No More Little Boy’s/Girl’s Room

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The Obama administration issued a clear statement this past week encouraging schools nationwide to allow students to use the bathroom which matches their gender identity. In case there is any confusion, this is a change from the previous understanding of bathroom usage – that students would use the bathroom which matches their biological sex. While no law has yet been established, the implication was that federal funding would be cut to schools who refuse compliance.

As though American politics weren’t polarizing enough, delving into the bathroom lives of citizens was a guarantee to create additional angst. Students around the country are starting to protest. My own church body, which maintains a very large school system, is even starting to face some outside pressure.

Clearly our country is encountering some gender hurt right now. Many people on either side of the issue feel unheard and unconcerned for. Media coverage is not helping, but it’s also not the media’s job to help. It’s the media’s job to cover legitimate news.

In honor of Pentecost (this past Sunday’s celebration), however, it IS the Church’s job to offer hope, peace, comprehensible truth, and radical unity, guided by the example, sacrifice, and grace of Christ.

So, since this has quickly become a political issue (as seemingly all are becoming today), let me phrase it like this:

To my friends on the Left…

I think there exists a caricature of the Right – that they fear transgender individuals using bathrooms because “What if they abuse little children?” I haven’t seen any evidence that a transgender individual has any greater likelihood of sexually assaulting someone (minor or adult) and therefore if someone legitimately has this concern, it would seem unfounded.

That said, bathroom behavior that matches gender identity does, however, seemingly create a greater risk. This is because it unquestionably offers greater access to those who seek to do sexual harm to others.

Say, for instance, that a male sexual predator wants to molest a little girl. Since there’s no way to police gender identity, that man now has significantly closer proximity to a vulnerable young woman in a state of undress. This is like the “no junk food in the house” diet rule. Proximity to temptation (i.e. access), creates greater likelihood of transgression. In this case, it would undeniably involve a victim.

So…for the sake of maintaining an important barrier that protects potential victims, does the willingness on behalf of some to use private bathrooms seem unreasonable?

To my friends on the Right…

I think there exists a caricature of the Left – that they not only want bathroom access for transgender individuals, but they want conservative religious people to suffer. If that were true, it’d obviously be a severe form of bullying in a land where we’re supposedly free to coexist with varying beliefs.

But, by and large, my impression is that those in the transgender community don’t have an agenda to torture others. They simply want others to understand some of the pain and ostracization that they themselves have felt, and show some sympathy and humanity towards it.

I can’t imagine what it’d be like to feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body – my brain and impulses communicating one thing and yet my physiology saying another. That has to be a source of immense internal tension. Feeling like the weight and hostility and judgment of the religious world is piling on you I would assume only aggravates the frustration.

So…for the sake of some tender human spirits who have endured a struggle that most of us can’t begin to comprehend, does it seem unreasonable to listen and perhaps reconsider our public bathroom options?

To all my friends…

Anger, panic, and frustration do little for quality decision-making. It often leads to unnecessary either/or thinking.

In the short-term, I hope we can take the emotion out of this issue and come up with some workable solutions. For instance, I’m not sure why we can’t move to an all private bathroom system. As it is, public situations like YMCA locker rooms have always felt shockingly closer to Roman Baths than modern safety and hygiene for my comfort. In 2016, when 90% of people are literally walking around with a video camera, more private places for private parts just makes sense. (Incidentally, that’s also my 2020 campaign slogan, by the way – Make America’s Parts Private Again)

Will it cost money to renovate all these public spaces? Yes, of course. There is always a cost to more peaceful human relations. It’s worth it. And both sides of this issue seem passionate enough that they’d be willing to put their money where their mouths are.

In the long run, I’m going to continue encouraging Christians to consider and reconsider their approach to social influence. The great American evangelist, Vince Havner, once said,

“We are not going to move this world by criticism of it nor conformity to it, but by the combustion within it of lives ignited by the Spirit of God.”

It’s always amazed me that when Jesus was asked a question about paying taxes to Caesar, he nonchalantly said, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Matt. 22:21) He literally encouraged paying taxes to the very government that would unjustly crucify him! And yet he obviously still didn’t consider that “approving of sin.”

Jesus’ approach to changing the world was not political. It wasn’t forceful. It was self-sacrificial. Jesus never condoned nor dismissed sin. But he also didn’t publicly condemn “sinners.” (John 8:11) Instead, he inconvenienced himself all the way to hell so that those who were in the wrong might experience grace, have their hearts melted, repent and be saved.

It worked. It’s happened a billion times. Including to me.

And I’m convinced that the ones who realize this grace are the only ones who can bring this awful public dialogue out of the toilet.

Atheist Believers

tyson1Neil deGrasse Tyson recently hosted the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of Natural History. The topic was whether or not our universe is a simulation.

This might sound strange and silly at first glance, but an awareness of consciousness has been an essential part of western philosophy ever since Rene Descartes first posited, “I think, therefore I am.”

In more recent history, the highly acclaimed Matrix movie franchise brought this topic of consciousness into the American mainstream. It continues to be a source of fascination, especially for academics like Tyson and his PhD friends on stage – cosmologists, astrophysicists, and philosophers.

Over the course of the two-hour debate, the conversation eventually drifted to the nature of “The Simulator” behind the simulation. At the 51:40 mark in the debate video (linked below), on one of the experts says,

“Who knows if there’s actually a simulator doing any of this. But if you do take the simulation hypothesis seriously, it’s got a couple of elements of a traditional god. This person could be all-knowing about our universe and could be all-powerful. The one thing which is probably missing…is wisdom and benevolence. (looks to the sky) If there is a simulator, I refuse to worship you. You may be out there but you have not established yourself as being worthy of worship!”

This is met with laughter by the panelists on stage and some awkward support from people in the audience.

However, when you arrive at the 1:39:30 mark, Neil deGrasse Tyson begins his closing remarks. Sobering the group up, he says that humans have a certain hubris about our understanding of and interaction with the universe. He makes the case that though we have a high percentage of DNA overlap with chimpanzees, dogs, etc., we look at those animals as very stupid comparatively. He continues,

“What if we found some life form that was an equal gap between us and the chimpanzee, but beyond us instead of below us? What would we look like to them? We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence.”

This is met by sheepish quiet and defensive posture from the panelists, and an obvious curiosity from the audience.

Winding down his concluding statement, Tyson adds:

 “And if that’s the case, it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just the creation of some other entity for their entertainment. I’m saying, the day we learn that it is true, I will be the only one in the room saying, ‘I’m not surprised.'”

Ooookkkaaay. So….the more I read leading atheist voices, the more I continue to see myself as being forever indebted to them. Tyson, along with Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Hawking, etc. are simply producing the best material out there for theo-apologetics. This debate is no exception.

Tyson, though claimed by many atheists, rather considers himself an agnostic.

But any way you slice it, he currently doesn’t believe in God. Despite that, taking out some of the pejorative “for their entertainment” verbiage, Tyson also just said in the debate, “it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just the creation of some other entity…I’m saying, the day we learn that it is true, I will be the only one in the room saying, ‘I’m not surprised.'” 

Uhhh…Nope. That’s not true. Maybe when saying “I will be the only one in the room” Tyson is referring very narrowly to the audience at the AMNH debate. But if he’s trying to claim insider knowledge on a divine creating being (i.e. Simulator), I’m calling NONSENSE. I’m sorry, Columbus, but you can’t land in America, look some Native Americans in the eye, call them Indians, and then claim you’re some genius explorer. All you are is last to the table. And it’s insulting and patronizing to the natives to say you discovered the place.

Why do I care what Neil deGrasse Tyson has to say? For those who don’t know, Tyson was the driving force behind the new Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey series. Not only was it wildly successful in ratings and won a Peabody for educational content, but it’s now frequently being shown in public school classrooms around the country as a scientific basis for understanding the universe. It’s not particularly friendly toward a biblical worldview, as Tyson himself is not. In other words, Tyson is to kids of this generation what Bill Nye was to kids of the 90s – the single largest scientific academic influence on American youth, helping to shape an anti-God worldview.

Tyson is totally likable, by the way. He’s not only extraordinarily well-versed in a variety of scientific fields, but as a brilliant educator, he has an exceptional talent for breaking down complicated data into palatable sizes that even children (or I) can understand. What he doesn’t understand, however, ironically, is his own anti-God bias. And presenting his conclusions as scientific and “neutral” to a generation of kids (and adults) is what I think is the spiritual charlatanism.

In other words, I teach kids to believe in a Creator. That’s because I have a pro-God bias. Despite his recent imagining that “everything in our lives is the creation of some other entity/simulator” talk, Tyson teaches kids to believe in macro-evolution, and he presents that as being neutral, thinking-for-himself, pro-science…not as being anti-God. That’s where our worldviews collide. He believes that he is a blank slate capable of only rational thought. I believe that the science of genetics (nature) and environment (nurture) as well as the predisposed spiritual condition of mankind (sin) make every single human inherently biased. Consequently, I don’t think I can trust anyone who refuses to admit their own bias. This most recent demonstration of Tyson speaking out of both sides of his mouth furthers my opinion.

In the end, everyone has to decide. Are we the products of a Divine Creator? If so, the clear implication is that we have a responsibility to this being, to know him and what he wants from us. Or, are we the products of happenstance, merely accidental? If so, the clear implication of being without design is that we are purposeless, and nothing we do has any meaning. Tyson’s gotta pick a lane.

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:20)

The Prince of This World

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A week ago the world lost one of the greatest musicians of the modern era.

We live in a bit of a fame junkie culture, so a lot of hyperbole tends to get thrown around when celebrities pass away. But there were so many legendary rumors regarding the man born Prince Rogers Nelson, that, if true, “greatest” musician, or at least greatest musical entertainer of the era doesn’t seem too big.

For instance, rumor has it that when Eric Clapton (a guitar legend in his own right) was once asked what it’s like to be the best guitarist alive, he responded, “I don’t know. Ask Prince.” Rumor has it that Prince played the parts of ALL 27 INSTRUMENTS on his first released album and legitimately knew how to play over 50 quite well. Rumor has it that when he performed at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2007, the production designer for the show, Bruce Rodgers, asked Prince if it would still work to do the show in the downpouring Miami rain. Prince looked him in the eye and replied, “Can you make it rain harder?” This, by the way, in my opinion, was simply the best Super Bowl performance in history.

Total enigma.

Prince was like the seahorse of the music industry – an odd, funny, colorful little creature, unique and beautifully uncategorizable, but nonetheless an essential part to any definition of the environment he lived in. He left a huge imprint and will be missed.

Yes, Prince was an incredible artist, an unthinkably brilliant musician, and an enigmatic performer. You know you’re insanely good when other music legends all seemingly are beside themselves marveling at your talent. For example:

But in case you forgot, Prince was also SUPER dirty. Like…the guy responsible for forcing the music industry’s hand on adding PARENTAL ADVISORY warnings on record covers…that level of dirty.

So, there’s a segment of the world, including the Christian world, who has been blasting Prince nonstop through their speakers for the past week (except on streaming services, cause Prince declared the internet “dead” in 2010). This segment of the population is still in over mourning the loss of a genius…somewhat understandably.

There’s another segment, primarily in the conservative world, who cannot believe that we’d spend so much time and energy celebrating a man who unabashedly objectified human sexuality and shaped a generation to think of it as merely an animalistic appetite. And yet we’ll cause the world to stand still for him all while hard-working men and women in the military, law enforcement, as well as husbands and wives and fathers and mothers (i.e. truer heroes in the opinion of many) die everyday with no fanfare. This segment still seems a little perturbed…somewhat understandably.

So here’s where I’m at.

Prince appears to have made a significant societal impact. This shouldn’t really be much of a surprise, considering his rare skill set. Music has the capacity to touch emotion more than perhaps any other medium. That so many can hear “When Doves Cry” and be instantaneously transported to re-experiencing the sensation of the year 1984 is powerful and mystifying. In a world where we get desensitized by a bombardment of manipulative marketing, the ability to cause someone to feel anything is rather valuable. Prince’s music unquestionably caused hundreds of millions of people to feel something.

But the thought that’s consumed me in the wake of his death is the idea that impacting millions momentarily here on earth is still less consequential than impacting one person for millions of moments in heaven.

Put differently, I work with over a hundred teachers who are doing gospel ministry on a day-in, day-out basis. I know hundreds of parents who are praying with their children to Jesus every night. I know hundreds of Christians who eagerly bring the grace of Jesus into their workplace every morning. These faithful will never, ever get the fanfare that Prince is getting right now. And I don’t think they’re seeking that. Nonetheless, they’re objectively making a far greater impact, because touching someone’s life with Christ yields eternal dividends, not fleeting sentimental nostalgia. I’m not knocking Prince’s incredible career – I’m just saying whatever glory our world gives him, it doesn’t compare.

Don’t take my word for it though. Deep down inside, Prince himself understood the futility of this world. It’s no secret that the music icon joined the Jehovah’s Witness faith in 2001. He was apparently an active member of the Kingdom Hall near Chanhassen, MN. Members say he wanted to maintain a low profile, be treated like everyone else, and would go door-to-door to have faith conversations.

What could cause someone who’s moved millions with his secular music to do door-to-door evangelism? ANSWER: The conclusion that this life is clearly not the one we were built for.

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The point is simply this: you can sell 100 million albums on earth, but all that virtuoso musical genius is not worth one note of an angel singing Christ’s praises in an eternal paradise. So while the best of the best among human talents captures our attention right now, the humility of a Christian showing and sharing the grace of Jesus is what will make a difference in the end. Your relationships as a Christian are important. Your parenting as a Christian is important. Your sometimes seemingly mundane work, done as a Christian, is important. Getting the world to praise your act means squat in the end. Showing and sharing Christ means everything.

I bet Prince would have said something similar at the end of his life. And if he could, I guarantee he would say it now.

When (the Spirit) comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (John 16:8-11)

(NOTE: I hope no one draws the conclusion that I’m insinuating the Jehovah’s Witness faith is the same as the Christian faith. The reference to Prince’s late life religious activity merely demonstrates that a man who possessed everything “desirable” in the eyes of this world clearly still longed for something more.)

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In the End, No One’s Getting Away With Anything

First – yes, I’m still alive.

Second – yes, I’m still blogging. Why? At this point, I’m convinced that online writing might still be the best modern medium for social commentary. Live stream commentary meinsweater(e.g. Twitter) is gratifyingly instant but lacks actual depth and eloquence. Printed media is substantial but lacks the ability to capture teachable moments. And video content is getting there, but…I totally have a face for blogging.

Third – I think I need to write. Rumination is one of the hallmark characteristics of OCD, which I’ve battled the vast majority of my life. Writing offers me a way to unload social analysis that is stockpiling in my brain like dirty laundry in a bachelor’s hamper. It’s cathartic.

Last – I’ve relocated. I’m now in the heart of Milwaukee at St. Marcus Lutheran. The past two months have been a life-rearranging, massively humbling occasion as I’m learning the ins and outs of a new (to me), large urban ministry. Fortunately, God’s people in Rochester were very gracious in saying goodbye and God’s people in MKE have been very gracious in receiving me and Adrian into their family.

Moving on…

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The momentum of the story has apparently shifted.

Whole Foods has now filed a countersuit against Jordan Brown, an Austin, TX man who claims a local store wrote a homophobic slur in icing on a custom cake he’d ordered. (BTW, I honestly have no idea why bakeries continue to be the frontline battlegrounds of America’s sexual identity debate, but I intend to get to the bottom of it.)

Adding another religious wrinkle to the controversy, Brown also happens to be an openly gay pastor at Austin’s Church of Open Doors.

Whole Foods today released security video footage of Brown purchasing the cake, the UPC label located on the top of the box, and not on the side of the box, contradicting the video Brown had personally posted of the box. This would seem to indicate some tampering.

Whatever the outcome, my initial takeaway from this is yet another reaffirmation that everything we’re doing nowadays is recorded. Fewer and fewer people are getting away with anything because everything is monitored online, listened to over the phone, tracked through our credit card records, caught on surveillance footage, or literally being livestreamed.

As a Christian, I would think this is a positive, for multiple reasons:

  1. Christians already admit they’re not perfect. We’re certainly not proud of our mistakes, but still publicly own them by way of confession & absolution. Consequently, reminders of mistakes shouldn’t crush us.
  2. Christians are not shy about accountability. With a clear understanding of the fallenness of the human condition, we recognize the behavioral curbing benefit of heightened awareness.
  3. Christians realize God sees everything anyways. Even more than someone else seeing our warts, what’s most embarrassing is the fact that a holy God knows our imperfection. He’s the only one with a right to judge us and the capacity for lasting judgment. And we can’t hide anything from him.

So, if we Christians find our righteousness not in our moral performance, but in the perfection won in Jesus, transparency would logically be less of an issue for us than for the rest of the world.

Even beyond our personal opinion of this transparency, however, with the rise of surveillance, a socially relative world is gaining a collective paranoia for a Big Brother watching. Or maybe, rather, proper perception of a Heavenly Father.

We inherently have a sense that we will eventually be held accountable for everything we do in life. Built into the human psyche is a semblance of justice, and an anticipation for a final judgment. Deep down we know that “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Heb. 4:13)

The Christian doctrine of a Judgment Day, thus, is incredibly practical. Why? Because it means that in the end no one is ever going to get away with anything. Either, someone recognizes the error of their ways and repents (i.e. turns away from their transgressions and embraces the payment of sin offered by Christ Jesus) OR that person, in the end, will have to answer to God for their wickedness. Both of those are incredibly humbling, but one is voluntary and the other is forced. One is temporary and healthy. The other is permanent and deathly.

This is a tremendous resource for a Christian here on earth. I don’t have to get the last word in every argument. I don’t have to make sure my ex pays for his/her indiscretions. I don’t have to make sure the company that cheated me out of some hard-earned money gets their just deserts. I don’t have to make sure the individual responsible for taking the life of my loved one gets their comeuppance.

I’m not saying that justice here on earth isn’t nice, nor that it shouldn’t be pursued. But everyone who has ever been in a verbal conflict knows the pain and embarassment of letting your words go too far. In pursuit of putting someone in their place, we spout off something unconscionable and unjustifiable. In an attempt to right the wrong, we ourselves wronged. Humans struggle to enforce justice without becoming unjust themselves. It’s hard to stop evil without becoming evil. This is the reason why the Apostle Paul says, Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.” (Rom. 12:17-19)

So, everything is getting recorded. Every single person who ever lives will either have to confess their sins, humble themselves, and fall before Jesus as their Savior in this lifetime OR they will be humbled as they fall before Jesus as their Judge on the Last Day. Judgment Day means no one gets away with anything. And it also means you and I are free from the responsibility of playing divine judge, jury, and executioner – roles we aren’t built for.

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Secular Temples

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St. Augustine opened his famous Confessions with a prayer that began:

“You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

St. Augustine understood something that many of the brightest modern sociologists and anthropologists are just now starting to grasp – all of us human beings worship. This is what we’re primarily wired to do. Now, in a secular world that strongly discourages any religious influence over the public sphere, words like “worship” are generally dismissed. But Augustine was right. We humans are not primarily products of what we think – the “brain on a stick” paradigm that has been perpetuated over the past century. Read through David Brooks’s The Social Animal and you’ll likely be convinced. In fact, some research has suggested our lives are probably the products of only 3-5% of what we actually think. More than that, our lives are products of what we truly love. In other words, if you’d really like get to the bottom of what someone is about, who they really are, the wrong question is to ask them what they think/believe. The better question is to ask them what they want/desire from life. The ancient world likely understood better than the modern western world that the core of our being, the gravitational pull of who we are, lies not so much in what we think, but in what we want.

What Augustine is trying to tell us then is that everyone worships – everyone has something that they desire above all else, something that they believe will give them the foundational hope, security, identity, and value that human life craves. The difference is not that some people worship and others don’t. The difference is merely the deviation in what we worship.

To confirm these thoughts, I just want to share with you some examples of the how the secular world around us “worships” – though you may have never thought of it like that before.

Again, if there is any doubt about the secular world picking up on this “everybody worships” thing too, I’d direct you to David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005. Wallace is largely consider one of the best American writers of the past century and arguably the most insightful postmodern writer of our time. In the address he talks about how religious or irreligious, we’re ALL worshipping, and how destructive it can be to worship the wrong thing:

“You get to decide what to worship. Because here’s something else that’s weird but true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for choosing some form of God to worship (he lists several possibilities from Jesus to Allah to Yahweh, etc.) is that virtually every other thing you choose to worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things…then you will never have enough. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. When time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths…Worship power and you will end up feeling week and afraid, and you will need ever more power to numb your own fear. Worship your intellect, you will end up feeling stupid, always on the verge of being found out….And the insidious thing about these (false) forms of worship is that they are unconscious. And the so-called ‘real world’ will not discourage us from operating on these default settings, because the so called “real world” of man, and money, and power, comes merrily along on fuel of fear and anger and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth, and comfort, and personal freedom, the freedom to all be lords of our own skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.”

Uhhh….for starters, it’s any wonder this guy is easily one of the best writers of our generation – this has quickly been regarded as one of the most powerful commencement addresses in history. Second, he’s not a Christian – he’s merely objective enough and insightful enough to understand what makes humanity tick – the innate need to worship something greater than self, and this colliding with our destructive desire to rule the universe.

And if David Foster Wallace is right, and St. Augustine is right, and David Brooks is right, then it would also stand to reason that we’d see additional concrete evidence of this “everyone worships, mostly incorrectly” sentiment playing out in the world around us. I believe we see exactly that.

72134-apple-store1Awhile back a ministry friend sent me an interesting article titled: “We Asked a Cultural Historian: Are Apple Stores The New Temples?”  The article insightfully points out the similarities between Apple Stores and ancient worship. For instance, ancient Jewish worship had pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem to 1) make sacrifices and become right with God, and 2) to praise the goodness of this God. Today, we have Apple Release Day, what the article calls “The Feast of St. Jobs”, where hoards of people line up to make a sacrifice of great money to receive the blessing of the next generation iPhone. Apple is not merely a product, either. It’s a brand that represents community, fueled by the loyalty of customers who believe they are part of a movement that is improving the world. Let us not forget that cathedrals, in their day, were actually representative of high-end technology, similar to the Great Pyramids of Giza. Cutting edge technology has seemingly always gone hand-in-hand with large scale public worship.

The author of the article offers additional similarities:

“We walk inside. It’s light and bright, and immediately in front of us, a wide staircase of opaque glass sweeps up to the second floor. This is an old, old trick. “It’s used in ziggurats, even.” It creates a space that emphasizes your smallness when you walk in. You look at something far away, and that makes your body feel like you’re entering somewhere sacred or holy. To enter that sacred space, first we have to walk up a few stone steps. They’re wide and deep, enough that you have to slow down just a bit to walk up them. Steep and narrow steps create the same effect in that they make your body feel as if something important is happening. Above, a massive skylight, stretching the length of the room, lets in the light. To the right and left are the tables with phones and watches arranged around the periphery—a clue that this is not supposed to be an individual experience. Even when you are holding the phone in your hand, you are gathered around a table with others. There are no aisles here to sequester yourself in: thanks to the open floor plan, you experience the phone together with everyone in the store.”

The article continues with many other interesting points of comparison, but the last lines are my favorite:

“Apple seems to understand that the people who visit their store are looking for answers to questions deeper than how they should make calls or connect to the internet. On the walls of the stores, framed by the border of a screen, are pictures of planets and star systems—with these flat, luminescent, monolithic devices, they seem to promise, you can understand the entire universe.”

Apple Store Carrousel du Louvre

Apple Store Carrousel du Louvre

Apple gets it. Do you? They’re not just selling phones and watches. They’re selling community, transcendence, power, and a way to make sense of the world. That’s WORSHIP.

I’m not saying Appel is evil. I’m an Apple guy. I’m writing this on a Macbook, with my iPhone plugged in and charging, and just received a message from my wife on her iPad. The problem is never the subdued creation, but the creatures that place confidence in and offer praise to created things ahead of the Creator God.

Do a quick inventory of the most influential places in society and see if they don’t mimic Apple stores in some ways. It’s the holiday season, so you’re likely going to be doing an excessive amount of shopping. Most people are shifting to purchasing items online. Malls are dying. But the Christmas season might be the one time you still dare to step foot in one. Have you ever thought about the setup of a mall? Noticed that there aren’t any windows? Noticed that there aren’t any clocks? Noticed how they have a labyrinthine layout? Noticed how they have inanimate, faceless characters (i.e. mannequins) who are trying to preach to you about what the good life really should look like? Notice how every store has a display just outside the entrance doing outreach? Going to the mall is certainly not inherently evil, but you’ve got to understand that this obviously could be a way which Satan, the world, and our sinful flesh, persuade us to worship materialism.

Not convinced? What about Casinos and the potential worship of greed? What about athletic stadiums and the potential god of recreation? What about strip clubs and the potential god of lust? What about movie theaters and the potential god of entertainment? They all fit the mold of the mall and the Apple Store too. They are intentionally designed to disorient your sense of time and space. They are designed, in their own ways, to inspire you with awe and wonder. They are designed NOT to shape the way you think, but to persuade you to want and love what they’re offering, habituating your desires.

So, what does this mean for the modern Christian?

Think.

Anyone who has followed my blog for a while has probably recognized how irritated I get when the accusation is brought against Christianity that we are merely a bunch of mindless followers. What irritates me even further is when that accusation is warranted.

All you have to do is read through the New Testament and see how many times Jesus himself and the other authors say, “Consider” (i.e think about this). This is not at all a contradiction to what I said from the outset, that we are not primarily products of what we think/believe, but products of what we love. The thinking aspect is important because it helps us realize when our loves have gone astray. As we analyze the way we manage our time, energy, thoughts, money, attitudes, we come to realizations about what we truly love and worship, regardless of what we say or do on Sunday mornings.

The first step in overcoming the secular temple worship, then, is to become aware that we struggle with it. The second step in processing sin is to repent of what we are and what we’ve done. All of life is repentance, as Luther said – a turning away from what we think things to be and surrendering to the righter, more beautiful authority of what Christ tells us. Next, we recognize that Jesus not only paid for our mistakes on the cross that should have been ours due to our false worship, but he also lived the life we needed to and gave it to us. You simply couldn’t pull the man away from the real Temple – when his parents moved with the social caravan, Jesus dropped his anchor in God’s House, teaching and preaching, praying and praising. Worshipping. “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. (Luke 2:49-50)

The secular temptations offer salvation, like that shiny new Easy Bake Oven on the Christmas list offers the promise of eternal happiness to the eager child who cannot live without it. And then Dec. 29th rolls around. Four flavorless cupcakes later and you realize this Hasbro mainstay won’t solve all of the problems of your childhood. Neither will the non-Jesus, secular salvations offered to adults. There is only one real Temple to worship at – one where if you get the God who dwells there, he’ll satisfy you, and if you fail him, he’ll forgive you. This is the Temple that was torn down and after three days was resurrected (Mark 14:58; see also Matt. 12:6).

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The Failure of Feelings & The Need for Proper Emotion (PART II)

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Last week I made the case that the idea of so-called “feelings” is actually illusory, but rather the experience that we call negative “feelings” is our pride/ego being compromised, which leads to negative emotions. Our pride is compromised whenever we build our identity on something vulnerable, something other than Christ. According to the gospel, this is only remedied by drawing our entire sense of identity from being a redeemed child of God, understanding that we are perfect in God’s sight by the blood of Jesus Christ.

Since emotions are so powerful and can be so misguided and misleading, they are sometimes unfairly condemned by well-intentioned Christians. This week, I’m trying to offer some direction for the proper, and necessary, role of emotions in our lives.

The Danger of Emotion

Since the western world has largely lost the concept of divine authority, a vacuum has been created  in our lives for authority, something that, deep down, we all know we need/crave. Upon losing a sense of the divine, the first societal impulse was to turn to “experts.” Soon, however, we learned that this doesn’t work because so many experts fundamentally disagree – they disagree on dietary habits, education theory, historical facts, religious truths, and so on – not to mention that even expert consensus tends to change every generation. The search for authority continued. As a result, people turned to what they know, something closer to home – their instincts/feelings – as chief arbiters of what is good or bad in their lives.

The problem that arises here is that the thing which we call “feelings” can change quite easily as well. I used to despise diet pop, now I drink it constantly and don’t think I could stomach a regular Coke. I used to like roller coasters, now I feel like I’m going to die on one. I used to like wearing turtlenecks. My point is that personal preferences and our accompanying emotions, our feelings, are fickle.

Even more important, faith that is based primarily on “feelings” is inevitably going to be misguided at some point. How could you ever possibly be certain that what you’re feeling is from the Lord, and not from Satan, or merely the product of your own flesh? You can’t.

I believe this is one of the reasons why Jesus so often describes spiritual development in terms of organic growth. By their fruit you will recognize them… every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matt. 7:16-20; see also Matt. 12:33; Luke 6:43-44; Luke 13:6-7) Many people measure the quality of their spiritual life by what they are currently feeling, i.e. what emotions are conjured up when considering the Bible, or church, or God. But according to Jesus’s own words here, spiritual growth is organic. Organic growth is measurable over time but generally imperceptible in the moment. Without time elapse photography, you can’t witness a plant growing. Spiritually then, you probably shouldn’t expect to feel drastically different after prayer, Communion, Bible Study, or public worship, any more than you would feel significantly healthier after a good meal or a productive workout. Such things often feel somewhat good, but not life altering, because such progress is organic. 

Anyone who is putting a high premium on the emotions experienced upon the exercise of spiritual disciplines is not understanding what the Bible says about the way faith generally matures.

I’m not suggesting there will never be clear and distinct “aha!” moments from time to time in spiritual development, but that shouldn’t be the general expectation.

Emotions aren’t EVERYTHING.

The Need for Emotion

Many men, especially conservative evangelical ones, are probably with me thus far. “Yes, emotion is evil!” Not really what I’m driving at, which is the need for this second point.

Many traditional, conservative churchgoers, like many older white men, strongly dislike their emotions or any encouragement towards emotional expressiveness. For traditional churchgoers, this is likely because of some of the potential dangers of emotion cited in the previous section. For older white men, this is perhaps because they were raised hearing sentiments like “boys don’t cry.” Going back to the issue of pride, when someone challenges our manhood, especially at a young age, we are likely to accept the challenge. If the societal gauntlet thrown down was to not be emotional, we find resourceful ways of stuffing those emotions. Many traditional adult men struggle with high blood pressure, heartburn, and ulcers because they’ve never learned to externalize their emotions in productive ways. Instead, they stuff their emotions and tear themselves apart from the inside out.

Theologically, the problem is that God created us as emotive creatures. Jesus wept (John 11:35). Jesus got angry (Matt. 21:12) Paul tells us to laugh and cry, rejoice and mourn with others (Rom. 12:15). This is part of our design. Consequently, to suppress emotion is theologically inaccurate and psychologically and physically unhealthy.

Personally, I sometimes struggle when worshipping with groups who seemingly demonstrate zero emotion.

I’ve heard this dismissed as “We all have different ways of expressing our emotion.” Yes and no. It’s true that we’re all unique, individual creatures with personal dispositions. Nonetheless, it’s also true that there is such a thing as a universality of emotions. If you won a $250 million lottery and stated in monotone, “That’s nice,” we’d assume you were emotionally off. If someone was completely unaffected by a close loved one dying, we’d assume there was something emotionally wrong too. Likewise, if someone comes to publicly worship God and is inexpressive, there is something emotionally wrong happening.

I’ve also heard that worship style is cultural. And since the church body I belong to has deep ethnic roots in Germany, perhaps worshippers are simply doing what’s culturally appropriate. I’d probably be more likely to accept that explanation if we were fresh off the boat and looking for the nearest schnitzel and kraut stand. But most of us, if we have any eastern European heritage at all, are 3 or 4 or more generations American. In other words, at this point, a cultural heritage is probably an irrelevant excuse.

Interestingly, the Christian who stifles emotion because “emotions are evil” is ironically just as controlled by their emotions as the Christian who easily gets emotionally manipulated. Neither is a healthy approach.

So while emotions aren’t EVERYTHING, they’re also not NOTHING. They’re necessary and beneficial, but need a proper driver.

The Guide for Emotion

Humans were created to be emotional. And yet human emotion is easily manipulated, which means that it then sends our brains mixed signals about what is or is not good. The solution is not to suppress emotion or to unconditionally embrace emotion. The solution for a Christian is to have genuine emotion, passion that is primarily generated, filtered, and pedagogically maneuvered by God’s inspired Word.

Let me give an overly simplistic illustration of what this might look like, say, in a worship setting:

  • A hymn that is theologically accurate but weighed down by a dismal tune that no one today would categorize as “beautiful” is inappropriate, not because it doesn’t proclaim truth, but because it doesn’t appropriately touch the emotion, counterintuitively dimming the theological truth.
  • A praise song that many today would categorize as a “beautiful” tune but that lacks any theological depth, or, worse yet, promotes something Scripturally untrue, is inappropriate, not because it doesn’t affect the emotions, but because it primarily moves the emotions by a force other than Scriptural truth.
  • A hymn/song that proclaims accurate theological truth AND, through artistic flavor, touches humans in an emotive way IS appropriate.

Worship music is just one easy example. The point is much bigger. Another simple example would be anger. It’s not wrong to get angry, so long as it is righteous anger, i.e. anger over something that God himself would be angry about. If it’s anger over my pride being hurt, then that’s merely going to lead to sinful vindictiveness. The idea is that God encourages us to embrace the emotions we experience insofar as those emotions are biblically supported.

In Summary…

“Feelings” aren’t completely real. Our pride/ego is very sensitive. When it is threatened, we experience strong negative emotions. This is an occasion for humility and a time to remember that our true boast/pride/identity comes from being a child of God.

Emotions themselves aren’t bad, but rather are gifts from God and therefore should not be outright suppressed. They are easily misguided, however, which means that we regularly have to seek the direction of God’s Word to make sure our emotions are properly moved.

Finally, Jesus, our greatest friend, our dearest brother, and the Lover of us, the Church, lived and died for us. That only evokes proper emotion. And to the degree that we realize we have the full acceptance of God himself through this Jesus, nothing in this life can really hurt our feelings anymore.

The Failure of Feelings & The Need for Proper Emotion (PART I)

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Disney’s Pixar Studios cranked out another billion dollar winner this past summer with the release of Inside Out – a story set in the mind of a little girl, where we encounter her 5 personified emotions.

The little known secret about this movie is that they TOTALLY ripped me off, as I’ve had this idea for years now. The only difference was that in my version the story takes place in a child’s heart and the characters were adorable little “feelings bears” ….. and I never actually wrote a script or recorded a movie. Nonetheless, being a man of grace, I haven’t pursued legal action. I simply ask, next time you see the movie and chuckle …. you’re welcome:)

The American public was due for an insightful movie breaking down the interaction of our emotions. They are such a powerful aspect of all of our lives, and as I’m going to make the case today, potentially too influential.

This is a topic I frequently try to bring up in my church. For instance: I’ve LOVED every minute of the Mere Christianity class I’ve been leading on Wednesday nights this fall with 100 or so adults. A couple of weeks ago, we arrived at one of the classic chapters of C.S. Lewis’s classic – Book III: Chapter 8 – “The Great Sin” (i.e. Pride). As Lewis offers his incredible insights on pride, you get the sense that Mere Christianity is moving from a really good Christian book into arguably one of the top 5 “must reads” in Christian history.

This chapter also presented me the opportunity to share one of my personal favorite, mildly provocative, mini-sermons about human nature – THERE ARE NO SUCH THINGS AS FEELINGS. Typically, this speech is met with some resistance. Sometimes, ironically, feelings get hurt. But that only presents the occasion to explain what those feelings really are.

For instance, I’ll ask someone to, medically speaking, point to where their feelings are located. After processing the question, some will point to their hearts. Now, my wife is a cardiovascular surgical ICU RN at Mayo Clinic. She’s studied a good deal about hearts in recent years. She also has a lot of what are commonly labeled “feelings” – but she knows they don’t reside in her technical heart.

So here’s the point of clarification. When we say things like “My feelings are hurt” or “You hurt my feelings,” what we, more accurately, mean is that our pride has been hurt, and this is causing us emotional turmoil. Our ego is the sense of self that we build upon some aspect of our lives.

Here’s an illustration that might help: if you criticized me by saying, “James, you’re a horrible figure skater,” not only would I not be hurt, I’d probably feel a certain sense of, “Whew.  I don’t even really want to be known as a good figure skater.” On the other hand, if you said, “James, you’re a thoughtless, loveless pastor and a faithless, incompetent interpreter of Scripture,” that is much more likely to “hurt my feelings.” Why? I tend to build more of my identity, my sense of self, on being a pastor than I do as a figure skater. Conversely, if you told Scott Hamilton (yes, that’s how little I pay attention, HE is still my current frame of reference for a male figure skater) that he was a poor pastor, he’s probably going to say, “Okay. Fine. I’m not even a pastor and don’t really want to be.” On the other hand, if you told him what an unimpressive skater he was, he’d probably be a little more hurt. He would naturally be more inclined to build his identity on and draw his pride from something different from me.

So if someone criticizes us, we naturally wouldn’t like it, but if we’re devastated by it, if our “feelings are REALLY hurt,” we have to ask why? Is it because we’re drawing too much of our identity from something other than our status as a redeemed child of God? Is it because our pride, our boast, is misplaced?

In his chapter on Pride, Lewis says:

“if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, ‘How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or show their oar in, or patronize me, or show off?’…The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”

Our feelings haven’t technically been hurt. Those “feelings” don’t exist per se. The importance of making this distinction is that, unless we realize this truth about illusory “feelings,” we won’t be able to remedy the problem. What hurts is our pride. Our sense of self, the thing on which we sought to build our lives and make a name for ourselves, the thing other than Jesus that we primarily look to for value, meaning, security, and hope for the future has been compromised. Spiritually speaking, this is a healthy, albeit painful, process to go through because it drives us deeper into an unshakeable identity shaped exclusively by the gracious blood of Christ.

If it’s true that what we experience when our “feelings are hurt” is more about our pride being jeopardized and leading to negative emotions, then it’s also probably worth explaining the role that emotions should play in our lives.

The problem I potentially face (and have faced) if I say “feelings aren’t real things” is the accusation of emotional dismissiveness, which could be fair. So, allow me a minute to explain what I believe should be the proper, balanced understanding on these types of emotions?

(please come back next week for PART II when we’ll look at the proper role of emotion)