Millennials: Don’t Abandon the Church

I’m taking a short break from Christmas posts to talk about an article I’ve seen recently being shared on social media: “12 Reasons Millennials are OVER Church.”

The article is funny in places and characterized by the tell-it-like-it-is candor that my generation hates in people they don’t agree with (a certain president-elect comes to mind) and loves in articles that voice what they’re feeling. It also has some useful observations about why millennials are staying away from organized religion.

Are there some suggestions here that some churches should consider? Sure, especially the challenges to listen to, appreciate, and involve younger people (although I should also point out that implementing everything in the article would take a programming-heavy megachurch).

hipsterjesus

This seemed like the right time to bring out Hipster Jesus.

But I had some significant problems with it.

The first was the tone. General principle: when you are talking to people made in the image of God, especially ones who have dedicated their lives to prayerfully trying to lead a group of believers, please be respectful. It’s fine to have difficult conversations, point out weaknesses, and suggest solutions. But you should always do so in a gracious, careful way, motivated by love.

This was not that. (more…)

Advent Stories: The Innkeeper

Pay your taxes, they said. Come to the land of your fathers and be counted, they said. Make Judea great again, they said—Herod the Great’s, that is. But did they tell me about the stress it would cause? No. Me, a hardworking innkeeper in a respectable three-camel town in the middle of nowhere, suddenly overrun by every half-wit peasant whose mother gave birth within a ten-mile radius of Bethlehem.

Nobody thinks of the little guy anymore, that’s the trouble. As I always say, “All roads lead to Rome, all dirt paths with potholes lead to Bethlehem.” And they were jammed with travelers this week for the census. Every room in my inn was full to bursting, every scrap of food eaten, every dish in my house dirtied three times over. Good for business, bad for my back. I’m not young anymore, you know.

My wife and I, we raised the prices a bit, of course. Not nearly as much as those traitorous gouging tax collectors. But as I always say, “When in the Roman empire, do as Romans do.”

I was full up like every other inn when the knock came. Too late for new customers, but I opened the door anyway. There was a man and his pregnant wife—near ready to burst, I’d say—on my doorstep. “Do you have a room for us?” the man asked, almost pleaded. “We’ve been turned away all over the city.”

Now, I’m an innkeeper. We know well the warnings about refusing strangers. We’ve had our ears tanned with vivid stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and Rahab in Jericho. I grew up thinking any traveler I met might be an angel, or, even better, a spy.

Life disappointed me there. I’ve never had any person of note stay in my inn. Probably never will.

But seeing that woman and her child, well, it reminded me of what my dear mother always told me—there is always room. You can stretch the soup a little farther, wear the blankets a little thinner, pack the common rooms a little fuller.

You can decide if she was hospitable or just profitable. As for me, it was my duty, yes, my sacred honor not to turn away that young couple. She looked so tired, and he looked so…all right, if I’m honest, he looked about ready to punch someone. If I’d shut the door in his face, I think he’d have beaten it down.

But I don’t hold it against him. Taxes and a long road trip will do that to anyone.

innkeeper2

I let them stay out in the stable, the cave out back where the guests tether their animals for the night. Oh, it was clean enough…mostly. Manure has to go somewhere. But there was a roof of sorts and what you might call a bed—I threw down some new straw before getting back to the guests.

It couldn’t have been more than an hour later, myself all ready to get some well-earned rest, when the man pounds on my door again, saying the baby’s time has come.

There were dishes to do any money to count and sweet dreams to have. But there he was in front of me, looking terrified as any new father I’d ever seen. And I remembered what my dear mother always told me—there is always time. You make time for what matters, even in the middle of a busy season.

And so I said, “Wife, fetch them a midwife.”

What? There is always time for women to do these things. I’m sure that’s what Mother meant. We men have business to attend to. Besides, women are the ones who can keep three tasks going at once and still remember to nag you about whatever you forgot, aren’t they?

So my wife brought a midwife, and before you know, she gave me a report: a healthy boy squalling in the Bethlehem night. A “census baby,” my wife called him. And I said, “Ah, so it’s true.” And she said, “What?” And I said, “I heard a man hollering that the Romans would start demanding our firstborn sons next. Are they bringing the baby to the tax collector or should I call him here?

She didn’t find this funny, no matter how much I protested that I didn’t mean it. Said I’d be sleeping in the stable tomorrow night if I didn’t watch.

As if it could have been anything but a joke. What man would give up his firstborn son to his enemies? No tax would be set that high. A father would never willingly give up his son, though he might be taken by force—sold into slavery to pay a debt, maybe.

Or like Jonathan. David’s all the rage around these parts, you know. Born here and all. Half of the mothers here name their boys David, and the other half name them Jonathan. I always liked Jonathan, myself. His father was powerful, a king…and he risked it all for his friendship with a shepherd boy.

I never understood why Jonathan had to die before David became king. Saul had it coming, sure, but why punish someone innocent? Why couldn’t God have let him live?

It was the consequence of Saul’s sin, they’d tell me, the priests and such with all the answers. He could have obeyed God, given the throne to David. But he would not. He chose rebellion, and the son had to die. It doesn’t make sense, not to me.

Bah, what am I saying? I know better than to meddle in religion. I’m a simple man, myself. Stick to what I know, like my parents taught me, and theirs before them.

That census baby, though. I wish him the best. His father will laugh, someday, telling his son the story of his birth. Anyway, it’s no small thing to take your first breath in the city of David, even if you were born in a barn.

The census travelers will soon be gone, and it’ll be business as usual. But they’ll come around again soon, for more taxings and bookeepings. “Rome wasn’t built in a drachma,” you know, like I always say. They’ll take our money, drain us dry, and make us pretend to be glad for it.

Well, back to business. Mother ought to have said there is always work, not room or time. It never seems to end.

Someday. Someday. I always imagine heaven as an inn with rooms too numerous to count, tables filled with food, days filled with joy.

They won’t have a census there. No taxes either. Nothing to pay, nothing to be counted or conquered or earned. “Charge it to God,” I’ll say if anyone asks. Who knows how he paid for it.

And then, I’ll finally be able to rest.

Advent Stories: The Cousin

They call it the Holy Place, but given enough time, even holy places can seem ordinary. That’s what I thought seven months ago, when Zechariah was chosen to go into the temple to burn incense before the Lord.

Just another offering. Just the same old temple, the psalms of worship I’d heard so often, the rules and rituals and routine of life. There hadn’t been an incident of smiting in centuries. Or a miracle, for that matter.

Oh, we prayed for one…but we never expected an answer to our prayers. And certainly not one like this.

Even wives of priests forget what holiness means, every now and then.

Now the whole town knows what happened that day. I didn’t even get the excitement of being the first to tell my family I was expecting. Ah, well. We’ve probably had enough surprises this year anyway.

The angel told Zechariah my soon-to-be-born son is supposed to be a messenger like Elijah.

So. Our boy is going to be like the mountain-man prophet who exploded in and out of Israelite politics with declarations of famine and rain, life and death. And he’s to be a Nazarite, a child of oath, like Samson, the long-haired strong man with no self-control and a talent for causing destruction with bones, city gates, flaming foxes, and whatever else happens to be on hand.

Not the role models I would have chosen, but what can I say? You can’t argue with God. Zechariah tried, and look where it got him.

“What does that mean?” I asked my husband. “What sort of gifts should people bring to our son? Fire-and-brimstone resistant blankets? A toy raven, perhaps? A Baby’s First Altar builder set?”

That’s what I said, but what I was really asking was: “Why us? How do we raise a child who will prepare the way for the Lord?”

Zechariah didn’t tell me. Hasn’t spoken a word since he left the temple, actually.

I have to admit…it’s a nice change. I love my husband, but the way he talks…even his studying isn’t a solitary activity. He’ll talk to himself, me, even the long-dead author of whatever Scripture he’s reading. Leave it to him to even read like an extrovert.

Lately, it’s been quiet, peaceful. Almost too quiet, which is why I welcomed my cousin Mary’s visit. And now I know the answer to some of my questions, at least.

Our John will prepare the way for Mary’s child. The baby jumped inside my womb—nearly knocked me over in his excitement—the minute she called out to me, and I knew. Somehow, I knew the news my virgin cousin was bringing to her old, barren relative six months along with child.

I told the story back to her before she had a chance to get it out—that our Lord had chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah.

cousins

It sounds crazy, I know. But what can I say? There’s a bit of the unexpected in our Lord, a sense of humor, you might say, a love for reversing our expectations. A bit like Joseph, Mary’s betrothed. I always liked him. A solid man, but not as serious as Zechariah’s priest friends. They act like “Thou shalt not laugh” is the unspoken eleventh commandment.

If Joseph were here now, he wouldn’t demand to know why Zechariah can’t speak or why I insist on the name John for my son. He’d make a joke about whether I have any pregnancy craving for prunes, then deliver a hand-carved cradle which he would pretend was “nothing much, just a little something I made in the shop.” And he’d never leave Mary’s side.

What will he think, when he hears about Mary? An angelic visitation re-told sounds like a hungover delusion at best and an outrageous excuse at worst. Will the Lord grant him enough trust to believe in secondhand stories of miracles?

And what will happen to Mary if he doesn’t? (more…)

Why You Should Write Thanksgiving Cards

When I was a freshman in high school I went on The Last Field Trip. It was to the local zoo, supposedly for biology class, but probably to get rid of 400 immature teenagers for a full day with the hopes that we’d learn some manners from the primates on Monkey Island. Regardless, the next day, everyone groaned when we had to write mandatory thank-you notes to the chaperones.

It didn’t seem so bad to me. I had lots of practice (thanks, Mom!), a healthy respect for the adults who bravely accompanied adolescents to stare at equally smelly animals, and my golden rule for schoolwork: never do a boring assignment if you can do an interesting one instead.

(This rule explains the essay on the French Revolution I wrote as a one-act play, my paper on bacon in different world religions, and the report on water pollution done in a tabloid-style exposé. Possibly also why teachers were never quite sure what to do with me.)

thanks

I made the thank-you note as funny and personal as I could in the five sentences of space I was given. Afterward, my teacher kept it as an example and said she’d like to photocopy it to send to all the volunteers if she thought she could get away with it.

It was a good moment in my (relatively bleak) freshman year of high school. (No offense to my school but it was an awkward time in my life compounded by mandatory P.E. class where, due to an actual fire, I had to go outside in my swimsuit in front of the whole school. In the snow. True story.)

I have, thankfully, lost some of my freshman year awkwardness, but I didn’t lose my love of writing thank-you notes. Every November, I write and send a few Thanksgiving cards (because Christmas cards are too mainstream), not to pass along thanks for a gift, but just because I owe a huge debt to the people around me.

Seriously. Have you thought about that recently? If you’re like me, there are people you look up to and learn from, people who make you laugh, people who have lived out a quality you’d like to develop, and people who will not assume either the worst or the best of you. They might be lifelong friends or only part of your life for a season, but you are different because of them.

Still not convinced? Okay, here are five good reasons to write a thank-you note to someone this November:

  • It’s counter-cultural. Handwritten things take time and effort. So, small-picture, the person getting the note will appreciate that you took that time, and big-picture, you are singlehandedly making a statement that efficiency is not the most important thing in life and that people aren’t only valuable for what you can get out of them.
  • People need to be reminded that they matter. It easy to forget in a culture of comparison and competition, and it’s especially important to affirm that the small, daily, “ordinary” actions of people around us, the ones that aren’t usually noticed or appreciated.
  • We need to learn to live wholehearted lives. I’ve written before about how it’s difficult for me to be honest with people about how much they mean to me…and why it’s a good practice anyway. Small actions like this train our hearts away from fear and pride and toward gratitude and selflessness, especially if it feels like a risky, hard thing to do.
  • Being thankful makes us thankful. As we take time to express gratitude, we realize we’re surrounded by an avalanche of awesome. We didn’t notice it because it accumulated flake by flake—a kind word here, a thoughtful question there, a few challenges and good examples and offers of help throughout the year. Whenever I write out thanks, I find that it changes my attitude, especially when I’m not feeling particularly thankful.
  • Stamps. They are basically adult stickers and everyone finds it totally acceptable when you purchase or even collect them. You should take advantage of this little loophole in standard maturity rules.
This is not what I mean. But I have a golden rule for blog posts too: there is not post that will not improved by Calvin and Hobbes.

This is not what I mean. But I have a golden rule for blog posts: there is not post that will not be improved by Calvin and Hobbes.

Let’s be real: it’s been a bit of a November so far, hasn’t it? This year, I’m coming to Thanksgiving dragging a bit, a little beat-up, a little tired, and just jaded enough to qualify my list of blessings.

I’m thankful for freedom of speech…but it’s hard to see so many people using it badly.

I’m thankful for family…but they’re very far away.

I’m thankful for the fact that God’s mercies are new every morning…but so are the worries and the fears and the sheer mundane-ness of daily routines.

Maybe some of the major blessings feel completely crossed off your list this year. Your health is struggling, you lost your job, someone significant to you will not pull up a chair around the table during the holidays. There’s more brokenness than bounty.

Unanswered prayers taunt us from the margins of our journals, unwanted questions prod the raw spots in our life, unknown futures loom with “what ifs” and wonderings. We can (maybe) admit that God is still good and (sometimes) remember that we have a lot to be grateful for.

But it’s still hard.

At this point, we have a choice: we can withdraw into ourselves, maybe putting on a good show, maybe not bothering, and let this Thanksgiving leave behind nothing but a lingering sense of regret and a few extra pounds.

Or we can tell a different story, one that acknowledges how God is using hard times to change us…and that doesn’t forget to be thankful for the people who have been with us through it. In some ways, thanking others is more than a good deed. It is an act of faith, one that says, “No matter what I am going through, God has provided and will continue to provide what I need.” Not always what I want or even what I ask for, but what I need to become more like Jesus.

So, here’s the challenge: between now and the end of November, write three thank-you notes. (Just text/email someone and say, “What’s your address?” It is extremely painless.) It can be to your best friend or an acquaintance you hardly know at all. It can be a full page or three sentences on a postcard. You can express thanks for huge, meaningful contributions to your life, or something small that came at just the right time.

And who knows? Your note might be just what that other person needed as a reminder that God is still good at the end of a long November.

Hamilton and the Danger of the Single Story

I’m going to do this thing where I do not take either popular position on the latest not-news headline surrounding Trump’s administration-elect.

hamilton

Summary: Mike Pence and his family attended the mega-hit Broadway musical Hamilton yesterday. Other audience members booed him throughout, and after the curtain call, to address the disturbances, the cast of Hamilton said this:

statement

So, here’s my take.

To the people who booed Pence throughout the show: had you actually been listening to the fantastic musical that you paid upwards of $1000 to attend, you might have noticed that many characters have a theme, a repeated phrase that reoccurs throughout their scenes. Burr’s is “wait for it/just you wait,” Hamilton’s is “my shot,” and so on.

Other characters echo those themes to make a particularly powerful moment. When Hamilton finally repeats “That would be enough,” Eliza’s theme, at the end of “It’s Quiet Uptown,” the audience knows he’s finally changed. He and Eliza are in agreement after all this time, and that is beautiful.

So…Trump’s theme is loudly railing against people who disagree with him. It is not a theme you want to echo. By stealing lines from Trump’s usual script, you’re only showing the audience that you are in agreement after all.

To Trump, who demanded an apology from the cast and said their words were “very rude and insulting”…come on, man. The statement wasn’t really disrespectful. It’s gonna be a long four years if you demand apologies from everyone saying they hope your administration won’t look like your campaign.

I’ll repeat Washington’s solo and say, “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.”

You have no control. Other people are telling your story now, and they will continue to do so, evaluating your words and actions and sometimes disagreeing with them. It’s a heavy burden, as Washington also acknowledges several times, when “history has its eyes on you,” but it’s one you and other members of you administration will have to learn to live with.

To everyone who is cheering the cast of Hamilton and their statement: be careful of the single story.

Also, to those who are upset by the cast’s statement and want to boycott Hamilton…be careful of the single story.

I just listened to a simple but moving TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who shared the danger of having only one idea of what a person or a group of people are, how simplifying them into a stereotype is harmful to both them and you. (Listen to it. It’s both convicting and gracious.)

That, I think, is one reason why many have found Hamilton so powerful: it refuses the “single stories” we have of our Founding Fathers. They are, suddenly, brilliant and flawed, determined and arrogant and exhausted and bursting at the seams of their colonial costumes with hopes and dreams and fears and failings. It refuses the single story of all rap and hip-hop being a string of shallow rants objectifying women. It refuses the single story of the American Dream by showing the consequences of ambition, even for a good, patriotic cause.

I think that after this election, we’re carrying and spreading lots of single stories about the people around us. We’re slapping on generalizations with a wide brush, painting over all kind of nuances, letting our emotions justify almost anything we say about others.

Others who are infinitely complex and made in the image of God just like you and the people who agree with you.

We will only be able to move forward as a nation if we learn to have civil dialogue on tough issues, if we speak with both grace and conviction. On a smaller scale, our relationships with those around us will benefit if we listen well, if we allow others to be complex and not defined by a handful of tweets, positions, and stereotypes.

Okay, I think I’ve made just about everyone mad by now, so let’s end with this.

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s statement applauding what the cast did, he included this line: “Lead with love.”

I like that. I like it a lot. I don’t necessarily know if that’s what happened in the cast’s statement, and it certainly wasn’t happening either from the booing audience or some of the ugly rhetoric from this past campaign season.

But it sounds an awful lot like what we’re called to do as Christians. So, even if you disagree with everything else I said in this post, let’s go out and lead with love.

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The Danger of Post-Election Stereotypes

Whenever I hear an explanation of the actions of a large group of people and it is simple and straightforward, I tend to be skeptical.* Because people are complex.

In a novel I read recently, one character diagnosed the fundamental flaw of another: “Your tactics are self-centered. You have forgotten that you are not the only player on the board…you have allowed yourself to believe that others are mechanisms, static and solvable, whereas you are an agent.”

Ouch. That one hurt, because in it, I saw myself. I tend to assume that I have the moral high ground, which makes me look down on everyone else. I see myself and my reasoning as complex, but forget that everyone else is equally complex.

Sometimes I feel like life in general and interacting with other people in particular is a massive tome of Les Misérables or Anna Karenina. I can’t understand it and it intimidates me, so I take it and fit it into an adorable illustrated board book instead.

karen miser

Ah, yes. That’s better. This is at my level. I can understand this, every word, and the pictures to go along with them are familiar and soothing.

Babylit, guys. They have super cool line of books.

Babylit, guys. They have super cool line of books which I plan to inflict on my hypothetical future children.

Okay, here we go: “Groups appeared waving flags.”

That’s a narrative that makes sense to me. I don’t have to work to understand it. Why add in the complications of revolutionary philosophy vs. the establishment, questions of nonviolent resistance, of grace and law and whether Russell Crowe was a good Javert or not?

karenina

Perfect. I can now understand the entire scope of Anna Karenina in just a few pages. And, yes, I can also find the fan. I am so smart and accomplished. The next page shows a train, and I like trains, so the train will probably only do good things. (Kidding, they don’t show the train scene.)

Isn’t it nice when people and politics are simple like that?

(No. The answer is no.)

And yet I do this. I make generalizations and imply them. I disrespect others in what I say or just think resentful things about them in my heart. I assume I’m right about everything and check out when I feel defensive.

I don’t want to live like that.

Let’s refuse to take the board book answers after this election, guys. Remember that even the people you don’t understand or agree with are made in the image of God. (more…)

Saying “God is in Control” May Not Be Enough

Despite the fevered hype of all the “go vote or else our country is doomed” campaigns, I have good news: your highest Christian duty was not voting yesterday.

So I can say pretty confidently that the results of yesterday’s election are not a “well done, good and faithful servant” commendation or an outcome signaling the end of the world.

It’s been interesting to see the reactions, mostly on social media, some a quick release of emotion, either positive or negative, others more drawn out with a whole subtext of beliefs and assumptions written invisible between the lines.

One theme with a lot of my Christian friends is that, whatever you think about this election, God is still on the throne. This is an incredibly important reminder—our true citizenship is of a different country. We can’t put our hope in America, its leadership, its values, its future.

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In some sense, it is enough to say God is in control, to really believe it all the way down till it reaches the shadow fears that lurk in the commercial breaks between news stories and the quiet before you drift into a troubled sleep.

It is enough because God is enough. No matter what happens next, God is enough.

(Rest there for a little bit. Realign your priorities until you can raise yourself up to remember…or just trust that this is true until your emotions catch up. I’ve been in both places.)

But here’s the thing: God uses his church. That’s why I don’t want us to be too quick to assume that trust in the sovereignty of God is the only reminder we need post-election. As James says, “Faith without deeds is dead.”

Here’s what I want to challenge you with today: our government, our president…they don’t have the responsibility to live out Christian values and represent God to the world. We do.

If there are aspects to our next president’s character or platform that don’t align with the heart of Christ (and I think even his supporters can think of some), then let’s choose differently.

Today, I’m asking myself what it would look like if I constantly sought to build others up with my words instead of tearing them down. If I really cared about the poor and oppressed, if I sought to reconcile instead of divide. If I was careful to look at people as individuals instead of causes, if I had the humility to admit when I’m wrong, if I put others and their needs before my own.

Because I often don’t. In some ways, the faults I found in both Trump and Clinton during this election put a mirror to my own heart. Their flaws are mine.

The fact that God is in control becomes an easy answer when we reduce it to a meme or a platitude, when “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” means giving up instead of engaging, when we mourn the brokenness of our political system and not the sin in our own hearts that has kept us from loving God and our neighbor.

I realize some of you are tired, physically from staying up to watch counts and recounts, emotionally from the stress of this whole political season, spiritually because so many things seem broken. This might seem like too much right now.

I realize some of you are excited, confused and maybe irritated by the disappointed reactions of other believers you know to what you consider (even reluctantly) a better outcome. This might seem unnecessary right now.

It’s not too much. We rally past our fears and frustrations for moments like this, as Christians.

And it is necessary. The world is watching to see what the gospel looks like, and we have to tell them it’s not bound up in politics.

It’s the Great Commission and hope in the midst of suffering and purpose for life and the cross, the cross, the cross.

The city on the hill is not America. It’s believers striving to be more like Christ to a world in need.