact on the world that far outruns their presence online and I want the same to be said about me.

I leave you with the words of Solomon from the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter three:

 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it.

May we be found doing the works of God that endure forever.

On Dragons, Kendrick, Sufjan, and Jesus

“I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings…But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”
– C.S. Lewis

Like lots of other late twenty-something white, male, evangelical Christian ministry professionals, I started 2016 thinking about how to declare my love for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly as the best album of 2015 in a way that was inoffensive yet also suggested that I got it but also didn’t get it in all the ways I am supposed to get it and not get it.

I tried to remember why it was that this album felt so moving to me when it came out. I thought back to a specific morning from the first week of April 2015. I was sitting at our mechanic’s shop getting who knows what done to our car (2015 was not kind to the Uzzles’ vehicle incidentals budget). The TV in the waiting area was broadcasting network news that morning and the anchors were discussing the tension surrounding Indiana’s recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). I had not heard much about the act so I pulled out my phone, popped in my headphones, and began researching it, as Spotify shuffled between Kendrick and another brilliant March 2015 album, Sufjan Steven’s Carrie and Lowell.

The act essentially created a legal defense platform for Christian business owners in the event that a lawsuit was provoked by their desire to deny services for religious reasons. Everyone from celebrity theologians to local pastors to college students I work with had an opinion to post on social media, some in defense of Indiana’s need for the act and some in vehement opposition and fear regarding its implications, particularly for the already marginalized LGBT community in the state. I read lots of articles and posts about how people were feeling that day; but all I felt was sadness.

My wife will sometimes differentiate between faith leaders that she has sat under as either making Christianity seem big or small. While she was in grad school, she read the C.S. Lewis classic, Mere Christianity. We were in a difficult season in our marriage and faith community and Lewis made Christianity seem like something that could handle anything the world threw at it. It felt like a lighthouse standing tall, guiding us home as the then stormy waters of our lives ebbed and flowed.

As I sat in my mechanic’s shop that day, reading article after article, Christianity began to feel very, very small. Instead of the Jesus I had come to know and love as the all-powerful Reconciler of all things, the God-man who gave his life and triumphed over death in his resurrection to literally save the world, the Jesus of the internet felt more like a neurotic tabloid reporter, obsessing over where a wedding cake was made and the drama that ensued. This Jesus seemed determined to make sure that everyone knew exactly where he stood on the great moral issues of our day and he drew clear lines between himself and everyone else. He didn’t seem to care about civil rights or commercial obligation so much as he wanted you to know if he thought you were right or left wrong. As I closed Facebook and turned away from the TV in the shop, I became aware again of the music in my headphones.

“How Much a Dollar Cost” started up and I became curious about Kendrick’s faith – I remembered hearing that he had gotten baptized recently and I found a brilliant article on his story of growing up in Compton and his expression of Christianity. As Spotify shuffled back to Carrie & Lowell, I Googled Sufjan and read an article about his own journey with God. What was their Jesus like? Was it more like the big Jesus of Lewis or the small OCD jesus of the Christian blogosphere? Why did I find myself relating so much more to these men than to the writers of the articles I had spent the last half hour reading, many of whom share much more in common with me?

That’s when the Lewis quote from above came like a word from the Lord (perhaps it was) to set me free that morning. Lewis, writing on the power of stories to sneak past our intellectual guard and engage our capacity for faith on the level of the soul and passions, gave me a language to precisely describe what I was feeling. The story the internet wanted to tell me about Jesus had been eaten alive by my own watchful dragons.

Simply put, though we share much in common, I could not relate to most of what the celebrity pastors and theo-bloggers told me about cake-baking and personal freedom. I couldn’t summon the outrage they told me we were all supposed to feel toward our mysterious enemy, shrouded in obscurity as “The Secular Left,” like a lidless eye in the distance. A Jesus who cares so deeply about whether Hobby Lobby is a person with the capacity for faith or if our president is eroding our Second Amendment right to buy a surface-to-air missile launcher with a valid library card and a six hour waiting period, but not at all about the stories of those affected negatively by the desired legislation, has never resonated with the Jesus of the Bible to me.

However, when I hear Kendrick rap about resisting the temptation to believe he betrayed his hometown or Sufjan sing about the grief of losing a parent, I see my own story in their story. Mine is different, of course, but, like all good art, their music allows me to import my own perspective without losing touch with the author’s intended message. As Buechner said, “the story of each one of us is, in some measure, the story of us all.” Stories allow us to see through the eyes of another and, in so doing, remove the shards of petty prejudices and personal insecurities that everyday life and our own brokenness has embedded in our souls.

I still don’t know if a Christian photographer should be able to legally deny services for a wedding that offends her moral sensibilities. More importantly, I don’t know if the Jesus of the Bible would have her do that. But I do know that as our political and faith leaders endlessly polarize over these important questions, we must find a space in our culture to hear the stories of those who see the world differently than we do and not merely the commentary of those who do not. These stories sneak past our watchful dragons of doctrinal allegiance and preferred political philosophy and allow us to hear and walk alongside even those who may reject and scorn us. What could be more like Jesus than that?

It’s Time to Repent for Donald Trump

Donald TrumpI think the time has come, friends. I think it’s time to stop pretending to be surprised, to stop pretending to be upset. I think it’s time to tell the truth and confess our sins.

We created Donald Trump. The South Carolina exit polls confirmed it but, honestly, we should have known a long time before then.  We, white evangelicals over the past 400 years in this country, we created Donald Trump. We are Doctor Frankenstein and he is our monster. We have done it in ignorance at times and in defiant awareness at others, but we have created him nonetheless. Our forefathers laid the groundwork and we the millennial generation have flipped the switch.

When our parents and grandparents invented the suburbs to make sure their kids would never have to grow up next to people of color, thus perpetuating generational isolation and ignorance, we created Donald Trump.

When we asked questions about why our public schools were teaching evolution and contraception but never why they were so badly failing our most marginalized children, we created Donald Trump.

When we bankrupted our urban cores to line the pockets of CEOs by shipping manufacturing overseas to dramatically reduce labor costs, we created Donald Trump.

When we stockpiled our 401ks and IRAs but never asked questions about whether our hard-earned money was actually empowering the profit prison and child labor markets worldwide, we created Donald Trump.

When we preached sermons and led Bible studies geared toward the upwardly mobile but failed to equip them for meaningful engagement with those who are not, we created Donald Trump.

When we failed to speak up when our uncles and parents and grandparents made those same racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic jokes at every family gathering we can remember, we created Donald Trump.

When we were paranoid about seeing women in hijabs and reading signs in Spanish in our grocery stores instead of thrilled to welcome the very nations to our doorstep to which we spend millions of dollars every year shipping short-term missionaries, we created Donald Trump.

Every time we perpetuated a culture of fear and indifference when faced with someone who looked or lived differently than us, we created Donald Trump.

It’s time to stop pointing the finger somewhere else. It’s time to stop pretending to be shocked. It’s time to lament. It’s time to repent.

My pastor spoke on the words of Nehemiah 1 the past two Sundays and I think we would do well to lament with his ancient words, inserting ourselves, our families, our churches, and our people group in the place of the Israelites:

When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said:  “Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.” – Nehemiah 1:4-7

After we have spent real time reflecting upon and confessing our own personal and corporate role in creating this fear-driven culture, only then can we take steps of true repentance. In an era of progress worship (both liberal and conservative), it is prophetic to look back, to have a collective memory longer than an election cycle.  As the saying goes, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.  We must not repeat our fathers’ sins in this generation; we must chart a new way forward.

So, what if instead of making America great again, we just tried to make it great for the first time? Great for everyone, regardless of their gender, skin color, place of birth, zip code, sexual orientation, employment status, or criminal history – what if our motivation this election season, regardless of who we vote for, was to make it great for everyone, especially those for whom it has long been far from great. That would be worth showing up for come November.

What Matters at 29

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Feasting My Eyes on the Technology of 2006

I have no real memory of my actual birthday in 2006 (or most years before I met my wife) but I remember a lot about the season of life in which it happened.  It was my freshman year at SLU and my parents were still living in the house where I grew up. My older brother was running the bakery we had started together during my senior year of high school. I had just changed my major from Finance to Theology and English Literature.  I had attended a few meetings of a little Christian group on campus called InterVarsity but I wasn’t really sure what I thought about it just yet.  Like many 19-year-olds, I was dating a girl I thought I would marry. Like most, I was wrong.

My life ten years later is dominated by the things that seemed peripheral to me ten years ago. At 19, I felt indifferent at best about living in Saint Louis – I remember feeling terrified to drive on the highways that felt so much bigger than Route 13 in my hometown. A few years later, my love for this city was one of a handful of shared passions that would bind me to a beautiful girl I first met while she was challenging some students and I to serve in the public school system here.

At 19, college was just another place for me to showcase my elite status to the world. I got good grades in high school and was president of a few mostly meaningless organizations and college would be another opportunity for me to build a hill where I could be King. I could never have guessed that the university world would become my home and the mission field I now see to be the most significant in the Western world.

I could keep going but, I suppose, my main observation of life at 29 is that the things that mattered most to me at 19 (with a few notable exceptions) are certainly not what matter most to me now. What was in the front and center of my mind at 19 has now fallen to the wayside. It was the fringes of my life and experiences that God used to get me where I am now. Like everything else, the margins were what changed the center, and not the other way around.

As I look down the barrel at the last year of my twenties, I can’t help but wonder what things feel important to me now that won’t matter at all at 39. What is happening at the fringes of my life now that will soon feel irreplaceable? Where is Jesus speaking but I currently lack the ears to hear? These are the questions I am pondering at 29. May the Lord give as much grace to my 29th year as he has given to every year before – I have no doubt that he will.

Best of 2015: Books

One of my goals for 2015 was to read a book every week. I blew it. Before I get into telling you which books I loved (and loved less or, frankly, disliked) from 2015, let me start with that confession. I had every intention of reading one book, every week, and then blogging a review of that book to help me process and integrate what I read into my life. It didn’t happen.

How badly did I miss the mark, you might be wondering? Pretty badly. I read 31 books this year (that I remember) – 25 non-fiction and 6 fiction. That works out to just a little over one book every two weeks. Not exactly setting any records but still somewhat of an impressive list when you type them all out single-space in Microsoft Word.

With no further ado, let me tell you what I thought was great in 2015, bearing in mind that this simply means books that I happened to read within the calendar year 2015, not necessarily books that came out in 2015. As C.S. Lewis taught me, old books are to be valued at least as highly, if not more so, than new, and so I tried to read some of both this year. Bear in mind as well that top five lists on the internet are so arbitrary and subjective that you might just as well ask a stranger on the street than take my opinions as helpful but, if you’re feeling especially curious, read on.

Non Fiction

This is the category in which I focus most of my reading time. As a campus minister working for an organization with its own press, I have ready access to a number of low-cost or free titles from what I believe to be the best Christian publishing company in the market and I take full advantage. That being said, on further reflection, it seems as though I read somewhat broadly this year – from academically rigorous research projects to popular theology to memoirs to practical ministry and beyond. Here were the top four from that list, in no particular order:

Knowing God by J.I. Packer
Knowing GodThere is much to praise about Packer’s classic theology but there is one specific element of his writing that moved me more than the rest: his questions. Like any great teacher, he is at his best when he is unpacking the mysterious and simplifying the complex realities of God. The worst theological writing oversimplifies to the point of minimization, leaving us with a god that may be understandable but seems so petty or boring as to curtail our desire to know him. I will contain my praise by sharing a few examples of how Packer uses questions to both provoke our apathies and lift our gaze up to the God he describes:

  • “If our God is the same as the God of New Testament believers, how can we justify ourselves in resting content with an experience of communion with him, and a level of Christian conduct, that falls so far below theirs?” (p. 81)
  • “And who are you to suppose that you will be the first exception, the first person to find God wavering and failing to keep his word? Do you not see how you dishonor God by such fears?” (p. 271)

Santa Biblia by Justo González
Santa BibliaThis book wrecked me in the best possible ways. One of the things I have most appreciated about my time with InterVarsity is the heavy value that has been instilled within me for fighting to understand the world from ethnic and cultural perspectives outside my own. This brief-yet-brilliant little book helps the reader understand some of the critical themes that underscore a Latin@ hermeneutic of Scripture and the Christian experience. As a white man living in Saint Louis in 2015, this book challenged my reading of Scripture from a position of privilege and power and caused me to look again at stories that I thought I knew, calling my attention to a God who aligns himself with the marginalized and beckons for the privileged to join him not in the centers of power but along the frontera, that place at the edge of our understanding and along the borders between two peoples where mutual growth and flourishing, instead of alienation and conquest, can thrive.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
New Jim CrowMuch ink has been spilled over this book’s brilliance and necessity “for such a time as this.” Dr. Cornel West called it “the secular bible of a new social movement” and that makes complete sense to me. This book challenged what I thought I understood about the depths of brokenness of the system of mass incarceration (hint: no matter how broken you thought our justice system was, it’s worse). However, the most startling parts of the book for me were Alexander’s brilliant retracing of the historical connections that link Mass Incarceration back to Jim Crow and back still to Slavery. As the saying goes, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. As I see Donald Trump continuing to rise in popularity, Alexander’s book haunts me and I pray that it will not be any more prophetic than it already has been. This book is a must-read, particularly for evangelicals trying to make sense of the #blacklivesmatter movement and other burgeoning populist social movements and their place in our nation’s history.

Beyond Awkward by Beau Crosetto
Beyond AwkwardMy only practical ministry book that made the best of cut. To be honest, I find a lot of “how-to” ministry books to be incredibly boring. Normally, the author has a handful of paradigms they are desiring to transfer into your skill set but, instead of creating a five-page PDF, they write a 200 page book, mostly filled with haphazard exegesis about how their acronym on discipleship was, can you believe it, what Jesus was doing all along! So simple – how did we miss that!?

This book, on the other hand, was the most practical evangelism book I have ever read. Crosetto, an IV staff in California, covers every issue I can imagine to address our natural fearful bent away from sharing our faith. From Spiritual Warfare to Asking Good Questions to Sharing Stories to Learning to Discern the Holy Spirit’s Voice, there are steps and tips all over the place, yet you never feel overwhelmed. The book has a natural progression that I think would be brilliant to go through with a group of leaders of any age desiring to grow in their ability to share the Gospel. The stories are useful as examples and the Scripture used is helpful without feeling like unnecessary page-filler. There’s even some additional videos and group resources that were created to aid in learning transfer. Overall, a great book.

Fiction

I’ll only include one entry here to round out my top-five, as my reading in 2015 was so heavily slanted toward non-fiction. I love fiction and was even an English Literature major in college, but these books always take me much longer to read. It’s probably because I can’t really count it as work hours but I’d like to believe it’s also because I tend to savor books more when I know the author put intentional thought into every word of every sentence. The fiction books I read this year were all worth savoring but one stands above the others, not in quality, but in how it broke my heart (another C.S. Lewisism for gauging whether a book is good or not):

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
Jayber CrowI actually don’t want to say much about this book because you just need to go buy it right now and read it. Berry is most famous for a series of books about a fictional rural farming town in Kentucky transitioning in the early-to-mid twentieth century away from previous generations who have valued community and longevity above all else to the rising generation escaping via newly formed highways and readily accessible automobiles to cities far from home. I have never ached for home or community more than when I read this book (and Hannah Coulter before it). Go buy it and then force your best friends to all move on to your block with you – that’s my plan from here.

Whew. We made it. Those were the five best books I read in 2015. If you’re curious and haven’t fallen asleep at your computer yet, I’ll include the full list from 2015 – feel free to comment below if you want recommendations from the further list.

Non-Fiction

  • The Question of Canon – Michael Kruger
  • The Permanent Revolution – Alan Hirsch & Tim Catchim
  • Life Together in Christ – Ruth Haley Barton
  • Miracle Work – Jordan Seng
  • The Return of the Prodigal Son – Henri Nouwen
  • Sacred Rhythms – Ruth Haley Barton
  • Emotionally-Healthy Spirituality – Pete Scazzero
  • Let’s All Be Brave – Annie Downs
  • A Long Obedience in the Same Direction – Eugene Peterson
  • Knowing God – JI Packer
  • The Next Evangelicalism – Soong-Chan Rah
  • The Good & Beautiful God – James Bryan Smith
  • Culture Making – Andy Crouch
  • The Meaning of Marriage – Tim Keller
  • Santa Biblia – Justo González
  • Different – Brian Sanders & Mike Patz
  • Influencer – Grenny, Patterson, et al
  • The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
  • Ragamuffin Gospel – Brennan Manning
  • Scary Close – Donald Miller
  • Reflections on Christian Leadership – Henri Nouwen
  • Beyond Awkward – Beau Crosetto
  • Learning to Walk in the Dark – Barbara Brown Taylor
  • Understanding Gender Dysphoria – Mark Yarhouse (honorable mention)
  • The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert – Rosaria Butterfield

Fiction

  • On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness – Andrew Peterson
  • North! Or Be Eaten – Andrew Peterson
  • The Monster in the Hollows – Andrew Peterson
  • The Warden and the Wolf King – Andrew Peterson
  • Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry
  • LOTR: The Two Towers – JRR Tolkien
    *Note: Andrew Peterson’s The Warden and the Wolf King, the fourth book in his Wingfeather Saga, came out in 2014, but I made myself re-read the previous three to recapture the story before finally finishing it this past year. It was beautiful and moving and a perfect ending to the saga. If you have kids, go buy those books. If you don’t have kids, admit that you still love kids’ books and go buy them anyway – you will not regret it.

A Summary of the First Week of School

In InterVarsity lingo, NSO stands for “New Student Outreach,” the first few weeks of the school year in which InterVarsity staff and student leaders meet incoming freshmen and other new friends and invite them to become part of our communities on campuses all over the country. These posts are a few snapshots of the beginning of the school year on a few of the campuses where I either staff or oversee other IV staff.  Click below to read blog posts from the first week of school.

NSO Day #0 – Find Your Faith at UMSL
NSO Day #1 – Free Lunch with Kale
NSO Day #2 – Proxe Stations at Webster
NSO Day #3 – Fall Expo at UMSL
NSO Day #4 – Exploring at Flo Valley