The Messy Business of Starting a Dialogue

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It’s a weird feeling to sit in a room full of people who are in the midst of a passionate debate over your sexuality. But hey, I asked for it. Well, technically, my friend Janai asked for it for me. But I eagerly accepted. In a conference about loving across borders and moving beyond tolerance and into loving, a workshop on embracing the lgbt community seemed like a natural addition, even an imperative one. It seems the church, at least the one that hosted this conference, is more than ready to engage the atheist, the agnostic, the Buddhist, or the Muslim with love, understanding, poise, and confidence. But sexual minorities? Well, let’s just say they’re not quite there yet. But the very fact that they created a space for such a discussion shows that they’re willing to try. And although this was just an hour long workshop, and there’s a long, long way to go, I left the experience feeling hopeful, if still a bit misunderstood.

I led the workshop twice that day, and the sessions took very different turns. The first one was a lot more light-hearted. I shared my story, and the group had little trouble digesting it. They asked many good follow-up questions about how my gay friends reacted to my conversion, how Anna and I have dealt with challenges in our marriage, and practical ways that they can support gay Christians who choose to follow the traditional understanding of biblical sex ethics.

The next session was much more intense. In this group, my story and the way in which I framed the conversation really demanded a paradigm shift in the minds of most people. The thought that someone could be gay and Christian had never occurred to them. I was redefining things that had hard and fast definitions to them, and my very existence and the reality of my story defied what they had always thought about this issue. They had a category for gay people who reject God. They also had a category for more liberal congregations which affirm same-sex marriage and have gay couples among their ranks. And some of them had a vague notion of the ex-gays whom Focus on the Family and other conservative Christian groups used to tout. But this? “You’re the only person I’ve ever heard saying anything like this. You’re it!” one person said.

It’s funny: when you saturate yourself with articles and books from various authors, and you participate in online discussions and insert yourself into communities who are committed to thinking about and talking about a subject, you tend to forget the reality that outside of that, most people are oblivious to the things that you’ve come to take for granted.

It was a painstaking effort trying to explain why it’s not the best idea to compare homosexuality to pedophilia (that was fun), and that while the language of sexual orientation is extra-biblical, it isn’t necessarily unbiblical, and that being a new creation in Christ doesn’t mean that my orientation has changed or that it isn’t a significant part of me. I’m not sure if anybody walked away from the workshop feeling like they learned something or that they know a little more. But I’m pretty sure that most of them left realizing that even much of what they thought they knew was shaky at best. And while that’s not the end goal, I think it’s a pretty good start. Because while uncertainty is a scary thing, it often leads to humility. And if we really want to love across borders and move beyond tolerance and into loving, humility is a necessity.

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What’s in My Glass?

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“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
– Jesus, Luke 6:45b

I heard a pastor say in a sermon years ago that we’re all like full glasses, and whenever something bumps into us, whatever we’re filled with spills out. That illustration has haunted me ever since. Marriage, parenthood, and living in community means that you get bumped into a lot. I’ve had many spills over the years, and sometimes, I wonder how in the world I can still be filled with so much anger and vitriol. When will the fruit of the Spirit be more evident than an unbridled tongue and a heart not at peace?

I have this image in my head of what I want to be: a loving, understanding husband, a gentle, patient father, a positive, life-giving friend. But after every failure, I look at how far that person is from where I am, and the very little ground I’ve covered and it starts to look like a lost cause at times.

Our friends who just flew in from the US stayed with us for a week until their apartment was ready. Four adults and two children living in our small apartment, and everybody was getting bumped into, figuratively and literally! I was happy to help them and would do it again without question, but being the introvert that I am, I have had some cranky moments. And after a night of arguing with Anna and a chaotic morning of dealing harshly with Eden as she just wouldn’t cooperate with my goal of getting to school on time, I was fed up with myself by Thursday.

A well-known passage from the Old Testament came to mind as I sat at my desk. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:8. This struck a chord with me. It’s funny: Christianity is filled with such complexities, and yet it’s the profoundly simple things like this that stop me dead in my tracks and make me want to just stand underneath the cleansing waterfall of God’s wisdom and let all the junk I’ve caked on just wash away.

I decided then, as I repented of the way I’d dealt with the relationships closest to me, that as I spoke with anyone, I’d ask myself if my communication was in line with those three things in Micah 6. Many times already, it hasn’t been. But on many more occasions, I think, it has. I had a difficult conversation with a fellow teacher the next morning, and had it happened only a couple of days earlier, it would’ve ended poorly, and this teacher would’ve felt attacked and would’ve shut down and gotten defensive. Instead, with a desire to honor Jesus, I came in humility, seeking a just and kind solution to the problem that I needed to address. And the problem was dealt with swiftly, with no negative ramifications.

It’s helping my communication with Anna as well, the past few days. When I’m not so bent on defending myself or fighting for my way, I find that things are much more harmonious. (Go figure!) The toughest challenge is with Eden. I struggle not to lose my temper when she isn’t as obedient as I’d like. I often say things that I regret, and I speak in a way that tears down, rather than builds up. But I’m her dad, and I’m the closest thing she has to understanding what God is like with his children, and that’s not the image I want to instill in her mind. The only way I’m going to show her a decent example is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God.

One of the most important things for me to remember in all of this is that applying that verse to my life isn’t primarily about getting results; it’s about doing what God requires. I may, in some incredibly rare instance, perfectly embody this command found in Micah, as I’m trying to correct Eden. And even then, she may very well respond with contempt and rebellion. And I have to be mentally and emotionally ok with that. Jesus managed to live his entire life this way, and they crucified him. This isn’t about utility; it’s about bringing glory to the One who gave his life for me.

I hope to wake up one day and realize that my cup is running over, and that it’s grace that’s spilling out onto those around me.

Friends

Ever since I turned 18 and moved to a college town, I’ve lived in transient communities. It’s funny how in environments like that, people you didn’t even know existed can so quickly become integral parts of your life. And then, one day, they move on to somewhere and something else and become little more than memories and Facebook status updates. It’s really a special thing when you find relationships that defy this cycle, and I’m blessed with a few. And with the inevitable changes of life here in Shanghai, I’m especially grateful for them.

While in the States over the last month, I took a short trip to St. Louis where I met up with a dear friend who, although he’s lived far from me for years, has remained a constant in my life via frequent Skype conversations and yearly summer visits. While I was there, I met some great people he counts as good friends, and I reconnected with old friends I haven’t seen in six years, one of whom is enduring some unthinkable hardships at the moment. And in between, we did as much quintessential St. Louis stuff as we possibly could in the time allotted. The whole experience was rich, full, wonderful, and at times heavy and heart wrenching. And as I boarded the plane to fly out of the world that my friends were part of, I thought about how different things would be once I returned to Shanghai.

A little over a month ago, we said goodbye once again, to many good friends and coworkers who were repatriating or moving on to some other country on another adventure as foreigners. And perhaps some of the most significant goodbyes for me were to the graduating seniors in the KG small group that I mentored. I’ve followed these guys through high school as they wrestled with the bible and Christian ethics and what it means in their lives. I’ve seen them share struggles and victories, and display worship of Jesus and their burden for their classmates. Some of the best memories I have of Shanghai took place in my living room as a lively group of high schoolers devoured multiple bags of kimchi flavored potato chips and debated about biblical interpretation and how to apply certain truths to their lives and in their context. And now, most of them are dispersing to various parts of the US, and one to Hong Kong, each of them starting a new chapter of their lives as college students. I hope that some of what they learned and experienced here in our youth group over the years will serve them well as young adults in university.

But goodbye isn’t the only thing that comes with another year in Shanghai. It also means a fresh group of new teachers coming into the community, adding their own unique personalities to the mix. And this year, two of our closest friends will be part of that group. You’ve no idea how excited Anna and I are about this! These two have been tossing around the idea of spending some time in China since Anna and I were in Wuhan, and honestly, we’d secretly lost any hope that they’d ever join us. And as I’m writing this, I’m looking out the window at what will be their apartment!

A few months ago, I was a little down about how different things were going to be once we returned to China. But all in all, there’s a lot to be excited about and thankful for. And I’m not sure what this year has in store, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’re really looking forward to round four of our adventure in Shanghai!

Singleness, Celibacy, Marriage, and More

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I really wanted my next post to have at least something to do with Shanghai. Honest, I did. If you’ve read the About the Blog page, you know that I’m a little self conscious about the fact that Adventure in Shanghai only occasionally lives up to its name. But what can I say? I join an online discussion, and ideas are exchanged, presuppositions challenged, and before you know it, a post is practically writing itself in my mind.

The conversation was about homosexuality, celibacy, marriage, and the different approaches we as Christians who hold to the traditional sex ethic can take toward this issue. I’ll go ahead and be clear that I don’t put much stock at all into “ex-gay ministries.” As far as I can see, that ship has already sailed, hit an iceberg, and plunged to the bottom of the ocean. I know the term “ex-gay” is a broad one and encompasses groups who promote reparative therapy as well as those who rely more strictly on the healing power of prayer. But they all share the premise that homosexuality is rooted in wounds caused by traumatic life events or circumstances, and whether by throwing a football or praying with a small group, one can see some level of orientation change by dealing with those wounds. And it’s this presumption, based on questionable psychology, that I just find untenable. So while I do appreciate the perspective of the person in the conversation who advocated ex-gay ministry, and I look forward to further communication with her and hearing her story, I can’t say that I relate all that much.

I, for one, am happy that the one-size-fits-all ex-gay narrative is no longer the only option out there. The conversation on this has become much more robust over the years, and there’s a lot more talk now about celibacy, with the understood possibility that a mixed-orientation marriage may be in one’s future. For me, obviously, this isn’t just hypothetical, as it played itself out exactly that way in my life. But I was struck by the comments of one man who experiences exclusively same-sex attractions, who dreads the thought of lifelong celibacy.

“If I were to just remain celibate it wouldn’t work because my biggest issue is ‘crushes’. I have majority guy friends so I’ve fallen in love like five times and it feels like I’m in a constant ‘break up’. It really messed me up and if I just remained celibate and single that would just keep happening whether I act on it or not. I mean 60 more years of falling in and out of love just isn’t possible for anyone. I would have to quit talking to everyone just to protect myself.

That’s what people who advocate celibacy don’t understand. It’s not about sex. If I never had sex the rest of my life, I really wouldn’t care. If I had to spend my life falling in and out of love and never be emotionaly filled this way I would go crazy. Literally crazy. Like psychotic crazy. People don’t get that at all.”

That’s just heartbreaking. And I don’t want to quickly follow up with some know-it-all answer; I want to stay here for a minute and take in the real pain, frustration, and fear that are wrapped up in a comment like this. I want everyone to. Because I get it. I remember years ago, whenever my friends would start talking about girls they were interested in, I would get this knot in my stomach. I should have shared in their excitement, but all I could think was “Great! One by one, everyone’s going to find someone, get married, and move on with their lives, and I’ll be left alone without someone with whom to share my own.” It seemed so unfair to me that my straight Christian friends got to feel excited whenever they met somebody they were attracted to and with whom they had a certain chemistry. They got to talk about it with their friends, and they got to imagine and wonder if this person was their future spouse. But if I met someone and had that same chemistry and attraction, I wouldn’t get to feel excited; I’d get to feel alarmed. If I talked with my friends about it, it wouldn’t be with butterflies or anticipation for what might be, but it would be in the context of asking for prayer for God to keep me pure, and to help me lay down that desire.

So when my new friend here writes that those who advocate celibacy just “don’t get that at all,” I’m afraid he’s wrong. Those who are walking that out, and those who have walked it out for a time, get it all too well. But perhaps he’s right to some degree. I suppose the ones who don’t get it are those who callously remind gay Christians of the bible’s prohibition on homosexual relationships and leave it at that, while they themselves have never had to realistically face the prospect of lifelong celibacy. But with more voices out there, willing to speak up and be honest and transparent with their fears, angst, etc., I think the church can grow in empathy and understanding. And the church can play the role that it’s supposed to in bearing the burdens of its members.

But this is a conversation that doesn’t just affect celibate gay Christians. I know many straight singles who, if they’d had their own way, would have been married years ago. To be sure, the particulars of their situation are a little different from their gay counterparts; whatever hurdles they may face, at least they actually have an attraction to the opposite sex to start with. But that doesn’t diminish the difficulties that can arise within single life. Yet most of the single people I know seem to be doing it pretty well. They seem to be flourishing in their own right, and I think their thoughts would really add to this discussion.

Ultimately, whether you are single, celibate, or married, the gate is narrow, and the road is hard that leads to eternal life. And we, the church, all need to be in this thing together helping each other along the journey. And I pray that through more dialogue and interaction, we can get a little better at it.

Thoughts On Theology: Not A Very Good Calvinist, But A Calvinist Nonetheless

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TULIP - The Doctrines of Grace

TULIP – The Doctrines of Grace

I stumbled upon a blog last night, written by a progressive Christian, an anabaptist named Benjamin L. Corey. Apparently, he’s pretty well known in certain circles and has even written a book, but I’d never heard of him. His latest blog post is  about how he’s learning to take from Christians who are different from him, in this case, Calvinists who have a high view of God’s sovereignty. He’s learning to appreciate the resolve and comfort that the Calvinistic idea of sovereignty can afford. Meanwhile I, a Calvinist, have been finding solace recently, in the different approaches that non-reformed Christians take toward certain issues. And I’ve come to a conclusion: I just don’t make a very good Calvinist.

That’s something I’ve known for a long time, really. But I didn’t want to admit it, kind of like not wanting to admit that things just aren’t working out with your spouse or that you don’t really feel very patriotic when people start waving the red, white, and blue or something. The signs have always been there. I don’t know how many (friendly) arguments I’ve had with one of my close Calvinist friends over the years about the death penalty, the shortcomings of capitalism, environmental responsibility, and other issues related to social justice. That same friend had to endure my eye-rolling whenever he talked about his adventures in “courtship.” Another of my good friends has learned over the years that no matter what we’re talking about, it’s just best not to bring up Mark Driscoll. Other not-so-good-at-being-reformed facts about me include my somewhat ecumenical attitude toward Catholics, my evolving approach to complementariansim, and my understanding of sexual orientation and how the church should engage the culture on that issue. Oh, and I cringe just a bit whenever I see that somebody’s posted a link on Facebook to the Matt Walsh blog.

But I’m not ready to divorce the Doctrines of Grace or to defect to the land of the Arminians just yet. I may be the black sheep of the family, but I’m still in the family, for crying out loud! And besides, the stance one takes on all those things isn’t necessarily related to one’s soteriology. It’s just that the reformed church as a whole, has a particularly rigid, conservative stance on each of them. But there’s more: in the aforementioned blogpost, Corey links to a previous post in which he explains why he could never be a Calvinist. I would have liked to read the post and think, oh he’s just misunderstanding this, or misrepresenting that. That’s just anecdotal evidence, or this is a straw man. But really, I’m all too familiar with pretty much all the hangups that he mentions. But at the end of the day, while I join Corey in his objections, I feel that both he and I are being addressed quite directly in Romans 9:19-24. This is something that I just keep having to come to terms with over the years.

Now if I can be blunt, I’m not really satisfied with Paul’s answer. Ok, so God’s powerful. He made us, so he can do what he wants with us. That just proves that God’s stronger than me so He can have His way no questions asked; it doesn’t do much to reassure me of His character. And people aren’t just inanimate clay pots; we’re real, personal beings who experience life, love, longing, and if God doesn’t save us, eternal suffering. When I think of the loved ones I’ve lost over the years, the friends and coworkers who have unexpectedly passed away, many of whom were not believers, this passage is a really hard pill for me to swallow. So the analogy leaves me wanting, to be honest.

But what changes my attitude about this is when my eyes move from those people to myself. When I examine my own life, my own heart, what can I say for myself before a holy God? If God made me this way or not, the fact is that I am the way I am. I lie, lust, slander, gossip, over-consume, ignore the poor, hate, covet, and work for the approval of man. I earn God’s judgement every day, yet every day I receive love, acceptance, and approval from God, paid for by the blood of his Son. And he, in his own timing, patiently continues to work sanctification in my heart, making me less like myself and more like Jesus. And He didn’t go half way, leaving the rest up to me. It wasn’t up to me to be smart enough or humble enough to accept God’s free gift. The gift He gave me was new birth, just as involuntary as my first. I had nothing to offer in the process. I was totally helpless, and the triune God did it all. The Father decreed, the Son laid down His life, and the Spirit revived my dead bones. This is beautiful. And this makes me cherish my God more than just about anything else does.

So while I may always have hangups and unresolved issues with my theology, while I may never fit comfortably in a reformed baptist church, there’s just something so irresistible about those Doctrines of Grace. So while I may not be a very good Calvinist, at this point, I still am one.

 

The Effects of Easter on My English Class

My students call me Teacher Mike. I know that sounds weird. There are cultural and linguistic reasons why they do that, but I don’t want to get into it now because it’s not at all the point of this post. But when we come to the last paragraph, this little piece of information will provide clarity. You’ll see what I mean. So for now, just go with it.

Easter always comes around at just the right time of the school year. After nearly two full semesters, I’m running low on creativity, enthusiasm, patience, and grace. And there’s nothing like sharing the good news to fill me up again. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried communicating the Easter story to six year olds in a language that isn’t their first. But there’s something so beautiful about the simple, transcendent truth that remains after you’ve reduced it down to something that will resonate across language, cultural, and age barriers. Exploring the life and ministry of Jesus in a brief survey, accompanied by vivid storybook illustrations, I find myself along with the kids, confronted with all the ways Jesus demonstrated for us how to love God and love other people. And I see clearly how different Jesus is from everyone else. And suddenly his death becomes that much more tragic, his sacrifice that much more precious, and his resurrection that much more wonderful.

Something else happens when we talk about the Easter story each year. I’m reminded just how scandalous the gospel of grace is and how much my own heart and mind are not aligned with it. Every class has a handful of perfect students who follow the rules to the letter and make steady progress throughout the year, lots of average students, and a few who make me want to beat my head against the desk when I return to the office after class each day. Although I try not to show it, I have such a fondness for that handful of model students and probably favor them in ways that I don’t even realize. But when we discuss the Easter story, the works-based economy of my class is turned on its head. “Jesus never did anything wrong,” I tell them. “So when he died, he wasn’t being punished for his own bad things, but for other people’s.” “Do you know anyone who does bad things?” The Roman soldiers, Judas, the leaders who didn’t like Jesus, the “little man in the tree” and the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus are all listed. “Do you ever do bad things?” I ask. My model students confidently shake their heads and say no. Meanwhile, all the others quickly admit their faults, none more emphatically than my most energy-zapping, patience-testing few who frequently tempt me to give myself a concussion. Convinced of their need, they intently listen for the rest of the story.

Like David after hearing Nathan’s bombshell prophecy, I’m suddenly aware of the incongruence between my beliefs and my behavior. And God brings proper perspective, and I realize who I am in all of this. In God’s classroom, I’m the kid who’s constantly rebelling for no good reason. I’m the kid who can’t seem to follow the simple, straightforward rules that are obviously in place for my own good. I’m the kid who just can’t get it, even after we’ve been over and over the material. And I’m the kid who seldom responds well to correction and throws tantrums and can’t seem to manage his emotions effectively. And Teacher Jesus doesn’t show favoritism to the squeaky-clean student next to me with all four chair legs on the floor, and his hand raised patiently to answer the question in clear, complete sentences. He loves me and values me and spares no expense to make sure that I know it. He requires obedience from me, but not in order to gain his approval. My job is to be his hands and feet in the classroom, and to imitate him. The Easter story, and its effect on my English class are a good reminder for me to make sure that I’m seeing my students the way Jesus does, and that they can somehow see Jesus in me.

And That’s How You Fill a Room at a Youth Retreat

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I’ve been part of a team of volunteer leaders for a youth group called Knowing God (KG) since I moved to Shanghai in 2011. Each year KG, along with other area youth groups, participates in two retreats, one in the fall and another in the spring. Retreats are held over the course of a weekend and include four sessions led by a guest speaker, and a couple of hours on Saturday devoted to workshops led by various counselors. I had only been at this for a month when I attended my first retreat, and I was still learning the dos and don’ts of youth ministry. And that is why I prepared a workshop titled “The Atonement.” I obviously didn’t know my demographic. It was a youth retreat, for crying out loud! Everybody was at the workshop on dating, or pirating music, or family issues. So, between two sessions of my workshop, I had a total of five attendees. 

I’ve learned a lot sense then, and it was a very different story last month when the room was packed out for both sessions of my workshop, “The Not-So Straight and Narrow: The story of how Jesus saved me as a young gay college student, and how the church has been both a help and a hindrance along my journey.” We were pressed for time, so in each session I gave a quick, fifteen minute testimony in which I tried my best not to oversimplify the messy process that it’s been, and then opened it up for a bit of q and a. I hoped for a lot of dialogue, and the kids didn’t disappoint. In both sessions, the questions kept coming until we’d reached our time limit. True to form, I spent the hours after the workshop mulling over my answers to questions, thinking I should have perhaps said this instead of that, or I should have clarified something better. Nonetheless, I do think it was very successful for the most part. My favorite comment of the afternoon was from one of the KG students, Hannah, whose love for God and desire to honor Him are  refreshing. “Mr. Mike, your daughter is beautiful. And I just wanted to say that I’m glad you, um, you know…”

I’m truly grateful to have the opportunity to speak into these kids’ lives on a difficult subject, from a perspective that they’re not likely to hear very often. Most of the kids in this youth group live in fairly traditional, conservative Asian homes, and as I’m told, they just don’t talk about things like this with their families. But they’re going to be faced with this issue whether their families address it or not. Some of them deal with the realities of same sex attractions. Others have friends or siblings who do. And as homosexuality continues to be a polarizing topic, they’ll all have to come to terms with what they believe and how to live out their convictions in the wider world.

The Culture War has really intensified over the last year, and it seems the biggest battleground has been homosexuality. I’ll admit that this is no small part of what led to my nasty little faith crisis in the winter. From preachers to politicians, reality tv stars to reformed rappers, and Facebook friends to faceless commenters on blogposts, millions of the faithful stood their ground, took up arms, and fired their weapons. Indignant, the secular world, and progressive Christians fired back with equal ferocity. And I found myself in No Man’s Land, facing a barrage of bullets that I couldn’t quite ward off with my shield of faith. Julie Rodgers, an internet/blogging friend has written prolifically on this phenomenon.

The kids who make up our youth groups are growing up in a pivotal time. The battles are raging, and the war is intensifying, and they are going to be pressured to pick up their weapons and join one side or another. And I hope that in a small way, I can provide a different voice in the midst of all of that. I hope to encourage them not to take up arms, but to take up their crosses and do the hard work of bearing with others and learning what it means to walk in grace and truth. God knows I’m still learning how to do that myself.

In the three years that I’ve spent working with the youth in KG, I’ve learned a lot more than how to come up with workshop titles that catch teenagers’ attention. I’ve learned to be hopeful about the future of God’s church, about how He’s shaping young believers and preparing them to engage the world in a way that reflects the heart of Jesus and brings honor to Him. And I’m amazed at God’s grace for allowing me to play a small part in that.

A Title Eludes Me: Something About Faith, Doubt, and Unresolved Issues

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“My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect. I don’t really do that anymore. Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care. I don’t believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reasons. Who knows anything anyway? If I walk away from Him, and please pray that I never do, I will walk away for social reasons, identity reasons, deep emotional reasons, the same reasons that any of us do anything.” – Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz

It’s a frightening thing to wake up one morning and realize that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine yourself just walking away from the very thing, the very person around whom you’ve been building your life for nearly a decade. For the better part of the last few months, I’ve felt that such an outcome was almost inevitable.

I’ve had seasons of doubt before, like all Christians. But even in the darkest moments of those times, there was always this underlying sense that God was still there, that He hadn’t abandoned me, that this was indeed a season, and it wouldn’t last forever; I would again praise Him (Psalm 42). Recently, there’s been no such assurance.

I spent some time last week scrolling through old blog posts of mine from the past couple of years. I chuckled a bit and thought to myself, “How in the world did I get here?” I had written so much about God’s glory, His mercy, His love, His goodness, and the gospel. And here I was thinking that He probably didn’t even exist, and if He did, I wasn’t sure that I could even trust Him.

Sure, by this time I had been dwelling on how absurd it seemed that I believed that a talking snake tricked the world’s first people into eating a piece of forbidden fruit, and that’s where all of the terrible crap that’s in the world came from. But it didn’t start there. My faith in God and in the Bible as His inerrant Word began wavering for exactly the reasons Donald Miller mentioned: social, identity, and emotional ones.

There was a lot of hype about this week’s debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, on the validity of creationism. The only thing related to this that sparked my interest at all was the picture that accompanied a Huffington Post article about the debate. It was a picture of Bill Nye, and I thought “Wow, he’s gotten old!” I’m always taken aback when I see current images of figures from my childhood, who have been out of the spotlight for some time. It reminds me of my own mortality.

You see, I couldn’t really bring myself to care that much about transitional fossils, dating methods, and the uniformity of natural laws. Because what did it all matter if the God I thought I knew was really a tyrant who was fine with slavery as long as you practiced it responsibly, who was fine with genocide as long as you got a direct command from Him to do it, who painted homosexuals as nothing more than sex-crazed predators, and who considered all women at all times to be unfit to lead or teach any man because, well, you know, that whole business with Eve and that darn snake…

I was quite pleased with myself back in October when I came up with that line reassuring my conservative Christian friends that I wasn’t teetering on the edge of apostasy. I didn’t realize that I was only a few steps away. I guess the disparity between my theology and my personality finally caught up with me. I’m convinced of certain theological positions, because I really do believe they are affirmed by scripture. But I’m so dreadfully uncomfortable with them. And I find myself feeling alienated from those who share my views, but unlike me, are quite at peace with them and their necessary implications. While I’m on the same page with them theologically, I often just don’t get them on a personal level.

Much of my turmoil would be alleviated, I imagine, if I would simply adopt a more liberal theology. Then, the Bible’s conclusions on things would make more sense to me. But the fact is that I just can’t get there. As much as I would like to, I just don’t (can’t) buy the liberal interpretations to the controversial texts whose traditional interpretations have become unpalatable to our culture. So I find myself not questioning which interpretation is correct, but whether the Bible itself is indeed a divinely inspired piece of literature.

Throughout this whole time of doubting, I’ve been speaking with a couple of very close friends back in the States. Their friendship has been invaluable to me in all of this. I’m extremely fortunate to have people in my life with whom I know that I can be totally raw and honest. I’m not afraid of their judgment, and I don’t feel the need to hold anything back or doctor it up and package it nicely before saying it to them. And I think their friendship is the primary reason that I’m not writing this blog post to tell you all that I’ve realized that Christianity is a horrible lie. I’ve been teetering on the edge all right, but I haven’t fallen over yet.

I hadn’t read the bible in about a month when one friend encouraged me to just make myself pick it up and read one of the gospels. “Look, I wrestle with a lot of these questions,” he said. “And when it just gets overwhelming, I often just read the gospels. And I’m not going there looking for answers; I go there for comfort. And I find that God doesn’t usually answer the questions, but he makes them less urgent.” I took his advice, which did actually take some effort, and I began reading John.

I have all of my questions, all of my objections. I get so befuddled at things I read in the Old Testament, and things I read in the Epistles and so on. And I get so frustrated with many conservative Christians (the ones with whom I agree most on many theological and social issues). But when I read about Jesus, when I read His words, His interactions with people, something happens. The raging storm inside of me starts to calm just a little. My anger and frustration turn to vulnerability, and my frozen heart begins to melt. When I’m confronted with the biography of Jesus, what can I say? I can’t have anything against Him. And I don’t want to. And I know, if only in that moment, that there is truly no one like Him. He is exactly who He says He is. He is the Son of God.

Anna left for the States to get her Visa changed two days after we returned from Thailand. I’ve been doing the single parent thing for nearly two weeks now, and it sucks. (Gosh, I miss Anna.) Eden was at a friend’s house one day last week, so I had a little break and decided to go out for coffee. I wanted to do a little reading, so I went to the bookshelf, specifically looking for anything that was not Christian. I wasn’t in the mood to read about unschooling, didn’t have the patience for any of the classics, didn’t think I could handle Kurt Vonnegut at the moment, and none of Anna’s poetry books were particularly appealing. Then I looked down at a lower shelf and happened to see Blue Like Jazz. Its brilliant blue cover and bright yellow words jumped out at me, contrasting with all the dull-colored books on the shelf next to it.

It was nine years ago when Anna and I read Blue Like Jazz together and talked for hours about it and the concepts that Miller brings up and the issues he addresses. I loved this book because I could actually relate to him and to the people in his life that he wrote about. The way they experienced life and their faith (and their doubts) resonated much more than the Christian culture that I had so far been exposed to. But then, I started learning more about theology, and discernment, and all of that, and I found out that I wasn’t supposed to like books by people like Donald Miller, and so with a heavy heart, I put it on the shelf to gather dust.

But last week, I wasn’t concerned with theology or what one should or shouldn’t be reading, or whatever. In a moment when I was determined to go and enjoy something, anything, that had absolutely nothing to do with God, I saw this book and was flooded with the memories and the emotions of a new convert and his best friend hearing about God in a way they never had before. I quickly grabbed it and out the door I went.

I forgot myself a few times in the coffee shop, chuckling aloud, guffawing once or twice, and although I hate to admit it, I got a little teary-eyed. (But no worries, I maintained enough control to save face.) I see so much of myself in Don, in Penny, in Laura, and I’m so thankful for the honesty with which Miller addresses faith and doubt. I feel like I’m reading this book for the first time. I should’ve been finished with it days ago, but I kept rereading chapters, and now, I’ve got a couple of chapters left and don’t want it to be over.

I think after chapter five, I realized that I didn’t feel hostile toward God or suspicious of Him anymore. And I was quite sure that He was real, which was an immense relief after the last few months. I realized, with Don, that although so much of what Christians believe sounds insane, there’s something in me causing me to believe. In the end, I can’t not believe. I realized with Penny, that God, Jesus, might actually like me. And I realized with Laura upon reading the gospel that Jesus simply must be the Son of God.

Most of the questions and frustrations that have been plaguing me are still very much there. Actually, not one of these issues has been resolved for me. But I’m at this place now, where resolution isn’t required for me to believe that God is good, that He loves me, and that I can trust Him. This really does sound crazy. What is this? Why, I suppose it’s faith.

Almost Enlightened in Thailand

IMG_5642Only days before, we had been walking down a bustling street in Shanghai’s former French Concession. But that setting seemed a world away as Eden and I ambled along a narrow dirt path, lined on either side with stilt houses and lush vegetation. We used sticks to draw pictures in the sand, and Eden found a most irresistible rock. (She has a thing for rocks, you see.) It was a nice, smooth stone, nearly too heavy for her to lift. It must have at one time been in the river that we’d just crossed via a flimsy bamboo bridge. Meanwhile, Anna sat in a circle of believers, meditating on The Word, the mountains just beyond them, climbing to the sky.

Oh you should have seen that clear, blue sky.

There was a birthday party later that afternoon. We all found ourselves in a house full of people we’d never met, and then this family of introverts experienced the strangest thing: immediate connection. There was no pretense, no posturing. Just people genuinely loving life and inviting new friends into the joy. At least five countries were represented in this hodgepodge of interesting people. Over half of them sported dreadlocks, but those who didn’t were the most unconventional looking people in attendance.

There was music everywhere. At any given moment, somebody would spontaneously begin playing the ukulele, and singing. Invariably, someone would join them. There was conversation about the realities of living as a foreigner, of things back home, and of the feasibility of living green. There was talk about the racist politics that are apparently behind Australia’s policies concerning refugees, and one man lamented that so many in his country don’t realize that Australia is a nation of immigrants. And in that moment, this American saw a glimpse of just how small the world is and how depravity, prejudice, and fear live within us all.

As children’s laughter, stimulating conversation, and joyful music permeated the air, I felt for a moment that I’d made an amazing discovery. This, I thought, was real life. How could I return to big, fast-paced Shanghai with its constant pressure to keep up appearances and to climb the ladder? How much better was this slow, unassuming life tucked away in the mountains of northern Thailand?

But I know myself. And I know that if I were to settle down in a place like that, after the honeymoon period was over, and I was struck by the reality that the only way out of this little 3,000-person village was a three-hour trek down a winding mountain road, there is very little doubt that I would totally lose my mind!

I don’t know. Maybe it’s something one just gets used to. Maybe it’s something worth getting used to. Maybe I was on to something when I started fantasizing about life in a traditional Thai house, a little goat in the courtyard, semi-communal living, and breathing in fresh mountain air. Or maybe I’ve simply seen that there is more than one way to live. Maybe I’ve simply found a good place to return to from time to time for respite from my busy world. And maybe it’s good enough that I’ve returned to Shanghai with wonderful memories, stunning pictures to help me recall the feelings I had, and lessons learned. Oh, and a very impressive round stone!

Ellen and Phil: They’ve Got More in Common Than You Think

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Ellen Degeneres Phil Robertson

In 1997, at the height of her ABC sitcom’s popularity, Ellen Degeneres responded to months of rumors and speculation by coming out to the world as a lesbian. Immediately, there was a firestorm of controversy, and conservative Christian groups diligently worked to pressure advertisers like JC Penny to stop sponsoring her show in hopes of seeing it cancelled. And while ABC did sign on for one more season, they drastically cut back on promotion, resulting in a ratings plummet that led to cancellation. Fast forward sixteen years, and The United States is a very different place. Phil Robertson faced similar consequences this past week for stating his beliefs about homosexuality. The tide has turned.

Now some people were outraged about what happened to Ellen. And others were outraged about what happened to Phil. And still others couldn’t care less about either. But if you’re outraged about one and not the other, you’re being a hypocrite; the same thing happened to both of them.

But can I tell you what didn’t happen to either of them? Neither of them had their freedom of speech violated. Shocking, right? This has been stated a lot, but the misinformation persists, so it’s worth mentioning here. Neither Ellen nor Phil was penalized by the government for their statements. And that’s all our freedom of speech laws protect us from. We can feel that it’s unfortunate and wrong for Phil to be suspended, but please: let’s be sure that we’re a little better informed before plastering our thoughts all over social media.

And given what happened to Ellen back when it was ok to make crass jokes about gay people, we might want to be careful about how we characterize what’s going on here. If we insist on saying that GLAAD and A&E are violating Phil’s freedom of speech, then we have no choice but to say that Christians violated Ellen’s. And if we want to rant about how Phil’s being persecuted, then we have no choice but to admit that Ellen was persecuted by Christians!

And let’s think about exactly what it was that got Ellen all of that social backlash. She didn’t say that straight sex was illogical and gross and that heterosexuals are headed for hell. She just basically said, “hey this is an aspect of who I am, and I’m not going to hide it anymore.” It would have been like Phil facing all these consequences for simply saying that he’s straight and unashamed of it. So the reaction to Phil’s statements may seem over the top to many, but it took a lot less for Christians to go after Ellen than it did for GLAAD to go after Phil.

Now that everybody thinks I’m advocating homosexuality, let me do some ‘splainin’.

Phil’s belief that homosexual activity is a sin is not based on his own prejudices, although he clearly has them (nobody is totally free from prejudice). It is based on sound biblical teaching. And as a Christian, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me, I’ve no choice but to affirm the truth and authority of that teaching. And neither does he. Did he use the wisdom and tact that he should have? Well, certainly not. But truth is truth, regardless of the shortcomings of the messenger.

But the way American Christians (the most privileged Christians in the world, no less) have all run to their computers to cry persecution, while real persecution is happening all over the world, the way we’ve been going on about freedom of speech, showing our ignorance of one of the most basic American civil liberties, is just kind of embarrassing. And people see this. They recognize the hypocrisy of a group of people who went after Ellen’s head in the nineties, but can’t take it when the shoe is on the other foot.

I know that I’m addressing people who probably love Jesus and other people more than I do, and who want to honor Christ. So this isn’t meant as a harsh slap to the face, but as an honest appeal. As an alternative to boycotts and Facebook groups, let’s just go out and live as Christians, being Jesus to people. Let’s go and live among sinners and love them, and tell them of grace, and not be afraid to be slandered or misunderstood by others in the process. Let’s put a little less emphasis on the culture war and a little more on the spiritual one.