How old is The Bible really?

Did you know The Hunger Games was first published 10 years ago? That’s getting pretty old, but not as old as Twilight, that is celebrating 13 years in publication. Sure both of those books have made a tremendous cultural impact in that time, but have they been nearly as significant as the now 21-year-old Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Harry is still a kid compared to our friends from Middle Earth. Fellowship of the Ring is closing in on retirement at 64-years-old while Bilbo’s original tale in The Hobbit is over 80!

These are easily Google-able facts that may impress people at parties, or, at least, make them feel old. Each of these novels has touched peoples’ lives and added significant content to our popular culture, but there’s an older story out there that perhaps beats them all. Have you ever wondered how old The Bible is? The answer is complicated. It’s potentially a trick question, but it’s one that has shaped how our most recent generation’s view the story of God and his people. Currently, the view that’s taking shape is not a good one.

“America the brave
Still fears what we don’t know
And God loves all his children it’s somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written 3,500 hundred years ago”

In the lyrics of Macklemore’s smash hit “Same Love,” we find an answer and it’s not wrong. Though it’s challenging to pin down exact dates to a lot of what was written for the Bible, most scholars agree that the Old Testament had begun being written down a few thousand years ago. It’s true The Bible was written by humans who lived in a time just like J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s also true that when it comes to works of art, society often looks back and realizes that content was less than helpful. For example, since moving to the South, my wife has been challenging herself to read some prominent southern literature. While some used racist characters to expose their evil, there are others who lack such a critical lens.

So much is lost if this is how we view The Bible. If The Bible is just a book written 3,500 years ago, it becomes no greater than any other work of fiction in our libraries. Its content, its truths, are easily dismissed and with them God is also easily dismissed. Fortunately, The Bible itself doesn’t subscribe to this view. Was scripture written by humans? Yes. And no. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.”

The Bible is not the word of men, but the word of God. The prophet Jeremiah talks of this unique relationship that extends beyond ink and paper in chapter 31 of his prophecy, “’This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.’” This is echoed later by Peter in chapter 1 of his second letter, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

The Bible being the divine revelation of God makes it something different than To Kill a Mockingbird or A Lesson Before Dying. This is summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.” We’re talking about God, the creator of the heavens and the earth, the Alpha and Omega, who the very wind and waves obey, speaking directly to his people. Just as God breathed life into you and I, Paul says in 2 Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Hebrews continues this thought, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The word of God is alive and active. There is something different about The Bible, something that is difficult to put into words. John tried, though, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The swords and sandals of the Biblical setting may seem foreign to us, but The Bible is not frozen in time. Woven into every stanza of poetry, every verse of song, every metaphor, every hyperbole, every sermon, every letter, and every punctuation is our living, breathing God who operates outside of space and time. God’s divine revelation of truth, wisdom, grace, hope, and love spoke to people at the beginning of written history, but before that God was still speaking. In the beginning, God spoke creation into being and long after Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John rolled up their scrolls, God still speaks.

If we limit The Bible to its publication date, we limit the scope of who God can be in our lives. How old is The Bible? It was published in eternity, co-authoring our stories forever and ever. It is living, and breathing life into the world day in and day out. It’s truth and power are written on the hearts of believers. It has always existed. It is God. It is love. How old is The Bible? It’s complicated.

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The Art of Grieving Well

On a recent trip to Boston, my party became patrons of one of the city’s most famous local coffee shops, Dunkin Donuts. My usual order, a medium ice coffee with sugar free vanilla and whole milk, was prepared. I took it over to the sweetening station/trash area to enhance it with sweetener and punch my straw in. However, on this day, my straw and lid were unwilling to cooperate. As I darted the straw violently into the lid, the straw hole didn’t budge causing my drink to tip towards the floor. I leaped into action to save my drink only to send it suddenly into the trash. One second, I had a coffee ready to enjoy that would carry me through my day, the next, my brand-new, full coffee was at the bottom of the trash. Gone. Forever.

My grief didn’t last long. Once my friends stopped laughing at my misfortune, there was an easy fix. I ordered a new coffee and went on with my day. Grief deferred. How would this small accident have affected your day? Would it have stayed with you? Greif is a natural part of living in our fallen world. Very few people I know sit around and say, “I could use some more tragedy over here. I’m a little short on tragedy in this season of my life.” Stuff happens and we all know that. What we seem to have a hard time with is how grief relates to eternity. Humans are experts at marrying the two in devastating fashion.

Think back to your first love. Many congratulations to those who are reading this whose first love became their spouse and they lived happily ever after. This is not the norm. A broken heart can be devastating. Have you ever helped a friend through a break up? Usually one of the first pains communicated goes something like this, “Now I’ll never find someone.” In the world of higher education, where, for many young people, so much rides on standard tests scores, a bad result is often processed with the sentiment, “Now I’ll never get into college.” Are these two revelations true?

A break-up doesn’t mean you’ll never find a spouse. People get married every day, many of whom who have had broken hearts before. A bad test score doesn’t mean you won’t go to college. People who are terrible at school and tests go to college all the time! There is something about grief, no matter how small, that propels our thoughts into eternity. The feelings associated with loss are often devastating enough to make us feel like they’ll last forever. Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Option B, about processing the sudden loss of her husband, says there were three lies her feelings told her that had to be dispelled. “We plant the seeds of resilience in the ways we process negative events. After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that three P’s can stunt recovery: (1) personalization—the belief that we are at fault; (2) pervasiveness—the belief that an event will affect all areas of our life; and (3) permanence—the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever,” says Sandberg.

If we are to ever plant seeds of resilience for ourselves or others we have to dismiss grief’s lies of permanence, but we must also tell the truth about what is permanent. Imagine being the disciples having spent significant time with Jesus and bearing witness to his spectacular events. How would you feel when he was arrested? Then when he was beaten? Then when he died? Jesus must have known those feeling of permanence were coming when he’s quoted in John 16, “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”

Jesus gave them words to remember when the shock of loss would come. Words that would give life and remind them you will not always feel this way. It could be a worthy exercise for all of us to ask of the Bible, “What is eternal?” Nearly everything we hold dear exists in the finite. People will pass away. Resources will diminish. Our bodies will age. What is eternal? Perhaps Psalm 136:4-9 has an answer.

“To him who alone does great wonders,
His love endures forever.
who by his understanding made the heavens,
His love endures forever.
who spread out the earth upon the waters,
His love endures forever.
who made the great lights—
His love endures forever.
the sun to govern the day,
His love endures forever.
the moon and stars to govern the night;
His love endures forever.”

Until Jesus returns, until thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, until God’s restoration of our fallen world is complete, we will experience grief, sadness, and loss. In Psalm 136, we are reminded that all that is finite is created by the Lord while simultaneously reminding us that God’s love endures forever. The gifts are fleeting. The giver of the gifts is eternal.

Jesus was being proactive in John 16 which isn’t a bad idea for us. Prepare for the grief to come by digging around in scripture. Write God’s eternal nature on your heart. Read through Psalm 136 a dozen times and allow it to define what’s permanent. The feelings we have that dig us into the deepest depths cannot stand against God’s forever love. Imagine being the disciples when Jesus was arrested, beaten, and died. Now imagine what they felt when he returned to them newly resurrected. You will not always feel this way.

Nothing But the Blood

My wife has impeccable style. She keeps an eye on trends, looks for ways to innovate, and is in tune with her body. One of her spiritual gifts is thrift shopping for unique pieces to pull her eclectic wardrobe together. Somehow, she always finds the perfect outfit. However, this particular gift often runs head first into conflict with one of her others, cooking.

Consider this a plea from the lead launderer in our household. Her most fabulous, well-fitting, stylish outfit is only ever one homemade tomato sauce away from ruin. What she doesn’t realize is that all of those splashes and splotches actually serve as a powerful, spiritual reminder for me of the nature of humanity. A reminder that draws me closer to Jesus and a reminder the pop culture world received from the stage of the MTV Movie and TV Awards this year. A reminder that nobody is perfect.

Chris Pratt, a mega-movie-star, made the MTV stage a pulpit from which he let his peers in on perhaps one of Christianity’s best kept secrets. Have you ever heard the phrase, “holier than thou”? This is, unfortunately, the reputation that many Christians carry in our culture. It might be a fairly earned reputation for some, but it’s a reputation based on a myth. Sure, it often seems as if Christians exist solely to stand on our soapboxes and tell the world how to live, feel, think, and what to believe. Isn’t that frustrating? What makes Christians think that they’re so perfect? Check out the profile of any popular Christian Instagram influencer and an air of arrogance might waft through your screen. What’s funny about that, and what makes this message well-suited to be delivered by a comedian, is that our faith is rooted in the exact opposite.

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“Nobody is perfect. People will tell you that you are perfect just the way that you are, you are not! You are imperfect. You always will be, but there is a powerful force that designed you that way, and if you are willing to accept that, you will have grace. And grace is a gift. Like the freedom that we enjoy in this country, that grace was paid for with somebody else’s blood. Do not forget that. Don’t take that for granted.” The Apostle Pratt was not that far off from the Apostle Paul when he says in Romans 3, “None is righteous, no, not one.”

This is Paul echoing the words of Psalms, “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14).” So much of Christian love, Christian joy, Christian humility, Christian compassion, Christian thought, and Christian behavior begins with the realization that we are not perfect. Like the many causalities of my wife’s closet, we are stained with our imperfection, our human limitations, our human instinct towards sin.

What can wash away my sin? What can make me whole again? In the midst of John’s Revelation, we see a power greater than a Tide-to-go pen, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Not Oxy Clean, not Spray & Wash, not even Clorox Bleach could lift the deeply rooted stain of sin that splashed onto our perfect outfit when Adam and Eve fell in Genesis 3, but there is the blood of the Lamb.

What shocked me most about Pratt’s speech was the mention of the blood. Do you know anyone who gets a bit green in the face at the sight of red? Blood, for many of us, is gross. It’s so gross that it’s not polite to talk about. Even Christians often find it improper to bring it up. Sure, we talk about salvation and kneel at the cross, but that cross was bloodied. Then comes Andy Dwyer (Pratt’s character from Parks and Recreation) saying with a smile on his face that we are given freedom by someone else’s blood. He went there. Now the secrets out, the blood of Jesus is the key to the whole shebang.

Our love, joy, humility, compassion, thoughts, and behaviors are all realized in the blood of Christ. We are not perfect, but we get to tap into perfection through the blood of the only spotless human to ever live. Paul says in his letter to the Colossians, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” This stain remover doesn’t just make us look pretty. Now that same Spirit that dwells in Jesus can dwell in us.

All of a sudden, we are living bases of operation for God to conduct his mission of blessing the whole world. With the Spirit as the tenant of our hearts, we can accomplish far more than we ever will chasing perfection. Through the blood of Jesus, we are forgiven, and a forgiven heart is a forgiving heart. Paul describes this to the church in Corinth, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” Here we see Christ’s perfection appealing to others through us not our attempts at perfection harming ourselves and others.

You could easily fill your calendar and your worries by trying to be perfect, but that pursuit is exhausting and oppressive. God would rather you pursue him. He went through great lengths for us to realize our imperfections and make it possible to do the impossible despite them. There is great freedom in knowing that no stitch of clothing, no number of likes, no amount of money, no square inch of stage or platform can provide perfection. Nothing can do that. Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

“This Is America” and the prophetic voice

The internet has been in an uproar. While Donald Glover was hosting Saturday Night Live he unexpectedly dropped a new music video from his hip-hop persona Childish Gambino, This Is America. It has 92 million views in less than a week, sparking debate and vigorous attempts to interpret the social meaning of the video. Directed by Hiro Murai, a frequent director on Glover’s FX show Atlanta, the camera follows Childish Gambino as he dances his way through a series of viscerally intense scenarios. The scenes depict Glover’s experience of being a black man in America, raising conversations around gun violence, black entertainment, the socializing of black children, protests, poverty, and more. (The video contains two brief scenes of shocking violence, a marijuana joint, and one curse word, all handled with artistic value.) For a thorough breakdown of the themes of the video without the moments of violence, go here.

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From my vantage point as a white female viewer, I was most struck by This Is America’s use of distraction and redirection. The first time I watched the video I was captured by Gambino’s dance moves and expressions. The background action is often intentionally out of focus, making it that much easier to only notice the entertainment and ignore the chaos taking place behind him. Multiple times Gambino is surrounded by teenage school children, dancing in perfect synchronization with smiles on their faces. To be quite frank, my first thoughts were, “Wow, Donald Glover is actually a really good dancer!” For me that was a major part of the genius of the video. As a casual viewer I immediately fell into the trap of only being entertained without wrestling with the deeper themes of racism and violence in America. In so doing I was confronted with my willingness to only notice things that are pleasant to watch while tuning out harsh realities that lead to feelings of discomfort or sorrow. Is that not a widespread temptation in our society today? To be pleased when we are comfortable and angry when we are confronted with things we would rather ignore?

As I watched the video a few more times, I was soon reminded of the Old Testament prophets. From Isaiah to Malachi, the role of the prophets was to proclaim God’s word to God’s people. God spoke through the prophets over and over again to call the people away from sinful disobedience and back to God’s covenant relationship. The people continually fell into all kinds of destructive practices that were eroding their society. The prophets would call out the sins of the people, commanding them to return to the Lord before they became past the point of no return. There was always an assurance of restoration, God’s perfect balance of justice and mercy. God would act in response to violence and exploitation of the vulnerable, and would always seek the good of the people. Let’s look at a few of the prophetic exhortations:

The word of the Lord came to me:

“Son of man, will you judge her (Jerusalem)? Will you judge this city of bloodshed? Then confront her with all her detestable practices and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: You city that brings on herself doom by shedding blood in her midst and defiles herself by making idols, you have become guilty because of the blood you have shed and have become defiled by the idols you have made. You have brought your days to a close, and the end of your years has come. Therefore I will make you an object of scorn to the nations and a laughingstock to all the countries. Those who are near and those who are far away will mock you, you infamous city, full of turmoil. 29 The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice. ~ Ezekiel 22:1-5, 29

“My people, what have I done to you?
How have I burdened you? Answer me.

10 Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house,
and the short scales, which is accursed?
11 Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales,
with a bag of false weights?
12 Your rich people are violent;
your inhabitants are liars
and their tongues speak deceitfully. ~ Micah 6:3, 10-12

27 Like cages full of birds,
their houses are full of deceit;
they have become rich and powerful
28     and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not seek justice.
They do not promote the case of the fatherless;
they do not defend the just cause of the poor.
29 Should I not punish them for this?”
declares the Lord.
“Should I not avenge myself
on such a nation as this?

11 They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say,
when there is no peace. ~ Jeremiah 5:27-29, 8:11

And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

11 “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. 12 They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry. ~ Zechariah 7:8-12

Stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. America is not the nation of Israel, and to my knowledge Glover does not profess a Christian faith, but This Is America is tapping into some universal biblical truth. The prophets frantically tried to hold a mirror up to Israel to show them where their comfort and self-indulgence were resulting in the dismantling of their society. Those themes are echoed in this modern expression. The video confronts its viewers with the ways that our desires for comfort and excess are causing us to ignore the marginalized, allowing violence to go unchecked.

TIA cars

It is also fitting that this call is coming in the form of a music video that makes use of symbols and extreme imagery. God frequently commanded the prophets to physically act out behaviors that were metaphorical for Israel. Hosea marries a prostitute who cheats on him and runs out on him. Yet Hosea pursues her and brings her home, symbolizing in a powerful way God’s love and pursuit of an unfaithful people (Hos. 1-3). Ezekiel builds a mini replica of the siege of Jerusalem and lies on his side for 390 days, then his other side for 40 days to symbolize God’s judgment on Israel and Judah. He is given instructions to make a specific bread with specific daily rations, indicating that the people would eat “unclean bread” during the Babylonian exile (Ez. 4). Jeremiah is commanded to buy a linen belt, place it in the cleft of a rock by the Euphrates and leave it for several days. He then went and retrieved it, revealing that it was now ruined as a garment in the same way that Israel had become worthless in their disobedience to God (Jer. 13). He is also commanded to break a clay jar to symbolize God breaking all their tools of idolatry (Jer. 19).

God is a brilliant communicator who understands that as humans, just being told something does not always mean that it will sink in. Sometimes we have to see it acted out in order for the gravity of a situation to become real. In a very similar style, This Is America puts forth jarring representations of uncomfortable realities in a way that causes them to be unavoidable.

All good art elicits a reaction. The question now is whether our reactions can move past cultural decoder rings and into hearts softened by compassion and repentance. The prophets were notoriously hated and often martyred. Anyone bearing a message that the public does not want to hear is putting themselves at risk. Will we be better listeners than those that came before us? Will we listen when confronted with experiences we may not all share but which call us to active engagement? Will we hear the cries of the prophets that echo across time and place? I pray that we will respond, not just to modern art, but to God’s timeless love of justice and mercy.

We just had an Epiphany

What takes up most of your time? What do you spend the most time doing? Would you notice if something new appeared in that setting? This past Sunday marked the first week of Epiphany, the season in the Church calendar where we celebrate the coming of the Wise Men to find the recently born Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). It is one of my favorite seasons because it has so many layers. It asks us to reflect on the ways that Jesus has revealed Himself to us and appeared in our lives. It marks the expansion of the Gospel as the first Gentiles (the wise men) recognized Jesus as the Savior of the world. And it demonstrates that God honors years of faithfulness to bear fruit we might never have imagined. Epiphany lasts until Lent, let us dig into all that this season offers.

Where did Jesus appear to you in 2017?

We know very little about the wise men. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that they were scholars who specifically studied the stars and the natural world. They studied the night sky so closely that they noticed when a new star inexplicably appeared.

Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is he who is to be born King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him. – Matt. 2:2

I know next to nothing about astronomy, so it boggles my mind that a star could look so significant that it would cause observers to assume a great cosmic event must have occurred. What an incredible thing that God can communicate to humans through the natural world in such a way that we could realize deep spiritual thruths. The star was so special that it prompted these men to travel a great distance, likely over the course of months and even a couple of years, to find the Person that was living in its light.

The wise men saw the star because they were pursuing their vocations as scholars. They were doing their normal jobs and received this revelation in the process of their work. In the same way, where did you see Jesus show up in the course of your work and daily life last year? Where were you shaped in the process of living out your calling? Jesus can reveal Himself through the spectacular, and also through the very mundane. Spend some time thinking about where you saw Christ through simply paying attention to the life you have been given.

Jesus is for everyone

We have no indication that the wise men were Jewish, in fact they almost certainly were non-believers. They were definitely living far outside of Israel and were foreigners to the Jews. And yet Jesus revealed Himself to them in a way that they could understand. It made no difference that they spoke a different language or came from a different culture. Jesus is a savior who can cross any barrier that humans experience. Our current cultural moment is still very much defined by fear and distrust of anyone who is not like “us.” We struggle to find common ground and to reach out to one another. Let us draw on the power of Jesus to cross any border and find ourselves united by the Light of the world, the One who came to be a blessing to all nations.

What if Jesus saves your enemies?

Most Bible scholars have concluded that the wise men were from the region of Babylon, east of Israel. This is the place to which Israel had been exiled several centuries earlier. When God sent the people into exile there, He commanded them to make it count.

Build houses and dwell in them; and plant gardens and eat the fruit of them. Marry and be given in marriage, bear sons and daughters and multiply, do not diminish. Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away into captivity, and pray to God for it; for in its peace you will have peace. – Jer. 29:5-7

They were not to just sit around, biding their time until they could leave. They were to see their time in Babylon as meaningful and capable of impact. What if the wise men were primed to see the star because of faithful Israelites who had lived out their worship of God in Babylon? Perhaps the period of the exile had left traces of God that the Babylonians were meant to find. They likely would have had access to Hebrew Scriptures and as scholars may have developed an interest in Yahweh (Hebrew for LORD) and a desire to learn more about Him. God may have honored the years of faithfulness in exile to allow new believers to find Jesus.

That is a beautiful thought, and also difficult. The Babylonians were not great people. Their attack on Jerusalem was brutal and they were a pagan culture. In every way they were enemies of God’s people. And yet Jesus chooses to intentionally target them for an invitation into the redemption story. It is easy to rejoice when people we love find Jesus, it is much harder when people we hate are called to become our spiritual brothers and sisters. And yet if we were all once enemies of God (Col. 1:21-22), Jesus saving enemies is very good news. Consider where you can be a blessing in places you might rather not be. A particular facet of your work, certain relationships in your life, classes you are tired of taking. Jesus may have plans for your presence in those places that you cannot yet imagine. Pray for the Holy Spirit to give you compassion for others and a desire for their good. May we all know Jesus more and make Him known in the places to which we have been called.

Prayer for Epiphany

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that Your people, illumined by Your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that He may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with You and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, now and for ever. Amen.

– Book of Common Prayer

Wrestling Your Friends to Church

I like to get there early. This gives me time to mill around in the lobby and do some people watching before I find my seat. Once I find my seat there is always a pleasant murmur filling the space as others file in. Everyone is excited, cheerful, brimming with anticipation for things to get started. Without warning, the lights go out. In the darkness, we all know…this is only the beginning.

Since the turn of the millennium, I’ve been to over 20 live professional wrestling shows and they have all started virtually the same way. There is a rhythm to the experience. The most seasoned wrestling fans are privy to the cues. They know the lights turning off is the call to worship. They know when a wrestler is punching another in the corner of the ring they need to start counting to ten. They know when a wrestler kicks out of a pin before the count of three it’s time to yell “TWO!” at the top of their lungs.

Faith and Wrestling 4

Did you know there was such an ingrained cultural liturgy in professional wrestling? I recently took a group of non-wrestling fans to a live event put on by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and I watched their faces as they witnessed the show play out. It was a consistent mix of confusion and unbelief. There was so much they didn’t know or understand and this left them bewildered and, dare I say, bored.

How did this happen? The art of wrestling has been capturing my imagination for almost two decades. The problem is I didn’t prepare them enough. I never gave them a chance to participate fully in the experience because I never told them about the liturgy of the event. Don’t we do the same thing with church, though? When you invite someone to church, how do you prepare them for the liturgy, the cultural norms that guide the experience? Do you prepare them at all? I wonder if there is anything I can glean from my experience bringing newbs to a wrestling event that can translate to how I invite people to church?

Call and Response

Wrestling fans are constantly Woooing. The lights go off at the beginning…”WOOO!” A wrestler open-hand chops another wrestler across the chest…”WOOO!” Basically, if there are any moments of stillness in the ambient noise in the arena…”WOOO!” It’s the fault of wrestling legend, “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. The 16-time champion often slipped into fits of wild Woooing with the crowd jumping in. Now, because Woooing is fun and easy, it is the common response to a lot of what happens in the show. It might be the closest thing we have to a wrestling “Amen.” If you know nothing about Flair, however, it might sound like you’re surrounded by crazy people.

Faith and Wrestling 2

This may have been how I felt the first few times I attended a more traditional church service. The person upfront would say or do something and the crowd would respond together. Of course, I had no idea what they were saying. It felt like there was so much I didn’t know. I felt left out, so confused, somewhat embarrassed, and started to check out. The Lord’s Prayer? The doxology? The people in the pews might as well have been Woooing. It was nonsense to me.

This isn’t confined to traditional churches, though. Most churches feature a set of music, right? Well, when I started going to church, this was my least favorite part. It wasn’t that the band was bad or the music was lame. It was because I had no idea why we were doing it. When was the last time you thought about every element of your worship service and wondered why you do it? Could you explain that to someone who had no context for it whatsoever?

Wrestling Psychology

When I was a novice pro wrestling fan there was one wrestler who grinded my every gear. His name was Bret “The Hitman” Hart. His style in the ring wasn’t flashy. Hart didn’t take many death defying dives off the top turnbuckle and wasn’t big enough to hit punishing clotheslines. The Hitman wrestled a slow, methodical pace that, as the uninitiated, I found to be the equivalent of a sleeper hold. As I begun to understand more about the art form, though, I discovered it wasn’t so much what you did in the ring but when you did it. Hart is a legend because he was a master at working the crowd, or as most people in the know would call it, wrestling psychology.

The most skilled at wrestling psychology are basically emotional conductors who pull the audience through a symphony of different feelings throughout the match. Performers read the temperature of the fans and that dictates what they do. The right move at the right time can take a match from average to phenomenal. As much wrestling as I’ve watched over the years, every once in a while, the best wrestlers can surprise me and send me off my couch into the air screaming with anger, shock, or pure joy.

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The mistake new wrestling fans often make is wanting a match filled with big stunts and not a big story. It’s the story that matters, though. The bigger picture, the greater context happening before, during, and after the match. When you invite someone to church do you prepare them by selling the big stunts? The music is amazing. The preaching is awesome. They serve awesome coffee. Experiencing a church service that way might send new attendees away from the Bret Hart of churches. Our greatest worship experiences come when the leaders move us into a big story, a story that taps into our lives and emotions, a story that moves us from sitting on the spiritual couch to leaping in the air in victory.

Wrestling Isn’t Fake

“Professional wrestling is fake isn’t it?” This is the question that most often follows any invite to watch wrestling. As my friend, Tommy, told me after I took him to a live event, “Why do people get so hyped about something that isn’t even real?” Let me settle this once and for all. Professional wrestling is scripted, live sports entertainment. The physical feats that happen in the 20’ by 20’ ring are real, the story is on par with any scripted show on television. Wrestling isn’t fake, it’s entertainment. People ask me all the time how I, a grown adult with advanced degrees, can enjoy professional wrestling. I show them this video.

Daniel Bryan, Triple H, John Cena, “The Macho Man” Randy Savage, and Chris Jericho are all 100% real to the kids who watch pro wrestling and sometimes I need to be reminded what it’s like to be a kid. Wrestling pulls me into mental spaces where anything is possible and the world is filled with fascinating, diverse casts of characters. Growing up has a way of beating skepticism and cynicism into our hearts. When I walk into the wrestling arena I get to leave the weight of disbelief the world has thrown on my shoulders at the door and start believing again.

I love the ways the Gospel of Jesus Christ inspires me to be creative and believe the place I live can be better than it is. When I first walked through the doors of a church sanctuary my guard was way up. I built a wall around me with bricks of guilt, shame, and mistrust. Not only that, I was terrified. I’m not sure if I was more afraid of being told I was a bad person, church making absolutely no sense to me, or that it might make perfect sense and change my life forever.

Jesus eventually broke through the wall and the fear. It might have happened sooner if someone told me that Jesus could handle all those things I was feeling. I didn’t have to build a wall, I didn’t have to be afraid. It wasn’t that I could leave all of that weight at the door when I walked in, but Jesus was inviting me to leave it at the foot of the cross. The Gospel becomes real when you approach it with fresh eyes like a kid watching The Rock deliver The People’s Elbow.

How intentional are you with your church invites? How intentional are you when planning a worship service? Are you setting your neighbors, friends, and loved ones up to have a genuine interaction with the Lord of All? If I can get my wife to drop the stigma of professional wrestling and give it an honest chance, I believe you might be able to do the same thing with someone that carries a pretty heavy stigma about church.

One of my favorite pastors is such because I feel so cared for by him through the course of any given worship service. The bulletin thoughtfully explains each element of the service and at several points he pauses to give easy-to-understand instructions, especially for elements like communion. I love it when a worship leader stops for a second to explain why they chose this particular hymn or why we’re reciting this particular creed. Coming from someone who still feels awkward at church sometimes, I promise these things aren’t a waste of time. What if we took greater care with our friends before, during, and after the church service? What if we set them up to become massive fans of Jesus and his bride? Occasionally, I wonder if our church leaders could learn a thing or two from the liturgy of professional wrestling

“Last Chance U” and You

Football season has begun. In today’s world, this means the season of talking about concussions, hearing about the horrors of domestic violence, your sports news crawl spelling out the newest round of DUI arrests, and debating the National Anthem. Has any professional sport come under more fire in past few years than football? In the midst of the controversy, comes another entry in the Netflix docuseries, “Last Chance U.” For some, football is life. Football is identity. Football is hope. As we debate football’s place in society, “Last Chance” has a great deal to say.

The show tells the story of East Mississippi Community College and their reputation for being the landing spot of college football’s most troubled top prospects. EMCC gives players with promise a chance to get their academic and criminal records in line in order to earn offers from the country’s most prestigious football powerhouses. Every man on the roster is missing a key that would unlock a position with the likes of Auburn or Ole Miss. After all, this is the place where brand new Denver Bronco, Chad Kelly, went to junior college.

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Wrapped in this premise are the stories of these young men. This is their last chance. If it were me, given a last chance, I would approach it with military precision. EMCC not only offers them a football team complete with the eyes of recruiters, but academic counseling to make sure they are eligible for those Division 1 scholarship offers when they come. Watching these young men, though, might send you searching for a tackling dummy to hit. They skip class, they sleep through coach’s meetings, they verbally assault professors, and as their counsellor, their biggest champion and cheerleader, is giving them advice, they nod to her blankly as music blares through their headphones. So many of these student athletes are playing fast and loose with their last chance.

Thankfully the series doesn’t show these seemingly disrespectful behaviors in a vacuum. Rather, the show gives the time to hear these young men out. As each episode plays, the pieces of their puzzle come together perfectly into a picture that is hard to reconcile. So much of their lives have been a series of confusing and painful contradictions.

The classroom doesn’t make sense. Now in college they are being told to work hard academically after years of schools giving them grades to keep them on the field. Meetings don’t make sense. They’re being told to listen and change when they’re athletic skills have always kept them out of trouble. They’re being told to sit there when, in their minds, they know all these professors and counsellors want is the use of their bodies. Society doesn’t make sense. They are so close to being like their heroes who appear bullet proof from racial oppression protected by fame and money, but they’re not there yet. They are still very much subjected to a world that often makes them feel like they can’t win, a society that makes them question if it wasn’t for football would they have any worth at all?

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The only place that does makes sense, the only small piece of sanctuary they’ve found, is that level patch of grass where they get to be heroes and saints. The football field has clear rules and clear systems of penalty and reward. If they do their job between whistles, they will succeed. This isn’t always the case off the field. On the field their enemy is easy to see. However, they can’t sack inequality. They can’t put a spin move on racism. At this point in their academic careers, no number of reps seems to help them understand algebra. Coaches scream in the locker room for harder hits. It takes a level of violence to play the game, but those same coaches then call them thugs when they use that violence to protect each other and lack compassion when that violence spills into the players’ lives. The game of life doesn’t make sense, football does. So that is where their hope, effort, and identity goes, everything else has become a waste of time.

I still believe football has a place in this world. I was never blessed with the stamina of a soccer player or the speed and agility of the best baseball players. The Lord did give me the size and strength to play football and the sport gave me a lot in return. When coached well, football can actually teach you discipline, resilience, teamwork, and how to manage your emotions for good. Coming from Steelers country, I also know how football can unite communities in powerful ways. For many of the Lions of EMCC, these helpful, good aspects of the game have been lost through lives lived in a world that tells them they’re winners in a system that has ill-equipped them to win.

In season one, this is most apparent in running back DJ Law. He feels inadequate in the classroom so he’s constantly falling behind and skipping class. The penalties of failing and missing class are outlined clearly at the beginning of the show and he has surpassed them all. Cut to the head coach saying they do everything they can to help players succeed only to roll that back admitting they don’t do everything. They do everything to win, so Law remains on the field. There are resources all around him to help him work through his academic challenges, but why go through that when all that really matters is football. Researching Law’s story after the show only provides more tragic evidence. He had an offer to play for a good school but got injured. Without football, his grades fell even further and now he’s no longer in school.

Towards the end of season two there is another heartbreaking example. Standout Isaiah Wright struggles through the season with several painful situations. Throughout his life, he’s been rewarded for what his body can do, but when he is injured and trying to take care of his body he’s penalized and yelled at. On top of this, Wright is dealing with a deeply sad life situation that I won’t spoil and has no idea how to handle his emotions. All of this amounts to incredible emotional and mental confusion. This confusion carries over onto the field. In one game, he fails to catch a punt that results in giving his team terrible position on the field and gets yelled at. Next time he tries hard to catch the punt but does so giving the team even worse position, and he gets yelled at. Even though anyone who has ever returned a punt knows when and when not to catch the ball, Wright, unable to reconcile everything that’s happened to him, can’t make these decisions and can’t handle the failure that results. He melts down. He loses his best scholarship offers and settles for a Division II school. Again, researching him after the show reveals he spent less than a year at his new school and has since dropped out with no prospect of returning elsewhere.

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Anyone working with young people would benefit from watching “Last Chance U.” Questions of identity constantly plague our next generation. Football, like anything else vying for our identities, can cause terrible damage if it is all a person has. “Last Chance” tells the story of young men who have had limited choices in where to place their identity. What could have happened if Law or Wright were given something else to motivate them? What if they could use sports for their intended purpose and not place the entirety of their hope in them?

Thankfully, season two also tells this story through linebacker Dakota Allen. Allen arrived at EMCC after nearly being charged with armed robbery. He lost his spot on Texas Tech’s football team and was labeled a menace to society. Episode 4 opens with Allen being baptized at the home of one of his coaches. After football was taken away, Allen needed something else to place his identity in and the advice he heard most often was to pray. This led to a deep belief in Jesus Christ. The episode in punctuated by Allen in church listening to his pastor exclaim the unending grace and mercy Jesus provides. As tears stream down Allen’s face, it’s obvious he knows what it means to have a another chance. I’ll let you see for yourself how his story plays out on the show, but I will tell you it was fun watching him playing on national TV as the season opened this year.

The title of the show is accurate. Football offers a finite number of chances and often takes more than it gives. If football is all that makes sense in the world, if it becomes the center of identity, then one bad hit or bad play will bring that world and identity down. With care, football can offer an avenue to express God-given gifts and achieve building blocks for life-long success. This can only happen if a young person is given the chance to place their identity into something that offers the infinite. In a world that is often unforgiving, the Gospel gives chance after chance after chance to be forgiven.

Why I Can’t Leave Social Media

What is the current status of your relationship with social media tools? I’m guessing it’s complicated. Let’s face it. It has been a rough couple of years for our online communities. Ideological differences, a heated US presidential election, the spread of fake news, more aggressive cyber bullying, more relatives joining networks making it less cool, and on and on and on. Creating lists of reasons to unplug probably takes most of us mere seconds. Many of you may have even done a Google or two to find a pastor or digital mentor to tell you it’s healthier or more spiritual to walk away. Forgive me, but I just can’t do that.

Who are the most vulnerable people in your life? Who is the person or people in your life that are particularly susceptible to any of the most horrific forms of online abuse. Now imagine your social network is a party. Your loved one walks through the door and moves through the party looking for community. Think about who might be in this room. In a shouting match over by the chip bowl are your conservative uncle and liberal cousin having it out in all caps. Behind your loved one in the bathroom line is that weird guy from the neighborhood who just keeps repeating, “I like the way you look in that outfit.” Leaning against the far wall someone stands, not really participating in the party, but just yelling racial slurs and jokes about people with disabilities. Are you ready to leave your loved one at this party?

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“I couldn’t have done this without social media. The world would not have known,” says 20-year-old Libyan cyber activist Danya Bashir. “We are blessed with the social media,” says blogger and women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif. “The power of women is in their stories. They are not theories, they are real lives that, thanks to social networks, we are able to share and exchange,” said Egyptian-American activist Mona el-Tahawey, kicking off a summit that brought more than a hundred of the Middle East’s leading female activists together in Cairo. For millions of the world’s most vulnerable citizens, the social media party is their greatest or only life line, their only platform.

What a privilege it is for me to even have the option of leaving the party. What a privilege it is for me to sit back and say I’ve got too many platforms, too many places for my voice to be heard. Social media tools offer incredible power and the cat is so far out of the bag at this point only a worldwide ban on electricity could shut them down. If we’re serious about caring for and being a blessing to the world around us, we might need to reconsider unplugging and reorient our beliefs and usage of the apps on our devices.

Do you believe that there is an original, created good imbedded in our social media tools? Why were they originally created? Imagine the whole world connected. Sharing information and resources and forming relationships across oceans and continents. The image bearers of God no longer limited by obstacles of distance and time. This good potential is still in there. The next time you start a post with, “Social media tools have made me…,” I invite you to rearrange that sentence.

Humans have been passing the blame since day one. Adam pleads with God in Genesis 3, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Oh, Adam, honey. You just blamed Eve and God for your original sin. When it comes to social media tools are we blaming the cart for the way the donkey is pulling it? We have always been bad at communicating with other humans. We have always compared ourselves to others. We have always and will always hurt each other with our words. Tell me if this describes you or someone on your timeline:

1 An unfriendly person pursues selfish ends

and against all sound judgment starts quarrels.

2 Fools find no pleasure in understanding

but delight in airing their own opinions…

13 To answer before listening—

that is folly and shame.”

Did the author of Proverbs 18 just describe an internet troll? Well they also include a stern warning later on. “21 The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” If the words of our tongue are words of death that is the fruit we’ll be eating. Anyone need some Tums? Before your acid reflux gets the best of you, don’t miss the hope in that warning. Yes, we can spout words of death…but we can also author words of life. Look back in Proverbs 12, “18 There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” How can we create spaces online that breed words of life and have the power to bring healing?

The best place to start is in prayer. Pray for forgiveness for the words of death you’ve typed or ignored. Pray for protection against the pitfalls our sinful hearts fall into like comparison traps, pornography, and bullies. Pray for a heart that desires loving your enemies, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless, and that is ready to build online communities that are a healthy platform for the least, the lonely, and the lost. We are all works-in-progress so as you’re continuing to pray for these things also pray for the Spirit to grant you wisdom. Here is a beautiful entry from the Book of Common Prayer that I find relevant. It is a plea for those who influence public opinion.

“Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

There are two players in this game, the users and the tools. Now that we understand a little more about the user, let’s talk about the tools. In my research on building relationships online (I wrote my thesis on the Twitter marketing of World Wrestling Entertainment), I found that academia refers to social media tools as “technology mediated communication.” This title is fairly self-explanatory. The normal communication model consists of a sender, a message, a receiver, and feedback. This exchange is hindered by what we call noise. Noise influences how the message is received. In online communication, there is incredible noise. It’s harder to read non-verbal cues like tone and body language and online tools rarely ever exists in a vacuum. They’re surrounded by tons of visual and audible content.

It is harder to communicate online. Social media tools are often where nuance goes to die. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I would argue we have two common responses when communicating online gets tough; retreat completely or make our online communication one-way (i.e. self-centered). Sometimes it’s a mix of both. In the younger generation, there is a skew towards using Instagram as the primary tool. I get it. Parents and other relatives have made Facebook super lame. They check up on you, constantly post nonsense, and barely know how to use it. It makes sense to retreat to the least interactive, most self-centered medium. Even with current updates, Instagram culture remains one of the most one sided forms of social media.

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We have taken tools meant to increase participation in the world and made them into soap boxes for projecting ourselves. Are you projecting or participating? What is your selfie ratio? Do you post selfies more than other-peopleies? Do you tag people or do you subtweet (talking about a person without tagging them)? Do you use hashtags, the best way for online tools to gather communities and organize content? Do you take more nuanced conversations off-line to really listen or do you spend your time wording your rebuttal?

I have seen vulnerable people come to life in our physical community because of the space created in our online community. I’ve been able to join in the trenches of painful situations with people outside of my geographical or cultural reach. I’ve been impacted by the stories of people who are drastically different from me. We have been given tools that allow us to record what God is up to in the world. Through this online collection of the stories of myself and my community, we are co-authoring our digital testimony across statuses, pictures, snaps, and tweets. If Jesus is Lord over every square inch of creation then that includes every inch of the endless online void. Invite God into your online spaces, create profiles that aren’t just about you, and stay at the party. We need you.

Men and women can’t be friends

“You realize of course that we could never be friends,” Harry says to Sally, slyly sneaking this disclaimer in to open the conversation of how sex always gets in the way of friendship. Possibly, he was just trying to work sex into the conversation any way he could. It is 1989, and Billy Crystal sits in Meg Ryan’s passenger seat painting a picture of gender relations past, present, future in the film When Harry Met Sally. It is a statement that, at the time, was describing gender relations in a post-sexual revolution era, but it also predicted how men and women would relate today in our world of app-based community and romance. Harry expresses his worldview in this context of two flirty college students, and it is charmingly funny, but when we look at where our churches are in the department of gender relations, it is nothing to smile about.

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As the millennial generation continues to put off getting married, we feel a larger and longer relational gap. To fill this void, many turn to positive, healthy friendships for belonging and community. Many more, though, participate in hook-up culture and online dating, where people of the opposite sex are commoditized. What is then created is an environment where relationships are defined by sex and isolation is created by the void of loving friendships.

The church might be feeling the fallout of this trend most. Recent research shows that because of this, women are making their exit. According to Barna Group, since 2003 the percentage of churchgoers that are female has dropped 12 points, and it is not because more men are coming in. Coupled with this, Barna also reports that only 17% of women feel like they are “very emotionally supported” in their church or synagogue.

I wonder if we trying at all to create environments where marriage isn’t the only priority in male-female relationships? But here we are, and I think our churches could be spaces where our current generation, which is relying heavily on friendship as their main source of affection and support, should find what they are looking for. This is not a quick and easy task. Even though community is a major priority in the church, our inability to form friendships between men and women can leave us like Ricky Bobby in his first interview, scrambling to figure out what to do with his hands. If something doesn’t change soon, if we do not find a way to encourage friendship among singles, thereby offering women the support they need, we could lose an essential component to representing the image of God in our places of worship.

Men and Women Need to Communicate

Sadly, our culture doesn’t stress communication and friendship between men and women. Sex and romance are the current language of male-female relationships. The current state of interpersonal communication is frightening. Reading through Parks & Recreation star Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance makes talking to the opposite sex seem like a myth, a rarely sighted animal that culturally never shows its face. Look at the narrative both men and women have been presented in popular movies and TV. Men are always the heroes, flying, swinging, or smashing in to save the day. This is true for the latest Marvel films, anyhow. The most recognized and powerful Marvel female leads, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster, weren’t even invited to the party in the latest installment of the Avengers franchise. Why would they come anyway? In a bloated, male-driven superhero movie they more than likely would have served as little more than scenery. They are excluded unless the narrative calls for romance.

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Looking for a positive narrative for women, let’s investigate Disney’s Frozen. In a lot of ways, the film has become a beacon of hope in the normal princess narrative because it is a female-driven story about sisterly love and triumphing over the societal pressure for women to hide who they are. Nevertheless, you won’t find positive inter-gender friendship-building in this most recent Disney flagship. It is reasonable that Anna lacks the skills to make friendships. Being locked in a kingdom her entire life could do that. But when she emerges from her isolated world, she falls for the very first man who catches her attention. Here is the problem with the majority of our princess narratives: The action begins when the man arrives and ends with the happily-ever-after wedding. There always has to be a love interest, right? Even the resourceful Tiana from Princess and the Frog and the courageous Mulan from Mulan have narratives revolving around a love interest. What made these women who they are? It wasn’t the men. Just once, wouldn’t it be nice if Kristoff and Anna stayed friends or Tiana opened her dream restaurant without being betrothed to Prince Naveen?

If we look at the narrative of Jesus’ life, though, we find that He didn’t think it necessary to have a love interest in order to have women around. Luke 8 tells a little bit of the account:

Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”

These women were diverse, faithful, and incredible. Perhaps what stands out at first glance is how they financially supported Jesus’ ministry. They were dedicated to the cause as well as the cross. They followed Jesus all the way to the end and beyond and no wonder! Look at Mary Magdalene. Think about the absolute torture her life consisted of before meeting Jesus. What a story she has to tell. Our author, Luke, is a great example for our churches to follow. His first few lines tell you how he was a meticulous recorder of the history of Jesus. Many believe as he was on his travels alongside Paul, gathering information for a complete record of this story, he collected manuscripts and conducted interviews, interviews in which the women in Jesus’s life and ministry were not left out. In fact, it is likely that he even interviewed Mary, mother of Jesus. Can you imagine that conversation? Luke hearing firsthand Mary’s incredible story of being visited by an angel and life never being the same again. Our biblical authors didn’t pass these women up, and it means our churches shouldn’t either.

Today, we have our first female NFL coach, the first female graduates of Army Ranger school, a U.S. women’s World Cup title, a female mayor bringing gangs to peace in Compton, and on and on and on. These are opportunities and contributions that we do not see in male-dominated cultures around the world. Where women are oppressed, the culture suffers.

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Why then does it seem that the church is still behind in this area? Can you imagine what stories the church is missing by not communicating well to the women in our midst? Jesus didn’t have women there alongside Him by accident; He thought it was necessary, and we’ve got to move beyond the romance narrative and have real conversations. Men and women need to seek each other out, talk face to face, and learn to ask good questions. You’d be surprised how infrequently women are asked, “What do you think about that?” Does the way we communicate with women in church communicate their value? Based on the Barna stats, it doesn’t sound like it. Our churches need to seek out women’s stories, talents, and opinions because they have great value.

Men and Women Need Borders Not Boundaries

Men and women in the church need to have more conversations and interactions if they are to lean on each other as friends. This is normally the point in the conversation when we talk about building up walls. Stories of professional athletes and pastors never going to lunch with women or riding in cars or elevators alone with them creates a sense of fear and confusion. Well get your trumpets ready, people, because we are walking around those walls and bringing them down.

For decades, male leaders in the church have lived by what is affectionately called, “The Billy Graham Rule.” It is said that the famous preacher and evangelist Billy Graham had a “rule” for his interactions with women. He would never be alone with a woman who was not his wife–not in a car, an elevator, or a meal. His thinking is that this is the best way to guard his marriage and his ministry. The fear is both internal and external. It is internal because it squashes a situation where temptation will abound. It is external because even the idea that a leader might be out alone with a woman could cause rumor, suspicion, or false accusations. This could be a valid fear for a church leader. But with one quick Bible app search, you’ll read what Jesus thinks about fear. Where is our trust in our sovereign Lord if fear is this severe in our churches? Also, what if these rigid boundaries are causing more harm than good?

In a recent article for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog, Dr. Halee Gray Scott tells some of the horrors of creating strict boundaries in gender relations:

“As a researcher who focuses on female Christian leaders, I hear it over and over. The first female vice president of a Christian organization confessed she missed out on opportunities to advance her projects because the president made business decisions over lunch, and he promised his wife he wouldn’t eat lunch alone with women. It was enough to make her want to quit.”

Yes, it can cause a myriad of problems to be alone with someone of the opposite sex, but strict boundaries can shut people out of important, valuable ministry. Instead of creating giant walls in our relationships, what if we created helpful borders that can be moved and crossed when appropriate? We’ve got to find a balance and that may involve balancing our intentions. 

Men and Women Need the “Friend Zone”

Oh, the “friend zone,” a term so dreaded in our society that it spawned a Ryan Reynolds romantic comedy, Just Friends. But what if the friend zone is exactly what we need in our churches?

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The friend zone begins with creating flexible borders, not steel-reinforced boundaries. For example, let’s say we are never going to hug anyone of the opposite sex in our church. After all, physical touch alludes to romantic affection (and not everyone even likes being hugged). But is this the model Jesus presented to us? Jesus touched. Jesus hugged. Jesus embraced people of all walks of life. It is true that hugs can become inappropriate, but they can also be incredibly appropriate. One way to navigate this is to always ask if it’s ok to hug someone. This can be awkward and difficult, but abandoning all physical contact creates a world much like a 7th grade dance floor, with each gender on the opposite side clinging to the wall for dear life. The church is about unity not division. There is no exact science or standard you can set because everyone has different needs and feelings about things like physical touch, spending time alone with someone, and frequency of communication. We need to work through these spheres with individuals to create a space where people are heard and friendships can flourish. As with anything that isn’t clear cut, mistakes are bound to be made but our churches and our friend zones need to have grace and forgiveness built in.

It may also be necessary to redefine why we are in the church. The church should not be defined by the romance narrative of the culture. Can anyone point me to the scripture reference where it says that the church is there for you to find your mate? The church is God’s invention to equip His people and bless the world, to restore shalom to all areas of life. Finding your future spouse may be a result but it’s not the main idea. Let’s say God has called you to be married. How many people are you going to marry? So then, what happens with all of the other opposite gender relationships in your life? If you are currently married, making your spouse your only friend is a surefire way to put crippling pressure on them to be your only source for support. The God of the Bible is a God of community, and friendship is a gift God has given us.

When marriage becomes your main target for bonding with people of the opposite sex, then it’s difficult to build relationships, even friendships, that aren’t defined by sex in some way. This is exactly what Harry was talking about.

“This myth, then—the belief that sex wholly explains the depths of our most profound relationships—has led many of us in recent decades to feel suspicious of, uncertain about, and at times even ashamed of deep friendships and has hindered our search for closer and more fulfilling ones,” says Dr. Wesley Hill, a leading voice in the spiritual friendship movement. Creating the friend zone involves both genders meeting in that space with the motive to hear each other’s stories, provide love and support, and build a vibrant, diverse church community.

Men and Women Need Each Other

Creating churches where genders are constantly divided is an effective mode of making people lonely and isolated. Do you remember the book Men Are from Mars, Woman Are from Venus? However gimmicky the title may be, there is some truth to the idea that men and women are different. Sometimes it does feel like we might as well be from different planets, but we both come from the same image. We carry the image of God together as the human race, and we need each other to show that image to the world and to the people in our church.

In my role as a campus minister, I get to meet and work with too many women who come from a background where they never had a healthy relationship with their father and have never been shown love and respect in a dating relationship. In fact, many come to college having been used and degraded in almost every relationship in their lives. What if a woman like that comes into a church environment where she is treated like something to fear? What if she is treated only as the romantic interest of a greater narrative? She will never experience the image of a Father who will never use and abuse her. She will never experience the image of a brother who has her back. She may never have the space to build relationships that speak the Gospel into her life.

When creating our friend zone, we must be looking and thinking about people as friends first. It means our first thoughts about these people are how we can love and serve them and wondering how they will positively contribute to the Body of Christ. It means recognizing gifts and hearing stories. It means bringing our true selves into our churches and sharing that with others by communicating openly and honestly. We’ve got to navigate these waters with the intent to be Kingdom builders, to welcome people of any gender into our houses of worship to meet our servant King. It’s time for our churches to step up and prove Harry wrong. Men and women can be friends, and if we are going to help our churches flourish and truly reflect the image of God we, in fact, are called to be friends.

This article originally appeared in Christ & Pop Culture Magazine. (Edit 2017)

Do I want to be segregated?

I walked around the corner and lit up in a display case in front of me was a mannequin adorned in the signature garb of the KKK. I shouldn’t have been caught off guard, this was a Civil Rights museum in Birmingham after all, but I was. This figure, for me, has been mostly confined to images in a documentary or movie or maybe embedded in an online article. Here it was, though, staring right at me. I was shook, taken aback, and, honestly, afraid.

klan-robe

What did I have to fear from this infamous white cloak and pointed head covering? Why was I so unsettled? It might be that, under normal circumstances, there is great distance, a distance of medium and time, between me and this image. This silky, fabric covered face isn’t the face of white nationalism any longer. Have you seen comedian W. Kamau Bell’s docuseries United Shades of America? He’s interviewed hipsters in Portland, off-the-grid doomsday preppers in the wilderness and more, but in the one of the first episodes he spent time with folks involved in modern incarnations of the KKK.

kamaubell

I was surprised to see how the Klan was still alive and operating. I was also terrified by the new ways it was communicating its message. What once was (and maybe still is) an organization defined by violence and oppression was now trying to say its main goal is to just be left alone. As Bell questioned the motives of the Klan members they swore this was a new Klan, a Klan that isn’t interested in violence but only in segregation. Isn’t it more comfortable to be with people like you, they argue? While I’m not ready to give the Klan or any other white nationalist groups the benefit of the doubt on anything, I wonder, if this is their only desire (which I would argue it is not), is it an appealing one? I wonder if any one of us searched our heart could we really say no to that question? Isn’t it more comfortable to be with people like you?

What could be troubling about shows like United Shades and Charles Barkley’s new American Race is that they might be giving a platform to groups like the Klan or white nationalist leader Richard Spencer. Some would say that by interviewing people like Spencer, these shows are only amplifying his message without exposing the white nationalist worldview as one built on a foundation of hate. Isn’t this the twisted, evil brilliance of the new narrative they’re shelling out, though? Is it actually built on a foundation of something, perhaps born out of sin, that a lot of people feel?

Segregation

I’d like to think that I am a forward thinking person, that I’m not thrown off by people that are different from me. The truth is, however, that I am drawn to people like me and people like me are drawn to me. This is why I must cling to the Bible. If Bell and Barkley haven’t pushed back on this narrative enough, God most certainly has. Looking at Genesis 11 we see the story of a people second guessing God’s call for them to disperse and fill the earth in order to bless the entire world. Their fear closes them off to the possibility of diversity and they decide to fortify their settlement closing themselves off to God’s desire for them to help the world flourish.

“Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

However, God made man in his image. God’s image is so complex and multifaceted it takes a diverse world to fully reflect it. God breaks down their walls and creates new languages and cultures to give the world a more complete picture of who he is. This grand plan sees further fulfillment on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on God’s now diverse people and unifies them across cultures. Some religions are marked by exclusive language but not Christianity. Whether Christians have been good and upholding it or not, the message of the Bible is that it includes people of all races, genders, and classes. “It is not sacrilegious to translate the Bible into any other language, it’s sacrilegious not to do so,” says Rev. Ethan Magness of Grace Anglican Church.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ fueled by the Holy Spirit is capable of celebrating unique cultures while unifying them to the purpose of blessing, and bringing flourishing to, the entire world. I wonder what would happen if you examined the way you relate to the people around you? What systems have you established around yourself? For me, it’s easier to spend time with me, to get to know me, or to communicate with me at all if you are into the things I’m into, if you live in the place I live, or if you hang out in the places I hang out. How close am I to having my tower of Babel torn down?

Babel

God calls his people to push back on the sinful instinct to shield ourselves from diversity. God calls us not into segregated, comfortable pockets, but into spaces where common ground can be found. Places where his love, mercy, and grace are given avenues to speak cross-culturally. God created diversity as an invitation to know him more completely. Through Kingdom-driven diversity we can gain a clearer resolution of the image of God.

I am thankful for my church. Although it’s not perfect, and no church is, there has been a Spirit-driven, conscious decision to create systems that embrace diversity. Our building, artwork, worship services, teaching, staff, and programming are designed to spread the Gospel cross-culturally. We seek to reflect the diversity of the Kingdom at every level and immerse ourselves in the stories of others.

I would extend this to our larger community as well. I have a friend who, together with his wife, have experienced missions work in around 10 different countries. I asked if either of them had experienced the Spirit helping break down cultural barriers and what encouragement they might offer. They answered that building relationships across cultural, religious, and language barriers is draining and hard, but that the Holy Spirit gives them strength to have the next conversation. To truly show someone the love of Christ, it might take “a thousand cups of tea,” they said. The Spirit is present in the every day process of building a relationship.

coffee conversation

Beauty is found as we strive for the remarkable vision God is leading us towards, a vision of people from every tribe, every nation, and every tongue enjoying the presence of God and living unified in a Kingdom fully restored where God will wipe away every tear and where death will be no more. This is the narrative I want my life to be defined by. The alternative, disguised by comfort, will actually rip our world apart at the seams. I shouldn’t be taken off guard by the sins of the Klan when the seeds of a similar sin reside in my heart. My prayer is to be as shocked by my desire to be comfortable as I was by the hooded figure in that museum.