Of Two Swords and Two Evils: Trump, Clinton, and Chesterton’s Nightmares

bc_ch1_2__15813-1392762861-1280-1280The breeze off the Bosporus calmed my nineteen year old nerves.  I was having tea in a garden at the residences of a historic Ottoman mosque with the Turkish son of an imam and an American pot-smoking sorority member, my female travel companion for the day.  As all three of us talked about life, beliefs, and interests, I came to realize that I had far more in common with this devout and polite young Muslim man than I had with my fellow female American college student.

In one breath she told stories of breaking international drug-smuggling laws while studying in Paris, in the next she declared her intention to become a lawyer to fight for “justice”.  I still have no idea what that word meant to her, especially given her decided relativism on just about every topic of ethics we encountered.  Hers was a sadly vapid and transitory worldview, one that was almost impossible to engage directly for its sheer lack of discernible foundation.

The son of the Imam, on the other hand, believed in universal absolutes and moral law.  He asked questions about matters eternal and how they related to this present world, genuinely interested in hearing my perspective while defending his own.  We engaged on the perceptions about our faiths versus the actual teachings we claimed as truth, and discussed the vapid and rootless dangers found in secularism.  As we spoke, my fellow American was fairly bored, apathetic, and disinterested.

He was a young student who kindly opened his home and life to two foreigners with the solitary goal to exchange thoughts and ideas.  He did so in a way that respected our dignity and sheltered us from the ugly behavior that runs rampant in the tourist quarters of his city.  We did not need to minimize the critical theological differences between our creeds in order to recognize in each other a kinship.  Ours was a kinship forged in an earnest search for truth and righteousness.

You see, that young man sought after truth, knowledge of God, and the root dignity of man, with more passion than most people I have encountered in my life so far – in or out of the American church.  I still pray to this day that he is an Emeth, be it either on this earth or before the thrown of God.

How certain are you about who is on your side?  As we approach a major election in this country I often hear the imagery of teams used to suggest a clear discernible line between who or what is defensible and who or what it not.  Those on the “other side” are evil, while those deemed to be on our own political side – no matter how flawed – are seen as fundamentally good, perhaps just misguided.  The people most like us are surely the ones who are for us.  Those who are the most different are met with suspicion and often fear.

But what if our sense of teams is wrong?  What if we’ve chosen to join a movement that actually undermines everything that we claim to hold most dear?  What if we aren’t looking clearly enough for the dangers of our own teams and our own battles?  Then what are we to do?

For those who feel caught between two evils, for those who wish to speak against lies but find precious few willing to join them, for those wondering how to stand for truth and justice in a depraved and cynical world, this is for you.

In 1910 G.K. Chesterton penned an allegorical tale, The Ball and the Cross, about two Scotsman dueling for truth in the streets of London and throughout the British countryside.  Evan MacIan, a devout Catholic, and James Turnbull, a devout atheist, both take up swords with the intention to fight the other to the death in defense of their core beliefs.  Labeled madmen by their fellow countrymen, the two embark on a fanciful journey of engagement that leads to some surprising conclusions, including the formation of an indelible companionship based on their common defense of eternal truth.

Toward the end of the novel both MacIan and Turnbull are met with dreams that promise to show the fulfillment of what each is fighting for only to reveal two different, yet similarly rooted, evils.  Each are led away in flying boats by men with no names to the frontline of two dystopian visions for the future of London.  In these depictions of evils we find a reflection of our own times, and our own temptations.  To see them, to understand them, and – finally – to forsake them both for the embrace of Christ: this is our calling.

We long to be drafted for a fight.  In the opening sequence of both dreams, Chesterton’s dueling Scotsmen are met with appeals to come and join the real fights their hearts have longed for.  As the mysterious man first tells MacIan, “you have remained here long enough, and your sword is wanted elsewhere.”  There is something in these lines that speaks to those of us who desire to be wanted, needed, and appreciated.

It beckons to those of us who are dissatisfied with the life we are living or who deeply desire to be a part of a greater cause.  The men with no names in both dreams know of this temptation and desire, for they know the hearts of their would-be warriors.  The call to come fight in their battles is how they lure each truth-fighter into their midst.

Sometimes I think we are drawn to politics because of all it seems to promise.  The power, yes, but also a sense of importance or mission that maybe we don’t feel in our day to day work.  Think of the common political rhetoric we hear and how elevated the language has become, how grandiose the goals are for a better tomorrow.

Politicians promise to fix our problems, ease our fears, and provide hope and purpose for our lives.  When a political candidate asks for your support, for you to join their team and fight for their visions of a certain kind of country, it can be compelling in ways that we are rarely moved.  We all want our lives to mean something greater than ourselves.

And for many, the temptation is strong to believe that how we vote, who we support, or what policies we advance, presents just such a battle to wage that will reward us with the dignity and honor our hearts desire.  We may not have swords of steel, but many of us are called upon by the political causes of our day to rise up with the swords of our mouths, our intellect, our social influence, our pens, and our votes.

When we choose to become a surrogate for a certain politician, when we decide that we will support them for one reason or another, we can often find ourselves enlisted in a battle where our sword is wanted and our life appears to have new purpose and fulfillment.  Perhaps at first we are reluctant or disillusioned, but once suited in the armor of these wars our instinct and heart’s desire for mission leads us to fight on their behalf.

The truth is that it feels good to have a tangible cause to claim as our own.  To have a visible enemy and a measurable path for declaring victory.  We desire to be on the winning side and to feel all that comes with hard fought success.  We long to be drafted for a fight.

And yet…

Without God, security forged in the name of law and order leads only to tyranny.  Donald Trump has declared himself the law and order candidate, and his claim is that this mission will keep us safe and secure as a nation.  But he is not the first to use these terms or proffer these ideas.

In MacIan’s dream, the man driving the flying ship told Evan, “I must not say who I am until the end of the world; but I may say what I am.  I am the law.”  This figure, who claims to represent the law, notably as we shall discover, a law without God, reveals what a world under his dominion would be like.

Claiming that “The king has returned”, he takes MacIan up through the stars.  Foreshadowing the state of the nation, the man who is the law notes of the heavens:

“There is an answer to all the folly talked about equality.  Some stars are big and some are small; some stand still and some cycle round them as they stand.  They can be orderly, but they cannot be equal.

“They are all very beautiful,” said Evan, as if in doubt.

“They are all beautiful,” answered the other, “because each is in his place and owns his superior.  And now England will be as beautiful as the heavens, because our kings have come back to us.”

In this world there is no equality, merely order. Perhaps, at first blush, this doesn’t sound so bad.  Isn’t it supposed to be that way, after all?  The man who is the law claims that the world he is creating with the return of the king is one that reclaims “…all that was ever lost by insolence and overwhelmed in rebellion.”  It is a world with pageantry, cathedrals of armed guards, and stoic greatness.

When the sole object is the law, the borders of one nation can be managed with ease.  As they draw closer to London in their journey, MacIan asks if the war is still raging.  The response of his would be captain is telling and somber:

“It rages like the pit itself beyond the sea wither I am taking you,” answered the other.  “But in England the king enjoys his own again.  The people are once more taught and ruled as is best; they are happy knights, happy squires, happy servants, happy serfs, if you will; but free at last of that load of vexation and lonely vanity which was called being a citizen.”

“Is England, indeed, so secure?” asked Evan.

England won her security in this dream, but at what cost?  At the cost of an enduring chaos and war for the rest of the world, a world completely left behind when the goal of establishing the might of the ancient kings and kingdom was made paramount.  At the cost of their own dignity as citizens.  At the cost of a hard earned freedom, all relinquished in order to become secure from the battles of the outside and the fears from within.

The picture offered of this secure world is one of ordered domestic tranquility with a unsettling undertone:

“As they were sailing down Ludgate Hill, Evan saw that the state of the streets fully answered his companion’s claim about the reintroduction of order.  All the old black-coated bustle with its cockney vivacity and vulgarity had disappeared.  Groups of laborers, quietly but picturesquely clad, were passing up and down in sufficiently large numbers; but it required but a few mounted men to keep the streets in order.  The mounted men were not common policemen, but knights with spur and plume whose smooth and splendid armor glittered like diamond rather than steel.

Only in one place – at the corner of Bouverie Street- did there appear to be a moment’s confusion, and that was due to hurry and rather than resistance.  But one old grumbling man did not get out of the way quick enough, and the man on horseback struck him, not severely, across the shoulders with the flat of his sword.

“The soldier had no business to do that,” said MacIan sharply.  “The old man was moving as quick as he could.”

“We attach great importance to discipline in the streets,” said the man in white, with a slight smile.

“Discipline is not so important as justice,” said MacIan.

At first, you might think, ‘how splendid!’  The criminals, the beggars, the unruly crowds all cleared away for the sake of order, safety, prosperity, and efficiency.  And yet there is a darkness that lingers.  A darkness that silently queries as to the fate of the drunkards, the poor, and the foreigners.  A darkness that wonders at the nature of the people’s hearts and souls working under this state of discipline.  As the man who is the law enlightens:

“The people must be taught to obey; they must learn their own ignorance.  And I am not sure,” he continued, turning his back on Evan and looking out of the prow of the ship into the darkness, “I am not sure that I agree with your little maxim about justice.  Discipline for the whole society is surely more important than justice to an individual.”

Where respect for the individual dignity of all men is traded for law and order, where discipline is bought with the currency of fear, there can be no true justice.  The man in white, who is the law, continues:

“In our armies up in heaven we learn to put a wholesome fear into subordinates.”…

“Besides,” continued he, in the prow, “you must allow for a certain high spirited haughtiness in the superior type…Just as the sight of sin offends God,” said the unknown, “so does the sight of ugliness offend Apollo.  The beautiful and the princely must, of necessity, be impatient with the squalid…”

And here is revealed another truth of the law without God.  The value of people is determined not by their character or innate dignity, but by their physical and material worth.  The spiritual value of each life ceases to matter, at least not with dignity or reference to a greater dominion than the one created on earth.

Thus we see the creation of two laws and two standards, one for the leaders and the beautiful elite and one for the common people.  What began as resurgence for the supposed good of the people to reestablish the greatness of their nation ends in a horrific vision of inequality and elitism enabled by a rule of fear.

Faced with claims and actions of this nature, the defender of truth, a lover of Christ, will speak out.

“Why you great fool!” cried MacIan, rising to the top of his tremendous stature, “did you think I would have doubted only for that rap of a sword?  I know that noble orders have bad knights, that good knights have bad tempers, that the Church has rough priests and coarse cardinals; I have known it ever since I was born.  You fool! You had only to say, ‘Yes it is rather a shame,’ and I would have forgotten the affair.  But I saw on your mouth the twitch of your infernal sophistry; I knew that something was wrong with you and your cathedrals.  Something is wrong, everything is wrong.  You are not an angel.  This is not a church.  It is not the rightful king who has come home.”

The law, instituted by a return of an earthly king and peddled by the as yet unknown man, is false.  The horror of this dystopian world represents more than the failings of a single person or leader.  It represents the wholesale surrender of justice, freedom, and individual dignity, all in the name of security and a restoration of mythical greatness. It represents the death of the soul, a callousness that demeans and destroys the inner life and worth of men for the sake of external order.  Without God, security forged in the name of law and order leads only to tyranny.

Without God, revolution for the sake of humanity leads only to death.  Hillary Clinton has declared that we are stronger together.  But what if someone is unable or unwilling to move in the direction of what is deemed fair or best for all?  What if some lives are an inconvenience to the whole?

James Turnbull, like his dueling partner, was met by a man with no name who came with news that Turnbull had been waiting his whole life to hear.  After declaring, “I want you”, the unknown man wearing a red scarf clarified:

“I want exactly what you want,” said the newcomer with a new gravity. “I want the Revolution.”

Turnbull found himself conflicted, for he started to worry about the fate of his new friend.  Yet he was ultimately persuaded to leave him behind for it would interfere with the mission “to destroy the Pope and all the kings.”  In contrast to the world of surreal order revealed to MacIan, this was a world of chaos.  As the unknown man explained:

“The heavens are full of revolution – the real sort of revolution.  All the high things sinking low and all the big things looking small.  All the people who think they are aspiring find they are falling head foremost.  And all the people who think they are condescending find they are climbing up a precipice.  That is the intoxication of space.  That is the only joy of eternity – doubt.”

In this world of revolution, God is the ultimate enemy to be overthrown.  As the unknown man says, “I mean nothing in God’s name.”  Traveling over the city of London, he explains to Turnbull just what is taking place below:

“We arrive at a happy moment,” said the man steering the ship.  “The insurgents are bombarding the city, and a cannonball has just hit the cross.  Many of the insurgents are simple people, and they naturally regard it as a happy omen.”

With the cross and all it stands for demolished, the glory of mankind is meant to rise.   Such rising is not without great cost, however.  The unknown man clarifies that he has brought Turnbull to London “to take part in the last war of the world.”

“The last war!” repeated Turnbull, even in his dazed state a little touchy about such a dogma; “how do you know it will be the last?”

The man laid himself back in his reposeful attitude, and said:

“It is the last war, because if it does not cure the world forever, it will destroy it.”

Seeking to cure all the ills of the world, it seems, is a dangerous task.  A task destined to either great success or complete failure.  Wars of totality, wars of annihilation, wars aimed to supplant the dominion of God that claim His work of completion and perfection as their own, can only end in this way.

James, looking to understand the uprising at hand and the nature of the fight, seeks clarification from his guide:

Turnbull wrinkled his forehead.  “Are all the poor people with the Revolution?” he asked.

The other shrugged his shoulders.  “All the instructed and class-conscience part of them without exception,” he replied.  “There were certainly a few districts; in fact we are passing over them just now – ”

Turnbull looked down and saw that the polished car was literally lit up from underneath by the far-flung fires from below.  Underneath whole squares of solid districts were in flames, like prairies or forests on fire.

“Dr. Hertz has convinced everybody,” said Turnbull’s cicerone in a smooth voice, “that nothing can be done with the real slums.  His celebrated maxim has been quite adopted.  I mean the three celebrated sentences: “No man should be unemployed.  Employ the employables.  Destroy the unemployables.”

The reign of Science and “equality” had come.  Without God, without an anchor or a compass other than the collective good of mankind, hell on earth had arrived.  If the world is to be perfect, if progress is to be final, some lives must be sacrificed for the good of the whole.

There was silence, and then Turnbull said in a rather strained voice: “And do I understand that this good work is going on under here?”

“Going on splendidly,” replied his companion in the heartiest voice.  “You see, these people were much too tired and weak even to join the social war.  They were a definite hindrance to it.”

“And so you are simply burning them out?”

“It does seem absurdly simple,” said the man, with a beaming smile, “when one thinks of all the worry and talk about helping a hopeless slave population, when the future obviously was only crying to be rid of them.  There are happy babes unborn ready to burst the doors when these drivelers are swept away.”

Perhaps the revolution began with the intent to help these very people, but as they started progressing toward a godless, rootless, social justice an irreverence for the weakest life set in.  Turnbull began to object:

“These people have rights.”

“Rights!” repeated the unknown in a tone quite indescribable.  Then he added with a more open sneer: “Perhaps they also have souls.”

“They have lives!” said Turnbull, sternly; “that is quite enough for me.  I understood you to say that you thought life sacred.”

“Yes, indeed!” cried his mentor with a sort of idealistic animation.  “Yes, indeed! Life is sacred – but lives are not sacred.  We are improving life by removing lives.  Can you, as a freethinker, find any fault in that?”

What a poignant and direct condemnation of the philosophy behind the pro-abortion movement.  Then again, what poignant and direct condemnation of any philosophy that degrades, devalues, or destroys the life of any individual for the sake of the whole.

Think of the fear of disability in the young and the subsequent advocacy to end life before it has begun on the sheer basis that their life might be hard, diseased, or imperfect.  Think of the one-child policy and all the human pain that has caused. Think of those who advocate that we must limit human life for the sake of the planet.  Think of the glorification of euthanasia as a way to ease the pain of an individual and the collective burden such pain presents the wider community.  Where individuals are not loved unto life, death shall reign.

The dialogue continues, after Turnbull replies that he can, indeed, find fault with that argument:

“Yet you applaud tyrannicide,” said the stranger with rationalistic gaiety.  “How inconsistent!  It really comes to this: You approve of taking away life from those to whom it is a triumph and a pleasure.  But you will not take away life from those to whom it is a burden or a toil.”

Turnbull rose to his feet in the car with considerable deliberation, but his face seemed oddly pale.  The other went on with enthusiasm.

“Life, yes, Life indeed is sacred!” he cried; “but new lives for old! Good lives for bad! On that very place where now there sprawls one drunken wastrel of a pavement artist more or less wishing he were dead – on that very spot there shall in the future be living pictures; there shall be golden girls and boys leaping in the sun.”

Such is the vision of a social revolution without God.  It starts with seeking justice for the oppressed.  Kill the kings!  Kill the bankers! Kill the powerful! Kill the rich!  But then the mission quickly becomes about maximizing the best life for the most number of people.  Kill the weak.  Kill the unwanted.  Kill the inconvenient.  Kill the unproductive.  Kill the uncooperative.

Their sacrifice is needed for the good of the whole, is it not?  Surely equality for most is worth the destruction of a few.  Such is the logic of the godless revolution. Such was the horror of the godless authoritarian regimes of the 20th Century.  It happened in our past, in some corners of the world it is happening in the present, and it can most certainly happen again in our future.

Where only certain lives are valued, no one can be truly loved or loving.  To honor all life means to honor the innate dignity of each human being as creations with a Creator.  Without God, revolution for the sake of humanity leads only to death.

The goodness of God always respects and loves the dignity, sanctity, and equality of every individual life.  The dystopian visions offered by Chesterton over 100 years ago remain remarkably relevant, for these are the extremes of a world without truth and without God.  I have a feeling that to some of you one outcome likely seems worse than the other, but such an assessment would fundamentally miss the point.  Both are evil.

Both revoke the sovereignty of God for futures where men seek to take His authority as their own.  One offers the vision of a pretender, a human savior who alone can fix all that ills us.  The other offers the vision of a revolt, the overthrow of God and His standards of life for the supposed good of the whole. Both turn the State and its rulers into gods, creating an idolatrous worship of man and government in the place of Christ.

Our current candidates for president and the ideals they represent may fall along different places on this spectrum of danger and death.  It is up for interpretation just how close to each nightmarish future the current candidates comes in their policy prescriptions and personas as supposed balms to our fears and unmet desires.

You may see a little of each dream in both candidates, or perhaps you see this election in stricter ideological terms.  Regardless, neither candidate espouses a vision of life and authority that aligns with the love and truth of God.  The goodness of God always respects and loves the dignity, sanctity, and equality of every individual life.

All evil leads to the same place.  The notion of the “lesser” evil is typically a false concept.  Either your options represent true evil, and therefore are all equally bad, or they really aren’t evil to begin with.

I fear we have deluded ourselves into buying into a great lie of civil religion, a lie often claimed to have God on its side.  This lie tell us that our desired policy preferences are all moral goods, and therefore those of the other side are inherently evil or immoral.

What if both sides to a policy solution are legitimate moral goods, for their ends are morally desirable?  What if they are just different ideas on how to walk out similar principles?  Or what if they are just preferences?  What if both sides to a policy solution are merely secular in nature, for the stated goal carries little to no moral significance?

I genuinely believe in the economic efficacy and importance of free trade, but are those who are against it fundamentally evil?  Some people believe the government has an obligation to take care of those struggling at the margins of society while others see this as the work of private organizations.  Perhaps we disagree about how best to achieve the goal, but do we not both agree that those who are in pain or poverty need to be helped?  Why create enemies where there are none?

We live, for now, in a democratic republic.  We compromise and work with people who have different ideas of how to achieve similar ends.  Just because we disagree about how to solve problems does not mean we must also disagree that there are specific problems most Americans want to address.  Compromising on issues like healthcare, immigration policy, taxes, or criminal justice reform does not automatically make you an enemy of truth or a hypocrite in representing your fundamental values.

In contrast, because it seems every deviance from our chosen party affiliation is labeled an apostasy to not just the political good but also the moral good, we have obscured the true evils that dwell among us and ask for our allegiance.  Sure, we can usually identify the dangers present in our political opposition.  But when we, say, list praise for abortion alongside the embrace of food stamps, a dovish foreign policy, or a particular tax rate, all as evil things worthy of equal condemnation, we weaken our voice and testimony on the issues that truly matter.

Moreover, when we obsess over the particular evils of the “other side”, we risk blinding ourselves to the evil that dwells within our own causes and among our fellow compatriots.

An exclusive and authoritarian nationalism, the flagrant abuse of power, an unashamed display of greed and success at all costs, a desire to torture or even kill innocents for our own security, a callousness to the suffering or failure of others, a disregard for personal virtue in political leadership, the superiority of one culture, ethnicity, or person over another, all these evils must be guarded against no matter the bearer.

Likewise, a socialist mindset that values the collective “good” above the individual, that labels some life as less important than others because of the pain, inconvenience, or financial drain they represent, a belief that truth is relative and therefore lies are permissible, a denial of a common morality or the existence of a creator, these are all evils that cannot be endorsed or advanced.

In the contrast offered by Chesterton’s dreams there are no lesser evils.  Both dreams are equally unrighteous and worthy of condemnation.  Both dreams were designed to warn each truth fighter of the dangers in their own thoughts and to bring them closer to the true king and the true battle, a battle won through surrender of self.  Both dreams served to bring each man closer together, to remind them of the goodness they shared, and to instruct them about the evil they needed to reject.

Lack of equality, justice, and freedom for individuals as found in the fight for “the law” is not rendered right or good because crime and vulgarity is banished from the streets (although perhaps not in the rulers themselves) and authority and order reigns supreme.

Lack of protection for the sanctity of all life – no matter how inconvenient, ugly, or painful – as found in the fight for the “revolution” is not made acceptable just because institutional abuses of power are finally upended or avenged.

Don’t fool yourself.  All evil leads to the same place.

In the end, we always have a choice.  Contrary to the popular lies spreading throughout our contemporary discourse, when brought face to face with representatives of evil we have a choice to say no. We have a choice to do the unexpected.  We have a choice to take the narrow path and the hard way.

Chesterton understood this point well.  When told that he had no choice but to see the returned king, presumably in submission, Evan MacIan refused:

“Do you desire death?”

“No,” said Evan, quite composedly, “I desire a miracle.”

“From whom do you ask it? To whom do you appeal?” said his companion sternly.  “You have betrayed the king, renounced the cross on the cathedral, and insulted an archangel.”

“I appeal to God,” said Evan, and sprang up and stood upon the edge of the swaying ship.

The being in the prow turned slowly round; he looked at Evan with eyes which were like two suns, and put his hand to his mouth just too late to hide an awful smile.

“And how do you know,” he said, “how do you know that I am not God?”

MacIan screamed, “Ah!” he cried.  “Now I know who you really are.  You are not God  You are not one of God’s angels.  But you were once.” The being’s hand dropped from his mouth and Evan dropped out of the car.

Likewise, Turnbull has a similar moment of revelation where he, too, decides to jump out of the flying ship taking him to the frontline of a battle that was not his to fight.  Both came face to face with the epitome of evil and rebellion.  Both visions, both worlds – of law and of revolution – came from the same fallen angel.  Once the source of their evils was revealed, the two truth duelers knew how to respond.

But what are we to do?  This is the resonating question that remains unresolved by much of our national discourse at present.  Drawn from Chesterton, I have a few tentative suggestions of how best to proceed:

Step 1: Find your Turnbull 

Chances are that you are not alone in the passions now cultivated in your heart as you confront these societal questions of goodness, evil, dignity, and truth.  Perhaps your life is full of Turnbulls, of fellow travelers seeking after truth with the same earnest questioning and resistance to popular movements and ideas that hold others captive.  Or perhaps you need to go out and find at least one other person with whom you can engage.

One of the Turnbulls in my past was the imam’s son.  Be they fellow Christians, or those seeking from starting places outside of divine revelation, find your friends and dialogue with one another.  Band together.  Sharpen each other.  Help each other.  Bless, minister, and engage.  In a world gone mad, these friends of truth are a great gift from above.

Step 2:   Don’t be deceived

It would have been so easy for MacIan and Turnbull to say yes to the fights they were recruited to join.  These were, after all, earthly manifestations of the battles their hearts had dreamed of and yearned for.  These were great narratives wrought in an attempt to address all they felt was wrong with the world.  How desperately our hearts want to be given a mission and told that we have an important role to play.

It is empowering to believe that we can be a part of something great, be it the ordering of the world in the name of security or the last battle of the world in the name of the common good.  But we err when we let our desire to fight overlook the root evil that lies behind those who would beckon our swords.

Ask yourself, who is calling you and for what purpose?  Keep your eyes open in this treacherous world and resist the cunning spirit who would use your best intentions to enlist your services for a cause that is neither just, nor holy, nor righteous, nor true.

Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.  –  Galatians 6:7-9

Step 3: Jump out of your ship

We live in a world that often assigns us to certain kinds of boats.  Our race, our citizenship, our families, our denomination, our favored sports team, our political affiliation.  We can choose different labels at times, but no matter where we find ourselves it is easy to go along with a human narrative or cause because it is the rallying call of the ships that we sail within.  Sometimes these boats are harmless, for they provide our sense of community or identity.  But sometimes they seek to take us to places that are contrary to the calling of the Lord.

When we find that our boats of birth or choice seek to sail upon winds counter to the glory of God, to take us to the frontline of battles we are not called to fight, then we must be like MacIan and Turnbull.  We must call out to God for help, pray for a miracle, and jump out of the supposed safety of these berths into the protective arms of our Savior.

In a world that treasures labels and tribes of all kinds, this can be a frightening prospect.  Perhaps you have always been a Republican or a Democrat and to not vote as such (or for at least one of the two) seems like a direct challenge to your identity or your very calling in this world.  How desperately we want to believe that our causes and boats are right and true!  But this is where we must recall that our true identity is found in Christ, not in any label or power or battle the world can offer.  Dare to jump, dare to leave all labels and vessels behind but one: Christ follower.

It’s time to reevaluate what the work of God in this world is meant to look like.  It’s time to question our preconceived notions of what God is asking of us as a people.  I cannot tell you what that future will look like, but I can promise that as we forsake the boats of this earth, we will be met with the power of God, not man, that shall rise us up on wings like eagles to carry us and – we pray – our Turnbulls, to our true eternal home.

Step 4: Put down your sword and kneel

In the final pages of Chesterton’s saga, in the midst of a great battle against those who wish to silence the cause of truth, MacIan, Turnbull, and the friends they made during their crusade encounter another man without a name – the one who was labeled by the authorities as both the most dangerous and the most insane.  Yet this man turned out to be the true King, the true answer to all the world’s ills.

Both MacIan and Turnbull find their swords cast aside as they and their companions fall to their knees before his Holy presence.  Having resisted the temptations of evil battles and evil leaders, they found the true battle and the true leader their hearts longed for.

It is through surrender to Christ, through death in Him, that we will conquer the ills of the world.  It is in rejecting calls to join in these worldly fights as the false gods they really are that we will be fulfilled and our heart’s desire shall be met.

Come before the Lord in prayer, worship, and holiness.  Stay true to Him regardless of the cost, regardless of what others call you, regardless of the temporal consequences some are quick to proffer in admonishment.  Fear not the ways of man.  Rather, take heart in the ways of God.

No eternal fate of a community or country or soul is won or lost in a single worldly election.  No fate of a country or a court, no earthly fight, is worth selling your soul or compromising your values and your Spirit-breathed conscience.

God is in control and He is sovereign.  He always has been and He always will be.  We know the end of the story.  Let’s choose to serve the One who has already overcome and work for the advancement of His kingdom, which is not of this world.

O God of earth and altar, Bow down and hear our cry, Our earthly rulers falter, Our people drift and die; The walls of gold entomb us, The swords of scorn divide, Take not thy thunder from us, But take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches, From lies of tongue and pen, From all the easy speeches, That comfort cruel men, From sale and profanation, Of honour and the sword, From sleep and from damnation, Deliver us, good Lord.

Tie in a living tether The prince and priest and thrall, Bind all our lives together, Smite us and save us all; In ire and exultation, Aflame with faith, and free, Lift up a living nation, A single sword to thee.

~ A Hymn: O God of Earth and Altar, 

We must refuse to call something “good” that is not in any way representative of God’s goodness.  We must reject any temptation to believe that because we, or our favorite church leader for that matter, is a part of one of these fights that certainly renders the battle worthwhile.

Unless God is present, and He is not present in the evils set before us, no amount of our perceived personal light or the supposed goodness in one facet of a candidate’s platforms, will be enough to overcome their own wretched ends.  Our swords, once commissioned for a battle of darkness, will be used only for the advancement of the evil we choose to represent.

We can remain mindful that each person of faith, each person actively seeking truth, may walk out the four prescriptions above in slightly different ways when it comes to the upcoming election.  Not voting.  Supporting third parties or write-in candidates, of many different types and varieties.  Voting for a leading candidate with a humble and silent grief.  But the most important feature for us to embrace is the refusal to take up requests to fight on behalf of the fallen angels of law or revolution, on behalf of these angels of death.

In the context of our times and our communities, those who engage one another for the sake of truth, those who choose not to be deceived by the popular movements of our times, those who will jump out of the safe categories and labels offered by our culture to instead lay down their swords at the feet of Christ, could well be deemed lunatics.  We may be cursed, or mocked, or criticized.  But such is the calling of Christ.

We cannot afford to loose our witness to this madness.  And yes, the truly mad are those committed to the lies proffered by the philosophies of tyranny and death, found on both the political left and right.  We must disregard attempts to make those who resist or stand apart look like the ones who just don’t understand or who aren’t doing their share to save the country or save the world.

Take courage friends! Our identity is not found in our political allegiance, nor is it found in the fate or morality of our country.  We have a Creator in Whose image we are made.  We have a Savior in Whom we can find refuge.  Look to Him.  Look for Him.  And leap into His arms in times of trouble, believing in the miracle of His salvation and the power of His dominion.

The good news is that God has already conquered and Christ has already won.  His Bride will rise resplendent and His Body shall one day be made whole.  We can follow Him into the fire knowing that He will protect us from the flames.  In the end we always have a choice.

 

* Image credit to Ben Hatke

The Power of Self-Centered Thinking (Part 3): On Forgiveness, Prayer, and Eternal Life

9789381841723-ukMy husband and I once found ourselves worshipping with a community of believers who were struggling to pray.  When entreated by the pastor to spend the remainder of a service in small groups of prayer we found ourselves paired up with a group of several elders of the church.  It came to our surprise that almost none of those elders really knew what to say or do, so we all kind of just talked about our concerns, patted each other on the back, and thus concluded the service.

As much as we were perplexed by this experience and other similar ones to follow, we also came to value the human struggles of expressing our thoughts, needs, and desires to God.  In recent years my heart has especially softened to the role of our pastoral shepherds.  It touched me how keenly aware the pastor of this church was regarding his flock’s struggle and how often he taught on prayer and actively sought new ways to encourage each person present to pray.

The patience and love found in a commitment to growth over a long period of time is a beautiful image of leadership.  It is also a beautiful image of Christ’s gentle correcting love for us.  Walking along side several different churches in the last ten years has helped remind me that sometimes the “basics” of our faith are really the deepest and most difficult to walk out.  They can be the hardest to grasp and put into practice, but they also yield the most beautiful blessings when practiced with the truth and love of the Gospel.

Reading through The Power of Positive Thinking I have been reminded time and again of similar experiences at various churches.  The encouraging, the damaging, the healing, the disappointing, the transformational: all parts of trying to live out the gospel of Christ in fellowship with others.

As much as I readily see and acknowledge some truth in Peale’s writings, I also cannot identify with how he sees the purpose for faith or how he explains God’s plan for our lives.  It is like he speaks part of the truth, but can’t or won’t quite make the connection to embrace the fullness of Christ and the freedom found in Him.  The gospel he offers is a cheap one, much like the cheapness famously described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a comparison to look at more fully in a later post).  I think that is the great tragedy of his work, and by extension a great tragedy of the faith expressed on occasion by Donald Trump.

How sad it must be to dwell so close to true healing and yet not be able to embrace it.  How frightening it must be for all your confident answers to lead you right back to where you started the moment something starts to fall apart.  How desperate it must feel to leave no room for explaining or coping with recurring failure, rejection, or lasting suffering other than identifying yourself as a pathetic insecure loser.  When all that we are is contingent upon all that we do, when all that God offers is contingent on how well off we become in the eyes of this world, life and meaning and purpose are diminished.

I think reading this book is giving me not just an understanding of the false teachings of our times, but it is helping me develop a compassion for ways we get lost in them and the heartbreak it leads us toward.  When we package lies inside of truth we risk not only hurting ourselves, but doing irreparable harm to others.

Here are my reflections on Chapters 2-4: A Peaceful Mind Generates Power; How to Have Constant Energy; Try Prayer Power

We need forgiveness from sin every day.  I was genuinely surprised to discover that Norman Vincent Peale talks about forgiveness in these chapters.  It doesn’t seem to be a primary focus of the book and given Donald Trump’s own admission that he wasn’t sure if he ever asked God for forgiveness I wasn’t expecting to find anything on the subject in Peale’s opus.  While it was heartening to see a flash of deeper truth in these pages, I was struck by how he writes about the subject.

The most gospel laden moment so far was when Peale prayed for healing over a man mired in sin and regret.  As he laid his hands upon him (a practice Peale notes as a exception for his daily pastoral work) he prayed, “Dear Jesus, as You healed people in the long ago and gave them peace, heal this man now.  Give him fully of Thy forgiveness.  Help him to forgive himself.  Separate him from all his sins and let him know that You do not hold them against him.  Set him free from them.  Let thy peace flow into his mind, into his soul, and into his body” (38). So far so good, right?

Well, here’s the thing.  This man, who Peale notes was supernaturally healed from his own guilt, was presented as doing something rare.  In fact, in all cases where something even approaching forgiveness is addressed it is presented almost as a solution for once in a lifetime crises or ailments.  And then, once healed, this man was so aghast by the awkwardness of the prayer (Peale notes how they were both quite embarrassed) they immediately parted ways only to speak again months later where a healing was confirmed.

I don’t disagree with Peale’s assessment that, for some Christians, “They have always sought Divine forgiveness, and the good Lord will always forgive anyone who asks Him and who means it.  However, there is a curious quirk within the human mind whereby sometimes an individual will not forgive himself” (37).  But ultimately he depicts the problem that separates us from God as our own thoughts, our lack of positive thinking, and not our sin.

So when a person is troubled by their guilt, confession isn’t as important as merely being peaceful.  In the teachings of Peale, sin is negated by emptying our thoughts and thinking of good things.  Sure, God helps too, but as far as forgiveness goes that is really just something rare and perhaps even an embarrassing footnote to our daily Christian walk.

Consider this telephone exchange he describes with a city official who was so distressed that he could not sleep.  In an emotional moment of confession, the official cried out “I guess you know what a no-account I am, even though I put up a big front.  I am sick of all this, dear Jesus.  Please help me.”  At that moment Peale prays over him with these words, “Help him now to yield himself and accept your gift of peace” (28).

Not to accept the gift of saving grace.  Not to accept the gift of forgiveness.  He bypasses these crucial aspects of Christian teaching to instead ask this man to accept God’s peace without acknowledging the very sources of our peace.  To Peale, this man’s problem was his attitude, not his sin.

The trouble is there is no peace without repentance.  And if we save forgiveness for only the truly rare or extra bad things we do, whatever that means, then we risk separating God from the reality of our daily lives.  Or, worse still, constructing false images of ourselves as mostly good people who don’t really do anything that bad.

I confess I once saw the Christian life this way.  I grew up in church and I didn’t really rebel against my parents or go to parties and engage in other behavioral sins that a lot of teenagers or young adults struggle with.  I was basically a good person, in my own estimation.  Only that wasn’t the truth of my heart.

As I walked out my own pride and self-righteousness, I closed myself off from a closer walk with Christ.  In that moment, I could have been determined and filled my heart and my head with images of success.  I could have embraced the “peace” offered by Peale, peace designed so I might sleep better at night, get better grades in school, make more money when I start working, and occasionally spend time volunteering in homeless shelters just to show what a stellar person I really was.  I could have accepted this peace so that I might rest assured that I was superior to those poor pathetic losers who didn’t know success and God in the unique way I did.

Yet carefully constructing our self image so that we override our own daily conscience is not peace. It is hell.  The closer I got to this hell the more I found that the only way out was through the cross of Christ.  And not once at a camp meeting, but every day, kneeling before God in confession and repentance for the ways that I sinned against Him.  That is the truth of my heart and my life.  And it was through daily repentance, a daily wrestling with my heart and my mind before the Lord, that I found the peace of Christ.

Russell Moore aptly addressed this reality when he was the focus of one of Donald Trump’s insulting tweets.  Instead of defending himself against the name calling he said he that agreed with Trump’s assessment, for he is a sinner as charged.  The good news, as shared during Moore’s interview on CNN, is that Jesus died for us to free us from our own sin.  It isn’t that He died so that we might be successful.  It isn’t that He died so that we might have peaceful thoughts.  He died to set us free from the bondage created as we hurt, lie, covet, and kill (even if it is in our hearts) on a daily basis.

Unlike my teenage self who believed that merely not doing one of a select few actions made me ok before God, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God on a daily basis.  We need forgiveness from sin every day

We need truth in order to heal.  The hollowness of Peale’s forgiveness goes deeper still.  When we deny reality for the sake of a veneer of peace we loose the opportunity to really struggle with the ways that we hurt one another and to come to a complete and transparent healing in our relationships.  Consider this example of a woman whose husband asked her for a divorce as discussed in Peale’s chapter on prayer.

Through Peale’s counseling this woman was convicted that she needed to change her attitude toward her husband, who she believed to be cheating on her.  Nothing exactly wrong there.  Through utilizing his methods of practical religion she asked her husband to wait 90 days before filing for divorce.  She then spent these 90 days visualizing a better marriage and hoping her husband would wish to return to her.  Once the 90 days were over, her husband told her the strangest thing when she reminded him of their deal.

He replied to her, “Don’t be silly.  I couldn’t possibly get along without you.  Where did you ever get the idea I was going to leave you?” (57).  Now, to Peale this was a miraculous answer to prayer.  And I suppose, in some ways, the saving of a marriage is a good thing.  But the problem is that this resolution wasn’t built on truth.  The husband didn’t admit to his infidelity.  He even denied ever having asked for a divorce in the first place, which is both a lie and an abusive form of communication known as gaslighting.  And yet Peale pronounced that, in this case, prayer “solved her problem and his as well.” (57)

This isn’t the kind of healing that God offers, either to ourselves or our relationships.  When He heals, He heals in truth.  Healing with truth can be messy and painful.  It can take years.  In the case of marriages, where trust is broken, it can take a long time to rebuild that which was damaged even when both spouses are fully committed to the process.

In a similar story, interestingly also involving infidelity, Peale speaks of a man who came to him hesitant to end an affair for fear of the woman’s husband finding out and telling the world in revenge. Peale convinced him to end it anyway and risk the consequences.  The man asked God for forgiveness and was freed from guilt and fear.  What a great illustration of a repentant life!  Only there is a bit of a snag with Peale’s telling.

This man, under Peale’s direction, prayed that he might avoid the consequences of his actions.  “The patient recognized the fact that if the husband became apprised of the situation, it would result in disgrace for him in his community.  He happened to be a prominent citizen and prized his high standing” (48).  In spite of his fear, Peale assures his “patient” that, “whatever he did that was right would turn out right” (49).

In the end, the woman he was cheating with chose not to tell her husband about the affair – possibly, Peale notes, because her affections went elsewhere or “through shrewdness or some expression of her better nature” (49).  This conclusion to the story, a conclusion of further brokenness, pain, and lies, is named by Peale as the hand of God his “patient’s” life.

The man Peale prayed with and counseled used the power of prayer and the power of positive thinking to not only get his old life back, but to do so at no personal cost.  His sleep and energy returned, his business associates and neighbors are none the wiser, and he can go on being an upstanding member of his community guilt-free and reputation intact.  How often do we attribute sad circumstances that help us but hurt others as the hand of God?

The relationship of his partner in the affair was irrelevant in this story of healing offered by Peale.  He actually implies we are to rejoice at the fact that the poor husband remained trapped in a lie and without the potential for healing his own marriage.  Was he not also sinned against by the adultery?  I guess not, perhaps he deserved it.  Sounds consistent for Trump world, for reasons that are too unseemly to note outright.

But what happens if one day that woman does seek her own healing?  What if she confesses to her husband?  What if they confess to the world?  Peale glosses over these concerns.  He fails to address the full cost of this man’s sin, and thereby fails to provide a full healing.

Perhaps this man who ended the affair became just like those people Peale notes in Chapter 1 who look confident and successful on the outside but who are secretly afraid that someone will discover the truth of their own hearts and lives.

Or maybe he will so thoroughly master Peale’s teachings that he looses any sense of remorse over the unresolved brokenness left behind.  Maybe he’d blame the other woman for causing his momentary indiscretions and potentially ruining her marriage with the novel possibility of telling her husband the truth.  Peale does explain that this adulterous man “earnestly besought her to abandon their practice and allow him to return to his former state of respectability” (48), so clearly the woman was the primary sinner in this situation anyway.  Perhaps, once forgiven, he’d be like the husband in the first story who just denies, maybe even to himself, that this affair ever happened to begin with.

The healing Peale speaks of, the peace he encourages, the forgiveness he proffers, is superficial and deceptive.  By minimizing the role of repentance and sin he limits the potential for his message to offer genuine hope to his readers.  He minimizes our own culpability, our daily need for repentance, and most of all the need to be truthful about our indiscretions and sins.  In doing so he minimizes the power and fullness of the gospel message.  We need truth in oder to heal.

Abundant life is eternal life.  According to Peale, “The supreme over-all word of the Bible is life, and life means vitality – to be filled with energy.  Jesus stated the key expression, ‘…I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.’ (John 10:10).”  He continues, “This does not rule out pain or suffering or difficulty, but the clear implication is that if a person practices the creative and re-creative principles of Christianity he can live with power and energy” (43).  Well that’s good to know.

Peale tells of a doctor who once explained how one man managed to accomplish so much in business without suffering any physical ailments or tiredness for his devotion.  The doctor observed, “From his religion he has learned how to avoid drainage of power.  His religion is a workable and useful mechanism for preventing energy leaks” (42).  Peale expands, “But if he allows energy leaks caused by hereditary or self-imposed emotional reaction of a debilitating nature, he will be lacking in vital force” (42).  Where there is a depletion of energy there is a depletion of life and a thereby a depletion of faith.  One has to wonder if that also means there is a depletion of salvation.

But what about the chronically ill?  What about those who struggle their whole lives to find success, “power and energy.”  The disabled must just be out of luck, for in this vision they are blocked from a complete partaking of the life offered by God.  Guess they might as well be ridiculed.

Did Jesus come so that we might have endless energy in this world to do whatever we please as we pursue success in our business and personal causes? It is true that in a certain sense we can be empowered by God’s strength to help us through our earthly difficulties. There is a real hope offered to us through Christ and the Holy Spirit for the troubles we face in the land of the living.   Where Peale starts getting a little quacky – and I mean full on New Age oddity – is in how he defines energy and vitality and applies these ideas to God’s will for our lives and the purpose of Christ coming to earth.

For example, he suggests, “in our consciousness we can tap a reservoir of boundless power as a result of which it is not necessary to suffer a depletion of energy” (41).  Therefore, anyone with a depletion of energy is not correctly tapping into the power of God.  Perhaps you can now see why Donald Trump’s criticism of others, most notably Jeb Bush, as being “low-energy” is such a fatal and ugly notion in his ethic.

In counseling his reader to get lost in a cause greater than themselves in order to tap into this limitless energy, Peale notes, “You won’t have time to think about yourself or get bogged down in your emotional difficulties” (45-6).  And there we have it.  The great sin, the great antithesis to Christian living in the eyes of Norman Vincent Peale, is acknowledging and thinking about your problems, pains, and failures for longer than the few minutes it takes to ask God for your rare moments of forgiveness or maybe just His peace.

There is a certain wisdom in pouring yourself out for selfless causes, although selfless is my word.  He advises a more ambitious “something bigger than yourself” (45).  But we are meant as Christians to give out of our own brokenness.  Introspection, when balanced with the spiritual virtues, is a great blessing and a necessity on our path toward contrition, healing, and righteous living.

Without introspection we lack awareness of our own sin and guilt, just as we lack awareness of the fullness of our own pains.  Transparency about our difficulties, acknowledging them yet serving anyway, is meant to be part of our daily life.  We don’t seek to get rid of our problems.  Rather, we let them exist side by side with our callings, our triumphs, and our daily work. Peale, it seems, is leading his followers astray from these vital truths.

Interestingly, he notes that righteousness is not required to taste of the energy and life he promotes.  “Every great personality I have ever known, and I have known many,” (sound like someone else who likes to brag on the greatness of all his acquaintances?),  “who has demonstrated the capacity for prodigious work has been a person in tune with the Infinite.  Every such person seems in harmony with nature and in contact with the Divine energy.  They have not necessarily been pious people, but invariably they have been extraordinarily well organized from an emotional and psychological point of view” (43).  The goal of life, then, is made out to be efficiency, organization, and success.  Achieve these and you will have spiritual life, fail at these and you effectively have spiritual death.

Thankfully, this is not what Christianity teaches.  The word life in Peale’s favored scripture passage on this topic is the Greek word zoe, meaning “the uncreated, eternal life of God, the divine life uniquely possessed by God.” If only Peale urged his readers to ponder more of the passage from John 10:

So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

Eternal life, the zoe offered through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ and our adoption as co-heirs with Him, is not dependent on the level of success we achieve in this world or how best we maximize our time, body, and resources.  We can be broken, hurting, and incomplete and still have the life of Christ within us. We can fail – in business, in relationships, in the goals we set – and still be full of the Holy Spirit.

As I noted in Part 2 of this series, we don’t justify our own salvation.  While it is all well and good to build confidence, to use certain tools to stay positive, seek success, and give to others, this is not the essence of the life we are offered in Christ. Abundant life is a sacrificial life.  Abundant life is eternal life.

Prayer is isn’t about what you get, it’s about what you give.  On one hand Peale notes some great ideas about prayer.  He suggests that we go about our day praying through our activities, gives hope that God cares about everything that troubles us no matter how small, and suggests that in praying for others – even silently – we can bless others and encounter God together.  He also offers lots of suggestions for how we can visualize an improvement of our circumstances in order to overcome despair.

None of these perspectives and tools are bad things, but most of them smack of the same level of truth as we find in the contemporary teachings of Deepak Chopra, Eckhardt Tolle, and most Oprah episodes from the last decade her talkshow was on the air.

The main issue is with how he sees prayer primarily as a tool to find success.  He claims, “People are doing more praying today than formerly because they find that it adds to personal efficiency.  Prayer helps them tap into forces to utilize strength not otherwise available” (52).  By utilizing a simple formula, “(1) PRAYERIZE, (2) PICTURIZE, (3) ACTUALIZE” ( 55), he claims that we can achieve just about anything we set our minds to.

For example, he says that “The man who assumes success tends already to have success.  People who assume failure tend to have failure.  When either failure or success is pictured it strongly tends to actualize in terms equivalent to the mental image pictured” (55).  Here we go again, life and godliness determined on the basis of worldly success vs. worldly failure.  Glad to know the only real reason why I have failed at times in my life is because I wasn’t visualizing and assuming properly.

This obsession with the trappings of worldly success as signs of God’s power pervades even how he attempts to entice one businessman back into the church.  “He was the head of a medium-sized business and he fell to telling me how much money his firm took in last year.  I told him I knew quite a few churches whose take exceeded that.  This really hit him in the solar plexus, and I noted his respect for the church mounting by leaps and bounds.  I told him about the thousands of religious books that are sold, more than any other type of book” (58) .  Guess those poor house churches facing persecution around the word are really just not praying effectively enough.

While recounting this conversation he recalls how another man came up to the table to inform Dr. Peale that one of his books changed his life in the course of a single week.  After leaving, the head of this medium sized business noted, “That fellow talks about religion as happy and workable…He also gives the impression that religion is almost a science, that you can use it to improve your health and do better in your job.  I never though of religion in that connection” (59).

Well I’ll be.  All this time we’ve been teaching the gospel as if it was about something more than us.  As if it was about God and who He is and what He has done.  But here is the secret we’ve been missing and the reason people leave the church: we don’t fully grasp how we can USE God for our good.  I don’t quite recall reading this in the Bible, but surely it’s in there somewhere.  At the end of the day Christianity is really just about us, isn’t it?  Or so Peale leads us to believe.

My husband I attended the church that struggled with prayer during a time of extreme uncertainty and pain in our lives.  One Sunday we chose to take up an offer for healing prayer after the service.  Sharing our most vulnerable struggles with another church member who was joining with the pastor’s effort to engage his community in prayer turned out to be a powerfully moving experience for all of us.

I guess not many people in that congregation faced the type of adversity we struggled with at the time, or if they did they mostly kept it to themselves.  But after explaining our circumstances, our needs for provision and healing, all three of us were rendered in tears before the Lord.  The kind man praying for us struggled to find words, and like us, groaned and wept for several minutes before asking God for help.

His eventual words of prayer were an encouragement, but mostly I just remember his tears, his hugs, and how he told us that he had been blessed that day by our willingness to share our pain, loss, and fear with him.  We were all blessed by the encounter with the Holy Spirit in love, in uncertainty, and in heartache.  Coming together before the thrown of God in honest fellowship was suddenly far more significant than any specific words we said or answers we later received.

This is the power of prayer.  But more importantly, this is the power of Jesus Christ.

A great truth is found in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  

Though we fall short every day, we are daily offered a chance to die to ourselves and be found in Christ.  We need forgiveness from sin every day.

We need not fear our blemishes or our failures, for Christ’s power (not our own) is made perfect through them all.  Our testimony is the full story of our past and present including the messy, undesirable, and less than dignified parts.  So long as we keep hiding those parts in shame we limit the ways God can use and heal us.  It is in admitting our weaknesses and failures that God’s glory shines ever brighter and our souls are made ever stronger.  We need truth in order to heal.

Christ died so that we might live again.  He died so that we may receive forgiveness and be made whole in Him.  God is ever with us, but his healing and love is only made perfect and complete in eternity.  Abundant life is eternal life.

God has gifted us with talents, disciplines, and fellowship, so that we might bless others and bring glory to His own name.  We don’t use God.  Rather, He asks that our hearts become willing for Him to use us.  While calling on his name will help us, while we are promised that He will answer us, the ways He blesses isn’t for our own success and achievement.  Prayer isn’t about what you get, it’s about what you give.

If you are reading these reflections for the first time, check out Part 1 on the backstory of blogging through this book and Part 2: On Justification, Insecurity, and God’s Will. 

 I am using the 1992 edition of The Power of Positive Thinking printed by Fawcet Crest/Ballantine Books.  All citations reference this copy.

 

The Power of Self-Centered Thinking (Part 2): On Justification, Insecurity, and God’s Will

9789381841723-ukLike many avid PBS viewers, my husband and I were in for quite the experience this week when we sat down to watch their annual coverage of “A Capitol Fourth”, the live broadcast of D.C.’s Independence Day concert and fireworks.   Since we were splashing around town with our toddlers in downpours earlier that day we knew it would be a miracle if the fireworks proceeded as planned.  Imagine our surprise when not only did the fireworks begin, but we were treated to occasionally marvelous aerial coverage of the event featuring crisp monuments, clear skies, and picture perfect displays of pyrotechnic celebration.

Instead of watching a live dud of a display as one would would expect at the conclusion of a rainy day, or seeing some sort of notice announcing that this was a previously recorded display due to inclement weather, we were given an odd amalgamation of both.

While no disclaimer was made during the broadcast, we apparently weren’t the only puzzled residents looking for clarification.  PBS tweeted an explanation of the broadcast the next morning, confirming that they used a mixture of old and new footage in order to improve our viewing experience.

On one hand I totally get it.  The eerie scenes that were obviously live looked more like coverage of the bombing of Baghdad than the happy celebratory pictures we all hope for on the 4th.  However, the cognitive dissonance they created with their creative presentation of truth was ultimately a disorienting and disappointing lie.

Like many lies in our own lives, it wasn’t all fake.  Only key parts of the finale were made up of recycled footage while the bulk of the presentation came live as advertised.  Such combinations of truths and lies are often presented in a positive light, as PBS tried to do the morning after.  Isn’t it for the best when we cover over our darkness and disappointments with something more beautiful or appealing?

The difficulty comes when we sprinkle falsehoods in with truth as an attempt to recreate our reality.  Once combined, it becomes challenging to separate one from the other.  We start to loose touch with what is true and what is false.

Such is the kind of experience I had in reading through The Power of Positive Thinking.  As Peale quotes a psychologist friend in his opening chapter, “Attitudes are more important than facts” (22).  When this perspective becomes your maxim, “reality” is based less on truth and more on how you choose to perceive your circumstances.

PBS invited viewers to perceive the reality of this year’s national fireworks as one filled with sparkling excitement and clear skies.  Peale invites us to perceive our reality as a one where we can attain anything our heart desires so long as we come to believe in ourself.

Chapter 1: Believe in Yourself

We are justified by Christ, believe in Him.  I suppose it comes as no surprise that a book described in big bold letters on the back cover by the line, “Faith in yourself makes good things happen to you” would open with a chapter entitled Believe in yourself.  As Peale explains, “A sense of inferiority and inadequacy interferes with the attainment of your hopes, but self-confidence leads to self-realization and successful achievement” (13).

In fact, he argues that “Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy” (13).  To help us meet this goal of earthly success, Peale outlines 10 steps comprised mostly of various forms of thought conditioning designed to keep us positive.

Since he was a pastor, Peale’s message is often riddled with mentions of the importance of a belief in God and in the help found in scripture for daily life.  This is the truth he offers.  In fact, some of his prescriptions are fairly good ideas for all believers, like reading the Bible regularly, praying fervently, memorizing verses, and seeking out counseling when facing struggles from your past.  If we take Donald Trump as his word, he loves reading the Bible.  That is no surprise for a follower of Peale’s teachings.

However, the fissures and falsehoods appear as we examine how Peale advocates using scripture and a belief in God for our own gain and self-fulfillment.  Take, for instance, his promise that “You can develop creative faith in yourself – faith that is justified” (13).  To be clear, when Peale says justified here he is referencing a faith is justified by a realistic appreciation of yourself.  This is not a theological truth, it is a pep talk.

Of course, to the self-centered soul this is also a core foundational belief.  I am right, I am worthy, I will do all things well.  So the mantra goes.  Once self justified, you can do no wrong.  Add God to that picture and you’ve found the makings of a monstrous deformation of what God creates us to be.

It should go without saying that this teaching of self justification is the antithesis of Christianity.  Ironically, one of Peale’s favorite scriptures to quote comes from a key passage dealing with justification.  For Step 5 of his assured ways to build self confidence he suggests: “Ten times a day repeat these dynamic words, ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ (Romans 8:31) (Stop reading and repeat them NOW slowly and confidently)” (25).

I realize that Romans 8:31 is a favorite verse for many believers, and for good reason.  It is, as Peale notes, encouraging and even empowering.  But we need to ask the question: WHY is God for us? Who is God in the first place? In Peale’s world, to the fundamentally self-centered, he’s whatever we need him to be to support our inner power and outward success.

Contrast that to what the Bible says in full.  Leading up to the beautiful claim of God’s support and love for His children, we find one of the most crucial passages of scripture on the nature of salvation, justification, and the elect in Romans 8:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;    

we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

First, it is clear that God justifies us.  God is the actor.  Through Him, through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, we are justified.  Not by who we are.  Not by what we do.  We are justified by Christ.

Second, because we are foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified through the great love and grace of God, we now know that “if God is for us, who can be against us.”  The first part of verse 31 is important as it references the powerful statements of truth that proceed it.  We can’t start with the premise that God is for us, rather it is merely the conclusion drawn from all “these things” about who God is and what He has done for us.

True teaching reveals that you don’t learn about God and his nature by looking primarily inside yourself, and you definitely don’t partake in the promises of God by purely inward thinking.  It is by looking up and out to God that we learn more clearly about who we are and what we can do.

Third, God is on our side so that we shall not be separated from His love.  We are more than conquerers, but not in the sense that we are actually guaranteed protection from hardship, failure, or even tragic death.  We are more than conquerers because of the promises regarding the ever present love of God, our salvation, and eternal life.

In fact, because of how we are foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified we are told that we may be killed for the glory of God.  Not exactly a winning premise for “self-realization and successful achievement”, especially if your idea of achievement is based primarily in the events and currency of this world.

On a certain level it is a good idea to heal our wounds and believe in what we can achieve with God’s help.  But this belief is only worthwhile when it is grounded in a firm notion of who God is, of the great things He has done, and of who He created us to become.  We are justified by Christ, believe in Him.

God strengthens us to do His will.  In Step 7 Peale tell us to repeat “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” 10 times a day. Then he commands, “Repeat these words NOW. That magic sentiment is the most powerful antidote on earth to inferiority feelings” (25).   Aside from his appeals for repetition starting to feel like a youth camp gone all wrong, his use of this verse throughout the book as a hallmark feature of building self-confidence is troubling.

Like we saw with Romans 8, the entirety of a passage matters in clarifying what followers of Christ are actually promised in this life.  Can we really do anything we set our minds to, without limits?  Can we use God to achieve something contrary to His teachings? What happens if we fail?  Was God not on our side that time?  Did we not have a sufficiently large enough faith?  Consider these preceding verses in Philippians 4:

8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble.

God strengthens us so that we can put into practice that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise, no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in.  We are not kept from storms, but we are strengthened to weather them.

Also, we can do these things because of who God is.  God is great.  God is good.  God is love.   God is Lord.  Therefore we can do amazingly powerful things for Him.  Note, he doesn’t strengthen us so that we might be great.  As the Eucharistic liturgy exhorts, “Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is Yours, almighty Father, forever and ever.”

It can be as much a struggle to excel in these things that bear righteousness in times of plenty and success as in times of famine and failure.  Yet God gives us the strength to follow Him, and in turn to bring Him honor, glory, and praise.  God strengthens us to do His will.

Our insecurities should encourage compassion, not contempt.  Peale identifies the root of our individual problems as our own inferiority complex, or “deep and profound self-doubt” (17).  Note that our struggles, fears, and problems do not come from any particular acknowledgment either of sin or satan.

A cure for inferiority is to “fill your mind with to overflowing with faith” and to “Develop a tremendous faith in God and that will give you a humble yet soundly realistic faith in yourself” (17).  Ok, so that doesn’t sound bad, right?

Caution friends, this is a trap.  As much as it might be helpful and healing to develop a “humble yet soundly realistic” view of ourselves, especially one that begins with a faith in God, it is severely damaging to make faith in ourselves and our capabilities a chief goal in life.  Why?  Because it makes our faith in God fundamentally about us and our well-being, not about God and how He calls us to serve one another.  This is what it looks like to build your house upon the sand.

Peale’s own derision toward those who have yet to find self-confidence comes to the surface in ugly ways.  He notes, “It is appalling to realize the number of pathetic people who are hampered and made miserable by the malady popularly called the inferiority complex” (13).  One can almost see Trump’s now infamous remark “Sad!” after that comment.

Peale’s message rings hollow for his sights are set so low.  Consider this advice given to a middle child who underperformed in school in contrast to his high achieving older brother, “Just because somebody gets an A in college doesn’t make him the greatest man in the United States, because maybe his A’s will stop when he gets his diploma, and the fellow who got C’s in school will go on to get the real A’s in life” (17).

First, the ‘real A’s’ he is talking about aren’t about character, the pursuit of righteousness, or eternal life.  He is depicting a story like that of the biography of Donald Trump.  You might not be the top of the class, but you can still be more successful and more wealthy than your older brother when you enter the real business world.  Take heart!  Your success is yet to come! You can still be the greatest, the best, and the brightest.  Just believe in yourself.  Yuck.

Second, note how he turns the predicament of one person’s weakness into a story of pitting one brother against the other.  It’s not enough to suggest that those who get average grades can still be successful later on in life, he also has to point out that the older brother might start tasting failure after school ends.  The confidence of one is built upon the potential failure of another. Such is the rotten fruit that comes from attempts to justify ourselves.

Moreover, consider this observation from Step 4: ”Do not be awestruck by other people and try to copy them.  Nobody can be you as efficiently as YOU can” (25).  Let Trump be Trump? Anyone? Anyone?

“Remember also that most people, despite their confident appearance and demeanor, are often as scared as you are and as doubtful of themselves” (25).  Well then.  Guessing those confident people aren’t really true positive thinkers, they are just fakers waiting to be revealed.

The dummies.  The losers.  Like you.  Like me. For here is a central problem of the theology presented by Norman Vincent Peale: mere positive thinking and attentive effort at building self-confidence isn’t actually all that fulfilling.  It isn’t really the answer to all of your problems or the healing balm to your deepest wounds.  Not only will you find the need to justify yourself through your superiority to others, but you will still be fearful inside that someone might find out that you are actually faking your way through life.

Stop trying to justify yourself, for we are all sinners who will endlessly come short.  Belief in yourself, when placed at the center of your life, is tremendously hollow and disappointing.  Belief in yourself, which is rarely humble or truthful when exercised apart from an active relationship with Christ, can lead to great evil.  We are justified by Christ, believe in Him.

Our belief in God and His love for us is not primarily designed with earthly success in mind.  God may gift that to us, but we will all have our crosses to bear, thorns in our flesh, and disappointments in life.  God’s help is offered so that we may love Him more fully.  His promise is that once adopted as co-heirs with Christ we will never be separated from His unconditional love and saving grace.  God strengthens us to do His will.

As we seek to grow and heal we will discover the places in our hearts that are wounded and sinful.  Recognizing these scars and faults in ourselves ought to lead us to a place of empathy where we can enter into the pain, fears, and failures of others.  We are meant to build up, not tear down.  Our insecurities should encourage compassion, not contempt.

 

If you missed my opening, check out Part I on the backstory of blogging through this book and my summary thoughts on Peale’s Preface.  I never set out to take this review as a chapter by chapter guide, but I was so struck by the ideas listed in the first chapter I wanted to spend extra time on some of what he writes there.  As we go on in the coming week or so, and these assertions are repeated time and time again, I will address groups of chapters together and cover new or different areas for further thought.  

 I am using the 1992 edition of The Power of Positive Thinking printed by Fawcet Crest/Ballantine Books.  All citations reference this copy.

 

 

 

The Power of Self-Centered Thinking: Norman Vincent Peale, Donald Trump, and American Evangelicalism (Part 1)

9789381841723-ukOne evening during the 2016 primary season my husband and I were reconnecting, as we often do, through political analysis.  As we discussed the daily rumination on the latest and greatest from Donald Trump’s campaign, we stumbled upon a video from one of his more notorious public appearances: the 2015 Family Leadership Summit in Iowa.  You might have seen clips from this interview as well, for it is when he defended his tweet calling John McCain a loser because, according to Trump, “I like people who weren’t captured.”

Watching his appearance in its entirety, however, I heard something remarkably clarifying about the belief system of Donald J. Trump.   Not only is this the part of the interview where he stated his uncertainty over ever asking God for forgiveness, but he also named his favorite pastor and life-long spiritual advisor who wrote his favorite book.  A book, I’d wager, that represents his personal gospel: The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale.

Now, the astute student of Christian History that I am, I had to get my hands on a copy of this former New York Times bestseller to read for myself.  I’d heard of Peale’s mid-century popularity and was aware of his role as a precursor of sorts to our modern day self-help/prosperity gospel movement, but I had not done much study of his seminal work before this month.  What I’ve found in the pages of his once dominant bestseller concerns me deeply.

Given the importance of so many of the issues and attitudes addressed in the pages of Peale’s crowning achievement, I’ve decided to blog my way through this onetime favorite of the American public.  It is a bestseller that helped fashion the ethic of Donald Trump, but it also helped fuel any number of theological abuses within the Evangelical church.

A few cautionary thoughts: The majority of observations gleaned from this work are not primarily meant as political guidance.  While it is prudent to understand the worldview accepted by Donald Trump, or any other leading candidate for president, these deviations from Christian orthodoxy are not enough – in and of themselves – to deem him unfit to serve as Commander-in-Chief.

In fact, it is likely many other presidential candidates from the 20th Century adopted a Peale-esque understanding of Christianity.  They just didn’t live out this belief system as publicly and unabashedly as Trump does to its inevitably selfish and soulless ends.

If you are looking for reasons to not vote for Donald Trump in November I suggest there are a multitude of other factors that might lead you to that conclusion.  The problem regarding his ambition for the presidency of the United States is not purely his favored spiritual guidance and its lack of Christian orthodoxy, but how it appears that he applies it in the defense and promulgation of evil.  Therefore, consider my musings as one way to contextualize much of Donald Trump’s public behavior, policy suggestions, and persona.

Additionally – I might say, primarily – reading through this book became a self-critique of modern Evangelicalism.  More than a guide for the election in 2016, The Power of Positive Thinking acts as an indictment of our faith community: against the pernicious ways we are all tempted to use our faith in God for selfish and hurtful purposes; against how we often demean His story for personal gain; and against those who devalue the great cost associated with Christian grace.

More than once when reading this work I was struck by just how familiar these ideas and stories were, almost as if I’d heard them all before.  The familiarity almost lent the chapters a sense of compelling legitimacy, even as I identified the problems riddled throughout.  Then it dawned on me. I’ve heard these same talking points in sermons!  Far too many sermons, in churches representing a full spectrum of denominations, scattered throughout our country.

Rather than demonstrating a throwback to old heresies, I found myself staring straight into the mirror of our contemporary American church.  Peale might be forgotten or out of fashion, but the school of thought he promoted certainly lives on.  It is little wonder so many prominent Evangelical leaders now wholeheartedly embrace Donald Trump and even applaud the ways he addresses them and speaks of their all important “power.”  More on that to come.

For those who champion Bonhoeffer’s costly grace, for those who believe words forgotten to history still matter, for those who think what leaders claim to believe is central to understanding how they might act, this series is for you.

As a starting place, let’s take a look at the introduction of Donald Trump’s favorite book:

Introduction: What this book Can Do for You∗

Beware cure-all elixirs.  In Victorian society, both in North America and in Europe, the peddling of health tonics and pills claiming to solve all forms of illness was a fashionable trend and a regular facet of culture for both high society and the emerging middle class.  These cure-all elixirs were typically comprised of anything from mere sugar water, to some kind of oil, to varieties containing high levels of arsenic, alcohol, opium, morphine, or cocaine.

The tonics and cures were often schemes designed to help their creators, and sometimes doctors and pharmacists, get rich quick while fleecing the general public.  Although, I’m sure some producers also genuinely believed in the efficacy of their products. Either way, few “cures” possessed actual medicinal qualities.

In spite of, at-best, minimal legitimate health benefits, these elixirs were considered by many people as a go to cure-all for colds, flus, teething, headaches, toothaches, and just about any other malady of young and old you can fathom.  The more popular varieties continued to be used even when communities were faced with their inability to improve their ailments, or even their potential to harm and kill those who consumed them.

There was always a testimony or three offered of how these tonics genuinely helped cure some great illness or blemish.  No doubt – when not a boldface lie – the testimonial phenomenon is understood by the power of the placebo effect or even, dare I say it, the power of positive thinking.  Unfortunately, many people positively thought their way to the grave.

In his introduction to The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale offers us a cure-all elixir for the maladies of life.  The back cover of my edition makes tremendous claims about what this book will do for me, but my first thought is that perhaps this was just some marketing strategy by the publisher embellishing the original intent of the author.  But no.  Let me assure you, Peale literally intends for this book to change your life.

His self proclaimed simple work, with “no pretense to literary excellence nor does it seek to demonstrate any unusual scholarship,” was written with the “sole objective of helping the reader achieve a happy, satisfying, and worthwhile life”(x).  Well, what’s wrong with that?

Not only will his book achieve those things but I counted at least six key promises he makes in how our lives will improve by following his understanding of “applied Christianity; a simple yet scientific system of practical techniques of successful living that works” (xi).  By employing these teachings, we will:

  1. Become better liked and more popular
  2. Gain a new sense of well-being, or “new life”
  3. Achieve a new degree of health
  4. Attain more pleasure in living
  5. Transform into more useful and efficient people
  6. Expand our influence and power

All that gleaned from the teachings found in this one little book. Where has it been all my life?

Lest you think Peale overlooks the fact that life can be tragic or difficult at times, he assures us, “I certainly do not ignore or minimize the hardships of this world, but neither do I allow them to dominate.”  Rather, “obstacles are simply not permitted to destroy your happiness and well-being” (ix).

Oh, ok.  Perhaps you are starting to catch on to how someone who is captured in war – and who chose to remain imprisoned when given an opportunity to leave before his fellow POW’s – is, well, a loser.

It turns out our ability to overcome these tragedies and obstacles stems from the realization that “you can modify or change the circumstances in which you now live.”  Tell that to a Syrian refugee child in Lebanon and see how it works out for them. Thus we encounter the opening flaw to Peale’s notion of “Christian” power, success, and happiness.

His is an ethic for an affluent audience, most specifically for his parishioners from the upper crust of New York society (such as young Donald Trump and family).  He is writing for those who can afford to change their circumstances with relative ease, or “will” a better life.  However, if you aren’t already living amidst the trappings of earthly power, just follow his steps and you too will soon attain this level of material success, have no fear. Or so he claims.

Still, who doesn’t want to believe that their “life can be full of joy and satisfaction” (ix), or that it is possible to experience improved levels of “achievement, health, and happiness” (xi) as we walk on this earth?  Maybe, somewhere inside of us we agree that “It is a pity that people should let themselves be defeated by the problems, cares, and difficulties of human existence, and it is also quite unnecessary” (ix).

We’ve all met the “Debbie Downers” of life – maybe we’ve been them ourselves at times – who only see the foreboding or fearful throughout the day and who rarely note the hopeful or positive.  Perhaps you are drawn, as intended, to this idea that if we forgo negative thoughts we will also forgo negative consequences and experiences.

Our life is in our control, so the story goes, and as such we can control where we take it and what we make of it.  This is a pastor writing about the practical applications for Christianity after all.  Doesn’t God want the best for us in this life?

As much as Peale’s promises come across as over reaching, they may also strike you as secretly appealing.  They are meant to.  Beware cure-all elixirs.

 

Also in this Series:

Part 2: On Justification, Insecurity, and God’s Will

Part 3: On Forgiveness, Prayer, and Eternal Life

I am using the 1992 edition printed by Fawcet Crest/Ballantine Books.  All citations reference this copy.

 

Borders We Need: Brexit, Boundaries, and Love

uk-border

My son recently started saying “me” and “I” with great frequency.  He shouts “Help me” when he falls down, “I want” when he desires a specific activity, or  points to something he’s playing with or eating saying “me, me,” as in mine.  I love it.  He is learning how to develop and express his needs, wants, and preferences.  He is finding himself, he is learning about where I end and he begins, and it is a beautiful thing to behold.

Recent studies on childhood development suggest that children aren’t cognitively ready to understand the concept of sharing until they are at least three or four.  That doesn’t mean they can’t act kindly toward other children at younger ages, it just means they don’t understand what it means to share themselves and their belongings. To the child soul these enforced episodes of “sharing” are confusing invasions on their fragile and developing personhood.  Yet most of us parents follow our children around, managing their social interactions and begging them to share anyway.  Typically, these futile interactions with toddlers just end in tears for all.

Children can’t share until they first learn to possess.  They can’t fully give until they first understand what it means to receive, and then to own.  Before they can grow into their social skills, they must first grow into an understanding of their individuality.  Learning to say “me” is crucial for valuing “you.”  A key part of developing as people is understanding where we end and others begin.

It is in finding out what it means to be me and not my mother, my father, my siblings, or other family members and friends, that we equip ourselves with the ability to become healthy individuals and learn how to interact with the world.  Relationships, even in their most foundational and early states, need borders.

For those who still believe in the need for defined boundaries – personal and national – in our increasingly borderless world, who recognize that sometimes “no” is said with deep love, this one is for you.

We need borders in order to know and love ourselves.  Self-autonomy is a foundational component of healthy living.  In order to love ourselves we must rule ourselves.  In order to rule ourselves, and protect ourselves from abuse, we must define ourselves.  We need to know what is ours and what is not.  We need to own all that is unique and personal about our body, soul, and mind. As we grow into this knowing, we grow into an appreciation for who we are and who we were created to be, as well as an acceptance of who and what we are not.

We cannot love that which we cannot define or differentiate.  If I don’t know where my body ends and yours begins, how can I properly take care of myself without trying to involve you in the process? If I don’t know what my opinions are in contrast to your opinions, how can I think for myself?  If I cannot express or choose my own likes or wants but rather let you choose them for me, how can I become autonomous?  If I can’t distinguish my rights and responsibilities from yours, how can I adequately protect myself from being used or from seeking to use and abuse others?

Boundaries are a foundational component of personhood, just as borders are an existential necessity of statehood.  In contemplating the current debate regarding the electoral success of Brexit, the British campaign to leave the EU, I was struck by these similarities.

C.S. Lewis writes in powerful terms about the proper love for country and the many ways this type of love can be distorted in Chapter 2 of The Four Loves.  He begins by describing a love of home, a Need-love or natural love, which can develop for the place where you were born or for the many places where you choose to live over the course of your life.  It is a love of the familiar and a love for the unique ways that your home conjours up that special feeling of comfort and belonging.  The foods, the customs, the peculiar ways life is lived, and how it is governed, all of these features uniquely shape the lives of those who dwell therein.

To define these facets of our home(s) and to cherish them is to love them for their own sake. He notes:

Of course patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves.

If foreigners were to invade and rule our home country and try to impose their customs on our way of life, Lewis continues, we would rightly call for a defense.   Likewise, it is not evil to defend yourself against those who would seek to control you – as an autonomous adult – in how to speak, dress, eat, think, and feel.  To merely love your home, your country, for all of the unique qualities and charming familiarities, to be willing to defend your home when threatened because of that love, is not evil.

Of course, love of country can be used for evil, just as love of self can turn demonic and cause innumerable pain.  But to purely love that which is distinct and familiar, to love that which differentiates our homes or ourselves from others, is natural and necessary.

If you cannot define aspects of a country that make it unique, if you cannot say where that country ends and another begins, then how can you love it?  What are you loving, protecting, or identifying with if not specific attributes, perspectives, or customs found within a distinct border?  People need to know where they begin and others end.  They need to appreciate those features that are uniquely theirs, and so, too, do countries.  We need borders in order to know and love ourselves.

We need to define ourselves in order to love others. A significant part of being able to extend beyond ourselves in love for another person is to first know who and what we are.  Without that knowledge we easily become codependent or domineering in our relationships.  After I understand what it means to be “me,” as my son is so crucially discovering at the age of two,  I can understand and appreciate what it means for you to be you.  This is the foundation of empathy.

Lewis aptly observes how this principle works with love for country:

How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realised that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs–why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.

Properly balanced loves – both for who we are and for who or what we identify with – help us appreciate how others are different.  The common bond between all people is not that we share the same ideas or foods or preferences, but that we all possess the ability to have our own ideas, like our own foods, and live out our own preferences.  We share in our ability to love the particular, the specific, the defined, and the uniquely ours.

The problem comes when we want everyone else to think and act just as we do.  Or when we believe that all people should live in the same way and share our same customs, priorities, and values.  Our contemporary society is perilously edging closer to creating a world where borders, be they personal or communal, are no longer recognized or respected.  It is not enough to be left alone to live as we choose in our own homes, or in our own countries, for this is considered an offense or an affront to “humanity.”  But more on that later.

Because we are losing an understanding of borders we are losing an appreciation for differences – ironic in a world that supposedly loves “diversity.”  We cannot understand, appreciate, or defend the differences of other people if we lose the language and freedom that allows us to understand, appreciate, and define ourselves as distinct entities.

There is no need to be threatened by the fact that others choose or value something different than us.  Rather, through the experience of defining our own loves we can come to understand how someone else might appreciate foreign things or come to differing conclusions.  We need to define ourselves in order to love others.

Superiority is self-hatred, not self-love.  True evils result from the debasement of our loves.  One such evil particularly prone to surface in our abuses of how we love our ourselves and our countries is that of a superiority to those who are different.  It is a distortion of our proper loves to see ourselves as greater than others.

Keep in mind the admonition in 1 Corinthians that all members of the body are to be valued and cherished no matter the roles they provide.  That is the image of love we are to follow.  When such love is malformed, replaced by human rankings and castes, and taken to the extremes, it can lead to racism, improper dominion, and dehumanization.

Lewis addresses this type of superiority as “not a sentiment but a belief.” When love of country goes wrong it is no longer is capable of loving the other, and therefore ceases to properly love, or truthfully understand, itself.  He recounts:

I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, “But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?” He replied with total gravity–he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar–“Yes, but in England it’s true.” To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid.

Lewis also notes how this type of superiority is tied to our understanding of history.  It is all well and good to derive a certain appreciation for the fables and strengths of our unique pasts. Yet it is downright unloving to believe that any country, just like any person, is lacking the presence of ugly betrayals, persecutions, and failures as facts in their own history.  The mere presence of failure or darkness is no reason to stop loving our countries or our persons.  But acknowledgment of our past mistakes act as a cautionary restriction to temper our appreciation for ourselves and help us view other people or nations with compassion.

As regards Brexit, so far as a person in the UK loves their country for its unique otherness, they have done nothing wrong or evil to assert that autonomy.  Many are suggesting they wish to define and control the borders and governance of their own nation.  Ownership of our personal lives, property, or country – and a desire to protect what we own if trespassed in some way – is not wrong.  It is a natural part of life.

The potential evil is found in those forces who wish for the British to leave the EU because they believe themselves somehow inherently superior to other nations, or to people who come to their country from other parts of the world.  To leave lacking an appreciation for those who wish to remain, to leave lacking respect for those who live differently, is where the danger lies.

No doubt that within the British electorate there are those who sought to define their nation’s boundaries on the premise of hatred and superiority.  But there are also those who merely wished to ensure the right for all British people, regardless of ethnicity or personal history, to choose how to rule and define themselves going into the future.

A question for the British citizenry as they work towards meting out the consequences of the vote to Leave is this: just how many of their own possess hatred for others vs healthy love for country?  As I expect they shall discover, not all people who love their county and wish to possess, rule, and protect it are racist xenophobic bigots.

Knowing yourself, and standing up for the right to control that self is not wrong.  Misunderstanding yourself and your history, believing that you can justly control and lord over others beyond your borders, or to hurt and belittle those who are different within, is the true problem.  Where this evil exists, it ought to be noted and condemned.  You cannot love your country if you hate all other countries, just as you cannot love yourself if you hate all other people.  Superiority is self-hatred, not self-love.

Redefining borders, when lost or forgotten, is painful but necessary.  It is not uncommon in the course of our relationships to realize that we need to realign how we interact with others.  Typically this need arises for our own protection.  Sometimes we need to say no because we too often say yes.  Sometimes we need to say no because what is asked of us invades our personhood or our rightly ordered places of autonomy.  Often these “no’s” come after realizing that somewhere along the way we failed to sufficiently understand, define, and advocate for our own limits.

We need to correct relationships that overstep proper borders in order to preserve our own sense of self.  Such redefinitions can be difficult and often are not without some type of relational cost.  Yet the assertion of our boundaries, and the ability to properly rule ourselves, is typically required for our ability to survive and thrive into the future.  Redefinitions of borders are necessary in order to continue loving ourselves, and thereby necessary for enlarging our ability to love others.

In the context of love of country, Brexit provides an example of how a nation might need to reassert their borders, and their control thereof, to ensure survival as a distinct state.  Again, where that redefinition of borders is motivated by a hatred of others it is wrong.  But where it is founded in a healthy love of self it is understandable and legitimate.

One of the great blessings in choosing ownership and love of self is the ability to control how we use and manage our borders.  Merely asserting autonomy is not a decision to shut-out all people or to advocate isolation from the world.  In fact, rightly ordered personal autonomy can help us extend more grace and love to others.

We can love even as we seek to protect ourselves from those who would misuse or abuse us and our borders.  Just because people who transgress our boundaries or who disrespect our natural rights to self-governance are put at a new distance, does not that mean we have to close ourselves off to all relationships.

Those who respect our attempts to redefine our borders as we grow into our autonomy over the years are our dearest friends and allies.  Those who find offense at our choice to live, think, feel, believe, and govern differently are probably not of the sort we should hold nearest and dearest, or allow unlimited access to our lives or countries, in the first place.  The choice to protect ourselves from invasions, even of a bureaucratic nature, is natural and reasonable.

The British people now have a collective opportunity and responsibility to rise to the challenge of redefinition of borders.  This task is not just for those who voted Leave, but also for those who voted Remain.  There is room for a multitude of ways to walk out the process of leaving the EU behind and reasserting the independence of the United Kingdom (or the individual statehood of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland).

These choices are much like those presented to the character played by Julia Roberts in the film Runaway Bride.  Chronically co-dependant in her relationships, she needed an opportunity to step back and choose for herself something as small as the way she liked to eat eggs, for she had always ordered whatever her string of fiancee’s liked as her own.  In the end she decided she didn’t actually like eggs, not in any form.  This is exactly the kind of process we all go through when we need to step back, individually or collectively, and redefine ourselves and our boundaries.

The task when undergoing efforts to reclaim our borders is to stay grounded in a healthy love for identity of self and to see this self-love as a means to respect and understand others.  This task does not preclude the hardships that come during seasons where we must define and assert our borders.  There will always be prices paid and sacrifices made when reasserting ourselves as other and unique.  But the costs are well worth the price of staying whole and distinct, be it in our personhood or our chosen statehood.  Redefining borders, when lost or forgotten, is painful but necessary.

Without borders we lose our identity and thereby our purpose.  In spite of all these truths, there is a prevailing trend in our society to suggest that borders themselves are the cause of conflict.  Confident and unique identity, be it personal or national, is perceived as a threat to harmony and peace.  Because our loves are often distorted and abused in practice, all loves for the particular are held in suspicion.  It is thought better to leave boundaries aside all together, or to not stand up for them when threatened, for that is surely the best path to peace, harmony, and relationships.

It is argued that we must all come to believe, act, govern, and live the same way, for this is the inevitable and desirable end of mankind on earth.  Those who resist progress toward an enlightened multicultural cosmopolitan borderless society are bigoted, backwards, or even considered aggressive for merely thinking or choosing differently than their neighbors.

Perhaps the precedent for this type of thinking began in our contemporary society with traditionalists forcibly trying to keep a status quo of the past.  But now aggression with no respect for borders belongs to the intolerant tolerance found within our progressive globalism.

Lewis deals with this concept as well, noting that without borders countries and people are left with a “false transcendence,” one where the only recourse left for mankind is in “presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light”:

If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for “their country” they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity. This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men needed to be convinced that their country’s cause was just; but it was still their country’s cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important. I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds–wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine–I become insufferable…If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.

If we cannot love and define our country as unique and separate, we risk putting our actions out of order.  Wars are no longer just about protecting boundaries and homes, they are about defending universals.  Relationships cease to be about respecting and interacting with individuals, they are about the idea of the abstract category each person represents to us and all that we wish to derive from those roles (Family, Spouse, Friend, etc.).

This is the type of oppressive thinking which leads us into perpetual warfare and conflict. There will always be an “enemy” somewhere not living as we think they ought (i.e. not like us) or not upholding the values we deem to be best.  Here we find no room for compromise, negotiation, or a retreat within our own borders, for borders are no longer respected.  The only victory recognized by the borderless is one of complete subjugation where all differences deemed unacceptable or threatening within a person or a country are wiped clean.

Whether it is relational warfare or the actual use of military might, wars and conquests based on these attempts to subdue in the name of eternals are the epitome of death and destruction.  They leave us unhinged, disconnected from purpose, detached from unique loves, and free to attack at will.  The justification for our ruler’s choices, or for the way we treat others, gets confused with the will and role of God.

It is not our place to tell another autonomous individual how they must feel, think, believe, or act (although we may certainly enforce a consequence when those actions break laws or disrespect established boundaries).  We cannot force a certain type of lifestyle, set of preferences, or acts of personhood on another at will, even when it is perceived to be for their own benefit.

Likewise, the power afforded to a state, or a union of states, is not meant to force others to be made in their own image.  Such is not the purpose of any government or form of governance.  Unless, of course, it be the divine governance of God, and even He allows room for choice in pursuit of his purposes and the reflection of his image.  Choice to exist apart from Him is a critical component of the highest love, the love He offers to His creation.

Natural love, as Lewis defines love of country, is separate from our higher callings to affection, eros, and the most beautiful of all, charity.  Although Need-love is not the same sentiment as that which we encounter in most of our personal relationships or in our relationship with God, commitments to things like our home and our country act as models to help train or prepare us for accepting and growing into the higher spiritual loves of this life.

We shouldn’t worship or idolize our countries, but we can love them.  As part of that properly ordered love we need to define what they are and what they are not.  We need borders in order to know and love ourselves.

While we continually grow into our true selves, we can change how we use and manage our borders.  Self-awareness and appreciation creates a foundation for relationship and a respect for those whose countries or attributes differ from our own.  We need to define ourselves in order to love others.

In loving others we must protect ourselves from any deceitful notion that we are secretly better than those who live, think, or act differently than us.  Superiority is self-hatred, not self-love.

When we discover that we are in a relationship that has confused the boundary of what is mine and what is yours then it is time to reassert who we are.  Sometimes we must say no, and sometimes we must say goodbye.  Redefining borders, when lost or forgotten, is painful but necessary.

If we try to live without boundaries we lose guidance on how to respect and interact with others.  Lacking self-definition, we risk turning into the very tyrants we fear from abuses of patriotic and self-love.  Without borders we loose our identity and thereby our purpose.

There are so many ways we can choose to manage our edges and our internals, for good or ill.  But in order to give, in order to relate, in order to love, we must be able to define, own, and protect.  These are the borders we need.

 

For further reading on the importance of borders as a foundation for love, I suggest Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

Free to Hurt: Guns, Refugees, and Choice

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Sometimes my 2 year old son hits his 1 year old sister.  Sometimes she retaliates (or anticipates) and hits him back.

In raising toddlers only a year apart there are moments when I seriously wish they just did what you asked the first time and never again repeated undesirable actions.  Hitting is particularly painful to deal with as a parent because who wants to see their child hurt another, let alone their own sibling? So in those moments I think that if I could only wave a magic wand and say, “no more hitting!” our problems would be solved. The lesson would be learned for good and we’d never have to revisit the consequences, pain, or difficulty of addressing their negative behavior.  Who wouldn’t want that, right?

Sometimes my 2 year old son jumps up from his playtime and gives his sister a big hug.  Sometimes she responds (or initiates) by giving him a big open mouth kiss.

In these moments of beautiful love I am reminded of the power of choice.  When my toddlers choose to show one another affection in such spontaneous, unprompted ways I realize how these moments are special precisely because they had a choice.  Yes, sometimes they hit and that is painful and ugly and hard.  But sometimes they hug.  They hug because they actively chose love over envy and anger.  The magic wand solution is no solution at all, for it takes away their power of choice and thereby the meaning of their love.

This love, even their child love, has a fullness of meaning because each time they express their love they choose it from among a whole range of emotions and responses.  If we enforced rules that trained them they could only ever hug, if hugs were mandatory or mere rituals, if hugs were magically enforced, then their actions wouldn’t express the same thing.  When my son could hit, but instead chooses hugs, that is love.

For those of you unsure of how to speak out on the social controversies of the moment, who want to strike a balance between naivety and fear, between the horror of violence without justice and the high price of ensuring safety, this one is for you.

Choice does not negate justice.  There seems to be confusion in our social and political discussions about the nature of justice.  For, it is argued, if someone can choose to do an act of evil then there is no justice in this world.  The problem is that this understanding of justice fully misunderstands the inherent connection between choice and evil. It is only because we have freedom, and we can choose to use our freedoms for good or ill, that justice even has a purpose to serve.  If we are only given one option then we create a society devoid of justice.  Choice necessitates justice.

In the case of guns and gun control I often hear people argue that the problem with our violent society is that guns are available to the general public in the first place.  If there were no guns, they claim, there would be no more tragic and needless deaths.  If only we took away the choice of how to use guns, and where and how and when to buy them, a great evil in our country would be wiped away.

I am hardly an advocate for the efficacy or need for guns in all of our homes or personal lives. For the record, it is highly unlikely I would ever seek out membership to the NRA or own a gun myself.  Still, I wonder if our knee jerk attempts to address the particular expressions of evil in which guns are involved, typically after they occur, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the problem before us.

Our problem as a society is not that we have access to guns.  Our problem is that we have access to evil.  Our problem is that we don’t value ourselves or others with the innate dignity that was gifted to us by our Creator.  We disrespect and devalue human life every day.  We do this with our words, with our actions, and through the media we consume.  And while we can most definitely do something to address the ways our culture discards and objectifies human life, and while we can opt to limit or take away legal access to guns, we will never be able to limit the potential in every heart to access and act upon evil.

This is why we have courts on earth, and this is why God sits on a judgment seat in heaven.  We all have a choice on how to use our lives.  Some people use their choices for good, but oh so many of us use our choices for ill.  When someone chooses evil over good it is painful and heartbreaking to watch or partake in.  Often, seeing others choose great evil is hard to understand.  But that is why justice exists.

Will the justice of the law or the justice of God satisfy or heal the pain and sorrow caused by evil in this world? No.  That is the role of Jesus: the sacrifice, forgiveness, and atonement offered though His life, death, and resurrection.  Yet the justice afforded to us both on earth and in heaven grants us a pathway to address the true problem, the problem of evil, and how some people use their freedoms to choose to do evil things.

We overstep the purpose of justice when we believe that we can somehow prevent or erradicate evil by limiting our access to choice and taking away our freedoms. That is not attainable nor is it wise.  To do so ignores fundamental truths about human nature.

Gun control or no gun control, evil will exist, people will hurt and kill others, and life will continue to be filled with the cost of sin.  I’m not saying there isn’t place to debate public policy changes in how we handle guns in our country.  But I am saying that no matter  where we stand on this issue, we ought to respect that gun ownership, like so many other rights and responsibilities, comes with a choice to use it for evil or to use it for good.

Seems to me that when a mother uses a gun to shoot and ward off home intruders we collectively cheer.  Or when a private citizen protects an innocent life using their concealed carry gun in public we label them a hero.   In our efforts to limit the potential for evil, we may also prevent or limit good.  Justice is personified holding a scale for a reason.

We needn’t fear our choices, for with the choice to do evil comes the choice to do good.  Because we can choose both good or bad, we can punish evil.  Choice is the very bedrock of the justice that we all look for when faced with tragic displays of evil in this world.  Choice does not negate justice.

Lack of choice does not ensure safety. When we take away the ability for ourselves or others to choose, we take away the potential for good.  Liberty, the founding principle of our nation, demands the opportunity for certain abuses and dangers to exist alongside the opportunity for goodness or righteousness.

Take away a choice in the name of safety and you are often left only with coercion, not goodness.  Coercive societies are joyless societies.  Coercive societies lack imagination, creativity, and individuality.  We may find that the cost of any “guaranteed” safety we create when we overly limit our choices and options is far too high.

Think about the current debate regarding refugees and immigrants from Muslim nations.  In the name of safety many argue that we need to cut off access to our country for millions  of people around the world.  Is there perhaps a chance than some small percentage – likely less than 1 percent – of those seeking entrance to this country intend to use this privilege for harm? Yes.  But think of all that would be sacrificed in the name of protecting us against this hypothetical threat.

Think of all the good that could be done in helping hundreds of thousands of families in need of a home.  Of showing the world the courage and openness that America was once known for through our welcoming arms and our willingness to accept the huddled masses.  Think of the certain good that would come from embodying the powerful imagery of a city on a hill, shining light for those from far and wide in need of refuge and a hope for a new life.

Think of how many of those seeking entrance here might, for the first time in their lives, be gifted the opportunity to live in a land where freedom of religion is real and the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in public.  In fact, not only might it be the first time they will have the opportunity to hear about the truth of Jesus, but it could offer them the first opportunity to consider following Him without fear of reprisal or violence at the hands of their own government.

Is it at times unsettling to know that potential terrorists might be dwelling in this country and seeking access to weapons? Yes.  But it is also unsettling to realize that in the name of protecting ourselves from this potential threat we would empower the government to decide, without recourse to justice through due process, who is and is not safe, who is and is not a threat, who does and does not have rights. Is it not also unsettling that we would ban a whole group of people from entry to our nation because of the faith or the place of their birth, regardless of the content of their character? For me, most certainly yes.

We can extend these powers to the government, we can limit ourselves and our society until our border is in lockdown and every building has a metal detector.  But no matter the laws passed or the precedent set we will never eradicate the evil that inspires terrorism or that leads mankind to kill.

However, we can choose to do good in the face of evil.  We can choose openness to protecting our choices and expanding our opportunities to heal and bless.  We can choose to hug and not hit, even if we were hit first.  That is how evil is vanquished in this world.

Evil wins each time we cower, we fear, and we stop living.  Evil wins when, in the name of safety, we close our arms and no longer extend them for the hurting and the broken.  Evil wins when we stop ministering to others or hide the words of the gospel for fear of rejection or misunderstanding.  Evil wins when we elect to take away our freedoms, not when we choose to defend or expand them.

Until the day of Christ’s return there will always be evil on this earth.  That is not a surprise, it is a promise.  Take away choice and not only does evil win, but it will find new paths for expression.  Increase the potential for light, increase the opportunities for good, and choose courage instead of fear.  That is how evil will be overcome, and oh how it shall be overcome one day!

We can be certain that so long as we are here on earth there will be sin and evil and pain.  Yet we are also certain that in the end goodness and beauty will win, that God shall render the ultimate justice, and that only His love shall remain.  Good shall conquer evil, that is a promise too.  Because we have this promise we have nothing to fear.

More choice means more paths for goodness to shine and justice to be rendered, not less.  We are safer when we more free, not the other way around.  Lack of choice does not ensure safety.

We are free to hurt so that we are free to love.  We should be neither surprised by nor scared of the existence of evil in this world.  When confronted by the existence of evil we are called to choose love.  We can promote free choice as a society to act for evil or for good because we have recourse to justice, both human and divine.  Choice does not negate justice.

Take away our choices or our options on how to live and we merely limit the potential for goodness to shine in this very dark world.  Lack of choice does not ensure safety.  If we severely limit ourselves as a nation, or as individuals, we will devalue any good we try to offer or create.  The power of love is found in the power of choice.  Forced love is no love at all.  We are free to hurt so that we are free to love.

 

How We Mourn: Grieving in a World of Division, Gossip, and Calls for Action

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Late last Fall I was watching Gretchen Carlson’s show on FoxNews one afternoon (a choice by default due to nap times) when a segment came on about the tragic murder of Amanda Blackburn and her unborn child.  I had heard about the case through a mutual friend on Facebook and prayed for her and the Blackburn family while she was in the hospital fighting for her life.  Naturally, I was interested in what they would say.  Carlson, a Woman of Faith guest speaker who is very open about her Christian faith, interviewed a fellow FoxNews legal analyst about the investigation.

The two, completely unprompted by any shred of known evidence, proceeded to besmirch the name of Davey Blackburn, Amanda’s husband and pastor of a local Indiana church.  They called into question the nature of his testimony as shared in a few national interviews.  They then suggested that his ability to publicly profess a calm hope in the midst of heartbreak was suspicious.

In fact, Carlson, who noted her Christianity in the segment as a sign of her understanding, went on to say that she couldn’t fathom how Davey could honestly have such peace in the face of overwhelming tragedy.  She suggested that his words of hope and perceived lack of emotion called into question the truth of his statements.  In the minds of these “Experts” this was reason enough to suspect him of involvement in his own wife’s murder.

Never mind that the police had already issued a statement publicly ruling him out of suspicion, never mind that less than a week after this segment aired the real killers were taken into custody and confessed.  To them, Davey Blackburn was a suspect of pure evil because his story was too good to believe.  Moreover, they had the audacity to suggest that we, as the general public, ought to think so too.

He was “analyzed” because the lies they wove and the gossip they created in this segment was more sensational and thereby more newsworthy than the goodness of God in response to evil articulated by Davey Blackburn. They didn’t care about truth or about the hope and peace offered by this courageous and faithful man.  They cared about themselves and their ratings.  With that recognition, I was done.  The TV went off and I never tuned into FoxNews again.

For those of you struggling to understand how to respond in the face of tragedy, for those of you questioning how to express hope in the midst of our dismal public discourse, for those of you tired of politicization and gossip who just want room to grieve and pray, this one is for you.

All people matter.∗  On one hand I think I shouldn’t have to say this.  Of course all people matter.  But if we are honest about ourselves, and honest about our sub-culture of choice, that is rarely how we act or speak.  People matter when we like them, when we agree with them, and when we understand them.  People matter when we can sympathize with them or when we look up to them.  People often do not matter to us when they look different than us, when they believe different things than us, or when they do or say something we cannot understand or condone.

Yes, someone may choose to do a terrible thing and they – like us all – will have a price to pay for their evil deeds.  These costs and consequences come in many forms, both temporal and eternal.  But the existence of justice does not change the fact that even our enemies, even the criminals who shoot and maim and kill, are people who matter.

God loves them all.  His grief is not just for the victims.  God’s grief is also for the tragedy of the perpetrators.  He grieves that their life’s purpose turned so contrary to His plan for their story.  He grieves the many ways that we hurt and wound one another as creations made in His image. God does not hate any soul and neither should we.

We may hate the evil in the world, we may grieve for the destruction left in its wake, we may need to enforce a painful consequence against another, but we are not to hate anyone.  Just like God, we grieve for all who are involved in the man-made tragedies of this life, the innocent and guilty alike. All people matter.

Human dignity demands respect for truth.  In the era of 24-hour cable news and internet reporting there is little room for patience in how we interpret tragedies.  Given that most of our news outlets have dismissed reporting in favor of endless analysis, the tendency toward rumors, slander, and gossip (like the FoxNews story on Davey and Amanda Blackburn) runs rampant. It brings us all to low places in our thoughts and words.  I think gossip is one of the most undiscussed yet pervasively  destructive sins in our culture today.

Gossip is not only talking about others without their knowledge or using information about others and their circumstances for our personal gain, but it is about projecting motives or thoughts upon others in a way that transcends our personal knowledge of the situation.  Gossip is talking in an underhanded or unkind way about people we know or about total strangers, often with the intention to wound or suppress.

Because gossip distorts truth and has the potential to hurt and ruin lives, it undermines the innate dignity of humanity.  So much of the way we take in, receive, and relay information about news, be it personal or public, quickly devolves to this low level.

Therefore, when in doubt stay silent.  This is hard to do given the reactionary platform of social media that most of us carry in our pockets and purses everywhere we go. But the fact remains that we don’t need to have an opinion on everything, and we certainly don’t need to publicly express those opinions every time we encounter an opportunity to do so.

I know some charge that silence in the face of tragedy is a sign of disrespect or lack of engagement in the world’s atrocities.  But I suppose the question to ask is, what kind of silence is it? Sometimes the wisest course of action when met with tragedy, apart from prayer and offering condolence, is to remain quiet and leave room for those impacted to grieve. Truth takes time to be revealed in this messy world, and often special or personal knowledge is required for an event or a choice to be correctly understood.

We each encounter many situations in life where we will never know all the facts required in order to speak with authority and certainty about another person or their actions.  We should be cautious in our response to pain and controversy.  Because all people matter, the way we talk and think about them matters too.  Human dignity demands respect for truth.

No one is defined by how they die. It is easy in this world that glorifies the gruesome to view how someone dies as an integral part of their identity.  To do so belittles our personhood and ignores the truth Christians claim regarding the eternal nature of all human life.  Everything that comes before and everything that comes after death is what matters most.  Our deaths, and particularly their means, are mere footnotes to our entire glorious story.

I am not defined by either my most embarrassing failure or my most amazing triumph.  Our eternal beings are a totality of life in both this world and the next.  While it can be hard to remember this perspective, and it is certainly not our place to render the eternal judgement reserved only for God, I think we are each called to look to the entirety of a person’s existence, as best as we know and understand.

Were you kind or righteous on this earth? Did you know and give love? Or did you hurt and use and abuse?  What about after death?  How will you respond when you stand before Jesus and see Him face to face?  These are the questions that matter most.  The way that we leave this world is not the be all and end all of our existence.  No one is defined by how they die.

Hope is real.  It was shocking for me to hear Gretchen Carlson, a woman supposedly so matured in the faith, unable to recognize the peace and hope God gifts to us in in the face of evil when expressed so poignantly by Davey Blackburn.  I am sure he sobbed and cried out to God in private those days following his wife’s death.  He probably still cries when grieving for his tremendous loss.

But he also knows that the pain wasn’t pointless and it wasn’t the end.  He knows what all Christians are meant to claim.  For all the unanswered questions, for all the tragedies of life, and for all horrific acts of violence this world has to offer, we have a profound reason to find peace and healing in the forgiveness and salvation of Jesus Christ.

The awesome truth of Christianity is captured in the hope of a future where there will be no more mourning and no more pain as we worship before the throne of the Lord.  Hope and faith is comprised of our assertion that a future eternity with God is real and that this reality is more beautiful than any joy or delight found on this earth.  Once reunited with our Savior, the purpose of hope and faith are fulfilled and only love remains in its fullest and most complete form. There we shall dwell together shrouded in this love for all eternity.

Some evil is just too awful for us to comprehend a response or know what to say.  That’s why God gives us His words, even when those words come out as groans and silent yearnings in the Spirit.

I believe the Holy Spirit gave me words to remember Christina Grimmie, just as he gave Davey Blackburn the words to remember his wife, so that He could point all of us to the place from whence the shadows fall.  When God uses you for such a powerfully important task, be it person to person or on national TV, it is moving, humbling, and life changing.

Testifying of His goodness in the face of darkness is a miraculous way to embody the message of the Gospel.  It is a working out of the promises God expresses to all of us each time we spot a majestic rainbow after a storm.  Hope is real.

Grieving is enough.  Our culture likes to put emphasis on doing and achieving and not quite as much on simply being.  The temptation when faced with life’s tragedies, big or small, is to feel like we have to “do something” in order to give meaning to the pain.  While calls for action in the face of evil can lead to good things, like sending flowers or donating blood, they can also distract from the heart of the matter.

When the unspeakable occurs, where there is heartbreak and sorrow, there is often very little that can be done to make it better or help the pain disappear. I think this is where our discourse goes astray.  The minute we try to fix the heartbreak in order to give a tremendous loss some kind significance, we belittle the most important calling and response available to us: grief.

Grief doesn’t have to do, it can simply be.  Grief sits beside you while you cry, often in silence.  Grief gives space and time and opportunity to feel the pain.  Grief lets us each process what has occurred in our own ways and in our own time.  Grief walks forward while still acknowledging a loss.

I understand why so many look for answers in the form of social action or public debates, especially in a world that struggles to recognize as truth messages of hope spoken in the midst of grief.  And there may be room, in time, in certain circumstances, to seek action in some way to prevent further evil.  But the immediate aftermath of any tragedy is rarely a time to fix, rather it is a time to feel.

In reality, when faced with wounds created by a great evil, no amount of fixing will ever be full enough to infuse sense into the senseless.  We shouldn’t belittle the importance of grieving, even when that grief is silent, for the sake of some greater “cause.” The cause of remembrance, fellowship, and condolence is sufficient.

Because hope is real, we can grieve with hope.  To do so, in and of itself, is a powerful and consuming act.  Grieving with hope asks us to live within the tension of the already and the not yet.  We can affirm that hope is real and yet still find the losses of today difficult to bear.  Picking ourselves up in the face of tragedy to walk onwards with hearts full of sorrow, yet choosing to remain faithful still, is one of the most powerful forms of Christian witness gifted to man.

In order to give tragedy purpose in our life or the lives of others we don’t need to do any more than what each traumatic situation begs of us in order to bring about healing.  We mourn by acknowledging that all people matter and that human dignity demands respect for truth.  We heal by proclaiming that no one is defined by how they die and that hope is real.  Grieving is enough.

 

∗ This is not in any way, shape, or form a reference the #AllLivesMatter vs #BlackLivesMatter media “debate”.  It is a statement of fact regarding the foundational human dignity and worth of human life that undergirds our society.

In Memoriam: Christina Grimmie, My Friend

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Christina with my Grandmother at my wedding

My wedding reception had just finished and I was trying to get back to my room to change shoes. After hobbling up a flight of stairs with throbbing feet and a cumbersome dress I realized that I did not have a card key to access the lodge hallway where the bridal party rooms were located.  As I was debating if I could make it back downstairs on my own, and honestly starting to feel quite lonely, a graceful, quiet soul appeared on the landing where I was waiting.  I explained to Christina my predicament, she helped me get in, and then we walked together to our neighboring rooms.

I will never forget this moment.

She told me how beautiful I was. I told her how beautiful she sang.  I thanked her for coming to make my wedding so special.  She thanked me for the opportunity to be a part of our story.  And then I told her something that proved to be more true than ever in the following years. I told her that while we may not be related by blood, her family was our family and I couldn’t imagine celebrating that day without them.  Their family, as she reminded me in that moment, liked to tell everyone that my family are the nicest people they know. But in that moment I knew the truth of who the nicest among us truly was.  We hugged, and we went our own ways.

Yesterday, Christina Grimmie went from ushering others to worship at the throne of the Lord through her beautiful life to standing before Him in heaven at the age of 22.

For those who are left behind, for those experiencing a tremendous grief, for those trying to make sense of the senseless, for those wishing they could just do something, this one is for you.

This is the Story of the Son of God

Hanging on a cross for me*

She was loving.  Christina’s love was genuine.  She loved her family, her pets, and her fans.  She loved music.  In an age full of manipulation and image crafting, Christina was true to herself and how God made her.  She was determined to be faithful to who she was and who God was calling her to be.  She ignored voices telling her to be or do something she wasn’t because she knew her fans and she had a vision for how to love them and minister to them through pop music. She loved others and she loved herself for she knew that God loves us all.

The causes she supported with her celebrity weren’t publicity stunts, they were accurate reflections of her heart.  When she said she loved her fans, she really and truly meant it with her whole being.  She received her success with deep humility, and used it to tirelessly serve those whom she inspired.  Christina gave to her family, just as they gave to her.  She sacrificed for others, and she sacrificed for God.  To all of us who had the privilege of knowing her personally, we know the depth of the love she offered and modeled.  Christina Grimmie was loving.

But it ends with a Bride and Groom

Standing By a Glassy Sea

She was faithful.  Christina’s faith was real.  It truly permeated her life and influenced her decisions, even at a young age.  Through her knowledge of scripture to her prayer life, she privately practiced the faith she came so publicly to claim.  She faced plenty of challenges, disappointment, failures and deep pain in her young life, and yet she always turned to God for healing and guidance.  She might not have been recording “Christian” music or serving on a worship team, but no one who knew her could ever charge that she sought to use her gifts for anything other than the Glory of God.  Christina Grimmie was faithful.

Oh, Death Where is Your Sting 

Because I’ll Be there Singing

She had hope. I remember when she and her friend Sarah were very young and first spent a visit at our home writing songs that they asked to perform for us before leaving.  These mini concerts became a regular tradition for our get togethers with the Grimmie’s, long before Christina uploaded her first video to share with the world.  I can earnestly say that watching God’s hand unfold in her life story from early childhood until now has inspired me time and again in remarkable ways.  God gave her a vision and a dream early on in her life and she believed in it with abandon.

She believed in it so much that she kept working toward it, tirelessly, endlessly, passionately, even when she had no clear path for success.  She had hope that God meant what he was speaking over her heart and into her life.  She had hope that no matter the obstacles, He could bring it to pass and that He would not forget her and her dreams.  She had hope that no matter the number of closed doors she encountered along the way, there was still a future for her.  For those of us who saw that hope in a young girl from South Jersey singing from our balconies and in our living rooms, who was self-taught and self-driven, we saw hope in action.  Christina Grimmie had hope.

Holy, Holy, Holy Is the Lord Almighty

She transformed others for good.  As Christina was performing on The Voice, I heard God speak over her an anointing while we were watching her cover of Drake’s song, “Hold on. We’re going home.”  What I heard that night was a reminder that this, too, was a manifestation of the gospel.  What she had accomplished was an act of taking something that seems to be worldly and hollow at its core and transforming it into something truly beautiful and meaningful.  So many of her covers infused this love and beauty into whatever she chose to sing.

The secret to her professional success in this world, beyond her talent, unique personality, and infectious joy, came in how she used her artistry to touch our hearts and remind us that there really is a Creator of this universe who is Love.  God used Christina’s life, as I believe He will continue to use her earthly legacy, every time she breathed His life, the life and freedom of Christ, into the music she performed.

As her family, her friends, her fans, we were all touched by her time walking along side us and we can honestly say that we are better off having known her.  She helped to transform our lives through her kindness, her testimony, and the work of her hands.  Christina Grimmie transformed others for good.

Who Was and Is and Is to Come

Her story is not over.  For those of you, like myself and my family, who have followed Christina’s journey from childhood on up, there is a particular pain to see her name so publicly renowned today.  We all prayed and hoped and believed a day would come when she would reach this level of recognition for her talents.  Never, never, never, could we have ever imagined that day would come because of how she died.  It is almost too much, too cruel.

It does not end like this.  It does not end in tragedy, just as it did not start in tragedy.  The headlines that now bring her story to the rest of the world are neither the beginning nor the end.  Much like the Savior she loved, the tragic and heedless nature of her death may call attention to her life, but it does not define who she was, is, and will be.

We will miss her here.  We will miss her so much.  We will miss her and all the things we will miss out sharing with her in this earthly life that ended so soon.  I recall on my wedding weekend talking to Christina and her mom at different times about how she was so inspired by the story of how my husband and I met through the divine hand of God.  I remember how she said our story gave her hope for what kind of man God had in store for her, in His timing, and the importance of waiting on God to fulfill these desires of your heart.

In so many ways, it hurts knowing that she never met that man on earth and that we will never have the joy of celebrating her wedding together, as she so powerfully helped me celebrate mine.  And yet – and yet – I know that Christina met her bridegroom last night while she stood all in white.

Her story has just begun.  Her life, her eternal life, began anew last night.  If we thought that she sang beautifully in this earth I can only imagine just how glorious she sounds today.  I know that her life and her heart is fulfilled.  I know that she is loved in ways we can only dream of.  I know that she is whole.

Each time we think of her life and the way that God used it, we continue her story here as well.  When we listen to her music, or watch her videos, or tell others about her, we continue the act of transformation she began.  When we think on how much she was and did in her 22 years and we choose to be and do even a fraction of that with our own, her story lives on.  When we choose to love, to be faithful, to hope, and to use our gifts to transform this world for good, we keep her life’s purpose alive and we point to the life that she now lives.  Christina Grimmie’s story is not over.

This is the Story of a Bride in White 

Singing on Her Wedding Day

Of the God who was and is to stand before a Bride who Sings

Holy, Holy, Holy, Is the Lord God Almighty

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* The words in Italics are the lyrics to the song “Holy (Wedding Day)” by City Harmonic.  This was one of the songs Christina sang at my wedding.  It is the song that she sang as I walked down the aisle on May 11th, 2013.  Never before has this song meant so much to me.  Our glassy sea was upon the shores of Lake Tahoe.  Hers are the glorious seas of Heaven.

Pressing On: How to Cope with the Difficulties of Stay-At-Home Parenting

408268-1_1920x1080_534843971868It is 8 AM and I am feeding my children a breakfast of honey graham bunnies, which they fetched for themselves, while I sit on our couch sipping coffee and crying uncontrollably.  Sometimes the tears come in droplets, sometimes in torrents, but regardless of the speed they arrive I just can’t get them to stop.  Welcome to the beginning of a very hard day in the life of a stay-at-home-mom. Welcome to my yesterday.

I am choosing to stay home with my children while they are little.  No disrespect toward those who choose to work. I suppose this post could be read in such a way to make those who chose differently feel better about their own choice.  But that isn’t the point.  The point is that even though I chose this for myself and my family, and even though I have no intention to go out and find a full-time job, I still find some days to be incredibly difficult to handle.  To those stay-at-home parents out there who feel the same way, this is for you.

I love my kids.  It’s absurd that I feel the need to reiterate that statement over and over.  But when you are struggling to like your job, and your job is as the primary caretaker for your kids, it is only inevitable to feel a certain level of guilt.  So let’s get this one clear.  Struggling to cope with the hardships of watching little children full-time, 24/7, sometimes on your own with them for 12 hours or more, does not make you a bad parent.  It doesn’t mean you don’t love them enough or that you are somehow the wrong woman to be their mother (or man to be their father).

You aren’t failing them when you are truthful about why parenting as your full-time profession is sometimes profoundly difficult.  In fact, it is only in acknowledging our struggles that we can best serve our little ones and love them even more. So the fact that I am not always excited to get out of bed in the morning to attend to my children’s needs does not mean that I don’t love them.  Nor does the fact that I let myself feel these difficulties, cry in front of them when it gets really hard, and explain to them that “Mommy’s get sad sometimes too” after I calm down.  I love my kids.

I get lonely.  I think this is the crux of so many of the other difficulties faced by stay-at-home parents.  While other people go off to work, see co-workers, and meet friends for lunch, I spend most of my days in our house with my kids.  When I do go out, even if I see others, I spend most of that time focused on my children, their antics and needs, and not the people sitting across the table from me.  Of course, I can try to do more to expand my community and I know that for some moms this isn’t a huge problem.  But not everyone has kids in the same place where you grew up or has an established community near people they love, trust, and who have time to see you during the day.

Building this kind of community takes energy, flexibility, and time, qualities often in short supply when raising little kids.  We have moved around so much in recent years it is disorienting.  And while those choices were the best ones for our family, it does make this loneliness harder to deal with and community more challenging to create.  For it is hard enough to make inroads with a new community when you are single or newly married, but add in the complex needs of little kids and this task can feel next to impossible!

Oh, but what about all those programs for moms? What a wonderful way to connect and make friends! Yes, ok.  I can personally testify that those morning bible studies or MOPS type experiences have been both life-saving and very discouraging in the realm of relationships.  Don’t get me wrong, I think ANYTHING that can help get you and your children out of the house to socialize with others is a great idea if you can make travel arrangements and fit it into your schedule.  I am genuinely grateful for all the people who I have met so far along the way.  Even if I only spoke with you for three minutes a year ago, you are significant in my life and I still thank God for you.  I’m serious.

However, using these venues to find heart friends, to find the kind of people you have more in common with than just child rearing or a free morning, to find people who you can call up to join you on days filled with buckets of tears and honey graham breakfasts, are much harder to come by.  The task of growing acquaintances into friends can be tedious and dissatisfying when you have a pressing need for deep relationships right now.  I know they come for many.  I am trusting they will come one day soon for me.  But it hasn’t happened yet, so I am often very lonely.

Some might say, “Oh, but you have your kids to keep you company!” Yes, yes I do.  And I love my kids.  There we go again.  But my kids don’t speak fluent English.  My kids have the needs, and thoughts, and desires of little children.  As is appropriate.  And while the whole point of staying home is so that I can build deeper relationships with them during these formative years, trying to commune with a 1 year old as my primary social interaction is not emotionally satisfying.  Nor should it be.

At the end of the day they are still my children and I am still the parent.  I shouldn’t look to them to fill my emotional needs.  That would be both wrong and expensive.  After factoring in the cost of therapy once they get older, I’d probably have to go back to work just to pay for our mental healthcare expenses. Plus, thanks to their desire to join me everywhere I go, including the bathroom, I am hardly ever technically alone.  While some parents might be cool with this lack of personal space, I actually find it makes the whole loneliness problem pretty darn difficult to process and manage.  I mean, if I want to have a private emotional breakdown I have to schedule it for nap time.  So yes, I love my kids, but I can spend all day with them and still be lonely.

I get bored.  I know, I know, childhood is an endless adventure! When you see life through their eyes it brings new meaning and interest to your own! Oh look! It’s a leaf and it is FASCINATING!  When watching little kids it is true that we relearn how even the small parts of life can be fun and mysterious and interesting.  We can enjoy simpler things and really appreciate the value of endless silly giggles.  But other times in the day I desire mental challenges or stimulating conversation that relates to a different part of my being.  Blocks and cars and children’s books are awesome, but after a couple of hours I am genuinely ready to focus my brain on something else.

Maybe not all stay-at-home parents have this problem.  But as a highly analytical and philosophically oriented person, I like having intellectual goals and tasks of a nature that aren’t currently a part of my daily parenting schedule.  I like talking to people about abstract concepts like the nature of God’s love, and having practical debates on topics like the best way to address the challenges in the Middle East.  These interests are a vital part of my personality and they didn’t just disappear or get filed away in the inner recesses of my soul as soon as my first child was born.  So while I truly value learning to have awe, and not just irritation, for the tiny ants that occasionally invade our kitchen, I also desire to use and be my whole self throughout each day.  Otherwise, I get bored.

I feel unfulfilled.  Ok, yes, the work of raising children is a tremendously important task for both the lives of our kids and the future of our communities.  It is a gift to have this opportunity to be here for them with consistency and to see each milestone in person.  It is a miracle to have a hand at shaping the life of another in such an intimate and complete way.  But when lacking outlets for my passions, or even time to figure out just what my passions are, I feel almost like a shell of myself.  A hollow person moving from task to task without real connection or heart.  We give to our kids by being our whole unique selves as God created us, and that includes integrating all of our interests and skills into our daily routines.

Some might ask then, “Why don’t you just go get a job?!” Well, for starters, I don’t need a job title to be whole for myself or for them.  Although, let’s face it, somedays I certainly wonder if that would be an easy solution.  Especially for boosting my self-worth in a world that can merge identity with work and that tends to see full-time parenting as the absence of work. I think this misnomer is where we can get tripped up in thinking that there is some fundamental quality about staying at home with kids that is unsatisfying or joyless.  It might not be right for everyone, but for most of us there is plenty of satisfaction and joy in spending this season with our children.  It’s just also incredibly difficult to make space for our own interests and well-being while striving to meet their relentless needs.

Yet we can try to find time for ourselves, and not just at nap times.  Toddlers can play by themselves, they really can, and I think it is healthy for them to gain independence and to see us doing things other than just housework or play.  Of course, I always make space for them and their needs, which means I am interrupted an average of every three minutes.  But I think we can choose to orient parts of our day towards our other goals and interests outside of childrearing.  I am trying, slowly, to write and read more throughout the day.  I periodically put CNN on in the background.  I aspire to join a book club.  These are just some of the ways we can connect with our whole selves. Yet when lacking this personal time to use all of my God-given gifts, or when doubting myself and my purpose, I feel unfulfilled.

I feel overwhelmed.  Sometimes the demands of full-time parenting are really just too much to handle without a good cry.  At least for me anyway.  Toddlers are emotionally volatile little people, and since I have been either postpartum or pregnant for most of this parenting journey, I am emotionally volatile as well.  It really doesn’t take much beyond the daily diapers, spills, mealtime messes, and tantrums to trigger an occasional torrent of tears or frustration from either or both of us.

The tremendous weight of forming another’s life, and the practical situations that we face in this task, can be both perplexing and stretching. Some situations find me looking upwards and saying, “I am not equipped for this,” and yet I still have to make a call, on my lonesome, for how best to take care of my children and help them grow in that moment.  While I usually figure out some response with varying degrees of wisdom and grace, there are at least a few seconds – if not minutes – where I just want to hide or hand over my parenting duties to someone else.

Plus, I hate housework.  There, I said it.  Some of you, I know, love it.  It helps calm you down or feel in control, and that is awesome.  But I hate it and I’m bad at it.  And while I try to take responsibility for a lot household chores as the spouse who is at home, I am not choosing to stay home to be our family’s professional maid.  I am choosing to stay home to help our children develop in a safe, positive, and familiar environment.  Contrary to stereotypes or cultural expectations, these two roles of maid and mother are frequently mutually exclusive.

Our home routinely has piles of dirty everything and it’s not because I am a lazy lout all day.  Seriously, have you ever noticed that trying to accomplish household tasks with the “help” of toddlers can take about 500 times longer than normal? Not to mention that if this was all I did all day long I would probably need a prescription for Xanax.  I count myself blessed to live in the age of google so I can figure out just how to handle applesauce stains on the sofa  or throw-up on the carpet.  And by handle I mean mitigate the damage, not restore unto perfection.  If you ever sit on our couches, I’m sorry.  After my panic attacks subsided, I tried my best.

So yes, on some days I find myself lonely, bored, unfulfilled, and overwhelmed.  And then I cry.  Sometimes I cry a little, sometimes a lot, and sometimes for hours on end because I just can’t keep it in anymore.  But then my husband comes home to hold me and give me a break, I take some deep breaths, and I remember why all this is worth it in the end.  I remember that I am choosing this path and that I can find ways to cope with the hardships day by day.  I consider new ways to walk out my calling and take care of myself, even if that means a part-time job, a nanny share, or a half-time pre-school.

I remember that God knows my struggles and he knows my heart.  I remember that He is always with me and that I can always cast my burdens upon Him.  I remember that He hasn’t forgotten the entirety of who He created me to be.  I remember that for all things there is a season and while some parts of me may lie dormant right now (like the part that exercises and showers on a daily basis), those pieces of me will blossom again, perhaps sooner than I can imagine today.  I remember that He prunes us to help us grow, and I pray that the fullness of my gifts and passions will flourish again in His divine timing and as a part of His divine plan.  I remember that He does not judge us by the cleanliness of our sinks but by the cleanliness of our souls.  And I press on.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings,becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrectionfrom the dead.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.  ~ Philippians 3:7-14

 

Note: Throughout this piece I use the term “full-time parent(ing)” to refer to the work of those parents who stay home to take care of their kids.  I recognize that ALL parents are full-time parents, regardless of where you are.  But the reality is that those who stay home are there do the work of parenting as their full-time profession.  No insult or superiority intended. I am just attempting to describe the daily tasks of parents who forgo a career in order to stay home with their children in a faithful and accurate way.

Choose Your Own Adventure: A 2016 Voters Guide for Disaffected Christian Conservatives

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If you are an evangelical Christian and an independent conservative, like me, you are probably incredibly torn on how to vote in the upcoming presidential election.  Even for those of you who are used to seeing your vote in terms of a “lesser of two evils,” you are struggling to identify just who or what that lesser evil is.  You are not alone and your uncertainty is completely justified.  Lacking a natural candidate, we find ourselves faced with a multitude of options and none of them seem particularly satisfying.  So in an attempt to clarify the options before us, I offer this voting guide for disaffected conservatives concerned with Christian values in the civic sphere.

I divided the options open to conservative voters into five major choices: 1) Vote for “The Nominee”; 2) Vote for “Her”; 3) Vote for “The Other Guy”; 4) “Choose Your Own Candidate”; and 5) Vote for No-One.  Skip ahead to those sections most prevalent to you, or read through them all at your leisure.

The premise of this guide is that all of these choices are morally available to us in this country, and as such we should give them due consideration.  While I’m sure some “friends” in your social network are pressuring you to make a certain decision as “the only right one,” I don’t happen to believe such a choice exists before us and there seems to be good reasons for almost all, if not all, of these five options.  Use your own discernment and make the choice that best aligns with your conscience, your faith, and your understanding of voting and citizenship.

If you already know who you want to vote for then good for you! Obviously you don’t need help making this decision so this isn’t a piece written for you.

For my fellow undecideds, if this begins to read a bit like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure storybooks where nearly every choice leads you to an untimely end, I feel you.  Yet choose one of these five we must, even if that choice is one of inaction.  I hope that this piece can be one source to help you decide in the coming months how to best utilize your freedom to vote (or not to vote) as you deem best.

A few disclosures before we start: I try to note my own biases where relevant, so for the record I am a white, highly educated, Evangelical (Anglican) Christian millennial, currently a stay at home mom, and a registered Independent who resides in the “purple” state of Virginia.  I am pro-liberty and pro-life which often leads me to support libertarian based policies on the economy, immigration, and foreign policy, with deep reservations over some libertarian perspectives on our common morality.

Prior to this election I mostly voted Republican and in the 2016 primaries I supported Rand Paul and John Kasich.  Before becoming a mom I pursued a series of degrees related to politics (international relations), history, and Christianity and travelled to many countries outside the US, especially in the Middle East.  I am, in essence, the personification of a typical #NeverTrump voter.  However, I try my best to outline which of you might find Donald Trump the best choice this year.

Our choices in 2016 – By the candidates:

1. Vote for “The Nominee” (a.k.a. Donald Trump)

Donald J. Trump likely needs no introduction at this point.  It is the pending nomination of this megalomaniac billionaire as the Republican nominee which has primarily created the conundrum we face.  If you are anything like our family, you watched the primaries with a mixture of shock, horror, and denial.  You still can’t believe the same political party so fixated in the past on public virtue has deemed his antics and rhetoric an acceptable representation of their message.

Yet many public figures, several of whom you probably respect, have come to embrace or even actively endorse him in recent weeks.  Personally, I have a hard time looking past his erratic nature, constant lies, childish personal attacks, racially charged rhetoric, irresponsible policy suggestions and obvious ignorance, but apparently not everyone finds these issues to be disqualifying.  Or at the very least, his failures are deemed to be the lesser evil set before us and thus a vote for him is considered a necessary, if unpalatable, choice.

Why Yes

Even if you ultimately choose to cast a vote for Donald Trump, chances are it will be hard to say you support the candidate himself.  This makes you what I think of as one of the “vote for The Nominee” advocates.  Like many of the current leaders within the GOP, you acknowledge you will probably vote for Mr. Trump, but wish to do so with as little of a connection to the actual man as possible.  You remain concerned about a number of issues raised by Trump’s candidacy, but you think a Republican president, no matter how inconsistent or foul, is still a better option than the alternatives, primarily Hillary Clinton.  Ultimately, Donald Trump represents a placeholder: flawed, perhaps, but the best pragmatic option available to you for the advancement of conservative principles in this election.

The most pressing reason why this choice might be right for you is if you are primarily concerned with appointees to the Supreme Court.  You hope to ensure with this election that the court will remain ideologically balanced following the sudden death of Antonin Scalia.  You even hope that the court could turn in favor of conservative judicial interpretation following the potential death of more justices in the next four years (a morbid thought for the otherwise pro-life, I know).

You hope for this because it could have major ramifications on future cases related to critical issues like abortion, religious freedom, gun rights, healthcare, executive power, and immigration.  For some social conservatives and gun rights advocates this could be an important enough issue for you to justify a vote for Trump on its own merit.  You may even find yourself desiring to print out his list of hypothetical nominees and bring it with you on voting day as a reminder for why you are doing this.

It is still a risk to support him primarily on this basis.  For even though Donald Trump has released a very conservative list of potential nominees, he has already left room to negotiate his way out of those names if he deems it necessary.  He also has not really assured with clarity or consistency that any future justice appointees beyond Scalia’s replacement would share this ideological bent.  And even if he did promise that tomorrow, would you believe him?  Perhaps not.  But you argue that with Trump as president there is at least a chance for justices of a conservative nature to be nominated, whereas with Hillary Clinton there is a zero-percent likelihood that she would nominate an originalist with a pro-life, pro-gun, pro-marriage record. You take that argument for what it is: a hope and a prayer.

This brings us to a second reason to vote for “The Nominee.”  To you, general elections for president are primarily about the two major parties and you only want to vote for someone who can possibly win.  I personally disagree with this assessment.  However, if this is how you see the world then you really only believe that you have two choices, not five.  In that case, you must judge which wretched candidate, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, best represents you and/or is best for the country.

Perhaps you will conclude that you trust a Trump administration if not Trump the man.  Perhaps you are so appalled by the worldview or record of Hillary Clinton that you believe she is still worse than what Trump has to offer.  Or maybe you just hear something you agree with in the policies Donald Trump has suggested, and you agree with it enough to compromise any other beliefs or concerns that a vote for him may entail.

If you are wary of Free Trade, NATO, Muslims, illegal immigrants or desire to not just secure the border but also dramatically increase deportations – among other single issue policies like energy, military growth, tax cuts, healthcare, and preserving social security – then you may find yourself desiring to vote quite openly by name for Donald J. Trump, warts and all.  Included in this group are also those so tired of politicians that you believe it would be best for someone lacking political experience to try their hand at the presidency.  In this case you may not need to read on, for Donald Trump is your best candidate for 2016.

Whatever your reasons, some (perhaps many) of you will likely end up voting for this man come November.  If you do, I’d like to add a request from those who, like myself, find that this decision is hard to reconcile with our beliefs.  No matter your reasoning, I ask that you do not let partisan patterns of coloring the world in favor of your chosen candidate lead you to blindness of this man’s weaknesses or keep you from speaking out against the things he says or does which are abhorrent.

It’s one thing to decide to vote for him; it’s another to advocate for him or remain silent in the defense of your “lesser” evil.  If he does win and attempts to make any of his more criminal policy suggestions into reality, such as order attacks on the family members of terrorists or use the powers of the federal government to crack-down on journalists who don’t portray him in the best possible light, I hope you will be among the first to speak out against him no matter who he nominates to the Supreme Court.

Why No

If you have concluded that it is an unacceptable option to elect someone as leader of the free world who is crass, emotionally unstable, unprepared to address the basic demands of the office, and willing to suggest heinous, unconstitutional, and even criminal policies just to claim a news cycle, then Donald Trump is not your candidate.  From the ugly rise of the young alt-right to the embrace of the blatant racism found in his recent attacks against the judge overseeing his Trump University fraud case in California, you are appalled at the type of support this man is receiving.  You can’t fathom such ideas being rewarded with the powers of our chief executive. Bad behavior should be met with consequences, even if they are painful for all involved, not reinforced with rewards.

For some of you, his less than ardent commitment to conservative principles (to put it nicely) might be enough to rule him out.  Yet while you may have deep policy differences with the Trump campaign, chances are your deepest reservations are tied to concerns about his character, rhetoric, lack of experience, and motives.  While all of his policies have been declared by the candidate himself as inherently “negotiable” and as mere “suggestions”, I’m afraid his character is not.  As Thomas Sowell aptly noted, “A man in his 60s has life-long habits that are not likely to change. Age brings habits, even if it does not bring maturity.”

If you were persuaded early on by arguments from Christian leaders like those offered by Max Lucado on decency, or later by Russell Moore on the potential damage that support for this man could have for the fellowship and witness of Christians within minority communities, then Donald Trump is probably not the best option available to you.  You are unswayed by arguments like the one regarding the future of the Supreme Court for you question Trump’s intentions to follow through on his promises.  Or, you see great deal of potential evil in other areas that also concern you like immigration (border walls and racial insults bring to mind the worst of modernity?), or dangers for foreign policy (talked to anyone from the intelligence community lately?) or the economy (tariffs and trade wars not your thing?) that outweigh, or at least render even, any possible gains from a hypothetical conservative court.

It’s probably disquieting to relinquish the possibility of replacing Antonin Scalia with another like-minded justice, but you still cannot find yourself able to support or advance the leadership offered by Donald Trump.  You are willing to take this hit and surrender the future of the Court for the next few decades in exchange for “principled dissent.” It is all in God’s hands anyway, therefore you decide to release this future back to Him.

It’s possible that you are willing to look beyond the social conservative purity tests of pro-life/pro-marriage (for example, you voted for pro-choice Republican candidates in the past).  Therefore you aren’t compelled by a need to vote solely on that basis. Or you find it difficult to use the Trump campaign’s official support of these types of “Christian” policies as justification to overlook the other ways he daily undermines your closely held understandings of public virtue, human dignity, compassion, truth, and leadership.

Maybe you are someone versed in psychology or patterns of abuse and you just can’t bring yourself to vote for a person who so openly engages in dysfunctional and potentially clinical behavior.  Or perhaps, like Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, John Kasich and other figures who have publicly announced their difficulty or inability to vote for Trump, you don’t know how you could explain or justify this decision to your children or grandchildren.  You you don’t want them to ever look up to this man or believe his public behavior is in some way acceptable, defensible, or worthy of support.

You are so concerned by the ramifications that a Trump presidency presents for the safety, prosperity, and common decency of this country, or for a compromised ability to witness Christ to a needy world, that you are willing to consider options beyond the Republican nominee. If any of these describe you, I encourage you to keep reading.

2. Vote for “Her” (a.k.a. Hillary Clinton)

I know what you are thinking: “Is this a joke?”  Sadly, I’m quite serious.  Not only is Hillary Rodham Clinton – another candidate not needing an introduction – an option by way of her likely nomination by the DNC, but she is most definitely a very real choice for traditionally Republican voters thanks to the deep problems presented by the nomination of Donald Trump.  Yes, please take minute to let that fact sink in.

As one astute pundit noted, thanks to Trump’s frequent outrageous statements and behavior Clinton is now able to at least appear reasonable, rational, and presidential, if not actually embody those qualities in the eyes of a majority of the nation.  Her June 2, 2016 foreign policy speech highlighted this contrast well, likely the first of many such speeches to come.  But is she really a safer or more responsible choice than Trump?

Why Yes

My guess is that most conservatives who vote for Hilary Clinton will ultimately choose to do so on the basis on foreign policy and not a shared morality.  It is her strongest general election argument and it is no surprise that this is how she has chosen to frame her opposition to Trump.  This might be an option for you if you worry about the temperament of the person who has access to our nuclear codes and our highest levels of intelligence briefings.  If you are a neoconservative in foreign policy and this lens of national security is one of your primary policy concerns, then it should be an easy choice – one that some prominent conservative ideologues have already publicly announced.

But even if you are a critic of Clinton’s often abysmal record, including her tendencies toward ill-fated military engagement, her handling of Benghazi, and her questionable judgment behind the ongoing classified email investigation, she still might prove to be the safer or less frightening choice.  Personally, I lean toward non-interventionist policies and don’t support much in her record.  Yet I am schooled enough in foreign policy and international relations to understand that maintaining a less than desirable status quo is preferable to emotionally charged unpredictability, incompetence, and incoherence on the world stage.  You don’t get to stop the camera and take 2 (or 22) in diplomacy and war.

In fact, stability could be why, in the words of my life-long Republican mother, you may find yourself thinking in awe that “Hillary Clinton might be the best hope we have to save the republic.” I don’t think most Christian conservative voters are looking to permanently switch parties (although Reince Priebus and his ilk are doing an excellent job at making a case for why we should reconsider political allegiances).  Neither are you looking to support most of Clinton’s agenda.

But in an election filled with deeply pragmatic choices of compromise, voting for a candidate whom you believe to be, in the words of P.J. O’Rourke, “wrong about absolutely everything, but…wrong within normal parameters,” could be the lesser evil.  Ironically her famous “3 A.M. phone call” argument is even more relevant in this election than ever. Who cares about the Supreme Court if we elect someone who could potentially trigger a nuclear WWIII?

You assess that choosing Hillary Clinton, even if you have a long history of antipathy towards her, probably means lower risks of economic collapse or international political instability.  For those radical conservatives (count me as one!) who support sanity in our immigration policy, it means a movement toward some kind of realistic solution for the millions of undocumented workers who could otherwise be paying taxes, given newfound dignity, and integrated into our society.

Toss in a dash of Alexander Hamilton’s now popular adage, “If we must have an enemy at the head of government, let it be one whom we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible.” Add a pinch of the notion that most of you who vote for, or at least acquiesce to, Clinton in 2016 will almost immediately look for challenger to support in 2020, and you’ve got the makings of a pretty persuasive argument.

I’m not saying there will be some kind of come to Jesus moment where a bunch of us decide the Democrats have been right all along.  Rather I am suggesting that for many of you there is newfound reason to reevaluate your distaste for certain politicians and view them with fresh eyes.  Perhaps you think it’s time to ask anew just why Hillary Clinton is so wrong for the presidency in light of the realities of who the republican nominee is and what he has chosen to represent.

I found the knee-jerk response of prominent politicians like Marco Rubio to reveal our own madness on this matter: just why is Hillary so bad that we must have Donald Trump, a man Rubio publicly deemed “an erratic individual,” a “lunatic,” and “con-artist,” at all costs?  The answer to this query is not as obvious to me as so many die-hard Republican partisans now assert.  If you are considering a vote for Clinton – or at least a non-vote for Trump – I expect you agree.

Honestly, I think most conservatives who will not be voting for Donald Trump, whatever that looks like, have at least unconsciously accepted some, if not all, of these arguments.  Barring a major shift in our national political behavior, either Trump or Clinton will be president.  If you are choosing a #NeverTrump position I’m not sure you can also faithfully be 100% #NeverHillary, even if you decide that you cannot personally cast a vote for her.

Some of you, it’s important to note, share a few key interests with the Democratic Party platform, such as addressing environmental conservation, racial injustice, or gender inequality. It’s ok to be a voter who changes up party support from time to time.  If this description fits you then you maybe this choice isn’t going to be all that difficult in the end.  You may find the Clinton campaign to be a more natural fit given the options.

For those who believe that you must vote for the candidate of one of our two major parties, I think Clinton offers a very realistic alternative worthy of consideration as your version of a “lesser evil.” It is not the most desirable option and it carries significant trade-offs, as discussed below.  For many of you the reality of another Clinton family presidency is downright depressing. But again, when faced with bad options sometimes you have to make less than appealing choices.

Why No

Well, the reasons here to not vote for Clinton are aplenty.  Most of them fall along party lines and you already know them well.  You have likely voiced them vociferously at TV screens and family dinners for years.  However, I think the most important reason to not vote for Hillary Clinton is if pro-life policies are of the upmost importance to you, as well as a whole host of other social issues.  A Clinton presidency will be at least as radical as the Obama administration on issues of human sexuality, marriage, and abortion, if not even more so.  This could have very serious ramifications for Christian businesses, schools, and possibly even churches.

If you care about the Supreme Court appointments first and foremost, then she is definitely not a good choice for you.  If you are concerned with restricting our military presence overseas, believe she ought to be in jail, or find the thought of Bill Clinton back in the White House chilling, then this is also not a great option for you.  If you believe that we can’t possibly survive another 4 years of a liberal political agenda in this nation and Dinesh D’Souza’s political films rank among your favorites, then you should probably rule her out.

None of the positive arguments listed above negate her colorful past full of lots of “gates”, unanswered questions, and evasive pretension.  They don’t fix any real perception of how trustworthy she is, or address concerns about her judgement.  They also can’t effectively be used to defend against her liberal voting record and philosophy on just about every major policy area of concern.  So basically if you aren’t swayed by arguments that you need to restrict your voting choices to two corrupt liars with different letters listed behind their names, or if you aren’t all that worried about potential crises like trade wars, nuclear wars, and unconstitutional acts as manifested in a potential Trump presidency, then she is probably not your candidate.

3. Vote for “The Other Guy” (a.k.a. Gary Johnson)

Gary Johnson, a former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, is the newly chosen nominee for the Libertarian Party.  As of today he is the only other presidential candidate who will appear on the ballot in all 50 states.  Depending on your social network, there is a decent chance that you have never heard of him or see him merely as “The Other Guy.”  Unlike Trump and Clinton, he already has a running mate, another former two-term Republican governor, Bill Weld of Massachusetts.  They are billing themselves as the “governor ticket” and are currently engaged in a media frenzy to try to raise money and get their names out there.

Their first major hurdle comes in regards to the debates, for the committee overseeing the general election presidential debates currently mandates that candidates must be polling nationally at 15% or higher in five major polls in order to be included.  This is a very difficult feat for anyone other than the nominees of our two major parties. For some perspective on the difficulty of this task, Johnson also ran for the Libertarian Party in 2012, winning just shy of 1% of the popular vote with 1.2 million votes.

However, in a recent poll (the only one where his name was even included) Johnson was polling at 11%, so there is still reason to believe the Johnson/Weld ticket could possibly see unprecedented third party success come November.  As an aside, I think if you are even toying with voting for Johnson and happen to be queried for a poll, it is to everyone’s benefit for you to say that you would vote Libertarian just to get a third voice on the stage come this fall.

Why Yes

The motto of the Libertarian Party, as defined by Gary Johnson, is that they are fiscally conservative and socially liberal.  This is a great choice for you if your primary concern is to see a return to (or a beginning of?) conservative economic principles in this country.  If you fundamentally want to see the size of the government decrease and a more strict enforcement of the constitution, the Libertarian platform is your answer.  Particularly so in this election with both candidates of the two major parties openly campaigning as authoritarians who see the federal government as a vehicle for solving most problems at home and abroad.

Johnson is also a good choice for those who advocate for free trade, more open borders, legal status for immigrants, entitlement reform, and limited intervention overseas.  You may also be drawn to this ticket if executive political experience is one of your most treasured qualities to look for in a president and vice president.  It is also possible that you may choose to support them if you are looking to mix-up the two party dominance of the past and want to make it more commonplace for emerging third parties to gain traction and exposure.

You recognize they are unlikely to win this year, but you also believe that it is precisely this kind of thinking which has kept our electoral options very narrow and unappealing in the past.  You reason that if everyone who said they would vote third party candidate “if only they could win,” actually did vote third party, then someone like Johnson might have a fighting chance for success.  So while you can’t change the entrenched habits of others, perhaps starting this year with changing your own is a step in the right direction.

All these reasons probably sound great to disenfranchised conservatives (especially my fellow millennial voters), and in some ways they really are.  But the Johnson/Weld ticket does come with some serious detractions, especially for voters who previously or currently consider(ed) themselves to be social conservatives or values voters.  You need to ask yourself if you can accept pro-choice candidates who seek to uphold federal precedent on abortion (but who are against late-term abortions), if you can see any benefits in the legalization of marijuana, if you are willing to stop looking to the federal government to define marriage, and if you believe that when a person is engaged in commerce they must serve all customers regardless of any personal or religious objections to the request.

These are not easy questions, and my guess is that there may be some compromises you are ok with and others you will have a really hard time supporting.  Of course, most of these compromises are also found in a vote for Hillary Clinton without the ideological benefit of a commitment to fiscal conservatism, constitutionalism, and limited government. It is also important to note that on most issues (the proverbial wedding cake example is a troubling exception for Johnson) libertarians advocate that it is not the role of the federal government to tell you how to live so long as you aren’t using your freedoms to hurt others.  So while they may support, say, LGBT causes, they aren’t for using something like the public education system to enforce or promote this worldview.

For those of you who, like myself, have lived in blue states for most of your life where it is common for fellow conservatives to not share all of your social convictions, these compromises may seem more commonplace and necessary than they will to our red state brethren.  Also, you may find that the libertarian approach to some of our more contentious social divides presents an attractive way forward in a live and let live kind of way. Johnson/Weld remains a great choice for those of you who are fundamentally concerned about the direction of our economy and the size and scope of our federal government.

Why No

If the core issues of social conservatism are at the heart of your voting choices then Johnson/Weld is probably not for you.  They are both, as mentioned above, pro-choice, supportive of LGBT causes, and are in favor of the legalization of most drugs.  In fact, Johnson himself was formerly CEO of a company that makes cannabis products and openly admits to recreational use of marijuana in the recent past.

While much of their advocacy is through the lens of a limited federal government, on the whole they come as advertised: socially liberal.  If this is not a compromise you are comfortable making, even considering the unpalatable nature of this year’s choices, then you are unlikely to want to vote for Johnson.  The Libertarian Party certainly has some prominent pro-life members (like Ron Paul or primary challenger Austin Peterson who gained short term support this month from the likes of Glenn Beck), but the core of the Party has not been terribly friendly to social conservatives on the whole.

The ideological narrowness of the Libertarian Party has not only restricted their ability to build coalitions in the past, but it also raises questions about their potential effectiveness as a third party moving into the future.  If you are looking to vote for a likely winner, or if you at least want to support a movement you can get behind in years to come that will also welcome your differences of opinion, this might not be your best choice.  Finally, if a robust and global military in the neoconservative tradition is important to you, or if you are deeply concerned about border security, you probably won’t be satisfied with their policy proposals.

4. “Choose Your Own Candidate” (Vote for Another 3rd Party Candidate or Write-In)

While most of the pros and cons of voting for an obscure third party or writing-in a candidate of your choice align with the points I make below for choice #5, it’s worth noting this as a separate option unto itself.  In terms of other third party candidates we may still be in flux with who will run, although it is increasing unlikely – but not impossible – for a new independent challenger to get their name on the ballot in all 50 states.  Another third party candidate of note is Darrell Castle and his running-mate Scott Bradley of the Constitution party, who are currently approved for the ballot in 18 states.

Why Yes

This might just be the best choice for the truly desperate or dispossessed.  If none of the other three candidates listed above are acceptable choices to you, but you still want to vote for someone and not just stay home or leave the ballot blank, then this is the only recourse left.  Of course, the much hyped white knight scenario would certainly ease the conscience for many conservatives, and should such an independent candidate emerge in the next few weeks they would be worth your scrutiny and potentially your support.

Darrell Castle presents another alternative who is, at the very least, actually running for president. If you happen to live in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin, or Wyoming, you are in luck!  While he will have limited ballot access, the Constitution Party’s core policies of limited government and social conservatism could be a sweet spot for those in search of a Trump alternate.

If you are comfortable with the way the Constitution Party mixes the roles of church and state and you want to vote for someone who is definitely pro-life, Castle may be your candidate and I’d encourage you to read up on him and his party in greater depth.  For those who like his policies but who will not have his name on the ballot in your state, you can always choose to write him in.  There are also a few other third party candidates who may appear on your ballot, the most prevalent being Jill Stein of the Green Party, whom you can certainly research further.  But if both Hilary Clinton and Gary Johnson are a no-go for you, I think it is highly unlikely you will find much common ground with her liberal/progressive agenda.

Of course there is always the possibility for a write-in of your choice, and I have seen many of you suggesting that you will utilize this option to vote for your favored primary candidate, another politician, or perhaps your favorite dog.  This option is for you if you believe that it is 100% crucial to make a positive vote for someone but absolutely cannot see yourself voting for any of the actual names on your ballot.

Short of a massive write-in campaign, and I wouldn’t be shocked to learn of some former Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush supporters attempting to organize such a movement in the coming months, it is unlikely that your choice will get much coverage and it is almost certain, although technically not impossible, that your candidate will not win.  If these facts do not bother you, and if you interpret voting as an endorsement of someone who’s core policies you can support without reservation, then this ultimate “Choose Your Own Candidate” option is definitely for you.

Why No

Alternate third party nominees lacking full ballot access are not a good choice if you believe that your candidate should at least have the logistical and practical potential to win.  If you can’t find an alternate who you are more comfortable supporting than the three major candidates listed above (Trump, Clinton, Johnson), then it is probably best to forgo this choice in favor of the other four options. If you are like me and you are wary of supporting someone who isn’t actually running for president and who hasn’t asked for your vote, then the write-in idea also isn’t for you.

The “Choose Your Own Candidate” route isn’t great for those of you who see the necessity for political compromise and wish to practically walk that out as best as possible given the options before you.  If this is the case you may want to reconsider Choices #1-3 and pick the best (or least bad, depending on your perspective) among them.  If there are certain single issue policies that matter more to you than all else (such as the Supreme Court) then you will also want to pass on this option.

If you question your ability to find anyone who’s acceptable to your own standards outside yourself, then you might want to rule out this choice for the sake of good judgment.  I’ve never taken that option seriously, but yes, apparently there are people in this country who see the write-in option as a chance to write-in their own name or that of their favorite cartoon character.  If this type of behavior bothers you or seems to dishonor and belittle our electoral privileges then you might not want to partake in the practice.

5. Vote for No-One (Stay Home or Leave Blank)

This final choice is one of negation.  You will either stay home or, as Jeb Bush has asserted, show up but leave the presidential section blank and still vote down ballot. It is a choice that is made by millions of Americans every election season for a wide variety of reasons.  While the typical assumption for low voter turnout is disengagement in the political process, if you are reading this guide and yet still consider it an option this stereotype does not apply to you.  It is not unheard of for alienated groups to use the negating power of a non-vote for political purposes.  You may also choose this route as a deliberate act of no-confidence when faced with unacceptable choices or an ambivalence over which candidate you’d rather see in office.

In my own decade of political activity I have personally chosen this option for a number of different reasons. I did not vote in the 2008 presidential election, in part because of a cross-country move that August and in part because of a personal distrust and dislike for either candidate. Over the years I also have not voted in a large number of primaries and mid-term elections because, quite frankly, I had more pressing personal matters and major life changes (moves, marriage, babies) to attend to than figuring out my absentee ballot options or making the necessary arrangements to get to the polls on election day. I don’t regret these choices, they were not usually a decision made of out political ignorance or apathy, and I don’t think less of myself as a citizen or a person for not voting in those elections.  Yes, I sleep great at night!

My guess is that I am not alone in such supposedly delinquent behavior, for many of you have probably done the same over the years for one reason or another.  For others of you this particular option is a new choice under consideration as you have participated in every election from the school board on up for decades.  You may have previously thought it irresponsible or disrespectful to not vote.  Yet you are considering this choice anyway due to the unprecedented lack of acceptable choices set before you this year.

Why Yes

Personally, I see a lot of shaming out there related to this choice, or sometimes any choice other than voting for one of the two candidates representing the major parties.  The option to not vote might be for you if you don’t find these shaming arguments compelling or if you are willing to look beyond the pressure of your peers to make a choice for yourself.  I think one of the best pieces written about this option for Christian voters is by Russell Moore for Christianity Today.  If you haven’t read it yet I highly encourage you to seriously weigh his points made here.

In essence, if you find it morally compromising to vote for a pro-choice candidate but also cannot support Donald Trump for any number of deeply held matters of conscience and morality, choices #4 and #5 may be the best or only options for you.  In your assessment, the lesser of two evils argument does not apply when you can’t clearly weigh one set of evil over another.  Perhaps you have taken to the oft quoted teaching of Charles Spurgeon, “Of two evils, choose neither.”  In this sense you may feel more than ever as strangers in this world and you really don’t see much benefit, political or otherwise, in supporting either Trump or Clinton.  But you certainly see the great harm in choosing both.

While you probably take your civic responsibility seriously, you take your obligation to faithfully represent Christ more so.  Through your personal discernment – or alongside your particular branch of the church – you find it irreconcilable with your beliefs to support any of the candidates on the ballot this year.  Maybe you have compromised your values in the name of pragmatism in years past to only to fail to see any fruit come of these choices.  Or maybe you are just wary of joining a movement whose leader routinely disrespects others, uses the basest of methods to stir up conflict or strong-arm support, and vilely expresses appreciation for authoritarian and violent behavior.

Perhaps you come from Christian traditions that were mostly apolitical prior to the rise of the religious right and you question if that was really such a bad thing.  Maybe you think the loudest way to speak up for the downtrodden and the dispossessed, to represent conservative Christian values and socially conservative causes in this country, is to stay silent this year.  Much like the powerful image used by the pro-life movement in it’s advocacy, you wish to use your freedom to not vote in order to publicly stand against the status quo.  You will use this decision as your version of a piece of tape over your mouth, announcing through silence that neither candidate of the major parties is the right direction for our country.

This might be a good option for those of you who aren’t keen on third parties or write-ins, and who would otherwise vote Republican or Democrat but can’t justify voting for either candidate this time around. It is also a good choice for those of you who abhor the limited nature of our two party system and who rarely feel represented by either major party or the handful of third-party alternatives. Regardless of your reasoning, you recognize that not voting (or voting third party/write-in) will only impact the general election by omission.

You are essentially conceding that other people will decide who our next president will be.  What you are not conceding is that your choice to not vote somehow hinders your ability to advocate for your causes within the political process through other means, or silences your ability to voice opinions both before and after the election. Winning isn’t everything, and just because you aren’t backing a potential “winner” doesn’t mean you have lost your right to engage in our public discourse.

Contrary to arguments that not voting for Donald Trump, be it through any of the options discussed in choices #3-5, is a vote for Hillary Clinton, you believe that your vote isn’t owned by a specific party and that every time you go to the ballot box you have the freedom to choose whomever you deem best.  The logic of “any non-Trump vote is a Clinton vote” is only true if you were otherwise obligated or assigned as a Trump voter courtesy of his party affiliation.

As a registered independent, I find this type of reasoning offensive and reject the manipulative motives of those who use it to solicit votes.  But perhaps, being a conservative who would otherwise vote for the republican nominee were he not quite so odious and unfit this year, you recognize that in not voting for Donald Trump you are in some ways helping the cause of Hillary Clinton.

Teasing through all of these accusations, you still likely assert in the end that your vote is for whomever your actually voted for and no other.  Or in this case of non-voting, you see that it is an active choice to not participate and therefore not a magical vote cast for whichever candidate others don’t want to win.  Rather you are pursuing a stand alone civil action of dissent from the whole process.

Still, my guess is that you, like me, have considered many of the pros/cons of a Clinton presidency listed in choice #2 and have made (or will make by November) some kind of peace with that potential outcome should it arise, regardless of which option you will actually choose. I think it is an imperative for any #NeverTrump AND #NeverHillary advocate to contemplate this outcome.  If you skipped over reading choice #2 then perhaps you should reconsider and at least more carefully weigh this one in light of your objections to Donald Trump.

Regardless of who wins you will probably work on some level to challenge the agenda of either administration and you will look to support a new candidate in 2020.  You likely believe that not having voted for either Trump or Clinton makes it easier for you to act with integrity as a transparent voice for your beliefs, your concerns, or your favored policies within your own sphere of influence.

Finally, you decide that claims it is somehow selfish or disrespectful to veterans, suffragettes, or civil rights activists to not vote in a presidential election present a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of freedom in our country.  To you, the key to exceptionalism in American society is first and foremost our constitution, the bill of rights, and the freedoms they protect.  This includes the freedom for civil disobedience, dissent, or inaction.

When a soldier risks their life for this country, you believe they are sacrificing for our security and for our continued freedom, not for the obligation of all citizens to vote, or to vote in a specific way, or to vote for a predetermined number of political parties.  It’s the freedom to have all five of these choices in an election that contributes to our greatness. I am grateful to live in a society where we are not in any way obligated or forced to vote in a particular way.

Therefore, we aren’t actually compelled by some invisible gun to make a choice for one candidate or another, and this is a fact that you count as a blessing.  Moreover, your concerns about both candidates run so deep on a moral level that were you forced to choose one or die, you might just choose death.  Sorry to be melodramatic, but isn’t that how some comments on the subject make you feel these days?  Thank goodness that particular hypothetical scenario lies only in the minds of people who believe they must bind themselves to a narrow selection of options in order to make this choice.  If you are considering the alternative options of #3-5 then this type of thinking doesn’t apply.  You are free to choose any of the options before us that best fit your heart, soul, and mind.

In the end, you believe that while federal politics is important, you care a whole lot more about your integrity, your family, your church, and your local communities.  You see potential for how you can be a good citizen, a good neighbor, and perhaps most crucially, a good Christian, without voting for either Trump or Clinton in 2016.

This is your version of rendering unto Caesar this election  While you openly acknowledge that our next president, whomever he or she may be, could come with great cost for you or the work of the church, it is a decision that brings you peace.  You have peace because is a decision that you can explain to your children or grandchildren without reservation.  You have peace because it is a decision that you have confidence in before the thrown of God.  Having decided all this, you are ready to move on to whatever is next as you strive to be salt and light in this world.

Why No

It should go without saying that if you are one of those people who sincerely believes that you must vote for either the Republican or Democrat nominee in our general elections, if you genuinely believe not voting is somehow disrespectful to those who sacrificed in order to grant voting rights to others, or if you think that there is some kind of moral obligation for all citizens to at least vote for someone, then this option is not for you.  If you are still compelled by a lesser of two (or three) evils argument then I think you are best served by choosing between the candidates listed on your ballots.

If you are concerned about local races, especially if you will have any congressmen, senators, or governors on your ballot in November, then you will probably want to rule out not turning up to the polls as an option, even if you decide to leave the presidential section blank.  Just because you can’t find a candidate for the general election doesn’t mean you need to reject all forms of voting for the year.

Like most of the options listed above, if the core of your voting decision has to do with the future of the Supreme Court over and above all other concerns and costs, then you will likely want to forgo this form of political dissent. Also, if you discern that one of the major candidates presents a clear and present danger to the future of this country (and I suppose that assessment could fall on either side) it might be in your best interest to vote for the main challenger to that percieved threat.  This may especially be the case if you happen to live in a state where the race appears to be close between Trump and Clinton in Oct/Nov.  You may therefore feel the need – possibly at the last minute – to help tip the election in one direction or another.

Concluding Thoughts

Voting is often an intensely personal decision with very public implications, especially when the stakes are so high and the debate so open.  I think this year is destined to get even more emotional as the discussion about the leading candidates and their causes will continue to center on personal attributes, qualities, and history, instead of on specific policies. The greatest challenge we have before us is ultimately not in deciding which course of action best suits us and our calling, but in respecting those fellow Christians who choose differently.

In a world of less than ideal options, many of which can be legitimately critiqued on the basis of faith and morality, we will likely not all come to identical conclusions.  Yet we can remain unified as a church.  We can seek to place the kingdom of heaven before the kingdom of this world, learn to reconcile our differences, and strive to put Christ first in our lives. Chances are that no matter who wins in the presidential election 2016 we will need each other more than ever before in the coming years.  So let’s not loose sight of unifying the fellowship of believers, even as this fellowship walks out our civic duty in variant ways.