Down the rabbit hole: redeeming the news, part 2

Alice falling down the rabbit hole into wonderland

In the last post, I noted how I’ve been falling into the rabbit hole of online news. To switch metaphors, it is like a bug-zapper. Something about it keeps drawing me in, even though I know that getting too close can be perilous. The endless stream of novel stories just waiting to be read beckons me on. How shall we be sensible and faithful in engaging with the world of digital news (or TV news, for that matter)?

Fitting the rabbit hole into life

Orienting principle: there is nothing wrong with reading the news. There can be great benefit in it. But if you find yourself in a place like me where turning to the news becomes a burden, a time-sucking draw, it may be time to climb a little out of the rabbit hole. Here are a couple things to consider for engaging with the news in a faithful way.

The limits of your time

It should go without saying, but needs to be said anyways, that our time is limited. Whether that be my time at work while preparing sermons and prepping other things for church, or our time with our families, or your time doing whatever it is you like to do. We all have limits.

An ever-present threat from online news, or TV news (or any sort of online activity) is that there is no end. There is no natural disengagement point. Movies end. Games end. But you never reach an end with online news, so you never need to stop.

Since the news never runs out, we must be careful of what amounts of time we allow ourselves to spend in engaging with it. Ask yourself how much time you can beneficially spend perusing news stories, then set some way to enforce that time limit.

I'm trying out a browser extension (LeechBlock) on my computer at work to limit the amount of time on different news sites the 10 minutes per every two hours. That's enough time to browse through, find some worthwhile stories, and get back to work.

The goal is to make engaging with the news a part of a broader strategy of preparing for ministry each week, rather than a way to escape from preparing.

It’s worthwhile for all of us to consider the limits of our time and how we engage with the news and other digital media.

Consider the limits of your circle of care

The global scope of online news makes it easy to forget that we have limited circles of care. What is a circle of care? There are only so many people, so many groups, and so many institutions which we can be involved in and meaningfully care about. There are only so many topics about which we can even be marginally informed, and a very tiny amount that we can be an expert on. It should be humbling to consider the vast number of topics about which each of us knows absolutely nothing.

The news provides a smorgasbord of information that far exceeds any individual’s circle of care.

It’s easy to think that my circle of care is far bigger than it really is. But at some point, you have to wonder how much should I really care about the pink dolphins in the Amazon river and how the global environmental situation affects them? While my heart goes out to people protesting in Iran over the recent death of Mahsa Amini, how much do I really care? Better yet, how much time and effort should I spend in caring about it? How relevant is it to my life and the lives of people I live with?

There are no easy answers to this question, but it is a question that we need to ask ourselves periodically.

A practical way to deal with the limits of your circle of care is to come up with a few areas of the news you want to be informed on. Then go find websites which address those areas. Avoid news aggregating sites; they will always bring you things outside of your circle of care. You’ll never hit the bottom of the rabbit hole you’re falling down.

Some news sources I frequent: WIRED, Christianity Today, and Spiegel (a major German news outlet)

The limits of your mental/emotional care

Related, it is important to consider the limits of our mental and/or emotional care. We all have a finite amount of love, concern, and care that we can give. There are more things in the world to care about (and that are worthy of caring about) than we can possibly care about in any meaningful way. Where we use up our care impacts every part of life.

If I have 10 units of emotional care that I can give in a day, and I spend five of them reading different news stories that have very little direct impact on my life, what effect might that have on the people who I go home to live with after work? I have to wonder, how much of my emotional and mental capacity am I spending trying to find and understand crises here there and everywhere around the world, and what sort of state is this leaving me in for when I go home and one of my children is having actual crisis that requires my mental and emotional attention?

Too much attention to the news can burn up our capacity to care for the people in our lives.

You are only human

In summing up these considerations, the main point is that I need to take a little time and remember that I am only human. And I mean that in the best possible sense that one can mean it. Being only human is not a bad thing; It is a glorious thing. But if we try to live as demigods, while only having the capacities of a human, we end up short-serving everyone we really live with.

One of the fascinating and wonderful things about being only human is that our abilities are well-suited for caring for and helping people who are connected to where we actually live in life. There are good and appropriate ways we can learn about and be concerned about things happening on the other side of the world. But the chief measure of loving your neighbor is not how much care you have for people on the other side of the world, but how much care you have for people on the other side of the street.

Pulling out of the rabbit hole

Over the course of this week, I’ve been doing some thinking and planning to engage with the online news in a more limited and focused way. I doubt I have the answer, but I want to engage in a searching for better practices in how to use online news in life and ministry. The rabbit hole is there, it is bottomless, and it has an endless draw for those who look to peek their head into it. I’m working on doing better at standing on my own two feet and not falling in.

Down the Rabbit Hole: redeeming the news, part 1

Alice falling down the rabbit hole into wonderland

The news cycle is shorter than ever. That is commonly accepted wisdom (though it is debatable whether there is anything more worthwhile to say in the endlessly shortening news cycle or not). One easily gets the impression that the news is a track of sad music on endless repeat. Recently, I am reminded that the news is an endless rabbit hole that you can fall into and never come back out from.

The news

I used to not really watch the news. In addition to occasional online browsing, I would catch a few minutes of NPR here and there while driving the kids somewhere or commuting back and forth between my house and school.

But recently, I’ve felt myself falling down the rabbit hole of online news.

Online news

Since starting into pastoral ministry in January, I have tried to be more aware of what’s going on in the world. The stuff in the world and community weighs upon the lives of the people who live in the community, so it makes sense to engage with the news. But there is also a danger, which is what I have been noticing recently.

I have started to fall down the rabbit hole.

The rabbit hole

In the last couple weeks, I find myself with a nagging urge to go check the news. Have a couple minutes? Pull up the news tab. Need a break from thinking about the sermon? Go scan the news. And so forth. After finishing a chunk of work, rather than taking a couple minutes to stand up, walk around, and stretch, I find myself browsing news headlines.

Note, browsing headlines is not a very good way to engage with the news to begin with.

Since the headlines change by the minute—even when very little of substance changes that quickly—there is always something new to look at, read, be interested in. Sometimes there are stories that are worth reading. Sometimes there are stories which promise a juicy tidbit. For someone who has not watched an NFL game in I’m not sure how many years now, so far this season I’ve seen all sorts of headlines about Tom Brady’s life both on and off the field.

How does the rabbit hole draw us in?

The pull

I suspect the draw to go and check the news is much like the well-known and studied way that social media apps work. In short, social media platforms use algorithms. All that means is that they use complex mathematical rules describing how data relates to each other.

Check out here for a brief explanation of how algorithms work on various social media platforms.

Combining these rules, and the scads of information the social media company has about you, its user, results in you receiving a continuous stream of content directed your way that you should like to look at.

 “Like” simply means content that the social media company believes you will take the time to look at, not whether you will find it pleasant, happy, or uplifting.

This all works on a pretty simple premise: our brains crave novelty. Said differently, we notice new things and tune out things that aren’t changing. Just think of the last time you walked into your favorite restaurant. When you first step in the wall of aromas envelopes you. Your nose is going wild as you soak up the delicious scents.

Within a couple minutes, you don’t even notice the smells anymore. But if you got up and walked into another restaurant, your nose would go crazy again. Why is this? Our brains prioritize paying attention to things that are new and changing, not to things that are staying the same. New stimuli—smells, sounds, images, touches—get high priority, but if the stimuli don’t change, in a short time they get downgraded and we no longer pay conscious attention.

Back to the digital world of social media and news. Online companies face one simple problem: the main way they make money is by selling adds, not by charging their users. In the online economy, you are the product. More pointedly, your attention is the product being sold by the tech company to an advertiser. It is in the tech company’s financial interest to keep you browsing as much as possible and coming back as often as possible.

The novelty-seeking brain is key. I want novel content. The news sites give endless novel content. Constantly changing headlines. The endless promise of something good.

Is falling into the rabbit hole good?

The dilemma

I‘ve been noticing that this increased intake of online news is complicated. On the one hand, I know much more about “what is going on in the world” than I have for quite some time. On the other hand, I’m not really sure that is a good thing. And I am not alone on this hunch.

It turns out, many studies note that watching the news can be deleterious to your health. Beyond the very real possibility that my stress (and yours, too) is heightened by watching the news, I wonder how all this casual news consumption relates to my ability to live well with the people I live with.

Staying out of the rabbit hole

In the next post, I reflect on some different things I am trying in order to put better boundaries around the news in my life. After all, as neat as it is to know things about what is going on all over the world, loving my neighbor as myself certainly should begin with my actual neighbors, not my digital ones.

Enemies on the Journey Towards Joy

man boxing against his much larger shadow

There are enemies on the road. If 1 John is a journey towards Joy, one of the things which will come up again and again is that there are enemies on the journey towards joy. Not all goes easy. Not every step is uncontested. In more conservative and evangelical branches of the church, we tend to have a heightened sense of the enemies on the journey. The enemy is the culture. “Those people out there” are enemies hindering our journey. Those policies, the loss of moral values, “people don’t go to church anymore,” the slide (or head-first, breakneck run) down into all sorts of depravity—those are the enemies on the way. And while that is true, an obsession with “those enemies” can blind us to what is probably the greater enemy: the person in the mirror.

A biblical scholar put it well when he said:

“Both the Old and the New Testaments make it painfully clear that God’s people are often their own worst enemies, worse by far than the “world” outside the church, when it comes to faithful appropriation of the gospel message.”

Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey, 3rd ed

The last part of the quote is key: “when it comes to faithful appropriation of the gospel message.” When it comes to living comfortable lives, then a changing culture is definitely a major enemy on the journey. To the degree we associate joy with what our culture calls “the good life,” to that degree changes in the culture hinder our joy. In our increasingly post-Christian culture, there are increasingly many ways that it is getting hard to be both a follower of Jesus and pursue the “good life” of the American Dream.

But…

Gospel Appropriation

Appropriating the gospel is a different concern. There are plenty of cultural hardships—and more appear to be coming—but these are not the only thing which keeps us from joy. The joy which is of highest concern in the Bible is a joy that can be experienced in want and in plenty, in persecution and in power. It is a joy that challenges many of our assumptions about how the world ought to work and many of the assumptions of what “the good life” is.

It is undeniable that there are many external enemies towards our joy.

But ask yourself this question: “What is hindering you from having the vibrant relationship with God that you desire?” While there are many factors hindering us, it is hard to conclude that outside influences have the ultimate say. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that my own lack of desire and engagement is the biggest hindrance in having a vibrant relationship with God.

Targeting the right enemies

We can address wrong beliefs. Those are an important and pernicious enemy on the journey towards joy.

We can address wrong actions. Those also are an important and pernicious enemy on the journey towards joy.

But it is difficult, if not impossible, to make advances when our attempts to address these issues aim mainly outward. The self rages against obedience to the gospel. The self hamstrings our own efforts on the journey towards joy by constantly directing our efforts in the wrong direction.

As we consider enemies on the journey towards joy, don’t forget that in many realms of life, you are your own worst enemy.


Revisiting the threshing floor: how an odd passage in Ruth speaks today, part 2

ruth and boaz at threshing floor

In Part 1, I discussed the overarching perspective on the threshing floor scene I am arguing: that it is actually a redemptive scene. On the threshing floor, Boaz and Ruth model a path of behavior which eschews using sexual manipulation to get what they want. At the same time, the scene does not deny the reality that humans are sexual beings. In the last post, we looked at Naomi’s plan. She sends Ruth to the threshing floor with the apparent intention that Ruth use her sexuality to secure a better future for herself—to whatever extent that be necessary. We also examined the odd part about the feet in the whole plan. In this post, it remains to look at what Ruth and Boaz did. After examining the text and the canonical background, we will move to some application of this narrative. What stands to the fore here, I believe, is that sexual manipulation is not the only way.

Ruth and Boaz: getting things done at the threshing floor

Ruth goes down to the threshing floor and follows Naomi’s instructions to the “t.” As we read through the narrative, it is not immediately clear what she did when she “uncovered his feet and lay down” (3.7). That requires some close attention to what the text says.

Where Ruth lays

Verse 8 is important here. Boaz wakes up and rolls over, and only then is he aware that there is another person there—which he recognizes is a woman.

Note that it is not until Boaz moves that he is aware of Ruth’s presence, suggesting that Ruth is not touching him (at the least, Ruth is not actively attempting to seduce him). This shows that Ruth interprets “(place of the) feet” as laying on the ground somewhere other than on Boaz with the point of having sex. We can assume that she resumes this same position again after they talk, and that that is what Boaz means for her to do (3.13).

What Ruth does there

Beyond merely not trying to seduce Boaz before he wakes up, Ruth continues along this same course of action. Rather than trying to engage in sex, she talks to Boaz. Namely, she identifies herself and proposes marriage. Intriguingly, we are never told anything about what Ruth looks like. Other women in the OT are described by appearance—such as Rachel (Gen 29.17)—so there may be significance in this omission.

Ruth is known only through what she does; she is not reducible to a body. Her moment to shine is when she claims the identity of Ruth, your servant, but your servant who wishes to become your wife.

For readers with a strong sense of the Bible, Ruth’s actions are exactly opposite of what happened when Ruth’s great-foremother, Lot’s daughter, seduced her father in the cave (Gen 19.30-38). Ruth has the opportunity to get what she wants and needs by seducing Boaz, but instead she talks with him.

What Boaz does

Pulling on the hints in the text and the canonical background shows that Ruth performs marvelously. But what about Boaz? Here we see more of the same.

Boaz notices that a woman is lying there. His response is one of surprise. The real key, though, is what Boaz says. He asks, “Who are you?” When faced with an unknown woman in the dark, rather than assuming she is a prostitute rendering her services, he asks the all-important question. This question allows the two of them to figure out the right way to treat each other.

Again, for readers sensitive to the bigger story of the Bible, compare this to the way Boaz’s ancestor, Judah, acts in Gen 38. There, on seeing his daughter-in-law Tamar dressed as a prostitute at the side of the road, the first thing he says is, “Come, let me come in to you” (Gen 38.16), which is a euphemism for having sex. This sets up a discussion about the price for the tryst. By contrast, Boaz’s question indicates he does not presume to have a right to sexual access to the woman laying at his feet. Rather, he seeks to find out who she is so he knows the right way to treat her. How differently the life of Judah and Tamar would have gone if Judah had asked that same question in Genesis 38!

The “heated” discussion

Finally, the sexual tension largely fades away as Ruth and Boaz move into a discussion about the technicalities of marriage law. The depth of Boaz’s honesty in this passage is significant. He does not hide from Ruth—who apparently doesn’t know—that according to their laws there is another relative who has the first opportunity to marry her.

If it were Boaz’s main intention to have sex with Ruth on the threshing floor, this seems like an odd piece of information to share. In effect, Boaz both acknowledges Ruth’s proposal for marriage and at the same time distances himself from the ability to carry out the marriage at this instance. In terms of the “rights of sexual access,” Boaz is not the first one in line.

In making this point, Boaz effectively guards himself against any intentions Ruth may have had to try to have sex with him that night (whether she did or not is a moot point). Boaz tells her, “I will marry you, provided the other relative does not do so first.” This puts a tryst off the table for the evening.

Technical aside 

While it may sound odd to our ears, scholars of the Bible—and other cultures with similar practices—often talk about who has “sexual access” to a woman within the legal system of the culture. The default view of modern Western culture is that a woman can have sex with whoever she wants—though it is generally looked down upon for someone in an active relationship to have sex with someone other than their partner without consent. The default view of many non-Western cultures today (and of Western culture throughout most of its history), by contrast, is that there are clear limits on who a woman’s prospective sexual partners could be. Boaz alludes in this passage to the system called Levirate marriage (or to something like that system). The main point of relevance here is that, once a woman married into a particular family, the potential pool of future mates, in the event her husband died, was limited to specified kinsman of her husband. Who has “sexual access” to a woman is spelled out in the laws and customs of the culture. 

This whole way of thinking is rather foreign to us, but it is important in this text. By pointing to the other kinsman, Boaz is effectively saying that regardless of his or Ruth’s intentions, he does not have the right to sexual access at this point. For that to happen, he must first develop the clever legal scheme at the gate in chapter 4.

Summary

While the text itself does not come out and answer the question whether Ruth and Boaz “did” anything at the threshing floor, the hints in the text point to them sharing a chaste night. Both are cast as responding differently from their ancestors in Genesis. Rather than turning to sexual manipulation to get what they desire, they turn to talking, sharing dignity, and concern for what is proper under the law. In other words, both Ruth and Boaz reject sexual manipulation as the path to follow and engage in redemption. They redeem humanity one little bit from the well-trodden path of sexual trickery.

Against this backdrop, we can make some sense of why Boaz tells Ruth to lay back down rather than go home for the night. Now that they have worked out an appropriate way to relate to each other, the threat of something going wrong is much reduced. However, if Ruth is seen or caught making the journey back home in the dark, there could be major problems. At least if she is traveling home in the morning with grain, she can plausibly pass herself off as an industrious worker out and about early.

The threshing floor and today

Following this line of thinking, we are in position to let this text speak an appropriate word of judgment into our current life. Sexual manipulation and trickery are rampant today.

One thinks immediately of the #MeToo movement. #MeToo has brought to public light how pervasive sexual abuse. In answering the question, “who has sexual access to a woman,” many people answer “anyone with the power to take it.” The prevailing message in porn says the same thing: sex is about men taking what they want from women. By contrast, Boaz stands up in this story with a word of rebuke to our culture. Boaz’s question “who is it?” proves the noble and necessary response to the world of #MeToo and rampant pornography. This question, set within the bigger story of Scripture, shows awareness that the power and ability to take sexual access is different from the right to do so.

Ruth’s approach to the situation is admirable as well. The image of a woman using her sexuality to get what she wants is deeply engrained in Western popular culture: movies, TV, music, etc. Sexuality is considered a form of power to use in securing a desired end. Whether that end is the personal attention which the “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” philosophy of life seeks, or other goals, it makes no matter. Rather than try to manipulate Boaz with her sexuality, Ruth is open about her identity and her aims, trusting Boaz to act.

In the historical particulars, it would be foolish to try to reenact a Ruth and Boaz at the threshing floor kind of evening. However, read within the bigger story of Scripture, it sounds a welcome message for us today: sexual manipulation need not be the way to get what we want. The virtuous and upright choices of Ruth and Boaz lead to blessings and provision from God. By contrast, the stories of sexual manipulation—both in the Bible and again and again ever sense—are shot through and through with destruction and heart ache. There is a better way to walk. Ruth and Boaz model it.

A few thoughts on Roe v. Wade and Dobbs v. Jackson

On June 24, the majority opinion of the Supreme Court ruling in Thomas Dobbs et al. v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (which was infamously leaked), written by justice Samuel Alito, came out that:

“We hold that Roe and [Planned Parenthood v. Casey] must be overruled. The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision”

Roe v. Wade (1973) was, of course, one of the most polarizing Supreme Court cases in US history. Given the embattled nature of Roe v. Wade, it is sensible to expect that Dobbs v. Jackson will raise further bitterness. There will be no shortage of outrage, protest, and legislative activity. There are bound to be more Federal (and probably Supreme) Court cases on issues of abortion as a patchwork of laws across the nation come into play. In the meantime, how do we as Christians think about and talk about such a polarizing issue in our daily lives? Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind so that we are ready to think with charity, compassion, and hopefully some biblical framework on the issue of abortion.

As Christians we should…

Be realistic

First, all sides should stop and catch their breath for a minute. Dobbs v. Jackson is not that sweeping of a ruling. Neither the pro-life nor the pro-choice movement finds much substantive victory or defeat here. Dobbs v. Jackson is a ruling on a legal technicality: the constitution does not guarantee the right to an abortion and the legal reasoning used in the Roe and Casey cases was underwhelming.

Consider what that ruling actually means. The constitution does not guarantee the right to tax-advantaged retirement plans. But we have them. Why? Because we have tons of state and federal laws describing how they work and making them legal. All that Dobbs v. Jackson does is say that the current federal laws created in the Roe v. Wade ruling can’t stand by themselves.

Consider what this ruling does not do. It does not say anything about whether abortion is good, right, or moral. It does not say that abortion is illegal in the US. It does not even say that there can’t be federal laws guaranteeing abortion across the country. It simply says that the law which the Supreme Court de facto passed in its 1973 ruling is not valid.

While in some ways Dobbs v. Jackson is a major win for the pro-life movement, it really is a weak win at best. It is good practice—both generally and in this case—for we as Christians to be realistic in what we talk about.

Be compassionate

This ruling is disorienting to many people. Anyone born after 1973 has never lived in a US where abortion has not been enshrined in federal law…until now. That means that for over half of the US population, this is uncharted territory. Most of the people in the US have grown up with the assumption that—good or bad—abortion was part of US law. In a context where so much in society is shifting and debated, this ruling brings instability to yet another area of society where things seemed generally secure.

To put things into an idiom relatable around here, imagine the Supreme Court ruled tomorrow that the “right to bear arms” in the 2nd Amendment only allows ownership of guns of comparable type to those the Founders knew in the late 1700s. That would rock a lot of peoples’ worlds around here. That would lead to a lot of emotion, anger, frustration, and uncertainty.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade rocks a lot of peoples’ worlds. We should be prepared to be compassionate towards those whose worlds have been rocked. Gloating is not compassionate.

Be sensitive

While it is hard to get exact numbers, realize that approximately 1 of every 4 women of childbearing age in the US will have an abortion at some point in her life. In any gathering of more than 4 women, statistics tell us that one either has had or will have an abortion. While the rate of abortions is not spread equally across demographic groups, in all likelihood you know several women who have had abortions (or will before menopause).

When we think and talk about abortion, this should give us pause. Before waxing eloquent on the stupidity and moral degeneracy of women who get abortions, consider that you know some of them (even if you don’t know that you know them). Being sensitive does not mean not talking about abortion as a wrong, tragic, and ugly thing, but it should temper how we talk.

We can easily substitute a message of condemnation in place of the gospel of grace by the way that we talk to and about other people.

Be helpful

This is an opportunity like hasn’t existed since 1973 for those who speak loudly against abortion to act as loudly as they speak. The situation on the ground differs from place to place. In many states, nothing has changed since the ruling. In some states, abortion rights are set to be expanded. In some states, abortion has been (or will shortly be) banned. Especially in those states where abortion is now illegal, a great burden of responsibility falls on the shoulders of those who have argued and fought for the fall of abortion.

It is easy to yell loudly against something we don’t like; it is far harder to live for what is good and right. The ruling provides opportunity for those who have yelled loudest about the need to do away with abortion on demand to yell equally as loud with actions in helping deal with the repercussions of no more legal abortion in many states.

How can we deal with helping those in crisis? Abortion data tracks pretty strongly along socio-economic lines: the poorer the woman, the more likely an abortion. Obviously, there are other factors in play, but that is a strong correlation. Will pro-lifers turn out to be committed to dealing with the difficulties of life many women face that make abortion a sensible choice to them? Only time will tell that. But ending legal abortion will certainly not end abortion.

As Christians, this ruling invites many of us around the country to consider what sort of social causes are worthy of devoting time, energy, and money towards beyond just overthrowing abortion laws. The underlying logic of abortion grows from many strands of brokenness and sinfulness. Outlawing abortion by itself doesn’t deal with any of these root problems.

Keep striving to change the conversation

There is much more to say on this issue. Abortion is a complicated and tragic part of our culture. The Dobbs v. Jackson ruling does not end the complication and tragedy. If anything, it will probably inflame them further.

There will be lots of legal debates still to come. Elections and laws have consequences, and they will continue to have them going forward.

As we make our way in this post-Roe world, we still need to work to change the conversation regarding abortion. Few people actually like the idea of abortion. We disguise it under talk of choice and rights, but most people don’t like the idea of killing the baby/fetus. For women getting an abortion, it tends to be a cost-benefit analysis type decision. How do we change the conversation from talking about rights and laws to talking about the tragedy that is abortion?

Abortion is a tragedy. How can we work to minimize this tragedy in peoples’ lives?

That question throws us back on the need for the gospel, the need for loving people who are living broken lives, and all those other needs that Jesus presses so forcefully for us to recognize. After all, salvation does not come through passing laws. The wholeness for which all of us were made is not found in defeating abortion laws, but in union with Christ. I hope that many Christians who have fought—and continue to fight—for pro-life legislation will remember that.

A Strange Ride: LGBTQ+ Pride Month and Redemption

Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) wrote a variety of poems and humorous fables. Here I share one with you, called “A Strange Ride.”[1]

A man was riding home on his donkey. He had his son run along beside. A traveler came by and said, “It is not right, sir, that you ride and have your son run. You are stronger than he is.” So, the father dismounted and let his son ride. Another traveler came and said, “Young fellow, it is not right that you ride and let your father go by foot. You have younger legs.” So, both mounted together and rode for a while. A third traveler came and said, “What sort of nonsense is this! Two blokes sitting on one weak animal? Someone oughta’ take a stick and chase the two of ya’ off the poor beast.” So, both climbed off the donkey and the three walked abreast along the road, with the donkey in the middle. A fourth traveler came and said, “You are three curious companions. Isn’t it sufficient for two to go on foot? Doesn’t the trip go easier when one of you rides?” So, the father tied the donkey’s front legs together and the son tied his back legs together. Then they ran a strong pole through and carried the donkey on their shoulders.

This is how far things can go if you try to please everybody.

Humorous, yes? And yet also touching a central nerve in life: you can’t please everybody. Trying to please everyone ends up doing ridiculous things that don’t necessarily help anyone involved. Or, read a little differently, the parable illustrates that not everyone can be right.

This message is especially relevant for our culture right now where we have decided that everyone gets to be right.

June is—if you’ve missed it—considered LGBTQ+ Pride month. As a culture, trying to follow everybody’s different demands leads to inconsistent nonsense winning the day. In the recent past we have seen the increasing complexity and oddity of living in a culture where sex and gender are viewed as endlessly plastic, subject only to the whims of the sovereign self.

Here are just two areas of tragic irony in the move to “carry the donkey” instead of ride it like usual.

When a man is a “woman” is a “something”

As usual in American culture, sports have led the way in grabbing headlines.

Recently, one headline brought to a head something which pundits have long been talking about. A former-male now transgendered swimmer—who had competed for 3 years in collegiate swimming as a male—started breaking women’s swimming records in collegiate swimming, even winning the 500-meter freestyle at nationals. Naturally, this athlete is competing against biological females

The athlete in question, Lia Thomas, has said this about their relationship to swimming:

“(Swimming) is a huge part of my life and who I am. I’ve been a swimmer since I was 5 years old,” Thomas said. “The process of coming out as being trans and continuing to swim was a lot of uncertainty and unknown around an area that’s usually really solid. Realizing I was trans threw that into question. Was I going to keep swimming? What did that look like?

“Being trans has not affected my ability to do this sport and being able to continue is very rewarding.”

I have no doubt that personally wrestling with issues of uncertainty about sex/gender is immensely complicated. That being said, consider how Lia Thomas frames the issue as one of personal identity and personal reward: I am someone who likes to swim (competitively at college) and so I should be able to keep doing that because that is my identity; the rest of the world needs to make space for me to do this as trans, because that is my identity. While this is picking one line from one news article, it is telling that there is no wrestling with the question of whether this former man turned woman competing against women is a fair way to treat the biological women whose identity has also centered on competitive swimming, but who don’t have the advantages of having a biological male body.[2]

Women’s sports has turned out to be a galvanizing issue. Having biological males participating in women’s sports kind of goes against the point of women’s sports to begin with. International swimming has banned people like Lia Thomas from competing in international events. We’ll see how long that common-sense approach holds up.

The prominence of “pregnant people”

On a related front, if you listen to political debates and talking points, you may have caught something recently. National politicians have largely stopped talking about “pregnant women.” They talk about “pregnant people” instead. This goes hand in hand with the highly publicized confirmation hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson where she pleaded unable to answer the question, “What is a woman?” As has been pointed out, this inability to define “woman” has not stopped her from using the word in her legal rulings, leading one to wonder what exactly she is ruling about. And the necessity of ruling about cases of sexual discrimination raises problems with this lack of certainty of what exactly makes a woman a woman, but I digress.

Back to “pregnant people.” A simple biological fact is that only human females can become pregnant. Until scientists develop artificial wombs, this will continue to be true. That is a bridge we will probably have to cross at some point, but not yet. In the meantime, consider this statement from Louise Melling, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, about why we should talk about “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women”:

First of all, if we’re talking about “pregnant people,” that language says to people—to transgender men and to nonbinary people—“we see you.” It should do a fair amount of work to help address discrimination.

The question which emerges in my mind is this: why should we efface the identity of the vast majority of “pregnant people” (cough, cough, “pregnant women”) in an effort to assuage the difficult feelings of a minute minority of biological women who have decided—for whatever array of personal reasons—to live as a man yet keep their uterus and female hormones largely intact?

Again, I don’t in anyway want to minimize the personal difficulties of individuals who are struggling with their sex/gender identity. I want us to learn how to be compassionate in helping people as best as able. But I question the wisdom of trying to reshape the experience and labels—the identities, really—of the majority (the vast majority, at that) of people to help a few people whose experience is biologically aberrant. One wonders, why should we efface the identity of most women in order to give a few people a sense that their identity as a “pregnant-former-woman-now-living-as-a-man-but-not-really-because-men-can’t-get-pregnant” is right?

The category of redemption

These are just two of many points where the advancing LGBTQ+ agenda is creating a strange situation in our culture—the travelers are carrying the donkey, as it were. In insisting that each individual’s felt identity is sacrosanct (so long as that identity is LGBTQ+), we have created a situation where the majority must be effaced to protect the fragile feelings of the minority.

As Christians, we have something to offer to this strange situation. Namely, an important concept lacking in our culture’s vocabulary and view of self: redemption. Redemption insists two things at the same time: (1) each person is broken and (2) each person is redeemable. When the LGBTQ+ movement declares certain identities as inherently right, they have removed the need for redemption. In fact, they find the idea that LGBTQ+ people need redemption (like anybody else) as offensive.

But one of the beautiful advantages of redemption is it helps us hold together the ability to be loving to other people who are different from us (since we need redemption to) and to insist that not everything is right, good, and desirable. Rather than trying to please everyone and ending up in chaos, redemption insists that we all have aspects of our identities which need to be redeemed by God.

Insisting on LGBTQ+ identities as the standard for the good life leads a culture along the strange ride of the opening parable. Something wrong can be found with every version of the ride. Insisting on redemption as the baseline for human identity and society allows space for people to be different while always insisting that each one of our identities needs some amount of overhaul.

And God is able and willing to redeem any identity through Jesus.


[1] This is a mix between a personal translation of the original German and a bit of retelling on my part.

[2] And lest any consider this point sexist, I merely note that at every level of advanced sports with athletes of comparative skill and experience, the issues is with men going to compete in women’s sports, not vice-versa. There are very few sports where female athletes of comparable level can competitively participate against male athletes in a consistent manner.

Searching for…something

box robot yearning for true love

We’re searching for something else,

searching for something more,

we’re searching for something else,

what it is we’re not really sure,

but certainly something more.

Every now and again, a song hits a nerve. It seems to capture in a concise way the mood of a movement, or a group, or a generation. The song “Igendwas” by Yvonne Catterfeld hits a sweet spot in describing this cultural moment (at least for my generation). Yes, the title is funny; that’s because the song is in German. Here is a general-purpose English translation that is good enough to see what it is about (it’s a pretty song, even if you don’t understand German).

Above I have translated the chorus into poetic English. The chorus captures clearly the indecisive yearning which runs throughout the song. A yearning for something or someone that rises beyond the trivial, the temporary, and the cliches of modern life. Catterfeld muses on how we are able to explain the position of the earth, make monuments, take pictures, yet it all fades away. Our pictures don’t give us memory; our monuments don’t make us last; we can explain the rotation of the earth but in our pursuit of explaining ourselves we just keep trashing the world around us. It turns out, doing things and making stuff doesn’t assuage the yearning in our hearts. There must be something more.

In the second verse (sung by another German artist, Bengio), the song moves into reflections of endless indeterminacy. He sings of our longing to find someone who is real, solid, lasting, and who shows us who we are. But even if we found someone who might be able to do that, we can’t stay and learn because staying and learning means we could miss out on something else happening somewhere else. There is always a something else and always a somewhere else and the endless chasing for something leaves us endlessly spinning, finding nothing. Always more and different with the hope that the novel will turn out not just to be novel but categorically different. That in the next novel thing we will actually find the thing which explains ourselves to us. We are dedicated to getting somewhere, finding something, achieving something, but no one knows what that is and no one has the answer to guide us.

A song of our hearts

This song is a song of the human heart. We know, each one of us, that there is something more than what we have. That we were intended for greater than, deeper than, higher than. But in each ascent to the heavens, we find that the beeswax which holds our wings together can’t lift us high enough, and we plunge again into the seas below. As the Christian band The Gray Havens puts it in their song “High Enough:”

'Cause we fly, to the mountain top 
We climb, to the skies above 
We sail, to the stars and up 
But we can't get high, high enough

All around us—and, if we are honest, far too often inside of us—is a world full of people looking to find something. Something else. Something that lasts. Something that shows we are right. Something that shows we have reached as high as there is to reach. Something that shows we have become God.

There is no something we will ever find, though. Not by just following our longings to the next shiny thing.

There is no someone we will ever find, though. Not by trying out someone while endlessly looking for the next someone who might be better.

As much as our hearts were made for delight—and that pursuit of delight stands behind the pursuit of “something”—they were also made for devotion. Devotion is the breeding ground for delight.

The lesser and greater delights

Many delights in life can be found through devotion to a craft. Rejecting the endless pursuit of something else and rooting down here (rather than looking for another “there” to go to) opens up the possibility of delight. Devotion to a place, a people, a project, provides the time and space it takes for delight to grow in our hearts. These lesser delights of life are beautiful and worthy to be savored. We were made for these delights. Yet they are lesser. While worthy, even devotion to these lesser delights will never pull us outside of the endless pursuit of something else. Our hearts are made for something more profound than we can achieve by ourselves.

The greater delight is what we are really seeking for in each throw-away delight, each new relationship, each new experience. But no experience resumé of lesser delights ever adds up to the greater delight. The greater delight is not, in an ultimate sense, something—someone really—to be found by us in our pursuit. The Greater Delight demands instead that he finds us. Until we are worn out on the endless pursuit of some greater lesser delight that might bring contentment, the Greater Delight is unexperienceable.

A master of our hearts

The song Irgendwas colors in the contours of modern life, but can’t make sense of why the picture is always blurry and never resolves. There is a need, in the end, to give up on the pursuit. Not to give up on the pursuit of delight, but to give up believing (hoping against hope) that enough lesser delights will ever equal the Greater Delight.

The great lie of today is that we can both be master of self and enjoy the delight for which we were made.

What our hearts really need, really crave for, is a Master who can guide us into delight. Indeed, who is Greater Delight. As St. Augustine said long ago:

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it resets in you.”

Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Unsplash

Here we are again. Reflections on Buffalo

Here we are again. Another person has decided to take a gun and kill a bunch of people. And it just so happens that this person is strikingly like a lot of other people who have done similar things: a male, white, and sharing a certain racial ideology of the world.

Is this a problem of race? Is this a problem of gender? Is this a problem of gun control? However we talk about and try to answer those questions—and I think that we do need to talk about them and try to answer them—there is some deeper issues that we need to not lose sight of.

The knee-jerk responses of gun-control activists and right-to-bear-arms activists around each mass shooting is to become further entrenched in their own position. To take the new data, integrate it into their existing belief set, and yell louder about how right they are.

The knee-jerk responses around issues of race are the same. Are people racist? Are racial disparities driving everything in our country? Some cry “yes,” and others cry “no,” and what happens in the meantime is more of the same.

The discussions which ensue following such a shooting as just happened in Buffalo (and, don’t forget, several other shootings around the country in that same time period) are predictable. All sides say the same things over and over again. In the clamor over gun control and race/racism, one wonders how much ever will change. How much is even heard?

What do we feel?

It is not my intention here to argue for or against gun control. Of course, if this young man in Buffalo was not able to buy the gun then he would not have been able to shoot so many people. That is self-evidently true, and an important point to wrestle with in forging local, state, and national policy on guns. Yet it is an underwhelming place to focus on.

It is not my intention here to tackle the protracted issue of race and racism. Assuming the reports about the shooter are accurate, it is easy to see he was fanatically racist.

But where does pointing out those self-evident truths leave us? With a pile of dead bodies, ever-growing, and no obvious way out of the course we are on.

As I think about the reports coming out of Buffalo, Southern California, and more, a few things cross my mind.

Sorrow. It pains me to think about the lives that have just been shattered. Those who died. Those who are dying. Those who will now be wrestling with the hurt stemming from a loss of innocence and hope.

Anger. I am angry that we live in a mass-shooting, rinse, and repeat culture. For a saddening list of mass shootings in the US this year, see here.  I am angry that we live in a culture where local kids make plans to go to their schools and shoot people they don’t like. I am angry that too often those plans materialize into reality. I am angry that hopelessness is so rife in our culture that killing others, or killing oneself, seem like good solutions to so many people.

Curiosity. I am curious where the disconnect is in the lives of so many. Where did this young man get the ideas of racial superiority and violence from which somehow made his life make sense? Where does hopelessness come from in the lives of many who take guns to others or to themselves? I wonder what it would be like to sit down with this young man who just killed so many people in Buffalo and have a heart-to-heart conversation asking, “What do you hate so much about yourself and your life that the only way you know to express your pain is in giving deep pain to others?

What do we do now?

I don’t know what to do.

I’m not sure that “doing something” will ever fix what is around us, though I suspect and hope there are lots of ways to improve the cycles of violence and racial ideology which the recent shooter in Buffalo put so clearly back in our view.

I suspect there are policy decisions that could lessen the frequency of gun violence. I suspect there are mental health services which could help. Those are discussions to be had.

Right now, I am more concerned with something deeper. Something whose lack is rather troubling.

Empathy.

The shooter’s racial ideology is completely devoid of empathy. There is no real attempt to consider the lives of black people as other people in the world trying to make their way. Or, if talking in terms of race is too bold for you, there is no real attempt to consider the lives of other human being as people in the world trying make their own way. In the moral imagination of the shooter, it seems these other human beings had little more significance than ants that might be stepped on.

How does one live with so little empathy?

The very act of taking up a gun to shoot other people displays a pronounced lack of empathy. Someone steeped in empathy may fight and kill at times, but understands that fighting and killing is not a way to escape your own pain. Shooting others is not a way out of troubles, not a way out of the prisons you already live in in your deepest being.

What do we do?

Gun control discussions and debates need to happen, and they will. Further discussion and debate about racial ideology needs to happen, and it will. Discussions of mental health, poverty, bullying, socio-economics, etc., need to happen, and will.

These are not, though, and won’t be quick solutions to the problems which lead us to Buffalo. The most recent in a long line of such shootings.

There are no quick solutions. No easy way to go from “here we are” to “there we want to be.”

As I look at the world around us, I am challenged to think of a different question than how do we get white racists to stop shooting black people. I am challenged to think of how we assault the world with the sort of compassionate empathy which Jesus showed, and still shows.

This kind of empathy can rock hearts to their rocky depths.

This is also the empathy that got Jesus killed.

Joseph and cultural normalcy

Remember Joseph? Not Joseph of the famous duo Mary and Joseph, but Joseph the son of Jacob? Joseph of the coat of many colors fame?

In the life of Joseph, we see one who broke the mold and the power which the mold has over everyone living in it. By the “mold” here I mean simply the expectations of the world in which we live and move and have our being. Call it our surroundings, our culture, our reality. Normalcy is the air we breathe, the water we swim in, and any other metaphor you can think of for the matrix within which we live our lives.

Culture.

Culture can be thought of as a corporate way of life constructed out of long practices within a group of people. Culture, in this sense, is the social norms, practices, beliefs, and assumptions which animate the way of life of a particular group of people. We usually only become aware of our culture when we encounter someone who follows a different set of practices, social norms, etc. Culture is engrained and self-evident to us. In a word, culture is powerful.

Joseph breaking conventions

Joseph’s life thwarted the expectations of his culture in many ways. He was the favored son, although not a firstborn. His favored status was painfully obvious to the rest of his family. Joseph’s oblivious father ended up sealing his fate by giving Joseph a gift highlighting his status as the family favorite: a special robe. At this, his brothers took matters into their own hands to reestablish the expected social norm. The logic behind their actions works something like this:

  1. We may not like being the non-favorite, but at least if everyone is playing by the same rules and the firstborn is the default favorite, we are in the same boat as everyone else we know.
  2. Joseph is not the firstborn (in fact, he is number 11 of 12), thus him being the father’s favorite makes life uncomfortable—our family dynamics don’t match up with how they are supposed to be.

The brothers’ dislike of Joseph, fueled by his own rather superior behavior, results in Joseph becoming a slave.

But even as a slave, Joseph breaks the mold. He became a slave who ruled a household, then a prisoner who ran the prison, then who ascended to the very height of power as the de facto ruler of Egypt in matters regarding domestic policy. His life arch is nothing short of astounding and unconventional.

After the family is reunited in Egypt, we get a glimpse into Joseph’s own perspective on his exceptional life. While talking with his brothers—now scarred that he will pay them back for what they did—Joseph acknowledges that the journey he has taken was God’s will, rather than their bare act of jealousy-motivated violence against him (Gen. 50.19-20).

19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

Joseph becoming conventional

But what chiefly interests me right now is how utterly conventional Joseph turns out to be. We see this in chapter 48 when Joseph takes his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to his father Jacob to be blessed. Joseph gits ticked off at his father because he blesses Ephraim with his right hand, even though Ephraim is the younger son. “Come on, dad,” he says, “don’t you know that Manasseh is the firstborn and should have the better (that means “right-handed”) blessing?”

Thinking about the life stories of who is involved here, it is an odd thing for Joseph to get upset about. Joseph is the favored son, despite not being firstborn by a longshot, of the non-firstborn patriarch who deceitfully stole the blessing of the firstborn from his elder brother, Esau, and then sneaked and cheated a fortune for himself. Why on earth would Joseph expect anything conventional in this blessing arrangement?

Culture.

Pure and simple. The firstborn gets the blessing. Even when two such non-conventional persons as Jacob and Joseph are involved, the programming power of culture is nigh on impossible to escape. All his life experience to the contrary, Joseph is as convinced as everyone else around him that the firstborn must receive the greater blessing because that is how things are done.

Living within cultural expectations

Why does this matter for us? It is an interesting story about two dudes who lived a long time ago, and in itself does not have much implication for the further plotline of the Bible. But it has huge implications for understanding less who we are and more how we are.

Just like Joseph, we live in a world of cultural assumptions which shapes and forms us to immense degrees. The values we have about good, bad, justice, poverty, money, rights, conventions, etc., are indelibly imprinted by the situation around us. By our culture. There is little that we think, say, believe, and do, which is not shot through and through with cultural normalcy. Like Joseph, we are capable both of having profound insight into the works of God in our lives and in the world and also be largely blind to what God is doing in the world because our assumptions fall in line with our cultural expectations rather than the eyes of faith.

One of Jesus’ masterstrokes as a teacher is that he asked lots of questions which force his hearers to examine their lives from a different perspective. These questions force us to question our assumptions about reality, of what is good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust, etc.

What are we doing in our lives such that we are being shaped more by our life experience with Jesus than by the default expectations of how the world works which we unconsciously imbibe from our culture?

Stating the problem is a start; answering it takes all that we are.