Why Are Millennials So Self-Absorbed?

I’ve heard it countless times. The endless criticism of the millennial generation for being “entitled”, “ self-absorbed”, “spoiled”, the list goes on. My generation almost exclusively hears negative things about us from the generations above us. I was recently listening to public radio and heard yet another negative report on the podcast Hidden Brain about the rise of narcissism among young people. The host discussed social research findings and the impact of having to feel like we are “special” all the time. I listened to this and I felt deeply hurt. I felt so hurt because I felt terribly alone. It is easy to talk about the symptoms of self-absorption in millennials, I have yet to hear anyone ask “why is this happening?” I believe the majority of millennials feel alone, and if we are self-absorbed it might be because all we have is ourselves.

We have no heroes

Give me a list of 20 public figures who do not have some kind of scandal attached to them. I’ll wait. So many of the people we looked up to as children have become mired in allegations of destructive behavior. From coaches convicted of systematic abuse of children, athletes who sexually exploited others, political figures who were not the people they claimed to be, actors and comedians and TV show hosts who turned out to be abusive and selfish. There are very few people left that model integrity and selflessness. Part of the reason Won’t You Be My Neighbor struck such a cord is because it is borderline shocking when someone we grew up with is actually a kind person. Was actually trustworthy and cared about us. We have become distressingly accustomed to our role models being hypocrites and secretly toxic. Why would we look outward when all we see is disappointment and abused trust? Is it not much safer to trust only ourselves?

We have no heroes…including our parents

I was recently sitting around a table with five 18-23 year-olds and I was the only one in the group who grew up in a loving, stable home. In my eleven years of working with college students, it is the exception when a young person comes from a family where the parents are together and have a healthy relationship and lifestyle. Most of the time today’s young people are carrying a great deal of pain and alienation that started in their homes. Hurts not only from divorce but from emotional neglect, parental unreliability, patterns of sin and addiction in the home, death and tragedy, and a lack of feeling known and loved by their parents. The people who were created to offer us unconditional love and support have very often let us down in deeply wounding ways. Is it any wonder that we turn to our devices and social networks for validation and connection?

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Pornography is everywhere

I have yet to hear anyone include the prevalence of pornography in discussions about narcissism and mental health among millennials. We are constantly told that we are bad at relating to others and lack resilience, and none of those same critics ask how the availability of pornography in the digital age has shaped an entire generation to be emotionally and physically isolated. Pornography is the ultimate example of self-absorption. It is designed in such a way that it allows a person to be alone while receiving the illusion of connection. It removes the need for others while creating a false sense of shared reality. And it is a very bitter master. It keeps its users trapped in isolation by appearing to meet needs and then paralyzing them from being able to experience true connection and intimacy. It distorts one’s ability to empathize with others and accurately interpret social situations. The Atlantic began a conversation about pornography’s impact in an article on the sexual recession that is occurring among young people. An entire generation does not have the tools to form meaningful and lasting intimate relationships. So we are alone. We stay home, falling deeper into unhealthy patterns, lacking the tools or support to find a better way. Lonely and scared of one another.

We don’t have the church

Countless reports will tell you that millennials and younger are the least churched generation. The reasons for this are many. Church sexual scandals are an obvious and legitimate one. From the Catholic church to multiple other denominations and congregations hiding abusive leaders and systemic sin. This has caused a generation of “little ones” to stumble (Luke 17:2). Add to this generations of racism (The Color of Compromise) and sexism, and young people who care very much about issues of justice and inequality are going to view the church with profound cynicism. The church in America has also struggled to adapt to social changes. Leaving many young people walking out the doors on a Sunday morning feeling that it was not for them and their presence is of little consequence to the other worshippers. This is indeed a great social tragedy. The Family of God has the potential to add so much meaning and support and can be a major protective factor in the lives of young people. Without it, we have neither an extended support system nor a transforming relationship with Christ to sustain and pull us outwards and into the broader community. Whenever I see research data revealing that young people are more lonely, depressed and anxious than ever, I know it is connected to not having faith and truth in their lives. If we do not have faith communities to care for us and invite us into a bigger story, with what are we left?

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So what do we do? I can start by saying that we would benefit from less criticism and more compassion. No one becomes who they are in a vacuum, please take time to empathize with us and why we have resorted to the coping patterns we have. This is not to let millennials off the hook for the unhealthy trends in our midst. We need to own our lives and develop better coping methods. But yelling and demeaning has never helped anyone grow and change and has certainly never helped someone feel less alone. We are your children and grandchildren, we are not aliens from another planet. Please get to know us and give us a little credit. Questions I have rarely heard from a baby-boomer are, “Why do you think that is? What do you think about that?” Spend more time building bridges and inviting us into a shared way forward and less time writing us off. The majority of millennials I know are passionate, intelligent, curious, and hopeful. We all need one another. Please join with us and allow us to speak into your lives as well. We cannot do this alone.

Tree of Life Synagogue and the Need for Weariness

Some families take vacations to Disney World. My family would vacation in Pittsburgh. This was partly because my grandparents lived there, partly because Pittsburgh is a wonderful city. I spent 12 years post-college living in the Pittsburgh region and in many ways regard it as my home city. It is a city known for its many distinct neighborhoods, my favorite of which is Squirrel Hill. I have spent countless hours there with family and friends. A predominantly Jewish community, it also houses restaurants and shops from a wide range of cultures and nationalities. It has the best movie theater in the city, and is a welcoming neighborhood full of vibrant culture and life. Despite the terrible violence there on October 27th, nothing will change that.

When I first starting seeing breaking news that a Pittsburgh synagogue was being attacked, I knew it was likely in that lovely community. Watching the story unfold, my primary response was weariness. After a week that was already marked by hatred and violence with the mail bombs, this was overwhelming. I felt sadness and anger, but mostly I felt numb. This has to stop. Things have to change.

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When we look at God’s history with the community of faith, He has used weariness in the past to move us forward. Buried in the middle of the Old Testament book of Numbers is a remarkable passage about some unexpected fruit of growing weary. Numbers in general is an often overlooked book that packs a punch. It follows the time of the Israelites leaving their enslavement in Egypt and their forty years wandering in the wilderness. God led them out of Egypt through signs and wonders and guided them straight to the Promised Land. But the people were not ready. They were so accustomed to slavery that they could not imagine freedom. All they could do was look back at their bondage and believe that it was normal and as good as it gets. They could not imagine that the unknown could be better than the comfortable past, so they believed it must be worse. They froze because all they could see were giants, not milk and honey (Num. 13:31-33).

So God consigned them to 40 years in the wilderness, one year for every day that the spies were in the promised land (Num. 14). Enough time for the generation that was born in Egypt to pass away. An entire generation is born in the wilderness, a generation that is listed in the middle of Numbers (chapter 26). The genealogies in this book is typically where readers get bogged down, but they are there to show us when a change begins. Something significant happens with this generation born in the wilderness. They no longer look back, they start to dream about what is ahead.

The daughters of Zelophehad son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, belonged to the clans of Manasseh son of Joseph. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah. They came forward and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.”

So Moses brought their case before the Lord, and the Lord said to him, “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them. Num. 27:1-7 (NIV)

The daughters of Zelophehad begin to imagine possibilities of things that have never been before. What if women could own land? Not only that, they are envisioning life in the Promised Land. They are thinking about what it will entail and they do not want to miss it. No longer are the people looking back to slavery as their frame of reference. They are looking ahead and dreaming about things that have not yet been.

These young women represent what God was trying to do in the people through their wandering. To bring change in their desires. To wear them out on life that is sub-par so they start dreaming about abundance. So that when they are led back to the edge of the Promised Land, they want to go in and never look back. They want to take hold of God’s rest, provision, equity, and goodness. They were meant to hate the wilderness and former bondage so they would love the fulfillment of God’s promises.

This story offers a similar application to our weary hearts today. It is normal and good to feel sadness and anger. It is fitting and right for us to hate the works of evil. And our Godly response can be to dream rather than freeze. Many giants of evil are dominating our cultural landscape, but we serve a God with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deut. 7:19). Take your weariness to your community’s inter-faith gatherings and support your Jewish neighbors. Use your platform to remind yourself, and others, that acts of hatred and violence are not normal or as good as it gets. Research the candidates running for office in your region and go vote for people who will pursue righteousness and peace. Pray for the Lord to move all of our hearts away from selfish complacency and towards new possibilities for Kingdom flourishing. May we be a people who are shaped by the promises and power of God and who dream of things greater than we have yet seen.

 

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.

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.

Speaking Power to Truth

So here we are in the fullness of postmodernity. Our current cultural era that gained widespread momentum in the 1980s and 1990s is largely defined by relativity and fluidity. A reaction against the absolutism and potential arrogance of the Modern era, postmodernism has decentralized the concept of universal truth. Rather than holding to ubiquitous definitions of what all people everywhere ought to believe, today’s culture allows truth to be defined more by personal experience and cultural vantage point. We have reached a threshold where an entire generation has only known postmodernity, it is now part of who we are.

Much of this is beneficial to society. Postmodernism creates space for a diverse and complex humanity to be expressed and acknowledged. Modernism tended to frame the “normal” human experience through the lens of white western ideals, ignoring the perspective of ethnic minorities in the US and around the world. Our current climate has given birth to an increasing democratization of whose experience gets to inform the social consciousness, bringing important and valid representation out of the margins. It has given rise to the storytelling phenomenon of the “anti-hero”, characters who are both flawed and sympathetic. Narrow depictions of heroes/villains are rare, now we recognize that all people are capable of great destruction and great good. We are enjoying remarkably rapid advancements in technology and innovation. In a culture where absolutes are gone, there is more room to reimagine what might be possible and the process through which new things can be created.  These are developments that should be celebrated.

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We are also seeing the fullness of the dark side of postmodernity. In an age where truth is relative and each person “speaks their truth” as they see it…who decides who’s truth shapes the cultural ethos? If there are no widely agreed upon standards for human functioning, who has the authority to affirm or condemn a particular set of behavior? If everyone is speaking their truth, who is allowed to call certain language or views incorrect? In the absence of universal truth, the only thing that remains is power.

2016 made it increasingly clear that relative truth is a door that swings both ways. The backlash against being “politically correct” was based on indignation at what felt like double standards. Why do some people get to express themselves without reserve while others feel shut down in their views? Many felt that diversity is celebrated unless it comes from a certain sector of society. So 2016 became a power struggle over who gets to define the cultural narrative. Very little of that year was based on seeking the good of our whole society. Instead, it was marked by fracturing and a frantic scramble to stay in control. We were all angry, scared, and willing to sacrifice integrity along with compassion for the sake of being in power. This is the downside of relative truth: whoever is in power defines truth. Sadly, power often brings out the worst in us.

So where do we go from here, particularly those who seek to be Christ-followers?

Repent

First, we should search our hearts and invite the Spirit to reveal where we need to repent. Where did we get caught up in our own version of seeking power? When did we forget to love our neighbors as ourselves? Where do we fall prey to fear and anger? We could all use some healthy soul-searching. How might our attitude change if we are consistently asking Christ to give us hearts of flesh rather than hearts of stone?

Communicate the common good

As a Christian who has a deep love for the Bible, I am convinced that God’s desire is for all people to experience flourishing. This includes exhortations both positive and painful. Those that are most painful are often commands that invite us to turn away from selfishness and destruction. How can we better demonstrate to our communities that the Bible’s exclusive claim to truth is for the good of all?

However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you,If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.

 ~ Deuteronomy 15:4,7-8 (NIV)

17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

            ~ Deuteronomy 10:17-19

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 

35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

            ~ Luke 6:27-28, 35-36

The nature of the way God invites us to live is such that if everyone followed Him, society would be marked by mutual care and trustworthiness. We would not be afraid to show vulnerability. We wouldn’t hesitate to build others up because we would all be motivated to seek the good of others. No power struggle, only a commitment to love others with the love we have received from God. That starts within the Body of Christ living that way with one another acting as a model to the world of a better way of connecting.

Employ grace and truth

This is hard to do and yet it is what defines Jesus.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

~ John 1:14

 Loving people well includes telling them the truth, even when it will be hard to hear. If you read the whole Bible, you will see sections where God is very clearly confrontational and condemning of behavior that is destroying human dignity and society (literally all of the prophets). God hates poverty and injustice and sexual exploitation because it diminishes the value of human life and each person as bearers of God’s image. Those are messages that Christians need to hear as well as our broader society. The value of all persons is a core message of the Bible, and God gives us guidance on how to pursue that value in culture. As the Church, let us reconnect with that truth. That is how we seek to share both grace and truth with the world.

Humans are meant to have some measure of structure. Structure can sound binding, but it actually elevates purpose. Chaos is a breeding ground for meaninglessness. Humans are far from meaningless in God’s eyes. That’s why we long to be connected to something big that matters in real ways. Let scripture be our guide in affirming that which is good and Godly in postmodernity. Let scripture, along with the example of Christ, be our guide in calling the world to know a complex God who created a complex world that is guided by common good and universal wisdom. What better way to embrace postmodernity than by demonstrating that truth can be both personally good and universally beneficial?

 

 

“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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Here I Raise My Ebenezer

There is a lot of fun history in our city. On a corner downtown, sits Sun Records where the likes of Johnny Cash, Jerry lee Lewis, and, of course, Elvis got their start. Walk on through Beale Street where neon lights and live music fill the air any given night. Splash around with the Peabody ducks, who nabbed some name dropping on this season’s breakout TV show “This Is Us.” All of these places are fun to visit and, while there, you can take some totally boss, smiley selfies with your travel mates. Every city has landmarks that collectively tell the story of that place. With any given city, though, the fun places don’t tell the whole story.

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Some cities like Memphis, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, have some very different attractions. Attractions that most never learn about in school. In these places you will find monuments, memorials, and museums documenting the history of the mid-century American civil rights movement. The story of this movement paints the walls of these places with a mosaic of emotions. At these sites, you might see a picture, a plaque, or a statue of unimaginable violence next to a visage of great victory and freedom. In the shadows of the grave markers of children, resides generations inspired by their innocence, courage, and sacrifice.

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At the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Arkansas river in Selma, stands several monuments paying respect to a collection of the prominent figures that crossed that bridge in the marches from Selma to Montgomery. These marchers were protesting unfair voting laws across the south. Next to those monuments is an Ebenezer, a pile of large stones, an image pulled from the Bible to mark significant events in the history of God’s people. These markers help God’s people remember the story of that place, the good and the bad. Why did God think it necessary to mark our journeys with these monuments?

First of all, these landmarks help us remember. Throughout the Bible, God continuously reminds his people who he is. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, the great I Am, the Lord of all, the deliverer of God’s people out of Egypt, the creator of all things, our Father, our King, our Shepherd, and on and on, are all images God recalls for our benefit. God establishes his credibility with us by recalling the great victories and freedom he has delivered and the intense evils he has delivered us from. We need to remember these things especially in times of darkness, when we feel farthest from God, and prone to disbelief. God answers those feelings by reminding us where we’ve been.

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Secondly, these memorials act as a mirror bringing us face to face with the realities of our story. Our country was established with a broken system, one that denied the humanity of certain people. These are systems, though they have been battled, that we still feel today. Some would say we live in a post-racial society, that the images featured on the walls of these museums are from the distant past, that we’ve moved on, and we all experience equality.

But then we hear the cries white nationalists for a return to segregation, already very segregated worship services, the right to vote being challenged in certain states, racial slurs scribbled across the home of one of the world’s most prominent athletes, nooses being left at the National African American Museum, and so on and so on and you wonder have we really moved on? In some ways, yes, in others, no, but these mirror images from today and yesterday help to remind us of the work that has been done and the work still unfinished.

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The monuments, memorials, and museums of the civil rights movement are not always fun places to visit. Taking selfies might be the last thing on your mind. The truth of America’s history of oppression is hard to experience in any form. The mixture of emotions one might move through while reliving these sites takes a toll. It is exhausting, but imagine how exhausting it must be to live through it every day. The long-lasting effects created by the systematic and cultural traditions present in America’s foundation have great influence on the livelihood of many people even today. If we don’t maintain and visit these Ebenezers, will we ever remember to change? If we hear the Lord cry out for justice, and ignore it are we not the people James is talking to,

“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.”

Having hope that we are not doomed to repeat the ugliest chapters of our history begins with remembering the stories behind the landmarks.

Here I raise my Ebenezer

Here there by Thy great help I’ve come

And I hope, by Thy good pleasure

Safely to arrive at home

Jesus sought me when a stranger

Wandering from the fold of God

He, to rescue me from danger

Interposed His precious blood

Our Sunday Best

For some of us, church isn’t church without freshly pressed slacks, a necktie tied pinned with a gold chain, and shoes pristinely shined. For others, church is more like church as they feel a cool breeze through the knee hole in their jeans with their flip flops smacking and pattering announcing their entry. The term “Sunday Best” has a wide range of connotations across the tapestry of the body of Christ. As I reflect on my time touring the civil rights monuments of the American south, this term took on a whole new meaning. This new definition comes from a set of two pictures.

“And as long as I’ve got my suit and tie…all pressed up in black and white.” Justin Timberlake may have been trying to make the club a little classier with his 2013 hit “Suit & Tie” but long before one of Memphis’s favorite sons tried to bring it back, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sure was making it look good. It’s difficult to find a statue or picture of Dr. King in front of a crowd without his suit and tie. It was his suit of armor, a uniform of his vocation as a pastor, proof that whether he was behind the pulpit or in front a march, it was an act of worship.

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The fashion of the movement also became intertwined in the fabric of its protests. Downtown shopping districts in cities denying blacks their human rights relied on the profits of selling the freshest Sunday looks. In an act of protest, citizens of these cities would refrain from buying new church clothes to send a powerful blow to an economy that was supporting systems of oppression across the south. Church clothes became a way of communicating power. They, also, became a way of communicating that the cause of civil rights was a worthy one. Which leads us to the first picture.

Sprawled across the steps of the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, dozens of civil rights leaders the likes of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and many more stood tall adorned in crisp suits and dresses. Looking at the picture you might assume the group was about to turn around and enter the sanctuary for a vibrant holiday church service. In reality, this crowd was prepared for a date with a prison cell. They were turning themselves in to the police, a situation many of them were familiar with throughout the marches and protests that helped define the movement. They gladly went to jail for their rights and the rights of their sisters and brothers. This was an occasion that called for their Sunday best. It is a picture filled with dignity, honor, and hope. The second picture is a different story.

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“Daddy let me watch from his shoulders,” is etched across the sculpture of a fancy hat in a style you might see in an episode of Mad Men. The others in the collection feature similar sentiments. One hat boasts about being excused from school. Another describes packing a picnic. To the right of the hats are a series of screen printed ties. Printed on each one is a group of people decked out in their Sunday best. Hats, ties, smiling children on shoulders, and a fresh picnic packed with all the summer favorites, this is the second picture. As the art exhibit seen at the Rosa Parks Museum explains, this was a common scene at a lynching.

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Letters on the wall explain that the time between the decades prior to the turn of the 19th century and on through the late 60’s saw thousands of known lynchings. Black people were hung from trees, burned, beaten to death, etc. for charges such as talking to the wrong person, eating at the wrong restaurant, or trying to register to vote. As informal mobs brutalized human beings, thousands would gather to watch with smiles and laughter all while wearing their Sunday best. Isn’t it interesting that these spectators were covered by layers of fine clothing, but they stand in that crowd exposed for future generations to see? No amount of expensive material can hide evil from God’s sight.

Throughout church history, high priests and pastors often wore elaborate outfits for everything from holidays to your average Sunday. Some were prescribed by scripture like that of Old Testament temple priests. When it came time for Jesus to enter the scene, though, he saw that these ceremonial clothes had become a way of trying to hide the sins of the religious elites like the Pharisees. Looking at Matthew 23, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Not long after, Jesus was beaten, stripped naked, and hung upon what scripture often calls a tree. He became clothed in all of our darkness, guilt, and shame and died for our sins. Then he rose, conquering death and assuring that we would have access to eternal robes of righteousness.

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As I look at both of these pictures, I need to cling to the robes Jesus has wrapped me in. It was humans that stood in those lynching crowds with smiles on their faces. It was humans that hit children with high powered fire hoses and vicious dogs. It was humans that sent a pastor and a seamstress to prison for trying to live with dignity. Humans are capable of unspeakable evil even while wearing the nicest threads. I am human and the painful past of America is terrifying to me because it reminds me that I am capable of evil.

Fortunately, Jesus redefined our Sunday best and established his own high fashion. He sees our broken heart behind anything we try to cover it with and offers us his love anyway. He not only covers us with his Sunday best but gives us the ability to clothe others in his love. Jesus saves me from evil and inspires me towards good. In stripping down their victims, the people in those horrific lynch mobs exposed their own sinful hearts that will define their history. Jesus’s robes of righteousness defined Dr. King’s legacy and I pray they’ll also define mine.

 

For more information on the history of lynching in America, the Equal Justice Initiative led by Bryan Stevenson has created this website: lynchinginamerica.eji.org