You Believe the Wrong Gospel (And So Do I)

If this were a catchy, click-bait-y post, the title would be Five Ways to Tell If You’re Believing Heresy.

Except there’s really only one foolproof sign you need: you’re a human. (And not Jesus, which is technically a second sign, but so oddly specific that I didn’t count it.)

Here’s what I mean: maybe you have perfectly orthodox beliefs, prioritized in just the right order with the essentials at the core and the interesting doctrinal potpourri on the fringes. Maybe your pastor is careful to interpret the Bible well, maybe you pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, maybe you compare everything you hear to Scripture.

Even with all that, there will still be days where you believe the wrong gospel. On paper you may say you believe one thing, but what you do reveals where your heart is.

That’s extremely vague and mysterious-sounding, like I’m some sort of spiritual fortune cookie dispenser. To de-guru myself, here are a few examples from my life that I’ve noticed recently.

The Prosperity Gospel

“God wants you to be happy. If you’re experiencing suffering, it must be your lack of faith, because God is waiting for you to call down blessings, live your best life now, ask and receive health, wealth, and a mega-T.V. ministry.”

It’s practically self-satirizing—sites like Babylon Bee don’t even need to do anything to parody this message. You can basically quote the major leaders and it looks like something that no one who read the actual New Testament or examined the life of even one early church leader could possibly come up with.

Joel Osteen and his shiny smile is, in my circles, the universal punching bag for heresy jokes. Kind of like a reverse Chuck Norris. We understand that the Bible tells us we will suffer, in no uncertain terms. (Multiple times.)

Abundance! (Of hair gel, anyway...)

Abundance! (Of hair gel, anyway…)

On the other hand…when things do go wrong in my life, my first reaction is, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” Even trivial problems and delays provoke my whining, as if God somehow owes me sunny weather or a non-snoring neighbor on the plane or the return of Aldi’s limited edition Mint Moose Tracks ice cream.

It gets more serious, of course, when the suffering is real—sickness, broken relationships, death. It can be harder to remember, then, that shouting at God for letting this happen is basically saying Osteen was right all along. I deserve a perfect life in a fallen world, and when I don’t get it, I have a right to be angry. (more…)

On Neverland and Growing Up

My generation has a problem, or so everyone seems to be saying.

Whether they’re commentators criticizing grown adults for playing Pokémon Go, or experts focusing on the fact that Millennials are less likely to marry, bloggers nicknaming us Special Protagonists, or columnists bemoaning the emotional fragility that requires a filter of political correctness and trigger warnings to discuss anything remotely controversial, you get a pretty grim picture of young people today from just about the whole world.

Which is a bummer, given that I’m a young person. Especially because, while I don’t agree with every article bemoaning our (multiple) flaws, I can kinda see their general point.

A recent hit by Twenty-One Pilots, “Stressed Out,” has been labeled an anthem from our generation. You can listen to the whole thing, but the general sense is in the chorus: “Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days, when our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out …Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face, saying, ‘Wake up, you need to make money.’”

So, catchy song, but I’ve got to admit, the whole idea of the good ol’ days being the era we spent drooling in our cribs sounds a little pathetic. In some ways I get the nostalgia for naptime and Lunchables, but with some stress comes great responsibility and at least a little power to, you know, drive yourself places, make choices about your future, think through ideas and beliefs, or,  if none of those appeal to you, at least stop wearing diapers. (more…)

On Leaving a Legacy

Last weekend, I lurked around the American Christian Fiction Writers conference, watching as hopeful attendees took classes and faced dreaded pitching appointments with editors and agents.

When you walk through those halls, you can almost feel the weight of all the ambitions and hopes, from the multi-published author struggling with doubt to the aspiring novelist who clings to a dream that seems impossible to the writer who’s facing rejection or anxiety or comparison.

And it reminded me of the tower of Babel and a hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton3

If the second half of that sentence sounds strange, then you’ve probably never heard of Broadway megahit Hamilton. I can’t universally endorse it if you’re bothered by strong language, but the story is compelling, the word play is ridiculously clever, and Washington’s cabinet meetings are rap battles.

Thematic Cliff Notes (no spoilers): Hamilton struggles throughout with a desperate need to leave a legacy, one that drives him to work harder than his peers…and neglect his family and make some incredibly stupid choices. “I am not throwing away my shot” and “Just you wait” are his constant, almost desperate-sounding refrains. He’s determined to make a name for himself, whatever the cost.

In contrast, I give you George Washington: “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory. You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

Hamilton1

Hamilton2

I’m seriously considering making business cards with these two quotes on them.

Of the two characters, guess who has the best perspective on this one? (more…)

How To Be Outraged at the Right Things

Confession: I saw exactly none of the Olympics, since we use our TV entirely for Netflix and watching movies.

Like those people who try to summarize plots of books without having read them, what I know of the Olympics is basically: Michael Phelps made a funny face, trampoline is an actual event, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team was awesome, and people are racist, sexist, or both because they condemned Gabby Douglas’s alleged bad attitude while shrugging off Ryan Lochte’s alleged vandalism and perjury.

DouglassLochte

My response to that last one was…maybe. Maybe not.

But I’m pretty sure it showed that we have a problem with our cultural expectations for others.

Think about it. The reason we are outraged by something is because it goes against what we think ought to happen.

When we are outraged and probably shouldn’t be, it’s often because we take something true (“Parents should watch their children carefully. Animals shouldn’t be treated with cruelty.”) and use those truths to completely overreact to a situation we think shouldn’t have happened (“The evil zookeepers who shot the poor, defenseless gorilla and the incompetent mother who let her kid wander into the cage are criminals and horrible people.”).

When we should be outraged about something and aren’t (say, abortion, or another politician is caught lying) it’s usually because it doesn’t affect us personally or we expect it to happen and go on happening. (more…)

When You Wish You Could Go Back

If you’re anything like me, at least once in your life, you’ve wished for time travel. Not in the wow-I-want-to-meet-Abraham-Lincoln sense or the woo-let’s-go-kill-Hitler sense, but the kind where you remember a great time in your life you’d like to relive…especially compared to where you are right now.

Not really for any of these reasons either.

Not really for any of these reasons either.

I was thinking about this phenomenon recently, and decided it’s not necessarily bad. But never underestimate the capacity of the human race in general and me in particular to take a neutral trait, attitude, or action and make it sinful.

For an example, let’s go back. Way, way back to the post-Exodus Israelites wandering in the wilderness. They’re having a nostalgic moment. Sort of. (Please read the following in the voice of a whiny middle schooler for proper effect.)

“If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

This was a bit of a rosy-colored view of the land they’d left behind. Particularly since they were, you know, slaves. Under a Pharaoh who killed their newborn sons and considered them as disposable as the mud bricks he used to build his enormous pyramids and palaces.

Later, the Israelites, never short on drama, take up complaining again: “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?”

Answer: No, no it would not be better.

Longing for Egypt is marked by dissatisfaction—comparing now to then and listing off all the things that were better, complaining about how we never should have left, questioning God’s goodness because he brought us where we are now.

It’s grumbling about all you’d do if the kids weren’t holding you back, peeling out of the church parking lot with resentment and comparison of the pastor to your perfect ideal, lingering on the Facebook profile of an old flame to imagine what ifs, numbly flipping through photos when you were younger, prettier, happier and trying to place yourself there, just for a moment. (more…)

Four Ways to Be Like Jesus During Election Season

Much like Christmas, election season shouldn’t really even be a thing. It can start to feel like a drawn-out commercialized greed-fest full of noisy ads and mailings and hype, and by the time the day arrives, you collapse in exhaustion and wonder what’s so great about it in the first place. (And with elections, you don’t even get cookies.)

We'll take an opinion poll on that.

We’ll take an opinion poll on that.

Granted. I’m with you 100%. But since we’re stuck with another three months of this, we might as well give a little thought to how we should live in the middle of it.

I am not God, so I can’t say for sure, but I think it is very, very likely that God cares more about how you talk about politics in the months leading up to this election than who you actually vote for. Why do I say this?

Because A. God cares about your heart, and what you say comes out of your heart B. the one standout characteristic of Jesus’ followers is supposed to be our love for each other and C. the object of our lives is to bring glory to Christ, and how we behave in front of a watching world says more about who God is than a hole we punch in a voting booth.

Here are some thoughts on applying “What Would Jesus Do?” not to your vote, but to your life in the meantime.

Show grace.

Even if someone else does not. You can’t control their words or reactions, only yours.

I sometimes think of myself as a hostage negotiator when entering controversial real-life or online exchanges. Civility is being held captive, and I have to talk the hostiles down by convincing them to free common decency. For truth, justice, and a more gracious society! [Theme music here.]

This is not normal and may not work for you if you don’t subscribe to my particular brand of melodrama. But the point is, showing grace is hard. I fail at it all the time, because the way I act doesn’t line up with the things I say I love.

In theory, I love truth. In reality, I love being right. (more…)

Why Being Tired Is Not Enough

It’s still four months until the presidential election, and I’m ready to start a political party called “Sanity” and hold rallies for it. By myself. With no slogans or controversies in sight.

Every day seems to bring a new headline of something horrific happening in the world, followed by discussions of why this is worse than that, how X led to Y which will eventually lead to really awful Z, and who, today, we should be yelling at.

I am tired of the petty meanness of the world.

I’ve heard the term “empathy fatigue,” and I wonder—is that what happens when you fall into a routine of graceless social media, endless politics, relentless suffering? When you look at a calendar booked solid with red Xs marking out bad news and realize you won’t have a vacation from it until Jesus comes back? When there are bruised and beaten people on the side of every road, and you are one Samaritan with a cart and a donkey…and you’d rather pass along on the other side and forget by immersing yourself in a smaller world—your family, career, social media, Pokémon Go—anything you feel you can control?

There is so much noise, and all I want is quiet, just for a little while.

But when I pull away from the chatter and clamor to listen, I realize: I am tired of the petty meanness of myself. That’s why I hate it so much outside of me, because I see it and it is familiar. And that startles me. I don’t like admitting it.

Sometimes I walk around like a mass of prickling jealousies and resentments, easily offended and often offensive because I care about myself more than you. Even when I keep it hidden, I can feel it under the surface. I am prideful and judgmental and vain. I want what I can’t have and take for granted what I do have. I don’t care where I should and care too much where I need to just let it go.

That’s important to admit, I think, instead of pointing to all of that awfulness out there—those other people who make bad decisions and come to stupid conclusions and lack compassion—and pretending you’re not part of it.

But even that is not enough, being tired with the world and yourself. (more…)