Nothing In Between: Broken and Whole

Throughout my life, I’ve heard countless people describe themselves as broken, and I’ve heard countless people described by others as having it all figured out. I don’t think I’ve ever once heard someone describe themselves as having it all figured out. This is not a coincidence.

Broadly, in this blog series Nothing in Between, I’ll be looking at things that have been made into binaries which are actually much more complex, often treating the concept more as a spectrum than as black and white. But on this issue, there isn’t even a gray. The whole construction is wrong.

The Premise

Many, perhaps most of us, believe on some basic level that we’re broken. We also believe most other people aren’t. We believe that the struggles and frustrations which plague us make us distinctly, uniquely troubled in ways that don’t manifest in other people. In believing this, we also come to believe that the majority of people are just fine, and we’re the screwed up ones.

I’m challenging both of these ideas. There’s a kernel of truth in both, but they are false when taken at face value.

Here’s why.

Every single human experiences brokenness, so there’s no such thing as a person who has it all together. However, no one is completely, irredeemably broken – so while there’s always pain, always failure, always imperfection in each of our lives, no one is broken beyond the point of fixing. When we look at the specific cocktail of flaws that’s been prepared just for us, it may be technically true that most people don’t experience that same combination of struggles. For example, I’ve got depression, anxiety, lazy-eye, a crippling addiction to french fries, a shame-inducing hatred of seafood, and a stubborn streak that I’m starting to curb (because, fittingly, it took a long time for anyone to convince me I should). Of course, those are only the ones I feel comfortable naming on my public blog.

Even if we meet other people who can relate to one part, having the same diagnosed disorder or a similar traumatic past event, we’re predisposed to assume they handled theirs better, that ours is worse, or to look at our other struggles and say “Well, you don’t also have these problems!” I know many people who experience each of my challenges, but I don’t know anyone who also has all of them. But that only makes me unique in a very superficial way. It would be foolish to try to compare depression to cancer to loss of a loved one to poverty. Each of those things is a hardship, with its own consequences and forces; trying to decide which is “worst” is an exercise in futility.

So while the idea that I’m uniquely broken is sort of technically true, the idea that I somehow have a monopoly on brokenness is a little bit silly, because it’s predicated on some weird calculus that my precise array of cracks and breaks makes me meaningfully more broken than someone else.

Broken Glass

I love analogies, so let’s look at it this way:

If you took two glasses out of your cupboard right now and threw them on the kitchen floor, would you pick up the pieces of each glass, count which one broke into more pieces, and then declare that the broken one? Of course not! Both are broken. And this isn’t subjective, either. If, say, your wife were to come into the kitchen to see what the noise was, she wouldn’t say “Andrew, you prodigious cretin, you broke one of these glasses and the other one is doing a great job in the face of adversity.” She’d say, “Andrew, you lumbering buffoon, you broke two glasses!”

In fact, in Japan there is an art called Kintsukoroi, or Golden Repair, where broken pottery is repaired using golden lacquer, highlighting the breaks as part of the item’s history, rather than trying to hide them and pretend they never happened. What would our golden lines be, if we did that in our lives?

What’s the Point?

Here’s the thing: literally every person is broken in one way or another. Some of us might just have chips or hairline fractures in the glass, while others may need lots of glue to fix, but there isn’t a person on the planet without a scratch on ’em.

I understand why we don’t realize this intuitively. We only see what others show us, which means we see a higher proportion of good stuff to bad stuff. But we see all of our own bad stuff. So we naturally develop this assumption that we’re more screwed up than everyone else because we don’t hear people admitting the kinds of things that we admit to ourselves.

But when we recognize that this is a matter of perception and not fact, we can reject the lie we tell ourselves that we must be whole in order to be worthwhile. Not every person can live up to any arbitrary standard, but every person is capable of finding worth, despite (or even because of) the things about themselves they see as broken.

The truth is this, as simply as I can state it:

You are broken, AND you are worthwhile.
You are flawed, AND you are worthy of love.
You make mistakes, AND you can do great things.
You will never be perfect, AND you will always deserve to be loved.

And the same goes for every single person you meet. Share the love.

Advertisements

Nothing In Between

I’ve finally landed on the specific theme and pattern that will shape much of my blogging from now own, and to kick it off I’ve already posted the first entry into a series I’m titling “Nothing in Between.”

The idea behind the Nothing In Between series is fairly simple: there are many, many aspects of life which are richly complex – in both rewarding and frustrating ways – that our culture tends to boil down into absolute binaries, all-or-nothing black and white opposites. The most obvious cases, the ones that get the most attention, are found in politics. People wear their party affiliations and positions like badges of honor, often becoming ardent party-line voters or single issue adherents, failing (or worse, refusing) to reckon with the complexity of issues or to pursue partnership with people who are starting from a different perspective.

For a long time I have thought of myself as a political moderate, but my goal in this series will not be to advocate for compromise. A common perception of moderation in politics is that it asks for concessions from both sides so that no one gets what they want but no one gets too much power. My desire is more ambitious than that. My fear is that the pursuit of such kinds of compromise still unduly reinforces the binary, and even when agreement is reached, people involved still walk away feeling like “we” got the better of “them”.

Here is my basic thesis:

  1. Nearly every issue that gets boiled down to a binary is more complicated, and treating it as a binary does violence to our ability to mediate the issue
  2. Properly understanding any given issue will always take more effort and reflection than people are used to, so it will be hard
  3. Hard things are good; we’ve become far too infatuated with simplicity for our own good (although, to reinforce the complexity of all issues, this is not a blanket indictment of simplicity or comfort)
  4. When we step outside the binary, we won’t just find ways to “meet in the middle” — we’ll actually find third, fourth, and fifth ways to solve problems
  5. When we step outside the binary, we’ll realize that often the binary sets us up to talk past each other, ignoring the values that undergird our “opponents”‘ position

Over time, I’d like to write more in depth on each of these ideas, but hopefully they’re provocative even as bullet points.

At base, my purpose in this pursuit is rooted in truth: I am not arguing that things are complex for any reason other than that it is true, and it is my deeply held belief that pursuing what is actually true is always the optimal way to understand and engage with the world around us. My hope and prayer is that embracing this complexity will also bear fruit, that it will result in more love being given, less harm being done, and more beauty being created. I don’t think that’s a crazy hope, and I will continue to hold to it. The bravest thing of all is to hope.

Nothing In Between: Angels and Demons

If I believed in clickbaity, sanctimonious article titles, I might have called this post “One Thing You Need to Stop Doing When Talking About Politicians and Celebrities.” But I’m not going to tell you what you need to do. Instead, I’ll tell you a trend I’ve observed and why it’s a trend I’d like to challenge, and reverse. I invite you to join me, but I won’t berate you into it. I’ll leave that to strangers and bots on Twitter.

Here it is, as plainly as I can state it: We go to extremes easily and often, and we need to be careful about that. We’ve reached a point where we seem to collectively regard an individual as either an angel or a demon. Of course, I’m not actually talking in supernatural terms, but angels and demons are powerful, familiar symbols that will register easily.

What do we typically think of when we hear about angels? Harp-playing do-gooders in shiny white robes, flawlessly keeping the law and singing the praises of good and righteousness.

Demons? Horned, slavering beasts with razor-sharp teeth, breaking and devouring everything in their path without any evidence of rationale or restraint.

Why use such extreme figures to characterize public opinion of individuals (especially when my point is to challenge extreme positions)? Because our culture is so steeped in all-or-nothing extremes that we seem to have lost the ability to recognize human beings as complex individuals. We struggle to remember that even the best of us make mistakes, and that even the worst of us have brief moments of good.

Here are the two crucial sides of this: when it comes to critique, calling out an error is not the same as marking an individual as a fundamentally bad person, and identifying a pattern of flaws or mistakes in an individual is not the same as declaring that person irredeemable or evil.

Similarly, when it comes to affirmation, recognizing a certain action as good does not necessarily constitute a blanket endorsement of an entire person, and recognizing that someone is still basically good is not the same as forgiving or ignoring the harm of their mistakes.

Case Study

Let’s look at a specific example: Kat Timpf is a political correspondent for Fox News and a writer for National Review. Following the events in Charlottesville (where a planned rally to protest a statue’s removal was usurped by a white supremacist hate march and a counter-protester was murdered), she spoke out against Trump’s defense of the alt-right and the hatred being spewed by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. She’s also (before and since) been forthright with her own views when she disagrees with the policies of elected GOP officials.

In a well reasoned, rational discussion, this would be regarded as perfectly reasonable. To say “I disagree” when you disagree with someone is no controversial political stance. However, especially since Charlottesville, Kat has received unceasing abuse and threats from people defending Trump’s statements, DACA, and anything else she’s had the temerity to think for herself about.

While I believe quite firmly that Trump’s statements on Charlottesville were unacceptable and Kat’s response was excellent, that’s not actually my point here. Rather, what we see is an example of a conservative thinker voicing a challenge to a (nominally) conservative leader, and rather than her critique inviting reflection or debate, it opened a floodgate of backlash, and most of that backlash essentially claimed that if you didn’t support Trump totally and without hesitation then you must be a liberal.

Detractors here are completely disregarding the idea that an individual can agree on some issues and disagree on others, and that having values and standing up for them sometimes means challenging people who claim to have the same values, or who are members of your community. Supporting the current elected official of a currently incarnated political party has been lumped in wholesale with holding the traditional, classical values of that party.

What I’m Not Saying

I want to emphasize again that my point here is not about whether Kat Timpf or Donald Trump had the more agreeable view in this case. My point is that for many of Kat’s detractors, her critique of Trump instantly turned her from an ally into an enemy, from a fellow Angel into a horrifying Demon. Rather than see her critique as an opportunity to reflect on their own views, or even simply seeing it and thinking, “oh, I guess this is a more complex issue,” it instantly and permanently made her dead to them (and compelled them to tell her so). That immediate dropoff is the biggest threat of seeing people as angels and demons, and is the biggest reason I want to challenge it.

Reflecting

And of course, I am guilty of this myself, too. I have made my distrust of Trump well known, and while I do believe that most of that is justified, one thing I’ve caught myself doing, more than once, is reacting with skepticism at stories of good Trump has done. A few people who call him a friend have shared how he has gone out of his way for them, paying medical bills or calling and visiting when they needed it.

Because I believe Trump is unfit for the office of President, and have seen him struggle to empathize with or understand people who are different from him, I am tempted to believe he is Evil, and that he has never done any good for anyone, ever. But I know this is not true. I know I must reckon with the fact that, rather than being a Demon, Trump is a complex individual who has both strengths and flaws. Acknowledging that he has strengths does not automatically invalidate my belief that he is unfit to be President, but it does force me to be more measured and thoughtful when I critique him and when I listen to news about him.

Wrapping Up

On another blog, this might be the part where the author says “but there’s good news, I have a simple technique I use to solve this problem!” But I’m not going to do that, because I don’t have one. In fact, I don’t believe there is one.

To state a complex reality in simple terms, people are more complex than we want them to be, and always will be. The human brain is eager to categorize and organize people because it makes keeping track of them easier. In many situations, that mental power is critically helpful. But if we constantly remind ourselves that people aren’t that simple, our complexity makes us beautiful, and if we want to do some good in the world, we’ll be well served.

Do you have any good examples of people becoming angels and demons in culture? I’d love to hear them. Drop a comment here or on social media.

Spiritual Orienteering

Recently, my pastor spoke on the topic of prayer, with Jesus’ introduction of the prayer we now call The Lord’s Prayer as the scriptural basis for his sermon.During the sermon, he brought up a very important aspect of prayer as it pertains to God’s nature.

God, being quite a bit smarter than us, more than a little wiser than us, and just darn better than us in about every way, is not the kind of guy who needs us to tell him how things are. He knows how things are. He knows what we need. Whether or not you believe that the future is pre-ordained, no matter how you wrap your head around the idea that God exists outside of time as we know it, it’s (hopefully) not a very controversial statement to say that God does not need status reports from us in order to work in our lives.

So why do we sometimes treat prayer like meeting minutes? Often, when we pray (alone or together) we end up having very informational prayers. Have you ever been in this situation at the end of a church meeting?

“Alright, do we have any prayer concerns?”
“Well, uh…my niece is sick.”
“I’m traveling this weekend.”
“Oh yeah — I’m job hunting. Interview on Friday.”
“Alright, let’s pray. Lord, heal her sick niece, watch over his travel, and help her find a job. Amen. Good meeting everyone, see you later.”

Sound familiar? I bet it does.
Sound like spiritually formative prayer? I hope it doesn’t.

Getting our Bearings

Now, before I go on, I want to make it clear that I’m not really criticizing this kind of prayer as part of the full experience of faith. Sharing our concerns with one another and lifting them up to God is not only completely legitimate but it’s also something I’ve seen God respond to over and over again in my life. God clearly does answer prayers of supplication, and I’m not at all suggesting that we should stop asking him for help.

Instead, I’m challenging two ideas: first, that prayers of supplication should be little more than checklists, and second, that such prayers by themselves make up a healthy life of prayer. Prayer is much, much more than that!

North

Here’s what really struck me during that sermon: We often treat prayer like meeting minutes, and we also often treat prayer like a shopping list. But that’s not what prayer’s meant to be like. Instead, prayer is like a compass.

Let’s think about a compass. The most obvious similarity to prayer is that it’s meant to help you navigate; prayer is often the most powerful when you’re lost and need to get out of trouble. But it goes further, into the nature of the thing.

A compass doesn’t tell you where to go, or how to get there, and it doesn’t magically take you where you’re going. Instead, a compass points north. It always points north. When you use a compass, you don’t orient the compass to you; you orient yourself to the compass. And then, having figured out which way is up. you can work out the direction you’re meant to go and continue toward your destination.

North is a constant*, and no amount of selfishness, ignorance, or impatience on your part will change it. You may lose track of which way north is, but north will still be north, and the compass will always bring realign you. Just this way, God is still God no matter how much or how little attention you pay him, but you can always find him when you align yourself with his magnetism.

Section

A message from Sunder Krishnan, presented at Urbana 2009, left an indelible impact on me in this idea. Some key ideas that he expressed concisely:

So much of our praying is simply repeating back to God what he already knows, as if he needs us to tell him.

And later:

One of the most important things I’ve learned in a life of 30 years of prayer, surprising though it may seem, is fundamentally not about getting answers…circumstances outside of you may not seem to change, but you will be unrecognizably changed.

You should definitely watch his whole message. It’s full of powerful ideas.

Another little note – Pope Francis has been quoted as saying:

You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.

Conclusion

Again, my purpose in writing this is not to criticize or object to the “bookend” prayers that are so common in church meetings and similar settings. Rather, I want to share how beautiful prayer has been for me, how transforming it has been in my life, and how much deeper and richer it is than one might think if one’s only exposure to prayer is limited and formulaic.

I would love to know what prayer means to you.


* I know that, scientifically, magnetic north is not actually completely constant. But for the purposes of the metaphor, that’s not important.

A short note on moderation

 
To some, I might not seem like I’m politically moderate because I lean enough to the left that, especially with our current national government leaders, I often end up supporting Democrats and liberal/progressive sides in public issues.
 
But for a long time I’ve identified as a moderate because my hope, my heart, lies with seeking a solution that will benefit all, that will extend love to all, and that recognizes the inherent danger in extremes. Most extremes (not necessarily all, but certainly most) tend not to benefit every person, but instead to favor one group or another.
 
That said, I think this graphic illustrates a really important point about moderation, balance, and seeking middle grounds. I believe all ideas have a right to be heard, but that doesn’t mean all ideas have a right to be treated equally. I believe everyone has a right to defend their point of view, but it’s important to recognize that sometimes a perspective is so wrong that the most compassionate, generous response which is still valid is “No, simply no.”
 
It’s incredibly difficult to figure out when that is. I know I’ve screwed it up before and I know I’ll screw it up again. But I will still always seek balance, love, compassion, and good, and I still believe that so long as most of us are genuinely doing that, we’ll keep getting better.

InterVarsity Blog: Why We Don’t Need to Fear the Paradoxes of Our Faith

I have another post to share with you that I wrote for work! This time, I’m actually on the National InterVarsity blog, writing about perhaps the best book I’ve read this year, Paradoxology by Krish Kandiah.

I’ve written before about the fact that Christianity is hard and complicated – and I hope to write more about that soon, so hopefully the fact that I loved this book will come as no surprise to you.

You can read the full post over on the InterVarsity blog, but here’s an excerpt:

I was in love with Paradoxology: Why Christianity Was Never Meant to Be Simple before I’d even finished the introduction. In a few simple sentences, author Krish Kandiah not only reassures us that it’s okay to have questions, but he also hints at a deeper truth: it’s important to have questions.

Facing up to hard questions about God can be disconcerting. Believers may feel we are letting the side down if we dare to admit we still have questions. Perhaps we fear that in admitting to unresolved questions in our faith, we might lead other people into doubt and destabilize, or even destroy, their faith. Often we are taught—or at least we pick up by osmosis—that Christian maturity means giving confident, slick answers without a hint of uncertainty. But this is simply wrong. False assurance is no assurance at all, and taking time to tackle the difficult passages of the Bible head on may in fact be exactly what we need to help strengthen and life-proof our faith. If what we believe is true, it will stand up to questioning.

In Paradoxology, Kandiah takes this idea of embracing questions seriously by looking at 13 themes from Scripture that seem, on the surface, to be paradoxes we can’t resolve. Most importantly, he doesn’t just offer some clever mental gymnastics to make the paradox go away. Instead, he invites us to embrace the beauty of a God who’s big enough, wise enough, and creative enough to stretch our powers of reasoning and exercise our faith.

Give it a read, let me know what you think!

Jesus Came to Party

This past weekend, I was in Whippany, New Jersey at GameChurch Academy East. GameChurch‘s ministry exists, in their own words, to bridge the gap between the Gospel and the gamer.

You may have noticed that I have a modest amount of interest in that gap, myself.

Sunday morning, we didn’t go to church, but Drew Dixon (GameChurch’s Editor-in-Chief) took us to church anyway with a powerful message. I won’t try to emulate him, because I don’t think I’m quite that good with words, and I don’t have a seminary degree, but I want to share the crux of the message he brought, because it was huge for me. It’s something I’d contemplated before, but it clicked for me in a new way thanks to Drew.

Jesus came to party. That’s not an exaggeration. It might not mean what you picture when you first imagine someone partying, and it definitely doesn’t mean a lot of things that could be implied if you wanted to give it a bad spin. Nonetheless, Jesus came to party.

Wait, really?

First things first: Jesus dined with all manner of social outcasts, from tax collectors to prostitutes, and he deliberately, intentionally, preferentially spent his time with people that his culture (and ours) would tell you are unworthy, unwelcome, and unclean. He didn’t just tolerate them; he built his plan around that time. He planned to stop and dine with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:5). He chose to travel through Samaria (John 4) instead of going the long way round. He stopped (Luke 8:45-48) when the sick woman touched his cloak.

The gospels say that Jesus came eating and drinking, and that his detractors called him a glutton and a drunkard (Matthew 11:19). Now, I suppose its possible that they leveled this accusation against him because of the company Jesus kept, and that Jesus never let a bad bite or suspect sip past his lips. Personally, I’m skeptical about this. What kind of man would invite himself over for dinner and then say “no thanks” to everything you offered him?

We know that Jesus never sinned, but we can also be pretty confident that he ate and drank with his unclean, unwelcome hosts in a way that made the self-righteous social elites of his day accuse him of sinful excess. That’s important. Why? Because Jesus always, always, met the people who needed him the most where he found them, not where he wanted them to go.

So what?

As a religion, Christianity has a pretty shameful track record. In the past two thousand years, although we’ve done wonderful, beautiful things for one another, for science, for art, for every discipline and aspect of human life you can name, we’ve also been responsible for a heartbreaking amount of abuse and hurt. There are dozens of valuable resources to help illuminate this truth, so I won’t belabor the point here. The important thing for us to recognize is that in every generation, there are huge proportions of people who, though they’ve never been rejected by God, have been hurt, attacked, and neglected by the Church.

These people existed in Jesus’ day, too, and those were the people he favored above all others. There is a perfect inverse correlation between how important someone was to the church of Jesus’ day and how important they were to Jesus’ ministry.

What I really loved about Drew’s message was how he related this to how we should behave as followers of Christ. All too often, the attitude of Christian communities is one that tells others, “In this group, we’ve figured out how to live. We’re good people, and if you’re not one of us, you probably aren’t that great.” Occasionally, these communities are proud of that attitude, haughtily celebrating their own excellence. More often, though, we do it by accident. What we intend as a celebration, an expression of our gratitude that God has saved unworthy souls like us, crashes like waves of arrogance against the ears of those who have been hurt by us or other Christian groups.

What does that mean for me?

I won’t pretend this isn’t a tricky needle to thread; as a follower of Jesus, I believe that his Grace has saved me from things I couldn’t escape any other way. I believe there is something unique and powerful about following him. And, at the end of the day, I have to admit that believing that requires believing people who don’t follow Jesus are missing out. But it doesn’t require that I think less of them, that I treat them like dirt, or even that I believe I’m better than they are. I don’t believe that at all. And I don’t want to convey that, even by accident.

Jesus was God incarnate. Unlike me, he was better than the people he met with. But he still met with them, the way they met. He still joined them in their own world and invited them to something beautiful. He didn’t stand in the temple and yell “Sinners, come here!”

I want to share the Gospel with everyone I can. I want people to experience the incredible love of Jesus the way I have. But I’m not out to fix people. If we’re friends and you don’t party with Jesus, I’m not going to pretend I don’t wish you did. But never for one second will I suggest that you don’t deserve love, friendship, and happiness until then. Instead, I’m here to party with you. I love you already. So does Jesus. And he’s ready to party, too.

MDS Blog: Finding Frenemies

Our team in InterVarsity’s Ministry in Digital Spaces crew recently put together a series of blog posts on engaging with social media, and you should check it out right here.

For my part, I wrote a post called Finding Frenemies. It’s important to make sure your social media feed includes some voices that challenge you. Here’s a small excerpt:

It can be scary and challenging to discuss different points of view. We might not feel like we know enough to back up what we believe. We might be afraid that the other person will outwit us. We might be afraid to find out if we were wrong about something! But that’s also why it’s so important to seek out these opportunities: if we’re wrong about something, it may hurt to admit it, but we get correction and can go forward with better understanding. And if we’re right, we come away from the exchange even better prepared to defend the truth.

I hope you’ll head over and give the whole series a read! We don’t currently have comments enabled on the MDS blog so feel free to comment here or come say hi on Facebook or Twitter.

MDS Blog: Technology, Empire, and Authority

I have a new blog post over on InterVarsity’s Ministry in Digital Spaces Blog, reflecting on a talk given by Andy Crouch at this year’s InterVarsity Staff Conference. He gave a great talk, and I had some thoughts on digging deeper into one of the topics he covered.

A snippet:

No one, if they’re honest, wants to be vulnerable. Christ teaches the importance of it, and the richness of life that comes when we embrace this truth, but we all have hearts that want to get rich quick, and High Authority, High Vulnerability life is a get rich slow scheme. Technology lays no special claim on the earnest pursuit of a more comfortable, less demanding way of living.

Check out the full post, and the rest of the great stuff our team has written!

A Psalm for a Digital Age

I wrote this psalm last August during a team retreat for MDS. I just found it again while looking through old notes. It seemed good to share it. Forgive the plagiarism of the first line.

How lovely is your dwelling place, oh Lord Almighty
And how vast its storehouses, full of food for the feast.
You invite us to sit and dine with you,
to sample the treasures you have prepared just for us.
We ask you, selfishly, to tell us the price of admission,
for we fear that the cost is too great

And you tell us,
smilingly,
“Love me”

And we say to ourselves,
“is a feast of infinite richness
worth so high a price?”

Lord, though you have given us so much already,
we need you ever more to fix our broken scales
Which regard the unburdening lightness of your fee
heavier than our hardened hearts

Father God, be gracious to your children,
and in every room and hall and avenue
and help us weigh your grace with more honest scales
and bring our appetites to embrace your bounty

Amen.