Social Media & Integrity: Everybody Wants Philly Jim

Jim and DwightNote: This is the third post in a six-part series on Christians and Social Media Engagement. You can read the introduction here and the other four parts herehere, here, and here.

There’s an episode of the American version of The Office in which Jim and Dwight play an online game called “Second Life.” In this game (or, multi-user virtual environment), players create an avatar of themselves that lives a day-to-day life controlled by the player. Jim creates an avatar to prank Dwight and, when Pam sees it, she is struck by a few of the features of Jim’s avatar: he plays guitar, lives in Philadelphia, and works as a sports writer. Unlike Dwight’s avatar, who is exactly like Dwight in every way (except he can fly), none of these things are true about Jim in real life; they seem to represent some sort of longing or wish fulfillment, a life that could have been. He creates a “second Jim” that is everything the real Jim seems to wish he was himself. Even Pam ends the scene with “I want to see more of Philly Jim. I want Philly Jim!”

There is a side to this sort of playing make-believe that is fairly innocuous and, at times, even laudable. When little kids dress up as firefighters or superheroes, they are essentially doing something very similar: putting on a second identity and embodying that for a limited time. There is something aspirational and good about little boys and girls pretending they are performing heroic deeds in the world, saving people from burning buildings or rescuing them from dubious villains. On another level, I have several friends who pick funny or tough-sounding screen names for themselves when they play games online or even as their Twitter or Instagram handle.   Again, this feels fairly innocuous. Part of what draws us into the online world is this very ability to refine or redefine our identity with a few keyboard strokes.

However, when we bring this sort of aspirational projection into the more public forums of social media, we begin to cross the line between the world of play and the world of public relations. One of the most formidable powers (and dangers) of social media is that we have the ability to create a “second life” online that influences how people view us offline.   Depending on our social distance from our friends and followers, we can use social media to sell people a version of ourselves that we wish we were. If we wish to appear as put-together parents, we can take a highly curated picture of the one corner of our house free of laundry and toys and post it on Instagram. If we wish to appear as socially aware, we can spend five minutes sifting through articles on The Atlantic and share one on Facebook.

Reputation, the standing we have in the eyes of our community, is one of the most powerful social motivators we have for growth as people. As human beings, we do not simply want to be people of character; we want to be known as people of character. This is a good thing – it’s part of how God has wired our societies to function. In the Scriptures, reputation is normally the key factor in a community’s decision to elect a person as a leader over them; it is how a community collectively declares, “We trust this person.” A good reputation is earned through a life lived in the public and private sphere with integrity to certain principles that are valued by that community.

But, what if you could short circuit that process? What if instead of having to change your actual day-to-day life and make tough, sacrificial decisions to prove yourself to your community, there existed a platform on which you could simply announce yourself as a person who believes certain things about the world and let people assume that these beliefs were the guiding principle of your lived action? This is precisely what social media offers us – the chance to craft a persona that may or may not have any correlation at all to our life offline.

The danger in doing this is not simply that we are telling half- or non-truths about ourselves, though that is certainly a problem. The more subtle and deeper danger is that we will be deceived by our own mythos into believing that we truly have become the person whose image we falsely project online. If we can convince our community that we are someone who deeply cares about an issue simply because we rant about it on Facebook, what incentive is left for us to actually live a life marked by that concern?

This is one of the temptations of what people often call “hashtag activism” or social media activism. In our day of unparalleled access to information and venues through which to share that information, it is impossible to actively respond to every social evil we see happening in the world around us. It is much easier to simply announce your position on an issue or injustice online than to get involved in it directly. Simply put, why would I miss work to drive to a protest downtown when I can just sit at my laptop and retweet what other people are posting from the action? Why would I lead my community to stop shopping at stores that enslave children in developing nations when I can share an article someone else wrote and secretly shop at that store online?

Now, of course, there is a certain value in simply sharing information about issues about which many people may be ignorant. I have personally learned a lot about a number of topics because my friends posted about them online. However, in our desire to “raise awareness” uncoupled from meaningful action, we inevitably rob ourselves of the social incentive to get involved in the fight because we are so easily able to convince ourselves and others that we are doing our part by posting online. This is doubly bad in that our desire for others’ “awareness” often convinces them as well that once they are “aware” of the issue, their work is done too. They are simply following our lead that posting online is all the action one needs to take.

To summarize, one of the temptations we face with social media is the temptation to remake our public image without doing the hard work of remaking our private lives, to live a “second life” online that has very little to do with our real life. Whether its our marriage or our parenting skills or our political engagement, this ability to adjust perception without adjusting reality exists on every level. So how do we fight against this? How do we fight for integrity between who we are in our everyday lives and who we project ourselves to be on social media? Here are a couple thoughts:

Set an Integrity Rule for Yourself and/or Your Family

In our age, I see this as a legitimate spiritual discipline. If you’re a parent, perhaps you could decide that for every two pictures of your children looking perfectly groomed, you will post one picture of a disaster moment from your household that day. If you’re a pastor or ministry leader, you could decide that for every story you success story you share about your leadership online you will spend an hour investing in an up-and-coming leader in your community. If you’re someone who loves posting about political issues, maybe you decide that for every article you share, you’ll also share (and commit to going) to a local event where you and others can take action on that cause or a creative way for people to get involved privately.

The important thing for us is to ask ourselves the question, “When other people view me on social media, are they seeing who I actually am in real life?” If you cannot answer yes to that question, adopt some sort of discipline to begin moving toward integrity. Start small and commit to moving forward from where you are.

Ask for Feedback

As I mentioned in my introductory post, I have said some silly things online that I have later had to go back and repent for both publicly and privately. One of the things I have learned from these embarrassing moments is that I need external feedback to keep my integrity in check when it comes to social media. For me, my wife is the best source of this feedback as she both loves me deeply and is deeply committed to the truth; she cares how I am perceived by my community and pushes me to be honest and caring in how I present myself online.

Who in your life could you ask to provide you with honest feedback on your social media life? What if you lifted your eyes for a moment and asked someone else to read that Tweet before you sent it? What if you showed somebody else that picture of yourself before you posted it on Snapchat or Instagram? What if you gave a couple people in your community permission to call you out if you were failing to live up to the ideals you project on Facebook? Again, the specifics are not as important as the commitment to integrity. Deception thrives in darkness and isolation; how could you begin to bring yourself into the light of real relationships and vulnerability?

The temptation to shortcut the process of true change and growth by deceiving ourselves and others with our online persona is real and strong. As followers of Jesus, we must be committed to the truth at every turn, particularly the truth of our own brokenness and the power that Jesus alone (and not our social deception) has to make us new.

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Social Media & Self-Education: Beware the Echo Chamber

Echo ChamberNote: This is the second post in a six-part series on Christians and Social Media Engagement. You can read the introduction here and the final four parts herehere, here, and here.

“Faithful are the wounds of a friend…”
Proverbs 27:6

There was a time in my life when I thought it was my destiny to become a famous singer-songwriter. It was my sophomore year of college. I had been writing songs for a few years at that point and, like most nineteen-year-olds, I was full of deep, thoughtful commentary on life and love and loss. The songs came around the time that I was living in close community with a few legitimately talented musicians and we began playing shows at bars and coffee shops around Saint Louis.

I came home once during winter break and met with an old friend for coffee one night at Steak ‘n’ Shake. I was excited to tell him about all the places where we had played and the cool bands we had opened for all over town. He was a few years older than me and had been my youth minister during high school. As our coffee arrived, he looked at me and I suddenly realized he had more than just a casual catch-up conversation in mind. He set his coffee down, interlaced his fingers, and said something to the effect of “Kale, I know you really want this music career to work out but I have to tell you, you don’t sing well enough to make it as a professional musician.” He picked up his mug and took a long drink, leaving me to process the bursting of my dream bubble as I stammered for words to respond.

Now, that may sound harsh to you but I can tell you (ten years later) that it was a profoundly liberating moment for me. In a sea of friends telling me I was great and coming to our shows, he was the first person who had the guts to say something that created dissonance in my mind, that didn’t just confirm everything I believed about myself and seemed to be hearing from every other corner of my life. As a musician, there are few things better for you than people willing to tell you the truth about your skills and challenge you to see yourself in the light of day, not simply the light of a daydream.

What was true for me as a musician has also been true for me in every other realm of my life: I need to be surrounded by people who will, at times, disagree with me and share perspectives that don’t line up with my own.   However, I also must admit that there are few things more comforting in life than being surrounded by people who only agree with and encourage me. In small doses, this kind of encouragement is life-giving and necessary; we all need support and even emotional safety at times – the ability to speak without having to give context or explain ourselves among people who simply know us and get it. But, as a lifestyle, this sort of community can become an echo chamber that only serves to inflate our egos and distort our self-awareness with devastating results.

There are few places that exude this reality like social media. In no previous generation has there ever been a social platform that can give such vast and immediate feedback to our every thought and opinion. In under 30 seconds, I can open an app on my phone, share a thought or image from my life, and receive gratification in the form of likes, retweets, shares, and especially pushback, which is normally used as validation of my stance (“Of course they don’t like it! They’re a raging liberal/conservative/stay-at-home-mom/work-outside-the-home-mom/whatever is the opposite of me”) as opposed to legitimate critique requiring intellectual re-evaluation of my thoughts on the matter.

My own outputs aside, the other dangerous side of the social media coin is that I have vast control over what inputs I decide to receive, in the form of whom I decide to follow and whom I decide to block or hide. If someone disagrees with me, I can simply hide their posts. If a news site or opinion page agrees with me, I “like” it, triggering Facebook’s algorithms to show me similar pages, leading me down a staggering confirmation bias rabbit hole at the bottom of which I can be shown hundreds of inputs everyday that never challenge even my vainest prejudices about the world and people around me. What could be more comforting than that?

But, let’s say that like me, you value critical community and don’t desire to live your life in a circle of nodding heads validating your every opinion. How can you use social media as a tool for self-education and not simply vindication?

Follow People Who Are Different Than You

I think this is especially true if you, like me, are a straight, white, Christian male from a middle-class family. Though we have every advantage imaginable in essentially every field imaginable, the one glaring intellectual disadvantage we have (in this one very specific sense) is that our perspective on life is constantly viewed as normative. We must be vigilant against our own ignorance because we are perpetually surrounded by images and ideas that assert the superiority of our worldview.

White folks aside, Social Media can be a huge asset for anyone in the war against our own ignorance. Are you normally a socially progressive person? Follow a few thoughtful conservative journalists on Twitter. Do you find yourself in perpetual disagreement with the #blacklivesmatter movement or the Anti-Abortion agenda? Like one related page on Facebook and simply permit yourself to be exposed to a small degree of intellectual dissonance, even if only for a few minutes a day.

Engage Respectfully With People Who Disagree With You

If you’re like me, you probably have at least a handful of friends who post things you disagree with on Facebook or Twitter. Instead of writing them off as intellectually or morally inferior to you, which we are prone to do, engage respectfully with them. What does respectful engagement look like? Ask questions, particularly about their journey toward that viewpoint or their understanding of its practical impact on the world.

I have some friends on Facebook who are against tightening restrictions on firearms, a position that I personally hold. However, they are incredibly generous in conversation and open to me asking personal questions or positing imaginary scenarios in which I would find it hard to hold their view. They take the time to respond thoughtfully and our conversations always end amicably. In fact, I would argue that my own rhetoric against guns has become more thoughtful because of our conversations, partially because I actually know some kind, intelligent people who are passionately in favor of guns and I consider them friends. This is the power of empathy, of imagining ourselves in the shoes of someone else; it tears down the façade we have that those who disagree with us do so because they are morally or intellectually inferior.

Let Social Media Lead You into (not out of) Deeper Relationships

In the wake of the past few years of political and social turbulence, some of my friends have vocalized their decision to unfollow certain people in their circles on social media in order to maintain friendships with them in real life. Though I understand (and at times have shared) this sentiment, I also see it as a sad commentary on friendship in our exceedingly subcultural world. As I mentioned earlier, one of the unfortunate side effects of highly user-controlled platforms like Facebook and Twitter is that it is very possible to narrow down your viewing to only posts that bolster your own perspective. The more that we subject ourselves to this, it seems, the more trouble we have maintaining relationships with people offline who have dissenting viewpoints. When social media caters to my every whim and I spend lots of time on it every day, how long until I expect my neighborhood or church or job or any community I am in to do the same? How long until I “unfollow” these same people in my real life by not stopping to talk to them at the grocery store or allowing my mind to feed me the same negative thoughts I have when I see them in real life as when I see their posts online?

There is another way, though, that social media could actually fight against this easy slope toward the personal echo chamber it offers at every turn. What if you began following and “un-hiding” a few people with whom you disagree? What if instead of angrily rattling off a rant on their posts, you just picked up your phone and invited them over for donuts and conversation? What if social media became the avenue by which your real relationships expanded instead of contracted (plus, more donuts!). Who knows what thoughtful, compassionate, diverse communities might form from a few minutes of dissonance everyday?

I’ll end with this: If integrity is being whom you say you are when no one is watching, intellectual integrity is believing what you say you believe when surrounded by those who disagree with you. It’s easy to believe something in a crowded room of people who agree with you. What good is a belief that’s never been tested by opposition? It’s relatively easy to call abortion “baby murder” when you are surrounded on every side by established, middle-class families with plenty of disposable income to provide for additional children. It’s also relatively easy to call a bathroom ordinance “bigotry” when you are surrounded on every side by people who don’t have little kids using those bathrooms.

When our walls come down and we allow ourselves to be in real, genuine community with people who disagree with us, our opinions and worldview might not change. In fact, if they are based in truth, they shouldn’t change. However, we will change; we will become more compassionate and, oddly enough, more intellectually credible and authentic, because our ideas have been tested by the fire of opposition, not simply reverberated by the padded walls of the echo chamber.

Social Media & The Christian: An Introduction

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

“With great power comes great responsibility” – Uncle Ben to Peter Parker

One of my favorite things over the past few years about the arrival of spring and summer has been the plethora of superhero blockbusters that come with the warm weather and ending of the school year. I love the spectacle and hype that builds as final trailers are released a couple weeks before the premier. As someone with a bit of an obsessive personality, I love the interconnected universes and the way movies reference and call back to each other or forward to movies yet to come. But in a more general way, I also just love any movie that thoughtfully examines the question of what normal people would do if they were suddenly given access to incredible power.

In my mind, no superhero story does this better than Spider-man. If you’re not hip to his origin story (get with it people – we’ve had 3 different Spider-men over the past 15 years), a boy named Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, which gives him a handful of vaguely spider-related super-abilities. Like many superheroes, he spends the first few weeks using his newfound powers selfishly, only later realizing that his new gifts come with the responsibility of using them for the greater good. Spider-man’s story is uniquely tragic because it is in this small window that his own selfishness leads indirectly to the death of his Uncle Ben, the only father figure in his life, whose famous words challenge Peter at every turn: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

A few weeks back, some dear friends asked me to write a blog on Christians and social media engagement. Filled with flattery and intrigued by the concept, I began sketching out what I feel like I have learned over the past few years, mostly through making mistakes, about healthy and unhealthy usages of social media in the life of a follower of Jesus, particularly where it comes to our engagement with both power and responsibility on the Internet.

Those who know me won’t be surprised to find that though asked for one blog post, I here respond with six. What will follow weekly for the next five weeks will be posts covering four interconnected topics and how they intersect and intertwine with social media – self-education, integrity, conflict, and influence – culminating in a sort of application challenge in the six and final blog, putting these observations together into a hopefully helpful set of questions that can be used to gauge the level of health underlying our social media engagement.

By way of introduction, I want to briefly describe the lens through which I view social media, as well as my own credentials for writing such a clearly self-indulgent series of posts. One of the most disruptive results of the Internet age is that many forms of media that were once controlled by a handful of elite professionals in a few select cities on the planet are now in the hands of anyone with a Wi-Fi connection. From TV and music content creation to news and personal access, this vast democratization of information is an incredible power transfer the ramifications of which we will likely not fully understand for at least a generation. As Uncle Ben continues to teach us, with such great power comes great responsibility.

What does it mean to responsibly steward the power we are granted by the Internet? That fascinating question is well beyond the scope of this blog (and writer) but I do want to think about it within what I will call the two sides of social media engagement. Like all forms of communication, social media involves both inputs and outputs. Inputs are interfaces through which we absorb information. Outputs are interfaces through which we contribute information for others to absorb. For example, on Instagram, I can participate both through scrolling through my feed and absorbing the pictures/videos and the information they provide (inputs). I can also participate by posting my own pictures/videos and by liking and commenting either positively or negatively on the media of others (outputs).

This is the heart of what makes social media so unique. In other forms of media, any given person is either a content creator or a content absorber but the roles almost never overlap and the speed with which either can influence the other in their role is relatively slow. When a new movie comes out, its creation process has often ceased months before it is absorbed by viewers. In fact, in the age of blockbuster universe-building, many studios are already months into the production of sequels before the opinions of content absorbers can ever bring any bearing on future content creation.

However, thanks to Twitter, when a major public event happens anywhere on the planet, eyewitnesses can take on the role of both content absorbers and content creators, building a collective story around what happened and its implications. In Saint Louis, following the death of Mike Brown, many of us found that Twitter was a much more immediate and often more reliable source of news than any of our major news outlets regarding the protests and happenings in the grand jury’s consideration of evidence against Darren Wilson.

Social media confers a unique power into the hands of its users: the power to democratically participate in creating information for anyone to absorb combined with unheard of access into the minds of virtually anyone on the planet. So what is the responsibility that comes with such unprecedented power? Can such a tool be used by Christians in our mission to be “salt and light,” bringing the Good News of the Resurrection of Jesus to bear on every corner of our broken world? Those are the two questions that these blog posts will humbly attempt to answer.

Lastly, let me say a word about why I personally feel compelled to write on this topic. I was born in the heart of the millennial generation and, as such, have been the target demographic for the transfer of this power. Facebook moved beyond Harvard the year before I went away to college and, at the time, still required a .edu email address to access. Like everyone else in their late 20s, I was part of the first group of people to become an adult in the age of mass access to the Internet while still remembering the time before its ubiquity. We children of the late 80s and early 90s will, by virtue of our birth, become living time capsules for future generations as those transitioning from pre-automobile and pre-television generations have been before us.

On a more personal note, I also desire to write on the tension of power and responsibility in social media because it is a constant struggle in my own life. I have said some incredibly silly things on the Internet that I have had to repent for both publicly and privately. I have also had a handful of people tell me that my pictures and words, as small and meaningless as they sometimes seem, have been a source of immense encouragement to them. As an agent in God’s redemptive plan to bring all of creation under the Lordship of his victorious Son, I long to see every redeemable avenue of power harnessed to shine the light of Jesus into every dark corner of our broken hearts and broken systems. For me, regardless of who does or does not read these posts, this will be a reflective exercise of working out my own issues and confessing my own sins before it is critical toward anyone else.

So I invite you to come with me on this layman’s journey to see where the mission of God and the power of social media intersect and overlap. If you have any specific topics or questions you would like to see discussed, don’t hesitate to post them in the comments below. As always, thanks for reading.

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.

Planting Lessons: Prayer and Preparation

A quiet morning overlooking the soccer field at Flo Valley

A quiet morning overlooking the soccer field at Flo Valley

And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia
Acts 16:13-14a

One of my least favorite memories of my time as an InterVarsity staff at SLU was the time that I was asked to lead a prayer at Greek Convocation, a service held in College Church to celebrate the beginning of the year for Greek Life. I had spent a few months trying to start a Greek ministry on campus and it was starting to take off a little bit and some of the kind folks in the Greek Life Department asked me to say a prayer over the community as the rush season began. I felt really honored.

Not honored enough though, apparently, to overcome one of my crippling weaknesses in life – time management. I was having coffee with a friend right before the service was supposed to start and underestimated the amount of time it would take to get to SLU from the coffee shop. I also underestimated the amount of time it would take to park on campus (who decided Greek Convocation Day was also a good day to host another large conference on campus that used the parking garage?).

By the time I parked, it was five minutes before convocation was supposed to start. I grabbed my suit jacket, threw on my dress shoes, and ran from the garage to the church. By the time I got there, it was my turn to pray – unbeknownst to me, I was the first thing on the agenda. Awesome. I whipped my jacket on and huffed my way up to the podium – whoops, wrong podium – I was pointed across the stage to the other podium.  Fumbling with the microphone, I quickly realized, between gasps, that I had no idea how to introduce myself nor what came after me so I just decided to jump right in.

Then, sweat rolling down my face, I also came to the harrowing awareness that the run I had just taken was much further than I thought and it was gonna take me a good couple minutes to fully catch my breath – minutes I did not have to spare.  Suffice it to say, I mouth-breathed my way through what had to have been the most awkward prayer of all time, which was also a prayer I was making up on the spot (hard to prep on the way when you’re panicking about your time). Believe it or not, that was the only time they ever asked me to do Greek Convocation.

I tell you that story to give you a snapshot of one the key ways the Lord has had to break me over my years in ministry.  Before and during much of my tenure as an InterVarsity staff, I have been able to “wing it” through much of what IV staff has put in front of me. I love building relationships with people and love investing time deeply into college campuses; meaningful preparation for that time, though, has always been the shallow end of my talent pool. After all, doesn’t prep time just take away from time with students? Shouldn’t I just trust the Spirit to prepare me for my time on campus?

This year, my talent for winging it encountered the unsubtle brick wall of planting a new ministry on a community college campus. I quickly found that my charm and charisma (at least what little the Lord saw fit to bless me with) was quickly overshadowed by my fear of new surroundings and unfamiliar students. I walked around campus and simply had no idea what to do. How do you build a ministry where you know literally no one? How do you start conversations as a 28-year-old, non-student who had to use Google Maps to find the right highways into this part of town?

Somewhere along the way, the Lord brought to mind a passage I had led students through at our Urban Project over Spring Break this year – Acts 16 – the beginning of the church at Philippi through Paul’s interactions with Lydia. I love this story for so many reasons, but mostly because Paul’s normal plans for engaging a city fell apart right from the beginning. He normally went into town and looked for a synagogue from which to preach the Gospel. When he showed up in Philippi, there weren’t enough Jewish men to even have a synagogue. What do you do as a foreigner in a new place when your previous strategies can’t get you in the door?

Luke tells us that Paul went to where he could find “a place of prayer.” From that place, a riverside gathering of faithful women (not men!), the church at Philippi came into being. Everything came out of that place of prayer. Their interaction with the slave girl that leads to the conversion of the jailer later on in Acts 16 also began as they were on their way to the place of prayer.

This story came rushing back into my mind one day while feeling helplessly uncertain of my role on campus and I remembered back to my first time at Flo Valley, when the Lord showed me this soccer field just off the edge of campus. I remember feeling a serene sense of peace and acceptance in that place, like Jesus just wanted me to linger there awhile. It was one of the evidences to me that the Lord was calling me to Flo Valley – the presence of this peaceful place where the Spirit seemed to be so tangible to me. Perhaps this could be my place of prayer. Maybe the Lord would bring me a Lydia – some insider to the campus who would be receptive to the Gospel and through whom the entire campus might be reached by Jesus.

So to the soccer fields I go, every morning before I do anything else at Flo Valley. No more running from meeting to meeting, hoping my theology and experience and “eloquent speech” can carry me through to whatever “ministry success” I hope to find that day. I am learning to stop, to listen, to wait for the Lord. I am learning that these moments of prayer and preparation are themselves part of the calling – that the Lord desires to shape me in silence, stillness, and dependence as much as he desires to reach the campus in word, deed, and power.

It is from this place that I have seen the Lord do incredible things, even small ones, this semester. It is at this place that my co-workers, alumni from SLU, local pastors, and other friends have met me to prayer-walk the campus. It is at this place that many conversations with intrigued seekers, politely uninterested skeptics, and even a few believing professors have taken shape. I’m not sure if we’ve found our Lydia yet, but I feel like I at least know how we will.

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

There Goes the Guest Room

New Guest RoomThe following post was written by my incredibly talented wife, Emily, about our journey into the foster care process.

Thank you to all of you who have come to visit over the years. You chose one of the following fantastic options: sleep on couches, share my twin size bed with me, or take a sleeping bag to the floor.

One very lucky couple (I’m looking at you Justin and Maggie!) got to enjoy our real, grown up guest room! When Kale and I got married we slept in his (childhood) full size bed for about 18 months before we (by God’s sweet grace) inherited a semi-new queen size bed. Not only did this vastly improve our sleeping patterns, but it allowed us to donate our mattress to our guest room. It wasn’t glamorous but it fit 2 humans rather comfortably. One full size human for sure…probably up to two standard deviations.

Ok, ok, so the doors to our fabulous new guest room only semi-shut, and it housed all the extra junk that had no real place to be put…but this was quite the upgrade from our living room couch.

But Kale and I are clearing out the guest room as we speak.

Because the guest room is dying.

But it’s ok. Because the death of our guest room equals the birth of a new room.

The room where the kids we’re planning to welcome into our home in a few months will sleep. And do a lot of playing. And some living.

What kids you ask? Well, we actually don’t know who they will be. Or how old they’ll be. Or exactly how many kids there will be. Or when exactly they’ll come. Actually, we don’t know too much about these kids right now.

But we do know that we’ll wrap up our foster care classes in mid-October and hopefully finish a successful home study soon after. We’ve been fingerprinting, filling out oodles of paperwork, doing lots of studying and homework, and attending weekly 3 hour classes to get ready for these little ones. We’re open to two kids, preferably under the age of 5, but we’re somewhat flexible.

The teachers of our foster care class say we’re supposed to be preparing our family and friends for this change that will soon take place in our lives. So consider this the first step of your preparing.

Why are we doing foster care, you ask?

That’s a good question. And I have had a breakdown or two where I myself say “what the heck are we doing?!” But that’s good because it has led to some really good question asking, soul searching and praying. So back to your question,

Why are we doing foster care?

 1.  Adoption and foster care are on our hearts. My first fight with Kale was about adoption. We had only been dating a few months but I didn’t want to go any farther in our relationship without having some big questions answered. I wanted to know if Kale was the kind of person who would pick up and move to Haiti if he felt God called him there. I wanted to know if he cared more about chasing God than chasing the American dream. And I needed to know if he was open to adoption. I felt pretty strongly that I wanted to adopt and if we were on different pages about that then I wasn’t sure I wanted to move forward in our relationship.

Let me add a bit of clarification here (especially for all my social work friends that are reading along). You don’t do foster care to adopt kids. At least not in Missouri. You do foster care to provide support to families who need it. The goal is to reunify the family and you are part the team that is helping the family do this. After about a year (sometimes more), that family support team may start making concurrent plans about where the child could be placed if it doesn’t seem like reunification will be an option. Guardianship with another family member is often the next goal; outcomes for kids who live with family members tend to be better than for kids who don’t. If all of those options don’t work, then the foster family may be considered as potential adoptive parents.

We’ve also learned that you can’t adopt kids (through the state) that are under the age of 10, at least not at this moment. Adopting through the state would honestly be the option we are most interested in, but at least right now we’d really like to welcome kids that are age 5 or under (we are very new parents after all). We’ve considered some other adoption options (more on that in #2) but have ultimately decided to pursue fostering. If the need arose, however, we would be open to adopting foster kids in our care.

I do want to be REALLY clear though, especially for those of you who will be meeting the kids that stay with us. Foster kids are not our kids. We are providing temporary care for them. We are cheering for reunification with their family. We are preparing to love their family and provide massive support however we can.

2.  We’ve decided not to pursue private adoption. If you made it through #1 you may be thinking “wait a minute, if you want to adopt and you can’t adopt a younger kid through the state, why aren’t you doing private adoption”.

We’ve thought about this A LOT. And we are open to someday pursuing private adoption,but we don’t feel like this is for us right now. We would need to raise a rather sizeable amount of money. We know we have a lot of loving and supportive friends who would likely jump in with support, we also know that we can apply for grants and tax credits. We also know that God would provide. But with Kale raising his salary and the costs to plant and run campus ministries at two local colleges, we are slow to take on more fundraising. Many friends, family members, and more support our family financially and we are deeply grateful. Someday we may also share with you about our plans to pursue private adoption and ask you to consider supporting us financially. We’ve supported a lot of our friends as they’ve adopted and we have been HONORED to do so.  But for now, we’ve decided this isn’t the right path for us.

Furthermore, my job affords me the opportunity to learn a lot about foster care in our region. I’ve learned about the thousands of Missouri kids in the foster care system and the lack of foster families to provide care for them. Many potential foster families don’t make it through the (rather lengthy and intensive) application and licensure process. Of those that do, only 40% will do foster care for more than a year. While there is a need for all types of adoption, Kale and I felt our heart tugged toward the kids in the state’s care.

So we recognize the foster care decision is hard. We honestly don’t know that we’ll make it through the process. It’s incredibly vulnerable to share with the world wide web that we are trying this. But we are humbly and slowly moving forward, hoping that we can provide support to kids and families who may need it. We think that someday we may also pursue private adoption, but for right now we think foster care is right for us.

3.  We can. I know it seems simple, but when you add up our answers to 1 and 2…you get our 3. God has opened up our hearts (at least right now) to care for kids that are not biologically or legally ours. We specifically feel burdened for the many kids that are in the state’s custody. He has given us a home with a spare room. He has provided us with jobs that allow us to financially support a child. And although it’s simple, it makes sense to us.

Now if you’re making the same assumption as some of our foster care training materials, you may be wondering if we are able to have kids biologically. Honestly, we don’t know. I’ll let you mull over that mystery, but I can tell you that right now this is our plan – to pursue this prompting that we feel like God has put on our hearts. I hope that someday we have a family full of kids, some of whom are adopted and some who are homemade. We don’t need all of our kids to start with us as babies, but we hope to have a few of those too.

We don’t have a ton of answers right now, but we are on the path to foster care. So if you come over, you will be sleeping on the couch. And there may be some kids (and one fat dog) climbing all over you as you try to rest.

Thank you for caring to read about our life update. Thank you for your support and love as part of our community. To those of you that might be interested in offering support, we’ll have more about ways to do that coming soon!