Christian life

Holy Week: Making Ready

More than any other Gospel writer, Matthew records how Jesus spent the last week before his Crucifixion. From the city-snarling Triumphal Entry, through the public scandal of clearing the Temple, through the Star Chamber councils of the public religious leaders, Matthew gives a historically rare, almost day-by-day record of how Jesus spent the last week of his public ministry.

As I’ve read through the chapters, a theme has emerged that threads through almost everything Jesus said and did in what we call the first Holy Week:

Readiness for the coming of the Lord.

The managers of the Temple, with their perverse preoccupation with commerce, aren’t ready to worship God or love his people.

The fig tree, with leaves but no fruit, is not ready to be harvested by the master of nature.

The wicked tenants aren’t ready to receive their master.

The scribes and Pharisees, who should of all people be most ready to welcome Yahweh into the world, are too obsessed with their own glory to see him.

If it shows up in modern Christian thought at all, the language of “readiness” has been co-opted by dispensationalists pointing at their Rapture calendars. To adapt Chesterton’s language, the worst possible fate has struck it: it’s been associated with the unfashionable.

But if Jesus made it the theme - in teaching, action, and story - of his last big, public week, then maybe we could take a breath and ask what it might mean.

What are we making ready for?

First, what are we supposed to be ready for?

Jesus builds the expectation around a few key images / metaphors:

1. A harvest

The Temple, the fig tree, the tenant parable, and the prophecy of the final judgment show God (represented by Jesus) collecting the “fruit” of his people’s work.

Many Old Testament offerings came after major “harvests,” either of vegetables or of animals in breeding season. The firstfruits of Israel’s produce were offered to God, showing Israel’s dependence on his provision, before the remaining bounty was enjoyed in fellowship with God and with one another. It was a physical reminder that Israel, like all humanity, were stewards of God’s creation.

Jesus’ parables do address the use of physical “fruit;” but, as his indictment of the Temple managers and religious leaders makes clear, God also expects a “spiritual harvest” in the worship, well-being, and care of his people’s souls. We’re to be prepared to offer fruit to God.

2. An evaluation

Related to the image of the harvest, Jesus tells us that the Master - God - will examine and evaluate the work of his people. All through this section, people are judged “prepared” or “not prepared” for God’s coming kingdom:

  • The fruitless fig tree
  • The “fruitless” Temple
  • The sons who do (or do not do) the Father’s will
  • The man not dressed for the wedding feast
  • The sheep versus the goats

The combined force of teaching after teaching drives it home: we are to be ready to be evaluated by God. The next question leads us to what he’s looking for, but he’s looking.

3. A wedding feast

This may come as a surprise after the intensity of the second idea, but Jesus uses the language unmistakably often: there’s a party coming. In some ways, the end of history is going to look like a wedding feast thrown by God himself. There’s a joyful end coming, and everyone ready is going to be invited.

The rest of the Scriptures flesh out these pictures of the end of time: the moment when God blows the whistle on this season, and says it’s time to collect instead of work. When God judges the world, sorting the just and the unjust from one another. And when God throws a better-than-the-end-of-a-Harry Potter-movie feast for his people, swallowing up the shroud of death itself and celebrating the marriage of his Son to the Church, the Bride.

What does readiness mean?

So if this what we’re called to be ready for, who is and isn’t ready?

The God-glorifying versus the self-glorifying

One bright line is drawn between those who build their lives around God’s glory, and those who build around their own.

The parable of the tenants and the condemnation of the religious leaders makes this clear. Stewards, who didn’t own the property they worked and should have gladly offered it back to the owner, schemed instead to keep all the good for themselves. Leaders who should have been concerned first with God’s glory drew others’ praise to themselves instead.

A classical Christian definition of sinful man was incurvatus in se, “incurved on the self.” Those obsessed with their own praise or popularity literally cannot see God, because their eyes are too full of themselves.

By contrast, even the son who at first says “no” to his father, then changes his mind and does what he was asked, is declared obedient. The “tax collectors and prostitutes” (Matthew 21:31) receive the kingdom of God, if they turn from themselves and look to him instead. To be ready for the coming of the Lord is to be living for God’s glory rather than our own.

The others-serving versus the self-serving

Another bright line - maybe the starkest, in Jesus’ prophecy of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46) is between those who serve others and those who serve themselves.

The cursed in this prophecy aren’t cursed because of active sin: Jesus doesn’t say, “you starved me, imprisoned me,” etc. They’re cursed because they failed to care for others, because they did not take opportunities to do good that they could have.

By contrast, those welcomed into the kingdom - shocked as they are by Jesus’ words - are those who made time to serve the needy. Those who cared for the hungry, the poor, the stranger. Readiness for the coming of God is not a “heavenly-mindedness” that makes us step over the needs of others; heavenly-mindedness is giving our attention and our time to serve others.

The faithful versus the forgetful

This one may seem stranger than the others, but Jesus also draws a line between those who are simply willing to respond to God’s call, and those who get distracted. The parable of the wedding feast (22:1-14) contrasts people too preoccupied with their business to answer the king’s invitation, with the random people off the streets who accept it. A faithful servant keeps to his duties, even when his master is delayed; a faithless one abandons his post (24:25-51). The faithful bridesmaids prepared themselves to wait longer at their posts than they expected (25:1-13).

God has not told us when this coming will happen: Jesus himself said that even he didn’t (24:36). We’ve waited for 2000 years so far; it could happen tomorrow, or could happen ten or a hundred thousand years from now. It’s tempting as we get older to abandon our waiting: to start looking after concerns like our retirement, or those countries in Europe we haven’t visited, instead of God’s kingdom. But very clearly, God has said he wants to find his people waiting when he comes.

Waiting on this side of Easter

I was more sobered by this study than I thought I would be. The intensity of Jesus’ warnings feels more like a burden than a liberation. And maybe it should: Jesus had come into the city to die, and he’s told his followers they should expect the same. As we’ve studied in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has more often personalized and intensified the claims of God’s law than lightened them. We’re still called to readiness.

But Jesus’ death and resurrection give us two (they give us so many, but two big ones) tools to strengthen us in making ready for the coming of the Lord.

1. The assurance of God’s grace

The first tool is the assurance that God has buried all our sins, all our failures, and left them in the dirt. That anyone who turns their watchfulness - their faithful waiting - to Jesus receives a once-for-all victory over self-glory, self-serving, and existential distraction. That when we find ourselves in those things, we can confess them, grieve them, and know that they too were crucified with Christ.

2. The assurance of hope

We may wait our entire lives without seeing God return. Even in the few decades after all this happened, people were asking why God seemed so slow (2 Peter 3). With such a long delay, we can be tempted to give up hope.

But Jesus’ resurrection - his rising from the dead, into the seed-life of the new creation (1 Corinthians 15:42-45) - shows us that there is a new creation coming. There is a beautiful finish on the way. And as we make ready, we can know that the king is alive, and the king is coming again.

Image: He Qi, "The Women at the Tomb"

Roll Like a River

Let justice roll like a river, like a river let it roll
Let justice roll like a river, like a river let it roll
Let it roll
Let it roll

A few weeks ago, I stood with my church family and let that powerful song flow through me. I closed my eyes and belted out the words and felt them down to my toes.

The world has been so ugly lately.

Correction: The world has always been ugly, but lately it's been punching us in the face hard enough to draw blood. It’s everywhere: Oppression. Destruction. Hate. Pain. Suffering. Nature, cruel and indifferent. Mankind, cruel and indifferent.

Our only hope - my only hope - is that God is neither of those things. That he is good, and that he cares to the point of painful death. That's the truth I’m trying to cling to.

So on that particular day, so overwhelmed by evil on all sides that I didn't even know how to pray or what to ask for, I lifted up my hands to him and cried out, "Just wipe it all away! Unmake the evil systems we've designed. Wash away our selfishness and greed. Let justice roll like a river!"

Then a chill washed over me. I had to sit down for a moment. I stopped singing as the truth sank in.

Straight talk: I am an educated white woman in my forties. I have three white children with bright and promising futures. Under the existing systems and structures, they will be able to have any life they want. So here's the truth that faces me. It's a hard truth and a deeply personal one.

If justice rolls like a river, it will roll over me.

I have everything to lose. I live in the valley of white privilege, protected by the dam of systemic injustice. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t build the dam: I was born in its shade, and it is sweet down here. The grass is green. My children are happy. Their future is secure. There's a reason no one wants to blow up the dam, you know? A whole new world might not be as idyllic for me and mine.

Please believe me: I hate that only a few get to live in this valley. I hate that people are literally dying of thirst downstream, that others drown in the overflow or get shot trying to find a way in. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love my easy life.

Am I truly ready to put myself in the hands of a righteous God? Am I ready to call down his justice and let the waters wash away structures that keep my family comfortable? Am I ready for my children to be set adrift with only his mercy to steer them?

Those are big questions. But there’s another one that’s so, so much bigger.

If I’m not ready for that, what am I doing pretending to worship him?

Here is the God I claim to follow:

This is what the Lord Almighty said: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry. “When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,” says the Lord Almighty. (Zechariah‬ 7:9-13,‬ NIV‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬)

I said I wanted him to care, right? He cares. He cares so much that his anger is burning.

And this:

So this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who relies on it will never be stricken with panic. I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line; hail will sweep away your refuge, the lie, and water will overflow your hiding place. Your covenant with death will be annulled; your agreement with the realm of the dead will not stand. When the overwhelming scourge sweeps by, you will be beaten down by it. As often as it comes it will carry you away; morning after morning, by day and by night, it will sweep through.” The understanding of this message will bring sheer terror. (Isaiah‬ 28:16-19,‬ NIV‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬)

Yes, it is terrifying. The idea of God sweeping us away along with the structure of lies we've built.

But he already laid the foundation of our new home. The cornerstone is himself, and the foundation is as secure as it is righteous. And all those who were walled out of our little valley have a place inside. It’s everything we say we want. And it’s just on the other side of the flood.

It’s time, don’t you think?

It's time to stop being afraid of the destruction of the valley. It's time to let the flood carry us on to new heights.

Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos‬ 5:23-24‬, NIV‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬)

Amen. Let it roll.

Image: Christiaan Josi, "Dike Breach Near Bemmel, 1799"

Guilt Unto Death, Guilt Unto Life

The word emotion literally means “to evoke motion” (e-motion). Thus, emotions are feelings that exert a force on the heart and the mind. They’re a combination of internal pressures that pull the levers and press the buttons of human volition. When someone feels “emotional,” a particular internal force has been set in motion.

Among the emotions, guilt is definitely one of the most powerful. Guilt can produce some serious action: building and destroying; uniting and dividing; purifying and corrupting; liberating and incarcerating.

Peter and Judas provide a helpful case study from the Bible on the two main responses to emotional guilt. Peter experienced the building, purifying, and liberating effects of godly emotional guilt, whereas Judas suffered the destroying, dividing and incarcerating consequences of worldly emotional guilt.

Two sinners, two responses, two different lives

Both Peter and Judas sinned against the Lord Jesus by betraying him, even on the same night. Peter denied that he was a follower of Jesus (Luke 22:61-62); and Judas turned Jesus over to the chief priests and elders for 30 pieces of silver (Luke 22:6). Although they both betrayed Christ in similar ways, their responses are completely opposite.

At root, Peter looked outward and Judas looked inward.

First, see Peter in the moment of his third denial of Jesus.

The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” (Luke 22:61)

This had to be an absolutely dreadful moment for Peter: caught red-handed by the Messiah. His guilt had to be off the charts! His response makes perfect sense:

And he went outside and wept bitterly. (22:62)

Peter’s tears are contrasted with Judas’ attempt to justify himself.

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:3-5)

When he felt guilt, Judas immediately tried to right his wrong by paying back the money he took. He tried to absolve his guilt with his own hands; he even physically threw the money back into the temple. But it wasn’t enough, and in despair Judas took his life with his own hands.

Peter’s tears seem less active, more helpless than Judas’ effort to pay his prize back; but paradoxically, those helpless tears put his heart in the right place. Realizing that there was no way to “pay for” what he’d done opened Peter up for repentance and restoration, while Judas’ attempted self-justification led to his ruin. Guilt prepared Peter to receive forgiveness, but propelled Judas toward suicide. 2 Corinthians 7:10 summarizes the contrast of these two types of emotional guilt well: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”  

Where we take our guilt

Judas makes me really uncomfortable because my natural inclination is to do what he did and “pay back” any sense of guilt I get. Judas shows the logical conclusion of trying to make yourself righteous when you experience guilt.

Guilt has both an objective and a subjective meaning. Objectively, guilt is the fact of having committed an offense. This is essentially a legal definition, and is primarily the way that the word is used in Scripture. It’s like a courtroom where the judge will render a final verdict of either “innocent” or “guilty.” Just as a light switch is either on or off, in the legal sense I either am or am not guilty.

This is distinct from the subjective experience of guilt, emotional guilt. Subjective guilt is not the fact of having committing an offense, but rather the feeling of committing an offense. The majority of the Bible covers legal guilt directly and emotional guilt by implication.

The fact of legal guilt can and should generate the feeling of emotional guilt. The conscience is God’s bounty hunter that reclaims what is rightfully His. He makes people aware of our true identity through an internal conviction that we are guilty before God and in need of a Savior. All of us are by nature guilty before God; and when we experience specific instances of emotional guilt, we should confess those to others.

But, like Peter, the experience of guilt isn’t the end of the story for us. Guilt should drive us to look to Jesus in faith: when we do this, he takes our legal guilt and gives us his legal innocence (“righteousness” is a common biblical term for this). No matter what we’ve done to incur guilt, he has paid for it for us.

If we believe that, we can begin sorting through any emotional guilt we feel to see where it might be leading us. Is there sin I need to repent of - not pay God back for, but just abandon? Am I feeling guilty over something I shouldn’t be, maybe by comparison to someone else? Or do I just need to be reminded that, like Peter, I have received a forgiveness I can never deserve? Hashing out our emotions, including emotional guilt, with God or with someone else can ultimately lead us to deeper faith and joy in our justifier, Jesus Christ.

Image: Caravaggio, "The Denial of St. Peter"

Meditations on Receiving a New Name

I was not built to play soccer. I am what doctors would refer to as “slow." I am not merely physically slow, but I also lack any instinct for the game. My reflexes were never honed by years of practice or drills as a child. I grew up in a place where soccer did not exist. That distant land was known as Indianapolis circa 1984.

God, as he is in the habit of doing, moved me far from that strange provincial town, into the wider world - in this case to South America - where they do, in fact, play soccer. So much soccer.

When I first moved to Argentina as a church planter, I knew enough about culture as a concept to realize that I had to make some fundamental changes in my behavior if I was going to fit in. For example, Argentines eat more beef per capita than we do in the States. So I had to level up my meat consumption skills from All-Star to Elite. These are the types of sacrifices missionaries often have to make for the Cross.

Slightly more trying was my adoption of mate (mah-tay) as my go-to beverage. Mate looks like grass clippings and, depending on how it is prepared, can be a delightful hot tea shared communally or taste like the dross from a weed eater. It didn’t matter. Whatever any specific iteration of mate tasted like, I drank it with gusto. It was part of fitting in.

A new name, a new person

Changing what I ate and drank was a minor inconvenience in comparison with soccer, however. I’m a lifelong baseball fan, but I chose to live and work in a Latin American country where no one played the game at all. Polo is more popular than baseball in Argentina. But if I wanted to have any relationship with Argentines, I needed to not only follow their futbol but to develop a passion for a game that I had spent much of my life mocking (because nothing was more Hoosier in the 1980s than making fun of soccer).

At first, trying to fit in just felt like adopting external behavioral changes, and unnatural ones at that. But in time, exposure to a new culture and a new way of seeing the world profoundly altered my heart and even my sense of self. I even had a new name to go along with it. Nate Dunlevy loved baseball and never wanted to leave the northwest side of Indy. Natán Doonlaby loved mate and played soccer (badly, so very badly) and was living as a stranger in a strange land.

On a visit to Uruguay, I looked up at the stars one night. They weren't my stars. Orion’s belt wasn't shining. The Big Dipper didn’t hang upside down above me, hung on a hook by God after dishing out a bowl of creation stew. I only recognized one constellation.

“How did I get here?” I thought.

I scanned the horizon. A cross dotted the South American sky, reminding me that I wasn’t home, but I wasn’t lost either.

Living Uprooted

I’ve always wondered if God made Adam out of a tree. We humans love to put down roots and stay past what sanity would dictate. Many of us dig deep into our soil as if to say, this is mine. This is me. I’d die before I’d leave.

But throughout the Bible, God pulls men and women from their homes and sends them to new lands. From Adam and Eve to Abram and Sarai, and from Jacob to Moses and Naomi to Daniel, the Almighty digs up the deep possessiveness that seeps so naturally from our feet to the soil, breaking up our roots and sending us marching on.

Peter calls Christians "foreigners" and "aliens," which is hard to imagine if you’ve never experienced it. We derive our identity and often even our names from places and tongues our fathers left behind long ago. It’s no surprise, then, that when God moves us on toward a new land, he gives us a new name along with our new address. The land isn’t ours. It belongs to God. So does our identity

Abraham; Israel; Peter; Paul. We think of those names as giants, as pillars.

But they weren’t names given from birth. Those men all grew up thinking of themselves as something else. A father, a leg-puller, a listener, a king. But that’s not what they ended up being. They were to become the father of many, a wrestler, a rock, a humble one.

“This is not your home,” God says. “And that is not your name.”

We don’t get to decide for ourselves who he made us to be. We can kick against the goads or take up passage on a voyage to Tarshish; but if the Potter says to the clay, “Play soccer,” the vessel that emerges from the potter’s wheel, will in fact, play soccer.

Badly. So very badly.

Art to Bridge the Gap

“If we’re really all about helping the poor, why do we spend so much time talking about art?”

It’s a real question being asked by real people when they’ve hung around Soma a while and listened to us talk about our priorities. I think I know where it comes from. The implication is that art is for people who have the luxury to think about such things: for old ladies in pearls who write checks to foundations, and Millennials in torn jeans living in studio apartments like starving artists with no risk of actual starvation. It’s not for real people who have to live in the real world. If we’re making a big deal out of something as “upper-class” as the art community, does that mean we’re just pretending to care about the poor and oppressed?

Short answer? No. Not even a little bit.

A people’s art is their heart beating out where we can all hear it.

Art isn’t just for the privileged. When you walk through an urban neighborhood and hear the beat of hip-hop pulsing under your feet, you are experiencing the feeling of a people. Not just the words, with their rage and longing, but the music itself, the intense and clever and insistent fullness of it all.

When you pass a workman with his radio blaring an entirely different kind of song, a country song that drips pride and regret and determination, there’s a reason that song is what gets him through his day.

When your Mexican neighbors throw a party, and the cumbia is pumping out a call to dance and forget everything but this beat and this moment, that’s your neighbors’ bone-deep desire to make the most out of today’s joy before it’s gone. Can you feel it? Do you want to?

How do you bridge the gap between rich and poor? Between dark skin and light? Between East and West?

Certainly nothing can take the place of personal relationships. We’ve been talking about that a lot lately. It’s vital to build real relationships with real people, to look them in the eye and listen and really hear. But true understanding takes time and patience and swallowing our pride and hurt, and we’d be foolish to neglect anything that could ease that process.

You want to learn empathy for someone you don’t understand? To get past the intellectual and into their living experience? Absorb their art.

A people’s art is a window into their worldview.

When we lived in Argentina, we used to take all our visitors to the National Cathedral in Buenos Aires, not for any kind of religious experience, but just to look at the paintings that hung around the outer walls. Many Catholic churches have something of the kind, paintings that portray the stations of the cross, the events leading up to Jesus’ death. The ones in this particular cathedral are fascinating. Each portrays Jesus in a position of weakness, almost always being lorded over by “Roman” soldiers who look remarkably Spanish. He is also being helped along his way, usually by women, who all look strong and capable and also terribly sad. “Look at all of the paintings together,” we would tell people. “And once you’ve seen them all, you’ll have a glimpse of how Argentines see themselves and God and the world.”  The last thing to notice as you walked a slow circle through the quiet cathedral was that the final painting was Jesus’ burial. There was no resurrection.

You don’t need to parse that. Just let it sit.

A people’s art is a bridge to places outsiders can’t find.

I sit in my living room and open my laptop to be greeted by the pictures of a father in Syria clutching his dead children, of a black man in Minnesota gunned down in front of his girlfriend and her daughter, of Native Americans soaking wet in the freezing cold. I try to wrap my mind around the experiences of these men and women.

I want to untangle the complexities of history and culture that have brought them to the moment they’re living right now, but the task is beyond me. So I pick up books.

I read Between the World and Me and Things Fall Apart and Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee and I look out through the words, trying to see through the author’s eyes.

I search the names of Syrian artists and see what they’ve made and what they’ve said.  It’s not about agreeing or disagreeing with their statements. It’s about stepping into their shoes. And true, it’s only for an hour or maybe two, and then I go back to my white Indianapolis life, but journeys change you if you let them.

This is why we press into the artistic community in our city. Those artists place stepping stones across raging rivers.

Participating in the arts is not just for the rich. It’s not just for people with loads of free time on their hands. It’s not just for the talented or ambitious. It’s for anyone with eyes and ears and hands. It’s for us all.

So what can you do?

Experience art. Lots of art. All kinds of art. Music. Movies. Drawing. Painting. Sculpture. Books. Poems. Dance. Theater. All kinds of artists. Those that are like you and those that aren't. Look. Listen. Read. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and try to really see. Our city is full of art made by people of all ages, races, ethnicities. A lot of it you can experience for free. Get out there. And if your life keeps you at home, thank God for the internet age. Free art for everyone.

Think about art. Think about the art you like. Your music. Your books and movies. The stuff that hangs on your walls. Why do you like it? What does it say about you and your own culture, the way you see the world? As you venture out into new art, do it with your mind open. When you listen to music that you haven’t before, pay attention to what it feels like. When you see a sculpture that jars the senses, think about why it was made. What can you learn about the artist, about the artist's culture, about the truth of the world?

Talk about art. It’s not pretentious try to figure out what other people are seeing in something, to tell them what you see and have a dialogue. Unless you’re only doing it to impress someone, conversations about art are like any conversation. They can help you understand.

Make art. Whatever kind that expresses you and your view the world. I can't tell people what it's like to be African-American. I can't express how being Cuban feels. I can't explain what the world looks like when you're born poor in Texas. But I can talk about what it's like to be a woman. I can give a sense of how the world looks to a child who moves around a lot and has no particular roots. I can find words for my experiences as an immigrant in South America. I have that to offer, so I do. You have something, too. Don’t keep it to yourself.

Support artists. You don't have to love every kind of music or every illustration you see. You don't have to be moved by all the books you read. But when you do see something that opens your eyes, consider that it might do the same for others. Consider how you can spread the understanding that comes through that. Maybe you have money to buy things or support a Kickstarter or donate to an artist. Maybe you don’t have the money, so you spread the word instead. Maybe you wear the t-shirt or give someone a ride to a show or post links on social media.

Is it possible that if you start doing these things, you’ll look stupid? Maybe. Is it possible you’ll make mistakes and get slammed for them? Most likely. The world is full of critics and mockers. No one ever learned a new language or made a new friend or built something that didn’t exist before without risking themselves. Leaping across chasms isn’t for the cowardly. The view on the other side, though? It’s worth it.

That’s why we keep bringing it up at Soma. Risks are easier to take when you aren’t alone. So we lean out, we take in that long drop, and then we grab each others’ hands and jump together.

Image: "Mother and Child," by Angu Walters

Settled / Unsettled

“I just thought you’d all be settled by now. I can’t wait until you’re all settled.”

That’s what my mom said to me casually in a conversation not too long ago. I don’t remember the entire context, but I do remember that part.

Settled. I knew exactly what she meant: Married. Motherhood. Homeowner. Full-time job.

None of those descriptions fit my life at the moment.

The Dream and the Nightmare

In all fairness, I thought I’d be “settled” by now too. I’m inching closer to the latter half of my mid-twenties. I feel pressure to have that all figured out by now. Aren’t these the things that I was supposed to work out in my early twenties so that I can start fully living as I transition into my late twenties and thirties?

Settled is the dream.

But there’s another side of me too. Like many of my millennial contemporaries, part of me cringes at the idea of being settled. What would my social life look like if I started a family? Surely those 10p soccer games would have to go. Nine-to-five jobs without the option of working remotely are much too constricting. Renting seems like the better option: buying a house would make it harder for me to move next year if I want.

Settled is the nightmare.

Life is lived in this tension. My single friends dream of getting married, starting families, and buying homes. My married friends with kids long to join my Thursday night indoor soccer league or tag along on summer road trips. After all, the grass is always greener on the other side. But how do we live in this tension in a God-glorifying and honoring way?

Soma has been walking through the book of Genesis and recently finished looking at the life of Abraham. I can honestly say that I have never been able to relate to an elderly man as much as I can relate to Abraham. Talk about living in tension. Abraham was settled: he was married and living with (or at least near) his father for the first 75 years of his life. But then God called Abraham to leave his home and family at the age of 75, saying that God would make him the father of a great nation. Abraham and his wife Sarah became childless nomads. They were settled in that they had each other and they knew exactly where God was leading them. But they unsettled because they had no children to show for it. So they waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally, 25 years later they had a son, but not just any son. This was Isaac, the promised son through which Jesus would one day be born.

Interestingly enough, Abraham lived to be 175 years old, yet the Bible focuses on these 25 years of tension. We can learn a lot from how he navigated this season.

Believe God’s Promises

One of the biggest keys to success for Abraham was his faith in God’s promises. God promised to make him a great nation. He promised to give him and Sarah a son. Abraham believed. It was this faith that saved him (Genesis 15:6). I also believe that it was this faith that helped him survive the tension. It is a lot easier to live in the present mystery when we have faith in a certain future.

Do you trust God with your unsettled life? Often I feel the most anxiety when I focus on my desires instead of God’s promises. God did not promise that I would get married, but he did promise that when I placed my faith in Jesus I became part of the family of God and the bride of Christ. I can live secure knowing that I am not alone. God did not promise that I would own a home, but he did promise that one day I will live in my eternal home in heaven. Don’t let your earthly desires eclipse the greater heavenly promises from above.

Be Honest with Questions

Have you ever thought of how ridiculous the story of Abraham is? Abraham and Sarah have Isaac when they are 100 years old. I don’t know about you, but my goal is just to be alive at that age, not to give birth. Yes, Abraham had faith, but he naturally had some questions too. He brought those to God, bowing before him completely humbled and exposed.

“Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless?” (Genesis 15:2)

“Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain possession of [the land]?” (Genesis 15:8)

“Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” (Genesis 17:17)

Yes, Abraham believed. But he was also human, so he experienced a lot of doubt. The doubt was a natural part of his humanity. And sometimes this doubt led to sinful decisions, like when he tried to take control and conceived a son through Hagar rather than waiting for God to provide a son through Sarah. However, God is sovereign in spite of our doubt and sin.

Abraham’s faith, on the other hand, was a choice. He had to choose to surrender his doubts to God and to believe in God’s promises. I feel this almost daily. I need to choose to believe that God is providing for me, even if I do not have a house, husband, or full-time job to prove it. I need to choose to believe that God is working things for my good, even when it feels like things are falling apart.

Whether settled is your dream or settled is your nightmare, are you choosing faith like Abraham? Are you choosing to see God’s promises over your desires? God wants you to live fully awake and alert, trusting him in the tension.

"Better Than:" The Spirit of Fasting

If, like me, you didn’t grow up marking Lent, the whole practice of fasting may seem strange to you. I want to love God more, so, I don’t eat? Or maybe I do that juice cleanse I’ve been thinking about, because hey why not? It was kind of a New Year’s resolution and I bombed it in January, so I can try it now.

A few years ago, I came across a psalm that transformed my understanding of what fasting is supposed to accomplish.

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me. (Psalm 63:1-8)

David wrote this psalm “in the wilderness of Judah” – during one of the times he was on the run for his life. The “wilderness diet,” so to speak, would have been pretty lean: scarce water, scrubby plants, no fruit, maybe the occasional lean and gamey deer if you’re lucky. David is likely spending his days with the hollow feeling of not having enough to eat.

That makes the visceral imagery he uses to describe his longing for God all the more powerful. Instead of asking for a no-longer-dry tongue, “my soul thirsts for you.” Instead of asking for a full belly, “My soul will be satisfied [in you] as with fat and rich food.” He’s letting his hunger turn his heart to long for God more.

The emotional crescendo is verse 4:

Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.

That’s where the light came on. The spirit of fasting – what we’re supposed to understand when we give things up for God – is captured in the phrase “better than.” God’s love is better than life. God’s spirit is better than a spring of water. The memory of God is better than a steak dinner.

Fasting is giving up a good thing to remind ourselves that God is better than that. It’s temporarily depriving ourselves, not to practice self-control or feel like dirt, but to try to direct that longing to the ultimate good. As Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

That means that instead of just depriving ourselves, fasting accomplishes its fullest purpose when we replace that lack with something of God. We replace a meal with time meditating on the Bible. We spend time in prayer instead of with Netflix. We practice silence and solitude one evening instead of time with friends.

The good things in life are good; but God is better. If you’ve never practiced fasting before, consider these questions:

1. What is one “good thing” in my life that I think I need more than I do? (that I’m afraid to give up for a time)

2. How can I let go of that thing and “replace” it with God, to remind myself that God is better than that?

Image: "St. Jerome," by Leonello Spalla

Talking It Out: Mike Lockett and Ryan Lambert on learning to discuss race and culture

At our All-Congregational Gathering in January, Ryan Lambert and Mike Lockett shared about how they began having intentional conversations about race - initially in the context of their missional community, and then on into a growing friendship. We thought their story was so powerful that we wanted to share it, along with some followup words from Mike, with our congregation:

Ryan

Just about seven months ago, in July of 2016, police killings of African American men in Louisiana and Minnesota made national news. Subsequently, a peaceful protest in Dallas became violent, leading to the deadliest single incident for law enforcement officers is the U.S. since 9/11.

Here at Soma, these events led our leadership to hit the pause button on a Sunday message to address these issues lament the loss of life and to consider our response as Christians in our community, our neighborhood and our own church family.

I walked out that day feeling burdened, without a clear understanding of how I could become engaged and involved in these issues and what an appropriate response looked like. I wanted to say something that day to my friend Mike, but I didn’t know what to say, how to say it or if I was even allowed to say anything for fear of offending him, appearing trite, or disingenuously forced into it by the emotion of what we had just heard. So I couldn’t bring myself to say anything of substance and left.

A few days later, Mike sent an email.

Mike

After the two police shootings of unarmed black men happened in July, and soon after the police shootings Dallas, I was very burdened and grieved the days following. As a black man living in this country, not only was I saddened by the shootings that took place, but also by the divide that I was beginning to notice within the body of Christ between whites and blacks (and other minorities). After processing these events for a few days, I decided to send an email to everyone in my Missional Community. My goal in sending this email was to share my heart surrounding those recent events, my experiences as a black man in this country, and how those events affected me personally. My goal was to open up dialogue within our group, and to let them know that I was willing to dialogue further within anyone who was interested in stepping into the conversation.

After sending the email, I quickly received a lot of positive feedback from members of my MC, thanking me for opening up and sharing my heart. One of those emails was from Ryan Lambert. He told me that he very much appreciated me opening up to the group and for sharing my personal experiences. He said that he would love to get together for coffee or a meal, and have a time where we could dialogue more and share our experiences surrounding race. About a week later we did just that. We met up for dinner and had a chance to have a deeper dialogue, ask questions, and share our stories regarding race.

Ryan

Two guys from a Soma MC having dinner at Twenty Tap doesn’t really seem like much of note, but I was definitely apprehensive. On one hand I was excited to have the opportunity for this type of conversation but on the other hand, this was something brand new to me.

I think to fully understand this story, some context is appropriate. When we started the night, one of the first questions I asked Mike when we sat down was, ‘as an African American, when you were growing up, or even now, what areas around Indy were you taught to avoid?’ The reason I asked this question was because I was confident that I already knew the answer. I knew my hometown, the place I was born and raised, was going to be on his list. In fact, it was one of the first places out of his mouth. I grew up in Morgan County, on the southwest side of the city; and for those who lack education in historical Central Indiana race relations, I’ll simply say that Morgan County has a race reputation and history, and I mean that in the least positive way possible. To say the least, entering in to this type of conversation wasn’t something I had done or felt like I had the opportunity to do before.

By the end of the night, I was so appreciative of Mike’s openness to my history, and to sharing his own personal experiences, concerns and fears. He basically gave me a green light to ask questions and to try to better understand a community that I had never really had to intersect with in my life. On the other hand, he had the go ahead to challenge me when he thought I was off base on a topic or needed to see another perspective, which fortunately, he was willing and comfortable to do.

Mike

Leading up to meeting Ryan for dinner, I was excited but also a little nervous. This would be the first time that I was having an intentional conversation pressing into the topic of race with someone from within the church (outside of a few conversations here and there). God would quickly show that he would bear much fruit from this time together. Overall, it was a great time of learning from one another. Ryan asked lots of intentional questions wanting to know my experiences as black man, both in society and in the church. He also shared with me his experiences growing up in his hometown, and how these experiences shaped much of his view of race. I made a point to let Ryan know that he could be open to ask any questions that were on his mind, and that he shouldn’t hold back from fear of offending me. My hope is that this freed him up to ask questions and learn new things that he might not have had the opportunity to know in prior experiences. Looking back on that time, one of the biggest blessings from the meeting was simply having a brother from a completely different racial context pressing into this issue, and showing care and concern. Ending that meeting, we made a commitment to not let the talks end that night, and to continue dialoguing in the coming weeks and months.

Ryan

From our initial conversation until now, one of the biggest things I’ve gleaned from this relationship is the opportunity to view things from a new reference point, which has led to the ability to see or hear things through a different perspective. Today, instead of taking news stories or clips and thinking about my own point of view and how it impacts me and my family directly, I think about Mike, his family and how the impact of that very same thing may look different in his life or the lives of others in the black community.

Mike

In the weeks and months following that initial meeting with Ryan, God continued working in our own lives and in the lives of others in the church. Ryan and I were able to meet up a number of times in those following months, and have continued a dialogue on racial reconciliation. We began to ask the question of what it would look like for our church to truly begin pursuing racial reconciliation with one another. This dialogue has also sparked conversations with others in church, and it has been encouraging to see what God is starting to do in within our body.

Ryan

Within these expanded conversations, God has opened my eyes to experiences I never realized I didn’t have in my life.  After a race conversation with Mike and some other guys from Soma a few weeks ago, it got me thinking about a couple months back when my family went to the Lockett’s home for dinner. It was so within the normal of our lives and friendship that it didn’t dawn on me until that later point, that in 38 years, I had never been invited to, or had dinner in, the home of an African-American family.  That fact, as surprising as it was to me, made me think about the rest of our Soma family. I wondered how many others might be able to say the same or similar things and how this story could be used as a way for them to take a step into a new experience.

Mike

I have also been able to meet up consistently with two other brothers in the church in Max Goldenberg (who initiated these meetings) and Jingo de la Rosa. These meetings have focused on talking about our experiences surrounding race, and ways that we can press into this topic as well as encourage others to do the same. These ‘meetups’ (as we like to call them) with those brothers have sparked conversations with others that have joined us in those meetings. Others who have been able to join these meetings have been Pastor Phil Edwards, James Pascascio, and James Armstrong, who have all offered their wisdom and encouragements on how we can continue to press into this topic as a church. It is clear that God is moving within our body, and I am looking forward to seeing all that He does in the months and years to come.

I would like to leave those reading this with two encouragements. The first would be to not let fear or discouragement prevent you from entering into this conversation with others. I believe that God desires His church to pursue deeper relationship within community, and entering into this conversation is a major, if not vital, part of this. My second encouragement would be to stay committed to this for the long haul. It will not take only one or two conversations to then move on from it. Instead, what is needed is lasting commitment from those of all ethnic backgrounds to continue to press in and seek true unity. As we continue to be intentional in pursuing racial reconciliation as a church, I am confident that God will use our church to impact our city in helping to bring restoration and unity among all people groups.

Image: Norman Rockwell, "Moving In"

What a "New Family" has meant to me

This weekend I had the pleasure of traveling back to my hometown to spend the day with my extended family. It was so refreshing to be in one room with so many loved ones. I love knowing them and being known by them. We share more than a bloodline: we share memories, inside jokes, and a deep love from Grandma’s home cooked meals.

For the past seven years, I’ve lived over 100 miles from my family. I am able to see them about once a month, but that is a radical change from living life with them daily. However, God has not left me deserted on a relational island. He has called me to a new kind of family: my church family.

Church as family is a relatively new concept for me. Growing up, church was a building. It was a service I went to on Sunday. I’m not exactly sure where that connotation of the word came from, but I can tell you it was not from the Bible. Can you imagine what would have been going through Peter’s mind when Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18)? He may have taken issue with the idea of a building being constructed over top of him. I also think everyone would have thought Paul was crazy if he said hello to a building, not people, when he greeted the church in Jerusalem (Acts 18:22).

When I say that I am part of Soma Church, I am not pledging my allegiance to a building (which is fortunate, since Soma Downtown doesn’t own one). Rather, I am saying that I am committed to my Christian brothers and sisters in this community. When we placed our faith in Christ, we became children of God. Like it or not, we are bonded together as adopted brothers and sisters.

A bond that doesn’t break

Like all families, the church is both beautiful and messy. We experience seasons of joy and seasons of sorrow. But no matter what, we experience it together. Our commitment to one another is grounded on our covenant with Christ. The covenant is God’s promise that when we place our faith in him, we are adopted and become his children forever. He gives us eternal life because of our relationship with Christ.  No matter how much we sin, no matter how much we run, no matter how much we hurt one another, our bond cannot be broken. Just like I cannot change the fact that I have a biological sister, I cannot change my brothers and sisters in Christ. Like it or not, we’re stuck with one another.

Responsible to our family

Because there is nothing we can do to break our familial ties, we are responsible to our church family. One way in which we're responsible is reconciliation. We must pursue repentance when our sin hurts them, and we must forgive when they hurt us. The story of the prodigal son is a beautiful example of this. After squandering all of his father’s inheritance, the son humbled himself, went back to his father and said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). The son acknowledges his sin and its consequences, and his father is quick to forgive and welcome him home. As children of God, we are called to both seek and extend forgiveness to one another.

Another way we are responsible to our family is caring for them. Paul urges the church to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15) and to carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). That is why we provide childcare, dinner, and even finances for our brothers and sisters walking through hardships. That is why we wake up early on Sunday mornings to hold babies in Soma Kids. That is why we make meals for families that are welcoming a new baby into the family. We are a family; when one hurts, we all hurt. When one rejoices, we all rejoice. We give and sacrifice our own comforts for the good of the group.

Experience the love of family

One of the most beautiful blessings we experience as a church family is love. No one puts this affection into words better than Paul in his letter to the church in Philippi:

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:3-8)

Paul loved his brothers and sisters. He longed for them.

I tangibly felt the love and care of the church this past fall when I was in a car accident on I-65. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but my car was totaled. I couldn’t call my biological family to come help me: they were a two-hour drive away. But my church family surrounded me with care. Gina picked me up off the side of the interstate. Mary brought me flowers, cookies, and tension-tamer tea. Brianne gave me a ride to get my rental car. It was vulnerable to ask for help, but in a way I am thankful that I wasn’t able to ask my biological family. It gave God the opportunity to display his love in and through my church family.

Nothing will ever replace the families we are born into. Whether your family is very close with one another, or very broken, God placed you there for a reason. But he placed us in a church family as well. In this family, we all have a place; we all have a role. Nothing can break the love and bond we share through Christ.  

Image: "Surrounded by Ordinary Saints," by Emmanuel Garibay

Make a Plan, Man

I am not by nature a planner. My default mode is either to amble into the future with a vague goal in mind, or just to assume life will happen to me and I’ll make the best of it.

That means my new year’s resolutions, when I’ve made them, have tended to never happen. The half-baked plans I share in my obligatory goal-related small group meeting never come to fruition.

I’ve comforted my unplanful self with passages like the one from James that warns against prideful planning; but, like Brandon said in his sermon on planning last summer, Scripture has a lot of good things to say about the right kind of planning. “To plan is to love,” he said, and there’s a lot of truth in that. To plan pridefully is to be prideful; but to never plan is to miss opportunities to love others and see God in fresh ways. It can be an act of worship.

My wife should really be the one writing this piece, because she’s way more acquainted with wise planning than I am; but I’d like to share some of the wisdom I’ve picked up from her on how to plan more effectively.

Why plans fail

There are some common reasons why new year’s resolutions tend not to pan out:

Too vague: “Love my wife more” is a great aspiration, but if it doesn’t lead to me doing something it’s never going to happen

Not connected to a “why:” “I’d like to eat better” is a nice idea, but if I don’t have a good reason for it I’m not going to stick with it

No accountability: Sharing it once or writing it down and losing it are not recipes for success.

I don’t build it in my calendar: “Write a chapter a month” is good; but if I’m already not writing, what am I going to clear out of my life each week so I can actually write that chapter?

Too ambitious: Those eight goals that combine to 20 hours of new activity each week ain't gonna happen.

Generally, our Island of Unmet Goals is populated via one of those five ferry-boats.

Planning that has a shot

There is no magical formula to ensure your goals will work out. You may set out with wise goals and have render it impossible; you may start on a goal and realize that you want something different. But that being said, here are some suggestions (again, almost entirely from my wife) that can help you set goals that can stick:

Plan from a “why”

Before you make goals, start by setting a vision for who you want to be – even if it’s only for this year. What do you want to define you as a person? What do you hold most dear, in your best moments? “Eat better” is a fine goal; but which of these “whys” will make you more likely to actually eat better?

  1. I want to eat better because I feel guilty about overeating this Christmas
  2. I want to eat better because I want to be healthy enough to love and disciple my grandkids one day

Start small

Part of what led Allison into her research on goal-setting was realizing that every year she set more or less the same large number of goals, and then by the next year realized she hadn’t met any of them. She was setting too many goals to keep in her mind, let alone work into her calendar.

This quarter, I have only three goals I’m intentionally working on (outside of work). Three things I’m pushing myself to achieve. All the other things I’d like to see – good things – I’m giving myself permission to pass on this quarter, because I know I can’t really handle more than these.

Be specific and measurable

Again, “Love my wife more” is a great aspiration; but it doesn’t mean anything in practice. However, “Plan one date a week with my wife” is measurable. I can get my hands around it, which means I can move a lot closer to loving her more.

Put them in the calendar

If I’m going to change my actions – to do something I haven’t been doing already, or stop doing something I’m already doing – I have to plan ahead. My current self has already filled my calendar for 2017: by default, I will sleep until my kids wake up, and I will probably watch at least an hour of TV a night.

To accomplish something new, I have to preempt my current self by intentionally blocking out he time I need to accomplish it. I have to make Wednesday night a writing night; I have to make Sunday evening my date-planning time.

Don’t think you’ve made a goal until you know beforehand when you’re going to work on it!

Get accountability

Get someone to hold you to your plans. Find someone who won’t forget, and who won’t let you forget about them either.

Give yourself grace

Finally, be ready to forgive yourself and try again when you fail to meet your goals. Missing a goal in the first month (or week) doesn't mean you'll never get it; it may mean you need to adjust your efforts or recalibrate your expectations. Dust yourself off and try again!

Image by Joe Forkan; accessed on his website.

 

What's in a Name?

No one really knows what a Hoosier is.

One old poet claimed that someone walked into a tavern after a particularly vicious fight and saw a bloody trophy on the ground.

“Whose ear?” he yelled.

I doubt the owner heard him.

In 1924, citizens of Indiana elected an open member of the KKK to be governor of the state. It has been estimated that nearly one in three Hoosiers was a Klan member during the 1920s.

In 1930, a mob ripped two black men from a public jail in Marion. Their bones were broken. They were beaten and hung from trees. The images are sickening not only because of their graphic nature, but even more so for the hatred that created them.

These are far from the only sins that stain our state. The very name "Indiana" reveals that the land was torn from those that lived on it first. Our state's first constitution forbade blacks from settling in its borders.

Hoosier hospitality, indeed.

They tell of a canal being dug outside of Louisville. A contractor by the name of Hoosier would only hire workers from Indiana. He wasn’t interested in outsiders.

Hoosier’s men, they called them.

For most of our state's history, "Hoosier" meant "white;" how is a person of color supposed to reconcile their identity with that name?

These racial injustices form horrible collective memories, but what can we possibly do about it now? I doubt anyone reading this post was alive to see those events, much less to bear personal responsibility for them. How can white Christians make sense of any of this?

I have no fixes for you here. If there is a balm in Gilead, I haven’t found it yet. I can only offer up the very old story of a very old man with a very broken heart.

The old man was a great man.

He was a powerful ruler. He was a visionary leader. He was one of the bravest men who ever lived. His wisdom was profound. He had even seen the future.

One day, he sat in his room reading an old scroll. It told of judgment for his home town. He had not seen that city in decades. He was just a boy when he was taken from it. His hands hadn't committed the ancient sins for which it suffered.

But tears dripped down his cheeks, and he began to pray and confess his own sins:

“We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.”

On and on he went. Ten different times he said “we” when describing atrocities that happened long before he was born. He wept and mourned and fasted and owned the fact that the same sin that lived in his father and his father’s father lived in his heart. It didn’t matter that he never killed a prophet or bowed to an idol or oppressed a foreigner or a widow. He was as guilty as any one of his people before him.

Then a visitor came. A messenger from another kingdom, who said, “Oh, Daniel. God loves you so very much.” The visitor proceeded to unravel all of time and eternity to the old man, and revealed all that was to come and all that would be possible for God to do to heal and restore Daniel’s broken homeland.

No one wanted to be caught on the prairie in a winter storm. It was certain death. Fortunately for weary travelers, the people of Indiana were so hospitable it was said all you had to do was knock loud on any door in the state, and they’d shout back at you, “Who’s ‘ere?”

They would take in any stranger and give them shelter and rest.

Friends, we are no better than our fathers. We aren’t even better than the fathers who weren’t our fathers. The same sickness and hatred that infected their hearts lives in ours. Moreover, wickedness isn’t limited by race. I’ve known people from every corner of the world with every shade of skin, and the one thing we all have in common is profound and irrevocable brokenness.

I can’t account for the actions of every one of my forefathers, and there isn’t any point in trying. If there is one thing I know about myself, it’s that I'm not innocent. There is at least as much blood on my hands as there is on anyone else’s.

The idea of corporate guilt offends us Americans on a visceral level. We love the verses that declare that “each man will die for his own sins."

But come to that, no. I won’t die for my own sins. Someone else already took responsibility for them. Someone - who didn’t commit them - owned them and suffered for them to make all things new.

Because he did, I believe that even a a land polluted with the blood of God’s children shed in racial hate can be made new. I believe that the name "Hoosier" can come to mean something bigger and more beautiful than it did in the days of my great-grandfathers.

I believe that if we bring our sin and guilt to God instead of hiding it under a false history or denying our share in it or pretending that everyone ought to just “get over it," the heavens can open and we can catch a glimpse of how it all ought to be.

Once there was an old preacher man by the name of Black Harry Hosier who escaped the slave chains and preached spiritual freedom and the abolition of slavery to poor Methodists. Many took his name and the gospel he preached with them as they settled down together in a new land, fresh with hope and promise.

Indiana, it was called.

Hoosiers, they were called.

No one really knows where the name Hoosier come from. All it means, all it’s ever meant as near as I can tell, is “someone from Indiana."

What being “a real Hoosier” meant in 1816 or 1916 doesn’t have to be what being “a real Hoosier” means in 2016.

The name, the common identity we all share, can grow. It can expand to include people that it once excluded. It can expand to be large enough to account for new people with new experiences.

It doesn’t have to mean violence or exclusion or hospitality or even hysteria.

It can just mean “one of us.”

Image: Thomas Hart Benton

Talking Politics in a Tempestuous Election Year

Most everyone agrees: this is a low point for the American democratic experiment. Two of the most unpopular presidential candidates ever are running against one another; large swathes of both parties are ticked off that these are the nominees we’ve got; and people seem to be ready to vote more based on whom they don’t want to be president than whom they do.

Most people who are talking politics – especially this year – are doing it surrounded by people who already agree with them. Facebook curates our news feeds now, so we only get conservative-friendly or liberal-friendly news. And every conversation is 90 percent minimum snark or insults. This is the most toxic political environment I can remember, and folks older than I am say the same thing.

Our two particular candidates certainly don’t help the problem; but research is showing that Americans are becoming more polarized – and more violently polarized – on political issues than we have been in a long time. That we seem to be losing the ability to discuss, disagree, or debate charitably with people whose opinions differ from ours. Whatever the issue, there’s “our people” and “their people,” and heaven help the person who might wonder if “they” might have it right on an issue.

How should Christians navigate political conversation, especially when the climate is as charged and radioactive as it is this year? How can we avoid political trenches and discuss issues – even debate issues – without devolving into screeching fights or snarkfests?

1. Listen before you speak

Somewhere along the way, courtesy in disagreement has been demoted from a virtue to a weakness, and now to a vice. In talk radio, news, and presidential debates, the “right” way to handle disagreement seems to be something like running down your interlocutor with a semi.

To the contrary, the Bible enjoins us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19). Rather than demanding the right to be heard, we ought to let others share their thoughts and opinions. Even more, go deeper: to ask them more about what they think and why they think it. To let them make the cases or share the stories about why they think the way they do.

This is even more important in today’s culture, because we’re being trained by the far wings of both sides to blow up when we hear the wrong word or phrase. We turn everything into an us-versus-them matter, and heaven help anyone who sounds like they’re on the “them” side. Christians – we whose hope for eternity is in a God of grace and humility – should be willing to listen, follow up, and engage before we speak.

2. Dialogue, disagree, and debate - with charity

That first point doesn’t mean that we can’t disagree or debate – or even that we can’t do it sharply. Our spiritual ancestors are on record calling political or religious figures things like “children of vipers” (John the Baptist), “whitewashed tombs” (Jesus), and “dogs” (Paul). Point 1 doesn’t at all mean that we can’t disagree, or even that we can’t try to persuade people of our opinion.

But as we do those things, we should be as generous as possible to the people we disagree with. Again, this is so vanishingly rare in modern political talk that it’s hard to imagine what it looks like; but if we’re called to have our speech “always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6), we’re called to try for it.

This might look like:

  • Hearing why the other person thinks/feels the way they do
  • Making sure you represent their perspective like they would – don’t caricature it
  • Not automatically labeling their opinion as something awful

For example, in our missional community (MC), we once discussed gun ownership when we were talking about police violence. We didn’t all agree – some in the group were very strong-restriction, some were very limited-restriction, and about half didn’t have a strong opinion. The discussion didn’t take over our time, but it was healthy for us to be able to air out disagreements (and strong feelings), and then go on to talk about other things.

For another example, D.C.-area pastor Thabiti Anyabwile recently had a blog post-debate with another pastor over issues related to race, slavery, and the Bible: harder to imagine a touchier subject. In side-by-side paragraphs, Thabiti can call the other pastor "incorrigible" and his positions "reprehensible," and then praise him for "fairly representing[ing] and graciously challeng[ing] me." It's a great example of debating, even sharply, while also speaking with respect.

3. Remember our real hope

Part of the desperation that fills political talk – on both sides of the aisle – springs from rhetoric that this is the “last chance” for our country, or that the wrong president will bring our nation crashing down around us. We use end-of-the-world talk, which makes potential areas of disagreement that much more radioactive.

As Christians, we should take it upon ourselves to keep these elections in their right place. The right president isn’t going to usher in the kingdom of God on Earth; the wrong one isn’t going to bring the world crashing down around us. We can (should!) make judgments about who we think will be better for the country – that’s the glory of democratic elections – but we can do it without white-knuckled panic or apocalyptic hurly-burly. “Better” and “worse” don’t mean “Messianic” and “Satanic.”

We have the confidence to step back, breathe, and engage calmly in the midst of the storm because we know our hope. Our hope isn’t that capitalism and democracy will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, or that we’ll finally see the light of Nordic socialism. It’s that Jesus is going to come back and become the rightful King of the creation. To remake the world without any hints of the Curse our best institutions strive against. That’s what we look forward to, while we do our best with the government we have. That’s what we count on. And that’s what can give us the grace to listen, to disagree, and to stand together in the most contentious election season most of us have ever known.

Image: "Men Arguing," by Louis-Leopold-Boilly

When Summer Ends: The Peculiar Glory of Autumn

Summer has hung around way longer this year than it usually does; but the leaves are finally changing, and the fall is coming. In the pumpkin-spice-scented spirit of the season, here's a piece, a version of which appeared originally at The Gospel Coalition:

Indy's leaves die richly. They turn through glory as they go: empyrean yellow, atonement red. A carnival of color over the streets. The blessing is sudden, a shock.

We know about cholorophyll: the science behind the magic. But behind the science, there’s more magic. Why the gratuitous color? Why make dying so spectacular?

In a world charged with the grandeur of God, this riotous change of scene can teach us. God puts on the mystery play of autumn and speaks:

1. Autumn wakes us up to wonder.

When spring regenerates the world, I notice the bright new green for maybe a week. I celebrate the leaves’ birth, the world’s fresh clothes. But by August, it’s all just background. These delicate, intricate, innumerable fluttering treefingers are a green wash.

There’s nothing wrong with the leaves. It’s me: repetition inoculates me against wonder. Like G. K. Chesterton says, I don’t have God’s capacity to delight again and again at each new leaf. They keep unfurling and waving at me, but the eyes of my soul glaze over.

In autumn, the creativity of God hollers. Look at these things! These paper-thin solar cells that convert sunlight into acorns! They’re everywhere, and they’re made by a God who, as N. D. Wilson reminds us, doesn’t know how to stop creating. Autumn reminds us that we live in a world to wonder at.

2. Autumn promises that there’s glory after summer.

I may not be by Soma Downtown standards, but as the human race goes, I’m young. My leaves are green, and I’m still spreading branches. Western culture is all about the glories of youth: strength, vitality, a body not weathered or weakened by time. We are a spring-and-summer people.

Spring and summer have their splendors. But autumn has a glory all its own. Autumn leaves are delicate, but their colors are so bright they shine. Summer’s wardrobe of green is great, but it has nothing on the end-of-life beauty of the fall.

My parents’ leaves are starting to change. Their color is silver rather than red, but the glory is the same. They may not have quite the same speed on the Frisbee field. But they have wisdom and grace and decades of joy that shine in their faces. They’re taking on the beauty of autumn, showing dimensions of glory that my green summer-self doesn’t display.

And my father’s mother, my last grandparent still on this tree, is a golden sweetness.

3. Autumn reminds us that winter is coming.

The ruckus of autumn’s glory gives way to the silence of winter. Just in time for me to notice how many leaves there are and how beautiful each is, they’re going to go. The colors will fade, and the leaves will fall.

Autumn reminds us that our leaves too will die. The curse we inherited from our father-tree Adam means we have our seasons and then we go. Winter takes us all.

This is worth stopping to consider. My chlorophyll will break down; my limbs will turn brittle; one of these breaths I now take casually will be my last.

And what, then, when my tether snaps from this mortal coil?

Autumn can draw our attention to the one man who broke through winter into an unending summer. The one who spent three days brown and dead in the dirt and came back in an indestructible green. The one who wasn’t just a leaf; he was a whole new tree.

Winter comes to us all. But winter isn’t the end for Christians, because our lives are joined to a tree that winter cannot touch. Death has no sting; winter has no bite. We will fall from the tree of Adam; but we will flower again in a spring of eternal, glorious growth.

Holding this truth gives us the hope to die beautifully.

Image from expedia.com

Cultivating Singleness

Megan. Hater of Coffee. Flying solo. Mom to none.

Since this is a blog post, I thought I’d start out by introducing myself in typical blog-bio fashion. This type of introduction usually includes one’s affection for coffee and a description of the author’s marital and parental status. I despise coffee and am single, so mine sounds a little less winsome than some.

If I didn't lose you with the coffee confession, let me ask a question about the other part of the bio: why do we so often define ourselves by our relationships, except when we're single? I could have put “daughter” or “sister,” but probably never would.

Our culture often talks as if the only adult relationships that truly matter are marriage and parenting.

If we're honest, the church isn’t much better. We constantly hear about the importance of loving your spouse well, prioritizing date nights, and maintaining consistent family time. But when was the last time we encouraged singles to cultivate their singleness? Do we even know what that means? Most of the time when we address the single lifestyle, it comes out something like this: “You’re single. You have no idea how much free time you have. Come serve your church and babysit our kids!”

We define the concept of cultivating singleness not by the health of the individual, but by how they give of their time.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve found so much joy in serving the church and babysitting children. However, in the process, I’ve reached a fair share of breaking points and hurt the people around me. I want to share a few pieces of advice about cultivating singleness so that you might avoid the same mistakes.

1. Prioritize communion with God

I believe this part of the singleness stereotype is true: it is a gift to be able to devote yourself fully to the Lord. Paul, an apostle who was single, talks about this in 1 Corinthians 7:32-33:

“One who is unmarried is concerned about things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife.”

We should embrace this undivided time as a gift. I am so thankful that I can decide at a moment’s notice to ride my bike to a park to read my Bible, pray, or go for a walk. I don’t have to check in with anyone. I don’t have to arrange child care. I take it for granted, but it is a gift to have so much freedom and flexibility to commune with God.

If you're single but don’t feel that freedom, I challenge you to take a look at your schedule and priorities. We all have busy seasons: work, school, residencies, internships, family emergencies, etc. But if your busy season has turned into a busy life, it may be time to make some changes. For me, this meant leaving an enjoyable part-time job so that I could intentionally focus on cultivating singleness within the busyness of grad school and work.

2. Prioritize deep relationships

I’ve heard that one of the best parts of marriage is to have the commitment and covenant that no matter what you do or say, your spouse will be there to love you through it. Singles don’t have that guarantee, so it may take more effort to create relationships with deep levels of trust and vulnerability.

(And in my experience, once that’s achieved, they get married and move to another state, so you have to start all over again).

We need to give singles just as much if not more time to cultivate vulnerable relationships. This may take the place of them volunteering or babysitting. But not only is this "okay;" it’s healthy.

Creating deep relationships will look different for each person. Maybe you're the type who needs to sit down with coffee in hand and a listening ear across the table asking intentional questions. Maybe you enjoy conversation while hiking in the great outdoors or taking a stroll on a nice day. Discover how and to whom you open up and make time for that consistently. This is vital for both men and women to thrive in singleness.

3. Prioritize serving

My concern with the second point is that singles will use it as an excuse to stop serving completely and spend all their time hanging out, traveling, and avoiding babysitting. That is not at all what I want to communicate. Ultimately, the church is a family. Healthy families prioritize their time with one another and cultivate healthy relationships. Out of that love, they also serve one another.

The Bible tells us, “God has placed the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Corinthians 12:18). God designed each one of us, both married and single, with specific roles in his church. When we have a healthy rhythm of prioritizing communion with God and deep relationships with our brothers and sisters, we have a clearer sense of where God is calling us to serve. Our motivation changes from guilt to love.

Now I can serve in Soma Kids and babysit on Friday night, not because I feel like I have to, but because I want to love and disciple children, my brothers and sisters (or potential brothers and sisters) in Christ. Or maybe God is calling you to move across the country or world to participate in building his kingdom in a different city. When we cultivate singleness, we can better discern where God is calling us to serve.

I must admit that I feel like a hypocrite as I write these words. I fail daily in these areas; but by the grace of God, I can start afresh the next day. Cultivating a healthy singleness is not something that happens overnight. Like a healthy marriage, it takes time and effort. But let us not lose heart, for it's a beautiful picture of God’s love when we see healthy singles thriving in our church family.

So how, then, would I write my blog-bio? I would choose to define myself less by my marital status and more by who I am in this season of singleness:

Megan. Tea connoisseur. Wanderer of the world. Dependent on community. Born broken, but being restored by Christ. 

Image: "Catherine of Siena Writing," by Rutilio di Lorenzo Manetti. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Remembering as Worship

My roots sink deep into the coalfields of West Virginia and the mountain “hollers” of eastern Kentucky. In Appalachia, blue-collar work ethics tangle with generational poverty. Once an industrial river hub, now it’s just another Ohio town where the people work hard and try to live right. 

My parents' parents raised their children here. Dad’s dad was a skilled plumber. He made a good living but drank away his pay. Dad grew up in the streets getting into trouble with the neighborhood boys. He wasn’t much for school or church; but one night in May, his mom took him to a good old-fashioned revival at the Methodist church across the street. My dad heard and believed the news about God’s love and Jesus’s death for him. 

That boy’s encounter with Jesus late one night in 1950 influenced the course of many lives, but especially mine. That son of a drunk who played sandlot football grew to love the Scriptures. He taught his son to love them too. God called him to shepherd his people. He called me, too. He loved his family in a way his dad never could, and now I try to love mine the way my dad did. 

The discipline of remembering

I struggle to find time to remember the past. I’m too busy, a pinball bouncing from this event to that task to this goal to that deadline. If I’m lucky enough to take care of today, I start right in on thinking about tomorrow. Dreams of who I want to be, where I want go, and what I want to do tilt  my mind.

But roots keep us grounded. If I don't start with who I am and what’s shaped me, any dreams of tomorrow will be hollow. My past is the context for my future. Mine is a story is filled with acts of God’s faithful love. I didn’t choose my family, but my parents loved God and raised me to love him.

Remembering is a discipline. It is more than just a good ol’ trip down memory lane; it can be an act of worship. We see this in psalms like Psalm 136:

Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who divided the Red Sea in two,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
but overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who led his people through the wilderness,
for his steadfast love endures forever (3, 13-16)

The Israelites sang their history, recorded in Psalm 136, during temple worship and before battles. It was their way of gathering strength.

When’s the last time you made space in your schedule, not to create a “to-do” list or organize your calendar, but to think about your past? If it’s been a while (or never), try thinking through these questions:

  1. What are the most significant events, both good and bad, that have happened in my life?  
  2. What people have been most influential in my life? Why were those relationships meaningful?
  3. What do these events and relationships reveal about God’s goodness and faithfulness to me?

These questions will remind us that most significant events and relationships we’ve experienced were not of our own making. Who we are today has had less to do with us than we often like to admit. Our past reveals the wise and loving hand of God, weaving events and relationships together for our good and his glory.  Remembering is worship because teaches us that God is God, and we’re not.

Tomorrow is shaped by what God has done for us in the past. The discipline of remembering connects me to the good ground under my feet for walking forward. The past speaks hope, because the God of my past is the God of my future. I won’t be alone. After all, he was with me before I was even born.

Photo: Marion Post Walcott, 1938

The Gospel According to Fox Mulder

“Dad, literally no one else at school watches the kind of shows that I watch.”

I diverted my eyes from the road and glanced at my soon-to-be-12-year-old daughter and asked, “What do you mean?” 

(I knew what she meant. I knew why she was asking.)

Ellie had just heard her mom talk about how all the children’s stories my wife writes end in some ironic tragedy or, at best, beauty laced with pain. It’s part intentionality and part innate weirdness, but she wants to teach our kids that this world is strange and twisted, and that the unwinding of it all is wonderful and difficult and bound to create the best kind of heartbreak.

“I mean, The X-Files?" my daughter went on. "The Twilight Zone? Smallville? I feel like none of my Christian friends watch those shows. No one at school has ever even heard of them.”

“Well babe, there’s a good reason for that…”

Allow me to offer the following disclaimer: this is not an article on how to parent your kids.

I have no idea how to parent your kids. I’m having a time of it just parenting my own kids. I have no clue what’s right for your family, and I wouldn’t pretend to make any claims on you. My own kids are 12, 10 and 7. I like them pretty well, and, by any reckoning, they're terrific. They are also very young, and it’s a long road from middle school to “happily established in their own healthy well-functioning adult lives”.

What I do have to share is a belief in intentionality when it comes to helping your children interact with culture, entertainment, and faith. In short, I care less about what you do with your kids when it comes to books, TV, movies, music, video games, and whatever devices the ghost of Steve Jobs dreams up; I very much care that you do something with them, and that you do it for clearly articulated reasons.

You can like my specific choices or hate them. You can find them scandalizing or inspiring, but please don’t get hung up on our “whats.” I think our "whys" are more important.

Here are five fundamental beliefs that inform my wife’s and my choices when it comes to helping our kids consume cultural products.

We focus on what is true.

When it comes to the movies and books we curate for our kids, at all times we're looking for things that have the ring of truth to them. Jesus tells us that he himself is the truth (John 14:6), so we focus on stories that deal with the God-shaped hole that is in our children’s hearts.

When our son was six, he remarked, “Isn’t it weird how Superman is a lot like Jesus?”

It’s not weird at all, actually. Superman IS a lot like Jesus. That’s not accidental. That’s our world grasping at a truth they can sense all around them, but can’t quite touch. They know they need a relationship with Christ, but can’t bring themselves to admit it, so they dress him up in tights and give him heat vision. But they know they need a savior from the skies to deliver them.

A true story hunts for things universally acknowledged to be good: sacrifice, heroism, suffering, righteousness, mercy, danger, risk. The realization that a broken and fallen world has real evil that must be opposed by women and men of courage, conviction, and faith. And that opposition always comes at great price.

A story does not need to be factual to be true. It does not need to be labeled “Christian” to be true. But it very much does need to shed light on life as it really is.

We focus on what is excellent.

Philippians 4:8 is an ever-present measuring rod for our family:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

A worthy corollary to whatever is true, excellence is not to be overlooked. There is a dizzying amount of ideas and expressions of art to consume in this world. There’s not time to get to all of it, so we pursue that which is made by skillful hands and brilliant minds.

We are trying to raise children who glorify God through what they create. Norm MacDonald had an old joke I’ve always loved: “Kenny G has a new Christmas album out. It’s called, 'Happy Birthday, Jesus. Hope You Like Crap!'”  I don’t want my kids fooled into thinking that God approves of schlock. I want them to interact with excellent, high-quality art so they can be inspired to produce excellence themselves.

We focus on what is being taught.

All art teaches.

Even if the point only teaches us to appreciate beauty, that is in and of itself a moral lesson. I want my children to understand the messages the world is throwing at them. It’s not enough that they be savvy consumers of culture. They need the ability to deconstruct meaning, to grasp what is being said and to recreate it through their own set of lenses.

Mulder and Scully (FBI agents on The X-Files) wrestle with mysteries of both the natural and supernatural variety in a context that speaks directly to issues of faith and epistemology (questions of ‘how we know what we know’). When Mulder declares, “I want to believe!” because “the truth is out there,” it doesn’t matter if he’s chasing a little green man from outer space or trying to understand his partner’s awakening faith in God.  What is important is that my daughter learns to evaluate the philosophies she is exposed to and then acquires the skills to test those ideas against God’s truth.

When Clark Kent enters Lex Luther’s psyche on Smallville and finds an inner child that represents the last remaining shred of goodness left in his burgeoning archnemesis, it’s not just a plot device or an entertaining new look at familiar characters. For my kids, it was a chance to unpack why goodness was represented as a child. We compared society’s belief that people “turn” evil (like Lex or Darth Vader) with the biblical truth that we are all evil from birth. My seven-year-old chimed in that Jesus said we must be like little children to know God; and by doing so suggested a different spin on what was happening in the scene.

We focus on what is appropriate.

It’s difficult to know at what age your child is mature enough to handle certain content. With my daughter, I had to heavily edit and carefully select which episodes of The X-Files she watched. Some have sexual elements with no redemptive value. Others were twisted and dark in a way that she didn’t need to be subjected to.

Training my kids to be discerning doesn’t mean that I want them exposed to everything the world’s sewer pipe spews at them. There are some topics that I want them to interact with while they are young. Drugs and alcohol are things we discuss openly, even in elementary school. It’s surprisingly uncomplicated to explain their uses and consequences. Likewise racism, violence and injustice, like in the amazing film The Mission, can lead to fruitful conversations.

When in doubt, we try to wait. If we're concerned that content may be too intense for our kids, we don’t show it to them. Often, we read it to them in book form first. For stories like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or the Narnia movies, taking the time to read the books with your kids first is a great way to gauge their preparedness. If they aren’t interested in the books, they probably don’t need to see the movie yet.

We focus on them.

We watch shows, read books, play games, and listen to music with our kids. Curation and editing take time. It means we sit and watch the show, paying attention with the remote in hand, just in case I forgot about “that one scene” from a movie I last watched two decades ago.

I try to keep my kids’ own interests and preferences in mind. My oldest girl loves monsters; she always has. At three years old, she would cheer when the 1930s King Kong stepped on fleeing villagers. So when I offered to spend a year letting her stay up later than the other kids to watch The X-Files with me, I knew I wasn’t boring her with something I loved, but was introducing her to something that would thrill her too.

My son loves The Flash. My youngest is obsessed with Supergirl.  We watch those shows as a family, but it’s also a chance to learn about what makes my individual kids tick. Because that time is about them, it’s easier for me to hone in on shows that spark their imagination, and on characters that inspire them to ask the right questions.

When it comes to how we are raising our kids to interact with the world, I can’t swear to you that we are “doing it right." We're doing the best we can to be intentional and engaged with them. If all we accomplish is training our kids to be intentional and engaged with the world around them, I’d happily take that.

Is any of this working? It’s too early to know. That’s the tightrope, isn’t it? I can’t promise you that any of this will work for my own kids, let alone yours.

I can only tell you that while listening to “It’s Quiet Uptown” from the Hamilton soundtrack - a song about a woman forgiving her husband’s adultery and coming to grips with the murder of her son - my seven-year old piped up from the back seat, “That’s why we have to learn to forgive each other for little things, because someday we might have to forgive someone for something really big.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Image: "The Education of the Children of Clovis," by Laurence Alma-Tadema. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A Place for Women Outside the Home

Hang on to your hats, because this may shock you: I’m a working girl.

(Yes, I know what it means)

More accurately, I’m a working wife and a working mother, AND I have the audacity to believe that I’m still pursuing godly womanhood (though I do not have the audacity to believe I have achieved it).

In some Christian circles, choosing to be a working mom elicits gasps and whispers and hand-wringing about the death of the “Proverbs 31 Woman” devoted solely to the chores and tasks that run a home and nurture her husband and children.

Up front, there's nothing wrong with being a work-at-home mom (I prefer that term to “stay-at-home mom” because anyone who’s been there knows that all that nurturing IS work). I just want to encourage women: the Bible is loaded with examples of godly women who, as far as we can tell, carried out some pretty significant tasks, even jobs, outside their homes; jobs that weren’t directly connected to running a household or nurturing husbands and children.

A bit of history

Before the Industrial Revolution (mid-1800s), the vast majority of people – men and women – worked in and around their houses. Men and women did chores, cultivated their land, raised their children, and maybe worked a trade either from their land or on an “on-call” basis. The rise of factories where people “went” to work started dividing families to where one person “worked” at home and one “worked” outside it – but both men and women might work in factory jobs.

Sociologists believe that the concept of a “stay-at-home mom” really arose in Western world during the Post-WWII era of prosperity, when households could be supported with a single income, and in the wake of men returning from war and re-integrating into the workforce. That flood of able-bodied men filled many of the jobs women had been working during the war.

That means that before 1945, the concept of “stay-at-home mom” didn’t really exist.

So were all the good, godly women we read about in the Bible just a secret precursor to the modern stay-at-home mom? As we’ll see, I don’t think so.

For one thing, being able to support a family entirely on one worker’s salary is an unbelievable historical luxury. In much of the world even today, wives work side-by-side with their husbands just to earn enough to keep their families fed.

But what about the situations in which a mother just wants to work outside the home? I think there’s biblical evidence to support that, too.

Working women in the Bible

Consider Eve (Genesis 2). Even from the start, God saw that man, Adam in this case, needed a helper – someone with whom the work of life could be shared. Given that Eve was created separate and apart from children (obviously, she had them later) and as a helper and companion for Adam, Eve likely worked the land alongside her husband. It seems unbelievable that she would have been concerned only with the keeping of a home, even after the Fall.

Consider Deborah (Judges 4). The Bible records her as a prophetess of the Lord, the only female judge, who helped lead a successful military campaign against the ruler of Canaan.

Consider Ruth (there’s a whole book about her). In her case, mitigating circumstances led Ruth into the fields to gather food for herself and her elderly mother-in-law. We don’t know whether she worked outside the home prior to that; however, when she meets Boaz (her eventual husband), he asks that “the Lord repay you for what you have done,” referring to her working away from her home.

Consider Lydia (Acts 16:11-15). Paul encountered Lydia during one of his missionary journeys and notes that she was “a seller of purple goods” and “a worshipper of God.” According to Paul’s record in Acts, Lydia listened to Paul’s message and was subsequently baptized along with her household. Obviously, we don’t know exactly what “her household” meant, but we do know that her life working outside her home paved the way for the baptism of her household.

Consider Priscilla (Acts 18). Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, are both tentmakers and disciples who devoted themselves to the church. Again, we don’t know whether they had children, but we have a clear picture that her work was more than the operation of a household.

What do these examples tell us?

What’s most striking to me about these biblical references to women is not so much that they worked or had influence outside of their own homes; rather, it’s that the biblical accounts spend little or no time telling us what they did IN their homes. In other words, the value of these women was not intrinsically tied to how well they kept a house or whether their children had perfectly packed lunches. Instead, we see pictures of women using the gifts and talents and opportunities with which they had been blessed to impact the world around them for the good of God’s people and His church.

So why does this topic weigh on my heart? It’s because I’ve tried both of these roles.

I believed with all my heart that I would someday be a stay-at-home mom, and I was … for about seven months. During that seven months I realized something about the way God created me: I’m not gifted, at least not in this season, with the attributes to be a stay-at-home mom.

So I started working again, part-time at first and then full-time with a lot of flexibility. And I realized something: I’m a better mom and a better wife when I’m engaged in work outside of my home. I truly believe (and my husband would attest to this) that I nurture my home more lovingly and in a more godly way when I’m serving and being challenged by my efforts outside the home.

Maybe that isn’t you. And that’s okay! It’s fantastic, even. The thing is, the Bible is a beautiful book full of the very best and the very worst that humanity has to offer. It records a vast diversity of life and culture and experience, lots of roles in which to live out a life with God. Let’s allow the Christ-followers we encounter every day the grace to find their place in God’s wide vision for a life lived with him.

Image: "Self-Portrait at the Easel," by Sofonisba Anguissola

Reclaiming Meditation

When you hear the word "meditation," what comes to mind?

A yoga studio?

Sitting cross-legged and trying to empty your mind?

For most of the West, "meditation" has generally become more associated with Eastern religions than anything else. When we stumble across the word in Scripture - in Psalm 1, say - we aren't necessarily sure what to do with it:

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. (vv. 1-3)

And that loss is a shame, because Christian meditation is a rich practice that was close to the heart of Christians for centuries. Look among the monks of the Middle Ages, the Puritans of the early modern era, or the evangelists of the 19th and 20th centuries - all of them, without fail, will point to words like Psalm 1 and commend this practice.

But what is it?

Not emptying, but filling

In contrast to Eastern meditation, which uses either silence or a repeated formula to try to empty the mind, Christian meditation tries to fill the mind with Scripture or other truths of God. At its heart, meditation is thinking deeply about God or about God's Word.

One helpful if kinda gross analogy is that of a cow chewing its cud. Cows (outside of farms) can grow to hundreds of pounds entirely by eating grass: no small feat, if you've ever tried to live on protein-less salad alone. But cows can manage it because they have four stomachs through which food is processed; they swallow some grass, process it, spit it back up, chew it (that's the cud), swallow again, and repeat, until they pull every bit of nutrition there is to pull out of that grass.

In the same way, the living and active words of the Bible can be that life-giving to us: but too often we don't take time to get out the nutrition that's there to be had. We skim a text, pray for 30 seconds, and go our way without coming back to what we've read.

Mind, soul, heart, strength

In putting this into practice, the most helpful way for me to actually meditate is to adopt Jesus' command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. I don't do all of these even in a good meditation session, but when I can I try to look at a passage of Scripture through these lenses:

The mind: What is there to learn?

  • What's the main point of this text?
  • What information does it have to teach: about God, about the world, about how I know God or live with God?
  • Does this remind me of other passages of Scripture? What extra light do they shed on the text?

The soul: What is there to imagine?

  • Is there a story or a poem I can try to make real in my mind?
  • What images or ideas is the writer using? What is he saying with those?
  • How can I put myself into the story?

The heart: What is there to feel?

  • What's the emotional tone of this passage? What does the author feel so strongly about?
  • What does this passage show about what God loves or hates? Do I feel the same way he feels?
  • How can I paint the beauty (or ugliness) of this thing in a way that moves me like I should be moved?

The strength: What is there to do?

  • If this were radically true in my life, how would my day change?
  • What is God asking or commanding in this passage? How does he provide for someone to do that?

This is a sample list rather than an exhaustive one - there's not a single prescription on "how to meditate" in the Bible - but hopefully it can be a helpful start!

I'll close with some very practical tips:

1. Silence is golden

If you can do this in absolute quiet, that's hands-down best. If for whatever reason you can't manage that, create an environment that's as undistracting as possible: instrumental music without 30-second commercial breaks, etc.

2. Use pen and paper

At this point in my life, trying to think clearly without writing is like flapping my arms to fly. I need a journal if I'm going to put down thoughts in any coherent order for any amount of time.

Also, I do a lot of writing on the computer, but even so I focus better with a print Bible and print journaling than digital.

3. Try to memorize

Even if all you can manage is one phrase or one image, do what you can to remember it and come back to it during the day - the practice itself will make you a better memorizer, and will keep truth fresh in your mind.

4. Talk about it

I'm an internal processor, so I learn best through writing. But - especially if you're an external processor - what you're learning will stick better if you tell someone about it. Have a check-in with someone where you talk about what you're meditating on and where it's leading you!

Image: "Saint Augustine," by Philippe de Champaigne

Why Vanity is Grace

“Vanity of vanities ... vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”

As we've explored Ecclesiastes this summer, has the Preacher’s emphasis on vanity disturbed you? Have you found his dark message counterproductive to his more lively refrain: “Enjoy life!” (Ecc 2:24-25)?  

If you're like me, maybe it's taken awhile to see the value of Solomon’s observation. Indeed, he is saying everything under the sun is vain; but in this, he is also saying something else; something good; something about grace.

As we sift through the poetic wilderness of Ecclesiastes, I hope we may come not only to acknowledge vanity, but to begin cherishing it, embracing it as gift of grace from God to his children.

WHAT’S UNDER THE SUN?

In logic, there is something called a “category error.” This is “the error of assigning to something a quality or action that can properly be assigned to things only of another category.” For instance, if you heard me arguing with my mother, as I tried to convince her not to donate my childhood blanket because the blanket's feelings would be hurt, such a statement would sound absurd! You'd immediately recognize that I was assigning the quality of feeling - a human quality - to a an object that does not feel. If I was serious (and not just being metaphorical), you'd think I was crazy.

This sheds light on the Preacher’s understanding of vanity.

Sin forces human beings to commit a type of “spiritual” category mistake. Although we may often remain unaware, it is no less absurd. Just as someone might attribute emotion to a blanket, or accuse the color red of smelling bad, we're naturally inclined to live like transcendent goods — peace, contentment, joy, fulfillment, purpose, satisfaction, etc. — can be obtained through temporal means: sex, money, power, family.

Or, to put it another way, we try and get that which can only be found above the sun under the sun.

Sin traps us in category confusion!

Just watch how it played out in the Bible. Adam and Eve thought a fruit would make them divine (Gen. 3:6). God’s children thought Egypt's chariots and horses would preserve them (Is. 31; Ps. 20:7). The prodigal son believed that possessing his inheritance and leaving home would liberate him (Luke 15:12-16). The woman at the well had a thirst she tried to quench with marriage and sex (John 4:15-18). So too, Solomon indulged himself with everything under the sun in order to find happiness and purpose. It never worked.

We too labor to find peace, contentment, hope, or whatever, in the exact same things. But there is nothing new under the sun. Trust me — or even better, trust the Preacher.

STRIVING AFTER WIND

For no spring can pour forth from the same opening both fresh and saltwater; fig trees do not bear olives, nor grapevines figs, “neither can a salt pond yield fresh water” (James 3:11-12). If one spent his life exploring Europe or the Middle East to find a fig tree that bore olives, or a grapevine that bore figs, his life would be utterly wasted! It would be a vain life, a striving after wind. Not to mention he would spend it in complete vexation.

So too is the life wasted that spends itself searching for the deeper, transcendent goods in earthly things.

God has implanted eternity in our hearts (Ecc 3:11), and thus we're all on a search for what’s eternal. Some people openly admit this; others strategically conceal it. But one thing is for sure: our eternal, transcendent needs won’t be found under the sun.

So why do so many keep looking for the eternal in the temporal, like an olive-producing fig tree? Well, the reality is, until we know the Someone who makes all things vain, we will never know where else to look!

THE GOSPEL & VANITY

God penetrated this vain world, subjecting himself to its futile seasons (Ecc. 3:1-8). The one who was above heaven descended to under the sun, but brought the true light with him (John 1:4). Sin pulled and pushed against him, tempted him to take vain things over the Father's will; but he resisted.

And when his appointed time came (Ecc. 3:1), he became sin for us. The resurrecting force of our Redeemer’s power confounded the forces which enslaved us to error. No longer must we labor and strive to sow eternity from the earthly, like “the land never satisfied with water, and the fire that never says, ‘Enough.’” (Prov 30:16).

We can now know vanity, like King Solomon. For if we have found the light which shines from heaven, our eyes will be drawn upward above the world of vanity. The King who now shines clearly down in the power of his resurrection and ascension — in the midst of vain, futile darkness — is true Substance. He is not vain, for there is true gain only in his light (Ecc. 2:13). Those apart from him, in their blindness, keep their heads down: groping, vexed, and crippled by the futility of the earth without the King.

This is the gospel we have to share with a world both addicted to and dissatisfied by vanity.

When your neighbors sense their need for something deeper, tell them it is a clue that their need is really for something higher.

And when Satan tempts you to despair of vanity, let vanity lead you to the the heights of heaven!

CHERISH VANITY AS GOD’S GRACE

Remember when you were suffocating in a life of vanity? Remember when you strove to manufacture the transcendent goods from heaven with your futile plans? Think hard and remember when it was you who was not only destined to a life of eternal suffering apart from God, but toiling in a life of vexation and grief? What changed? Who showed you that you were missing the mark?

Grace did.

For you, Christian, were touched by the gracious hand of God. He mercifully awakened your dark mind to the absurdity of sin.

Understanding vanity, therefore, is a gift of grace. Pure and simple.

Before, our minds were blinded by the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4). Before, when we lived according to the flesh, our minds were set upon the things of the flesh (Rom 8:5). We were getting no fruit from things which we are now ashamed, for “the end of those things is death” (Rom. 6:21). We were trapped in a “category error,” committed to seeking those things which reside above the sun through that which is under it. We were in a dark cave striving to embrace and to know what is only but a shadow of the truth (Ecc. 6:4).

So think of vanity as grace. A spectacular gift!

Praise the Lord that his eternal glory had so thoroughly sucked the life from earthly things, that nothing would satisfy you until you had him. He tore you from a life of futility. Why? He loves you and desires not that you die.

Vanity urges our gaze from what’s under the sun to the Christ who is above it.

This is the grace of the gospel. This is the grace of vanity!

Image: "Saint Jerome Writing," by Caravaggio. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Why we trust that the Bible is true

I’ve always been one to accept things pretty easily. Butler is the best university in America (and I knew that one was true even before the back-to-back trips to the NCAA National Championship game!). Thirsty Scholar has the best chai latte in Indianapolis. The Cubs will never win the World Series (sorry, Cubs fans- I’ll always be a Cincinnati girl at heart). I blindly believed all these things the first time I heard them and later found them to be true.

But what about more serious matters? What about matters of faith? I was recently faced with this issue when a professor asked me how I can know the Bible is real and true. How can I trust that this compilation of letters, stories, and writings is so true that I base my entire faith on it?

I understand that this opens up a lot of other questions. The Bible is so old, how could I ever know who wrote it? How do I know it hasn’t been changed over time? Just because something was true a thousand years ago, does that mean that it still applies today? How can I be sure that there aren’t more books that have yet to be found? The list could go on for pages.

I’m going to be real with you: I felt some fear as I began to search for these answers. The Bible has always been true to me. I have believed it is God’s Word since I was a kid. What if going down this path showed me that I was believing a lie this whole time? What if I can’t trust the Bible? That reality would definitely change a few things.

Thankfully, God is not afraid of such questions. God can handle my fear. God can handle my doubt. And he did. And he showed me three reasons why I can trust that the Bible is his final, ultimately authoritative, and relevant Word.

1. It’s what God’s word tells us

The best place to start in trying to figure out the Bible is … the Bible. In one sense, it is "a" book; in another, it's 66 books written over about 1500 years. How do the human authors of the various books of Scripture view the other books? Put another way, what does the Bible claim to be? Is it a roadmap for the Christian faith? A book of suggestions for those who want to stay on God’s good side?

2 Timothy 3:16-17 gives us a clear picture of Scripture:

“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

These words were written by Paul to Timothy, a young man he had mentored and encouraged for years. They are among Paul’s final words to his dear friend, encouragement to continue living out the faith that was about to cost him his life. Do you see the significance in that? Paul is about to die for his faith in Jesus, yet he tells Timothy to press on because of the assurance he can have in Scripture. He addresses three main questions:

  1. What is Scripture? God’s inspired word. To put it another way, the pages of the Bible are literally God speaking to us.
  2. What is the purpose of Scripture? To teach, to rebuke (reproof), to correct, to train in righteousness. In other words, God’s Word tells us how to live.
  3. What are the effects of Scripture? When we meditate on God’s words, we are equipped for every good work. Therefore, Bible prepares us for the plans God has for us.

Of course this is only one of many passages that explain what the Bible is. For the sake of time and space, I’m going to stop here. But if you want to go deeper, I suggest starting with 2 Peter 2:19-20 and Hebrews 1:1-2.

2. The Bible makes sense historically

I’m typically not a history buff. But given the importance of the matter, I’m going to geek out for a moment.

First, let’s consider the Old Testament. The 39 books that make up the Old Testament are not a random compilation of whatever ancient text the early Church could find. The books we read today are the same as those that were kept in the temple before its destruction in AD 70. They were the Bible to the Jews of Jesus' day.

Oh, and I suppose it is important to mention that they were accepted by Jesus himself. Jesus was not afraid to debate with the Jewish leaders if he disagreed about something. Therefore, it is significant that when it comes to Scripture, there is agreement over the accepted books. (1)

As for the New Testament, the very earliest Church Fathers were quoting New Testament books with the same authority as the Old in the first generation of Christianity. When people tried to claim other books as deserving the same weight, the early Church didn't arbitrarily pick some texts to become Scripture; they affirmed the books they'd already been using, across time and across the world, as the canon.

The first full list we have is found in a letter from Bishop Athanasius in AD 367. He listed all 27 books, which at the time were accepted across denominations without much pushback. (2) He even included separate references to the Apocrypha, an additional group of books recognized as canonical or near-canonical by the Catholic and Orthodox churches many years later. He acknowledges that these writings can be informative, but they are not the inspired word of God. (3)

Therefore, both the New and Old Testaments have withstood the test of time. If the early Church could accept the canon without much disagreement, Christians today can trust in the Bible’s authority.

3. It makes sense because of God’s character.

Finally, Christians can trust in the Bible because of who God is. Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians:

“Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship of God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is the mystery which has been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:25-27).

God willed to make known the riches of his glory. He didn’t have to do that. And he commissioned Paul to carry out the preaching of the Word for his glory. God made many mysteries known in his Word specifically so that his plans would not be thwarted. Christians can have the same confidence today. God calls his followers to go and “make disciples of all the nations ... teaching them to observe all I commanded you" (Matthew 28:19). He empowers Christians through his Word to fully live out this calling day by day. God

I realize that there are many other questions we could ask about the Bible. However, none of them are strong enough to make me doubt the confidence God gives me through the lenses of Scripture, history, and God’s character. Praise be to God that we can be sure his Word is true!

Citations:

Frame, John M. The Doctrine of the Word of God. 135.

Frame, John M. The Doctrine of the Word of God. 136.

Brakke, David. “A New Fragment of Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter: Heresy, Apocrypha, and the Canon,” Harvard Theological Review, 103 (2010): 47-66.

Image: "Saint Paul Writing His Epistles," probably by Valentin de Boulogne. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.