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This Fleeting Life: Reflections on Work, Culture, and Creativity

Last year, what was billed as the final season of American Idol – at least until ABC picked it up after its storied run on FOX – aired over the course of a few months.

harryI had watched bits and pieces of the first few seasons as a teenager. But I didn’t really start keeping up with the show more regularly until its final three seasons, after Harry Connick, Jr. (who knew a few things about music theory and not just singing or stage presence) came on board as a judge. Throughout those last episodes, the show periodically stopped to look back on some of its most memorable highlights.

And that’s when it hit me: fame in 2001, when Kelly Clarkson won, was a different beast than fame in 2016, when Trent Harmon won.

chewbacca-momIn the age of overnight social media sensations like Chewbacca Mom, the fleeting nature of fame has become much more apparent. Structured singing competitions like Idol, with their promises of superstardom, seem antiquated in an increasingly cynical world where anyone could rise to and fall from prominence on social media within a week. Similarly, Hollywood has experienced its own image makeover. Idealized dreams of fame and fortune, which once took center stage in musicals like The Muppet Movie, have been tempered by the harsh, cold reality of managing life in the real world, as glimpsed in last year’s La La Land.

I’m going to issue a challenge to my fellow Jesus-followers in a few paragraphs, and it might make some feel uncomfortable.

Normally I’m not one to suggest a divide between “sacred” and “secular” spheres. But I’d like to use those terms here to draw a distinction – and a comparison. In the secular space, specifically Western civilization, we’ve witnessed a society that collectively celebrated and placed their trust in human achievement and effort gradually evolve into a more cynical one. The accessibility of information and ease of storytelling has made the brevity of life and fleeting nature of fame startlingly clear. The pursuit of significance through fame has morphed into a pursuit of significance by virtue of leaving a legacy – doing something that will make a long-lasting impact after we leave this earth.

cultureIn the sacred space, Christians have traditionally subscribed to the understanding that human life is finite and limited, meant for something beyond this world – and the idea of legacy ought to reflect that. Beneath that understanding are many different approaches for living life and engaging with culture. Some might be more fatalistic in their view – this world will end one day anyway, so what’s the point of bettering it? – either assimilating into culture without a second thought, or fortifying themselves and refusing to engage with it. Some might be more dominative in their view, engaging with culture to drown out and silence those who have an opposing viewpoint. Others might be more transformative, contributing to culture to improve it and live out the Gospel.

No matter what sphere you’re in or what perspective you hold, the fleeting nature of our life here is something of which we’re becoming more aware – and our response to that realization informs much of how we live day to day. But I want to focus on one area in particular: our creative nature. If fame and life in general are so fleeting, then what is our creativity – our contribution to culture – actually for?

creativityI’m concerned that in our society of consumers, it’s become all too easy to leave the work of building culture to those we label “creative people.” It’s easy to segment and compartmentalize different types of vocations, categorizing some as creative and placing everything else in its appropriate box. If we don’t see ourselves as a part of the “creative box,” our natural bent is to consume the creative output (read: goods and services) of others, supporting those from whom we want to see more and avoiding those from whom we want to see less. And while that’s kind of a part of life in this culture, I can’t help but wonder if we were made for more than just that.

Personally, it’s hard for me not to feel conflicted whenever my brothers and sisters in the faith lash out at Hollywood after a politically or religiously charged disagreeable statement from an actor or director is made. On one hand, some of that criticism is indeed deserved. But there are a couple of pitfalls that can easily accompany it. If you’re distant from that world, there’s a tendency to view Hollywood as a monolithic entity with a singularly focused agenda – and to feel threatened by it. If you’re more connected to pop culture, there’s an equally unhealthy temptation to personalize its players on an individual basis – crafting idealized images of those you support, being disappointed whenever those images aren’t congruent with reality, and moving on to the next product to consume.

But what if there were another way? What if people who exist in the creative box – including Hollywood – are just like you and me? What if they’re just as broken and in need of a Savior? What if they, whether or not they realize it, also bear the image of their Creator? What if their capacity to create, even when we may at times take issue with the final output, is a key part of that image?

workIf we as followers of Christ are going to be a part of His redemptive plan for the world, our view of creativity has to differ from society’s, and on a more foundational level, our view of work has to differ as well. Whether you’re an artist, a carpenter, a janitor, or a programmer, work in God’s economy isn’t merely a utilitarian function to keep society stable or to provide for only ourselves. Work itself is something we are created for. It’s a gift from God to discover our callings and to benefit others and meet their needs, even in the context of a fleeting, short life. It’s an inherently creative and collaborative effort, regardless of what vocation is involved. And while it can be personal, it never exists in a vacuum. It necessitates relationships as part of the creative process. It’s a part of a much larger ecosystem that ultimately plays a key role in God’s redemptive story: culture.

It’s impossible to separate oneself completely from that ecosystem. Whether or not we intend to do so, we contribute to culture each and every day. The challenge is this: where are our hearts when it comes to the work in which we engage each day and the way we contribute to culture?

Do we work simply because it benefits us, or because it serves a greater purpose? Do we work to tend our bodies, or to shape our souls? Do we engage with culture to respond, or to contribute? Do we create because we want to redeem culture or because we want to build our own subculture? Do we develop the gifts and talents God has entrusted to us, or do we bury them and focus instead on how others use theirs? Do we create because we want to achieve an end result or send a message, or because we want to reflect and share the joy our Creator felt when He created us?

Where are our hearts?

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Life Is Deeper Than Survival: Responding to Dueling Narratives in the Wake of Charlottesville

The older I get, the more I notice that life is not only a continual process of growth and maturity, but also a continual battle against the instincts to which we often defaulted as children and thought we outgrew.

One of my biggest struggles has been tempering my competitive nature. When I was about eight years old, I joined the Awana program at a local church. Every year, they held a pinebox derby contest (similar to that of the Boy Scouts) called the Awana Grand Prix. I entered with my blue speedster, more hopeful than ever that it would take home first place. But I ended up getting eliminated fairly early into the competition, and a girl named Ellen won it all.

My fragile, eight-year-old-boy mind couldn’t take it. A girl? How could this be possible?! I couldn’t let this be!

grand-prixStorming off in a huff, I returned home with vengeance at next year’s race at the top of my priority list. While at a local county fair, I studied all the Boy Scouts’ top designs and how aerodynamically sound they were. I joked around with friends about how we could sabotage the competition and make sure Ellen’s car wouldn’t survive. Even in my head, I fantasized about building a remote control airplane that could drop an arsenal of bowling balls on the track to crush everyone else. (To this day I still have no idea how this would’ve actually worked. At all.)

After what seemed like an eternity, next year’s race finally arrived. I had grown fond of the game Frogger in the intervening months, so I painted my car to look like a frog, complete with googly eyes. The first few races proceeded smoothly. But elimination struck once again, and I was out of the competition – devastated a second time. Only this year, the pain stung even more because of all the buildup to the big day. My mom took a picture of me with the Frogger car after everything was over, in which I grimaced at the camera – while, ironically enough, wearing a shirt with a giant smiley face.

Looking back at that now, it’s hard not to chuckle at how silly that all was…right?

I’d like to say that I’ve overcome that propensity toward being overly competitive and letting my pride run rampant. But if I’m being honest, I’m not sure I really have.

My life may not be turned upside down by a loss at a pinebox derby contest anymore. But my adult life is sometimes turned upside down by seismic relationship shifts and spirit-crushing losses. And while my responses may not be characterized by overtly inflammatory tantrums and wild fantasies, it’s hard not to see shades of that fragile little boy sometimes surfacing in what is ultimately communicated.

charlottesvilleThis past weekend, I heard about the horrific events of Charlottesville while waiting for my car to get some repair work done. Almost immediately, my heart sank. There was a part of me – a very cynical part of me – that wasn’t surprised at what was unfolding. At the same time, another part of me wanted to stand up indignantly and shout against the bigotry as loudly as possible. How could the neo-Nazi group gain the traction and support that they had, even to the point of inspiring other rallies elsewhere? Why weren’t more of my Christian brothers and sisters speaking out against this brand of hatred? Where was the passion over other recent travesties of injustice that may have looked less severe but were still harmful?

It didn’t take long before the internet answered some of those questions with many deflective reactions:

“Why is this group getting all the attention instead of [insert other extremist group with an opposing view here]?”

“This other group started all the trouble! But no one’s talking about it.”

“We wouldn’t have all this national strife if it weren’t for [insert disagreeable person or group here].”

“It’s not like anything I’m saying isn’t true.”

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Amidst all the pain, all the hurt – this is how we respond? This is the best we can do? And then it hit me: I could be a critic, but what am I going to do to respond? Will I pay this tragedy lip service by mentioning it on social media and forget about it later, or will I live my life differently having learned something from it? Will I simply sit back and criticize others, or will I point to a better way? Will my response reflect allegiance to a broad political ideology, or will it reflect allegiance to Christ and His Kingdom?

I’ve never been a huge sports fanatic, but I’ve admired the camaraderie that develops over committing to a team and its success. A few years ago, I ran across a Gatorade commercial featuring Derek Jeter on the eve of his retirement. Maybe you’ve seen it too: Derek arrives in New York, chats with a few adoring fans, climbs into a taxi, and arrives at Yankee Stadium to thunderous applause. It wasn’t just a moving tribute to a baseball great, but also to being a Yankee. Under the Jeter tribute, the subtext of the commercial was that being a part of the Yankee tribe bolstered your identity.

What’s often harmful is that the same sense of tribal identity is often grafted into arenas where competition is ultimately detrimental toward building relationships with others. Politics is certainly one of the worst.

These days, it’s not just a matter of “beating the other team.” Our identities can become so intertwined with membership within the red tribe or blue tribe that it ultimately informs the greater metanarrative with which we want to be involved. In such a story where we’re the heroes, everything else becomes an obstacle to victory. No longer is the other side a rival; now, the other side is a sworn enemy. No longer is understanding those different than we are an acceptable option; now, those who are different are interlopers in our quest who must be made to understand us.

In the wake of Charlottesville, I realized I had several choices to make. Was I going to allow my response to the tragedies of the weekend to be colored by a narrative, or by the Gospel? Was I going to let that competitive edge take over and look at the parties involved as pawns in a giant chess game where total victory was the ultimate goal, or as people – immortal souls – who were desperately crying out for love and grace?

red-blueIf my identity is defined by my participation with the red or blue tribe, what am I really committing to? Is my response being dictated by what that tribe claims is acceptable? Or am I avoiding the awkwardness of responding because doing so fits outside the list of comfortable talking points to which one or both tribes cling? Or because I’m afraid of being labeled as something I may not be?

On top of that, I came to another convicting realization. It’s easy to point a finger at the Nazis who wear evil and hatred in such overt ways. But what am I doing when there isn’t such an obvious scapegoat at which my indignation could be directed? Am I actually serious about listening to or learning from my friends of color, or am I only concerned about justice when an easy target makes itself visible?

Looking back at Jesus’ ministry, we can quickly find pieces and parts that neatly fit into our personal narratives. But when viewed holistically, the Gospel presents the uncomfortable yet necessary tension of the Kingdom of God between this world and the world to come. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenged His audience to show love to one’s enemies (for many at the time, the oppressive Roman Empire) and live with the next life in mind, instead of asserting political power for themselves in this life. And at the same time, we read about how he walked into and spoke over racial tension in this world in His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.

Both were not just “worldly” or “social” concerns, but Kingdom concerns. Both managed to upset a number of people, yet both reflected the heart of the Father and subverted the world’s economy of narratives. Jesus acknowledged the evils of oppression while also acknowledging that mercy was available for the oppressed and the oppressor.

I can’t say that I’ve made the right choices when faced with these questions. I can’t say I know all the answers. But I want to listen to the hurting. I want to learn from the broken. I want to life to be more than mere survival and competition. I want to acknowledge white supremacy as evil and extend a hand to those who have been scarred by its whip. I want them to know that there is a place where the pain is validated, where grace is offered, and where hope can be found. I want my words and actions to point to the One who provides it.

And I hope I’m not alone.

Stop to Smell the Twinkies

dead-poets“Medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for!” – Dead Poets Society

Ever have one of those moments when your olfactory receptors get blasted with nostalgia?

When I was 12, I had a crush on a girl named Alicia in my small Awana group at church. For several months, she was the only girl in our midst. Maybe it was the sweaty adolescent guys in our circle, but she always seemed to carry a distinct scent whenever she entered the room. Being a socially awkward, bookish 12-year-old, I had no idea how to instigate a friendship, much less a romantic relationship at that age. I couldn’t even bring myself to mention her name around my parents since I was so smitten. I was just glad to be in the same room with Alicia.

wonder-factoryA few years later, my family was driving through the highways of San Francisco when we passed by the now-closed Hostess Cake and Wonder Bread factory. A strangely familiar aroma wafted through the smoggy air. “That smell!” I exclaimed after getting a whiff. Among the cocktail of yeasty, jammy, artificial scents was the Alicia scent, which I finally realized was the magical smell…of Twinkies. For a wonderful, age-long moment, I was transported back.

Okay…so maybe reading all of that was a little strange. But I wrote all that detail because I know I don’t appreciate life’s little pleasures enough today and stop to smell the roses (or Twinkies, for that matter). My 12-year-old self may have been infatuated and foolish, but looking back now, I can’t help but wonder if he may have been onto something.

knowledgeAs an adult, my instinct is to bite when the lure of the pedantic is dangled. I crave a predictable life. It’s comforting when everything is boiled down to function, when I’m constantly aware of the purpose of every action or encounter, when everything carries some discernable meaning. Knowledge feels empowering, whether it’s educational (“the world works like this because of A and B”) or interpersonal (“this person works like this because they hold Opinions X and Y or have been through Experience Z”). When every question is answered, when every person’s action feeds into a preconceived narrative, when everything is explainable – the world feels safe and secure.

There’s a whole host of problems with such a life, but the one that stands out is this: a predictable life robs us of wonder, one of God’s greatest gifts.

creation-2What must it have been like for God to speak the universe into existence? He didn’t have to do so, after all. But He did – and even more, He took delight in what He created. He pronounced it good. And when man was created, something special happened: God was no longer alone in the creative arena. Man was made in His image, with all that urge to create, tend, and nurture. His entrusting of creation to man wasn’t just an obligatory mandate, but also an invitation to use the resources he stewards wisely, to be more Christ-like in the process.

Growing up, I never felt like God’s delight was a part of the creation narrative I was taught. Creation was merely a regimented, distantly ordered series of incremental steps to get the universe going. And while the details of creation and God’s orderliness are important, they’re only pieces of the whole story. If we, as imperfect human beings, experience the exuberant euphoria of delight in our own creation, how much more did God experience it when He created us in His own image?

edenScripture doesn’t go into great detail, but the unmarred relationship Adam and Eve shared with God in the sinless idyll of Eden suggests delight and intimacy were both present in the context of working to tend the garden. I love imagining God smiling down upon Adam as he discovered and named all the animals. There’s a timeless truth tucked away in the garden: God isn’t a distant deity watching us from afar. He, too, engages in work – and in the context of relationship with us.

In our individualized, compartmentalized world, I often struggle with the practical, day-to-day living out of that truth. It’s far easier to respond to the overwhelming maelstrom of noise in the world by hunkering down and focusing on myself. In such a paradigm where everything begins and ends with self, work is only a quest for survival instead of an act of creative service in a much larger, relational context. Relationships are nothing more than a means to a self-fulfilling end instead of an opportunity to pour into the lives of friends and then band together to pour into others. The value of creation is measured by nothing more than its usefulness to us. Even in the context of following Christ, salvation ends at our own personal atonement and admission into Heaven instead of continuously seeking after the purpose of our salvation in this life.

The more I’m tempted toward focusing on personal efficiency wherever I go, the more I’m convicted. Several months ago, my pastor challenged all of us in church with a word for the year:

Behold.

aweIn the narrative of Scripture, whenever God or an angel commands someone to “behold,” the word can usually be translated to mean “stand still and be amazed.” I know I don’t stand still often enough. I know I don’t rest often enough. But arguably saddest of all, I know I don’t stop to be amazed often enough.

In a world riddled with distractions, where novelties are sought out in the service of pursuing the next high, the concept of amazement – particularly in the mundane doldrums of everyday life – feels antithetical to all we know to be true. In a world fraught with cynicism and pain, pure awe doesn’t seem deserved. In a world where the amassing of information and knowledge is valued, the idea of wonder is foreign and reminds us that we’re finite. In a world where competition and transactional encounters are commonplace, the idea of expressing amazement and love toward another without expecting anything in return is contrary to our natural instincts.

I think about the moments when Mary anointed Jesus at Bethany. When she poured the oil on His feet, and Judas responded with indignation, claiming it was all a waste, Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Leave her alone.” I think He recognized that Mary’s selfless act, sitting at His feet in wondrous awe, would be a waste if our calling in life was simply to be transactional. But in God’s economy, even something that looks as ephemeral as pouring out a bottle of perfume is meaningful. For Jesus, it wasn’t a matter of quantity or physical value, but of the heart. He recognized that Mary understood the gift Christ had given her and responded by showing generosity – even extravagant generosity. Her act of worship was beautiful.

Seeking beauty, responding to God’s gifts in wonder, standing in awe – why is it important?

cpLast week, I had the privilege of spending time with a number of friends who were a part of a writing forum with which I was briefly involved in high school. Some of them were old friends, while others were new. Some of them were only meeting for the first time, while others were reunited across the country for the eighth time. But no matter our background, there was a camaraderie present among us that wasn’t just manufactured.

After a while, I began to discern a trend: though we’re now adults, and some of us decided not to pursue careers in writing, there was a distinct awareness threaded throughout our group that we, our creativity, and our storytelling are all imperfect. We are fragile. We are frail. And sometimes, all we can do is approach each other – and Christ Himself – with our struggles and stand back in wonder as we watch God at work. But it doesn’t end there. In a room bristling with creative energy, many of us recognized that life isn’t just about healing ourselves, but also healing others – whether through the power of storytelling, sharing beauty, or extending a hand in selfless friendship.

By the time the week ended, I felt my walls beginning to crumble. Those transactional, pedantic instincts I described earlier felt so foolish and unfulfilling. I realize that I’ve still got a long way to go with respect to standing still and enjoying God’s gifts. I’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to living a life defined by wonder. And that’s okay. There’s no shame in being a work in progress. We all are.

Maybe it starts with stopping to smell the Twinkies.

When the Narrative Controls Us

“The world is waiting. Good luck. Travel safe. Go!”

If you’re familiar with the globetrotting CBS reality competition The Amazing Race, the above words, spoken by host Phil Keoghan at the starting line each season, might sound familiar.

1801_starting_line-jpegI was about 12 years old when I saw my first season of this show. As someone who couldn’t stand the constant backstabbing and mind games of Survivor, I was immediately drawn in. The idea of a competition where teams of two had to go out into the unknown, travel the world, learn more about various cultures along the way, and go head-to-head in a series of challenges while avoiding elimination to ultimately win a million dollars was refreshing. And yet, the baser elements of human nature found a way to participate in the Race as well. Even at that, the show was fun, colorful, and focused enough on the challenges and locations that the unsavory characters and tactics were not a complete wet blanket.

But something funny began to happen across The Amazing Race’s fan base. Social media was still coming into its own as a communication medium, but that didn’t stop fans from going online and sharing live photos they took of teams wearing their Race-tagged gear and running through the cities on the route for a given season. Viewers on spoiler forums started to piece together the order of who was eliminated based on who was seen where and when.

One of the consequences of knowing the possible results of the competition was an altered view of the events shown on TV. Fans began to pick up on how the producers edited the footage in order to paint certain teams in a favorable light while painting other teams as scheming and villainous. Not surprisingly, some viewers used these editing tendencies to decipher who could be receiving the “winner’s edit,” in which the team that ultimately won was typically shown as likeable, hard-working, and possibly even an underdog. In contrast, a team that would receive the “villain edit” was more than likely not going to win. After all, the winners had to overcome the odds to triumph over someone unlikeable.

This became even more apparent when teams were interviewed by online publications about their experiences and interactions with each other, with some claiming that the “villains” were nowhere near as consistently nasty as they were shown to be on TV. Regardless, this didn’t stop most of the viewing public from acting on bias built up over reinforcement through the power of editing. A quick scan of The Amazing Race’s Facebook page activity today reveals just how much viewers pick their favorites early, even using the teams’ occupations and perceived income levels as indicators of whether or not they’d be worthy of support even before a season actually starts.

Why do I bring all this up? Because reality television and the producers behind it are masters at crafting a narrative. And as much as we enjoy a well-spun yarn, I can’t help but wonder just how much we allow narratives in our everyday lives to control us, perhaps even subconsciously.

daredevilIn a world full of injustices, we long to escape. We want to retreat to places where good triumphs over evil, and the underdog wins out over the oppressor. However, when we seek out stories to latch onto, we also want something that’s relatable enough that we can see shades of ourselves, our struggles, our passions, and our victories. A part of us longs for a hero who represents more than our shortcomings but is still an everyman to whom we can relate. Another part of us wants to see a world where the protagonists face much of the same plight we face in our own lives while being distant enough that the ultimate victory is still believable.

In many respects, I think this is why science fiction (and for that matter, speculative fiction) has endured over the decades. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer position their antagonists to represent actual struggles young people face, while books like Fahrenheit 451 paint chilling, dystopian visions of the future to warn us against giving into our baser instincts societally. Today, we use superheroes, vampires, zombies, and other fantastical elements to construct worlds where these issues can be dissected.

And yet, despite so many rich stories from which we can glean insights, we have to carve out time to live in the real world, which unfortunately, isn’t so cut-and-dry. Conflicts can’t be resolved in a mere 43 minutes. Society won’t dramatically transform for the better in a few days after seeing a band of heroes overcome the impossible and inspire everyone. And as much as we sometimes hope our normal, mundane lives are interrupted by apocalyptic events that would challenge the status quo and shift everyone’s priorities toward cooperation and away from bickering, we have to face the reality of our lives. Every single day. In some ways, our entertainment has begun to reflect the reality of our lives more than we may care to admit. Serialized story arcs with drawn-out resolutions have largely eclipsed one-off episodic tales in popularity, while large, interconnected franchises have endured by pointing to the cyclical nature of the battles we fight.

I think there is a significant part of us that longs for something greater – to be a part of an epic metanarrative. As a Christian, I believe that we are, and that we play key roles in a grand story of redemption. Recently, I saw a video of theologian Timothy Keller speaking about the impact of culture – the practice of taking raw materials and fashioning something greater from them – and why we participate in building it for better or worse, whether we want to or not. Our stories reflect the values we live by. No matter what differences may divide us, and what those values may be, there’s a part of each and every one of us that is captivated by themes like sacrifice and redemption that reflect the ultimate metanarrative.

But in a society where immediacy is prized, we want to be a part of a narrative that’s quick and easy – even though that part of us cries out, knowing it won’t work. Yet we aren’t easily deterred. It’s easy to build our own boogeymen and do all we can to be positioned as the heroes. It’s easy to take people who don’t share our priorities and demonize them, all the while hoping that we’ll come out victorious or be remembered in a positive light by those who pen our history. Just looking at this election season, countless dollars have been spent in the service of building up candidates and political parties while also tearing down the opposition.

Our desire for quick and easy villainization hasn’t gone unnoticed by cable news networks and internet bloggers who thrive on negativity and fear of those on “the other side” gaining traction. I recently read an article postulating that with enough reinforcement, a person can be so biased that being presented with objective evidence to the contrary actually further reinforces their opinions. This isn’t a statement on the veracity of the evidence, but rather just how narratively driven the opinions are. And it’s so true. It’s not uncommon these days to gaslight those who disagree to the point where any resource outside those within the vacuum chamber of reinforcement is painted as untrustworthy or unscrupulous. More than likely, the reality is that we all possess some degree of fallibility and choose to focus on the flaws that build us up while painting those we distrust in as negative a light as possible.

teen-dramaI’ve struggled with this tendency in my own life too. When I was little, I grew up among a circle of people who believed that the best response to the troubles of the world was to cloister themselves from it. No one on the outside was to be trusted. We were even trained to make value judgments about people based on externally visible qualities, not what was on the inside. As the years went by, and I moved on to other circles of friends, all those warnings I had heard began to be subverted. People “on the outside” were not as simple as a disagreeable opinion that I had conflated to represent their entire being. They were so much more than the boogeymen I had constructed in the narrative in my mind, and in many ways, they understood more than I could have ever imagined. Those who were Christians inspired me to re-examine my faith and discover more about who Jesus is.

Although we may never overcome all our differences in this life and achieve total peace on this earth, we have the ability – the responsibility – to approach others as more than just easily understood edits on a reality TV show. As I learned from the very people I was taught to fear, I began to understand that their value wasn’t tied to what political party with which they aligned, or what set of opinions they held. Their value was inherent as people made in the image of God.

And that’s as good a place to start as any.

Don’t Become the Thing You Hate

It’s been a while since I’ve written here.

coloradoMuch of that has been due to a significant life change: since my last entry last July, I’ve moved from Texas after accepting a marketing job with a ministry headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In the wake of all the adjustments, I’ve had to lay a few things aside temporarily, not the least of which have been this blog and my gaming channel on YouTube. But there’s been a bit more to it than that…and it’s kind of a long story.

Working at a non-profit organization with other Jesus followers has been nothing short of a humbling experience. I remember the same feeling several years ago in college when I was exposed to a bit more diversity than I expected at the Christian university I attended. At first, I thought I had what some might call “homecourt advantage.” I had lived right there in Texas for several years beforehand and didn’t need to worry about adjusting to the humid climate or surrounding environs. I had been involved in church and was surrounded by other believers for so long that I thought I had all the Jesus lingo down and could say all the right things. I figured everyone would have the same perspectives and backgrounds.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. There were deeper lessons to learn. The preeminence of grace and the person of Christ. The importance of rest. The need to go deeper instead of wider in relationships. The benefits of listening to those with whom you disagree.

History has a strange way of repeating itself, because it’s happened again.

Vancouver_new_Car_DealerOne of the reasons why I started this blog was because I wanted to share my perspective on a variety of issues after emerging from a cult-like environment as a kid. When so many of your formative years have been defined by the abusive, toxic trappings of authoritarian theology and graceless exhaustion, you start to notice it wherever you go. It’s like that feeling you get when you’re a new car owner and see cars like your own while driving around. It’s difficult to get it out of your head. The more I thought about the shadows of my past, the more I began to notice them in my present where I walked, albeit in less concentrated doses. So I decided to do what I could and start speaking out about the less obvious stuff – the root issues of the heart I had personally avoided for so long.

When I was little, much of what I had been taught was anchored in the notion that because our eisegetical proof-texting of the Scriptures was theologically sound, we were wiser and more knowledgeable than our peers. As a teenager who hadn’t quite yet grasped why that hermeneutic was harmful, I would arrogantly stand on the sidelines feeling like I had a deeper perspective about sticky issues like relationships and mental health than those around me. The irony was that I had barely scratched the surface compared to my friends who had actually weathered some tough storms related to those issues.

5976474_origFast forward to adulthood, and there’s a new temptation that emerges when actual knowledge and wisdom get added into the equation: you may have more life experience, but unless you dig down deep into the heart and understand why the methodology of your past was so toxic to begin with, you’re bound to repeat everything – only this time, you’re the one who’s making the decisions. And as a result, it’s even easier to feel like you’ve got it all together after that revelatory turning point. Now you are in the driver’s seat.

That’s what I fear had happened to me after sorting out my beliefs and owning my faith in Christ once I realized I wasn’t the uber-ultra-hyper-elite Jesus follower I was often told I’d become by adhering to a bunch of extra- (read: non-) Biblical standards. All of the discovery from that point on felt euphoric. For once, I was in command! I now realized what was missing from my youth. But the funny thing was that in my efforts to speak out against all manner of issues tied to my past, my identity was still tied to the very thing I was trying to avoid instead of the Savior who rescued me from it.

pendulumOne of my pastor’s old mentors said something I’ll never forget: “We think we’re balanced creatures, but in reality, we’re pendulums just waiting to wildly swing back and forth.” No matter where we may land ideologically, it’s very easy for us to acknowledge where we’re not being heard and feel the urge to tip the scales so that we or our viewpoint hold more weight. One of my friends’ friends took this idea so far that he felt entitled to be a jerk on social media just because he had been put down for years.

I hope this blog hasn’t taken on that kind of tone, and I’d like to think it hasn’t. My original intention was to draw attention to issues around which I hadn’t heard much discussion and provide a safe place for readers to discuss those issues. But in doing so constantly, it was easy to develop the attitude of a critic on the inside and feel like that teenager on the sidelines again. It was easy to limit my engagement to the world of social media where people could shout out what was on their minds with minimal repercussions. It was easy to avoid the real world where I’d have to understand and work with a variety of perspectives from people who didn’t exactly share my passions.

That’s why I’ve felt humbled after beginning work at a ministry.

It was easy to walk in on that first day with that critic’s perspective. But much like the perspective of my childhood, grace was severely lacking. I had been shown grace by so many people in the midst of my own struggles, and here I was, having trouble demonstrating it to others who were just as desperately in need of it as I was. In the months that followed, I began to see beauty in that imperfection. I began to see wonder again. And I finally came to a realization I had been putting off for so long – my past didn’t have to define me. I didn’t have to be all about the problems that were tied to the place I came from. I could still be as passionate about those issues while still knowing that Someone greater than I transcended them and was ultimately working miracles even when all of the conditions weren’t quite perfect.

Please don’t misunderstand – I’m not planning on going anywhere with this blog. I’m not planning on refraining from addressing important topics related to abuse, healthy relationships, and unhealthy theology. But I guess my perspective and methodology have shifted a bit in these last several months. My identity is less rooted now in my past and more rooted in the freeing work of Christ – and it’s such a refreshing feeling. Maybe I’ll mix up my posts a bit and do some movie reviews frequently, or just write about life here in Colorado or personal growth. Because life is so much more than the struggle. That’s not to say that the struggles aren’t there. But it’s the way we respond to them that says a lot about where our heart is. I don’t say all that as someone who has overcome yet another struggle, but as someone who needs grace to continually overcome it each day. I have to remain anchored in the comforting rest Christ offers, or else I’ll lose myself obsessing over whatever new problem comes up.

criminal_justice_jurisprudenceThe other night, I was reminded of how sad that can be while chatting with a friend who also came out of a rather theologically oppressive background and has been experiencing many of the same realizations. It’s been difficult for both of us to avoid succumbing to the pendulum swing as we’ve seen so many people with similar experiences – including ourselves at times – avoid addressing the root issues that made those environments as toxic as they were. Instead of finding balance, many of us have ended up creating “safe” but toxic environments of our own in which a bunch of rules are enforced in the service of avoiding people and opinions we don’t want to hear. In the case of one such closed group on Facebook she was a part of, the admins who were in charge were vetting potential members to make sure that they weren’t abusive, dangerous people – which is totally understandable. But the way they did this was just as much of a witch hunt as the harsh judgmentalism that defined where they came from. When one guy was being screened, they noticed that he was wearing a rather nondescript article of clothing that they immediately found incriminating. It’s just really sad that at the end of the day, all that really happened was a cosmetic change – they merely traded one type of oppression for another. Only this time, they happened to be the ones in control.

Healing is a process. We all have a story, and we all have scars of some sort. Some of them don’t heal right away. Some of them take an incredibly long amount of time to heal. But if there’s one unhealthy barrier to that healing, it’s perpetuating the cycle that broke us in the first place. If you’re struggling with figuring out where to go after emerging from an abusive situation, my heart goes out to you. Your hurt is real. It’s valid. But it doesn’t have to consume you. Please find support. Find people who understand. Find people who can speak truth into your life – that you are valuable, that you carry worth.

But wherever you go, please don’t become the thing you hate.

Having Emotions Doesn’t Make You a Terrible Person

I’ve got to admit – when I first started this blog, I had some trouble coming up with a name for it.

The first thought that came to mind was something that encapsulated where I was in life. At least right now, much of my life journey has been about settling down emotionally. Part of that is just growing up and all the challenges that come with it, but another part is colored by my experiences with the unsound theology and warped viewpoints on people and relationships to which I was exposed as a kid. I don’t say this because I want to spread a bunch of blame around, or because I want to be bitter. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just difficult when a twisted perspective permeates so much of your formative years. It’s hard to talk about it, even to your own friends, especially if they’ve never had something so insidious maintain such a pervasive presence in their lives for so long. I can honestly say that if I were in their shoes, I’d have a lot of trouble grasping what it’s like.

InsideOut54aef6a6e091f.0Last month, a movie was released that affected me in an unexpected way. Pixar’s animated film Inside Out was a fascinating, poignant look at the realm of the emotional – that abstract arena where thoughts, ideas, and feelings dance around in an awkward ballet. Without giving away too much for those who haven’t seen it, the story is about an 11-year-old girl named Riley who is moved away from her comfortable, familiar life in Minnesota when her father’s job relocates the family to San Francisco. The tale is told from the perspective of the five predominant emotions in her mind – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust – who all have a part to play in ensuring that Riley is well-adjusted and emotionally balanced. When Riley’s emotions start to get lost and out of control, she has to wrestle with unfamiliar, uncomfortable feelings and memories that no longer have the meaning they carried when she was younger. She has to adjust from one normal to another.

Warped-Wall-run-upThat’s how I’ve felt, more or less, over the past 10 or so years. Adjusting from one normal to another – hence the name “Finding Normalcy.” (Sadly, “Finding Normal” and “Finding Normality” were already taken.) Like Riley, I too once had a difficult move, only it was out of the San Francisco area and into Texas. But this recent adjustment has been about something much deeper, something on a more foundational level. It feels like the emotional equivalent of running the obstacle course on American Ninja Warrior, where your preconceptions are constantly challenged as you encounter everything for the first time. You stare up that 15-foot warped wall, build up momentum, and make a mad dash right up, only to discover that the wall was much different than you thought it was, and your strategy has to be adjusted. Okay, maybe that’s the most terrible illustration of all time, but that’s basically what it’s like to have your every assumption tested after spending so much time developing a mindset that fostered a fear of what was “on the outside.” The emotional obstacles that naturally accompany meeting another person for the first time are compounded when you have a sea of preconceptions about other people that need to be tossed to the side in the process. For a long time after passing through adolescence, I tried so hard to dive into the sorts of relationships I had missed out on as a kid – all without addressing those preconceptions and doing some very necessary heart work. And I’ve had to pay dearly for it.

11722314_1009031162460970_554514689606681561_oAs I’ve talked about in some of my other posts, a large portion of these issues have had to do less with behavior than with methodology and mindset (which do play an important role in ultimately informing one’s behavior). One of the reasons why I write so much on here about communication and understanding other people, even those who are disagreeable, is because it’s an issue that desperately needs to be addressed in our “faster, louder, dumber, angrier, screenier, alonier” world, to quote Opus the Penguin from the recent Bloom County revival. There are a lot of issues about which we as a culture are passionate, and everyone certainly has a favorite to talk about. Many of them are very important too. But I don’t see any conceivable way we can productively discuss any of them if we can’t communicate with the intention of listening, rather than responding.

Working in the world of marketing provides an interesting set of challenges. For one thing, you possess knowledge about whatever you’re promoting that your target audience may not have, and convincing them that they need what you’re offering is no easy task. You have to cut through a bunch of noise to even reach them. You have to build trust with them and ensure the relationship is in their control, not yours. On top of that, you may also have to address some preconceptions they may carry about you or what it is you do. It’s not a complete framework, but I think it can be very helpful for any persuasive effort. Understanding where another person is coming from and demonstrating some degree of empathy are vital toward finding common ground. It’s a character trait I’ve often struggled with developing for a long time. In fact, I didn’t really think about it until a point a few years ago where I had destroyed a relationship after an argument and recognized that I couldn’t go on without some heavy heart work in that area. Even today, I still have much to learn about empathy and understanding the emotional positions of others. And I get the sense that I’m not alone on this journey.

brain1I’m no expert on emotions, but I often get discouraged whenever I see them being stigmatized in our culture. I can’t honestly say that I completely know why we do this. But I think a large part of it has to do with the way modern culture has conditioned us to compartmentalize. From separation of church and state to the scientific classification of plants and animals, or even the division of the Christian life into the steps of justification, sanctification, and glorification, we’ve developed so many ideas since the advent of modernism that have been marked by compartmentalization. In many respects, breaking complex concepts into manageable chunks can be really helpful for many people. And there are certainly many other positives that come out of this approach. But I can’t help but wonder if it can do us more harm than good when we apply this same methodology to people.

breakfastclubpPeople are, by nature, complex creatures. It’s difficult to define everything about a person, so our natural inclination is simply to run with what stands out to us and conflate that to represent their entire being. Much of our high school experiences involved cliques based on externally visible qualities. Sadly, I don’t think the world gets too much better as an adult. Instead of jocks, geeks, and hipsters, we generalize on terms that seem to be within our control. If a person mentions that she holds the disagreeable Position A on Topic X, we immediately do some cross-referencing in the backs of our minds. Gasp! Position A?! That must mean she also holds…let’s see…Position B on Topic Y, and – oh man – Position D on Topic Z! I’ve got her figured out! The unfortunate irony is that we end up in a position where we think we know more about someone than we really do.

dc9e09107250cd3b11a453172873f3255ceddc2bI think the same sort of mindset can easily take over whenever we see what looks like emotionally charged behavior. Responses like “oh, he’s just acting on his emotions,” or “she’s just letting her feelings take over” are based on a couple of incomplete assumptions that make us feel like we know people when we really don’t. First, we implicitly divide people into logical and emotional components warring with each other and assume that if emotional behavior is being exhibited, then the emotional component must be “winning.” To a certain extent, we do feel a push-and-pull between logic and emotion. But these parts of us are not meant to be separated, nor are they all that define our minds. They are meant to work symbiotically. Second, there’s an unspoken, underlying assumption that because logic is more grounded, and emotions are more abstract, logic must be “good” and trustworthy, while emotion must be – well, we wouldn’t say “bad,” but perhaps “dangerous.” Shoving emotion to the side can ignore two very real possibilities: our dedication to the logic we value may be more informed by emotion than we realize, and the emotional acting out from others that we so often decry may be the result of emotional suppression, a lack of attention to one’s emotional health, or perhaps even a mental health issue that needs to be met with grace instead of a handwave.

darmok-hd-359Why is it so easy to do this? Perhaps it’s because we’ve grown accustomed to dealing with the tangible, the quantifiable, and the concrete in our world – all in a very immediate sense. We can jump on Google to look up the capital of Lesotho. We can hop on YouTube to check out how to build a makeshift video studio with supplies from The Home Depot for under $100. Even when we’re dealing with something more abstract, we’ve got resources that reinforce our biases and further convince us that we’ve got it all figured out. But truly understanding another person or even ourselves, messy emotions and all, is a process. It can be grueling, time-consuming, and often frustrating – but it’s a necessary part of being human. That’s why I get discouraged when I see people practically viewed as nothing more than machines in a world of convenience.

It’s especially discouraging to see many of my fellow Christians flowing right along with the culture in this regard. Some congregations even go as far as to denounce emotions as evil whenever someone acts impulsively or exhibits an emotional outburst, in some cases sending the person into a downward spiral of self-doubt. Even if something so blatant isn’t declared, it’s our mindset that can often go unchecked. I just can’t help but notice how much we have bought into the “people as machines that need to be programmed” mentality, only with a Christianese sheen: throwing Bible verses like spells from a magic book, spouting off platitudes and memes, and simplifying processes like repentance, reconciliation, and redemption to the point where they feel like turning a switch on and off or fixing the alternator in one’s car. It’s no wonder that we also see so many scandals in the church being swept under the rug, especially when the focus is on external appearance.

Like I said earlier, I’m certainly no expert on emotional health. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in not paying attention to my own – and not being attentive to that of others when necessary. But I’d like to learn. I’d like to be more empathetic. And I’d like to invite you to join me as I continue to stumble through on this journey. Much like Riley and her uprooting from Minnesota, we may have to wrestle with uncomfortable feelings as we take a step out from the realm of the familiar and into uncharted territory we don’t initially understand. But I think it’s worth it. It strips our minds of all the assumptions we build up when we remain within the confines of the familiar and strengthens our convictions that pass through the fire. And in the process, we abandon our urges to figure others out and instead gain a more holistic understanding of what makes them who they are. So next time we see people struggling emotionally…

Can we resist the urge to view them as problems to be fixed?

Can we take the time to listen and validate their struggles?

Can we extend grace and view them as more than the struggles they face?

Confessions of a Former Conspiracy Theorist

When I was about 12, while my dad was on a business trip, my mother called me over to her room while she was watching TV. “J.B.!” she shouted. “You’ve got to see this!” Excited, I ran into the bedroom and sat down in front of a screen for a documentary showing one of the Apollo astronauts on the moon. By the time I was that age, I had been exposed to quite a few movies and programs about space flight and travel in the 20th century. Tom Hanks’s HBO docudrama series From the Earth to the Moon was a big one. So was Apollo 13. I enjoyed The Right Stuff and the fun, more fictional stuff, like the old Don Knotts movie The Reluctant Astronaut. Our family had even stopped by Kennedy Space Center when we were vacationing in Florida. My dad was – and still is – especially passionate about the subject of space travel and setting out as pioneers in the final frontier, which is one reason why we’ve both grown fond of science fiction like Star Trek.

So imagine my surprise when this particular documentary was something completely different: a conspiracy show questioning if we actually went to the moon. At the time, it felt like a complete eye-opener: questionable photographs were displayed. Bizarre coincidences were laid out for our evaluation. Supposedly scientific treatises were put forward and juxtaposed with the predominant narrative about space travel. “Was the Apollo program the most expensive movie ever made?” the narrator asked as moon photographs from what the show claimed to be Area 51 were displayed.

I’m not going to lie: to a 12-year-old, it was actually pretty convincing. My whole world felt shattered. Everything I knew from all those wonderful movies and docudramas may not have been true after all. I was fired up after watching it, charged with a euphoria that stemmed from the feeling that I may have just stumbled onto knowledge that hardly anyone else in the world had. I was even ready to write a report on the topic so I could present it to my dad when he came home and try to sway him toward believing. By the time he came in the door, I felt fully rehearsed, ecstatically recounting the key points the narrator made.

He was unfazed.

“J.B., that’s silly. Don’t you realize that there’s actual physical evidence of our presence on the moon?” he asked. “What about all those moon rocks down here? How could those have all been faked?”

I didn’t want to believe it. I really thought I was onto something. My entire world felt shattered yet again, and this time, there was no euphoria accompanying it. “Wait a minute,” I turned to my mom. “Why did you have me watch that in the first place?” She explained that she didn’t really feel passionately about it one way or another and that it just looked interesting, not that she necessarily believed in it.

This wasn’t the first time I was exposed to conspiracy theories. After becoming a Christian, I developed a rather keen fixation on eschatology for a season, though I had no discernment at all toward the subject. My parents would receive Christian book catalogs in the mail, and the first place I’d turn wasn’t always the kids’ section – it was the “Prophecy & End Times” category. I was always eager to see what new insights those books had to offer, no matter how loony or even fictional they were, especially with all the Y2K hysteria at a fever pitch. On top of that, a few of my parents’ best friends were fascinated by the subject too. I remember one night when we all went out to eat, and they were telling us about the latest book they bought, which claimed that there were “mysterious codes” in the pages of Scripture that prophesied recent news stories like the death of Princess Diana and the Oklahoma City bombings and could be found by piecing together certain letters placed at various intervals (despite the fact that the same could basically be done in the pages of Moby Dick). My parents weren’t so quick to buy into it, but I was fascinated.

I really thought I had it made. With all of this information, I thought, I could be ready for the end. I wouldn’t be caught off-guard. Of course, I don’t know the exact hour of Christ’s return. No one does. But at least I can come close, right? This will help me make better sense of all these crazy things going on in the world. And if I ever come under fire for it, I can just tell them that I’m “keeping watch.” That’s harmless enough, right?

Eventually, I began to recognize how futile this was. The Y2K disaster never happened. The Clinton administration didn’t bring about the end of the world. The conflict in the Middle East didn’t boil over to the point where the Antichrist emerged from the shadows to prime everyone for global domination. Life kept moving on. And although my interest in conspiracy theories waned, it took an even longer time to undo the mindset behind them. In the years that followed, I discovered that at least with respect to the methodology that informs conspiracy theorists, I wasn’t all that alone.

Even if not everyone wears a tin foil hat, many of us have a desire to be as informed as possible and try to figure out how what’s going on in our world may play into the big picture of history. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. But whenever our desire to do so controls us – whenever it reaches a point where even our relationships are affected, we proclaim our outrage at the latest Cataclysmic News Story of the Week, and we view people around us are no more than pawns in an overarching scheme, it becomes unhealthy for several reasons. Here are just a few:

We can all too easily construct narratives in which world events or cultural changes are “causes” in an equation with “effects” that are foregone conclusions, and as a result, we can feel like we’re informed when we may not be. In a previous post, I talked a bit about how our culture is very eager for control. It’s especially easy in a part of the world where many of us have convenience at our fingertips. It’s very tempting to live for results, to look for inputs that will give us the outputs we want. Similarly, it’s just as tempting to shoehorn everything going on around us into a part of a greater story with a predetermined ending. Those mysteries on TV and in the movies in which the main character has a Big Board where everything’s connected? If only real life were that simple.

I think this tendency can be very appealing for Christians, especially if we’re fascinated with the end times. We can easily form an opinion about how all of that will play out as it relates to current events because we have a limited, finite perspective. Even with all the history books at our fingertips, we all too quickly forget that every generation has had its doomsday prophets or groups of people who saw all the atrocities in the world and determined that the period of time in which they lived had to be the beginning of the end. Sadly, it’s no different today. The trouble with such an approach comes when we reach a point where nothing can subvert our expectations at all, and nearly everything becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a result, we end up building a false reality for ourselves in which all the happenings in the world are designed to drive the narrative forward and bring about the very results we expect, and any other explanation is dismissed as “what ‘they’ want you to think.”

We base our lives and decisions on fear and cynicism. Fear and cynicism are not only powerful – they’re also compelling and contagious. They’re incredibly prevalent in a world where news is sensationalized and often written to provoke reactions through clickbait headlines that feed on our outrage. Like any emotion, fear and cynicism are sometimes necessary and healthy. For instance, it’s difficult to recognize a need for growth or change without some degree of cynicism. But miring oneself in cynicism is not conducive to that growth. Sooner or later, we have to move beyond that.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the early church. Here was an institution that was just getting on its feet, whose members struggled to survive in a hostile culture that fed them to lions. It would have been incredibly difficult to resist the temptation to give in to fear and outrage. The Christians of the time could have decided to make it their mission to overthrow the government and rail against the culture, but they did not. They focused on living their lives, exemplifying the life and character of Christ, and developing relationships among those around them. They focused on the decisions within their control, not the circumstances outside it.

We can think we’re making a difference when we’re just creating noise. We see all the turmoil, the conflict, the insanity going on out there. We see and hear events quickly playing out, cultural changes taking place under our nose, and noise blaring so loudly that we feel like our voices are being drowned out. Through it all, it’s tempting to take the easy road: “speaking out” and shouting through the impersonal medium of the internet instead of using our time to actually invest in the lives of others. Just this past week, I’ve read so many outraged Facebook statuses and comments about what’s going on in the world that I’ve officially lost count.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty going on in the world that I disagree with. And I don’t doubt that some conspiracy theories may hold a bit of water. (Without getting terribly political about it, I’m certainly not one to trust the government on principle, for instance.) But even if that is the case, I have to ask with respect to our response: what exactly are we getting out of all the ranting? Out of playing into the sensationalism that stirs us up against each other? Out of building up fear? Out of creating division between ourselves and others?

What’s ultimately sad is that for all the time we waste doing this, we could be spending it making an actual difference. There is certainly a time to stand up, but how that is accomplished is what will make the biggest difference. Should we be fighting the way everyone fights – with platitudes, memes, shouting, arguing, and insults – or is there a better way?

I’ll leave that up to you to decide.