Baby Dedications for the Rest of Us

At most churches I’ve attended, Mother’s Day is for baby dedications, that time-honored Russian roulette of trying to guess which kid will scream bloody murder while the pastor prays for their life and faith and peaceful upbringing.

As a single person watching from the pews, this is prime time to either A. join the obligatory cooing when adorable pictures of the dedicatees go up on the screen, B. try to rank how much sleep each participating mother got the night before, or C. remember to call Mom after the service and/or take her out to brunch along with half of America (with sincere apologies for all those years I overcooked toast and undercooked eggs and passed if off as “breakfast in bed”).

While none of those are bad things, they might be missing the point, because we still have a role to play, even if we aren’t the ones onstage breaking into a cold sweat because the grandparents are in the front row taking dozens of pictures of Junior spitting up during the pastor’s message.

Whether you’ve never had kids or have already made it through the kids-in-the-house stage or are still in the trenches of parenthood, there’s something you can bring to the little ones making their Sunday-morning debut.

Most churches have some way of including the observing members in the dedication. Whether they ask the congregation to repeat vows or say “amen” or just be reminded that they are part of the raising of these little kiddos, there’s a sense that we’re all in this together. Sometimes those requirements are spelled out, sometime they’re a vague commitment to join in community with the parents and children.

If that’s the case, here’s the fine print, just so you know what you might be agreeing to just by showing up on Mother’s Day, kind of like those terms-and-conditions boxes that hardly anyone reads before checking.

If you follow through on the promise you make at baby dedications, congratulations! You’ve signed up for a lifetime of tiny moments of secondhand parenthood, with all its joys and frustrations and moments of cluelessness.

You’ve agreed to do your best to model holiness in front of dozen of little eyes and ears. That means holding back angry words, choosing love, giving out of right motives…and humbly asking forgiveness when you fail in all those areas (as you’re basically guaranteed to do).

You’re telling parents that their kids aren’t just optional add-ons to the church, but that they matter. You’ll pray for their parenting when needed and be one in an army of comforters and babysitters and fix-it-guys and casserole-makers to be there with practical help in the hard times. You will greet and worship with and high-five and speak to the younger members of the church like they’re your little brothers and sisters (even if the highest spiritual plane you can bring the conversation to is dinosaurs and ice cream flavors). You’ll use your unique gifts to make a difference in their lives and in their parents’ lives wherever you can for as long as God puts them in your life.

If you live like you mean this, you will care about hundreds of young lives and sometimes wonder if it’s worth the emotional energy. You will give without the expectation of getting anything in return. You will speak up when you could just look away. You will pour hours and months and years of your life into serving kids who will shove a gluestick in your hair, like another Sunday School teacher more than you (and tell you so), hurt someone you care about, or leave the church and never come back.

Here’s the thing, though: you don’t get a family—a real, beautiful, stuck-with-each-other sort of family—without sacrifice.

There’s a lot of happiness when making room in your already-crowded life to love other people’s kids, don’t get me wrong. But it takes a reprioritizing, a setting aside of preferences, a long patience and a Holy-Spirit-empowered selflessness.

I’m not there yet…but I want to be. I’ve watched the lives of other believers who have loved recklessly outside of their own family lines to become aunts and uncles and grandparents to kids not their own. I’ve seen a special kind of beauty there that I want, because it reflects the love of Jesus.

So the next time a little red-faced child is making a joyful noise to the whole church, feel free to chuckle. But don’t forget to say “Welcome to the family”…and mean it.

What We Should Talk About Instead of Modesty

In Minnesota last month, we vaulted from a 15-inches-of-snow blizzard to 80 degrees and sunny in nine days. Sadly, this is not an exaggeration.

This means that A. Facebook is now showing me lots of swimwear ads with a varying range of coverage and B. the transition from parka to hemlines-of-questionable-length happened so suddenly that my social media feed now contains a flurry of debate on the subject of appropriate clothing for women.

Especially the Christian women. There are opinions, my friends. Strong ones. Different ones. Strong people arguing different things very loudly at each other.

Not that this is new. I feel like May hosts an annual shouting match among believers about what is or is not okay to wear (mostly just for women) and about what messages we’re sending depending on what we choose.

I also happened to be reading 1 Peter 3:3-4 this week, which says, “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing that you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”

Confession: I always read this passage (and some others addressing women, modesty, and beauty) as being a little patronizing.

Why, you ask? Why would I insert an offensive tone into a passage with basically no justification?

  • Maybe I heard a sermon on this passage once that came across as condescending.
  • Maybe I react negatively to “gentle and quiet” because I automatically think “weak and passive” instead of “compassionate, gracious, and peaceful.”
  • Maybe I know that Peter and I are too much alike to actually get along so I go with the most annoying interpretation of what he says. (It’s a terrible habit, don’t pick up on it.)

Regardless, in my most recent read-through, it dawned on me: I’ve seen the word “imperishable” before. Just a few chapters earlier, in fact.

Do you know what else Peter calls imperishable and unfading earlier in his letter? Our hope and our inheritance in heaven. The blood of Jesus, our salvation, and the Word of God.

If that looks like I bullet-point listed the major components of your average creed, you’re right. Conclusion? The kind of inner beauty that God values in his daughters is just as worthy and lasting as the pillars of the Christian faith.

Which leads me to think…we haven’t said too much about what the Bible teaches about feminine beauty; we’ve said too little.

We’re over here with our checklists and tape measurers, our defensiveness and judgment, our angry Facebook comments on posts about whether Christians can wear bikinis and why guys are allowed to be shirtless…

…and God is like, “Can we talk about what real beauty looks like instead?”

If you really want my opinion about modesty in dress sometime, we can have that chat. I don’t want to dismiss those conversations as unimportant, especially in how they affect what we’re teaching both genders about sexuality, responsibility, and respect for ourselves and others.

But I think we’ve got the balance wrong.

Peter doesn’t tell women to set aside an obsession with physical beauty for a debate over appropriate clothing. He doesn’t tell us not to adorn ourselves with fancy hairstyles and jewelry because “modest is hottest.” We’re not supposed to trade one kind of overemphasis on outward appearance for another.

We’re supposed to love God and other people in such a way that what matters to God—justice and compassion and respect and selflessness—suddenly matters more to us than impressing others with our looks, image, or status.

Women of the church, moms who have daughters, Facebook warriors on either side, sisters who I love—let’s change the conversation on faith and beauty.

Instead of talking about short skirts and swimwear, let’s talk about making sure our budget and calendar and to-do list match what we say our priorities are. Let’s get into a moral outrage about a culture that says we have to buy more and do more and look younger to be worthy. Let’s examine our hearts to see where we have been harsh instead of gentle, angry instead of quiet, envious instead of at peace.

This summer, instead of having debates about temporary things, let’s go after the lasting beauty that is precious in God’s sight.

Chase Your (Ordinary) Dream: Time Travel Edition

Last week, I talked about the beauty of the ordinary life. This week, I want you to see what it looks like…and what it costs.

To do that, we’re going back to the 1800s.

This is Henry Ward Beecher.

Maybe you recognize his name like I did. (Then again, I actually did an Academic Super Bowl on the U.S. Civil War in high school, so you know. Levels of nerdiness.)

Here’s a quick bio: Beecher was the pastor of Plymouth Church, which became one of the largest in New York City. His sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and his sermons passionately decried slavery. He even sent rifles to Kansas for abolitionist settlers—nicknamed “Beecher’s Bibles”—when they were attacked by pro-slavery forces.

I remembered him as one of the allies fighting for his black brothers and sisters, not just with words but with actions, championing the heart of God for restoring justice to the world.

Except it’s not that simple. This year, I was researching influential figures before and during the Civil War and came across Beecher’s name again…in a less positive way.

Turns out, Henry was also the predecessor of modern-day prosperity gospel preachers. He never mentioned sin and wrath in his sermons to keep wealthy congregants piling contributions into the offering plate. At times, he played with gemstones in his pocket like they were marbles, and he had so many Persian carpets in his extravagant home that in places they were stacked on top of each other.

Worse, his ministry was eventually marred by charges of an affair with a congregant—one of many alleged sexual indiscretions that were quietly buried and bought out toward the end of his ministry.

So…a mixed legacy, to say the least. That’s Pastor #1. Here’s #2: Leonard Grimes.

If you’ve never heard of him, neither had I. So let me tell you a little about him.

Leonard Grimes, a free black man, converted to Christianity while serving a prison term for helping runaways escape. After he was released, he started a church in Boston that came to be known as the fugitive slaves’ church because at times almost half of his congregation had once been in bondage in the South.

Despite this, he didn’t join the Boston Vigilance Committee, a group committed to protecting runaways in the city in case of re-capture, primarily because he didn’t believe a minister of God should put himself in a position where he’d have to blindly obey an outside, political (and sometimes radical) authority.

He and his wife Octavia gave sacrificially from their own resources and those of the church to the poor and frightened refugees, whether they were staying in Boston or just passing through. Both helped runaway slaves find jobs and sheltered them with members of their congregation.

One by one, frightened by the threat of re-capture, many of Leonard’s friends in the church fled to Canada. Some who stayed claimed he wasn’t doing enough, that his unwillingness to join the Vigilance Committee showed he wasn’t committed to the cause. The church finally had a building to meet in, but the construction remained incomplete because giving was down, and future payments loomed. Leonard himself was living on a poverty-level salary of $100 a year.

And then came the Anthony Burns trial. Tony was a faithful member of Leonard’s church…and arrested as a runaway slave. If the trial could prove his identity, he would be sent back to slavery.

As the proceedings went on, it was clear: Tony would lose. The judge had pro-South leanings and the evidence was obvious. Attending the trial to show his support, Leonard got an idea: what if they offered to buy Anthony Burns from his master?

Right away, he went to raise funds from his wealthy friends and patrons, most of them white. For hours he went door to door, pleading for the life of his church member, trying to gather $1200. A large sum in the day, but he was calling on Boston’s upper crust who had the money to spare.

Except…some refused to give. A few of them thought Tony’s master wouldn’t really sell. But more felt it was ethically questionable to pay off a slaveholder, to put money into the pocket of someone who bought and sold other human beings. So they kept their purses closed.

It was late on Saturday night when Leonard finally scraped together the $1200 to ransom Tony. He rushed to the meeting place…but the slaveowner’s representative arrived late. When the town’s corrupt marshal informed him that buying slaves was illegal inside Boston’s limits, Leonard agreed to turn himself in and go to jail for the “crime” of buying Tony.

Slowly, asking questions and stalling, the marshal went through the paperwork. Then he looked at the clock. It was one minute after midnight. And in Boston, no sales could be made on Sundays.

The deal didn’t go through, and by Monday, the slaveowner changed his mind and decided to make Tony into a lesson for other runaways. Hundreds of federal troops, sent by order of the president, loaded Tony in chains and shipped him back into bondage. Leonard’s best efforts had failed.

Do you see him there, silent and invisible in the history books, kneeling in a half-finished church to pray for the young man he was one minute too late to save? Try to feel what he felt for a moment. Surrounded by accusations of “selling out” and inaction, his congregation dwindling and full of fear. His own deacon, Lewis Hayden, at the head of the violent mob rushing to the courthouse, killing one of the guards in a failed attempt to get to Tony. Defeated, harassed, alone.

And over in New York, Henry Ward Beecher was preparing another sermon on the love of God and making $20,000 a year, double that with earnings from his books.

My point isn’t that wealth is a sign of sin or even that Beecher doesn’t deserve the recognition he gets. My point is that God doesn’t value what we value. Here’s my version of the anti-prosperity gospel, based on these stories and the life of Paul and Jesus and the whole of Scripture:

You may be faithful and still poor or sick or underappreciated. You may never be remembered by history, even if you throw yourself into the work you know God has for you. You may be misunderstood and maligned by the people you love. You may go through dozens of minute-after-midnight situations where all you have doesn’t seem like enough, where broken relationships aren’t restored and justice isn’t done and God seems silent.

But faithfulness is still worth it.

If you want the applause of thousands, Beecher can tell you how to do that. Say what people want to hear. Gather treasure on earth and live in comfort. Even champion a noble-sounding cause and fight injustice…while ignoring personal holiness.

But if you want to hear God tell you “Well done, good and faithful servant,” take a look at the ministry of Leonard Grimes and think about where you’re putting your priorities, your money, your hope.

And in case you were wondering, after all the hype died down and no one else cared, Leonard spent months tracking Tony after his master tried to hide him, quietly re-raised the money after the original donors withdrew, and brought Tony back home.

Appearances can be deceiving. Faithfulness has a cost. And history sometimes exalts the unworthy and forgets the selfless heroes…but God does not.

Chase Your (Ordinary) Dream

“So, you made it out.”

A few others I’d met on my work trip through my home state of Indiana had made similar comments, but this woman, an older lady working at a Christian bookstore, wasn’t saying it with a teasing laugh. She was serious—wistful, even.

When you reach a point like this in a conversation, you have a choice: you can either change the subject to appropriate small talk—the weather or favorite kinds of tea or the lovely bookstore display of scented candles—or you can push a little.

(Guess which one I almost always pick?)

“Interesting. What do you mean by that?” I asked.

To my surprise, she actually told me. “I always thought I’d get out of this place as soon as I could. But I never did.”

After a few more questions, I heard an abridged version of this woman’s life story, including a number of things she hadn’t done—she’d never attended college, never seen the mountains, never moved away from her rural Midwestern town. I also heard about some things she had—she’d married her high school sweetheart after he came back from Vietnam, raised strong (and some strong-willed) children, wandered out of the church and then back again.

Still, she finished her story by saying, “When you get to my age, you wonder sometimes—what if?”

It was like meeting an alternate version of the older brother from Jesus’ parable, one who secretly longed to be a much better behaved prodigal child. See the world, experience something new, and just for once, fully intending to return…leave home.

But there were the eleven grandchildren whose tired parents needed a break, and the ninety-year-old mother in her last days to watch over, and the daily, weary ache of a body that’s not as young as it used to be.

I told my new friend that those daily acts of love are of great worth in God’s eyes, probably more than she’ll know till she gets to heaven. I even talked about some of the dangers and downsides to moving away and wanting to achieve something great—of loneliness and burn-out and reality not living up to expectations. That not all those who wander are lost…but some are.

I don’t know if she heard me. Her heart was somewhere else, flipping through a scrapbook of long-buried hopes and ambitions, somewhere beyond the horizon. (more…)

Judas and the Mermaids: the Seduction of Sin

If you’ve ever wondered how Proverbs 7 would sound as a folk song about a sexy mermaid (and really, who hasn’t?), this one is for you.

This week I was listening to the Decemberists’s song “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes.” The first half of the song is a minor key dirge about a man drawn to his doom by a mythical rusalka, a Russian siren. Starting at the 3:45 mark in the lyric video below is a parallel story about a younger, more naïve victim and his gradual descent into the water.

Here’s the summary: ignoring his mother’s warnings about the danger of the wild rushes, a young man dips his feet into the water…and hears a woman’s sweet voice urging him to come deeper.

When the woman reassures him, “I long for your touch, but I won’t ask too much,” he steps in to his knees.

At “Come a little closer,” he wades in to his chest.

Then when she reminds him, “For deeper the water, the sweeter the sin,” he goes in to his neck.

And then, swept from his feet, he’s suddenly pulled under.

But it wasn’t really suddenly at all, was it?

And the listeners learn: all sin is seduction, and it leads to death. (more…)

Why Are We So Lonely?

If you try to describe the plot of Twelve Angry Men—all the action takes place in one room as a jury deliberates on a murder trial—it sounds mind-numbingly boring. I promise it’s not.

Somehow, I’d never gotten around to seeing the classic film until this weekend. After a slow start, the tension in the room and the unfolding clues grab your attention, and I found myself drawn in particular to Juror 9, the old man.

In my favorite part of the movie, the jurors are arguing about an apparent contradiction in the testimony of one of the witnesses. When asked what the witness would stand to gain by lying, Juror 9 says quietly, “Attention, maybe.”

And so he goes on:

“It’s just that I looked at him for a very long time. The seam of his jacket was split under the arm. Did you notice that? He was a very old man with a torn jacket, and he carried two canes. I think I know him better than anyone here. This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition—his name in the newspapers. Nobody knows him after seventy-five years. That’s a very sad thing. A man like this needs to be recognized. To be questioned, and listened to, and quoted just once. This is very important.”

Breaks your heart, doesn’t it?

And I thought: people shouldn’t feel this way anymore—but we still do.

Technology gives us a way to be recognized, questioned, listened to, and quoted. Anyone can post on Facebook, react publically to current events, upload a YouTube video, give unsolicited advice to the world, or write on a blog. (more…)

How the Ents Are Different From Black Panther

At first glance, a story about barefoot hobbit and an African warrior-king-superhero don’t have much in common. But the works they’re a part of, The Lord of the Rings and Black Panther, are both attempting to process meaningless violence—Tolkien’s experience with the brutality of WWI and the oppression of the black community throughout history.

What’s interesting to me is that LOTR casts industrialization and technology as one of the villains, and Black Panther slots it in as the hero. (*Spoilers for both ahead.*)

This is both characters’ “moral philosopher face.”

While talking about gun control issues recently with my family, I said, “The trouble is that I can’t think of a single time that humans have voluntarily stepped backward technologically because they realized that what they created had terrible implications. Not even in fictional stories.” I then cited Jurassic Park and a bunch of robot movies…and then I stopped.

Because I remembered: there is at least one time in fictional history where the heroes have chosen to set their entire culture back several steps technologically for the greater good.

My friends, I bring you: the Ents.

I love these guys. Is that because I love trees in general? Yes. Is it also because they’re just as curmudgeonly as I am? Probably. (Their scenes are also way better in the books because you can read their dialogue at whatever speed you want and no one can stop you. Take that, J.R.R.!)

The Ents’ big moment, embedded above in case you need a refresher, is completely destroying Isengard, the industrial complex the wizard Saruman built to manufacture minions of evil. The Ents go in there with a fury, smashing orcs and machinery, tearing down the dam that once powered what it’s now wiping out, and completely submerging the weapons of war.

Ents. You gotta love ‘em. It might take them three days to decide to do anything, but once they’re set, you don’t want to get in their way.

The last time I watched the movie version, I thought that what they didn’t do was interesting. They don’t confiscate weapons or take over the caves and try to use, say, the water wheels to produce something helpful to their efforts. They destroy it all, and it’s presumed that after Saruman is dead, no one would be able to recreate something like Isengard again (because I’m pretty sure there’s not an engineer Uruk who secretly designed the whole thing and will leak plans to Aragorn for some Longbottom Leaf).

The Ents destroy it all. Except the pantry, I mean. Technology is good for something, right?

Contrast that with Black Panther. Now, I realize that commentary about every complex sociological issue would be too much to expect from a superhero movie that already had a lot going on, but at some point, I was hoping someone from Wakanda would ask, “Would it actually be good to introduce this technology to the world?”

(more…)