shut up and take your shoes off

There’s a funny little story about Jesus found in the book of John that I’ve always found fascinating. It takes place the night before Jesus dies, the night of his arrest, when he’s sharing his last meal with some of his best friends. If you’ll remember, in the middle of dinner, Jesus gets down on his knees to wash his disciples’ feet, which is a responsibility reserved only for the lowliest of servants. I call it a funny story, not because washing (or even touching) another person’s feet is weird, but because a rabbi like Jesus (who happens to also be the Son of God and the savior of the world) would never, ever, ever do something so proletarian.

A lot has been made about what Jesus did and how incongruent the job was to his station. We talk about how, if we really want to be like Christ, we need to be willing to stoop down and wash others’ feet like a truly humble servant. And that’s all fine and good, but there’s another person in the story with whom I resonate more readily (more so than the truly humble servant, unfortunately). That individual is Peter, Jesus’ personal spitfire know-it-all. (Ask my wife. She will tell you I’m a know-it-all as well. That’s probably why I can so easily identify with Peter.)

As Jesus is going around to the other disciples, Peter is flummoxed. In fact, when Jesus reaches out to wash Peter’s feet, Peter first asks Jesus what he’s doing, and then Peter flat out refuses to let Jesus wash his feet.

It’s understandable to me why Peter would refuse. After all, Peter believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who has come to rescue Israel from the clutches of the evil Roman Empire through violent, bloody warfare (for confirmation of this, just see what Peter does later that evening). Jesus is a king, not a foot-washer. In Peter’s mind, the two do not overlap in the slightest. Effectively, by refusing to let Jesus wash his feet, Peter tells Jesus who Jesus is allowed to be and what Jesus is allowed to do. Peter thinks he’s got Jesus all figured out, and he’s unwilling to let Jesus diverge from Peter’s understanding of him.

I imagine Jesus rolling his eyes at Peter and then saying, “Dude, shut up and take your shoes off.” Jesus didn’t actually say it that way, of course, especially since Peter probably already had his shoes off. What Jesus actually said (according to the New International Version) was, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” So, yes, it’s not exactly the same thing, but the idea is similar. Basically, Jesus wants Peter to let his conception of who Jesus is be shaped and remolded by Jesus himself.

Peter responds to Jesus by not only agreeing to let his feet be washed, but also by practically demanding that Jesus build him a holy Slip’n’Slide (my interpretation, no one else’s). This is somewhat rare for Peter. Usually when Jesus challenges Peter’s assumptions, it takes Peter awhile to understand and accept the truth that Jesus is trying to convey. But Peter does okay this time. Good job, bud.

A past version of me, however, would probably have had a harder time than Peter did. I’m not talking about this particular scene from the book of John, although I admit I would hate to have anyone try to wash my feet, even if it’s the Son of God. Rather, I’m talking about how that past version of me would have had a difficult time accepting a different understanding of Jesus than the one I held at the time.

Like I said earlier, I’m a bit of a know-it-all, and if I’m a know-it-all now, I was even more so in high school, college, and…well, up until about five seconds ago. I love to be right, and I hate being wrong so much that I’ve been known to fight dirty just for victory in a debate, even if I am obviously wrong. Like Peter, I don’t like to have my beliefs challenged because that means I might be wrong. Like Peter, I like to keep my shoes tied up real tight because I like to believe that I’ve got Jesus all figured out.

When I was in high school, I believed that Jesus may have been willing to die for sinners, but that he did it begrudgingly out of some sort of obligation. Or if not that, I believed that, while Jesus loves sinners in general, he couldn’t possibly love me in particular. And then I started to get an inkling that maybe Jesus really did love me for me, as me, and that he happily died for me because he legitimately wants to have a relationship with me.

But, like Peter, I argued. “No, Jesus. You’re too perfect to love a worm like me. Sure, you died to save sinners, but you couldn’t have possibly wanted to! And me? No, no, no. I’m too far gone, I’ve done too much. I don’t even deserve to be saved.”

Jesus just rolled his eyes and said, “Dude, shut up and take your shoes off.” And then I accepted God’s grace for the first time and gladly drown myself in it on a daily basis.

In college, I struggled to reconcile the Genesis account of creation with the fossil record. A professor introduced me to the concept of a literary framework reading of Genesis, wherein the reader approaches Genesis not as a history textbook, but as a document written to help a people group that had been enslaved for four centuries learn about who their God is. This view neither denies the existence of God and God’s role in creating the world, nor does it deny the scientific evidence for evolution and a universe that is billions of years old.

But I argued. “If I can’t trust the book of Genesis (or at least the creation story) to be historically accurate, how can I trust the Gospels to be accurate? What about Adam and Eve, then? Are you saying none of that happened? Isn’t this view just a little too convenient?”

And Jesus smiled knowingly and said, “Dude, shut up and take your shoes off.” And then I realized that, whether Adam and Eve were real people or whether they were a story used to explain our sinful nature, God can still be God, and Jesus can still be the savior of the world.

Thankfully, in the past year or so, I’ve embraced a “barefoot” approach to faith—meaning that I’m (learning to be) open to Jesus reshaping my understanding of who he is and what he does, allowing him to be both my Lord and my foot-washer. This requires me to admit that I’m wrong sometimes and that I don’t have everything figured out, just like Peter had to do when Jesus revealed that not only is he a king, but that he’s also a servant.

To some (including myself sometimes), this may sound scary and perhaps a bit dangerous. After all, who’s to say that I won’t go too far in my personal reformation of faith, to the point that I’m no longer following the real Jesus? I believe this could be a genuine concern, but I also believe that the nationalistic, homophobic, Republican-voting, legalistic, sinner-hating, young earth creationist, war-mongering Jesus I started out with isn’t the real Jesus either.

Barefoot faith doesn’t mean that I throw my brain out with my tennis shoes. I don’t simply believe everything I hear, and I do my best to listen to competing voices to maintain a balance. Also, I’ve made a point to learn from people who actually know what they’re talking about, not just any idiot with a podcast or a blog (heh, irony). Then, based upon the information I’ve consumed, I use my critical thinking skills (my pride and joy) to come to new conclusions—or, more accurately, a more realistic Jesus.

Through my barefoot faith, Jesus has helped me reexamine the Kingdom of God, pacifism, hell, America as a “Christian nation”, social justice, black lives matter, politics, feminism, the LGBT community, national enemies, the death penalty, power structures, poverty, atonement, doctrine, and, most shockingly, Hillary Clinton and Rob Bell.

I could go on listing things I think about differently than I used to and expound on all the things I believe now that I would have thought were heretical five years ago, but for your sake, I won’t. For some it might be shocking, while for others it might be disappointing. However, I do believe that I am not just shifting back and forth in my beliefs, but that I am actually chasing after the real Jesus.

The growth I’ve experienced in the past few years (most of which, interestingly, has taken place after graduating Bible college) has been substantial and thrilling. My faith has never been stronger, and my excitement about the Kingdom of God has never been greater. And all I had to do was shut up and take my shoes off.

in praise of doubt

Doubt.

It’s a word that makes a lot of Christian people squirm. We don’t really like talking about it in general, and particularly not when it pertains to us. We certainly don’t want our Christian friends and family to know we have doubts, because they’ll think we’re on the verge of apostasy. We just sit there, smile, and try not to think about those questions hanging around in the backs of our minds.

Here’s a confession: I am well-acquainted with doubt and I’m not ashamed about it. However, I think the way doubt is commonly handled in Christian circles is a travesty. Discussing doubt is uncouth in many settings, and questions regarding foundational doctrines like the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ are as good as a renunciation of faith.

But in my experience, doubt is not as bad as we’ve made it out to be. In fact, I think that doubt could be a very good and necessary thing. That might sound like a contradiction to what you believe about faith, but I want to make three statements about doubt and see if I can make my point.

So here we go.

Faith is not the absence of doubt.

I believe many of us have an unfortunate misunderstanding of what it means to have faith. To many people, having faith means believing something without any trace of doubt. If someone is experiencing doubt, it’s often viewed as a symptom of a faith that’s lacking vitality. Doubt is a fault in faith, some may think. To have a strong faith, you must completely rid yourself of all your doubts.

But not only is this untrue and nearly unattainable, but it isn’t what the Bible calls us to.

Faith that is bereft of all doubt is not faith, but certainty. I will agree that, theoretically, certainty sounds great. How fantastic would it be if we could believe everything the Bible teaches—even the really wild things like a man killing a thousand other guys with the jawbone of a donkey or dead men walking out of their graves—without the tiniest fleck of doubt?

Here’s the problem with this: the Bible does not call us to certainty, but to faith. Certainty, while it may be nice to have, is hardly commendable. It’s easy to be certain. There’s nothing particularly special about me proclaiming that a ball will fall to the ground if I drop it, because we’re all certain about the function of gravity.

Faith, on the other hand, is messy. Faith isn’t easy, because it’s belief with imperfect knowledge. There’s always a chance that what you’ve put your faith in may end up being false. That’s precisely what makes it faith. Faith requires the potential for doubt, or else it ceases to be faith at all.

When you’re living the life of faith, doubt is inevitable. Your faith isn’t sick if you experience doubt. In fact, if you don’t experience doubt at all, then there’s likely an issue with your faith. Doubt is a natural result of critical examination of the things you believe, and if you’re not critically examining what you believe, then you’re choosing willful ignorance about faith and the world around you.

As the well-known Christian intellectual William Lane Craig said, “Any Christian who is intellectually engaged and reflecting about his faith will inevitably face the problem of doubt.”

Doubt is an opportunity to grow.

When I was in Bible college, I loved the various theology classes that were offered, so I tried to take as many as I could. I didn’t know it then, but the professor who taught those courses was dealing with his own doubts during the time I was in his classes. Eventually, he announced that he no longer believed the tenets of Christianity and resigned his post at the school.

This professor was one of my favorites in college because his classes were so intellectually stimulating for me. Because of what he was experiencing with his faith, he asked questions and brought up many points in class that challenged what I believed in a way I had never experienced before. What began as a quest for knowledge and understanding became a downward spiral into debilitating doubt.

Few people know this, but I spent a very rough few months wrestling with these doubts, trying to figure out if I could still believe everything I’d grown up believing. I was teetering on the edge of agnosticism, terrified that I might end up like my professor and renounce my faith.

Despair was certainly a very possible outcome of my doubt. In fact, for awhile it seemed like it was the inevitable end result. But I found that it wasn’t the only possible outcome. On the opposite side of the doubt coin was the possibility for growth in my faith. Thankfully, this was the outcome I realized.

Through this difficult time, I learned that doubt is not just one of the inconvenient inevitabilities of life that we all must face at one time or another. Instead, doubt is an opportunity: it is either an opportunity to grow or it is an opportunity to despair.

For me, doubt was my opportunity to reexamine what I believed and correct some of my wayward theology. While this time of doubt was miserable, it ushered me into the rich, vibrant faith I now enjoy. By far the most growth I have experienced in my faith has come through the valleys of doubt.

Obviously, growth is not a given when it comes to doubt. There are those—like my former theology professor—who deal with doubt and succumb to despair. So what’s to account for the difference in outcomes?

In most cases, I think the key difference between someone who experiences growth as a result of doubt and someone who experiences despair is their response to doubt in the first place. Before doubt can be an opportunity for growth, it is an opportunity to trust in God when things don’t make sense.

The object of your faith is more important than the amount of it.

In Mark 9, we find the story of a man who asks Jesus to heal his son. This man is the one who proclaimed the famous biblical statement, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” He expresses imperfect faith that is riddled with doubt.

What is interesting—and encouraging—about this story is that Jesus does not dismiss this man for his doubt, telling him to come back when his faith is stronger. Instead Jesus sees the man’s imperfect faith and he honors it by healing the man’s son.

The man’s faith was small, but it wasn’t the amount of faith that caused his son to be healed. It was the person in whom he put his faith. From this we learn an important principle regarding faith: the object of your faith is more important than the amount of it. In other words, it’s more important who we put our faith in than how much faith we have.

The father’s knew his faith was imperfect, otherwise he wouldn’t have said, “Help my unbelief.” However, it’s okay to have an imperfect faith if the object of your imperfect faith is a perfect savior.  When you believe in Jesus, it’s okay to not have everything figured out. It’s okay to have doubts, because Jesus is willing to work with you in the midst of those doubts. He isn’t surprised or intimidated by your doubts, but he does want to help you overcome your doubts.

If you put your faith in a political party or a theoretical concept or a government or a constitution or a truck brand or anything else that isn’t Jesus, it will inevitably fail you because it is an imperfect object of faith. But if you put your faith in Jesus—even if it’s shaky and weak—he will never fail you because he is a perfect savior.

Jesus can handle our doubts and disillusionments and disappointments. And like he did with the father in the Mark 9 story, he will help us grow our faith if we seek him in the midst of our doubts. In Jeremiah 29:13, God proclaims that, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” So even in the worst of our doubts, we can take comfort in the fact that we will find God if we seek him with all our hearts.

Doubt is inevitable, but we shouldn’t be content to wallow in our doubts. Instead, we should be relying on God to help guide us through our questions and doubts. And, like we said earlier, we should use these questions and doubts as an opportunity to grow in our faith.

Seek Jesus as the object of your faith, because even when your faith is imperfect, he is perfect. Seek Jesus in prayer. Seek Jesus in Bible study. Seek Jesus in books that deal with difficult questions of faith. Seek Jesus in your conversations with other Christians who may know how to respond to your doubts.

When you’re experiencing doubt, don’t seek after some amorphous theological concept. Seek after Jesus. And as the Bible promises, you will find him when you seek him with all your heart.

A final word (actually, it’s 184 words).

If you’re currently dealing with doubt, there are two things I want to say to you:

One: You’re not alone.

Two: You’re not hopeless.

When you’re in the violent throes of doubt, it can be easy to believe you’re the only one asking the questions you’re asking, that no one could possibly understand what you’re going through or have answers you need.

While it may feel that way, it’s simply not true. The Bible is filled with people who experience various kinds of doubt, and post-biblical history even more so. There has never been a question or doubt that hasn’t been asked or experienced before.

You are not alone in your doubt.

When you’re being tossed about by the vicious winds and waves of doubt, it can also be difficult to see any hope for an end in sight. How could you possibly withstand all these challenges and come through on the other side with your faith intact?

But doubt is not a death sentence. Experiencing doubt doesn’t mean that your faith is dead or decrepit. Doubt is just a storm. Storms can be weathered, and inevitably they pass on.

There is hope for you in the midst of your doubt.

the Bible is not a love letter

If you’ve languished in the Christian subculture long enough, you’ve probably heard someone describe the Bible as “God’s love letter to us.” I’ve heard it countless times, and probably used such language myself before. But I’ve been rethinking that phrase a little bit recently. If, as a whole, the Bible is a love letter, then it is certainly the strangest love letter I’ve ever read. I’m guessing not too many suitors try to woo potential brides by relating the story of a man getting a tent peg hammered through his head and into the ground while he is sleeping.

I don’t think the first person to utter this phrase meant any harm by it. In fact, I’m positive that it was intended to help people understand how great and important the Bible is. However, I think something unintended–and untrue–is communicated by this statement. When we convince ourselves that the Bible is God’s love letter to us, we start to believe that everything in the Bible was written specifically to and solely intended for us.

But here’s the problem with this: the Bible was written to a specific people group in a specific period of history, and those people lived on the other side of the world two-thousand-plus years ago. When we read the Bible as if we–21st century Americans–are the original intended audience, then the potential for poor interpretation is massive. The Bible isn’t God’s love letter to us; it’s a collection of historical documents written to a specific people at a specific time with the dual intentions of helping those people learn about God as revealed in Jesus Christ and teaching them how to live their lives accordingly.

This isn’t to say that the Bible is irrelevant today simply because it was originally written to a people from a culture that is vastly different from our own. As a Christian and a pastor, I believe the Bible is among the most relevant pieces of literature currently available. However, I also believe that we need to be wise about the way we read and interpret the Bible. Two thousands years and half a planet is a gigantic chasm to cross, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build a bridge anyway.

Misinterpretation of the Bible happens all the time. I think that a great deal of that misinterpretation is due to a misunderstanding of what the Bible is. When we convince ourselves that the Bible is written just for us, we ignore the fact that it is richly wrapped in a culture and language that is hardly anything like our own. This can be dangerous if we rip certain verses out of their cultural contexts and impute to them the status of universal truth.

A fairly innocuous example of this is found in 1 Corinthians 11:14: “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him?” Taken by itself, this verse seems to condemn me as vile for no other reason than the fact that I currently have long hair. If the Bible was written specifically for us today, then it’s pretty evident that I had better quit writing and head over to Great Clips, lest I risk facing God’s wrath. But this verse was written to people living in the ancient city of Corinth (which is in Greece) in the year 53 AD (which is a long time ago), and it would be highly irresponsible for us to ignore that fact.

In first century AD Corinthian culture, a man who wore his hair long was likely a prostitute. Prostitution, so far as I am aware, has never been an occupation that is held in high esteem. Nor am I aware of too many prostitutes who get into the sex-for-pay business due to a love of the work itself. Typically, people are forced into prostitution either by someone else or by the fact that they see it as their only means of survival. Therefore, Paul’s declaration that a man (a first century Corinthian, mind you) wearing long hair is disgraceful was probably not hotly contested.

In contrast, ancient Jewish culture viewed long hair on a man as an outward symbol of his extreme but venerable dedication to God (see Numbers 6:5; Samson is a well-known, if fatally flawed, example of this).

In 21st century America, long hair on a man can have a variety of connotations: rockstar, hippie, karate master, motorcycle rider, Willie Nelson aficionado…but certainly not prostitute! Long hair on a man is not disgraceful in 21st century American culture, just somewhat uncommon. Now we find a cultural gap between us and Paul’s original audience.

So what are we to do with this verse? Ignore it? Of course not. We need to cross that cultural gap by uncovering the heart of what Paul is saying, instead of taking it at face value (after all, God has always been more internally focused than externally). Perhaps Paul is a making a point about how Christians are to conduct themselves in public spheres, not as prostitutes (or the cultural equivalent) but as people who have been saved by God’s grace. For me as a 21st century American Christian, getting a haircut would be a pretty lame excuse for conducting myself in a manner worthy of the gospel. After all, I highly doubt my long hair is leading anyone astray. Instead, I should be more careful with my words and more giving of my time.

Like I said, that’s just one example. I could explain others, but I don’t want this post to be insufferably long.

I’m not trying to rebuke anyone here. Rather, I simply intend to challenge the way you think about the Bible. When we turn the Bible into “God’s love letter to us,” we are in danger of making it all about us. This would be not only a great injustice to the culture and history in which the Bible was written, but also to the word of God.

Now, is the Bible made up of letters? Yes. And is it the primary communication of God’s love for us? Of course. But it isn’t God’s love letter to us. It is a collection of historical documents written to a specific people at a specific time with the dual intentions of helping those people learn about God as revealed in Jesus Christ and teaching them how to live their lives accordingly. It is my hope that we will view the Bible in this accurate light, lest we misinterpret it according to the fickle whims of our earthly desires.

humanity: yea or nay?

I was listening to a podcast the other day in which the host posed the following question to several interviewees: do you believe humanity is inherently good or evil? The answers given ran the whole gamut of cogency and hopefulness for humanity, but I found very few of them to be satisfying. However, I couldn’t figure out why, so I set out on a quest to determine how I would answer such a question.

The first issue I encountered when trying to answer this question is that I found myself struggling to coalesce my theology with my experience. Romans 3 states that “There is no one righteous, not even one;…there is no one who does good, not even one.” I took issue with this initially because I wanted to believe that humanity is inherently good, but this passage seemed to suggest otherwise. However, the more I wrestled with this idea, the more I came to a semblance of clarity. Without making a determination about the inherent goodness or wickedness of humanity, I was able to identify that—whatever else we may be—we all begin on a level playing field as far as our inborn morality.

But what is this level playing field on which we all begin? Reformed readers (were I to have any) might suggest that this level playing field is the congenital state of total depravity that afflicts all of humanity. And while I can’t really argue with such a proposition, I prefer to interpret such a dismal state a bit differently. A few chapters later in the book of Romans we read, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” So, while it may be true that we are naturally given to depravity, we are also worth dying for. That’s one heck of a level playing field.

Here’s where things become a little muddled. When it comes to deciding whether humanity is innately good or evil, I choose a third option: I think the only thing inherent about humanity is the state of being human. Forgive me for being savagely obvious, but perhaps you’ll humor me a moment. Being human, as it were, evokes a great deal: failure, hope, fear, joy, weakness, love, foolishness, peace, despair. Being human involves all these things and more—and it also mean being worth dying for. I don’t really believe in “good people” or “evil people”. Instead, I believe in people who do good things and people who do evil things, but the things they do are not what define them. What defines them is their intrinsic humanness. No matter who they are or what they’ve done, they are human—and being human means being worth dying for.

So: Is humanity inherently good or evil? Frankly, I don’t know. All I know is that humanity is worth dying for. There isn’t anyone I’ll ever meet or even catch in my periphery who is anything less. Ascetic saints, politicians, civil rights activists, school shooters, philanthropists, dictators, schoolteachers, con artists, law enforcement officials, evolutionary biologists—we’re all the same. We’re all human, and we’re all worth dying for.

the lost virtue of masculinity

Joy, in all its potential interpretations and misinterpretations, doesn’t seem like a very masculine virtue. Perhaps it is because Joy is a common woman’s name; or perhaps it is because the word “joy” in and of itself evokes images of butterflies, rainbows, flowers, and things that are egregiously yellow; or perhaps it is because most books asserting what it means to “be a real man” tackle topics such as honor, wildness, integrity, suffering, humility, and sacrifice (and yes, I did just go through the table of contents of one such book) yet leave joy mysteriously unsung. Whatever the reason, it seems—to paint with a broad brush (though painting with a broad brush is certainly superior to finger painting when a broad brush is all you have)—most men, and particularly men in the church, would likely not be characterized by joy. Words such as angry, disgruntled, cynical, or petulant might better suit us. Yes, this includes me.

But before we continue, I must include a word or two regarding the nature of joy. You may have heard it before, but joy is not the same thing as happiness. Happiness is an emotion that is usually quite fleeting and is easily affected by circumstances; conversely, joy is a state of being that transcends circumstances and can be present in times of sadness, anxiety, and even anger. Joy is rather like the sun which affects the goings on down on Earth but is not reciprocally affected by the goings on down on Earth. Does this sound like the state of men you know or the men at your church?

So how did we as men get this way? I can’t say for sure. It’s certainly not, for my purposes here, a biblical precept. If you consider Pauline authority, joy is a command that is nowhere near gender-specific: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) “Rejoice always.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16) James presents joy as a central figure in a passage that, for all intents and purposes, has a rather virile tone: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4) Again, nothing in this passage suggests that estrogen is a requisite catalyst in the production of joy.

But the greatest indictment of joyless men is found in Nehemiah 8:10: “Then [Nehemiah] said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.’” Now we find the quintessential masculine virtue: strength. And from whence, says Nehemiah, does that strength come from? Joy; specifically, joy that comes from God.

For those of you wondering, Nehemiah was not some pipsqueak who declared that joy was the source of strength to compensate for his lack of muscle, chest hair, or fighting ability. In the fifth century BCE, Nehemiah led the Jewish people in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem in just fifty-two days, a feat which was completely remarkable. But not only did Nehemiah lead these men in rebuilding the walls in an astonishing amount of time, he also had to lead them in fighting off enemies who constantly assailed them during this time. Nehemiah was forced to split his men into two groups: one group to rebuild the walls, and the other to defend them from their enemies. Even some of those who built the walls “labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other.” (Nehemiah 4:17) It would be difficult to argue that Nehemiah and his fellow laborers were anything other than supremely masculine, and yet what does Nehemiah remind them is their strength? Not the mighty strike of their swords, nor their fervent faithfulness in the face of fierce hostility, but the joy of the Lord, the very thing that quite a few Christian men today seem to lack the most.

So, it seems to me, joy is not only a very good thing to have, nor something we are merely commanded to have, but a rather manly thing to have as well. The problem with joy, however, is that it requires us to rely on something that cannot be attained through our own doing, and that, I think, is something with which a lot of self-made American men are not comfortable. Finding joy in the Lord requires vulnerability, which is just about the last thing myself and many other men desire for ourselves. And yet, that is where strength can be found.

Seems backward? Well, what else should we expect when it comes to the way God works? I must admit, joy still doesn’t seem all that manly to me, though I suppose the way I perceive things is among the least important determinants of truth. It’s exceedingly difficult, as I could be described as somewhat of a curmudgeon, but I am striving to pursue joy. Those who remain unconvinced may consider what I’ve posited to be further feminization of the church or whatever hogwash terminology you wish to use, but, to quote a somewhat obscure song, “I’d rather be called weak than die thinking I was strong.”

saturday night service

Saturdays in the fall and early winter play host to some of the greatest moments of the calendar year. From the beginning of September to early January, hundreds if not thousands of young guys (and girls, on occasion) get their college tuition paid for by playing in twelve to fourteen football games in a given season. People show up in droves to get a glimpse of these games, and even more watch them from their couches at home. They spend hours watching the games, hours reading about them, and hundreds of dollars on merchandise and tickets and cable packages and tailgating victuals. They interpolate intense emotions between goalposts, at times predicating their entire satisfaction in life on the success of their team of choice and feasting off the plate of other men’s success.

I am one of these poor milksops enslaved by the college football machine. No matter how much I would like not to, I can’t keep my mind off of football. Somehow, football always seems to seep into my brain, whether I want it to or not. I feel a tug in my chest if I know there’s a game on and I can’t watch it. I feel like less of a man if I can’t engage with someone in a well-educated conversation about the past weekend’s games and each team’s outlook for the season. I feel naked if I don’t wear the correct apparel on a given Saturday. I feel like a complete and utter failure in life if I miss one K-State—my team of choice—game.

But my love for football doesn’t simply end there. Oh no. If only! Each week, myself and another friend rank all 128 of the NCAA FBS teams from worst to best, and this is a process that probably takes a good two hours per week, not to mention all of the time I spend watching games, listening to podcasts, researching statistics, reading articles, and playing college football video games. Even when I’m at work or just doing something inherent non-football related, I frequently find myself consumed with thoughts about football. At times, it seems like a religion dressed up as a hobby.

Or perhaps it could be likened to a drug. There’s never enough college football for me. College football games can be found on television at least four nights a week—if not more—and yet it seems like games are spaced out by eternity. College football keeps me from working on Saturdays—which, in my job, is a prime opportunity for accomplishing requisite tasks—much like a drug might preclude its addict from working. And, of course, the worst thing in the entire world is the college football off-season. Those eight-plus months are positively torturous. My “withdrawals,” so to speak, have created within me an unusual affinity for Canadian football, which begins its season the first week of June, two months before American college football.

No matter what you want to compare it to, my love for college football is dedicated and obsessive. It’s the kind of thing that characterizes fairy tale love relationships. It’s the kind of magnetism that keeps a puppy on the heels of its owner when treats are at stake. It’s the kind of diligence that inspires a dutiful employee to quality work.

It’s the kind of thing that makes me lament that I cannot seem to follow Jesus nearly as closely as I follow college football.

a stolen miracle

Four years ago, my dad called me on a sleepy winter evening with some pretty unsettling news. Apparently, my parents had had a meeting at my then-eight-year-old adoptive younger brother’s school that day, and it was in that meeting that he was officially diagnosed as intellectually disabled. The news itself didn’t come as a particular shock; my brother had been way behind in most academic things for awhile. However, with something like that, it doesn’t really matter how prepared you are. Once it becomes real, so much changes. Once it becomes real, there’s no going back.

The revelation hit me hard because of this: that should’ve been me.

See, back when I was a fetus, I had a condition known as hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. I don’t want to go too in-depth, but basically I had too much fluid and not enough brain in my head. Assuming I survived the pregnancy, I would have been born with severe mental handicap. With the fragility of my skull and brain, sports would have been completely out of the question. My parents were crushed.

And then one day they went for an ultrasound, and—inexplicably—I had a typically-developed brain. Eventually I was born a healthy baby with a perfectly functioning brain, and a gigantic head the only residual effect of my prenatal tumult. It was a medical miracle.

But then, flash forward two decades to the aforementioned telephone conversation. I was immediately wracked with intense guilt, because in my mind I had stolen my brother’s miracle. Somehow my brain had gotten healed, and yet his hadn’t. How was that even fair? What had I done to deserve that?

For a couple weeks afterward, I struggled to come to grips with this new reality for my family. What would it mean for us, now that it had been officially declared that my sweet little brother had deficits in his ability to function? And still: why him and not me? I haven’t deal with a lot of tragedy in my life, and those weeks were some of the most difficult I’ve faced.

I don’t remember how I came to understand the situation in a new light. It could’ve come via a word from a friend, or from my own personal musings. Either way, I came to realize that things would’ve been completely different if I had been born with hydrocephalus.

I was already my parents’ third child, and had I been born with the complications that were expected, my parents probably wouldn’t have had my biological younger brother, and certainly would not have adopted my youngest brother. My adoptive younger brother’s biological family consisted of five older biological siblings, a niece or nephew, and no stable father figure. In that context, a boy with my brother’s intellectual disability would probably not have gotten the attention he needs.

I’m not trying to say that my family was the heroes in this story. I’m not even trying to say that everything happens for a reason, because I’m not sure that’s even true. But sometimes I think things do happen for a reason, and when they do it usually turns out better than you could’ve planned for yourself. In this case, I’m very glad they did.

why i might be a nonviolent nonresistant pacifist

Awhile back I read a book that was not very good. If I remember the premise correctly, it’s the story of a dude who wakes up as a hostage of some terrorists and has completely forgotten the last year of his life, and somehow comes to the conclusion that serving America is just as important as serving God. There is one passage I recall in particular in which he talks about turning the other cheek. He says you should always avoid a fight, that is, unless you have no other choice, like if someone’s trying to hurt you or infringe upon your freedom.

At first I thought that made a whole lot of sense. Of course I should be allowed to fight back, especially if someone is doing something wrong! But the more I thought about that and tried to synthesize that with what Jesus said in Matthew 5:39, the less sense it actually started to make. Is it really okay to hurt someone if they’re trying to hurt you or someone else, or have provoked you in some other justifiable way? I mean, Jesus never actually gave any exception clauses to the turning the other cheek rule. All he said on the matter was “blessed are the peacemakers” and “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That’s it.

This bugged me for awhile because I’m the product of a culture that loves violence, and I gleaned much of my masculinity from violence of some sort. I mean, my favorite movie is Braveheart, I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, I could play Skyrim for days on end, and I absolutely love stories about warriors fighting for what’s right. I even approached my faith with a warfare-inspired vocabulary and attitude. But the more I came to believe that Jesus really meant what he said and said what he meant (a Messiah is faithful, one hundred percent), the more I realized how untenable my love of violence really was.

It got difficult for me to look at the things Jesus said in regard to people who mistreat you and who you consider to be your enemies because I was forced to deal with some pretty difficult truths. The root of violent retaliation—even in cases which seem justifiable to most people—is almost always selfishness or, if you prefer something a little nicer, self-defense or self-preservation. However, it becomes very difficult to love your enemies when you are your own primary concern, doesn’t it? So either Jesus had no idea what it was like to have people dislike and mistreat you (and let’s try to remember who was tortured and crucified by his enemies) or he was calling us to some pretty radical stuff. As you have probably guessed, I contend the latter.

I am now at the point where I truly believe Jesus was advocating for nonviolence with no (or at least shockingly few) exceptions or equivocations. I know this is probably an unpopular opinion, but frankly nonviolence just makes sense to me. Our world is already so crippled by violence, and more often than not we seek to heal the wounds caused by violence with even more violence. But if Jesus came to establish an upside-down kingdom, then you would expect him to tell us to just knock it off with the violence already, because it has yet to fix anything and probably never will. See, the intent of violent retaliation is to overcome the initial perpetrator, whereas the intent of nonviolent nonresistance is to overcome the evil deed of violence while still valuing the humanity of the perpetrator. Therefore, violence (generally) burns bridges while nonviolence (ideally) maintains them.

So where did this totally unbiblical (from my point of view) exception clause which allows violence in certain cases come from? How did we get to the point where, as the band Showbread would say, “turn the other cheek succumbs to preemptive strike?” I don’t know for sure, but I have an idea.

As Americans, we hold very dearly to what we perceive to be our God-given rights. We have the right to vote, the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, the right to pursue happiness, the right to religious assembly, the right to personal opinion, the right to get mine and keep mine, and we’ll be damned if anyone tries to take those rights away from us. But when we turn the other cheek—no matter what the circumstances—we have to give up our rights freely, even if it seems wrong or unfair. And I just don’t think we’re comfortable with that. To us, that feels like we’re giving up part of our identity as Americans.

But I think if we’re truly citizens of that upside-down kingdom Jesus came talking about, we’ll gladly give up our rights as Americans so that “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” At this point in my life, I’m ready to do that. The world has already had its fill of violence; I can’t see how my enacting any more will do anyone anywhere any good. I’m desperate for that nonviolent kingdom to get here, and if I want any hope of seeing it, the change has to start with me.

I’m not naïve though. I am well aware that there are some very difficult issues with nonviolence, and I’m sure some of you will have qualms with what I have posited here. Below I will try to preempt some of those qualms with a self-imposed question-and-answer period. I may not be able to answer everything perfectly, but hopefully I will provide some sort of thoughtful rebuttal to sustain a dialogue.

Q: Doesn’t being nonviolent nonresistant make you a sissy?

A: Yeah, maybe. If you think Jesus was a sissy.

Q: So if I’m not supposed to “resist an evil person,” does that mean I should just let someone hit me over and over and over and over? Or should I just stand and watch by while they beat the living daylights out of someone else?

A: I’m going to do what many writers do when asked a difficult question: quote somebody else. I’m going to quote from a blog post by Greg Boyd (the full post can be found here) in which he states:

“We are not to ‘resist an evil person.’ The Greek word here (anthisteimi) does not imply doing nothing. It rather forbids responding in kind to an offense. When an “evil person” uses violence against us or our loved ones, we may certainly do all we can to stop him, except use violence. Refusing to use violence when it’s deemed necessary is of course contrary to common sense. And everything about this passage is contrary to common sense. Yet, this is what makes following Jesus radical, distinctive, beautiful — and profoundly difficult!”

I would also like to provide a personal example here. In my job as a youth mental health case manager, I frequently work with youth who become violent toward myself or others. During those times, I’ve been punched, kicked, bitten, head-butted, scratched, spit on, etc. My job requires that I intervene in these situations, and we are carefully trained in nonviolent crisis intervention to defuse such situations. This allows us to provide safety and teach the child that the violent behavior is unacceptable. For me to respond violently to these situations would be simply unconscionable, but that does not require me to remain passive. Intervention does not require retaliation.

So in answer to this question, no, you don’t have to keep taking abuse after abuse. You don’t have to just do nothing. However, resorting to violence is not the appropriate way to solve the problem either. Yeah, that’s right. You might have to put on your thinking cap and get a little creative.

Q: Does this mean you don’t support our troops?

A. By no means! In fact, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our troops! Both my grandfathers served in the military, my dad served in the military for twenty years, my sister served in the military for like four and a half seconds, and my brother-in-law currently serves in our military. I appreciate everything our servicemen and women have done to protect our nation. While I may not be in favor of everything that has been done during war times—and I am certainly not a fan of war—I do understand that our nation’s leaders and military have acted based upon what they believe to be of the greatest good to our people. I am just grateful that I will never have to be put in a situation where I must make such difficult decisions.

Q: What about if someone broke into your house and was going to shoot your wife and kids?

A. First off, how often does that actually happen? And secondly, for the sake of the cases where this actually has occurred, I would again like to defer to Greg Boyd. He puts it so well in this video that even trying to paraphrase it would do it no proper justice.

Click here to see the video!

Q: Does this mean you want to just let violent people off the hook?

A. Nah, I definitely believe in restorative (not retributive) justice. I just don’t think it’s my job to dish it out, and certainly not to respond violently to violence. That’s like a parent hitting their child to teach the child that it’s not okay to hit people.

Q: How do we stop ISIS then?

A: No idea, dude. Again, I’m glad I’m not the one to make those decisions.

Q: Did you stop watching violent movies and reading books about medieval warfare?

A: Nope. Even though I put little stock in violence as a viable source of healthy conflict resolution, I do think stories of war can be used to teach values such as camaraderie, courage, integrity, and so forth. Plus, movies like 300: Rise of an Empire are just plain awesome.

So that’s that. My intent with this article was not necessarily to sway you over to my line of thinking, but to at least get you thinking about the issue and perhaps start a dialogue about it. After all, I’m still trying to figure everything out for myself as well. That’s why you’ll notice the title of this article is Why I Might Be a Nonviolent Nonresistant Pacifist and not Why I Am a Nonviolent Nonresistant Pacifist. And, like I always say, if you like what I said or absolutely hate it, let me know so we can talk about it.

i’m the father of a demon-possessed kid

Perhaps the single verse with which I most resonate in all of Scripture is found in Mark 9:24: “Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’” Seriously, the dude who said these words two millennia ago stole the words from right out of my mouth. It seems like a nonsensical paradox, I know, but at the same time it makes so much sense to me.

For a long time, I’ve been a skeptical kind of guy, particularly when it comes to faith and epistemology. While this has sometimes led me to times of severe doubt and agnosticism, it has also guided me to a stronger foundation for what I believe.

Unfortunately, the fistfights with doubt seem to occur more frequently and violently than the times of existential peace. In fact, it seems like the more I have studied philosophy and theology, the more I have really had to grapple with the things I had so resolutely determined to be gospel truth.

However, I have come to find comfort in the words of Mark 9:24. I have held Christian beliefs (legitimately and independently) for several years now, so I already have the framework for belief in place. But there are still a great many nagging doubts in my brain that I find difficult to overcome. Thankfully, Mark 9:24 reminds me that I don’t have to be anywhere near full-fledged certitude in order to accede to the basic tenets of the Christian faith. I can offer whatever amount of faith I have and ask that God would, in turn, reveal truths to help me combat my unbelief.

I know that probably sounds like confirmation bias to some of you, and that might be accurate. But confirmation bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly if one’s presuppositions are correct to begin with (although I wouldn’t go so far as to make that claim for myself yet). Even if that were the case, though, I would hope that I approach the pursuit of understanding as objectively as possible (though I’m not sure how objective one could plausibly be in any case) and not as one seeking only to back up what I already believe.

The most frustrating thing, though, is that there will never be definitive proof one way or another regarding the truth of Christianity; I suppose that’s what makes it faith. But having faith does not result in the nonexistence of doubt, but rather faith requires doubt. The two are not mutually exclusive. Without doubt, faith would just be certainty, and I don’t think humans are smart enough to know anything with certainty.

Now, I don’t want you to be reading this and thinking, “Whoa, this dude is an apostate. He’s totally lost his faith.” That’s not true at all. In fact, I think my faith has gotten stronger and more genuine through this whole process. I don’t believe things simply because they were taught to me as a child anymore, but because I have wrestled with them, lost sleep over them, and, yes, even written poems about them. This has led me to modify or, at times, even reject some things I was taught as a child, while still grasping on to a fuller and more authentic version of my faith.

So why do I believe what I believe, you may be wondering (if, by chance, you aren’t actually wondering, feel free to head to http://www.netflix.com and watch Parks and Recreation or Criminal Minds, because either show would be far more exciting than this)? It’s actually quite simple. So simple, in fact, that it would make Christopher Hitchens roll his eyes and Richard Dawkins LOL. You may disagree with me too, and that’s okay. Anyway, enough apologizing:

It doesn’t take much research for me to see just how messed up our world is. As a result of my job in the mental health field, I’ve witnessed child abuse (physical, verbal, emotional, sexual), neglect, disabling addictions, suicide attempts, self-harm, relentless bullying and hazing, and malicious attacks toward others and myself. I’ve read deeply about mass murders committed on US soil—oftentimes perpetrated by teenagers. I watched as my neighborhood was destroyed by a devastating tornado, for no other reason than senseless random chance. I’ve read countless other stories of weather-related disasters that have led to tragic loss of life and property damage. And those are just my areas of personal study! There are innumerable injustices going on every second in our world today, from trafficking children as sex slaves to the slaughter of innocent people in the name of God. And I know that no amount of policy-making, military force, or even human decency is going to change the decadence of the world in general and humanity specifically.

I look at all of these things and think that there must be something more to it than this. Surely there is some sort of justice out there, some sort of healing, some sort of reconciliation, some sort of hope. I’m just not satisfied with the idea that this tired violence is all there is, that there’s no “putting the world to rights” as N.T. Wright would say.

To me, the only solution that makes any sense is Jesus and the gospel. And when I say gospel, I don’t mean the discriminatory, legalistic, nationalistic, war-mongering pseudo-gospel with which you may be familiar. I mean the real gospel, the one that sets the captive free, brings life to the dead, provides healing for the sick, promotes peace for the war-torn, seeks justice for the oppressed, and promises absolution for the convict. I mean the gospel that turns everything we think we know on its head by turning the other cheek and going the extra mile. I mean the gospel that will one day restore everything to the way it was originally intended to be. I mean the gospel that reminds us that, though the night may be blacker than the blackest black we could ever imagine, there’s a new day coming and the sun will shine out so bright that our retinas would melt away were it not for the grace of God providing some sort of heavenly eye protection. To me, that is a gospel worth believing, and without it, I couldn’t even imagine life being all that worth it.

That’s why I believe. That’s why, even though I know there are gaps and logical flaws in my reasoning, I have no problem crying out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

what’s deadlier than the deadliest sin?

When I was in high school, I went to youth group at my church every Sunday evening and I loved it. In fact, I loved it so much that I basically got my degree in youth group. I would not be the man I am today if I didn’t have my youth group. I’m a youth minister now because of my youth group. (I said “youth group a lot in that paragraph. No apologies.)

Unfortunately, youth ministry as an institution of the church is not perfect. Some things—like so many youth groups’ obsession with incorporating puns into everything they do—are pretty excusable. Others have the potential to be damaging to a young person’s theology, or even their self-perception. As much as I hate to publicly criticize the field in which I now hold a job, I feel like I need to shed light upon an issue that has been a major stumbling block in my life.

Back in my youth group days, a tradition at nearly every Christian youth camp or retreat was a specific guys-only and girls-only session. Without fail, the people putting on the event found a way to split us up. Even sometimes at youth group we would split up by gender and have specific talks.

The girls would go off with the female adult leaders, where most often (from what I have heard from women who grew up in youth group, not firsthand experience of course) they would be affirmed in their beauty—inside and out—and their identities in Christ. They would be taught that they are princesses, daughters of the king, and as a result they should be very careful what guys they let into their heart. Not just any dude is worthy of dating them. This was a time of love and encouragement, and probably a time of a lot of crying too.

All of these are great and true things that I believe every young woman needs to be taught and reminded of frequently. It’s unfortunate that so few outlets are providing this affirmation for the ladies in our society. I have absolutely zero problem with this.

What I do have a problem with is that when the guys would go off by ourselves, it seems that we got a much different message. I can’t really think of a single “guys-only” session that had a primary focus other than “quit that lusting, dude!” And yeah, for 90% of guys (and the other 10% who are lying [that joke isn’t mine]) lust is a very serious deal that is almost always very destructive. I agree that it absolutely needs to be talked about openly, and I know that these “guys-only” talks were genuinely well-intentioned. However, I do have two major qualms with them:

  1. Lust ain’t the only sin.

Lust is not even the worst sin, really. After all, few people in my Christian tradition believe that there is an actual systematic hierarchy of sin (in God’s eyes, at least), even if the consequences of some sins differ greatly in severity from others. And yeah, we treat some sins like they’re worse than others (usually if they aren’t the sins we struggle with), but we do understand deep down that sin is sin in God’s eyes.

However, as a teenager I had it hammered into my head that I had to focus all my strength on getting to sleep that night without lusting so I could mark my calendar with a smiley-face instead of a sad-face. By the time I did finally get my lust wrestled into submission, I found to my great surprise that I was a prideful, angry, hateful, apathetic jerk. At the risk of sounding dramatic, my heart had atrophied.

Somehow, I got it into my mind that lust was the absolute worst thing, and if I could somehow get over it I would be okay. My attention was so focused on the giant of lust that I didn’t notice those other things slipping in, things which were just as sinful and just as destructive. My life became defined by struggle rather than by grace. When that happens, I believe, it eats away at you until there’s not much left.

  1. Guys need consistent affirmation too.

For some reason, our culture has this perception that guys are so tough that they could never be in need of encouragement or affirmation. You can kick a dude in the teeth with truth and tell him got walk it off, knowing he’ll be okay soon enough. That’s just the way guys are. That’s what it means to be a man.

I bought into this lie hardcore. I have always been obsessed with being viewed as strong, emotionally if not physically. In high school, I made certain that externally I always appeared self-assured and needing nothing from anyone. But on the inside, I didn’t think too highly of myself. I was lonely and depressed. I was dying for someone to affirm me as a man.

However, it felt like the only message I heard was “be a man” when what I really needed to hear was “you are a man.” I craved for someone to gush over me about how much God loves me and how strong I am in Christ, like it seemed the girls were always getting in their “girl talks”. Unfortunately, that was rarely the case.

Instead, it seemed that everyone was telling me to just cut it out with the lust stuff already. As a result, I couldn’t imagine that God could love me all that much, and he certainly couldn’t like me at all. Each time I failed, all I felt was shame, emasculation, and depression. My entire faith became predicated on mollifying what I perceived as God’s inexorable wrath against me. Grace wasn’t a factor at all. I couldn’t even understand it.

I was completely beaten down and defeated by what I saw as my terrible moral failure. Each time a “guys-only” session came up and I still hadn’t conquered my lust, I felt more and more hopeless. It was a rare occurrence when I truly felt like who I was more important than what I did. I wondered, “If God really loves us all the same, and wants to forgive us no matter what we’ve done, shouldn’t that be spoken loudest and clearest? Why do I—and so many other guys—feel like I have to behave before God will love me?

Now I don’t want it to sound like I’m saying we should quit talking about lust, or that we should excuse it as a natural part of growing up. That’s absolutely not what I’m saying. Rather, I’m saying that we should talk about God’s love and forgiveness just as much if not more. We should go out of our way to let people know that a struggle with any sin isn’t going to stop God’s love for them, just like death, life, angels, demons, the present, the future, the powers that be, heights, depths, or anything else.

For me, it wasn’t until an adult leader from my youth group came alongside me and pulled me to my feet that I started to see hope for myself. He spent time with me and listened to me and showed me unconditional love. He reinforced grace over sin management and Jesus’ blood over my blunders.

Kids are always going to fail. You’re always going to fail. I’m always going to fail. And while sanctification should certainly be our goal, we should be screaming out that the gospel starts with love and salvation. If that’s not our primary message, then there’s a problem.

The difficulty, though, comes in balancing truth and grace. Both are absolutely imperative, but too much of each can be dangerous. An overemphasis on truth can become Puritanism, whereas an overemphasis on grace can become moral relativism. Achieving a healthy balance of each would be an act fit for a circus.

What does that mean for the subject at hand? I still believe we need to teach the truth about lust (that it’s destructive, but that it’s not the only bad thing out there), and do so in an overwhelming context of grace. Too often, I think, grace is treated as a footnote rather than the overarching theme. “Yeah, there’s grace—kind of as a back-up plan—but you really need to get your act together, dude.” Thankfully that’s not the way the gospel works.

Truth convicts and grace restores. When I was in high school, I got the truth convicts thing down perfectly. But it wasn’t until I understood grace that my faith became real and my heart began to change. That’s when I realized that the joy of the Lord is my strength, not my ability to resist temptation. That’s when it was clear to me that I was not a man because of anything I did or didn’t do, but because of what God has already done on my behalf.