Archive for the ‘Cultural Trends’ Category

In light of the recent death of Brittany Maynard, there has been much debate about so-called “death with dignity.” I have many many concerns about physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, especially in a society that is so enamored with efficiency and convenience. In my time as a pastor, I have spoken with a number of people who are contemplating whether or not to proceed with various kinds of treatments for various kinds of ailments (though none have, to my knowledge been considering PAS or euthanasia). I have found that there seems to be a common fear lurking in the minds of many in our society that I’m afraid comes front and center when life-and-death decisions are being made: the fear of being a burden. Here is what I want to say to any who hold this fear and especially those who are making decisions concerning life and death:

You are not a burden.

You are a beautiful and beloved human being, made in the image of God. You have a burden: the brokenness of your body, the weight of sin, the immanence of death. But…

You are not a burden.

You are, like all people, in need of others. As much as we prize independence and self-sufficiency in our society, none of us are. We were made to need and be needed, to serve and be served, to give and receive. There are times when we are needed, must serve, and are in a position to give. And it is good to do so. There are also times when we need, must be served, and can only receive. And there is no shame in that.

You are not a burden.

Perhaps your whole life, you have been in control, the one others counted on, the caregiver. Perhaps right now, you are struggling with the new position you find yourself in. You would rather be the hero who relieves others’ burdens than—God forbid—allow someone else to be your hero. This pride is a burden, but…

You are not a burden.

It is very likely that there are many in your life who are grateful for the opportunity to serve you, to care for you, to drive you to doctor’s appointments, to spend time in the waiting room, to support you when you can barely walk, to make you dinner when you are too weak, to sit and enjoy the sound of your breathing when that is all you have to give. It is likely that there are people in your life who love you so deeply that they cherish your existence and delight in serving you in your time of need. Do not put words in the mouths or thoughts in the minds of these people who would unequivocally tell you…

You are not a burden.

There may be some in your life who feel burdened by your burdens, who feel put out by the demands of your situation, and who would rather not have to deal with you. Even those who love you deeply may have these moments. But this is not about you. This is about their hearts, and the selfishness that they are indulging or at war with. There are moments when we all come face-to-face with our selfishness and which push us to choose love. Your need might spark one of these watershed moments for others in your life. But to be clear…

You are not a burden.

You have a burden. And the most beautiful moments of humanity are when we are given and seize the opportunity to bear one another’s burdens. It is in these moments when we are blessed with the chance to “fulfill the law of Christ,” to be as deeply human as we can be. We do not need our burdens to disappear. We need to carry one another’s burdens so we can become the kind of people we are made to be and the kind of communities that cultivate such humanity, goodness, and love.

You are not a burden.

It is not your obligation to do everything conceivable to stay alive for as long as you can. There is a time to live and a time to die. But please do not assume this is your time to die simply because you are in need or because you don’t feel worthwhile or because you have done the calculations and come out as a loss to society. Regardless of what you can’t do or produce or contribute, your life is priceless. You are a beautiful and beloved human being, created in the image of God. Which is to say, friend, with utmost certainty…

You are not a burden.

If you’re a journalist, I get it. I know how frustrating it can be to have your profession “democratized” (read: cheapened). We’ve all heard of people hopping on the internet and becoming an ordained minister overnight. After three years of seminary, internships, mentoring relationships, etc., it stinks to hear those stories. So yes, I get it. You go to school, take creative writing courses, learn the ins and outs of grammar, investigative reporting, and media ethics. Then some shlub writes a grammatically aberrant, factually questionable, off-the-cuff blog that goes viral; or you have to walk by rack after rack of trying-to-pass-for-reporting tabloids at the grocery store; or you write a well-crafted, insightful piece that gets sent back because it isn’t sexy enough to sell newspapers.

So journalists, this one’s for you.

Christians are followers of one who calls himself “The Truth.” In Revelation, Jesus is called “Faithful and True.” In fact, one thing our all-powerful God cannot do is lie. So we are called to truth, faithfulness, and honesty.  Problem is, deception, lies, and half-truths are powerful and pervasive enemies. From the beginning, it is deceit that ushers sin into the world. A “crafty” serpent makes a twisted promise that Adam and Eve fall for hook, line, and sinker. The Enemy of God and God’s creatures, sometimes known as Satan or the Devil, is given the catchy nickname, “Father of Lies” and is described as the “deceiver of the whole world.”  And we mustn’t forget, lies and deception become a convenient resort even for God’s “faithful”: Abraham tells half-truths to protect his own skin, Jacob conspires with his mother to deceive his dying father Isaac; David lures and then has a man killed to protect his adulterous deception; Peter denies even knowing Jesus in his hour of testing. In every age, falsehood and deception are dangerous temptations for all people, even God’s people.

Certainly lies and deceptions* are woven into the fabric of our society in many ways. But I’ve noticed a disturbing trend recently (certainly the problem isn’t recent, but I’m not always the most observant person) that I want to focus on in this blog.: headlines. At their best, headlines help a reader determine which articles are of interest and worth reading. And who doesn’t love a clever headline every so often. But when money trumps ethical reporting, internet headlines are often twisted and sensationalized to bait skimming eyes to click, like, or share.

Here’s what I’ve noticed recently:

  • First and foremost, the coverage of Pope Francis has been a travesty, from the Pope’s words regarding atheists and good deeds to his conversation about gay priests, and probably more. These headlines have tended to 1) illegitimately jump to conclusions, 2) show little understanding of the theological and rhetorical context of the words, and 3) use words that glancing scrollers will likely interpret in a way other than how they were used. For instance, “judge” is a biblical word that means something quite different to most ears in our culture.
  • Fact-checking? Fuggedaboutit! Here’s an extreme example: I’ve seen multiple posts on Facebook that have taken an article from a satirical source like The Onion, and posted them as fact.  The most egregious was this article, joking at Sarah Palin’s expense. Worse, when someone noted that it was a joke, the response was, “Well, knowing Palin, it could have been true.” In other words, even though the poster was in the wrong, the object of the satire is the one who loses out…again. Most people will not fact-check an article as they scroll through. Most will assume that the headline is true. We can’t control most people, but we can break the cycle by 1) not assuming the headline is accurate and 2) taking the extra time to fact-check an article before posting it and leading others astray.
  • Sensationalism sells. A colleague of mine who writes some articles for an online publication has expressed some frustration because the editor chose a headline for his article that undercut the point. So even an article that is thoughtful and balanced might end up being published with a crass, controversial, and one-sided headline. Again, most people won’t read the article, but will keep the headline in mind.
Truly, this isn’t just an internet problem. You can see it in the magazine rack at the grocery store, in newspapers, and even as we pass on “news” face-to-face or over the phone. We want to sound interesting or appear knowledgeable or shock people and so we embellish, overplay our hands, and downright make stuff up. Whether we are selling publications or selling ourselves, the truth tends to get in the way. The explosion of blogs and the ease of “sharing” an article with hundreds of “friends” only brings more exposure to the problem.
As Christians, we don’t need to embellish, overplay or make stuff up. God knows us and loves us. We don’t have to sell ourselves or our ideas or even the Gospel. We are free to be honest and live life transparently. In 1934, as German Christians weighed their options of how to respond to the Nazi movement, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “…we must get right to the root of things, with open Christian speaking and no diplomacy. And in prayer together we will find the way. I feel that a resolution ought to be framed—all evasion is useless…Only complete truth and truthfulness will help us now.” While something less than “complete truth and truthfulness” may seem “a very present help in time of trouble,” it is not a viable option for someone who is following the Truth, for our security and success rests in God’s grace, not in our own constructions of self or reality, our own diplomatic or political craftiness, or our own ability to tip the scales of news in our favor.
Part of our calling in this digital setting is to be attentive readers who read past sensationalizing headlines, and truthful communicators who are committed to reality–not to profits or personal publicity. As best we are able, we must find news sources that are committed to truth, being careful not to equivocate truth with our personal dispositions–at the very least, to compare all sides of a story. And we must be careful about what we pass on as true–whether that be an article we post/share in social media, a fact we add to face-to-face conversations, and even how we convey our own lives digitally and in person. We believe the Truth is also the Way, and so our lives must reflect the conviction that “only complete truth and truthfulness will help us now.”


*These are different, but related and equally sinful: Lying is flat-out speaking something that is false while deception is finding ways to keep the truth from being known, whether by silence, half-truths, or other diversions.


Yesterday I received two emails and noticed a couple Facebook posts bearing links to an article entitled, “Pentagon May Court Martial Soldiers Who Share Christian Faith.”  The story is not exactly all out in the open at this point, so I’m not going to pretend I’m an authority on this particular story.  But these e-mails reveal a “pressure-point” for many Christians in America as well as the increasing number of non-Christians in America.  You know how pressure points work: if someone applies minimal pressure in just the rights spot, they can cause a disproportionate reaction in the other person.  Church and State issues are a pressure point in our country.  The smallest pressure applied to an issue in this category can open up a whole can of accusations, assumptions, defensiveness, and fear.  Now, none of these things are particularly prominent in the life of Jesus, so perhaps I could just take this monthly blog space and talk through the issue with both “sides.”

Background: It appears that the Pentagon spent some time seeking the counsel of outspoken advocate for the separation of Church and State in the military, Mikey Weinstein (the Christian Post initially reported wrongly that Weinstein was “hired” by the Pentagon).  The facts seem to be that the Pentagon is looking at certain standards for chaplains in counseling situations with non-Christian soldiers and restrictions on how faith is promoted by other military authorities.


Dear President and Pentagon,

Why consult this guy?  There are plenty of lesser-known but better-qualified people who could have helped you to develop the policies your thinking about.  Weinstein’s language is intentionally provocative and his strategy seems to be founded on attention-getting.  You even could have consulted Christians who would want to minimize the relationship between Church and State.  Did you want to stir the pot in conservative circles?  Just doesn’t seem like a wise move.

Also, you are taking on a very difficult issue.  Christians–including chaplains–don’t just share the Gospel because they want to get more people over to our side.  We believe that to treat the human as a non-spiritual being is ultimately going to come up short.  We believe that there is healing, restorative, wholeness-creating potential in the Gospel, which is rooted in the person of Jesus.  So it is possible to share the Gospel (evangelize, proselytize, whatever you want to call it) in a spirit of love, genuinely seeking the ultimate and deepest good of the other.  I get it.  Sometimes we do share the Gospel in selfish and unloving ways.  But pretending like any counselor should–let alone could–just “turn off” her/his beliefs and worldview in seeking the healing of another might not be that realistic or helpful.  Most of these chaplains are Christians and Chaplains because they believe that Jesus is actually the best and ultimate source of healing and restoration for themselves and others.

Further, the Constitution does not demand that Church and State exist in utterly separate spheres.  Rather, it reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  In other words, the religious voice has a place in the public sphere.  Government simply may not choose or enforce one religion over another.  So the Christian’s voice need not be accepted merely because it is Christian, but it also should not be rejected merely on the grounds that it is Christian.  Be very careful, my friends, for trying to order how and when people apply their religious convictions is a messy endeavor.

TTFN, Pastor Jon

Dear Church,

OK, deep breaths.  In.  Out.  I understand that headlines like this are concerning.  You’ve had quite a run at the top of Western/American society.  You’ve enjoyed lots of great benefits in our culture that Jesus never promised.  Even so, now that they seem to be fading away, it’s hard.  None of us likes to say “goodbye” to something that was enjoyable, comfortable, or made us feel special.  It is natural to mourn the loss of our cultural privilege.  Christian America was also the air we breathed for many decades.  We assumed it.  It was dependable.  It made church life so much easier.  And now, we’re noticing that breathing isn’t quite as easy.  You felt like America was built on the foundation of Christianity, and now it feels like each one of these restrictions might be the one that causes the whole thing to cave in.  Not fun.

But you also must remember that it’s possible that these “Separationists” have a point.  What made America distinct from England, Rome, etc. wasn’t Christianity…it was religious freedom.  We can believe what we want without the government punishing us for it.  It’s true that the great beneficiaries of this for many years were mostly Christians of various denominations (yes, we Christians have a wonderful history of oppressing ourselves).  But doesn’t this founding American principle and justice itself demand we extend the same freedoms to others who believe in different gods with different names, or even no god at all?

So this whole Mikey Weinstein thing.  First of all, be careful what you read and pass on.  This Weinstein character isn’t government employed.  And there is no evidence that the government wants to court martial your average soldier who shares his faith.  There isn’t really even evidence that they’re going to adopt Weinstein’s ideas nor that he was the only one they consulted.  Don’t spread gossip, or–even worse–slander.  You don’t have to be the news-breakers or the watchdogs.  Just be patient, get more facts, and listen to a different perspective.  By all means, have an opinion.  But be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.

And let’s think through the real issue at hand.  It’s a tough one.  Think about it.  These chaplains are employed by the U.S. Government, who constitutionally aren’t supposed to promote one religion over another.  I mean, if our churches were paying these chaplains and donating them to the military, that’d be one thing.  But that’s not the case.  Moreover, it doesn’t appear we’re talking about worship services.  We’re talking about counseling situations and military operations.  The military is an authority-based community where soldiers are often deeply emotionally wounded.  This is a context ripe for spiritual abuse.  Could policies go too far?  Yes.  But can you also understand that the government wants to make sure their chaplains are really seeking to understand, connect with, and bring healing with their soldiers whether they are Christians or not?  And can you see that telling a traumatized non-Christian soldier who is struggling that the only professional he can talk to is someone who will only talk to him about Jesus might not be what’s best for that soldier?  And do you really want a picture of a Cross and shield on a plane set out to kill?  Is this mixture of Gospel and military something we really want to protect?

One more thing.  This whole “Fear” thing.  It’s very unbecoming of you, Church.  I mean, how many times does God have to tell us “Do not be afraid”?  So you get court-martialled for following the Spirit and preaching the Gospel when you weren’t supposed to.  So pastors don’t get tax breaks anymore.  So you can’t have your Christmas decorations out in front of City Hall.  And what if laws were passed that put us in jail for sharing our faith with people?  What if we got kicked out of the U.S. because we were worshipping Jesus?  What if we became targets for assassination because we were so subverting our culture?  We’d be no worse off than millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world since the time of Jesus.  Here’s the problem:  We seem to be more fearful and anxious than those brothers and sisters WHO ACTUALLY FACED THAT STUFF!  One of those persecuted Christians once wrote: “Perfect love casts out fear.”  If we perfectly believed that nothing in all creation could separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, we would be perfectly free from fear.  I’m not saying that I’m there.  But the point is, if we are afraid, that says more about our lack of faith than it does about our surrounding culture’s godlessness.  Let’s not let fear for our own comforts and privileges distract us from the radical life of preaching Good News to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, and setting the captives free that we have received as followers of Jesus.  Don’t promote fear.  Let everything you do be done in loveDon’t be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with goodLive such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Grace and Peace to you all,

Pastor Jon



“So apparently something happened at the Boston Marathon this morning.”  My wife scrolled down on her phone.  I flipped on the tv, frustrated because I can never remember where the 24-hour news channels are in the lineup.  Since I’ll be running my first (and probably last) marathon this year, I was curious: did some Kenyan runner break a record?  was there an inspirational story? did someone else try to shave a few minutes off their time by taking the subway to the finish line?

You know the real story.  Two bombs had exploded, killing multiple people and injuring over 100.

By most standards, killing innocent bystanders like this would be labelled “evil.”  Now, generally in our culture, “evil” is not a word that tends to be thrown around.  In this culture, our civil religion tends to emphasize the inherent good in people, and holds up an ideal of universal tolerance and harmony.  “Evil” tends to throw a wrench into that worldview.  It just seems kind of negative and divisive.

In part, our reluctance to use the term “evil” is a response to poor definition and application of the term.  As I understand the term and the Bible’s use of it, “evil” is neither narrowly individualistic nor some medieval superstition.  Evil is a spiritual reality that can manifest itself overtly and discretely, in individuals and systems, cooperatively and unilaterally, in “spiritual” ways and biological ways.  Evil is not restricted to individual choices individuals make, but as something that impacts the world on many levels.

But the result of our avoidance of the term is that, when we open up our internet browser and things like the Marathon Bombing, or the Kermit Gosnell trial, or poisen-laced letters to the President pop up, we are surprised.  I mean, if everyone is really good, “How could something like this happen?” and “How could anyone do such a thing?”  We are shocked, flummoxed, bewildered.  Then we obsessively tune in to every new detail, searching for the key that will prove that we were right about human beings and the world all along; this was just an exception.

As I mentioned after the Newtown shootings, however, Christians should be anything but surprised.  Not that Boston-marathoners should have somehow seen this specific terrorism coming.  But when it comes to the general reality of evil, the awful potential of human beings, and the deep-seated divisions of this world…we should not be surprised.  In fact, as I discussed the marathon bombing with people, rather than expressing surprise that something like this could happen, I found myself expressing amazement that things like this don’t happen more often.  Perhaps that’s too cynical.  But let me tell you why evil doesn’t surprise me:

  1. Because it’s so ridiculously common.  Any worldview (overarching view of the world) that makes evil actions an exception fails to take into account a huge chunk of human and societal experience.  It’s kind of like saying, “The Cleveland Browns are one of the most successful NFL franchises of the last 50 years.”  You can only say that by dismissing a whole slew of real-life evidence.  (You’re welcome, Lions fans.  If I were feeling less humble, I could have gone another direction with that analogy.)   Philosophically, it’s difficult to hold to both a) the amazing intellectual and technological potential of human beings and b) human free will without also holding to c) the incredible potential for evil done by humans.
  2. Because I see it in myself.  We’re often afraid of using the term “evil” because we feel like it’s judgmental, self-righteous, and divisive.  And it can be, especially if we reserve it only for others.  But the Bible speaks of evil as something all of us can encounter intimately by looking into our own souls.  I know that I am accountable in thought, word, and deed for actions directly opposed to God and love; and I know that I am accountable for ways that I am complicit in systems and patterns that oppress, demean, and harm both human and non-human aspects of God’s good creation.  I know that I often act in unloving ways to get what I want, when I am under stress, and when I feel attacked or helpless.  Thus, evil of various extents does not surprise me.

But here’s the kicker.  While many of us avoid talk of “evil” or “sin” because we think it will lead to better people and a better world, I disagree.  And I think this is why talk of sin and evil is so prevalent in the Bible.  Let me offer three ways being open and honest about evil sets us up for human flourishing and for love:

  1. We can let go of control.  The next step after surprise in the face of evil is often an attempt to control and prevent.  “How can I make sure this doesn’t happen to me?”  Well, you can’t.  It’s not wrong–in fact, it’s good–to seek healing and shalom in our world.  But often that very task puts you MORE at risk to be harmed by evil rather than less.  Just look at Jesus.  If we would recognize the pervasiveness of evil in our world, perhaps we could just let go of acting like we can prevent it from happening to us.  I would far rather say with Paul, “To live is Christ, to die is gain,” than live my life afraid of death and evil.
  2. We can go deeper.  We only experience God as deeply as we are willing to allow God into our souls.  I hear people all the time say, “Well I haven’t killed anybody or cheated on my wife, and I don’t steal.”  But Jesus goes deeper.  He says that at the root of murder is anger harbored against another; adultery is the fruit of the tree of lust, truth-telling goes beyond “not lying” and love goes beyond caring for your family. Rather than dismissing a character failure as “out of character,” we must be ready to admit that most everything we do is actually in character.  Only when we acknowledge the evil woven into ourselves are we ready to experience forgiveness, healing, and redemption.
  3. We can seek true healing and reconciliation.  Failing to acknowledge evil leads to shallow souls and worthless relationships.  Acknowledging evil only in the “other” leads to war and oppression.  It is only a robust understanding of evil’s pervasiveness that allows us to connect deeply with others as fellow “sinners in need of grace.”  That actually could sum up Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Paul unites all of humanity first as creatures fallen short and in need of God’s mercy, and only then does he move us as a united community into our unity in Christ.  And check out the complexity of Psalm 139: known intimately by God, hating the evil of others, then quickly asking God to root out the evil he sees in himself as well.  We dare not skip any part of that Story.  Personally, I don’t think “good person” sums me up in any meaningful way.  I am a complex tapestry of God’s image and sin and hope and failure and evil and grace.  We can only begin to connect if we acknowledge all of who we are and put them into the life-giving grace-lavishing world-restoring hands of our loving God.

Not being surprised by evil does not mean we seek to be calloused, stoic cynics.  The appropriate response to evil–in ourselves and in the world at large–is sorrow.  It is humble prayer for mercy and healing.  It is to boldly and lovingly to enter into the specific brands of evil and brokenness God has called us to for the sake of healing and reconciliation, knowing full well the risks and knowing full well our own need of restoration.  Jesus’ own worldview seems to be one that is at times brutally honest, yet at the same time deeply compassionate.  May we have the same mindset of Christ Jesus: the courage to humble ourselves before God and one another.

So I was going to write a simple post on an article I read last Sunday about how Pres. Obama should not swear on a Bible due to the separation of Church and State, and how, though I do think there should be a separation of sorts, this argument completely misses the point of the Bible in the inauguration.  Yada yada yada…

And then I read this…and watched this…and I changed my mind.  January 22nd, the day after Pres. Obama’s inauguration and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, was the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a court decision that essentially legalized abortion in the United States.  While limitations on when, how, and after what procedures abortions can be performed have been enacted nationally and on state levels, abortion continues to be a practice that is both legal and common (in 2009, the CDC reports that approximately 1 fetus was aborted for every 6 live births, and well over 50 million legal abortions have been performed since 1973) in the U.S.

The abortion debate is widely known to be inflammatory (sometimes literally) and divisive.  And while I have hinted at my convictions on this matter elsewhere on this blog, I have generally been cautious (fearful?) about airing my own opinions either here or elsewhere.  I know there are people in my congregation who have strong opinions on either “side” of the debate, and others who have strong opinions that the topic should be avoided.  It is well known that some of the most vocal opponents of abortion can be found in evangelical and Roman Catholic Christian circles.  On the other hand, I pastor in a denomination (the United Church of Christ) that calls women’s right to have an abortion one indicator of “reproductive justice.”  So, in some ways, I exist in the middle of the debate.

So let me begin by affirming some of the points made by my more “pro-choice” brothers and sisters:

  • Yes, the pro-life movement contains some hypocrites who call themselves “pro-life” and then blow up abortion clinics or assassinate doctors who perform abortions.
  • Yes, there are many conservatives for whom it is true that “they will do anything for the unborn, but once you’re born, you’re on your own” (potentially offensive language in this link), who have fought tooth-and-nail to outlaw abortion but never cared to get into the messiness of poverty, shame, etc. that make abortion an attractive option.
  • Yes, as a whole, the pro-life movement has treated the unborn as full humans while failing to fully appreciate the humanness of women who have unwanted pregnancies, the complexities of their situations, and the systemic challenges they face.
  • Yes, if abortion were illegal, it would continue to happen in unsafe ways.
  • Yes, it’s disgusting that men can and do run away from unwanted pregnancies, leaving the woman on her own to make it work.
  • Yes, rather than “speaking the truth in love,” pro-lifers have had a tendency to speak words that lead to condemnation and shame, especially on the part of the women who have had abortions.

Living in the center of theological/political battlegrounds , I work very hard to put myself in the shoes of other Christians (and other people, in general) who hold different perspectives than I do.  As I have imperfectly and stumblingly allowed myself into the ethical complexities and gray areas of our broken world, I have generally found my heart softening on many issues.  I may still hold a different conviction and opinion (I’m no relativist), but I can see how some might interpret the Gospel and the will of God differently than me.

This has not been the case for me when it comes to abortion.

I see how acting in compassion and seeking  justice for women in unenviable circumstances is a Gospel mandate.  I deplore the ways pro-lifers have often been simplistic, hypocritical, and downright evil in their pursuit of their “cause.”  I weep for the personal and systemic forces that have moved and will continue to move women to endanger themselves for the sake of an illegal abortion.  And still, I fail to see how the right to have an abortion has anything to do with the Kingdom of God.  Moreover–and here is why I address this topic this week–I fail to see how abortion can be anything more than a tragic-if-necessary evil, let alone something to be celebrated.

Unfortunately, like most “political” debates, the abortion debate regularly gets derailed as people talk past each other (fail to address what the other is actually saying), ask loaded or unproductive questions, operate on surface-level principles (“pro-life”/”pro-choice”), and disregard the possibility of any possibility outside “A (overturn Roe) or B (keep Roe).”

At the risk of falling into the same traps I just outlined, I would like to offer a few thoughts on why I oppose abortion and how I respond to those who count Roe v. Wade a victory worth celebrating.

  1. First of all, I believe that it is possible to be pro-women while at the same time being anti-abortion (and so do many women who oppose abortion).  I do not aim to demonize women who have had or are considering having abortions.  The forces at work in our culture are way bigger than a single person making an isolated decision.  Given the burdens and challenges many women experience, I can see how many women do choose the route of abortion.  If I were facing the same burdens and challenges, I can only guess at what I might do.  But regardless, the basis of the following thoughts is not blame and condemnation, but grace and the possibility of a more just and loving society where men and women, adults and children, born and unborn have every opportunity to thrive.
  2. I frequently hear proponents of reproductive rights make the claim that the fetus is not a person with a right to life.  In fact, one is almost required to hold to this position to support abortion.  A fetus, then, is merely a piece of tissue.  I’m not going to pull in any Scripture to argue that life begins at conception (such references very rarely pay attention to what the biblical writer is actually saying).  But here’s the thing: we don’t treat fetuses as just a piece of tissue.  When we are hoping/praying for children, we celebrate at the first signs of life blossoming in the womb.  And even when we are not hoping/praying for children, we know full well that that first sign of pregnancy has deeply human implications.  I’m afraid the whole debate about precisely when the “tissue” becomes a “person” (conception, 3 weeks, 2nd trimester, birth…?) misses the point (more in #7).  We must proceed with great caution, however, whenever we feel the urge to put limits on who is and is not a member of the human community.
  3. To continue #1, it should be noted that multiple serious philosophers, in order to argue against the personhood of the fetus, have found it necessary to extend their support for abortion to “infanticide.”  In other words, if we are saying fetuses are not human/persons because they are completely dependent on another human or because they are not self-conscious, that is equally true of newborn babies.  Really, the biggest difference between a child in the womb and a child outside of it is that the fetus is invisible and voiceless to us.  Not less human.  And this is why pro-lifers see opposition to abortion as a dire matter of justice for the unborn: acting as a voice for the voiceless, making visible the invisible, and protecting the most vulnerable members of our human society.
  4. On the topic of justice, the problem is not just that people choose to have abortions, but who is chosen to be aborted.  With all of our medical technology and genetic testing, we can be particularly careful about which “tissues” are worth keeping.  We know that in cultures (like China), where boys are more desirable, female fetuses are disproportionately selected for abortion.   Talk about a “war on women.”  In our country, studies indicate that a wildly disproportionate number of parents who find out that their fetus has Down Syndrome are aborted.  I find these to be disturbing facts.
  5. As true as it may be that some pro-lifers only a) care about human well-being pre-birth and/or b) are so caught-up in legal battles about abortion that they ignore the host of other factors related to abortion, these accusations are convenient and inaccurate generalizations of pro-lifers.  Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which are often supported by pro-lifers, have proliferated since 1973, seeking to serve women with pre-natal care, counseling, and material needs once the baby has been born.  Many Christians have put their faith into action by adopting unwanted children both domestically and internationally.  And “social justice” has increasingly entered the evangelical/emergent vocabulary in the past decade.  Thankfully, this accusation is less and less true and should not have such a prominent place in the debate.
  6. I would suggest that advocating for abortion is “the easy way out” for people who recognize the systemic pressures on pregnant women.  Abortion is not the only solution to the problem of abandoned pregnant women.  I would much rather see the energy that goes into reproductive rights advocacy go towards developing creative ways to hold fathers accountable in caring for the life they helped create, provide programs that reframe sexuality and procreation, make adoption a more financially viable option for willing and loving families who struggle to afford huge adoption costs,  subsidize childcare costs for single mothers, to name a few alternatives.  Abortion is not the only or best way of addressing the problem of unwanted pregnancies in ways that are compassionate toward women.  It’s just the easiest.
  7. Abortion does not solve the problem or empower women.  In fact, it lets men off the hook.  ”Hey, you have the option to abort.  If you don’t want to, that’s your problem.”  Abortion leaves women in the powerless spot of choosing between an unwanted (potentially coerced) abortion and single motherhood.  This is merely moving the problem of powerlessness, not solving it.  At the moment a woman finds out she is pregnant, men are supposed to be responsible as committed partners and fathers, and yet Roe v. Wade gives men absolutely no legal responsibility to determine whether the child lives or dies.  If women want responsible, committed men at this time, the law is undermining that desire, and giving men a convenient excuse to abandon women–as if men needed any more encouragement to be irresponsible.  (This is a big part of what makes this ad so deplorable, in my opinion.)
  8. Roe v. Wade reinforces the disjointedness of our understandings of sexuality and procreation.  It puts a big bracket in the beautiful process of procreation, disconnecting new life from loving relationship.  It says, “Sex is for individual pleasure.  Pregnancy is about the woman’s individual rights.  Birth begins the mutuality of parenthood.”  Contrast: “Sex is the physical pinnacle of relational intimacy, and in this expression of love, new life is created to be celebrated and cared for by its co-creators from beginning to end.”  For Christians, the biblical story is that God’s love is the source of creation and Life.  And so procreation is this process from love to life.  Anytime we try to jump in, parse out, and disconnect that story, we are walking on shaky ground.  I’m not naive enough to think that this narrative is always reality, but I will say that the incessant touting of “rights” and “individual freedom” and “ownership” as predominant values is an enemy of relationship, community, and love.  It hinders our culture from thinking, dreaming, and imagining in relational terms of love, intimacy, partnership, and mutual loving sacrifice.  Roe v. Wade, here, is not the primary culprit, but rather a legal rubberstamping of community-unfriendly values surrounding sex, relationships, and procreation.
  9. None of this is to say that Christians should put all their resources and resolve into getting Roe v. Wade overturned.  Rather, I believe it is our first calling to live the Kingdom of God and to present our surrounding culture with an alternative.  What does this mean in this case?  Presenting a narrative of sexuality in our communities that connects sex to procreation and committed relationships.  Simultaneously creating communities of grace, which shower women with unintended pregnancies and women who have had abortions with love and support.  Opening up our families, homes, and spirits to women who are not sure whether or not they can support a child and to the beautiful opportunity of adoption.  Seeking ways to hold men accountable to the procreation process.  Offering society a fuller view of humanity and hope that makes abortion a less viable option.  The questions we must ask ourselves: “Were Roe v. Wade completely overturned, would the Church be prepared for the consequences?  Are we working to create a society where abortion just doesn’t make sense?”  This, to me, is a more holistic ethic of Life than simple pro-life v. pro-choice debates.

Well, my simple post has become a weird mix of a long-but-not-long-enough and complicated-but-still-simplistic treatment of this controversial but vitally important issue.  I have gone past my normal blog length, and yet there is still so much more to say.  I hope you will take time to respond, to see through my eyes, to challenge me, and to point out more constructive ways of approaching this issue.  Although I feel strongly about this issue, I promise respect and love to any who disagree with me here, and will hold your comments to the same standard.


(Note: when I share a link, I am only passing on that article for your reading and discernment, not as an endorsement)

Many pastors around the country have been putting out fires since the results of Election 2012.  As I observed in last month’s blog, I think fear plays a huge role in politics.  It does now, and–though many would argue it has gotten worse–it always has.  But I have become more and more convinced that fear plays a far bigger role in our whole lives than many of us realize.  I have become convinced of this from looking at my own life, the life of my family, the lives of people in the church, and the culture as a whole.  The very reason politicians and advertisers play on our fears so much is because they know that fear is most people’s most powerful motivator.

So here’s the question that I pose today: What do you think people tend to be more afraid of: what they can control or what they can’t control?  In other words, are you more afraid of something that might happen to you or your own failure?

I think election cycles bring out the fear of what we can’t control.  Even though we get a vote, we ultimately are unable to control how everyone else votes.  Almost every American is facing the reality of living with something he/she didn’t necessarily want.  Maybe they didn’t vote for President Obama or a certain tax levy; maybe they did vote for a tax levy that failed or an amendment that got voted down.  When we are dealing with big-picture things like elections, we are faced with the reality that we cannot control big things that will affect our lives.

But then there are the “little” things we face in our daily lives.  And while we are certainly affected by laws and government and the economy, we are more intimately connected to the decisions and responsibilities of our own.  How to parent our children and spend our money, whether we will remember the answer on a test or make the free throw at the end of the game, if we will respond to people with love and patience or if we will ignore opportunities to help others.  For most of us, the media isn’t covering these daily moments.  But we are all too aware of them and see how we respond.

I don’t know if I can answer my own question: whether people more intensely fear the things they can control or the things they can’t.  My hunch is that our hearts are a jumbled, tangled mess of fears that affect our lives in hard-to-decipher ways.  But I am certain that fears live in all of our hearts.  And that is why the most common line in Scripture is God speaking to us: “Do not be afraid.”  And beyond that, we are called away from fear by its other names: anxiety, shame, darkness, and hiding.  Perhaps the command “Do not be afraid/anxious” sounds trite and unhelpful to you.  Certainly there seem to be many reasons to be afraid.  We have all experienced some kind of evil and pain from the world.  And we have all failed to do what we know we should have done.  Which is why the Gospel (Good News) isn’t a command (“Do not be afraid”), but a promise and a Story.  It is the promise that “perfect love casts out fear,” and the Story of how Love came to this earth to cast it out.

So here’s a Gospel word to those of you who are struggling with either type of fear:

For those who are struggling with fear of things you can control, Jesus offers grace upon grace.  Contrary to popular belief, the Bible is pretty light on heroes.  It is filled with the poor, the disabled, and even the rebellious and immoral who find forgiveness and a future in God’s grace.  Jesus is described as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” and “all who were far away [from God] have been brought near [to God] by the blood of Christ.”  There is no use giving excuses for our failings, pretending like we don’t sin, or trying to make up for ourselves.  The New Testament tells us that Jesus willingly received what we deserved (death) so that we could receive what he deserved (eternal life).  Rather than fearing the ways we might fail, Jesus’ radical forgiveness frees us to recklessly chase after the abundant life that God created us to live.  So whether it is our past sins that grieve us or our future failures that paralyze us, we must never shut our ears to the constant whisper of God’s invitation, “Return to me, for I have redeemed you.

For those who are struggling with fear of things you can’t control, Jesus has overcome the world.  Throughout his life, Jesus engaged all of the types of things we most fear: disease, storms, persecution, rejection, poverty, and even death itself.  Jesus was displaced and disapproved of; he wept and cried out to God.  You might say that the Cross is where God came face-to-face with all of the agents of death we so fear and even death itself.  He entered into the sum of all our fears.  And he rose again.  The Resurrection tells us that there is a new beginning, that death does not get the last word, that evil can do its best and still not overcome good.  So whether our national leader is a democrat or republican or murderous dictator, we know that Jesus is the true and eternally reigning King.  And if we lose our job or our health or a loved one, we know that there is nothing that can separate us from the life-giving, hope-restoring love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

None of this is to suggest that the deep-seated fears and anxieties that influence our lives will simply fly away at the quoting of a few Bible verses.  Perfect love often takes a lifetime and beyond to cast out our fears completely.  And yet, I wonder if we might define faith as “the conviction that if we do soak ourselves in the healing balm of the Gospel day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out, the Spirit of Christ really will heal us of our fears slowly but surely.”  Surely this is the offer God makes to us: “You need not live forever as a slave in the Kingdom of Fear, for love is greater than fear, and I AM LOVE.  Enter into my Kingdom, where Love reigns and where grace is the air we breathe.”


With election season in full swing, I thought I would take just a moment to point out two campaign ads that I’ve come across.  Both of these made me sit up and say, “Wow”…but not in a good way.   They are both, in my opinion, illustrative of a single message that both camps are sending to voters this year: “Vote scared!”  While this has become common over the years (especially in regards to terrorism and homeland security), it seems to pop up most clearly this election in an unexpected area: the so-called “War on Women.”  It seems that both sides agree this war is going on; the only question is whom women should fear.  So I’ve chosen one television ad from each side that was approved by that candidate (no Super PAC ads).  While the targets of the ads are different, I hope you see the same underlying message:  ”Vote scared!”

(I don’t know how to embed video, so you can watch them by clicking on the following links.)

Summary: If you’re a baby girl in this country, you should be frightened.  The debt of current generations will fall crushingly onto your shoulders if Obama is re-elected.  You won’t have jobs, opportunities, or any way to dig yourself out of the hole you’ve been born into.  Moms (and dads), you should be scared of what Obama will do to your daughters (and sons).  Oh, and we hope you catch the irony of the nursery music and soothing motherly tones of the narrator as you ponder the devastation that will eventually be meted out on this cute little baby.

Summary: Women, this is a historical moment, a turning point for the future of womankind.  Mitt Romney wants to take away your legal access to have an abortion.  As a woman, you surely believe you have every right to terminate your pregnancy.  And surely you believe that every insurance company should be required to offer contraception coverage.  Since Mitt Romney has a different belief about human life, he clearly is out of touch with women.  Who knows what other womanly needs and rights he might stomp on if you elect him.  Oh, and you can see how out of touch Mitt is in the split screen where a jabbering Romney is distanced from our concerned heroine.

Both of these commercials, I hope you notice, say next to nothing about the candidates by whom they are endorsed.  They are purely focused on engendering a fear of the opponent.  The commercials aim to make you sympathize with the women on screen, and then explain how the opposition is going to bring harm to these people with whom you’ve just made a connection.

I’ve said before on this blog that I am independent when it comes to politics, and I struggle with how to use my vote each year.  One of the biggest frustrations I have is that the packaging seems to mean more than the contents.  In other words, how something is said has more effect than what is being said.  It is bad enough when candidates make soaring, overblown promises about what they will do (see Romans 12:3).  In fact, maybe the genuinely believe they will do these things.  It is worse when candidates pretend to look into their crystal balls and prophesy the doom that will come if the other is elected.  Plus, the rhetoric assumes what is in HIS heart (HE obviously hates women…and baby girls!), while leaving others to assume that what is in MY heart is pure and good (I will protect you from evil and harm!).  This is the opposite of life in God’s Kingdom, in which we must hold ourselves to the same standards as we hold others, first own up to the impurities in our own hearts, and treat our enemies with love as we would desire to be treated by them.

I have to say (again as an Independent) that I was particularly surprised by the President’s commercial.  Though I disagree with a number of his policies (in this case, on abortion), I have found him generally to be respectful and reasonable in his discourse over the past 4+ years (here is President Obama at his best, in my opinion).  Since 9/11, many have noted that Republicans have gotten into a rut of playing the “Vote Scared!” card when it comes to foreign policy and homeland security issues (this election cycle, we’ve moved from Middle Eastern terrorism to Chinese economic growth and the Arab Spring).  But it seems Democrats have found their counterpart in the “War on Women.”  They have specifically chosen “war” and “fear” rhetoric, in which there is no room for shades of gray or stopping to really listen (lest the “enemy” attack).  For instance, this ad assumes that any reasonable person can see that abortion and contraception coverage are basic human rights for women.  There is no room for discourse.  If you think abortion is unjustly terminating a human life or that contraception is (more often than not) a lifestyle choice more than a medical necessity (both positions I support), you are making this society a “scary” place for women.  Hence, women should fear anyone who holds these positions–not dialogue with them, love them, or treat them as rational human beings who are co-journeyers in the ever-changing and murky waters of bioethics.  Fear; do not love or listen.

As Christians this election, what would it look like to “Vote compassion” or “Vote conviction” rather than “Vote scared”?  As John writes, “Perfect love drives out fear.”  What if we rest securely in the care of God’s promises, freed to lovingly engaging the societies in which we live?  What if we recognize not only that “This is my Father’s world,” but also that no one President will completely transcend the checks and balances of our system over the next four years (note that we’re not quite a Communist country even after 3.5 years under President Obama as the doomsday prophets of the last election cycle were predicting).  What if we listened attentively, spoke clearly, and modeled love for the “other” both when we are interacting with that “other” and when we are interacting with “our own”?

In the Vice-Presidential debate last week, the moderator asked the two VP candidates if they were at all embarrassed by the vitriolic tone of the campaign so far.  Both promptly began attacking and parrying (to use fencing terms), as if the concept were completely lost on them.  We should expect more from those who get our votes.  But first, we should expect more from ourselves.  By all means, vote!  But by all means, don’t vote scared!

John Williams Waterhouse's "Echo and Narcissus" (cropped). Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection in the pool.

OK, everyone give yourself a big hug.  Now pat yourself on the back.  Now go to the “Applause” track on your IPod…soak it in…and take a bow.   Ahhh, isn’t it good to be loved…by yourself!  (…and Richard Simmons has left the building…)

Self-love is a popular idea in our culture–even in the church.  It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to me if you had heard “You have to love yourself first” from a pulpit on Sunday morning.  You can hear it on Christian Radio for sure.  The idea of needing to love yourself first could actually be traced back (as far as I can tell) to 11th century France, and the famous monastic thinker Bernard of Clairvaux.  Yet, I’m not sure that any culture has loved this advice more than 21st century USA.   One place you cannot trace “Love yourself” to IS THE BIBLE.

Now, if you listen to people (Christians) who swear by this adage, they will probably take you to Leviticus 19:18 or Matthew 22:39: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus puts this right up with “Love the LORD your God” in the greatest commandment category, and so it carries authority.  The logic then goes: I’m supposed to love my neighbor as myself, therefore I must love myself; the greater my self-love, the greater my neighbor-love.  The journey to love like Jesus, then, begins with a journey to love oneself.

And I want to suggest that this is an entirely wrong-headed way of approaching both this text and the Christian journey–especially in our culture.  Let me explain:

  1. Let’s begin with defining “love.”  When people in our culture hear “love yourself,” they tend to think Bruno MarsPinkLady Gaga (3 super-catchy top hits, by the way), and an unconditional acceptance of everything “me.”  In other words, we think self-esteem: “I need to feel good about myself and accept that I’m all good just the way I am.”  Love in the Bible is less about feeling warm fuzzies, and more about “actively [seeking] the benefit of someone else.”*  The Bible absolutely never says, “You should feel better about yourself, because you’re really pretty good.”  So, at the very least, a Christian considering this advice will want to clarify the meaning of love.
  2. Let’s move on to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Just looking at the phrase in English, Jesus is clearly emphasizing our love for other people (not ourselves).  He apparently feels no need to turn us inward on ourselves.  If this neighbor-love is based on anything else, it is based on the previous command: “Love the Lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.”  Looking at the phrase in Greek…nothing changes.  To put this with #1, Jesus is assuming that we already seek the benefit of ourselves, already focus on our own needs, and already spend a great deal of time/energy/thought on ourselves.
  3. But what about the person who is always giving, giving, giving (think the parent whose life seems to revolve around their kids or the person who is always caring for an addict) and getting burned out?  This is what psychology calls “co-dependence.”  Far from being “too much love for others,” the co-dependent is actually in it as much for themselves as for the other.  When we act in this way, we do so because we get a sense of fulfillment, purpose, self-righteousness, admiration, etc. from it, not because we love the other person so deeply.  Co-dependence is actually harmful to the person we are claiming to love.  In any case, the biblical solution is never to love self more.
  4. The problem, then, is this: If we feel like we need to love ourselves really well before we can love others, we are unlikely to actually get to the love others part. We will have built a model of life that is self-centered.  And this is the exact opposite of what Jesus or the Scriptures are interested in.
So, then, where do we start in the journey to love?  We begin with God.  Take a look at 1 John 4:7-11:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
The key to our need for love is not to try to fulfill it ourselves, but to allow God to fulfill it.  It is far more important that we rest in the love God has for us than try to love ourselves.  For one, God is much better at loving than we are.  As I mentioned above, our efforts at loving ourselves are just as likely to be misdirected, inconsistent, and fleeting as others’ love for us.  We are all humans.  What we need is perfect, consistent, bottomless love, and that comes only from God through Jesus.  We need to be saved from ourselves as much as anything or anyone else.
I am constantly encouraging people to engage in solitude, silence, Scripture, prayer, etc.  And I suppose that these could be considered “self-love” if we are looking at the biblical definition of seeking the best for someone.  But the self-love is not really the intent at all.  First, we do these things because we need to soak in God’s love.  Second, we do these things because we love God (the greatest commandment).  Third, we do these things so that God will form us into people who reflect the love of Christ to others.  All of this is absolutely in our best interest, ultimately, but we are not seeking self; we are seeking Kingdom, and letting God take care of us.  Trying to love ourselves when we are feeling burned out from loving others is like trying to fill our car up with gas…using gas from our own tank.  Not only is it unbiblical, but it doesn’t even make sense.
The command to love ourselves first is not in the Bible because–in my opinion–we don’t need it.  I know that I don’t need any command to be self-centered, and nor does our culture if we look around.  We need not look inward, but upward and outward to really understand love.  I am aware that there is an epidemic of people in our society who think they are worthless and unlovable.  Please notice the irony of this epidemic in a culture where self-love is so widely preached.  Biblically, the solution is not to look at ourselves and conjure up some value.  The solution is to look at ourselves through God’s eyes, to see that we are valuable because we have been created in his image, and to understand that we are loved far beyond what we can imagine as evidenced in the Cross.  Again, what is the Bible’s solution to our need for love?  Point us to God’s love.
We need look no further than the classical myth of Narcissus to grasp that the people most intent on loving themselves are most useless in the call to love God and love others.  So I urge you, brothers and sisters, if you feel like you are in need of love, turn to Jesus, the love of God who walked among us.  And if you are talking to a friend who just needs to be loved, please don’t tell them to love themselves; point them to the God who loves them more deeply and perfectly than they could ever love themselves, and follow God’s call to embody the love of Jesus to them.

*Douglas Moo in his New International Commentary The Book of Romans

One man accuses a Parkinson’s sufferer of exaggerating his symptoms and calls a woman he has never met a “slut.”  Another man actively tries to infect a politician with the flu virus and calls the silent protest against an anti-Bible rant “pansy-a–ed.”  Perhaps you already know who these two men are.  But if so, pretend you don’t.  At first glance, do these seem like a couple of guys you would want to be formative forces in your life?  Or better yet, your children’s lives?   Both of these men do have great influence on different sectors of our society; they are Rush Limbaugh and Daniel Savage, respectively.   Limbaugh, of course, is a long-time conservative political talk-show host.  Savage is a sex-advice columnist and the innovator of the “It Gets Better” campaign that seeks to influence teens struggling with their sexuality away from suicide.

Now, the goal of this post is not to voice either agreement or disagreement with either Limbaugh’s or Savage’s “positions” on the issues they speak about.  Nor is it to try to stand above and scold them.  The purpose of this post is to ask, “To whom do we listen and learn?” and “Why?”  Because here’s the thing: in our technological, globalized society, we pretty much have the opportunity to listen and learn from anybody!  And here’s what I want to suggest: whether it comes to choosing a pundit, a university, a pastor, or a political candidate, we vastly undervalue the importance of virtue.  We give priority to what a person “values” over a person’s “virtue.”

This idea is not original to me.  I heard it in a lecture by theologian Dr. David Wells a few years back.  As I remember, he was speaking about politics.  His main thesis was that when we vote, we vote based on values rather than virtues…and as Christians, that is problematic.  We are used to hearing “values” spoken of on the political right, so I’ll start there.  For conservatives, as long as a candidate has the correct “values” (pro-life, “traditional marriage,” small government, etc.), that is the candidate we should vote for.  For the left, the values determining values might be something like pro-choice, “marriage equality,” unions, and “pro-environment.”  (I realize I am generalizing a bit.)  The key, though, is that decisions are made based on a candidate’s overall policies, his/her “values.”  Contrast that to prioritizing virtue.  This might go something like this: if I see evidence of a candidate’s sense of justice, compassion, wisdom, and willingness to listen, I would be able to vote for and trust them to be a good leader.

Case in point: Bill Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  The stance of many was that Clinton’s character (infidelity to wife, abuse of power, workplace ethics, deception) was more of a “private” issue, and had no real effect on his capacity to be a “good” leader (read: follow through on the “right” policies) for the country.  (It would have been really interesting to see how this would have played out if Clinton hadn’t already been in his second term.)

Of course, one of the problems is that a person’s virtues are far more difficult to discern than someone’s values.  They also don’t fit quite as neatly on a bumper sticker.  But not only that: we are taught that we will impact the world by having right answers and great ideas, not by being virtuous (I’ll come back to this another time).

Jesus–and I would suggest the Scriptures as a whole–are loathe to subordinate virtue to value.  The greatest commandment, says Jesus, is love: love God and love neighbor.  Love–biblically–is about character.  Paul goes on to speak of the “fruits of the Spirit” (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control).  These are the marks of “the good life” according to the Gospel, and they are all aspects of character.  How often do we look for these traits in the people we listen to, learn from, vote for, or follow?

I am not a moral or political relativist.  I do believe there are things that are right and wrong, better and worse, helpful and harmful.  This is a tension I myself very much feel when I am listening, learning, and voting.  I get excited about creative ideas, and innovative arguments, and I want to vote for people who value things I think are important.  But I am tempered by the Kingdom of God and its King, who say that the Kingdom is an inside-out thing, a heart thing, a character thing.  (Just read Jesus’ Kingdom Manifesto.)

As a pastor, I am confronted with this reality.  There are many people who listen to my sermons and other teachings and will choose to side with me or against me based on whether they think I am on the right side or wrong side of issues, whether I present my position in an engaging or eloquent way, and whether I get results (butts in the pews).  I am intensely aware of the discrepancy between my values and my virtues.  I freely admit this to you.  I do not always live up to the Kingdom Vision I preach (and blog).   It’s not that I’m pretending to be better than I am, just that it’s easier to value the right things than to live the right way, easier to say well than live well.  My concern is being a pastor who gains followers because I value Gospel things, regardless of whether I have Gospel virtue.  Because as a culture, we are trained to follow people in exactly that way: values > virtue.

Rush Limbaugh and David Savage, I think, reveal this cultural training that I sense as a pastor.  Just because someone comes up with a campaign that might be helpful for struggling teens or might have some valid political insights, is that enough to “make up for” the serious character questions that certain actions have raised?  Jesus says that his followers will impact the world with God’s Kingdom not because of their cleverness, but because of their character.  And if we truly are putting our highest value on Jesus and his Kingdom, then we must value virtue.

I’ll close with 2 quick and simple thoughts for putting virtue back into your list of values.  1) Kingdom virtues are formed relationally/locally.  Lighten up on always trying to learn from the people with the most “expertise” or “success,” find someone whose character you respect, and allow that person to influence you on a heart level.  2) Catch yourself when you defend the people you listen to by saying, “But they’re right…”  Admittedly, I have a very limited grasp of the virtue/character of Rush Limbaugh and Dan Savage.  But from what I have seen, if I am looking for a conservative political viewpoint, I am going to try to find someone else, whose character I respect; and if I’m going to direct struggling teens to someone who can encourage and counsel them through difficult times, I’m going to look elsewhere to someone who does so in a loving, Christ-like manner.  God may use these two in some positive ways–he often uses all of us in spite of our weakness–but I would rather spend my time with people whose character and ideas will contribute to my growth in love, joy, peace, etc.

Virtue is a growth process.  It’s not something I’ve achieved or really anyone has.  But I hope that Christians seriously value this virtue process.  I hope that while we refuse to cut ourselves off from people with suspect character, we are also intent on engaging in formative relationships with people who will contribute to our growth in the Way of Love.  I hope we don’t get caught up in thinking that “being right” about things is good enough.  And I hope that the people who look at us will be profoundly affected by our Christ-like virtue, not just our “values.”

This Sunday, April 22, is Earth Day.  Earth Day has been observed in various ways for about 40 years, and some might say it has “hit its stride” with the prominence of the Green movement.  A number of earth-conscious slogans have shaped how my generation thinks about the earth–from the political imperative “Go Green,” to the philosophical approach “Think globally, act locally,” to the practical “Reuse, Reduce, Recycle.”  Proponents of earth care have been effective in getting their message out.

Sadly, I’m not sure how much “progress” has really been made in the 40-some years since that inaugural Earth Day.  And also sadly, the Christian Church (especially in its association with the Republican Party) is often seen as an enemy of this movement to care for the earth.  Most recently, then-candidate for the Republican presidential nomination Rick Santorum stirred the pot with this comment critiquing what he perceives as President Obama’s theology: “[the President's] idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that that’s what we’re here to do – that man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the Earth, to be a steward of the Earth, but we’re not here to serve the Earth.  The Earth is not the objective.  Man is the objective. I think a lot of radical environmentalists have it upside-down.”  So what is an American Christian to do?  Or more foundationally, how is an American Christian to think in regards to the environment and the Green movement?

Let me start by offering 3 theological principles:

1) We are talking about Creation, not just the Earth.  Of anyone, Christians have more reason to take environment issues seriously.  If this is just a planet that we happen to live in; if we are just dust moving around on a pile of dust, I don’t see a whole lot of reason to care about “going Green.”  But if this is a beautiful piece of art created by the ultimate Artist, a protective home created by a Heavenly Father, a reality declared “good” by the Lord of Life, well that’s a horse of a different color.  We cannot honestly praise God as Creator in one breath, and then abuse his creation in the next.  Some people seem to think earth-care requires an alternative theology to Christianity that makes the earth into God (pantheism) or puts humans on the same level as (or beneath) the world Earth.  Obviously, I disagree, and think that this claim misunderstands the biblical Story (mostly due to misunderstandings within the Church itself).

2) Human beings are the crown of creation, kings and queens over the rest of God’s creation.  In this one thing, I agree with Santorum (and disagree with many environmentalists): humans have been appointed to “rule over” this world.  Sounds oppressive, huh?  What does that mean?  Here is the key.  If we learn anything from God’s kingship or Jesus’ expression of authority, we learn that to rule “in God’s image” is to serve, to cultivate, to care for, to sacrifice for.  Yes, we are called first to serve God–not the earth.  But God directs our service back to cultivate beauty and life in his creation just as God has done.  One dimension of being made “in God’s image” is being a ruler over this earth as God is Ruler.  Again, as opposed to undermining earth-care, Christian theology actually bolsters a calling to care about creation.

3) God is still interested in creation.  N.T. Wright has done a wonderful job calling Christians’ attention to the fact that the Bible’s Story does not end with heaven, but with New Creation.  Think with me for a moment: if God originally thought it would be “good” for us to cultivate and care for creation, might not creation-care be our fulfilling work in the New Creation?  In fact, Revelation picks up this idea.  In the New Heavens and New Earth, we are told that “[God's people] will reign forever and ever.”  Far from making creation-care irrelevant in this fading creation, in caring for creation now, our disposition and abilities are being prepared for the wonderful work of eternity.

OK, I could go on.  But let me briefly offer a couple implications I see for Christians who want to live out these truths:

1) We must look past the politics of environmentalism and into the heart of God.  What the heck does it matter if global warming is fact or fiction?  We have been called to care for the beautiful and good creation God has made.  And I don’t think that the desire for our nation to compete economically with other nations is going to hold much weight in justifying our abuse of creation in God’s courtroom.

2) We must live and preach against consumerism.  The math is simple.  More consumption = More creation-abuse.  Put another way: voting Democrat is not your duty to creation-care.  Many of us want to get married to the Green movement without forsaking our mistress of consumerism.  Here’s the deal: as long as we continue to demand the ability to travel whenever and wherever we want, greater environmental risks will be taken to get the oil; as long as we continue to demand more meat, animals will continue to be raised in unhealthy and unjust conditions; as long as we demand more…things, the more factories will pollute, trees will be chopped, and landfills will be filled.  As in the whole Christian life, creation-care begins with our heart disposition to the creation.  Do we prefer the way of personal pleasure at any expense or the way of love?

Thanks be to God for grace.  It is nearly impossible to live in this world without getting tangled up in the destructive webs we have created (often to free ourselves from the old destructive webs we were in).  God doesn’t tell us we must “save the earth.”  Jesus is doing that.  And that grace compels us to simply follow him into the Way of Love, the Way of Life.  It compels us into creation-care not with the weight of the world on our shoulders, but with the encouraging call of God to love as we have been loved. Where is God calling us to curb our own appetites or alter our own careless practices as an act of servant-ruling over his creation?  How is God calling us to speak lovingly and persuasively into the political realm–not just on environmental issues, but also in various economic and international issues that have implications for the creation?  What is God calling us to do in our local communities to model and encourage others to have a healthy relationship to the material world?  When might we speak the Gospel to people who need to see the bigger picture of “going green” and of what God is doing in this world through Jesus?

Surely there is more to say and better ways to say it.  Here are some places you can go to read more about the Gospel and creation-care:

Wendell Berry–if you haven’t read him, do; if you have, read more.  Especially this and this.