America’s Porn Addiction

The first snuff film that I ever saw was in March of 2003. I was sitting in my bedroom, in my apartment at Blinn College, when my roommate ran down the hall and yelled, “They’re bombing Baghdad!”

Without thinking, I tuned my TV to the first news channel that I could find. I watched, engrossed, as my country dropped thousands of pounds of ordinance on one of the oldest civilizations in the world. I called my father, and I remember saying something like, “This is horrifying.” I was watching as thousands of years of culture was vaporized by high-yield explosives, and I knew what I was watching.

But, I couldn’t look away.

A bit over a year later, I watched the grainy video of Nicholas Berg – a freelance, radio-tower repairman – being gruesomely beheaded by militants in Iraq. I sat in my father’s office, with headphones in my ears, sitting close to the screen and listening to the man’s gurgling screams as he died painfully.

I was in Ramadi in 2006, and personally witnessed countless gunfights and had who-knows-how-many mortars and rocket-propelled grenades launched at the outpost I lived in. And, we videotaped it. And, we watched it, over and over again. (I still see these videos pop up on my Facebook feed from friends that were there.)

We have an addiction to violence in America that is pornographic in the way that we consume it.

Just yesterday, I began to see alerts from friends on Facebook about an ongoing violent incident in Cleveland. After a breakup, a man went on a killing spree – he went so far as to murder a man on a Facebook live video.

Ever since, I have seen this video on the news. I have heard from people who watched it. And, all I could think about was that moment in my father’s office – over a decade ago – when I watched a man get his head chopped off.

We know what’s on that video, just like I knew what was on the Nick Berg video.

But, we can’t look away.

Last week, many churches put on a “Passion Play”, which is a dramatization of the death of Jesus. Mel Gibson went so far as to put a Passion Play in cinematic form – “The Passion of the Christ.” Even in Christendom, we aren’t content to imagine the horrible way in which our Messiah was killed – we have to see, we have to watch, we can’t look away.

Everywhere you look, this pornographic violence saturates our culture. There is no escaping it. Turn on the news, and you get videos of hard-core police shootings, murderous rampages. Log onto your favorite social media site, and you are inundated with images of beaten and bloodied bodies, videos of people bleeding to death and being shot in the head, of children being gassed and drowning. And, we sit in front of our computer screens consuming this porn, complete with heavy breathing and sweating.

And, if your interests are more soft-core, the news is happy to drown you with images of missiles being launched, of bombs being dropped, of aircraft launching from carriers in a blaze of glory, of naval destroyers speeding towards hostile waters to obliterate our enemies, dear Jesus Christ can we PLEASE look away?

For just a moment, could we refuse to consume? Could we somehow protest violence without constantly viewing it? Could we celebrate our Savior without having to watch a snuff-style re-enactment of His brutal death?

I don’t know. But, dear God, I hope so.

Can I Please Have Some Joy?

I deliberately skipped last week’s Advent blog, because I got my Sundays mixed up. I thought that last week was the Joy Candle, and that this week was the Love Candle. Love is easy to write about – I’ve been writing about it since high school oratory competition (I was State Champ, and I am bragging.)

But, me being who I am – and God being who God is – my carefully steered boat got rocked this morning. I haven’t been feeling particularly spiritual this week – I had remembrance for two more combat deaths this past week – and I was giving serious consideration to skipping church again, regardless of which candle we were lighting today. But, my wife reminded me that my mood is always vastly improved by attending church. As she is much wiser than I, and employed by the VA to be the guardian of my mental health, I decided to sacrifice a little sleep to attend worship.

I was looking forward to a good sermon, as my pastor is a 30-year veteran of pastoral ministry and missions. He always delivers the goods. At first, I was simply suffering through the Christmas carols (our worship band is spectacular, but I am something of a grumpy purist when it comes to carols, and they do non-traditional/contemporary music.) Then, the Advent liturgical and Scripture reading happened, and it started with, “Today we light the Candle of Joy.”

And in my mind, I thought, “Oh shit.

I looked at my wife, and said (out loud), “Since I tried to avoid this candle, he’s going to preach directly at me this morning.” (He doesn’t mean to do this, but he almost always does when it comes to theological topics that I struggle with. This is why I say that he delivers the goods.)

His sermon wasn’t particularly challenging to me, personally. It was all about his own travels to Bethlehem, and the irony of the most important people in history being in a small town in Palestine on Christmas night. And, that particular message has resonated with me for the past few years, ever since I embraced the dangerous, subversive, revolutionary overall message of the Gospel. BUT… while I know intellectually why the birth of Jesus should bring me great joy, and while I desire it greatly, I don’t feel it in my soul. I don’t have that peace and contentment that I have always felt is the prerequisite for joy.

As an aside, and by way of explanation, I’ll tell you this: a few years ago, as I was undertaking a serious search for my place in the five-fold ministry, I had an experience that left me with a certainty that my place was that of the prophet. I might explain that in more detail in the New Year – I only tell you now to provide a little insight into why peace and joy are such difficult concepts for my spirit. Go back and read some Old Testament prophets, and you won’t find a great deal of joy or peace. Very rarely (if ever) do you hear a prophet – either ancient or modern – say, “You know what? We’re doing okay. Everything is pretty great. You guys just keep doing what you’re doing.” NOPE. The prophet doesn’t exist to comfort; the prophet exists to challenge, to cry out and rail against injustice, to confront. It’s a pretty lonely place, which is why there are a lot of pastors, teachers, and evangelists out there, but not so many people who embrace the role of the prophet. Our lives are generally difficult even before we embrace our ministry, and acceptance of it typically only increases that difficulty.

So, joy? Peace? Not typically on the menu for me.

I’m sitting there in church, half-listening to the sermon and contemplating why I can’t feel joy, why I have such a hard time with the concept, why I feel like such a terrible Jesus follower for not walking around with a Giant Joy Halo all the time. And, suddenly, Joy walked in.

Actually, his name was Da’Von. He’s one of my favorite teenagers ever, and I hadn’t seen him in months. I think about him often, but I don’t stay up nights worrying about him. He’s a good kid, and I am pretty sure that he’s staying out of trouble. But, seeing him… it brought me such a feeling of peace and contentment, that I can only describe it as absolute, unfettered joy. And, he was excited to see me too. It was an epic hug that we shared, huge smiles all around.

And, as I knelt at the rail later and prayed, “God, can I please have some joy?” it was as if the Spirit descended as a dove and said, “Look around, Prophet.” And, I realized that I experience that joy every Sunday morning. This is the reason that my wife sees my mood soar after church: it’s the 10 teenagers that greet me with a hug and a smile when I come in. It’s the older men and women who greet me with those same smiles and hugs, one of my “spiritual fathers” ragging me about my wrinkled shirt and my messy hair, my “spiritual mother” telling me how handsome I look and how happy she is to see me. It’s dancing to the familiar praise and worship songs, or to 80s funk in the burrito joint after church. It’s making those employees laugh, giving a good tip to them, jamming out to Colin Hay and Indigo Girls on my iPod. It’s all these little things in my life, but it’s especially all these everyday – yet extraordinarypeople in my life.

The life of the prophet might be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be lived alone. And, while I don’t get this spiritual ecstasy listening to the Christmas story, I do get it from living like Jesus is in the face of every person that I meet. Whether it’s a teenage man-child that I haven’t seen in a while, or it’s in a homeless, hopeless family on the side of the road – Jesus is born in those people each day, and it’s up to us to be the shepherds and the magi that recognize the glory and the majesty of what we’re witnessing. We’re witnessing the Incarnation forever and ever, world without end.

Now, here’s the challenge: I can’t just find that joy, that Jesus, in the faces of the people that I love. I have to find it in those people that I nearly despise, those people whose deeds and words I rail and cry out in opposition to. I have to see the Incarnation, the birth of the Christ child, in those that I would make my enemies. Because, that baby in the manger that turned history and power on its head, the one who grew up to say, “Blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor”… He also said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you.” I feel like, today, He’s saying to me, “Michael, Prophet, find joy in your enemies, in those who hate you (and others), in those who persecute you and those that you love. Find me in their faces.”

I may be a grumpy old Christmas carol purist, I may feel like hell every December, I may not get all tingly at the Christmas story – but, I have joy. It just takes a little effort to recognize it.

May I bring that joy to the world. May we all bring that joy to the world.

Merry Christmas.

What’s So Tough About Grace?

Grace is, arguably, the foundation of the Christian faith.

“It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not of yourselves, it is a gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

“Amazing grace – how sweet the sound! – that saved a wretch like me!”

The idea is that God saves us – from our sin, from ourselves – with His grace. We cannot be in relationship with a perfect, infinite God as finite, imperfect beings. Thus, God gives His grace as a bridge between Himself and His creation (forgive the gender pronouns – it’s hard to break a 30+ year habit.) And though we have different ideas about the atonement through Jesus – whether it was a substitution, an exemplar, a liberation from death – we have always understood grace as having come from the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So, what’s so tough about grace?

I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about what I saw as the idolatry in our pursuit of religious freedom. That post generated more discussion – both positive and negative – than I have seen on my writing, since I started writing publicly. But, what was meant to be a discussion of our pursuit of religious freedom at any cost and our willingness to hurt others in the name of it quickly turned into a discussion of who God’s grace was for. Also, there were many words said about who deserves God’s grace, who can have God’s grace. There are some who believe that His grace is available to all, a gift freely given that must only be realized and accepted. Others believe that grace can only be received through repentance. Some believe that God’s grace can only be given by God, to an elect group of people.

There are enough different theologies of grace that I would require months worth of weekly posts to discuss them all. I am a Wesleyan in my personal belief system, but I know Southern Baptists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and many others whose grace theology is very different than mine.

From many discussions, I think I’ve narrowed down our problem with grace to two areas.

For some, the issue with grace is in receiving grace. We live in a culture that constantly reminds us of our unworthiness. The airwaves are flooded with weight loss products, because you’re too fat. We hear about anti-aging creams and cosmetics, because you’re not pretty enough. We have all experienced failure and rejection, whether it be from a career, a relationship, a church. We pile on these responsibilities in order to make ourselves more worthy. We do good deeds to feel like we deserve better in life than we sometimes get.

I understand this very well, because I have experienced these feelings of unworthiness for many years. After my time in Iraq, I felt as though anything that was good in me had died, and that I had to atone for the lives lost, my personal failures. I was unwilling to receive the love and grace of the people closest to me, and thus could not even approach the love and grace of God.

But, over years, something happened (which is something that I also wrote about very recently): I began to understand that my worthiness or unworthiness had nothing to do with grace or love. Love, true love, flows freely from the giver to the receiver. I have always understood this in my family relationships. I have two sons, and I love them both dearly. They don’t deserve my love – they are constantly doing and saying things that are hurtful, that make me angry, that go against everything that I have taught them. Yet, just as there is nothing that they could do to deserve my love, there is also nothing that they could do to become unworthy of my love. They’re my kids – I could stop breathing more easily than I could stop loving my children. There is no talk of earning or deserving or being worthy when I tell my sons that I love them. My love is a gift, and all that they have to do is receive it.

So it is with the grace of God. We might be unworthy, but that doesn’t matter. We might not deserve it, but that doesn’t matter. We can’t earn it, because it’s not ours to earn. It’s only His to give, and ours to receive.

The second problem that I think we have with grace is in the area of sharing grace. You can see this most clearly in the constant war of words and legislative actions surrounding the LGBT community. Religious people are almost always at the forefront of attempts to discriminate against this group of people. More than that, religious heterosexual people are telling religious LGBT people that they are not welcome in communion, in congregation, in fellowship, because of their sin. Grace is supposed to be a free gift, available to all who want it, and yet people who confess Jesus as Lord and seek that grace are denied it by the same people who had no problem receiving it for themselves.

Obviously, I think this is the worse of the two offenses. The Bible tells me that we cannot say that we love God, yet hate our neighbor. And, for all the talk about “speaking the truth in love” and “tough love”, I cannot imagine a love that looks more like hate than the “love” that much of the Christian community has shown to LGBT persons.

While that is the most egregious example of ways that we have failed to share the grace given to us, it is certainly not the only one. How many churches keep the poor at arms length? How many churches refuse to visit prisons, or would accept a felon into their congregation? How many churches would accept a drug addict? How many would accept a prostitute?

Time and time again, we see grace denied to those who are willing to receive it, who need grace in their life the most.

Why do we do this? What’s so tough about grace?

We quote verses like Ephesians 2:8-9, but in the end, we think we get grace because we’re better than those others. Even though we’ll speak the words about how “we’re all sinners”, the grace that is afforded to us can’t be extended to those whose sin is worse in our eyes. I also often hear, “Well, I’ve repented of my sin. They (homosexuals, drug addicts, prostitutes) are still living in sin.”

“Repentance” is a kind of buzzword in much of church culture. It’s much like a child who grudgingly says, “I’m sorry” when caught hitting their sibling. The behavior probably won’t stop, but at least we apologized. In much of Christianity, we seem to think that cheating on your taxes, lying to your boss, divorcing and remarrying – these are all things that we can do regularly, but as long as we repent, we are still “covered by grace.”

The word for that is hypocrisy, and we’re really, really good at it.

What’s so tough about grace is that receiving grace is hardest for those who need it most: the drug addict, the prostitute, the war veteran, the felon. Those plagued with feelings of unworthiness just can’t see why they’d ever be worth loving, forgiving or saving.

What’s so tough about grace is that sharing or giving grace is hardest for those who never really felt the need for it: the righteous of the world, who have never felt the shame, the guilt, the desperate sense of unworthiness that claws at the soul of so many. For those righteous ones, they can’t imagine what a wondrous gift grace is, how abundant it is, how amazing it really is. And so, they hoard it for themselves, never realizing that it’s only free so that you can give it away.

What’s so tough about grace? Nothing.

And everything.

Like a Little Child

The plan for today’s blog… was to write it last week.

Also, I had a plan to write some pretty high-theology stuff about the Sacred Feminine and “Mother God”.

While I think that it’s important to talk about complex/controversial topics – of which the role of the feminine in our faith is one of the most complex and (unfortunately) controversial – there are authors in the Blogosphere who are better educated, more well-read, and far better equipped to write about high theology than I am.

Instead, I’m going to write about something that I am very familiar with – something that most of us are familiar with, but that many of us are very uncomfortable talking about.

Need.

It’s a terrible thing to admit, that we need. It’s an admission of vulnerability, of frailty, in a culture that celebrates strength and impenetrability.

Anyone who suffers with an extended illness – be it physical or mental – is an expert on need. The same is true for people with disabilities.

I hate my need. It disgusts me. It flies in the face of everything that I’ve been taught about being an American man.

I’m the oldest of all of my parents’ children. I’ve been a soldier, a medic, responsible for the lives of other men and women. I’m a husband and father, a provider and protector. Men like me are the people that others need. We don’t need anything that we can’t provide for ourselves.

We don’t need affirmation.

We don’t need love.

We don’t need help.

As someone who has struggled with a number of concurrent mental illnesses, I have been forced to swallow my pride on more than a few occasions. I have been forced to acknowledge my own need on a sometimes daily basis. And I often don’t know what I need each day, until I am in the throes of that need – until the need has taken hold of me and controls me.

It makes me feel weak. It makes me feel helpless. It makes me feel… like a child.

Like a child.

We don’t judge children for needing – we just love them. We give them what they need without asking why. We expect it of children, we even feel like poor caretakers if our children don’t need us.

“If you then, imperfect as you are, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give good things to those who ask Him!”

Jesus knew something about need. He not only acknowledged our need without judgement, but He blessed our need.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”

As I thought about this topic over the past few days, I looked at my own children. They aren’t embarrassed to need me; shame is something that is learned, that is taught.

When did I learn to be ashamed of my need? When did needing comfort or affirmation become a sin?

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them (make a way for them), for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

We act out the Kingdom of God in our need, not in our sufficiency. It is in our need that we are honest, that we know each other as God knows us. It is in our need that we are most like little children, coming to Jesus and each other with open hands and open hearts.

We know our children’s love for us when they need us. We show our love by providing for those needs.

What if we all lived in that relationship with each other, instead of constantly trying to display our false sense of sufficiency? What if we embraced our need, and approached each other with open hands instead of fists closed tightly? What if we called out to each other, instead of suffering in silence?

Could we live in right relationship with God, by living in this relationship with each other? Would we discover that we are vulnerable and deficient alone, but that together we are strong and more than enough?

I believe that we would discover this and more. I believe that we would find the Keys to the Kingdom in meeting each others’ needs. I believe that we would understand more about ourselves, each other and the heart of God by living with open hands and hearts than we will with another thousand years of debating High Theology.

But, we’ll keep debating, and the debates will be good and lively. God help me to remember that my need is far greater than my knowledge.

My love to you, wherever you are.

How I Almost Lost God This Summer (And How I’m Moving Forward)

My faith journey has been a lot of ups and downs, with most of my “ups” being periods of hyper-religiosity and churchiness and my “downs” being periods of spiritual apathy. Even in the lowest points of my faith journey, I never gave up believing in something Higher. I stopped going to church for nearly 10 years. I would identify as “agnostic” in some conversations. But, I always believed that there was a God somewhere, that God was benevolent, all-powerful, all-knowing. That was a Truth that I was never willing to compromise.

That all changed for me in the Summer of 2013. As background: the fourteen months between June of 2012 and August of 2013 were a period of uncertainty for me. I had a brush with suicide in June of 2012, and a follow-up stay in a psychiatric institution. But, I also rediscovered a desire to be involved in the church and the community of faith after 10 years away. I found Jesus again after planning my own death. And, while I had a difficult time (publicly and privately) defining my faith, I knew that I was a Christian in a way that I had never known before.

In August of 2013, our family was touched by tragedy. An infant boy, the child of dear friends whom I had prayed for fiercely and continuously, died. I felt the grief of this child’s death as though he was my own son – I consider his parents, especially his father, to be more family than friends. I was devastated and angry. And I began to seriously consider the idea that God simply didn’t exist.

As a combat veteran (an Army medic), I have seen my share of death. But, the deaths of my fellow Soldiers, while awful and tragic and devastating, never struck me as unfair. After all, these men and women chose to be Soldiers, and they knew that Death was a risk. But, the death of a child – one who fought as hard as he could to be whole and healthy, whose parents loved him dearly and suffered through every hospital visit with hope and optimism – was distinctly unfair.

And, suddenly, everywhere I looked there was evidence of God’s seeming indifference to creation. Friends being diagnosed with cancer. Loved ones dying before their time. Soldiers still dying in wars that seemed more and more senseless.

I searched for answers outside the faith community, and I found the answers that I was looking for. Based on the hard evidence of the world around me, there was no God. The God that I had believed in all my life was imaginary. The Bible was a book of fairy stories, and Christians were living in varying degrees of delusion.

For 3 months – which is not long, but it felt longer – I railed against the kind of Christianity that shut its eyes to the suffering of the world, that insisted that there was a “Divine Plan” (which included kids being blown up in warzones and babies dying of illnesses before they learn to speak). I prided myself on my newly-found intellectual honesty, and had really wonderful conversations with people that I’d never had much in common with before. It allowed me to see the world of the church from the “other side”, and I really didn’t like much of what I saw.

How do you go from being a Christian, to being an atheist, to being a Christian again? Some of my friends outside the faith community think I simply buried my intellect and went with the crowd (and I would be dishonest if I said that, on my more depressed days, I didn’t agree with them.) But, it’s a lot more than that. I had, until that point, always believed that Christianity was a series of True/False propositions – even when I held unorthodox or even heretical ideas, I always thought of myself as finding the right Truth to cling to. Truth was the highest value of my Christian faith, and so when one of the Truths that I had always held about my faith – that God answers prayers in a literal sense, that God is “in control” of how the world behaves day-to-day – when that Truth became invalid, the entire house of cards fell apart.

But, what I had left, even after I had denied the existence of God, was an experience. I had the knowledge that something had happened to me, on numerous occasions, something that had made me stop and acknowledge a Presence that I could neither see nor understand. By denying the existence of God, I was invalidating a part of myself, and a part of a community that I had been a part of for over 20 years. And while I could argue the cold, hard, observable facts, I could not seem to convince either the community or myself that our collective experience was invalid.

And, so, I took a few tentative, stumbling steps back into a community that received me as though I had never left, as though I hadn’t said hurtful things on Facebook walls or challenged their most basic beliefs. They hugged me and loved me. And, through them, I realized that the problem wasn’t with God, the problem was with how I had learned to see God, how I had learned to experience my faith. Through the community I’m a part of, I learned how to build a faith that doesn’t depend on certain things being True or False, but a faith that is built around the relationships of the people who adhere to it, a faith that is less believed and more lived. The authors (and, yes, I wrote that as a plural without a capital A) of the Bible experienced God as events that seemed supernatural – we experience God through the wonders of science, the beauty of nature, and the way we connect to each other as human beings. The authors of the Bible believed that everything bad that ever happened was God’s judgement, and everything good was God’s blessing. We understand that natural disasters are natural, that medicine can’t heal every illness, and that most of the good things that happen are a result of either hard work, the generosity of others, or just coincidence.

The title says that I’m going to tell you how I’m moving forward, so here it is: my belief is in my life. I don’t need a 6-Day Creation, a Great Flood, a Virgin Birth or a literal Resurrection to give to the poor, visit the sick or love my enemies. I want to do those things, even with no religious belief. BUT… Jesus taught His followers to do those things. And, His followers (or, at least, their followers) believed that Jesus was born of a Virgin and rose bodily from the Grave. He was important to them, and I want to follow His teachings. So, I’m going to live like I believe. I’m going to show my belief through what I do.

I’m going to pray – not because I expect anything from God, but because prayer changes me. It brings me close to the person for whom I’m praying, it makes me far more likely to do something for them.

I’m going to go to church, sing the songs (even when I don’t know the words) and listen to the sermons – not because I need to do that, but because community is the most powerful force, for good or for ill, that history has ever seen.

I’m going to serve, especially in areas where the Church has been traditionally afraid to go. I’m going to seek out the “tax collectors and sinners”, the Samaritans of our time, and I’m going to stand in the gap for them. I’m going to pick up their cross and carry it for them. And I’m going to find new ways to love the ones that I’m standing in opposition to – to remember that, even as I’m standing against ideas, people need to be loved and respected.

I’m going to evangelize – but not the kind of evangelism that passes out tracts or asks people if they know where they’re going when they die. I’m bring this Good News: that there is evil in the world, but that good will always overcome it. That there is hatred in the world, but that love will always overwhelm it. That there is darkness in the world, but that Light has shone through it.

And, this Good News needs to be given to more than just “the world”: the Church needs to hear this. So, I commit myself to continuing to be an Evangelist (An Unlikely One?), to the human community. I have found the Good News, and it was different than I thought it was. I always thought the Good News was that Jesus died for me – it turns out, the Good News is that He lived. He loved. And He not only taught us how to do the same, He died to show us.

In short, as I go forward in my human journey, I’ve learned that the highest value of Christianity (or any faith) is not Truth; it’s Love.