For Christians, the Trump Presidency Must Be a Call to Arms

trump

In the beginning of the book of Daniel, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar has conquered Jerusalem and taken several noble Jewish children as hostages. Those children were given new names, often ones that implied loyalty to pagan gods – for instance, Daniel (Hebrew for “God is my judge”) was renamed Belteshazzar, which means “May Our Goddess Protect the King.” If you can imagine having a new name forced upon you, and having that name be an insult to your religious heritage, you now have a glimpse of how that might have felt. Likewise, they were forced to embrace a new language and a new culture, and there is even some evidence to suggest that these Jews were castrated. These boys were taken from their families, made to live in a new city, had every aspect of their lives transformed, and may even have had their gender erased.

In the aftermath of Donald Trump winning the presidential election, I have to imagine that many Americans can strongly relate to Daniel and his cohort.

I have to imagine that many minorities racial, ethnic, religious and sexual must feel as though they are on the precipice of seeing their value evaporate and their identities snuffed out.

Donald Trump rode a wave of hateful rhetoric to the most powerful office on the planet, allying himself with white supremacists and neo-Nazis along the way. And while it’s certainly true that not all or even most of Trump’s supporters fit that description, the many that do will now feel emboldened to spread their anti-gospel of wickedness and hate as far as they can.

Ultimately, the book of Daniel has a single underlying theme: that despite present appearances, God is in control. If we believe that God was in control when He put Jerusalem in the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, how much more must He be in control over so much less a man?

In Romans five, Paul reminds us that while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly; that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Too much can be made of terms like “sinners” and “ungodly.” Paul’s point was not so much to point out the moral shortcomings of His audience, but rather to help us feel the overwhelming torrent of the love of God. Instead of thinking of those words with their moral meaning, replace them with their relational significance: when we were still strangers to Him, Christ died for us. When God owed us nothing, He gave us everything.

It goes without saying that with a majority in the House, the Senate, and a “Republican” as President, Republicans and conservatives may feel emboldened to impose a legislative and judicial will on America that will turn American citizens into refugees at home, “an America for me but not for thee.” I hope they resist that urge. I hope the principled members of Congress, regardless of party, resist that urge at every turn. I am optimistic, but not naïve.

Christians need to remember what happened to the heroes of our faith when they fell into the hands of a tyrant. Christians need to remember the astounding grace we received when we were still strangers to God.  Will we extend our love to those who now feel powerless? Will we sacrifice ourselves for those who find themselves pushed to the fringes? Will we affirm and reaffirm the infinite value of every person created in the image of God, which is just a redundant way to say “all of humanity”?

Or will we make those who seem somewhat unlike us feel even less like us, to pursue power as though we think this is “a Gospel for me, but not for thee”?

The Righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go and visit you?”

If Abraham Lincoln was correct, if the real test of a person’s character is how they handle power, these next four years will shine a spotlight on the character of Christians in America. I hope we rise to the challenge. I hope our affiliation with Christ dominates our affiliation with politics. In 2011, Egyptian Muslims formed a human shield around Coptic Christians who wanted to celebrate Christmas, producing one of the most touching photographs I can remember – and the clearest example of Christ-likeness I can think of. I hope American Christians follow their example, and – hand-in-hand – stand between our brothers and sisters and those who mean to hurt them.

coptic

Swallowed Whole By Canvas

v.

The earliest memory I have is of my older brother’s third birthday party, when he got a battery-powered police car that would drive itself in a circle while its siren wailed. I wanted that car so badly I burst into tears on the steps from the kitchen to the porch, hurling myself on the faded flower-patterned tile. Someone – my mother, most likely – retrieved a small wooden recorder and thrust it in my hands, a substitute satisfying enough for a toddler. Apparently all I really wanted was to contribute to the piercing cacophony.

The next coherent memory I can recall is of a dream I had when I was maybe four years old. Everyone I knew – which, considering I was four,  consisted of my grandparents, my mom, my brother and my two sisters – had gathered in the sunny living room of my grandparents’ white one-story postwar rambler, seating me in the middle of the pale yellow davenport. The angled ash tree in the front yard loomed large behind my grandfather, though the sunflowers and petunias of my grandma’s front garden had also crept into view. The room felt warm with love.

I don’t remember who spoke, but I remember the message: we are all from a different place, a world inside a painting in fact, and we all have to go home. And you, Steve, cannot come with. Then I watched in horror as everyone I knew in the world walked to the wall and were swallowed whole by canvas, smudging the watercolors as they passed through. And then I was alone in a suddenly darkened room.

I feel lucky to recall waking up, to remember the relief I felt hearing the sound of bacon crackling in a skillet. Maple syrup still smells like comfort to me.

~

At a movie night not long ago, for some reason my friends and I started talking about gifts. This was a group of friends in which I feel comfortable enough to admit the more awkward aspects of my personality, so I told them that I keep lists about them. “Sooner or later, everyone will tell you what they want,” I said. One of them, for example, had mentioned a handful of records he’d hoped to find on vinyl. Another had, once upon a time, expressed a desire for a particular graphic tee. Shortly after the next movie started, one guest, who’d come after the gifts conversation, blurted out in excitement, “I want that jacket!”

“Exhibit A!” I said in triumph, but everybody else had already moved on from that idea so my self-satisfaction was met with confusion.

Gifts are the most tangible form of love, at least if we categorize our affections by the love languages philosophy. If one were so inclined, it would make sense to ask why I keep notes about ways to match giving to a person but don’t, say, try to keep track of the ways those same friends could be served well, or what forms of verbal affirmation make them feel especially honored, or what kinds of touch are especially comforting to them – or if they are comfortable with any touch at all. Perhaps that’s an area where mental notes are best.

One time I told a friend that my love language, or at least the tongue that speaks loudest and most clearly, is quality time. Just enjoying someone’s company, knowing that they are enjoying mine, no matter what we are doing, swells me up like a balloon. (The next time I saw her, she told me she thought we should spend less time together. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more hurt by such a simple sentence.) Is it any surprise? I’ve had dreams of abandonment since I was four years old.

In A Grief Observed, CS Lewis’ panicked, scribbling attempt to navigate himself through the death of his wife, Lewis noticed that his need to feel comforted by God was preventing him from feeling any comfort at all.

You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears. You can’t, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately: anyway, you can’t get the best out of it. ‘Now! Let’s have a real good talk’ reduces everyone to silence. ‘I must get a good sleep tonight’ ushers in hours of wakefulness. Delicious drinks are wasted on a really ravenous thirst…. And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.

My pleading mantra, uttered in rhythm to every heartbeat – even before I could understand the concept – has been, “Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.” What a fool I’ve been. I’ve had a clutching vice grip around nothingness and all the while the Eternal One has been waiting patiently to sweep me into His loving arms.

Fishes and Loaves

1.

In Exodus 16, we find the Hebrew nation entering what was called the Wilderness of Sin. Most Biblical scholars agree that the name of that particular desert was not a reference to moral failing, but rather to the Assyrian moon god Su’en/Sin. Whether the term is a literary coincidence or God has a sneaky sense of humor is another matter. Either way, in the month or so since their escape from Egypt, they had experienced an adventure that included the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea as well as having pillars of cloud and fire acting as their personal vanguards. The Hebrews went without water as they crossed through the desert Shur. Once in Sin, they found themselves running out of food. And so they grumbled. It is interesting to me that the Hebrew word used here for “grumble” can also mean “to murmur” or “to dwell.” Perhaps that’s a clever turn of phrase, painting the image of thousands of people – a nation that common sense would suggest should be living in a state of wonder and gratitude – pitching their tents with poles made of whining and tent cloths of snivel.

To be fair, with three thousand years of history between us and the unequaled comfort and excess of American wealth, it’s easy for me to say that they should have had the faith and foresight that God would provide. I have never faced starvation, or even really anything more than mild hunger. And it’s worth noting that, for all their bellyaching, the Israelites weren’t questioning God, but Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

Either way, God heard their grumbling and intervened, sending a flock of quail into their camp that night (quail are notoriously easy to catch, even without nets, after they have exhausted themselves from flight) and arranging for white, honey-flavored flecks of bread to hitch a ride with the morning dew. That manna was only good for one day is a nice, but subtle, reminder that we must collect God’s provision daily: we cannot “store” it for later use. “At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.”

2.

When the disciples encountered a hungry assembly, it was not the people who were grumbling but the disciples themselves. Crowds had followed them to Bethsaida (literally, “the house of fish”), a town along the Upper Jordan River, near the Sea of Galilee. Luke says that Jesus welcomed the crowd, speaking of the Kingdom of God and healing everyone who needed healing – that is, He addressed both the spiritual and physical needs of those who came to Him. But in the late afternoon, the twelve apparently needed a break, so they asked Jesus to disperse the crowd. “We are in a desert place. Send them away so they can get food and lodging.”

“You give them something to eat,” Jesus replied. Charles Spurgeon found this to be noteworthy. Commenting on the parallel account in John 6, he asked, “How often does Christ seem to ask us riddles, and places us in difficulties, so that we begin to say, ‘What will come of this? How shall we escape from this temptation; or how shall we stand under this trial?” In that moment, Jesus already had a plan, though it was not yet clear to His disciples.

“All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish.” Perhaps I cannot escape our current strain of cultural irreverence, but one can almost hear the sarcasm in their voices: “Unless we are to go and buy food for all of them.”

Jesus instructed the disciples to have the assembled mass sit in groups of about fifty each. Then, from five loaves and two fish, Jesus pulled enough bread and meat to feed five thousand, with twelve baskets leftover.

3.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus immediately follows the feeding of the five thousand with the question, “Who do you say that I am?” This did not happen by accident. This question should have been the hermeneutical equivalent of an uncontested layup. “All right guys, I just miraculously fed a multitude in the desert. Who am I?” To his credit, Simon Peter gets the answer right. “You are the Christ of God.”

That He even asked the question fascinates me. To this point, they have seen Jesus fill their nets with fish, heal all varieties of dreadful ailments, calm a storm with a verbal command, cast out demons, and display the authority to forgive sins. And now He has miraculously fed a multitude in a desert with meat and bread. Haven’t you figured this out yet? It is in perfect parallel to the Jews in Exodus. “You’ve seen all this. Here’s one more thing. Now you know that I am God.”

But again, the point, I think, isn’t to look back in condescension on the disciples for being a little slow. The point is to illustrate a truth to us: that we have a cheat sheet, and we get it wrong all the time. Daily, even hourly, we reveal our practical atheism as we live as though we believe that Jesus is not the Christ of God. We can see the majestic expanse of the universe, from the unthinkable complexity of the simplest cells to jaw-dropping majesty of distant cosmos, and we still turn away and do in secret what we’d be ashamed for others to know. To borrow a line from Batman, when the Lord of all creation nudges us and asks, “Who do you say that I am?” it is not what we say, but what we do that reveals our answer.

Unrelated Charlton Heston publicity still

Unrelated Charlton Heston publicity still

Half-Measure Christianity

One of my favorite monologues in television history comes from the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad’s third season, called “Half Measures.” Mike Ehrmantraut, the private investigator/personal body guard to drug kingpin Gus Fring, is trying to convince Walter White to let Fring’s organization kill Walt’s partner Jesse. Mike’s argument recalls his days as a beat cop (according to the show, he was a cop in Philadelphia; according to his speech, he drove out into the desert. I’m not sure there are deserts around Philadelphia), having to handle domestic disturbances. In one case, convinced a battered woman would never leave her abuser, Mike takes him into a secluded area and threatens to kill him unless he stops beating his wife. “Just trying to do the right thing,” Mike lamented. “But two weeks later, he killed her…. The moral of the story is, I chose I half measure when I should have gone all the way.”

Hold that thought.

One of the unique and compelling aspects of Christianity is that it instructs us to focus on God and to examine ourselves. It doesn’t give us license to shame one another. It doesn’t teach us that we deserve to be treated a certain way interpersonally, nor does it imply that we can demand any such behavior. On the contrary, the Gospel teaches us how I, Christian, should respond no matter how I am treated. Rather than demanding not to be cursed, I must bless those that curse me. Instead of returning vitriol for hate, God tells me to do good to those who hate me. Far from protecting me the people who oppose me and my beliefs, I am taught to pray for them. Christianity, in its essence, is about transforming me, you, us into the likeness of the living God.

This is important to note. One of the core teachings of Christianity is that we must forgive each other. Why? Because no matter how badly someone has wronged us, we have wronged God infinitely more. “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had mercy on you?” God asks, in the form of a parable, in Matthew 18. In response to that parable, Peter asked Jesus, “How often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus replies, “Not up to seven times, but seventy times seven.” (A lot of commentary has been made about how Jesus wasn’t giving Peter a math test but just saying, “Just keep doing it. Don’t stop. It doesn’t matter how many times he sins against you. Keep forgiving.”) Aaron Weiss takes this to the logical conclusion: “But grace, we all know, can take the place of all we owe. So why not let’s forgive everyone, everywhere, everything?”

But some of us, without even thinking about it, take this idea past its end point. Instead of stopping there, and directing this teaching inward to say, “I must forgive my neighbor,” we twist it to point outward: “My neighbor must forgive me.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. That’s true, but only to a point. We are not allowed to use the teachings of Christ to manipulate the behavior of fellow Christians – or anyone else for that matter. If you harm your friend or neighbor, it’s not on you to demand forgiveness from him or her. Your job is to repent, ask forgiveness, and be willing to offer atonement for the harm you caused. When Zacchaeus, the tax collector, came to Jesus and said, “Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will restore it fourfold,” Jesus didn’t say, “Nah, it’s cool. It’s their job to forgive you for that.” Instead, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Tim Keller teaches that forgiveness, typically speaking, is hard. “(Forgiveness) is a form of suffering. You not only suffer the original loss of happiness, reputation, and opportunity, but now you forgo the consolation of inflicting the same on them. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out of the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say that it feels like a kind of death.” (Keller goes on to dispel the idea that forgiveness is just “letting go” of a gripe, or what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Forgiveness is refusing to let the other person pay the cost of a debt; the cost still must be paid, though, and the greater the debt the greater the burden of paying it. “Everyone who forgives someone bears the other’s sins.”)

You could argue that I am overstepping. After all, this is at best an inference rather than an explicit teaching of the Gospel. But I think the foundation is there. In Romans 13, Paul teaches us, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Love is, by nature, proactive. Waiting for someone to forgive on their own accord is passive. It is half-measure Christianity. In Matthew 5, Jesus says that if you are at the alter offering a sacrifice and remember that a brother or sister has a gripe with you, you are to leave your offering until you’ve reconciled with that person. Only then can you come back and present your offering.

I think Kierkegaard hit the point right on the nose: “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” If we direct the word of God at anyone without first – and thoroughly – directing it at ourselves, we have missed the mark. You are responsible for your pursuit of righteousness. No more half measures, Christian.

Ehrmentrout

Glass Cases

“The only way of catching a train I have ever discovered is to miss the train before.”
– G.K. Chesterton

I hope you’ll bear with me as a craft a dubious distinction. I want to differentiate between “value” on the one hand and “worth” on the other. Whether or not such wordplay survives past the end of this blog post doesn’t much matter to me; I just can’t think of another way to express what’s on my mind. If it strikes you as the literary equivalent of building sandcastles at low tide, so be it. But let me have my fun.

I’m not sure I can tease out this nuance without giving a relatable example and abstracting from there. Think of a custom-built acoustic guitar made by a famous luthier, one with a Brazilian rosewood body, the finish so perfect and lustrous you can see your reflection in it. Its value would be easy to identify: it’s whatever one would pay for such an instrument, likely several thousand dollars. Its worth, though, is somewhat harder to pin down. If a person buys such an instrument only to lock it in a glass case – to see but not to touch – if it is only used for its image, then its worth is the same as a photograph of the same guitar. A guitar is often made to be beautiful, yes, but more than that it is supposed to generate beauty and captivating vibrations. It’s designed to convey a beauty that is independent of its own existence. Its worth is in how it is used: it can play a song that will tickle your ears for the rest of your life, or it can be trapped behind glass – or worse, never taken out of its case.

This distinction came to mind when I was thinking about my mom’s recovery from cancer. As I prayed for her remission and recovery, I found myself oddly uncomfortable with finding relief in that. It’s easy to recognize as an abstract truth that we will all die someday, and my mother is no exception. Any recovery is only temporary. Whether cancer is her ultimate undoing or it’s something else entirely, dying will always be part of life. The value of  my mother’s life is defined by being alive, but her worth is separate from that definition. Her worth comes from how she touches and inspires the people around her. Her worth comes in how well she functions in the role God’s given her: to point to God and give Him praise.

Three nights ago was the first time I’ve ever laid awake in bed worrying about the future. A case could be made, of course, that the two tequila palomas and the can of Day Tripper played a role in my insomnia, but it seems to me that a milligram of worry is more discomforting than a stone slab of a bed. And worry is what I felt. Worry that the cycle of debt and repayment will be the only state I’ll know. Worry like I’m squandering my life and my talents. Worry that ten years from now everything will be the way it is now. It felt like being harnessed to a wall and told to run away from it.

Though it’s common and even natural to yearn for comfort and ease, it’s also the equivalent of a guitar asking to be forever locked in its case. There’s a famous quote from Lou Holtz: “Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.” I think he’s onto something, although I would amend it slightly. My worth doesn’t come from avoiding challenges or adversity. Nor does my worth come from overcoming adversity. My worth comes from how I handle those trials. Difficulties, setbacks, adversity… those are just words for the opportunity to play a captivating tune, and to point to God while doing so.

Olson

It Is Well

If there’s a running theme in many of my favorite songs, it’s that the lyrics mean something. They’re elegant, yes, but also significant. There is a special class of songs where the emotional weight to those songs shifted significantly after I learned the backstory or the context in which the songs were written. For example, Cloud Cult’s “Pretty Voice” takes on a new poignancy when you learn that it’s a song about the death of singer Craig Minowa’s two-year old son. The line, “This is the lifelong song we’re all singing: It’s been so long since I’ve heard that pretty voice” now brings tears to my eyes every single time. Learning that “The Mistress Witch from McClure” is about how Sufjan Stevens catching his father in adultery brings to the forefront a melancholy that was slumbering in the background. “It is Well with My Soul” also belongs in this category.

“It is Well with My Soul” was written by a 19th Century American attorney named Horatio Spafford. In 1873, following the death of his only son and his financial ruin due to the Great Chicago Fire, Spafford sent his wife and four daughters to Europe. Horatio stayed behind to tend to some lingering business matters. As it was crossing the Atlantic, their boat, the Ville du Havre, collided with a Scottish clipper called the Loch Earn. The Ville de Havre sank. All four of Spafford’s daughters died. (His wife survived and sent him a telegram reading “Saved alone.”) When Spafford sailed to meet his grieving wife, he passed near to the spot where the Ville de Havre sank and was moved to write the lyrics to the now-famous hymn.

Knowing the tragic background, I can’t help but read those lyrics with a renewed intensity and heartrending awe. It is not easy to be joyful in the midst of death or suffering, and the notion that, whatever our circumstances, we should be content in God is both difficult and beautiful. Knowing the writer himself suffered so acutely makes that notion a little easier to swallow.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

It is well with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet,
though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!

And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

Spafford

Building Christ-Centered Friendships

“To do even the most humbling tasks to the glory of God takes the Almighty God Incarnate working in us.”
– Oswald Chambers

In Christian culture, we put a lot of weight on making our dating relationships “Christ-centered” or “God glorifying” or “holy.” This is good so far as it goes, and I am well aware that modern dating presents some serious danger zones for couples who want to build intimacy while preserving their sexual purity. That being said, most of the advice you’ll find online is restrictive rather than prescriptive: these articles are largely lists telling teens and young adults to avoid physical touch, or to spend less time alone and more time in groups. (I did find one article that suggested watching chick flicks together as a good way to make your relationship Christ-centered. For some reason.)

I also don’t think it goes far enough. Putting Christ front and center in our relationships is not only about maintaining purity. That just puts the cart before the horse. Charles Spurgeon said that love for God is obedience and holiness. But holiness and obedience are not by themselves love for God. (If that’s unclear, think of it this way: maintaining a healthy diet probably means not eating KFC Double Downs, but not eating Double Downs by itself does not necessarily make for a healthy diet.) That is to say, if we fail to make Jesus the focal point of our relationships, then we have fallen short of what our relationships are meant to be even if we maintain sexual purity within them.

Google Snip

It discourages me to see that when we refer to Christ-centered relationships we almost always mean romantic relationships. If we were to make a practice of putting Christ at the center of all of our relationships, then it wouldn’t be so challenging to do so in our romantic relationships. Jesus said in Luke 16, “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.” The food writer Michael Ruhlman has a great anecdote about visiting Chef Thomas Keller’s restaurant Per Se. “Just the other day, Thomas was so proud to show me how they use painter’s tape in the kitchen,” he said. Rather than tearing tape off of the roll in order to label the plastic food containers, every piece of tape is cut with scissors so that every edge is perfectly straight. “Because it’s all one thing to Thomas. You can’t be lax in one area and perfect in another.” Likewise, if you think you are putting Christ front and center in your dating relationships but aren’t doing the same thing in your other relationships, you are kidding yourself. It’s all or nothing.

But what does a Christ-centered friendship look like? If it’s not about obedience to a set of rules, then what is it? I cannot write a comprehensive description, but I think I can offer some guidelines that will help us on our way.

1) In Christ-centered friendships, we constantly and intentionally point the other person to Christ. We can do this explicitly by imitating Christ, and thus being as Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1 (“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”) We can lead each other to praise God in our good times and to lean on God in times of trouble and to remember God when things are typical. In the mewithoutYou song “Messes of Men,” Aaron Weiss sings to God, “If ever You come near, I’ll hold up high a mirror. Lord I could never show you anything as beautiful as You.” In the same way, we cannot show each other any greater beauty or kindness than to point to Jesus.

2) In Christ-centered friendships, we must consistently serve one another. In John 13:34, Jesus tells His disciples, “In the same way I have loved you, you are to continue loving one another.” Whether it’s in encouragement when the other is down, in calling them out when they are slipping up, or sharing a burden in a time of need, there are constant opportunities to express, to share, and to embody love in each other’s lives. Even if we feel helpless or overwhelmed, God is not limited by our constraints. I love the way Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) put it: “When God makes His presence felt through us, we are like the burning bush: Moses never took any heed what sort of bush it was—he only saw the brightness of the Lord.”

3) In Christ-centered friendships, we have to prioritize the other person’s spiritual growth. This is related to the first entry, but different enough to warrant its own. We need to encourage each other to be actively growing in knowledge of God, engaging in acts of worship, and expressing the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). In “Mere Christianity,” CS Lewis wonders, “if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?” We have to be constantly reminded of what we believe. We practice our faith like an athlete exercises. If it’s only sporadic it will soon become sluggish. A short time after that, worthless. Teammates hold each other accountable in this way; Christ-centered friends hold each other accountable in this way.

John Piper said, “If all the universe and everything in it exist by the design of an infinite, personal God, to make his manifold glory known and loved, then to treat any subject without reference to God’s glory is insurrection.” Piper was referring to academic scholarship, but his point extends beyond academia. If we are serious about the supremacy of God, then we must also seek to glorify God through building Christ-centered friendships.

Finding Meaning in Pain

Yesterday, an acquaintance of mine sent me this e-mail.

“Hi,

I remember talking to you a few times at NWC and I like the way you write. I used to be a Christian and now find myself in a muddled heap of emotional “openness” to some idea of divinity, all the while openly rejecting the common fundamental principles of Christianity. Practically speaking, my beliefs hold no contention that any God or divine nature exists, but I would be lying if I were to deny that at times my general self as a whole, that my emotions and thoughts and such, wonder about the whole idea.

I just wanted to ask you what your answer would be about the “Problem of Evil” commonly discussed as a rejection of the idea of a good God existing.

Thanks!”

This is my reply.

I could never really stomach philosophy. I tried. I thought for a long time that in order to be considered learned and intellectual I needed to know Sartre, Descartes, or Spinoza. But I found that as my eyes dragged limp across the page my mind was waltzing with livelier partners. Football, for instance. Music. Film. It seemed like their effort to be detached and dispassionate sucked the life and emotion out of their writing. On the list of subjects I could not find interesting, philosophy finds itself between physics and accounting.

That’s certainly not to condescend to the discipline. The people who thrive in that headspace have my respect. Rather, that’s to say that I can’t adequately answer the “Problem of Evil” in a philosophical sense or even an apologetic one. I don’t have the background or tools to write argumentatively or convincingly about those questions. I am uninformed and even naïve about that topic. If you want a rigorous discussion of theodicy or such, I don’t have much to offer. All I can offer is my personal perspective from my unique blend of spiritual assumptions and life experience.

I remember stumbling on an idea I liked during my senior year at Northwestern. It dawned on me that the only way God can really communicate His personality and attributes is through metaphor. Metaphor needs framework. In order to say that the Lord is like a shepherd, we first need to know what sheep are. We also need wolves to devour them. Without wolves (or other predators, for those inclined to beg the question), there is no need for a shepherd and the reference loses its meaning. That is my first proposition: In order to know God, we must have a set of experiences to draw from; those experiences by their very nature must include pain. The second proposition follows from the first: Since our experience involves pain and suffering, the value of knowing God must be worth more than it costs.

Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, spoke at a memorial service for the families of those who died in the terrorist attacks on 9/11. He said,

One of the great themes of the Hebrew Scriptures is that God identifies with the suffering. There are all these great texts that say things like this: If you oppress the poor, you oppress me. I am a husband to the widow. I am father to the fatherless. I think the texts are saying God binds up his heart so closely with suffering people that he interprets any move against them as a move against him.

That is my third proposition: God is with us in our pain. God suffers Himself: He redeems and transforms it. As John Stott wrote, “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the Cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”

Sometimes people (unfairly) question the faith of those who struggle with depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses. There’s a quote from CS Lewis about that I keep coming back to. “Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don’t agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ.” Pain, suffering, affliction… none of them are meaningless unless we refuse to give them meaning. The pastor of my church, Steve Treichler, constantly impresses upon us, “God never wastes pain.” (He usually is shouting when he says it.) If feeling rejected gives me a glimpse of understanding into God’s desire to be known, then I count it a lesson well-learned.

I don’t know if this helps you. I suspect it doesn’t. These are just the points that made me comfortable with the notion of evil and suffering on a personal level. Your unique makeup and trials likely mean that these don’t apply perfectly to you. But believing that my pain enables me to know God where I couldn’t before, that I get an excellent rate of return on that investment, that God is with me when I suffer, and that He never wastes pain…. When I thought of it that way, no momentary hardship seemed too hard to swallow.

As I was thinking about what I wanted to write, I kept thinking back to a quote I vaguely remember from Tom Junod. I couldn’t find it online, so I can only paraphrase. Junod argued that much of the animal rights movement is borne from a separation from the realities of living on a farm. He argued from there that, similarly, the rise of pacifism comes from a generation of people who never had to serve as soldiers. It made me think the relative comfort and ease of modern life has left many people too sensitive to the realities of it. Surviving the Holocaust led Victor Frankl to find meaning in all circumstances and base a new psychotherapy on that premise. I can’t turn it into a sweeping claim, but there seems to be an inverse correlation between how much pain we endure and our ability to find meaning in it. (That is not to trivialize any individual’s experience; it is a cultural observation, not a personal one.)

I don’t know if I can offer much more than that. I can, however, recommend a couple excellent books. Tim Keller wrote a book called “Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering.” And CS Lewis’ “A Grief Observed” was an absolutely transformative book for me. I read it in a single sitting and then slept twelve hours straight in total comfort. If you haven’t read those, I highly recommend them.

Suits, Leggings, and Modesty

One of my favorite metaphors is the scissors. CS Lewis used it to illuminate the relationship between faith and works. In Mere Christianity, he wrote, “Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or faith in Christ … it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary.” (One could use that to rephrase James 2: “Faith without works can’t cut.”) I have used it personally to talk about balance in football, the need for both visual and emotional impact in art, and even for something as simple as talking and listening in communication. The image is as versatile as the tool itself.

Yesterday, several of my friends shared a satirical blog post about modesty called “When Suits Become a Stumbling Block.” (As of this writing, the account has been suspended.) By swapping out women in leggings for men in suits, the author highlighted the absurdity of the notion that women are categorically responsible for male lust. “I am issuing a plea to my brothers in Christ for an understanding of where I’m coming from. When you choose to exist in public looking well-groomed and sharp, you are basically extending an invitation for me to lust after you.” After all, Jesus said to tear out your eye if it causes you to lust; He didn’t say, “Go tell the women to change their outfits.”

At first, I nodded in agreement. But the more I thought about the post, the more it bothered me. I realized that both the “traditional” side of the modesty argument and its counterpoint are approaching it the wrong way. Both sides want to put the responsibility onto the other party. Both sides have reasonable arguments to make. Neither side submits to the other in humility and love.

If you look at another person in lust and say to yourself, “They are causing me to sin, they need to change,” you are wrong. The burden is on you to stop sinning. Have you resisted lust to the point of shedding blood? Are you doing everything in your power to keep lustful thoughts out of your mind and heart? Of course you aren’t. On the flip side, are you so cavalier to sin – or attached to a particular mode of dress – that you will stubbornly cling to it even after it becomes contentious? Do you prefer your leggings or low-cut blouse (or, yes, killer suit) to the chastity of your brother or sister in Christ?

The “stumbling block” from the title refers to a passage in Romans 14. “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or a hindrance in the way of a brother.” If you read this verse and think it applies to the other side and not to you, you are reading it wrong. Put it on yourself. This applies equally to all of us. The modesty-inclined camp needs to stop passing judgment and decide to never put the stumbling block of “responsibility” onto another. The same goes for the liberty-inclined. Stop judging someone for their weakness; determine yourself to love them if you can. In our constant push back and forth on this issue, we are letting stubbornness and pride take hold where love should reign. Shame on us.

Don’t think I am advocating any mode of dress or that I am saying any of this is easy or straightforward. Your standard shouldn’t be a length or type of fabric. What I am saying, rather, is we need to own the responsibility for both blades of these scissors. Do we ask ourselves both, What do I need to do in order to kill sin in my life? Am I making every effort I can to do that? Am I accepting responsibility for the state of my heart? and What am I doing that might be causing my brother or sister to stumble? How can I change? Am I willing to give up something I enjoy for their sake?

Paul continues, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died…. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”

Don Draper and the Art of Loneliness

1.

In the pictures available for Victor Frankl, his hair is combed straight back and he’s wearing horn-rimmed glasses that would have been very much en vogue these last few years. Fankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who had the great misfortune of being Jewish in Nazi-occupied land. According to UCLA psychiatrist Paul Puri, “back then the common wisdom of the time was that if you take away people’s food and shelter and everything else, they’ll devolve into animals and they’ll tear each other apart to survive.” But Fankl witnessed something different. “They were very generous with each other, and they gave food to each other even when they were starving.” Frankl and his wife ended up at Auschwitz. She did not survive. This is what he wrote about her in his 1959 book “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

“The salvation of Man is through love and in love.” To pursue salvation in any other form is, to borrow a tired metaphor, hitching rides on sinking lifeboats. And it’s the best way for me to understand Mad Men’s Donald Draper.

2.

I don’t know if Donald Draper is running to something or running from something, but he is always on the move. He goes to war in Korea to get away from his abusive familial life in Pennsylvania. He hounds Roger Sterling until Sterling gives him a job. He is always pursuing the perfect pitch, and when the afterglow of a sale wears off and his discontentment resumes, he seeks satisfaction in sexual escapades. According to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, Donald Draper represents the “split message” given the American male. “You are told that you, to be attractive, on the the one hand you have to be a Little League coach, and PTA guy, great husband, great dad; on the other hand, you are supposed to smoke as much, drink as much and get laid as much as possible. Those two messages are being sent at the same time.” Draper is the existential dilemma that arises from trying to be everything other people are telling you to be.

But that is not the only duality in Donald Draper. Externally he is a man that has everything we are meant to want: a high-paying job, considerable power, a beautiful wife and children, a luxury car. But internally he feels the sort of loneliness that Mother Teresa described as “the most terrible poverty.” Aaron Vallely takes it a step further. “A state of loneliness is not something we share in conversation with each other, something seen by some as a weakness, concealed as embarrassing and shameful in our hard culture of success and popularity. Loneliness is an anonymous heckler, a merciless colonizer, a savage presence.” Donald Draper believes himself  to be not only alone, but fundamentally unknowable. Whether by happenstance or design, Donald Draper is a placeholder for our broader discontentment. He enables us to ignore our own riches and focus on our poverty.

In Don’s quintessential Kodak Carousel pitch (seriously, watch it), he talks about the dichotomy between the “new” and nostalgia, and how a Greek copywriter named Teddy taught him to harness them in advertising. “Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” Don doesn’t need the new to create an itch: he is constantly agitated by his own existence. “This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again…. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.”

3.

Love is the ultimate goal to which Man can aspire. Bertrand Russell put it another way. “Love is something far more than desire for sexual intercourse; it is the principal means of escape from the loneliness which afflicts most men and women throughout the greater part of their lives.” In a bizarre way, both Frankl and Russell turn love into a version of the calamine lotion that Don references. Is love the capacity to know bliss when we have nothing left in the world? Is love our means of escape from loneliness? They are right, of course, that love offers these beauties and benefits. But that view is something like saying the value of a car is in its heated leather seats. It misses the point entirely. I don’t mean to sell either man short: I don’t think that’s the ax they were grinding. And it’s a beautiful thing that the image of Frankl’s wife gave him strength and invigorated his will to live. Love, properly understood, is our Salvation. But the pursuit of love, the pursuit of feeling loved, could just as easily be our destruction.

I promised myself that I’d never use this oft-quoted passage from The Four Loves by CS Lewis, but it fits. “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

To revisit Frankl, “In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

Don Draper