Thursday, June 22, 2017

Dark Jackets and Collared Shirts

I got in a bit of a tussle again last week. Some people find clothes to be very utilitarian - they put on what they've got and they don't think twice about it. I'm sort of the same way - I often forget what t-shirt I'm wearing until someone makes a pseudo-clever comment about it. There are a couple exceptions, though, which, I suppose, may make you a little suspicious about my place on the autism spectrum. I don't like shirts with collars and I can't stand wearing buttons that people can see.

Yes, I get the ridiculousness of these particularities, but they are what they are. If I'm in something like that, I'm constantly aware, self-conscious, and uncomfortable - it's the exact opposite of my otherwise utilitarian clothing nature.* I suspect its for this purpose that dress codes have always given me a real sense of dread - no, it's probably hatred - I can't honestly think of too many things that get me so angry so immediately.

Over the years, I've developed some theological and ethical principles that work against dress codes, as well. If you want to say I've developed these ideas specifically because of my personal predilections, well, there's no real evidence I can give to refute you, but I will argue this defense mechanism is incredibly well thought out.

I got in to trouble last week because the Church of the Nazarene, my "beloved" denomination, is having it's Quadrennial (a word only we know and you'll have to look up) General Assembly this week, where a whole bunch of us get together in one place so we don't feel entirely strange being the only Nazarene anyone knows. Part of this is a particularly large celebration of the Lord's Supper during Sunday morning worship. I won't be staying for the service this year, so this isn't even an issue with which I'm even remotely involved - sort of my righteous-anger bread-and-butter - but they've requested that ordained ministers helping to serve communion wear "business attire," already nebulous, but also suggested men wear a "dark jacket."

It got my hackles up because 1) well, I'm an ordained minister and I don't own a dark jacket outside of the suit I've worn maybe five times in fourteen years, 2) pastors rarely wear jackets anymore, even the ones who want to do so, because it's out of place and often makes people feel uncomfortable, 3) why the heck can't our denomination trust its pastors, people they've empowered to officiate weddings and elucidate theology in public settings, to dress themselves?

There's also the whole issue about dress codes violating a person's humanity and directly working against the gospel of Jesus Christ that the Church of the Nazarene purports to (and mostly does) represent in the world. That's why I don't like dress codes.

I could go on and on about all this, but ultimately it comes down to the very true notion that people judge each other based on appearance. It's an evolutionary human reaction - we size each other up and try to match any new person with some category of people we've previously experienced before. It used to just be "friend" or "foe," but out complex brains have created all sorts of fun news ones now, like "ungrateful hippy" or "disrespectful loser," which come up when people don't look exactly how we'd prefer.

I'm not arguing against the reality of this judgement. Our brains work how they work and while we can reorient them a little bit through intense discipline and repetition, it only goes so far. Rather, what I'm arguing is that our brains also possess the ability to separately analyze the judgement we make and consciously choose to act contrary to those instincts. It's sort of the whole basis of morality in general - and religion in particular.

We believe there's something more than instinct, even if neurology would tell us its not entirely "free" choice. There's a second layer of analytics involved that can help us react in the ways we want to react most of the time. So while you only have one chance to make a first impression, you have numerous chances to capture that instinctive impression and respond intellectually - or at least intentionally.

In short, I'm challenging the way people assume things have to work - it's very counter-cultural of me, you might even say Christ-like (note: I didn't say it; I just proposed you might want to say it). We tell kids in school not to judge on appearance, then, at least in the rest of their life, if not in the very same school, tell them they have to dress a certain way to avoid being judged on their appearance. That does not compute in my logical brain.

As a Christian, I'm called to side with the left out, marginalized, and forgotten. These are the people often on the wrong side of those snap judgments, and so I try to be numbered among them. Yes, it's convenient that I feel most comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans, but I also choose to wear those things, in a worship service - often even if I'm preaching - and otherwise, with the full knowledge that it might lead to judgment.

If someone isn't going to take the time to hear my words or evaluate my actions before deciding the kind of person I might happen to be, then I'm willing to sacrifice whatever relationship I might be missing out on with them. It sounds a bit harsh, even to me, but I don't know another way to live out this very real principle that we shouldn't act upon those snap judgments. If we're going to claim that human beings have worth and value simply because they're human beings, we should probably act as if that's true. This is one way we fail to do so - and quite often.

I get that there might be some functional component to a dress code. Lifeguards need swim suits that won't fall off during intense exertion; no one will let you climb Mount Everest without a sick goose-down snowsuit. You're not going to convince me, though, that a dark jacket is somehow functionally crucial to passing some trays of sad little plastic juicy wafer packs down an aisle of near-motionless people.

I'd argue almost none of our "dress codes" are really functional. Actions are a far better judge of how to respond to people than appearance ever will be. Again, exceptions make the world go round and some guy, encountered in a dark alley, wearing a t-shirt that says, "I plan to rob you," might just be one of them. However, we have to be real careful not to make the same assumption if the guy's clothing or skin color doesn't actually have words written on it. The same goes for anyone, anywhere, at any time.

The only thing a person's clothing should tell me about them is that "this is the kind of person who will wear those clothes in this situation," even making judgments about whether that decision was brave or fool-hearty or disrespectful is a bridge too far. You might not like the guy in a tank top and flip flops** at your daughter's wedding, but that doesn't make him a terrible person. If anything it should make us wonder why we've come up with these traditional, arbitrary, culturally-specific dress codes in the first place, when all they do (again, outside of function) is make us judgmental and ill-disposed towards one another.

Decorum is a state of mind, not of reality.

The final point, and one I want to make especially to people of the religious persuasion, is this notion I heard a lot growing up in conservative evangelicalism: "You need to look your best for God." I imagine lots of fathers and mothers have said these words, or something like them, to kids in an attempt to guilt them into putting on a tie or a dress to head to church (perhaps because a worship service can, oddly, be one of the most judgmental places on Earth a lot of the time). It's really irresponsible and dangerous, though.

God doesn't care how you look. Not at all. Even if you walk naked into an audience with the Queen of England. God does not care. This might seem an innocuous way to get kids to do things, but God isn't Santa; God it not a tool used to enforce behavior.^ The perception we have of God shapes our entire life and its largely formed early on. Don't do this to your kids. Don't set conditions by which they have to meet expectations to find approval. It's not healthy when you're the one withholding and it's not fair when you do it on God's behalf.

Yes, the whole world works this way - we typically have to earn the respect, love, and admiration of those around us - but it shouldn't be because of what we look like, but how we act and who we are. That's important and it's why dress codes make no sense.





*And the exposed button thing is real - I'm far more comfortable in a tie and I've never, ever worn a dress shirt without one - not once in my life. I've twice had to buy polo shirts specifically for work, because I gave them all away after leaving the first job that required them.

**For the record, even when attending a wedding, I don't intentionally dress to be noticed - I don't particularly like to be noticed - but I also don't see why we have to judge anyone who might do so, intentionally or otherwise.

^I'm opposed to Santa - and that God-forsaken Elf on a Shelf - for this and many other reasons.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Benedict Option

I have long been a proponent of the importance of intentional counter-cultural faith practice. I believe deeply the purpose of the Church is not to change the world, but to be changed, living as an example of Christ in the world. So when this new book, The Benedict Option, hit shelves this spring with a lot of evangelical buzz, I was excited. The summary basically said, "Christians need to give up trying to change culture, and live faithfully," and the title implied connection to Benedictine monks, who take this task very seriously, and have for 1500 years.

But Rod Dreher writes a book that so frustratingly inconsistent, I had to take long breaks between chapters. He deftly and succinctly lays out the problems inherent in the world today - big ideas like hedonism and consumerism - even the nationalism and comfort to which so many evangelicals have become blind. He really impressively recounts the developments of western society and points out the ways in which it has diverted from the gospel over time. The Benedict Option lays out the problem so well, it's shocking how poorly it elucidates a response.

His plan is to entirely withdraw from society, not because the conservative Christian movement has finally discovered how misguided was its love affair with GOP politics (or politics of any kind), but simply because that relationship is no longer working. On numerous occasions he says this retrenchment is strategic, to build up the resistance and bide time until Christianity can once again exercise power in the world.

The book sets up as the pinnacle of civilization the late Roman Empire, the age of Augustine, but defends this belief not with scripture, but an enduring love of Greco-Roman philosophy that was Christianity's greatest enemy in the period. Likewise he sets up the family as the core theological center of modern Christianity without recognizing how hopelessly enmeshed that idea is with modern conservative political thought (and how thoroughly it stands contrary to scripture). In fact, there's almost no scripture in the book at all - with his arguments based entirely on philosophical, political, and practical comfort.

Dreher correctly identifies the lost importance of liturgy and community in modern western Christianity, but then defines "orthodox Christianity" so narrowly it's amazing that he, a practitioner of Eastern Orthodoxy, can even fit within it. At one point he says outright that those who believe in Christian Perfection in this life - pretty much the core theological distinctive of my denomination, the Church of the Nazarene - are heretics (his word).

I was unsure, at first, if my aversion to The Benedict Option was strictly because of the Wesleyan-Reformed divide and our different ways of approaching scripture and theology, but I had to conclude that's really a difference in worldview, some core belief about reality and the future. Perhaps Dreher is rooted in an eschatology of destruction, that the world will continue to devolve until God steps in to destroy it, rather than a scriptural understanding of God's continuing work of renewal and love for the world God made, but this book is so pessimistic it makes me doubt his faith in the power of God at all.

The entire argument is based in fear, that everything around you is out to corrupt your children and ruin their lives; he says at one point that if people do not follow his advice in this book, Christianity will, under no uncertain terms, be wiped out of existence. It feels like a furtherance of the culture wars, but with a new tactic that purports to leave electoral politics, but simply re-engages from a different angle. He sets up "religious liberty" as the last bastion of salvation for "real" Christians, which isn't a particularly theological or Christian idea at all. There is no room for theological disagreement - even when he talks of ecumenical cooperation, it's still within this nebulous realm of "orthodox Christianity."

Dreher advocates - no demands - that Christians remove their children from public education, and any Christian education that doesn't follow the "classical" model. He sees the world as Jesus' society saw the unclean - something to be avoided for fear of contamination; we must do the opposite, of course, engaging the world, touching it intimately, the way Christ touched the unclean, secure in the notion that the power of the Holy Spirit working through us is capable of redeeming that which seems lost and foreign.

The Benedict Option sees threat and challenge, almost to an existential level, around every corner. It's a book written out of intense fear - one that is entirely unwarranted in light of the power of Jesus Christ. Why not embrace a world that is simply ignorant of the great freedom available through Jesus' Kingdom of love and grace and double down on our commitment to live this alternative Kingdom in the midst of the world?

This is what Dreher argues for, I guess, but while we can agree generally about the need to combat contemporary notions of work, privilege, sexuality, technology, and sacrifice, the details on which we settle could not be more different. This diversity should be something acceptable, especially since we are each committed to living seriously in the way of Christ, but over and over the book rejects those who differ on key areas of concern - things that are typically on the periphery of orthodox theology conversations, but always on the forefront of the culture wars.

In the end, The Benedict Option just makes me sad. My heart breaks for Dreher and those who will sign on to this movement. My heart breaks in the same way it does for friends and neighbors who've found themselves in the midst of the social and cultural ills Dreher so deftly lays out. I can't think of a more misguided, anti-gospel response to the real problems in the world. I can't help but notice how stark a contrast this book has to the one I read and reviewed last week - Rob Bell's What is the Bible? - a presentation of alternative culture to the hedonism, consumerism, nationalism, and general rootlessness so prevalent in the world today, but one built on a deep foundation of scripture and unfailingly optimistic about the power and love of God's Holy Spirit to transform and redeem everything.

I'm sure there are more than two ways to live faithfully in the midst of the world, but The Benedict Option is not one worth considering - at least not in the detail and with the specificity described therein. We've got access to the same idea described with far better scriptural exegesis and with much more grace in many places.

I got this book from the library and I've toyed with renewing it indefinitely to keep anyone else from having to read it, but then I realized that would just be playing into the fear espoused within. I am confident in the power of God to address the deficiencies of the world through the faithful response of God's people - not in terror and exclusivity, but with radical grace and the brazen, sacrificial, near-impossible love of Jesus Christ. You really don't need to read this book, but please don't be afraid of it.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Talking to Kids About Difficult Things

I have a five year old daughter. As a result, I've spent far more time than I ever expected talking to parents of young children. One of the issues I've run into lately has been the debate over when kids are "ready" to talk about various topics. There's often a sense that the outside world is just waiting to stream into our children's lives and overly complicate things.

That's probably true, although that same danger exists for us, as adults, and every other human being on the planet. The world is a confusing, difficult place for anyone to live in - but maybe that's the whole point? I wonder if perhaps we seek to keep our children "innocent," as we like to say, because we, ourselves, aren't quite comfortable understanding, let alone explaining, complex ideas to them (especially when they have varying levels of ability to understand in the first place).

One of the kids in my daughter's preschool class has two moms. My daughter's never mentioned it; I'm not sure she's even really noticed. I have heard parents, though, lamenting their frustration about having "that" be forced into their child's life when the parents would rather save "that" for a later conversation.

I'm not sure "that" would be my approach to parenting, but I certainly understand where they were coming from. Then I got to thinking. My daughter wasn't even two yet when she could articulate what a princess was and understood that a princess goes with a prince. She still doesn't have even the remotest understanding of what "romance" is, but she knows that moonlight boat rides, evening strolls, and late night magic carpet adventures are the kinds of things that bring two people together.

She doesn't have much capacity to understand attraction, orientation, dating, or marriage, but she has some semblance of knowledge about what a relationship is. She's already been shaped and formed in the language of relationships and we've never had a conversation about it. In light of that, it doesn't really make sense not to bring up complex topics, because life has already done it.

Sure, she's not going to understand, at five, what it means to seek out a spouse, but she's forming the foundation from which she'll make those decisions in the future.


Like my time talking to parents, I've spent far more of my life than I ever expected working with teenagers, both in and out of the Church. The most important lesson I've learned from those experiences is that kids always have more knowledge and exposure to things than their parents ever suspect.

This is why I've always tried to answer every question my daughter has as completely as I possibly can. We've had conversations about death and dying, about homelessness, poverty, and violence. I don't think she understands much, if anything, about those topics other than they exist and they're problematic. Then again, on the way to school this morning she told me, "Dad, if Mimi (her best friend) and I had lived a long time ago, we never would've been friends." When I asked what she meant she said, "A long time ago they didn't let black people and white people live near each other and if we didn't live near each other we wouldn't go to the same school."

Did I mention she's five? Yeah.

We try to avoid talking with our kids about difficult things until we absolutely have to, because we love them and we want them to be blissfully unaware for as long as possible. But they're going to be aware long before we ever know they're aware. I know we think our kids will be different, but my experience tells me that's just not true.

I've long proposed that the most important tool for Christians to practice and possess is creativity. Creativity allows us to think outside the systems and structures we're given and respond differently to the world around us. It's a gospel creativity that lets us cut through the divisive and partisan nature of our world to present the beautiful alternative that is the Kingdom of God.

It's that creativity we must foster in talking to our kids about difficult subjects while also presenting the hope that we have in Christ. It is the middle way, between sheltering our children and leaving them exposed to the world. As parents, we know them best, and it should be our job to introduce them to the already-not yet world in which they live, one full of great sorrow and tremendous grace. I don't believe there's anything we can't say to our kids, so long as we foster this creativity to speak to them in ways that make sense for who and where they are in life.

Avoidance sends a message of fear. Addressing topics, even difficult ones, puts legs to our faith claims that God is in control, that the victory has already been one, that love and peace and hope will win out in the end. Yeah, it's not always simple, but our kids need to know we wrestle beside them and aren't afraid to wade through the mess together.

One of the more difficult things I've done as a parent was also the most rewarding. I sat down with my daughter and read through her (age appropriate) "how does my body work/where do babies come from" book. The most difficult part was reading all of the proper biological terms without pausing or stumbling or otherwise letting on that this was something to be embarrassed about. In the end, she asked a few questions, but we've had to go back every few months and read it again because she could care less about these topics. At least I know, though, when she has questions, there's a foundation to discuss them together.

A few weeks ago my daughter came in crying about something - probably neighborhood kids being mean - whether it was embarrassment, fear, or confusion, she just wouldn't talk about it. I found myself telling her something spontaneously, and, as I was saying it, realizing, deep down, that it was one of the truest things I've ever said. I told her, essentially, there are lots of things you'll do in life, some things I'll like and some things I won't, but the single most important thing to me, as your dad, is that you'll always be able to talk to me.

I mean that. At least I'm working towards that in my own life. If she makes decisions about boys (or girls), drugs or beliefs or money or any number of other things I may not want for her, I'd much rather she do them and talk to me, than avoid them and not. I don't think this is the typical attitude our churches take towards parenting, but I can't imagine any other way to do it.

Listen, I'm under no delusion that we'll always be able to talk to each other about difficult things - she's only five and it already doesn't go as well as I'd like - but I know these early moments, when the stakes are much lower, are great practice for shaping both of us into the kind of people who can have the best possible relationship later.

I'm convinced it starts with telling the truth - all the time. I answer every question as honestly as possible. So far she understands very little of it, but she knows I'm not hiding anything. I want her to ask questions, to know nothing is off limits, that every question is a good one.

As parents, we've got access to a God-given imagination and an incredible creativity to meet our kids where they are. If we do mess something up, we have great faith in a God who reconciles all things and draws all people - young and old - to God's self. Our children don't need to be sheltered; they need to be prepared, not irresponsibly, not beyond what they can understand, but we're the ones who know what's out there and we have to be the ones preparing them to face the world. If they can't count on us before we think they're ready, they won't count on us when we don't know they're ready.

Parenting is the single most difficult thing we'll ever do, but I'm coming to realize, it's not something you do for your kids, it's something you do with them. Good luck and God speed.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Rob Bell Comes Home

Rob Bell wrote Love Wins, in which he dared to make a theological and scriptural case for considering a kind of Christian universalism that has always been a part of the Christian tradition. He was generally cut-off and condemned by the American evangelical community that values predictability and stasis above just about everything else. It changed his life. He moved to California and stopped working at churches (although he's continued to be a pastor to a pretty diverse group of people, include Superbowl MVP,
Aaron Rodgers and comedian Pete Holmes). He's dabbled in TV, started a podcast, holds a regular slot at Largo in LA - and, most importantly,
continued writing.

Things got a little wonky there for a while. He showed up on Oprah and some of his writing started sounding more generally spiritual and less specifically Christian. People assumed he'd just gone off the deep end, so to speak - in evangelical cultural terms, just another lost soul seduced to collusion with the ways of the world.

That makes it sound a bit worse than it is - you can read the Christianity into Bell's most recent book, How to Be Here, even if he doesn't use the language. That being said, his newest book, What is the Bible?, was not the avenue I expected him to turn down next. In typical Rob Bell style, it's a short, quick, direct, and accessible look at a particularly complex topic. He addresses the Bible, it's creation, development, and purpose - as well as approaching technical issues of genre, culture, interpretation, and language with specific examples rather than jargon and prose.

I know many Christians are skeptical of this treatment, fearing that Bell has moved beyond where most people are comfortable. If you're a straightforward, typical American evangelical, particularly one who's not too uncomfortable with the fundamentalist label, that might be true. I doubt all of what Bell has to say would please those in the tradition from whence he comes. However, he clearly explains how that tradition provided the pathway to ask questions and discover answers leading to where he is. There's nothing in this book that would contradict anything I heard or learned in seminary or would be outside the bounds of my tradition in the Church of the Nazarene.

Does he ruffle some feathers around the edges? Yeah, especially in the final section of the book that serves as a sort of Q&A, particularly geared around difficult and controversial questions. I'm not sure I appreciate the casualness with which he deflects questions of biblical authority and inerrancy - I certainly agree with what he has to say, but perhaps not in the way it's done. Yet this book is clearly for his "new" audience.

It is not at all written for people within the camp who embraced his early work. What is the Bible? presents a healthy, responsible, in-depth, engaging understanding of the Bible to people who are searching for meaning and may have otherwise written it off.

If I were teaching an Intro to the Bible course at some Christian college, I'd put this on the textbook list. I think it would work equally well in a congregational setting where people are prepared to be stretched and challenged and willing to talk about complex issues. I've read just about everything Bell's published and this is among his best work. There's more scripture, exegesis, research, and gospel than you'd find in 99% of sermons out there (mine included).

It's a presentation of living, active, meaningful scripture that speaks to the world with honesty and grace. Bell's freedom from the moralistic tyranny of a Christian publisher allows him to be both reverent and irreverent, but most of all real. It's a great read and I couldn't be more pleasantly surprised.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Beauty and Participation

While reading, last week, I came across an off-hand reference to Giant's Causeway - the unique and incredibly beautiful geologic formation on the north coast of Ireland. Just the name brought back a flood of memories, but more than that, an intense desire to experience the location once again - not for any specific purpose, but just to be in the presence of such peace and beauty one more time.

I've been a lot of places in the US, but I'm not otherwise well-traveled. I've left the continent only twice, but in both instances discovered one of these places of refuge. The Causeway in Northern Ireland and an ordinary, non-descript public beach on the Big Island of Hawaii. I'm not one for sun or sand, necessarily, but this beach was tree-covered and sheltered - as much as I have a long list of international locales I'd love to see, I might want to return and just sit on this beach more than any of them.

Previously, those feeling have not been associated with the places in which I experience them; they've felt more like participation is some larger truth. I've got profound memories of rightness sitting on a rock, near the top of Mt. Elbert, in Colorado, watching the morning fog stream up from the valley into the sky at almost impossible speeds; the same feeling in a similar spot on Mt. Katahdin, in Maine, viewing the vastness of untouched wilderness comprised of nothing but trees and lakes, the bright sun magnifying the colors and reflections. But those are simply places connected to connection; it doesn't feel like the places themselves are part of it.

I love those moments because they remind me of my insignificance and that is unbelievably comforting. All of my anxieties and stress melts away in the wild as I'm reminded that this vast, complex, unfathomable universe does not in any way require my participation. It puts things in perspective. I also enjoy the realization that such profound beauty - an experience, a reality beyond just the physical attributes of location and composition - is literally impossible without my participation. No one will see or experience exactly what I see or experience. That's also comforting.

So many things I do I do just to check them off the list. I've been to the highest point in 31 states now, but they're not all magical - most are pretty formal. That doesn't make those experiences less valuable, just different. Unless there's some real (likely unrelated reason), I probably won't go to most of them every again. I don't tend to read books a second time, even if they are profound or enjoyable or profoundly enjoyable, because there are always other interesting books to read.

Maybe it's because those two locations are so disconnected from my normal life - they are exotic in that they're far away from any place I ever reasonably expect to be. Perhaps they're special because they aren't places I ever planned to be. I was in Ireland for a work conference on ministry in places of conflict - our retreat center was rural and remote, but most of our time had been in the city. We took an afternoon whirlwind tour of the coast and snuck into the Causeway just before it closed. The beach was my wife's idea - the beach is always my wife's idea - I've never seen a beach I've particularly liked or disliked in any way save that one.

I don't know what it is that drives my desire to return to those places. I don't doubt that water has something to do with it. I've always found comfort in the crashing of the surf, in the cool cut of an ocean breeze, in the peace of otherwise silent nature. The steady rhythm of the waves, perhaps reminiscent of the heartbeat felt in that womb I don't remember, brings a calm and a peace no amount of psychoanalysis could ever touch. I wonder more, though, if my having experienced them before somehow adds to the beauty. There are plenty of beautiful places around the world I would love to experience, but perhaps its beauty already infused with experience that speaks more deeply to the heart and soul.

I do a lot of art - I can't draw or paint or sculpt, but words are my medium (or maybe my canvas) - rarely, though, do I create something that feels truly beautiful. When I do, there's a sense that it's not mine, that it's never been mine - and yet my DNA, my fingerprints are all over it. Beauty is a portal to something cosmic, something true on a level beyond our understanding, yet there is an element of beauty which cannot exist without our participation.

A great painting is not beautiful on its own; it is beautiful when someone recognizes within it both themselves and something so outside themselves as to be nearly unapproachable. Beauty is a connection between the impossibly immanent and the indecipherably transcendent.

I doubt my experience of beauty perfectly matches with the experience of any other - perhaps my experience is totally foreign to every other -
but I suspect that my experience of beauty is precisely what people experience when they experience beauty in whatever ways they experience it.
Whatever that looks like, it looks as it does because of our presence.

Maybe, just maybe, the key to seeing beauty in everything is just to be constantly present - not here, but present - and isn't that beautiful?