A Father’s Day Psalm of Lament

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Let’s face it, for so many, Father’s Day can be a painful reminder of the worst moments of our lives. For some it is a reminder of what they’ve lost. For others it can be a reminder of what they never had. While still more have only been given abuse and violence from their fathers. Father remains as a loaded, painful word but one that God chooses to call himself. How do we reconcile that? The authors of the Biblical psalms processed heavy, complicated emotions through their poetry. What follows is an attempt to process Father’s Day through the form of a modern day psalm of lament.

Expect a parallel and thematic structure of a psalm without the poetic verse structure of a PhD in Literature. It begins with the question of how a God that is supposed to be all good and all powerful can ask us to call him a word that to so many means loss, evil, and pain. It ends with a reminder that the only thing that defeats death is life and even if our fathers never gave us anything good we have the opportunity to bring goodness to the world. Even in the darkest family situations, hope can survive in the next generation. We have been adopted as children of God. Given absolute love and compassion by the creator of all things. In light of the gospel, my hope is that the connotation of that word can be transformed.

Oh Lord, how can I possibly call you father

when all that word does is remind me of loss?

You are the Father of Fathers but

when I hear that word I think of the day mine left.

How can I feel close to you remembering what I’ve lost

feeling again and again that day when he died?

It seemed on that day as if separation was king

dealing decrees of disease and death into my life.

My father was a good, good man

so how could you let him die?

You claim to be a good, good God

but now that word, “father”, means death.

Still others have lost more than me

never having a moment with their fathers worth grieving.

I can’t imagine what that word brings to mind

for those who never had someone to fill it’s image.

Even worse I can’t imagine what that word feels like

for those who had a father that only made them feel pain.

Our hearts ache 

for those for whom that word means verbal, violent, violating abuse.

This cannot be the way things are supposed to be.

What then?

If there is a good connotation of that word

what is it?

Lord you are patient and kind and loving,

is that what “father” is?

You are gentle and gracious and powerful,

is that what my father left behind?

You, oh Lord, are the father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,

and, at times, they were not faithful.

Your people, Lord, again and again and again

create space for sin to remain in the world.

Yet the hope of Abraham was Isaac

and the hope of Isaac was Jacob.

The death and decay of sin that defines our fathers’ day

gives way to new hope always present in new generations.

Our father’s cycles and chains

can always be broken.

While death has struck it’s only blow

I still live and will live.

Not only that but those words that “father” should mean

love, patience, kindness still live.

It is because of who my father was that in me

gentleness, graciousness, and power still live.

I live therefore my father lives

because I am my father’s greatest hope.

In the same way our Heavenly Father is proved good

because he gave the world his Son.

Death, decay, violence, and violation

do not get to have the last word.

We were born of our fathers

to ensure that what struck them sees no victory.

Death will always win

if we do not give life.

Hope will always end with us

unless we pass it on.

Even if to me that word is marked by death

it is also marked by love.

While for so many of us that word carries a sting

by its nature it also carries new life.

Lord I can say you are good

because death is not the end.

Lord I can call you father

because I am your child.

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Me and my dad.

Why I’m #TeamIronMan

In my most honorable hopes and dreams, on the political, ideological battlefield of Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, I am #TeamCap all the way. Captain America is super strong, super genuine, super honest, super filled with integrity, and super human. He is everything I want to be. Tony Stark (Iron Man) on the other hand, he is flawed, riddled with guilt and shame, and guided by fear and arrogance. So if I’m being honest with myself, in my true/human heart, I am #TeamIronMan.

Civil War Tony 8

If you haven’t seen Civil War yet and plan to this is the time to turn away, read my spoiler-free piece on grace and #TeamCap, and come back after. Because to talk about Tony’s flawed, human heart we have to go to Spoilertown. Yes, that was a *SPOILER ALERT*. This is a *SPOILER REVIEW*. Run away now if you don’t want *SPOILED*.

There are interesting parallels to the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the story they have built for the man that started it all, Tony Stark. It was all kind of an accident. Marvel took a B-level hero and by creating a fun story with a perfectly cast lead, launched a blockbuster-making machine. In the first Iron Man film, through a series of coincidences including Tony’s imprisonment by terrorists, his will to survive transforms him into a hero. This launched the Earth into a hero-assembling machine and began to bring bigger and bigger threats to humanity’s doorstep. Thus the trajectories of Iron Man and Captain America begin on their inevitable collision course.

Civil War Tony 1

In the MCU, Captain America is an American soldier who fights throughout WWII. He’s been to basic training, he is willing to give up his life for his fellow soldiers and relies on them to feel the same way. Not only that but he is eventually frozen only to wake up 70 years in the future when everyone whom he loved was dead or dying. This leaves Cap’s world with only fellow soldiers…only people he keeps at arm’s length because he knows the cost of war. Cap’s world view is that of sacrificial servanthood. A servanthood he lives into as a superhuman with the powers to take on any threat with very little limitations.

Then there is Iron Man. Tony Stark grew up in privilege. He is a scientist, inventor, builder, businessman…not a soldier. The MCU takes place in his current life time that features a humanity that Tony increasingly cares for because he is a part of it. Throughout the first two Iron Man films he is strong, battle-tested, and has few limitations, but something happened through the course of The Avengers and Iron Man 3. The universe got bigger as did the threats to humanity. The Earth got smaller as did Tony Stark.

Civil War Tony 2

Once Tony, who was fighting alongside a Norse God at the time, took a look through an intergalactic worm hole and saw one of the endless powerful threats on the other side, desperation set in. It was no longer enough to be a regular human in a suit of armor.

The world, the people he loves (primarily Pepper Potts), and Tony himself are vulnerable. In Tony’s mind we need thicker armor and better weapons. This mindset leads to the creation of Ultron, the A.I. baddie in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which then leads to massive casualties. This then enslaves Tony by his guilt, shame, fear, and doubt.

For Cap, any loss incurred during war is expected. Mostly because he signed up to die if necessary and has the powers to make sure, under most circumstances, that won’t happen. For Tony, any loss experienced is devastating because the threats are now big enough that at any moment his armor could fail and the loss could be him or, worse, Pepper. In his deepest fears, he expects no loss at all.

Cap isn’t a mindless, emotionless drone, but because he sees the world and war in this way he fights with freedom from the fear of death. Tony fights under the constant fear of death, and because of that puts incredible pressure on himself to try to fix things. He creates more armor, and creates more weapons. Which, to this point, has only created more death. There is a telling scene in Iron Man 3 when Tony is attacked at his home and dons his armor only to fall into the ocean in his heavy metal suit as his house crumbles on top of him. Under water, confined in his suit, with concrete raining down on him. This is a situation he incited, locked in his own creation…is suffocating.

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Cap has witnessed his entire life fade away into the past. Governments and agencies have fallen or changed, and all of his friends and family have passed. He lives knowing death is inevitable. Tony thinks he is stronger than death and therefore it is his responsibility to save everyone else from it. We see him struggle with this to the point of panic attacks in Iron Man 3 and we see him fall even deeper through the course of Civil War. His quest to save everything has driven Pepper, the one he ultimately was trying to protect, away. He is confronted by the mother of a causality from the Ultron incident that causes him to make a deal with the government which drives away half of the Avengers.

Then the Civil War story ends with Tony being confronted one last time with the limitations of his humanity. He thinks he is stronger/smarter than death. He thinks that he can save everyone, but the moment in his past where he truly interacted with the death of his loved ones, there was nothing he could do. When his parents died back in 1991, it was an act of this war the Avengers are still fighting. They died at the hands of The Winter Soldier a.ka. Bucky a.k.a. Cap’s best friend. In the concluding sequences of Civil War, Tony watches the footage of Bucky, another superhuman, murdering his parents. In that moment, all of the guilt, all of the shame, all of the fear, all of the doubt, all of the human limitations are lighting a fire that makes his blood boil for vengeance.

Civil War Tony 3

I think about the apostles of Jesus. Jesus told them of a kingdom to come, a kingdom defined by everlasting life in the freedom of a sinless world. Then, to their horror, Jesus is arrested, beaten, and violently murdered for the world to see. They had believed that Jesus was God. They had believed that they would live in freedom. They watched Jesus heal the terminally ill and raise the dead. On Good Friday, they were left with all of the same emotions Tony had watching his parents die. That is guilt and shame that they couldn’t save Jesus from death. Also, fear and doubt that they also won’t be saved from a similar fate. In those dreadful days, their lives were defined/confined by death’s sting.

But then, on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. In that moment, the disciples were released from that guilt and shame, their fear and doubt began to dissolve. Knowing that death was out of their control, they were free. Now that death was conquered by Jesus, their lives were defined by eternal life. Tony sees that death is outside of his power and so he seeks to take control of it one last time in the form of revenge against Bucky. He tries to control death by taking it in his own hands. The end of Civil War isn’t a happy one, but I hope that in the next chapter Tony begins to see the error of his ways. This is a hope that I have for myself because I often live under the chains of guilt, shame, fear, and doubt.

Civil War Tony 6

It’s also a change of heart vocalized by Black Panther. Talking to the film’s true villain, a man who lost everything in the Ultron incident and is now fueled by revenge, Panther says, “Vengeance has consumed you. It is consuming them. I’m done letting it consume me.” Maybe in time Tony will see that he cannot control death, but that he can live a life for others without the fear of dying. Maybe in time I’ll see that too if I remind myself of Paul’s words in Galatians 5:1…

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Nahum: When The Man is keeping you down

The Minor Prophets are for hipsters. You know, the more obscure books that you probably haven’t heard of. Not like Isaiah and Jeremiah which are so mainstream. Well for the next six weeks I’m challenging myself and my adult Sunday school class at Graystone EPC to read and discuss several of the Minor Prophets. These are books that many of us have never read in their entirety and that receive little teaching time. If you’re interested in joining us or want to read/reread some biblical books this summer (I personally recommend listening to it read aloud on a Bible app), I’ll be sharing simplified summaries of historical context and some thoughts and questions on how these books can offer us conviction and insight today.

Let’s start with Nahum! This prophet is one of three prophets (joined by Jonah and Obadiah) who address their discourse to Gentile nations rather than the Israelites. Nahum is writing in Judah (the southern kingdom, retaining the capitol Jerusalem and the Temple) to Nineveh, the Assyrian capitol, around 663BC. The northern kingdom (they claimed the name Israel) went off the rails first and as a result of their rampant and prolonged idolatry, fell to Assyria in 722BC. The Assyrians were the world power at the time and were oppressing their vassal nations for their resources and workforces. Jonah had been reluctantly sent about 100 years prior and the people repented at that time, but they gradually fell away from following God.

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As Nahum is writing Judah has been living in the shadow of Assyria for nearly 60 years and the Assyrians are stronger than ever. Nineveh would not fall to Babylon until 612BC when they were utterly wiped out. Meanwhile, Assyria is at the height of their empire, and had put down Hezekiah’s rebellion about 40 years earlier. Then comes this upstart prophet, speaking in a form of war poetry against a city of violence, greed and lust. They seem unstoppable, making Nahum’s prophecy seem preposterous and impossible. Judah is a vassal kingdom paying heavy tribute to Assyria so it sounds like very good news to an oppressed people, even if it feels far-fetched.

(For the record, archaeological study has supported Nahum’s prophecy with remarkable accuracy.)

Take 10-15 minutes to read through Joel. For additional context and themes, check out the Bible Project’s animated commentary

As you read through this short book, consider these application questions:

God gave this people an opportunity to escape judgment and receive His mercy through Jonah’s preaching. The people responded positively at the time but it clearly didn’t stick. What would have contributed to Nineveh forgetting?

When we think about global powers today, in many ways the US is the dominant “empire” that has the most resources and infrastructure. If we’re the world super power, how are we stewarding that? Who are our “vassal kingdoms” that we benefit from, and who we risk exploiting? Where do we need to repent?

What would it be like to read this as an oppressed people group? How might this bring comfort to oppressed and terrorized Christians around the world?

When we consider the timeline, it took 50 years before Nahum’s prophecy would come to pass. When do you find it hard to wait for God to act and intercede in the injustices in the world? How might this book give you hope and patience?

Other Minor Prophets study guides (in chronological order):

Habakkuk: This Country is Going Down the Tubes

Haggai: Life in the Ruins

Joel: The Bible’s horror poetry

Anything but Conventional

I was on an emotional rollercoaster. This weekend the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh elected a new bishop at a Special Convention and I was front and center. It has been nearly 20 years since we have needed to hold an election, and we’d never done it as an Anglican Diocese. Our motto since we first found out five months ago that we would be holding the election was, “Prayer, not politics. Discernment, not a search.” Our goal was not to make this about angling and popularity, but to keep God’s wisdom and guidance at the forefront each step of the way. And incredibly, that’s what actually happened.

Friday night before statements and Q&A from the six nominees we prayed over them and asked the Lord to give us open minds and hearts, to relinquish preconceived notions or opinions and to hear from the Spirit as they each spoke. Each of them did a wonderful job. It takes a great deal of vulnerability to consider being a leader. You and your family have to commit much thought and prayer to that potential transition, and you have to make yourself open to other people in sharing about your experiences and vision for the future. You put yourself on the line in a unique and public way that takes courage and a willingness to make yourself available to Christ’s leading. I was so impressed by the way that each of the nominees opened themselves up to the Diocese and to the Spirit’s movement. It was evident that it was motivated by a desire to serve the Body of Christ, not self-promotion.

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Saturday morning before the Special Convention officially convened, we celebrated Communion together. It wasn’t just a formality because that’s what Anglicans are supposed to do, it was beginning the day with putting Christ on the throne. It was receiving Christ’s body and blood and as we all were reminded that we are One with Christ, seeking to be one with each other. I found myself praying as the whole Convention was taking Communion, “Jesus make us one Body in Your Body. Make us one as you and the Father are One.”

Then we cast the first round of ballots, and it was inconclusive. A strong consensus was not emerging right away. And so we continued in prayer, and worship through song, and reading scripture in between each round of ballots. We engaged in this process for several hours and for several ballots. At one point we paused all together to spend time in prayer over rising violence in the Horn of Africa and for church leaders in the region. Each time a ballot would come back split, people did not get angry or start berating each other to get on board with their personal choice. There was an incredible spirit of openness and sensitivity to the Spirit in the room. It was truly the Body of Christ seeking the Lord together, being willing to make a huge decision based on the Lord’s leading.

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Multiple candidates withdrew as the balloting continued. Each time this occurred, they were received with a standing ovation. There was no sense that they had failed or were incapable. Their withdrawals were deeply selfless and marked by a desire to respond to God’s will and to prevent confusion or conflict. And the standing ovations were expressions of sincere gratitude for their time and investment, an affirmation that their role mattered greatly in getting closer to discerning the person God was calling. This was one of the most moving aspects of the election for me. Watching highly capable and gifted men choose to humbly serve the Church with their willingness to lead, and their willingness to hear from God that this was not the leadership role for them at this time. Each of them made decisions based on what was best for God’s people in Pittsburgh, not based on their own striving or ambition.

When the consensus was reached it was wonderfully clear that this was the person God was calling to be bishop. As all of us participated with the Spirit throughout the process, Christ honored our openness with clarity around His chosen servant. While the long day was emotionally draining, I had a deep assurance that this was the Lord’s choosing and we were in step with God’s will. It was one of the more profound experiences I have shared with the Body of Christ. A process marked by prayer and comprehensive discernment, civility, listening, and a consideration for the good of all. I am thankful to serve with people who seek the Lord so diligently. I was part of something beautiful and I was changed.

Porn vs. The Covenant

Sex is awesome. There, I said it. Sex was created by God as a part of the grand plan of the flourishing of creation. It doesn’t take very long for the topic to be broached in the Bible. God tells his people to get busy early and often, but aside from being fruitful and multiplying, sex has tremendous personal and spiritual significance.

God Loves Sex

It was difficult to choose pictures for this post so I’ll just post books about the topic!

Because of this, God created a covenantal relationship within which sex can be explored, appreciated, and realized in profound spiritual ways. The flip side is that outside of that covenant, sex continues to have that powerful significance. So when I say sex is awesome, I mean it. It is something to be in awe of, to have a reverence for, a respect for.

Paul’s letter in 1 Corinthians is littered with helpful discussion around sexuality aimed to help the people of Corinth see the significance of sex. This is not so much a finger wagging list of do’s and don’ts but rather instructions on how to take full advantage of this beautiful thing God created for us. “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body,” says 1 Corinthians 6:18. We can see that there is something powerful about sex. Later on, Paul even talks about not using sex as a tool of power and manipulation (1 Cor. 7). At its heart, sex isn’t designed as a commodity to be utilized but, as Tim Keller calls it, a ceremony of covenant renewal.

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Not a book just for the ladies!

This involves what we are called to in that pesky verse 21 that prefaces everyone’s favorite submission passages in Ephesians 5, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Both parties in this covenant submitting to each other and in that place powerful, spiritual, and beautiful things happen. The Bible often says that it is through this act of covenant renewal, this act of completely giving ourselves to another person, being completely in the service of another person that we “know” each other more fully and in that we can understand God in a new way. After all, God chooses to serve us similarly as an unconditional, gracious, loving servant.

How, then, does pornography interact with God’s desire for human sexuality? Well if you’re still with me after those first few paragraphs then pornography is an intense distortion of all of that, it is almost the exact opposite of the Biblical picture we get of sex. It takes something that is a gift from God and takes God completely out of the equation. Sex then becomes a commodity and those engaging in it are merely consumers not servants. There is not much mention of masturbation in the Bible outside of one really context-heavy passage starring a guy named Onan (Gen. 38). However, throughout the Bible we have this picture of covenant renewal and submission to another person. This simply cannot happen when you’re riding solo.

Solitaire

That is what is so dangerous about pornography. This form of sexual interaction is entirely self-focused and this has observable effects on the way men act in relation to women. Recently, on NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed author Peggy Orenstein whose book Girls & Sex talks about many current trends with female sexuality and sexuality in general but also the effects of pornography on our society. She says that statistically speaking when engaged in or seeking sexual interaction men are prone to be completely focused on themselves and in women the trend is reversed.

Fashion designer Jessica Rey also spoke about the current state of the male brain in her Q talk on the evolution of the swimsuit. Here she cites neurological studies that indicate that when men are in this mindset, when women are objectified and sex is a commodity, they view women as inanimate tools, a means to an end, and nothing more.

When we take sex in our own hands (pun intended), taking God out of the equation, we are prone to distort our view of sex and actually try to take God’s role as provider. Anytime we think we are on the level with God we are vulnerable to the ugly side of arrogance and entitlement. In a world in which we are the providers of our own sexual relationships, we set expectations where we are entitled to sex and when we don’t get what we are entitled to anger, violence, and harm are usually not far behind. Today we have more organizations than ever fighting against sexual violence yet statistics remain virtually the same and in some areas worse.

No More Eli

We see this all around us as these expectations and the commoditizing of sex leads to sex trafficking and high-risk sexual activity. According to Orenstein, the pressures placed on young women today lead to the spread of disease like gonorrhea, unwanted pregnancy, and depression. Pornography creates not just a distorted view of sexuality, but, for the many that interact with sex in this way, it also creates a distorted view of ourselves.

We live in a culture of instant self-gratification with extensive access to pornography and, according to Time magazine, this has negatively altered the way we experience sex. It is supposed to be awesome but, often times, in our hands sex becomes a weapon of mass destruction. God has an opinion on sex, it is found all over scripture, and it is emotional, beautiful, spiritual, fun, exciting, gratifying, and good. It can be very difficult in our lives to trust God to give us these things, but when we rely on God to provide the gift of sex to us we may begin to see it this way too.

Further reading:

The Porn Phenomenon – Barna Group

Fight the New Drug

Washed and Waiting – Wesley Hill

Welcome back to the Internet!

Hello social media faster! Welcome back to your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, and/or Wuphf! Now that you’re back, can we talk? I would have said something sooner…but I don’t have your number and while you were fasting I couldn’t DM you. See I heard you say a few things before you left to “get your Lent on” that concerned me. You said some nasty things about my friend, social media. So let’s clear the air and think about how you, me, and your apps can move past this. When you left you said that social media is a distraction, it’s a land of comparison and facades, it produces unhealthy communication, and is a toxic environment.

You thought you were talking about social media…but I think if we talk it through…you’re actually talking about yourself. You’re not talking about the medium, you’re talking about the way you interact with it. I’m worried that in giving up social media you thought you were ridding your life of those unhealthy behaviors. It might not be social media’s fault, but actually a product of your sinful heart. I’m using a lot of “you” statements here, so before you get really mad at me can I just say that in order to say this to you, I had to say it to myself first. I had to dive into the deep end of my own sin patterns and research social media’s created purpose. I took master’s courses in social media and even wrote my master’s thesis on how we use our social apps.

So this doesn’t come lightly, it comes with my own experience and my own heavy, convicted, and forgiven heart. It comes with a hope that you won’t come back from Lent with the same patterns repeating in your use of technology. It comes at the defense of my friend, social media, and my desire to redeem social networks to restore them to their good, created purpose. Let’s take a look at those things you said while looking into our hearts and dreaming about what your online community could be.

Connection

What were online social networks and the apps that manage them created for? Some may argue and lament over the possible created purpose of Snapchat, but in general why were most apps created? The internet made a lot of things possible and is arguably one of greatest technological advancements in the past century…maybe ever. It connects us all. Right now if you wanted to you could email, video chat, shop, create, game with someone on the literal opposite side of our planet.

Social Media

There are beautiful things that are happening right now in the world because of this connection. One of my favorites is the brain child of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This star of 500 Days of Summer and, more recently, The Walk is the host of an online artist community called “Hit Record.” Using this social network, he brings together artistic collaborators from all over the globe to create music, film, books, poetry, cartoons, etc. So a skilled storyteller from Istanbul can post a story then a gifted animator from Albuquerque, NM can animate it while a master musician from South Africa scores the final product. As this process unfolds, connection brings creativity to life.  Think about 1 Corinthians 12, the body of Christ explained. All of a sudden this body is larger, and more diverse than a pre-internet world could even imagine.

Disconnection

What went wrong, though? Evidence of the fallen, broken world we live in is written all over our newsfeeds. Those things you said before you left, I feel them too. Our social apps can be a doorway to unhealthy distraction and temptation, comparison and discontentment, and anger towards the people you love. This last one maybe particularly relevant during an election year. These elements of social networking breed shame, guilt, jealousy, rage, and whole slew of other emotions that you haven’t seen adorably personified by Pixar. But are they produced by the network or the networker? More importantly, why and how are they produced by the networker?

In my research at Point Park University, I investigated how World Wrestling Entertainment has successfully stayed ahead of the game when it comes to social media marketing techniques. What I concluded was that they sought to create connections not to just deliver information. They understand that social media tools were created for interaction not promotion by itself. This is something a lot of companies fail to understand. Some companies, celebrities, even churches use their social platforms as nothing more than an internet bulletin board. WWE uses social tools effectively because they aren’t just saying, “Like me,” “Buy this,” “Subscribe!” They are saying, “You matter, let’s talk.” They create interactions and then social bonds between their wrestlers and their audience. Taylor Swift could also teach a class on this subject.

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Taylor Swift wrapping gifts to send to some of her social media fans!

What if we all saw social networking this way? Aren’t we all prone to the same self-promotive pitfalls many companies fall into with their social tools? Narcissism is the enemy of building effective social network communities. When your posts and interactions are just about you…what you’re doing, who you are…what actions, events, behaviors others can give you affirmation for, then that’s not community at all. That’s not connection at all. Tools that were designed for conversation and community have become pedestals and soap boxes.

Community

The quest for healthy use of social media tools is the quest for healthy community. To help us on this journey let’s think about these tools in two ways. First, social media allows us to be the recorders of history and of how we are interacting with creation, our passions, and God. One of my favorite Biblical authors is Luke. On top of being a doctor, Luke was somewhat of a meticulous recorder of facts…he was kind of doing what journalism is supposed to be. Historians say he followed Paul on his journeys making sure every fact was verified and recorded. Check out his reasoning for writing his gospel:

1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” – Luke 1:1-4

If we think of our news feeds as a place where we can interact with and record life in this way, doesn’t that seem like a higher calling? Your tweets, posts, instas, and gifs can be signposts of the Lord at work. Whenever we click “share” it can be an opportunity to share the Gospel through our lives. Secondly, on top of seeing social networks as an arena for recording history, they can also be an arena to celebrate life. When we are interacting with each other’s lives sometimes it’s easy for things like arrogance, jealousy, and discontent to creep in, but if we see the realm of social media as a tool for celebration then we can be well on our way to combating those thoughts.

Celebrate the birth of a new child. Celebrate someone passing an exam or getting a new job. Celebrate someone’s love for funny cat videos. Celebrate popular culture. Celebrate conflicting ideas. Celebrate your offline community. Christ centered celebration of the lives of others can be incredibly life giving. If we take the joy out of our online communities, we may find ourselves losing the joy in our lives. “Like” with purpose. Believe the best in people that disagree with you. Write your happy birthdays not out of obligation but out of celebration. Follow trends to participate in the world. Add a few more people into your profile pic or selfies. Online community like any other kind of community works best when we look outside ourselves and focus on one another.

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Between the Snap and Me

What is the story behind your profile picture? That avatar is the door to who you are as a person in so many ways. It’s the image you have chosen to represent everything one might need to know about you…or what you want them to know about you. It accompanies every thought, share, or like that are the building blocks to your online persona. Often times this image is carefully crafted, a small point of control we can exercise in our lives.

But what happens when a friend takes that control out of your hands and tags you in a picture that was shot at an upward angle or doesn’t hide your muffin top or shows that O-Town t-shirt you only wear when you’re among your most trusted friends? Devastation. The scramble to untag can be ferocious and daunting. What if people saw it? What if the people whose opinions you care about the most saw those characteristics that send your lips into a gradual frown the more you look into the mirror? Image control is out the window.

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Recently, I was honored, blessed, convicted, scared, sad, angry, encouraged, discouraged, inspired by the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book “Between the World and Me.” In the book, Coates pulls his readers into his mind as he contemplates what control a black person in America has over their body. “I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”

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Coates writes from his experience protecting his body as it is surrounded by the dangers of racism in America in its many forms. When he comments on being afraid for his own body his story is haunting and, even further, when he talks about fearing for the body of his child, it’s terrifying. Many of the situations he described throughout his journey are physical threats, but today the range of racism has almost no bounds.

We saw this recently on the college campus where I serve. The scope of racism extends beyond the body and into the image. The danger isn’t just physical its digital. Think about the image that we all carry from the very beginning. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” All of us, together, male and female, black and white, all the nations, carry the image of God, the image of the creator of all things. That image is powerful. It’s beautiful. It’s unique among creation.

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Profile pics have given us some semblance of power over our image. On our campus, however, someone took that image of some of our students and cut deeply into it with words of death. A Snapchat was sent with a racial slur written over it. The victims of those words had no opportunity to filter the lighting, crop out what they didn’t want to show, or perhaps lobby for a reshoot if they blinked. Their image was stolen and marred for what I am guessing was supposed to be a harmless joke.

“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts…” If you can’t quite understand the damage, Proverbs 12 puts it into perspective. The blade of rash words is swift and severe. It only tears down, it fogs the image. In an act of fleeting communication that was supposed to disappear within the 10 second limit of a Snap, a group of Americans, college students, lost control over their image.

Still don’t understand why this incident was so harmful? After all, it was an innocent joke that was only for the eyes of the sender’s closest friends. Imagine someone changed your profile pic to the worst picture anyone ever took of you. We can see the hairs you usually wax off. We can see the dark circles under your eyes. We can see those rolls that you usually hide with vertical stripes. Now add to that equation the weight of centuries of oppression, misunderstanding, and hate.

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The library at Howard University where Coates spent hours and hours.

Every vulgar phrase those black students have ever heard in their lives was affirmed with that one that appeared on the Snap. And then it spread like a deadly bacteria going viral in their time lines, news feeds, group chats, and even the local news. The headlines of their minds read that they are less than human. That split second decision of the sender took their image, the image of God, the image of personhood away from them.

John Perkins once said of the work of racial reconciliation, “You don’t give people dignity. You affirm it.” That is what I want for all of the students on our college campus. For the image of their creator, their personhood, their dignity to be affirmed. So often this work begins by looking closer.

That is what is so beautiful about the work of artist E.J. Brown. Brown took images, images that have been imposed and stereotyped onto his fellow students of color, and reclaimed them. To get the full impact of these images you have to look closer. See the cap and gown the subjects are wearing. Read the degrees spelled out across their chests.

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In an instant, an image of a group of black students at our library during finals week was transformed into a deadly sword thrust. The other half of that verse in Proverbs 12 can teach us all about the power our words can have, a lesson I hope the Snap sender will receive through this. “But the tongue of the wise brings healing.” As much as words have the ability to destruct, they also have the ability to construct, build up.

One of the more inspirational moments in Coates’ story was in describing his pursuit of knowledge, heading to the library everyday to devour up to three books in a session. He is a brilliant mind that was forged in those days and nights at Howard University. It makes me wonder what kind of minds are housed in our library? What kinds of future leaders and innovators are gathering around those books? What I do know is that there is potential in those students, a potential put in them by the image of their creator.

Do I have to forgive Michael Vick?

You may not know what it was like. Football was a huge part of my adolescent and teen years and when I was at my peak in the sport, my junior and senior year in high school, the player that everyone was talking about was Michael Vick. Watching Vick play football in the early 2000’s was like taking in the brooding shadows of a Caravaggio or popping and locking to the sweet beats of MJ.

Caravaggio "The Calling of St. Matthew"

Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew”

Here in Pittsburgh we had our Slash, but Vick was changing everything. He changed the definition of the quarterback position, he broke records. Witnessing him weave in and out of defenders and launch the ball down the field made it seem like this was how football was meant to be played or at least this is exactly what God made Michael Vick to do. A football in his hands was like a pen in the hand of Emily Dickinson. My peers bought his jersey and voted him into Pro Bowls. For my generation of young athletes, Vick was a hero.

Vick's Madden Cover

Was. It hurt when Vick was convicted of dog fighting in 2007. All of a sudden his 1,039 rushing yards that season didn’t matter. His three Pro Bowl selections didn’t matter. He was a bad guy, a criminal, a violent abuser. We would have been fine if Vick just dropped off the face of planet and we didn’t have to deal with him ever again.

Vick headed to trial

But then, in 2009, he came back. He was now an advocate for the Humane Society. He was influential in creating more strict animal cruelty laws and sentences. His new team, the Philadelphia Eagles, chose the Humane Society to be recipients of $50,000 in grant money. And this created a problem.

I wanted Vick to be gone forever. I was fine placing him into the category of fallen hero and never thinking about him again. But he was breaking out of that category. In the words of the Humane Society, “Given the penalties available at the time he was sentenced, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson meted out a strong penalty to Vick. He paid a steep price for his crimes, in addition to serving his prison sentence.” They go on to say, “Michael Vick was a role model for many young people, and he lost everything because of what he did to dogs. His story is the strongest possible example of why dog fighting is a dead end…We realized the potential that Vick has to reach at-risk youth and pull them out of the quicksand of animal fighting.” (Read more about Vick and The Humane Society)

Vick didn’t wiggle out of the crime he committed. He didn’t avoid apologizing. He actively did everything he possibly could on the hard, bloody road to forgiveness. And not just that, he’s trying to dissuade other young people to choose a different path. The truth is that out of this crime, because of his worst moments, Vick has now done more for preventing dog fighting than almost anyone. But do I have to forgive him?

Michael Vick

This is a complicated question. I have done a lot of terrible, hurtful things in my life, but it is incredibly possible, terrifyingly so, that I have yet to reach my worst moment. A moment when the deepest, darkest part of my heart that I don’t like to think about or see in the mirror surfaces. So the first part of the answer to that question is, “Am I forgiven?” See the problem with Vick not going away is that now I have to come face to face with what I have been forgiven of.

In the eyes of some, Vick has done something that all of PSA’s and grant money in the world couldn’t atone for, but that is exactly what Jesus’ death on the cross was for. If I can’t give grace to Michael Vick then it is entirely possible that I have failed to recognize my own need for forgiveness. I think about the woman in Luke 7. Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” My sins, which are many, have been forgiven, and because of that I can’t withhold my forgiveness for Vick. I have to recognize that the grace Jesus has given me extends to him.

Vick is now #2 for the Pittsburgh Steelers

Don’t think for one second Vick doesn’t realize how blessed he is to be able to play this sport again, and now with the greatest team in the history of NFL no less. Seeing that ball back in this sinner’s hand gives me hope. A hope that passes all understanding. A hope that one day, despite my worst moments, I’ll hold the instrument of my God-given gifts in my hands and create a masterpiece.

Is everyone thinking I’m weird?

Evangelism can be scary for a lot of us. We’re often afraid of offending or alienating people. We worry what they will think of us, will they think we’re weird or pushy or one of “those” Christians. (I’m not certain we even know what “those Christians” are anymore, we just know we’re not supposed to be in that category.) It’s also easy to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to say just the right thing, in the right casual tone of voice, that will appeal to the other person in just the right way.

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 First of all, let’s get over ourselves and remember that we’re not actually that important. People don’t think about us as much as we fear that they do. Whatever fears of judgment and rejection that keep us from asking questions and talking about our faith are more often than not wildly unfounded. Also the work of the Holy Spirit is far more powerful than any of us broken vessels. A friend of mine in ministry once observed, “It amazes me how much the Word stumbles forth.” God can and will use all kinds of people to expand the Kingdom. Brothers and sisters have come to Christ through way cooler and way weirder people than you, and all Jesus needs is your obedience.

Secondly, I think we can find a model for our Christian witness through the way God worked through the community of faith in the Old Testament. A lot has been written by far more learned people than me about the various “archetypes of Christ” throughout the OT. I’ll let their work stand, and I’ll add an observation. All of the faithful expressed Messianic traits, a way in which they lived that foreshadowed what the coming Christ would be like.

Moses acts as a continual intercessor throughout his ministry, coming between the people and God’s judgment (Ex. 33, Num 11, Num 14, just to name a few). He demonstrates our need for a mediator, someone who can bring us near to God’s presence (Ex. 33:7-11).

David is Israel’s best king, popular and successful and blessed by God (2 Sam. 7). He epitomizes a ruler who is submitted to the Father (1 Sam. 23, 2 Sam. 11), a shepherd who seeks the best interests of the flock, a man who (usually) wields his power with justice and mercy (1 Sam. 24). He also was in communion with the Holy Spirit (1 Sam. 16) and wrote scripture that was both present and prophetic.

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Elisha is a prophet who boldly requests a double portion of the Holy Spirit (2 Kings 2). His ministry presents striking parallels with the ministry of Christ. For more on this, see the Bible studies page for a 6 part study comparing Elisha and Jesus. His miracles paved the way for the people to get a glimpse of the power of God and to see God’s intent for wholeness in the lives of His people.

I named only three of countless other people you can find in the OT. Hebrews 11 will give you a good place to start for further reading. The Israelite people knew their history and the stories of their heroes. All of these people created familiarity with the heart of God so that when Jesus began his ministry, they could all recognize His work as something they had seen before and yet never to this degree.

God’s servants had made God’s hand memorable so the community could identify when ministry was coming from Him. The Israelites could look at Jesus’ work and think, “You look familiar, haven’t we seen something like this before?” They could read the familiar words of Ps 23, “The Lord is my shepherd”, and have that in mind when Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10). Jesus proclaimed that every good and powerful thing they had witnessed in the past was from and about Him. He was the completion and perfection of everything they had been longing for.

I think the process of evangelism is something like that. We treat others and behave in ways that make Jesus familiar to them. We demonstrate Christ’s love through compassion, ethical practices that care for the well-being of all, taking time to let others know they are valued and loved, and by talking about the Word of God. We mimic Christ to the people around us so that when they do meet Jesus, they’ll say, “You look familiar…have we met before?”

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Just like the heroes that came before us, we are not Jesus. We are limited and flawed and fail to show God’s heart in perfect ways. And yet the Word stumbles forward, and we have the same calling to make Christ recognizable to His people. This is what propels us in evangelism and outreach.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 1 John 4:7-12

We can’t see God’s form on this side of the resurrection, but we see His love through each other. We are the image-bearers through which God has chosen to show Himself. When we love others with the love that we have received, we show our family resemblance. We are the ones who love and serve so that when someone we love meets Jesus for the first time, they’ll say, “Have we met before?”

Are you going to eat that?

Beginning in my teen years I’ve had a love/hate relationship with food. This is the time of life when most women (and plenty of men) start becoming self-conscious about weight and physical appearance. I was no exception, and began interacting with food as alternately a tool and a weapon. I’m not naturally slender and tend to gain weight easily, so the way I felt about myself was heavily tied to the way I was eating. I would overeat as a tool to self-soothe or eat very strictly in an effort to lose weight. Then food would quickly become a weapon wielded against me as a capricious master, one that I could never fully control. Either I would be “good” during a period of discipline and self-control, or I would eventually start being “bad” and eat more than I ought. My litmus test on the good/bad scale was always my weight. My worry was not about living in freedom as a steward of God’s good creation, but about being thin and “good” in the eyes of our culture.

The Last Supper

It wasn’t until graduate school where I had to attend an Overeaters Anonymous meeting for an addictions counseling class that I recognized that in many ways I was a slave to food. As I listened to the group members share about their thoughts and impulses, I saw myself in a mirror. Food was controlling my life by defining the way I viewed myself. I was consumed by trying to not overeat and then by guilt if I ate too much. As I thought about the 12 Steps, I knew that I had to apply the first two to myself:

1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction—that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This was a turning point in my life. I stopped seeing my relationship with food as being defined by weight, and saw it defined by sin. My inability to treat food as a good gift from God had caused me to abuse it and use it to meet my own needs and desires in selfish and unhealthy ways. This wasn’t about being thin, this was about being holy.

Here’s a fun exercise, try word searching “feast” in a Bible website like Biblegateway.com. You’ll quickly see that all of humanity has this love/hate relationship with indulgence, and that God cares very much about it. Sin and idolatry come when we take something good that God has made for our flourishing, and try to exert our own control and lordship over it. We treat it as our own rather than a good gift to enjoy.

God gets frustrated with the idol of self-indulgence (or restriction and subsequent abuse of our bodies) because we are abusing what is His, and in so doing we pursue our own destruction. (Jer. 16:8, Hos 2:11) The Lord loves good food and feasting as a source of rejoicing and community.

How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!
    People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house;
    you give them drink from your river of delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
    in your light we see light.

Psalm 36:7-9

After all, Jesus told us to remember His death and sacrifice through a meal (Luke 22:14-23). Food itself is always very good, it’s only our twisted idolatry that leads us to use it in unhealthy ways.

So what would it look like to be free in the ways we relate to food? To be free from the self-righteousness of false control, and free from fear and shame? In my journey it started with Step 2. I admitted to Christ in prayer that I was powerless to control this abuse in my heart (if your struggle isn’t food, insert your habitual sin(s) that you can never fully control). I had to ask God to do what I could not do for myself: to rewire me to desire food in a better way. I didn’t need behavior modification, I needed a heart change.

Here’s the funny thing about admitting helplessness to God and asking for help…He actually helps us. Over time the Lord created changes in my impulses and thoughts, and the way I reacted to temptations in my environment. He routed out the sinful desires of my heart that were making me a slave, and replaced them with the freedom of humility. No longer do I fear food but am free to enjoy the fruits of God’s earth with gratitude and appreciation.

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A celebration of joyful community at the CCO’s Ocean City Beach Project last summer

I still pray regularly for the Lord to help keep me from sin in my eating habits, it’s an ongoing process. But always I am motivated by the beautiful hope that Jesus teaches me how to feast with joy rather than shame. As the honored guest at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (Matt. 22:1-14, Rev. 21), He invites me into a celebration of full hearts and rich communion.

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
    from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.

Moon Festival

Celebrating Moon Festival with IUP Taiwanese students, a feast that brought our nations together