2016: The Year In Review

Year-end is a time for reflection. What went well, what didn’t? What would you change or keep the same? What lessons can be learned?

2016 continued to feel like a holding pattern. After resigning from vocational ministry in January 2015, I have struggled to find solid footing. I have found part-time employment but have struggled to find “what’s next” for me and my family and we have struggled to find a faith community.

But through it all, I have felt challenged to know myself more fully. I have been thinking a lot about the fantastic Tom Waits quote: “Be devoted to the unification of the diverse aspects of yourself.” I have been fascinated by both Mennonite and Anglican thought. I have moved away from Republianity and deeper into a desire to understand how Christianity fuels social justice.

Through it all, I am deeply thankful for family and proven friends. When you resign from ministry, you realize that many people who you thought were your friends were . . . well, I don’t know, except to say that it’s easy to feel lonely. I am thankful for friends who prove themselves to be just that, regardless of my position.

The past couple of years have felt like a pruning and I’m excited to see what flowers from it.

In the meantime, let’s look back a bit.

  • Browse my favorite books and authors of 2016.
  • Browse my favorite albums of 2016.
  • Stream a two-volume mix of some of my favorite 2016 songs.

2016: The Year in Music

I love year-end lists. I love to see what other people loved.

2016 was a fairly quiet year for me when it came to music. There was a lot of great music but there didn’t seem to be a single album that really “defined” the year for me. Nothing found its way to repeat-for-weeks level. The closest two albums for me in that regard were A Tribe Called Quest’s We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service and Heart Like A Levee by Hiss Golden Messenger.

Still, it was a year filled with great albums. Here are 30 of my favorites from this year. I have included comments that are probably not really helpful for you in you determining whether or not you would like each album for yourself. Instead, you’ll have to go and do some listening for yourself. I hope you enjoy, maybe find something new, and I look forward to your feedback.

 

 

 

 

We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service by A Tribe Called Quest – The album no one expected but struck us all with its timeliness. The Tribe’s first album since 1996 avoided sounding dated while navigating the loss of Phife Dawg. The album is not just a return to form but found everyone at the top of their games. (buy)

Fantômas by Amiina – After serving as Sigur Rós‘ string section, Amiina set out on their own. Fantômas, their fourth release continues their pattern of complex meditative music. (buy)

Wildflower by the Avalanches – Their first new album in 16 years, sample kings the Avalanches create a richly woven tapestry that gives nods to its sources without ever feeling simply pieced together. (buy)

 

 

 

 

Blackstar by David Bowie – David Bowie’s final album cements his status as a sonic explorer to the end. Partnering with exploratory jazz and lyrics that seem to hint that he might have known that his end was near. (buy)

case/lang/viers by Case, Lang, Viers – The partnership between Neko Case, K.D. Lang, and Laura Veirs creates an atmospheric album which not only brings three great voices together but builds on each one to create something more. (buy)

Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper – Joyful rap is often difficult to come by. Much less rap with Christian overtones. Plus the weird noises he makes can be quite fun. (buy)

 

 

 

 

You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen – Another great artist lost this year who seemed to know what was coming. Though he didn’t need to do so, Cohen reminded us why he was one of our great songwriters and lyricists. (buy)

Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not by Dinosaur Jr. – Reunited in 2007, teh band remains on a solid streak that gives you everything you want from the band, including a solid performance from Lou Barlow and J Mascis‘ guitar wizardry. (buy)

Ere Gobez by Debo Band – The 11-piece Ethiopian band incorporates funk, afr0beat, jazz, rock and nearly everything in between but never sounds cluttered and always sounds unified. (buy)

 

 

 

 

The Rarity of Experience by Chris Forsyth and the Solar Motel Band – 70’s instrumental guitar psychedelia for the modern age. You know; if you like that sort of thing. Which I do. A lot. A WHOLE LOT. (buy)

Future Standards by Howe Gelb – Tucson’s Gelb has continually reinvented his persona and has long toyed around with classic jazz. If one were to follow him on Facebook, one would see plenty of classic jazz videos posted. Gelb has ditched the Giant Sand full-band approach and has shifted his focus towards jazz. Only time will tell if these are, indeed future standards. (buy)

Requiem by Goat – Staunchly anonymous world-psychedelic outfit Goat turns in a strong album of staunchly anonymous world psychedelia. (buy)

 

 

 

 

Eyes On The Lines by Steve Gunn – Over the course of his last couple of albums, this masterful guitar player has also proven himself to be a masterful songwriter. Lots of great guitar playing that never seems flashy and lots of songs that capture the wanderlust many of us feel but will never indulge. (buy)

Late Bloomer by Matt Haeck – PopMatters says: “Late Bloomer and it couldn’t be a more appropriate moniker, given that it took Haeck 30 years of life to really begin discovering his own voice.” Having known Matt for several years and watching his musical growth for that whole time, I am pleased to say, he has indeed found his voice. It may be late, but let’s hope he’s not done blooming yet. (buy)

Heart Like A Levee by Hiss Golden Messenger – One of my favorite bands in recent years put out one of my favorite albums of recent years. MC Taylor continues to grow as a writer and bandleader. Exploring issues of faith, family, travel and finding one’s self in the world. Definitely a standout album for me this year. Plus I finally got to see the band live. (buy)

 

 

 

 

House in the Tall Grass by Kikagaku Moyo – Some long-haired Japanese guys put their spin on psychedelic folky rock that still rocks and I dig it. (buy)

Mangy Love by Cass McCombs – On his eighth album, McCombs continues to mature as a songwriter. Though this album wrestles with themes of confusion, it does so with soul. And there’s something to be said for that. (buy)

How To Dance by Mount Moriah – Chapel Hill’s Mount Moriah continues to force many of us to ask: “what exactly is ‘alt. country'”? They have definitely found their voice as a country band, but not one you’re likely to hear on any country station. (buy)

 

 

 

 

Entranced Earth by the Myrrors – Tucson represented yet again! This time with a blistering bout of noisy psychedelic trance music for the sunbaked set. (buy)

Night Fiction by Cian Nugent – It can be a mixed bag when instrumental musicians (in this case, world-class guitarist Cian Nugent) decide to try their hand at being a singer-songwriter. Thankfully, this time around it works. Nugent adds depth to his already textured music. (buy)

Malibu by Anderson .Paak – Groovy, soulful, R&B, hip-hop, funk. (buy)

 

 

 

 

PAO! by Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra – I am a Phoenix native who loves afrobeat. How is it that I just discovered this band in 2016. Maybe because this is their first actual album and, having eight kids, we don’t make it out to as many shows as we’d like. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I found it. (buy)

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by Sturgill SimpsonFollowing up a break-through album can be a challenge for any artist. Simpson tackles it by adding a horn section and Memphis soul to his psychedelic country sound. (buy)

Letting Go and Holding On by Shawn Skinner and the Men of Reason – Yes, I’m biased because these are some great friends. But dang it all if this isn’t a great album of sunbaked Americana. (buy)

 

 

 

 

A Seat At the Table by Solange – Exploring notions of black womanhood, this album could not have been more timely. Soulful, deep and moving. (buy)

Get ‘Em Next Time by Star & Micey – Sometimes you just need some fun rock and roll. Memphis’ Star & Micey are there with your fix. A solidly fun album 0f soulful indie pop-country. (buy)

Blue Mountain by Bob Weir – An album of reflecting on Weir’s early days in Wyoming, this album knows where it’s going and is in no hurry to get there. Self-assured and reflective, it is not only about looking back but continuing forward. (buy)

 

 

 

 

Schmilco by Wilco – Recorded in the same sessions as last year’s Star WarsSchmilco is a more understated affair. Largely acoustic and mellow, this album reveals more with each listen. (buy)

The Ghosts of Highway 20 by Lucinda Williams – Interstate 20 cuts a 1500-mile swath from South Carolina to Texas. This swatch of highway provides the backdrop for Williams to deal with love and loss. (buy)

City Sun Eater in the River of Light by Woods – Moving away from their blissed out alt. country, Woods incorporates bits of Ethiopian jazz to surprising effect (and affect). (buy)

  • Stream a two-volume mix of some of my favorite songs of 2016.

 

2016: The Year in Songs

This year’s year-end mix turned out to be much less thematic than last year’s mix. My wife thinks it’s “pretty dark” but I’m not sure about that (what do you think?). As I was putting this year’s mix together, I kept thinking of the fantastic Tom Waits quote: “Be devoted to the unification of the diverse aspects of yourself.”

I love all kinds of music. But mixes often focus on a particular genre or style. I tried to push that a little bit this year and placed afrobeat next to country, next to hip hop and ended up with a two-volume mix. I hope you don’t mind. The only song that didn’t make it on here was ‘Push’ by Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra, because they are not on Spotify, so just imagine it’s here

Here you go.

Volume One:



Volume Two:



2016: The Year in Books

I made a concerted effort to read more books this year with no constraints on what I read. Simply read what I want. I didn’t make it to a book a week, but I did make it through 45 books, which I think is pretty good.

Though I had no intention to do so, I read mostly fiction this year and it turned out to be great for my soul. Fiction has a way of capturing the human condition and imagination in a way that many non-fiction books don’t.

Here are some of my favorite things I read in 2016 (in no particular order):

The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King – I started this series something like 20 years ago but (for no reason I can remember except that my reading habits became captured by theology for several years) never finished it. But there was something about Roland that would reappear in my imagination from time to time so I decided to finally work through the series and I’m glad I did.

Combining elements of epic quest tales with a spaghetti-western vibe, this is not what you might typically expect from Stephen King. (buy)

The March trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell – Dispatches from the front lines of the American Civil Rights movement. Don’t let anyone tell you that comics can’t be important. This should be required reading for anyone trying to understand race relations in the U.S. Your heart will break and you will be inspired. (buy)

Kurt Vonnegut – I read more Kurt Vonnegut than any other author else this year. By my account, I read 12 of his books. I know that his openly humanist atheism might cause some of my Christian friends some concern but Vonnegut’s books dwell deeply on the human condition. He often wrestles with the idea of what it means to be human in the midst of inhumanity. His keen insight, sense of humor and absurdist situations allow us to reflect not only on war but how we can achieve peace. Vonnegut has quickly become one of my favorite authors and I look forward to reading the rest of his material. (buy)

What were your favorite reads of 2016?

Beware of Formulaic Gospelism

One of the beautiful things about Christianity is that it often look so different; it comes with great freedom. One of the most difficult things about Christianity can be when we expect everyone to look the same.

American Christianity has a long history of diminishing the good news of Jesus. Americans like to simplify. Boil it down to practical, sellable bits and bytes. Though Christianity has had a tremendous cultural presence in America but it often finds itself watered down. As Alan Wolfe notes in his informative book The Transformation of American Religion:

“in every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed. Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer”

The basic premise of Wolfe’s book is that, though Christians in America talk a big talk, they’re not all that different from the rest of us, so don’t worry.

Christianity in America has often had a rocky road. We often add to it, making it more difficult than it need be. We often take away from it, making it more simple than it really is. We attach certain behaviors and codes and tell people that if they don’t meet them, they can never be saved. Or we tell people that all they have to do is believe a certain set of propositions without any change in heart.

One of the American mistreatments of the Good News of Jesus’ life, obedience, substitutionary death, ascension and intercession is sometimes known as “easy believism”. The problem with this approach, for many is that it simply requires nothing but belief. No heart change, much less lifestyle change. This approach teaches that we should not even expect behavioral change or repentance, just belief. The result is often people who claim to be Christians with no discernible difference in life, heart or conduct before or after “salvation”. Belief with no requirement of sacrifice.

At the heart of this discussion, among other things, is the question of how salvation is related to our actions. The Bible seems clear that our actions cannot produce salvation but that salvation will always affect our actions. Our behaviors will change.

How people change has been a keen question for pastors, counselors and all Christians for years. This is at the heart of many approaches to what we call “discipleship”: the process of becoming more like Jesus and helping others to do the same.

There has been a helpful trajectory over the past few years to regain the centrality of the Gospel in the life of the Believer. The Gospel is not simply how someone “gets in to heaven” when they die, it is the answer to ongoing transformation (leaving sin behind) in this life; for the here and now. But as is sometimes the case in matters such like this, many Christians have begun to turn this reliance into a formula.

Christianity has had a tenuous relationship in America with the self-help movement, often forgetting that Christianity is not, in fact about just becoming better people. It has always been about more than “your best life now”. But we love to boil things down. We love alitteration and simple steps. We love formulas that can be distilled and packaged.

We are in danger of trying to reduce the transformative power of the Gospel in to simple, easy-to-follow steps. Where we once had easy believism, we now face formulaic gospelism. We sometimes expect Christian growth to look the same for everyone and instead of urging one another on to holiness, we judge each other based on how much they do things the way we think they should be done.

The Bible is clear that Christian growth comes through the repeated process of faith and repentance. But this doesn’t always look the same for every one. That’s part of the beauty of Christianity, it meets each one where we we’re at and takes us each to the destination of Christ-likeness. But it moves us at different paces through different scenery, struggles, strains and trials. It works within every unique personality in unique but universal ways.

We must fight the urge to expect everyone to look the same. We must resist the notion that Gospel transformation can be boiled down to a few simple steps. The Gospel is deep and powerful and moves us all in the same direction but it cannot be controlled. As we journey together, let’s not believe that a common destination requires that we walk in lock-step. Formulas are great for math but not necessarily for holiness.

 

The Advent Hope Of Adoption

Over the past couple of years, I have become beguiled by the beauty of the Christian Calendar (if you’re not familiar with the practice, here’s a great, quick introduction). Many churches observe the pinnacles of this tradition in Christmas and Easter. Others have expanded their observance by including Lent and Advent.

One of the Christian seasons many people are most familiar with is that of Advent. Traditionally the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, the theme is that of waiting. Waiting from the double perspective, first, the idea of the New Testament people of God waiting for the coming of Jesus and second, the Post-Cross people of God awaiting Jesus’ Second coming.

As the Old Testament closes, we have a 400 year period of God’s silence. Even before the close of the Old Testament, as God’s people languished in exile, they had already become accustomed to waiting. God had promised them that One would come who would crush the head of the serpent, be a true and better Prophet, Priest and King. And the Israelites find themselves in exile . . .

. . . 400 years . . .

And as the New Testament opens, the Jews find themselves under different oppressors but oppression is still oppression and waiting is still waiting. The people trusted God but the answer seemed dim at best. It’s like in Psalm 46:5 when the Psalmist says that God will be the help of the holy city “when the morning dawns”. But what do we do when it perpetually feels as though it’s 1:30am? We may believe that God will show up when the morning comes but what do we do when it feels like the morning is never coming?

A sense of waiting pervades Christianity. We trust in the future promises in the present because of His past faithfulness. He has shown Himself to be faithful. He has proven trustworthy. But He is not in a hurry. And his timing is not ours. This is the theme of Advent. We must trust in the waiting. We know that the darkness is not permanent. The morning will dawn. As Cheryl Bridges Johns says: “Advent asks us to sit a while in the darkness, waiting for the light of God.

Over the course of this Advent season, I have been dwelling deeply on this sense of waiting and the hope which much see us through the waiting. I like in the Modern West. Christians long for Jesus’ Second coming but I’m not sure we can our waiting always translates into longing. In the West, most Christians live fairly comfortable lives and we don’t often identify with the need of rescue felt by the oppressed.

But I think that Scripture provides us with some insight into the true longing represented in the Advent season. Consider Romans 8:18-25:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

This passage has meant a lot to me over the years but I don’t know that I’ve ever really dwelt deeply on one of its key ideas: “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons.” Something about this recently laid me low. As of September 2016, there are 18,000 kids in the Arizona foster care system. 18,000 children waiting to for their home. “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons.” Paul asks us to identify with those waiting to be adopted. This is the spirit of Advent.

And yet, on this side of the Cross, we do not wait or hope in vain. Christ has already delivered the firstfruits. His first Coming assures us of His second. As a parent of four adopted children, this imagery has brought new depth to Advent for me. Parentless children longing for promised-adoption, the homeless brought home, the far-off made family. Advent asks us to remember that the darkness will not last, the morning will dawn again because the Son has come.

Christians, What Now?

reconciliation-clipart-sj7The election of Donald Trump has swirled a storm of questions around Christians in America. The deep divisions across the country are mirrored in our faith communities. Some voted for Trump because they agree with Republican economic principles while opposed him because of his outright immorality. Some voted for Trump because they believe that he will help curb abortion in America while others opposed him because of his promotion of war crimes, including torture. Some voted for him because they wanted to “shake up” Washington while others opposed him because he seems to exude sexism and even appears to have confessed to sexual assault. Some ignored his transgressions. Others held their nose and others simply couldn’t pull the lever for this candidate.

And yet we are all part of the same family (John 1:12Romans 12:21, etc.)  with the same Father (1 John 3:1-2, etc.) and the same callings. We are called to be the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), offering safety, comfort, security, bringing knowledge and driving out the darkness. We are charged to seek the welfare of our cities (Jeremiah 29) while opposing oppression (Proverbs 14:31;  Psalm 103:5-6Zechariah 7:9-10, etc.) and standing for marginalized, being the voice of the voiceless (Jeremiah 22:3; Micah 6:8, etc.) and fighting for the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40, etc.). Christians are called to be good citizens while speaking truth to the power structures of our day.

As I wrote about yesterday, because of and through Jesus, Christians are charged with the “ministry of reconciliation” in a divided world. We must seek peace and we must stand in the gap, reconciling warring factions. This is only possible when we understand our calling to be greater than partisan politics.

But that’s not all we’re called to and herein lies some of the difficulty we are heading towards. Trump has peddled in fear and given rise to bigotry. He has demeaned others, bragged about adultery and made a living swindling others. Christians must not only be among the calmest voices pursuing reconciliation but among the loudest voices holding the Trump administration accountable. I’ll be honest: I don’t know what this looks like.screen-shot-2015-05-11-at-3-06-41-pm

How can we strive to be good citizens, fulfilling our mandate to care for others and love our enemies while still retaining the prophetic voices of salt and light? We can accept the results of the election. This is not the same thing as endorsing Trump’s beliefs and behaviors. But he was elected and we are called to honor our leaders. We can separate his transgressions from political policies. We can listen to those whose frustration ushered Trump into the Oval Office while also listening to those who feel threatened by his rise. We can give Trump a chance while not forgetting his past because right now, it’s up to him to prove that he will do good with power and that’s he’s not the person he’s led so many of us to believe him to be.

But we must not expect government to fulfill our mandate. It’s one thing to speak truth to power, asking Trump to change his rhetoric and it’s another for us to tangibly put this love in to practice. It’s not enough to call our leaders to welcome immigrants if we’re not doing it. It’s not enough for us to call our leaders to honor life if we don’t.

Christians are called to speak against oppression. Christians are called to pursue reconciliation. I don’t know where else to look to try to understand this other than the life of Jesus. He condemned the hypocrisy of his days’ religious leaders while spending time (thus validating) the marginalized. Somehow, He was able to pursue reconciling men and God (and men with men) while speaking against injustice. This is the task ahead of Christians.

Those who supported Trump have a lot to answer for. Many feel that turning a blind eye to his transgressions cost Christianity in America valuable credibility. Those who opposed Trump must not give in to cynicism. Both sides must find a way to honor their convictions while coming together. Both sides must show the world that we are Jesus’ because of our love for one another (John 13:31), speaking against immorality and for the weak.

We have a lot to figure out. Let’s work together.

Christians Are The Motel 6 Of The World

porchlightEvery night I do a walk-through, of our house, locking each door before bedtime. I don’t know why, but the past few nights, I’ve peeked out the front door and wondered why some people leave their porchlight on overnight while others do not. And then, as I am often wont to, I spiritualized (shall we say “Jesus Juke”?) the fact that some people leave their porchlights on every night while others do not.

“Light” is a common biblical metaphor. Jesus calls Himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12), saying: “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”. Later, Jesus gives the same descriptor to people (Matthew 5:14). This is amazing. Jesus says that what is true of Him (being the “light of the world”) is true of His people (being the “light of the world”). But what does this mean for us?

Throughout the the Bible, “light” is used as a symbol of the Divine presence, help and salvation (Exodus 13:21Psalm 27:1, 36:9;  Isaiah 60:19, Matthew 4:16; Luke 2:32, etc.).

The idea of light carries many connotations: safety, a place of refuge, hospitality, knowledge, and more. Light helps people find their way. Light drives out darkness and exposes things not seen. Think of some of “light phrases”: “brought to the light” or “in the light of day”. Most life needs light to survive.

Light is such a pervasive metaphor that it’s even an advertising slogan for a sometimes less-than-stellar motel chain. For years, Motel 6’s slogan has been: “we’ll leave the light on for you.” In other words, they’ll be a beacon of safety, comfort and security in the night of hard travel. Whether or not they live up to those standards is up to you. But it’s great marketing for a hotel chain.

I wonder how many people think of Christians in terms like this, that we bring knowledge, understanding, safety, comfort and life. Especially during this election season, what does it mean for Christians to be “the light of the world”?

Of course, this requires balance: too much light can cause problems as well. Harsh. Blinding. Unpleasant. It can cause you to recoil. I wonder how many people think of Christians in terms like this, that we cause them to recoil or turn away? Sometimes people don’t like Christians because our presence reminds them of their own sin. But sometimes people don’t like Christians because we bring the uncomfortable aspects of light without bringing comfort or presenting a way forward. Light imperfect.

Times are hard. Division is the soundtrack of life for many these days. Fear is in the air and protests in the streets. Many feel betrayed while others believe God’s man won the election, even if he lost the popular vote. Others can’t understand how we would elect such an openly immoral person to the highest office in our land. Racists feel emboldened while others mourn. This election season seems to be more about politics. After all, politics are simply display what’s already in the heart. And our country’s EKG isn’t good. We’re not healthy.

What might happen if Jesus’ people radically reoriented their lives around the principles and practices which have always been at the core of our faith? God wants His people to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8) and to care for our cities, even when we find ourselves at odds with the leadership (Jeremiah 29). God has blessed His people so that we will be a blessing to others (Genesis 12). So that we will be light in the darkness.

We are facing a vital crossroads for Christianity in America. Many people are questioning what it even means to say you’re a Christian if you voted for the most questionable candidate in recent memory, if not ever. Others wonder what it even means to be a Christian if you didn’t vote for the political party that opposes abortion. And the culture hears our words, watches our actions, and wonders, too, what it even means to say that you’re a Christian in 2016 America. If all it means is going to church once in a while, opposing the sins of certain groups and voting for a political party, why bother?

Through Jesus, Christians have been entrusted and empowered with the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). Reconciliation, of course is most often understood as: “the restoration of friendly relations” or “the action of making one view or belief compatible with another.” It’s one thing for disputing parties to come together, it’s another to be charged with “the ministry of reconciliation”. If we were a business, Christians could say: “Reconciliation is our business”. This has profound implications for Christians in the current US climate.

It’s OK to have political opinions. It’s OK to have strong political opinions. But Christians have been charged with something more than a political agenda. Though we are free to and probably even encouraged to engage in our culture’s political system, we must not be enslaved to it. We must not engage in demonizing those with different opinions and we must not allow others to do so. We must never allow any political party to count on our vote because our task is greater than politics. Even though we participate in politics, our calling lies above. We are called to listen to both sides because we are charged with reconciliation, with bringing different parties together. This is nearly impossible when we are so blinded by our own views that we dehumanize those who disagree. We are called to rise above our vote and love our enemies. We are called to seek out justice and oppose oppression. We are called to stand in the middle of opposing parties, not among them. We are called to bring an end to the bickering, not be its loudest voices.

We are called to be light. We are charged with reconciliation.

Sometimes this means just listening. Sometimes it means comforting the mourning. Sometimes it means speaking up. It always means standing with the “least of these”, the marginalized and those who have no voice. Sometimes this means standing with the unborn. Sometimes it means not only calling others to humility but modeling it. Sometimes it means not only calling others to listen to model it. Sometimes it not only means asking others to be kind and gentle but modeling it. Sometimes it means calling out immorality, bigotry, sexism, intimidation and bullying and a culture of death. It always means standing in the division.

What are some practical ways we might do so? What keeps us from doing so?

This election cycle has cost American Christianity a lot of credibility. But since Christianity in America often resembles America more than it does Christ this may not be an entirely bad thing. Many who are unwilling to carry the Cross and love their enemies will be blown away with the chaff. Many who have believed that following Jesus was akin to winning at life or having their best life now will be unprepared for the work ahead. But God’s people must be the Motel 6 of the world. We must offer safety, comfort and security to all. We must figure out what it means to bear the burden of reconciliation. We must figure out what it means to be light and stand against the darkness on both sides of the political aisle.

I don’t entirely know what this means. But I do know that God’s church will not be lost (Matthew 16:18) and the need for reconcilers will never cease. I have been convicted over the past year to listen deeper but also to speak up when necessary and to act when needed. My eyes have been opened to the great needs ahead and my heart has been ignited to do more. Not to earn anything but because I’ve been blessed.

Christians. We’ll leave the light on for you.

Christians. Reconciliation is our business.

Now that’s good marketing. But will culture’s experience with Christians live up to the hype?

 

 

 

 

The Problem(s) With Christians Supporting Donald Trump

untitled-2Since I have spent the bulk of my professional life as a pastor, I have avoided endorsing political candidates. I have, in the past, tried to remind people that the current election (whatever year it was) was not the “most important election of our lifetime”. I have also tried to remind people that if they lived in fear of the other party winning, then they likely didn’t fully trust God. But I have refrained from endorsing any particular candidate. I have also urged people to think of people on the other side of the aisle as people rather than enemies. But I have not publicly endorsed a candidate. And I’m not endorsing any candidate this year.

But I am speaking out against Donald Trump.

I have been asked several times this election season why I have been vocally opposed to Donald Trump but not other candidates. It’s because I don’t have a significant number of family, friends and peers trying to convince people that Clinton, Johnson, Stein or even McCullin are “the biblical” choice and the candidate Christians should choose (especially when said candidate is so utterly antithetical to everything else these people claim to value but more on that later).

I have not received unsolicited e-mails from family and friends with pieces from well-known evangelical leaders preying on people’s fear and urging them to support a particular candidate other than Trump. I have not been sent pieces claiming that any other candidate is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy or comparing any of the other candidates to biblical characters.

I have not seen American Evangelicalism eviscerated by any of the other candidates. I have not seen the Religious Right forsake its identity to support any other candidate. I have not seen American Evangelicalism make a deal with the devil to support any of the other candidates and I have not seen people bully others into voting for any of the other candidates the way I see well-intentioned people trafficking in guilt and shame in order to try and persuade others to vote for their candidate.

I know people who feel pressured by family and friends to vote for Trump. I know many people who feel  shunned by evangelical family and friends because they refuse to support Trump and I know many people wrestling with guilt because they feel so surely that something is wrong with Trump while being so soundly rejected by important people in their lives.

The reason all of this concerns me is that I come from an Evangelical tradition which has often aligned itself with a faction of the Republican party often known as “the moral majority”. Founded by Jerry Falwell and others in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, this was a group who insisted that morals not only mattered but were demanded of our elected leaders.

Remember when the Moral Majority said that “character counts” for our elected untitled-1leaders? Such is no longer the case (see here, here and here). We have perhaps no clearer example of this shift than noted theologian Wayne Grudem who, earlier this year, argued that “Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice“. The problem, of course, is that Grudem was among 150 Christian leaders who condemned Bill Clinton’s scandals in 1998. Grudem has now openly admitted that what he held against Bill Clinton does not matter in Donald Trump. What’s different? The political affiliation and perhaps the level of sliminess.

After the revelation of 2005 “hot mic” video of Donald Trump confessing to sexual assault, Grudem changed his mind, saying:

I previously called Donald Trump a “good candidate with flaws” and a “flawed candidate” but I now regret that I did not more strongly condemn his moral character. I cannot commend Trump’s moral character, and I strongly urge him to withdraw from the election.

While one may initially simply say, ‘Well, Grudem made a mistake,” but I want to point out what he says later in the same article:

Some may criticize me for not discovering this material earlier, and I think they are right. I did not take the time to investigate earlier allegations in detail, and I now wish I had done so. If I had read or heard some of these materials earlier, I would not have written as positively as I did about Donald Trump.

It’s not that we didn’t know who or what Trump was prior to the sexual assault video, it’s that Grudem didn’t look. Grudem didn’t look because he’s so committed to Republicanism that he didn’t want to look. While many were decrying the absolute lack of morals in the candidate the party of “family values” had chosen, Grudem was one of his most notable and unexpected cheerleaders. Unexpected because Grudem has once so strongly stood against the very behavior Trump revels in. Notable because Grudem now seemed to be willing to trade policy for character.

Grudem has made this clear, now saying: “If You Don’t Like Either Candidate, Then Vote for Trump’s Policies“. Though he still does not defend Trump’s character, Grudem, when faced with voting for Trump or Clinton, (as though those are the only choices) says:

“I overwhelmingly support Trump’s policies and believe that Clinton’s policies will seriously damage the nation, perhaps forever. On the Supreme Court, abortion, religious liberty, sexual orientation regulations, taxes, economic growth, the minimum wage, school choice, Obamacare, protection from terrorists, immigration, the military, energy, and safety in our cities, I think Trump is far better than Clinton”

In other words, policies “trump” character (pun intended). In other words, Grudem will vote Republican regardless of who the candidate is, what they do or what they stand for. In fact, he will lay aside once held convictions about the importance of character when the deviant politician is on his own team; even when it’s unclear whether the candidate in question actually believes anything Grudem attributes to him. And Grudem (along with those for whom he speaks) is willing to make weak arguments in support of Trump, seemingly out of nothing more than party loyalty.

For example, Grudem is willing to make the “supreme court argument” (presumably with a primary view to abortion) even though clear evidence shows that this point is moot at best and misleading at worst. As many have argued, there is no “pro-life” argument for Trump. Not only do we have little to no evidence that he is actually pro-life himself, the point is moot. As a friend recently pointed out on Facebook:

In the 43 years since Roe v Wade, there has been 25 years of Republican presidents. There was a Republican in office when RvW passed. There have been 18 years of Republican majority Senates, and 18 years of Republican majority Houses. There were 12 years where both the Senate and the House were Republican majorities. There have been 40 years in which the Supreme Court had a majority of Republican appointed justices. There was a total of 4 years in which there was a Republican president, a Republican majority in both the Senate and the House, and a majority of Republican appointed justices. Still—no reversal of RvW.

I disagree with many other of the positions Grudem wishes to defend but that’s not my point here. Instead, I want to urge Dr. Grudem and those he represents to stop making light of the true danger posed by Trump and the damage (t)he(y) is/(are) doing to the Evangelical witness in America. You no longer have any ground to assert that morals matter in leadership if you support Trump.

I particularly take issue with Grudem’s approach of “if you don’t like either candidate”. This is not an issue of not “liking” Trump. The man has proven himself to be not only unqualified but unfit for the highest office of the land by demonstrating persistently bad character. In addition to being a thin-skinned, quick-tempered bully who fears losing above all else:

  • Trump traffics in fear and fosters an “us vs. them” mentality, promoting the idea that to be “other” than him and his base is to be dangerous (even within his own party).
  • If Trump is not a racist, at least knowingly traffics in racial invectives and refuses to distance himself from openly racist supporters who claim that he speaks for them.
  • Trump has pridefully announced that he does not apologize for anything and that he had never asked for forgiveness (which, by the way proves that he is not a Christian.).
  • If Trump is himself not anti-Semitic, has at least knowingly trafficked in such invectives and refuses to distance himself from openly anti-Semitic supporters who claim that he speaks for them.
  • Donald Trump confessed to sexual assault. Then denied it and now threatens to sue women who have come forward and the newspapers who reported the story as well as NBC for having the tapes at all.
  • Donald Trump has not only had multiple marriages but has bragged about committing adultery. Numerous times.
  • This is a man who has historically and continues to objectify some women while demeaning others.
  • Donald Trump has encouraged physical violence against protesters, even offering to pay legal fees.
  • Donald Trump paid the maker of the “Project Veritas” videos $10,000.
  • Donald Trump has refused to release his tax returns.
  • Donald Trump mocked a disabled reporter.
  • Donald Trump attacked John McCain as a failure for getting caught while serving our country, then attacked the family of a fallen soldier.
  • Donald Trump was the public face of the “birther” movement.
  • Donald Trump lies every five minutes, even directly contradicting himself. Even on issues on which his comments are documented.
  • Donald Trump openly said that an American born judge was unqualified because of his Latino heritage.
  • Donald a Trump has threatened to sue journalists who are simply doing their job, ushering in legitimate concerns about limiting the First Amendment.
  • Donald Trump has fostered and encouraged division in his own political party.
  • Donald Trump has used this campaign to pay himself and his family millions of dollars.
  • Donald Trump is on record making inappropriate comments about his own daughter and even encouraged Howard Stern to think of her as a “piece of ass”.
  • Donald Trump has admitted that he does not listen to or even seek counsel.
  • Trump has repeated the assertion that not only does he never apologize, he has never asked for forgiveness (thus dispelling any notion that he is any sort of “Christian” in any meaningful sense of the word).

We all make mistakes. I don’t list these things simply to hold Trump’s past mistakes against him but to show that he has persistently showed the world just what kind of person he is. In a newly surfaced video, he brings a beauty contestant in front of a group with the express purpose of humiliating her while saying that he had decided not to humiliate her. He literally denies doing it while doing it. This horrifying scene is introduced with Trump very clearly laying out his life-code: “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe that.”

As if his character were not enough, Trump is genuinely dangerous. In addition to his character, we have many legitimate “policy” issues which should concern everyone:

  • Donald Trump has encouraged foreign powers, namely the Russians, to engage the US political process through cyber-attacks and hacking. Then denied saying such things. He has then ignored security briefings demonstrating that the Russians have, in fact done these very things for the benefit of Trump’s campaign.
  • Donald a Trump has threatened international stability by suggesting that the US abandon NATO.
  • Donald Trump has threatened international financial stability by threatening to walk away from free-trade agreements.
  • Donald Trump has praised authoritarian leaders, praised Vladimir Putin as being a stronger leader than Barack Obama and received the support, not only of Russia but of North Korea.
  • Donald Trump openly undermines the foundational underpinnings of democracy, leaving open the option that he would reject the election results if he loses and urging the country to simply cancel the election and declare him the winner.
  • Donald Trump has advocated racial profiling.
  • Donald Trump has advocated voter suppression/intimidation and has not rebuked supporters who threaten violence if he loses.
  • Donald Trump has advocated torture.
  • Donald Trump has advocated killing the families of enemy combatants.
  • Donald Trump has made light of war, even nuclear war.
  • Donald Trump has threatened to thrust the US in to trade wars with China and Mexico.
  • Trump supports tax plans that not only benefit himself but threaten trillions of dollars added to the deficit.
  • Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand or care how government actually works.

gettyimages-484797712_custom-695b9781e4a550ac0cdd3eba481660feefd333a8-s900-c85Again, I don’t list these things to simply nitpick someone but to demonstrate that Trump has consistently lived the exact kind of life and held the kinds of positions that the “Moral Majority” (sometimes equated with the “Religious Right”) has just as consistently condemned. So what changed? The political affiliation of the candidate in question seems to be the most obvious and disturbing answer. If this is correct then the “moral majority” was really only interested in “morals” when they furthered a particular political agenda (now we see, ironically, the political party identifying with “family values”).

We are left wondering what “morals” the “moral majority” really ever cared about. We are left wondering what religion the “Religious Right” was really advocating for. A man like Trump is fairly vocal about being in this first and foremost for himself and yet he has enjoyed the support of those who once decried men like him in the town square. It appears that now, morals only matter when they fit your agenda. It seems that, as Russell Moore has warned: “The Religious Right turned out to be the people the Religious Right warned us about.”

The “Moral Majority” has traded in credibility to cling to a perception of cultural power and influence. They no longer have the right to condemn the morality of the other party because they have condoned one of the most openly immoral candidates in my lifetime, if not ever.

I want people to know that there are Christian voices who have remained adamantly #nevertrump from the beginning. I want people to know that, it’s OK if your family and friends have chosen to support Trump. We’re all entitled to our own opinions. But it’s not OK if your family and friends somehow try to convince you that support of Trump is somehow the more “Christian” option. It’s just not true. He will receive undying support from some simply because He is the Republican candidate. But he should not receive the undying support of those who claim that character counts.

If you support Trump, I will still be your friend (and/or I’m still your family whether you like it or not). But please don’t try to say he’s a good choice other than the party placeholder he really is. If you are so committed to Republican principles that you have now realized that you will vote along party-lines regardless of who the candidate is, please, at least, admit that this man is no leader. If you are a Christian supporting Trump, at least admit that the man directly contradicts everything you claim to value other than partisan policies (and there’s good question of what the candidate himself actually believes or how he will govern). If you are voting for Trump simply out of opposition to Hillary, don’t say he’s any “better” of an option.

Christians who support Trump must weigh whether the ends justify the means? Are we willing to give up our prophetic voice to the culture for short-term political gain? It is inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst to continue to claim that character and morality matter to us if we are willing to support a man like Donald Trump. Is this worth it?

It’s not enough to vote for a candidate simply out of opposition to another candidate. To vote for a candidate, I believe that you must be able to objectively argue that you think they are the better choice. Is it worth it to sacrifice our position as the voice of faith in our culture in exchange for party loyalty? Apparently, many not only think so but actively condemn those who won’t take such steps.

No matter who you vote for, don’t be like this man. Don’t hold grudges. Forgive. Seek reconciliation. Walk in humility and think the best of others. Seek the best for others. If you are part of God’s family (and even if you’re not), please commit to being a minister of reconciliation. Don’t judge those who vote differently. This is a contentious and important time for our culture. Christians, let’s not make it worse.

 

I Get It. And We Should Talk About It.

104633512Nashville mega-church pastor Pete Wilson recently resigned from the multi-campus Cross Point Church which he and his wife Brandi planted in 2002.

As the church celebrated its 14th anniversary, Wilson delivered a video message in which he said (among other things):

“Most of you in this church only experience what I do on Sundays, especially those of you who watch online. You just see me when I kind of come up here on Sundays but the reality is as leader and the pastor of a church, what happens in between those Sundays is just as important and it requires a lot of leadership and it requires a lot of leadership energy. And leaders in any realm of life, leaders who lead on empty don’t lead well and for some time now I’ve been leading on empty. And so I believe that the best thing for me to do is to step aside from Cross Point and so I am officially resigning as the pastor of Cross Point Church”

Wilson went on to say: “We’ve said that this is a church where it’s OK to not be okay, and I’m not okay. I’m tired. I’m broken, and I just need some rest. I love you guys; I love the vision of this church.”

Wilson then resigned from vocational ministry.

I don’t know Wilson.

But I get it.

In November, 2014, I discussed my own decision to resign from vocational ministry. In that post, I wrestled with what sometimes makes resigning from ministry different than resigning from any other career:

How do you tell people you need a break from teaching others when it seems like that’s what you’re gifted at? How do you tell people you need a break from your job when your job is to care for people? You can’t take a break from caring. How do you tell people you need a break from your job when your job is “Christianity”. You don’t take a break from Jesus.

There are many reasons a pastor might resign.Ministerial dropout rates continually hover around 50%.  The Tennessean quotes Lifeway Research, who in 2015, asked 734 former senior pastors why they left, finding:

that 40 percent left pastoral work before age 65 because they had a change in calling, 25 percent cited a conflict in a church, 12 percent left because of personal finances and 12 percent left for family issues.

Aside from unrepentant sin, the most controversial explanation of pastoral resignation seems to be the all-dreaded but ill-defined “burnout”.Though “pastor burnout” is often ill-defined, it is often equated with spiritual failure that could have been avoided simply by following the right formula.

Consider Thom Rainer’s post “Autopsy Of A Burned Out Pastor: 13 Lessons“. Rainer acknowledges that: “Perhaps the autopsy metaphor is not the best choice”, but the implications of failure (or maybe even spiritual death?) certainly stain his choice of words. In fact, in the “lessons learned” section (i.e. things you can do to prevent the same fate for yourself) includes such nuggets as:

  • Being a short-term people pleaser became a longer-term problem.
  • The pastor had no effective way to deal with critics.
  • The pastor did not have daily Bible time.
  • The pastor’s family was neglected.

You get the gist.

Any pastor who experiences burnout could have prevented it.

If only.

They’d followed the right steps.

This seems sort of like Donald Drumpf saying that soldiers who return from battle suffering from PTSD simply “couldn’t handle it.”

The Christian community has been frustratingly slow to to develop holistic approaches to mental health care. Popular counseling approaches vilify the use of antidepressants while many believe that pastoral burnout can simply be avoided if we check off the right spiritual-workout boxes.

Instead of acknowledging the complexities of mental and spiritual health, we have adopted a formulaic approach seemingly borrowed more from the world of self-help than from the Bible. Follow these simple steps and you too can live a worry-free life (Of course this is related to the self-help model of preaching many of our churches have adopted but that’s a post for another day).

Pastoral burnout is a complex issue that requires more than self-help steps (as is most of the spiritual life).

Pastoral burnout is often the result of clinical depression marinated in a culture in which it is nearly impossible to discuss job performance without suffering a critique  of one’s spiritual health (even though the two may not be related at all).

It is the result of feeling like you are alone. Even when you’re surrounded by people who may have your best interest at heart (and some who don’t).

It is the result of unrealistic expectations. From Everyone. Including yourself.

It is the result of feeling like you can’t confide in your “fellow leaders” because you’ve set yourself up to “lead” them. After all, there has to be a “first among equals, right?”

It is the result of feeling like it’s all up to you because the buck stops somewhere and the captain goes down with the ship and I just haven’t quite gotten to the point of true shared leadership yet . . .

It is the result of a culture which skips over some of the Psalms and equates depression with spiritual failure.

My own experience has led me to find many of the discussions of either depression or pastoral burnout are shallow at best, superficial in the middle and outright judgmental at worst. Burnout is nearly always equated with spiritual failure.

No wonder why more pastors aren’t honest with their struggles until the best option seems to be the last option of resignation.

This is as much an issue of mental health as it is the result of ill-defined and unrealistic expectations. We have set up our pastors to be entrepreneurs, salesmen, counselors, managers, public speakers, accountants, human resources specialists and nearly everything in between. And we have created cultures in which, despite our best intentions otherwise, it’s not OK to not be OK. Especially if you’re a leader.

I hate that Pete Wilson and his family have to go through this season. But I am thankful that the issues surrounding the spiritual and mental health of pastors and all Christians is having a moment of national conversation. I am thankful that more and more people are opening the public eye to this much-needed conversation.

We must commit to fostering environments of acceptance. Many of us simply don’t feel safe to say that we’re not OK. If that’s true for many Christians in general, its certainly acute in our leaders. We need more leaders who display the humble confidence to demonstrate the multi-faceted tapestry that is the Christian faith. Some times are good. Some times are bad. We must be honest enough to voice both. We must be caring enough to accept others.

My prayer is that Wilson’s resignation sparks a worldwide discussion of how we structure our churches, what we expect of our leaders, what we expect of one another and what an authentic Christian life really looks like.