Calling Jesus Names

Have you ever heard a racial slur come out of a child’s mouth? I haven’t heard one recently, but when you do, trust me, the event will stick in your mind. You’ll ask, “Where did they learn that? Do their parents talk that way? Do they know what that means?”

I’m not really sure where to start with this post. I had a really great weekend. I celebrated my Scottish heritage up at Maryville College for the Smoky Mountain Highland Games. I watched burly men toss rocks. I watched burly men toss huge telephone poles. I had a plate of haggis and mashed potatoes washed down with an Irn-Bru, which is still the weirdest drink I have ever thrown down my goozle. (If I had to describe the flavor it would be orange rind and bubblegum.) I listened to some old Irish and Scots folk songs and was blasted by a combined Pipe and Drum Corps playing Amazing Grace. I was happy, and full, and very, very warm. The warmth was from the dear sounds of ancestry… or maybe the 88 degree heat, not sure. I enjoyed celebrating a culture, but I know that not everyone can with as much open pride.

God created us in His image, which gets called the Imago Dei (Latin) in the pop Christian lingo right now. I have to hand Gen X and Millennials one big high five for bringing back early church fathers and mothers and incorporating more Latin and Greek into teaching and popular theology. As God’s images, we are designed to reflect God’s glory, authority, and love into the world around us and reflect Creation’s praise back to God. (I’ve tread this path before on this blog.) God encourages culture. In fact, read through the Hebrew Bible and New Testament and you’ll rarely find God or His prophets and apostles calling out the culture (food, clothing, artwork, language, etc.) Instead, you’ll see God calling His people and others to a right attitude of justice, mercy, care for the poor, proper worship of God, to repent and seek forgiveness while offering it to others.

So it pains me greatly when I hear God’s people who are supposed to praise God with their mouth and not slander their neighbor talk about “those people.” “Those people” often come tied to some pretty nasty assumptions, and are usually poor or have little power to affect the kind of change they need. “Those people” are listed in Matthew 25 as appearances of Jesus. See, “those people” need a cup of water, need a decent meal, need clothing and security, need a safe place to sleep, need a visitor in their prison cell or their hospital bed. When we as God’s people begin to dehumanize and speak about “those people” with anger derision, refusing to help or speak out, or allow the powerful to continually take advantage of them, we may just be speaking the words, “But, Lord, when did we see you thirsty, or hungry, or naked, or in prison?” And our own reckless words will condemn us.

I beg you to come with me on a nuanced journey. Let’s work this out. If you get uncomfortable, you can stop at any time… but you’ll have to face this at some point.

You are made in God’s image.

Your most hated co-worker is made in God’s image.

Your in-law that drives you nuts is made in God’s image.

Prisoners are made in God’s image.

Death-row inmates are made in God’s image.

Your pastor is made in God’s image.

The pastor you disagree with is made in God’s image.

The President is made in God’s image.

Immigrants are made in God’s image.

Migrants are made in God’s image.

The Ayatollah is made in God’s image.

Kim Jong Un is made in God’s image.

Police officers are made in God’s image.

Black Lives Matter members are made in God’s image.

Every person you fear might shake up your comfortable life and status quo is made in God’s image.

Are you uncomfortable? Do you see what God’s image does? It places us in an uncomfortable place where we share the exact same foundation with every single other human being who has ever lived and who ever will live. We are all made in God’s image.

The Benedictine monks had a practice of bowing to guests to their monasteries. They bowed in reverence to the presence of Christ in their guest. They recognized that welcoming someone and showing hospitality was welcoming the presence of Jesus into their midst.

We seem rather quick to draw lines that Jesus didn’t draw. Jesus, who defined his primary ministry as to His people, the Jews, still served the Roman Official, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Samaritan woman, and chastised his disciples when they threatened Samaria in their anger.

If we can look at another human being and see anything less than a human being, loved by the God who longs to show them mercy and love, maybe our eyes haven’t been made complete in Jesus’ image, yet. If we can hate and denigrate and name call and demean and ignore, maybe our hearts still need work until we’re made complete in Jesus. If we can look at the image of God and speak hate over it, aren’t we really speaking hate to the One who made them in the first place? Aren’t we throwing our voices in with the crowd shouting and mocking Him as He hung on the cross?

Who do you need to rethink? What groups have you denigrated? What kind of language do your kids hear when it comes to minorities, immigrants, or those that look or think differently than you? Do your children know anyone different than them?


Handing Down Riverdance

Last week I got to fulfill a dream that I’ve had since 7th grade. Thanks to the patronage of some very kind individuals, my wife and I were able to see Riverdance live. Now, my wife had seen the show before, but I had not. Sure, I’ve been to Ireland, and was even in Ireland during the 10th anniversary year. Now, though, we saw the 20th anniversary tour, and I was blown away.

What surprised me most was how these familiar songs still had the ability to move me. The energy of the dance was entrancing, even though all of the beats have been stamped into my memory thanks to an original recording of Riverdance that I kept on repeat for most of middle school while doing my homework. Each song felt nuanced, energetic, passionate. And I realized for the first time that this show is a bit of a 101 course in world dance, featuring the firm, dignified grace of the Irish step, the sensual, yet playful Flamenco, the aerobatic Russian style, and the jovial American tap. Each played a part in creating a fun, engaging experience.

Music has the power to move us. Whether we admit it or not, the ability of a melody or a tight harmony to make the hair on the back of our neck stand on end is a given. It helps us to grieve, to face overwhelming odds, to celebrate victories.

So I wonder about your musical gifts to your children. Are your children familiar with old hymns and new praise choruses? Are your children acquaintances of Beethoven and John Williams? Can they rock out and contemplate?

I’m the father of a yet-unborn little girl to whom I will bequeath a treasure-trove of music. I will hand down to her the music of my people, which includes, but is not limited to: John Denver, Southern Gospel, Jimmy Buffet, 90s country, classic rock (70s and 80s), Bluegrass, Celtic, Spanish guitar, swing jazz, Puccini arias, Mozart, Vivaldi, and some modern artists I’m not ready to admit to the public I like. I gained an appreciation for music as a way of life, through listening, singing, playing. I realized that the songs I hear every day are speaking to others differently than they speak to me.

I know I’ve asked this before, but have you introduced your kids to music? Do you listen to the same thing in the car every day? What would happen if you tried something new?

What I’m looking forward to is the day when my little girl looks up at me and says, “Hey, dad, check out this new song I found,” and my daughter will hand to me music in the same way I handed it to her. Now, I make no promises, future daughter, that I will like it, but I will listen, and I will appreciate that you trusted me enough to share it with me.

What art and experience have you introduced your kids to? What happened? How can you take time to introduce your kids to culture and to deeper conversations about how they interact with it? What song is played most often at your house?


Who Gets My Sympathy?

I’ve spent some time lately with two men that I had never really noticed before. Both are older brothers like me, and in their culture they are due honor, and a magnificent inheritance. Somewhere along the way, though, their younger brothers ended up with the honor, the inheritance, and left them with less than what they expected. Their younger brothers are heroes, of a sort, while these two men sit in relative obscurity, depending on who you know.

The first man is named Ishmael. For a while, his father’s pride a joy, and later his father’s wife’s castaway. Left to die in the desert, God looked down and saved his life, making him into something great from what would have been another wasted life. Between he and his brother, his brother got the story, but our sympathy is with Ishmael.

The second man’s name is Esau, a man tricked, deceived and cut out by his own twin brother. Left with a consolation prize. Sure, he made some poor decisions and lived life his own way rather than follow the advice of his mother or father but did he deserve such a cold surprise? His story involves one of the most heart-achingly painful moments of realization and loss as he and his father both realize at once that they have been deceived and they tremble, not with rage, but with sorrow.

Many of our arguments and debates in America at the moment hinge on the strong opposing the weak. White v. black. Democrat v Republican. West v East. Mature v yet-to-be-born. If we follow, truly follow, Jesus’ life and message, our lives should be directed toward the weak, rather than the strong. When the next national debate comes on, ask yourself the question: “Who is advantaged here? Who is disadvantaged?” Perhaps, as in the case of Ishmael and Esau, we can all develop some empathy for the overlooked. Or, like Ishmael and Esau, as the older brothers, show humility and quiet strength in accepting the victories of the younger brothers.

Where do you see the disadvantaged that need support? Where do you see strength that needs humility? How do you explain helping those that need help to your children? What methods do you as a family use to help others?


Breaking a Cultural Curse – Rape and Consent

I am quite sure that a large majority of you reading this have already read several think pieces and rants on the most recent Stanford rape case. If you have not, here is a link to an article describing the situation, and here is the viral statement written by the young woman in the case.

As a man, and a particularly white one at that, I cringe to the point of implosion when horrific situations like this arise and justice seems so far off the mark. Honestly, I cannot even contemplate what might have been going through the judge’s mind during the sentencing, but whatever it was we can say with some certainty that it probably was not justice.

Humanity has a long, brutal, grisly history with rape. We have famous, celebrated works of art with rape right in the title depicting scenes of almost gentile savagery. So what needs to happen? How can we, as parents, as a culture, begin to remove the stigma around rape and begin to fight back?

For one, we can educate our children about sexuality. And not just the mechanics. While the how-tos and basic safety are important, don’t get me wrong, there is more to sex than “how does it work?”

People may wonder why I hold a biblical view of sex and marriage. The reason is, a biblical view takes into account consent and relationship dynamics that can help people to avoid certain pitfalls.

So for Christian parents, the explanation may go something like this. Sex is a response to commitment, a response to a promise, a covenant, that is supposed to last. Marriage vows are those promises that sex is a response to. However, consent still needs to be present in the marriage relationship. Sex is a conversation, a give and take between spouses, consent is given, and can be withheld for a time (prayer, health, etc.).

And here is a the kicker in the conversation about sex and consent – no means no. Kids can learn consent at an early age through things like hugs. Children can be given the power to say “no” to a hug, and be taught that if someone else says “no” to honor that. To many people, hugs and other physical contact are intimate moments that need consent, and can be a learning tool to discuss and teach sexual consent. Also, an absence of “yes” does not mean consent has been given. A rule of positive consent should be present as we discuss this issue with our children, meaning that children should clearly hear “yes” before proceeding.

Our children need to learn that consent is a crucial social contract. It affects many areas of our lives and children need to learn earlier rather than later how to give and respond to consent. Giving children the power to give and understand consent might help them understand how to avoid abuse. Once they understand that they have the power to say no to touch that they do not want, they can respond appropriately when danger or threats arise.

Again, education about consent tackles both ends of the problem of rape. It does not victim blame by just forcing the person being touched to say “no” in as many ways as possible. Consent education also places responsibility on the person initiating the touch to be aware of positive consent, or the lack thereof before proceeding.

When we see situations like the Stanford case arise in the news, and maybe our older children begin asking questions, we can use those moments to educate and train. With younger children, we can take the reminder to proactively train them to avoid these situations by raising them into responsibility for their actions.

Again, this post will not lessen the impact or damage done in this case. But, as we grieve over injustice and pain, let us prepare our children for the world they live in today so that tomorrow they will have wisdom.

Honesty Can/Will Get Me Killed (or at least blocked on Facebook)

Can I be honest for a moment? I mean, really honest? The kind of honest that makes people uncomfortable and you can hear the tense silence of thousands of people’s angry reaction building instantaneously as they read?

I have dreams of being a parent one day. I work in children’s ministry so I often joke about having 25+ kids, but we all know their parents are putting in so much more time and energy to raise those children the best they can. And, really, those parents are heroes in their own right: parenting is a challenge, but a blessing all the same.

And, truly, I have much respect for parents in today’s world. Maybe it’s the fault of history books, but I feel like life used to be less complex. Or maybe in the past many people were more concerned about survival than the details. Hearing about my family’s past and reading a fantastic book My Southern Journey by Rick Bragg points out that many folks struggled just to put another meal on the table. I guess, then, we should call it a blessing that new issues have begun to come to the forefront.

I have to chuckle a little at the change in mindset even in myself. There are people in our towns and cities today wondering where there next meal might be, and there are some reading this post wondering where wild-caught, organic fish might be on sale for dinner tonight. The issue of food has been one of my personal thought experiments for a while now. I have been doing some peripheral research (shallow and reductionist at best) and have decided that sugar is the enemy to fight in my own home. Others have decided to battle against genetically modified foods, or added chemicals, or to go vegetarian, or go organic. I think it is wonderful that our society has become so affluent that these options are available and, mostly, financially tenable.

Now here’s where I’ll be honest, I don’t get the reason for shaming other parents for what they are doing differently. I don’t understand why we cannot consider that some families do not have certain financial or time resources others do. Perhaps they have not become the enlightened paragon of purity to which some have achieved, and they are simply trying to put food on the table and provide the best life possible for their children.

At the risk of sounding cliche: some people live to eat, and others eat to live. We all eat, but some eat also because of the pleasure of flavor, texture, and origin. (I put myself in that category, all things considered.)  Others eat to stay alive one more day in the hope of making a better tomorrow. Some even go without.

Keeping with honesty, there are so many other issues that this applies to. Before posting one more article or blog post in the hopes of convincing that one person to come to your side, stop and thank God for your situation in life and your freedom and ability to advocate for a particular viewpoint.

Remember, as always, that as a parent and adult, others are always looking to you to be a model and example of how to behave. One day, your child will have social media. One day your child will be a parent. One day your child will meet their first vegan. How do you want your child to interact with others?

So, everyone, I have stopped and thanked God for my situation and for all of you. Now, please make sure that your toilet paper rolls under, your peas sit cozily in a bed of mashed potatoes, and you call it a buggy and not a shopping cart.

Though, if you happen to have a different opinion, I suppose you can continue doing whatever it is you are accustomed to doing.

Can we please keep shooting our neighbors?

In my fair city of Chattanooga, we have had a rash of shootings and deaths recently due to violence attributed to gangs. The situation is horrible when members of the same community come to such conflict that murder is the outcome. The constant state of one person believing they are completely in the right and and understand the other side without sitting down for discussion leads to blind misunderstanding and angry outbursts.

Oh, wait… that sounds like American Christians, too, doesn’t it? Huh…

I’ll start with this observation gleaned off of the most recent Cracked podcast: cynicism does not equate with wisdom.

I continue to see on my feed shared posts written by cynical, spiteful individuals whose contempt for others is evident in the way their prose stabs and accuses with all of the dexterity of a stampeding bull. In my opinion, if one is going to mock and deride another human being, at least have the decency to use wit and style to their full effect, in the vein of Voltaire or Jonathan Swift. Those two and their like, at least, had a respect for humanity that went beyond the individual that led them to heap style and humor in with their contempt.

Contempt is something Jesus speaks strongly against in his Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew. (We’ll be referencing Matthew 5.21-24 and 7.1-5 for the rest of this unless otherwise stated.)

Consider the idea that Jesus equates hatred and contempt with murder. The very attitude of contempt stems from anger, the idea that I or someone close to me has had their rights infringed upon, and the desire to act on that anger. Jesus shows the progression from anger, to abusive language and malice, to contempt and exclusion. Understand, the moment we begin to exclude and consider an individual or group “other” we begin to slide down a gradually descending slope that first allows us to mock, then to attack, and then, if allowed to continue, to consign to destruction. As Christians, we’re all very careful to avoid actually killing anyone, but how quickly are we to say the phrase, “You’re going to hell.” And, really, depending on your belief, what you’re saying is the equivalent of sentencing them to death. And how arrogant of us to contemptibly throw that very phrase at another brother or sister in Christ. Don’t we know that, as Christians, we are both members of Christ’s body? Can the ear say to the eye, “I hope you rot and fall out,” and things still function properly? (I Corinthians 12)

Moving along, later Jesus has his famous “speck and plank” section. I had always thought that the plank in my eye causing me to lose sight of the speck in my brother’s eye was my own failings and sin. In a way, that is what’s going on, but Dallas Willard points out another possibility in The Divine Conspiracy: that the plank is my contempt. How effective will I be in a surgical procedure that requires care and concern on behalf of the surgeon to the patient if I am angry with the patient, or worse, if I do not value that patient at all? Jesus rightly shows that if I am blinded by contempt, then all I will do is cause more damage than good.

I will also point out that in some cases, spreading around juicy tidbits of what other Christians are “doing wrong” could easily be classified as gossip. You know, gossip, that insidious little sin we tend to ignore when its convenient. It happens in church foyers and it happens on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram when we share those titillating stories about how intriguingly terrible other Christians secretly are.

Remember, children watch your behavior. They learn from you, their parents and role models. Children can pick up, and I think the internet is proving this, the capacity for contempt of other human beings who are made in the image of God. Children pick up that if mommy and daddy think this person or people group are worthless, then I can treat them however I want. And we wonder why racism, sexism, violence, and poverty continue on from generation to generation…

What do your actions and posts teach your children about valuing and respecting other Christians, and other humans? How do you speak about those groups or people you disagree with? How do your children speak about people they disagree with? (This last question might answer the first two…)

Consider that discernment and correction are the realm of fellow Christians. We are called to correct in love, with care and gentleness, knowing that we can fall into the same pitfalls as the person we’re trying to dig out. So before we talk about someone or share or write a particularly spiteful post, we should consider if it is helpful correcting, or if it is simply contempt and gossip masquerading as help.

Pain Isn’t So Bad

A thought trend I have been hearing lately from many sources, both religious and secular, has been to point to suffering as being the ultimate evil. Secular morality, it seems to me, is built on the idea that suffering is evil and pleasure (even simple comfort) is the greatest good for humanity. From this comes the idea that euthanasia, abortion, and intense military action is completely justified – because all of these seek to end or avoid suffering.

It seems odd to me, though, that a country claiming to be built on Christ’s example would be walking down a path of avoiding suffering. Jesus himself was no stranger to suffering: seeking refuge in Egypt from an unstable ruler, facing intense hunger during fasting, facing the whip for the accusation of being apolitical dissident, and finally facing the traitor’s death at the hands of an oppressive government. Paul, also no stranger to suffering and who made his point clear while listing off his suffering like a list of prestigious degrees, continually called churches to task in order to stand firm and prepare for the worst. Paul wrote to the Roman church, “[…] We also celebrate in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces patience, patience produces a well-formed character, and a character like that produces hope.” (Romans 5.3-4 Kingdom New Testament)

The Jewish people, God’s chosen, themselves have suffered immensely over the years, steeling themselves to live under the weight of oppressive regime after cruel tyrant. They, who wandered in the wilderness, faced their own trials and testing in the desert, who poured out their hearts through the prophets and psalmists, were no strangers to suffering. These are the people who treasured Job in the list of sacred texts, a book that answers few questions, but instills hope.

So why pain? Well, first, consider that a person who feels no pain or who is incapable of feeling emotion does not gain the title of “human perfected” but instead is often diagnosed with some kind of disorder. Why is that? If avoiding pain is the greatest good, why would people incapable of pain not have reached the pinnacle of humanity?

Perhaps it is that, deep down, we understand the necessity of pain and suffering. Pain often brings wisdom. Suffering often leads to understanding and sympathy. Comforting someone becomes much different when we have lived through the same traumatic experiences as another. We often learn the correct and incorrect ways of living and acting through the pain caused by our own choices. Do we think of others on the other side of the globe when things are going well? Or do we only focus on those places of poverty and destruction when the suffering of those people finally reaches the light of a camera on our televisions or laptops?

Not to say this is the way things should be. God hurts when we hurt, but how often do we as humans need pain to learn and grow? My own scars, both physical and mental, are a list (always growing) of lessons learned and mistakes made. Are they all my own mistakes? No. But have I grown because I have accepted what happened and decided to make a change or become a more caring, understanding individual? Yes.

I think maturity involves coming to grips with human suffering. Many great minds, much more adept than mine, have delved into that dark pool to search out the bottom. I have not had such great suffering as they, but their insight into humanity’s heart and mind have come to shape the way we live and think. James, Jesus’ brother who ended up becoming one of the key leaders of the church in Jerusalem, wrote: “My dear family, when you find yourselves tumbling into various trials and tribulations, learn to look at it with complete joy, because you know that, when your faith is put to the test, what comes out is patience.” (James 1.2-3 KNT)

This may be why the early church, after the great persecutions ended, sought out monasticism and voluntary fasting. Perhaps there was a sense that suffering, while an unpleasant part of life, helped to remind us of the important things. Loss often leads us to cling tighter to those important people in our lives. Destruction strips away our trust in physical resources. Suffering reminds us that our own bodies will fail.

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks mentioned that a  proper Jewish story begins with suffering or sorrow, and ends with hope. That is also the story for Christian people, for all people – our sorrow can be turned into joy, our crying to laughter, and our pain to celebration. We have a God that is working, even now when we may not be able to perceive it, to set things to rights. We are sitting in the “now and not yet” waiting for the full realization of the victory already achieved through Jesus, as NT Wright would say.

Hope is what we have to hold on to. Hope keeps us strong in the midst of suffering. As we learn and grow, slowly and painfully, we have hope that God, who is ever faithful, is working in every situation to bring about the final victory.

How do discussions about suffering go at your house? How are you using every opportunity to instill hope in your children? What ways have you found to help children find understanding in hope even in difficult situations?