A Cherry-Picker Critiques Cherry-Pickers: The Newsweek Bible article

Newsweek magazine decided to close out the year with a gem of an article on the Bible that is sure to rankle uncritical Christian fundamentalists while injecting a great new sense of vindication into atheists and former Christians.

The problem is, that's exactly the kind of point-scoring the article was written to do as it masquerades as journalism.

You know it's bad when Al Mohler and I basically have the same opinion. Mohler is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he and I would butt heads on basically every theological topic. But his assessment of the article is right on:
It is an irresponsible screed of post-Christian invective leveled against the Bible and, even more to the point, against evangelical Christianity...[The author] really does not address the subject of the Bible like a reporter at all. His article is a hit-piece that lacks any journalistic balance or credibility.
Of course, Mohler, a Southern Baptist, would then go on to try to discredit everything Eichenwald says about the Bible, which is no more responsible. Eichenwald gets some things right, but he does so by way of a sloppy foray into biblical scholarship that is rife with the same level of cherry-picking and oversimplification for which he chides evangelical Christians. It purports to be an article about the Bible itself, but in reality it's an attack on a certain brand of Christianity, evidenced by its opening paragraphs which are full of unfair, broad-brush over-generalizations seeking to paint all evangelicals as extreme fundamentalists. To be sure, I am not any more endeared to Eichenwald's targeted brand of Christianity than he is, but that doesn't mean his article is fair or accurate.

Obviously, you should read the original article first. My response here will fall far from providing an in-depth response to every point raised by Eichenwald (one of the drawbacks of his article is that it fires off a barrage of unrelated debunker's talking points about the Bible, making a response very difficult). But this is my attempt to clarify and correct, as well as provide some general commentary on biblical interpretation and scholarship.


Transmission and Translation
Eichenwald gets our attention by saying that "no one has read the Bible," making the point that all we're actually reading is a "translation of copies," so to speak. He is correct to remind us of this. Translating, of course, is always an imperfect process that requires a good bit of interpretation. But Eichenwald carelessly says, "At best, we've all read a bad translation..." Tell that to the scholars who've spent years using their linguistic and epigraphic expertise. He also erroneously says that scholars are translating it from a translation. That was true of the King James Version, but modern day scholars are in fact translating from the original languages (just not the original manuscripts, none of which we possess).

Eichenwald writes as if we should be shocked that some words in the Bible aren't always translated the same way. Although he's right that some ancient Hebrew and Greek words have no English equivalent, he uses the example of the Greek word proskuneo and the fact that it's not always translated "worship" to cast doubt on certain passages. Of course it's not always translated the same way. Very few words are. Any given word can change meaning depending on the context. Welcome to the phenomenon of human language. Eichenwald also mentions the fact that ancient writing used no capitalization, punctuation, or spacing. He is correct. But he says this as if it presented an impossible puzzle for those who read it then and translate it now, relegating scribes and scholars to guesswork. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Eichenwald is correct that the transmission of the Bible depended on many hand-copied manuscripts over many years, and he is correct that this process included both mistakes and intentional changes. But most of what he says is overstated or not accurate at all. He claims that "about 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament." Leaving aside the fact that he's off by about 100 years, what he's talking about is canonization (not "compilation"). The Third Council of Carthage in 397 C.E. was when the New Testament was officially canonized as the 27 books we have today, but what he leaves out is the fact that the books of the New Testament were widely read and considered authoritative long before they were canonized (canonization often affirmed, not imposed, the acceptance of a book).

Justin Martyr, who wrote between 130-170 C.E. mentions and quotes from some of the Gospels, suggesting that they were already in wide circulation by then. Several apostolic fathers—the designation for a person who knew someone who knew Jesus—mentioned and quoted other books in the New Testament (Polycarp, Clement I, Ignatius). A document known as the Muratorian Fragment that dates between 170-200 C.E. mentions New Testament works as authoritative. Origin, writing in the early 200s, compiled a list of books that were being used by Christians in various regions, and came up with something very close to today's New Testament. This is hardly the 400 year gap that Eichenwald wants us to think there was. On the contrary, this represents one of the fastest tracks to distribution and acceptance in antiquity. In terms of the large number of different manuscripts, New Testament scholar Michael J. Kruger put it well:
Eichenwald mentions the high number of manuscripts as if it were a negative! The truth is that the more manuscripts we possess, the more certain we can be about the integrity of the NT text....Most other ancient texts from the first century (or thereabouts) are preserved in around 10-20 manuscripts (and some only in a single manuscript). Thus, the 5,500 manuscripts of the NT is impressive indeed.
Text Variants
In talking about all these manuscripts, Eichenwald is quick to point out that this means that there are a lot of textual variations. This is true. For any given book of the Bible, there are many extant copies, none of them exactly the same (thus the need for scholars to first reconstruct the original before translating). But the vast majority of variations are minor and inconsequential: a word here, a phrase there. Even some of the malicious or agenda-laden changes made over the years are caught and rooted out by scholars in their reconstructions, thanks mostly to all those manuscripts we have. But Eichenwald, to make his point and shock the reader, picked the passages inserted later into Mark and John as his examples, the only two examples of significant text variation in the entire New Testament. He presents such passage insertions as commonplace: "Scribes added whole sections of the New Testament," he claims. This is patently false. The two he mentions are the only two, and his commentary on them is reckless.

Let's just look at one. Open your Bible to John 8, the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Either right there in line with the text or in a footnote, you'll read something to this effect: "The earliest manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:59-8:11." See it? It has always been there. This is not the great revelation that Eichenwald seems to think he's making. It means what it says: all of the earliest copies of John's gospel do not have this story, meaning it was inserted later.

That's about all Eichenwald gets right. He goes on to claim that "scribes made it up sometime in the Middle Ages." Not even close. The Didascalia Apostolorum, a 3rd century document, mentions the story, and it was included in the Vulgate, the 4th century Latin translation of the Bible. Eichenwald also boldly claims that "the story didn't happen." How does he know that? It is possible, even probable, the story simply circulated independently for a while, as many stories did, and was later included in John's gospel. Besides, the story paints a very characteristic portrait of Jesus. From everything else we know of him, his handling of the woman caught in adultery is quite true to character. It sounds like Jesus through and through.

Throughout Eichenwald's section on text variants, he makes other factual errors. He claims that some verses, like Luke 22:20 or 1 John 5:7, appear only in late Latin translations of the Bible but not in any Greek manuscripts. Wrong again. The verses he mentions appear in Greek documents like the Codex Sinaiticus, the Codex Vaticanus, and others.

Creeds and the Divinity of Christ
Being a Baptist, I don't have as much of a stake in defending the Nicene Creed or other creeds of the church, but in the interest of fairness, Eichenwald had some exaggerations and mistakes here as well. He rightly points out the influence of Constantine and his less-than-stellar human rights record (although who did have a good human rights record in those days?). But he gives Constantine way too much credit in determining what books made it into the New Testament. He also makes it sound like the Council of Nicea (325 C.E.) was more responsible for the doctrine of Christ's divinity than it was. I can't pin this totally on Eichenwald, though. I've read a number of scholars who insist on saying that Jesus was more or less thought of as a Jewish teacher early on, and that the idea of him being divine only developed centuries after his life. In fact, the divinity of Christ partially comes from the works of Paul, some of which were written while Jesus' contemporaries were still alive. This includes the book of 1 Thessalonians, widely thought to be the New Testament's earliest work written in the late 40s C.E. The book of Philippians contains the well-known Christological hymn that says Jesus was "in very nature God" and had "equality with God" (NIV). This hymn is thought to have been recited by Christian churches years before Paul included it in his letter.

AuthorshipDoublets and Contradictions
A substantial portion of Eichenwald's article is dedicated to pointing out realities of the Bible that are no surprise to anyone with a theological education. He deals with a lot of issues related to the Bible's authorship, its inclusion of more than one version of a story, etc. Clearly, he thinks such things are going to serve as a devastating blow to Christianity and its veneration of the Bible. But as far as I'm concerned, the problem with the realities he points out is not that they are true, but that the average Christian doesn't know them.

For example, Eichenwald mentions the fact that the first 5 books of the Bible (the "Torah" for Jews, the "Pentateuch" for Christians) were not written by Moses. Duh. I've never understood why people insist that they were. The text doesn't identify an author, Moses wouldn't have known the Hebrew language, and countless pieces of textual evidence point to a time period long after Moses.

He mentions that 6 of the 13 New Testament books attributed to Paul weren't actually written by him. Yes, that is the overwhelming scholarly consensus, one of many nuggets that are well-known and accepted in biblical studies circles but not known to many in the pews. It was called pseudonymity. It was a common (though not necessarily preferred) practice in ancient times, and would not have carried the connotation of forgery that it would today. In fact, some pseudonymous authors would have thought they were paying their named figure a compliment by writing in their name.

Eichenwald mentions that many Old Testament stories have doublets—two versions of the same story. Yes, this is correct. Examples like the Moses or Noah stories are tricky because they are interwoven with each other and thus make it hard to spot (unless you have a copy of the Torah that is color-coded by source). Others are pretty clear and it's hard to understand how we missed it; for example, the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis. Later in the Bible, it's clear that the books of 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings record one version of the early monarchies with 1-2 Chronicles, written later, having different versions of the same events (though what he mentions is the Goliath doublet, which is kind of a different animal and has a long explanation). That kind of thing has been present in the Bible for as long as it has been a unified book. The problem is that we hardly read these books, much less compare them. Of course, for the New Testament, Eichenwald also mentions the disparities between the details of certain stories that are recorded in more than one Gospel. Again, this is nothing new. Such differences have been in plain view for a long time.

This is only a problem for people who have been taught to think of the Bible in problematic ways...and unfortunately, that was the case for me years ago, and it's the case for many Christians. We impose our standards of history, science, record-keeping and everything else on this ancient text, and in doing so actually prevent it from revealing to us the heart of God. While people continue to debate or insist on the inerrancy of the Bible, there is no answer to such questions because the questions themselves are nonsensical given the reality of the Bible. It should be a clue to us that the later compilers and editors of the Bible saw fit to include all of these differing stories with no problem at all. Why would they include two different creation stories (poems, really) together that have so many differences? Maybe because they saw value in both and were unhindered by our modern narrow-mindedness. Unlike us, they were able to leave room for mystery and beauty from the pens of those who were inspired by God to write.

We need to continue to bridge the gap between scholar and average Christian. As a pastor, I stand in that gap and work that space all the time, and it's hard. Pastors often avoid mentioning certain aspects of biblical scholarship in our sermons because we only have 15-20 minutes, and the mere mention of some things would require an extra 40 minutes of explanation. Mental models are powerful things. I've had people during my Bible studies stand up, red in the face, and anxiously ask, "So we can't trust the Bible?!" The assumption is that I have compromised the authority of the Bible (with facts?), when it is our false assumptions about that Bible that are the problem. We trip over our own feet. When we demand historical accuracy from a poem, is the problem with the Bible, or with us? When we are thrown for a loop by two conflicting versions of a story that have both been in the Bible for centuries, is the problem with the Bible, or with us? As Peter Enns put it, "The problem isn't the Bible. The problem is coming to the Bible with expectations it's not set up to bear."

But...public figures pick and choose Bible verses!
Yawn. The parts of Eichenwald's article that most clearly reveal that he really wasn't writing about the Bible itself to begin with are his many examples of how public figures betray their hypocrisy by picking and choosing parts of the Bible to obey or using it for their own agenda. No disagreement from me there. He chooses very likely and easy targets. My question is, to what standard of interpretation is Eichenwald holding those he criticizes, and does he meet it himself?

Judging by this over-simplified hit-piece that plays fast and loose with the complexities of the Bible, he joins the rest of us who "fall short of the glory of God" and often leave something to be desired.


Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and our inability to deal with complexity

The public is talking about police, race, the justice system, and all the other issues raised by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police. Such conversations are not really conversations, because we end up with two polarized sides of the debate. Also, like most things, we are guilty of "isolated clamor" over these incidents even though things happen every day. Sometimes it's police brutality, sometimes it's suspect assaults on police.

Are you still reading? Probably not. Statistically speaking, most of you want me to write for your side. You either want me to condemn police for their brutality or praise them for their heroism without doing the other. Your chosen websites and cable news networks have trained you to look at me with suspicion anytime I point to something that doesn't help the case you want to build.

Unfortunately, the actual truth doesn't fit nicely on a placard. Nothing is true 100% of the time, and every situation has many factors involved, most of them hidden. Truth is always nuanced, peace is always elusive, and neither cause shall be furthered as long as we assume that each new incident is a repeat of the last one.

I suppose it's human nature to want to simplify things. The problem is that life isn't simple. We try to fit each situation into our preconceived narrative of how the world works, and we reduce conflict down to an isolated situation without considering the plethora of personal and systemic factors that led to and influenced the situation.

So, here's my contribution to the conversation. I don't have a singular or cohesive statement to make, I just feel the need to lay out some of the many issues and considerations I see that people on any given side of these debates may not be considering.
  • Police deal with the worst of society every day, and face danger that the rest of us want nothing to do with. In the time that passed between the incidents themselves and the grand jury decisions, 48 U.S. police officers, including one I knew personally, were killed in the line of duty, and many more have sustained debilitating injuries. Cops chase dangerous people that none of us want to deal with, and they never know when someone will jump out of their car shooting. The kind of restraint and critical assessment that we expect them to use in split-second situations may not always be realistic. Police departments place priority on officer safety, and rightly so. Former police officer Terrell Carter referred to policing as "the most stressful and dangerous job I've ever had." It's also a thankless job. They are yelled at, spit it, and who knows what else for doing a job that we as a society pay and ask them to do. During the protests in recent days, all the officers that showed incredible professionalism and restraint did not make the evening news. Police brutality happens, but I don't hear enough acknowledgment from protesters of the danger police face. Police are the ones with the authority and rightly have higher expectations placed on them, but the last thing your community wants is a police force that thinks twice about using their weapon when it is actually needed. 
  • Despite that reality, I hear some officers speak with a disturbing level of disdain for the people they work with. P.O.S. (piece of shit) and dirt bag are just some of the terms I've heard from officers, terms that stem from an "us vs. them" mentality. Would I be the same way if I were an officer? I don't know. Are they sometimes talking about people who have done heinous, unspeakable things? Yes. And I'm willing to accept that, for some, it boils down to camaraderie or a coping mechanism. But part of what such language communicates is that some people don't deserve to live. I've known a few cops to say this outright and/or speak with the same disregard for a criminal's life as the criminal had for others. I cannot square that with a Christian view of humanity that we are all created in God's image, nor does it show any awareness or sensitivity to the factors that have made some people the way they are. In an interview with the director of a correctional facility (whose wife is a police officer), he shared his belief that "there are no bad people; there are people who make bad choices." I'd like to think it's not impossible for others to see that. In the Ferguson community, the stark difference in their interaction with the local police department vs. the highway patrol is instructive. I am very glad we have police officers, but my experience with some of them has not left me confident in their ability to deal prudently with the people they arrest.
  • We have no idea what happened with Michael Brown. Two guys know. One is dead, and the other is trying to stay out of prison. PBS NewsHour put together a chart that summarizes the testimony of 29 individuals concerning what happened, including Officer Wilson. It's a good visual to help us realize how divergent the witness testimonies are. We have to choose who to listen to and believe, because on every point, somebody else said something different. Officer Wilson couldn't even get his own story straight. That's why it was troubling (though not surprising) that police advocates like Chief David Oliver of the Brimfield (Ohio) Police Department posted conclusions based on "widely available facts" of the case. The problem is that none of his "facts" had been established with certainty. But it is just as troubling that we have an entire national movement with the chant, "Hands up, don't shoot," an image based solely on the disputed testimony of some of the witnesses. Protesters all over the country, convinced they know what happened, are solidifying a narrative based on shaky ground.
  • We have some idea what happened with Eric Garner, and there should have been an indictment. This incident was caught on tape. Of course, we don't know what happened before, but in this instance we're dealing with some fairly clear cut facts including that Garner was not acting in a violent way at the time, and that the choke hold used by the officer, a procedure police are banned from using in NY, was the cause of death according to the coroner.
  • Garner definitely, and Brown probably, were uncooperative with police (but that doesn't mean they should be dead). There's good reason to believe that Brown was not cooperative with police when they asked him (albeit possibly in a rude way) to move to the sidewalk. Brown may have shoplifted (though this was never established to my knowledge and the release of the video reeked of a distraction attempt). The Garner video clearly shows him not cooperating with police, telling them to leave him alone. In both cases, they were being stopped for very petty reasons (and witnesses say that Garner had just broken up a fight), but you should always cooperate with police, especially if you are large individual who could easily injure them. It is conceivable that they would both be alive had they been compliant.
  • But we also have to recognize that there's a reason some of our black citizens respond to police the way they do. Racial profiling is real, and their frustration levels have boiled over. I'm amazed at the way some white people simply refuse to believe what black people say about their experiences. The same Chief Oliver I mentioned earlier posted a rant on Facebook in which he makes the ridiculous claim that those who continue to say that race disparities exist are making money off of saying so. Maybe his black friends are making money, but none of mine are. Here's the trouble with racism: it's hidden. It's buried deep in one's subconscious, and racists don't think they're racists. But it's still real; big time. In the year 2000, a creative worship team with whom I traveled was not allowed to visit a church in Virginia once they discovered one of our members was black. Former St. Louis police officer Terrell Carter, who also happens to be black, had this to say on the topic:  
I have experienced scrutiny from police officers my entire life.  I am now 40 years old, and still experience it...I regularly saw racial profiling by white and black officers. It was just a given. If you were a black male, you did not have a valid reason for being out after a certain time, driving a certain type of vehicle, wearing certain types of clothes, or being with certain people because it meant that you were up to no good. Many good, godly people have had their lives ruined because someone did not like where they were at a certain time. It is hard for me to believe that there are officers who honestly say that there is not a racial divide.
ABC's "What Would You Do?" show once ran an episode in which several actors pretended to steal a bike. Even though the white actor and the black actor were dressed in the same way and were doing the same thing, passersby were exceedingly more suspicious of the black actor. 
  • Michael Brown and Eric Garner are not the only cases relevant to this conversation. Most don't make the news, so we don't know about them. But there are even others receiving attention right now, like the case of 12 year old Tamir Rice who was shot dead by police when he was alone in a park playing with a toy gun. He was dead within 2 seconds of the officers arriving, and it has been revealed that one of those officers had been deemed unfit for service at his previous job. There are bad cops, and I think there's more police misconduct than police like to admit.
  • Yes, "black on black" violence is a problem (but so is that designation). When a black person is the victim of a violent crime, the perpetrator is quite often black as well. So when people call us to remember that the greatest threat to a black person is not a white police officer, they are correct. But white people have bumbled this conversation badly (if it's even our conversation to have). First of all, the designation "black on black crime" implicitly attributes the reason behind the crime to be the race of the person (there are many other more relevant factors, such as socioeconomics). Secondly, we have quoted the statistics about higher crime rates among black people without recognizing where those statistics come from. Crime rates are largely measured by arrests, and what black people have been contesting all along is that they are targeted for arrest more often than white people. For example, white young people ages 18-25 report a higher rate of marijuana use than black people of the same age, but the black users are arrested far more often.
  • The grand jury process in both cases was suspect. There's a saying among lawyers: "You can indict a ham sandwich." In the Brown and Garner cases, the grand jury hearings went quite differently than they usually do. Our uninformed public is learning the difference between an indictment and a conviction. Indictments have a very low burden of proof. The prosecutor, who is normally in the role of aggressively seeking charges, gives the grand jury only the inculpatory evidence, not the exculpatory evidence, and all they're trying to decide is whether there is enough evidence to merit charges. An indictment says nothing about guilt. But many observers have pointed out that these grand jury hearings resembled criminal trials and were not carried out in the way that the courts have established they must be carried out. At certain points in the Darren Wilson hearing, it sounded like it was Michael Brown (the dead man who can't defend himself) who was on trial. The system broke down. Why? Prosecutors and police officers are buddies. They work together all the time on putting criminals away. It's not surprising that when it's a police officer on the ropes, the prosecutor has trouble flipping the switch to aggressively seek an indictment against someone who is really a colleague. That's why I agree with Vincent Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights (and others) who argue that special prosecutors need to be called in when it involves a police officer. 
  • Rioting and burning are stupid (but most aren't doing that). No, rioting and burning don't help Ferguson's cause. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, it's about the content of one's character, and there are some in Ferguson revealing that they don't have much character. But such acts are committed by a small minority. So stop calling the destructive people "protesters." Protesting is a lawful activity; looting and burning is not. In a press conference, Al Sharpton, who at other times has been an incendiary voice, clearly called out those who were being destructive and said they're on their own. 
  • Of course all lives matter; but that misses the point. The black community is not shouting "black lives matter" to the exclusion of other lives. Of course they're not saying that black lives matter more than anyone else's life. It is a rally cry and response (not the best chosen one, IMO) to the systematic racism they face (see above). They are saying black lives matter because of how often they feel treated as if they don't matter. Consider this: Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) by saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit..." You'll notice that no one stood up and interrupted him saying, "No Jesus, ALL lives are blessed!" That would have missed the point, just as the response "all lives matter" does.


Practicing Until We Need It [excerpt]

He Restores My Soul from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 David Masters, Flickr | CC-BY
When we are little children, we learn to walk long before we understand physics. We speak long before we can spell a word. We sing songs and dance to music long before we can read a note on a page.

Such is faith. We pray, recite, attend worship, and many other things long before we know what they mean. I’ve learned that one of the important parts is that we are practicing for when we need it.

In a recent article, Amy Butler, pastor of The Riverside Church in New York, wrote powerfully about the role of the church today: “We are islands in a world full of increasingly adrift people. We are places of solace and hope, community and hospitality for people who are too smart to believe in God and pretty convinced they don’t need the church — until they do.”

To add to Amy’s words: we all may be children who never grew up, constantly distracted and often guilty of mindless repetition…until the day comes that we need those words and songs that we can say without thinking.

[Read the full article at Practicing Familes]


3 Community Development Principles that can Transform our Approach to Ministry [excerpt]

The most effective way to attract and involve new people in your church is to involve them in the conceptualization, planning and implementation of what you do. Often, we plan our programs and ministries internally, and then spin our wheels trying to get outsiders interested. But interest will be automatic for people who have an opportunity to be a part of shaping something that responds to needs they have or issues they face...

...In our own churches, we need to always have our antenna up looking for passion and vision, not only within our church but outside as well, and tap into it wherever possible. A missional approach to ministry would ask, “How can we resource this person to make an impact for Christ where they already are?” True leadership development starts with passion, and churches need to find ways to fit jobs to people, not vice versa.


Q&A with Terrell Carter

I'm excited and honored to feature my Q&A with friend and colleague Rev. Terrell Carter. Terrell has always worn lots of different hats. He is currently Minister of Administration at Third Baptist Church of St. Louis, MO as well as the Executive Director of the North Newstead Assocation of St. Louis. He's also a talented artist who has taught art at St. Louis Community College.

Terrell is also a former police officer. He patrolled east St. Louis for 5 years, something he calls the most stressful and dangerous job he's ever had. He says he originally saw it as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people and communities in need, but was sometimes overwhelmed by the mental and emotional challenges. He served as associate and interim pastor at several churches while wearing the badge and, after leaving his law enforcement career, became the senior pastor of a church in his former patrol area in which the previous pastor had been shot and killed.

In the wake of recent national news stories about police, the recent shooting death of an officer in my community, and the general increase of fear and hostility in our culture, I've been wanting to get Terrell's insights. He is a quiet, humble and loving man who has been through some painful life experiences, and I'm glad he took the time to address some questions I had.1


1) How does your past work as a police officer inform the way you do ministry? And the reverse: in what ways has ministry changed your view of policing?

In general, I try to remember that all people are broken and need God’s grace. That includes me. I also try to remember that just because a person is experiencing tough times in their life does not make them a bad person. They may have made bad decisions, or someone else may have made a bad decision that has affected them, but that does not dictate what type of person they are.

In a practical way, I try to use the skills that I learned as an officer when I interact with people from the community. I call it “police radar." As an officer, I heard almost every hard luck story in the book. I had to learn how to listen to what people say and learn the clues to what was truth and what was not. When people are not being truthful, the “radar” goes off. I also learned how to recognize several signs of abuse, neglect, etc. Like any other urban community, our church has a lot of people walk in from off the street asking for assistance from the church. Most often, I use these skills to try to figure out the best way possible to help someone. It’s a tough balancing act because you want to show people unconditional love, but experience has taught me that you have to be aware of the need to protect yourself and others, even while you are trying to help.

I have always believed in God’s grace. On a personal level, I appreciate the concept of grace more than the concept of law and tried to live that out in my actions as an officer. I did not always do a good job of that, but I was always aware that just because a person did something that required law enforcement to get involved, that did not make them bad people or people below God’s love.

2) In the face of crime and violence, what is the line between prudence and fear? How can we be smart and careful without being fearful? What did this look like for you as a police officer?

The line between prudence and fear is very thin. So is the line between being careful and fearful.  As an officer, your job is to react to what someone else does. You do not show up to direct a situation from the beginning. You are there because something has happened and something needs to be done in response to that original action. Because of this, you are always on guard because you do not fully know what you are walking in to.

I wanted to see people as more than just people complaining, or people who needed to learn proper communication and parenting skills, or people who needed to learn how to handle their own life circumstances. But, as soon as I would let my guard of protection down, someone would test me and try to take advantage of me, either emotionally or physically. My most important goal was to go home every day at the end of my shift. In order to do that, I had to protect myself and my fellow officers. The challenge of working in an environment like this is you have the tendency to get jaded and see every situation as something to respond to, or you see people as things to respond to so you can move on to the next situation that needs to be fixed.

3) As a black person, do you believe that you have faced increased or unfair scrutiny from police? How did this look once you were a police officer yourself, and what would you say to white police officers who deny a racial divide or who feel they're being called racist when such concerns are raised?

I have experienced scrutiny from police officers my entire life.  I am now 40 years old, and still experience it.

Within the City Police Department, the underlying temperament is that anyone that does not wear blue (the color of the department uniform) could be the enemy. It applies more so to minorities. I regularly saw racial profiling by white and black officers. It was just a given. If you were a black male, you did not have a valid reason for being out after a certain time, driving a certain type of vehicle, wearing certain types of clothes, or being with certain people because it meant that you were up to no good. Many good, godly people have had their lives ruined because someone did not like where they were at a certain time.

It is hard for me to believe that there are officers who honestly say that there is not a racial divide. The first divide is between officers and the general public. After that, the next divide is between officers and minorities. The way certain people are treated versus others is one piece of evidence for this.

4) What would be a Christian approach to policing? You are familiar with the way officers talk among themselves about the criminals they arrest. Is it harmless cop-speak? A necessary coping strategy? Or is there a problematic dividing of humanity into good guys vs. bad guys?

I have to admit, I was no angel when it came to this. Some people that I encountered during my time with the department would have questioned my salvation. Most of the time, no one that I encountered on the street cared about that. Many times people perceived my attempts at showing compassion as a sign of weakness and they tried to take advantage of me. I then had to respond in an appropriate manner. Sometimes, that meant speaking slowly, softly, and clearly. Sometimes that meant screaming and shouting at the person who was doing the same to me to get them to understand that I was the person in control and they would follow my commands.

I think that the language and actions of some officers reflects the feeling that criminals, or anyone they interact with on the street, whether black or white, are “other." “Other” in the sense that they are less than human and not worthy of respect. One of the challenges of being an officer is not to become jaded by what you see and experience. If your only interaction with people from a particular community or background is negative, it will be hard not to see everyone like that in the same light. It will take intentional action not to lump everyone into a particular group. It will also take specific and continual training to teach officers to keep their cool and respond in professional ways that gets the job done without resorting to cursing and threats.

5) In the face of losing an officer in the line of duty, what does a healthy response look like from the other officers and the community? What is most helpful? How do officers keep their grief from morphing into unhealthy rage that could affect future encounters?

During my tenure, we had an officer killed in the line of duty. Ironically, one of my grandfathers was a witness to the killing. A healthy response for officers is the same as it would be for the general public (sorrow, disbelief, frustration, anger). A healthy response would also include acknowledging all of those feelings. Officers are taught to be emotionless (You are not a person. You are an extension of the State and its laws). Everything about them has to be controlled and measured. A healthy response would be to acknowledge the emotions and find a healthy outlet for releasing those emotions, whether that is counseling, therapy, or some type of physical outlet. It is an unfortunate reality that when some officers unleash their emotions, it’s at the expense of a citizen who does not deserve it.

6) How does someone who works with the worst of society maintain a Christian worldview that has room for grace?

This, too, is an intentional process. For me it required regularly spending time in God’s word. It also required that I open myself up to examination by other people who knew me and loved me and would tell me that they could see a negative change in my attitude and how I was relating to other people. My grandparents would spend time listening to my complaints about the job and the people I came in contact with. They would also talk to me about how I could live out my faith better while still doing the job. I also found mentors on the department who were Christians who had learned how to live out their faith while still doing the job. Ultimately, one of the reasons that I quit the department was because I felt like I was becoming someone that I did not want to be and someone that God did not want me to be.


This Q&A with Terrell Carter is an entry in the Guest Posts section of my blog. If interested in reading more or even submitting your own post, click here.

1 Terrell's responses have been edited for clarity, flow and length.


The Sex Blog, Part 2: Beyond Abstinence

In Part 1, I addressed a debate about pre-marital sex that sprung up on the internet, set off by a young woman who wrote about dealing with incredible guilt because of the way her church addressed the subject of sex and marriage. The many blogs by Christian woman that have been written in response do not address what I believe is the core issue: the church is horrible at talking about sex. To do this better, we're going to have to open our doors for some potentially uncomfortable conversations and be a safe space for subjects that people may be afraid to talk about.

I often don't know how to address these issues either. I can't personally relate to Pugsley's experience. But here's my shot at some key points of the conversation. This is not a complete, systematic Christian theology of human sexuality. I won't address everything, and I'm not under any illusion that I'm saying something new, so please point me to any sources that may have said any of this before me and better than me.

humanity. love. respect. from Flickr via Wylio
© 2010 B.S. Wise, Flickr | CC-BY
1) We need a holistic approach to sexuality based on personhood more than abstinence. To be clear right off the bat: this does not mean that I approve of sexual activity in young people. On the contrary, I'm quite traditional when it comes to this value. There are actually a lot of good practical and emotional reasons for unmarried young people to avoid full sexual intimacy. It's not just an abstract, pretentious religious rule. But to focus on abstinence is to focus on a "don't." This is a constant problem with Christians on all social issues. We're known for what we're against, not what we're for. A full understanding of personhood extends beyond our young, pre-married life and speaks to what it means to value ourselves and another human, whether we're married, single, divorced, etc. A Christian view of personhood, that includes sexuality, is about honoring ourselves and others as a fearfully and wonderfully made creation of God (Psalm 139:14), treating each others' bodies as the temple of God's Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), and offering ourselves as a "living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God" (Romans 12:2). Instead of authoritatively telling people what to do and not do, can we instead affirm who we are? Let's teach these life-giving, value-affirming principles, and tell young people how and why we have lived this out in relation to our desires. Instead of asking questions of indulgence ("How far can/will I go?") we can ask questions like, "How will I honor myself and the other?" Such values desperately need to be promoted in our culture, which has especially been a hostile place for women and girls. The problem of sexual harassment/assault that some face every day is still largely misunderstood and even denied by many men.

We talk about first-time sexual intercourse as "losing one's virginity," but is it always a loss? In what contexts are we actually gaining something? I, for one, believe that sex is experienced in one of its most beautiful and meaningful ways when it is one part of our whole selves that we give to another person in a lifelong commitment. In marriage, we merge our lives and souls, submitting everything to the other person (Genesis 2:24; Ephesians 5:21; Matthew 19:6). It is such a serious and permanent decision that Jesus' teaching on marriage left some of the disciples saying, "It is better not to marry" (Matthew 19:10). We need to think twice before "yielding our body" (1 Corinthians 7:4) with someone to whom we haven't yielded everything else. There are similar problems with cohabitation--living together before marriage. When couples do this, they are living as a family without having made the commitment of a family. Rob Bell has a great video about the 3 major Hebrew words for love in the Old Testament and how these "3 flames" were meant to "burn together." I affirm all of that.


2) The Christian abstinence movement is falling very short. If it worked for you, I'm happy to hear that. But you're in the minority.

Any parent knows what happens when you put up a boundary for a child and say, "Don't go past this." The child will either blow right through the boundary or, at best, see how close they can get to it without going over. Adults aren't much better half the time. This is basically where religious abstinence teaching has gotten us. There are lots of youth ministers out there who can tell you about the "how far is too far" conversations. It produces questions that have no good answer. 'Does God get mad at me at 2nd base, or is it 3rd base?'

We're facing some pretty embarrassing statistics about teens who take abstinence pledges. In a study done by Janet Elise Rosenbaum, pledgers waited longer before having sex but were no more likely to abstain all the way until marriage. They were also less likely to use contraception than those who had never taken such a pledge. Perhaps the most jaw-dropping statistic was that 82% of those studied--more than 8 in 10--denied ever having taken the pledge 5 years after the fact.

3) The Christian abstinence movement can be repressive. In some circles, abstinence means "don't acknowledge or express your sexual desires in any way." This is unhealthy and harmful repression. We were created with these desires. Any time after puberty, they can become preoccupying and overwhelming for either gender (in different ways). Boys develop a particularly strong drive and often face ridicule and belittlement from females for having a primal urge which they are given little guidance for handling. Both genders reach some high levels of their respective hormones long before the average marriage age, which is now around 27. Although both women and men have a fundamental need for companionship, such emotional needs tend to have a more complex connection with physical intimacy for women, who disproportionately bear the consequences of ill-advised sex (up to and including pregnancy).

4) The Christian abstinence movement misses a lot of people. There are many groups to whom abstinence has nothing to offer. What about single adults or divorcées? It doesn't appear to me that God turns off a person's needs when there's no partner available. The problem with the call to abstinence for single people is that it tends to come from married people. Some single people feel a call to celibacy or to stay totally away from romantic relationships. That's fine...the point is that it's between them and God. I as a married man would have a lot of chutzpah to tell them, "God will get you through it." From the stance of personhood, a single person can start with the same question as the rest of us: "How do I honor myself as a fearfully and wonderfully made temple of God?" A focus on abstinence bypasses other groups of people as well, like an unmarried person who has already had sex (with or without regret) or those who are experiencing same-sex attraction or gender identity issues. And it can be a downright painful subject for those who have been the victims of sexual abuse or rape, losing part of their sexual self against their will.

In addition, a church that has no sexual teaching other than abstinence has nothing to say to married couples who face many complex and disorienting changes to their sexuality (among other things) during their life together. Not that married couples are chomping at the bit to discuss such things in church, but I've seen how it works. A church focused on abstinence has only one thing to offer married couples: "Be sure to teach your kids abstinence."

Honeymoon Couple @ Ambre Resort, Mauritius!!! from Flickr via Wylio
© 2013 Natesh Ramasamy, Flickr | CC-BY
5) The Christian abstinence movement has made irresponsible promises. Christine J. Gardner conducted a qualitative study of teen abstinence efforts, and one of her conclusions is that the movement unrealistically romanticizes that future relationship (via stereotypical gender roles) and promises that everything will be wonderful if you wait. Gardner's book includes several interviews with people who managed to wait but were blindsided by issues on the other side of the vows (remember Samantha?) or for whom it simply took months to years before sex became enjoyable. She also concludes that abstinence is primarily sold to Christian teens through...well, sex.
Organizers argue that chastity is sexier than its alternative, more ultimately alluring and more gratifying. A young person says no now so that he or she can say yes to marital satisfaction later. The formula goes: early restraint plus godly partner equals great marital sex. Organizers promise that “good sex” is worth waiting for, and that those who wait will be well rewarded by God in sexually fulfilling marriages. (religionandpolitics.org).
Books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and When God Writes Your Love Story gained a lot of traction in their day. They certainly had some good things to say about faithfulness to God and the divine purpose for marriage. But they rely on a popular Western idea that is found nowhere in the Bible: God has one person and one person only in mind for us. God never promised us a mate, but many teens take an abstinence pledge having been told otherwise. The concept of one single soulmate is a product of later Calvinism and Western romance, not anything in scripture. Matt Sturtevant, a friend and colleague, says that these fanciful expectations have set many people up for failure. "As soon as these couples start to have problems, they think it is a selection issue and not a hard work issue," he said, "so they start the selection process over again."

Although there is much to critique about the current dating scene, one of Joshua Harris' arguments against dating is the heartbreak and confusion it causes, as if we can somehow shield young people from this by telling them to "wait on God." We can say that all we want, but to a love struck young person, oxytocin feels a lot like the Holy Spirit.

6) Christian leaders and parents need to be a safe place. Teens and young adults especially have to be able to talk to us (but only when they want to). Boys are statistically very likely (more so than girls) to view sexually explicit material before high school. What is our response? Do we have something in our arsenal besides shaming or avoiding? What would empathy and understanding look like? What about the daughter who wants to be with that questionable boy? Do we just jump into protective mode, or are we able to put anxieties to rest long enough to listen to and understand the deep longing she has? Chances are, society had already handily chipped away at her self-esteem long before the boy puts her on cloud nine. (These examples are not meant to reinforce gender stereotypes but simply address what is most typical).

Somehow we have to find a way to affirm sexual thoughts and desires as normal while still addressing the poor choices to which they can lead. The same book of the Bible that warns us: "Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires" (Song of Songs 2:7) is the same book that contains lines like, "Your breasts are like two fawns" (Song of Songs 4:5). Not surprisingly, the prudes of the abstinence movement have tried to spiritualize Song of Songs and claim that it's not saying what it's clearly saying.

Of course, the problem I face with affirming the need for sexual exploration is that society doesn't really offer any healthy options for doing so. This is where brave Christian leaders need to come together for some honest, uncomfortable conversations, and realize there's a lot more to intimacy and sexual expression than whether we would check "have" or "have not."

I hope it goes without saying that Christian leaders can be part of the problem. We still haven't dealt with the sexual abuse scandals that continue to rock the church. It's interesting, though. So many of these horrifying stories have come across the airwaves, yet we still don't seem to be asking deeper questions about what repressed sexual struggles may lie at the root of these acts of abuse. Our society is very punitively oriented and has little interest in understanding the offenders. A Christianity Today survey found that nearly 40% of pastors struggle with pornography. Take the amount of shame a normal person might have about this and multiply it many times for pastors. The issues we're not addressing run wide and deep, and I'm not sure we've tapped into what offenders could teach us about helping prevent future cases.

7) While we're talking about the Bible... Let's be sure we understand that scripture is a great place to go for principles, understanding original purpose, etc., but because of cultural differences, it has limited usefulness in practical matters. In Biblical times, marriage was little more than a transfer of property between the girl's father and her new husband, and a man could have as many wives as he could afford. Women had no say in anything, including when to have sex, and their purpose was to bear children and continue the man's lineage. A woman who had sex with a man to whom she wasn't married was stoned, but a man who did the same only had to make sure he married the woman after the fact (Exodus 22:16). In the New Testament, some of Paul's practical advice on marriage was "a concession, not a command" (1 Corinthians 7:6), and within the context of expecting Christ's imminent return. He saw no point in worrying about family life, advising against marriage and telling people to stay the way they were, unless they "cannot control themselves" (1 Corinthians 7:9).

So needless to say, we need to be careful with the Bible on this issue, but it also contains the key to affirming our personhood and value to God as a guiding force for all our decisions.

8) Public policy check. I hope it comes as no surprise that we can't control others' choices (or heat-of-the-moment decisions). As with many other issues, we have to affirm policies that promote public well-being but still allow people the freedom to make their own choices. The current fight over contraception is political and all about control. Rick Santorum once (accidentally?) revealed what it's really about when he said, "[Contraception is] not OK, because it's a license to do things in the sexual realm that are counter to how things are supposed to be." In other words, you can't have contraception because you'll have sex with it. Christian schools like Wheaton College previously had no problem covering contraception, including emergency contraception, until doing so was mandated by the ACA. The root problem of abortion is unintended pregnancy, and banning abortion does nothing to address that. It's time for Christians to stop the hissy-fit and get behind comprehensive sex education that includes contraception. Research does not support the Christian claim that contraception encourages promiscuity, but it does show that people who receive comprehensive sex education are less likely to end up with an unintended pregnancy...60% less likely.


We are fearfully and wonderfully made temples of God, sexuality and all. Let's keep working to find better ways to model and teach that.


The Sex Blog, Part 1: The blogosphere is talking about sex (and it's not going well)

On Monday, August 4th, a young woman named Samantha Pugsley published a blog entitled, "I Waited Until My Wedding Night to Lose My Virginity, and I Wish I Hadn’t."

It has spread through social media like wildfire. I first saw it on the profile of a 17-year-old girl. 24 people have reshared the article from her profile alone.

True Love Waits <3 from Flickr via Wylio
© 2013 Starla E. Rose, Flickr | CC-BY
In the article, which I encourage you to read, Pugsley gives a very honest and vulnerable testimony. She talks about how she had grown up in church and had taken a True Love Waits pledge when she was 10 years old, a pledge she kept. But then, upon getting married, she found herself unable to enjoy sex and dealt with intense feelings of guilt and dirtiness afterward. She shares that she has had to go through therapy to be able to embrace her sexuality, and says that she has given up her Christian faith. "I realized that I couldn't figure out how to be both religious and sexual at the same time," she writes. "Every single day is a battle to remember that my body belongs to me and not to the church of my childhood."

Cue the jaw-drops of Christian women everywhere. Bloggers: on your mark, get set, type!

To be sure, a quick response was needed. Pugsley's blog was admirably honest and vulnerable, but her conclusions are toxic. For starters, her own testimony reveals an important distinction that she herself does not seem to recognize: the cause of her guilt was not her decision to wait but the unhealthy way in which she was taught to think about sex. From even the title of her article, it's clear that she believes things would have been different (for the better) if she had not waited until her wedding night. But based on what she says about her upbringing and early influences, I am fairly certain that any decision on her part to have premarital sex would have produced more guilt, not less. The way she felt upon coming home from the honeymoon is telling: "When we got home, I couldn’t look anyone in the eye...I was soiled and tarnished." I fail to see how these feelings would have been averted if she had chosen pre-marital sex. Many other people have taken and kept this same virginity pledge and did not have the negative, guilt-ridden experience that she had. The problem was not the wait itself.

It's also interesting to note that Pugsley elsewhere describes herself as bisexual, something she doesn't reveal in this particular article and that probably represents many other complicated layers of sexual repression and confusion that have been going on even though she publicly pegs all of it on her church. Many people of all sexual orientations and backgrounds (religious or not) can experience confusion and guilt about their sexual desires and identity at some point in life. Such things are not exclusively the consequence of religion.

Because Pugsley framed her experience in the way she did, countless teenage girls are liking and sharing this post and saying to themselves, "See, I can do what I want, and that church down the street is just trying to control me." That same 17 year old later commented, "It's your body, and if you don't want to wait, it's perfectly okay. But if you do, that's okay too, just don't let others make your decision for you." She has joined the staggering numbers of teens and young adults who actually think that your beliefs and decisions are right and good so long as they are yours. In the real world, it doesn't work that way, which leads me to wonder how sheltered today's privileged kids really are. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "'I have the right to do anything,' you say—but not everything is beneficial" (1 Corinthians 6:12). I'm always puzzled when people assert independence they have always had. Am I as a minister supposed to shrink back in shock and shame when someone tells me that they can make their own choices? Trust me, I know you can...that's what makes my job so challenging! Most churches are simply trying to lead their young people into healthy choices as best they know how. Unfortunately, Pugsley's church apparently made her fear sex, pushed her into a decision that she didn't understand, and made some shaky promises. ("I was told over and over again...that if I remained pure, my marriage would be blessed by God and if I didn’t that it would fall apart and end in tragic divorce.")

I've read several blogs written in response to Pugsley that are heartfelt but ultimately unhelpful and miss the core issue.

Blogger Savanna Hartman wrote a response that contains something that many others were probably thinking, including me. Addressing her article directly to Pugsley, she writes:
Do you know how many young impressionable girls have read your blog?...Please consider that somewhere tonight a young (or not so young) girl made the decision to give up her virginity to someone who didn’t deserve it, won’t appreciate it, and won’t be there in the morning...
Hartman shares that she experienced the same shame and guilt because she did not wait, and now regrets it. I found myself saying a few silent "amens" to her points above. But Hartman is ultimately quite dismissive of Pugsley's experience. She offers a few insincere-sounding condolences for what Pugsley experienced, but ends up preaching to her and ends by saying, "I am sorry you aren’t glad you waited, but I sure am glad you did." In dealing with what Pugsley expresses, we cannot be so dismissive of her genuine experience, nor can we fail to see the larger, unaddressed problem here:

The church is horrible at talking about sexuality, so much so that Pugsley's experience is not uncommon, nor does it surprise me.

Hartman's blog was actually one of the better ones I ran across. Another blogger named Phylicia wrote her own response. While she shares a short story or two of feeling used by past boyfriends, etc., her blog is really just a sermon. I can tell you this: whenever young people are forced to choose between an abstract sermon and an honest personal story, they will gravitate to the personal story. Phylicia writes about how a decision for purity is not something we do for ourselves but out of loyalty to Christ. Yes, but I can pretty much guarantee that Pugsley and many of her readers have heard all of that before, and they have long since decided that such theological mantras offer them nothing of practical value.

If you're feeling especially brave, read the comment section below some of these posts I've mentioned. In short, all of this has once again exposed the church as one of the most unhelpful, impractical, and unrealistic places in our society to talk about sex. There are exceptions of course, but by and large, Pugsley's experience is a natural outcome of a church culture that has little more to say than "don't do it" and suggests, if only implicitly, that sex is bad. The conversation that Pugsley has spurred is an important one, but because the church is so often either silent or repressive, it's happening on social media in a lot of unhealthy, immature, and uninformed ways. Pugsley's article was posted on styleite.com, a website that calls itself "home to the freshest fashion and culture content for millennial women on the web...dedicated to delivering smart, original commentary and news to keep our readers informed of the latest trends, from fashion and style to music and television."

If that's not the forum in which we want our young people talking about sex, it's time to kick our prudish silence out the door and get ready for some real conversations.

In Part 2, I try my hand at starting one.


Communities, Borders, and "Persons of Peace" [excerpt]

Persons of peace...know they’re never going to [achieve peace] by exhibiting an exclusionary stance toward others. The fact of the matter is that there are persons of peace in every neighborhood, city, and nation. The trick is for these people to come together across society’s dividing lines (in the face of the cries of infidelity or impropriety that they inevitably face for doing so). The community developers I met this summer have all settled and invested into communities which they were warned not to enter, and in so doing they have been able to form incredible and unlikely partnerships that were the catalyst for neighborhood transformation.

This is not how we normally operate. Most of us are conditioned to see the world in terms of the good guys vs. the bad guys; us vs. them. It’s almost as if we approach real life the same way we do a sports event. Think about how it goes: All the fans gather together with their team’s regalia and cheers, and are there to rally behind their team in a defeat of “the opponent.” When a call is made against our team, we boo, hiss and lash out, regardless of whether the call was correct. When our team makes a mistake, we either say nothing or blame it on the opponent.

Does any of that sound familiar? The team sport approach is how we seem to run a lot of things...


What of the Potential?: Our Samuel moment at the border

Most of us have heard about the influx of children at the southern border of the U.S. Responses run the gamut; anything from the protesters who block the buses from entering their town to calls for compassion and an open door.

Of course, unaccompanied minors coming across the U.S. southern border is not a new problem, it's just that so many of them have been coming within such a short time span. Reports are that the vast majority are coming from violence- or poverty-stricken areas of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

In some admirable attempts to move to higher ground, bloggers like theologian Roger E. Olson have encouraged us to look at the underlying cause of this influx. In a post that purports to identify "the underlying problem no one seems to be talking about," he points to "our American affluence, including conspicuous consumption and luxury, promoted to the world via movies and television as the result of 'the American dream,' combined with our boast to be a 'nation of immigrants.'”

I think there's truth to this assertion of partial American responsibility, but he later suggests that the only solution to the problems in these Latin American countries is for the U.S. to go in with our resources and expertise and fix them. Given that the U.S. government and CIA have been doing some shady business in many Latin American countries for more than a century, I'm not sure we have the credibility, even if that were a prudent approach.

But even these "other" perspectives--those that seek to go above the partisan divide--still fall into a similar trap. All the commentaries I've read or heard, even the ones calling for compassion, fail to grant these immigrant children full human dignity by recognizing their potential.

It's more obvious coming from the right. Sometimes it seems that anything except for "send them back" is seen as irresponsible policy. Texas governor Rick Perry decided to send in the national guard, apparently unaware that these children are giving themselves up to the first adult they see, rendering such a strategy totally useless. Others are blaming President Obama and don't seem to be aware that current protocol comes from a law signed by George W. Bush. (Obama, who has deported more immigrants than any other U.S. president, actually wanted to amend the law to make it easier to deport the children). The anti-immigrant sentiment is so unbridled among some that a group of protesters in Arizona mistook a bus full of YMCA kids for one filled with immigrant children. One must wonder how immigrants have so egregiously stolen the life and liberty of these "real Americans."

Among others, there's something more subtle but no less ingrained. Though some of us may look upon immigrant children with compassion, we still subconsciously maintain a giver-recipient distinction. They are the poor, helpless kids who have come so that we can take care of them, quote the Bible, and feel like good Christians because we have served "the least of these" (Matthew 25:40). We have so much, they have so little. We give, they receive. We feel good and it gives us a sense of dignity.

What about their dignity? Have you ever noticed that we look at these immigrant children as somehow different from our own children? Our own children deserve the best. For the young people in our own families, churches, etc., we are willing to bust our butts to make sure they have what they need, and then some. Our own children get bedtime stories, pictures on the refrigerator, trips to Disney World, and adults asking them, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Who is reading these kids a bedtime story? Whose refrigerator has space for their work?

Most importantly, who is asking them, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

Perhaps you saw the viral video of an interview with a homeless man named Ronald Davis. He poignantly communicates the realities of poverty, like an inability to escape the cycle and, most notably, the lack of dignity. These immigrant children and families lack dignity, and that's something that we have the power to change.

When I Grow Up, I wanna be... from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 Mahmoud Eghtedari, Flickr | CC-BY-SA
What no one seems to be talking about is the potential of these children. Oh, we hear plenty about other kinds of potential. We hear about potential disease, potential cost, and potential criminal behavior. Is that really all we can see? Due to everything from the giver-recipient distinction to outright hatred and racism, we seem totally incapable of seeing immigrant children as having the same potential that our own children do. What if there was a future doctor on that bus you blocked from entering your town? What if there's a future chef or a nutritionist in that child that you only see as hungry and thirsty? How do we know that they have nothing to give us? Maybe they could teach us some humility. Maybe one of them might find a cure for cancer. Like any other children, their opportunities are limited to what we afford them. We could care for them and educate them and give them the opportunity to become contributing members of our society, or we can send them back to the hopeless life they left, and probable death.

Undocumented immigrants already contribute more than we think. According to Stephen Goss of the Social Security Administration, they pay about $12 billion into that system per year...a system many of them won't ever benefit from.

We have to be willing to invest in these children...spend time and energy now for the sake of a better future down the road. But recent public discourse and congressional budget battles have left me wondering if we even understand this concept. Think of it as a loan. When you loan money, your pockets are emptier at first, but through interest you may stand to get back more than you started with. Sure, sometimes you end up losing, but an unwillingness to invest is why the U.S. has a crumbling infrastructure and is quickly falling behind other countries in many categories. Anti-government and anti-taxation sentiments have left us with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the solar system but electrical grids that can't withstand a typical thunderstorm.

Garrison Keillor once said, "Nothing you do for children is ever wasted." When we see those pictures of children coming across the border or being crammed into makeshift facilities, my prayer is that we will not be filled with hatred or even pity but with wonder at their potential. What could they give and contribute, both now and down the road? Why is it we assume they can't or won't? We are already a country full of accomplished immigrants.

The U.S. gives out something called an O-1 visa. It's given to immigrants who demonstrate "extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics." We gave one to Justin Bieber, and he's already caused more trouble than most of these Latin American children would. We have a broken immigration system that prices most people out, even if they could manage to figure out the forms and requirements. Whenever people say something like, "They should just come here legally," they are revealing a lack of basic knowledge about what it takes to do so. It's not possible for most. You have to have connections, money, and time. Most desperate immigrants have none of those. If it were me, I'd sneak in too, especially for the sake of my children.

Precious few people know what is engraved on a bronze plaque inside our Statue of Liberty. It's a poem called "The New Colossus," written by Emma Lazarus. Here it is in full:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Did you see that part near the middle? "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!...Give me your tired, your poor..." According to this poem, the U.S. not only welcomes immigrants, but would rather have those who are currently hopeless and beaten up by life than those who come with fame, expectations, or entitlement. Lady Liberty might be onto something.

This is our Samuel moment at the border. In the Old Testament book named after him, Samuel is sent to Jesse's household to anoint God's chosen king. In the well-known story, David the shepherd boy is not even in the line-up. It seemed so unlikely that he would amount to anything that no one even considered it. But God said to Samuel, "The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Sam 16:7).

Christian singer Ray Boltz once wrote a song inspired by this story: "When others see a shepherd boy,
God may see a king."

"They have diseases," some say. "They are a drain on our resources," some say. "They just want handouts," some say.

What if our ancestors had been turned away for the same reasons? What if, as we see only risk, God sees dreams waiting to come true?


Prayer in a Theater and Bluegrass in a Sanctuary

I went to two worship services last Sunday. They included things like a theater, incense, icons, bluegrass, and popsicles. Stick around and I'll explain a little more.

This past weekend I was in Denver/Aurora for the 3rd of 4 research site visits during my sabbatical.1 I was working primarily with Mosaic Church of Aurora, a recent church plant in neglected areas of Original Aurora. I worshiped with them on Sunday morning, but while in the area, I also took the opportunity to visit an evening service of House for All Sinners and Saints, the ECLA church founded by the iconic, tattooed Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber (who was unfortunately not there due to being on sabbatical herself).

Besides the fact that I've enjoyed this summer's temporary break from my usual position up front in worship leadership, these two worship experiences demonstrate that worship in any form can be rich, and can serve to dispel a few myths about worship.


It was not a "normal" Sunday for either congregation. Mosaic's congregation is meeting in a small theater they were temporarily allowed to use. Their purchased facility is right across the street, but this picture shows why they're not using it right now. In partnership with The Fields Foundation (not related to me that I know of), and with the support of city leaders and contractors with whom they're good friends, they are making this currently gutted building into a community "Opportunity Center," in which they hope to worship and with which they hope to serve the immigrant community, the homeless, and children and families (among others).

There were 30-35 people there. The sound system consisted of one microphone. Also on stage were two chairs, the communion table, and an offering box. Their musician was out of town, so this service had no music except for Amazing Grace a cappella at the very end. Several of their dedicated homeless members were absent that day as well. If I had to do percentages, the service was about 50% prayer, 40% dialogue, and the remaining 10% would be communion at the end. Early in the service the pastor invited me up to talk about what I've been learning throughout my sabbatical, and we prayed for each other's ministries.

The pastor often invites someone up to have a dialogue about how God is working in his or her life. This Sunday, it was a woman named Stephanie, a Native American single mother who shared about how much this congregation means to her and how she was celebrating being 10 days sober. As she shared this and about her struggle with finding consistent work and making it through life, the love and support from the congregation was palpable. They cheered for her victories, shouted "we love you," and surrounded her with hugs and prayers.

Other parts of the prayer and dialogue were about the direction of the church and their hopes for transformation in this part of town. People shared their hopes, frustrations, and asked questions. One thing was clear to me: they were not there for a fantastic worship experience. They were there because they were compelled by the vision of the church and knew they were part of the work of God. I was reminded of Fuzz Kitto's short video about mission and worship in which he declares, "'Without mission, worship doesn't make sense. We're just coming together to be entertained."


Sunday evening, it was bluegrass week at the House for All Sinners and Saints. As I walked into the old, historic Episcopal church, I heard a guitar, a mandolin, and a bass playing a combination of spirituals, old hymns, and folk songs. Some people were eating popsicles--an item they give out in the summer due to the lack of air conditioning. Given the national popularity of this congregation's pastor, the crowd was much smaller than I was expecting (roughly 60-70), although this was not their only service. I wouldn't be surprised if it is better attended when Nadia is there. The average age in the room couldn't have been much higher than 35. The service meets in a wooden-floor room about half the size of a regulation basketball court. On a table near the entrance was literature, Christian paintings, and an iPad set up to receive donations via credit card. Chairs are set up in a circle around a table that has a cross, candles, communion elements, and incense. Among the chairs was a colorful rug with toys on it where children are welcomed (no separate class or room for children). No one showed annoyance during the service when the children shrieked. 

Like Mosaic, the only piece of technology there was a microphone that was used by guest readers. House for All uses many of the ancient traditions of the church. All attendees were given a printed liturgy that has the readings, chants, and litanies for that day, following the Revised Common Lectionary. Some of the printed books are specially marked for those who are willing to lead part of the service (I volunteered to do the gospel reading). They rely heavily on participants in worship in this way (their website says they are "anti-excellence, pro-participation"). Worship began with a few songs, followed by the day's scripture readings. Between and during liturgical readings, short lines were sung in the bluegrass style (that are normally done more as ancient chants). The gospel reading was the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23), and one of the readings was a poem written by a second grader about planting and growing.

A Methodist minister who was filling in for Nadia gave the sermon on the Matthew text, in which he was very honest and open about the ways that he can be the different types of "infertile ground" for the "seeds of the word." After the sermon, there was "open time," something they always do. It's a time for personal reflection and prayer to be used however one pleases. Some suggested options were sitting in silence, walking down the hall to the full sanctuary and praying there, writing down prayer requests that were announced later, or taking part in a simple hands on activity related to the theme for the day, which on this day was a table with vases representing the different types of ground on which the seeds fall in the parable. Worshipers could take seeds and put them in these vases that had reflection questions like, "What rock of shallow joy keeps you from rooting yourself in God's grace?"

I made my way to sanctuary, which is an old and beautiful venue rich with symbols including paintings, holy water, candles, stained glass, and crosses. Most worshipers who had come in were kneeling in prayer. One young man went over to pray in a corner in the front that had a votive candle rack in front of an icon of Christ.

After 10 or 15 minutes we all returned for announcements, a few more songs and litanies, and finally communion (for which one could choose between real wine and grape juice). They declare each Sunday that their communion table is "open, without exception." As the pastor spoke the words of institution, he held his small child in his arms for part of it, and as he did so the child was excitedly reaching for the bread. I couldn't help but appreciate the image.


Pastors and church goers alike can conceivably go most of their life without having to experience the anxiety of walking into a worship experience in which you don't know what's expected of you. It's a healthy thing for us to experience from time to time. Without experiencing things that are different, we slip into thinking that our way is normative. This is especially important when we consider the increasing numbers of young people who have never stepped foot inside a church. We often underestimate how important it is that people know what happens in our services. Even if this is not an actual reason we're seeing a return to liturgy in some churches, it might be one reason people appreciate it: there are no surprises. You can simply follow along and you're free to reflect on the meaning.

Also, in both of these churches, it was very obvious that they welcome everyone without exception. The diversity was refreshing. It has been said that people can tell, within the first 2 minutes or so, whether they will be welcome in a church. We communicate it with our words and actions, but we also communicate it in other ways without even knowing it, like the name of our church itself. People are broken, and we look for safe places. In our own churches, are we really "a house for all sinners and saints"? If so, how do we communicate it? Are we a family of believers who love each other and enter into each others' joys and sorrows, or are we separate families who are each coming for whatever the church has to offer, occasionally venturing into our normal cliques?

But here's the most important thing for me: both of these churches dispel the myth that engaging young people in worship is a matter of finding the right venue, music style, preacher, etc. The first church I visited didn't even have music, and the preaching at House for All was not polished. But plenty of young adults and children were present in both.

These churches represent something quite different from the "seeker sensitive" model of church in which we tone down the churchy stuff and use different music to make it as familiar to the rest of culture as possible. I got the feeling that these faith communities were not interested in apologizing for being a church with a 2000 year old history and a deep connection to those who have come before. Pastor Nadia, in a widely read post from a few months ago, wrote,
If in your congregation, regardless of size, prestige or property, if the Word is preached and the Eucharist shared and water poured and forgiveness of sins received, then congratulations, your congregation is a success. So when the numbers crunchers and church consultants say the church is dying…may I suggest that we only say this when we forget what the definition of church is.
But these churches also recognize that anything that is given to God can be used in worship. Creativity and art (not just music) are embraced as a way to connect with the divine. There is certainly something to be said about Leonard Sweet's acronym for effective worship: E.P.I.C. - Experiential, Participatory, Image Rich, and Connective.  Worship is experienced, not just heard; participated in, not just watched; based on images, the things we best remember; and connecting us to others around us, not just looking at the backs of their heads.

Think of the young child enthusiastically reaching for the bread. That's a good image--not just for the younger generations but all of us. We want to be connected to something meaningful, and we long for things like truth and love and grace. We want to be a part of something that is using our gifts to try to transform lives. For these churches, their worship is directly tied to their broader mission. Getting someone to a worship hour is important but not the end goal. They have a bigger vision for a specific community that they pray and talk and preach about in worship. You get the sense that you're going to miss out if you don't connect with them during the week.

In other words, these churches are missional, and that's what I found attractive about them. When you get right down to it, the intrinsic, often sub-conscious mission of today's struggling churches is to grow - more butts and in the seats and more dollars in the plate. It's an understandable reaction to decline, but that's not a very inspiring mission. I've never felt the urge to go be a warm body somewhere. But I have felt the urge to join in and participate with God's real, tangible, transformative work in the world. I am going to be interested in a church that is courageously entering its community, taking it literally when the scriptures say that God makes "all things new," and thirsting to be a part of that work. It's messy, but it's our calling.

To what is your church inviting people?

1 Thanks to my wonderful congregation who I've served for 8 years this August, I'm on a summer sabbatical. The research portion of my sabbatical is funded by the Pastoral Study Project grant from the Louisville Institute. I'm studying how churches are finding ways to engage in community ministry using the model of Asset Based Community Development