Developing a Christian Response to Incarceration

Developing a Christian response to incarceration, based on a re-evaluation of Criminal Justice theories in view of a modern understanding decision science.

It doesn’t take long, in studMCI-Hying the scriptures, to realize that the Christian God is a god of love, and so the question for those who put their faith in Christ is not should I love?, but how best to show love? These questions are quickly put to the test when considering how to respond, as a society, with those who have committed, and are likely to continue to commit crimes. Saying I will show mercy and forgives, and do nothing may sound like the Christian thing to say, but is doing nothing showing mercy to this individual’s next victim? Obviously not.

When someone close to us is victimized by a crime, most of us have an immediate visceral response toward the perpetrators: we want them hunted down and punished. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, we may cry, mistakenly taking this paraphrase of the Hammurabi’s Code (Hammurabi ruled the Babylonian Empire from 1792-50 BC) as Biblical scripture.

What I’ve termed a visceral response is more appropriately termed a heuristic response: a decision arising from the hard-wired, low-level neural pathways that have helped the human race survive since the dawn of time. One of the key characteristics that sets humans apart from animals is that we have been gifted by God with an alternative means of decision making. We have the ability to pause, to ponder, and to over-ride our low-level automated responses, by weighing and analyzing facts and evidence.

Most animals do not have this ability. For example, many of us have had the unpleasant experience of straying too close to a honeybee’s hive and have paid the price with a bee sting. Honeybees pay the ultimate price for defending their family–their bodies are torn apart as their barbed stinger lodges itself into the intruders flesh. The heuristic response of a honeybee is very similar to that of humans, because our heuristics were both developed for tribe-oriented preservation, and the bee’s decidedly un-analytic response to threats against its tribe (hive) have obviously served the species well, in that honeybees are still around today.

And in the same way, if taking the survival of the species as the sole measure of success, our human heuristic response of an eye for an eye has worked for millennia. But Jesus does not take the survival of the species as the sole measure of success, He wants more. In Matthew 5:38-39 Jesus said: You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

Pondering these words demands that we set aside our heuristic response and take the time and energy to carefully analyze our approach to criminal justice. The idea of demanding more than the heuristic response isn’t a new message from Jesus. The same notion is echoed in Zechariah 7:9: This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.’

Modern theories of punishment, as studied in introductory classes on criminal justice, discuss four reasons for punishing criminals: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation, but notice that these reasons are derived from different sources.

The first, retribution, is nothing more than a re-wording of King Hammurabi’s an eye for an eye. It is the heuristic decision making response that is no different than the honeybee’s save the hive sting-an evolutionary response that has achieved the same tribe-survival purpose as deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation, but without the thought.

In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, the theologian reminds us that when Jesus died on the cross, he took on himself the punishment of all sin, and therefore, it is impossible for someone to both accept Christ and demand punishment for sin. If you accept Christ, you have to accept the fact that Christ paid the price for everyone else’s sin at the same time He paid the price for yours. His death was the completion of the Lord’s claim, in Deuteronomy 32:35, Vengeance is mine.

The second, third, and fourth reasons for punishment are analytic responses to criminal behavior. They are an alternative, reasoned, three-pronged approach to maintain the safety of our families and society.

All of us are born with selfish desires, and all of us struggle, to varying degrees with temptations. Even the great Apostle Paul, who wrote (in perhaps the most transparent passages of all scripture) I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do (Romans 7:15). With solid family and community support, and active male and female role-models in our lives, most of us learn to overcome these selfish desires, understanding that our decisions and behaviors that benefit our family and community, as a whole, benefit us, as a whole, as well. However, we do not live in a utopian society, and many grow up without positive guides to our thinking, and therefore, the selfish desires have a tendency to win out. Deterrence, consists of a bold reminder by society, that attempting to satisfy selfish desires at the expense of others will not lead to satisfaction at all, but rather will lead to misery. Deterrence should stand as the last ditch, yellow-striped guardrail of community support. It has limited effect when it becomes the primary community support mechanism, and almost no effect on those under the age of 26, which is when the part of the human brain that makes risk-based decisions completes formation. Prescribing punishment to others, as a means of deterrence, should always be carried out wisely, and communicated effectively, so that the message of deterrence registers.

Incapacitation simply means to take a dangerous person off the streets. If a person is a sexual predator that has been attacking women, then it is not merciful to the women of our society to allow them to roam free. Incapacitation does not mean tiny prison cells, frightening and dangerous living conditions, and substandard food, sanitation, and medical care. These are the hallmarks of revenge, not incapacitation. Incapacitation is not about punishment, it is about the safety of the rest of the community.

Rehabilitation is the third prong of the reasoned approach to punishment, and the main point of entry, for Christians, into the hearts and lives of the incarcerated. In Mark 2:17 Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” And from Romans 12:14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse, and from Matthew 25:44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”

With deterrence and incapacitation, we begin to live up to the wisdom found in Isaiah 1:17 Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

With rehabilitation, we can begin to live out the wisdom from Micah (Micah 6:8) He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Having devoted some time to prison ministry over the past few years, I’ve come to understand the Lord’s words on humility. Many of the men I’ve met were incarcerated for a decision they made in a split second. A quick flash of anger, an over-zealous response to an attack, or a sudden fit of jealousy, or envy. I’ve found myself in similar situations in the past, and it is only through the Grace of God that nothing tragic happened in those moments. Many others I’ve met in prison, most, I would say, have themselves been victims or traumatic crimes in their youth, and most did not grow up in positive communities, with loving mothers, fathers, and neighbors, watching and guiding them as they tried to navigate the emotional whirlpools of adolescence, and instilling in them firm moral foundations. At the end of a day of ministry, behind the prison walls, I exit the institution thinking that it is society that has acted criminally towards these men, allowing them to have been raised in such a manner. How many of us, would not also be living behind bars if we had been raised under such circumstances? Humility.

And so with humility, we recognize that we all have weaknesses, and we all have moments where we find those weaknesses being left unchecked.

As the attitude of humility sinks in, another understanding of Micah’s call to justice comes to light. Western culture, and particularly American culture, is very individual centric, and because of this, we have a tendency to hold each individual accountable for their own decisions and their own success in life. We are blinded to the fact that we live in near total dependence on the rest of society. Which of us could live a week without the water lines or grocery stores that others have built? How should we, as a society, show justice to men and women raised in the foster care system, raised in drug and crime ridden neighborhoods, who suffer psychological disorders, learning disorders, or have suffered traumatic life events with no one walking beside them, serving as their guide in this complex world?

In the city of Rome, in the early days of the Church, what set the Christians apart is that they took care of the weak and unwanted. In Rome, the unwanted young and the weak were left to fend for themselves and die, but the Christians cared for the helpless. Through these actions, the light of Christ showed through them, and it was noticed, and it is a major reason why we still know the name of Jesus today.

The part of justice that is missing, then, is the justice that society must give to those who have fallen through the cracks and into the self-serving, selfish patterns of criminal activity. Christ came along side us, in our sin, and helped us (and continues to help us) to understand how to leave it behind and grow into a new pattern of thinking. In this way, we, as Disciples of Christ, must come along side those in prison and do what we can to help them come into a new way of understanding the identity that awaits them in the Kingdom of God, which is here now. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them (Luke 6:31). For those who have come to faith, we know that others have already done to us. Others have stepped in and helped us understand ourselves, our place in God’s Kingdom, and our role in His community. The natural response to this blessing, would be to share it with those still in need.

And finally, mercy. While it is true that societal weakness and unhealthy social micro-cultures have a major and direct impact on the decision patterns of individuals in a community, our God is a God of free will and as Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians 10:13, No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

So the truth is that in most cases, just a moment before a crime is committed, an individual has made a decision to commit the crime. They accepted the temptation, they took what did not belong to them, they hoped to gain, and caused another to lose.

Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. Luke 11:4. The Lord’s Prayer. For those who can accept this teaching as a command, then it is as simple as that. For those who don’t accept commands without further understanding, Jesus provides it a few chapters later in Luke 17:3-4.

If your brother or sister a sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.

Rebuking in the form of a sharply worded criticism is occasionally effective to one with a prepared and receptive mind, but for those who are truly lost in themselves, an effective rebuke is a long process. It means taking the time to listen and understand where the person is at mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, and then going from there. Showing them the love of God in tangible ways, through the creation of safe and stable environments, through caring, teaching, counseling, mentoring, and often through medical care. When we take the time to do this, we find that we, ourselves, draw closer to Jesus, because we become more aware of how Jesus, himself, is doing these same things for us.

Christ’s forgiveness is always available to us, and it is our repentance that enables us to accept it. And so in the same way, our forgiveness must always be available, waiting for the moment when the trespasser finally repents, enabling us to transfer this blessing onto them.

Christ taught in an environment in which there was little hope for his disciples to participate directly in public policy debates, nor did Peter, Paul, or the other disciples, and so the Biblical text provides little direct guidance in this area. But as Christians living in democratic societies, we have an opportunity to take the love and wisdom of the Lord’s teaching and translate it into a language that the rest of our community can understand. The value and effectiveness of God’s wisdom isn’t limited to those who accept the teachings of the Bible: it actually does work for the good of all in a secularized society.

When societies forgo revenge, establish rational, effective deterrence, take swift action to remove those who are actively harming society, but then puts in the effort to rehabilitate those incarcerated, everyone benefits. Pains are healed, families are restored, mothers and fathers are returned to their children, and men and women can contribute to society, rather than society paying to warehouse them in dark prison institutions.

While the message of the New Testament highlights our personal relationship with the Lord and subsequent personal response to his calling, the message of the Old Testament still stands. God held his people, as a people, accountable to His calling. And so our response to our faith must consider multiple aspects: our personal response to those who harm ourselves and our families, our personal response to those currently behind bars within the local prisons of our community, and finally, our response as community members who can participate in shaping the social and political landscape of our communities, to encourage public policy founded on analytic and rational response to the problem of crime in our society, in accordance with the wisdom gifted to us by the Lord.

An open letter to those struggling to find their place in America

This is an open letter to any who are struggling to find their place in America today.

Many people struggle with issues of race, culture, and identify, because they have this feeling like they don’t quite know where they fit in. I started thinking about race, culture, and identity in that last few years, with the coverage of African American men being shot by police, and the ensuing black lives matter movement. My motivations for grappling with this were actually twofold: first, I was startled (to put it mildly) by the vastly different reactions to these news events by my African American co-workers and my white co-workers. This disparity of viewpoints made me realize that I had a huge gap in my perceptions of life in America. Second, I’m a Christian author, and I’ve felt compelled to find a way of understanding the issues, and then writing about them, in the hopes of being a small part of the peacemaking process that is so clearly needed in our country right now.

I thought I’d share a few things that I uncovered in my research, because I believe that they will help you find a sense of comfort in your own identity.

The first thing I found, is that race, ethnicity, and culture are very different things and it helps to distinguish them. Race is the DNA that you were born with, culture is the set of social norms that make up the fabric of life, which include food, fashion, and music preferences, as well as communication styles, walking styles, and relational expectations. The concept of ethnicity isn’t consistently defined, but is generally understood to be a combination of race and culture as tied to a specific geographic region. In parts of the world where people have lived and stayed in the same villages for thousands of years, the ethnicity concept makes sense. For America, and much of the mobile western world, thinking about ethnicity hardly makes sense anymore.

This feeling of losing our ethnic identity is difficult for many. You can see it on the ads for; their whole business model is helping people understand who they are, and it sounds like they have become quite successful at it, even though who a person is has nothing to do with where their ancestors came from.

Since the dawn of man, we have depended on each other for survival: we needed our tribe, and they needed us. It only makes sense that our DNA would be wired for us to have this driving need to belong to our group. The problem is that the heuristic patterns in our brain that caused us to defend our own and distrust any other tribe, are still at work in us today. Understanding that these biases exist in everyone is the first step in bringing about peace, because they help us to understand ourselves, and they also help us to realize that when other people act in biased ways, it isn’t because they are evil, it is because they are following their wiring.

One of my African American co-workers, an older gentlemen who marched with Martin Luther King, told me that the prejudice he sees in America today isn’t racial, it’s cultural. He said that when he’s in his suit and tie, he can come to work, eat in a nice restaurant, stay in a hotel, and buy a car, without issue. But if he puts on a hoodie, then the walls of prejudice go up in a hurry. To me, this was a significant insight, because race is something that cannot be changed, but culture can be changed, so the question is: are we willing to change our personal culture, in order to “fit into the tribe”.

I’ve considered two aspects of this question. The first, is that although most people rebel against the notion of having to change their culture to fit in, we all do it all the time. We tend to think of our culture as a well-defined, inherent aspect of our identity, but most of us do more cultural shape-shifting then we realize. I’m quite different at work, than I am at home, and I’m different when I’m doing ministry with friends, than I am even in church.

Where I’ve seen cultural differences most clearly defined, is actually within family units. The environment in my in-laws house was quite different than it is in my own parent’s house. Many have a yearning to feel like they belong to the larger tribe, but in today’s world, this is a myth. With our wealth, mobility, education, and technology, we are no longer members of any one tribe, we are members of many. We are in our family tribes, our friend-circle tribes, our work tribes, our ministry tribes, and even our political tribes. How comfortable you feel in any of these environments is really more defined by the love you exchange with the other people in these environments, than anything else.

The second aspect of the “am I willing to change my culture to fit in” question that I considered, is the notion that every culture has inherent, and equal, value. Americans are so stuck on equality, that we sometimes lose site of the fact that not everything is equal. When we step back and honestly assess the individual attributes and aspects of different cultures, we’ll usually find some aspects that are good, and some aspects that we want nothing to do with. In fact, the reason that many people leave their homelands and come to America is to escape aspects of their culture that they found hard to live with. In parts of African, forced female circumcision is part of the culture. In parts of the middle-east, chopping off the hands of criminals is a cultural norm, in much of the world, educating girls is unacceptable, in parts of Asia, making a mistake is cause for suicide, and in India, the caste system still has roots.

In parts of the world that still operate under the tribe-model, conformance to the culture–all aspects of it–isn’t optional, it is mandated on pain of death or ostracization. In our country, we have this wild freedom to pick and choose the aspects of the cultures around us we wish to adopt, and ignore those that we don’t.  And if we find that we just aren’t feeling welcomed by the other people, or given the opportunities that we want, then we can just hang out with other people (in fact, how many of us ignore our physical neighbors and drive miles to visit a friend we actually want to be with). Although this brings me to one critical side-note on culture that I picked up from a Gary Collins book, Christian Counseling.

In the book, Gary talked about a notion of locus of control, which is a defining attribute of many cultures. People with in internal locus of control believe that they can shape their own individual destinies, and so they will do whatever it takes to achieve their goals: go to school, move neighborhoods, change jobs, whatever. People with an external locus of control, believe that they have no control over their personal destinies, therefore, they tend to protest to the government, or to whoever it is that they think is in control. I’d agree that there is justification for both outlooks, but in western society especially, the internal locus of control strategy works, and according to Christian Counseling, people who hold this view tend to be happier.

I mention this, in particular, because if you feel left out in America, it may be worth doing a self-examination to see if there is any hint of the external locus viewpoint. Because while there is always a strange attraction to feeling like an underdog, and an illusory feeling of comfort when bonding with others that feel the same way, the external locus of control viewpoint will more likely lead you to frustration, depression, or anger, than to the happiness that you seek. From a societal point of view, it is far more productive to use an internal locus of control attitude to secure your own success, and then use that success to influence society towards change, than it is to wait for society to change before making the reach for success, however it is that you define it.

The final point I’d like to share, is that members of a majority culture, aren’t aware of their own culture. In America, people from my demographic don’t think that we have any defining cultural attributes: how we are, is simply what is normal in the world. People in a minority culture, are usually keenly aware of the differences between their customs and those of the majority around them. I was talking to a relative of mine, recently, and they asked “Why do black people have to have their own music? Why do they have to have rap? Why don’t they just list to regular music?” This relative has a gentle, loving spirit, but it simply never occurred to her that the music she called regular, others might call white–she was clueless, and then repentant when I expanded her view on the topic.

I point this out to you, because if you have been here for any length of time then you are, in fact, a deeply entrenched member of our American tribe, and are so immersed in our American culture that you don’t see it. If you are reading the news, listening to others, sharing your frustrations and views, all while struggling to find a way to work and support yourself and your family, then it may be time to stop thinking that you’re not one of us. Many of us feel, at one time or another, that we are very different than those around us: that we don’t quite fit into the American mainstream. However, I suspect that if we went oversees–particularly to non-western countries, most people would spot us as an American fairly quickly, and we would suddenly feel very much like an American, with all the ignorance, guilt, shame, and pride that comes along with it.

One of the biggest challenges I face, when sharing Christianity, is helping people to grapple with the notion of freedom. Freedom is hard: it doesn’t have a clearly defined checklist and there are no rules. You have to figure it out. You need to learn how to love, and learn how to accept love. When your focus begins to shift from figuring out how you can feel like you belong, to figuring out how to make others feel like they belong, then suddenly, you will realize that you belong right where you are.

A Christian Response to Error

Concepts drawn from electrical engineering and psychology are used to gain a deeper understanding of how to go about fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission to: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.

This post contains the full text of a talk I gave recently on how to use concepts drawn from electrical engineering and psychology, to gain a deeper understanding of how to go about fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20): Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.

I’d like to begin tonight, by talking about the Nyquist–Shannon theorem, also known as the Digital Sampling Theorem, which states that:

In order to accurately reproduce a sound wave-form, digital samples must be taken at a rate that is at least twice the frequency of the sound being sampled.

The graph below shows the wave-form of the words Love your Neighbor. (In the graph, the green bars indicate the points where this waveform has been digitally sampled). If sampled at the rate shown (which is twice the frequency), then you will always be able to accurately reconstruct the message Love your Neighbor using the samples taken.

Graph showing the sound wave of "Love Your Neighbor"However, if you don’t have enough sample points (note there are fewer green samples in the graph below), and you attempt to reconstruct the wave-form, you might get Love your Neighbor,

Graph showing the sound wave of "Love Your Neighbor" with insufficient sample pointsbut you might also get, as shown in this last graph, Love your Neighbor if he loves you first, or even Love your neighbor, as long he keeps his dog off your yard.

Graph showing the sound wave of "Love Your Neighbor, if he loves you first" with insufficient sample pointsNote that the sampled information (green bars) in this graph, and the one above it are the same, but the reconstructed message is different.

I’m going to jump topics here, so bear with me.

A study was done recently on first impressions. The researchers wanted to know how long it took us to size up someone’s competence, likeability, aggressiveness, and trustworthiness, and so they did some experiments. How long do you think it takes for us to get that impression?

  1. 60 seconds
  2. 30 seconds
  3. 7 seconds
  4. 1/10 second

Yes – the researchers found that it takes about 1/10 of a second. And they also found that our initial impression doesn’t change much, when given more time.

Do you think 1/10 of a second gives us a lot of sample points? Let me ask you:

  • How many sample points do you think it would take to fully understand who a person is?
  • How many sample points do you think it takes to fully understand God?

Do we have enough?

I’ve been reading a few books and articles on recent psychology research and what they’ve found is that the human brain has an incredible ability to fill in the gaps. In order to survive, we need to make decisions, and in order to make decisions, we need facts.  So our brain does us a favor. When it doesn’t have enough sample points, it simply makes up the missing facts. This is helpful if we are alone in a dark alley: our eyes may see the slight shift of a shadow, and our brain will start screaming Bad guy–run! Where it doesn’t help us, is when we see someone drop one dollar into the collection basket and our brain starts telling us: that guy’s cheap.

As Christians, we need to be aware of the implications of our brain’s behavior. We need to understand that:

  1. These artificial inferences are pervasive: our brain is doing it all the time.
  2. We don’t realize that we are doing it.
  3. We believe the facts that our brain synthesizes.
  4. This one is key: Some percentage of the time, these “facts” will be wrong. Just as we saw with the sampling theorem–multiple possible explanations can fit a limited set of data points. That guy who dropped one dollar into the basket? He had emptied his wallet into a Salvation Army bucket less than 20 minutes ago, and the basket reminded him that he had one more dollar in his left pocket. But forevermore, my brain knows him as the cheap guy.

The whole collection of beliefs that we have, defines what is known as our worldview. And if we now understand that each of our individual beliefs may be flawed, can we conclude that, to some degree, our worldview is always going to be flawed?

What do you think about the worldview of the white population of Mississippi up through the 1960’s? They went to church and listened to nice talks too.

Here’s a harder question. How will history judge your set of beliefs?

So what I wanted to talk about tonight is not actually the sampling theorem (interesting, as it is). What I wanted to talk about is what the Bible has to say about error.

When I started to think about this, what came to mind is some of the side-stories in the Gospels. Stories about the Pharisees–who spent their whole life trying to figure out how to be right with God by dissecting and regulating The Law. They were wrong. Stories about James and John, who were raised in a prominent, status-oriented family and who brought that same thinking to their relationship with Christ. They were wrong. Martha–who thought that hostessing and hospitality was the most important thing to do when Jesus came to visit. She was wrong.  Levi–who thought it was OK to gain wealth, as long as he stayed within the confines of the Law, even though he was extorting his fellow countrymen. Levi was wrong. Judas–as a Zealot, he thought that bringing God’s kingdom required the use of force. Judas was wrong.

What I find disturbing about these stories, is that when I think about how I live my life, it seems clear to me that I have little bits of each of the Apostles’ world views in my own. So I know that there is a problem.  Why, after being a Christian for more than 26 years, do I still have a flawed worldview?

To answer that, I’m going to share two more tidbits from the psychology books I’ve read.

Before I do, though, I know that some Christians don’t believe in psychology. So I’ll give you something to think about: As I’ve been reading through, it has dawned on me that recent psychological research might provide some of the best worldly proof of the Bible, because what the researchers seem to be proving is that everything that the Bible says about how to live your life, is true.

Getting back to the tidbit–when evaluating new information, like what I may be giving here, our brain has an incredibly strong tendency to accept, as true, anything that supports our existing beliefs, and reject, as false, anything that contradicts what we already think.

What does this mean? If I’ve been raised in a church that believes that we must do good works to be saved, then I’ll accept any sermon and any verse that supports this view, and I’ll either not pay attention to, or find fault with, any that contradict this view.

Let me give you another, more socially relevant example.

In August of 2014, a white police officer shot a black man in Ferguson, Missouri, and in the hours and days after it happened, a variety of mixed news accounts spread across the nation. Now both my sister and her husband are police officers, and I had heard a number of tales about the challenges of patrolling bad neighborhoods. It was clear to me from the news stories I heard, that this heroic officer was put in the terrible position of having to shoot a violent, and drug-crazed criminal. At the time, though, I was working with two African Americans and I asked them about it. Their response was immediate: that policeman just shot that innocent kid and he’s going to get away with it. In talking further, I found that growing up, they had lots of experience with unjust harassment by police, and they implicitly believed the news story that the police shot the boy as he was trying to surrender.

I, on the other hand, realized that I had implicitly dismissed those accounts. Why? Not because I had any more evidence than my co-workers. It was simply because it didn’t jive with my previously existing ideas of police behavior.

We each accepted the information that strengthened our existing views, and dismissed any that contradicted them.

Think about the implications of this, given that we now realize that, to some degree, our existing views are flawed and incomplete.

The third and final tidbit is this: humans tend to synchronize their beliefs with those around them.

This election season, I’ve seen a couple of articles on this. Pollsters have found that political views can be very cohesive on a state and even a county level. This synchronizing of beliefs also happens within companies, communities, churches, and families. I suspect that this happens because we tend to accept information and ideas from people with whom we have a close relationship.

[This tendency to synchronize beliefs is why, in 1 Samuel 15, God ordered the Israelites to kill all the Amalekites, including the women, and children: He knew that, otherwise, their beliefs would corrupt Israel’s. Jesus’ admonition to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:6), was also intended to guard against belief corruption.]

A big part of what we call culture, is that set of synchronized beliefs that a particular group of people have.

So the big question I’m raising tonight is: How should we go about living, as a Christian, knowing that some percentage of our culture, and our worldview is wrong?

When I started to think about this, the first thing that came to mind was my need for a deeper sense of humility. [As a side-note, did you know that up until Christ’s crucifixion, humility was considered a weakness?]

I’ve found that by constantly keeping myself aware that I might be wrong in fundamental ways has helped me to become a much better listener. For example, when I heard people talk about white privilege, my initial reaction was negative, but then I stepped back, and decided to do some in-depth research on the topic, which helped me to see things from a different point of view.

Another aspect of this awareness of error, is that I don’t judge others so harshly when I know that they are wrong. I realize that everyone is trying to make it, the best they can, in a challenging world. Just like I’m wrong sometimes, they will be too.

OK–Here is a bonus tidbit from psychology. Our comprehensive set of beliefs is at the core of our very identity, and our sense of identity is what brings us stability in the world. This is true, even if we don’t like who we are.

The reason that this is important to know, is that when we introduce conflicting ideas to people, we run the risk of threatening their sense of who they are, and when this stability is shaken, there is going to be a reaction.

Let me put that another way: When you try to prove to someone that they are wrong, you’re likely to provoke an obstinate or violent response–and the reason may not be that they don’t like your idea, the reason may be that you are shaking their sense of identity and stability.

Given this difficulty, should we, as Christians, be interacting with people having different belief systems? With different cultures?

The Great Commission says yes. So how?

To get an idea, we can look at the two greatest influences in the Bible: Jesus and Paul.

Have you ever thought about the fact that both Jesus and Paul were raised in multicultural environments? Jesus was raised in Egypt, then moved to a region of Galilee with heavy Herodian influences, and at the same time, was steeped in traditional Jewish culture.

Paul was raised and educated in a Greek town that was controlled by the Romans, and when he was older, he moved to Jerusalem.

Today, our western culture is a mix of Greek, Roman, and Israelite influences, but in Paul’s day, the cultures where more distinct. The Greeks where big into competition and valued personal excellence. When writing to the Greeks, Paul spoke to them from their own cultural perspective: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way as to take the prize (1 Cor. 9:24).

Rome, on the other hand, had two driving cultural influences. Like America, they were big believers in law and order, and at the same time, they were a slave society, with half the population of Rome, and many in the early Roman church, being slave. Many have commented that Paul’s letter to the Romans reads like a legal textbook, and when Paul talks about becoming slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:15-23), we can see that he is connecting to his audience in a culturally relevant way.

In Acts, when Paul addresses the Jews after he was captured, we again see him connecting in a culturally relevant way, speaking in Aramaic and describing his zealousness of God and the scriptures (Acts 21:40-22:3).

What Paul shows us, is that it is possible to set aside the supremacy of our own cultural norms and ideas, and learn, and even adopt, thoughts and ideas from other cultures and other people so that we can connect and serve them, as Christ’s representatives.

I picked up a related thought on this, from a book on Christian Counseling I’ve been reading. In it, the author emphasizes that Christians need to take a broader view of what we call multi-cultural.

Old people and young people have different cultures. There’s blue collar and white collar, inner-city and suburbanite, Apple® users and Android® users.

So again, when we go out into the world, we need to constantly be aware that our assumptions about everything from social norms, to clothing styles, and even to theology, may be faulty and incomplete. Keeping this in mind will help us to be more humble, help us to listen better, drive us to study and learn more, and help us to be less judgmental of those around us. So for Christians, this isn’t really a new message, but hopefully, I’ve given you a new way to look at it.

I should end right here, but I’d like to squish in one additional insight.

I’ve been talking about how an awareness of our brain’s misleading thinking can affect us as we go out into the world. The same awareness can help us when we go inward–when we think about ourselves.

Many of us suffer from depression, shame, and anxiety, and the root of much of this is erroneous thinking. We put two and two together, and come up with the idea that we are valueless or flawed, and because of our broken thinking, we have a hard time hearing any ideas or encouragement to correct us in these beliefs.

If any of you are struggling with these, and we all do from time to time, please be aware, that your brain’s fooling you, and to break free of it, you need to do the same thing I talked about earlier. You need to listen to people with a different perspective. You need to talk with someone.

Again, Christians sharing their lives with each other shouldn’t be a new thought for any of us. Hopefully this will give you a little encouragement to do it.

For those interested in these topics, the following resources may be helpful:

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error – Although this book (in my opinion) has a subtle anti-Christian bias, it provides a good overview of how error enters our cognitive thought processes.

On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits – Explains how hardwired shortcuts, within our brain, affect our thinking and decision making processes.

The Great Courses: The Foundations of Western Civilization – Describes the distinct nature of Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures at the time of Christ.

The What and Why of Shame

Feelings of shame are painful and often, unwarrented. At the same time, appropriate shame is vital to the health of any society.

Guilt arises from a sense of remorse about hurting someone else, and it is only possible to feel guilt when we have a sense of empathy for others.

Shame, on the other hand, arises from a sense of inadequacy, dishonor, and valuelessness brought about by non-conformity with a social standard. If our sense of identity encompasses our home or our family, then we can feel shame not only when we, ourselves, are out of conformity, but when our home or family members are out of conformity.

A common response to feelings of shame is hate. We may hate ourselves, and sink into a sense of despair or misery, or we may hate those that have projected the standards that we are unable to meet. Since despair drives an inward focus that causes us to lose all caring for others, then whether our response to shame is self-loathing, or others loathing, it inhibits our ability to empathize with those around us, and thereby inhibits our ability to feel guilt.

On the surface, therefore, shame appears to be a valueless and destructive emotion. Why then, is it a persistent component of our human experience? Because, from the earliest of times, humans have been interdependent. We depend on each other to survive and, therefore, the health of every member of our community is important to our own health. Further, since young adults have a propensity for making high-risk, health-altering decisions, it is clear that in order for a society to survive, it needs mechanisms to deter harmful behavior, and community pressure in the form of shame does exactly that. To understand this, think what it would take to raise a child in a subsistence culture. In that environment, if there wasn’t both a mother and father working every day to hunt and gather food, the burden would fall to the tribe, putting a strain on the community resources. It is easy to see how social standards against inappropriate sexual behavior serve to protect the whole community.

Shame has two components. The first, is the creation of community standards, or norms of behavior. As they evolve, these standards become an integral part of the culture of a community and serve as foundational components of the sense of identity of the individuals in that community. The second, is the acceptance of this standard, by the individuals in the community and, more importantly, an awareness when they do not meet it.

In the third chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve felt shame once they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil because they had suddenly become aware of God’s standards and their failure to meet them. Shame, as derived from a standard of God’s righteousness, is a painful, yet positive emotion that can serve to drive us to conform to the wisdom and loving nature of God. Like all other things on this Earth, shame can be corrupted. For example, in Luke 1:25, we learn that women felt shame if they were childless–probably from a misguided notion that God was punishing them for some unrealized sin. In our current society, people often feel shame if they cannot sustain a high-wage job, if they suffer from any form of addiction, or if they feel unattractive, ill-educated, or inarticulate.

Because of the evil and unwarranted pain caused by ungodly shame, we, as members of a community, have a responsibility to be aware of, and influence, the standards and social pressure put on those around us. As Christians, we also have a responsibility to give comfort to those suffering under the burden of shame.

As individuals, when we begin to feel a sense of shame, we have a responsibility to evaluate the standards being forced upon us and to reject those that do not conform to God’s standards, as revealed through the Bible and the Holy Spirit. While to some degree it is foolish to set aside the collective wisdom and standards of our society, outright; we must be aware that all human societies and cultures have a tremendous propensity for piling burden upon burden on us. In Mathew 23:4, Jesus accused the local religious leaders of this very thing when he said: They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. Lifting this burden off our shoulders, though, is not easily done.

The reason why it is so difficult to let go of feelings of shame, is because while guilt derives itself from our past actions, shame derives itself from our very identity, from who we are as a person. A man might identify himself as unattractive because he is bald. A women might identify herself as weak, if she didn’t feel that she fought back hard enough, when raped. A key to fighting off this unwarranted shame, is to realize that our sense of identity is defined by the patterns of our thoughts. If, in our minds, we continually cycle through society’s notions of acceptable looks and strength, we are doing ourselves no favors; but for most of us, this is what we do all day long, and the constant stream of media that we expose ourselves to, doesn’t help. Healing comes, when we accept Christ’s advice to repent which, in the original Greek, was metanoia, meaning to change your mind. In Romans 12:2 the Apostle Paul shared the same advice, urging us to not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect and again in Ephesians 4:22-23 put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

With a short read of the Gospels, it is hard to miss the overriding message that God loves us, and went so far as to give the life of His only son to free us from the painful burden of sin. But having this sense of love work its way into our soul usually takes a more deliberate effort. If you are suffering from feelings of shame, the best thing to do is take a long-term holiday from the friends and media influences that twist your thinking, and spend time reading the Bible, praying to God, sharing your life with a Christian friend or mentor you can trust, and yes, occasionally reaching out to share the love of Christ with others. This is how you renew your mind, and it is how you shift your pattern of thinking away from the destructive values of society and towards the joy-generating values of Christ. As you do this, the feelings of shame will slowly dissolve away, along with the despair that goes with it.

As painful as shame can be, there is one thing worse than a culture of shame, and that is a culture that has no shame. In societies that promote values of independence and rebelliousness, where support for a person in need comes anonymously in the form of government checks and taxes, we are far less aware of the impact that our own behaviors have on others, and therefore, this type of culture loses its sense of shame. With the loss of shame, comes the loss of age-old wisdom, and with the loss of wisdom, comes an increasing cycle of pain, blame, more bad decisions, and finally, a sense of helplessness.

Life with no shame, is no life at all. If we refuse to accept the shame, and the pain of the shame, like Adam and Eve, then we lose our guidepost to the truth. The amazing thing about God, is that as soon as we acknowledge him, and acknowledge our sin and shame, He will reach out to us in tender love, and cover over our shame, just as he did with Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21).

The Jerusalem Council

Re-imagining Paul’s encounter with Peter at the Jerusalem Council

So I begin with an introduction. Acts 15 records the end of Paul’s first missionary journey, a jour­ney that had a profound impact on Paul, and likely on the lives of everyone reading these words. As we read Luke’s stories, it is easy to forget that much of what we now think of as Christianity hadn’t been invented yet. They wouldn’t have known the word sacrament, nor would they have known trinity. There was no Prevenient Grace; grace wouldn’t be divvied up into distinct categories for hundreds of years, and it would be hundreds, if not thousands of years later before people under­stood that announcements should be given after the opening music set, but before the sermon. The early apostles were free-wheeling it: figuring out the gospel as they went.The story below re-imagines the account of the second great meeting of the early church leaders as they struggled to bring unity to their work. In the first such meeting, recorded in Acts 6, the apostles put forth the concept of division of duties in min­istry – that is, how the work of the ministry should be accomplished. In the second great meeting, record in both Acts 15 and Galatians 2, the apos­tles and disciples clarified the very nature of the gospel.

Leaders take action. In fact, that is the defining quality of leadership. Not risk taking, not bril­liance, not creativeness, but action. Great leaders realize their own limitations in these other areas, but choose to resist the passive urges that always accompany such self-awareness. They step out in faith, and course-correct as they go.

Arrogant leaders don’t recognize their own limita­tions–they insert themselves into leadership roles because they think they are more bold, brilliant, and creative than those around them. They step in because they think others are going to mess things up, and often end up addicted to control.

Paul had been such an arrogant leader. Zealous for his Jewish traditions, and confident that he knew God and God’s will for His people. And in his arrogance and zeal, he murdered many. At the time, he saw these people as more than blasphem­ers, he saw them as threats to the very core of Israel. They had deserved to die. They had needed to die. He thought about these men and women as he walked towards the city that had once been their home. Jerusalem. Their faces returning to his memory with each step he took; they were familiar faces now. Familiar because their expressions of fear, sadness, and … compassion, were burned into his consciousness, but also familiar because some of these people were husbands, wives, par­ents, and children of those he now called brothers and sisters, and it was to these companions of the faith that he had journeyed so far to see.

Jesus himself awoke Paul to his arrogant ways. Not “awoke”, in the sense of that gentle nudge your mom gave you when you didn’t get up for school in time, but “awoke” in the sense of being shot out of a cannon into the path of a marching band. With one, incredibly short conversation, in which Jesus spoke only thirty-nine words, his life was shattered. His arrogance turned into shame, his sense of righteousness transformed into an all-consuming awareness of his eternal and well-deserved damnation. He had been so sure of his right … no … his responsibility to defend the faith, to judge others on behalf of God, that he didn’t recognize God was here. Didn’t recognize that God had been walking the very streets that he walked, praying at the same temple he prayed at, and comforting the same people that … that Paul had passed right by.

It took three days of blindness for Paul to figure out that his well-deserved damnation wasn’t com­ing, the same amount of time it took Jesus to re­deem the world–although Paul wouldn’t make that connection until sometime later. The idea that God would forgive him didn’t stun Paul. It might have, but Paul had studied God and now his eyes had been opened. He knew that his God was a god of love, mercy, and compassion, but knowing and knowing are two different things. In many ways, God’s forgiveness felt right–it was as if a long lost puzzle piece had been found and finally put into its proper place. No, God’s forgiveness didn’t stun Paul. What stunned Paul was that God had called him to leadership.

How could this be? His leader’s arrogance is what had heaped shame upon shame on his head. His arrogance that had hurt so many, and led him so far astray. How could God call him back to service in that same thirty-nine word exchange that revealed the full extend of his wickedness? “You will be told what you must do.” Paul knew this was a call, and Ananias had confirmed it.

But this was now some seventeen years in the past. Paul had learned that he had limitations, and he learned to temper that sense of infallibility of thought, at least he hoped he did. In his persecut­ing days, he sought to destroy those who showed themselves as leaders for Christ, now his goal was to find, teach, encourage, embolden, and release them. He now knew he was one man, but disciple­ship was a task for a multitude, and yet, the streak of pompous self-confidence still mixed itself into his thoughts at times. That streak that makes you know that you know you are right.

His journey had been hard, his obstacles many, and it was his confidence that gave him the strength to push through, and pull through. His confidence enabled him to step into a synagogue and share the gospel of Christ, ever aware of the violent reaction that could occur at any moment. His confidence enabled him to start down a road, not knowing where he might sleep that night. His confidence enabled him to sit in a prison, and not lose his sanity. He knew, that he knew, that he knew.

Paul was heading to Jerusalem for a confrontation. This sense of knowing how right he was, had driven him on this journey, but the memories of having this same self-confidence as he arrested and murdered so many innocent children of God haunted his thoughts. Had arrogance taken hold of him again? Was his planned confrontation going to hurt the church? Divide it? Cause a rift that would eventually drive away the many people he strove so hard to serve? Had Satan obtained a foot-hold in his mind?

“No! No! The foot-hold Satan is trying to gain is in my doubt and uncertainty!” he argued with him­self. “Or is that the Spirit trying to warn me?” Paul paused for a moment. Paused, then looked up, and spoke aloud, as if to a close friend, “Lord, you have guided me thousands of miles, you have given me words and wisdom, guarded me from rocks, stones, and my own foolishness over and over. I ask you once again, to walk beside me today. I intend to use every gift and talent you have given me, for your glory. Please protect me from my own fears and my own foolishness. Amen.”

Paul was heading to Jerusalem because he had been forced to grow in his thinking. He was sent out to share the good news of Christ to the gen­tiles, and as he had gone about this often difficult task, he had come to realize that the good news of Christ didn’t depend on the rich traditions of his Jewish faith. The Greeks didn’t weave blue threads into the tassels of their clothing, but they still loved God. They ate shellfish and the meat from cloven-footed animals that don’t chew their cud, but still received the Holy Spirit. They didn’t get circumcised, but still gave their hearts and faith to Jesus. Paul had come to realize that faith and salvation were divorced from the tradition of his fathers, and the Mosaic Law God had set forth to tutor His chosen people until the time was right for Christ. He had brought the good news of Christ to countries, towns, and families, who had far different foods, music, cus­toms, and traditions, and yet so many were now believers–were now his brothers in Christ. How different were the experiences of his brothers who were born Israelites, stayed in the land of the Israelites, and shared the good news only to Israelites? The separation of faith and tradition, they did not see. The outpouring of faith in such diverse parts of the world they did not see. This was going to be difficult.

The streets of Jerusalem were dusty, and smelly, like any other city, and yet they were uniquely Jerusalem. He loved this city, it was God’s city, but then again, it was God’s city–past tense. When the temple curtain was split, God moved into the world, just as the prophets said He would. God was here of course, and He had always been in the world of course, but God had come in the form of His son and He hadn’t been welcomed here as He should have been, and now Paul was no longer welcome here as he once had been either. He missed the city, though. He missed the sites, he missed the sounds, he missed the street vendors, and he missed the temple. It was a home that he could never again call home.

As he was taking his final few steps toward the house where he was to meet the disciples of Jerusalem, he saw into the window of a small home, catching a glimpse of a women making bread. He paused for a moment to say hello to a young boy, threshing wheat in a small alcove, and then he stepped in.

The home was dim, curtains being draw across the windows to give a modicum of privacy, and there they were: the apostles and disciples of Christ. It was OK if they want to remain in their traditions, if they want to remain bound in the old ways–God cares about hearts, not traditions, and He knows that change is hard. But these men were also lead­ers, and they couldn’t be allowed to bind faith in Christ to their brand of tradition. The Law was dead, and with that death, Christ had brought new life, and he wasn’t about to let these men take that life back way in their ignorance. And there, at the back of the room, was Peter.

He was so different from Peter, and at the same time, shared a bond with Peter. Peter had denied Christ at the moment Christ needed a friend the most–and then Jesus forgave him. Not only for­gave him of that one sin, but by dying on the cross He redeemed him, paying the price for his full life of sin. Peter knew redemption, in the same way that Paul new redemption, and it was this mutual understand­ing that formed an immediate and un­breakable bond between these two so very differ­ent men. Peter was a brother and the de facto leader of the apostles, but oh … Peter was also Peter.

Paul was here to talk to the disciples, but he knew that it was Peter’s word that mattered, but how to convince Peter? While he had the heart of a lion, he was an intellectual pygmy; Peter’s nickname of “the rock” was appropriate in multiple ways. In Greece, Paul argued and debated rationally, in the manner of the Greeks. Minds could be swayed through a vigor­ous exchange of ideas–but this was not for Peter. In Israel, Paul influenced by lifting wisdom from the Scriptures, and wrapping it with a discourse of pure passion, but he could not out-passion James and his flock in Jerusalem. These men knew passion.

He had to find another way, and so he excused himself and stepped back outside to think.

Peter got uncomfortable the moment he noticed that Paul had walked in. He saw the expression on his face when he stepped through the door. Peter may not have been a genius, but he had the gift of discernment and what he discerned about what was going through Paul’s head troubled him. He had met Paul, gotten to know Paul, and on many occasions, had that unpleasant experience of being schooled by Paul. It is a paradoxical feeling to ap­preciate the wisdom and learning you received from someone, all while holding a bit of jealousy in knowing that you will never be as brilliant minded as your teacher. It didn’t help that what Paul schooled him on most, was the man that Peter spent three and one half years of his life with, and that Paul never met–except for that one time on the road to Damascus. On top of this, Paul’s complexity of thought and energy simply exhausted him sometimes. How could Paul have all that energy? It was frustrating but, again, Peter knew that this was Paul, and it was OK if Paul had complex ideas and energy, because that meant that Peter didn’t have to. Peter could be Peter, while Paul was being Paul, just as hands and feet don’t have to be the same, all while being part of the same body. Of course, it was Paul who shared this analogy with him. The man could drive him crazy.

He had an idea of what was on Paul’s mind, and in the back of his head, he knew that Paul would be right again when the discussions started. Paul was always right.

But darn it, this was his hometown, these were his friends, and these were the disciples of Christ who ate with him, slept with him, and watched him die.

Paul would not be telling them how to live. Not this time.

As he finished convincing himself of this in his mind, there was Paul in the room again, standing at the door.

“Peter,” Paul cried out, across the room. And again, “Peter!”

As Peter looked up, the shouting continued, “Peter! What is this in my hand?”

The room was dark, and Paul was partially silhou­etted by the noontime light streaming in from the door behind him. It was hard to see what Paul was holding, and so Peter had to lean forward to make it out.

“What is in my hand Peter?”

“It looks like a threshing fork, Paul.”

“What is in my hand?” Paul repeated.

“A fork”, Peter replied, for the second time.

“What is it?”

“A fork …”

“What is it?”

“A fork!” Peter cried out in exasperation, to which Paul quickly continued “And what shall we have for lunch today?”

“A fork”, Peter replied, then stammered, “No, I mean Pork …”, and before he could stammer a second time, Paul cried out triumphantly, “Good! It’s settled then.”

And so in that moment, our faith was freed from its heritage. No longer intertwined with the ancient Hebrew laws and traditions, it was free to take root in Rome, Spain, India, … free to go forth to the ends of the earth.

During the meal that followed, James pulled Luke aside, telling him that if he writes a word of this discussion down, that he will no longer be a friend of his. “I love you brother,” replied Luke. For while our faith can be shared through tradition, it need be intertwined with nothing more than love.

The consensus wrought in the council of Jerusalem brought unity to the early church in their understanding of Jesus’ declaration that he came to fulfill the Law and, almost as significantly, wrought unity in their understanding of how to exercise this newfound freedom. The early disciples understood that traditions and teachings ingrained for a lifetime are not so easily washed away and, because of this, the final proclamation drafted by disciples urged sensitivity, as did Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome that struggled with the cultural differences among the Jewish and Gentile followers.

Given how much culture and tradition is woven into the fabric of the expression of faith of every believer, the wisdom espoused by these early believers continues to hold merit, even today.

The Value of Hate

Overcoming personal hatred, by humbling ourselves and recognizing the value of others, draws us closer to Christ.

It’s funny how we never feel unjustified in our hatred–whether it be a collective hatred for some segment of society, or the personal hatred we feel from someone who’s “done us wrong”. What is most fascinating about this emotion is how it creates, within us, an aversion to any sort of self-evaluation. Other emotions, like sadness and depression, draw us towards deep self-reflection, but hatred seems to emanate an attitude of don’t talk to me.

As a survival mechanism, hatred blinds us to empathy, thereby enabling us to attack, fight, and destroy those who threaten us. From a Darwinian point of view, the ability to hate may have been an advantage, but from a spiritual point of view, can anything be gained by it? Does our propensity towards hatred have any value?

I believe the answer to these questions is yes, but yes only when we muster the discipline to overcome it–and discipline is what it will take because overcoming hatred requires us to admit our fears, recognize our own inadequacies, recognize the value of those we hate, re-think our own sense of identity, and change our understanding of society and our place in it. But why would anyone want to do this? Well–because Jesus told us to. In Mathew 5:44, Jesus says You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

When we take this advice of Christ’s as a command and attempt to follow it out of obedience, we will never taste the full fruit of what His words have to offer. However, when we simply trust that Jesus knows what He is talking about, and in our yearning for spiritual maturity, put our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength into the cause, then we will find the fruit we desire (and not the genetically engineered stuff, but the good stuff, ripe, sweet, juicy, and fresh from the vine.)

Step one, in working through hatred, is understanding it–understanding that it is a passionate response, not a reasoned response, and since passion is bound to our strongest and deepest desires, we can see that hatred arises out of a threat to those desires. But what do we desire most? Acceptance, appreciation, and stability–the three things we lost when Adam and Eve left God’s presence.

In order to understand what it means to feel accepted, appreciated, and have stability, it helps to understand how we construct our identity. Kathryn Schultz, in her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, shares how we each construct beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world, through vast extrapolations from comparatively small amounts of factual information collected over the course of our life (e.g. who’s actually read the Obama Care act, the full text of the latest supreme court decisions, or the plethora of climate study reports? Yet we have our firm opinions don’t we?). Further, Kathryn uncovers our inclination to reject ideas or information that contradict notions that we have already constructed for ourselves. Within the New Testament, this propensity is evident within the response many had to both Christ and, later, the apostles. The Jews of the day had constructed a notion of religion that was heavy on law and tradition, but deficient in compassion and mercy. Through affectionate love, reason, and miracles, Jesus and his disciples shared a different message–a message that few, at the time, would accept. Within the Christian community today, the same problem exists. Most of us will not openly consider the value of the traditions or theological arguments of another denomination, even while being dumbfounded as to why the other doesn’t see the obvious supremacy of our own. Of course, the same principal holds for other components of our belief system: political, environmental, & societal.

When asked to identify ourselves, notice how we couch our response in terms of a belief system? I’m a republican, I’m an environmentalist, I’m a Methodist, I’m a family man, I’m a true blooded American! As Kathryn Shultz’s book title implies, because most of our beliefs are constructed from relatively scant information, and because we weigh new information based on how well it agrees with our existing beliefs, we end up traversing our lives in a blissfully ignorant and comfortably happy state of error. Therefore, when we want someone to accept and appreciate us, what is it that we are wanting? Usually, our desire is to feel glorified through the affirmation of our views; we want others to agree with our opinions and, even more, we want them to benefit from our wisdom. What this necessarily implies, though, is that we are asking others, who may have different viewpoints, to set aside their own belief structures, and accept the superiority (or at least equality) of our imperfect beliefs. In affect, we are asking others to change their identity–something that we, ourselves, rarely do unless instigated by particularly traumatic events.

How often did Christ caution against pride and extol humility? Many are willing to accept His advice on inconsequential matters, but it is an altogether different story when it necessitates the acceptance of the faulty foundations of our own identity or the cooperation with those whom we perceive as being in error.

In the introduction, I made a distinction between a collective hatred towards some societal group and a personal hatred towards one or more individuals. Both have similar roots and both are worthy of introspection, but for the remainder of this post, I’ll focus the discussion on the type of personal hatred that arises when diverse people are called upon to live or work together.

The local church is primed for such rivalries, particularly when it is time for discussions on church direction, fund-raising strategies, music selection and, at times, basic theology. Any business or company with more than two workers will face similar challenges. Hatred can erupt within us, the moment someone else makes a decision that thwarts a vision, goal, or strategy we’ve had for the organization and our place in it. At that moment, we feel devalued, and we know who is to blame.

Over time, most good Christians muster the compassion to forgive the offender, our willingness to do so serving to affirm, to ourselves, our own good nature, thereby restoring much needed stability to our own identities. But how often are we willing to accept the validity of the other’s actions? To accept that, given their personality style, cultural belief system, experience, educational background, faults and foibles, their decision may have been reasonable? How often are we willing to accept that we may no longer be a fit for an organization? A paradox of the church (and any other organization), is that success comes through the unified efforts of the members, but success implies growth, and growth implies ever more people and ever more diversity of views which, over time, will create contention over what those unified efforts should be. How can we avoid bitter hatred when the inevitable happens? When we find that our vision is no longer a valued component of this unity?

The answer comes from the mouth of Christ. Love your enemies. Teenagers think of love as a feeling, maturity leads us to realize that love has a verb component, implying the service and caring for others. Agape love, implies even more. Is it possible to love something that you don’t know? In order to extend full agape love to another, we need to do the impossible and that is to recognize the imperfect nature of our own worldview and take time to understand the worldview of our enemy. Moreover, we need to seek value in their contributions, and through that, develop acceptance, as we finally understand that we all have value in spite of our imperfection. The empathetic HR manager needs to learn to see the value in the calculating visionary leader, the football coach needs to see value in the homosexual artist, and the rock musician needs to see value in the pipe organist. This is the essence of the point the Apostle Paul made in 1 Corinthians 12, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.

But how can we do this? How can we humble ourselves and admit the frailty of our constructed belief system? How can we accept the decisions that harm us, made by people suffering from their own sinful nature and poorly constructed worldviews? How can we sidestep that inclination to push away all sense of compassion and lounge in that comfortable recliner of loathing? We can do this as we do all things, through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13).

As we trust in Christ and lean on his strength as we struggle through the exercise of overcoming our hatred, we will find that our eyes will open to the splendor of His love, and to the splendor within those that He created. We will learn to marvel at the beauty that is contained within all of us, and marvel with sadness, that we hadn’t noticed it so fully before. We cannot overcome our hatred without undergoing some level of transformation; our identities will no longer be what they were before, but will instead be a little closer to Christ’s. And of course, this is the catch. Christ was willing to sacrifice everything, except our free will. He has left us with choice and letting go of our old identities has always been the choice that must be made for salvation. Will you make the choice?

The Midnight Visitor

A fictional story of St. Nick based on the historical account of the of the Bishop of Myrna: the original Santa Claus.

The Midnight Visitor
I have always loved reading Christmas stories during the holiday season. Over the past few years, however, I’ve found that few of the new stories being presented share the real meaning of Christmas. The Midnight Visitor shares the absolutely true story of how this holiday we know as Christmas began (Once upon a time, that is).

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A letter to my son as he turns eighteen

This letter to my son on his 18th birthday is just one step I can take to foster his transition to becoming a true man.

Many men have difficulty helping their son’s transition into manhood and some find themselves disappointed to see that their sons are not handling it well.  I’ll leave this post with minimal introduction – it is a copy of a letter I wrote for my son on his 18th birthday as part of an effort to help my own son in this transitional time (posted with his permission).


It’s hard to believe you are turning eighteen.  It has been an incredible pleasure to watch you grow up. I can tell you that it has been hard sometimes to see you struggle and get hurt, but really cool to watch you do well.  I sometimes think you have had more victories in your life than you know.  There are many times when I’ve seen you do things, like your volunteer work or just being kind and respectful to other folks, that make me dance in my heart and silently shout “Whoo-hoo! That’s my boy!”  I don’t say these out loud all the time because I don’t want to swell your head too much, and also because you’d complain about me embarrassing you.

I’ve read in a number of books that it’s important for a father to officially recognize their son as “a man” – to let him know that he has been found worthy.  On one hand I like this idea, on the other hand it has made me ponder what it really means to be a man.  At what point do you meet all the criteria?

The main criteria of being a man that I hear most often is that a man is someone who can stand alone – stand on their own two feet without having to depend on anyone.  I’ve spent plenty of time in my life feeling like I’m standing alone, and you know what?  It’s a pretty lonely place to be.  The happiest, most successful men I know, are not afraid to step out and make decisions and, more importantly, they always take full responsibility for their own choices and decisions.  These men also keep themselves well connected with close friends and family.  They have taught themselves how to open up and be transparent with their friends and they lean on them for support, friendship, & companionship.  Of course, it is important to choose these friends wisely: the friend who is the most fun at parties, may not be the right person to go to when you need to work through a challenging life issue.

While a successful man knows how to depend on his friends, co-workers, and family, that doesn’t mean that he should be dependent on them.  A real man knows how to develop a vision for his life, then, usually through hard experience, learns how to overcome his fears and doubts and strive to achieve that vision.  (Wise men also learn how to adjust their visions as they grow.)

One of the biggest challenging life issues you begin to face as you move into your adult years is the lack of cheerleading and recognition you will get.  It’s been fun watching you do so well in the various sports you’ve played, and it has been fun watching you bring home trophies and awards.  Likewise, in your schoolwork, I’ve been proud to watch you do your best (ok – I know you goof off sometimes), and to get the recognition for your efforts.  Growing up, these achievements have been recognized.

As you move into the work world, you will find that frequently your achievements are not recognized.  Many managers take the attitude that they expect excellence, and so they don’t feel any need to show appreciation when they get it from you.  Many men (and a fair number of women), are competitive and feel that giving any sort of recognition will somehow give you a leg-up on them.  It can be especially difficult when you have a boss or a customer that simply doesn’t like your style of doing things or really doesn’t have any appreciation for the work you are doing.  You will certainly face all of these situations at some point in your career.  In fact, as you get older, it is rare to have people at work celebrate your successes.

As you move forward into adulthood and move out into the world, it is essential to center your sense of happiness on something other than the feedback you will get at work.  It is important to always strive to live your life in such a way as to be proud of yourself.  This is why I’ve shared with you many times the need to always live your life with integrity.  There will be many times when you will have the opportunity to cheat and cut corners on your integrity, but the few bucks here and there that you might be able to add to your wallet will never take the place of losing your ability to be proud of yourself.

Ultimately, it is important to ground your sense of value in that fact that God made you as a wonderful and perfect person.  By perfect, I don’t mean faultless.  I think God has built into us just enough faults so that we have to learn to depend on each other: this is part of our perfection.

The college years are a time when many people start to move away from God.  This happens for a number of reasons. One is that you begin to pick up enough skills to stand on your own and you start to think that you no longer need to depend on God’s help to survive.  Another is that in college you will learn how to view the world in a logical and rational way – they teach you that there is a scientific answer for everything.  Many people lose touch with God in college simply because life is too busy to spend any time thinking about Him.  Some people push God aside because they want to party and misbehave, and they cannot allow a God into their lives that comes with all these restrictive “rules”.  Finally, as a child, although you have learned of God, you may never have known God.

I’d love to spend time talking to you about these things when you are ready.  In the meantime, I hope you understand that God has been around the block a few times.  He understands young adults – He is, in fact, the ultimately cool dad (He truly is eleven cool).  I’ve got lots of rational reasons for my faith, but ultimately, I’d have to say that there have been several times when I’ve felt God working through me and this is what has helped me to just know.  So my advice, if you can remember it, is that if you wake up one morning and find that you have drifted away and life is getting hard, reach out and find yourself a couple of Christian men who can re-introduce you to His life giving Spirit.

In this letter, I’ve shared with you that the world can be lonely and recognition starved.  I’d encourage you to let God work through you and be the kind of person who always seeks to make the world a little less lonely and recognition starved for those around you.  Instead of looking at the folks around you as competition, look for ways of helping them to succeed, look for ways of making them feel encouraged.  The truth is, over the long haul, this habit will help you to be truly successful.  People like to be around people who make them look and feel good and while many people like to be team members, not many take the time and energy to learn how to be good team builders.  Teach yourself how to encourage and uplift other folks, and you will have learned how to build a team.

A friend of mine recently pointed out a verse in the Bible, 1 Timothy 4:12 (“1 Timothy” was a letter written by the Apostle Paul to his younger disciple) that reads: Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.  As people get older, they invariably create for themselves a worldview and then they put the world into it: in other words, they come to think they have everything figured out.  You’ll meet guys in life who will share with you their view on things and usually do so with the hopes that you will start to see things their way as well and also that you will recognize how smart and wise they are (again, people crave recognition).  It is always good to listen and learn from these people, but also recognize the wisdom in Paul’s words.  It’s not good to just accept another persons world view (except your father’s of course), but rather consider it carefully and understand the reasoning behind it.  Myself, I’m starting to come to believe that the world is too complex for any of us to really comprehend so we create for ourselves worldviews that are simplified to the point that we can function in our day to day lives.  It’s good to recognize this because it helps us to be considerate of other people’s views because we know that when we judge them through the eyes of our own simplified view, we are doing them an injustice.  Don’t misunderstand my cautions here though, men need to learn from each other and need mentors in life and at work.  You just need to take responsibility for your own choices in what you will believe.

I’ve been struggling for some time trying to decide what to write in this letter, what bits of wisdom to pass on to you as you are launching your journey into manhood.  One of the reasons I wrote Essence of Wisdom for Parents was to leave a legacy of those things that I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, for my children.  There’s a lot of depth in some of those one-liners.  I hope as you get older, you give it a read every once in a while.  Through this letter, through the book, and through many of our conversations, I keep trying to find all the right things to say to help you succeed in life, but in the end, you are just going to have to do it yourself, and you know what? I think you will do pretty well.

You know that you, son, have made the job about as easy as it could be for a father.  I continue to be immensely proud of you – for what you have accomplished, but more importantly, for who you are.  You know that I have told you this before and I know that I will tell you again.  I have seen you grow into a kind, considerate, caring, industrious, and handsome young man.  (And I’m not just saying that last bit because you look like me.)

I can tell you easily that I don’t think I could be any more proud of you, or pleased with how you have grown up.  Like God, I’ve been around the block a little myself, and I know that there are probably a few things in your past that I am not aware of, but I know that’s the nature of life.  When the statue of limitations is up, I hope to have the opportunity to sit around a cup of coffee sometime and hear the stories.  Perhaps I’ll share a few of my own.

As usual, I’ve been able to find shades of gray where most others see black and white.  So let me end by clearly saying that yes, I am proud of the man you have become.  I cannot image being more excited to give this kind of stamp of approval.  I hope that as we move forward in life together, you will continue to let me share in it, because I can tell you it has been a great pleasure so far.



PS:  Learn how to hug!

How to Find a Church that Makes You Feel Like Staying – Not Running

In selecting a church, look for a church whose focus meets the needs of your family and whose style is compatible and enjoyable.

Country ChurchIt’s fun to listen to my teenage kids when they talk about how independent they are and how they can take on the world all by themselves.  They seem to be unaware of the vast support network surrounding them.  Our neighbors support the various school fundraisers for them, schoolteachers and coaches invest considerable time with them, many staying late just to have an opportunity to guide them a little better in life.  Then, of course, they have their parents who work to create a supportive home environment, not to mention the food, clothing, and taxi services.

When we are young, we need support to prosper and grow, when we are older, we need it just as much.  The only difference is that as adults, we need to consciously and deliberately build and maintain our quality support network.

That sad truth is that

The Love in a marriage is far more likely to fade away when a couple has no support network, because few of us, in America, grew up with the kind of role models and teaching needed to guide us in lasting love.  We just don’t know how to do it.

In my book, Essence of Wisdom for Parents, I suggest that a good church is the best place to go in order to build a quality support network. However, many people I’ve talked to have a certain revulsion to the church because of bad past experiences like suffering through monotone sermons given by someone who looks like they’d rather be dead or dealing with pews full of hypocrites that will cut you off in the parking lot right after service.  Many people have also had to deal with just plain stupid remarks made by supposed Christians either in the media, or in person.

I’ve talked with many people who have these feelings, and the truth is, I’ve had them myself.  Over time, though, I’ve found that the root cause of this revulsion is a lack of understanding about the different kinds of Christian churches as well as ill-formed expectations about how a “Christian” might behave.

Before thinking about building your support network, it is important to come to terms with the notion that all people have serious character faults.

We all have streaks of judgmentalism, selfishness, and other bits of ugliness inside. Therefore, wherever you go, this is what you are going to find if you look long enough at any person.

If you think about it, you don’t go to an auto repair shop to see well running cars, you go there when you want to get your own car fixed and what you should expect to find is other cars that are in various phases of repair.  A church is pretty much the same way, so it doesn’t make any sense to let yourself get offended if you run across a jerk in one.

When selecting a church to try out, don’t try to find one with perfect people, rather look for one where many of the people are humble enough to want to grow personally, who want to overcome some of their character faults, and who want to improve their own marriages, families, and other relationships.  This kind of church will have small group programs and may have supplemental events specifically designed for men and women.  This kind of church will have at least of few folks in it who you may later come to see as the best friends you ever had in life.  Folks that will be there for you in hard spots and be there for you in times of joy, but most importantly, be there to help you grow as a husband or wife, and as a parent.

In selecting a church, look for a church whose focus meets the needs of your family and whose style is compatible and enjoyable.

Churches have very different focuses.  Most churches have three primary goals of their Sunday service; however, there are dramatic differences in how they emphasize these different goals.  The primary goals are:

  • To bring together people and strengthen our relationships with each other through shared experiences.
  • To take time to praise God for the grace that he has given us.  (This is typically done through music.)
  • To educate us in understanding better the heart and will of God.

What you get out of a church may depend on whether or not you have chosen a church that focuses on your needs.

If you have a deep understanding of Christianity and have studied the Bible extensively, you may want to seek a church were the focus of the service is not education, but rather a shared celebration of your faith.  Many Catholic churches have this focus: they use many symbols such as incense burners and fancy robes that help to remind their parishioner of aspects of God or stories in the Bible that they have previously learned.

If you do not have this deep understanding, than an education oriented church is likely a better fit.  Within this category, there are seeker oriented churches which are often large and very vibrant.  The pastors at these churches will usually be engaging and will teach wisdom that can be directly applied to our lives today.  These churches will have very good small group and other programs that cater to the specific needs of various groups of people. However, because these churches are large it will take personal initiative to get involved in these programs.  Because of this, there is a preponderance of outgoing “type-A” folks in these churches. (I also think that they have many tall people in them, but that probably says more about me than the churches.)

Methodist churches each have their own personality, but generally are education oriented and very community oriented.  These churches will often have a kitchen and encourage families to get together for events like Wednesday night dinners.  It is easier for less outgoing folks to become connected in smaller churches because you likely sit next to the same folks every Sunday.  If you miss a Sunday, you will be missed.

There are also churches that so focus on community and inclusiveness that they ignore quality teaching for fear of offending someone.  These churches can feel very welcoming at first, but it is unlikely that you and your family will get the mentoring support you will need to raise a strong family from this type of church.  If you rarely hear something in the sermon that makes you say to yourself “ooohhh, I might need some improvement in that area”, then you are not in a church that will help you grow, either that, or you don’t get enough sleep on Saturday night.

The final criteria, is church style.  I have heard it said that the most segregated place in America today is the church.  Usually when I hear people say this, they see it as a bad thing; however, I take a different view.  We have an overriding culture in America that serves to bring us together, but we also have many different micro-cultures in our country:  from the backwaters of Louisiana, to the streets of LA, from the forests of Oregon, to the suburbs of Baltimore.  These micro-cultures have musical styles and speaking styles that can be diverse and I think it makes sense to go to a church that has a style and culture that makes you feel comfortable – as long as the church is meeting the spiritual needs of your family.

As a final note of Church explanation for someone looking at churches, there are different pastors that focus on different aspects of the faith.  Some pastor’s focus on miraculous healing, some focus on “the world is coming to an end” stuff.  Personally, I sometimes question if too much emphasis on these themes helps people to grow.  I always recommend that people read the Bible themselves so that they form their own idea of what these passages are talking about rather than rely solely on their pastor to share their idea of what the Bible says. If you are trying a church were the messages seem quite off base to you, then do not give up on Church altogether, but rather go try a different one.

Most people I know who really like there church they attend tell me that when they first started coming to the church, they “felt like the pastor was talking right to them.”  If you find a church like this, stick with it.

As a final note, if you are a women who has a husband that is less enthusiastic about the faith, then look for a church that has strong male leadership and an active men’s group.  I think there are many great female preachers out there, but most men respond better to male leadership and also appreciate strong, positive, male role models.

If you found a church that you like, I’d love to hear what it was about the church that made it seem right for you.