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.