Archives For Humanity

Take a brief look at Church History and you’ll realize that the Church is kind of an icky place. Or at least, it often has been. I love my church, and you probably love yours too. But historically speaking, the church has a tendency to be really really messed up.

The Church has a lot of blood on its hands. Protestants have killed Catholics and vice versa over the practice of Communion. Reformers literally drowned Anabaptists who believed that baptism was for believing adults and not for infants (“You like to be baptized? Let me hold you under a little longer…”). Think of the Crusades. Or of corruption within the church throughout the Middle Ages. Simony (selling church leadership positions to those looking for a good political career) was a recurring problem in the church. Our modern sex scandals are nothing new in terms of Church History, except that many times in the past the promiscuous church leaders have been unrepentant, unapologetic, and unashamed.

Think of the times that the Church has advocated slavery, has fought against human rights (unbelievably, Martin Luther King, Jr. had to “fight” against Christian churches), or has stood by and done nothing while holocausts were afoot.

Think of the hypocrites sitting in the pews around you. People actively involved in affairs even as they pretend to be devout Christians. Think even of yourself: Who among us truly practices what Jesus preached?

We get pretty worked up when people accuse the Church of being hypocritical, but let’s admit: they have a point. The Church can be (and often has been) a dirty bunch. That’s the case with all human enterprises.

Imagine God hiring a PR representative: “Well, God, you’ve got a decent reputation, at least in some circles, but that Church you continue to hold on to is not doing you any favors. You have a growing constituency of people who love you but hate the Church. For centuries upon centuries a large demographic has stayed completely away from you because of the Church. It’s time to distance yourself. Be God, do the good things you want to do in the world, change lives, bring healing to impossible situations—all of that. But do it without the Church. The Church is only bringing you down.”

Simony, a practice common throughout the Middle Ages, means buying a church leadership position.

I’d fire any PR rep that said something different. The Church is a huge liability for God.

And yet God refuses to abandon the Church. He refuses to distance himself. It’s true that we cannot confine God’s activity within our church walls. God works all around us in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine. Yet he remains inextricably tied to his Church.

And he has tied himself to the Church by choice. This was his idea. God’s mission in this world has always been about redemption, about reversing what went wrong with the fall, about defeating evil and healing what has been broken. His mission moved through Abraham and Israel, through David and Isaiah, and finally reached its climax in Jesus. But then God did the unthinkable: he passed the mission on to the Church. The Church! This wandering, embarrassing, inept group has inherited God’s mission to fix the whole world. And God did this on purpose!

As David Platt says, the Church is God’s Plan A, and he has no Plan B.

Why has God stubbornly refused to distance himself from the Church? Because his plan of redemption will be brought to completion through the Church. Because God does great things through those who are weak. Because God chooses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise. Because God takes earthen pots and uses them to unleash his glory upon an unsuspecting world.

churchI am as broken as anyone in Church History, yet God uses me. My church is as full of sinners as any other church in history, yet God is bringing healing and purpose and life and hope to the world through this ragtag group of Christians I call my church body. We will continue to mess up. We will continue to be weak and cowardly. We will forget the mission and get worked up about things that don’t matter. We will continue to be a liability. But God will not abandon his Church.

And because God will not abandon His Church, we will continue to bring healing that far exceeds our abilities. We will continue to embody reconciliation and forgiveness and peace, though in ourselves we lack these resources. We will continue to show the world that Jesus is alive, that the Spirit of God has not for a single second neglected God’s mission, that the Spirit fulfills the mission through the apparent foolishness of God’s Plan A Church.

God has not dumped the Church, and he never will.

“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

This morning I dropped my firstborn off for her first day of school. Maybe that doesn’t sound impressive. But listen: this precious little girl, whom I have been holding since she was 7 pounds 9 ounces 19 and ¾ inches, whose food I have shoveled and airplaned into her mouth, who has received a late night kiss from my lips every night of her life as she sleeps, with whom I have watched countless episodes of Mickey Mouse and My Little Pony, and for whose sake I gladly renounced what I used to call “free time”—I drove this little girl to a government owned facility and left her there. For most of the day! I left her with a group of five year old strangers (and a couple of friends, thank the Lord).

First Day of School 2

Here’s the crazy part: I fully intend to do this again five days a week for the next 13 years! Then I’ll probably be sending her (at crippling personal expense) to some far-flung college (may it never be!) for another 4+ years of being shaped outside of my immediate presence. And then she’ll likely meet some punk kid (everyone will probably think he’s super sweet, but I’ll know better), fall in love, and start a family of her own. Then I’ll see her from time to time at best.

Needless to say, I’m sitting here thinking, “What have I done?” How could I drop her off and drive away?

Let me admit right off the bat that I don’t know what I’m talking about here. My oldest child is almost six: I know nothing about parenting. But as my daughter sits in a classroom, being taught for the first of countless days by a teacher I’ve never met (I’m sure she’s wonderful, truly), it occurs to me that this is just one in a long sequence of letting go experiences.

When my daughters, Abigail and Claire, were first born, it was all about holding on. I scooped them up. I held on tight. I’ve spent so many delirious hours rocking to sleep and singing nursery rhymes and crawling on the floor and reading Goodnight Moon and applying band-aids to nonexistent owies and kissing chubby cheeks and holding miniature hands. At some point, my back will offer its last piggy-back ride, but I could continue with the holding on phase forever. And then for forever again. I’ve grown my own friends, and I love how they’re turning out. Letting go strikes me now as the worst-case scenario.

I’ve literally cried while talking to parents during our college orientation weekends—parents who are dropping their daughters off to attend college across the country—I smelled these parents’ uncertainties and I shed tears of panic, realizing that one day I’ll be letting go of my beautiful girls.

And I started letting go today. I’m not sorry that I’ve been holding on. I’ve “helicoptered” around the playground, and I don’t regret the times I saved my daughters from breaking their necks by falling off the climbing wall. I’ll hold these girls tightly for as long as the Lord leaves them in my care. God entrusted me with these two magnificent human beings, and I plan to cherish every moment I have with them. But I realize they’re not mine to hold—at least, not forever. Right now, holding them has been an important part of fulfilling the stewardship God has blessed me with. But to be a faithful steward, letting go will be an important part of the process. The world is all around them, and they need to see it. I can tell them about it, but they need to get out there.

First Day of SchoolI recently taught Abigail how to ride a bike. I removed the training wheels and ran alongside my little pedaler, holding the seat of her bike to keep it steady. She did great with my hand firmly gripping that seat. Eventually I let go—only for a few seconds!—and she rode. I put my hand back on and steadied the now wobbling bike. And then, one time, I took my hand off the bike and she rode well and I didn’t put my hand back on the bike again. She’s my little bike-riding girl now; she’s having a blast and I’m so proud.

I expect to continue to have recurring moments of holding on. She’ll get the tightest hugs of her life every day when she comes home from school, and I plan to give her late night sleeping kisses every night she lives under my roof. I’ll hold her when she cries and when she’s happy and when she succeeds and when she’s feeling sappy. But I’ll also let go—every single day—and get her out there in the world. There’s so much I still want to and plan to teach her about the world and God and people and herself. But I will also let go and send her to learn from other people, to thrive in real friendships, to experience the beauty and joy and brokenness and glory of the world firsthand. I’ll teach her about all of these things, and I’ll help her debrief her experiences with them. And in between I’ll let go.

I don’t want to. I want to hold on tightly forever. But God has given me these miraculous little girls to make his world a better place, to spread his kingdom into nooks and crannies I could never dream of, to heal hurts that I’ll never be aware of, to reflect his image in places and ways that go beyond my tiny imaginative capacity. These girls are his. And I’m so thankful he has entrusted them to my wife and I. And I’m beginning a regular process of praying for the strength and wisdom to let go at all the right times.

Happy first day of school, everyone.

[This post contains minor spoilers, but nothing you won’t get from reading the back of the book.]

All the Light We Cannot SeeAnthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See is one of those rare books that is actually difficult to put down. While most books that fit this category are white-knuckle thrillers that keep us reading because we need to know what happens next, All the Light We Cannot See is gripping beyond an action-packed plotline. C. S. Lewis once said that there are some books we read and wonder with excitement, “Will the hero escape?” while other books leave us thinking: “I shall never escape this. This will never escape me. These images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind.” For me, All the Light We Cannot See is that kind of book.

The novel is set during the second world war, and follows two main characters: Werner, a burgeoning young radio engineer/genius who is essentially forced to use his unparalleled gifts for Hitler’s cause, and Marie-Laure, a young, blind French girl whose father orients her to the world, only to have that world shattered. So the book is about the invisible spectrum that carries radio signals (hence the title), and it’s about living without sight in a beautiful and often terrifying world (hence the title).

The characters’ lives are ripped apart by the unimaginable violence of World War II. Doerr uses this violent backdrop to show us more about his characters than we would otherwise see. Flannery O’Connor explained the role of violence in fiction like this:

“It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially…the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him…”

It is what Doerr reveals through this violent backdrop that makes the book so stunning. Doerr’s characters are wonderful; they are subtle, nuanced, believable, surprising, and inspiring. Doerr gives us likable characters who are full of hope and potential. The phrase “what you could be” is almost a refrain in the book. Most of the key characters view the world with wonder, with hope. But Hitler’s regime rips their worlds apart, and the characters are robbed of their reasons for hope and happiness, and instead given every reason to despair, to hate, to give up. Siblings are torn apart, fathers and friends and grandparents are imprisoned and/or killed, homes are stolen or destroyed in an instant, talents are bent to evil purposes. Ultimately, the world is shown to be a dark place (hence the title). Doerr illustrates this side of the world perfectly:

“It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of colorful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world—what pretensions humans have! Why bother to make music when the silence and wind are so much larger? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably snuff them?” (364–365)

But it is against this backdrop that Doerr shows us the light that is there, even when we cannot see it (hence the title). He convinces us, without directly saying so, that these things—buildings and music and books full of colorful birds—matter and are far more powerful than the deepest darkness ever could be.

Christian artists are infamous for insisting on saving all of their characters. (Think, for example, of God’s Not Dead, where all but one major character becomes a Christian, and the entire philosophy class acknowledges the superiority of Christian truth.) We need to grow in our appreciation for subtlety. We need to learn to value traits like faith, hope, and love—even when those traits are expressed in ways other than a repentant sinner “praying the prayer.” All the Light We Cannot See shows us bravery flourishing in big and small ways. A blind girl learning to navigate a sighted world, learning to recognize truth and manipulation, seeing what others cannot. A German soldier gradually learning that human dignity and love and friendship matter more than life or the prospect of torture. A father whose entire life has been given day by day in service to the blind daughter whose future is more promising than she could ever imagine.

Saint-Malo, France, the setting for much of the novel.

Saint-Malo, France, the setting for much of the novel.

One of the characters continually thinks of the hopeless miners who spend their short and overburdened lives deep underground, producing coal for a madman’s war. Throughout the book he is tempted to see life from a nihilistic perspective: everything is horrible and meaningless and then you die. But he comes to see life as a gift, however fleeting:

“He thinks of the old broken miners he’d see in Zollverein, sitting in chairs or on crates, not moving for hours, waiting to die. To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.” (476)

These images are powerful. Doerr gives us our world—amplified by violence and then enriched through subtle acts of bravery and love and enjoyment of the world and a commitment to the value of humanity, to the preeminence of relational love. The other main character that runs throughout All the Light We Cannot See is a large gemstone rumored to make its owner immortal even as it curses all of the owner’s loved ones to death. The book never gets around to affirming or denying the legendary power of this stone, but it does give several characters the opportunity to discover what they value most, where their heart truly lies.

This is the power of reading fiction. We may not be living through the earth-shattering conditions of World War II or come to possess a cursed gemstone, but we do need to better understand the human condition, to value the life we have been given, to love the people who have been gifted to us. The light is there, whether we see it or not. And it is possible to summarize the Christian life as a process of coming to recognize all the light we cannot see.

Music Is Medicine

Mark Beuving —  July 14, 2015 — 1 Comment

The title of this post is probably enough. We all know what it’s like to somehow feel better or consoled or validated or inspired after listening to a piece of music—as if by magic. And magic is not the worst term for it: much of music’s power comes from an indefinable quality ingrained in this mysterious art form by the Creator. Many have tried to explain why it is that music is so powerful. No one has succeeded.

In this post I won’t be trying to explain the “active ingredient” that makes music medicinal; I simply want to honor the power of this gift of God and commend it to you as an important part of a healthy lifestyle.

Flannery O’Connor, a legendary Catholic fiction writer, explains the art of fiction in a way that helps me understand what music is doing when it helps me feel better. “You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate,” she explains. In other words, when you have something to say that can’t be said, you turn to art—in O’Connor’s case this meant fiction writing. She says,

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”

A kind statement from a loving friend that “Everything’s going to be alright” is important. But there’s another dimension at work when we hear the Five Stairsteps sing “O-o-h child, things are gonna get easier; o-o-h child, things’ll get brighter.” The words mean what the words mean, but their poetic arrangement allows them to mean more, and the music itself is an added balm, another layer of significance and exploration and auditory compassion.

Headphones2

Wheaton literature professor Leland Ryken adds some helpful thoughts here:

“A rich confusion of awareness lies below the level of our consciousness. Artists reach into that confusion and give it an order. As we stand before a painting or listen to music or read a poem, we suddenly see our own experiences and insights projected onto the details of the work before us. Artists turn our pain into art so we can bear it. They turn our joys into art so we can prolong them.”

This thought was recently beautifully expressed by the band U2 in the song “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”: “We got…music so I can exaggerate my pain and give it a name.” Bono was apparently inspired when he heard the Ramones as a youth, and found in music something that spoke to him deeply, a reality that he expresses in the song:

Vinyl“Heard a song that made some sense out of the world
Everything I ever lost now has been returned
In the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard”

Bono has written about his early experiences with music, and speculates a bit on what was happening to him deep down when he listened to the musicians he loved:

“When I hear these singers, I am reconnected to a part of me I have no explanation for…my ‘soul’ I guess. Words and music did for me what solid, even rigorous, religious argument could never do, they introduced me to God, not belief in God, more an experiential sense of GOD. Over art, literature, reason, the way in to my spirit was a combination of words and music.”

The National acknowledges this type of connection when they sing (in “Don’t Swallow the Cap”):

“If you want to hear me cry, play ‘Let It Be’ [The Beatles] or ‘Nevermind’ [Nirvana].”

I’m not trying to be overly mystical about all of this. My point is ultimately very simple: music often “speaks” to us more deeply than words can go. We could take a “mystical” approach that views music as a type of impersonal magic. Some Christians feel threatened when they hear arguments about a “power” of music that supersedes logic. But we shouldn’t feel threatened by this. Instead, we should remember that God is the one who designed music. Music is his gift. That indefinable quality that makes music so powerful was implanted by God. Music has no power aside from what God has placed within this amazing art form. Rather than downplaying the power of music, we should acknowledge the power and beauty of God’s good gift.

I’ve always loved the introductory song on Wilco’s self-titled album, which introduces the whole album with: “This is an hour of arms open wide, a sonic shoulder for you to cry on. Wilco will love you, baby.” For me, Wilco is a great place to go when I need a sonic shoulder. You might choose to go somewhere else. But the point is, music is medicine because God has made it so. May we find comfort and hope and empowerment as we explore God’s gift, and may we sense the loving arms of the Creator as we experience the healing that often flows through this mysterious part of his creation.

For more on this and other related subjects, click here.

I have written several posts in defense of social media (for example, here, here, and here). My basic argument has been that social media is a series of platforms that are not inherently harmful. I have expressed concern over the way that many people use social media—replacing true friendship with “likes,” superficializing relationships, making unhealthy comparisons, etc.—but my argument has been that it comes down to each person’s heart. If you are a committed friend in real life, then social media can only supplement those friendships, giving you an added dimension to help you stay connected.

I still agree with the basic thrust of my arguments, and I still find the common arguments against social media silly. (The most common argument I encounter is that social media is distracting and time consuming, and I still think my arguments in my earlier posts sufficiently address these concerns.)

Imagining the KingdomHowever, I recently read an excellent critique of social media practices in the important work of James K. A. Smith, specifically in Imagining the Kingdom. Smith’s concern throughout the book is that we give much thought to the intellectual ideas we encounter, but few consider the practices that shape us at a preconscious level. And it’s this preconscious element inherent in everyday practices (or liturgies, as Smith likes to call them) that shapes us the most.

Smith contends that as we scroll through friendships and use our touch screens to manipulate whose updates we will see—choosing who to interact with, how to present ourselves, and who to ignore—we are actually being shaped by these seemingly innocent practices. It is absolutely true that your heart matters for the way you interact with Facebook: if you have a superficial approach to friendship, Facebook will aid your superficiality. But Smith’s point is that Facebook itself is not neutral. It orients us to the world in a specific way, and that orientation shapes us deeply, at a preconscious level.

Think of it like a boot camp for life. What sort of training is a person receiving by using Facebook on a regular basis? She is engaging in a world where everything is under her complete control. Friends are accessible at every moment, inconvenient interruptions are non-existent; or, if a friend goes on a political rant, he can be immediately muted or permanently banished. Interactions always happen at her own pace—friends wait patiently to fit into her schedule.

Don’t get this wrong. The point is not that Facebook is evil or that it was designed in an effort to make us into bad friends. The point is simply this: every activity in our world carries an inherent orientation toward the world. I am thankful for the added connectivity that social media adds to my friendships (particularly those who live out of town), but I must take seriously the way in which social media frames my interactions. It’s naive to imagine that Facebook is not training my heart.

Social Media Distraction

At this moment, I still believe that Facebook and other social media are wonderful means of interacting with my friends and the rest of the world. But I must take seriously Smith’s caution that the platform itself plays a significant role in shaping me. I have to keep an eye on my formation, my training. To what extent do I find myself frustrated when my friends don’t fit my schedule? How annoyed do I get when I have to respond to a political rant instead of simply muting it? Do I try to surround myself with only those people I find interesting? If I see these things becoming reality in my life, I’ll know that my training is off base. I agree with Smith that social media is tendentious—it is pushing me in these directions through the effortless power it offers me to manipulate my world. And I agree with Smith that social media is not trying to convince me to view the world in these ways, it is actually training me to do so at a deep level.

So I partially recant of some of my praise of social media. I at least want to add another dimension to the discussion. Perhaps I was right to say that Facebook itself is not the whole problem—it’s more about how we use it. But I need to add Smith’s important recognition that it’s also about how Facebook uses us. Social media is not neutral. Pay attention to the way it orients you to the world, to the way it shapes your desires. All of us are being shaped more often and more deeply than we think.