When You’re Tired of Performing

The only thing weirder than visiting your old high school is being asked to give an impromptu speech to a group of students. I was a college freshman, stopping back for some boring errand like picking up a transcript, and I decided to say hi to my favorite teachers. During one of those stops, my choir director asked me to share the most important thing I’d learned in the past year in front of his freshman choir class.

Put on the spot, I panicked and said something bland about getting to know new people and always challenging yourself. I started every sentence with “I” and played right into the hard-work-pays-off script that I knew I was supposed to use.

Later that night, I realized what I should have said, something like this:

Last year, after our diplomas were stowed away who-knows-where and everyone faded into a sugar coma from countless slices of open house cake, everyone in my graduating class went our separate ways.

Most of us traveled to new communities, and it was scary and exciting, all at the same time. These new people hadn’t seen the awards we’d racked up, didn’t know what social group we’d been placed into, couldn’t even remember our names.

And each of us faced a choice. We could either try to build ourselves up again—carefully craft our image, subtly brag about ourselves, work hard, become known as the smart one, the talented one, the hot one, the funny one, whatever we wanted.

We could work and train and charm and achieve, longing to be known and understood and admired…until the next time we had to start over. College graduation. A first job. Another new city. And the cycle would continue, over and over again.

Or we could step away and say, “It’s not about me, and it never was.” We could love and serve and forgive and try and sometimes fail…and live in freedom, not just from the pressure of impressing others, but from the need to make ourselves feel worthwhile.

That’s what I’ve learned this year. I want to choose purpose instead of performance.

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There’s what I should have told them. It’s not the story we usually hear, not from our educational system, not from the American Dream, and not even, sometimes, from the church.

I see the bestselling Christian books and blogs, the articles people are sharing and the verses in flowy Instagram script, and I want to remind you and me and everyone I know:

The way to choose purpose instead of performance, the way to be free from the cycle of impressing others is to realize that life is not about you.

Even the Bible is not about you. It’s not a book you can flip open to gain a better self-image or sense of belonging, not a horoscope chart, not a personality quiz that tells you which Harry Potter character or zoo animal or obscure punctuation mark you’re most like.

It’s about God.

I think I get that in theory, but just like my eyes scan a group picture to inspect my own face, I find myself looking first in the Bible for me.

Don’t get me wrong: “How does this apply to my life?” is a great question to ask. If you hear your heart’s cry in the Psalms, ask which character in Jesus’ parables acts most like you, and feel an uncomfortably personal scolding in James or Proverbs, you’re not doing anything wrong.

But what has helped me most in hard times is not seeing myself in the Bible, but seeing Jesus.

My first winter in Minnesota was difficult—the kind of difficult where you finally brave the biting wind long enough to raise your eyes up from the frozen, salt-scorched sidewalks…and find that you are utterly alone in a new state: friendless, directionless, and very, very cold.

So I taped a paper on my bedroom door where I wrote down things that were true about God, no matter what I felt at the time.

It wasn’t until later that I realized why: for the first time in a very long time, I wasn’t sure about myself, who I was, where I fit. All of that comfort and security had been taken away—the old friends and routines and measurements of accomplishment.

But God hadn’t changed, and what I knew to be true about him was more important that trying desperately to work out my identity again. When I read the Bible, it was less about a to-do list or an emotional connection with the text and more about how what I knew about God would change the way I lived.

I find myself circling back to this conclusion this winter. Not because I’m in the same place I was three years ago, but because the world is looking pretty depressing, and I find people asking, “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned this year?”

I immediately try to string together something brilliant, questions whirring through my mind in the face of fears and uncertainties and strong opinions: What should I say? How can I convince people? What stances will I take, and does it even matter?

Me, me, me, me. As if I could save the world. (I want to.) As if all that matters is what others think of me. (It doesn’t.) As if I have all the answers. (I don’t.)

So I stop. And this time, I say the right thing. I tell you what I didn’t tell that choir class years ago.

It does not matter what I’ve learned this year. Not really. My opinions may change, my tastes certainly will. My clever connections and original ideas have been done before, my encouraging speeches will fade away and be forgotten.

What matters is what I know about God and how that changes me.

What matters is what you know about God and how that changes you.

Have you learned something new about the God you worship lately?

Set aside the devotional books and the encouraging podcasts for a moment, clear away the expectations, inspirational quotes, promises to claim, and all the other good-but-not-ultimate spiritual clutter that can set us as the center of our universe.

Then ask God to reveal who he is as you pray, worship, and read the Word.

When we do that, when we focus on God instead of us, we can finally stop performing and start really living.

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How Terrible is This Generation, Really?

Sometimes, I think things are as bad now as they’ve ever been, and probably getting worse.

Our politics are worse than anything since the fall of the Roman Empire, technology has distanced people from the idyllic Little House on the Prairie style of togetherness and contentment, and this generation has a behavior chart full of black marks in nearly every category.

And then I read about vinegar valentines, and I realize that people have always been awful.

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If, like me, you hadn’t heard of this tradition, here’s the short version: from 1850s to 1940s, greeting card companies made cards you could send to people you hated. Or at least people you wanted to make fun of, along with a caricature and a poem pointing out their particular flaw.

This was not an isolated thing. Thousands of these cards were delivered anonymously every year, and not just to your frenemies, but to random people in your life like your banker, shop clerk, or doctor. (more…)

“Love at First Fight” Valentines

This one’s a little different than my past Valentine’s Day series, which were more focused (Theologian Valentines and Lord of the Rings Valentines). But I have to say, I enjoy a good story where lovers start out as fighters.

If your romance started out with conflict (or at least some witty banter), these cards are for you. Enjoy!
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We’ll be back to our regularly-scheduled blogging next week. Happy Valentine’s Day from the Monday Heretic!

Any suggestions for other lovers and fighters?

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The Han Solo Approach to the Refugee Ban Debate

Looking at my social media feed, you’d think everyone in the United States just divided themselves into two distinct groups overnight: humanitarians and Hitlers. Or bleeding heart liberals and pragmatic conservatives. Or media-crazed, oversensitive hype-mongers and fearful, Muslim-hating hypocrites. Depending on your point of view.

It feels like we’re all trapped in this permanent cycle of hashtags and clickbait and memes and soundbites from biased news sources forming a swirl of emotion and propaganda around every major headline. And I do not like it. Even when I’m doing research, collecting others’ perspectives, and trying to find objectivity, it’s difficult for me not to default to either fear or anger. Maybe worse, I feel pressure to have an instant reaction instead of taking time to consider all sides of a complex issue.

I don’t know about you, but I want out. I want some kind of cultural reset button where I can be sure that I’m thinking critically about this issue and others without being influenced by the clamor of uninvited factors screaming to distract my attention.

That’s why this post is not about what I think about the refugee crisis. It’s about how I’m trying think. I don’t want to add to the noise. I just want to offer some questions for consideration.

Many Christians who disagree with Trump’s latest executive order temporarily banning refugees from seven primarily Muslim countries are voicing concerns like: we have a responsibility to oppose this ban because the Bible teaches us to protect “the least of these” and love our neighbors, even (especially) those who disagree with our beliefs.

Because of the sheer number of my friends who have posted something along those lines in the past few days, I want to say right up front: this is not wrong. Our hearts should be engaged in questions of international policy. And Jesus’ words do have bearing on practical issues.

Here’s the problem, though: only saying those things doesn’t address the best arguments of the other side.

Basic principle of discussing a complex issue: you don’t spend all your time hacking apart a weak, less common argument while the actual issue stands behind you, clearing its throat and waiting for you to notice.

Be like Han Solo. You see Darth Vader in a room, you shoot at Darth Vader. You don’t duck into the hall and take on one of his underlings. Even if you know you have a greater chance of success blasting at a Stormtrooper and that your attack on the Sith himself might not make an impact, still: shoot at Vader.

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In this case, I’d say Stormtrooper options—the arguments only a few people are making that can be easily dismissed, on both sides—are things like: “Christian lives are more valuable than Muslim lives,” “We should let anyone in who claims to need help without any screening,” or “We should ban all immigration and become completely isolationist.”

For the most part, taking on these issues is the easy way out, because not many people believe them. There will be friends who disagree with me on this, but I don’t think it’s fair to accuse others of saying these things when they probably aren’t. (more…)

How (Not) to Evaluate Complicated Issues

Pretend it’s 1859 and someone just asked you, “What do you think about the anti-slavery movement?”

Here’s the thing: the wider the group, the more likely generalizations are going to be unhelpful. And in this case…it’s a very broad group.

Ten-second history recap! Early on, abolitionists were a few “extremists” who subscribed to the same papers, attended the same rallies, and had a similar ideology. Obviously, even that is covering over a lot of differences, but early on, you could say with a reasonable amount of accuracy things like “anti-slavery advocates believe in the dignity of all people before God regardless of skin color.”

As time went on, more people joined the anti-slavery cause. These included:

  • “Free soilers” who wanted slavery outlawed in new territories because they didn’t want slaves to steal white jobs.
  • Northerners who saw Southerners and their “slave power” economy as a threat.
  • Extremists who advocated violent opposition to slavery.
  • Goodhearted but sometimes condescending white people who saw themselves as patrons and liberators even if they just talked a lot and never did anything.
  • Politicians who wanted to increase the power of the federal government and saw slavery as a threat to the unity of the Union.
  • Actual racists who didn’t want slavery because they wanted all black people to go back to Africa. (You would be surprised how many “free soil” people were anti-slavery because they were anti-black.)

Suddenly, you had a massive collection of folks with different beliefs, values, and solutions who had only one thing in common: they were against slavery.

If everyone in the anti-slavery crowd had marched on Washington, chances are you’d only agree with a third of the signs they hefted into the air. They would range from “There are neither slave nor free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus” to “Save the Union Through Gradual Emancipation” to “Make America White Again.”

Your answer would depend on a lot of factors: where you lived, which newspapers you read, which issues you cared most about, your political party, your geographical region, to name a few.

So. It’s 1859. Someone asks you what you think of the anti-slavery crowd and their cause. What do you say?

Regardless of your answer, I hope you’d…

  • Ask them to be more specific. Maybe point to just one issue or statement and evaluate it, or take one approach and say whether you think it’s helpful or not.
  • Try to get a sense of what a particular event meant—what happened and why—and acknowledge that there isn’t one story to explain the actions or motives of everyone involved in a cause.
  • Know someone involved with anti-slavery activism so you can ask questions of a person on the front lines, while realizing that one person won’t represent everyone involved.
  • Expose yourself to more than one side if they ask about a particular event, say, John Brown’s raid—reading more than just the flowery poetry idolizing him or the Southern screeds condemning him to inform your opinion.

If by now you’re thinking that I’m not really talking about the anti-slavery movement, you’d be right.

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Just a few images of protest you might have seen this weekend.

Just a few images you might have seen from this weekend.

Am I saying that the anti-slavery movement in the 1800s is the same as the anti-Trump protests after the inauguration? Nope. Except in this one, very important way: they were both movements that encompassed a wide range of ideologies and motivations.

Fine. Two ways—they were also both subject to a lot of broad generalizations and caricatures that oversimplified the issues involved (on both sides). And I think that’s extremely unhelpful, if not destructive.

When you try to glorify or demonize a diverse movement, you risk giving a false picture of what’s really going on.

So when talking about politics, please, tell the truth. Fact-check your news sources, be okay with saying, “I’m not sure” and willing to admit when you’re wrong.

Tell the whole truth. It’s okay to have a strong opinion about an issue and still acknowledge its complexity. That might look like: “I realize that X, and I’m obviously not okay with Y, but I still think that the overall impact of Z is positive, and here’s why.” Or: “I appreciate that some people are motivated by X, but here’s the negative impact I think Y has—I’d rather see more Z and here’s why.”

Tell nothing but the truth. Personally, I think that often, sharing memes/cartoons/articles that intend to mock instead of provoke thought are pretty pointless. Sarcasm is a destroyer of gracious conversation. Ask yourself, “Why am I posting this?” and only go ahead if you have a convincing answer.

How you talk about politics matters because it both shows and shapes the kind of person you are. So be the person who does the hard work of overlooking insults and using logic and asking why, who thinks before speaking, who holds convictions graciously and always seeks to learn and understand more. History will thank you (and so will I).

Thoughts on Inauguration Day

My idea of home remodeling is finally remembering to take the Christmas decorations down a few weeks into January, so needless to say, I’m not a huge design/construction TV watcher. That said, I recently had a lot of friends sharing a post from Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper, whether they were fans of the show or not. (Go ahead—read it. It’s short.)

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Many of the comments or captions for re-posts I saw revolved around two short lines: “Listen to me, we do not all have to agree with each other. Disagreement is not the same thing as hate, don’t believe that lie.”

“Yes,” fans responded, “this is what I wish people realized.” “This put into words what I want my family members and friends to understand.” “PREACH.”

And something in me said, “Wait.”

Before you freak out on me, I completely agree with that part of Chip and Joanna’s blog post. But here’s my question: who is this message preaching to? Who should understand this and put it into action? Who needs this revelation to land on their soul and let it sink in deep?

Me. Not everyone else out there who is intolerant of my opinions. I am the one those lines are addressing.

I’m reading through Proverbs right now, and I realized that, while occasionally one will hit me and make me think, “Yeah, I need to work on that,” most of the time, I see other people and their problems in the lines. I take a bit of wisdom and think, “Oh, totally. I wish everyone I knew lived like this” or “Yes, I know so many people who don’t seem to get that even though it’s so obvious.”

This is 100% the wrong approach. Also 100% arrogant, in a weird way. Isn’t it funny how the whole world revolves around us…until it comes to pointing out sin? Then, it’s about anyone but us.

Not convinced? Here are other examples: I listen to sermons and glance around to make sure so-and-so is listening. I read books and see myself as the hero, not the villain. I write my workplace evaluation or a critique of our culture and think of the problems others are causing, but not how I contribute or respond badly.

Back to Chip and Joanna’s post. So many people resonated with: “Disagreement is not the same thing as hate, don’t believe that lie.”

And yet…when someone disagrees strongly with you, isn’t your first instinct to be just a little bit defensive?

Isn’t it nice to have a circle of friends where everyone has similar beliefs and values?

Don’t you get annoyed and feel the need to fight back when someone makes a critical comment on something you post on social media?

I know those are all true for me.

In my head, I agree that disagreement is not the same thing as hate. But I believe that lie in practice every time I avoid certain subjects out of fear, insult other people behind their back, and wish I could go through life without my beliefs and opinions being challenged by people smarter than me.

Bottom line? I am willing to disagree boldly, but not graciously. I am willing to fight hate everywhere but inside myself. And this is not okay.

Change is hard. Disagreement is tricky. Other people are both the best and the worst at different times.

But that doesn’t give us an excuse to preach grace without practicing it. So here’s my challenge, especially on an Inauguration Day at the end of a controversial election season: have convictions, but remember that if you want civil dialogue, you can’t just demand it from others. You have to create it.

How, you ask? Here are some thoughts:

  • Assume the person talking to you is not a terrible person.* Or stupid, or intentionally cruel, or just regurgitating information from fake news sites and talk radio. They may be some of those things in part. But when you have respect for the person you’re talking to, it shows, and it makes the conversation significantly more helpful.
  • Make your goal to love others better. If that’s too abstract for you, make your goal to learn about the other person and to help them learn about you, instead of winning an argument. Pretend you’re trying to find the strongest reasoning for the other side, or that you really need to understand why others disagree with you on this.
  • Talk to people in person when you can. Seriously, blog/YouTube/Facebook comments seem to be the place where kindness and decency go to die. When you feel you need to, intervene in those spaces to bring a bit of grace. But there are other times when the best medium is a nice chat over coffee.
  • Choose to remember that people are astonishingly complex even when their statements are painfully shallow. By that I mean that each and every person is a masterpiece of God, even when they are making generalizations, using bad logic, or venting their emotions. If you can graciously point out what troubles you, do it. If you can graciously overlook an offense, DO IT—I think there are significantly more times where this is the best thing to do.

Let’s continue speaking out about issues that matter to us, using good logic (while not being afraid of emotion…but that’s a different post), and engaging in politics and other tricky conversations. That’s what Jesus’ command to be “in the world” involves. The “not of it” part talks about how we treat others and represent Christ while doing those things…and that’s the area I think the church has neglected recently.

What would you add to a list of tips for starting and engaging in civil dialogue?

*Stuffy Theological Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: I also think it can be helpful to assume that the person talking to you is a terrible person—and so are you. I didn’t say that it’s confusing and not as obviously practical when it comes to political discussions. However, I’ve found that understanding that we are broken people in a broken world gives me a ton of compassion when discussing difficult topics. Just a few examples: I can refuse to be offended even when someone is being offensive because I know I’ve done the same thing many times. I can understand why someone might desperately cling to a wrong idea, because if proven wrong, they’d lose a lot of their worldview. I never assume that I’m right about everything because I’ve been wrong so often (or right with the wrong motives). A healthy view of depravity (the Fall) can be just as helpful as a healthy view of the dignity of others before God (the Image) when interacting with others.

Rogue One and Martin Luther King Jr.

Let’s start with this: I think Rogue One and Martin Luther King Jr. are both great. (For very different reasons, of course.)

But I think the new Star Wars movie and the holiday celebrating a civil rights hero might have something else in common. So let’s see if I can explain this without sounding a few shots short of a Stormtrooper.

Although I genuinely enjoyed Rogue One for the great acting and payoff on plot promises, after I walked out of the theaters, I asked myself two questions:

Why can’t I remember any of the characters’ names except Jyn?

And why am I only mildly sad?

(Spoiler Alert: Bail out here if you haven’t seen the movie and plan to.)

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These are not the protagonists you’re looking for.

The movie’s suicide mission was, in a surprising twist of realism, actually a suicide mission. Our heroes got the Death Star plans, but died in the process. And yet, while Rogue One is darker than Star Wars IV-VII (those are the only other movies in the franchise I acknowledge), it didn’t feel like a tragedy.

Why not?

Maybe because Princess Leia calls the plans “hope” to save the galaxy…and we cheer when she shows up. We know her. That’s our heroine, the one who gets the happy ending, the guy, the glory. It’ll all work out in the end, we are reminded, and all those tragic deaths are a part of the bigger picture.

And maybe also because the movie pulled punches with character development. Meaning, all the characters are essentially orphans, or at least that’s the conclusion we’re supposed to draw since their backstories (except Jyn’s) are only vaguely hinted at. Their only goals are entirely contained in the success of the mission.

We’re hopeful at the end of Rogue One because our one-shot characters sacrificed to achieve victory for the real protagonist: the Rebellion. They got what they wanted, and so did the audience.

Again, let me say: this is not bad or lazy writing in my opinion, although I know some people who disagree. To me, it’s what you do if you want to create a standalone war movie where everyone dies and the audience feels sad but triumphant in the end (and you want to spend time on cool action scenes).

As I thought about the movie, the next thing that came to mind as was that Rogue One reminds me of African American History Month. Which led me to ask two other questions:

Why do I only remember the names of a few headliners like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.?

And why am I only mildly sad when they fight and live and die without seeing their dreams of justice realized? (more…)